If you've landed here you're probably already aware of Richard Garriott's recent "unfortunate" comments about the state of game design today. But just in case you've been living under a rock, let's review them together now.
A couple of days ago, "legendary" game designer Richard Garriott did an interview with PC Gamer. In it he made the following statements:
"I think most game designers really just suck."
"I've met virtually no one in our industry who I think is close to as good a game designer as I am."
"the most valuable part of creating a game is the design."
"every designer that I work with -- all throughout life -- I think, frankly, is lazy."
Claiming that his comments were taken out of context, Richard issued a back-peddling "clarification" to what he said. It was released today. Check it out here.
These comments rightly pissed a bunch of people off. Not just because they're arrogant opinions... but because they're completely wrong. That's right. This time, Richard Garriott is full of shit.
Who Are You To Question A Legend?
Let me back up a second and tell you a few things about me. I've been making games about 22 years. I'm also one of the co-founders of Portalarium. That's right, I helped Richard found the company he's at now. I've also had the pleasure of working with him and to see his work evolve professionally over the years. I was also able to see the inner workings of his project Tabula Rasa at NCsoft.
I'm arguably not just some doofus with a keyboard. Although, to be fair, I am an asshole. :)
Before I dig into why I think Richard is full of shit on this, let me say: I have nothing but respect for his accomplishments and skill. He is a talented creative director and a brilliant man. I love his Ultima series and found his work to be of seminal importance to the industry. But, that doesn't stop him from being completely out of line with his comments and full of shit.
Why Richard Garriott is Full of Shit
Now that the niceties are out of the way, let's dig right in to why Richard is full of shit on this. My rebuttal is based on three clear points:
- Richard is demonstrably not the best designer ever.
- The most valuable part of creating a game is clearly not the design.
- Game designers are obviously not lazy.
Let's take a look at each of these points in detail...
Richard is Demonstrably Not The Best Designer Ever
Look, Richard is an idea man. He thinks big. He does really broad strokes. He's also a good marketer. But ideas, marketing and broad strokes are not game design. Game design is something very different. Game design is about iterating on game data, twiddling bits, testing and polishing. It's about creating and refining rules that make a fun product. It's laying out UI and editing physics data and balancing variables. It is an arduous job that is not sexy or fun in and of itself. This is why you won't catch Richard delving into the depths of his game's inner workings. It's not what he does. It's not the broad strokes of high-level thinking. It's beneath him.
I've worked with many game designers in my time. There are some within Portalarium that I'd take any day of the week over Richard to work on a game with me. This is because Richard isn't a game designer by my definition. He's more of a creative director. High level ideas and broad strokes are nice, but they don't make the game. I repeat, they don't make the game.
Look at the two last projects he's completed for some context. He was most recently involved in Ultimate Collector and Tabula Rasa. Neither of which were particularly innovative or successful and one of which single-handedly destroyed an entire division of game development at NCsoft. If Richard were the "best designer ever" then how do you explain these two product failures? Especially in context of his statement that game design is the most important part of making a game? If that were true then those games would both be resounding successes...
The Most Valuable Part of Creating A Game is Clearly Not The Design
This is a whopper of a statement spoken by someone who really doesn't "get it." Sure, we'd all like to think that our jobs are the most important in the world. But this... this takes it to a higher level in my opinion.
The high-level broad strokes work that Richard does is important. It's the first step toward making a game. Yet, a high-level vision without details is useless -- and no game will come of it. Real game design is taking the high-level idea and breaking it down into something that can be implemented. Then implementing it. Now, that's the interesting part. How does this happen? Let's break it down. Here's the major roles of a game development team:
- Sound Effects / Music
Each and every one of those roles is CRITICAL to making a successful game. Not one is more valuable than another. Sacrifice programming for design and you have no game. Sacrifice art to programming and your game looks like shit. Sacrifice sound to art and the game makes your ears bleed. Sacrifice testing to sound and the game will be buggy as hell. Sacrifice marketing to testing and nobody will know about your game. Games are made by teams, not individuals. And everyone is important.
The sheer audacity of Richard to claim that design is the most important clearly outlines his lack of respect and understanding of the entire game development process. It's horrifying. If I were on his team at Portalarium, I'd be really pissed that my "leader" thought so little of me and my contributions to his success. Disgusting.
Game Designers Are Obviously Not Lazy
Anyone who plays games should be able to spot the fact that game designers aren't lazy. Richard's point seems to be that game designers are lazy because they take an existing idea and tweak it to suit their needs. Sure, that happens a lot. We're all guilty of it. Including Richard. Yet, why is it that this happens?
There are two main reasons that so many games are derivative: it reduces risk and innovation isn't easily funded.
Making a game is a difficult and risky affair. Most of us do it with other people's money. Investors want a return on their money. As such, we need to reduce risk and focus our efforts on what differentiates our product from others. This means that game developers borrow working ideas from other games and improve on them incrementally. This is a fact of life in games and nearly all industries.
Imagine if you come up with a truly revolutionary game idea. That's great. Now, where do you get funding for it? Not from standard deep-pocket publishers. They'll avoid such a risky project like the plague. Kickstarter might give you the funding you need, if you're lucky and can present a marketing picture to your audience that convinces folks to pitch in. In most cases, however, you'll be up shit creek without money to pay the ferryman.
This harsh reality of financial risk stifles innovation in most cases. This is why you see so much derivation. It's not that designers are lazy and don't want to innovate. Someone who says this is clearly not seeing the big picture. It's because investors need a return on investment. Innovation is risky so it happens incrementally.
I wish Portalarium the best. I hope they make fat stacks of cash when they ship Shroud of The Avatar. I have a lot of friends and colleagues working over there. But, when I see their front man saying things like this to the public, it just really gets my dander up. They have so many skilled and talented developers over there that don't deserve to be shit on.
I think Richard's retraction hasn't gone far enough to reverse the damage this does to his reputation among game developers. This isn't the first time he's said things like this either. See some similar points made here. It's my sincere hope that he gain some perspective on the game development process and shows his team and others in the industry the respect they deserve. His seemingly narrow viewpoint doesn't bode well for making future successful projects.
As an aside, feel free to take a look at my latest indie game "Udder Destruction." It was made by four guys here in Austin. Each nearly as valuable as the other. I couldn't have made the game without the help of Mark Tucker, David Genet and Chris Chuter. Check it out here.
Thanks for reading!