Game Design Research, ala Avellone

The article below was written by Chris Avellone, Chief Creative Officer of Obsidian Entertainment. Chris also designed Planescape: Torment, which is my favorite game of all time, as I’ve noted repeatedly on this blog (much to Chris’ acute embarrassment, I’m sure.)

Anyway, Chris is also a great writer, so I asked if he’d do this guest spot. No strings attached, any subject allowed. The only requirement: it had to include his famous stick figures. (Famous, I say!) Chris gracefully accepted. And with that, I’ll stop yammering now…

Obsidian Entertainment recently got the chance to do a role-playing game set in the Aliens universe.

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This is due with many thanks to our fine publisher, SEGA, who used their oodles of cash and resources to woo Fox. Wine and song may also have been involved. And lawyers. And contract negotiators. But let’s set that aside for a second.

When we got the Aliens license, it hit me that there is one resoundingly positive aspect of being in game development: Doing research for games is the best thing, ever.

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Chances are, if you are as huge a nerd as we are, you’ve already done your research and you get to do it all again. Graphic novels, comics, novels, movies, behind-the-scenes-footage, concept art evaluation from the movies, visiting CGI houses who did the movies… this becomes your life during pre-production. What has been done before? What was the process that went into this license? What were the creators thinking? What did the fans think?

Over the past ten years, I’ve had the opportunity to work with licenses like Star Wars, Dungeons and Dragons (in multiple worlds), Star Trek, and now, Aliens. I think I know more about some of these settings and their inhabitants than I do about Earth culture. Which is pretty shameful, now that I think about it.

But for our industry, having that knowledge saves you a lot of time. Knowing all the sub-plots that took place in comics, novels, all the nuances of why Giger concepted the aliens the way he did, the history of the Weyland-Yutani corporation – this minutia of science fiction licenses is actually a valuable knowledge base. There’s a reason they have fact-checkers and historians at LucasArts and Blizzard and other franchise houses – knowing the setting in and out is a paying gig.

So my advice for any aspiring members of game development is pretty simple. If you’re a nerd, keep being a nerd.

Watch trashy sci-fi movies. Read comics. Watch the entire run of Stargate. Be able to quote lines from Doctor Who until your friends want to murder you. Immerse yourself in the book and movie versions of Lord of the Rings. Study the Matrix. James Bond. The whole range of John Woo movies. Be able to explain the mathematical underpinnings of gun-kata in Equilibrium.

Have fun as your eyes take it all in, but in the storage bin in the back of your brain, record all the details of the construction and history of those franchises. Because chances are, one day you’ll be called upon to use it. Maybe even get paid for it.

The next part is probably going to make mothers across the world cringe, but for future game developers – watching TV is good for you. So are movies. Watch a lot of those. Watch the making-of sections, too. Argue about it with your friends if you want – you may learn even more.

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Industry secret spoiler related to research for those who are interested – I can often tell what kind of games fellow developers are working on by checking out their Netflix queue. So if you want to keep it a secret, buy the copies of whatever DVDs you need to research.

Watch cartoons. Not only is there a chance you may have to do a licensed product in a cartoon universe, but especially pay attention to the voice actors, because from a design standpoint, you’ll need that info later on when you meet with the audio department and are trying to explain why Charlie Adler would be the best voice actor for the part of Stickleskin the Goblin Zombie.

Watch Hong Kong action movies for fighting combos and power attack ideas. Store each move, write them down, dream about attacking some jackhole with them. Watch Shaolin Soccer if you haven’t already. Do it. Now.

Play a lot of games. The reason for this is pretty self-explanatory, but one day it’s likely you may be asked to continue a license that you have loved since your youth. Knowing the origins of this license and what transpired in those early games will actually allow you to hit the ground running.

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One last thing – one of the designers I worked with long ago at Interplay, Scott Bennie (Castles, Star Fleet Academy, Fallout, and a whole host of other titles), had also some of the best advice for “game” research – read a lot of history. It’s better than any fiction (and sometimes far more unbelievable), although you could argue whether or not it’s “fiction” depends on your perspective and who actually won. But in the depths of the history books is not only good settings and terminology to bring to games, but some of the craziest folks, events, and conflicts than you could imagine.

This “fun” aspect research is only one facet of game research in preparation for game development, but it’s currently life for me at Obsidian, so it’s forefront on my mind. It’s a definite reminder of why working in games is so much fun.

So for aspiring game developers, swim in the geekiness of your genre, and you’ll be hitting the ground running when you land your job in game development. Being able to speak intelligently about a franchise or license you love when going in for an interview may make or break you in the eyes of those speaking to you.

(If you’re interested in more fun Aliens research facts, feel free to visit my occasionally relevant Aliens blog.)

8 Responses to Game Design Research, ala Avellone

  1. Thanks alot for this, Chris!!
    I LOVE reading these kinds of things.
    I love reading the ins and outs of game developing from every standpoint, be it programming or even publishing.
    I can read this stuff all day, and it\’s made especially better when it\’s written by a designer I\’m familiar with ;P

  2. I am currently in a game design program, and the above suggestions are exactly what my instructors had my classmates and I done all the time whenever we are developing game ideas. But from what I learned in the program, the most important thing out of everything a game designer needs to be proficient at, is still the game mechanics; so be sure to have the following questions in mind whenever one is doing research for game in ways mentioned above in the article: setting, theme, characters, weapons, equipments, camera angles, pace, available actions that players can perform, how are the actions being controlled, how is the game being played, kind challenges the players will face, winning and losing condition, single player or multiplayer, saving and loading, game interfaces, music style, image style…etc.

    The bottom line is: with the game mechanics being the core, come up with a vision that others have not done before, and is fun to your target audience, so they would want to play your game and enjoy while doing so.

  3. This is great stuff, Chris. I’m absolutely in agreement with you about the importance of expanding your frame of reference. There are already enough games made out of bits of other games, TV made from more TV, movies made of elements of movies. My feeling is that most geeks/devs don’t need much encouragement to keep on consuming the media they’re already into, but need as much encouragement as they can get to start checking out new stuff, especially when it’s old stuff: history, literature, visual arts, let alone news coverage, scientific research or, gulp, Real Life.

    You make some excellent points here and your illustrations would drive me mad with envy if they didn’t make me giggle so much, but I’d emphasize the difference between raw data and usable knowledge. For me, it’s part of what separate Pro’s from Paying Punters – Paying Punters point and clap at the puppet show; Pro’s get themselves backstage and work out which string pulls which limb. I don’t think people need much more practice at remembering the Cool Bits from games and movies and TV shows, but almost everyone needs more practice in working out why they’re cool, what it is about that technical solution that made it better than another, how was it put together, and what was so compelling about its presentation: the What isn’t as important as the Why and How.

    For instance, why did New-Monster-Every-Week one-or-two-episode morality play SciFi TV series like Star Trek and Doctor Who come up with the Transporter beam and the Tardis respectively? To what production problem was that the solution? Why didn’t they go with an expensive but heavily repeated sequence to get their protagonists to and from their weekly new locations, like Thunderbirds? The relative production costs of a single special effect shot compared to a three-minute model montage will tell you more than any retro-con backstory explanation.

    So my addendum to your advice to budding devs is to take all the games, TV shows and movies they love, and see those finished works not as monolithic blocks of Cool, but as a consequence of a series of design, direction and production decisions, decisions that can be analysed and reverse-engineered. Steal from the very best, I say! Just learning a few of the technical terms used by screenwriters, storyboard artists, directors, coders, sound designers, composers, actors and developers will give you more insight than memorizing every line of dialogue in every episode of every season of every franchise of StarTrek. Technical language is a kind of toolkit that lets you build something new, not just repeat something old. Knowing every episode featuring the character Data is just, well…data.

    Being able to analyse the Cool Bits doesn’t mean you appreciate them less, quite the reverse – it makes the Cool Bits cooler. As an example, take the famous lots-of-short-shots montage technique pioneered by Sergei Eisenstein. Every movie nerd will be able to tell you about the famous Odessa Steps sequence in The Battleship Potemkin, and most will know that Brian DePalma recreated it almost shot-for-for the train station shootout scene in The Untouchables (even the Great steal from the Best). The more I read about the critical theory that built up around Eisenstein’s technique, the more I appreciated his achievement, and dug the visual syntax of cinema, and how long and broad a shadow it casts on all subsequent movie and TV editing. But this was as nothing compared to the slack-jawed awe I felt when I found out that it was his work-around for a potentially show-stopping production problem: only very short lengths of filmstock were available at the time, so he invented a way of telling stories with very short shots. That’s not just smart, that’s flaming, strobing genius! Future developers, be inspired!

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