The Evolving Game Design panel was a meeting between three of the most respected game creators of today -- each who presented his own vision for games.
Emil Pagliarulo, lead designer of Fallout 3, Goichi Suda, founder of Grasshopper Manufacture (No More Heroes), and Fumito Ueda, lead designer and director of Shadow of the Colossus.
The creators were asked to introduce each other -- and as soon as Suda was done praising Fallout 3, which he's currently playing, he fulsomely joked that Pagliarulo is "a master at kung fu -- and there are some rumors that he was engaged in kung fu in the mountains with monkeys."
Pagliarulo, introducing Ueda, spoke about how the first time he played Ico, he and his team then "felt that it was going to be something special.. And within two minutes, we knew two things... I understand the characters of Ico and Yorda, and they worked on an emotional level and gameplay level... This game was instant classic material."
Ueda, of course, pointed out his respect for, rivalry with, and difference from Suda: "The games that we create are totally different in terms of worldview."
Panel moderator Mark MacDonald, who works at Tokyo-based game consultancy and localization firm 8-4, asked the designers to discuss their general philosophy of game design and to give a process overview.
Said Pagliarulo, "It's much less technical than you may think -- it's really about trying to outline a range of experiences for the player... I want to play the games I make, and I want to do that by showing them something they haven't seen before. I try to think in terms of story and gameplay together during the pre-production phase."
As a concrete example, he pointed toward an early quest from Fallout 3, where the player has a choice to disarm or detonate a weapon of mass destruction -- "We wanted to have a really big emotional impact in the beginning and offer a very big choice for the player."
Ueda, having a background as a visual artist, starts with concept art -- lots of it, until the look of the game is nailed down. "[For] the last, final version [of the art] we have to make sure we'd like to make this, and what our target is. Then we start working to achieve that goal. Sometimes we need to make a compromise -- but our target is always the same."
But Suda agreed more with Pagliarulo. "When I plan the design for games -- it's very close to Emil. How can I achieve my goal? That's what I think about first. I take a look at TV shows, films, and games and then try to get good ideas -- and I accumulate my ideas and then that will come together to make a game."
As anyone who's saved their game in No More Heroes will recognize: "Being alone is very important. I go to the bathroom and then I try to poop and I'll come up with a good idea."
MacDonald then asked, "Each of you talked about the initial process of getting your ideas down. Emil, you talked about the difference between designing on paper and what goes into the final game. How does the game evolve, and as the game comes together how does your sense of the game change?"
Pagliarulo responded, "At Bethesda, one of our unofficial mottos is 'great games are played, not made' and that means that we play our own games. It's a skill that you have to learn -- you have to be brutally honest with yourself."
"If you put [your] ideas in and they suck, then you have to change them. The more experienced you become the easier it gets to design on paper, but you never really know." As an example, he offered: "In the game there's a giant robot called Liberty Prime... The original pie in the sky idea was that he would be five times bigger and you would ride in his head. We had championed this idea for the longest time. We realized it was never going to happen... We scaled back our plans."
Ueda agreed on the necessity of the iterative process. "Usually the original image will evolve. In terms of Ico, originally we started as one thing, but it gradually changed. In the final version it's more abstracted, but the original one was a little more vivid."
"With Shadow of the Colossus, there was the same tendency," he added. "Originally, several people worked together to kill the colossi. But thinking about team strength and teamwork, we had to change our idea a little bit. But I love that process. We always are making an effort to create the best thing, so changing the plan is not a bad thing."
Joked Suda, "I make a perfect design plan, so there's no way we could change it." After the big laugh, he continued, "Well, it's the same as Mr. Ueda said. Always, it's changing, and we have to improvise it. I always get tired of doing the same thing -- I'd like to explore a new thing, try a new thing."
"I don't want to cause any trouble to the development team, but whenever I can do something new I'd like to add it, so the plan is changing but we always have the same goal."
MacDonald tackled the tricky question of knowing when it's time to change the game. "It can be a bit tough," replied Pagliarulo. "There will be times when someone on your team doesn't like something... It's always a matter of balancing the opinions of others with your gut instincts. Sometimes you have to trust your instincts. It's a constant back-and-forth."
"Emil talked about intuition," said Suda, "but as a game director, I think that when we're concentrating on the task we create our games based on our intuition. It's a little difficult to express, but we have to try to talk to our staff about [that]... Even at the very end stage, I do try to listen to my intuition to create a really good game."
Ueda starts from a pure creative standpoint: "First, I come up with an idea of what kind of game I want to create... These are not necessarily games that can really be created on game consoles. We have to think about how we need to change it to come to life."
"In that sense, rather than improving it, perhaps we are taking away from the original. Sometimes... Something better than we imagined can be created. That's actually the most serendipitious happening in what I'm creating right now."
Pagliarulo agreed that inspiration is key. "A good example is, in Fallout 3, we ended reading Cormac McCarthy's The Road... How do you take what inspires you and translate that into your medium?"
"Talking about serendipity, I totally agree," he added.
"When you can capture a little bit of what inspired you in a different medium and bring it into your game, there's nothing better. But it can take a little disagreeing with other people to make it happen."
Suda, of course, has run up against the problem of his team not quite understanding his vision -- particularly with the idiosyncratic Killer7. "When I created Killer7, it was a really new attempt with really new things... Even if I tried to explain that to people working on it, not everybody could really understand. It was difficult to put it into words."
At this point, external help is key, Suda said -- and he relies on the game's producer, who balances game knowledge and business intersts with a detached perspective. In the case of Killer7, it was Resident Evil creator Shinji Mikami. "The producer's opinion is important, the focus test is important, and the team's opinion is important -- [but] when my team is against my opinion, I find out what the producer thinks."
Ueda, concurred that focus tests can help. "Because I have a long workflow period -- you might not believe this -- I cannot tell if my game is fun or not fun at all... [so] I stand behind the focus players and try to look at the game through their eyes as if this is my first experience with the game."
"Sometimes there are times I will listen to what they say, but I don't change everything." The others agreed -- it's impossible to keep perspective on their games, to know whether they're fun or not, as a player would.
MacDonald asked if the developers have any regrets. But Pagliarulo said he does not have any major ones, because: "I think that when you're passionate about something that when you throw yourself into it so much, it's hard to regret something that when you operate like that... When it's your life and your passion... You make video games for a living, how do you regret that?"
Said Suda, "When I got into the San Francisco airport, I got into the wrong line... That's what I regret most." More seriously, "When I start working I will power through no matter what happened. But what I feel most is that.... I always think that I would like to increase the number of test play sessions... it's not a regret, but I'd always like more time to make games."
On the other hand, Ueda has "a lot of regrets, actually, but there are always deadlines. I have a limited time to do my best, and I cannot look back. It's too late to incorporate things into the current game, so I don't want to be stressed out about that.
I'd like to make use of my current experiences to make a better game." Pagliarulo responded, "That sums it up for me. You don't want to regret because you have to keep moving on."
"All of you, as some of the most influential designers in the industry right now, I'm really curious where you see game design headed. What are the important trends or concepts that you get excited about?" asked MacDonald.
Suda, "I have a sense of immersion, now. Storytelling ability and bringing people into the world of the game -- we'd like to immerse people into our game. Shadow of the Colossus has that and Emil's game has that. We'd like to bring players into our games -- make them dedicated to our game. That's related to expression." That caused MacDonald to respond, "What's missing in games in terms of expression?"
"I think back to the virtual reality craze of the '90s. I think I'm really interested in achieving that without the gadgets," said Pagliarulo. "I'm interested in continuing what Bethesda does... Creating believable worlds. Creating peope who feel like people... who don't feel like NPCs."
"Immersion is the buzzword, but it's impossible to define. Leaving your current existence and living somewhere else for a while." Pagliarulo who lauded Call of Duty 4's in-game storytelling as an example.
When asked if Bethesda might change its approach away from the "crutch" of dialogue, to use Pagliarulo's word, he responded, "Absolutely. It's something we always strive for... Slowly but surely. As much as we can."
Ueda explained why his own games lack dialogue at all. "The most important thing in fiction expression is reality," he said. "Conversations between characters require characters to say the same things over and over so things can proceed... It makes it difficult to think that these characters are real. So I started eliminating that... But as a future step, if it's possible for a character to think or converse on its own, it might be interesting."
Suda tried to get the others to spill the beans on their new games -- and while Pagliarulo would only promise more Fallout 3 DLC -- referring to the controversy over the destruction of U.S. monuments in his game, he said, "I'd like to see what we can destroy in Japan... Wait, I just realized how stupid it was for me to say that."
Ueda's response? "Well, let's see. It might be similar to the past, probably... I'm struggling. The essence of the game is close to Ico... I can't talk about this anymore. Don't ask any more questions, please!"
Suda's question was turned back around on him, but of course he joked, "There's an EA sniper waiting behind me, and as soon as I start talking, they're going to shoot me." He did offer, though, that "Mikami-san is making a horror game -- I shouldn't have even said that."
With the few remaining minutes, the floor was opened up to audience Q&A. The first, from an educator, was "What do you feel about the potential of games to explore the nature of the human psyche and comment on the human condition?"
While Pagliarulo likes the concept, it's not core to the experience -- "I think that's an excellent question. As game developers that's not our primary responsibility -- ours is entertainers. But if we can tell stories about the human condition at the same time... I'm all for doing that as well."
Suda sees more realistic characters as the key to this form of expression, but Ueda's approach is player-focused. "In the arcades, we had to limit game time -- that's why we had a Game Over. But sometimes it puts stress on players. I don't want to do that. We can make the Game Over in a more positive way, so players can enjoy the game more."
The second and final question, lauded Shadow of the Colossus as the posterchild of "games as art", but Ueda disagreed. "My team and I are making a game which is close to art -- that's what people say. Personally I don't think that way."
"We're making a game to entertain people. Sometimes my personality and my team's might be reflected on the game, and it might look like art, but it is a game to entertain people. That kind of feedback is welcome but it's not what I'm trying to achieve."
Pagliarulo took up this point in comparison to the film industry. "Early films were meant to entertain and became art along the way as part of that process... I think the whole Roger Ebert 'are games art' thing gets taken a little too far."
"We'll come into our own. We don't have to push the issue. Who are we trying to impress? I think game developers should concentrate on making good games. The art thing will happen naturally."
Suda thinks artists are jealous of what game developers achieve. "I pay attention to art. In making entertainment, if we try to achieve art, that would be difficult. But people in the art field play games and are impressed."
"As Mr. Ueda said, we create games and then people think it's art... The power of games is different because we put light onto the display, which is beautiful, right? Video games have a power to make other artists become jealous."