Feb 162006

Here I am listening to a panel and taking notes, and I figured, hey, I can share some of these with you. These are just my rough notes, not really a transcription. The talk had pretty heavy overlap with some stuff Will’s presented before.

How other fields can inform interactive design

Games exhibit “film envy,” taking too much inspiration from linear media. We shouold be looking at more fields to draw learning from.

Will moved through several other fields, which I’ve bolded here.

Industrial design:
Used to be a model of apprenticeship, switched to a professional model (schools and theory). Two modes here: craftsmen who represent unself-conscious design, changing into professionals using self-conscious design. Craftsmen learn thru failure, whereas professionals are protected from failure by theory they learn.

An anecdote: a pottery teacher split his class into two groups. One group was told they would be graded on quantity of pots they made. The other was told they would be graded on just one pot. In the end, the ones that made zillions made better pots from an artistic point of view.

The balance between the two approaches is important.

The chair as the basic design object that designers test themselves on, a tree of requirements from different domains: sturdiness, affordability, aesthetics, etc. Games have a tree of basic requirements too: fun, aesthetics, etc.

Industrial designers do prototypes very well. you want 2-3 days iteration time. It is important to sit back and ask “how do you use this? can you guess how it works?” The “let me try” test means the user built an internal model of how it works. Testing at a deeper level: do they want to save what they have done?

Space planning. a field that is self-aware about design process, from pattern language to feng shui. Pitfalls we can learn from: at high levels it’s too much about critics; the parallel is making games for hardcore gamers.

Japanese gardens:
Emotionally evocative, elaborate grammar of symbology. (Will referenced a book about “the 48 kinds of rocks” — symbols with mythic, historical, and religious significance.

Irregular paths with odd shaped rocks force you to look down to expand your concept of space, or play with foreshortening. The gardens are designed to work over time — seasons, etc, and include an aspect of humanity.

Simplicity: the garden is not complete unless there is nothing else you can remove. In games we often do the kitchen sink.

Also meant to help mental processes: zen gardens.

The Russian space program:
Similar to the gardens: simplicity. The Soyuz navigation computer was literally a globe with mechanical controls. Very simple stuff, but they’ve lost less people in space than the US has.

Automotive design:
Has a heavy engineering component (like games), lots of art, lots of usability concerns. Spends a lot of time on interfaces, doing heatmap analysis of UIs.

We could do similar things in games: how often are buttons clicked on? Which are hit near each other? This was used to balance out the Sims UI. Which verbs are in the game and what controls should be prominent?

Games are like auto racing: invented problems, like the DARPA Grand Challenge, power tool racing in San Francisco, etc. Concept cars: not practical today, but by collecting elements, very useful for future development.

“Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.” — Scott Adams

Volvo formed a team of women to create a concept car. in order to recapture the soccer mom market. They got lots of configurable cargo space, headrests that supported ponytails, no gas caps needed, etc, seat inserts for customization. Toyota did a project with Sony to mix in Aibo to a car… it displays emotions externally to other drivers with an antenna that wags. Interior has vid displays per seat.

Cars are also vehicles for self-expression, like many games are becoming.


Art hit photorealism 400 years ago and didn’t stop; it kept going into abstraction again, from whence they came. Games tend to be externally representational right now…

Stage magic is about building a model in the audience’s head — getting you to build the wrong model, actually. Games do the same thing. AI is also like magic — misdirection, building a player model of intelligence, not about actually building intelligence.

There’s no such thing as AI, it’s really just a collection of tools we use.

You need to help the player build a model, or they will build the wrong one (they always build one).

Consider the story of the Mechanical Turk…


Fitness landscapes are the basis for the Sims AI model. You can use it for market analysis as well.

After release we go listen to players to see their stories, what verbs they use, what nouns matter. In The Sims the dominant word was “dollhouse” at first, then the language shifted as people started telling stories.

Designers have a different language from players, under the hood. This is semiotics. The sender is going thru a medium to send a message to a receiver. There’s noise in it, and the receiver decodes it all, which may result in a different message.

There are also different levels of symbolism: symbolic, iconic, indexed (representational). Most of our intelligence is about filtering.

A computer mouse had “do” and “point” as its language, originally: do on the button, and point on the mouse proper. Then “do” and “ask” (right mouse button) and “point” was the next step. Thyey then added “browse,” via the mouse wheel, then “next” and “last,” and these days it’s confusing. 🙂

In terms of display, meaningful nouns in games tend to get saturated in the artwork, to call them out. Verbs tend to be spectacular, and limited. Exaggerated adjectives.Most games have one verb: kill. In the industry, there are not too many more: race, manage…

People are good at interpreting verbs, as in shopping browsing and infer the verbs… independent of culture, age, and gender.

There’s too much inspiration drawn from this in games. Storytelling has a very evolved structure, emotional ride, arcs, etc. The claim is that film deals with rich emotions, and games with crude ones, BUT that’s not fair– it’s just a different.emotional palette. Games can give guilt, pride, accomplishment, expression, which movies cannot…

Rather than linear, games are like giving players a vehicle to explore the possibility space with. The interesting stories are the player ones.

From the player point of view, there’s a fine line between complex behavior and randomness. It’s all about seeing causal chains: what caused something to happen? If you can’t tell, it comes across as random.

Toys and models:
Some are creative, where you create models as you play, like Legos. Some are loosely representational like dollies. Then there’s models, which are directly representational.

Models strip out the irrelevant. Many toys are scaffolding for imagination — Lego. The less detail, the easier it is to edit for people.

As designers we are working with two processors: the CPU and the brain. In interactive fiction it was 80/20 to imagination, today it’s 80/20 to CPU. But we could feel empathy for 20 pixels in Choplifter…

Some trends he sees in the industry:
When picturing game devleoper job roles, we think of artists, programmers, designers, producers. But he’s seeing more value in programmers with design skills, artists with programming skills (particularly for procedural art), and designers doing more programming, which a lot to do with prototyping. Designers need to be fluent in process. That’s our medium. Also producers more fluent in design, understanding iteration and process, which helps them manage better. Basically, looking at more interdisciplinary teams.

  20 Responses to “Living Game Worlds 2006: Will Wright’s keynote”

  1. The Orson Welles of games. He recently gave a talk at Georgia Tech about… well… everything. The state of the industry, where it’s headed, relationships with other fields, Japanese Zen Gardens, etc. You can read Raph Koster’s notes on the talk

  2. In Raph’s blog, he relayed a keynote given at Living Game Worlds 2006. The keynote had this to say, among other things: Games exhibit “film envy,” taking too much inspiration from linear media. We shouold be looking at more fields to draw learning from.

  3. with it and try to reset it. And we’re filming all that.” PR act III: The keynote at the Game Dev Conference: What’s Next in Content, not really! or Why I Get Too Obsessed with My Game Research (some live blogging attempt of the Wright keynote,more notes on Will Wright’s keynote and Will Wright bits & bobs)

  4. Living Game Worlds + Dick Cheney Quail Hunt

    The Living Game Worlds Symposium is on here at Tech. You can watch a live stream, or watch recaps of the sessions, including Will Wright’s keynote, on the conference site. Raph Koster is also blogging it (1, 2). In other…

  5. Looks very similar to a talk Will gave at the GDC a few years ago, with a few more bits added that he’s talked about since then. He’s right, though, in that a good game designer takes inspiration from everywhere. Although, I think you could extend it and say a good creative person takes inspiration from everywhere.

    The comments about interdisciplinary teams are also interesting. I’ve worked to stay very interdisciplinary instead of focusing on a specific aspect (like programming, which is where the real money is). However, it’s very hard for me to find a position that will actually use all my abilities. Usually people want to stick me in a single department. Having a “programmer/designer” or “programmer/writer” just doesn’t fit in most organizations.

    Finally, as I said in my AGC rant, Will Wright is one of my favorite game developer public speakers. He’s always been very dynamic and he presents information in a very interesting way. I’ve tried in incorporate a lot of his techniques into my own speaking style, but I’m still working on getting interesting slides.

    Thanks for the info, Raph.

  6. Great article. I think product design is useful as well, but more for reducing risk in your games and making sure there’s an audience. Thinking about games filling a market need can be a useful model, though obviously it shouldn’t be the only model.

  7. […] Comments […]

  8. […] Raph Koster is blogging the symposium, so far with a post describing his tour of the facilities — including a cool photo of Will Wright gearing up to play an early version of Alternate Reality Facade — as well as a post describing Will’s keynote talk. […]

  9. Space planning. a field that is self-aware about design process, from pattern language to feng shui. Pitfalls we can learn from: at high levels it’s too much about critics; the parallel is making games for hardcore gamers.

    Heh. I’ve been struggling to read through Christopher Alexander’s first real book, “A Timeless Way to Build”, which is followed by “Pattern Languages”. Struggling, mostly because his writing style doesn’t really hook me into reading and reading; that’s not necessarily bad.

    I find most of the other remarks interesting, but not commentable, except that the Industrial Design one makes me ponder how to craft a game design curriculum.

  10. Great ideas.

    How about a piece on why I see so many great ideas (from many sources), but so few great games. What goes wrong in translation from idea to game?

  11. Games

    How about the traditional/board/card games industry as a model? Non-computer games work to capture the essense of an experience with minimal mechanics and elegent & efficient & novel interfaces. Why does the computer games industry always reach so far away when it has a rich world to tap right next door?

    I think one of the reasons that computer games get done so poorly is that the publishers and developers confuse graphics & programming (which consume a lot of resources & time) with design (which consumes a lot of thinking and very few resources). Look at theatre or anime or regular games or any other entertainment except for mainstream computer games (and movies) – the power & effectiveness of the art comes from lack of resources and using that constraint as a spur for creativity.

  12. At Slam, I’ve been considering what the chair equivalent for games might be over the last few months:

    After some discussions, I think I have an answer, which I’m going to throw out for further discussion and dissection: the standard card game.

    I’d obviously be interested to know what people think about that.

  13. How about a piece on why I see so many great ideas (from many sources), but so few great games. What goes wrong in translation from idea to game?

    Modern games have the same problem as blockbuster movies. So many things have to go right to have a great movie. Only one or two things have to go wrong to have a terrible movie even if everything else went right. (To pick a random example: Ocean’s Twelve). Both require large, interdisciplinary teams. Both are trying to create an immersive experience for the player (or viewer). And lots of things can break immersion. A boring movie is a bad movie, and a boring game is a bad game.

    Say Hollywood releases a couple movies a week. Every week I look and see if any of them look good, but there’s only been a handful of movies since Christmas that looked like they *might* be any good. Over 75% of them I could tell at a glance would be bad. To confirm my guess I usually check their rating at rottentomatoes.com. Most of the movies that looked bad to me got ratings below 50%, meaning they got generally negative reviews from over half the critics whose reviews were counted! So its not just me.

    Why does Hollywood spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year making downright bad movies? Because people pay for (some of) them anyway. Maybe that’s why we have so many sequels of sequels of FPSes lining the shelves at gamestop. A more interesting question is how can Hollywood line up a star-studded cast, pay them each millions, hire successful writer and director, and then end up with a bad script, bad plot, bad dialogue? It happens so often, and sometimes even great star performances can’t overcome this. Similarly, many games with great technical execution, great Shiny graphics and so on, are just boring. Or not fun to play. Or have a weak story or weak characterization. Players won’t make an emotional investment in the characters. Something is missing, and despite all the things the team got right, the game can’t rise above the things they got wrong.

  14. The Russian Space program kinda hit home…NASA spent a lot of dollars developing a pen that would write in zero gravity and under extreme temperature conditions. The Russians used a pencil. Or, at least, that’s how the story goes.

    However, as a study of Art History (my wife is an artist with an MFA and my BA was going to be Art History at one time), I’m a little curious as to how photorealism to abstraction translates into building games?

    I’ve made myself out to be a noob before, so I won’t argue when I say this idea has me a little off balance. I have to admit I haven’t had time to read everything here, but this struck me as odd:

    Games tend to be externally representational right now…

    I’m a little skeptical on this comment. Before I comment further, can you expand just a bit on what this means? If not, just call me a noob 🙂

  15. Or, at least, that’s how the story goes.


    Like they say, pity it isn’t true. It would be the very epitome of poor government spending, but I guess it’s just not that easy. =P

    I’d obviously be interested to know what people think about that.

    I had to wrap my mind around what it meant to be a “chair-equivalent” first, but once that settled reasonably well, a card game using a standard deck (which I presume you mean) isn’t bad. But even dropping the “standard deck” portion might not lose too much, either. See:


  16. Games (and CGI in general) have been chasing photorealism for a while now. CGI has reached it — not at movie length yet, and not with people, but there’s a surprising amount of CG is most every movie you watch these days.

    Games aren’t there yet. But it’s much more expensive and difficult to reach photoreal in realtime than in a movie.

    It’s a commonly held opinion that games will increasingly pursue “non-traditional rendering,” as the push to photoreal makes making games harder. The first time that started coming up a lot, we got cel shading.

    What Will was saying was that photorealism is an attempt to represent the external appearance of things as accurately as possible. But once painters mastered realism, they started playing with the formal qualities of art, and exploring ways of conveying internal qualities, and not just external ones. They developed other forms of painting that moved past realism, and therefore past straight representation.

  17. Oh, and I think a card game is an excellent chair equivalent. 🙂 But I made a comment today to some folks that the issue with having a chair equivalent at all in games is that part of the point of doing a chair is that you are being forced to consider refinement and improvement; it’s not about a new design from the ground up. Games already have a big problem with being trapped in a refine/sequel mentality…

  18. I don’t know… Advent Children is amazingly photorealistic, and is a total-CGI film. It never triggered the Uncanny Valley for me.

    NPR, or non-photorealistic rendering, has been fairly prevalent in the past few years, according to a classmate’s “book” report, meaning that there is no truly good reason to represent photorealistically.

    The graphics have to be good, but they don’t have to look like real life. Those are two entirely different metrics that are often conflated.

  19. […] Raph covers Will Wright’s speech at a conference. I love the subtext to Will Wright’s speeches: if you haven’t noticed, he more or less skips anything he knows inside and out. He’ll go into great detail on a lot of interesting things, but as soon as he comes to a concept he’s already applied on a mass scale, he just says a few quick sentences. I like that: it says he’s doing this as much for himself as for anyone else.Anyhow, I think that having different ways of looking at game design is very beneficial. However, in the end, looking at games in terms of cinema, car racing, biology, or stage magic is going to be replaced with looking at games as games. After all, cinema was first looked at as photography or thrill rides. It wasn’t until the idea of cinematic timing came in and turned cinema into its own art.Looking at games in terms of other types of systems is fine. But, in the end, games are games. They have a unique methodology. And the true challenge is not to figure out what they are most like, but what piece of them is unlike anything else. Then, master that piece.The problem with that is that we’re calling lots of things “games”. Real-world car racing is a game. Gambling on yak fights is a game. Seeing how long you can hop on one leg is a game.Similarly, I make quite a lot of games. 95% of them are not computer games! They are role-playing games, or card games, or board games, or anything else under the sun. Do all of these “games” have one, connecting thing which isn’t shared in other systems?Originally, I wrote a long essay about the various things that it could be, but that took up a lot of space. Let me spill it for you: it isn’t interactivity. It isn’t “fun”. It isn’t complex systems. It’s weighted feedback loops.All games, from the stock market to yak racing to poker all have feedback loops. But more than that, these are loops with high-grain rewards. You can win or lose in a wide variety of intensities. “Oh, man, Wonder Yak lost by just a spittle’s length! I was so close!”The stock market, by this definition, is a game. You can win or lose in a wide variety of ways and intensities.But it’s only a game if you’re playing on those rewards. Many people who have been playing the market for a long time start to get jaded. They set other rewards, such as “continue making at least 12%”. The feedback is no longer “won by 11.3%” or “lost by 2.9%”, it’s now often reduced to “won” or “lost”. That’s not enough granularity. That feedback is too simple.Similarly, driving is a complex feedback loop, but there’s no real granularity. There’s any number of “lose” intensities, from “you made that guy honk” to “you crashed into a yak-racing arena”. However, there’s no “win” intensities. If you do “good enough”, you do good enough. Not enough feedback!At the heart of every good game is a beautifully reactive reward system stapled to a feedback loop. First person shooters are excessively good at this, with a multi-axis set of reward/penalties. Like health. Yeah, you can run out of health and lose. But more often, taking a hit of any kind lowers your health only somewhat. You can use that as a measure of your success so far.All good games have these kinds of clear, high-grain feedback.They don’t need “goals”. They don’t even need to make sense. The things that set games apart from every other kind of system is that weighted feedback loop.And I’ll tell you more about it sometime soon. Or, at least, what I think about it. […]

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