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Brenda Romero: What game designers can learn from Michelin chefs

“We’re often forced to take something out of the oven and send it out before it’s ready. Maybe we need to adjust our recipes.” Brenda Romero shares game design tips garnered from great chefs.

Alex Wawro, Contributor

March 5, 2014

9 Min Read

Brenda Romero has spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to master game design. Given that she's been working in the game industry since she was 15 and now spends the lion's share of her time practicing, teaching, and speaking about the art of game making, this is perhaps not terribly surprising. What is surprising is how quickly our conversation turned to food when I spoke with her via Skype earlier this year. “I was at dinner at a Michelin 3-star, and when I walked in I was surprised by how much it felt so much like a completely designed experience, just like entering a video game,” says Romero. To hear her tell it, the experience of walking into that space feels just like loading into the first level of a game like DOOM. Everything about the restaurant’s design -- from the way the tablecloths are ironed to the thought that goes into providing a convenient, unobtrusive place for customers to place their bags -- evinces the conscious choice of a human designer. “I realized, while watching Hell’s Kitchen -- which is an especially fitting comparison if you’re working in social games -- that Gordon Ramsay is exactly like a lead game designer,” Romero tells me. “He has all these people in his kitchen, and if anything goes wrong it’s his name on the final product. It’s his responsibility to make sure every ingredient is as good as it can possibly be.” Romero has spent a lot of time thinking about food. Roughly three years, by her estimate -- three years of reading about the work of Michelin-starred chefs, speaking with them, and consuming their creations. It’s not just about the food, either; Romero claims that the parallels between chefs and game makers are striking, and designers in either field can learn from one another. The medium may be different, but the process and the philosophy of design is similar -- one designer works within the limits of a restaurant space, the other works within the limits of a game.

"It’s about people and ingredients -- what you put into your games. It’s about really, literally, trying to make something as good as it can be."

Romero claims that while she wasn’t initially interested in Michelin-starred chefs for their design chops -- like most people, she came for the “damn good food” -- she quickly began to feel like game developers have something to learn from the way some elite chefs run their kitchens. “There’s tremendous parallels between what they do and what we do,” Romero tells me. “It’s about people and ingredients -- what you put into your games. It’s about really, literally, trying to make something as good as it can be.” “In the game industry, we’re often forced to take something out of the oven and send it out before it’s ready. Maybe we need to adjust our recipes.”

Cooking lessons for game design

Romero is an industry veteran. She worked her way up from QA to become an acclaimed design lead, then went on to co-found a studio and teach game design at UC Santa Cruz. Her work spans the gamut from traditional PC RPGs like Wizardry to Facebook titles to physical games, so to hear her talk about changing her (presumably well-established) approach to game design based on what she’s learned from studying the culture of professional cookery surprises me. “[Chefs] have far less fear about experimentation than we do,” says Romero, when I press her about what game makers can learn from studying their culinary-minded cousins. “We are so limited by ‘genre’ in the game industry, and when you stick to those recipes you just produce things that already exist. There’s a lot we can learn from [chefs] about not being afraid to fail.” Of course, as indie game maker and all-around good guy Rami Ismail recently pointed out, the consequences of failure aren't uniform across the industry. It’s not uncommon for small independent studios to experiment and try new things while designing a game, for example, because if they fail they often only risk torpedoing the livelihood of a handful of people. If a large-scale developer fails, they risk causing 3,000 people to default on their mortgage.

"We are so limited by ‘genre’ in the game industry, and when you stick to those recipes you just produce things that already exist. There’s a lot we can learn from [chefs] about not being afraid to fail."

So I ask Romero about whether or not the lessons she’s learning from studying chefs can really be applied to studios that encompass, say, more than a kitchen’s worth of people. To her credit, she concedes that experimenting with a game's design and seeking to subvert traditional genre boundaries is a lot harder when you aren’t working alone or with a small team. “If you’re spending like a hundred million dollars on a project, you’ve got to minimize your risk. That’s just good business sense,” Romero tells me. “I do think that we’re going to see some of the best innovations in games from small teams. That’s understandable, and it’s not a slight against large teams in any way.” But even if the folks who work at larger studios can’t afford to take the same risks as their smaller compatriots, Romero believes they can still learn something from the way a good kitchen runs. “I think anyone can reach for greatness,” she says. “In those restaurants, some of the jobs are very segmented -- you only do one specific set of tasks, and you do it as well as you possibly can. I don’t see why greatness couldn’t be spread across 100 individuals just as easily as it could be spread across 4.” “Granted, the work of coordinating that level of skill is much harder than it would be on a small team.” Responsibility for that work rests with the leader. On some teams that might be the creative director, on others it might be the design lead or the producer or the studio founder. Whoever it is, someone has to be head cook in the kitchen. “Whoever is the lead on the project, the chef, you are responsible for the entire work of your team,” says Romero. “You can’t blame somebody for doing something substandard, because you should have caught it. You are the bottom line. The chef has to make sure that everything going out to their customer is great. It’s their responsibility.” And finally, designers -- like chefs -- need to make sure their tools are sharp and their ingredients are of the highest quality. “It’s important to use the best computers, the best people, and the best tools you can afford,” says Romero. “You can’t make a great dish with garbage ingredients.”

A life's work

One of those ingredients is time, and Romero speaks reverently about designers and chefs who are driven to pour it into mastering their craft. This whole conversation actually started because I wanted to know more about her upcoming GDC 2014 talk Jiro Dreams of Game Design, which draws more than titular inspiration from the 2011 documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. The film chronicles sushi chef Jiro Ono’s lifelong quest to master his craft, and Romero claims she felt a certain kinship with Ono after watching the movie. “I do feel like I owe something to my profession, just like Jiro does. He’s 85 in that movie, and he still doesn’t feel like he’s done,” says Romero. “The film is a celebration of the beauty of devoting yourself to something. Of people for whom their profession is more than just a profession -- it’s a calling. There are a great many game developers who feel that way, I think.” Romero is one of them. “If I’m not working on my games, I don’t feel like myself and I don’t feel right,” she says. “If I don’t work on them for long enough, I start to get irritable. I need to do this. It is a genuine need I have, and it is who I am.” I don't think every developer approaches work with the same intensity, and I tell her so. Romero admits that large swathes of her life are dominated by her passion for games -- her husband is a game designer, her friends are game designers, and she’s happy to spend up to 16 hours a day working on games. There are obvious parallels here to the work of a head chef, which often involves rising before dawn and spending 12-16 hours at a restaurant preparing menus, sourcing ingredients, and leading the staff. But what about designers who prefer to spend more time with friends and family who aren’t in the business? Must a game maker obsess over the art of game design to be considered a master craftsman? “For Jiro, making sushi is who he is and what makes him happy, and likewise making games makes me happy,” answers Romero. “I don’t want to apologize for working 16-hour days. I get that it’s not for everyone, and not something everyone can do. But this is who I am. I think about games and design constantly." And she’s not alone. Romero claims to have met many designers, some of whom are students in her class, whose passion for games and game design rivals the dedication of any Michelin-starred chef. “When I teach a game design course at UC Santa Cruz man, I see it,” says Romero. “I see it in some of my student’s eyes -- they’ve been waiting. They’re eighteen and they fell in love with games when they were four and they’ve been waiting all that time for someone to take their passion seriously.” “For me, watching this movie and studying these chefs feels like a permission of sorts, that it’s okay to try and be as good as you can possibly be.” “Of course, I am in no way qualified to speak about greatness,” she says, with a laugh. “I am speaking about the greatness of other people, and what we can all learn from that, and not my own personal greatness, because I think I have a long way to go.”

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