The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim co-creator Todd Howard shared the secrets of video game design at the opening keynote of the annual DICE Summit in Las Vegas this evening.
In a speech before hundreds of elite game developers, Howard said that the secret to making games such as Skyrim — which has shipped 10 million units and has been rated one of the best games of 2011 by critics — is to approach it with discipline. Howard heads the Bethesda Game Studios, which is part of ZeniMax, a private equity-funded company that owns other studios such as id Software and publishes games under the Bethesda Softworks brand.
Howard, who has been making games at Bethesda for 18 years, said, “I see games … as the ultimate combination of art and technology.”
He explained that games aren’t works of art that hang in a museum, but fun entertainment that has to run at a speed of 30 frames per second or so on an affordable consumer device. When the game works properly, you as the gamer feel like you created an experience that makes you feel proud of what you have accomplished.
“How people feel this sense of pride in a game is like nothing else in entertainment,” Howard said.
As for the actual craft, Howard said you have to build a great team that works well together.
“Your plan is not as important as your culture,” he said. That means you will run into problems that will disrupt your plan and schedule, and how you deal with that depends on the culture you have created within your team. He also said, “Your design is not as important as your execution.”
The game has to work. To create great games, Bethesda has developed three rules. First, you have to “define the experience,” Howard said. “Don’t define the game by the list of the features. Define it by the experience you want to have.”
For The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, the Bethesda team’s goal was to reward the player for exploration, and the game gave the player a whole world to explore. That was the same experience that Bethesda wanted to create 18 years ago with the very first version of The Elder Scrolls. The latest game took more than 100 people about five years to create. But the principles weren’t that different from 18 years ago.
The second rule is to keep it simple, Howard said. “We can do anything” in a game, he said. “We just can’t do everything.”
And the third rule is “Great games are played, not made.” You have to play your own game a ton and revise it. Once you do that enough, the full game will take shape. He added, “Work on more of the great stuff. Do less of the crap.”
If you do that, you’ll improve the little things that make all the difference to a gamer.
“Find things that a player does a lot,” like looking at a list of tasks to do. “Make that fun and entertaining. Take a repetitive action and make it simple and fun,” he said.
Howard said you can elicit creativity from your staff in a variety of ways. Each year, the company gathers its staff from various studios and holds a “game jam,” where developers take a week and create something from scratch. This time, after completing Skyrim, the goal was to create new cool things in Skyrim. The team created all sorts of new features, such as adopting children, building your home, goblins, enhanced underwater visuals, and fast travel. The game jam unleashed a lot of creativity from the staff.
When players put down a game because they’re bored or stuck, it’s not the player’s fault but the game developer’s, Howard said. Movies don’t make that mistake, as the cinematic trailer for Dead Island showed. The Dead Island film was spectacularly emotional, but the game play was a letdown by comparison. You want the player to feel like the “director of his experience,” Howard said.
Quoting the New York Times, Howard said that the Supreme Court’s ruling on violent video games shows that the law of the land now recognizes games as art. And now game designers have to show what they can do with that freedom.
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