DICE 09: Bethesda's Howard On Supreme Playability

Bethesda's Todd Howard (Fallout 3) detailed his studio's development and design principles at DICE today, commenting that "great games are played, not made", and discussing why his studio has a "very low asshole quotient."
"This is the big leap you go to make when you make a game," said Bethesda Game Studios director Todd Howard (Fallout 3), starting his lecture at the DICE Summit with a slide of a man leaping over a blanket littered with babies -- labeled "the fans." "Install base really doesn't matter," said Howard, kicking off the theme of making games based on passion, not equations -- and showing a pie graph demonstrating the Wii's formidable market share. "My comeback is, if install base really mattered, we'd all make board games, because there are a lot of tables." Studios must maintain a "culture of quality," he said; great games can only be made by teams comprised of talented and passionate developers. "We have a very low asshole quotient in the studio. Egos don't work. Everybody has to respect each other." Great Games Are Played, Not Made "Great games are played, not made," Howard argued, pointing to the importance of real playtesting and feedback over the design ideal. "You can have the greatest design document ever made, and you're going to change 90 percent of it as soon as you play the game." Studios must be willing to let the game be built the way the team needs it to be built, even if that doesn't fit in the initial plan of action -- "Your plan is not as important as your culture," Howard argued. Taking Inspiration From Unlikely Places "One of the tricks we do -- and you can use this on your franchises -- is read old reviews," Howard explained. It is important to play old games as well, he went on, but reading old reviews removes much of the aging process, because they are written from the perspective of somebody experiencing those games when they are new. That allows you to understand how design decisions affected the reviewer, away from the difficulties that come with dealing with archaic graphics and input methods. "You can pull up a review of Arena, our first Elder Scrolls games, and if you black out a few words, you can't tell what Elder Scrolls game it is, whether it's Daggerfall, Morrowind, or Oblivion," he said. Inspiration can come from disparate sources -- Fallout 3's body part targeting system drew influence from such seemingly unrelated touchstones as Burnout 3's crash mode and the slow-motion blows of the Fight Night games. Making Marketing Part Of The Process Howard called out Bethesda's marketing VP, Pete Hines, and argued that marketing must be a part of the development process from the beginning. Every piece of media a player sees prior to playing the game influences their expectations and perception of the experience itself. That starts with early press articles about the game, the official website, and more. "What does the manual look like? Is it in the tone of the system? What does the disc look like?" he asked. "By the time the player actually plays the game, they have experienced all of those things." Have Fun While Learning There is a cycle that, ideally, players will experience many times over the course of the game: learn, play, challenge, surprise. First players learn the basics of the game or a particular mechanic, then they enjoy the experience of playing it, then they reach the point where they enjoy the challenge of the game or mechanic. "It's not until you get to that, that you can surprise them with something new," Howard warned. "Too many of us focus on number three and four [challenge and surprise]. Nintendo is the best at one and two [learn and play]. Half-Life 2 does this whole cycle very well." Keep Optimizing Howard showed a graph of development time spent versus quality on a given platform, demonstrating that optimization is a clear function of those two axes. He also indicated that, particularly in this current console generation, there is plenty of room to continue optimization, and he hopes the industry at large won't move on to new hardware too quickly. He wrapped up his talk fairly abruptly, expressing his hope that some of his examples would help the assembled audience.

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