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DICE 09: Bethesda's Howard On Supreme Playability
DICE 09: Bethesda's Howard On Supreme Playability Exclusive
February 20, 2009 | By Chris Remo

February 20, 2009 | By Chris Remo
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    22 comments
More: Console/PC, Exclusive, Design



"This is the big leap you go to make when you make a game," said Bethesda Game Studios director Todd Howard (Fallout 3), starting his lecture at the DICE Summit with a slide of a man leaping over a blanket littered with babies -- labeled "the fans."

"Install base really doesn't matter," said Howard, kicking off the theme of making games based on passion, not equations -- and showing a pie graph demonstrating the Wii's formidable market share. "My comeback is, if install base really mattered, we'd all make board games, because there are a lot of tables."

Studios must maintain a "culture of quality," he said; great games can only be made by teams comprised of talented and passionate developers. "We have a very low asshole quotient in the studio. Egos don't work. Everybody has to respect each other."

Great Games Are Played, Not Made

"Great games are played, not made," Howard argued, pointing to the importance of real playtesting and feedback over the design ideal. "You can have the greatest design document ever made, and you're going to change 90 percent of it as soon as you play the game."

Studios must be willing to let the game be built the way the team needs it to be built, even if that doesn't fit in the initial plan of action -- "Your plan is not as important as your culture," Howard argued.

Taking Inspiration From Unlikely Places

"One of the tricks we do -- and you can use this on your franchises -- is read old reviews," Howard explained.

It is important to play old games as well, he went on, but reading old reviews removes much of the aging process, because they are written from the perspective of somebody experiencing those games when they are new.

That allows you to understand how design decisions affected the reviewer, away from the difficulties that come with dealing with archaic graphics and input methods.

"You can pull up a review of Arena, our first Elder Scrolls games, and if you black out a few words, you can't tell what Elder Scrolls game it is, whether it's Daggerfall, Morrowind, or Oblivion," he said.

Inspiration can come from disparate sources -- Fallout 3's body part targeting system drew influence from such seemingly unrelated touchstones as Burnout 3's crash mode and the slow-motion blows of the Fight Night games.

Making Marketing Part Of The Process

Howard called out Bethesda's marketing VP, Pete Hines, and argued that marketing must be a part of the development process from the beginning. Every piece of media a player sees prior to playing the game influences their expectations and perception of the experience itself.

That starts with early press articles about the game, the official website, and more. "What does the manual look like? Is it in the tone of the system? What does the disc look like?" he asked. "By the time the player actually plays the game, they have experienced all of those things."

Have Fun While Learning

There is a cycle that, ideally, players will experience many times over the course of the game: learn, play, challenge, surprise.

First players learn the basics of the game or a particular mechanic, then they enjoy the experience of playing it, then they reach the point where they enjoy the challenge of the game or mechanic.

"It's not until you get to that, that you can surprise them with something new," Howard warned. "Too many of us focus on number three and four [challenge and surprise]. Nintendo is the best at one and two [learn and play]. Half-Life 2 does this whole cycle very well."

Keep Optimizing

Howard showed a graph of development time spent versus quality on a given platform, demonstrating that optimization is a clear function of those two axes.

He also indicated that, particularly in this current console generation, there is plenty of room to continue optimization, and he hopes the industry at large won't move on to new hardware too quickly.

He wrapped up his talk fairly abruptly, expressing his hope that some of his examples would help the assembled audience.


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Comments


Jason Pineo
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I'd like to see the slide!

Ryan Wiancko
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Better yet a recording of the talk

Charles Forbin
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>>>"What does the disc look like?"



Ah, yes.



I still recall getting the very first Legend Of Zelda game in that shiny gold cartridge. I just knew it was going to be something special. And it was!

Keith Burgun
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The fact that the guys behind Oblivion and Fallout 3 are giving game design advice is more than a little bit insulting, but it's compounded by their arrogance: "-- and you can use this on your franchises -- " Gee really? Thanks so much. Also getting the targeting system from "Burnout"??? They *DO* of course realize that the targeting system was in "Fallout"... right? These guys are morons who could not design a paperweight.

Adam Bishop
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Given how many people think Fallout 3 is a fantastic game, and given how many publications listed it as one of the best games of the year, I would think that game design advice from the people who made that game would be considered useful by many in the industry. If you didn't have good experiences with the game, Keith, that's perfectly cool, but for you to take personal offence at the fact that someone else has shared ideas that worked well for them seems to be pretty childish.

Keith Burgun
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If they were giving a lecture on how to make a game profitable or how to get good reviews from "game publications" (90+% of which are complete joke), then I would not have taken offense. The fact is, the games they make are not only mechanically 10 years behind the 90's works of Origin, Sir-Tech, and Black Isle, but they are also are very broken and imbalanced.

Adam Bishop
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You're perfectly free to not like their game design, but clearly a great many people do, so obviously they're doing something right. There's nothing in the article that gives the impression that Todd thinks that all designers must follow his advice, he was simply giving it to anyone who was interested. If you're not interested, don't pay attention. There's absolutely nothing to get offended over. You're obviously not the target audience and his comments are not directed at you personally.

Tyler Shogren
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Todd's advice amounts to common sense, that "[money =] development time and advertising = success". While this is true, it is not interesting advice.



There's been a lot of talk about the emergent narrative and gameplay in Fallout 3, but this is not a new phenomenon is computer games. The narrative doesn't live up to the original Fallouts, if for no other reason than the specific design decision to limit dialogue choices to 80 characters; effectively stunting characterization of the player avatar (isn't this marketed as a Role Playing game?) They have admitted that the FPS elements are inferior to competitors. So what's left?



Yes Todd, money = sales. Thanks.

Chris Walter
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Mr Burgun, I believe you misunderstood the reference to Burnout as an influence for the targeting system. If you take notice of the camera angles, the slow motion, and dismemberment when using VATS, it is obviously inspired by the crashes in Burnout.



I would agree however that game design in general has not caught up to what RPGs in the late 90s were offering. Unfortunately, many of them had major bugs or very little marketing.



Take a look at System Shock 2 and BioShock. They are essentially the same game yet BioShock sold infinitely better simply because they paid better attention to marketing. It took over a decade to transition the innovative ideas from the original System Shock into a best selling game. Unfortunately, it will probably take longer still before we witness a truly successful game with the depth of Planescape: Torment.

Huck Terrister
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A lot of people would argue that Bioshock isn't quite the same as System Shock 2, but more along the lines of System Shock 2 with chunks of it replaced by fluff.



I'm also really sick of how this industry defines "success". Apparently a $40 billion dollar game that sells $60 million is a success and a $100 thousand dollar game that sells $15 million is a failure. EUGH.



They could make a game like Planescape Torment today. They could have made Fallout 3 play like, you know, a Fallout game. Yes it IS possible to cater to a niche if you CONTROL YOUR DAMN BUDGET.

Tyler Shogren
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@ Gorgon: Ad hominem + weak analogy = fail

Charles Forbin
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Gorgon does have a tiny bit of a point. There's a lot of FO1/2 fanboys who seem to be seething with hate at Bethesda like Gollum at anyone wielding his precious ring. As a result say ridiculous things like "These guys are morons who could not design a paperweight" and actually expect to be taken seriously.



But you run into a lot of people like that in gaming. There is some point in time in their gaming history where, in their holy and perfect opinion, everything went off a cliff and nothing has ever, or *will* ever, live up to the glorified glorious glory of [Insert name of 10 to 20 year old game here]. Heck, same thing goes for movies or books or music or anyone who pines for "the good old days" who forget that for every "Citizen Kane" there were a dozen "Plan 9 Form Outer Space."

Tyler Shogren
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@ Baker: I don't know if catering to a niche is the correct end goal.



@ Forbin: Straw man = fail. Fallout 3 is a good game, nothing more.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Jason Bakker
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Can't believe Bethesda are still being slammed by these original Fallout fanboys. Haven't you guys haven't moved on already?



@Tim Carter: Name a single game that didn't evolve from its design document. That process is a natural part of game development. If a game's design is any good, it'll have an original combination of elements, and it's nigh impossible to know in advance how that combination will work in practice.



Not only that, but there are a million different things to take into consider when developing that combination. The tech, the content, the controls. Any one of these may require a modification to the design, and if it is instead rigidly adhered to, the game, the schedule and the development team will often suffer for it.



Finally, a game design document can never cover all of the possible angles that development can go in, and that's where game development truly shines. In the process of working on a feature, somebody goes "hey, we can do this using this feature" or "we can add this to this feature with a little effort" or "this feels awesome - we should put more focus on it within the flow of the game".



A game design document is not a movie script. It's a blueprint, from which a game is invented - and during that process, there's infinite possibility for positive modification.

James Cooley
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Fallout 3 has sucked up massive numbers of my evening hours. Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion probably chewed up around 1,000 hours on multiple plays. What Bethesda does better than anyone is create minutely detailed worlds. I don't play Oblivion or Fallout 3 - I go there. Both were games where you could play ever night for months and still find new things. These places were "lived in", right down to the silverware on the tables.



I also give Bethesda some high marks for some unique character work and quests. Moira Brown in Fallout 3 is simply hilarious and the "Wasteland Survival Guide" quest series is one of the best I have ever encountered. I had more fun with it than the main quest.



There are a few things I quibble with on the game (fix the crash problems, please!), but overall, it is a monumental accomplishment. It will be something I will revisit multiple times, which is the mark of a great game.

Charles Forbin
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@Tyler: I never even said anything about FO3's quality. You might look up what strawman actually means if you can tear yourself away from typing incisive commentary like "fail" long enough.



You have done 50 points damage to your speechcraft.



Khajiit has no words for you.

Huck Terrister
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"I don't know if catering to a niche is the correct end goal."



When you're dealing with a cult franchise in an incredibly hardcore genre, it probably should be.



FYI, i wish Bethesda would spend more time on the basic gameplay mechanics to make sure they aren't completely broken, exploitable, and homogenized instead of placing silverware.

Tyler Shogren
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@ Forbin Yes, perhaps a second 'fail' was excessive. But your argument supporting Gorgon WAS a straw man argument. If your going to defend a logical fallacy with another fallacy, shouldn't I be incisive?

Christopher Broom
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Honestly now, Fallout 3 was a "great" game in all aspects. Is it Fallout 1 or 2? Of course not, does it have to be? absolutely not and that's why it's a great game. Fallout 3 isn't more of the same it's taking the ideas set forth in the original games and expanding upon it, giving it a new twist and with today's industry that HAS TO BE DONE.



People have to remember, not only is the game industry a form of entertainment it's a business and without innovation all businesses would fail completely.

Tyler Shogren
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@ Broom Fallout 3 is almost by definition more of the same of Oblivion; the way the game is experienced, the narrative techniques, are generated by the same engine. The difference is genre; that the industry is so stagnant with world war/fantasy/sci-fi games is more reason for Fallout 3's success than any particular design achievement. What elements of Fallout 3 are _expanded_ from Fallout 1/2? The way I see it, Fallout 3 isn't more than the sum of its admittedly sizable parts; shouldn't THAT be the true measure of greatness?

Jason Bakker
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@Tim Carter



I agree that a project needs some direction and definition at the beginning, but the fact that we even have game design documents that are meant to describe a "finished" game at this point in game development is incomprehensible to me as a programmer.



But because of this, game designers (who have a great idea of what has worked in the past, but understandably little idea of what genuinely "new" gameplay could be) have no choice but to include in their game design documents things that have been done before in some capacity or another.



Building an experience on cool ideas is great for film, where the medium is already defined and structures are pre-existing. Even something that is billed as new and exciting (ie. Slumdog Millionare) still relies heavily on elements that we've seen dozens of times before. And that's fine, because the sum of those parts is a new and engrossing experience.



When you develop a game you are designing your medium itself, on top of which your experience lies. True game design innovation requires experimentation and iteration, which, no matter how good your imagination is, cannot be accurately simulated in thought, and we shouldn't expect that process out of designers on paper.



What we need out of designers is to be there in the iterative experimentation, to steer development in the direction they require, so that their "cool ideas" can stem from, and funnel into, that iterative process.



We need designers and writers to see and understand the medium that is being developed for them, so that they can then decide accurately how to use that medium.



In the development of Bioshock, Ken Levine was still working through the story incredibly late in the development process. Back when I first heard of that I thought: "How rash and neglectful! He should have had all this figured out ages ago!"



And yet, Bioshock's story and storytelling fit its gameplay better than most games I've played that have more traditional development cycles.



Our traditional ideas of game development, with the auteur who sees in his head the perfect game design and the programmers and artists who work to bring that static vision to life is an idyllic fantasy.



Perhaps one day in the future when game development is no longer in its infancy this will be the case. Until then we should embrace the inventive, iterative and collaborative nature of game development, and recognize that we are still standing with shaky legs on new ground, with all of the danger and possibility that it brings.


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