Thursday, April 9, 2009

DICE 2009: Todd Howard Panel

Even though it has been over month since DICE happened, I feel I need to do a post on Todd Howard's speech. Todd Howard is the main guy at Bethesda and has been at the helm for Morrowind, Oblivion and, most recently, Fallout 3. His talk at DICE was great and has some great information on how to create a great game. Thankfully IGN has both parts up for you to watch and I strongly suggest you give it the half hour it deserves. I will attempt to talk about the main points here, if you don't feel like watching.

It starts out with him talking about the basics of game design. How the hard part is juggling everything your boss wants you to do, with the expectations of the fans. He mentions that although the fans are important, you also really have to watch out for what your team needs and what is actually possible in the game.

The next thing he talks about is how excellent people are ultimately responsible for excellent games. He mentions that you can have the greatest team in the world but if you don't have the culture of excellence/quality than they will not create excellent games. He also mentions that you need to expect your team to be able to create and utilize their ideas without too much micromanagement. They need to be able take care of themselves and not worry about managers breathing down their necks. The last point deals mainly with having people that are willing to give up some of their ideas for the greater good of the team. You cannot have people that are too selfish if you want to create excellent games.

He then goes into what it actually takes to create great games. And this is really the bulk of his speech. Each part of this is really just as important as the rest. Like Todd Howard, I will mention them in reverse. He first mentions how in the game you have to actually define and create the experience that the player will see. He uses the Pipboy 3000 as an example. Since the player will want to check their stats/inventory/map constantly, they wanted something that would be interesting to the player throughout the game. That idea made the Pipboy the way it ended up being in the game.

The next part is about keeping it simple. This actually is an old idea known as KISS, as in Keep It Simple Stupid. You can have the greatest ideas in the world, but you might not have the time or the manpower to make it happen. Even if you could, Todd argues, most players would not notice nor appreciate what you have been able to accomplish. He then goes into the idea that your culture of excellence is much more important than any plan you might have. Plans always change and the original designs might not be possible, but your culture is what will ultimately create a great game. He leads into the idea that individual ideas are not as important as the actual execution of the design. Although it might be hard to give up certain ideas, it might be important if the execution of those ideas is not up to snuff. "You can do anything, but you can not do everything" is a concept that Todd Howard mentions in his talk. If you cannot execute an idea properly, then it is important to drop it. A badly executed idea is actually worse than just leaving that idea out.

The next part is the 4 parts of what defines the player experience. They really wanted Fallout 3 to encompass these parts constantly throughout the game. He mentions how too many companies focus on the Challenge and Surprise parts, and how Nintendo is known to be masters of the Learn and Play aspects. The first two can be the most important because that is what really brings players into the game. Todd Howard also mentions how Half-Life 2 has these four aspects down pat. The whole concept of finding a new weapon, learning it, using it, finding a use for it in a challenging environment and then being surprised by a new enemy/weapon. You constantly have to keep the player engaged by giving them new weapons/items/areas to learn and then challenging their use of these new concepts once they have learned them.

The last part that he talks about is the layers that every game is basically made up of. The player will first notice the bugs and general polish of the game. If that part is okay, they will drill down to game balance. If both of those are done correctly, the player will finally experience what constitutes an amazing game. By showing this, he enforces the idea that a player will not bother with an "amazing game" if the polish is not there. Although you might have great ideas and fantastic concepts, if the polish and balance is not there it will not matter in the end. If you have to sacrifice some ideas to add polish and balance it is worth it because a player will not put up with terrible bugs and an unplayable game just to see your "great ideas."

Although Fallout 3 is not perfect, Tood Howard really shows how they are able to create such a great game. I really think many designers can learn a thing or two from Todd Howard has to say.

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