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Riot's Tom Cadwell Breaks It Down

In this excerpt from Daniel Noah Halpern's new book, "Becoming a Video Game Designer" (Simon & Schuster, 2020), Tom Cadwell, head of design and R&D at Riot Games, explains some of the building blocks of design as he sees them to a neophyte.

Daniel Halpern, Blogger

December 14, 2020

6 Min Read

From "Becoming a Video Game Designer," a snapshot guide to careers in video game design, focusing on the paths of Tom Cadwell, of Riot, and Brendon Chung, of Blendo Games.

I’d asked Cadwell early on for a thought experiment: say I was very rich, and bored, and loved video games, and decided to make one, and wanted to hire him to consult on the design of my game. Did it matter that I knew nothing? Nothing about the reams of research that about the effects of different light and colors on the brain? Nothing about the way the different channels of the brain process different kinds of information? No idea really about the difference between Overwatch and Fortnite and Apex Legends? Well, sure, he said, Riot has designers with Ph.Ds in cognitive neuroscience, in computer science, in group psychology, and so on. They have people thinking about these things very deeply. There’s a lot of knowledge. But he also pointed out that when I’d asked him about fundamental principles that had meant something to him early on in his career, he’d answered, sure, very early in learning about these things, he’d been struck by the idea of the flow state, and more generally, the idea that one ideal cycle for a game would go from arousal to stress to relaxation, and then repeat. “But this is also reflected in the three-act play,” Cadwell said, “and did they have cognitive neuroscience in ancient Greece?” For the all the scientific analysis of gameplay, human intuition about what’s interesting and meaningful often has as much value as all the research in the world.

I proposed a sort of mythological battle royale game. Norse gods against Greek gods (Thor versus Ares!) and Aztec gods versus Slavic gods (Quetzacoatl against Czernobog!) and so on. The old question: who would win in a fight, Batman or Superman? Also, I wanted nine-year-olds to be able to play it together. Cadwell looked slightly dubious, but said, “Well, you could make a good game out of what you’re describing.” The first thing to do, he said, was to establish your goals clearly, and then to play with the constraints of the game a little bit and explore other games. And investigate the parts of the system. “What are the pieces that are interesting to you? And why are they interesting to you?”

“A lot of games could support playing together and mythology. What I would do is look at what are the types of co-op games that nine-year-olds can play at all,” he said. “And so first you're going to play a couple of different genres, until you have some understanding of the genres. We’re not talking months of research here—you can figure this out pretty quick, through online searches. You could ask your kid’s friends, what are they playing that’s resonating with them. And then you would play the best examples of these games. Some will be player versus player, some will be player versus environment. Some are going to be some combination. I would say for that age range, you typically see fewer PVP games and more co-op versus environment games. You’ll also play some side-in games that you think are compelling.”

“What’s side-in?” I asked.

“Side-in is saying, if I take this game and change it 20 percent, then I’ll have the thing I’m looking for. That’s how most game development is done. If you do something more dramatically, dramatically innovative, if you go back more back to the basic drawing board of genres, that's a much longer process and is much harder. If you say, I like some aspects of this genre and some of that genre, but what I really want to do is create some new genre—well, that's a much higher difficulty task. But in the case of this game, I would say you play a wide variety of genres that could fit. And that forces you to make choices about which of your goals are the best. And then you circle back from your initial pitch, which was rough shod, and say, I've learned all this stuff. I thought what I wanted was, Mythology Street Fighter, or Soulcalibur For Nine-Year-Olds, but now I’ve realized what I really wanted was, you know, say, Mythology Double Dragon or Mythology Castle Crashers. And that narrowing of the innovation window allows you to say, okay, fine, I'm holding a bunch of this stuff within this genre constant, so then what further things do I need to make this game successful and where might I innovate? The more you can guide the team and yourself as a designer to answer the question, this is important to innovate, and that isn’t, the better. There are times when innovation isn’t solving a problem and may just cause problems down the line. You don’t innovate everything. You innovate where it’s going to achieve your goals.”

As Cadwell began gearing up, showing me games that were strong on one aspect of the game I was proposing—this one was designed well to demand a substantively cooperative approach, but didn’t tell a story well, that one did the opposite, another introduced a riddling puzzle aspect that appealed to me but was maybe too much for nine-year-olds—he began putting together pieces, trying them in different fits together, constructing a system out of a puzzle whose pieces had not been designed to go together ever before.

“If you're saying you want the players to experience being a god as a protagonist, then presumably you want to make them feel godlike,” he was saying.

“Right,” I said.

“And if they’re fighting peer-level gods, they’re not going to feel very godlike, because peer level gods would just be like human fighting human. Even if you’re mixing up mythologies and you know, I'm Athena, and I'm battling it out with, say, Thor or something, you should expect we're pretty evenly matched.” He was really moving now. “Of course you could try, for instance, tons and tons of supernatural creatures and cultists and whatever that that don’t really pose a large threat to you but in large numbers can be a distraction to you. But then there’s also like a question, even for a game like that, does it even make sense that a mortal could wound Athena? It kind of doesn’t. Maybe a supernatural creature could, but you might consider whether you should make your player characters demigods, supported by the gods. Or maybe you have to fight them, if you’re Hercules, eventually you have to fight Hades, as an end boss, and to fight the god of death, well, there’s a scale there, too. He should be stronger than me. But it shouldn’t be that he is guaranteed in all circumstances to defeat me. He should just have a ninety-nine point nine percent lock on it . . .”

In just a few minutes, Cadwell had taken me through a dramatically deeper understanding of the game I wanted to make, what its implications and parameters were and weren’t, the ways it could work, the ways it couldn’t. It was a structure by structure, detail by detail sort of process. There were no gods here, at that moment, no grand divine sweep of creation, only thinkers, builders, constructors of stories and structures, block by block. “Mechanics and systems are the nouns and the verbs that we’re using to create an experience,” he said.



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