Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Concerning Garriott, Game Designers, and Corporate Overlords

Posted by Rampant Coyote on March 21, 2013

Richard Garriott de Cayeaux offered a couple of controversial “zingers” (as he himself described them) in a recent interview with PC Gamer. The quote that caused the fuss was, “But other than a few exceptions, like Chris Roberts, I’ve met virtually no one in our industry who I think is close to as good a game designer as I am. I’m not saying that because I think I’m so brilliant. What I’m saying is, I think most game designers really just suck, and I think there’s a reason why.”

The reason, he went on to explain, was that game designers typically have no other skills. The ones with artistic skills become artists. The ones with programming skills become programmers. The ones who can’t do anything else but still want to make games become testers and /or designers. To exaggerate things a little further, he added “And every designer that I work with—all throughout life—I think, frankly, is lazy.”

Now, tempering his comments, he was explaining how everyone he hired except designers was better than he was. Artists, composers, even (now) programmers.  And you know, I can see that. It’s also something that can be pretty subjective to measure. (UPDATE: He’s also released an article to clarify his comments – you can read the PDF clarification here.)

The thing that honked me off was the, “virtually no one in our industry who I think is close to as good a game designer as I am.” That really went overboard, and my initial reaction was not good. Dude, I love your older games and stuff, and I was quick to throw some gambling money towards your Kickstarter, and I’ve read Shay Addam’s book about you and the creation of the first Ultimas like six times, and I credit you with being perhaps the single greatest influence on my career in game development. But when I ask what you’ve done for me lately, I have to go back about twenty years.  I’m willing to cut you some slack because you’ve had corporate overlords exerting control over you since then. Shroud of the Avatar is your chance to prove yourself.  Please be awesome.

But let’s get back to that Corporate Overlord thing in a minute.

Now, Ultima Online was arguably a big success story, it’s just that the reality of it never appealed to me as much as the idea of it when it was in development.  I’m happy to argue that the uneven track record by this guy who was such an inspiration to me can be blamed on his lack of creative control. The corporate overlords made demands, and he had to work within an imposed framework (schedule, style, etc.) that might have been detrimental to good game design. I’m completely on board with this, ‘cuz I’ve seen it. All the time. Because guess what EVERY OTHER NON-INDIE GAME DESIGNER IN THE INDUSTRY HAS TO DEAL WITH? That’s right – lack of creative control. Corporate Overlords dictating the details.  Even the ones you personally hired…

So no, it’s not really laziness. It’s disempowerment.

When I first started in the games biz, I was hired as a programmer. I really wanted to be a designer. Because like every game fan who has never actually designed a commercial, released game before, I thought I was a really awesome designer. I had a lot to learn just to discover how much there was to learn! My company, Singletrac, was new to making games, and didn’t really understand the role of a game designer, either. So we also put them up on a pedestal, at least initially. As they probably should be.

Then we discovered that the rest of the industry didn’t treat designers that way. And that what I, and most non-developers, assumed a designer was supposed to do was… well, not wrong, but certainly not conforming to reality. Over time, I discovered the reasons why. I remember attending a great lecture At GDC one year by a designer who’d worked at LucasArts and Microprose. He explained how a large part of a game designer’s job was a glorified spreadsheet maintainer. A mercenary. (In fact, I think the lecture was entitled, “The Game Designer as a Mercenary.”)

As it turns out, as time and game development processes have changed, even that was probably elevated.

See, game design IS hard.  But since it’s not a technical skill like programming or art, you can fake it on the cheap. That’s what ends up happening. Modern game designers aren’t usually paid to “push the needle.” Oh, lip service may be paid to that, and they may bear that responsibility when the game is in danger of being canceled, but they aren’t really given the authority to back that up.  Publishers today play it safe, particularly when AAA-level budgets are in question, and they have teams of specialist designers who are paid to work long hours attending meetings and sit in their cubicles churning out scenarios and defining features that I once heard described as “checkbox innovation” – you know, checking off the list of features on the back of the box. A designer who goes out on a limb to try and change things is probably going to find himself out of a job. Good luck finding a new one when your degree is in “game design.” That’s a specialist skillset, and the industry is happy to abuse that fact.

And yeah, Garriott is probably right. A lot of these guys and girls aren’t necessarily the best game designers in the world. They may not even be better than the programmer or artist the next cubicle over. Instead, they are the low-cost provider of game design services.  Which, in the video games factory model, is how they are supposed to function.

And before you get too incensed at how the AAA industry undervalues game designers, look at your own purchasing habits. How many sequels to best-selling franchises do you own? The market doesn’t tend to reward the innovators. Yes, occasionally the universe rewards the Notches of the world, but as a rule, these big publishers that I refer to as “corporate overlords” got to be big and powerful by executing exactly on the strategy the market tends to reward — playing it safe with game design, and throwing the money at production values instead. The Michael Bays of the gaming industry continue to earn top dollar making more, bigger explosions, while the innovators struggle to get noticed.

It sucks. But it’s the way it is.

I’ve known several professional (non-indie) game designers, and while many could be described as “foot soldiers for the games industry” as Chris Crawford once suggested, there are many that are passionate about games and would dearly love to “move the needle” on game design and long to do something cool with the medium. Some adapt, and do their professional best to meet the demands of the corporate overlords. I admire them for what they do, even if it may not be the role they originally envisioned for themselves as a “game designer.”

But several them eventually graduate from the mainstream industry and become indies…

Filed Under: Biz, Design, Indie Evangelism - Comments: 22 Comments to Read

  • Tesh said,

    If I could make a living at this “going indie”, I probably would. I like what I do, where I work, but creative freedom is an intoxicating ideal.

    …then again, I’d also have to learn coding. I’m an artist with a streak of design. At least programmers can pick up work in practical (if boring) fields. Art is a luxury, and when an economy is in the tank, luxuries aren’t exactly stable.

  • Adamantyr said,

    I just saw Richard Garriott’s clarification on FB, I had to go back to the original article to see what the fuss was about…

    Yeah, that was some poorly chosen words on his part. And yes, I do kind of take him to task on HIS game design skills, which has hasn’t seriously exercised since Ultima VII.

    I mentioned it below on the original post, but I ended up redacting my pledge to Shroud of the Avatar. It’s partly because the October 2014 date is just TOO FAR in the future to justify the expense right now. But it’s also because I’m starting to seriously question if he can really find the lightning in a bottle again. The fact we are seeing screenshots and video of gameplay and they’re still putting release more than a year out is worrying.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I hear ya. I wish I could go full-time indie, too. 🙂

    The thing is, we go to Indie Night, and it’s a programmer-fest. We WISH we could find more artists. But then, we can’t afford ’em, either…

  • Edohiguma said,

    It’s cute how Richard Garriott thinks he still matters. I lost my respect for him over the whole Tabula Rasa mess. The game wasn’t doing well, he had his name on it, what did he do? Went to the ISS. What did we get? A Soyuz model ingame. So resources were put into pushing his ego instead of fixing the issues the game had.

    No Richard G., you’re irrelevant. Go away.

  • Anon said,

    Good rant! And certainly justified. He deserves this kind of flak for such hasty comments.

    As for Garriott and the “limited creative freedom” argument of yours: If Garriott really wanted to have gone to his roots with creative freedom he could have popped a lousy(!) million off his Swiss bank account and have presented the finished game to underline his point.
    His point – creating a better CRPG than what is commonly available now – translates well to “All you other designers suck!”. So the man is at least consistent.

    However, Garriott wouldn’t be Garriott if he would walk the humble way. No, the man definitely is no tinkerer.

    Instead he attacks the public with a kickstarter campaign he really doesn’t need (obviously only for advertising reasons – the one million was way too low a goal…) and taunts his fellow designer buddies with unwanted comments (to advertise his new pet project – bad PR is better than no PR, expect more in the future).

    Yes, it’s nothing more than the old hype game.

    And why pay alone for your vanity project if there are enough people out there that actually pay for beta versions – or a seat at his table?

    No, the man clearly is no hack, even if some of his more recent games weren’t exactly block busters (well, pretty much anthing since U8 aka “Super Avatar Brothers”, the first game he blatantly tailored to the masses).

    I still credit him with creating my all-time favorite CRPG (Black Gate), even if the last time he programmed a computer himself was when 6502 CPUs ruled the earth.

    But is “Shroud” really a progress in CRPG design (and how much can we credit Garriott for it) or is it a modernized open-world U9 variant with multiplayer support? Because, doh, we know how well Garriott likes and understands multiplayer games…

    PS: Am I the only one thinking that the title is below mediocrity? I mean “shroud of the avatar”? “Shroud”???

    > The fact we are seeing screenshots and video of gameplay and they’re still putting release more than a year out is worrying.

    Dude, we’ve seen screenies of your game for years now and nobody even knows when it will come out!
    (Just kidding! Keep on trucking! ;-))

  • Xenovore said,

    I had fun with Garriott’s stuff back in the day, but I haven’t considered him relevant for a long time; maybe Shrouds will change that, but I’m not holding my breath.

    The interview just seems to portray a man out of touch and full of hubris. (Not that that’s terribly surprising for someone who’s been running around calling himself “Lord British” for decades now.) I get, and agree with, his assertation that design is hard and great designers are hard to come by. But to just cherry-pick a handful of designers (whose greatness I’m somewhat dubious about) and imply that the rest suck; that was lame.

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  • Adamantyr said,


    Oh, well played sir. 😉 I’m actually back on it right now and hope to have it done by end of year. I may even do a Kickstarter to have professional-grade boxes, fine quality manuals and a cloth map done… I have to investigate how to get that DONE exactly, though.

    I liked your comments about Garriott being “out of touch” and “full of hubris”. I think that’s been his two main failings for years now. He never was a big game player that I’ve seen, so he’s fallen out of touch with what gamers want. And as for hubris, the guy built himself a castle. 🙂 And brags about going into space. At least Howard Wolowitz has a college degree. 😉

    Actually, I think looking at Ultima II is probably your best example of RG’s creativity in action. He spent nearly two years writing the game, flunking out of college while doing so. The resulting code was buggy and hard to maintain; word is that he was reluctant to let the Origin programmers see his source code when they revised it in 1989. The game design was truly awful; no plot to speak of, stupid pop-culture references that make no sense, no NPC interaction, etc. And then take note that from Ultima III onwards, he always had help with design and programming.

  • Brian 'Psychochild' Green said,

    Great rant, Jay. I really have nothing to add, you covered it precisely.

  • BarryB said,

    It’s Garriott. The man should have a Klieg light fused with his cranium so the light can shine off his head. Even when he was good, he hated sharing the spotlight–witness several game designers he fired or got to quit who did reasonably selling products. But since he’s been out of the business, he’s obviously missed the attention. And he’s no longer got any good games to show for it; only theories about why he’s the best, and the rest stink.

    Crawford’s still challenging people with his ideas about games, and making them, too. Garriott’s just talking trash. There’s a bit difference.

  • McTeddy said,

    To be honest, most of the designers I’ve met personally haven’t been… umm… great. They tend to take things at face value, don’t understand the extent of the mechanics they are working with nor the technical limitations. I’ve even heard them use terms like “What do I care about this game? It’s gonna suck anyway.”
    I do believe that I am a superior designer to many of those I’ve met. (Plenty of superiors I haven’t met… plenty of equals… and even inferiors I can learn certain things from)

    All that said… “No one is better than me.” is the sign of a horrible designer. If no one is better than you… then you’ve stopped learning. You’ve deluded yourself into thinking that there is one correct way to design and will stop improving. That is the one unforgivable sin for any designer.

    Now, for those of you who say “But Teddy, you haven’t worked as a professional designer.” to which I can answer I’m getting a board game published… so I am officially a professional game designer now!

    And in my defense Jay, I own very few sequels and best selling franchises. I’ve always found more to enjoy and learn from low budget and missed potential games. I still PLAY the big name games… but I usually borrow them instead since everyone and their grandmother owns them.

  • Albert1 said,

    I’m a self-taught programmer and, right now, I’m teaching to myself some art (starting frow the basics of drawing, with the wonderful books by Andrew Loomis), striving to (partially, at least) fullfill the artistic needs of my pet project, which I hope to show as soon as possible on Rampant forums 😉
    My relatives considered me skilled at art because I was able to draw, without any training, good contours in place of the usual sticky figures, but that’s all, I’m really just a beginner… and yet I think this activity not only makes me a better artist, but a better programmer too, and (I suppose) a better designer.
    So, in this field, I think that every programmer should know as much as possible about drawing, perspective (in the artistic sense, not your usual projective geometry lesson), and every artist should know as much as possible about computer science. While Garriot is, to say the least, arrogant, I think that the ideal game designer should be a game entusiast (obviously) artist, with very good knowledge of composition and set design and illustration. I think that starting as a game designer, without previous experience in other branches of game development, is like starting to make abstract paintings without knowledge of realistic drawing.

  • CdrJameson said,

    Game design definitely has low value. If you’re a capable programmer or artist then that’s what you’re going to be doing.

  • Felix said,

    Garriott’s claim is incredibly arrogant, but he does have a point. Too many people seem to think that doing stuff with computers requires one to “know computers”. Um, no. It requires knowing the real world. If you’re doing graphics, or graphics programming, then you need to know about perspective, shadows, color theory, contrast… the same skills that were expected of a Renaissance painter, in fact. Simulating the movement of objects in a virtual space? Then you need to know physics and trigonometry. And so on!

    Okay, so what’s the game designer supposed to know about? Er… um… Games, I guess? That’s kind of vague, isn’t it? Kind of like saying that a writer has to know books.

    Aha! There’s the answer. Just as writers have literary theory to help them, ranging from meter to the three-act structure, game designers can draw on decades of research into play, toys and games. Which is not to say that they should be experts in ludic theory! I’ll take a game designer who knows a lot of board games over one who knows the theory any time. But by the same token, the one who (also) knows board games will be better than the kid who never played anything but shooters. Even if they’re only supposed to work on more shooters!

  • Noumenon said,

    Wow, you guys have a low opinion of game designers. I think a well designed game is more fun than a well-programmed game, and can be harder to do. Try reading some of Soren Johnson’s columns (like More than Zero) and maybe you’ll see that “game designer” can be a very professional position that would be really hard for a programmer or artist to do.

  • Albert1 said,

    @Felix: board games are extremely important, IMO, even for programmers – some board games have been also studied from a mathematical point of view e.g. Monopoly (though it’s not considered that good among board gamers). Time ago I stacked a lot of material on game theory and board games and when I’ll have time I’ll study it carefully, however I started to think that maybe the board metaphor could be better than the usual level/world ones even for FPSs. It’s also interesting that the board shouldn’t necessarily be static – from what I learned, it seems that Germany (where board games are very popular) has a tradition of board games where the board is built and/or modified during the game.

  • Felix said,

    Albert1, that’s right, and the best examples are two of the most famous German board games, Settlers of Catan and Carcassone.

    Noumenon, I don’t have a low opinion of game designers, but of game designer wannabes. You know, those guys who think a game designer’s job — his important, irreplaceable contribution — is to come up with grand ideas. And sadly, that attitude exists even among acting game designers.

  • Xenovore said,

    That’s a rather narrow view: if a game designer knows board games then he’s a good game designer? Pardon me, but what a bunch of crap.

    The key is to know what game-play mechanisms are fun and why; if you learn that by playing/designing board games, then great. But that’s hardly the only path!

  • Felix said,

    That’s not what I said, Xenovore. I said, “the one who (also) knows board games will be better than the kid who never played anything but shooters”. And my point is that you need to know the basics first. Not exclusively; in fact, a board game designer’s experience would be equally enriched by knowing about computer games.

    A game designer needs perspective, and to be able to walk before they try to run. Like in any other field, really. Would you trust a digital artist who can’t draw a stick figure by hand? A programmer who can only code in Objective C using XCode’s visual programming tools? A writer who can’t put together a short story without the aid of sophisticated plot- and character-tracking tools?

    Sure, the ultimate goal is to understand what makes a game fun and why. And sure, you can get there by various paths. But you have to touch all the bases along the way.

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  • Adamantyr said,

    Any kind of game design experience is going to be useful, whether it’s board games, tabletop RPG’s, video games in ANY platform or language. It’s all about learning what makes a game fun and engaging to people.

    The narrow viewpoints really seem to be very prevalent in video and gaming crowds. For example, if anyone else watched “King of the Nerds” on TBS in the last few months, many of the contestants got eliminated IN their specialty areas because they failed to study the broad base of it. Two of them explicitly complained afterwards that they didn’t think they’d be asked questions about “old stuff”. That’s why you fail. 😉

    That’s why I think Richard Garriott will fail. The more I look at Shroud of the Avatar, the more I see him trying to recapture the magic from the early Ultima days. It’s VERY obvious the map is from his old D&D campaign setting; you even see the old hex maps at one point in one of the videos. Just because it’s old, though, doesn’t mean it will work.

    Lord British, ironically, has forgotten that pride is NOT a virtue. His comments will drive away good designers who decide they don’t want to work with a man who places such little value on them.

    Here’s a very good article by a designer who actually worked at Portalarium with Richard, and his viewpoint of recent events:


  • BarryB said,

    Interesting stuff at that link, Adamantyr. Thanks for providing it.

    As an aside, I think some of Garriott’s arrogance about game designing in general dates from his years when he literally was most of the team in the Ultima series. My pair of interviews with him came across as a guy who was clever within his chosen field, very full of himself, and very, very bad at social skills. People who have worked closely with him chuckle and verify this, though they confirm Dr. Cat’s impressions. He doesn’t understand the value of a team, how to coordinate one, or that others have ideas that can actually contribute well to the mix. Once, I asked him jokingly if he’d ever thought about using project management software, since his later Ultimas fell very far off schedule. The temperature of the interview dropped to that of liquid nitrogen as he replied, simply, “No.” Garriott doesn’t make mistakes. It’s always somebody else’s fault.