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Game Design Legends: Meretzky On The Evolution Of The Medium

Game Design Legends: Meretzky On The Evolution Of The Medium Exclusive

April 24, 2009 | By Jeff Fleming

April 24, 2009 | By Jeff Fleming
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More: Console/PC, Exclusive

Steve Meretzky began his career by creating games for seminal interactive fiction firm Infocom, creating landmark titles such as Planetfall and Leather Goddesses of Phobos, as well as working with Douglas Adams on The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

As the creative director at WorldWinner, he was an early innovator in the casual games space and is currently designing social network-based games for startup Playdom.

Sitting down with Gamasutra for an in-depth interview, Meretzky reminisces on his first experiences with what we'd today call casual gaming -- back in the early nineties -- and shares insights from the progression of the casual game space over the course of his career.

He explains how having a "house style" may help distinguish casual titles in a crowded space, and opines on the role of the writer in games today.

At the GDC 09 Casual Games summit you said, "Games are for everyone." That's an interesting declaration that probably the rest of the game industry needs to be hearing, particularly when it comes to female players.

Steve Meretzky: Right, and beyond female players, look at things like people in retirement homes playing Wii Sports and everyone's parents and grandparents getting DSes and playing Brain Age.

As far as I'm concerned, virtually everyone would play games if they found games that they like. And if they aren't, or at least if they aren't playing electronic games, it's because we've yet to produce the right games for them.

I think the example of casual games over the last ten years and those more recent examples with older players just shows that there's this incredible hunger for gaming of every kind. People just love games, and it's been proven for thousands of years.

You used to design pretty lengthy and complex games. What brought you from that to where you're at now?

Really, the first kind of experience that I had with what you would know as casual games was in 1994. I did a game called Hodj 'n' Podj. It was sort of a board game, but embedded within that board game were 19 minigames, each of which we would now call a casual game, and any of which you could also play standalone.

You didn't have to play the board game to experience them. You could just boot the game and say, "I want to play any game standalone," and then choose any of those 19. Anyway, it was sort of a game before its time.

It was definitely a game that was perfect for a family audience at a time when there wasn't really a family market and there wasn't really any way of marketing to anybody other than hardcore gamers. It sold pretty miserably.

But I have to say, I get more mail to this day about that game then all my other games put together. You know, a lot of people saying things like, "We've been playing that game for ten years, and the disc is worn out. Where can I get a new one?" That sort of thing.

So, that was sort of my first foray into casual games in '94. The real genesis for that was that I had many games that I remembered fondly, like the early, very simple arcade games, the Pac-Man and Space Invaders-type games. And simple card games, Solitaire and Pyramid, things like that.

So, really, these games had sort of disappeared from the face of electronic gaming. They had been like fun things to do with computers in the early days, and now, pretty much everything you can play on your computer was some giant time commitment kind of game, and I kind of really miss those simple games.

But the only sort of potential business model for games at that point was to put them in a box and sell them in a store for $40. And you couldn't take a solitaire game, and you couldn't take something like the wonderful, simple little arcade games and put them in a box and sell that for $40. And no one was interested in putting things in a box and selling them for $5 to $10.

So, that's kind of how I came up with the idea for this collection of minigames set as games within a game. I returned to that market again when I joined WorldWinner in 2000. Now, we're in post-internet environment or post-arrival internet environment, and WorldWinner had an online tournament, cash skill games business model.

And the company rightly sort of identified casual games as the proper type of games for that business model, whereas other people were thinking about that same business model but for things like first-person shooters. And so, WorldWinner succeeded whereas those other companies tried and didn't.

Was there something that clued them in to go that direction? Thinking back, it seems like the conventional wisdom would have been to do a Quake-style game.

Right. It really took everyone by surprise when we were doing casual games back in 2000 in that business model, we thought that we were going to have a primarily male audience, even though we were creating the sort of games that women like to play, because we thought that women wouldn't be interested in competing for money in that way, and that that sort of high-stress, high-competition environment was an environment that would appeal more to men.

I think the primary thing wasn't so much that we were thinking casual games or thinking that we were making games with primarily a soccer mom demographic. We were thinking that we need games that can be played in just two, three, or four minutes. And most of those obvious game ideas were casual games.

And then we began to do some that skewed more male, some skewed more female. All the ones that did well were the ones skewing female. And we began to do more analysis of our demographics and stuff, and saw we were two-thirds more women. Obviously, it got more and more of a conscious decision to make these traditional casual games.

With casual games, because they are so quick and because there's always the need to put more of them out, there's a sense that maybe the business side is driving everything. Does creativity get pushed aside?

The business is really characterized by a lot of the same sorts of things that we've seen for many years on the hardcore side, which is that it's a very red ocean. There are a lot of players, the market is very mature and it's well understood.

Companies have been differentiating not by innovating creatively, but more by raising the bar in terms of production values in the interest of making bigger games, more fancy opening movies and cutscenes, or featuring more different player modes. As a result, budgets are getting higher and higher without sales increasing at the same rate.

Companies get very conservative in their decision-making. They don't want to do anything because more money is on the line, and they want to do something that they know is just like something that sold well in the past.

It's sort of like a self-reinforcing cycle that leads to a real lack of innovation. Really, probably the last major innovation we had within the downloadable space was when hidden object games appeared, which would be like four years ago now or so.

Could someone say, "This is a Steve Meretzky casual game," and immediately know your style?

If I have a style that anyone's going to recognize, it would probably be more in terms of story, character, and writing than it is in terms of gameplay and game design. You know particularly in something that's sort of boiled down to the very basics as most casual games are.

I think more than any sort of individual style, I think you tend to see studio style. For example, take a look at PopCap. I think even with the studio logo removed or whatever, you could sort of take me away to a desert island for a couple years, and come back, and show me ten new casual games, and I'd be able to say, "Oh, these two are PopCap games."

You know, a matter of a certain art style, a certain level of production value, probably a lot of tangibles that I'd have trouble describing or putting a finger on. I think PlayFirst is another good example of a company that I feel has a style. I think to a great extent, that's because their creative director Kenny Shea Dinkin is a very artistically oriented visual person.

So, I think he drives a lot of that. But then, there's, you know, like 1200 casual game developers. There's obviously going to be a lot of pretty generic work among a group that's that big.

Do you think that somebody developing a house style pay dividends, that it can help build an audience?

Yeah. I mean, I think what's really going to build loyalty is just the quality of the games and how much fun they are. And if a house continues to deliver high quality, like both of those two examples have, then they'll build both player loyalty and name recognition among those players.

Whereas I think having a distinctive look is probably sort of a second order effect, or a second order contributor to building brand loyalty and building recognition and building long-term players.

I also wanted to talk to you about game writing. Is game writing really separate from game design? There's a sense that is it possible to have game writing as a job that's somehow different from game design.

It certainly is. There are dozens of people who made their living as a game writer who don't do game design. I think ideally, it's best for the designer and the writer to be the same person, just as ideally it's best for the artist, programmer, designer, and the writer to be the same person.

But clearly, other than an increasingly small number of projects, that's not feasible. As game projects get bigger and bigger and teams get more and more specialized, it becomes not only more common but absolutely necessary to split up the role of writer and designer because it's too much work for one person.

In fact, you could have more than just a writer and a designer... three designers and five writers.

So, the question is that given the necessity of splitting these functions, what's the best way to work? Certainly, I'm a big advocate that writers shouldn't just be someone who you bring on two months before the game ships as a "Oh, the game is almost done; add some writing."

It's much better for them to come early on so that, for one thing, they can be a lot more familiar with the game and do a lot better job when it is time to do the writing, so that they can do the writing in stages and sort of provide almost a sort of first draft of the writing. And that will make the game much more playable for everyone who is playing early builds of the game.

And then polish those drafts, as the game gets closer to release. The writer, by coming early, is then in a position to make a lot more suggestions about the design of the game where they see that will aid the writing or that will avoid hurting the writing.

We recently did an article on Gamasutra where we singled out game writers that we all agreed were good. But in the debate over it, often it was hard to separate the writing from the game, from saying, "This is a fun game, and therefore the writing is good." It was very subjective.

Sure. I mean, look at something like Portal. The writing in Portal, the dialogue particularly, the computer, it was one of those things that made the game for me.

But where do you really draw the line? That certainly wasn't something that was added two days before the game shipped. So, the more integral that the writing is into the game, the harder it is to separate it out as a separate task.

It's also hard to separate when we're trying to identify what is good game writing versus bad writing. If somebody thought the story was dumb, that was bad writing. But most video game stories seem kind of dumb, really. So, how do you judge that?

Well, it's hard to tell who came up with what and unless you talk to the people you might not necessarily get to the truth. I'd say probably much more often than not, things like the basic storyline of a game, basic theme and setting, and things like that, were probably come up with long before writers come on board.

Can a writer take something and make it better?

You mean, turn lemons into lemonade? Yeah. I mean sure, within reason. If you have a completely generic story, you can spice it up a little around the edges and add some interesting characters and some interesting sub-plots and stuff.

But at a thousand-foot view, it's still going to be a pretty generic story. Once again, it sort of gets back to the point of what exactly the writer's role is, how early do they come on, where do you draw the lines of responsibility between the writer and other participants in the creative process.

For the most part, I think for the people who do only writing, who do only game writing, it's a pretty frustrating experience because they don't feel like they have enough of a creative role. They feel like they are just sort of being treated as a compartmentalized craftsman, and they don't feel like they were brought in early enough.

I like Valve's approach of bringing in an established author like Marc Laidlaw to write. What do you think about that? Someone who's already started a career as an author.

The plus, you know, is then you get a good writer, but the minus is you don't necessarily get someone who understands games and interactivity. If a writer isn't familiar with the ins and outs of interactivity and the way that games work and things like that, it doesn't really matter how good a writer they are.

I've certainly worked with a professional writer when I did the Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, and it was relatively difficult at the beginning because in his case, he was even a computer game player and a text adventure player.

And yet he still had a lot of trouble thinking non-linearly, so he would write scripts for the game kind of with the prejudice or with the idea that the player would always do what he was intending the player to do.

And players almost never do what you intend them to do, and so he wasn't sort of thinking of it that way.

I remember this moment so starkly, we started getting the game implemented so it was still just a little bit of the game that was implement, but he had people over and said, "Oh, let me show you the game version of Hitchhiker's Guide."

And they started playing, and people would do something other than what he'd expect him to do, like, "No, that's not what you're supposed to do," and all of a sudden he kind of got it that you have to anticipate everything, not just what you expect, and that the game can go in lots of directions.

You have to anticipate that--ideally, you want to take advantage of that. Just over the course of the few months that we worked on writing the game, he really kind of blossomed as an interactive writer, as a non-linear writer.

But I was able to see over the course of that evolution the problems that he had in the beginning as some guy who was already familiar with the medium and was a game player and was a text adventure player. So, it takes more to be a game writer than to be a good writer.

Speaking of text adventures, do you think there was something unique about them, or were they just a response to the technological limitations that you had at the time.

Well, I think the reason they were so popular then and don't seem compelling now, is that back then, that was really kind of the coolest and most cutting edge thing you could do on a computer.

The only graphics you could do on a computer, up until say when the Mac, Amiga and regular VGA came along to PCs, the best graphics that you could do were pretty crappy. So, they weren't really all that impressive. And this, on the other hand, was like talking to your computer, and your computer understanding you and answering back.

It was just really kind of cool and impressive, sort of fun to do alone, fun to do with a group, and fun to show off to other people. So, in those days, the bragware, so to speak, stuff that really showed off your computer and made you feel good that you bought it, were text adventure games. So, that's one thing.

Another thing is the demographics of the industry back then. I mean, what percentage of people had personal computers in 1983? Five percent or whatever. And so, the people who had them were higher end early adopters, really techie oriented, and much more male. And these were the sorts of people who liked hard games, who liked games that made you think, who liked games that were cerebral.

As the computer market became broader, the population of computer owners became more and more like the general population.

I think another thing was they were really cool but didn't particularly evolve. And so, text adventures in 1986 weren't that different from text adventures in 1981. Parsing was a little better, and the total game size was a little bit bigger because you didn't have to worry about the TRS-80 Model 1 anymore, but the medium didn't really change all that much.

And again, as far as I'm concerned, the medium of first-person shooters hasn't changed much in fifteen years now, and yet they've retained their population [laughs].

What did you think of [interactory story game experiment] Facade?

I mostly like it. I thought it was pretty limited, but within those limits, I think it did a really good job. I know a lot of people who point out the fact that you can break it so easily by sort of refusing to adhere to the role-playing.

The game can start to behave really stupidly really quickly. But you can break a movie really easily by skipping scenes. You can break a book really easily by refusing to read the first sentence of every page, or things like that.

There's sort of a certain kind of pact we make with any medium to use it the way it was intended, and if we don't use it as intended, then your mileage may vary.

As far as I'm concerned, if you use Facade as sort of the way it was intended, and if you don't break that pact between you and the creator, I think it's a pretty decent experience.

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