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The Designer's Notebook: Inside a Game Design Company

December 2, 2003
 

For the last three years, I've been working with a very bright group of game designers at a company called International Hobo (www.ihobo.com). It occurred to me the other day that ihobo, as they're also known, is nearly unique in the game industry: a whole company that concentrates entirely on game design and dialogue scripting. There are many freelance designers and writers, and there are many subcontractors for things like art and audio, but there are only one or two companies in the world that specialize in design and scripting. I thought I'd ask Chris Bateman, the founder of International Hobo, some questions about how the company works.

What's your background? How was International Hobo founded?

I'd been working on games in a non-commercial (or semi-commercial) setting long before I started working on them professionally. All my early work was in board games and tabletop role playing games. I published three RPGs with Discordia Incorporated in the early 1990s. I was also heavily involved with the MUD movement, both with a non-game oriented domain called UglyMUG and with TrekMUSE, which in some respects was way ahead of its time.

In 1995 I moved to London and got a job with Perfect Entertainment. Gregg Barnett and Angela Sutherland were impressed with my game design work, and also my dialogue scripting skills, and that's how I landed the lead design and script writer roles on Discworld Noir. That was my first computer game project as a lead designer, and it was very gratifying to see the critical response, especially hearing The Times call it the best computer game script ever written. Of course, looking back there was more that could have been done, but that's always going to be true for game design. Unfortunately, GT Interactive (the publishers) went under, and that created all sorts of problems for Perfect.

International Hobo's founder, Chris Bateman.

I was involved with an American woman at the time, so I was looking for an excuse to go and live in the US for a while, and a friend of mine, Gary Jones (who is one of the world's top rated poker players) was interested in investing in a MMORPG project based on some of the techniques we'd developed on TrekMUSE. In the end, we weren't convinced that it could be done without an expensive license attached to the game, so I went the other route and moved into external design and script services.

That's how International Hobo Ltd was formed. In the end, I married the woman I was seeing, and we moved to Manchester in the UK to set up an office for the company.

Where did the capital come from? And what were the early days like?

The company was initially debt funded. In fact, for most of that first year, the entire company consisted of one laptop and an online backup facility, so setup costs were really quite low. In the beginning, it was just a one man show, but by the end of the first year it was clear there was more work than I could easily handle.

Even before I'd left the US, I was taking on part time staff. For the most part, new employees have started as part time and then become full time once they've made themselves invaluable. That was what happened with Richard Boon, who's now the head of script services here, although Neil Bundy, who was the first employee, had a history with the company before working for it since his house was the registered address for the company while I was in the States.

A few people make the move from board games to computer games, but it's not that common among designers in the industry. What do you feel you had to learn or unlearn?

It's more common than it might seem - Warren Spector and Sandy Peterson both made the transition. The core principles of game design apply in any context, in particular the maxim that you must know your audience to know how to design for them. I'd done a Masters Degree in Artificial Intelligence, so I had a firm grounding in computer design issues, including interface design, so it was less a case of unlearning as it was knitting the different disciplines together.

Like any newcomer to games I made some mistakes when I first starting designing, but you can't learn without making errors. I think the biggest bad habit I had to break was volume of mechanics. You can add twenty pages of supplementary game mechanics to a role-playing game at a cost of pennies on the total print run - but everything you add to a computer game has a cost in both time and money. My design techniques were already getting tighter and tighter, focusing on trying to express maximum gameplay from minimum mechanics, but dealing with the computer game development process tightened things up even more.

Are the staff generalists, specialists, or a mix?

Everyone joins with a particular set of specializations, but the company functions as a melting pot, so writers learn design skills and vice versa. For example, Richard (the Head of Script Services) is a game writer, but every project has both a writer and a game designer assigned to it, so he has worked intimately on the design of games. Although he would not be happy working, say, on raw mechanical design, he now has a level of competence in game design equivalent to a lot of people functioning as game designers in the industry - but he would not call himself a game designer under any circumstance.

Conversely, Neil has no game writer skills, and works primarily as a level designer or game design assistant. But he is still a valuable sounding board for narrative design, since he can look at the story worksheets and assess how effectively they get across the plot, how the story integrates with gameplay, and whether the story fulfills the plot or emotional goals required for a particular project.

My role as managing director means that I often cannot be as personally involved in all projects as I would like, but the fact that I am a writer-designer (i.e., a person with game design and game writer skills) allows me to oversee operations effectively. I am still the primary source of mechanical design and game world abstractions, but since these constitute less than a quarter of the workload for a typical project, I have found a comfortable balance.

Do you have a preferred philosophy or process that you use in designing games for your clients?

I feel it's naive to attempt to reduce game design to a single process or set of rules; to do so assumes that there are some game "absolutes," or a Platonic ideal world of games out there, which is philosophical nonsense by today's standards.

We do have a preferred philosophy, which we whimsically call "Zen game design," which is based on two simple tenets: that there is no single method of game design, and that game design is based around "needs." Those needs include the needs of the audience (perhaps the most important), the needs of the developer and the needs of the publisher.

For instance, many developers are in games because they want to be there, and they have certain personal agenda they wish to pursue in the arena of games - if we did game design or narrative design with such a company, we would have to reflect their personal agendas, whilst simultaneously keeping in mind the audience's needs (which might be for challenge, or for fun, or for something in between, depending on the audience being targeted) and the publisher or investors need to make a return on their investment.

Although we support the choice of auteurs in the industry who attempt to make "great games" without any reference to a target audience, it seems somewhat indulgent to us, and we would prefer not to work with a company that is not interested in meeting the needs of its audience - whomever that might be.

In fact, one of our key sidelines is research into the audience; identifying new demographic clusters, and gathering data about their taste in games. One thing that is emerging is that the industry has become overly focused on challenge, perhaps because many of the people working in the games industry tend to be "hardcore" players and love the challenging side of games. But the mass market seems less challenge-oriented, and more interested in fun and (or) an engaging narrative. Balancing challenge and fun is a non-trivial exercise, and what I would consider as one of the key issues for the industry at the moment as it seeks to reliably target a broader audience.

Do you provide design services all the way through production - i.e., game tuning and level design - or do you tend to concentrate on the front end and bow out when the product goes into to full production?

Our level of involvement is up to the client; we will assist in whatever areas they desire. It's very rare that we would be involved in a project and not follow it through to the very end - and not just as far as tweaking and tuning, but all the way through to PR and post-launch support. If we are hired as the design team, or to support the design team, then we are taking on a commitment to the game that is limited only by the extent the clients want us to be involved, and the realities of time and money.

One of the advantages of hiring an external design and script team is that it generally works out significantly cheaper than internal teams, because you don't need to pay staff when no work is being done. This means that although we are generally involved in a project from start to finish, we will not usually be working on the game constantly. The busiest times are in the early development stages, and in game play tweaking near the end.

Of course, the other side of the coin is that only about one in four games get signed, so we often work on projects at the concept and initial design phase that sadly do not get signed. We've taken to offering discounted rates on such 'speculative' design projects, weighted against a bonus if the game is signed - it's gambling, in a sense, but our hit rate with publishers is slightly better than the industry norm, so we do tend to turn a profit.

Who is International Hobo's competition?

Obviously there are a lot of independent game designers, like Noah Falstein, or Oliver Davies at Lost World Design, but in reality ihobo is unique - because we're a team, and because design is only half of its remit. Although there are only four of us in total, I'm pretty sure that makes us the largest game design or game scripting company in the world, and we're also the only company which is merging those two disciplines into a single entity.

Richard, who joined the firm in 2001, had no game design experience, and was hired as a writer. He's highly game literate, however, and has an encyclopedic game knowledge which can be invaluable, but I still think it's unprecedented for a game design consultancy to hire someone with no game design experience. It leads to a healthy creative exchange within the team, and I believe we've come a long way in the four years since we were founded.

We find ourselves bidding against others for script quite often, but less so for design. I think external services are built on trust, and once the client trusts you, they'd rather work with you than with somebody new.

I would say that I see the other independent design and script providers as allies, rather than competition. The market is large, and the true competition is poor quality in-house design and script. When a company permits somebody in-house with no writing skills, or with a sketchy conception of the process of design, to handle these tasks, it saves them development money, but costs them profit and reputation because the final product is generally fatally flawed.

There are a lot of talented people working in-house, but there are a lot of people who just don't have a clue - who haven't written a story since high school and have at best a sophomoric understanding of narrative, or who think they can design a game because "they know what makes a good game" without any reference to the varying tastes of the target audience demographics.

We make money because that's the natural function of business, but our mission is to work towards better design, and better narrative in games, so anything that hinders these two aspects of games is the real competition.

Who are some of your clients, past and present?

The earliest projects we have on file are for Perfect Entertainment, Tantalus and Graftgold, and we have games in the market for Atari, THQ, 3DO, Vivendi and Empire. Of course, we have a lot of work covered by NDA, but I can mention Blitz as one of our most long running clients, and I'm sure Supersonic won't mind us mentioning our involvement in the design of an insult system for their new multiplayer racing game.
We have some links to Japan I can't really talk about, but alas we haven't been able to get a game together through that channel yet. Japanese game design is so much more professional than the West for the most part; I'm just grateful to have an opportunity to learn from them.

OK, now the classic interview question: what do you consider to be your greatest strengths and greatest weaknesses? Tell us a story of a cock-up and how you put it right.

Our greatest strengths are creativity, insight and open minds. We listen, think and then speak, which is actually rarer than it might seem. We read and carry out research, and we don't confuse hypotheses with fact. We balance creative forces against commercial forces, and despite our personal interests in inventive game and story design, we never lose sight of the fact that the foundation of good design has to be commercial reality.

Our greatest weakness is probably a lack of aggression. In business, you need to be out there grasping the bull by the horns, and for the most part we have just run the business day to day, and let the work come to us. At some point in the future, I think I will have to hire someone else to take over the managing director role, since I am primarily a game designer and writer, and I just don't have that extrovert drive that a good MD needs.

As for cock-ups, the question is how to find a cock-up we can report that won't violate an NDA and embarrass a publisher or developer! However, one of our greatest follies was probably Seven Shades. This was a great game design, which started as a project at Perfect Entertainment, but later came under our sole remit. However, so interested in dynamic narrative had we become, that we seriously bit off more than we could chew on this one - attempting a seven-character intertwined dynamic narrative when we had barely proved that our techniques would work for a single character dynamic narrative! The project was eventually shelved, and although I have a fondness for it, we should never have been trying something so complex without having proved the technique to begin with.

What's next for ihobo? Anything in particular that you're working on at the moment?

One thing we're particularly excited about is our research into a new demographic models for game design. We've been working on this for six months, and the preliminary research comes to an end in January 2004. In essence, we've been building and refining a demographic model with a direct reference to the design-needs of the audience by drawing from existing psychological research.

The approach we've taken for this new model is to use the Myers-Briggs typology as a stepping point (because of the wide availability of data and resources), and compare the distributions of Myers-Briggs type in the general populace with the distributions in Hardcore and Casual gamers. The results we've been getting confirm some of our hypotheses, and also reveal some new clusters which we did not anticipate.

I believe this sort of approach - trying to model the audience with a view to game design, not to marketing - is part of the long-term future of game design, and we're very excited to be at the forefront of this field. We call it demographic game design. Whether the development community is willing to get behind it remains to be seen.


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