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Rick Goodman, Stainless Steel Studios

While at Ensemble Studios, a company formed in 1995 with his brother Tony, Rick Goodman was the lead designer on the tremendously popular Age of Empires for Microsoft. He left Ensemble to form Stainless Steel Studios, where Goodman created the epic real-time strategy (RTS) game Empire Earth, published by Sierra Studios in 2001. The game won "Best Strategy Game of 2001" by the readers at IGN (http://pc.ign.com). Goodman's latest game was Empires: Dawn of the Modern World, published by Activision.

Goodman offers us his "Ten Commandments of RTS Game Design," here in its entirety. Thou shalt pay attention:

  1. The healthiest plants have the strongest roots. Goodman says to know your roots, whether comic books, sci-fi, board games, puzzles, toy soldiers, chess, Dungeons & Dragons, or anything else.

  2. Paper never refuses ink. The key here is how to separate your good ideas from bad, otherwise known as "Hey, I have this great idea for a strategy game." Goodman says anyone can write a good design document, but there are four keys to success:

    • Play the game through in your head.

    • Model everything in a spreadsheet.

    • Prototype user interfaces.

    • Compose your "strike team" of play testers.

    In fact, Goodman used the Internet to recruit 12 savvy Age of Empires players and uses them all the time for guidance on Empire Earth, and to flush out bad ideas. Goodman reminds designers to welcome advice from others, with the adage "It's hard to see the picture when you're inside the frame."

  3. A person who walks in another's tracks leaves no footprints. To innovate or to clone? Goodman reminds designers that we tend to criticize clones and then religiously follow up with new ones. He cites a phrase coined by Sid Meier, "innovative continuity," who came up with this term to not preclude him from doing anything he wanted. "Balance is key—add some innovative new things but make players comfortable in the game's surroundings so that they understand the rules and won't have to read the manual."

    Goodman says to "enhance the positive, eliminate the negative, and don't fiddle with the middle."

  4. If I really wanted reality, would I have booted up the computer? Reinforce the fun factor over reality. Goodman refers to Computer Gaming World magazine polls that suggest that fantasy strategy games are often more popular than historical or reality-based ones. Even though Age of Empires is a historical strategy game, not everything is realistic: priest conversions, moving catapults, naval units attacking land units, and so forth.

  5. If I had been present at creation, I would have given some useful hints. Goodman advises knowing your limits. Recognize your strengths and passions, and take advantage of them. For example, Goodman knew his knowledge of board games was very strong when he approached Age of Empires.

  6. By the mile it's a trial, by the inch it's a cinch. Creating a game usually follows a top- down methodology, with game vision on top of the pyramid, game ideas and features in the middle, and low-level game mechanics on the bottom. Goodman explains, "There is a method to this process. The top is where the vision is generated ('How about a game where you're on a desert island?'); the middle is the game's features ('And this is what we'll do on this island'); and the bottom, the most crucial of the three, is how to implement these ideas in the game.

    According to Goodman, many game designers concentrate too much on the top two levels and not enough on how the play mechanics will work in the game. "The bottom level is the hardest; the implementation of the details is key," says Goodman. He also says most design docs seem to rely on the first two levels, when the emphasis should be on the implementation of the ideas into the computer and not just the ideas themselves.

  7. Take note of the future; you're going to spend the rest of your life there. For the RTS genre to move forward, Goodman says, there has to be more to the game, and not just more of the same. He cites 3D action shooters as a genre that has evolved graphically, but not in gameplay (barring a few recent exceptions). With RTS games, try to foresee what will come down the pike and work toward bettering the genre.

  8. Trees that are slow to grow bear the best fruit. "Time is your friend," says Goodman. "Use your project schedule well. Age of Empires was a 1,000-day project; 500 of those were spent internally at Ensemble Studios, the other half play-testing by Microsoft."

    "Beware—the only thing that can kill a good game is a great game. Be realistic at the beginning of your project and keep in mind that many of the great RTS games, such as StarCraft and Age of Empires, took longer than average to complete, but look at the outcome!"

  9. Communicate your vision. One of the most important considerations while developing a game is communication. This is not only between a designer and his team, but between designer and publisher, the public, marketing, game critics, and testers.

  10. Never put a glazed donut on a mouse pad. "...And other lessons learned the hard way," says Goodman. Some of his other lessons:

    • Schedules are not more important than quality.

    • "Let's not tell them and maybe they won't find out" always backfires; it's no different than when you were a kid.

For more information on Empire Earth and the design team at Stainless Steel Studios, visit http://www.stainlesssteelstudios.com.

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