Game Designer in Residence, UC Santa Cruz
Brenda Romero is an award-winning game designer, artist, writer and creative director who has worked with a variety of digital game companies including Atari, Sir-tech Software and Electronic Arts. She is presently Game Designer in Residence at the University of California at Santa Cruz and the Co-founder, Chief Operating Officer of Loot Drop, a social and mobile game company.
On getting into the game industry: I should just say “networking” and shut up, but I won’t, because the story’s not nearly as funny that way. While “networking” is true, it’s a stretch. You see, I was only 15 at the time, and smoking a cigarette in the high school restroom (which was, of course, against school policy). Another girl walked in and asked several people for a cigarette. Because she turned each offer down, I figured she was looking for a nonmenthol and so offered her one. She struck up a conversation to be polite. At some point, she asked, “You ever hear of Sir-tech Software?” No. “You ever hear of Wizardry?” No. “You ever hear of Dungeons & Dragons?” Yes. “Are you interested in a job?” Sure. I swear, that was my actual interview into the games industry. The following day, October 3, 1982, I started working at Sir-tech Software as the resident game player and QA person. It was my job to memorize games in the Wizardry series and answer people’s questions when they called the “Wizardry hotline.” I still remember the answers, believe it or not.
So, that was back in high school. I worked for Sir-tech right through college and into the next century. Eighteen years, all told. I grew up in the game industry going from a gamer to a game designer during the course of those years.
On favorite games:
- Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord: I created my party of adventurers and headed off into the dungeon—and it was magical. I mean that. I’d never experienced anything like that before. My work hours were 4–8, but I’d come in at 3 and leave at 9¼then 2 and leave at 10. I was so completely immersed in that world. It was also on Wizardry that I had my first mod experience. There was an in-house tool that we used to make levels for the game, and I’d tinker with that thing for hours just building whatever the hell amused me. I still remember that experience with the fondness many remember their first kiss, and believe it or not, I still have that original Wizardry 5.25″ disk with my characters on it. I feel for today’s designers who grew up with digital games and can’t solidly remember their first gaming experience like I do.
- Civilization: This was the game that made me look behind the curtain. Though I was already in the game industry at the time, there was so much about it that I took for granted. Keep in mind that I’d worked almost exclusively on the Wizardry series, so I knew everything about it like the back of my hand. So when I played Civ, I became fascinated with how it did that. I said that over and over and over again. “How did it do that?” I recognized the wizard behind the curtain, and I wanted to know how he did what he did. Fortunately for me, I was in the industry, so this led me to look at the games that we were working on at Sir-tech in a completely new way. I became fascinated with game design, and so I started to mentor under and work with the many talented designers that Sir-tech had in their bullpen at the time trying to learn how they did that.
- Ratchet & Clank: They make me laugh out loud and enjoy games like I used to when I was a little kid. There are so many things I love about them. Because they’re not RPGs, I can just escape and play them without my mind wandering and wondering about the mechanics of combat or how the character is advancing in levels. Along with Guitar Hero, the R&C games are the ones that I play just for my own personal enjoyment.
- Guitar Hero: I get into GH like I get into R&C. I can just go in and jam for 10 minutes and have a great play experience. I’m also incredibly impressed with how well GH involves all the player’s senses, way more than most games do. Everything’s in the foreground—audio feedback, visual feedback, tactile input—and cognitively, you’re working your recollection of the notes to your best. The result is that the world goes away for players. Completely away. Rhythm games are excellent at this sort of thing. With the exception of Rez, the play experience is generally pretty short, too, which fits my lifestyle really well.
- Risk: The danger in even saying this is that it will make me want to play it. Now. Risk is such a phenomenally brilliant game. As a player, I love the challenge and the emerging strategies that form throughout the game. It’s incredibly satisfying. As a designer, I’m fascinated with how the mechanics play out, the dynamics of play, and the incredible meaning behind every move in the game. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of this game.
On the design process: I spend a lot of time studying the IP or the topic, as the case may be. In that sense, I’m a method designer, I guess. I really, really get into whatever topic it is that I’m working on. I submerge myself in it around the clock—movies, books, people, general free-form research on the ‘net or in libraries. For example, I was once working on a proposal for a mob game. Fortunately (or unfortunately for me), La Cosa Nostra was actually the number one gang where I lived at the time. So I had access to those who studied and reported on the mob regularly. It was fascinating. While I was working on that game, the local boss got whacked. It ended up being a potential starting point for the game itself.
During the research process, I’ll come up with the core of the game—the one thing the game is about and that the rest of the design can hook itself upon. Defining a core is such a critically important task for game designers. It ends up being the arbiter of so many decisions. When the core is defined, I’ll come up with five or six features of the game and expand on those. At this point—and this is another critical part of my design process—I’ll ask my fellow designers and team members to go over it with me. We’ll beat it into the ground and challenge every part of it until we’re satisfied there’s a strong core there. This is something we’ll continue to evaluate during the design process.
On prototypes: Prototypes are critical for me. I’ve had absolutely great ideas that turned out to be marginal (at best) when they were actually put into play. I’ve also had what seemed to be moderately interesting ideas that turned out to be incredibly fun. Prototyping and playing is the only way to see ideas in motion and test their validity.
My process differs depending on what type of game I’m making. For RPGs, I generally create an actual pencil and paper version of the game to test on friends or other people on the team. Just like good ol’ Dungeons & Dragons, I guess. If we’re getting attached to the characters we create, that’s a good sign. I tweak lots of stuff, usually, from stats that seem useless to those that are utterly missing. It also gives me an excellent chance to explore player expectations. While a pencil and paper game might seem archaic compared to the processing power of today’s computers, it’s not at all the case. The “computers” in this game are the player and game master’s imagination, and both are far more incredible than any computer or console we’ve created. I get a lot out of the process.
When I create systems, I often start very early prototyping in Microsoft Excel. I just want to see if the system or simulation works the way I think it will. At this point, I’m often just pulling stuff out of the sky, experimenting with various abstractions and having fun with it. When it starts to gel for me, it’s critical to get it into code in as loose a form as possible and tweak it continuously until it feels right for me and for other players. I really try to get a lot of input into any prototype or system I design. I often tell my students or junior designers that one of the key differences between a junior and senior designer is this: The junior designer completes his work on a system and is shocked to hear that there’s a major flaw in it. The senior designer completes his work on a system and is desperate for someone to help him find out the flaw as soon as humanly possible. To do that, people need to play the game.
Advice to designers:
Learn to program in C++ so that you can mess with your own designs and prototype your own concepts early on.
Study the masters.