Interview With Relic’s Tarrnie Williams — Part 2

16 Jun

VGD: So having been a designer at EA for a long time, how do you feel that game design itself really fits in to overall development? Because I remember back at VIGS they had, on the design track, one of the sessions was titled Environmental Design, and it was very much an art session. There’s elements of design in just about anything but how do you feel we can describe game design specifically, because it’s different than designing a lunch box or something.

TW: It’s an odd question in a way – everything’s design. You’re right, there’s code design, there’s art design, there’s animation design, there’s game design, AI design. All of those things interrelate. All of those things can have significant impacts on how the game plays. Destruction in Company of Heroes is art design, animation design, AI design and game design. So how do you isolate that? I don’t really think you can, that’s why we work in Scrum where we have interdisciplinary groups who work together, because I think the concept of trying to isolate individual pieces of design says ‘Well you’re not really looking at the game in the right way’. Because the game isn’t necessarily just game design, you have to take all the pieces together. All the people need to work together so they work collectively as a team to move those things forward.

So in any part of the game there’s – well it’s kind of like cooking. It really is – it’s like a recipe. If you’re having steak for dinner it’s not going to be just steak. If someone came and served you a slab of meat that has no seasoning, no oil, no vegetables with it, no starch, nothing to drink, no appetizer and no dessert then you’re kind of like ‘Well, it ain’t the same thing.’ Right? And I think that game design is very much the same way. I mean we’re huge believers in the importance of game design. At the end of the day, in many ways, game design – the actual game design part – is probably the key thing about it. It’s a game after all, it makes sense that that is actually the highest order element in terms of putting the whole thing together, but you can’t do it in isolation. Trying to do it in isolation prevents the whole ability of a production to really transcend just game design.

VGD: Right, because a boardgame design is much different than a video game design right. You can have one designer making a boardgame but it’s not the same as when you have animation speeds and all this sort of thing to deal with.

TW: Right, but even thinking about a boardgame, if a boardgame has nice art, it’s more fun to play because it inspires your imagination. The shape of the pieces, the type of dice and what the board looks like, the size of the squares, I mean I don’t know have you played a lot of boardgames?

VGD: Yeah, a fair bit.

TW: Yeah I play lots of board games, and some games you know, the pieces are too hard to handle and the squares are too small, or something, and in this case the design can have a giant impact. That’s essentially more related to the industrial design of the game itself, but that industrial design is now impacting the game, it’s impacting the game design too because of the interplay between those two elements.

VGD: Well Valve is pretty well known for taking a fairly strong engineering approach to the very specific skill of game design. I go to VFS and it’s sort of a misnomer that it’s a game design program specifically, it’s very much a game development program, so part of what we’re trying to do with this site is sort of help define design. And they [Valve] very much have a process of: define success, identify constraints, come up with ideas, test them, where the experiment is generally a playtest, evaluate that, go back and, like you were saying with the iterative process, go back and work on that. Do you feel that there can be a sort of general approach to design, that you can say ‘you’re a game designer and I expect you to go about your business in this way’ and that you can have a structure that you can follow?

TW: Yes, I think what you just described is a lot of it, I know Dave pretty well and he’s certainly built a good course over there [at VFS]. So yeah, I think that there certainly is, I think there is for all things, and that doesn’t just hold true for game design. It’s pretty much the same for art design, code design, or any of these things. It’s kind of like ‘Alright, what do I think we want it to do? What’s the goal? What do we want out of this? Alright, well here’s what I think we need to do to get that to happen. Let’s put it together quickly, see if it’s gonna work. Yeah, looks like it’s kinda gonna work. Alright, let’s put it together a little more robustly. Alright, looking pretty good; still fun. Let’s test it, test it, test it! Alright, let’s put the polish on it and we’re done!’

And I think if you continually widen the audience of who’s looking at it… start with ‘Oh! Let me try this. OK, let’s pitch it to a couple of people… and there’s some new ideas’. We have a process where we’re trying to make sure that we don’t have one person working on something that they never show anyone. I don’t think that gets the best work. I think people get the best work when they’re able to come up with great ideas and share them with others and they can take that feedback and iterate on it.

VGD: So very much defining goals for people, don’t tell them how to do it, and then evaluate what they’ve done so far and then go back and say ‘well I think we need to hit this better or hit that better’.

TW: We do everything goal based. Pretty much the whole organization runs in a goal based fashion. We don’t want to tell people what to do, we’d rather tell them what we want done and then they surprise us with how they do it. There’s a great General Patton quote, in fact I think it’s actually on my Facebook page; ‘Never tell a man what to do, tell him what you want done and let him surprise you with how he gets there’. That’s very much the way I believe we should operate. People are in this industry because they want to solve problems, they want to create things, they want to come up with stuff. I tell them what to do and that sucks. I don’t really like to be told what to do at all.

VGD: In an industry full of creative people, it’s kind of touchy right.

TW: Yeah, I’m an ornery S.O.B, I’m like ‘Well, how about I don’t do that then, I’ve got something else to do.’ I think that kind of comes through in how I try and run the studio. I know how much I don’t like being told what to do, so why don’t I come up with really interesting structures of how to manage the organization so that we can all pull in the same direction without having to tell each other what to do. I mean sure, ‘Hi, we’ve got to make a game, it’s in World War II.’

You’ve got that context, it’s a really big box, and again the shift to Scrum has let us have our leaders spend much more time being facilitators and mentors than telling people what to do. I’m not a big fan of command and control. Are we perfect at it? No. But we get better and better at it. We’ve been using Scrum now for, I don’t know, three years I guess, so we’re still at the beginning of the learning curve of something.

VGD: Well that’s good I guess, because if you think you’re done something, then you’re not.

TW: That’s another piece that’s a very strong aspect of our culture at Relic here — really rigorous self examination of all the things we do, all the time. Like I said earlier one of these new ideas is learning to learn – there’s always new ideas. Anyone in the organization could have a great idea that could interplay with other ideas.

VGD: Ideas that you probably haven’t heard before, so you don’t have a predefined strategy to deal with them.

TW: Yep, we work very hard to ensure that everybody’s ideas get heard. It’s part of our values, and we created our values by having brainstorming sessions in groups of fifteen people where every single person at Relic went through the sessions and got to contribute, got to help share and craft what it was that we think are the values that make up Relic; because that’s the way we run things.

Sometimes it takes a little longer, right – sometimes you think it’s easier to tell someone what to do than it is to ask them for their ideas, to decide collectively what the goal is and then to have people think about how to get there – and that would be true if you were right one hundred percent of the time.

VGD: Sometimes as a person you must be inclined to think ‘I know this is going to work’, but you can’t always know that.

TW: Right. So, I think that by getting more people’s input, that — well obviously there are levels. We don’t go ‘Should we get more forks or not? Let’s get the whole company to decide!’ There are degrees, but I think that by having more people involved and having more eyes on something — and again you have to go through a process: we have to make these decisions in this amount of time and this is the way we’re going to move things forward and set those structures in place. But again, having more people involved in that is going to increase the chance of a correct decision. So while the process could take a little bit longer, because your chance of success is increased, overall it’s going to take a shorter amount of time. It’s a very similar concept in regards to what we talked about earlier in terms of work-life balance and how that affects your ability to do things right or wrong. You’re really tired; you make mistakes. All of a sudden you think that you’re working more hours and you’re going to go further, but that doesn’t happen – you make mistakes, you slow production down; the bright ideas stop happening. And you’re grumpy – and I think, without a doubt, communication is key in making games. In all these interdisciplinary groups, these big teams, everyone has to help share these ideas. Again, that’s why Scrum’s a great structure, it puts the focus on interdisciplinary groups of about eight people that all sit together. Maximize communication, reduce the interdependencies and who has to talk to who. But if you’re all a bunch of zombies, well guess what? Communication is going way down. All of a sudden you’ve got more errors, increasing the amount of time you need to do things.

VGD: Recently Insomniac has been sharing some of their codebase [Nocturnal Initiative]; it’s not IP but rather debugging utilities and certain toolsets etc. Do you see that as being a big advantage for companies or for the industry as a whole – not just developers sharing an engine under a big publisher, but developers actually helping each other with this kind of middleware? Do you think that will help the industry, or that it will even catch on?

TW: I think every company is going to have to make their own decisions about how doing something like that is actually going to help them. Sharing and open source, giving stuff away, absolutely has its purposes. It’s come up a couple of times with some of our old engines as to whether or not we would give that to the community, then we had some discussions on it and I don’t think we’ve ever come to a place where we feel like it would be of value to us to actually do that. Yeah, it could build the community a little bit, but every time we get there we’re like ‘It’s also got these pieces of IP in the code that we do consider proprietary and in many cases other people haven’t done, or haven’t done well’ and even though it’s six or seven years old it’s still sort of trade secrets, right? So there’s kind of a fine line there.

VGD: There’s a fine line between stuff that will save people time in development and stuff that will give them an edge.

TW: Exactly; well anything that saves people time gives them an edge. So do you want to give your competition that edge? The answer is: not really. For the people who are your fans and make up your community: sure. So how do you make the decision on those things?

VGD: I had an interesting conversation along those lines with David Seymour at Slant Six; he was looking into some specifics with the SIXAXIS controller and there was no name for resetting the ‘horizon’ value on it. While he was playing GTA IV he saw that they had just made up their own name for it. Do you think sharing of terminology is more beneficial?

TW: Well I think that sort of stuff is absolutely valuable, I think that there’s all sorts of design IP and things that end up in published games that I think is great; that people can adopt things that work from each other.

VGD: So building off something you mentioned earlier, that you still need a game to be fun — lately Randy Smith and Borut Pfeifer from EALA have been building on this idea that videogames are still about simple fun, and when you look at how David Jaffe tried the whole Heartland thing – what if you were making moral choices in a game — but it might not be fun and is probably why it was cancelled. Randy Smith made the comment that there was a time when comic books were about funny animals and colourful creatures and that was simple fun, but as it got more complex (not necessarily more entertaining, just more interesting) that then the comic book industry really grew. Do you feel that there’s room outside of the Indie scene to experiment?

TW: Yeah, I mean games are a medium, they’re a new medium and a young medium, but they’re a medium, like movies and other linear entertainment. Do you think there’s room for bluegrass, classical, country, rock and alt rock? Yeah, there’s room for dramas and comedies, there is. Games are interactive experiences that involve audio, visuals and haptic devices that let you interact with those experiences. So yeah, absolutely it can be fun, it can be emotional, it can be Heartland, it can do all of those things. There’s a huge explosion in the serious games market now – the serious games summit is four or five years old and it’s growing at a rapid rate. So games are being adopted all over the place, for education, for military, for language. They’re all different types of games.

VGD: Do you think mainstream AAA games will ever experiment with that? I remember recently David Jaffe was talking about how he was on a panel with Harvey Smith [creator of Deus Ex] and he was talking about making a game about death. Jaffe started to think of how it would be this action game where you played Death and it was all bloody and fun – and then he realized that Smith was talking about the impact of death. That’s fine, but what do you do in the game? It’s a deep concept, but what do you do? Do you think that’s a big problem that it still has to rely on something that’s fun?

TW: Well you’ve got to ask yourself what the concept of fun is. Fun is, I think in large part, based on challenge and reward. You’re probably having fun at school.

VGD: Right. Sometimes!

TW: It’s a lot of work, but work can be fun. So fun is an intangible thing. Doing nothing is no fun, doing only things that are really easy is no fun, doing things that are meant to be fun that is exactly the same thing over and over and over isn’t fun. So there’s a big piece of variety in what fun is. Oh, and doing things that are incredibly hard that you can’t do is no fun either. So it’s something about having challenges in front of you that are the appropriate difficulty that you can then overcome in an appropriate time window and then have an appropriate reward for that. There was a designer I worked with at EALA, a guy named Jon Paquette who came up with this ‘fun pie’, and I think those were a lot of the things that made up a fun pie. All of those things have to work and interplay correctly in order to be fun. So do I think you can make a game about the impact of death? Absolutely. I’ve never thought about it before so I’m not saying I could rip it off right now and tell you what the answer is or what those things need to be.

There was a giant, giant push early in the film industry and they were like ‘talkies will never work’. So things like The Crying Game or Slackers or Timecode – all sorts of things that are innovative, that if you tried to show them to audiences too early, like showing Natural Born Killers to somebody in 1950, they wouldn’t get it. It’s cut too fast, the language hasn’t developed enough for the audience to even understand what the things are. And so, we’re expanding and we’re growing fast, and as the democratization of the tools of production continue to occur and as middleware gets cheaper, as more engines become ubiquitous, as more open source stuff is created then it becomes more and more possible on an Indie level for people to develop fun games quickly. And I think it will continue to push the boundaries of what is the language and terminology of the medium itself. And moving forward that will allow us to actually make triple A games that move beyond the current safe sphere. I think that’s always the challenge when you’re running a business, yeah you’d like to go do riskier things, but you can’t do that with a super big budget right. So you see it in Hollywood and you see it in TV; the big ones are kind of formulaic and all of a sudden the Indie scene comes out with something and it becomes the darling of the industry, and everyone is like ‘ooh yeah, let’s do something like that’, and then they throw in a bunch of money, make six of them, and one of them is good.

VGD: And people, on their next project, can point to that and say ‘well, they did it!’

TW: And once it becomes part of the language of the culture, it no longer is as risky or as taboo, or even just able to be understood.

VGD: Having worked at EA for twelve and a half years, what were some of the big changes moving from console development to PC development? Were there any?

TW: I don’t know; not really. I mean I’d done some PC development at EA too. I guess you can say things like the importance of multiplayer or online, community. But that’s important on the console too. It probably would have been a question that would have had more differentiation six or seven years ago, but it’s not the case anymore. Online matters for games, community matters for games – one of the Medal of Honor titles we did had co-op and online. Probably the biggest difference was the mouse, the actual haptic interface, just like developing something for the Wii is going to be different than developing something for the 360 or PS3. That’s really the biggest difference now is the haptic interface.

VGD: And finally, what is your relationship with THQ as a publisher?

TW: In what way?

VGD: With Relic having been an independent studio.

TW: Well I came on after the purchase, but THQ has been an excellent corporate parent.

VGD: It seems like they’re flexible.

TW: Yeah, they’re very flexible. What they do when they acquire people is that they let the studio keep their culture, and they say keep the culture but let’s help with a lot of things that can be centralized; we’ll help with marketing and PR, we’ll make sure your games are funded, we’ll make sure there’s consistent ways to compensate employees, we’ll give out options and all those various things.

VGD: So overall it’s been positive.

TW: Yeah. There’s always a little bit of you know ‘no! We were independent before!’ Like Indie films versus big budget films; there’s always a little bit of a sense of loss. But at the same time it’s a great amount of aid to our ability to operate and reduce the risk that you have during development. So it’s good.


2 Responses to “Interview With Relic’s Tarrnie Williams — Part 2”

  1. Jeff June 16, 2008 at 5:02 pm #

    Great interview!

  2. zethicus June 18, 2008 at 3:42 pm #


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