Senior Game Engineer, TapZen
Marc LeBlanc is a game designer, programmer, and project leader with more than 20 years of experience in the game industry. His game credits include Ultima Underword II (1993), System Shock (1994), Thief: The Dark Project (1998), System Shock 2 (1999), Thief 2: The Metal Age (2000), and Oasis (2004). He runs an annual Game Design Tuning Workshop at the Game Developers Conference and is the creator of the Mechanics/Dynamics/Aesthetics (MDA) framework.
On getting into the game industry: When I went to school at MIT, I lived on 41st West, a dormitory hall that was home to a number of quirky individuals. Around 1990, several of my 41st West friends (including Dan Schmidt, Jon Maiara, James Fleming, Tim Stellmach, and the ubiquitous Doug Church) joined with Paul Neurath to form Blue Sky Productions. They were working on a game called Underworld. The game later became Ultima Underworld, and the company later became Looking Glass Studios. I joined in 1992, and the rest is history.
On favorite games:
- X-Com: UFO Defense: Now a classic, this game took two smaller games—strategic resource management and tactical combat—and married them perfectly. X-Com is a textbook example of emergent narrative. Through the simplest tricks, it gets the player’s imagination to connect the narrative dots between the characters and events of the game. Suit up, son! You’re going to Mars! XCOM: Enemy Unknown is also an excellent game, although the emergent narrative aspects are less prominent.
- Pikmin Series: Real time strategy games have always had the wrong user interface for the job. Skilled players have to master complicated finger acrobatics until they become keyboard virtuosos. Pikmin does away with all that, creating the first real time strategy game to truly embrace its “twitchiness.” Brilliant!
- Star Control II: This game had mixed authored storylines with some simple real time tricks to create a narrative that was both well written and compellingly organic in a way that has yet to be duplicated. Combine that with twitchy combat that is the worthy heir to Space War, and you have a classic.
On game influences:
- Sid Meier’s SimGolf: This game should be mandatory for all game designers. Don’t be fooled by the golf theme; this game is a tutorial in level design.
- The board games of Reiner Knizia, particularly Modern Art and Tigris & Euphrates. If you ever find yourself wishing you had faster hardware or more RAM, remember what this guy can do with ten pages of rules and a few slabs of cardboard.
- Red Dead Redemption: This game is a good reference for how to combine authored content with open-ended gameplay in a nearly seamless way.
Advice to designers:
- Have a critical eye for games. If you can’t say one critical thing about any game, even your favorite game, then you’re an amateur.
- Learn to program. Designing a game without know how to program is like painting without a brush.
- Play lots of games. Play games in every medium: PC, console, board games, party games, and sports. Play the classics. Play Go.
- Remember that if you’re lucky, your game will get played by millions of people. Design the game for them, not for you.