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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Avatar image for Patton435

i figured out what this game is its a mix of god father 1 and death to spys moment of truth

Avatar image for arcteryx27

I miss the days of innovation and sid meier. Anybody remember Pirates, Civilizations, railroad tycoon. I feel like today most games are simply same concept, different graphics and lore.

Avatar image for duomtl

@xgalacticax you don't always have to know someone in a company to get a job, it for sure helps, but it's not a necessity. i got a job right out of school, i was out barely less then a month, i didn't know anybody, and i've been here for over a year and a half now

Avatar image for Korrupt_Soul

IMO, It all depends on the player and what the majority wants. These people produce and sell so they're doing something right.

Avatar image for xgalacticax

Best way to get into games........know someone who works in a company and get him to put in the good word for you. Take it from me. I have a masters degree in games and a great portfolio (and modding FPS games like modern warfare and unreal tournament) but after a whole year of rejections for lack of games industry experience (which is obviously a stupid excuse since you've got to get the experience somehow), i got a job because someone I knew put in the good word for me. You can put in a portfolio and hope you get accepted but you're gonna wait a very long time. I also know 2 other graduates who are very good with normal maps, heat maps, modelling and scripting who only got in because of people they knew in the companies that were there to help them out.

Avatar image for ChamomileBaths

@ parrot_of_adun Simplification can distill a game down to its original intention, making it the most pure game possible. It's almost a part of storytelling in that developers should make sure every move has an absolute purpose in the overall picture. A lot of games lack that.

Avatar image for ChamomileBaths

A lot of processes should exist but need to be taken care of under cover where everyone else can't see. Even Smash Bros Brawl has these moments. As forgiving as its edge grabbing is look at how you need to aim your shield on occasion.. It's simple to do but it's totally unnecessary. Make the game simple and balanced and let the players try and glitch it out to flesh out its unintentional depth (but no game-breaking issues, if they arise a patch would be necessary immediately).

Avatar image for parrot_of_adun

It's better that a few people are alienated than to saturate the market with the kind of stuff EA pumps out. Simplification almost always ruins a game.

Avatar image for Sarcerok

The sixth paragraph states that Mythic developed Ultima Online when this was not the case. I assume the author meant to say Warhammer Online there.

Avatar image for Adziboy

Very good read. Interested in getting into that line of work.

Avatar image for penyada7

'simple' and short.... We Need more strory.

Avatar image for Sepewrath

I think alot of you are misinterpreting what they mean by "simple". They don't mean simple as in easy; they mean as make a game where the goal is to get from point A to point B by means of X,Y and Z. Instead of making a game that you go from A to D to L back to E, using every number, every letter, and every algerbraic expression under the sun. When you try the latter, as we have seen in the past, things spiral out of control. Its like trying to construct a building with a foundation that has no uniformity, its bound to collapse. You start with the basics and then you build upon them within the realm of possibilities.

Avatar image for CajunCeltic

I just hope that it is not too simple.

Avatar image for endocrine

I believe that sticking to a few elements and making them good is better than trying to make a million elements and failing miserably. That being said, I would rather companies be ambitious than taking an over-simplified approach.

Avatar image for GeigerdolylWodd

nofriekinlemons Posted Sep 4, 2009 4:32 pm CT i like all the things they say but ive learned not to trust everything they say the will do sure they will make an effort but also peter molyneux

True, but he has a point about getting the game out the door. Star Craft Ghost anyone? Duke Nukem Forever anyone? I mean 12 years and a lot of hype for what?
Avatar image for ryokinshin6x3

They don't mean 1 button simple, they mean make the gameplay concrete and not throw as many things at the player as you can think of.

Avatar image for NightAngeI

Simplicity is key...yet too simple is even worse...

Avatar image for skyydragonn

Ironically the team at Mythic doesn't seem to follow the advice given by Mr. Hickman As evidenced by thier braod reaching goals with warhammer online. Most of which ultimately backfired on them.

Avatar image for ZEYAAM898

cool :-[

Avatar image for Kravyn81

Interesting round-table discussion. As someone with an avid interest in both writing and video games I'd be interested to learn what advice the writers have for people that would want to break in to the industry.

Avatar image for hibikino

Great article!

Avatar image for n_8_z

MAFIA NEWS!!!!???!!!???!

Avatar image for athenian29

Rooster Teeth is at PAX. Yay!!!!!!!!!

Avatar image for Night_dude

cool very good very good

Avatar image for brian_13un


Avatar image for ropumar

I want DeathSpank news!

Avatar image for drgrady

And yet, so many developers completely miss the boat... Of course you have to keep things simple and realistic, but that does not mean you have to compromise on the story or the fun. But we keep seeing game after game after game that is a rehash of the same old thing with a couple gimmicks thrown in and no thought put into how to make a quality game on budget and on time.

Avatar image for IceManAVWA

Involving the gaming public in the gaming realm! Novel!

Avatar image for nofriekinlemons

i like all the things they say but ive learned not to trust everything they say the will do sure they will make an effort but also peter molyneux

Avatar image for topsemag55

Good article, well-written.:)