Beginning of the End
There was an ever-so-slightly discernable decrease in attendance for the last day of GDC, as developers mulled over the modest selection of donuts and coffee for the final time until 2006. The (still) large body of people in attendance quickly descended on the final day’s round of lectures and sessions, as there was yet more to see, further knowledge to be gained, and surprises to be revealed.
The UN of Game Design
The International Game Designers Panel was first up on the day’s menu. Marble Madness creator, Mark Cerny, moderated the group consisting of Pac-Man creator, Toru Iwatani; Tetsuya Mizuguchi of Rez fame, Splinter Cell head honcho, Clint Hocking, and Harmonix higher-up, Alex Rigopulos, as they discussed universal issues concerning game design. When asked where their motivation comes from, Iwatani replied that he begins with the overall verb that he wants the player to perform, whether it be collecting, fighting, or eating (as with Pac-Man), saying that he even goes so far as to look different action words up in the dictionary for inspiration. Hocking’s response was more ambitious, stating that in the early stages he sets out to create the best game possible, composing the most memorable experience for gamers he can.
Sticking with the idea of inspiration, the next question posed dealt with the idea of innovation and whether original design philosophies are necessary in today’s games, or just a distraction from the core gameplay? Mizuguchi fielded this one, saying that as history repeats itself with regard to game designs, components of previous games are deconstructed for use in newer games, and that, in the end, there is nothing completely new – only familiar things presented in new ways. Rigopulos extended this perspective in his answer to the question “Is there any point in making non-shooters” in today’s market, addressing the fact that innovation isn’t absolutely necessary in creating a successful game. Rigopulos cited EA’s work with the Lord of the Rings series, bringing up the point that while the movie-based games didn’t add anything innovative to the experience, they did what they did well. While giving the players what they want is a respectable enough goal, in this example granting the player a LotR experience on par with the movies, Rigopulos maintained that a good innovative game can give something to the players that they want but didn’t know they wanted. Regarding Katamari Damacy, Rigopulos added “I didn’t know I wanted to roll stuff into a ball, but I do,” illustrating the power of a truly mold-breaking game.
The next question concerned the logistics of breaking in a new concept to gamers. Iwatani stressed the importance of communicating the new paradigm or gameplay system simply at first, saying “In order to invent things you must think about how they are going to be received.” Using the example of showing a racing game to someone who has never seen a car before, Iwatani explained that you would have to spell out how the steering wheel works, that the foot pedals control the brake and throttle, and basically introduce the concept of a car gently as to not overwhelm the player. Hocking answered the question on the development level, saying that, at Ubisoft, in order to promote a new idea it’s necessary to get a good amount of people behind it, slowly polishing the new concept until it becomes a “malleable” idea, and can be incorporated into the game. Rigopulos took a similar approach, saying that it requires many Harmonix team members to get behind and really sell an idea, since to get out into stores it first has to get through the company’s internal approval system. Along the lines of Iwatani’s need to properly convey a new idea, Rigopulos stated that it’s essential to create a working prototype, especially when dealing with new modes of gameplay.
Next, the designers offered varied responses when asked to give opinions on the importance of writing out a design sheet to work from. Iwatani said it was impossible to write out an entire design when working with a new concept, stressing the importance of workable prototypes to test the design. Hocking agreed, mentioning the industry’s ability to adapt to significant changes in design through the development process. Mizuguchi differed slightly, saying that, while his games are generally 50% pre-produced, he would prefer to have 70% already planned out in advance. Rigopulos expressed similar sentiments, emphasizing the need for a workable model before moving into development.
The next question, concerning the differences in the US and Japanese markets, was the perfect opportunity to explore the panelists’ varied backgrounds. Iwatani remarked that, although there are many countries that consume games, there is only one globe, and in the end he strives to attain the maximum impact worldwide, creating games with universal appeal. Mizuguchi echoed this statement, saying that he looks at the human race as a whole and writes his designs with all of humanity in mind. Rigopulos initially backed this sentiment, commenting on the primal nature involved in making music, but consented that Harmonix goes about delivering on that idea in a very American way, conveyed through typical American sensibilities. Hocking shared this honest look at his games, citing the Metal Gear series’ influence on Splinter Cell’s American take on the stealth action genre.
Iwatani tackled the question of whether his designs follow trends of the times or remain true to themselves, stating that he tries to create his own trends before following popular culture. “Fun has to be first,” Iwatani maintained, regardless of whether the design fits into preconceived niches or creates its own. Hocking mentioned the pressure to be trend-conscious and the risks involved in implementing them poorly, but still conceded that he finds inspiration from pieces of products that may be considered trendy. Mizuguchi elaborated on how he might draw inspiration from anything, while Rigopulos paralleled Hocking’s relating of business pressures to follow hot trends. However, keeping an eye on the newest trends can be a useful tool, as Rigopulos expressed the importance of remaining abreast of the industry’s newest developments.
The question of idea management and