At the recent Independent Game Conference in Austin, veteran producer Richard Garriott, best known for the Ultima series and now a creative director for NCsoft North America, discussed getting it right in game design, laying the foundation for what he feels is the essential structure for new ideas.
“When you launch an MMO it’s not the end of the work," began Garriott. "In many ways, it gets a lot harder. Now, you’re having to deal with thousands of people who have ideas and opinions.”
Addressing the audience, Garriott said he would share "some of the learning I believe I’ve kind of acquired through my few decades in the game industry. Specifically, what I think is a very important part of game design, that very few people spend nearly the amount of time focusing on that I believe that it deserves... Which is to research your game designs.”
The Easy Way Out
When Garriott watches game developers – and that’s not only competitors, “but frankly when I watch even people on my own team, when they’re going to work on a system, I think most game developers take what I consider the easy and obvious route," he explained.
For example, according to Garriott, a developer may be a fan of a certain genre, such as the first-person shooter, and only take issue with a single feature. “Those first, easy, obvious ideas are just that—they’re first, easy and obvious ideas that everyone else is going to be thinking of, too,” he said. “If you pursue that route, you’re kind of destined for what I’ll consider mediocrity.”
He continued, “You may end up with a product that's just a shade better than the predecessor game. But it’s not going to be enough to overcome the fact that you’re coming out six months after the game you’re improving on. People’s expectations will have moved probably far beyond that which I think of as the easy first answer.”
Shake It Up
Garriott's alternative? "If you’re going to come up with new ideas for games or new features, you have to be willing... to become a world leading expert on [that feature] in order to have any chance to develop a [game] system that is truly superior or unique or compelling,” he stated.
Continued Garriott, “This is an independent game conference. The reason why I was actually excited to come and talk to you guys, is because you guys represent the core of the potential to really shake up and move games design in some unique and important ways.”
He elaborated on why this is: "Because you guys have not been what I’ll call adulterated by regurgitating the same stuff over and over like so many of the people who have already been subjugated by the demands of publishers to repeat what’s been successful previously. You guys have a unique opportunity that I think is very important.”
Garriott explained, “If your goal is to do something worthwhile and make a name for yourself and make games that are remembered and make some money for yourselves… You guys need to think independently. And that’s an opportunity you really have.”
Garriott used examples like the "thief" mechanic in role-playing games, or the fresh spin that Valve's Portal put on the first-person shooter game to point out, “If you want to be successful in this industry, you have to find ways to make your products either uniquely fun -- some actual interaction that is this hard-to-define thing called fun."
Developing Unique IP
Moving on to discuss intellectual property, what he called "the more artistic side of things. In most games," he said, "I think this is particularly underdeveloped. I think this is an area that’s not done well in any area, and an area that I personally find the most interesting.”
According to Garriott, one of the problems with creating new and fun types of gameplay is that “Fun is a very, very difficult thing to define on paper."
There are characters that can be licensed, like Lara Croft and there are worlds, like Abe’s Oddworld or Myst, he explained. There are also stories or other ways to become involved in the fiction. “These are foundations that worked for me,” Garriott said. “I’m sure if you have other people talk, they’ll have completely different paths. I’m hoping you’ll find one or two ideas that work for you.”
Garriott briefly covered some of his techniques for developing a unique IP. Iconography, for example, is how the shapes that show up on screen must be “not only identifiable, but more importantly, imprinted on your brain.”
Terminology is important, too. “I commonly see games that make huge mistakes in terms of using words or phrases that are difficult to pronounce or understand, and are therefore unmemorable,” he noted.
He described what he called a really good Ultima clone being developed by Electronic Arts -- they even lifted, he said, the same green grass dot pattern. But instead of medieval terminology, all of the names became words that sounded like Japanese. "Once they changed all the terminology, frankly, it became hard to remember. It became quite a poor game, and didn’t sell well. If you’re trying develop a terminology to capture the imagination of the masses, Klingon is a poor choice."
Numerology is another tenet, as Garriott explained, "Human beings always try to simplify the world around them and put it into a simple construct. One of the great advantages of a game is: you can actually make it a simple construct. Unlike the real world which has so much complexity that, in spite of humans desire to simplify it, it resists.”
He added, “I think it makes it more compelling, and in fact, it almost feels more true.”
Things can be grouped and given repetitious significance, according to Garriott: “Ah, I understand, the game is going to take place in eight acts, around the eight virtues -- suddenly the world becomes structured in such a way they have a feel for the totality of the world [which is] only more powerful, but feels more real, or feels more true, than the real world might.”
“Why is moving through this world relevant to me as an individual?" Garriott posited, discussing keeping players involved with an IP through the long-haul and across multiple games.
“If you haven’t gotten fan mail yet,” Garriott told his audience of independent developers, they should expect the letters to have one paragraph of praise, with pages and pages and pages telling what the game did wrong.
He recommended looking at contemporary issues of today, and recasting them into a game. “Ultima 5 was my reaction to people who were critical of games," he said. "It was a great success in spite of my concerns.”
However, Garriott said, “I was afraid it would flop. It was my way to showcase my frustration with what was going on in the real world. But I don’t think most players perceived it.”
“Don’t do the first idea that pops into your head that you think is a slight improvement on something someone else has done before,” Garriott stressed. “You have to go beyond the easy answer. Become an expert on the aspect of design that you’re trying to tackle.”
He continued, “Game developers need to make games that they are excited about, in genres that they play. Correcting the mistakes of the games you’ve played is insufficient.”