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Bruce C. Shelley, Ensemble Studios

Bruce Shelley is a lead game designer and spokesman for Ensemble Studios, the development studio that has created award-winning and critically acclaimed real-time strategy games for Microsoft. In the past, Shelley has worked on computer games such as Civilization (Microprose), Railroad Tycoon (Microprose), and others. His latest project was the million-unit-seller, Age of Mythology. Shelley offers some key tips for those starting out in the industry:

Be familiar with lots of games, but especially those most like the game you most want to design. Consider which parts of a game are working and which are not.
Providing a player with interesting decisions is the rocket science of game design. If you agree, then consider whether a game you're playing or designing is providing interesting decisions. When you attempt to add a new piece to a game, ask yourself whether it will add interesting decisions for the player to deal with.
When considering a new game, look at the competition first and make lists of features they do well, poorly, or not at all. The features they do well are the minimum requirements for your game. The features they do poorly or not at all are a list of opportunities where you can differentiate your game and offer innovation. Always seek to differentiate and innovate—don't clone around.

On providing direct examples, Shelley says this:

When we set out to make the original Age of Empires (AOE), we made our lists of features that were done well, poorly, or not at all in games like Civilization, WarCraft, and Command & Conquer. From these, we built our list of must-have features for AOE, such as hidden maps, economic buildup phase, empire building, town conquest, great multiplayer, scenario editor, and differentiated civilizations. Then we built the list of features that would differentiate Age of Empires because other games were not doing them well, such as historical theme, random maps, non-cheating AI, levels of difficulty, realistic graphics (not cartoonish), and multiple victory conditions. By meeting the competition where they were strong and providing clear differentiation and innovation in AOE, we created a game that was able to be quite successful in a very competitive genre (50+ RTS games in development in 1997). Competing games that fell by the side came up short mainly because they didn't sufficiently differentiate and innovate from the best games in the genre already available.

Figure 3.2Figure 3.2 Check out this screen grab from Shelley's latest, Age of Mythology, published by Microsoft Game Studios in 2002. Talk about gorgeous graphics! (Used with permission by Microsoft Corp. and Ensemble Studios, Inc.)

Shelley says it's critical for a game designer to keep these three pointers in mind when starting out:

  1. Design for a broad global audience, not a narrowly focused, especially hardcore audience. The majority of game buyers are casual gamers, and too many games are beyond their skill or tastes.

  2. Within a specific genre, make your game different in terms of topic, look, and feel. At the gameplay level, innovate new features and gameplay. Don't imitate successful games only to the point of being at least as good as they are on their strong points. Create a new experience with your game. Nobody buys imitations.

  3. After you have a basic design document, prototype the game quickly and thereafter design by playing. Play every day, make adjustments, get opinions, recode for tomorrow, and play again. If you have enough good gamers giving comments and your instincts as a designer are good, you'll design a fun game.

Shelley supports this advice in light of his latest project, Age of Mythology:

  1. Included within Age of Mythology are multiplayer games, a single-player campaign, random map Solitaire games, and a variety of game types such as death match. We believe that gamers of all skill levels and from all global PC markets will find a satisfying way to enjoy our game. We think this is reaching out to a broad global market, as all of our past games have done.

  2. Adding the mythological elements and moving to 3D technology will make our game different from other RTS games, including the Age of Empires games. At the gameplay level, we think we've innovated with myth creatures, god powers, and more subtle changes. Overall, we've made Age of Mythology both different and innovative to provide a new experience. No one will consider it a clone of something else.

  3. Age of Mythology has been playable since early 2001. Since then, we continued to design the game by playing every day, making changes, and recoding through thousands of iterations.

Shelley is also known for this piece of advice: "A game has to have a great first 15 minutes!"

The concept of a great first 15 minutes was Sid Meier's. He mentioned to me that one of the reasons he thought AOE did well was because it had a great first 15 minutes. The point is that a game has to engage a new player within 15 minutes of that person sitting down to play. If not, the player is likely to give up and never try the game again. So the start of the game has to be engaging—get the player absorbed by presenting a lot of interesting decisions that pile on top of one another. Another one of Sid's phrases was the "inverted pyramid of decision-making." You want the player to deal with only a few decisions at first, which multiply quickly, fully absorbing the player. Games that do this pull the new player in.
In the original AOE game, for example, the map is almost entirely hidden at the start. The new player has a few villagers to put to work and use to explore. Once he or she has built more villagers and begun exploring, there are more decisions to be made: what tasks to assign to newcomers, where to place gathering buildings, which new directions to explore, what strategic choke points to watch, etc.

It's been said that a game designer need not reinvent the wheel—that it's perfectly acceptable to improve on an existing formula. Does Shelley agree or disagree?

The most valuable resource any game designer has is all the games that already exist from which we can get ideas. The risk is that we may do too much copying and not enough creating. Gamers want a new experience. It can be familiar or similar to other games they've played, but it must also be different and innovative to be successful. Age of Mythology is a big RTS similar to many others, including our own Age of Empires games. We've played and considered everything in the games that have been published. But we've also tried to create something that's different and innovative.

On creating an innovative yet accessible game, Shelley adds the following:

Basically, cloning a successful game is a recipe for disaster. We believe a new game must be clearly different from existing products or people will ignore it. For the Age of Empires games, the big differentiation was choosing historic themes when the competition was doing mostly sci-fi and fantasy. As a bonus, it turned out that there was a huge interest in the casual market for a historical RTS, which no one else was trying to fill. Innovation is important also, perhaps mainly with the hardcore gamers. They want a new experience. If a new game doesn't add much that's new and fun, they won't bother to put in the time to learn it. Graphic look and feel can be an important differentiation. Tony Goodman, our CEO and early art director, championed a fairly realistic graphic look and bright colors. The competition at the time was going with a more cartoonish look and often very dark and gloomy colors. We think now that our look was an important differentiator and another important key to attracting casual gamers. We think too many developers largely ignore the casual market, to their loss. Most game sales reside in the casual market, yet developers often try to outdo themselves focusing on what only the hardcores seem to want. Make commercial art, not fine art. When someone says they're making the game they've always wanted to make, the question is, how many of them does that person intend to buy? It makes much more business sense to say that you're going to make the game that you think millions of average casual gamers are going to want to own. That's the kind of thinking that publishers want to hear.

Finally, Shelley was asked to be frank about what it's like working with a powerful publisher such as Microsoft—something many game designers are likely curious about! Shelley says the pros are that "big publishers get shelf space; have marketing muscle; have PR departments; and are usually well organized for testing, localization, and manual creation. They do virtually everything better than the alternatives (small publisher, self-publishing)." But he discusses some of the cons as well: "They usually control the purse strings and can dictate schedule dates and budgets. Your game is just one in their portfolio. They may use it for strategic purposes good for their company, but not necessarily for yours (loss leader, bundling deals)."

Bruce Shelley offers advice on many other topics in this book, including writing design documents (Chapter 6, "Creating Characters, Storyboarding, and Design Documents), coding realistic AI (Chapter 12), creating a good user interface (Chapter 14, "The All-Important User Interface [UI] and Game Control), and breaking into the industry (Chapter 21).

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