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A great plan is the first step to a great game. Smart planning can give a talented team the environment in which to take an average idea and execute it excellently. Conversely, bad planning can mean that an excellent idea never reaches its full potential. Understanding the stages of development and how to prepare for each stage is a critical part of successful game development. Although designers are not typically responsible for creating the project plan or managing it, the more you know about the process of development, the better a designer and the better a team member you’ll become.
Games tend to be some of the most technically advanced software in the world, and the challenge in creating them keeps growing as the teams get larger and the player expectations increase. Knowing how to put a good process in place, taking time to learn what certain types of features cost, how long it takes to develop art and animation, are all ways that you can ensure the success of your ideas. Additionally, knowing what to do when the schedule slips, how and when to respond are skills that you’ll need to have, no matter what role you play on a team.
The outline we’ve given you here is just the bare bones of the real experience. You will find that shipping a project you have worked on from concept to delivery and living to tell the tale is, in spite of all the challenges, long hours and hard work, one of the most satisfying experiences you will have as a game designer.
Producer, EA Canada
Project list (five to eight top projects)
Def Jam Vendetta: Producer/Designer
NBA Street: Lead Designer
NBA Live ‘98, ‘99, 2000:Assistant/Associate Producer
How did you get into the game industry?
I was a struggling film actor with a series of dead-end jobs on the side to help pay my bills. I started looking for something I could do that might interest me as much as acting. I had always been a gamer and dreamed of creating my own games, so I applied with EA. In the interview I told them my goal was to be a game designer within five years. I started as a game tester, and after a year and a half in the QA department, I moved into production and started making games.
What are your five favorite games and why?
Sid Meier’s Pirates!: This is my all-time favorite. It was (and still is) the most successful example of a hybrid game, combining several different game styles to create a cohesive overall experience. While the game experience was predominantly nonlinear, it gave the impression of creating a rich narrative each time you played, based on the actions of the user. It also featured multi-layered goals and rewards, so the replay value was extremely high.
SimCity: This was the ultimate sandbox game. By providing a simple, yet rich simulation, it gave the user the tools with which to create his own fun. There are just so many ways you can play SimCity. That’s what makes Will Wright’s games so amazing; he helps you unlock your inner creativity while playing his games.
Tetris: If there was only one game I could play for the rest of my life, I would choose Tetris. Simple, abstract, and devilishly addictive, I never seem to grow bored of playing. There is a lesson on the value of simplicity here.
Grand Theft Auto III: It successfully combined a compelling action experience with the sandbox concept of building your own fun, and then threw in a dark humorous fiction “borrowed” from many of my favorite films. It came the closest to realizing my vision of what games will one day be: a complementary part of mainstream entertainment and culture.
Virtua Fighter 2: This is my favorite fighting game. I love the characters, the variety of fighting styles, and most of all the immersive control system. Once you learned the controls, it had a feeling of connection with your fighter that all other fighting games seemed to lack. It wasn’t just a matter of memorizing long strings of button presses to initiate scripted combos; fights were back-and-forth dances of action and reaction. It really captured the essence of what fighting is all about.
What games have inspired you the most as a designer and why?
Diablo: For demonstrating the impact and importance of simplified RPG aspects like item collecting and character-leveling.
Pirates!: For being such a genre-busting title.
Grand Theft Auto III: For leading the way toward truly mature gaming entertainment.
So many games for so many reasons.
What are you most proud of in your career?
Creating NBA Street. Everyone’s expectations for the game were basically just that we deliver an arcadelike basketball experience. We took the game much further, introducing bold new gameplay concepts and representing streetball culture. The gameplay engine was created from scratch, and became a step forward for basketball games in a lot of ways.
What words of advice would you give to an aspiring designer today?
Think of the consumer
You aren’t designing for yourself. It doesn’t matter what game you personally want to play, you have a responsibility to create the experience that the audience wants. That doesn’t mean you should be predictable. Give them what they want, just not how they expect it.
Whenever you have a choice between realism and fun, go with fun. Anybody who chooses realism at the expense of fun needs a smack upside the head.
Always strive for balance
As a designer, game balance should be foremost in your mind whenever you introduce a new feature or concept. For every reward, there must be risk. For every attack, there must be a defense. Balance is the key to a great game experience.
Any time you have an idea, take it as far as you possibly can. Subtleties rarely play.
Design your game experience to be a series of emotional peaks and valleys. If the experience remains at one level, it becomes flat and boring, even if it’s “action packed” (see State of Emergency for a one- note action-packed experience). Always remember: you can’t have highs without lows.
Play bad games
Learn from the mistakes of others. Compare successful games against their hurting counterparts and analyze what went wrong. Then make sure you don’t fall into the same traps.
Look outside of games
The best and most innovative designers create new experiences that seem different from anything we’ve played before, though the core mechanics are often familiar. Look outside of games for new ideas and then marry them to proven gameplay mechanics. A perfect example of this is The Sims. Life is filled with new experiences just waiting to be expressed as games. Don’t be content to “photocopy” existing games. The world does not need another sassy female adventurer with big boobs.
Holmes favorites and inspiration: Sim City, Tetris, Diablo
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