DICE 2012: Todd Howard’s Keynote

Design. Innovate. Communicate. Entertain. While the Game Developers’ Conference (GDC) has grown increasingly commercialized, the annual DICE summit remains a game conference about a certain type of person in the game industry: the developers. It’s a place where developers can get together from all over the world and just talk about what they do without the pressure that they need to sell something. A big part of this summit are the presentations that are given by some of the most esteemed, successful people in the industry as they discuss some of the concepts and philosophies employed by their respective studios and teams. Not how to squeeze a few hundred more polygons out of the hardware or how to manipulate shaders within a popular engine, but rather the overall process of game development, the philosophies that define these companies and contribute to their standing out. 

 

Highlights:

  •  As much as the presentation was about the game design process at Bethesda, it was also a perfect example for PowerPoint presentations in general. Perfect pace, perfect amount of humor, perfect use of visual aides. Engaging throughout.
  • “Plan not as important and culture; ideas not as important as execution.”
  • 3 big “rules” at Bethesda Game Studios: 1. Define your experience (pictures that evoke the targeted feeling > lists of features); 2. Keep it simple (“We can do anything, we just can’t do everything”); 3. Great games are played, not made (see next bullet).
  • Once a game is in a playable form, the rest of the development cycle is what Howard refers to as “Opportunity Time.” The sooner a developer reaches the point of a playable build, the better; this allows devs to see what really works, what can be expanded/focused on, what things need to be tweaked or cut, etc. “Do more of the great stuff and less of the crap stuff.”
  • Bethesda Game Jam: annual week-long event at the company where developers are cut loose to do anything they want. This year, only stipulation was that it had to be inside Skyrim. Check out some of the crazy stuff for yourself in the video (starts at XX:XX)
  • The Gameplay Loop: Learn–>Play–>Challenge–>Surprise. Says often developers can get too focused on Challenge/Surprise part. Bethesda likes to give the player control of this loop, which allows them to linger in any one part of it if they want to or even jump to other parts directly. Examples: want a challenge? Go fight that dragon the townspeople are talking about. Want to play? Go ahead, explore and do whatever zany stuff you want.
  • Howard cites “pride” as one of the unique emotions that games can give players that others do not, and that empowering gamers with this sense is very powerful (in other words, make players proud that they accomplished something). He specifically points to Modern Warfare‘s level up sound and the end-level sequence of any Peggle level as great examples of reinforcing this feeling with the player. Also notes that pride also comes from hitting the sweet spot in the Challenge part of the gameplay loop, but that is also one of the hardest things to do in game development because the developer has to be careful to create the right balance…not too easy (causes boredom) and not too hard (causes frustration).
Response:
Honestly, there’s not really much to add. Todd Howard is one of the brightest and most successful designers in the industry and clearly has a strong and talented team behind him that can deliver. During the speech, he did also stress how important it was to unleash the creativity of a team’s talented individuals, which is one of the reasons Bethesda does the Game Jam. There are several important things to take away from the speech, but I think probably the most important is what a productive, collaborative culture can do for a studio–and its games. That philosophy really seems to be what powers everything else Bethesda does.
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