“What is Game Design?” with Michael John

The following are excerpts from a conversation with Michael John, Senior Creative Director at Electronic Arts, where he works to build and grow a community of strong, passionate game designers and creative directors. MJ’s long career as a game designer includes hits like the Spyro the Dragon series, Daxter and God of War: Chains of Olympus.

EL: To start with, what is game design?

MJ: Right, what is game design… you asked me that question yesterday, so I got to think about it overnight, which is a blessing and a curse. So, here’s the funny thing. Design is a noun and a verb. And I think that in noun and verb they mean different things.

So, in a noun form, you say game design. I think what that is a description of the art form. If what games are as an art form is something that comes to life in the hands of a user, which is certainly true, then the game design is sort of the capsule in which that art sits.

But then as a verb, I think it’s much broader, actually. So the act of designing a game encompasses the fact that a game is so cross-disciplinary. And that involves technology, it involves artwork, and it involves mechanics.

So all of those people are involved in this process of game design. One of the things that I became fascinated with, and this really began in an intellectual way when I came to EA, where (Chief Creative Director) Rich Hilleman -who is the guy who hired me here and who I’ve worked for the whole four years I’ve been at EA – asked me to teach a course in game design, which was a task that I took really seriously. So I actually began by asking myself exactly this question: what is game design?

And I felt like I knew the answer to what a game was and I felt like I didn’t know the answer to what design was. So I did a bunch of reading and bought a bunch of books and went to a conferences and stuff on design.

EL: Graphic design, industrial design…

MJ: Yeah, by people who look at it from a different point of view. I became fascinated with furniture design, with industrial design, with architecture, which is a form of design. And all of those are defined by one thing, which is that, it’s the creation of an object that takes its meaning from the way in which it is interacted with.

An object that can stand on its own and have meaning, we will call art. An object that must be interacted with, must be designed. And may or may not be art. And usually isn’t art. And may or may not be well designed, or even intentionally designed. So, one of the interesting things is, when you start studying this, you start looking around, and you realize that, basically everything that isn’t made by God, directly, like a tree, is designed.

EL: In the class you put together on game design, what were some of the topics you addressed or skills you taught?

MJ: I would say that, what I ended up with more than anything else was, trying to understand and then teach how to lead the creative process. And actually I would say that goes well beyond the games to anything else that is collaborative and creative.

That’s what we ended up focusing our time on because that’s where the deficit was, right? Where people were finding themselves failing seemed to be mostly because something was breaking the creative process. One of the challenging parts of the creative process is, it scales exponentially in difficulty.

So one person could be creative and they really don’t have a lot of conflict, hopefully. And then two people and then three people. And then there are these sort of quantum points, where it jumps. So, at about 15 to 20 people, there’s a quantum point that jumps up. At about 40 people, there’s another quantum point that jumps up. To where being creative in those environments becomes extremely difficult, and yet required.

So how do you build structures, processes, and leaders and creators that can all function in those settings? This is the challenge that a place like EA has. Because they’re at the very high end of that difficulty curve most of the time.

EL: And, when you’re up there, you might never write a game design doc. You might only inspire people to have a shared vision.

MJ: That’s right. So it’s about two things: it’s about shared vision and about process. And I’ve come to believe that creative people, if you’re going to create something on that scale, your putty knife, paintbrush, whatever, is the process. And if you allow someone else to manipulate the process, you’re handing them the paintbrush.

EL: I feel like, at a certain point in my projects, I recognized that I could do more design by controlling the bug list than by almost anything else.

MJ: Yes. And the bug list is a great example. Late in the development cycle, whoever controls the bug list really drives the bus. I’ve always, in any game that I have shipped, at a certain point I take over the bug list and demand to be sole arbiter of the bug list.

Which feels strange, you know, being supposedly the lead designer. You’ve got the producer sitting right over here. But, “No, I’m sorry, you don’t get to do this now. I get to do this now.”

And I’ve made some terrible, by the way, egregious errors in that space.

EL: Can you tell me about one of those errors?

MJ: I have one that in my little world is famous. On Spyro the Dragon 2, Sony had just created the first joystick that had analog sticks on it. So Nintendo had one before but this was the first one that Sony had, and it had two analog sticks on it.

We kind of knew what one analog stick was supposed to work like, because we could play Mario on the Nintendo 64. So, okay, it’s analog, you can rotate it in a wide variety of directions. That’s superior to a digital. I get it. Cool.

So they bring this prototype in quite late. We were already past our beta, almost into the QA process. Then Sony shows up with this controller, says we’re going to put this on the market at the same time as your game.

So we’re like “oh shit, okay”. Right away, one of the programmers does some different math and you can make Spyro run around using the analog stick. It was somewhat superior. It wasn’t super awesome superior, but it was somewhat superior. Good enough probably to say that most people would play it that way. We felt good about it. Especially considering the amount of time we had to implement this.

And then, our bug list came in and the QA people at Sony were also looking at the new controller. And one QA tester says, “I think it would be kind of cool if actually the right stick,” – because we just ignored the right stick, we’re like “Dual Shock, this is just Sony trying to one-up Nintendo. Nintendo had one, we’ll make two.”

“I think it’d be cool,” he said, “if the right stick actually rotated and tilted the camera.” I thought that’s typical QA fucker thinks he’s got all the good ideas. Because we knew how to rotate the camera which is you do the yaw of the camera left and right on the L1 and R1 buttons on the controller.

So I sent a very rude comment back, because I had control of the bug list, back to this QA tester, saying, “thank you for your input. We will be ignoring this.”

EL: Which is a pretty common response to bugs, right? You have to do a lot of those.

MJ: Yes.  The game shipped like that. Which the blame for that has to rest entirely on my shoulders, because now every game that uses a camera that can be pivoted, can be yawed and pitched, uses the right analog stick on the controller to do that. For the next game, of course, we did that.

When you make yourself the single point of failure like that… you become the single point for failure. It’s necessary to do sometimes, to get a game out in time. So one of the things I pride myself on is I’ve never shipped a game late. But, as soon as you become that non-collaborative single point of failure, you invite failure.

EL: Why is process such a powerful tool for designers, when, from an outside perspective, you think of the typical tools of the designer as documents, spreadsheets, prototypes.

MJ: Let’s go back to something I said [in an earlier conversation], which is that there is no such thing as an interesting game design document. What’s the reason for that? It’s because a game design document cannot possibly encompass what makes the game cool.

It may, in some certain genres: if it’s a very narrative-driven genre, I can probably read the game design document for Mass Effect 3 and find that entertaining. But that is such an outlier compared to most games that are created.

EL: Gears of War 3. You are a dude. You have a gun. You duck. You pop up. You shoot.

MJ: You shout the word “balls” and that’s basically all there is…

EL: It doesn’t capture the moment-to-moment joy.

MJ: It doesn’t capture the moment, yeah. So if that’s true, then what is the design? Well the design is actually the final product. So that means that you’ve got this hole between what you could define yourself, and what the actual design is. And somehow that hole has to be filled in.

And the way the hole is filled, unless you work by yourself is you’re going to need some help. You’re going to need probably a lot of help to fill that hole.

So you have to figure out how to engage those folks to get you from here to there. And you can’t even define what “there” is without the help. So it’s not just them filling in points along a line. It’s defining what the vector of that line actually is. Because you don’t know. You cannot define it. It is like Heisenberg’s uncertainty design principle. I just hope I can get there. I don’t know where I’m headed.  But, I’ll know it when I see it.

How do you engage help of those individuals without being able to tell them what you want to do? That’s hard. So what you’ll have to do is give them a process that they can believe in.

EL: Something I’m taking away from the conversation is a game designer is a practitioner of a skill. And a design leader is someone who motivates people.

MJ: Yeah, it’s craftsman versus architecture in some ways.

EL: And so a lot of people, as their career progresses, they’re asked to move from skill craftsman to skilled architect, and that may or may not work and there may be people that are skilled architects that actually aren’t interested in the spreadsheets or really don’t care about defining the story.

So, what I was going to ask is, what is the role of the game designer? What is the role of a creative director?

MJ: Okay, so I’ve also trained a lot of game designers, it’s just been a lot less formal.

I think it’s exceptionally difficult to be a good creative director, if you have not been at least a decent game designer. So there’s really nice clean analogy to sports. There’s occasionally a coach who didn’t play. But those are incredibly rare.

Now the good coach is also rarely the superstar player. They’re usually the decent player who played a lot, but didn’t necessarily stand out. I’m trying to even think of one that was a superstar that turned into being a great coach. They just don’t exist.

EL: Right. Whereas like I can easily go, well, Ozzie Guillén took the White Sox to the World Series, but I only know him before he was a coach because I lived in Chicago and saw him play.

MJ: He was never…

EL: He was a star, but not quite a national superstar.

MJ: So I really think it maps. It’s very hard to understand what’s going on if you weren’t part of it at one point. And part of it in a way that you were quite dedicated to it. Even if you weren’t necessarily the superstar.

But, yes, that being said, the people who have that superset of skills that allow you to be a leader are also rare. And are not necessarily the ones who are superstars.

So, who are those people? Now the good news is a lot of them self-select because they recognize their limits in the space of actually doing the craft. They get bored, they get disappointed, there’s a variety of things that become motivators to move on to something different and then go to the leadership space.

They are different skill sets and I’m happy to consider the idea of a designer who would not make a good leader. I am unhappy to consider the design leader who is not a good designer.

And I think those people end up in trouble. I really do. I’ve seen it.

EL: What do you think is the trap that a person who’s a design leader who hasn’t been a strong designer falls into easily?

MJ: So there’s a design mode of thinking that’s important. One of the things when I train designers is I’ll train them in certain uses of language.

So for instance, I will say “I’m not going to hear what you say, until every sentence you say begins with the phrase, ‘The player’ Okay?” And that’s a silly thing, but if I say, I’m not going to listen to your game design idea until you tell me every sentence begins with the words, “the player,” it changes the way you communicate.

The player will first jump in, it’s annoying for a while. And then you realize, well, that’s what we’re doing here. We’re creating something that players are going to do. So, of course, I have to start everything with “the player.” And it takes a while. It takes sometimes years to really feel that. Like, what I believe is never right. It’s all about the player.

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