PAX Game Design 101 panel stresses simplification

Richard Garfield, Jeff Hickman, Tom Abernathy, and James Portnow lead Seattle-based show by parsing the fundamentals of sound ideation.


Who Was There: The first panel at the 2009 Penny Arcade Expo was led by James Portnow, CEO of Zero Games. On hand to offer insights on basic game design were Jeff Hickman, executive producer on Warhammer Online at EA's Mythic Entertainment; Richard Garfield, creator of Magic: The Gathering and game designer at Three Donkeys; and Tom Abernathy, a writer at Microsoft Game Studios.

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What They Talked About: As one of the few open-to-the public game industry events, the PAX draws its fair share of aspiring game designers. Catering to these interests, PAX 2009 began today at the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle, Washington, with a panel on the fundamentals of crafting game ideas within the interactive medium.

The Game Design 101 panel began at the beginning, which is to say, Portnow asked each of the panelists how they got their start. For collectible card game pioneer Richard Garfield, that start began when he was a kid, playing such seminal tabletop role-playing games as Dungeons & Dragons.

However, as was a running theme throughout the panel, becoming a working designer often involves taking divergent paths, he said. Garfield noted that the idea for his first hit, Magic: The Gathering, didn't come until he was pursuing his Ph.D. in mathematics. He went on to say that his personal approach for designing games involves experiencing and analyzing a wide breadth of games, especially those that don't immediately cater to his tastes but enjoy a large audience.

Abernathy also took a winding road in landing a steady gig as a games writer. Having initially pursued filmmaking, Abernathy said that it took him a good seven or eight years before getting his first break at Pandemic studios, writing the script for the original Destroy All Humans!. He was later brought on in-house at Pandemic and contributed to a variety of games, including the studio's upcoming release, The Saboteur.

For game writers, especially, Abernathy went on, two important points to note are that it helps tremendously to already have a strong sense of the creative process and that there really is no beaten path to securing work as a game writer. But, game writing is a bold new frontier of sorts in the field of storytelling, as only in the past 10 years or so has the idea of nonlinear narrative really begun to emerge. For Mythic executive Hickman, the more pertinent question concerned what exactly a producer on a game does. Hickman, who also served as executive producer on Mythic's Ultima Online and Dark Age of Camelot, said that his role is to understand all aspects of any given game--be it writing, design, technology, or art--and then get the teams that work on those aspects all on the same page within the scope of the project.

Hickman went on to note that designers especially have bold, creative new ideas that tend to be unpractical when it comes to actual execution. He said that while it's important for designers to not limit themselves, it's equally important to work within the realm of possibility.

Garfield also agreed with this point, saying that designers have a tendency to be overly ambitious, so much so that they alienate the player. As such, he said, it's important to ground players by giving them elements that they can latch onto for the sake of understanding.

The final question, posed to Abernathy, involved what role a writer plays in the design process. He said that writing can be thought of as the most recent differentiation in the game industry; a process that harkens back to the nascent days of game design when game makers began distinguishing themselves as artists, programmers, and designers. Many writers, he said, prefer the title "narrative designer," as the process is still essentially a part of the design process.

Hickman concurred with this point, noting that at his studio, the design process actually starts with the writers. It is their role, he said, to create the intellectual property by laying down the background, history, story, physical reality, and so forth of the new gameworld. From there, artists, coders, and everyone else begin to bring these various components to life.

Quote: "My job is to provide clarity, vision, and sanity in getting the job done."--Jeff Hickman, EA Mythic.

Takeaway: The fundamental point that all three notable designers stressed was that the game design process often involves tampering down lavish ideas in order to operate in the realm of what is feasible. Not only does this lead to a better experience for the player, but it also helps the team actually get the game out the door.

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