E3 Roundtable: Revitalizing Genres with Creativity

On Thursday as part of the E3, innovators from Electronic Arts, Ubisoft Montreal, Harmonix, and Sony Computer Entertainment America met for the fascinating E3 workshop: "Cracking the code of creativity".
In a feature-driven industry, creativity is often measured by the integration of new technology, but industry professionals are also interested in other methods of refurbishing genres. On Thursday as part of the E3, innovators from Electronic Arts, Ubisoft Montreal, Harmonix, and Sony Computer Entertainment America met for the workshop: “Cracking the code of creativity: Revitalizing a genre’s potential,” moderated by N’Gai Croal, General Editor of Technology at Newsweek. Croal first addressed the design processes of the games from panelists. Lucy Bradshaw, Vice President-Executive Producer at Electronic Arts, is working with Will Wright on Spore. After immense amounts of time spent on research, technology exploration, and conceptualizing idea delivery, Bradshaw was able to then approach the early stages of scoping the game. “It was when it crystallized into the seven different game levels that Spore [became a deliverable idea],” Bradshaw continued, “Breaking into levels has been an easier way to explain the game.” Spore’s creativity is seen most in its use of levels as reference guides to a variety of genres. There are obvious reference points to other trend setting games. “We really looked at why they were so compulsive and easy to play. These games got the controls right,” Bradshaw said. Spore targets a broad audience who won’t have to relearn controls and focuses on dynamism in game levels. Sticking to conventional controllers is not the only way to appeal to players. Guitar Hero also offers an interesting creative integration of audience. “The guitar controller was huge for us,” said Rob Kay, Lead Designer of Harmonix. Joypads have been used even in music games, and the player experience from controller to music didn’t quite compute. “That issue has now pretty much disappeared. Players just want to pick up a guitar and pretend to be a rock star,” Kay quipped. Kay feels there is a universal appeal of the aspirations in the role, which replaces past abstract music games and beat matching games. However, it took a great deal of creativity to work things out: “Even the prototype had numerous parts. The big challenge was to concurrently build the software and hardware,” Kay reflected. Harmonix balanced combining the look and feel with technology while designing and implementing the whammy bar and tilt controller in both software and hardware. They ended up solving those problems with the 'Star Power' feature. God of War is melded together from numerous game influences, in the opinion of Croal, to capture an epic, entertaining title. When working from a straight-forward original game, a challenge arises when creating a sequel. “Ideas aren’t that great if they aren’t fun,” argued Cory Barlog, Game Director at Sony Computer Entertainment America. Even when working in well-known genres, Barlog emphasizes bringing in original ideas. “If [at] every corner you’re not seeing something new and cool, you failed,” Barlog said. The God of War team often reflects on the games they enjoy playing and incorporates aspects of those games. For God of War 2, a strong base in game mechanics already exists, so there is no justification for chancing changing the main features. The audience of God of War can expect the original aspects of the game play experience layered with new features. Other games taking creative steps come from original IP. Patrice Desilets, Creative Director at Ubisoft Montreal, was involved in making Sands of Time in the Prince of Persia IP, and is now working on Assassin’s Creed, an original IP. He sees no strong difference in the experience of working with the two, since, he says, no one was asking for a Prince of Persia game back in 2003. The original creative touch in Sands of Time was the added rewind feature. “I wish it would be in every game like a DVD feature; forget about checkpoints and saving the game,” Desilets lamented. Since then, the core team has shifted to Assassin’s Creed, which Desilets came up with by researching the history of real assassins in the time of the Crusades. Assassin’s Creed is all about the character and interaction with the environment, and how it translates into the controller. While speaking of new game play features as forms of creativity, concerns were expressed about the gaming press and the feature-driven nature of media coverage. Desilets focuses on milestones first, not catchy features. Ultimately, he says, choices for efficiency must be made. Features are an in-built condition to innovate for Kay, because the mission of Harmonix is to create ways for people who aren’t musicians to experience the joy of being musicians. In the case of Sims 2, Bradshaw realizes graphics were a major investment, but the team also brought new content through expansion packs after play testing and analyzing how players adapted to game play. “I hate working on features that people don’t discover,” which can easily happen when working on a sequel with a complex user interface, asserted Bradshaw. “If we think about what journalists want, we tend to forget what others want,” Desilets concluded. Focus groups can be used to test creative ideas, but they can also be misused. Bradshaw jumped in, “Early focus groups would have had us working on about 26 more needs to manage in the Sims.” Sometimes focus groups can lead to dead-end paths. Play testing is vastly more effective, based on the responses of panelists. Bradshaw calls it “Kleenex testing” — use a player to test an aspect of the game once, but don’t expose them again. God of War was play tested with EyeToys hooked up to capture the facial expressions of players for feedback. Players responded negatively to the main character’s random actions in battle, which was intended to represent the character’s state of insanity, but didn’t go well. “The combat oriented play test group really influenced the combat,” reported Barlog. Play testing was equally as important to Kay during Guitar Hero’s development. Kay added, “One of the things we found is that even people who don’t play guitar have a basic understanding of how to hold it and the basic concept of how to use it.” Being able to see the player reaction cemented the game concept. Players are the central piece to the success of a game. The tools and interface are important parts of games focused on unlocking the creativity of players, confirmed by Bradshaw. “We’ve spent more time on getting the editors right than the game play itself right now,” Bradshaw shared. Through play testing and numerous prototypes, there have been three major iterations of the Spore interface. The underlying technology proves that putting the creativity into the hands of the player as a core feature can actually work. Bradshaw continued, “There were generative textures we had to knock down to move into this space, but this is something that will be filled with unique content from all the different players involved.” In Spore, game play and feel become parallel. Prototyping is essential, and after that, however unfortunate in the sentiments of panelists, cutting. “Prototyping is really how you make a game. You won’t know if it’s fun on paper,” Desilets insisted. “Prototyping is totally key,” Kay agreed, “and you must go a certain distance to do the idea justice but also be able to cut it without wasting resources.” Guitar Hero had a nine month time constraint, and what Kay considers an awesome creative constraint. “Creative constraints allow you to go forward in any design, since you must retain a focus,” Kay summed up. He then joked, “I am a strong believer that if you have enough rope to hang yourself, you will.” By having creative restraints, there have to be cuts, panelists agreed. Cutting is a necessary and welcome process, except in situations not related to creativity, as Barlog touched on, “painful cutting is cutting based on the schedule and budget.” Whether intertextualizing Japanese games, putting real history in a setting most often interpreted as fantasy in games, putting full creativity in the hands of players, or creating something new to put in players’ hands, there are clear steps to handle the creative process, as identified by the panelists. Innovate within restraints, test, focus, and retest, and revitalization is in the path of organized creativity.

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