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DICE 2012: Culture, pride lead to success at Skyrim maker Bethesda

Todd Howard, creative director at Skyrim house Bethesda, explained how a strong studio culture breeds success at Wednesday night's Gamasutra-attended DICE Summit keynote.
There was no shortage of jokes during Todd Howard's DICE 2012 keynote speech in Las Vegas, but the underlying message was serious, as he explored why people create games, and why people play them. Howard, creative director at The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim house Bethesda Game Studios, has been at the company for 18 years, shipping everything from games based on The Terminator in the mid-90s to Fallout 3 and most recently, Skyrim. "I see games -- as a creator -- as the ultimate combination of art and technology," said Howard at the Gamasutra-attended summit, held by the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences. Art and technology are two very complicated concepts on their own, let alone combined. Throwing in a player who needs to be able to have fun manipulating that art and tech creates a big challenge for game makers. Bethesda, which seems to find commercial and critical success with every internally-developed game these days, has found that there is no manual you can follow to successfully overcome challenges. But there is a way to approach these hurdles, Howard said. "The plan that you have is not as important as your culture," he said. Like many aspects of the studio, there is not an over-reliance on documentation and process. A culture of collaboration, execution and results is the foundation of the studio. "The problems are solved by the culture that you have on your team," Howard said. "Your ideas are not as important as your execution." Defining the experience There are specific rules that Bethesda follows to create an environment conducive to making good video games. One rule is to "define the experience" of the game. "Don't define your game by a list of features," said Howard. "Define it by the experience you want the gamer to have." Often, definitions are difficult to put into words. Explaining the feel of the fantasy-themed Skyrim might involve pointing to concept art of a dragon coming over the horizon, bellowing with such force that the armored warriors surrounding it are blown backwards. The feeling might even be conveyed by a Conan the Barbarian figurine, with its dual-wielded weapons and viking-like armor. While that "feel" might be vague to outsiders, the Skyrim team was apparently on the same page throughout the course of development. Howard reminded game makers to "keep it simple." "We can do anything, we just can't do everything. You have to pick your battles," he said. In a game like Skyrim that encourages freeform play, it'd be easy for the development team to get carried away, and try to include many superfluous features. But instead, Bethesda focused on the core experience. He stated another rule that seems obvious, but might not be emphasized enough: You have to play your own game. Howard revealed that Bethesda did not focus-test Skyrim at all, essentially making a game for themselves. The 100-person team started playing the game very early on in development, and very often, and started giving feedback. He said it's best to get the game into a playable state as early as possible. Once a game is in a playable state, from then on, it's what Howard called "opportunity time," when the developer can make important changes, play the game even more, and then polish. Not everything will go as planned during this process, so it's also important to admit when mistakes have been made, and correct them, said Howard. The game jam After the studio completed Skyrim last year, Bethesda did a game jam where everyone worked on whatever they wanted to for one week. The catch was that they had to put whatever they came up with in Skyrim. A reel showed off the fruits of the game jam: Seasonal foliage, kill cams for magic spells, spears, "paralysis runes," moving platforms in dungeons, new commands for followers, child adoption, home construction, spell combos, goblins, new mounts, mounted combat, dragon mounts, vocal Kinect shouts, werebears, vampire feeding, and enormous mudcrabs that take up the entire screen. He said he's not sure if any of the game jam content would be made available as DLC, but didn't totally write off the possibility. What the game jam's results did exhibit was that even when taking a break after a big game release, Bethesda is made up of a team of passionate do-ers -- studio culture emerges yet again. The loop The studio has also thought about how players interact with games. To Howard and his team, there are four stages of player interaction: Learning, play, challenge and surprise, which occur in a continuous loop. Often, there is imbalance in this loop, such as too much focus on the challenge and surprise, and learning and play end up suffering. Or the challenge might be off, so either a player gets bored because a game isn't challenging enough, or frustrated because it's too difficult. Howard said he likes to "Let the player control the loop. ... we give the player a lot of credit. We trust him." Designing for pride The creative director revisited his original question of why people make games, and why people play them. "Most entertainment can give you lots of emotion, but what's the emotion that games can do?" asked Howard. "The answer is pride." Howard said that sense of accomplishment is unique to games. Game makers can also influence that sense of pride. "You can design for [pride]. How people feel with they accomplish something in games is like nothing else in entertainment can give you." When the silver ball hits that last peg in Peggle there's practically a party, complete with music, fireworks and rainbows. Level up in Call of Duty's multiplayer, and you'll hear one of the most distinctively satisfying guitar riffs in modern video games. Those games are designed for pride, to give the player an enormous sense of accomplishment, said Howard. That sense of pride should also live inside people who make games, he added. Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that games are free speech, and qualify for First Amendment rights, just like other works of art. Video game creation is something to be proud about. He said game developers have been given a "great opportunity to make these games," and declared that this is the "golden age of gaming," where all kinds of developers can be successful on a large variety of platforms. "Success is everywhere," he said, adding, "Make your player proud he bought the game."

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