Wanna be a great game designer? Hope you like research!
I recently sat down with Richard Garriott, AKA Lord British, the game design mastermind behind the Ultima series, as well as over a dozen other social and role-playing games. During our discussion, we talked about the state of the gaming industry and his current project, Shroud of the Avatar, which I covered earlier last week. Garriott has legendary status among game designers, and with good reason. He's been involved in the trade for more than 30 years, and has been on the cutting edge of game design every step of the way. Among online and MMO gamers, Lord British's reputation is even greater, considering he made the first MMO ever, Ultima Online, and even coined the term MMORPG. Seeking his insight for my own design aspirations, Garriott and I discussed the importance of meaning in games and what he thinks will be the most important qualities in the great game designers of tomorrow.
Garriott began by explaining that becoming a game designer is different than most other professions, in that designing good games is an art form that's hard to quantify objectively. "There are three main disciplines; programming, art, and design. Programming and art ... you can go to school and get a real degree ... and if you're good, you'll get a job. Design is the hard one, because even if you are a good game designer, how do you show it? How do you come into my office and show me you've got what it takes? Do you show me your D&D campaign? Maybe, but I'm not sure that's the right way. It's fundamentally very hard."
Though this may be alarming news for up-and-coming designers, Garriott did have advice on some key skills that will help lead to successful games. "There are plenty of skills in project management; a good manager is a good manager to keep the budget and the scope contained, and that's important, but that's also learnable in a traditional way. The hard thing to do is design. There are many ways to get to that point."
Garriott outlined two schools of thought on how game designers will approach the creation of a game. Some creators have a gift of insight on what a great game is. Like an artist or a director for a film, some people can just sit down and craft a beautiful game all by themselves, though Lord British admits, "I don't know how [they] do it, and as far as I can tell, it's magic as far as I can tell." Garriott creates his works iteratively, tweaking and molding a game over a longer period of time. "I need iteration. I say to myself, 'Well, I think this might be fun, let's build a cheap prototype and test it out. If it works then great, and if not then we change it. This method evolves, and it's scarier in a lot of ways, it's more vulnerable." Garriott explained that this iterative form of creation is a trained skill that individuals can seek out and learn over time. Of equal importance to the skill of game design, though, is the desire to make a game that matters. "I do have this disciplined process which is starting with saying, 'I want to create a game with meaning.'"
Lord British - otherwise known as Richard Garriott, the designer of Ultima and Tabula Rasa - returns to his fantasy RPG roots by Kickstarting Shroud of the Avatar, hearkening back to his innovative early work.
Garriott explained that embodying a game with a deeper meaning is an essential element in creating great games. "...I don't want just a town. I want a town that has a purpose! And people ask me, 'How do I do that?' and I tell them, 'Even I don't know, but I can tell you how you can get there, which is by doing a bunch of research.' It means you need to be a person with the interest and the aptitude, as well as have the time to step back and build things with themes. Instead of just laying out a city, you need to think about who will use this city, and what its purpose is. Why does this town exist? And that should be a part of the town. You should know by the layout, you should know by the look, what kind of town this is."
Lord British went on to describe some other personality traits that lend themselves naturally to game design. To name just a few, he suggests curiosity, attentiveness to detail, and a deep sense of wonder. Garriott uses an example of planning a city block in a game to demonstrate the kind of attentiveness he thinks matters. "If you're going to lay out a neighborhood, a city block always has houses that are back to back. Sometimes there's an alley in the middle, but you'd never make a third row of houses in between, because then somebody can't get out. And you don't put a road on either side of both houses, because now you've made twice as many roads as you need to. This is just a truism of city planning, and it's not that it's unknown; it's just not something that everyone thinks about. It's a thing that curious people think about."
Garriott advocates that game designers need to infuse their games with values if they want their game to have meaning. When a game is created with meaning, and with a specific philosophy in mind, the individual pieces that make it up will already be in line with that meaning. "If you embody your world with meaning, you don't need to continuously add individual parts that add up to it, they'll already be there, and great things will just fall out of it." He also explained that a compelling world is backed by strong themes, but functions as a realistic world in its own right. "What we need is purpose-driven, rationalized events. If we want to teach purpose, it has to be the goal, not the method."
The final word of advice Lord British has to offer is to create lots and lots of games. Practice makes perfect, and Garriott has worked on over 16 published projects, with nearly 30 more unpublished games under his belt. He also highly advocates new designers to learn programs such as Unity, and to improve their game writing skills whenever possible.
Lord British's insight on game design resonated deeply with me, and I could clearly see his underlying philosophy has been well thought out. It fits perfectly with the direction he has been going with Shroud of the Avatar, and his vision of the future of gaming.