Postcard from GDC Europe 2005: Black and White 2: How to Design a Giant

The central theme of Ron Millar's GDC Europe session was the relationship between the user interface and the user experience. Ren Reynolds reports on this presentation as Millar explained the design philosophy behind the Black & White 2 UI, its implementation and the challenges that innovations in gameplay presented.

Ron Millar of Lionhead Studios

The central theme of Ron Millar's session "Black and White 2: How to Design a Giant" was the relationship between the user interface and the user experience. Through the presentation Millar explained the design philosophy behind the B&W 2 UI, its implementation and the challenges that innovations in B&Ws gameplay presented.

Keeping the User in the Game

The design philosophy that Lionhead Studios adopted for the sequel to Black and White was to enhance the player's feeling of being a god in the game world by immersing them as fully as possible in that world. What this meant in practice was to largely reject the standard model of game menus and data-panels for an interface that forms part of the game world itself.

This presented the design team with all kinds of challenges which were made even harder by the decision to expand the scope of B&W 2 beyond its god game heritage to include elements such as real-time strategy, simulation, city building and a physics engine.

Undaunted the team believed firmly that "underlying systems can be deeply complex" just so long as you "make them simple and fun for the player to access."

Part of the solution that Millar's team developed to maintain the sense of worldness is to represent status data within the world of the game. Another was to center the view of the game on the player's in-game representation - a god-like hand that floats around the game world.

These tactics take on many forms depending on the context of game play. One example is the Town Center. Here a fountain and set of statues provide a geographic hub for the in-game village. They also change in form to provide the player with an instant, if approximate, guide to status of the village. This instant view is supplemented with detailed status data when the player lets their hand hover over each of the

Hands on Design

The use of hand-over tool tips, which is extensive in the final game, was a controversial decision even with the design team, though Millar firmly believes that it is an effective device. One important aspect of the hand-over metaphor is that maintains the use of the hand as a bridge between the player and the world, it's also simple and contextual.

Millar gave a few more examples of the way that the use of the hand changes based on the world element that the player is interacting with. The hand can be used as a tool for building roads by simply drawing on the ground and creating fields by selecting areas of earth. Here Millar pointed out that fields automatically fill to meet the road, so making
expanding the village as simple as possible. The experience, Millar claimed, "feels very zen."

The hand can also interact with world elements directly such as picking up villagers, stroking and leading the creature around, and picking up rocks - which can be thrown or dropped on random villagers, all with the help of B&W2's new physics engine.

In addition to the day to day tasks the team wanted to ensure that the player felt like the god of the game world. So stroking the "good" hand over grass makes it burst into flower, whereas the "evil" hand will leave a trail of scorched earth. The goal was to push this metaphor all the way and allow the player to turn day into night by taking hold of
the sun and moving it in the sky, though this lead to a UI compromise when it was ruled out by the tech team. The end result was a dial that the player can use to change the time of day.

In Black & White 2, your hand is your representation in the game world.

Design Process

The other element to Millar's talk was the design process itself. Millar started by describing the design team and his method for building a good team. For Millar the ideal team mixes old and new talent with a good level of mutual respect. The challenge for the experienced designer, Millar suggested, was to guide but at the same time realize that just because they had created games in the past did not mean that they had
all the answers.

Millar then described how powerful the team found the use of physical props in the design process. At a management level there were so many tasks going on the easiest way to handle things was not Excel or project tracking software but going "analog" through using simple diagrams and Post-it notes. One example of this was that an early map of the island where the game is set was first drawn physically then blocked out simply using software - the resulting map instantly showed the team that the design concept was too complex. Other physical version of the map could also be annotated to understand how design and technical elements were coming together.

Play, Play, and Play Again

Millar's final point was one familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of Lionhead - the only way to really understand how the design process is going is to stop what you are doing and play the game. Millar described play sessions, some of which carried on all night, as central to the design process, allows the team to generate ideas, set priorities
and see what was really working. He also stressed the importance of getting a range of views and taking them seriously. As an example he recounted an incident when the team thought that they had balanced an area of game play only to see a visitor to the office "get their ass kicked."

Playing the game is always the final test as we and Lionhead will see when Black and White 2 is released next month.


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