Rich Hilleman是艺电的首席创意总监。他是艺电最早的雇员之一，并因为帮助创造EA Sports（包含《John Madden Football》, 《NHL Hockey》，《Tiger Woods PGA Tour》在 内的游戏品牌）而声名大噪。以下是2012年4月对于Rich的一次访问。
RH：我所致力的第一款游戏名为《Chuck Yeager’s Advanced Flight Simulator》，之后又改为《Chuck Yeager’s Advanced Flight Trainer》。那时候我们与Lucasfilm以及其 它公司也共同致力于其它几款模拟游戏。我们创造了包括《Ferrari Formula One》（一款有关Indy 500的游戏）在内的几款赛车游戏。我们创造了《Road Rash》。我还创造了 《Populous》最初的Genesis版本。我们面向了Genesis分别创造了《John Madden Football》和《NHL Hockey》的第一个版本。还创造了《爱丽丝梦游仙境》。
EL：创造了这么多体育游戏，作为《FIFA》或《John Madden Football》的设计师的工作与Seth Marinello创造《死亡空间》的工作有什么不同？
这便意味着我在此的观点很大程度是受到创造飞行模拟器的经历的影响。当我们在创造《Chuck Yeager’s Advanced Flight Trainer》时，比起《我的世界》的飞行模拟器，它拥 有当时较不迂腐但也较不清晰的飞行模拟器。我们同样也要基于4倍的帧率而运行，并需要考虑驾驶飞行人员。
RH：确实如此。不过说实话，在《F-16 Combat Pilot》中，我们花了数百万美元去训练这些人。如果我给你一款游戏让你做F-16要求你做的所有事，你会怎样？首先，你肯定什么 都不会做。其次，这种体验一点都不有趣。在F-16的现代空战中射击另外一家飞机：这完全是一款雷达游戏。屏幕上只有少量信号，我将瞄准这些信号发射导弹，然后这些信号便 会消失。
但是我们并未让玩家基于不同的战术飞行。我们并未让他们飞行。我们并未让他们基于非常真实的方式使用武器系统。我们并未让他们基于苏联所采取的协调方式使用雷达系统。 最重要的是，在20世纪80年代和90年代间，如果你驾驶的是喷射式飞机，你便不能够发射导弹。那时候的导弹是从地面发射的。你的工作只是驾驶飞机，而由别人发射导弹。所以 很明显这是个不让人满意的表达。
EL：我和Michael John曾讨论过，当他在训练设计师时，他会教授他们什么是“玩家的思维”，他会跟他们说“我会在每个句子开始时才听你说话。”这与你在讲述模拟游戏的时 候很像。说实话，在所有电子游戏中，它们都不是关于客观地找出事实。而是关于明确玩家脑中的想法，并帮助他们实现这些想法。
我们所负责的第二件事便是有关游戏设计图像的状态。举个例子来说吧，就像团队中的Sandy之所以会和我们共同致力于现在的工作中是因为我相信，比起其它市场，免费游戏模式 将在中国市场取得更加快速的发展。这是我们对于该市场的理解，而这将直接影响着我们是否能在美国市场取得成功（游戏邦注：即在中国市场成功后在美国市场仿效同样的模式 ）。
RH：一个像Seth那样创造射击游戏的人，一个创造出像《模拟城市》的模拟类游戏的人，一个创造了一款社交游戏的人，一个创造了一款社交游戏的年轻女性，一个创造了一款手 机游戏的人，或一个创造了一款AAA级主机游戏的人，但是不管是怎样的类型，你们所面对的问题类型都是不同的，因为你们的用户是不同的，你们的盈利系统是不同的，你们的分 销渠道是不同的，人们的游戏频率和持续时间也是不同的。
不过我认为这种情况也发生了变化。这并不是说设计师是完全受控制的，我认为随着人们对于遥测技术和指标的兴趣的不断提高，现在的我们能够更好地评估设计师这一工作了。 我认为之前所存在的问题是关于许多公司和大多数业务都是在设计师推出内容时，也就是每隔18个月左右才能对其展开评估。而其它有关设计师的影响力的元素却被彻底忽视了。 只有你能够真正剖析一件产品，你才能理解设计师所做的以及人们强加给他们的误解。
之前在我参加PAX East游戏展时，有个人对我说道：“我是计算机科学编程专业的大三学生。我非常喜欢游戏。我该如何做才能让人们注意到我呢？”我问他：“你制作了多少游 戏了？”他的回答是：“一款都没有。”我说：“那你就先制作一款游戏。没有什么比一个人想要创造游戏来得美妙了。只要你有这一想法就不会有什么能够难倒你。在今天你可 没有理由不去制作游戏了。我想你能找到的唯一借口便是你不愿进行尝试。”
这种情况一直在上演。就像《Realm of the Mad God》便是由两个人独立创造出来的游戏。尽管他们都非常优秀，但是仅凭两个人之力真的很厉害。
EL：我还记得我们家买的第一台家庭计算机，它是售价3000美元的Apple LC II。
这不再是一个关于6502条装配线的问题。我的意思是你可以轻松利用Simple Basic完成许多任务，这是来自微软的一款免费软件，能够帮助你创造出8位体质量的投币式风格电子游 戏。
RH：让我吃惊的是，直到5年前，德国仍是一个每年拥有10亿收入且没有任何本土游戏设计人才的市场（除了一些基于殖民者风格的迂腐的桌面游戏）。该市场中的一切别人的内容 都是由外国人所创造的。如此看来他们并不能支撑自身国家游戏的发展。意大利也是如此。这些国家虽然拥有较深的文化底蕴，但却不能创造出属于自己的本土论坛。不过现在他 们都做到了这点。
RH：我们所从事的是一份有关幻想的工作，这意味着许多进入我们这一业务的人都是真心想要成为电子游戏设计师的人。你已经见过他们中的一位，也就是Blade Olson。他是我见 过的第一个拥有“我该如何创造电子游戏？”的意识的人。
治理想象力并不只是关于你自己的想象力，还有关于其他人的想象力，关于那些你要与之共同创造产品的人的想象力。明确该创造怎样的产品的过程是创造一件产品较为交单的组 成部分。让其他人看到你所看到的，理解你所理解的，保护你觉得需要保护的，并珍稀并投入于该投入的内容中。然后让组织予以理解，让销售组织予以理解，让其他合作伙伴能 够予以理解，并最终让你的用户能够予以理解。同时理解所有的这些想象力并明确那些并不存在的现状真的非常可怕。
我便遇到过许多优秀的设计师不能有效地做到这点。David Jaffe便是一个典型的例子，他是真的很爱自己的玩家，真的很推崇自己的看法，但却无法忍受过程的其它部分，并觉得 这阻挡了自己的去路。
我想Peter Molyneux也是这么做的。Criterion的Alex Ward也做过同样的事。还有像Will Wright等人，在自己表现得最出色的时候他们便会避免做到这些，但是当在表现糟糕的时 候，他们便想着如何去操控它们。
我想其他人也在努力让别人能够为自己做到这些。就像Will Wright需要Lucy Bradshaw。David Jaffee需要Shannon Studstill。有时候这些人也是不完全的。他们还需要其他的另 一半。
Rich 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 interview took place in April, 2012. For more from Rich, check out part 2 and part 3 of this interview.
EL: What are some of the games you’ve worked on in your 29-year career at EA?
RH: The very first game I worked on was a game called Chuck Yeager’s Advanced Flight Simulator, which then became Chuck Yeager’s Advanced Flight Trainer. We worked on a number of other simulations from that era with Lucasfilm and with others. We built driving games in that era which included Ferrari Formula One, an Indy 500 game. We also built Road Rash. I built the original Genesis version of Populous, of all crazy things. We built the first version of John
Madden Football for the Genesis. We built the first version of NHL Hockey for the Genesis. Built the first Tiger Woods PGA Tour. Built American McGee’s Alice. I’m sure I’m forgetting other things I shouldn’t be forgetting, but I’m sure I’ve insulted somebody.
EL: [laughs] It’s okay. It’s good to have so many incredible hit classic games under your belt that that’s actually an issue.
So the question I start everybody off with is, what is game design?
RH: I think game design is the process of assembling the components that can make up a game to produce a desired experience in the player. There are a lot of different flavors of that I think. There are folks who build very prescriptive experiences. I worked on the Winged Commander series. We gave the user choices but trust me we didn’t give them that many choices. Apparently we don’t give them enough choices in Mass Effect anymore.
Those are games that the designer has a point of view about what they want you to experience. They want you to make some choices, but they want you to operate within a range so they can really produce a rich experience for you.
The other end of the spectrum is sports games which are really about creating the tools for somebody to be able to fulfill the fantasy they probably already have in their head. And sometimes that’s a very specific thing: they want to be a particular player in a particular place. Other times, they want to use it as a tool along with their imagination to realize something that you couldn’t even describe in advance.
And so for me game design is the process of either assembling that point of view in one case, or assembling the tools that allow your user to have that point of view in the other.
EL: I think sports games are a really interesting area because it’s such a specific area of simulation.
RH: Painfully specific.
EL: Having done so many sports games, how is the job of being a designer on FIFA or John Madden Football different from Seth Marinello’s job making levels
on Dead Space?
RH: It has the illusion of being easier, but I’d make the case it’s harder. In Seth’s case, there is no right answer. The user doesn’t know what it’s supposed to be, he just knows whether he likes it or not. And so in that particular case, Seth’s job is to create an experience that has the right frequency, that has the right impact on the player to create an emotional narrative within the player that deepens their care for the outcome of the story over time.
Most of the time in a sports game, the player thinks they already know what the game is. They think they already know what the story is. One of your risks is that you either somehow negatively impact that, that you somehow don’t allow them to realize the story that they’re after, or that you intrude your own on them.
I think the reason that it’s harder is because what people think they know about sports is two characteristics that make it difficult. One is that it’s incomplete and the other one is that it’s often wrong. In modern American football, play calling and the execution of plays in a modern context is a responsibility of eleven players on one side to read the situation and make exactly the same decision at exactly the same time together.
Almost nobody understands that. It means that, if I give you control of a player, you need to understand the play that’s going on and need to understand the multiple approaches for the position that you’re playing. If you were playing defense in Madden, switching from player to player, that means you have to know eleven of those, not one of those. And you need to know eleven times three or four, probably.
So that is a complicated, realistic problem. If I give you that to solve, you will do nothing but fail. So our job is to give you what you think is the truth but really isn’t. That creates for you the sensation of authenticity. That’s usually equal measures of what I call “dirt,” which is the minutiae that makes up the specific and distinct characteristic of a sport combined with something you didn’t know before you showed up: something that we taught you about the sport that you never knew before.
That seems to be enough. The problem is, it’s a moving target and every year we have to improve it.
EL: Was there a time where you first started encountering this actual cognitive friction between building a feature in a sports game that was true to real life and then watching it fail to meet people’s expectations or fantasies about what the sport actually was and how they reacted?
RH: I didn’t learn it from sports, we learned it from flight simulators. What’s funny is that I came to sports products from doing flight simulators and driving simulators.
What that meant was that my perspective over here is very much shaped by the experiences we had over there. When we built Chuck Yeager’s Advanced Flight Trainer, it was a less pedantic and less articulate flight simulator than Microsoft’s flight simulator at the time. We also ran at four times the frame rate and had airplanes people cared about.
What did I learn out of that? Apparently not very much because I instantly went off and made another mistake. We tried to build an F-16 simulator to compete with Falcon and when Falcon shipped, it shipped with, I don’t know, a 160-page manual. Well, I don’t know if you remember, but in order to fire a missile on Falcon, you had to do like seven things. You had to identify the target, you had to range the radar to the right, you had to restrict the seeker head on the missile, you had to engage that seeker head, you had to receive a tone that it had been locked on, you had to lock the radar image to the tone, and then you had to arm it and fire the missile.
It was like eight things to fire the missile.
EL: That sounds like a very authentic simulation.
RH: It was a painfully authentic situation. Well the truth is, on F-16 Combat Pilot, we spent like a million dollars training those guys. And so if I give you a game that makes you do all the things that an F-16 makes you do, guess what? You never do anything, number one. Number two, the experience isn’t all that cool. To shoot down another airplane in an F-16 in a modern air combat: it’s a radar game. There’s a little blip on the screen and then I fire a missile at that blip and then the blip goes away.
And what people really want is Tom Cruise in Top Gun. They want to pull the trigger and shoot the thing down, and the whole thing happens in visual range, and the whole thing feels like it’s a mano-a-mano contest.
Modern jet combat has nothing to do with any of that. But that doesn’t mean that that’s not what people want. So I think it’s the classic example of when “the truth” and “the legend” are in conflict, print the legend, because that’s what people want.
So what we discovered was the right thing to do was to give them Tom Cruise with just a little bit more authenticity than they wanted. Call the missiles the real missiles. Have the right airplanes be the right airplanes. Maybe have them go equally fast: something that the user could track the difference and actually perceive that difference within the context of the game.
But we didn’t make them fly the different tactics. We didn’t make them fly. We didn’t make them use their weapon systems in a highly authentic way. We didn’t make them use radar systems in the coordinated fashion that the Soviet Union did. Most importantly, it turned out that for most of the 1980s and 90s, if you were a guy flying a jet fighter, you actually couldn’t fire the missile. The missiles were fired by the ground. Your job was to fly the airplane and then they fired the missiles. So that’s a distinctly unsatisfying expression of that.
What we learned by the time we got to sports was that we had been down that road already. We had already made that mistake of trying to present something that was so authentic it was painful.
And we’ve continued to have to solve that problem though. I think Madden to this day continues to be a problem where Madden is hard and football is hard. Together they’re nearly impossible. And so the new payer problem for Madden is just a problem that we work on almost every year. We’re not solving it particularly well, but we’re working on it.
EL: It sounds like at its heart the key to doing a fun simulation game is delivering almost the Hollywood-level legend and not the actual simulation.
RH: The key thing is to recognize the reality you’re trying to create is the one in their head, not yours. And that if it doesn’t react favorably to that existing context in their head, it doesn’t matter if it’s true, it’s inauthentic.
Authenticity is based on the user’s experience and not reality. And sports are no different. It seems like all simulations, all things that are related to the real world, that’s how people think about them. It doesn’t matter if it’s Tony Hawk, for that matter.
EL: Yeah, Michael John and I talked about when he’s training designers sometimes he’ll teach them the “player thinking” which is, he’ll tell them, “I’ m not listening to you until every sentence starts with, ‘The Player…’” And that sounds like it’s almost exactly what you just said with simulations. Frankly, in all videogames, it’s not about figuring out what’s true objectively. It’s about figuring what’s true in the player’s mind, and giving that to them.
RH: I think what’s ironic is in spite of the fact we don’t seem like one, actually we, at our best in particular simulations, are performance artists. And so, when you’re a DJ, it doesn’t matter if you’re right if the audience doesn’t dance. It doesn’t matter.
And I think in our case, that’s very much how it works. We’re looking for that response out of the user that says that we’ve engaged with their authenticity and their sense of anticipation with what’s going to happen in the game. And they’re drawing pictures and filling in spaces that I can never fill in their head. They’re having experiences that I couldn’t afford to give them. The power of simulations is what already exists in people’s heads. You fight that at your peril.
EL: As chief creative director here, what’s funny is that I worked for you for seven months and I’m not—
RH: [Laughs] You still don’t know what I do.
EL: I still don’t know exactly what your job as chief creative director means.
RH: There’s a dissonance between them and so the part of that that I think is the most actionable for me is really around three things. One of them is the quality of the design talent and production talent that we have as a company.
I invest in making sure that we are spending the time and space necessary within the university programs to foster the kinds of people that we want out of those programs, and then to identify the ones who are really great. And then to do secondary investments in those people, like you, to make sure that they’re ready for their futures. That’s the first thing that we do.
The other thing that we are responsible for is the state of the art of game design. For instance, Sandy, who’s in our group now, is with us because I believe that the free-to-play model will advance more rapidly in China than any other market. And that our understanding and exposure to that market and how it works will directly influence how successful it can be in the U.S., emulating that model when it happens.
For us, that’s an odd kind of sideways thing, but it’s actually really about game design at the bottom of all of that. And so I think the part that makes sense for that title is our advocacy for the role of designer and our advocacy for the discipline of design and the new things that will emerge in that space.
EL: Being a game designer means a lot of different things to a lot of different people when you’re trying to build: working with universities and the young game design talent here at EA and in the industry. What is the role of the modern game designer that you are helping to craft?
RH: A guy who builds a shooter like Seth, or a guy who builds a simulation like Sim City, or a guy who builds a social game, or a young lady who builds a social game, or a person who builds a mobile game, or a person who builds a triple-A console game, the problems you wrestle with become different because your audience is different, because your monetization systems are different, because your distribution is different, because the frequency and duration of
the periods of time that people get to play it are different.
Increasingly what they share in common is a highly metrics-oriented relationship with their customer in the long term. If I try and get one thing across with the university programs of today, it is how to be in command of the information that your product expresses about how the player is playing it. To be in the business of changing those numbers, anticipating those changes, and explaining to the rest of your team what those things are and what they mean.
For a long time in this company and really early on, I think when you worked with me, designers were the lowest form of life in the company short of audio designers because on the average team they were outnumbered by artists 30-to-1, producers 10-to-1, and engineers 10-to-1. The only thing or person that they might outnumber is there might be three designers and one audio guy. “We’re going to go kick the dog now. We’ll beat up the audio guy.”
EL: You guys even told me to switch to being a producer because to do what I wanted to do at EA, I had to have that in my job title.
RH: You wanted to be in control in a way that I thought you needed to be a producer to do.
I think that’s changed. That doesn’t mean necessarily the designers are as much in charge, but I think that the increasing interest in telemetry and metrics have made the designer a job that we now understand how to evaluate. And I think the key issue before was the way that the company and most of the business evaluated a designer was about every 18 months when they shipped something. And the number of other factors that go into that equation dramatically swamp the designer’s real influence on that. Only if you can really take apart a product can you understand what the designer did versus the mistakes that somebody else did to them.
But, I think what’s interesting about this is, if you have metrics, if you have telemetry, and you have an ongoing live relationship with a customer, suddenly you can tell a good designer in about three weeks. And I think that’s really what’s changed is designers have a way to describe to their customers why they’re great and why you can depend on them in a way that very few members of the other teams actually can.
It’s gone from maybe the least understood and least measured component of the product to arguably the most in a very short period of time.
EL: It’s definitely the most measured. I feel the understanding just from our own experience with metrics on Dragon Age Legends. There’s a lot of room to grow there.
RH: The analysis portion of it—once you’ve acquired the numbers—doesn’t mean you know what they mean. And I think we’re still going through a lot of that.
EL: I think one of the most insightful things I’ve learned from talking to various metrics people in the past couple of weeks is actually that the people who do A/B test great and it really pays off. When you ask them how many of their tests have no effect, they’ll say most of them. Sixty percent or seventy percent of things you test have literally no effect, no significant change.
I wish I had known that twelve months ago. I could’ve made a hundred better decisions on my product had I just been able to say, “Hey, you know what? Seventy percent of the time, we’re going to see nothing. And when we see one percent change, that’s a huge win.”
RH: Yeah, knowing how to celebrate. I think a big chunk of that is why I think designers are starting to gain some headway is (A) they’re explaining those things, and (B) they understand when they can change them. When you tell somebody, “I’m going to make this number change by three percent,” and then you do three percent, and you do that like three times in a row, it’s fucking magic. To everybody else in the room, what you have done is magic.
Now the truth is you could probably explain to them why, in most cases, because for you to predict that, you’ve got some reason why. But for most of the people they’d just never bothered to think through the details enough to nderstand that that’s an anticipatable thing.
So simply the fact that you can anticipate it, you can forecast it in advance, and that you were right, there’s a point—as you’ve heard me describe before —you do that like three times in a row and the producer says, “Just leave him the fuck alone.” [laughs] “I don’t know what he does or how he does it, but he does shit that none of the rest of you know how to do. Leave him alone.”
If you were going to describe the end-state that designers want most, that might be it: “Leave me alone.”
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.
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 anythig 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?
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.
EL: For the young designers you coach and help craft and bring into EA, what do you think is the biggest frustration point that they should be prepared for as a commercial game designer?
RH: So we’re a fantasy job, meaning lots of people who come into our business grew up their entire lives wanting to be videogame designers. You’ve got one of those guys named Blade Olson. You’ve met him. He literally is one of those people that I believe the first conscious thought he had was, “How do I get to make videogames?”
So we have a lot of those people in our business nowadays. And what is joyous about them, absolutely wonderful about them, is the depth of their appreciation for being in the business and their enthusiasm every day for what they can do.
The bad news is they have no idea what the job is before they walk in the door. When you’ve really invested a lot of time in the fantasy that you think something is, and then it’s confronted with the reality that’s different—not better or worse, just different—it’s a jarring event for most of those people.
And what I try and do is make sure I have a conversation that talks about how the business works from the perspective of the business, not the customer. If you’re a customer, you tend to think, “Well, it’s just all about making great games. You make great games and it all works.” And it’s like, ehhhh, not really.
I try and get them to be aligned with how the decision-making process works within companies, about how they decide what games get made or don’t get made. Usually what happens is, people come in and they’re very frustrated for the first three or four years because they can’t get their game made.
First of all, that’s not a realistic expectation. Number two, are you sure that’s actually the game you want made? Chances are, after you’re here for three years and you’ve actually sat down and re-evaluated how things really work, I’ll bet it isn’t the game you want made anymore.
If it is, then for God’s sakes, let’s make it. If it’s survived three years and all of that time, chances are it is the game you want made. In most cases, it isn’t. In most cases, what’s happened is you have figured out that it needs to be something else to be successful and to meet what you want it to be.
So I think that the hardest lesson for people to learn is the disconnect between the fantasy that they have in their head. Oddly enough, it’s a game design learning opportunity because that same fantasy is the thing you want to exploit in simulations, for instance.
It can damage your ability to see the world as it is versus the way you wish it was.
EL: Can you share an important lesson you have learned about design during your career?
RH: is about the harnessing of imagination. And that sounds really simple and it sounds really obvious, that it’s about making things up. That’s actually very little of what I mean.
Harnessing imagination is not just about your imagination, it’s about other people’s imagination and about those who you’re going to make the product with. The process of figuring out what the product should be is one of the simpler parts of making one. Getting other people to see what you see, to understand what you understand, to protect what you feel needs to be protected, and to cherish and love and invest in the things that need to be invested in. And then to make the organization understand that, to make the sales organizations understand that, to make your other partners understand that, and ultimately to make your customers understand that. To understand how to harness all of those imaginations at one time and to see something that doesn’t exist is a hell of a trick.
That means that your imagination is important, but your ability to understand other people’s imaginations is much more. And I think that’s the part that most designers don’t ever quite get, is how much of it is about other people. That it is a seemingly selfish endeavor to have our own vision for what we wish to make and then to get to make it. When you pull that, when you get somebody else to give you a bunch of money to make something you want to make, that ’s a hell of a trick.
Unfortunately that’s only half the trick. The other half of the trick is then making that work. And the parts that are important about making that work are all those other imaginations.
I think designers have a very good and very quick approach to getting to that, to satisfying their own sense of their imagination, maybe even to satisfy the customer’s sense of what their experience will be, but forget about everybody else. And they don’t do very well, and they’re very unhappy usually.
I’ve watched good designers who still have a hard time with that. I think David Jaffe’s a very interesting example of a guy who is truly and passionately in love with his players, and truly and passionately in love with his vision, and very irritated with every other part of the process, and finds that it gets in his way.
I think Peter Molyneux has expressed it somewhat that way. I think Alex Ward for Criterion has shown some of those same things. Guys like Will Wright, when they’re at their best, they’ve figured out how to be above all of that. And when they’re at their worst, they’ve tried to manipulate it.
So, who are people who are good at it? I think Cliff Bleszinski’s pretty good at balancing it.
I think that other people have struggled with getting other people to do that stuff for them. A guy like American McGee needs to be produced. Will Wright needs Lucy Bradshaw. David Jaffee needs Shannon Studstill. Sometimes these people are incomplete. They need the other half.
EL: It’s very similar to sentiments Michael John had that basically a design leader isn’t necessarily someone with the great idea. It’s someone who can inspire a bunch of people to move in one direction at the same time.
RH: Inspire and communicate. That’s right.
It’s one of the dangers. There’s a certain value to managing by ambiguity in creative endeavors, which is not to define too much. So I say, “We’re gonna go make the world’s greatest videogame,” and then that’s all I say. And I walk away. Well, what are the odds that you and I see the same thing in our heads? Probably zero. [laughs]
But on the other hand, if I said that and we’re going to be blissfully ignorant of the fact that we’re going to have a different vision, what are the odds that both of us are happy at the same time? Pretty close to 100%.
So the challenge is, in this context, how specific does that imagination have to be? How specifically the same does it have to be? Versus how much of the process do you let sort that out? If you’re going to work with a team of people to make something, sometimes your exact vision of how the sounds should work isn’t going to be the best vision.
When you said the best sound you could ever imagine, the complexity and their grasp of what that can be far exceeds your ability to express it to them, let alone even understand what it means.
So that’s the interesting tension: how specific your vision is and how specifically you try and convey that versus how much you try and convey the experience you want the user to have or the emotional sense that you want the people who are building it to create for themselves.
Sometimes that ends up with a mess: you end up with products that are going seven different directions because you’ve never figured out how to unify that vision. That’s bad producing and bad designing, I’d say, at the same time. But if you do that well, it’s almost magic because it doesn’t just become the best thing it can be. It becomes the best thing all of you together could imagine. That’s really magic, I think. And it happens, by the way. Surprisingly, if you do things the right way and work with the right people, it happens a surprising amount of the time.