It's inherent that examining the philosophy of successful game designers is a valuable practice for aspiring students looking to break into the Gaming Industry - In light of the groundbreaking record sales of Fallout 4 and the game's seemingly overwhelming positive popularity, let's travel back in time to 2012, when Todd Howard explained how he, and Bethesda Game Studios, went about making The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim.
As we'll discover, the reason why Howard has been the Game Developer for three separate Golden Joystick Game of the Year Award Recipients is because of his disposition as a leader - he is the embodiment of a developing and managerial style that focuses on realistic consciousness and passion. Howard understands that to create a game, things must happen even before you start the process of making the game itself. And what's more, games, to truly be compelling games, must have a soul, must have a feeling, so that the developers making the game will care and be passionate about the game as much or even more so than the player will be, when he at last experiences it.
In 2012, at the DICE Summit in Las Vegas, Howard was the key note speaker. His speech was titled Why we play, Why we create, and discusses first the reason why people are drawn to games. Next, Howard pulls the audience along with him for an insider perspective into the gaming industry, explaining the different stages of production and development in making games. Howard uses in his explanation of how Bethesda Game Studios operates concepts that are not so common that they are universally recognized. As we know, the only other way we get better at making games besides making games, is to study and understand how to make games. So let's break this 42 minute long speech down into some concise, powerful insight:
What are games?
What is special about creating games? Todd Howard doesn't answer. He leaves it in the air to be thought upon. Instead, he declares what he sees videogames as, as a creator: "The ultimate combination of art, and technology." Within the confines of this arrangement, a videogame may find itself being somewhere between a toy and entertainment. But videogames aren't movies, and they're not hot-wheels. They're interactive media, something that stands on it's own; something that is still solidifying its own identity, still changing rapidly as technology improves and game designers challenge themselves to raise the quality of player interactivity. Consider the change in technology even in the last three years. At the time of the 2012 DICE Keynote speech, the initial development kit for the Oculus Rift had only just been released, and there were mixed-opinions and doubts to the chance of its success. As of right now, the consumer version of the Oculus Rift is available to be pre-ordered, with shipping dates currently set at the beginning of 2016. Entering into the stage of peripherally-stimulating virtual reality takes the comparison of videogames to film and plastic toys and sets it somewhere on it's own, on a different island.
Videogames: The ultimate combination of art and technology
From identifying what a game is, the speech jumps forward to a developer standpoint. The first decree of knowledge? Your plan is not as important as your culture. There's a 'culture' within the team of every game studio. The design document for a game may have every single mechanic associated with a scheduled date. There may be deadlines, an exact timeline for the entirety of the project from start to finish, maybe even the exact amount of hours it should take one programmer to code a certain mechanic of combat into the game's engine. But this schedule is not as important as the team that the schedule seeks to keep track of. If a developer ignores the elements of his team and looks only at the math of the time he projects, he'll never get everything done that he needs to.
Another equally important declaration comes next: Your ideas are not as important as your execution. A developer may have the best design, but when he goes to actually play it, there's the question of how well it can actually be played - how well the idea really can be pulled off. Imagine the frustration of conceiving a grand narration of epic proportions, with so many different variables being executed at the same time that the player is awestruck at the level of immersion he feels. But when the design document is handed to the programmers, only about a third of the elements that had been planned can actually be incorporated. Suddenly, the experience the player has is even more barren that it would have been if the developer had not been so ambitious.
Bethesda Game Studio's Three big rules of Game Development
For some reason, these rules descend from three to one, rather than climb:
3. Define the experience
"Don't define your game by a list of features." The game should be defined by the kind of experiences the developer wants the player to have. For Open Sandbox RPG maker Todd Howard, that experience is "Be who you want, and go do what you want."
"This is a better design for Skyrim than some giant list of features of all the things you can do. This gives you a feeling of who you could be; what you could do; where you could go"
A developer needs to look at how other people see his game. What are the things they pick out, the things they claim are important? If the developer can be conscious of how his game is experienced outside of his own contextual creation of it, the game he creates will be more successful.
2. Keep it simple
This rule is somewhat universal. Nonetheless, Howard highlights its importance. "Anything you design is going to take far longer to execute than you think it will." A good way of thinking of this is the idiom: "We can do anything, we just can't do everything." A developer has to pick his battles, and when it comes to an RPG, the potentiality of features is almost unlimited. A developer can realistically have any feature in his roleplaying game that he wishes. Todd fires off examples: Getting married, having children, taking over the world, playing a football game. For a developer to create the best type of RPG, it's arguable to say that there's nothing he should leave off the table.
1. Great games are played, not made
A developer needs to play his own game, extensively. Picture, for a moment, the entire Bethesda Game studio, sitting around on a Saturday and roaming through the commonwealth (the game's setting) of Fallout 4. Bethesda Game studios does not test source their games - the studio does all it's own testing, and rightfully so: Does it not make sense that if making a quality game, there should be the desire to play it?
Within the studio, there needs to be a contrived, deliberate, conscious way of giving feedback to each member of the team. The more awareness given to all of the communicative actions that happen between the people who make a game, the greater the efficiency of the teamwork of those people, and therefore, the better the game. When the game nears completion, this awareness becomes key. As with any development, there are roadblocks; problems arise. Things need to be fixed, or changed. Artists, as it is known, are not fond of having their creations adapted or modified, and so emotion comes into play. Everyone has an opinion, and thats fair.. Everyone also needs to admit their mistakes.
Get to the play part of design faster.
In the image above, the top bar is how people generally put games together, and Todd Howard claims his studio does the same thing as well. But Howard says his studio wants to shift that to the bars below, so that the developers making a game can start playing their own game sooner. Why? Because if developers get to that point faster, everything after becomes opportunity time. That's where the 'good stuff' mostly happens.
By getting to the play part of design faster, the entirety of the rest of the available time becomes opportunity time for the designers.
These pictures are actual slides from a meeting that Bethesda Game Studios held internally back in May of 2010 while working on Skyrim. Howard explains that the team decided collectively that though Giants were fun, they weren't being used a lot, and so they modified to play a larger role within the game. Additionally, for anyone that has played Skyrim, the combat of fighting dragons on the ground is one of the most important combat experiences of the game - and at the time of this meeting, this was a brand new thing. They were originally intended to just fly around. The opportunity time that Bethesda had to actually see and experience their game lead to them incorporating new mechanics of interacting with the dragons. It's humorous to consider that one of the most important, fun aspects of a game might not have happened - and only reinforces the idea of the necessity for quality games to have the team reach the point of playing their own games sooner. There was originally going to be a system in combat so that when you killed someone, it would partly play back so that you could watch them die in a more cinematic way, a feature partly borrowed from the VATS gameplay mechanic of Fallout 3, that you can still find in Fallout 4. The mechanic was not working well with Skyrim, and the team had to decide if they were going to do it or scrap the idea, and seeing how much time it was sapping, they chose to focus on something else instead, working instead on kill moves, which were successful at that time. It's important for a developer to be able to say "We need to step away from this."
Howard describes the development strategy of deciding what to focus on putting things in the spotlight. It works like this: A developer must ask himself how much time the element he's working on is going to take? how polished it is? how often it they appears in the game? Does the development team like or do they think they should scrap it? Then that is taken out of the spotlight for something else instead, say, dragons. The developer then calls for the team to do more with dragons, even if other things need to be cut as a result, because they're a strong element. So, with dragons becoming more important, other mechanics are pushed away, into the corner. Take the horse, for example. It would have been incredibly easy for the development team to make the horses in Skyrim carry the player's inventory, but the problem with that is that it would have made the horse incredibly important to the player - the player would have relied and interacted with the horse far more, and that would have dragged the horse closer into the spotlight, and players would have noticed more about the horses, and therefore would be more critical. Horses would need to be improved so that they could jump over rocks, they would need to have combat mechanics added - suddenly there's a new list of things to do. Ultimately, what goes into the spotlight is what feels right, which more often or not is something different from the original intent.
Take a repetitive action, something a player does often, and make it something more. In the case of an RPG, when a player updates or views his own skills, the action of viewing the skills can be more than what the action implies. It can even be satisfying. Howard uses the experiences his team went through going through different designs for the skill-tree of Skyrim, ultimately making a system that uses parallax movement and takes the player beyond just shifting through numbers and into an immersive aesthetic that feels as interactive as the movement of actual gameplay.
Games should be looked at in layers
The outside layer is how more than half of all games released feel. Somewhere deeper, is a more polished game where the player doesn't consciously dictate that an element of the game would be better if done in a different way. Then there are the few perfect games, so good that they become the pillars to which all other games strive to resemble.
When looking at any game, a player can usually feel this layer of 'if they had just done this'. Behind that layer, there is another game underneath. The original intention can be felt, but is weighed down by the bugs, by the imbalances in the programming or the difficulties the engine of the game has in running it's own scripts. These types of things are very common. In fact, Bethesda's RPGs are notoriously popular for being extremely glitchy and requiring several patches on the computer post-release before the game is considered polished in all capacities.
How do people experience your game?
The experience of gameplay goes like this: Learning, Playing, Challenge, then Surprise. The secret of a successful game is to incorporate all of these elements interchangeably so that the gamer is more fully immersed, and is always being stimulated by the game, rather than growing bored.
What are the stages players go through? First, they learn the game. This is the hardest part, Howard explains, because they don't feel entirely comfortable. The challenge of a developer is to make that learning process entertaining. Next comes playing. The player has no fear of failure. In the case of Skyrim, the player has no fear of death, of the game restarting to the most recent save. Eventually, however, the player is challenged. Here, the thought of failure becomes real. The job of the developer at this stage is to give the player enough tools to win, but only so much as that the player can succeed while still in this realm of challenge. At a certain point, as in the case of any game, for the gameplay to avoid being repetitive the player must be given something new; they must be surprised. This style of experiencing a game is a loop, as seen in the illustration above. Once players have mastered mechanics, they are usually introduced new ones. Consider the basic learning curve of every first person shooter. Once movement has been learned (very quickly, hopefully), players are surprised by new elements of movement: jumping, crouching, sprinting. Then, there's something new to learn. Perhaps it's aiming the gun, then shooting the gun, then throwing grenades.
Howard explains that the problem with the cycle of experience above is that in the past game developers have focused more on the later two parts of experience, seeing how intense and extreme of content they can make within their games, so that they can say internally to each other within their own studio, "look at how cool this is, this thing that I've made." Some studios that Howard lists as being masters are the loop are Blizzard, in the case of Star Trek 2. Also, Valve. An excellent example is Half Life 2. When the player receives the gravity gun, they are literally first tasked to 'play around' with the gun in order to learn how to use it (specifically, playing around with a dog robot).
Like Aristotle's Golden Mean, the balance of challenge lies between the two excesses of making a game thats too challenging and making a game thats not challenging enough.
The part of the cycle that developers still get wrong the most is challenge. It answers the questions of "Why do people put down games?" The challenge either isn't enough, so the player gets bored, or in the other extreme, the game is way too hard, and the player gets frustrated. More often, it's frustration that turns gamers away, rather than boredom, and explains why gaming, as an entertainment, stops a lot of people. For someone who is looking to be entertained, "I just got frustrated" is an unusual correlating thing to say. Todd Howard makes the joke of comparing this problem to movies. Rarely, if at all, do people get too frustrated with cinema and give up. No one says about Saving Private Ryan, "I couldn't get through the part in the rain. It was just too hard." There's no 'Press START to try again' button in film. To examine the polar opposite, in multiplayer games of the Call of Duty franchise, players who don't dedicate themselves to being competitively skilled are often massacred by opposing players and ridiculed by teammates frustrated with their lesser level of experience. When a player goes online to be entertained and enjoy the company of teammates, he may lose incentive to keep playing if his teammates start screaming at him.
But how does story play into this loop of experience, seen above? The loop itself just represents gameplay. The story of a game gives you context for the things that you are doing and experiencing throughout the game, and propels you through the loop from one part of the cycle to the next. The story plays the key role in how a player should feel about what they're doing. Consider a game where the player kills zombies. If there's no background story for the game, if the player is not aware of who the character he plays is, whats happened to the world, if there isn't any emotional incentive to kill the zombies, the player is going to become bored or frustrated more quickly, because he hasn't been given a reason to kill zombies other than the entertainment he is supposed to derive out of killing them, which is something only he can measure. If there is a storyline, the player has a reason to kill zombies, and suddenly the feeling of the game is entirely different. The aimlessness of killing zombies in a parking lot quickly becomes the urgent mission of making it through a horde to save the daughter of the player's character before she is eaten. The more emotion instilled into the world that the player experiences, the more problems and conflict people face and must overcome, as it is in literature, the greater the experience for the player.
What Bethesda Game Studios does with the loop of gameplay experience is let the player control it. Rather than the linear gameplay a player would experience in campaigns like Assassin's Creed or Dead Space, where the player progresses forward towards an end goal the developer has created, players in a game like Skyrim or Fallout 3 are given more credit and tools. They get to decide where they go, who they fight. The player is the director of his own experience. Perhaps the ideology of actual choice in videogames is still a fallacy even in open-world sandbox RPGs, but non-linear gameplay creates an altogether different experience that allows players to decide when they are done learning, when they are ready to be challenged. To fall back to story, in the case of a non-linear game like Skyrim, players start to create their own stories within the game, in how they chose to do things, and the reactions of the game to how the player interacts with those elements of the game according to their own fruition.
How a designer should feel about his creation; How a player should feel about his experience.
So how do we create games that are fun? By using the best of technology that is available to us in conjunction with allowing the player to be the director of their own experience. By doing so, Games give the player a feeling that no other medium of entertainment can grant. As in movies, or literature, games equally distill feelings of tragedy or humor, but what is unique to games is the feeling of pride. The challenge aspect of the game brings pride to the player, for his accomplishments, for overcoming the difficulty and obtaining the feeling of success. When reaching the end of a movie, the viewer doesn't experience the same connotation that a gamer does when he defeats his opponent in Madden, or leads his team to victory in Call of Duty or Halo. What's more is the fact that videogames are now a certified form of art, as declared by the supreme court. This means it's up to the artists, the designers, programmers, writers, and executives to propel this idea that something derived of artistic qualities can not only be fun and moving, but be something to make the target audience of the product proud.