“What is Game Design?” with Paul Barnett

The following are excerpts from a conversation with Paul Barnett, Senior Creative Director at BioWare/Mythic.  Paul currently oversees a number of projects in the BioWare family, including Warhammer: Wrath of Heroes and BioWare Social. 

EL: To start with, what is game design?

PB: Oh, dear, crikey. If I knew that, then I’d be rich. I’m with Stephen King. It’s probably telepathy. I thought that was the greatest answer to what is story writing is telepathy. Game design is probably telepathy.

People have ideas in the modern era they’re basically two groups. Lots of people trying desperately to get a straightforward idea made over a long period of time, for something like Star Wars TOR. Simple idea. Massively multiplayer Star Wars meets Knights of the Old Republic. But it requires hundreds of people, years, millions of dollars and it’s supremely difficult.

The other extreme is bedroom coding, where you just get one, two, three people maybe. You have a vision and generally just a desire to get something out to the industry. And you just do stuff.

I just came from the Art of Computer Gaming show at the Smithsonian. I was asked this exact question and I stole James Cameron’s quote, which is “A game designer is someone who goes out and makes games, any type of game, regardless of what anyone says, regardless of the quality, regardless of who tries to stop them. They make it available any way they can and they don’t give a damn whether anyone likes it, whether it actually made any money. They just make it and release it.”

And in that point, they’re a games designer. From then on, everything else in their life is merely about scope, budget and ideas.

EL: So the sheer act of making game, finishing it, and putting it in front of another person.

PB: Yes. Absolutely. Once you’re into that, then it’s all the arguments about, are you good at it, big at it, commercial at it. Are you smart at it? Are you innovative? Are you capable of working with other people? Do you work from certain platforms or certain ideas? They’re all just subquestions.

Design is nothing more than the sheer act of creativity. Taking an idea and making it available. Everything else is just talk. My friend’s an author and he says the same thing, “Everyone’s got a book in them. I’m just not too sure they’re books worth reading. Thankfully though, very few people have it within them to actually write their book. So we’re saved from torment.”

EL: What is the role of the game designer?

PB: It’s a title thrown around all over. I would say the following: if you are involved in the creation of a game, you are a game designer. It doesn’t matter if you’re doing audio, doing user interface, whether you’re doing the loading screen. It doesn’t matter. It’s all in the design. Every single person involved in the game is designing. A guy writing the code that is going to store the player data is designing. Whether they like it or not. Because how they put that data together, how it’s stored, how compact it is, how easy it is for us to see it is game design.

EL: And what its limitations are often force decisions in other parts of the game.

PB: So, everyone’s a game designer. The poor sod who actually has the title is generally the person who is the highest position of pain all the time. Because they are the person in rawest place because everything they do is thwarted, compromised, belittled, misunderstood and butchered, in front of their eyes, often by themselves.

So pain would probably be my number one thing of what is game designer? Someone who is in a lot of pain. They are the screenwriters of Hollywood, again, like in William Goldman’s book. He tells this great tale about all the screenwriters that you’ve never heard of, who’ve never won anything, they’re not on talk shows and they’re not lauded as greatness. If you pull someone aside and say, “Name me ten great screenwriters,” a lot of people struggle to get beyond four.

Whereas you ask them to name directors, oh, they’ll nail it. And ten actors, oh, “I’ve got that, no problem.” But the people who actually create the story, “No, never heard of them.”

I love designing. I love designing with other people. I love helping people to design and it means that I have had a lot of pain. You’ve had a lot of pain.

EL: Yes

PB: Pain, I like that answer.

EL: Right. Game design is pain. It’s everyone on the game team is a designer in some sense. But then the person who actually gets the title…

PB: What do you think?

EL: I think that, to me, the easiest way to explain what a game designer does is that, they are the person responsible for what the user sees, touches, feels. And because of that, they are the person who’s in the most pain, because everything else is very difficult to comment on. The code is difficult to comment on. And a lot of times, much of the art is difficult to comment on, although sometimes it’s fairly easy.

But the game designer, I always feel like, is important for wrapping things up and putting it in front of a player and they’re responsible for making it fun. And so, it’s the easiest thing for anybody to look at and criticize. Which is good, because ultimately shielding a game from criticism or a design from criticism, well, it’s going to meet people eventually, right? So the sooner, the better.

PB: I was asked a question recently at Art of Computer Games, I was on a panel with Ken Levine and some guy brought it up. I thought that game design was three things at that point. It was communication, both ways, and then it’s a point from Karl Marx and something Monty Python said, which I think sort of captures game design. Karl Marx was all about alienation, how you shouldn’t have alienation. And I think a designer’s number one job is to ensure as many people as possible are engaged in the project, understand what the hell we’re trying to make and why it’s important. So that they can stay away from alienation.

They’ve got to be vested in their belief. And then Monty Python, which was all about, you write down an idea, then it gets communicated to your colleagues, who miss-hear it, misunderstand it, write down what they think you said, and that becomes the great idea. And it’s sort of like that inaudible accidental happenstance and joy.

Words that would sum up lead designers or main designers, apart from pain… love, care. Every great designer gave a damn like you wouldn’t believe. Every great designer is in an eternal love affair with design. And accepts that it’s a love affair, which means, you’re at times powerless. You’re at times destroyed. You’re at times miserable. You’re at times elated and ecstatic. You’re at times challenging dragons, bringing down heavens and, at other times, are the most isolated and raw you can ever be.

The great ones, the ones that are really deeply admired generally do that, and they’re fearless of failure. The best designers I ever met, they design all the time. Quantity has a quality about what they do. They don’t just design one game.

I think anyone can pull off one thing and it can be cool. A great designer is defined by the weaknesses they have and the failures they have and the fact they carried on going. Great design is Winston Churchill, it’s going from failure to failure with no lack of enthusiasm.

EL: That’s funny

PB: That’s Churchill. He’s an amazing man. You look at his life and it is failure to failure with no lack of enthusiasm. Then he saves the Western World.

EL: That actually even leads me to two questions. One is, why do we designers fail so frequently? And two, why is that enthusiasm the key to ultimate success?

PB: Because we’re all broke. That’s easy. We’re the only people who don’t get a payout. When you think about how many designers you meet who are rich, the answer is “hardly any.” They’re all people who owned companies and finance people, marketing people for some reason seem to have a lot of money. I never really understand that. And we’re not driven by those rewards. We’re driven by the desire to communicate, express ourselves through game design. We will get fired from projects because we believe in them so strongly, over a matter of principle. We’re lunatics. We find it very hard to design games we don’t care about. We fight for the craziest things that make no sense whatsoever. That enthusiasm comes from that boiling blood desire to do something. We’ll fight for design elements because we know in our heart they’re right.

I also know this: every designer I’ve ever met who has agreed to do something because of budget and restrictions because they thought it was the only way of getting it done, has ended up in deep regret. And has ended up either leaving a project through sadness and deep regret or bringing a project out and going, “you know what? I did get out over the line, but by hell, I probably shouldn’t have.”

It’s a funny thing. We’re the only people like that. Artists, if they’re told “draw this,” they’ll draw it and if a coder’s told “learn this language” they’ll code it. QA’ll QA anything that they’re told to do because QA are good like that. But designers, every time we go off the true path, every time we bother to do something that we didn’t believe in, we throw ourselves on the rocks of ruin. Poets. We’re digital poets.

EL: So, we’ve talked a lot actually about already the challenges of game design. What do you think is the biggest challenge of being a game designer?

PB: FART. Features, action, resource, time. So, features and resource and time being the three points of the triangle, action being in the middle of the triangle. Spells fart. The big fart is the single biggest thing a designer has to wrap their heads around. Because farts smell, no one wants to take the blame, no one wants to point at another person and suggest it’s happened. And, as a designer, that’s it. Deciding on your features, fighting for your resources, desperately trying to get the time. All the while, altering your actions.

And so if there’s anything that we do, farting would be top of the list. And it sounds sort… it’s cheeky. But, when I look back, I so very rarely got given a pen and told, “Okay, Paul. Off you go. Let’s go! What do you?”

EL: Right

PB: I’ve spent all my time dealing with the big fart. It happens minute to minute, day to day, week to week. So, if you do one thing, dealing with farts would probably be the big thing.

EL: Yeah. I think when you’re on the outside, or when you’re growing up, it’s easy to think this is a dream job and a passion and it is pure creativity. And it is all those things. But, like you said, nobody ever gives you a blank check and 50 engineers and 20 artists and says, “Do anything you want. We believe in you. Here’s $100 million.” [laughs]

PB: What’s weird is, I think if they did, it’d be a disaster.

EL: Oh, absolutely.

PB: Yes, if ever you get given an open checkbook, run, because you’re going to crash.

Michael John, Sr. Creative Director for EA
Soren Johnson, Lead Designer for Zynga
Jenova Chen, Co-Founder and Creative Director, thatgamecompany