Path to Creating AAA Games brought together a consortium of some of the
world's greatest videogame designers, sharing their personal
philosophies on designing a videogame that bridges the unfortunately
rare gap between being very cool and selling a whole lot of copies. The
panel was moderated by one Carly Staehlin, former producer of Ultima Online,
a freelance designer whose loveliness is overshadowed only by her
ability to direct a damned good discussion. Among her guests were Matt
Firor of Mythic Entertainment, best known for the Dark Age of Camelot MMORPG, Todd Howard of Bethesda Softworks, who are currently working on Oblivion, the fourth in the Elder Scrolls line of RPGs, along with pre-production for Fallout 3, Tetsuya Mizuguchi of Q Entertainment, the man responsible for Lumines, Rez, Space Channel 5, and a whole bunch of other games you ought to be playing, Tim Willits of id Software, notable mainly for its Doom and Quake FPS franchises, and finally, Will Wright of Maxis, designer of practically every game that has "Sim" in its title.
opened the discussion by asking each of the designers to state in
simple terms their own "design mantras," philosophies by which their
products are designed.
sort of official mantra at Bethesda is 'great games are played, not
made,'" Howard replied. Howard's designs revolve not around tangible
outcomes, but rather on how they want the player to feel.
"We also believe that everything is cooler on fire," he added, drawing laughter from the crowd.
desires and wants have to be considered," Mizuguchi added, "and we need
to avoid things that obstruct those. If something feels good or
interesting in a game, there's a reason."
Willits agreed, commenting that "if a player feels that 95% of the game
is cool and 5% isn't, they're really only going to focus on the
In discussing the study of target demographics, Mizuguchi related the story of designing Space Channel 5,
which was at first a vague assignment from Sega that asked only that
Mizuguchi design a game with a broad enough appeal to draw in even
casual female gamers.
was the first I'd heard of casual female gamers," he said, "so I didn't
really know what to do. I personally interviewed a lot of young girls,
trying to find out what they like."
he says, tend to enjoy puzzle games, while male gamers "want to be on
top, they want to accomplish something and be the champion." It's
difficult, he insists, to create a game that appeals to both males and
females on an equal level.
Wright expanded on this, using The Sims
as an example. "We had two big spikes in our demographic: 14-year-old
girls and 25-year-old guys." He gave an analogy using the original Star Trek
series. During the first season, he said, every fourth episode or so
would be dedicated to building relationships between the crew members,
while all of the others focused on cool space battles. Ratings heavily
swayed toward either a mostly-female or a mostly-male audience,
respectively, depending on the type of show, which was often obvious in
the opening minutes of the program. In the second season, he says, the
show's writers managed to find an equal balance in their storytelling,
and the ratings demographic became more balanced for the rest of the
still convinced that the best way to draw in female gamers is to hire
more female designers," he stressed. He also stated that elements of
self-expression seem to attract both females and casual gamers, while a
male demographic seeks challenges to explore.
asked by Staehlin how each of the designers might go about trying to
attract a more unconventional demographic in the future, Willits
revealed that one day, beyond blowing up space demons with huge guns,
he would like to design a children's game.
"This is my goal before I die," he said.
ever-philosophical Wright commented that he'd like to build on a
player's positive self-esteem. "Sometimes they accomplish something and
go, 'oh, wow, I didn't know I could do that!' I'd like to see that
In discussing the traits of a good game designer, Wright commented that he or she must be a designer
first, and a videogame player second. "But ultimately, at the end of
the day, game design is an intuitive black art, just like in any other
field. There's a certain amount of game design possibilities that will
forever be unknown, and that keeps things exciting."
"It's like writing," Firor added, "how can you teach that?"
responded that a lot of new game designers tend to create concepts for
their designer peers, and while they may be blown away, the gaming
public probably won't have the same view, and stressed that we need to
design videogames for videogame players, and not necessarily for each
response to an audience question, Wright stated that most of his early
play testing is done really early on, often by family members of the
"I learn a lot by watching what players do with game," he said. "Don't tell them what to do, just leave them alone and observe."
"I like to go to the arcade and just watch players' reactions," Mizuguchi added.
Will Wright said he's learned the most from games that seemed appealing on paper, but were failures in the marketplace.
actually ask people when hiring how many failures they've worked on,"
he said, "and I'm actually more likely to hire someone based on how
many failures they've experienced. I think it's the best learning
"My biggest failure was Quake 3,"
Willits said. "The game offered perfect multiplayer for hardcore
players. In fact, they're still playing it. But the more casual gamers,
and other people who actually have money, found playing next to
response to an audience question about what kind off new experiences
and difficulties we have to look forward to with the next generation
hardware, Hall said that he now has enough power to have all
one-thousand-plus NPC characters in the Oblivion world "thinking" and acting at all times which, he says, has caused some amusing bugs in the early design process.
had some weird stuff," he said, "like guards arresting each other. We
had one instance where a guard got hungry, and shot a deer in an area
where it was illegal to do so, so another guard took him in. We've also
had instances of NPCs buying out the entire inventory of shops. So
while this is cool, we have to think of the player's experience too."
is wonderful," Mizuguchi said. "I was watching some demo videos of
next-gen games earlier, and the graphics look very realistic. Right
now, with this new technology, it's like party time, but we can't stick
general consensus amongst the panel members seems to be that a
so-called AAA game is one with an appeal broader than the typical
"hardcore" demographic, and that, as with any field, the surest path to
becoming a good designer is to, quite simply, design a lot of games. So
get out there, folks. Design your games, succeed as much as you fail.
But fail all you want, because Will Wright might hire you.