Here’s some background. I work at the University of California, Riverside. Last night, the Associated Students Program Board presented a lecture on the video game industry, featuring three prominent figures in different disciplines. The night began with Edmund McMillen, creator of Super Meat Boy and The Binding of Isaac.
Edmund McMillen is one of the co-creators of the hit downloadable title Super Meat Boy, which has sold over 1 million copies and won “Most Challenging Game” of 2010 by IGN.com and Best Downloadable Game by both Gamespot.com and Gametrailers.com. Super Meat Boy features a boy without skin who is vulnerable and must rescue his girlfriend Bandage Girl. They’re a lovely couple. You can try out Super Meat Boy in an early Flash form here.
McMillen is also known for his more recent title The Binding of Isaac, which features a young child who is trying to flee from his mother (who was told by God that she must sacrifice her child to prove her faith). You can try out a demo of The Binding of Isaac here.
While he wasn’t there in person, McMillen appeared via Skype and did a question and answer session with the crowd. He was very honest about his thoughts on mainstream gaming. A highlight for me was a poignant thought that the economy is influencing the amount of risks that publishers are taking. Publishers can’t take a risk on new ideas, they need to be sure they’re going to make money. This was a little awkward as the two other speakers were at the event to discuss their past projects which included Diablo III, Metal Gear Solid IV, and Halo 4.
McMillen also stressed that any wannabe game designers should focus on making games that they would want to play, not necessarily what is most accessible. If you look into the two games I referenced above (Super Meat Boy and The Binding of Issac), you can see that these aren’t incredibly accessible games thematically, but they’re games that Edmund would love to play, so he created them.
He also stressed that from the minute he wakes up, until the minute his brain “lets him go to sleep,” he’s working on games. It’s taxing, it’s stressful, but it’s what he’s passionate about. He urged people to pursue their passions, without thinking about success or money. This theme of passion would continue through the night, through all three of our speakers.
To see more into Edmund’s process of creating Super Meat Boy, check out the documentary Indie Film which is currently streaming on Netflix. The trailer is below. For more info, follow Edmund on Twitter here.
The stage was then set for Christian Lichtner (light-ner), the Art Director for Blizzard’s Diablo III. Lichtner has a history doing art for comic books and decided during his career that he had a passion for videogames. He most recently headed the Diablo III art direction so he walked the crowd through some of the processes, including the evolution of the game’s big baddie, Diablo himself. Below, you’ll see a video of Lichtner from over at RPad.TV.
Lichtner echoed Edmund’s sentiments about passion. He worked on comic books until he realized he was no longer passionate about comic books. Find what you love and do it.
Technically, he also showed us some of the complexity behind art direction, such as the various layers in the game that a casual observer may not recognize, such as layers of fog, light sources, color choices, and how a player differentiates a hero and a villain on the screen. Little details that they intentionally think about, but we as players might take for granted.
The last speaker of the night was Ryan Payton, who was a designer for Metal Gear Solid 4 and more recently Halo 4. Payton had an interesting path to video game designing and told the story of how he wasn’t stellar at computer science and ended up majoring in Japanese. This led to him being hired on at Konami doing translation work. So he found a way to incorporate what he was good at as a way to break into what he felt passionate about.
Payton then emphasized that it’s important to care about what you’re working on. Before Metal Gear Solid 4, Payton helped put in time on a mobile version of Metal Gear that no one else on the development team seemed to notice wasn’t up-to-par. So he took time to help work out the kinks and the higher-ups at Konami noticed and then put him on the design team for Metal Gear Solid 4. He went the extra mile and people noticed that sort of dedication.
After his time at Konami, Payton was offered a spot on the team working on Halo 4, which gave him a chance to rethink the franchise by being influential in creating the new enemy types. Below, we say Payton showcasing an example of the new Prometheans.
Much of Payton’s presentation echoed what Lichtner and McMillen had said. You have to be passionate and you have to show that you love what you’re working on.
Payton then transitioned to what he’s working on now. He’s started a new company called Camoflouj that is currently working on a new title called Republique. This is a new type of game for iOS that is a stealth/spy/interactive type of game in which you use your phone to help the main character navigate her way out of a hostile environment. Payton stressed that they’re trying to utilize new ways to play games and that systems like iOS and other mobile devices are the future of gaming, as opposed to traditional consoles.
He made a note that they also a use a unique backwards style of development, where they’ll ask playtesters to perform an action and see what they do intuitively. If they ask the tester to access a computer terminal, what is their first attempt? These intuitive actions likely impact the actual mechanics of the game and how it plays, so it closely matches with what’s intuitive for the player.
To see a trailer for Republique, see below. Coming summer 2013. To keep up with Payton and what Camoulflaj is up to, follow him on Twitter here.
When Payton finished, Lichtner went back to the stage and the duo did a Q/A session with the crowd.
The first three questions were all similar but definitely resonated with me. I graduated with a degree in Creative Writing and I have a thousand ideas, but I don’t have any background in either programming or art, so is there really a place in video game development for writers? And how do they break in?
Payton and Lichtner responded with a couple ideas for those that want to write. “Everyone has ideas, those aren’t worth anything,” said Lichtner. He followed up by saying that you need to make something. That determination is what will set you apart. He suggested making a pitch video for YouTube or writing out your stories. “If a video has a million views, it’s hard to argue with.”
Payton also illustrated that there are simple ways to design games and the fact that someone doesn’t have programming experience shouldn’t deter them. There are free and cheap tools out there to create games, so if someone has a stellar idea, nothing is stopping them from making it a reality.
Another suggestion was the find designers and artists that were working on indie games and wanted help with writing the text and dialogue and volunteer your services as a way to get something on your resume.
Overall with these responses, I was inspired and kicked in the ass to do something with my life. All three speakers were right. If you’re passionate about something, do it. Don’t let anything stop you. Eat, drink, and breathe video game design, if that’s what you feel is your calling.
The night ended with some trivia and signed merchandise from both of the visiting speakers. Overall, an inspiring night and some really cool insight into the industry. Kudos again to the Associated Students Program Board here at UC Riverside for bringing them out!