Game Design Research, ala Avellone

The article below was written by Chris Avellone, Chief Creative Officer of Obsidian Entertainment. Chris also designed Planescape: Torment, which is my favorite game of all time, as I’ve noted repeatedly on this blog (much to Chris’ acute embarrassment, I’m sure.)

Anyway, Chris is also a great writer, so I asked if he’d do this guest spot. No strings attached, any subject allowed. The only requirement: it had to include his famous stick figures. (Famous, I say!) Chris gracefully accepted. And with that, I’ll stop yammering now…

Obsidian Entertainment recently got the chance to do a role-playing game set in the Aliens universe.

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This is due with many thanks to our fine publisher, SEGA, who used their oodles of cash and resources to woo Fox. Wine and song may also have been involved. And lawyers. And contract negotiators. But let’s set that aside for a second.

When we got the Aliens license, it hit me that there is one resoundingly positive aspect of being in game development: Doing research for games is the best thing, ever.

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Chances are, if you are as huge a nerd as we are, you’ve already done your research and you get to do it all again. Graphic novels, comics, novels, movies, behind-the-scenes-footage, concept art evaluation from the movies, visiting CGI houses who did the movies… this becomes your life during pre-production. What has been done before? What was the process that went into this license? What were the creators thinking? What did the fans think?

Over the past ten years, I’ve had the opportunity to work with licenses like Star Wars, Dungeons and Dragons (in multiple worlds), Star Trek, and now, Aliens. I think I know more about some of these settings and their inhabitants than I do about Earth culture. Which is pretty shameful, now that I think about it.

But for our industry, having that knowledge saves you a lot of time. Knowing all the sub-plots that took place in comics, novels, all the nuances of why Giger concepted the aliens the way he did, the history of the Weyland-Yutani corporation – this minutia of science fiction licenses is actually a valuable knowledge base. There’s a reason they have fact-checkers and historians at LucasArts and Blizzard and other franchise houses – knowing the setting in and out is a paying gig.

So my advice for any aspiring members of game development is pretty simple. If you’re a nerd, keep being a nerd.

Watch trashy sci-fi movies. Read comics. Watch the entire run of Stargate. Be able to quote lines from Doctor Who until your friends want to murder you. Immerse yourself in the book and movie versions of Lord of the Rings. Study the Matrix. James Bond. The whole range of John Woo movies. Be able to explain the mathematical underpinnings of gun-kata in Equilibrium.

Have fun as your eyes take it all in, but in the storage bin in the back of your brain, record all the details of the construction and history of those franchises. Because chances are, one day you’ll be called upon to use it. Maybe even get paid for it.

The next part is probably going to make mothers across the world cringe, but for future game developers – watching TV is good for you. So are movies. Watch a lot of those. Watch the making-of sections, too. Argue about it with your friends if you want – you may learn even more.

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Industry secret spoiler related to research for those who are interested – I can often tell what kind of games fellow developers are working on by checking out their Netflix queue. So if you want to keep it a secret, buy the copies of whatever DVDs you need to research.

Watch cartoons. Not only is there a chance you may have to do a licensed product in a cartoon universe, but especially pay attention to the voice actors, because from a design standpoint, you’ll need that info later on when you meet with the audio department and are trying to explain why Charlie Adler would be the best voice actor for the part of Stickleskin the Goblin Zombie.

Watch Hong Kong action movies for fighting combos and power attack ideas. Store each move, write them down, dream about attacking some jackhole with them. Watch Shaolin Soccer if you haven’t already. Do it. Now.

Play a lot of games. The reason for this is pretty self-explanatory, but one day it’s likely you may be asked to continue a license that you have loved since your youth. Knowing the origins of this license and what transpired in those early games will actually allow you to hit the ground running.

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One last thing – one of the designers I worked with long ago at Interplay, Scott Bennie (Castles, Star Fleet Academy, Fallout, and a whole host of other titles), had also some of the best advice for “game” research – read a lot of history. It’s better than any fiction (and sometimes far more unbelievable), although you could argue whether or not it’s “fiction” depends on your perspective and who actually won. But in the depths of the history books is not only good settings and terminology to bring to games, but some of the craziest folks, events, and conflicts than you could imagine.

This “fun” aspect research is only one facet of game research in preparation for game development, but it’s currently life for me at Obsidian, so it’s forefront on my mind. It’s a definite reminder of why working in games is so much fun.

So for aspiring game developers, swim in the geekiness of your genre, and you’ll be hitting the ground running when you land your job in game development. Being able to speak intelligently about a franchise or license you love when going in for an interview may make or break you in the eyes of those speaking to you.

(If you’re interested in more fun Aliens research facts, feel free to visit my occasionally relevant Aliens blog.)

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