Creative Producer, Realta Entertainment
Troy Dunniway is a game designer and producer with numerous credits including TNA Impact Wrestling, Ratchet & Clank Next: Tools of Destruction, Rainbow Six Vegas, Ratchet Deadlock, Voodoo Vince, Oddworld: Munch’s Oddysee, Command and Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars, Age of Empires 3, Star Wars: Empires at War, Impossible Creatures, Command & Conquer: Generals Zero Hour, Tao Feng: Fist of the Lotus, and Bruce Lee: Quest for the Dragon.
On getting into the game industry: I started off working in the film industry doing effects work on movies. I eventually began doing art for games and eventually joined a small game developer in Northern California full time around 15 years ago. I was hired as the lead animator, but I quickly began doing design work on games. Every year I did more and more design work and less art. I eventually moved over to Microsoft as a lead designer and first party action and strategy design director. I have since worked at Westwood Studios, EA Los Angles, UBISOFT, Insomniac Games, and Midway Los Angles on a wide variety of very successful titles.
On game influences: Every game I work on has a different set of games that inspire me. I grew up owning and playing practically every game that came out, so it’s hard to say which of those had the most influence on me. Early on professionally, games like WarCraft, Ultima, Command & Conquer, and System Shock had a lot of influence on me. I liked games that showed me that it was possible to play a game, have a story, and be able to think through them instead of just fight or jump your way through them. I’ve always been more into role-playing and strategy games than anything else, even though I play most action games on the PC and consoles. I like games that push the limits, allow players to find their own paths, and have fun doing it. I get tired of games with little to no innovation or originality.
On designing Rainbow Six: When I worked on Rainbow Six Vegas, we were tasked with innovating a very successful series and taking it to the next level. We already knew what the core game experience in general was going to be, so this let us focus on what could be new and innovative and simplified our lives tremendously during the concept phase. However, because it was a successful franchise, we also had to constantly weigh each change and addition to the series to make sure it was something that was ultimately right for the franchise. This let us start with the core mechanics of the previous Rainbow Six games and build on them instead of having to come up with everything from scratch.
On designing new concepts: When coming up with a whole new game, you will face many possible challenges. If the game is taking place in a new world, with new characters, then you might have to spend a lot of time early on figuring out where the game is taking place because this could drastically affect everything in the game. If you’re also planning on coming up with highly innovative gameplay, this can also dramatically affect the way you build the game and the prototype.
The challenge with totally new game concepts is that you have to figure almost everything out. It’s also just as hard for designers to take an existing game and try to expand it. Whether you are trying to brainstorm new ideas for locations, stories, characters, or gameplay, it is tough to know where to look for inspiration. Many designers just look at and imitate the competition, but I find that this only occasionally helps because if the feature or idea is in a game that is already out, then the idea might already be old or cliché. So I tend to pull my new ideas from a lot of sources, including movies, TV, board games, books, and especially pen and paper RPGs like GURPS. I have huge collections of RPG books that help me brainstorm a wide variety of ideas when I get stuck. But, in the end, there is no substitution for just having a great team with a lively imagination.
Many games are also started to leverage a particular set of technology, which will also affect all of the early design decisions. If you have licensed Unreal 3, this will limit you in some ways but also help you stay focused. Many games have been done because a company had some great technology, which allowed them to make a game. This technology, like the water that was used in Bloodwake, drives the entire design of the game and dictates what it will ultimately become.
On prototyping in general: Building a prototype is absolutely critical. The only time you absolutely don’t have to is if you’re building a sequel using the same engine, and even then I still recommend it. There are many different ways to approach building a prototype. Your goal should be to evaluate risks, prove technology, and prove what will be fun. The trouble is that every publisher has a different set of expectations of what they expect from a prototype, and it is important that you ask or understand what the expectations of the prototype are before you begin working on it.
The main thing you have to understand is if you can focus on just a gameplay prototype or if you have to build a technology prototype or an art prototype. At some publishers you are required to prove all three things at the same time, while some publishers realize that it is impossible to include all three aspects into one playable version. So, before you begin, you must clearly understand what the requirements for your prototype are going to be.
On prototyping gameplay: Coming from a long game design background, I believe that it is critical for you to build a gameplay prototype. You must show what is fun in your game. It’s not enough to just write about what is fun; you must prove that the game will be fun to play. Every game that I have worked on has had a different type of prototype that has been built to fit the need of that particular project. I believe in trying to prototype the most risky features as well as the unique features of the game that will really set it apart. Sometimes this is by far the riskiest thing to do, but then this is exactly the point.
The gameplay prototype doesn’t have to look pretty, but it has to be fun. I’ve built 2D overhead maps that show a bunch of different colored triangles moving around on the screen to prove how well characters will react to the environment, move together as a team, respond to stimuli, and stuff like that. When it is all said and done, the code responsible for this can still drive a 3D world.
On multiple prototypes: Something else I like to do is build multiple smaller prototypes to prove out a variety of different gameplay issues instead of trying to always have to lump it all into one large prototype. You might have a basic prototype to prove out basic control mechanics, like running, jumping, etc., then have another to prove AI, and another to prove out other things like driving cars, fighting, etc. You must still demonstrate how all of these will work together, but having a variety of small prototypes can often allow a bunch of different team members to each focus on a different aspect of the game.
Along with the gameplay prototype, I also like to have some of the art team, along with possibly some additional design or programming help, build a visual prototype that accurately demonstrates what a portion of the game will visually look like. It is important that they utilize the correct technical limitations, even if the prototype will just ultimately be a rendered movie and not played in the game engine itself. Another reason that I like to separate the game prototype from the visual prototype is that it allows the gameplay to hopefully run at the correct frame rate early on, and it won’t cause the art to be compromised.
At the beginning of Ratchet and Clank Next: Tools of Destruction for the PS3, we wanted to show how much better the world would look on the PS3 versus the PS2, so our first prototype was just an animated flythrough of the city, which was used in the first Ratchet and Clank game. Because, the gameplay wasn’t going to change a tremendous amount, the first video was really important to just show how much visually the world would change from the first four games. This video was also used to wow the executives at Sony and help us kick off the project officially. Other smaller prototypes were also built to show how new weapons would function and stuff like that.
On facing design challenges: Every game has a different set of challenges. Most challenges come because of time constraints more than anything. Almost any problem can be solved with enough time and resources. The question is what you do when faced with a limited amount of time and have a fundamental problem you need to solve, which will affect the entire game. When designing Munch’s Oddysee we expected a lot of additional features to be completed for the final game, but then suddenly we realized that we didn’t have time to finish them.
For example, the main character, Munch, was originally supposed to be able to transform into a giant creature, like the Incredible Hulk, and then be able to fight, instead of being unable to attack anyone and really just being an antihero. Munch was also a fish and was supposed to spend most of his time in the water, but we never got any additional gameplay working properly in the water, except for Munch’s ability to swim in it. There were no enemies in the water, and not very much could even hurt you in the water.
As a result of these two issues, and many others, we actually had to throw out most of the levels in the game and rebuild them all to make the game fun and interesting. This was an extremely risky decision because we only had a few months remaining until we had to ship the game, but it proved to be the right choice in the end.
Advice to designers: To be a great designer, you have to be a great student. Never stop learning, studying, thinking, or rethinking what you are doing. You have to be motivated and willing to work hard to succeed. Learn from the good and bad lessons that other designers make. Look outside of games for inspiration, learning, and help. Always ask, “Why?” Don’t design games for yourself, and leave your ego at home.