Who else is feeling burned out? Nowadays, it is prevalent in daily life and work. A Playful Production Process: For Game Designers (and Everyone) is the latest book that inspires creativity and helps game designers (and everyone else) avoid crunch. USC Games sat down with the author, Professor Richard Lemarchand, to discuss how the book can make game development and our life easier.
Q: Before we officially get started, tell us about a recent game that has caught your eye, what it is and why you’re interested.
A: So one of the games that I’ve been playing most recently is actually made by an alumni of the USC Games program. The name of the game is Beast Breakers. It’s a terrific and innovative indie game developed by Vodeo Games, a studio founded by my friend Asher Vollmer, who’s a graduate of one of our programs. Beast Breakers is an action puzzle game about a group of tiny woodland creatures whose home is being invaded by these giant crystalline insectoid monsters. The core gameplay is a little bit like the game Peggle: we have to equip various weapons and armor, and then attack these monsters by bouncing around on them, shattering away their vulnerable outer shells to break the core of the monster, which finally defeats it. The game is really beautiful, with wonderful game design and a really amazing story. I’ve really been enjoying sinking deeply into it these past weeks.
Q: Was your background in gaming? How did you stumble upon it and get started in the industry?
A: Back when I was in college, there were no video game programs. I had fallen in love with video games as a very young child and grown up playing personal computer games. My love for games was rekindled during college, partly through the video games that we played in the college bar and also on the new generation of home computers that had arrived on the scene, like the Commodore Amiga. Suddenly, the graphics looked incredible. I knew with greater certainty than ever before that video games would be a new art form. I had always been both creative and technical. My degree is in physics and philosophy. When my mother showed me a job advertisement from the local newspaper for a video game studio in the west of England, who were looking for game designers, I leapt at the chance to apply. And the rest is history. Video game design is a perfect match for me. I love the creativity of it. I love working on computers, fixing small details to make really excellent gameplay. This led me into a 20-year career, starting back in the UK. Then I spent much of my career working here in California.
Q: Thank you for sharing that. How has your experience at USC games been as a professor?
A: My experience of USC Games far predates my time joining the program as a professor. I worked for 10 years in Northern California at a great studio called Crystal Dynamics, on game series like Gex and Soul Reaver. Then I moved down to Southern California to work at Naughty Dog on the game series Jak and Daxter, and Uncharted. While I was working at Naughty Dog, I began to volunteer at USC, visiting classes to give talks to students and give feedback on student projects. Later, I began to mentor graduate students in the MFA program, who were required to have an industry advisor while they were working on their thesis project. I think it was the vigor with which I threw myself into this mentorship role that made my dear friend, Professor Tracy Fullerton, one of the founders of USC Games, think that maybe I would make a good professor. I would meet with my students every week and get them to give me a rundown of their progress. I would play-test their games. So when it came time for me to think about a career change after a long and very happy time at Naughty Dog, Tracy suggested to me that there could be a role for me in the USC Games program. I am so happy that Tracy suggested this because it began a wonderful new phase of my life. I warmed to teaching very easily. Actually, both my maternal grandparents were teachers. Honestly, I really don’t find teaching students in the USC games program to be that much different from the work I did in the industry. I’m still just working with game designers of various levels of experience, collaborating to look at our games and working out how to make them excellent. So I’m simply having a wonderful time.
Q: It’s interesting that it runs in the family. Do you teach both undergraduate and graduate students?
A: I do. I’ve taught a variety of classes during my time in the USC games program. The class that I’ve taught most consistently is the class based on my new book that has recently been released. But I’m also currently teaching our Introduction to Game Design Class, which is based on Tracy Fullerton’s book. It has been a real joy to teach that undergraduate class. We teach students the thinking behind game design by getting them to make board games and card games. It allows us to get the digital technology out of the way and to focus on the systemic aspects of game design and on the player experience, which is the most important thing for a game designer to be thinking about.
Q: Throughout your years here, what are some of the challenges that you’ve noticed that students would typically face when they’re developing games?
A: Well, I think that the biggest challenge that students face when developing games is actually very similar to those faced by professional game designers. It’s the big problem of running out of time. Game design is quite different from other types of creativity because of the systemic complexity of games, and the role that the player has in shaping the experience. It’s very hard to predict how long it’s going to take you to create any given aspect of your game. This leads many game designers to over-scope their game: making a plan to build a game that is unrealistically large. What happens is that you commit to a certain plan but you may not realize that the plan is too big until late in the process. Towards the end of the project, you have to work harder and harder and harder in order to realize the plan. And this leads to something that every game developer knows well: the problem of crunch. Crunch is the kind of uncontrolled overwork that people in other industries suffer from as well, such as the animation industry and the tech industry. It is a distinct problem for game developers. Unsustainable development leads to burnout, both for individuals and for companies. It can harm the mental and physical health of individuals. It can put stress on their important personal relationships. Ultimately, it can lead to people leaving the game industry altogether. Crunch has the same negative effect on organizations. Studios fail and publishers go bankrupt all because people haven’t been taught how to bring their projects under their creative control. As you can imagine, the problem is exacerbated when a student, who has even less experience making games, bites off more than they can chew. Since joining the USC Games program, I made addressing this problem my major focus. The class that I teach upon which my book is based is directly intended to tackle this problem. It draws on a number of best practices that I learned about in industry and also from my talented friends in games academia. The book guides people through a four-stage process of gradually bringing their projects under control so that they don’t have to crunch at the end and can still make a game of excellent quality by the time the final milestone comes.
Q: Like the title says, the book is not just for game designers but also for everyone. You put an emphasis on playfulness. Why is that important to the process?
A: I did not want to just write a book about game project management. I wanted to make a book that united project management with the craft of game design. There is an old saying in the game industry that you have to have fun to make fun. I very much believe in that. It’s like the alchemical principle of “as above, so below”. I think that a playful attitude in life is incredibly enriching. There is something spiritual about it. If we bring a playful attitude to the work that we do and to our relationships, we are tuning into something essentially joyful about life, something that connects people, something that reveals truths about the world. This is part of why I fell in love with game design as an art form. Of course, if we bring a playful attitude to our project management, not only will we enjoy it more, but it can also give us a sense of flexibility, which is essential to the process that I describe in the book. The book is not very prescriptive, although it does encourage people to make certain kinds of planning documents in a certain way. But the plans that we make should always be adaptable. They should give us enough structure to be able to move forwards but shouldn’t have too much detail that when we make a new discovery about what we’re doing, we can’t adapt the plan to a new set of circumstances. I think the production process is playful: it allows us to stay on our toes, to stay agile.
Q: Could you give us a specific example in the book about a playful production process?
A: There is a chapter in the book called “Types of Testing,” because there are very many different kinds of playtesting that game developers use, from just trying out the game themselves or on a colleague. There is the formal play testing that we do in my classes, in which game developers bring in people who have never played the game before to see what it’s like for them to play without receiving any help or coaching through the experience. As Tracy Fullerton is fond of saying: you don’t ship in the box with the game. The designer won’t be there to help the player. The player has to be able to figure out the game. So the central focus on constantly playing our game and then analyzing the results of those playtests, which Tracy Fullerton refers to as the “playcentric” style of game development that we use in our program and which has caught on all around the world, is a very important aspect of this book and of our classes.
Q: For any high school graduate who is interested in USC Games, what do you hope that this book would help them with in terms of the type of experience they would expect for a game design?
A: I am hoping that my book will find an audience among people who are still in high school. I’ve tried to make it readable with a conversational tone and clear explanations. I’m hoping that it will give people some insight into the practicalities of the craft of game design, both in terms of the way that we conceptualize games and the concrete way we build games. And I think the book should act as a good taster for people who are considering a degree program in games to see if they find a natural sympathy towards the thinking and planning that go into making a game. Just as I didn’t use my physics and philosophy degree to become either a physicist or a philosopher, a degree in games can prepare you for many different careers and professions beyond just game development, because of the aspects of psychology and systems design that are the essential skills at the heart of game design and development. I believe that one could apply a game design degree to many different spheres in continuing education, from architecture to urban planning, from education to politics. I think games are such an important part of our global culture today. A sophisticated thinker could find innumerable ways to apply the lessons of a game design degree to impacting the world in countless positive ways, and we have seen this borne out in the career trajectories of many of our talented students.