Wagons Ho!
The Curious Case of the Missing Fences

The taciturn designer

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The most promising panel discussion at this year's GDC may have been the one featuring a trio of extraordinarily gifted designers: Goichi Suda a.k.a. SUDA51 (No More Heroes, Killer 7), Fumito Ueda (Shadow of the Colossus, Ico), and Emil Pagliarulo (Lead Designer of Fallout 3). As moderator Mark MacDonald pointed out, these three men may share little in common as designers, but they clearly admire each other's work, and they all emphasize highly creative collaboration united around a single vision.

The discussion began with the designers affectionately introducing each other. Suda paid tribute to Pagliarulo by expressing deep admiration for Fallout 3 and its vivid environments, noting that for fans of the game, including himself "We're all living in his world."

Pagliarulo introduced Ueda by recalling the impact of Ico on himself and his colleagues. "We got a copy of Ico and all gathered around to play it. Within two minutes we understood this game was not just a game. It had a huge impact on us." Finally, Ueda introduced Suda by observing that they both share a love of certain games, such as the Burnout series, but they are also rivals. "We create very different games, but we share similar backgrounds."

Introductions complete, I settled in for a scintillating discussion on current and future game design...but, unfortunately, it didn't happen. Pagliarulo offered some interesting observations about Bethesda's approach with Fallout 3 (more below), but Suda and Ueda spoke mostly in broad generalities that failed to illuminate their work or their design philosophies.

I suspect the language barrier was an issue (we all wore headphones, and the discussion was simultaneously translated into English and Japanese), but having listened to artists from a variety of media discuss their work over the years, I think there may be more to it than merely translation issues.

The fact is, sometimes artists aren't very adept at discussing their work, especially when asked to account for their process. Designers like Clint Hocking - who, in a maddening example of GDC programming, spoke at the same hour - have a penchant for unpacking their ideas and methods in accessible ways. Wynton Marsalis does the same when he talks about jazz; Toni Morrison can be similarly effusive discussing literature.

But for every Wynton Marsalis or Toni Morrison there is a Miles Davis or a Thomas Pynchon for whom discussion or analysis seems distasteful or even impossible. Watching Ueda today, I saw a designer who struggles to articulate his philosophy of design, as if he were being asked to elaborate on something that requires no elaboration. At various points in the discussion he appeared at a loss for words, often deliberating on a question before finally answering it with a few basic and seemingly obvious observations. Suda, perhaps predictably, chose to deflect many of the questions posed to him with jokes or little outrageous responses. Neither seemed interested or willing or able to dig beneath the surface of basic generalities.

And that's okay. I would have liked more insight; more give and take among these designers, and Mark MacDonald did yeoman's work prompting the panel with thoughtful questions. But I understand how it can be with artists. In the end, I'd rather they focus their talents on creating. Anything beyond that is icing on the cake as far as I'm concerned.

Nevertheless, some interesting ideas and observations did emerge from the discussion, many of them from the articulate Mr. Pagliarulo, but several from Suda and Ueda as well. The highlights:

  • Pagliarulo's philosophy of game design is to arrange a set of unique experiences for the player. He thinks about story and gameplay from the beginning and sees them as essentially inseparable in Bethesda's games. He thinks about "units with emotional impact" and tries to introduce fresh units over the course of many hours.

  • Suda accumulates ideas from film, television, and other games. He believes being alone is essential to creativity. "I go the the bathroom to poop, and I get ideas."

  • Pagliarulo believes great games aren't made, they're played. "You must play your game and learn what it has to teach you." Designers must be willing to give up what doesn't work. In Fallout 3, Liberty Prime was originally intended to be five times bigger, and the player was to be inside his head. The developers couldn't make this work, so it was scaled back.

  • Ueda noted that the design for Shadow of the Colossus originally required teamwork-based gameplay, but the idea didn't work. "Changing your ideas is a good thing," he contends because it unlocks other good ideas.

  • Suda likes to improvise and try new things, but his main design goal, once established, does not change.

  • Pagliarulo said that the Fallout 3 team purposely decided to design the game with an ending. "People didn't like that" because the game is "as much an Oblivion sequel as a Fallout sequel," and players didn't want the game to end. "So we've responded." He went on to briefly explain the forthcoming DLC.

  • Ueda: "I think about what kind of game I want to make, and sometimes what we want can't be done on a console." The changes that must be made help determine the focus of the design team's efforts.

  • Pagliarulo explained that when you're the lead designer, inspiration need not be specific. He cited Cormac McCarthey's "The Road" as a stylistically over-arching influence separate from gameplay or narrative issues.

  • Suda noted that sometimes even the other design team members may not fully grasp the big picture. "When I created Killer 7, even if I explained it to the people making it, sometimes even they don't understand."

  • According to Ueda, Team Ico was assembled as "a team that had the same world view." He also observed that when he starts working on a game, he doesn't know whether it's fun or not. "I stand behind the focus group player and watch as if I'm playing it for the first time." At a certain point in the process, game development becomes a series of tasks, and it grows more difficult to see the whole. Pagliarulo agreed, describing this point as the moment when "I see the game as a series of systems. It's hard for me to see the game at a certain point."

  • When asked to discuss the future of games, Suda mentioned emergent storytelling. "We need to bring the player into the game, and to do this we need more powerful expression." He cited the films of David Cronenberg as inspirational to him in this regard.

  • Pagliarulo wants deep immersion "without the gadgets. Real people that don't feel like NPCs. Feeling like you're living somewhere else for awhile. It's AI; it's visuals; it's everything." He cited Call of Duty 4 as an example of a game that hasn't received sufficient credit for its storytelling in this regard. He also warned against "drowning your player with text."

  • Ueda: "I'm trying for immersion in a temporary space while returning the player to real life space."

  • Pagliarulo: "People may be surprised to know how much we're inspired by games like Shadow of the Colossus with no dialogue. We probably use dialogue as a crutch sometimes." He noted that all the designers at Bethesda are also writers.

  • Regarding the "games as art" question, Pagliarulo observed: "Our primary responsibility is to be entertainers. We can say important things within that framework."

  • Ueda agreed. "I don't think about games as art. We are making a game to entertain people. We like feedback from our customers." Anything beyond that is out of his control.

  • Pagliarulo elaborated by suggesting that games become art along the way. "We'll come into our own. We try to make good games. The art will come on it's own."

I should note that the entire front row of seats was reserved for Nintendo executives, all of whom were racing to this talk directly from Satoru Iwata's keynote. If I were a big-circulation rumor site, I might make special note of this fact as indicative of something important. But since I'm not, I won't. ;-)

Note: For some reason, your comments on this post aren't appearing at the moment. I'm trying to figure out why and will have them restored ASAP. Rest assured that none of them have been lost.