GDC 2009: East meets West on all-star panel

No More Heroes's Suda51, Shadow of the Colossus' Fumito Ueda, and Fallout 3's Emil Pagliarulo discuss the state of game design around the world.

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SAN FRANCISCO--The 2009 Game Developers Conference has no shortage of big names in the game industry, but few individual sessions can match the concentration of star power at Wednesday morning's "Evolving Game Design" panel. To get a range of perspectives on how the industry is changing around the world, GDC organizers assembled an international all-star panel of designers--Goichi Suda, aka Suda-51 (No More Heroes), Fumito Ueda (Shadow of the Colossus), and Emil Pagliarulo (Fallout 3)--along with localization specialist and 8-4 Ltd. executive director Mark MacDonald.

Colossus casts a fittingly large shadow on storytelling trends in games.

The session started off with a bit of mutual respect, as Suda introduced Pagliarulo, touting the designer's work on Fallout 3 and The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. Suda said he has been playing through Fallout 3 in his spare time. Pagliarulo took on a reverent tone to introduce Ueda, talking about the creator's legacy thanks to Shadow of the Colossus and Ico. Ueda wrapped up the introductions by praising the distinctive style of his friendly rival Suda, most notably in Killer 7.

With introductions out of the way, Pagliarulo spoke about his particular approach to game design. The heart of it, he said, is that he wants to show gamers something they haven't seen before. He also wants to make games that he himself would want to play, and often the two goals point to the same type of game.

Suda explained that when he plans his games, the process is similar to Pagliarulo's. He first thinks about how to achieve his goal, looking for inspiration from TV, film, and other games.

Goicha Suda aka Suda51

"Being alone is very important," Suda said. "I will go to the bathroom and try to poop, and then I'll come up with a good idea."

After the crowd laughter died down, MacDonald said he now knows where the idea for the save game system in No More Heroes came from.

While all three designers said they start with a goal, that goal changes along the development path. Pagliarulo talked about being "brutally honest" with himself about his game. And while something can work on paper, he never knows if it will work and be fun until he plays it.

At one point in Fallout 3, there's a giant robot named Liberty Prime. Players follow it and witness the carnage it creates. At one time in development, the robot was supposed to be five times bigger and players were supposed to ride inside the robot's head. But partway through development, logistical problems forced the team to scale the idea back.

When it came to evolving designs, Ueda brought up Ico. The final version of the game is more abstracted, but Ueda said it was originally intended to be more vivid. Shadow of the Colossus also changed. The concept first called for it to be a multiplayer game with people coordinating to bring down each of the game's giants. That too had to be scaled back.

When it came time for Suda's acknowledgement of midstream changes, the designer joked, "I make a perfect design plan, so it never changes."

He corrected himself soon after, saying the design is always changing. He always wants to try a new thing, but he said he restrains that impulse sometimes to go easier on the development team that has to implement his changes.

Speaking of the development team, Pagliarulo discussed the need to balance the feedback from the team with his own instincts when it comes time to make changes or cut features. Feedback from the gamers is also important. Pagliarulo noted that people were upset that Fallout 3 had a proper ending instead of an open-ended quest that continues on.

"It's as much a sequel to Oblivion as it is to Fallout," Pagliarulo said.

Compromises are part of the process for Ueda. The designer said he dreams up games that cannot be created on consoles but then has to change the idea to fit what can be done. Sometimes, though, he said that a "chemical reaction" happens and the game turns out better than the original idea. That sort of serendipity is happening on his current project, the developer teased.

Back to the development team, MacDonald asked Suda what he does when he's the only one who wants to do something. While he jokingly admitted he would play the "I own the company so we do it my way" card, he said he tries to explain his vision to the team. That was a problem sometimes during development of Killer 7, Suda said, but oftentimes he will look to focus testers or the producer's opinion for a perspective slightly removed from the game's development.

While Suda and Pagliarulo had run into these sorts of disagreements, Ueda said he had selected his team in such a way that serious "world view" disagreements rarely came up for him. He too talked about the importance of focus testers, and he admitted that once he's deep in development, he often has no idea if a game is fun or not. So he stands behind focus testers as they play and tries to see the game with fresh eyes.

Pagliarulo also admitted losing sight of the fun. He recently tried to go back and play Fallout 3 after a few months away from the game and found that he still "couldn't see the game" in it. Instead, he just looked at it as a series of gameplay systems and under-the-hood mechanics.

Apparently not content when the developers acknowledged they couldn't find the fun, MacDonald asked if any of the designers had any major regrets about any of their games. A few moments of silence later, MacDonald quipped that they came from "the George Bush school of game design."

Suda wouldn't call it a regret, but he said he always wants more time to make his games, a sentiment Ueda quickly echoed.

Looking ahead, MacDonald asked the developers where they see trends in game design headed and what's going on in the industry that personally excites them. Suda said he had a sense of immersion and storytelling ability increasingly bringing people into the game, pointing to Shadow of the Colossus and Fallout 3 as prime examples. Suda said the industry has to pay attention to how to express feelings, referencing--but not naming--his favorite David Cronenberg film.

"They put the parasite into the belly button, and then they play games," Suda said. "I think games might go in that direction."

Before looking forward, Pagliarulo looked back to the virtual reality craze of the '90s. He said he wants to re-create that, just without the gadgets and glasses. He wants to create characters that feel like real people, a world that feels like a real place. He said he's not very interested in half-hour-long cutscenes, but wants those stories told through gameplay. He cited the end of Call of Duty 4 as a particularly powerful example of that.

"I think people may be surprised to find out how much games like Killer 7, No More Heroes, and Shadow of the Colossus inspire us with their storytelling," Pagliarulo said. "Because those games don't need reams of dialogue."

Ueda explained his dislike for conversations between characters, saying the repetition required to get the point across and remind the audience what's going on can hurt the game. Pagliarulo picked up on that point and said it's easy to run into conflicts when you're trying to make dialogue sound normal and natural but are also trying to provide players with all the feedback and guidance they need.

Suda said his storytelling process might be different from that of his fellow panelists, saying his focus is to have a story happening in the background and embedded in the dialogue. Ideally, when a player plays the game just once, the entire story wouldn't come to the forefront. Pointing to the abundance of colorfully insane minor characters in Fallout 3, Suda asked what was going on in Pagliarulo's head when he wrote for them.

"I would like to open up your brain and look at it," Suda said.

For the audience Q&A session, Suda interrupted and asked Ueda and Pagliarulo what games they're working on next to audience applause. Pagliarulo said the Bethesda team was focusing on DLC at the moment, while Ueda said he couldn't talk about his game but said after much cajoling that the sense of the game would be similar to Ico, adding, "Who is your partner?"

Suda teased that someone from EA was behind him and would shoot him if he said anything about his upcoming collaboration with Resident Evil designer Shinji Mikami, but he then teased, "Mikami is making a horror-- Oh, I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said that."

While brief, the Q&A session did include a question directed specifically to Ueda about Shadow of the Colossus being held up as a poster child for people making the argument that games are art.

"Personally I don't think that way," Ueda said. "We are making games to entertain people. Sometime the team's personalities may be reflected onto the game and it may look like art, but we're making games to entertain people. That kind of feedback is welcome, but that's not what I'm trying to achieve here."

Discussion

63 comments
Fady117
Fady117

This trio truly wraps it up lol!! they have indeed explained the very essence of video game design, how you start with something and mostly end up with something else. That is why many games are expanded (additional chapters or more than one disc or DLC) while some get shortened (idea is out of place now, that would destroy this, etc...) and I get the feeling that games coming soon are going to be all open-ended with interactive cutscenes. Whoa!! :P

8TwilightAngel8
8TwilightAngel8

to TaruzBT, shadow of the colossus is a prequal to ico. if you played through the whole thing, (SPOILERS) you would have seen the girl, mono, find a baby where the shadow thing was sealed away. she did not realize the baby was the person who brought her there (i don't know his name). so she most likely named him ico. i still do not know the plot of ico, but i will look. so far everyone i have talked to about it said shadow of the colossus was a prequal setting up ico. its kinda like the star wars movies when they made the last 3 first, then the first 3 :P

tlow0678
tlow0678

lol the entire "i dont like 30 minute cutscenes" and "i think stories should be told through gameplay, not long character conversations" was completely directed at metal gear solid. And i couldnt agree more. If mgs4 was told in the same storytelling fashion as sotc, it wouldve been without a doubt the best game ever.

liquidvssolid
liquidvssolid

I am seeing eye to eye with this maverick 76. I too sensed silent jabs at Kojima and MGS. All three of them must've been so green with envy at the time of this interview. lulz, Hideo Kojima outruns them by a longshot. I do have respect for Ueda, though...

vietboi89
vietboi89

you know wats sad, nobody knows when the next kick ass game will come out, i want another memory plz

xeuse51
xeuse51

TaruzBT: Watch the ending of SotC. (spoiler alert) The boy in the game is reborn as ICO. So you get your facts strait. Yes Ico was released first. But SotC is a prequel.

KirinLime
KirinLime

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

TaruzBT
TaruzBT

One question is though... Will it be called Ico 3 or Shadow of the Colossus 2? :P Hardcore Ico fans always calls SotC Ico 2 sooooo.. It will prolly be a stand alone but considerd as a sequal.

TaruzBT
TaruzBT

@ liam72 Your wrong there.. Ico was the first game you know. Ico: USA: 25 Sep 2001 Europe: 22 Mar 2002 Japan: 6 Dec 2001 Shadow of the Colossus: USA:18 Oct 2005 Europe: 15 Feb 2006 Japan: 27 Oct 2005 Ico had a re-release 15 Feb 2006 though but it doesnt make it a sequel.. Get your facts straight :)

liam72
liam72

rando22: there is already a sequel to Shadow of the Colossus, it's Ico.

kiblespoop
kiblespoop

Issacmj, saying Shadow of the Colossus was either endless or senseless is either completely ignorant of you or you are simply trying to throw out negative terms to spell your dislike.

isaacmj
isaacmj

Weird, it seems I'm the only person who thinks Shadow of the Colossus was an endless, boring, senseless game... No More Heroes and Falout 3 were amazing though

rando22
rando22

i'd love to see a sequel to shadow of the colossus

madsnakehhh
madsnakehhh

Suda and Shinji working on a horror game, that's great, great news, it will have a great (and confusing) story and a great atmosphere, awesome. Great reading BTW.

wonzan
wonzan

I might see those movies. They sound interesting. Oh and bring on the next Team Ico game!!!!

ReDeYeRaver
ReDeYeRaver

Sorry to burst your bubble Brendan but I think the movie Suda was referencing was not "Videodrome" but rather "ExistenZ". In Videodrome the person is being forced into an "action playback". In ExistenZ the users do plug a game into their belly-buttons and cannot tell the difference as to whether they are still playing or not...it's the last line in the movie: "Are we still in the game?" Both are excellent, creepy movies! Can't wait to see what Ueda has put into his new game!

lew_0911
lew_0911

Oh my God, a multiplayer SotC sounds really exciting. Nevertheless, I have great respect for the final product, having played and loved it to bits. We need more games like this. Hats off to you all!

Deathrebellion
Deathrebellion

SotC would be pure epicness in a next gen console :D

Lay5354
Lay5354

I bought the PS3.... just for this moment.... i actually didn't want to purchase it until the ICO team released a game, but then again i had a great deal for it. (MGS4 80gig set)

Lay5354
Lay5354

Seeing that picture, and the epic story that goes along with it...... makes me want to pick up Shadow Colossus and play it for the 4th time again

ffviiifreak
ffviiifreak

if they make shadow 2 I'll buy a PS3

Sauron2
Sauron2

i agree with xlyger. gimmie Shadow of Colossus 2 please :D

Xlyger74
Xlyger74

Shadow of the Colossus 2 Please.

Mikethechimp
Mikethechimp

How can those two great designers be in the same room with the guy who designed No More Heroes?

petervaht
petervaht

I really hope to hear/see what Uedas next project will be, its been long 4 years, I dream at night of the possibilities. Ugh...

NeonNinja
NeonNinja

These three guys have made some of the most amazing and wildly different games around, this was a pretty cool read.

pidow
pidow

Interesting.

godzillavskong
godzillavskong

I can only imagine what Shadow of Colossus would have looked like on a next-gen platform, heck, it still looks amazing.I haven't seen a horse move that lifelike in any game since. The horse in Assassins Creed was close. Great article.Its nice to hear from the people behind the art.

truckr_life
truckr_life

this was nice....I like hearing things from their perspective plus a little insite to the whole creative process. I often wish I had a team of guy making my ideas come to life. even though I will probably never come close to developing a game....except for box art

FrankenLife
FrankenLife

That explains so much. Suda gets ideas while pooping.

maverick_76
maverick_76

Awesome article, I smell jealousy though. Notice the jabs at Kojima and MGSIV? LOL, sorry boys better luck next time on the lifetime achievement award. Hopefully there can be a sequel to Shadow of the Colossus, that game was dope!

InfectX
InfectX

The REAL RE5 is coming out soon!

Timeaisis
Timeaisis

Ueda is just being humble. Shadow of the Colossus is totally art, and I'm sure he's secretely trying to achieve that. Shadow of the Colossus is like the 2001 of video games. You're not really sure of the point of it all, but you'd like to play/see it again.

petervaht
petervaht

Hideo isn't the pinnacle of a line-up, Ueda is

grigjd3
grigjd3

@ahpuck - I thought SotC took advantage of the HD features in the later PS2s. It certainly looked HD on my TV.

ahpuck
ahpuck

I'm still hoping to one day play an HD version of Shadow of the Colossus, not holding my breath tho'.

Gamer4Iife
Gamer4Iife

Shinji Mikami is making a horror game, huh ? I have a feeling its going to be epic. :D

noles82
noles82

This went fine until they mentioned "EA".

lamprey263
lamprey263

yeah, I too am dying to hear more about what Team Ico has been up to, SOTC and Ico were both great games and I can't wait to see what's next to come from Fumito Ueda's imagination

ovadose85
ovadose85

i was thoroughly impressed with this article even though there was a lack in info of upcoming projects . either way it was an excellent read and i wish i could of been there in person .

Stabby
Stabby

Haven't played NMH but I love Fallout 3 and SotC. Different games but with some similar themes.

Gamer_4_Fun
Gamer_4_Fun

No Hideo, What kind of line-up is that?

raw153
raw153

Man, I was really hoping to hear something about what Team Ico is doing. Guess we'll have to wait until E3 and if it's not announced then, I may start to get annoyed.

kavadias1981
kavadias1981

A discussion there between the finest designers of our time. I pray that their chat ignites some more incredible ideas in their minds for future games.