Mittwoch, 9. November 2011

Becoming a Games Designer

I decided to write this post because I get asked this question by so many people and I thought it would probably be easier to just send them a link to this blog post next time. I will try to be as exhaustive as I can, while still keeping it manageable. Please mind that this reflects the sum of my personal experiences with the subject, and different fellows of my trade might give you different, even opposing advice. But that's how life is. Just ask your friends what makes a man a man and you will know what I mean. So don't take any of this for the golden apple of wisdom, because it isn't. But it will help you get a good idea of what to expect if you want to pursue this profession.

What is a Game Designer?

A games designer does pretty much the same thing for games as a director does for a movie: he invents, guides and organizes the concepts behind a computer game. He develops the vision and ensures that the player receives the intended experience throughout the whole development process. Everything that works behind the scenes to glue artwork and code together is the work of a games designer.

What does a Games Designer do? 

What your daily work will consist of depends on several factors. The first is obviously your level of seniority. If you are an intern or junior designer, you will most likely be documenting the current features in the design document. This may not sound very exciting, but it means you get to sit in all the important meetings and you will have a full overview of the game. As you progress, you will be given your own design work on a limited set of features or a certain area of the game, for example vehicle combat or the diplomacy system. As a senior designer, you will own a large chunk of the game, which can be as general as 'combat' or 'multiplayer'. Once you are a lead designer, you will form the core vision of the game and make sure that all the parts play well together. While that sounds like the best part, remember that lead jobs are mostly administrative and you will have little time for actual designing yourself.
Another factor is which part of the development cycle you are in. In the early stages of the game, when everything is still wild ideas and cloud castles, you will be having lots of meetings, exhilarating pie-in-the-sky watercooler conversations and all those passionate feature discussions which make working in a creative industry so amazing. Once these ideas consolidate, you will be writing proposals for your assigned area of design, and chat with coders about how feasible these ideas will be. Once implementation begins, you will be testing and tweaking your plans, discard and reconfigure as the game comes together. Finally, you will do the balancing and hammering out bugs in your design. Depending on the assets of the studio, you will be running tests with consumers, represent your product at conventions and interviews and pitch it to publishers at meetings.
Finally, your duties depend on the type of game you will be making. If you work on a racing game, the majority of your time will be spent playing the game to see if controls work well, levels are challenging and maybe do some hands-on editing work on the tracks. On a browser-based empire building game you might spend more time in front of Excel than your game's interface, spinning numbers and tweaking effect values. Just be sure that you find yourself in the right type of game for your personality, as an exceptional designer in one genre might be useless in the other.

Types of designers

Unlike the movie industry, which has been refining and streamlining its production for over a century, the games industry still has no clear cut common job definitions. Not long ago, there weren't even dedicated designers in companies, and design was done by whomever found time for it between two lines of code. Consequently, companies have very different ideas of what a designer should do. Still sometimes I come across a position for a game designer when the job description is actually more that of a producer or a programmer. The following titles are in my opinion generally accepted to be useable differentiations of game designers, and you will encounter them frequently in job ads. Unless you are extraordinarily gifted, you will find that your strengths lie more with one of these more than the others, and specialization (at least later on) is a good idea. Not all companies have all of these, it depends entirely on game type, studio size and of course its financial situation. It is entirely possible that on smaller games, you will be all of these at the same time.

Systems Designer 

This is the 'classical' game design role. System designers design the rule framework behind the action, whether it be autocannon damage values or medieval trading logistics. They come up with all the calculations that happen in the background every time a blow connects to a helmet, a new farmhouse is being built on fertile land or you do the high speed twirl to get the extra points on the latest dance simulation. With the number design behind it often comes the actual feature design, and this is the role that usually also means feature creation. System designers will be very busy throughout the game's cycle and even well past it: there is always tweaking to be done and values to be corrected. You will probably work more directly with the coders than other designer types, as you are directly involved in many of the game's calculations.

Would you like it If you love to work with numbers and if you are willing to spend a long time with testing values in various game situations then you should become a systems designer.
What it takes: Experience with game systems are obviously key. Non-digital games (such as pen-and-paper RPGs and board games) are often the best base to gain good understanding. It helps to make Excel a good friend of yours, even if you hate him. System design also will put a heavy strain on your patience, so better acquire lots of it.

Level Designer
Level design is the most hands-on part of the design role: you actually get to build stuff. Using various editors and scripting tools, level designers build the world the players play in. Depending on the type of game you work on, you will be placing barricades and enemies in a first-person-shooter, scripting quests and building dungeons in a role-playing game or creating maps for a strategy game. While you usually have little say in the design of actual features, your knowledge of the use of these features needs to be much more ingenious. The feature designers might make a cool and fun mechanic, but you will have to find ways to make its application new and exciting! That means your link with the players is much more direct and thus more rewarding. You rarely hear a games say: 'Man, that melee mechanic really rocks!', but 'That level was just friggin' awesome!' is something a good level designer will hear often.

Would you like it: If you like working with editors and love to go into detail, then level design will be good for you. It's a good balance between conceptual design and artistic expression, so if you like to be visually involved but still be on the design side, this is the way to go.

What it takes: Experience with various game editors (such as UnrealEd) is usually required. Knowledge of 3D software (Max, Maya) and scripting knowledge (e.g. LUA) is helpful. Knowledge of storytelling can also prove useful.

Interface Designer

Rarely spoken about, but always needed, the interface designer usually makes the difference between a good and an excellent product. A game without good interface design will feel clunky and even annoying to use, reminding the player that he's merely handling a piece of software rather than enjoying a uniquely immersive experience. To fully appreciate the impact of good interface design, compare the manual for a VCR from the 80's to that of an iPhone; it makes all the difference. You will work a lot with artists, but the job is much more than graphics. You will need to be on the tail of every single feature in the game, making sure the interaction with is simple, efficient and fun. You will also conduct usability tests with focus groups and help apply the conclusions to the core design.

Would you like it: If you have a passion for making things easier to use and love to work on the graphical side of things while still being involved in the whole game. It is, however, one of those silent workhorse roles and if you are hunting for glory you might be disappointed. The benefit of that is that there aren't many interface designers, and you should have an easy time getting a well-paid job.

What it takes: Knowledge of interaction theories and graphical skills are a must. A proactive attitude and persistence comes in handy, as most developers tend to start thinking about interfaces last.

Content Designer

A game system without content is like a football game without players. The content designer's job is to fill the world with interesting encounters. More general than the level designer, content designers invent enemy types, landscapes and lore of a game world. In an MMORPG, for example, a content designer would create large overarching storylines, quest or settings. He is usually not concerned with the application of systems and features, but rather to provide engaging non-system content. He usually works closely with level designers who will physically implement his ideas. I have sometimes seen content designer used interchangeably with senior level designer, but that will depend on the company.

Would you like it: Content designers usually have more free reign on what they produce, as it tends to be independent from the game systems. On the other hand, you will have little involvement in the actual game system.
What it takes: Now this is a more tricky one. A good content designer is a jack of all trades. He will need to have experience in level design, narrative design and have a good knowledge of the overall workings of the game. This is usually a relatively senior position, requiring around 3-5 years of experience in previous design roles.

Technical Designer

Somewhere between a coder and a designer, for most studios this just is a designer with more 'technical' skills. Usually work will cover workflow organization between design and coding department (such as scripting needs), produce more demanding scripts and prototypes and even script AI behaviours.

Would you like it: Whether you are a designer at heart who likes to get very close to the code action or a programmer who loves to design, this is the place to be. Both types are rare, so job opportunities are usually good.

What it takes: Apart from superior scripting/coding skills, a very good knowledge of work pipelines and code/design interfaces is important. Good skills in communicating complex issues to people who lack the same amount of technical understanding.

Narrative Designer

Furthest from the actual game mechanics, the narrative designer is essentially a master of interactive fiction. While he still has to take mechanics into account, it is mainly to estimate how they can be used to create drama. That means a narrative designer cannot just be a writer, he needs to be aware of all possibilities that the game offers to serve his story. The work can range from providing background story and dialogue to coming up with completely new mechanics to enhance the player's own story experience.

Would you like it: If you come from a writing background and interactive storytelling is your thing, then it's probably one of the most rewarding jobs to get.

What it takes: You need to be a good writer and storyteller, obviously. Bear in mind however, that game storytelling is very different from simple writing and that it will be expected of you not only to provide text content but to be savvy in traditional game design as well. It's the player's story after all.

Design Consultant

Consultant designers (sometimes known as external designers or design analysts) do not work for a specific studio, but rather for a publisher. They travel around the different studios to scrutinize the design of the individual projects and report back to the publisher with an analysis and (hopefully) improvement suggestions. Usually present in all pitch meetings, consultant designers often influence project outcomes heavily, even if they do not design directly. Some of them work freelance and are hired as firefighters when a project is in danger of sinking.

Would you like it: If you like extended traveling, swapping projects often and not being particularly well liked by the studios you visit, this is an interesting position as you get to see lots of different games and can have great impact.

What it takes: You will have to have gathered a very solid amount of experience to be even considered for this position, usually around 5 or more years working in the industry.

What makes a good Games Designer?

People have written lengthy articles about this, but I believe that there are a few core skills that make a good designer.

Good Communication Skills

This is one of the key design skills, and the bigger your team is, the more important it will become. A design that is not well understood will cause all sorts of problems in all departments, so a design document must never be sloppy or unprecise. The same goes for verbal communication. Not only do you have to watch your every word carefully to not be misunderstood, you will also have to deal with a lot of special personalities, from egomaniacal artists to introverted programmers, who will test your conversation skills and patience. If you frequently find that people don't understand your visions or explanations you will have to work on that to become a successful designer.

Write a ruleset for a small boardgame (self-made or otherwise) and give it to a friend. See if he will be able to play the game without asking questions using your notes.

Analytical Mindset

Most game designers become game designers because they love to play games. I'd take a bet that you are one of them. If you compare game production with racing, you are a master driver and you love your car. The problem is, however, that once you are a designer you are no longer a driver, you are an engineer. Your job is not to shop for the newest underbody lights or fluff dice to hang from your rear mirror. Your job is to find out what the car needs to drive steadily, safely and enjoyably. Or in other words, you have to take the game apart and make it work well, not add more features on a whim. Failing on that is probably one of the most common design mistakes, and stems from the lack of ability (or, in some cases, willingness) to step back and look at the mechanics piece by piece to find out where adding and taking away makes sense.

Looking at your favourite games and write down all the little things that make them great or they could do without is a good start. Find a post-mortem (an analysis of a game's ups and downs after its release) of the game if you can, and see if the developers would agree with your notes.

Target Group Knowledge

Every designer wants to make the perfect game...for himself. The ways of the working world are however at odds with this desire and most people find themselves working on a game that they do not particularly fancy themselves. Especially when you are starting you might find yourself working on a game that is not your favourite, but later circumstances, such as kids or language barriers might force you to accept jobs on projects that you think are not particularly cool. This divergence might be as great as going from online shooters to pony games for girls. Suddenly you find yourself making entertainment products for someone entirely different than yourself, and to make a good game you will need to know them. Some designers don't care about their target group and consequently make games that sell little. A game like Farmville could only be so successful because their designers had a very good look at who they made their game for and what these people wanted. A good designer can make a game for everyone.

Next time you sit in a bus, think about every single person you see riding in it with you and try to come up with what's important to them and what kind of game they would like to play. Or why not come up with an idea for a game your dad would like to play and see if he likes it?

Competition Knowledge

One of the truths of any creative trade, albeit the one people dislike to hear the most, is that all ideas are ultimately derivative. Inspiration always comes from somewhere, and the arts change in evolutions not revolutions. That doesn't mean there is no innovation, or that you can't have great new ideas. But it means that in many cases when you have a problem or an idea someone has already had the same problem or idea, and there is no shame in taking a look on how they fared with that. You don't need to reinvent the wheel when other people's wheels roll just fine. Keeping up to date with competing products and their design ideas is paramount for any designer, lest he wastes time, money and effort in recreating already existing solutions. Often these solutions can be found in different genres than the one you work in. To give you an example, systems commonly known from roleplaying games have been continually invading first person shooters in the recent years to provide for more individual playing styles.

A good exercise is to play similar games than the ones you enjoy and see if you can spot certain features that work better in one title than the other.

Constraint Knowledge

In interviews, you will often be confronted with the question: "What makes a good games designer?". My (not necessarily your) answer usually is: "To be able to work well within constraints." These constraints are usually time, budget and technology. You should know them well. Game designers who can't judge how many features each of these constraints will allow will deliver bad games, full of bugs and broken mechanics, not to even speak of bad balancing. The games industry is very tough in terms of time and budget issues and as the person who makes the most expensive choices you as a designer have full responsibility for judging what can be done with what you have, and at maximum quality. Some modicum of technical knowledge is also important. Some designers don't talk enough about their plans with coders and are flabbergasted once they discover that they will not get the 400 attacking stormtroopers on one screen that their amazing final survival fight calls for. Constraint knowledge also means you'll need to have rough ideas about what and how much your teams can do. Sometimes a producer will help you handle that, but he might not be aware of scope and feasibility of your designs, so getting up from your chair and having a chat with those involved is still best practice.

Try making a game about a castle siege in 2 days, whether digital or nor, but write a design document beforehand. See how much of it you got done (including all assets) when the second day is over.


This is probably the most elusive skill of all. Most people who want to be designers assume they are creative. After all, you have all these great ideas all the time, right? Once you work in a creative profession for a while you will find that creativity is not a given. Whether you call it writer's block, burnout or The Void it tends to happen to everyone once in a while. Or you might find that after all your great ideas you have collected over years were used up in one single project and you can't seem to get new ones quick enough. Creativity is an animal that needs constant food, a food called inspiration. Many books have been written about this subject, and I don't want to go into depth. I'm sure you'll find your own ways of keeping your brain on its toes. My personal recipe is one of life philosophy: all experiences are worth making. Fill your life with non-game stuff.

Go on a three day hike through the woods. Learn to play an instrument. Visit the national museum or a contemporary gallery. Have a chat with the old lady next door about her life. Not only will you learn a lot about life in general, but your brain will be fed with new ideas, perspectives and inspirations it needs to provide you with material.

How do I become a Games Designer?

Breaking into the industry is not easy, but it's not as hard as some people make it out to be. There are several ways commonly considered to get you in a games designer position, see which one you deem best.

Modding/Level Design

If you have no actual experience designing games or have no current ambitions to become a system designer, then aiming to become a level designer is a good way of getting into the game design faculty. Creating mods and levels for your favourite games is fun and builds up your portfolio for any design job at the same time. The best way is to join known community projects, as they are less likely to disintegrate after a month. Level designers are usually in demand somewhere and from there you have good chances of getting into different areas of design.

Quality Assurance (QA)

I hear often that people recommend working in QA and then apply for designer jobs once you have some experience in the company. I don't want to completely deny that, but I want to give you a word of caution. QA is a brilliant place to get stuck in. Yes, there is people who make it to producers and artists and designers from QA. Some after very short time, and some after a very very long time. I've met quite a few guys who tried for years and finally gave up, having wasted a good chunk of their life tracking bugs and getting bad pay. Having said that, there is quite some stuff you can learn in QA about design, and if you think you will be proactive enough to make it, godspeed!

Game Design Degree

Studying game design is not as straightforward a way into the industry as it may seem. Firstly, most designers have no academic experience and most academics are not designers, making education quality somewhat hit and miss. Secondly, especially in the design department your actual industry value has little to do with what you learn in a game design course and consequently many companies are very reluctant to base any job considerations on your grades. Finally you will loose some years studying when you could be working, gathering actual field experience. In interviews you will find that most studios will mention your studies very briefly and then ask you "what else have you done?". Don't misunderstand, a game design education is a bonus, but don't make the mistake of thinking that it will get you a job. Be prepared to do lots of personal projects on the side while you study, because that will be what people will be looking at.

Designing Games

While obviously the logical answer, I find that many prospective designers completely omit this point. To be a good designer, you need to make games. If you cannot create them digitally, don't despair. Everyone can handle scissors and a piece of paper, which is all you need to make a game. Good designers know that good design is independent of platform. No potential employer is going to reject you because you apply with a card game or a pen and paper RPG instead of a digital program. It shows you know how to craft systems, test them and that you are independent and proactive. The downside is that you almost need to be physically present, but since that is a good idea anyway, head to the nearest game fair (you can usually get a exhibitor's pass by working for free there for a couple of days) and approach developers directly. Don't be shy, they're (usually) all nice chaps and in the worst case they will tell you how to improve your application.

The Twilight Path of Desillusion

As you will have already noticed, the ideas people have about what a games designer does and what actually is doing can differ greatly. Some of these ideas are quite persistent, so I want to make sure that they do no continue to live in you after reading this article.

The job of a game designer is to have great ideas

This is the most dreaded sentence in the field of game design. Mention it in an interview and you are almost guaranteed to not get the job. Another unpleasant truth about creative work is that good ideas are actually a dime a dozen. Programmers and artist will have great design ideas too, maybe even better than yours on occasion. The quality of a designer lies in his ability to select just the right ideas, and no more, and put them together in a way that achieves the goal of the product. Everyone has ideas about what could be done, but a designer has to know what can be done, and what the game needs. Usually you find yourself cutting more than you're adding, and just like in a garden you have to know what to cut to achieve perfection.

The game designer gets to decide what happens in the game

Yes. And no. Many designers enter the field thinking they will be dictating the course of the game. But they usually learn quickly that many other people have a say in their decisions. There is the publisher, who will want to change or add certain concepts because they feel they might not be well suited for how they perceive the target market. These folks give you the money, so arguing tends to be futile. Depending on the type of game, other departments might have a stronger say in the design than usual. If the game makes money of microtransactions or if it's very art-heavy, it might mean that the economic department or the art team can force you to modify design decisions heavily.

Game designers are highly paid

Considering the industry's revenues, you would think that. Reality is though that designers do not get paid well at all. In most countries, their salaries are below the national averages. There are several reasons for that, one of them being that because it's a "cool" job, many people want it so desperately they will work for less than you do. Other factors, such as the difficult measurability of design impact on the game's financial performance also play a role. That there is no real union or interest group to fight for developer rights probably does not help. Salaries vary wildly from place to place. Salaries can be as low as 15000 £ annually for a junior designer in South England, and reach little more than 35000£ for a senior position (2011). Things look similar in Germany, where 45000 Euro is a good salary for an established designer. As in any creative job, there is also a chance that you will get totally overpaid (there's rumours of 280000 $ and more) as well, but you shouldn't bet on that.

Game design is a talent

It's actually very much a craft. People who have 'talent' for it are people who play a lot and who have started creating things early in their life. Anyone can learn what makes good game design, and there is no secret genius at work. The difference emerges from your creative workout (see 'what makes a good games designer' above), from your willingness to learn and of course your ambition. I encounter many young designers who believe that they are superiorly creative and that others are not. Do not make that mistake. You are creative because your interests have made you, not because you were born with a magical talent. You'd be surprised how fast people around you can catch up once they are over this "Oh, I'm not really creative" - nonsense. Use your head start, but don't rest on it.

I hope this has given you enough information about what being a game designer is all about and how to achieve becoming one. If you have any more questions or comments feel free to use send me a message or use the comment function.

Good Luck!

Dienstag, 18. Oktober 2011

The Travelogue, Part XXXIV - The End

This post will conclude my travelogue (but not the blog), and gives a brief overview about how it has been. I also want to say thank you to all those who have made my travels amazing, so if you are here because you were tagged on facebook (or contacted otherwise), you will find yourself further down in the post.

The End

So it all ends. It's been great, and has been moving me forward in so many ways I can't count. It makes me sad to stop, but there are new challenges waiting somewhere else in my life. I can only recommend anyone to save some money and do something like it. If you skip more expensive countries such as the USA you will spend a lot less than I did. I have not really been holding back, so if you are very frugal, I reckon you could do the same trip for about 1500 £ less.

Random Statistics

Countries visited: 10
Miles traveled: 36000 miles
Money spent (including all flights): 7140 British pounds
Facebook friends added: 47
Times couchsurfed: 8 
Equator crossed: 4 times
Skills learned: 5 (diving, yoga, knowing which plants to drink from in the Indonesian jungle, making bamboo bracelets, cooking a good Thai curry, Spanish)
Unusual species consumed: 14 (dog, cat, fruit bat, ants, bamboo worms, tarantula, snake, forest rat, jungle grub, sea cucumber, snails, live octopus, goldfish, sea squirts)
Languages learned: 5
Languages forgotten: 4
Cellphone Count: 4 (one stolen, one lost, one destroyed by force of nature)
Items of clothing lost along the way: 8
Items carried around but never used: 14 (thanks, dad!)
Kilos lost since begin of journey: 7
Problems with safety: 0 


Since people often ask me about my highlights, I've decided to sort the countries I visited by the overall travel value they have given me. Mind though that a country being at the bottom does not mean I did not like it or I did not enjoy myself. It just means my experience has not been as impressive compared to the other places I have visited.


Highlights: Amazing people, 5000 years of tangible history, amazing sights and landscape

Lows: Bad street food, islamistic dictatorship

Most memorable experiences: being invited in to stay with complete strangers for several days without being able to communicate, being surprised at the boundless history of the country, learning how much propaganda we eat in western news.

Of all the places on my trip, Iran has been the most interesting. Its culture is varied and inspiring, and offers everything from (surprisingly candid) modern art to ancient well-preserved ruins. Food can be good, but is hard to find. What ultimately makes it recommendable is the heart-warming hospitality and charming spirit of its people. Contrary to commonly propagated belief, it's safe and easy to travel. Just don't be an idiot an hike on the Iraq borders or visit disputed islands in the Persian gulf, which is a bad idea in any country. Party life is limited, but existing.


Highlights: Chillout factor, great food, raucous parties

Lows: Tourist spam, over-commercialization, crime

Most memorable experiences: chilling out on Ko Tao, learning the secret to cooking good thai food, my first breath under water, getting invited to an all-Thai temple feast

Well, Thailand is Thailand, and if you are looking for a 'proper holiday' this place will provide. While in tourist areas literally everyone will rip you off, the majority of Thai people are kind and friendly (unless provoked). The slightly more intrepid will find Thailand to be a paradise where time runs slow and life is easy. Island life is very 'international' and addictive and if you don't watch out you will one day turn around and find yourself being five years older and teaching diving to package tourists. Somewhere between a spliff and a beer, that is.
For the sake of your health and reputation I recommend you know how to maintain a level of sobriety that enables you to comprehend that Southeast Asia's biggest beach party full of drunk English guys is not a suitable place to have sex in the shore water. They will not look for the nearest outhouse.


Highlights: Mexicans, good mix of culture, nature and chilling

Lows: Food just okay, social situation

Most memorable experiences: feeling like living in a hippy commune in the Estacion Esperanza hostel in Guanajuato, learning Spanish

You could argue that I haven't seen enough of Mexico, and you are probably right. What I have seen, however, has been thoroughly enjoyable. Mexicans are a passionate, refreshingly direct and easy-going bunch and will make sure your stay will be great. Whether it's ancient ruins, colonial towns or beach life you long for, Mexico has it all, and cheap. I generally felt safe, and if you are not very unlucky or involved in the international drug trade, you should be fine. Since Mexico suffers heavily from corruption and social inequalities, dealing with authorities will invariably result in trouble and loss of financial assets. Mexican food does not live up to its reputation, and while it was never bad, it was never great either. Best to cook for yourself, as ingredients are good.
While Mexico is very catholic and the Virgin is passionately adored, I have come to the assumption that that's mainly for novelty value...


Highlights: Amazing nature, approachable people, lots of wackiness

Lows: Expensive, not travel friendly, vast distances

Most memorable experiences: climbing atop the Rocky Mountains, being amazed by the constantly changing epic landscape, touring Kink

The USA is a much better travel destination than most people would assume. The nature is awe-inspiring and people are fun and friendly. Unfortunately America weighs heavy on wallet and patience, and is only really fun if you are loaded (by backpacker standards). A camper, or even better an independent car and trailer is probably the travel mode of choice. Note that if you are not wearing cargo pants the native population will assume you are homosexual.


Highlights: Untamed nature, amazing wildlife, island paradises

Lows: Untamed nature, lack of infrastructure, very business-minded population

Most memorable experiences: seeing Manta Rays and Turtles within touching distance, walking into a spider the size of my head, getting stuck with the Dayak in the Borneo jungle, realizing what a lucky person I am to be born in Europe

What I've seen covers only Sulawesi, Borneo and Bali, but for nature freaks this place is great. If you ever wanted to have an island for yourself, this is the place to go. The diving is nothing short of spectacular. When dealing with locals remember that money and friendship are very closely related in Indonesia. If you ever wanted to know what living in the home shopping channel would be like, Bali will be heaven.


Highlights: Food, easy of travel

Lows: maybe not remote enough for some, not as cheap as the rest of asia

Most memorable experiences: Malaysian Laksa, getting fish poisoning in Penang

Malaysia is probably the best southeast asian destination if you want it all in very short and comfortable distance: mountains, beaches and metropolises. Some of the best food mix on the planet.


Highlights: a very asian version of multicultured, great cultural and culinary entertainment

Lows: expensive, very business-minded

Most memorable experiences: Singapore zoo lets you roam free among the animals within touch range

I personally thought Singapore is not half as bad as people tend to make it. The different quarters have flair, food is good and the administration is not as OCD as I have always been told. It's just a bit too small to be more exciting.


Highlights: Good food, Interesting pop culture

Lows: Difficult to outright hostile population, not too many good sights

Most memorable experiences: Korean food (both good and bad), riding a giant concrete penis in Jeju Loveland

When you have visited other asians nations such as Japan and China, Korea feels a bit, well, hackneyed. It's good for a visit within a roundtrip in the area, but I honestly think Seoul (and maybe Jeju Island) will suffice. Explore the amazing cuisine and don't order any obscure seafood platters. Koreans are, even with (mostly young) exceptions, some of the most unapproachable people on the planet and the more foreign you look the more racism you will encounter. The unofficial national symbol is the Penis, which you will encounter with astonishing frequency in museums, parks and temples.


Highlights: See all the things you could do if you had too much money

Lows:See all the things other people can do with too much money

Most memorable experiences: realizing that if you give a goatherd a billion dollars he will still be a goatherd

I understand that you would come to Dubai to earn money. I would not understand if you came to have a good time. If you did, that's cool, probably speaks for your ability to find goodness in even the most adverse conditions. I still recommend that you check it out in case you fly through, just so you can say you have been. People with an ego problem are required to wear red checkered headgear in Dubai, and you should well stay clear of those marked in such a manner.


When you travel, locations are only one part of your experience. The other part is people, and this chapter exists to say thank you to all the great people who have made my trip amazing. There is only one award per person, even if you would fit in several categories. I chose the one I found was the most fitting, so don't be upset if you don't appear in any other. I have used pictures from your public social network profiles assuming you are comfortable with this level of internet privacy. If you want to be removed, however, tell me.
If you feel you deserve an award, but cannot find yourself here, don't sulk! Chances are I have missed you in all the picture clutter or I did not have your details. Just rest assured I do remember you and that that oversight is purely administrative, not personal.

So thank you all, and all the best in your future(s). I hope to see you again some time.

Homefront Fighter

This award is for all the people who have been (visibly) following my travels and pictures, provided little favours in times of need, got me up when I was down or sent me care packages, and all that from home! First and foremost that's my parents and brother, followed by all these lovely people:

Sandra, Alec, Chris, Mille, Jamie, James, Jan, Kieran, Paul, Sanna, Simon, Tim, Nadja , Sara, and Marta.

Your kindness, insight and interest has been pulling me through the hard bits. Thank you!

Helpful Tourguide

This prize is for all the people who have been showing me around, explained their culture or otherwise gave me insight into local life. I am many experiences richer because of you people:

Om, Mundo, Anna, plus Aaron's flatmate, and my Indonesian guide Agus.

You made my travels authentic and memorable. Thank you!

Terrific Travelbuddy

What would be traveling without random strangers becoming friends within instants? You received this award because traveling with you was fun, easy and has added immensely to my travels. Good luck to you fellow traveling souls:

Autumn, Cara, Katalin, Rob and Thomas.

Who would have thought that putting up with me could be so much fun? Cheers, guys!

Great Host

Being a good host requires spontaneity, patience and a big heart. For all those great character traits and putting up with me, this award goes to all you people who went out of their way to give me shelter and a temporary home. Thank you:

Aaron, Alex, Vaness, Samane and Samira, Annie, Donnelly, Harald, Rene, Mimi, Lulu, Tom and Mike. 

Additional thanks goes out to all the nice Iranians, Indonesians and Mexicans who have randomly invited me to stuff. Thank you all!


Sometimes people you encounter, something they tell you, or something you share with them opens up a new perspective on your life. You all have done this, but I shall not tell you how. I think you might have an idea or two.

Osiris, Nanny, Karen, Kunal, Mehtab

Passions are a rare gift. Thank you for sharing yours.

Awesome To Hang Out With 

Yes, finally there is a reward for being a good chiller, a party animal or simply a socialite. You have earned it for adding to my good times, being part of the expedition team wading through the booze-soaked urban jungles and climbing the lofty party mountains. You are now certified to be good fun. If you want, you can print this out and pin it on your jacket. You'd be the type*. 

Beni, Carlos, Celia, Lisa, Danny, Kirsten, Eunan, Robert, Genevieve, Gilles, Harriet, Jen, Jes, Joeri, Johnny, Karin, Lea, Maggie, Margie (harr), Nathan, Youngbin, Rob, Ryan, Siete, Sofia, Thanacha (uhm, spelling?), Tolmie, Violet, Ciani plus many many others without picture or details.

Keep on rocking kids and cheers for a great time!

So again, thank you all for being there. It's been an amazing experience in so many ways. Keep in touch and come visit me some time.

*Originally there was also a 'Manwhore Award', but I figured your already fragile reputation might finally break under the weight of all your conquests, and I am not one to spoil a good man's enjoyment. So instead you find yourself scattered across the awards.You know who you are, anyway. :D

Mittwoch, 28. September 2011

The Travelogue, Part XXXIII - Mexico: La Muerte, Tu Amigo Mexicano

This post contains imagery relating to death. If you are offended or scared of such imagery you, especially, should keep on reading.

In our Western culture, death is something that is traditionally locked out and denied. Not so in Mexico. Here death is ubiquitous, and people deal with its existence in very different ways than anywhere else. In Mexico, death is not an end, or something to dread. It's a part of life that is taken with the same amount of humour and celebration as every other aspect of Mexican life.

The Mexican attitude towards death has its roots in the pre-Christian religions. Unlike other indigenous rites, however, the Catholics never managed to erase the special relationship the locals had with death. Quite the opposite, it started spreading and establishing itself firmly in Mexican culture. Death symbols, especially skeletons, are found everywhere. You'll find them in churches, in bars, on t-shirts and murals. Death follows you in your daily newspaper and when you shop for groceries. But unlikely the European depictions of death, such as the medieval "Danses Macrabres" or the later "Vanitas" art, Mexico's Death is not a reprimander, but a jovial buddy who drinks, smokes and jokes with you to the grave. The sentiment of death being a joyous occurrence, or at least one to take with humour, has allowed artists such as Jose Guadalupe Posada to become one of the most influential caricaturists (and indeed artists) in Mexico. His skeletal characters have become so famous that they are almost national icons, such as the posh dead dame Catrina below.

One of Mexicos biggest, and arguably most well-known, fiestas centers entirely around the veneration of the dead. The "Dia de los Muertos" is a nationwide celebration of death and the deceased: People decorate the graveyards, set up altars with offerings for those passed on, and dress up in scary costumes for big parties and processions across the country. Candy in forms of skulls and skeletons are handed out to children (and grown ups) and while families also remember the dead and take care of the graves, the atmosphere is not very solemn. It is a time where deceased relatives and friends are close to the world of the living, and can take part in the celebrations.

The same goes for actual funerals. While walking around on the graveyard I had the chance to witness two, and it is very different from any other I have seen so far. There are marching bands playing pretty upbeat music, and the deceased is sent on his way with applause and cheering similar to a birthday party. That doesn't mean there are no tears, but the farewell is undoubtedly less glum than its European equivalent.

Funerals for children are especially cheerful, involving toys, balloons, and sometimes even Clowns! Named "Angelitos (Little Angels)", infants who have died before reaching full consciousness (and thus the capability to sin) are thought to require much extra consolation for their premature passing.

No one seems to be particularly bothered by the presence of imagery of death, and remnants are often openly displayed, whether it is the bones of a saint or the corpse of a beloved. It's almost a bit like Mexicans enjoy a certain amount of the macabre around them. Where else would you walk into a full scale art exhibition centering only on the topic of skulls?

A certain closeness with death is found even within the Mexican language. For example, graveyards are called "panteon", rather then "cemetario", hinting at a certain influence that the dead still have on the living.

Yet this refreshing, somewhat more healthy attitude towards death also spawns some pretty creepy outgrowths. One of them is the cult of Santa Muerte, a relatively recent religion centering around a skeletal woman clad in the robes of the holy virgin. Santa Muerte is a mixture of death goddess and universal protector and is mostly revered by people of dubious profession. The catholic church does not recognize Santa Muerte as an actual saint, yet the cult has an estimated two million followers and is growing.

Sonntag, 4. September 2011

The Travelogue, Part XXXII - USA: Conclusion


There's only one way to travel in the United States, and that is by car. Yes, you could theoretically use public transport, but that means you won't see much of what this country has to offer and what you'll be seeing is not the best end of it, either. Greyhounds and other transport tend to frequent only the most common routes, which means those economically important, not those visually or culturally interesting, and unless you only want to go from big city to big city they are only an occasional option. Most of the interesting bits lie far from the main routes, and if you want to see this country, you will have to get you own vehicle. This is also often true within cities, as American towns were constructed with cars in mind.

If you plan on traveling the USA the backpacker way, think twice. To the majority of Americans this mode of travel is an entirely alien concept and consequently there is virtually no infrastructure for independent travelers. Hostels exist only in big (or touristed) cities, and you'll find that they are either shabby or overpriced, very often both. In fact, getting a budget motel is often cheaper than a hostel and you are less likely to run into shady characters. Either way, the budget range is still around 40 $ a night, even for a dorm bunk bed (!) in popular cities, and you're not getting much for your money.
I reckon the best way to see the USA is by camper or even better, a car with a trailer, so you have independence from both public transport and expensive accommodation.

On the plus side, if you do have a car (rent it through a European site; often saves you about 50%!), America is very convenient. Almost everything you'll want to see has a well-paved road and a parking spot right in front of it, and driving here is literally a very straightforward affair. Be prepared to bring lots of caffeine though, as everyone drives along the totally straight roads on the exact same maximum speed which is the traffic equivalent of a lullaby. Also note that lack of proper driving lessons and a certain redneck attitude when on the road makes Americans some of the worst drivers on the planet. Road awareness seems to equal character weakness for many inhabitants, and you will need to make up for that with being extra careful.


In many countries American food is synonymous with junk: greasy, cheap and tasteless, and unfortunately that is not too far from the truth. The majority of American food, whatever nationality it might claim to stem from, is filling at best and revolting at its worst. It's usually lathered in fat and MSG, oversalted and the ingredients are poor, with the former probably being a product of the latter. Shopping in an American supermarket for good food is like trying to buy an Armani shirt at a Thai street market - the label might be the same, but the contents are very different indeed. Finding that the "Original Italian Parma Ham" is made in Wisconsin might amuse, the fact that it isn't actually cured and has "smoke flavour" added might befuddle, but that it contains only 30% meat should worry you. American companies manage to turn a simple product like Hummus (water, oil, chickpeas, spices) into a industrial cocktail of 27 different additions, among them emulsifiers, preservatives, colourings plus the ubiquitous corn starch. Even "health food" is laced with all sorts of dubious addtions that the lax American consumer laws allow.

But it's not all grim. Good food can be had, but it requires local knowledge and a well-fed wallet. Farmer's markets and food-conscious consumers are on the rise, but for now good food seemed like a white middle class hobby to me rather than a general ideal. In general I found that "American food" (Burgers, ribs, etc.) is the best taste for value, whereas all foreign food tended to be a lukewarm version of the original at twice the price, and mediocre even in expensive places. If you like good beer, however, do not despair. American microbreweries make some fine ale that is well worth drinking.
Food doesn't come cheap and you can expect to fork out around 20 $ a day (including tax and tips) on a backpacker's budget for food and drink. You can live off less, but then you'll likely be fat and slouchy at the end of your trip.


America's overarching social culture has both benefits and drawbacks for independent travelers. Where you come from matters little, and Americans are friendly, chatty and generally very helpful and happy to show you around. Except when they are unsure about your motivations or their surroundings, in which case they become excessively paranoid. You will find that in such cases, asking for the way will be met with suspicious glares or even increased pace and ignorance. Most of this paranoia is caused by America's media's incessant exaggeration of the various dangers in the country, and I cannot count the times I have been insistently warned of robbers, rapists and mountain lions, who always seem to be "in the vicinity" or "seen yesterday". Keep that in mind when trying to hitchhike.

As stated in the last post, Americans love to (or ought to) say 'yes' at all times, so don't assume any invitation to be serious and have a Plan B. In a very Japanese manner, social harmony is very important and sometimes the line between a good discussion and a unpleasant disagreement is very thin in America, where open disagreement is more often than not seen as a breach of social conduct rather than a healthy interchange of opinions. 

Private sphere and private property are very important concepts in American society, and you better don't infringe on either of them. Once you are allowed within either of them though, Americans are gracious hosts in my experience and will go out of their way to make you comfortable. Americans love to party, and in big towns fiesta is never far away. To avoid cultural irritation especially if you are female, accustom yourself to the Bump'n'Grind, America's national dance, also known as the Backrubber Tango.

Tourism Value

When I announced I was going to the States, many people asked me various version of the same notion: "Why? There is nothing to see." - "But, over there is like, you know, here." - "America? Why in the world would you want to go to that place?" For some reason there seems to be a sentiment that America is a place without much attractions, at least compared with more exotic places like Thailand or Brazil. Reality couldn't be further from the truth, and this leg of my trip has been one of the most impressive on my journey.

Another belief held dear by self-absorbed Europeans is that America is a country without culture or history. Well, if ancient cliff dwellings, Spanish and English colonial architecture, gold rush ghost towns and 300 years of human history of exploration, invention and entertainment aren't good enough for you, then Florence or Kyoto probably won't do it for you either. The American country has plenty of unique history to offer, and if you are willing to listen it will tell you your fair share of war and peace and human struggle, of alien gods and sunken cultures, and of heroes of renown. Many of this isn't necessarily marked (although mentioned) as a highlight in the big guide books, but well worth searching out.

In terms of contemporary culture, America has a lot to offer, too. I personally find that its appeal lies more in the various expressions of 'Americana' which scatter across town and countryside. If you stray from the (comparatively mediocre) standard fare of shows, entertainment centers and art galleries, America's contemporary culture is varied and diverse, sometimes bemusing and often openly hilarious. Where else would you find the largest ball of twine or the atomic testing museum? Where else could you tour an ethically aware porn studio or ride the world's largest rollercoaster?
Some of Americas museums, like the Denver Art Museum, are nothing short of excellent.

Yet America's most impressive sight is the country itself. From vast deserts and towering mountains to crystal-clear lakes and multi-coloured canyons, jaw-dropping scenery waits around every corner, sometimes within a mere hour's drive. Everything here is just bigger, wider and wilder than anywhere else on the planet, and America's nature has often left me speech- and breathless, as I looked around in disbelief. Even 'minor' sights, such as the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, will leave you gaping in awe. Photographs cannot truly capture the sheer grandeur of this country, and I can only recommend you to just simply go and experience it for yourself.

On the downside, if there is something to see, then someone will charge you for it, and that is true even for state-run nature sights. If you have to fork out 25$ per person to see a giant hole in the ground that requires zero maintenance, then you know Uncle Sam needs your dinero pretty bad. 

Despite the expenses, the USA is a great travel destination. I cannot stress how utterly amazing the nature here is, and how it will leave you with inspiration and memories for weeks after. Many places, like Vegas or Silverton are worth visiting for their charming tackyness. As long as you're independent of public services America has great infrastructure for you to get around. Next time I come here, and I will come back, I'll come in some sort of mobile home, which saves time, money and energy. America suffers from an unjustified reputation as an unexotic and culturally uninteresting travel destination. Trust me, there is plenty of things to see here that you will blow you mind and tingle your spine. Yes, people over here don't know how to dress or drive, but you'll forgive them when they serve you another oversized 30% meat burger with coke - and a smile.