E3 Report: The Path to Creating AAA Games

This E3 session brought together a consortium of top designers, all sharing their personal philosophies on designing a video game that bridges the sometimes rare gap between being a critical and a commercial hit.

The Path to Creating AAA Games brought together a consortium of some of the world's greatest videogame designers, sharing their personal philosophies on designing a videogame that bridges the unfortunately rare gap between being very cool and selling a whole lot of copies. The panel was moderated by one Carly Staehlin, former producer of Ultima Online, a freelance designer whose loveliness is overshadowed only by her ability to direct a damned good discussion. Among her guests were Matt Firor of Mythic Entertainment, best known for the Dark Age of Camelot MMORPG, Todd Howard of Bethesda Softworks, who are currently working on Oblivion, the fourth in the Elder Scrolls line of RPGs, along with pre-production for Fallout 3, Tetsuya Mizuguchi of Q Entertainment, the man responsible for Lumines, Rez, Space Channel 5, and a whole bunch of other games you ought to be playing, Tim Willits of id Software, notable mainly for its Doom and Quake FPS franchises, and finally, Will Wright of Maxis, designer of practically every game that has "Sim" in its title.

Staehlin opened the discussion by asking each of the designers to state in simple terms their own "design mantras," philosophies by which their products are designed.

"Our sort of official mantra at Bethesda is 'great games are played, not made,'" Howard replied. Howard's designs revolve not around tangible outcomes, but rather on how they want the player to feel.

"We also believe that everything is cooler on fire," he added, drawing laughter from the crowd.

"People's desires and wants have to be considered," Mizuguchi added, "and we need to avoid things that obstruct those. If something feels good or interesting in a game, there's a reason."

Tim Willits agreed, commenting that "if a player feels that 95% of the game is cool and 5% isn't, they're really only going to focus on the negative."

In discussing the study of target demographics, Mizuguchi related the story of designing Space Channel 5, which was at first a vague assignment from Sega that asked only that Mizuguchi design a game with a broad enough appeal to draw in even casual female gamers.

"This was the first I'd heard of casual female gamers," he said, "so I didn't really know what to do. I personally interviewed a lot of young girls, trying to find out what they like."

Carly Staehlin, former producer of Ultima Online and this session's moderator.

Women, he says, tend to enjoy puzzle games, while male gamers "want to be on top, they want to accomplish something and be the champion." It's difficult, he insists, to create a game that appeals to both males and females on an equal level.

Wright expanded on this, using The Sims as an example. "We had two big spikes in our demographic: 14-year-old girls and 25-year-old guys." He gave an analogy using the original Star Trek series. During the first season, he said, every fourth episode or so would be dedicated to building relationships between the crew members, while all of the others focused on cool space battles. Ratings heavily swayed toward either a mostly-female or a mostly-male audience, respectively, depending on the type of show, which was often obvious in the opening minutes of the program. In the second season, he says, the show's writers managed to find an equal balance in their storytelling, and the ratings demographic became more balanced for the rest of the series' run.

"I'm still convinced that the best way to draw in female gamers is to hire more female designers," he stressed. He also stated that elements of self-expression seem to attract both females and casual gamers, while a male demographic seeks challenges to explore.

When asked by Staehlin how each of the designers might go about trying to attract a more unconventional demographic in the future, Willits revealed that one day, beyond blowing up space demons with huge guns, he would like to design a children's game.

"This is my goal before I die," he said.

The ever-philosophical Wright commented that he'd like to build on a player's positive self-esteem. "Sometimes they accomplish something and go, 'oh, wow, I didn't know I could do that!' I'd like to see that expanded upon."

In discussing the traits of a good game designer, Wright commented that he or she must be a designer first, and a videogame player second. "But ultimately, at the end of the day, game design is an intuitive black art, just like in any other field. There's a certain amount of game design possibilities that will forever be unknown, and that keeps things exciting."

"It's like writing," Firor added, "how can you teach that?"

Howard responded that a lot of new game designers tend to create concepts for their designer peers, and while they may be blown away, the gaming public probably won't have the same view, and stressed that we need to design videogames for videogame players, and not necessarily for each other.

In response to an audience question, Wright stated that most of his early play testing is done really early on, often by family members of the design staff.

"I learn a lot by watching what players do with game," he said. "Don't tell them what to do, just leave them alone and observe."

"I like to go to the arcade and just watch players' reactions," Mizuguchi added.

Will Wright said he's learned the most from games that seemed appealing on paper, but were failures in the marketplace.

"I actually ask people when hiring how many failures they've worked on," he said, "and I'm actually more likely to hire someone based on how many failures they've experienced. I think it's the best learning system."

"My biggest failure was Quake 3," Willits said. "The game offered perfect multiplayer for hardcore players. In fact, they're still playing it. But the more casual gamers, and other people who actually have money, found playing next to impossible."

In response to an audience question about what kind off new experiences and difficulties we have to look forward to with the next generation hardware, Hall said that he now has enough power to have all one-thousand-plus NPC characters in the Oblivion world "thinking" and acting at all times which, he says, has caused some amusing bugs in the early design process.

"We've had some weird stuff," he said, "like guards arresting each other. We had one instance where a guard got hungry, and shot a deer in an area where it was illegal to do so, so another guard took him in. We've also had instances of NPCs buying out the entire inventory of shops. So while this is cool, we have to think of the player's experience too."

"High-def is wonderful," Mizuguchi said. "I was watching some demo videos of next-gen games earlier, and the graphics look very realistic. Right now, with this new technology, it's like party time, but we can't stick with that."

The general consensus amongst the panel members seems to be that a so-called AAA game is one with an appeal broader than the typical "hardcore" demographic, and that, as with any field, the surest path to becoming a good designer is to, quite simply, design a lot of games. So get out there, folks. Design your games, succeed as much as you fail. But fail all you want, because Will Wright might hire you.


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