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Game designers deconstruct their 'art'

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GDC 09 A lot of hard-core gamers like to argue over whether video games should be considered "art." If they're not, these three characters have brought the medium awfully close.

Today, San Francisco's Game Developers Conference hosted a gaming design panel that included three of the industry's most respected developers: Fumito Ueda (Ico, Shadow Of the Colossus), Goichi Suda a.k.a. SUDA51 (Killer 7, No More Heros), and Emil Pagliarulo (Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, Fallout 3).

For starters, the panelists were asked how they begin the process of making a game.

Pagliarulo said he starts by coming up with experiences gamers haven't played before and tying them together. For instance, the team got inspiration for Fallout 3 by reading Cormac McCarthy's novel, "The Road."

Ueda said he prefers to begin by working on graphics — particularly the game's rendering engine since it takes a lot of time to complete.

Suda works similarly to Emil, referencing TV, films, and other games for inspiration. "Being alone is very important," Suda said through a translator. "I will go to the bathroom and try to poop and then I'll come up with a new idea."

While Pagliarulo said he comes into a project with his heart set on some ideas, a designer needs to be able to be "brutally honest" over whether it will translate into entertaining game play.

"There's the sequence with the giant robot, Liberty Prime, that acts as the game's climax. The original pie-in-the-sky idea was that he was about five times the size he ended up, and you rode in his head," said Pagliarulo. "We had this idea for the longest time, Todd Howard [the game's executive producer] and I — and people though we were crazy. In the end, technical limitations and time limitations meant we had to scale it back."

Ueda shared some of what was left on the cutting room floor as well. He said the original idea for Shadow of the Colossus was to have several people working together to kill the colossi, with a focus on team strengths and cooperation.

"But I love the process," Ueda said. "Changing the plan is not a bad thing."

Another topic was how a designer needs to balance his own instincts with feedback from users and the development team.

Pagiarulo said he was surprised to see how upset people were with giving Fallout 3 a proper ending rather than something open-ended like his studio's usual fare.

"We underestimated how people assumed Falllout 3 is as much a sequel to Oblivion as it is to Fallout 2," he said.

The decision to end the story line will be reversed — in part because of negative player feedback — in future downloadable expansion packs.

Suda half-jokingly admitted he sometimes plays the "I-own-the-company-so-we-do-it-my-way card" when his team disagrees with a decision. But most of the time he says he tries to explain his vision to the team.

"In my experience, when I made Killer7, it was a really new concept. Even when I tried to explain that to people working on it, not everyone could understand. Sometimes it's difficult to put ideas into words."

The game designers weighed in on the "games as art" question too. Each agreed that they're goal is to make the game fun, not make it suitable for framing.

"We're making a game to entertain people," Ueda said. "That kind of feedback is welcome — coming from an art school — but that's not what we're trying to achieve here."

Emil concurred. He said like the early film industry, which was first only focused on entertainment, games as art will come naturally along the way."

Suda was much more, well, abstract in his response, saying something along the lines that game designers put the light in a display so it's beautiful, which has the power to make other artists jealous.

Whatever. The dude makes great games. ®

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