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Richard Garriott on why "most game designers really just suck"

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Initial post: Mar 19, 2013, 6:45:30 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Mar 19, 2013, 6:45:59 PM PDT

Richard Garriott on why "most game designers really just suck"

Tyler Wilde at 11:27pm March 19 2013

When Ultima creator Richard Garriott stopped by to show me his new RPG Shroud of the Avatar, which just met its $1M Kickstarter funding goal, he brought along some objects for show and tell. First, he produced a folder containing a stack of loose, lined paper-the first ever record of Ultima's world, featuring Sosaria, Lord British, and the evil Mondain. Holy crap, that should be in a museum, I thought.

"This is the founding document of Ultima, that predates even Ultima I," said Garriott. "This is 1976-ish. Before I ever programmed a line of code, this is the story of the city of Moon and the world of Sosaria, with Lord British and the evil wizard Mondain, where I received a rare `A' on something I did in English class, which I usually failed. This is before a personal computer even existed."

"I think most game designers really just suck"

Garriott went on to show me one of the first computer RPGs he-or anyone-ever made. It was programmed on tape and, as it existed before displays, printed out an ASCII grid to display the map. That should really be in a museum, I thought.

Garriott went on to show me one of the first computer RPGs he-or anyone-ever made. It was programmed on tape and, as it existed before displays, printed out an ASCII grid to display the map. That should really be in a museum, I thought.

The fascinating objects are a story on their own, but Garriott was building to a point. After showing me Shroud of the Avatar, which he hopes meshes the best of classic RPGs with modern ideas, he moved on to talking about the classic principles of game design, and what it means to be a great designer-a quality he thinks is rare in the industry.

"You know, I go back to the day when I was the programmer, I was the artist, I was the text writer, etcetera," said Garriott. "Every artist we've ever hired ever is infinitely better at art than I ever was. I was never a good artist, or audio engineer, or composer. I was a pretty good programmer, but now all of our programmers are better than I am-but if I'd stayed in programming I could probably keep up.

"But other than a few exceptions, like Chris Roberts, I've met virtually no one in our industry who I think is close to as good a game designer as I am. I'm not saying that because I think I'm so brilliant. What I'm saying is, I think most game designers really just suck, and I think there's a reason why."

"It's really hard to go to school to be a good designer"

Chris Roberts, who worked with Garriott back when Origin Systems was producing both Ultima and Wing Commander, isn't Garriott's only exception-he also identified Will Wright and Peter Molyneux as examples of quality game designers. The majority, however, become designers because they lack other skills, according to Garriott's analysis.

"If you like games, you eventually get to the point where you'd like to make one," said Garriott. "But if you had this magic art talent as a youth, you can refine your skills and show a portfolio and say, `I'm a good artist, go hire me' If you're nerdy enough to hack into a computer, programming on your own, you can go to school and learn proper structure, make code samples and go `Look, I'm a good programmer, hire me.'

"But if you're not a good artist and not a good programmer, but you still like games, you become a designer, if you follow me. You get into Q&A and often design.

"And the most valuable part of creating a game is the design, which the programmers are technically executing. And they'd be happy to just execute some of them. But in my mind, most artists and programmers are just as much of gamers as the designers, and I usually find in my history that the artists and programmers are, in fact, as good of designers as the designers. They're often better, because they understand the technology or the art. So we're leaning on a lot of designers who get that job because they're not qualified for the other jobs, rather than that they are really strongly qualified as a designer. It's really hard to go to school to be a good designer."

"Four-dimensional spreadsheets"

So how does a good game designer work? Garriott went on, explaining the design process which started back with that high school writing assignment. Using a "four-dimensional spreadsheet," Garriott says he records every character, location, and item in a game and blends them into the whole.

Ultima in its original packaging, a large plastic bag-the standard until Garriott convinced Sierra to put Ultima II in a box.

"OK, here's some magic items, have I distributed them around enough?" Garriott asked himself, miming his process. "How do they migrate across the story? What is the journey of that item through the game?"

"I think it's this discipline of how I break down storytelling-not just the story, but each region, each thread, each object, and I kind of do them all simultaneously. I kind of have a four-dimensional spreadsheet in this sense, even before there were `spreadsheets,' that's how I broke them down in the beginning.

"I have the notebooks for Ultimas one through five-I would often get two or three binders, and one was the linear story, one was by character sheet, alphabetical, one was by town, and who was in each town, but it was the same information threaded thrice, because it helped go, `Oh, I've put nobody in the city of Moon, who can I put over there? Or what part of the story can I shuffle over there?'"

"How can I really move the needle here?"

Garriott's love of detail in a world, its characters, and their backstories has been evident in the Ultima universe since the '80s. His method hasn't gone away-he's been working on Shroud of the Avatar's story and design on paper, just like he always has-and he thinks this skill, or something comparable, is lacked today, replaced by lazy rehashes of old ideas.

"And every designer that I work with-all throughout life-I think, frankly, is lazy," said Garriot, adding "to give you another zinger" in reference to my ribbing him earlier over his "game designers suck" line.

"But if you follow, they generally say, `You know, I really like Medal of Honor, but I would have bigger weapons, or I would have more healing packs, or,' you know. They go to make one or two changes to a game they otherwise love versus really sit down and rethink, `How can I really move the needle here?'

"You know, even if it's just a map. I really push my team on how to make a scenario map. How do you really think about the whole thing holistically, to go, `yeah, it's fine to wander through and kill a few things and get a treasure at the end, but why? What's your motivation for being into it? What are the side stories? If you have these characters in there, what were their lives before they showed up on this map? If you didn't think of one, go back. Do it again. I want you to know it.'"

"I think there's really very few great game designers," he continued later. "I think Chris Roberts is one of them, Will Wright's another, Peter Molyneux is another. They clearly exist, but on the whole, I think that the design talent in our industry is dramatically lower than we need, as an industry. It's a very hard skill to learn."

Strong words, especially coming from someone who created one of the most revered RPGs ever-as well as what might be the first computer RPG ever-and whose experience is traceable to a 1976 high school English paper. If it can be said that PC gaming has "founders," Lord British is one of them.

To be fair, Garriott agreed when I asked if he thought some developers, such as BioWare, had been doing good work recently. His judgments are still very broad, but I inferred that, rather than condemning the entire industry, he was pointing out flaws he perceives in how design talent is assessed and promoted in specific parts of the industry. His ideal programmer, artist, designer combo still exists, especially among the current crop of indie developers, who I think retain the spirit of the early days Garriott is reminiscing about.

Garriott's new game, Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues, has succeeded on Kickstarter with the promise that it's a "return to his fantasy RPG roots, hearkening back to his innovative early work."

Posted on Mar 19, 2013, 6:48:38 PM PDT
1#Fetish says:
good read.

Posted on Mar 19, 2013, 7:19:51 PM PDT
Voice of god says:
Because they haven't been to space!

Posted on Mar 19, 2013, 8:19:41 PM PDT

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 19, 2013, 8:31:46 PM PDT
Peter Faden says:
I think Garriott is a pretty interesting dude. In Austin, he's fairly recognizable and very approachable. Cool guy.

Posted on Mar 19, 2013, 8:34:24 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Mar 19, 2013, 9:02:15 PM PDT
Ham Salad says:
I feel like Richard Garriott may have a point, but his approach fails on so many levels.

For one thing: vanity. Reading this article, I can't help but think he's less interested in solving problems with the gaming world than it is pointing out how great he is in comparison.

Secondly, he has absolutely no examples to back himself up or propel his argument forward. If lazy designers are so widespread it should be pretty easy for him to pick out a few common poor design choices, or specific designers that are consistently lazy, to shore up his points.

Last of all, he sounds hopelessly out of touch. You can see this in the designers he holds on a pedestal like Chris Robinson, Peter Molyneux, and Will Wright. Men who (debatably) haven't made a good game, but definitely not a great game, in probably a decade or more. In fact Spore and Fable 3 are probably some of the most disappointing games I've played in recent memory.

If these men represent Mr. Garriot's knowledge of current game design, I feel like he'd be more effective staying at home and shouting at kids to get off his lawn than saying anything meaningful about the current state of the art.

Posted on Mar 20, 2013, 3:32:58 AM PDT
Back in my day we had to walk to school through 3 feet of snow, uphill, both ways!

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 20, 2013, 3:55:55 AM PDT
Xavier 7 says:
If he's so approachable, I dare you to go up to him and tell him to cut that rat-tail of his off.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 20, 2013, 3:59:10 AM PDT

I think it is crap when indie devs talk like this. Same when mainstream devs do it.


"It is clear to me that I, Richard Garriott, am an essential ingredient of at least the Ultimate Ultima, if not more broadly the Ultimate RPG. Perhaps one day, now that the people who pushed me out of EA more than a decade ago are long since gone, EA will recognize that together, we could rebuild that franchise in a way that they have failed to do in the intervening years. Richard Garriott is an essential ingredient in the Ultimate Ultima!"

Posted on Mar 20, 2013, 4:36:27 AM PDT
Aku says:
"he also identified Will Wright and PETER MOLYNEUX as examples of quality game designers."

Look, either this Richard guy was just unfroze after a fifteen-year period, or he's got bedroom eyes for Mr. Fable, because Molyneux hasn't done anything remotely helpful for game design in years.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 20, 2013, 11:10:08 AM PDT
DVvM says:
Well, it's entirely likely that Garriot finds Wright and Molyneux as developers who work along the lines that Garriot's idealized game developer does, as it's clear that Garriot cares more about vision than execution.

I think ultimately what Garriot is lamenting is the lack of visionaries in the game development business, as there is a whole lot of "let's make this game like that other game, but change up these things" in the games industry (since it's reasonably successful, and games are huge investments.)

Since Garriot himself is crazy rich, he should probably just step up to the plate and show everybody else the way games ought to be made.

Posted on Mar 20, 2013, 11:15:38 AM PDT
LogJam says:
If he's so confident in his abilities, why doesn't he hire me and smooth over my idea for an all-clits world in a game to the media?

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 20, 2013, 11:20:32 AM PDT
My understanding is that he spent almost all of his wealth (like $30 million) on space.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 20, 2013, 11:20:51 AM PDT
That Emu Kid says:
Don't forget the 110 degree heat.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 20, 2013, 11:22:14 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Mar 20, 2013, 11:23:55 AM PDT
DVvM says:
He still owns a castle.

Plus, that $30m trip to space was more or less paid for entirely by NCSoft: http://www.playerattack.com/news/2010/07/29/garriott-wins-28-million-lawsuit-against-ncsoft/

Posted on Mar 20, 2013, 11:28:16 AM PDT
Shanghaied says:
Gariott's speaking of a time when the video game industry wasn't entrenched and made into a money making business machine.

He makes that point well, and to say there's no room for those sorts of ideas, or that they aren't enjoyable today or that they have no value isn't correct.

The problem with Garriot is that he's stuck in this black and white era of video games. The industry has evolved past the social experimentation of UO, and it's not about turning heads or novelty anymore. People aren't as surprised by the next big thing, they expect it and feel entitled to it.

It's far different. I don't think it's a matter of lack of vision, I think it's a matter of giving people what they want so they can make money. That's why when I hear about Moly or Wright or now this guy's "next big thing," its kind of a lets wait and see thing.

Posted on Mar 20, 2013, 11:36:25 AM PDT
Chris... says:
Back in my day we couldn't just move the TV to any room we wanted.

Posted on Mar 20, 2013, 11:41:59 AM PDT
Most game designers suck. Good designers swallow.

Posted on Mar 20, 2013, 4:15:55 PM PDT
Garriot. The new Blow.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 20, 2013, 4:16:49 PM PDT
The NEW Blow? I'm pretty sure he's been like that since before Blow could read.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 20, 2013, 4:29:26 PM PDT

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 20, 2013, 4:37:42 PM PDT
K Archer says:
TBH, I couldn't get through the whole thing due to a "I'm better because of art" type vibe from him...I just don't like that. I never played Ultima, though I did other RPGs from that era; they have their strengths and all, but games have come so far from what they are it can be hard to go back and play them (its not the whole "map out everything and keep track of everything yourself" thing for me, I do that somewhat even with modern games, its just a factor of age, really).

I just really don't like that attitude. Sorry, but I can't take someone all that seriously when they act like they are a "god" of something (especially when it comes to art...it just really ticks me off when everyone says that art is open to interpretation, but at the same time tells everyone they're wrong...)

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 20, 2013, 4:41:57 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Mar 20, 2013, 4:42:21 PM PDT
DVvM says:
I've met Richard Garriot (though I didn't know who he was at the time, it was at a NASA thing) and he actually is a pretty cool guy. I think his point is more about "everybody in this business is so afraid of everything all the time! But I'm not afraid!" than "I am so much better than everybody else, because everybody who's not me sucks."

Since the video game industry is very much defined these days by large publishers being afraid that their enormous investments won't pay off, and taking steps to "mitigate this risk" that ultimately just make games worse.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 20, 2013, 4:42:56 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Mar 20, 2013, 4:43:09 PM PDT
Ha ha, I'm joking. Blow is nowhere near Garriot.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 20, 2013, 4:43:37 PM PDT
Okay, I am wicked jealous.
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Initial post:  Mar 19, 2013
Latest post:  Mar 21, 2013

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