I was very lucky to have some time with Richard Lemarchand, to talk about his new book A Playful Production Process. Richard has worked in the game industry for over two decades, and is currently teaching at the USC Games program at the University of Southern California.
When at Naughty Dog, Richard led & co-led design for the Uncharted series. In the interview, we talk about his experience running playtests in the industry, some of the barriers that teams face and steps to overcome them.
His new book covers how to balance the creativity of game design with techniques for effective project management, and describes a playtest focused method of game development.
I think it’s a really important text for growing user researchers, to help them identify where they fit in the game development process, what they should be testing and how to position their conclusions for maximum impact.
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A Playful Production Process: The challenges of making games, and avoiding crunch.
Your book, A Playful Production Process came out recently. What inspired you to write it?
Ever since I joined the industry, I’ve understood how tremendously difficult making games is. I tell a few anecdotes in the book about underestimating how long things were going to take and having to crunch, ending up in the kind of uncontrolled overwork that easily burns people out, damages both physical and mental health of individuals, and really damages organizations as well. It can lead to studios folding, publishers going out of business, if our processes aren’t sustainable.
So all throughout my career, and including in the second phase of my career since I joined the USC games program at the University of Southern California, I was trying to gather up best practices to just try and make game development that little bit easier.
Game development is never going to be easy. The technology is always changing. New game genres emerge. Design in itself is a fascinating kind of practice, where we’re looking to meet needs and solve problems. And there is the artistry of game making, not just in terms of visual art or beautiful audio, but games as an art form. And while you can have various philosophies around art making, I don’t think we’ll ever analyze art away.
Game development is going to remain tremendously challenging and that’s part of what I love about it, and what intrigues me. All I wanted to do with this book was gather up all these best practices that I’ve been exposed to, that I’d learned from other people, from my colleagues, my mentors, from talks at GDC and elsewhere, and put them in a row just to guide people through making a game. The book guides people through four phases that guide them, steadily but surely, towards a finished game.
I would be very happy if the relatively simple structured process in the book led people to work out for themselves, for their teams and their organizations, how to bring that hard work under control so that it doesn’t hurt them, so that they’re doing it in a deliberate way. This will make our careers and our game design practices sustainable, so that instead of leaving the industry and getting a job somewhere else, like unfortunately happens to many people, we can be doing this right the way throughout our working lives, into our seventies, even our eighties or nineties. I would love that.
The evolution of playtesting
How did you develop your approach to game development?
Well I really get this focus on play testing from a couple of places. One is my experience in the industry. I remember running a play test for the very first game I worked on, which was F-15 Strike Eagle 2, for the Sega Mega Drive as it was in the UK, when I worked at MicroProse. I think probably one of my wise bosses suggested that we do this. It might have been my friend Pete Moreland, who was my boss at the time & one of my early mentors. But it was a kind of friends and family playtest.
And all the way back then in the early ’90s, I could see clearly that, even though it was very unstructured and the feedback we were getting was very anecdotal, there was great value in putting your game just in front of people and seeing how it lands with them, seeing whether they could figure out how to even start the game, let alone how to play it.
Of course, in the ’90s and even in the early 2000s, playtesting and especially user research, wasn’t very prevalent. But in those times I would spend a lot of time with the QA department, who were of course playtesting the game in a slightly different mode, in the mode of quality assurance, looking to create bug reports.
Once I joined Naughty Dog, and it was exposed to what they called, slightly confusingly, the focus testing process, which was really user research, that was when things really began to click for me about the importance of play testing.
And then latterly, through reading Tracy Fullerton’s amazing book, Game Design Workshop, which stresses the importance of playtesting at every stage. Tracy coined the term play-centric game design, to show that we can and indeed need to start playtesting right at the very beginning of our process. I hope that my book is a kind of spiritual sequel to Tracy’s Game Design Workshop. It’s really intended to follow on from all the lessons that Tracy teaches.
Playtesting early in development
I think that no matter how small and clunky, and maybe un-gamelike a prototype that you make is, there’s incredible value in putting it in front of somebody else, and just seeing how they react, seeing how they approach it, seeing if they can work out the controls that you haven’t properly explained, seeing what they can get just through play.
I tell my students that when they’re prototyping, looking for interesting game verbs that might lead them to a more fully developed game design, it’s usually much better to make a toy than it is a game.
I’ve actually seen students start to burn themselves out in the first or second week of class by struggling to make a whole miniature 2D, side scrolling platform game or something, complete with attack jumps, and attacks, and enemies and a score readout.
I don’t think that’s productive. I think that’s getting ahead of ourselves. If we make a toy like a digital slinky, or a handful of digital rubber bouncy balls, and put them in an environment that has some features maybe and just see what people do, what people figure out they can do, what people like to do, what they enjoy, what they keep doing spontaneously, I think those are the discoveries that lead us onwards to interesting places in game design.
Playtesting vs ‘User Research’
The book distinguishes between playtesting and user research. How do they differ?
When I talk about user research I’m describing a rigorous scientific discipline where we’re really gathering solid knowledge about something to do with our game.
I do think that the process of formal play testing that I described, which is inspired by, has its roots in, user research practices, is more of a subjective art making process. It introduces subjective evaluations on the part of a game designer which hopefully are rooted in their experience, their knowledge, their wisdom as a designer, but might also have some foundation in their intuitions — what their gut is telling them, their informed guesses, perhaps.
I think that we’re not totally lost in a sea of subjectivity though. Because I think very often we can find the fun, or other kinds of emotional affective state, by noticing what players want to do more of, or what players have a difficult time stopping doing.
This can help us make design decisions. In the case of my sort of physics-based toys that I was just describing, it might be the case that if we make small changes to the numbers, some physical system that we can play within goes from being annoying, frustrating, blocking, to rich, pleasurable, aesthetic. And that’s I think a way to a particular kind of fun at least.
I’m very interested in this word “fun”. I think that it bedevils game designers quite a lot. And I’ve been very glad as the emotional spectrum of games has opened up. Because it’s allowed us to make other kinds of evaluations. Like, is this game making people feel the kind of nostalgic melancholy that I want to feel, for instance? Or the kind of reflection on grief or loss?
But like you say, there’s an artistic quality. And that’s what game designers are paid for, to make artistic judgment calls.
User research in the games industry
I want to ask about the games industry — what are your thoughts on the take up of playtesting and user research in industry?
I think that there were reservations at one time. I think any time there’s a change in the way that an industry or creative practice is organized, there’s going to be some skepticism on the part of the folks who were there before. But you know, I think that we are 10, 15 years, maybe even longer beyond that. And I do think that today user research testing practices are widely accepted as being extremely important.
Not universally though. I think that some developers still miss a trick in terms of not taking the opportunity to use techniques from HCI and user research to make sure that there are no problems with their game.
I think we still see this sometimes around interface. I think in the last few years we’ve seen some major AAA PC gaming RPGs where the developers may have assumed that the interface for something like an inventory and the management of armor and weapons on a character was going to be a relatively straightforward task to deal with, and then implemented something that was functional but that wasn’t really easy or pleasurable to use. However, my gut is that that’s kind of a generation behind us now, because when we look at the standards of interface design in the current generation of AAA and PC games, I think that we see incredibly high standards.
I was very impressed by the interface in Cyberpunk 2077, which actually my friend Zach Bohn worked on. Zach’s now a senior technical designer at Sony’s Santa Monica studio, and his background is in UI design. So I’m sure that I should credit his amazing colleagues as well as him for that wonderful interface design in Cyberpunk 2077.
I think we have the academy to thank for that, right, and folks who came out of the academy. I’m very lucky to work both with Dennis Wixon and Heather Desurvire who come from the world of HCI and user research who teach classes with us, as well as having a lot of amazing industry credits.
I think that the widespread adoption of user research techniques in industry is probably due in part to the wisdom that graduating students have brought to their first industry jobs helping their new colleagues to understand the great value that these techniques can bring to game design.
In the book you talk about your work on Uncharted with Naughty Dog and that near to launch playtests were happening weekly. Do you see any barriers that stop teams playtesting as often as they would like to, or they should?
There are barriers certainly, in terms of time and attention, I think this actually has a relationship with the problem of crunch. If you are racing to just build out your game as the final shipping deadline gets closer, you may not have the time that it takes to invest in organizing and running playtests and then analyzing the data that you get back from them, especially if you’re a small team. That’s a problem that can be solved using money, of course, but again, money is something that not every game developer has a lot of.
So I think that what I’ve seen is that user research practices are more readily adopted by teams who have quite considerable institutional support from a publisher perhaps, or perhaps because they’re a team within a large studio. I think things are more challenging for smaller developers.
But, one of the reasons that I teach my classes the way that I do, and the way that I discuss the process of formal playtesting that I describe in my book is because I believe that you can do it on a shoestring, you can do it at relatively low cost. It doesn’t have to be tremendously time consuming. In the book, I describe some quite mundane details about finding playtesters, finding a space to playtest in, getting there early to set up the chairs and so on, that I hope will help other people not run into the same kind of basic problems that I did when I first started running playtests. Because it definitely does take somebody at the studio to own the process and make sure that all the little details are getting taken care of.
That was something that I was very excited about at Naughty Dog and I helped as we were ramping up our formal playtesting processes. And now I believe that there’s a good cadre of people who are devoted to that process at Naughty Dog.
Playtesting in academia
You teach game design and game production at the University of Southern California. How does the idea of playtesting go down with your students and the people who come to your classes?
I think that our students are a little surprised at the very beginning of their time with us just how quickly we want them to start playtesting, and just how much we want them to playtest. I regularly give that feedback — your playtest reports are excellent, I would just like you to do even more playtests and take even more notes.
I think maybe in culture there are some received ideas about the creative process ,which are probably tangled up with wrongheaded notions about auteurs and about how great artists work and about geniuses. That creatives do some thinking, and they’re very brilliant and they think for a long time, and then they start to make the artwork, and then they just make it from start to finish without fault. When in actual fact, most creative projects — even the ones that we think of as made by auteurs — are made by communities of people, maybe located around someone who acts as a figurehead, or a guide for the process. And all those processes are messy, nonlinear, iterative.
Perhaps that’s why our students are sometimes surprised, because they think that they’re going to just design a game in a straight line. They’re going to think, and build, and then it’ll come out brilliant. Of course, we know that it takes place in a loop.
However, I think that by the end of their first semester, every USC game student really gets it, that we’re going to iterate a lot, we’re going to do a lot of analysis, we’re going to re implement things a lot in search of the right game design solutions. I’m very proud of our student community for embracing playtesting in the way that they do.
If people would like to hear more about the USC games program, then they can find us online at games.usc.edu. We offer courses at both the undergrad and the graduate level, and we offer courses in both USCs Viterbi School of Engineering, which offers computer science degrees with a specialization in games. And we offer degrees in interactive media and games in the USC School of Cinematic Arts.
Students from all these programs are drawn together at every stage of their education. So between the tech of the engineering school, and the design and artistry and storytelling of the cinema school, we have an incredibly rich program with everyone learning from everyone all the time. So please check out the degrees that we offer and tell your friends about them.
What’s difficult for students and indie developers and when trying to run playtests?
I think one of the barriers for students when they’re playtesting is just finding fresh playtesters. When you’re in a student community you have your friends around you a lot, and you might feel a little shyer about approaching someone you don’t know for a playtest. Also, when you’re in a student community at a game design program, everyone around you is a game designer and I don’t think those are necessarily the very best people to playtest your game on. You want regular punters, right. You ideally want people off the street.
In a university setting, and when we’re not experiencing a global pandemic, a path to solving that is to just go out onto the quad and set up your little lemonade booth asking people to play test our game and grab passers by. And my students sometimes do that. They’ll also put up posters with the tear off strips along the bottom.
Finding playtesters is a solvable problem. It’s a little harder for Indie game developers where there may be more of an expectation if you’re playtesting on random members of the public, that there may be some compensation for them and I think that’s appropriate that people are compensated for their time. It comes back to budgetary matters again.
But there are always ways around it. With the way that we’re so socially connected online these days, we can hack our way to finding fresh playtesters. Then we just have to get over whatever hurdles of shyness or social anxiety that we might have. I seem extroverted, but I’m actually an extroverted introvert. So sometimes I have to push myself to make that jump to make contact with a stranger and to organize groups of strangers. And that’s something that I always try and give people support around as well.
What’s next for you, Richard?
I have discovered just how much I love to write in the course of creating this book. Becoming an author has been a longstanding goal of mine, and I want to keep writing, I’ve got loads of ideas that I’m stewing on.
I was lucky to have a few successful GDC talks over the course of the last few years and I’m quite interested to synthesize my thoughts about the role that attention plays in the design of video games, attention as understood by psychologists, of course. I’m interested in the rhythmic patterns that we find in the temporal media that we enjoy. As you can tell from the kinds of games I’ve worked on, I’m very interested in storytelling and in storytelling games.
I’m fascinated by the sort of cadences of stories, and of games, and of how they can be aligned or misaligned. I discuss this a little bit, actually, I discuss this at some length in the book, in talking about the game design macro, which is a lightweight game design document that we can use to plan these things. I’d love to take a deeper dive into the rhythms of games and stories.
I’m also really interested in more transcendental matters around games. I gave a talk at GDC a few years ago called Infinite Play, which was partly about the work of James Carse, who wrote a book called “Finite and Infinite Games,” which looked at games and play as a kind of spiritual orientation for life in a way that really resonated with me. So, as you can tell, I’ve got a lot I want to talk about. So hopefully in the new year I’ll be launching into a new project.
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