Joel Burgess: A Level a Day Keeps the Docs Away

Bethesda Game Studios lead level designer Joel Burgess offers his thoughts on best documentation practices following an appearance on the “World of Design” panel at last month’s QuakeCon.

QuakeCon was awesome. Among other things, we got an amazing demo of Rage, walked around a BYOC that would make anybody believe in PC gaming, and heard the news that Arkane joined up with Zenimax. Which, believe me, is worth being excited about.

I think our World of Design panel went well, but I had a feeling that one of my remarks might raise some eyebrows. Sure enough, the next morning I had an email waiting for me from an astute SMU student, asking me to explain my thoughts on documentation for level design.

During the Q&A session, I advocated just getting into the editor and going after ideas rather than spending much time planning. This is looked upon poorly by some designers, and actively discouraged in a lot of school curricula. SMU students, specifically, write up an abstract and an LDD (level design document) before beginning work on a level. So why would I suggest this isn’t the best way to go?

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About Game Development: Broken Windows

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About Game Development are short essays exploring the world of game development at Bethesda Game Studios. Today’s post is about broken windows.

Our games here at Bethesda Game Studios are complex, sprawling epics with layers of systems, reams of data, stunning art and audio and hours upon hours of fun made by our talented creators of all stripes. Underlying all of that is thousands upon thousands of lines of source code to make it all go, from editing gameplay data to exporting and placing art to actually running the game itself on one of several platforms.

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About Game Development: On Family

We spend so much time at work, a development team becomes like a family. We fight. We annoy. We eat. We have kids (well, the married couples working on the team do).
We hire slowly here at Bethesda Game Studios. It’s no surprise that we strive find people who fit our culture and team. People who aren’t a good fit can often bring everyone else down; they become a massive negative buff. Flip side to this, losing folks hurts. It takes time to make up the lost knowledge and talent that people take with them, and when someone leaves, it usually means we’re losing a friend, too. That makes us sad pandas.
Institutional knowledge or corporate memory — depending on what business self help book you are reading — is how a team learns to make games, learns to work together, and most importantly, learns to get better at makes games. Malcolm Gladwell writes in his great book, The Tipping Point, the following:
…the benefit of unity, of having everyone in a complex enterprise share a common relationship…in a family this process of memory sharing is even more pronounced. Most of us remember, at one time, only a fraction of the day to day details and histories of our family life. But we know, implicitly, where to go to find the answers to our questions – whether it is up to our spouse to remember where we put our keys or our thirteen year old to find out how to work the computer, or our mother to find out details of our childhood…when new information arises, we know who should have responsibility for storing it. This is how, in a family, expertise emerges… mental energy is limited, we concentrate on what we do best.
A team that has worked together for many years and shipped multiple projects benefits from “transitive memory: it’s knowing someone well enough to know what they know, and knowing them well enough so that you can trust them to know things in their specialty…recreating, on an organization wide level, of the kind of intimacy and trust that exists in a family.”

This is the kind of culture every game developer hopes for. Making a truly successful game is hard enough, and there are so many factors outside your control that decide the success of your game. There is no replacement for having a team you trust to get you there.

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About Game Development are short essays exploring the world of game development at Bethesda Game Studios. Today’s post is about how a team is like a family.

We spend so much time at work, a development team becomes like a family. We fight. We annoy. We eat. We have kids (well, the married couples working on the team do).

Continue reading full article ›

About Game Development: On Creativity

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About Game Development are short essays exploring the world of game development at Bethesda Game Studios. Today’s post is about creativity.

Here’s a useless party trick: what’s the fastest way to clear a room of single women? Say you make video games for a living. Because at every party, there is that guy. The one with the killer idea, the sure thing. He’s done all the work already, he’s practically giving it away. Once that guy latches onto you, forget about talking to anybody else.

If only making a game could be reduced to a singular, perfect idea — a romanticized act, full of mystery, that one performs alone like Michelangelo, dimly lit by candlelight, on his back painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

It’s a lie, of course. The painting of the Sistine Chapel was the work of an army of assistants, carpenters building scaffolding, laborers mining limestone, Craft food services, one Pope, and lots of other people who I couldn’t even begin to imagine.

With projects as complex as our games, creativity involves a large number of people working together. A game like Oblivion or Fallout 3 consists of literally tens of thousands of ideas. Everyone here at the studio contributes to this vast matrix of features, code, sound, art and words. It is both beautiful and frightening. I don’t think we would be doing our projects justice if we weren’t, at least, a little terrified.

We are at our most creative — that is, we create our best work — when we are working together. Some of the best parts of our games can be traced to groups of individuals iterating — a programmer and an artist pushing to improve our particle system to get the right visual effect; a designer, level designer and world artist creating a city full of buildings, dungeons, characters and quests; a hit squad of programmers, level designers, artists and animators cranking away until a giant anti-communist propaganda spouting robot is able to walk and blow **** up.

-Ashley Cheng, Production Director