On Game Design with Ray Mazza

The following are excerpts from a conversation with Ray Mazza, Lead Designer Worldwide for Playfish.  Ray’s titles include The Sims 2, The Sims 3, The Sims Social, and a whole host of Sims expansion packs. Find out more about the multitalented Mr. Mazza on his blog.


EL: To start with, what is game design?

RM: What is game design? It’s figuring out what is fun. It’s trying to understand the concept of fun and then turning that into a meaningful experience. I think that’s what game design is. There are many different ways to do that.

EL: Has there been a time in your career where you’ve identified something that you know to be fun, whether it’s an interaction or a mechanic. You think, “X is fun, I know it in my heart.” And then you tried to turn it into a game and watched it sputter, just die on the canvas?

RM: Oh, jeez. That’s a good question. I feel like the answer is “yes.” It happens to designers all the time, and it’s why you often need to iterate on designs many times until they’re fun. I’ll try and think of an example… there was a time when we were doing a lot of prototypes for The Sims 3. One of the things that I thought was fun was combining things genetically, making some game structures that have genetics, and then letting the player see what they like about them and having them combine those things and see results.

I was using abstract shapes at the time, procedural shapes. And, the way I put that on the canvas, it was not fun. Because I didn’t have any gameplay around it. It was more of a geeky, computer science-y “this is a fun thing” approach. But what you think of as fun in your mind isn’t necessarily fun on the canvas.

That was when I was a fresh designer. I was in the midst of learning that a lot of fun is about feedback, the way you give feedback to players, making everything you touch very satisfying. And that was some of what I lacked back then.

EL: What is the role of a game designer on a team? We talked about how game design is about being almost a scholar of fun, trying to bring fun to life. What does a game designer do?

RM: It is understanding fun and what fun means, and to use all those elements of fun to make compelling experiences. But every designer tends to have different goals.

Some designers want to tell a story or communicate a message. Other designers are more about educating their players, with games like Carmen Sandiego or Number Cruncher.

Some designers just want to make a compelling mechanic that is addictive and you can’t stop touching it. That’s more of Spry Fox’s Triple Town sort of game. There are plenty of paths.

I think, as a designer, you have to figure out what your goal is and work towards that. It doesn’t mean you can’t do many of those things. But that will drive the way you approach design.

EL: What sort of designer are you?

RM: [laughs]. I categorize myself as an experience designer, which is approaching it from like, “What experience do I want a player to have? How do I want them to feel?” And then designing around that, rather than approaching it from the other angle, where I want to design a game about “x.” So I want to design a game that makes a player feel like “x” or makes them play in such a way.

It’s a combination of storytelling and mechanic-centric design.

EL: What is the biggest challenge you face as a game designer?

RM: So, honestly, it’s finding the time to play games. Sometimes that actually feels like work. Boo-hoo, I know, right? But part of game design is immersing yourself in other areas of interest. Because game designers can draw on so many different disciplines: architecture, politics, mathematics, sociology, psychology, etc.

It helps to go and learn these things. A number of years ago, I got into writing and decided I wanted to write a novel. So I spent a lot of time on that and that helps me in game design, because I can write text a lot better and craft more compelling stories.

But all the time I was learning about writing, I wasn’t playing games. Or I wasn’t able to play as many games as other people. And I’m constantly surrounded by friends who are talking about all these games they’re playing, and all these LoL matches they’re having. Playing Red Dead Redemption and every other new game that comes out.

I have a long backlog of games I need to play sitting on my shelf. That for me is really challenging because I feel like I’m not doing my job as a game designer.

EL: And there’s just this avalanche of hundred-hour experiences…

RM: It’s rough, because you feel like you need to go and play these games. It shouldn’t feel like that. You should want to play. And I do want to play them. One way of helping make up for that is I play a lot of games, but for a very short amount of time. Often I will spend only one session playing a game. I’ll sit down, I’ll play it, get the feel for it. And if it’s not an awesome game, I will probably never play it again. And that’s $60 bucks right there.

EL: That’s pretty familiar to me, too. A good example is I picked up Transformers: War for Cybertron. Strong reviews, sounds like fun. I love Transformers. Played for an hour. And I know that there’s nothing else in this game that I’ll necessarily learn for my craft.

Like, everything I need to know about Transformers as a professional game designer, I’ve learned in this hour and I don’t need to see the other nine hours.

RM: That partly ruins the experience, right? I was playing Skyrim and that’s one of those games that can suck you in for a long time. It’s one of those games that I’ve played for more than a sitting and, 25 hours in, I don’t think I’m going to learn anything else. And playing it is probably wasting my time that I could spend doing something else. But it’s such a good game!

And then I tell myself, “Well, maybe the experience of playing it more will make it even more memorable and I’ll be able to use that inspiration a little more strongly in other games.”

EL: I would imagine that the typical gamer who reads IGN and GameSpot, buys a bunch of games and is always on the hottest releases, might not expect the pedigree of designers in Sims.

I know from meeting a couple of you that the same type of game designers that work on Dead Space work on The Sims.

RM: I don’t think we are who they think we are. I feel like the typical gamer thinks we’re just doing a day job.

But we do take inspirations from a lot of these hardcore games. Back on The Sims 3, we took a lot of inspiration from World of Warcraft, honestly. It shows up in a lot of the progression systems, like skills. We also have this concept called moodlets, which are really just buffs. They let you see how your Sim is feeling at any point in time.

We didn’t copy that system. We made it applicable to the Sims and our players actually love it; being able to see what’s affecting their Sims and why and how they’re feeling.

So, we are those guys.

EL: So, to bring it back all the way to the start of the conversation, if you identify something that’s fun, it’s probably fun for everyone, so long as you adapt it to their needs.

RM: Yes. That’s a good way of putting it.

EL: What are the challenges you face making a game for which you’re not the primary audience?

RM: Well, the thing is, I love The Sims. Before I started working here, I probably played The Sims for a really long time. Right next to Diablo 2. Many, many, many hours sunk into the The Sims. But I’m still not the primary audience, even though I love it. Because I’m not in the core demographic.

So the difficulty is really understanding what they’re looking for and not just designing a game for myself. Because I could design an awesome Sims game for myself that wouldn’t necessarily appeal to the millions of players that love the franchise.

To help us do that, we spend a lot of time on forums. We have a great Sims community and they love to tell us their thoughts. Very generously. And it’s about understanding the ways they play. And, there’s a split in different types of players. Achievers, doll-housers, builders, storytellers.

Here’s an interesting thing that happened, regarding the community and what players are looking for and how you need to adapt your views.

On one of the Sims expansion packs – Late Night, which was a city, nightlife, sexy expansion pack – there was a point on that project when we were looking at the forums and one of the hottest trending threads was, “we want our Sims to have bigger boobs.”

And when it’s one of the hottest trending threads, you want to give it consideration. At that time in The Sims 3, you had control over a lot of the aspects of your Sim: hair color, body weight, eye color, different facial features. All the clothing. But we didn’t give you control over their chest size.

And, looking into this thread, we saw that many tens of thousands of people had requested this. And it had hundreds of thousands of views. So that became something to seriously consider. But we were hesitant, because we knew that there was a lot of sensitivity around this sort of issue. We didn’t want to be viewed as a game that lets people objectify women by giving them big chests.

But, as we explored the thread more and more, we found that there was an interesting divide where, it was the females that were requesting this. Because they just wanted to make themselves, and they use that as a defining characteristic of their bodies.

In the end, we realized that it’s control players should have so they could create the Sims they want to create. So we ended up giving that to them. And they love it. It was a risky thing, but it’s what they wanted.

EL: So, once you actually look past the sensationalism of the topic, what your players were saying was more nuanced than “We want bigger boobs.” It was “We want more expressive body types, so we can create ourselves in the game.”

RM: Exactly. And when you give them so many ways to customize their characters already, but you’re holding that back, it’s almost oppressive. As opposed to other games, where they only let you choose your basic look plus your boob size. That’s more objectification.

EL: How long of a project was the The Sims 3, roughly?

RM:  We launched The Sims 2 in September, 2004, and started working on The Sims 3 in early 2005. Then we launched The Sims 3 in June, 2009. So it was in development just over 4 years.

EL: So, on a big, multi-year, expansive, big team project like that, a lot of the process of design can be about cutting. How much design do you think was done that never made its way into the game? Or made its way into the game and then got cut due to user feedback?

How big is the piece of marble that you’re carving away at?

RM: That’s a really good question. In the first scoping process, from all the designs that we had written and all the designs that we had planned to write, we probably cut 70% of that away.

And then we did another iteration later on, once we were in production and had a better understanding of our velocity, and probably cut another 50%. And then, closer to the end of the project, when some things weren’t going as planned or just not turning out to be fun, then it’s maybe another 5 to 10%.

So you end up cutting a lot. Part of that, though, is because our sights were too high, like they tend to be with a lot of projects. If we’d kept the original scope, we’d still be working on the base game right now. One of the things I’ve learned becoming a seasoned designer is that you need to start simple. Otherwise you’re going to be wasting a lot of time upfront.

It’s good to do expansive brainstorms. But to then go and scope right from there down to the core and the most interesting ideas, rather than planning to do it all. Because you will inevitably add more as you go, anyway – some of the cuts later on are to make room for new features that suddenly make sense as the rest of your game falls into place.

EL: So, four years, all the resources in the world. End game is maybe 10% of what you imagined in the beginning. But it’s the best 10%.

RM: Yeah. But I’ll stress that it’s because we were fresh designers without a feel for scope – not a lack of time or resources. The Sims 3 was actually a much larger game than The Sims 2, with a seamless neighborhood, richer skills, incredible house and Sim customization, and so on.

Yet one thing that designers can never get away from is that we tend to have thousands of ideas and 99.99% of them will never see the light of day. That’s the hard part. It’s a curse and a blessing. Because you need a huge pool of ideas to pull from, but knowing that there are all these cool things that could exist if only we had some kind of magical tool that would just instantiate them. That’s frustrating.

EL: Yeah, when you say something like 90% of the scope gets cut. That was just the agreed-upon scope. So that’s not even the pool of ideas that exist, which was probably ten times larger than the agreed-upon scope.

RM: Yeah. You need to get the game out there and it has to be a certain budget.You need to work within a lot of restrictions. Otherwise you wouldn’t have a job because you’d never release the game.

But then sometimes you see stuff on forums that are like, “Well, I wish the game did this.” And you’re like, “I had that in a design!” But we scoped it.

EL: It’s somewhere on a wiki somewhere [laughs].

RM: And then you think, maybe I should’ve included that instead of some other part of the design. But you never know. In the end, everything is a lesson for next time, and you try to make the best game you can with the time that you have. Ultimately, the goal is to make your players happy. If they’re happy, then I’m happy too.

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