Brenda Romero dreams of games and greatness
"I am not even remotely qualified to give a talk about greatness," says veteran designer Brenda Romero, to a packed room that lined up to hear her speak about just that. Some of her closest friends, she says, are some of the best game designers in the world, and she's been in the industry for a long time ("I'm a lifer, man").
"I often feel like a pawn on a board of kings and queens. But that doesn't mean that I don't aspire, it doesn't mean that I don't want to be a great designer," she says.
Throughout her career in games she has encountered a lot of compromises, corner-cutting and bad calls, because that's necessary in the business when you have to ship something. Those shortfalls troubled her, and she shifted her energy to making a game that she really wanted to make.
She worked on the haunting board game Train until it approached her standards of greatness, lavishing attention on every element from the color of the pieces to finding the instinct inside herself to trust: With no publisher on board, if she wasn't sure about something, she could pause working.
It saw a very small "release", so to speak -- but when she showed it even in a limited way, word spread and now the game is widely-renowned. It didn't entirely alleviate her insecurities, and she's not certain it's great in the way she idealizes: "I still feel, often, that my friends have created genres, and that's not something ever done."
When it comes to Train, though, "I don't think it's a coincidence that the game I am most respected for is the game I tried to make as good as I could possibly do."
The real dev world, of course, involves schedules, budgets and milestones, often forcing designers to pick two out of three traits -- fast, cheap or good, and fast and cheap is usually what wins under pressure. "Good enough" is usually the nearest and most common aspiration, and that no longer satisfies her. "I couldn't lose that feeling -- to craft something with my own hands, to the best of my ability," she says.
No one ever grows up aspiring to work on a mediocre game, she says. So how can you make people desire greatness, no matter what they're working on?
She became fascinated by, of all things, a piece of asparagus, decorated with radishes, tiny flowers and little peas and leaves. "Every single thing on that plate was picked that morning from the restaurant's gardens; everything was hand-placed by four sous chefs with tweezers. It was performance art, and it was the most amazing piece of asparagus I've ever eaten. And as crazy as that sounds, this was a transformative experience for me," she explains.
The architect of the wondrous asparagus was Chef Christopher Kostow, whose Meadowood menu is full of fully-designed and "masterful" plates that made her feel part of an experience. The experience awed and inspired her as a game developer: "The second my player comes into my environment I want it perfectly controlled, and I want them to have an amazing experience," Romero says.
"In the restaurant nothing is left to chance, and is done deliberately to give you the absolute best possible experience that you could have."
She began to be inspired by pictures of three-star Michelin restaurants that make food into an art form, and where everything was hand crafted, often in front of audiences, with incredible attention to detail. "It was what I wanted to do to games."
There are only 100 Michelin three-star restaurants in all the world, and those stars can be lost. "Imagine earning game of the year, and you can lose it the next year," she says. "I'm attracted to the greatness I see in these chefs."
Watching the demanding competitive restaurant show of Gordon Ramsay, who has been awarded 15 Michelin stars and has retained 14 of them, Romero realized she and he had the same job. "I'm thinking about my team and the various issues they have, and how can I make them want to do something different?" she says.
"Control your team or your team controls you," said Ramsay on Hell's Kitchen. "Control what happens in your game," suggests Romero. "Whatever you let out of your hands has the ability to control you."
Of course, Gordon Ramsay-ing one's dev team, in that distinctive and aggressive style where he's essentially famous for berating underperforming chefs on public television, would probably not work in Romero's development environment. But Romero learned about the documentary "Jiro Dreams of Sushi" about the fascinating three-star, octogenarian sushi chef, and was so motivated by the passion of the craft obsessive that she missed the narrative about his son living in his shadow.
"I was incredibly humbled by his devotion," Romero says. "The things I didn't do in my career... I sucked. It was impossible to see somebody who was great and not feel the absence of greatness. This guy was as crazy about sushi as I was about games, and it either meant that we were going to share a room in an institution, or I was going to learn something from him."
The film reminded her of all the things she had to forget about greatness to survive in commercial games, in the pursuit of a dollar, or of a promotion.
Jiro's attitude to his work focuses on elevating his art form, and not to bother otherwise. Two-star chef Wolfgang Puck is focused on execution and change, continually challenging himself. American game designers, says Romero, tend to stagnate and want recipes because they're so afraid of failure. The best thing, she says, that ever happened to her was failing her Kickstarter: "I didn't lose my game developer card, and I got some much-needed humility."
Great games came from people trying to do something first and extremely well, she's learned. "And I also learned that everything is about getting the absolute best ingredients, and for us that means getting great tools, great people and great machines," she says. Sushi chef Jiro inspects multiple elements of his work multiple times, placing quality over cost.
"If we don't tell people what we're expecting and what we hope to get, if we let ourselves off the hook, it's no wonder that we're not going to hit that kind of greatness," Romero says. She's found it's difficult to give negative feedback, because she often cares more about being liked than being respected.
"As a lead you're there to make a great game, not to spare feelings," she advises.
And what about doing away with the notion of "deal with it later" -- why not polish now, why not make it good now? "Just saying 'it works' isn't what I want to do anymore," Romero says. "'We'll come back to it after beta'" is a lie, she says (what programmer suddenly gets a nine-day work week after beta)?
Crucially, chefs taste everything. "Are we playing our games, or are other people playing our games? We have to experience our own stuff," she says.
It's not that techniques are secret: It comes down to repeating them consistently until experience and mastery are achieved. Many of Romero's colleagues who have made successful games have a unique challenge: They need to nail it every time after that. "When I think about how can we be consistent as game developers, it has to be a constant experience moment to moment, level to level, session to session, game to game. It can't feel like two designers with radically different styles worked on it," she says.
After having worked on roleplaying games for over 20 years, she's accustomed to the idea of having overcomplicated things with statistics. But Jiro espoused the idea that simplicity is ultimate purity. "The most beautiful games that many of us have played have that very simple core, the one thing we care about."
"I don't want to apologize for working a lot of hours," she expresses. Romero's life involves thousands of hours of work, play and discussion on games, from the time she wakes up until she goes to bed. " It's not for everybody and I get that, [but] I want to be great, and that is my quality of life."
Mentorship is another factor in greatness; sushi chef Jiro meticulously aims to bestow his art on his son, who works with him. "We took mentorship to say 'well, if you have a question come ask me,' she says. "But I don't know of any game designers who say 'I worked under so-and-so, and think of it as cultivatng a career. I got my first real mentor when I worked on Wizardry 6 with David Bradley, and he gave me the seeds to do some of that stuff on my own."
But no designer has ever volunteered to show someone a "recipe for combat". "I believe it's our responsibility to teach," she says (Romero herself now works at UC Santa Cruz).
It's true there's an element of madness in this, she reflects. Most people don't have her kind of wall-to-wall game life. "But we keep going because we have to; because we want to make games. Because to not make them is not a part of who we are."
She showed a picture of herself as a child in her Brownies program, and of other game developers when they were children, wearing towel capes and playing and building with blocks.
"I have a responsibility to the dork wearing a brownie hat, because she was unbelievably stupid enough to think she could grow up and make games for a living," she says. "That kid was that crazy. And in my mid-40s I feel like I have a responsibility to that crazy child who believed she could become the metaphorical equivalent of a rockstar, to not cut corners, not compromise, not make forced decisions and bad calls, and to elevate the art form and to try to be fucking great."