Game Design: Does Richard Garriott have a point?

Game Design: Does Richard Garriott have a point?

By Martin Darby

May 3rd 2013 at 1:00PM

Remode's Martin Darby responds to Richard Garriotts' attack on game designers

[Martin Darby founded Remode in 2007, and has been integral to it’s growth, and the creation of more than 30 online and mobile games. He is responsible for the creative vision and delivery of all projects, including client work and, recently, the studio’s own IP.]

Richard Garriott revealed in a recent PC Games interview his belief that “most designers suck”.

Following a predictable furore, Garriott later issued a statement clarifying his position, arguing that his words were taken out of context but at the same time maintaining his argument that it was difficult to get new designers into the right mindset for games. As a designer as well as an employer in the games industry, Garriott’s words touched me to the core.

Garriott suggests that the reason members of the new generation of game designers fall short is because there is a difference between developing real talent and sensitivity for design, or having to fall back on it due to lack of success in other areas of development like programming or visual art. He highlights the problem that there is no real formal training established for those who want to learn and demonstrate their ability of game design.

Although Garriott’s overt criticism caused outrage, I recognised what he was saying. As a passable graphic artist and scripter, it dawned me early on that my strength lay not in being a fantastic artist or programmer, but in taking a step back in order to contribute to the overall design of a project. I also recognised that this is not a strength that is regularly attributed to someone with little experience, so fresh out of graduation I decided to go the start-up route to put my theories and ambition to the test.

While not for everyone, the start-up route taught me through the mixture of working with people much more experienced than me and being solely responsible for my successes as well as failures, what core design skills and talents are. It taught me that understanding the basic concept of game design is easy. It¹s the implementation that's hard and that’s why Garriott is right: game design is art.

Where Garriott and I begin to differ is where he criticises what I term ‘high level design’. He says, “they generally say, ‘You know, I really like Medal of Honor, but I would have bigger weapons, or I would have more healing packs, or, you know’. They go to make one or two changes to a game they otherwise love versus really sit down and rethink, ‘How can I really move the needle here?’”

There is use in the detached high level ‘concept’ design that he derides, and that is in business development. Because the games industry relies on sales of games, in other words products, business development and sales skills are crucial to a good games designer, as any developer with a failed self-published project and equally a games commissioner from a big publisher with endless stack of pitches on his desk with testify. On this basis, is saying “I like Medal of Honor, but I see a gap for a version with bigger guns?” really such a crime if there genuinely is a demand for it?

Where high-level design does fall down is when you need to make a transition from the world of possibility to the world of practical adaptation, which is where low-level design comes in – building components from the bottom up. But I don¹t think it¹s a case of either or – you need both to make successful games, and therefore both skills are needed in a team of designers.

To become better designers we need to understand the value of both high-level design and low-level design and how they should complement each other to ultimately sit on top of one another in harmony. I believe that it is this harmony that produces both good games and financial successes. However most designers have a bias one way or the other and it is important to recognise this and work on one's weaknesses. Low-level design isn’t easy to explain in words as it is expressed in numbers and statements, therefore we need high-level design to help us explain concepts. However high-level design isn’t very good for getting things made so we need to use low-level design to communicate our vision effectively to programmers.

From what Garriott is saying, he doesn’t see enough understanding and insight into what good design constitutes in our generation, and that is indeed a pity. At the same time, he points out lack of formal training, but who better to provide this training than Garriott and his peers, who hold the most experience in our industry?

I hope Garriott not only despairs at the level of talent and insight among new designers, but gives back to the community by offering advice and contributing to the training and experience offered by universities, colleges and graduate employers.

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