E3 panel tackles game design

Creative sluggers off the Doom, Prince of Persia, Call of Duty, and EA benches get under the skin of the great games.

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What does it take to make a great game?

On the final afternoon of its three-day run last week, an E3 Conference Program panel attempted to answer that very question.

The session, titled “Five (or Six) Rules for Creating a Great Game Today,” was moderated by Jason Della Rocca of the International Game Developers Association and featured Electronic Arts-Canada general manager John Schappert, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time writer Jordan Mechner, Infinity Ward (Call of Duty) president Grant Collier, and Doom 3 lead designer Tim Willits.

Though they didn’t always agree, experts offered more than just a few essential tips.

“If it isn’t fun to do in the real world, don’t make people do it in your game,” Willits began. Schappert, however, argued that Willits’ rule works for id Software games but fails to apply universally. Schappert pointed to The Sims as a successful game based on the mundane tasks of everyday life. Collier also clarified Willits’ statement, advising designers to find a balance between fun and realism.

Schappert proposed the next rule: “Do fewer things better.” “Too often people focus on more rather than polishing things to perfection,” Schappert elaborated, arguing that features and additional levels often need to be sacrificed. Della Rocca agreed, explaining that “a lot of developers don’t have the courage to reject ideas.” Collier further advised that developers need to spend more time making the already existing in-game experience as “rich” as possible.

Offering one concrete solution, Mechner suggested “taking things you already have and turning them upside down.” As an example, Mechner cited his Prince of Persia as a game that requires the player to recombine the same limited set of moves in new and inventive ways. Thanks to Della Rocca--who actively involved audience members in the discussion--the session was lively, and panelists were often forced to defend their opinions.

At one point, Mechner stated that “You should only count rewards as things that will affect the player later,” arguing that the story sequences don’t count as satisfying compensation for a player’s efforts. An audience member, however, retorted that story-driven games like the Final Fantasy series are very enjoyable. Mechner responded that all successful story-driven games also reward the player during the actual gameplay. Mechner then claimed that a game that overly relies on story sequences might as well be “a DVD where it’s very difficult to advance from one scene to the next.”

Mechner later returned to the subject of storytelling, asserting that “the story is what the player does in the game.” Mechner explained that even in a space combat game with elaborate cutscenes, the story is still “shoot every spaceship you see until they’re gone.” As a result, Mechner advised designers to “bring the story into the game.” Speaking about Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Mechner described how the player turns on the castle’s trap system--which becomes one of the major story events of the game--in an elaborate puzzle of levers and gears.

Though Della Rocca stressed the importance of good design principles, he did admit that all design rules are “more like guidelines.” Mechner seconded Della Rocca, pointing out that “every good rule conflicts with another good rule.”

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