Lessons learned from the AIAS Game Maker's Notebook

Listening to Paradox's own podcast was a really good way to learn about the game industry. Now I found another podcast by the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences (AIAS). It consists of interviews with personalities in the game industry, including the creator of the hugely successful game PlayerUnknown's Battleground (Pubg). The interviewer is Ted Price who's the CEO of Insomniac Game (creators of the new Spider-man game), so he knows what he's talking about. As with the Paradox article, this article will be updated when new episodes are released!

Brendan Green (Pubg)
  • He started out as a photographer, DJ, and graphic designer, so he wasn't in the game industry for most of his life. 
  • Games like Pubg are popular because there are no rules except the rules you can find in the real world, like gravity. You can do whatever you want to do. There are simplifications, such as swimming with ammunition and weapons, but those simplifications are needed to make the game fun to play.
  • People like playing survival games because it's inherent in the human nature. How many times have you watched survival television shows and asked yourself: How difficult could it be?
  • In a game like Pubg you create stories on your own. People show on YouTube how they managed to kill the last person by jumping with a motorbike. 
  • Pubg wasn't the first survival game, and he had before Pubg about four years of experimenting with similar games like DayZ. 
  • If it's not broke - don't fix it. He didn't add stuff to the game just because he could, but because it wasn't needed. 
  • When talking about realism, are you talking about the realism you see in movies or actual realism in the real world? Most people don't know how it is to be killed by a real shotgun, but they have seen it in the movies and sometimes they are confusing movies with real life. What they think is real isn't necessarily real. 
  • The downtime in Battle Royale games are important because some people don't want constant action. But if you want constant action you have the option to get some by dropping at a popular place where like-minded people are dropping. 
  • Another simplification they made was the cars, so the cars could be more realistic but it would be less fun.
  • If you don't know where to start - start with making a mod to an existing game. DayZ is a mod to the game Arma. 
Robin Hunicke (Journey)
  • Her background is computer science, but also art, which is useful when trying to come up with a new idea and you can paint the idea. 
  • Your mom should understand the game idea. To be sure it's a good idea you need the people who has never seen it before test the game. 
  • Just because something, like a puzzle, fits in another game doesn't mean it will fit in your game. 
  • They rebuilt the Journey game three times. 
  • The more times you play your game, the more stuff you wan't to fix. But in the end you have to ship the game and most people will not notice what you didn't have time to fix. 
  • Most game developers are awkward on the stage so don't be worried if you are it as well.
Hermen Hulst (Guerrilla Games - Horizon: Zero Dawn)
  • Attention to detail is important. To make something as detailed as possible, the concept art is important, which should be as detailed as possible to make it easier for the people who make the actual 3d models. This will be more expensive but generate a better result. 
  • Don't be afraid to share your knowledge because it will benefit the industry as a whole. 
  • Each project is different so it's difficult to come up with the best practices to make a game. 
  • It's difficult to know if the game is a good game before the game is finished but you can use your experience to make a judgment if the game is good before the game is finished.
  • Most people are in the game industry because it's a fast growing, evolving industry. Many people are competitive and want to be the best at what they are doing. 
Neil Druckmann (Naughty Dog - The Last of Us)
  • The World Without Us is a good book to read if you want to build a post-apocalyptic game. It explains what would happen to the natural and built environment if humans suddenly disappeared. Another good book to read is The Last Town on Earth which is about the 1918 flu epidemic. So even if you are making a game about made-up events, there are books you can read to make a more realistic game. Other good sources of inspiration are movies and museums.
  • If you realize that after making 50 percent of the game, you have to change a major part of the game, then don't worry because that has happened to many successful games, including Firewatch and Uncharted 4.
  • It's important to listen to people saying what you don't want to hear. If you are disagreeing it's still important to listen because there is some truth in what they are saying. But the problem they see might not be the real problem, and their solution might not be the real solution. 
  • "x is dead!" (where x is single-player, console, PC, etc). This is not necessarily the truth because the game industry is constantly evolving. Just because AAA companies are not making money from single-player games today, they might do it tomorrow when they come up with an idea no-one thought about before. 
Christina Norman (Riot Games - League of Legends)
  • Most developers use their experience when making games, and that experience is often based on where they live. So if you live in Europe you make a game towards the European audience and forget what someone in Asia will say when they play the game. The gameplay itself should be the same (at least if you have a multiplayer game), but feedback may be different depending on where the player is living, and people in different regions will buy different skins. But people know where the game was made so if they buy a game made in Europe they expect to play a game with European values, so there's a balancing act. 
  • 10 hours a week is enough if you want to test-play other games. 
  • Instead of complaining that people spend time and money playing "silly" games like Candycrush and Farmville, you should study why people play these games and you will realize that you can learn something. 
  • When play-testing other games, the important lesson you learn might be "what not to add to your game."
  • Be careful with statistically changes. If you use data and realize that a character is too powerful, it's not necessarily the character who's too powerful, but an item the character is often using. 
  • Don't prioritize money before the player.
Nathan Vella (Capy Games)
  • Internal- and external game jams as well as dedicating Fridays to finding new ideas is a great way to find new ideas. 
  • The games get 10 times better if you delegate responsibility and don't micromanage. But you also need to discuss with the people you delegated work to if it becomes too crazy. 
  • Many games are released each week, to show your game to the world you need to analyze what other successful games (within your genre) did, and you need to show an understandable version of your game in a trailer or gif on social media. 
  • It doesn't matter anymore if you have a website because people will go directly to Steam or YouTube to find information about the game. When was the last time you visited a game's website?
Todd Howard (Bethesda Game Studios - Fallout)
  • Step 1 when making a game is to find the "tone" of the game.  
  • Too many games are shipped with features that work, but just because it works it doesn't mean it's good. The building system in your game may work but it might not be the best building system. 
  • Game developers tend to focus on the wrong things, like foot sliding and bouncing rocks, that players don't care about. The player care more about the save game system. What you should do is to write a list with what the player cares about and another list with what you care about. You will see that these lists are completely different.  
  • If you pick a game and then hire the people who made that game (with the same tools and budget) and tell them to make the same game, you will end up with a completely new game. 
Sean Vanaman (Firewatch) & Amir Rao (Bastion)
  • Making a video game is like being a member of a band. Each member has its own instrument (programmer, artist, sound designer), you release albums (games), and you have an audience (players who play the game). That's why it's a good idea to be a small game development team: You can't make music with hundreds of band members. The music will also become worse if you start switching band members every 6 months. 
  • Firewatch took about 24 months to develop. But if they for some reason lost the game and had to make it again (and if 90 percent of the models are finished), an exact same version of Firewatch could be made in 4 months.
Ian Dallas (Giant Sparrow - The Unfinished Swan)
  • There are many books on how to write for movies and television - but not a single one about how to write for games. 
  • While developing a game, and if you share the development process with your players, people will build up an mental image of what the game is which is not necessarily the same as what the game really is. 
  • It's difficult to balance a game so both the players who are skilled players and those who just want a relaxing experience will enjoy it. 
  • If you think you are the perfect play-tester then you are wrong. Do you have children? If not, then you may experience the game differently. 
  • You may have a great idea, but when you hire people to help you make the game, you will feel responsible for those people and thus make a game similar to all other games because you will think the probability to succeed is higher if you do so. So you have to ask yourself: Do I really need a team or do I want to make a game no-one has made before?
  • Not only will people play your game, they will also watch people playing your game on services like YouTube and Twitch. 
Ed Boon (NetherRealm Studios - Mortal Kombat)
  • As with many other games, Mortal Kombat took inspiration from the movies industry. Why didn't you make a battle royale game after watching the movie Battle Royale in 2000?
  • Listen to the "maniacs" which are the players who are your biggest fans AND your biggest critics. They will play the game more than you can. 
Jeff Kaplan (Blizzard Entertainment - Overwatch)
  • Guidelines are better than rules because creative people want to break rules. 
  • GTA 5 is an example of a game with a great story telling. 
  • Even though the teams that makes the Blizzard games work within the same company, each team has its individual culture. For example, the team who's developing Hearthstone is starting their day earlier than the other teams. 
  • Players are not good at expressing themselves when giving feedback. They say something is "sh*t" and then it's up to you to determine why they say so. 
  • You can make a post about something you plan to add to the game on a forum and then you will get reactions from your fans. The first reply (the gut reaction) is also useful because it will tell you what your fans think about it when they first heard it. 
  • Making a game is not stressful because it's just a game and not the cure for cancer, but game developers tend to become stressed because they care about the game and love what they do. 
Cory Barlog (SIE Santa Monica Studio - God of War)
  • Failure will teach you to love feedback from your customers because failing is not a good feeling.
  • There are no magic tricks - the secret to making a good game is hard manual work. The camera in God of War was positioned manually - they didn't have a fancy camera algorithm. 
  • The first version of the game should be chaotic because it means you are experimenting and trying new crazy ideas. Mistakes made in the first version of God of War actually turned out to be something they could add to the final version of the game.  
  • Don't be afraid of sharing your knowledge within the industry. Most big studios are willing to sharing their knowledge and the games industry will benefit from it as a whole, including you. Competitors in the game industry are not really competing because there's not one winner - players will buy different games and they will buy more than one game.
Ru Weerasuriya (Ready at Dawn Studios - Lone Echo)
  • As a game developer you want to be the best and you want to add the best features to a game - but that's not necessarily what the game needs to make it fun to play.
  • If you have experience from traditional games like PC, you will not be able to develop a VR game because those platforms are completely different.  
Siobhan Reddy (Media Molecule - Little Big Planet)
  • Take home the game you are developing and play it while relaxing and you will find things you wouldn't have found if you only played it at work. 
  • Some people tend to not talk about problems they see when developing a game because they are scared that the problems can't be solved. 
Romain Jouandeau (Sucker Punch Productions - Ghost of Tsushima)
  • He can spend a day looking for photo references before he starts creating the concept art itself. This is also the easiest way to start painting because if you just stare at the empty canvas it can be difficult to get started. 
  • One way to create a concept art is to start with a simple image made in some 3d software and then paint all the details on the top of that image. 
  • Don't forget to go out an observer the real world because drawing all day is not always good. 
  • Even professional artists struggle: If you don't struggle you are doing it wrong. 
  • You can find many good tutorials for free on YouTube so everyone doesn't have to go to a fancy, expensive school, and most recruiters look at the artwork and not which school you went to. But school can be good for networking purposes. 
Tim Schafer (Double Fine Productions - Grim Fandango)
  • When making a game it's important to transform yourself into different roles. First you need to be an explorer who's just coming up with crazy ideas, then you become an artist who implements the ideas, then you become the judge to determine if the product is really good, and finally you become the warrior who's finishing the game. It might sound silly, but it actually works. 
  • If you worry about something that hasn't anything to do with the game, such as which desk your office should have, then hire someone who knows which desk is the best so you can focus on the game. 
  • There are many games published each day, to stand out from the crowd you can ask a publisher to publish your game, such as Double Fine Productions (they call it presents). You can also use crowdfunding and social media to market your game. 
  • Today it's difficult to sell many copies of your game when you release it - you have to think long-term. Sometimes you read articles about game developers saying their game failed written just a week after lunch, but you can't tell if a game is successful after just a week. Many games make the most money on the first Steam-sale.  
Ashraf Ismail (Assassin's Creed)
  • The game designer is the gatekeeper of the production documents, which explains to the team how this part of the game is supposed to work, which assets and features are needed, and UI. To be able to make the production documents you may need to build a prototype and pitch the idea to the people above you and the people who have to build it. The game designer is not responsible for finishing the part of the game because that's up to the project manager. 
  • You can track how your players are playing the game and generate "heat-maps" showing where most players die. You can also track which animations are being played and in the Assassin's Creed case they realized they could remove some animations because they were never used. 
  • The "Rule of Three" says that before you challenge a player with a new feature, you have to introduce the player to that feature in three steps. But this might also be a problem because it sometimes becomes obvious to the player that something will happen if you are introducing something in three steps. (This wasn't exactly clear in the podcast but I think that's what he meant).
  • Assassin's Creed have rules telling how far you have to go to complete a quest. If you are on a main quest, you can travel far, but a smaller quest should take place in the nearby area.
  • The Assassin's Creed developer is using historians because they are making games based in history. They actually have a 30-seconds-rule saying that if someone can google what you see in the game to see if it really is historically correct, then it should be in the game. Otherwise, the can change history by using a little bit of creative freedom. When making the game based in Egypt, they had an historian who had to validate every piece of hieroglyph. Because they did so much research they could release a special version of the game where you could travel around and learn history instead of killing everyone. 
  • They were using the Unity game engine to prototype features before adding the features to their own game engine called Anvil