Who was there: Bethesda Game Studios' Todd Howard, id Software's Tim Willits, and Respawn Entertainment cofounders Jason West and Vince Zampella.
What they talked about: The session was titled "Building Blockbusters," a subject with which the panelists had substantial personal experience. Howard and Willits have been deeply involved in their respective company's biggest series (Elder Scrolls and Doom, respectively), and West and Zampella were the pair behind Infinity Ward and that studio's massively successful Call of Duty series until their high-profile dismissals from the Activision studio earlier this year.
The panel began by talking about how the industry vets got into games in the first place. Howard said it started for him with Ultima III. He had an Apple II at the time and was inspired to find out everything about the machine and how it worked. For Willits, the moment was with the shareware version of the original Doom and the first moment he opened a door.
West had originally wanted to do visual effects for rides at Disneyland and things along that line, but Doom convinced him to go into games as well. He was an Amiga snob at first, but Doom's multiplayer broke through his zealotry, and he was hooked for good. For Zampella, it was a bit simpler. He was offered a job at a game company and said that was basically the moment he realized people needed to make games.
In Howard's Bethesda days, he said the goal was always to beat the latest thing id had been working on. So they'd be working on a Doom killer, then Quake would come out and demoralize everybody. More recently they were working on the postapocalyptic Fallout 3 when id announced the postapocalyptic Rage. Shortly after that, Bethesda parent ZeniMax solved the problem for good by acquiring id Software.
West and Zampella talked a bit about the old days and how game makers had to do everything. Howard talked about the decision to make a game ship on five discs instead of four and how he knew he'd have to spend 20 percent more time in the duplication room cranking out the extra discs. While Zampella said it was good preparation and built a diverse skill set, he doesn't exactly miss those days.
As for how they start a new project, Howard said the first key thing is to figure out what's exciting about the property for the people working on it. Willits talked about the genesis of Rage and how the developers just knew they wanted to do something different after Doom 3.
The early version of the project had been doing something more or less along the lines of what they'd done before when id chief technology officer John Carmack showed them a demo of his mega-texturing technique. The team saw Carmack flying over terrain, and the developers basically decided that would be cool to drive through. Unwilling to part with their love of weaponry, they also incorporated guns. Willits joked that it basically was that simple.
West said the Respawn team tackles the problem of a new game from the bottom up and top down. They think of bottom-up elements, gameplay mechanics that are cool and appealing. But if that's all they have, there's nothing cohesive about the title, so they also create a world from the top down that incorporates the bottom-up features in a way that makes sense. Both approaches impose restrictions on each other, and it's up to the developers to creatively work within those and make everything work together.
Howard talked about doing a role-playing game and the problems of freedom. At the beginning of a project, an RPG can have a list of features that Howard called "obscene." It's only through the development process that everything gets whittled down to the final game.
Playing off that, Willits said the Rage team kept the guns and the cars. However, he likened the development process to closing one's eyes and running through a forest at top speed hoping not to hit a tree. Unfortunately, the team hits trees. Most of the maps, characters, and textures the team made in the first two years of Rage won't be in the game that ships.
When working on Call of Duty, West and Zampella didn't have the luxury of throwing away two years of work. That way the team looked at everything as a trade-off. If they wanted to add a feature, they'd understand that there was a cost to that and something else would suffer. But they worked around their constraints and strove to have a "flat" design process, where anyone on the team can speak up about what works and what doesn't, so it isn't just the most senior employees making all the calls.
After the completion of Morrowind, Howard said most companies would have turned around a sequel in two years that would have been a sure-fire hit. What Bethesda did instead was spend four years making something crazier for systems that didn't exist at the time.
Willits admitted that was something id had faced, with the company often being maligned as a tech outfit. The technology doesn't allow the team to do everything it wants, Willits said, which is fortunate because without that limitation, people would stop pushing to make things better.
The development process also yields some crystallizing a-ha moments. Zampella talked about the landing in Medal of Honor: Allied Assault as a moment when everything clicked. Willits talked about how his team has an a-ha moment whenever Carmack is excited and giddy about something.
For Howard, there were two. With Oblivion, the team built a system that generated the landscapes and trees and gameworld. The first time they did it, the early version of the game took 36 hours to build that world. But when it started up, it blew Howard away. For Fallout, the a-ha moment happened the first time they saw the cinematic camera show a bullet tear through an enemy's head.
The developers also talked about how eager they get for each other's games. Howard talked about the original Modern Warfare reveal at E3 and how he was less than enthused about it after hearing it was basically going to be a guy crawling through grass. However, once he saw the execution on it, he was blown away and excited about a guy crawling through grass.
Although all four developers have made phenomenally successful games, they confessed to a bit of insecurity about the quality of their games. After working on their projects for so long and identifying all the flaws in detail, they often feel nervous about showing it off for the first time.
West was particularly disappointed about reactions from stone-faced journalists attempting to be professional. Howard said that's one reason showing off a game at events like QuakeCon or Penny Arcade Expo is particularly rewarding because the audience is primarily gamers who won't show any hesitation to be excited about the work. While there is nervousness about showing off a new game, Howard said that it's mixed with excitement. He's actually been working on a project for two years that he hasn't been able to talk about, so he's feeling the mix acutely at the moment.
The developers also touched on reviews from the press, with Zampella calling the situation a "mixed bag." He said nothing's more frustrating than reviews with factual errors that talk about features that don't exist or show that the writer never played through it.
Howard said he just wants informed reviews. He can tell when someone played the game and when it was just an assignment to get a paycheck. Since games are so much more expensive than movies, he said people will read a lot more reviews and do research on purchases. And when the review is done by a person who hasn't played much of the game, Howard said that's "crushing."
Zampella said it's tough to see a reviewer admit they don't like first-person shooters at the beginning of a review for one of his first-person shooters, while West took issue with reviews calling a game "the best thing ever" but slapping it with an 85 out of 100 score.
The reaction from gamers at large is more humbling, Howard said. Willits agreed, and emphasized that although he and Carmack get credit, it's still the team that makes the game and deserves that praise.
In the audience Q&A session, the first question was about what features the developers had tried to cram into their games again and again, only to have to cut it out (like the flamethrower cut from the first Halo titles). For Howard, it is ladders. The Elder Scrolls developers have tried to incorporate them multiple times, but it's just created too many problems with the artificial intelligence.
The next question was about what it's like passing off their series to other developers, like Treyarch or Obsidian. West buried his head in his arms at the question, which sparked laughter throughout the audience. While West didn't talk about Treyarch's Call of Duty games, he did say if his next game spawns a sequel, Respawn will be handling it in house.
Willits said with Rage, id tried to make a universe instead of just a game. The game has a good ending and closure, but it sets up a universe and world that has a logical next step to it. Howard said he was at a meeting where Willits spoiled the ending, and while he was disappointed to find out before playing it, he assured the crowd it is a great setup.
Quote: "It's a nerve-wracking moment, like showing your baby to someone. Do you think my baby's ugly?"--Zampella, on showing off a game for the first time.
"Every comment I read on YouTube or anything is a voice stuck in my head for life."--Jason West on taking gamer feedback into account.
"We are evaluating technologies presently. We're leaving no stone unturned and we're checking it all out."--West, on Respawn's strategy for the tech it will use in its first game.
Takeaway: Making blockbuster game franchises isn't the only thing the four developers on the panel had in common. They also expressed plenty of overlap in their inspirations, approach to development, apprehension about showing off their titles, and opinions on the gaming press (both positive and negative).