Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Game designer lineage

Brand names are a great way for companies to build up trust and repeat business from their customers, and games are no exception. It's a pretty sure thing that anything new from Valve, BioWare, Blizzard, or ArenaNet will be at the top of my "must try" list thanks to some stellar games that they have produced. As gamers we learn to distinguish these development houses from the parent companies and publishers such as Activision, EA, or NCSoft for the above. They are little more than suits; we know where the actual talent lies.

Or do we? After whining recently about some odd design decisions that ArenaNet are making for Guild Wars 2, I decided to dig into the Guild Wars 1 credits and see which people were responsible for making the bits that I was most interested in keeping. I was not concerned so much with the visual style or with the story, but with the core mechanics. Here is what I found.

Once upon a time, there was a young game designer named James Phinney. After proving himself with some minor roles at Blizzard he managed to find himself on the "Strike Team" (I gather that this is a Blizzard term for the "main dudes" overseeing the general design of the game) for the first Diablo. Proving his mettle on this classic he went on to be the Lead Designer of the original StarCraft. This is a game renowned for the beauty of its mechanics - the units, their skills, the upgrades, all tremendously fun to use but at the same time wonderfully balanced for 3 different races. What an all-star guy, right? In 2000 his buddies Mike O'Brien, Patrick Wyatt and Jeff Strain splintered off from Blizzard to found ArenaNet, and some time not too long after this Phinney joined them and became Design Team Lead for the original Guild Wars.

In short, Lead Design on StarCraft + Guild Wars = this man is my new god.

However a couple of weeks ago, unbeknownst to me, it was announced that Phinney was leaving to go and join Undead Labs, the new start-up from ArenaNet co-founder Jeff Strain who are working on making a console-focused Zombie MMO. Great move by Strain. Bad move by ArenaNet for letting him go. We can only speculate as to the reasons involved for his departure - surely ArenaNet have deep enough pockets to keep him interested. Let's hope it was something simple like personal problems, or him being sick of working on a fantasy game. However the worry is that he butted heads with corporate fat-cat types who wear suits, smoke cigars, have little dollar signs light up in their eyes every time someone mentions the word "MMO", and generally try to WoW-ify everything. Did this game design guru leave ArenaNet because Guild Wars 2 was turning into an un-salvagable mess? It seems frankly bizarre otherwise to leave a game that is so close to release and that is receiving so much hype.

But surely there are other talented designers working at ArenaNet, right? Well... tracing such an impressive pedigree in terms of design credentials for ArenaNet's other employees does not seem to bear fruit. The new Design Lead is Eric Flannum, who does have an impressive resume but mainly in relation to things like art and level design. He has been design lead on Sacrifice and The Bard's Tale, but I found both of these games fairly cruddy (especially Sacrifice). My main man Phinney was involved with Sacrifice too, but it was in terms of writing the story so I do not consider his record sullied. Anyway, next we have the 3 founders linked above who are all extremely talented programmers, between them having been lead/senior programmers on Diablo, the WarCraft series, StarCraft, and Battle.Net. But design magic is nowhere in their ancestry either.

Most of the other employees on ArenaNet's design team are either involved in art or level design like Eric, or are fairly new college graduates who do not have any specific role listed. Some of these could turn out to be budding design wizards, but it does not inspire much confidence. The one name that is listed as being involved with combat mechanics, and one that will be familiar to anybody that has spent some time reading a Guild Wars forum, is Isaiah "Izzy" Cartwright. "Izzy" joined ArenaNet 12 months before Guild Wars was released and was in charge (with input from his boss - Phinney - and a few others) of balancing the skills for several years after the release of the original Guild Wars, and as such was often the subject of much player ire. From my observations of the years I would say that he did not do a perfect job, but his hands were tied quite a bit by the addition of 4 new classes and a couple of hundred new skills when the Guild Wars expansions were released.

Apparently as of February last year Izzy has now moved on to be "involved in the development of combat, economy, and other unspecified "big systems" for Guild Wars 2". Here is me officially crossing my fingers and hoping that Izzy has learned some lessons from the first game and can steer this one away from the precipice it seems to be teetering on.


Andrew said...

Sacrifice? Cruddy? You heathen!!!!

It was a great game (in my opinion, of course). I shall now proceed to pout and stomp my feet until you change your tune.

Brian 'Psychochild' Green said...

Note that Bioware is EA now. They may have a different name for the time being, but EA has a long history of eating its acquisitions and spitting out the sad husk of a formerly great developer. My prediction is that EA will eventually bank on Bioware's reputation just as Activision has been writing checks on Blizzard's reputation over time. It's not a question of "if", but "when".

As for lead designers, don't forget that it takes a team to make most modern games. An MMO in particular requires a lot of people, even on the design team. Unless you're talking about an indie team with only a handful of people on the team, it's unlikely that one person had complete control over a particular aspect of the game. Lead designers work with other designers who give input and design systems that affect other systems. Programmers give feedback about what is and is not possible given technology and schedule restrictions; most game programmers could make a lot more money outside of the industry, so they often want some input on the process. Producers and directors set schedule and budget and sometimes dictate how things will work. A designer is only as good as his team is.

Not to disparage Mr. Phinney or discourage your hero worship, but given how Blizzard used to be I'm sure he would agree that his efforts were part of a team in most cases.

This is one reason why the general attitudes in the industry can be so frustrating. Team chemistry affects a game in huge ways, and hiring and firing people based on a cycle may make financial sense, but it can also harm long term development if team chemistry isn't preserved. I suspect this is the reason why James Phinney left ArenaNet; he worked better with Jeff Strain and found the project interesting enough to take a chance.

Some perspective from someone who's been on the inside of the beast.

Melf_Himself said...

Thanks for the insights Brian.

I suppose what I was looking for with my Google-fu was to find either the person or core group of people that guided this part of the game. The only one I can really identify from this info is Phinney, but there may well have been others. Unfortunately neither development houses nor publishers like to profer this info, instead keeping the idea that a game was made "by Blizzard" or "by ArenaNet" etc when in actual fact it is likely that it was a smaller group of somebody(s)'s "baby".

I suppose as a minimum at least I can say that Phinney is somebody who I doubt would let bad design decisions through to a product that he was overseeing. He would steer the others into doing good things. It makes me a sad panda that he's chosen to leave.

@ Andrew: I liked the concept of Sacrifice but I found the implementation quite irritating to actually play :(

mbp said...

I don't understand your dissing of Sacrifice. I know it wasn't a big commercial success but I think it is one of the most beautiful games ever made, a total work of art. It was original and ambitious and creative and I still replay it ever couple of years (every campaign is different) and it never pales.

I know it didn't hit all the buttons for commercial success but I have never seen a game so beautifully made. Every I still take it out every couple of years and replay it.

Melf_Himself said...

I think I actually tried Sacrifice after hearing you rave about it mbp! I found myself struggling with the controls and felt that information was not really presented very well. It just made it frustrating for me to play. It seems I have a low tolerance to these sorts of things these days.

mbp said...

apologies for my outburst or fanboism melf. Sacrifice is one of my favourite games but I have forgotten how unfriendly the controls are at the start.