The International Game Designers' Panel convened at GDC on Friday morning to discuss American and Japanese perspectives on twenty-first century game design.
Featured on the panel were:
- Namco's Toru Iwatani, who has over fifty game titles beneath his belt, including Ridge Racer, the Time Crisis series, and the original Pac-Man;
- Clint Hocking, current Creative Director of the Splinter Cell franchise, and first-ever winner of the Game Developers Choice Award for excellence in script writing;
- Tetsuya Mizuguchi, creator of ground-breaking titles such as Rez and Space Channel 5;
- Alex Rigopulos, co-founder and CEO of Harmonix Music Systems Inc., which specializes in music-based titles such as Frequency and Amplitude.
The International Game Designers' Panel
The panel was moderated by Mark Cerny, who has been involved in game development for over twenty years and is a current member of the GDC advisory board.
Cerny asked a range of pre-written and audience-submitted questions, on topics ranging from innovation in game design, to dealing with designer's block, to strategies for moving on after a commercial failure.
Below is a full account of the panel. Please note that all questions and responses have been paraphrased for readability.
CERNY: Welcome to the International Game Designer's Panel. Let me begin by asking this. How do each of you go about developing a brand new design concept?
IWATANI: Any time a developer is developing a concept that will be new to players, it's important give the player a gradual introduction to the new concept. The key is to think about how a concept will be received - to put oneself in the mind of a novice player. For instance, when teaching someone how to drive a car, we need to explain very simply and clearly that the gas and brakes are controlled by foot pedals, that the steering wheel turns the car, and so forth. The same is true for games.
HOCKING: The key to developing a new concept is team communication. Bouncing new ideas off of people whose design sensibilities you trust, and maintaining a balance between people who support an idea and people who resist it, leads to an equilibrium in which new ideas can be shaped.
MIZUGUCHI: The important thing is to communicate a new idea clearly to a player. Of course, there's nothing completely new. When an idea resonates with a player, it's because the idea is somehow familiar to them already. Innovation is always putting old pieces together in a new way. But communication is the key.
RIGOPULOS: In most studios, there are a dozen or more people who collaborate - and even compete - to generate original ideas. This leads to a type of Darwinian process through which the "fittest" ideas are naturally selected. On the same note, it's important to bounce ideas off of a trusted publisher, since critical feedback serves to balance creative convictions with the realties of the marketplace.
CERNY: Does the design of a game change as production proceeds, or do you generally find yourself riding out your initial design concept?
IWATANI: You definitely have to revise your ideas iteratively along the way. That said, the initial concept is very important. One should spend at least 10% of one's total development time on the core concept. Ask yourself - why is this concept important? Why will people care about this idea? Then, at those times when you get lost along the way, you can return to your core concept and find your ground again.
HOCKING: As with sending a man into space, or sailing an uncharted ocean, it's impossible to know in advance exactly what the journey will be like. One of the strengths of game development is adaptability and flexibility - one can and should be flexible as one proceeds on the developer's journey. In this sense, the process often mimics the product - interactive, flexible, and often enjoyable as well.
MIZUGUCHI: Developing a game is like climbing a mountain peak. Usually, you can see the summit from the bottom of the mountain, and you know that this is where you're headed. You can even plan a general route to the top - but the route needs to adapt as fog, mist, and storms change your plans. It is impossible to know in advance exactly what a game will be like, so in general, one should begin with a blueprint, and yet plan on coming up with at least 50% of the game as production is happening.
RIGOPULOS: There's a difference between a vision for a game and the design of the game. The vision is the mountain summit in Tetsuya's example - always keep your eye on the goal. But the design is the way to the top - a tool that you adjust as you go. It would be a terrible mistake not to learn from your own development process.
CERNY: When you design games, do you target them to a specific market, such as Japan , Europe, or the USA ? Are there concepts that only work in one market or another?
IWATANI: Ideally, one develops a game for maximum audience impact. This may be an international panel, but let's face it, we only have one globe. The best games are the ones that can be played anywhere, by anybody.
HOCKING: At the same time, some games are definitely target to a specific market. Splinter Cell, for instance, was targeted at the North American market that had already devoured Metal Gear.
MIZUGUCHI: When you're designing games, you're ultimately designing experiences. To make an experience pervasive, you need to look at the common denominators of human life - things like desire, exchange, conflict -which are common all around the globe. These are the concepts that will inform a universal development process.
RIGOPULOS: Our ambitions at Harmonics are, in one sense, international - we're looking for ways to give gamers worldwide a product that will allow them to access the globally accessible experience of music. But at the same time, when one designs for the American market, there are certain considerations that one must take into account in the design process. So in some cases, you're hoping for a globally successful product, but also being smart about how you pick your markets.
CERNY: Do you try to be trendy in your development efforts? Do you look for inspiration in top-selling games, music, and movies? Or does your core direction stay constant even as the time change around you?
IWATANI: Personally, I try to get away from things that are becoming popular. Better to create your own trends and stay ahead of the pack.
HOCKING: Ultimately, trendiness is antithetical to innovation. If you're following someone else's lead, then you're really not being a very innovative designer. But, there is certainly room to find inspiration from other sources, especially from small bits and pieces of other games and movies. For instances, I was very inspired by the narrative structure of Full Spectrum Warrior, a game which allowed you to play as the sort collective mind of a team of soldiers. So in that sense, I do find inspiration in other games.
MIZUGUCHI: You know, it's important to keep your eye on the times. You might see something in a movie or game, and then years later, as you're tying your shoe or going to the bathroom, it could click into place and suddenly, you have a great new idea.
RIGOPULOS: Yes, trend following is antithetical to innovation, and it's especially important to avoid the kind of superficial trendiness that often stems from the sense that trend-following is good for business. When Grand Theft Auto 3 came out, it was clear that there would be a dozen or more variants out on the market within two years. But, like Tetsuya said, it's also important to be absorbing everything that happens in the industry. There are lessons to be had from the games that are currently out there.
CERNY: Have you ever had designer's block? If so, how did you overcome it?
IWATANI: Yes, absolutely. If the block happens during the concept work, then this is when I go back to the original idea and remind myself why this was a good idea to begin with. If the block comes during development, then usually there's a team of developers there who will think of an abundance of creative ways to overcome the problem.
HOCKING: That second kind of designer's block is something that happened occasionally on Splinter Cell. There were days when everything we produced was just garbage, utter garbage. The key was to recognize this as part of the process, to let the garbage pour itself out onto the page, and then to be okay with throwing it all away at the end of the day. And as IWATANI says, your team is there to support you - that's the key.
MIZUGUCHI: At the beginning of my career, I experienced a great deal of designer's block. Now, with time, I've learned how to keep in touch with the flow of ideas. Perhaps this is something that comes with experience - which bodes well for the day when this industry is full of 80-year-old game designers!
RIGOPULOS: You know, I've never experienced designer's block. We tend to have the opposite problem: too many good ideas, and only enough resources to pursue a few of them in any meaningful way. When you have to pick and choose from the very many high quality and exciting ideas being produced by a strong creative team, the challenge becomes developing the discipline to know what to let go.
CERNY: Now for some audience-submitted questions. How do you keep the faith, so to speak, when the quality of your vision exceeds the quantity of your sales?
MIZUGUCHI: Well, whether you can sell a product or not depends a lot on luck and timing. Regardless, you have to be true to your vision. Without that, what do you really have?
RIGOPULOS: In our case, we know that people love music deeply. Keeping the faith in the case of a game like Amplitude, means maintaining a ferocious commitment to learning from one's mistakes. On that game, we knew early on that people loved the game when they were given a chance to play it. But after release, it was clear that people weren't feeling compelled to give the game a shot, and that really hurt our sales. So we learned that one has to think not only about how a game plays, and how it's packaged, how it's marketed, and whether it's really sellable. If you stay committed to your idea and learn from your mistakes, you'll eventually get where you're going.
CERNY: Have you ever worked on a game that you now consider a failure? If so, what was the origin of that failure?
IWATANI: I've failed so many times that I've lost count! But failure usually leads to a later success. You have to remember that game development is a learning process. In terms of the most frequent cause of failure, badly balanced difficulty levels have been a common culprit for me.
MIZUGUCHI: Yes, I've definitely failed. But like Toru says, one learns a lot from failure. You just have to learn as much as you can, and keep going.
CERNY: Question for Mizuguchi - how the heck did you get Rez funded? [Audience laughs.]
MIZUGUCHI: Simple. I cheated my way into a deal! I delivered a high-power presentation to the publisher, made myself seem very impressive - "seem" being the key word - then got out of there as quickly as I could!
CERNY: It seems that America 's game industry is very market-oriented, whereas in Japan , designers seem to be more about self-expression. Is there truth in this?
RIGOPULOS: Perhaps, but I don't see these goals as conflicting. With our music games, we're looking for a common ground between the inner passion that our developers experience for these titles, and the marketability of that experience.
MIZUGUCHI: It's certainly true that I design games based on my personal vision. Whether that reflects a larger trend, I don't really know.
HOCKING: A good designer designs games for everyone. As a designer, if you realize that you are a subset of "everyone," then you can achieve both goals. What a designer wants is what people want, when you boil it all down.
CERNY: Let's finish with a question that addresses a dilemma that many of us here have probably faced. If you develop a game specifically for your existing fan base, you tend to reduce your market over time. Yet if you make games for a broad, general audience, you risk losing your established fans. How do you strike a balance here?
IWATANI: In my mind, the dilemma is that the general public doesn't have the same skill level with games as the so-called hardcore gamers. But, there are ways to solve this puzzle within a single package. For instance, you could use AI to differentiate between experienced and inexperienced players based on their controller input, and adjust gameplay accordingly.
HOCKING: Ultimately, you need to focus on the broad audience. The fans probably loved your game in the first place because you did just that. Fans will walk away from a franchise sometimes, but for every fan you lose, you gain two more. The focus needs to be on making great, accessible games. Always work to open a game up to new audiences.
RIGOPULOS: Our goal is to be as inclusive as possible with the games we make. The challenge is to accommodate a very wide spectrum of audiences, and for that spectrum to include the pre-existing audience. It's definitely possible.
CERNY: Thank you all very much for your time!