On Game Design with Rich Hilleman (Part 2)

Rich HillemanRich Hilleman is the Chief Creative Director of EA. He is one of EA’s earliest employees and is best known for helping to build the juggernaut EA Sports business as the original producer of games including John Madden Football, NHL Hockey and Tiger Woods PGA Tour. This is the second part of an interview took place in April, 2012. You can read the first part here.

EL: What do you think is the biggest challenge faced by modern game designers?

RH: I don’t think it’s changed much. It’s the same problem. Ultimately, players would like to figure out how not to pay for games. In the past, that was expressed through various kinds of piracy which was occasionally even humorous in its activity.

I think in some ways we have ritualized that. Free-to-play is really a ritualization of that process. That means that getting paid by the customer continues to be the hardest thing.

I used to do this bit in EPX [executive producer training at EA] where I said, “What’s the hardest job in video games?” And the producer would get up and say, “The producer.” The engineer would get up and say, “The engineer.” The designer would get up and say, “The designer.” I’d say it’s pretty simple. I’d say “Give me five bucks.” Or, “Give me 60 bucks.”

I’d walk around the room. Nobody would give me $60, right? Nobody will. So the answer is, “I think we’ve established right now what the hardest job in video games is: getting somebody to give you 60 bucks.”

So much of the organization I think of how successful companies do their job is either consciously or subconsciously organized around the process of getting paid. And if you as a designer think you can ignore how you get paid in the future, it is more important—not less—that you align your design efforts around it.

The very first product I ever designed, the first thing I did in the design was to describe that I needed six screenshots to fit on the back of the package because that was the single most important component of my customers’ decision about whether to buy my game versus another: those six screenshots and what they told them.

Twenty-five-plus years ago I decided that I’m going to build my product around the most difficult thing to accomplish: getting paid. I think that is more true than ever, not less true, more true. If you are a designer and think you’re going to avoid worrying about that problem, you will not have a job very long in my opinion.

On the other hand, those who understand it and have great command of how you do A/B tests to produce better financial outcomes, they’re going to drive the bus more and more every day and they might even get called producer even when they’re not. [laughs]

EL: What excites you most about game design today?

RH: You’ve heard my joke before about how I’m officially old. I’m old enough to have been in this business long enough that whether or not we would be a legally protected art form was by no means certain. It was very much in question.

That’s a day that’s now gone into the past and we have gone through a cultural shift in our acceptance in lots of ways. One of them is that more and more people play games than have ever played before. They just do and they’re not subconscious about it and they don’t care about it.

It doesn’t mean they want to be a 14-year-old eating Doritos for 20 hours in their living room and peeing their pants. That’s not who they want to be. But there’s more and more acceptance of playing games, number one.

Number two, there are more and more other parts of society that are, interestingly enough, looking to games to solve their problems. Some of that I worry about, because these are problems they’ve had for a long time before they came to see us. There’s a certain tinge of desperation to that that makes me worry that we can’t actually solve their problems. I don’t think we can solve the education system’s problems singlehandedly. I don’t think we can solve the corporate education problem singlehandedly.

Can we make things better? Yes. We are not a panacea. We will not going to cure cancer.

But it is nice that people see us now as a solution occasionally rather than just a problem. I think the other thing that’s true is the number of people that you can reach and how easy it is to reach those people.

I was at PAX East and one of the people that talked to me afterwards said, “I’m in the junior year of my computer science program. I love games. How do I get people to notice me?” I said, “How many games did you make?” And the answer was, “None.” I said, “How about you make one?” I said, “There’s no time better in the universe to be somebody who wants to make games. It has never been easier. There are more ways. There is no reason that you can’t make a game today. The only reason you won’t make a game today is because you won’t try.”

This is not seven years ago where if you didn’t make a triple-A console game, you were nowhere. You have mobile, you have the web, you have download, and you have free-to-play models all over the planet. You have social networking games. Almost all of these products’ spaces have virtually zero barriers to entry, where $5000 and some attention can make you a commercial player in any of those businesses.

And we see it all the time. Two guys do Realm of the Mad God. Okay, they’re two good guys but they’re two guys.

Most of our best mobile products have been really built by one person. You can do things today. The only reason you don’t is because you choose not to.

There are two things going on at the same time. Number one is we have essentially the entire second generation of game players now. These are people who grew up in households with parents who were gamers. And those people now are thinking about making games. Thank God I’m almost done because they’ve been living it. They’re going to have it organically in a way that I don’t even maybe understand. I think that the combination of barriers to entry being so low and the population of potential game makers being so large means that things should never have been brighter than right now.

Might be tough for EA, but overall if you like games, it’s a great time.

EL: I remember when my parents bought our first family computer, it was like an Apple LC II for $3000.

RH: Wow.

EL: And I was able to use HyperCard to make my first game. That’s probably a $5000 to $6000 computer today. And the thing is that for $200, you could get a computer that is powerful enough and use free software to get a game into the hands of millions of people for free.

RH: Literally in six weeks, you could go from no computer, nothing, to having something that 20,000 people played last night. That is possible today.

In 1984, that was unfathomable. It’s inconceivable that not only a large number of people would show up to play, period, at all but that I could also reach them that quickly. Not only that, but the accessibility of the technology to reach them.

It is not a 6502 assembly line problem anymore. It really isn’t. I mean, you can get a lot done with Simple Basic for God’s sake, which is essentially a free piece of software from Microsoft that produces generally 8-bit-quality-plus coin-op style videogames.

There are a lot of great games that were made in that technology. Again, that’s not a limitation from your ability to make great games. You are the limitation for your ability to make great games.

EL: It’s your own motivation really.

RH: That’s right. I got kids and my parental direction that they’re tired of hearing from me is that life is 80% about two things: 40% is showing up prepared, and 40% is finishing. The middle 20% is actually not that big a deal, but that’s what everybody spends their time on. [laughs]

You and I both know this. You’ve seen people of mediocre talent who are fricking doggedly persistent that accomplish things in life you just can’t believe. And brilliant people who never finish anything that drive you crazy. That’s really the difference. What’s so great about this era is that for people who have those characteristics, they’re literally is no reason they can’t express them anymore. And I think that’s a big difference.

So hopefully they make some good games [laughs]. I also do think that there are things like the Chinese, Eastern European, South American, and even East Asian/Indian subcontinent markets and the distinct gaming forms they are creating that I think are equally interesting. It’s making what was really a pretty fundamentally Japanese, American, and English forum into a world forum.

Literally, up until five years ago, could you name a game designer that didn’t reside in one of those three places?

EL: No.

RH: Pretty short list. Maybe one or two in France.

EL: Right. When I think about it: the Ubisoft guys.

RH: The thing that was surprising was, as late as five years ago, Germany was a $1 billion a year or so market with no native game design talent at all except these highly specific, ultra-pedantic board games that are essentially based on Settlers [of Catan] style systems. Everything else in that market was foreign-made. There’s just no kind of precedence for that. That seems unsustainable. Same thing with Italy. These are countries that have deep cultural roots. It’s inconceivable to me that they wouldn’t generate their own native forums, but they didn’t. But I bet they are now.

EL: So just between global reach to ease of access to computing to distribution—

RH: Lots of different economic models.

EL: Right. Does operating a free-to-play game today mirror or is it similar to operating a coin-op business in the late 80s/early 90s? Is that a meaningful analogy?

RH: I think it’s almost closer to computer games pre-1981 or ’82. I would say the majority of computer games that were distributed before 1982 were distributed from one person to another by being copied. I would say that that’s the equivalent of heavy metal tapes from the ‘80s. The primary mechanism of underground heavy metal distribution was one guy taping another guy’s tape.

I think that that’s what free-to-play has done, is it’s taken all of the friction out of the distribution system, all of it. Now the question is, how do you monetize the underlying subculture that gets created underneath it? The joke was, in 1986 or something like that, you could buy three Metallica records and one T-Shirt, and that was the entire sum of commercial products that were available. Clearly, their management runs them a little better nowadays. They’ve found lots of other ways for people to give them money.

I think that’s what free-to-play is going to do is generate other ways for people to pay them money. I think the Angry Birds guys are getting paid a lot of ways that have nothing to do with video games nowadays. In fact, I would bet their predominant source of economics right now is licensing.

EL: Yeah, when I started seeing Angry Birds at the California State Fair as a giveaway toy next to Mickey Mouse—

RH: That are in the penny-pitching place. Yeah, exactly. We’ve fallen into the culture.

On Game Design with Rich Hilleman (Part 1)
On Game Design with Rich Hilleman (Part 3)

Michael John, General Manager of GlassLab
Paul Barnett, General Manager of EA Mythic
Jenova Chen, Chief Creative Officer at thatgamecompany