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Alex Garden, Relic Entertainment

Alex Garden's most recent venture, Relic Entertainment, is one of North America's premiere game-development studios. Relic's first title, Homeworld, has won more than 50 awards, including the prestigious "Game of the Year" award from CNN.com, MSNBC, and the world's largest computer game magazine, PC Gamer. Garden's latest game is Impossible Creatures, released in early 2003. This game allows players to make war-hungry creatures by combining animal traits.

Garden was cornered to surrender some of his best-kept game design theories. Interestingly, his answers are similar to Sid Meier's advice:

    1. Design around themes that you're passionate about. Life is short, and making games is supposed to be fun. Make sure you're having fun making games, and chances are that people will have fun playing them.

    2. When you're coming up with concepts, focus more on what makes your game fundamentally fun to play, not what the story is. Understand that as a game player you rarely consider the underlying mechanics of the experience you're having. More often, you focus on the story that you're playing through. When you read a book, you rarely think about the fundamental appeal of the book; you think about the setting, characters, etc. As a game designer, the paramount rule you must obey is to make sure that the core experience is appealing before you worry about the story. If story is your only concern, write a book.

    3. When making decisions about your game, ask yourself two questions: "What do I think is the right thing to do?" and "What does the paying public think is the right thing to do?" A totally uncompromising commitment to your own personal vision creates art. But art alone doesn't sell. You must make fun art.

As examples, Garden provides the following:

Homeworld had a totally freeform 3D camera. Some people loved it, but most people found it too hard to use. With Impossible Creatures, we've included the option to play with a totally freeform 3D camera, but by default the game is played from a fixed viewpoint, which dramatically simplifies the learning curve, thereby making Impossible Creatures accessible to a wider audience.

How can you create a new concept yet still include enough familiar concepts so the game isn't too obscure to the gamer?

Our design rule at Relic is "One revolutionary step, multiple evolutionary steps." Basically, we try to do one fundamental thing that will set us apart from everyone else, then we try to do everything standard better than everyone else. In Impossible Creatures, the revolutionary leap we took was to add a totally user-created army-building system with real-world animals. The evolutionary steps are all based on the lessons we learned through our experience with Homeworld and Homeworld: Cataclysm.

Does anything about today's games irk Garden?

I think that most games (and indeed, most game designers) today are afraid to take risks. When you take risks, bad things can happen (Daikatana), but truly magical, wonderful things can happen, too (The Sims).

Later in the book, Alex Garden talks about design documents and storyboards (Chapter 6) and breaking into the industry (Chapter 21). Read more about Relic Studios, Alex Garden, and Impossible Creatures at http://www.relic.com.

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