What It Takes: To Design Games

A few months ago, I had the tremendous pleasure of sitting down with one of EA Mobile’s Creative Director Chelsea Howe for tea in her now-native Austin, Texas. I’ve met a lot of interesting and very engaged people, but Chelsea might take the cake –she loves the fact that she gets to make games for a living, and she just radiates positivity about her career, her field, and even the day-to-day grind of her job.

I started out by asking her how it is that she came to game design, as a career. “I’d been playing games my whole entire life, like most people I know who go into games, and like most children – like, we play our entire lives. It just changes, and we usually end up needing more alcohol to become comfortable with playing as we get older,” she half-joked. “But I never, ever even dreamed that I could make games. I think I thought they just came into the universe fully-formed, on the shelves, for me.”

So: What did it take for Chelsea to get to game design?

A Desire to Tell Stories

Chelsea told me about how much she loved reading and writing as a kid – because, after all, games are interactive stories. “I think I wrote my first mini-story that was like twenty pages long – just so much for me, when I was in second grade,” she said. “And then I just kept on writing. It was what I would do to kind of reset after school. So I wrote my first novel in – what would that have been? Sixth grade? It was awful. It was so bad.”

But, she said, she had a clique of readers at her school who waited for the next few pages of her story every day, and encouraged her to keep writing. So she did, straight through until college, where she entered intending to pursue a degree in linguistics.

“I wound up at Cornell, kind of by chance, and they had a little mini games program, it was just getting started. And I saw it, and – people say ‘the lightbulb went off’ – this was like, the sun exploded in my head,” she told me, mimicking an explosion with her hands. “I was like, this was what I was meant to do. My whole entire life, everything has been coming to this moment, this is it. It was this radiant moment of purpose. Ever since then, it’s just been going for it. Like, all right, let’s go, let’s do this.”

A Higher-Than-Average Amount of Resourcefulness

At Cornell, Chelsea said, “I designed my major around wanting to do games, and figuring out all the little pieces of what it takes to make a game, and taking courses on those, and then combining them into a thesis, and then putting them into practice.”

That meant that she studied things like religion, linguistics, Asian studies, music theory and design, 3D arts and animation, 2D art and graphic design, computer programming (particularly Java and SQL), math, economics, improv and theater, and psychology. All of these things go into what she calls “the richness” of a game. Religion, for example, “has a lot of the big emotions that we talk about over the course of our lives – things like meaning, and purpose, and faith, and hope, things that really drive us as human beings, that compel us toward different values,” and so it can form much of the cultural aspects of a video game’s environment as well as character motivations, which in turn move the story along and inform the design of gameplay. Economics, she told me, is important for “economy tuning and systems balancing” – which she explained, basically, as the way things are valued in a game’s economy and why – like what the reward is for defeating an enemy, and what that reward enables you to do as the game goes forward.

Putting all of that into practice, then, meant “Getting teams together every semester and making games,” after which she then “got into the real world and just kept kind of doing the same thing, making games, getting people together, learning.” Some of that learning meant that she had to keep piecing together new fields of knowledge, like marketing, fundraising, and business law. At a game jam, for example, her team won a publishing contract, which meant that all of a sudden her team had to learn how to incorporate as a business and get funding so that they could continue to develop the game without using Cornell’s software.

All of which is kind of amazing, if you think about it. So many people in the world view video games as “just games,” but if you’re going to create a really immersive, engaging game that speaks to human emotions and motivates the player to keep moving forward, there’s nothing “just” anything about it – it’s a huge task that requires a really well-rounded team.

Pretty Much Any Background You Already Have

That might sound prohibitive – if you’re past the college level, how could you acquire all of that knowledge? Don’t let it scare you, though; you probably already have knowledge that you could apply toward the design of a game. “That’s one of the things that I love most, is how interdisciplinary games is,” Chelsea told me. “It lets me do so many things, and I have my fingers in so many different pies. It’s always interesting, there’s always something new. And the people you meet are just insane. In a good way!”

I told her that it sounded like pretty much anyone could contribute to gaming, and she responded: “Anyone. Basically anyone. Because that background part goes into the richness. Skills can be taught, but the vastness of human experience – that’s what we’re doing, right? We’re taking some human experience and put it in a bottle and give it to someone. Well, sell it. Or both. So the more experiences you have, and the more varied the experiences on a team are, the richer the final product.”

So no matter what your background is, chances are you can learn the skills you need in order to contribute to a great game. And the more people who have a variety of experiences who are on a team, the better for the game, because it will make the game feel more real to the players.

“That’s why I’m so big on diversity in teams,” Chelsea continued. “For so long, games have been the same experience, for the most part. The same small set of options. And it’s like having to choose between, like, salt and pepper, as opposed to going next door to that spice shop and being like, ‘Oh my gosh, there are racks filled and filled and filled with all of these different things.’ We’ve never had that, because a very small segment of the population have been in charge of the games that get made.”

She told me, for example, about how the game Never Alone was developed – it’s about an Alaskan tribe, but it was developed by people who weren’t part of that tribe. “That’s not an experience that a bunch of white guys could’ve made,” she said. “And actually, there was this fantastic talk at GDC about all the ways they kind of had to unpack their privilege, the people who were helping to work with the storytellers in order to make it true to the values of the tribe. That was amazing! It made me so happy! And we’re seeing more of that – they’re getting more funding, and sustaining it.”

Really Good Organizational and Interpersonal Skills

When I asked Chelsea about the nuts and bolts day-to-day details of her job, it was sort of dizzying – she had to explain fractals to me in order to give me a really good idea of what it’s like. This is the case because Chelsea works specifically on mobile games, which, in EA’s case, are producing new features all the time.

What that means is that she’s in a continuous cycle of agile development. “You start off your day with a 10-minute stand-up, you hear what everyone else on the team is doing, you look at what progress was made yesterday, what progress is going to be made today, and how you’re standing up to your goal through the end of the sprint, or the end of two years,” she said.

Then she reviews new features, new user interfaces, going into the game itself and checking to see if there are problems with new features and how they can be fixed – reviewing things that are currently in production. Then she reviews things that are being designed, which entails going over ideas with product managers and UX (user experience) designers, seeing what’s been done on features that are in the design stage, and fixing design problems across a variety of teams. If they have time, they test out feature concepts on actual players, then go back to the product managers to see how much money the feature could make, how many people are going to engage with it, and whether or not it’s going to convert players from non-paying to paying. From start to finish, concept to production to the player, it takes about two weeks, and it’s a constant cycle of two-week sprints through feature development.

the end of us

Then, of course, there’s everything that’s already live in the game, and Chelsea touches that, too – seeing how well people have engaged with it, if it’s meeting engagement and monetization targets, if it’s performing correctly for the players.

“So if you think about the things I’m working on when a game is live as a combination of concepting upcoming features, doing production work on features that we want to launch, and doing analysis on games that have already launched, all of that is just one chunk, which is ‘when a game is live,’” she said. “But we also have the ‘when a game is in production and not live yet,’ and we also have ‘when we’re just thinking about and concepting a game.’ And my job is very different in each of those.”

And while production and live sound like more than enough on their own (I mean, my god), concepting is definitely its own beast. She told me that she and her senior UX designer had “been locked in a room for five months, basically just coming up with ideas.” She described the way her job in concepting has changed as she’s become more senior: “I used to be given a problem to solve and have to solve it, then I had to figure out what problems to solve, and now I’m figuring out what space to even be exploring, essentially, and why. Like, what are the interesting questions to ask.”

In the concept stage, Chelsea said, she doesn’t have meetings constantly, “But the meetings I do have are the really, really important ones where it’s like, ‘All right, you’ve made a game to pitch to this licenser, we’re now going to fly you out to wherever they live and you’re going to pitch to this celebrity or this studio. No pressure!’”

All of this requires just a tremendous amount of teamwork. I asked her how big teams usually are, and she said that, at least when she’s designing games independently – as part of Dikaffe, her design studio, not for EA – “Eight is usually where you max out on the ability for a self-organized group. Four is always my perfect number.” Regardless of the size of your team, though, everyone has to be on the same page as far as team spirit goes.

Patience, Toughness, and Gumption

That’s because, as Chelsea told me, making games “always gets tough.” I asked her how, and she said that it’s a lot like any artistic product that you want to give to an audience. “The first time you put your game in front of someone, the chances that they’ll like it, and that it’s good, and that they’ll understand what you were trying to get at are very very small. It also just takes a lot of time. And it’s code, so you run into a lot of bugs.”

She continued: “Like in any creative process, you hit the points where you’ve put in a lot of work, and you’ve lost your objectivity, you’ve gotten completely used to the idea so you no longer see it as novel or interesting. What people hope, and what the reality is, turns out to be so, so different.”

But as tough as the process can be, you have to be tougher. “We had a saying when I was at one of my previous companies: ‘You’re either part of the JFDI club or you’re not.’ And JFDI was ‘Just fucking do it,’” Chelsea said. “We come up with so many excuses and delusions to make ourselves comfortable with inaction. And especially now, with all of our little dopamine rushes – Twitter, Facebook – all of the instant gratification they give us, investing more than a week, a month, an hour into something can feel so daunting and so worthless. Creation is always going to have more of a delayed reward than consuming.”

A Love Of Play

The front page of Chelsea’s web site, Mind-Speak, says, “The world needs play.” This is something that Chelsea feels strongly about, so I asked her to expound upon it a little.

“Play is basically the opportunity for undirected activity, for self-directed activity, without the obligation of utility. When you don’t have the obligation of utility, you tend to fall back on your intrinsic motivators. Like, what is inherently fun?” She told me. “When you play, you find the things that are intrinsic. Things that make you as a human happy and satisfied, and good. And that is incredibly powerful. So I love to play for that reason. It teaches us what’s inside of us.”

“The other reason I love it is because play as an attitude is about mental flexibility. When you’re playful, what you’re basically saying is, maybe the rules don’t apply. You’re creating this space that’s not the real world. It’s a world that is somehow separate, somehow free.” And,  importantly, “When you’re in that space, you’re much more likely to be able to be creative. Because all of those very concrete mental models that you’re used to are no longer law. They’re more suggestion. And it lets us be closer to who we are and think in ways we don’t normally think, and come up with solutions in a safe space.”

Most of all, play is important because play can create an actual difference. Chelsea explained that psychologically, people respond to new ideas better when they’re tasked with finding solutions. “A lot of the ways that people are trying to affect change, especially around climate change, is by giving us all these terribly scary statistics. And if you look at the emotion of fear, what fear actually makes you do is recede, disengage. Be less willing to think about something. And go back to what you know, and what you’ve always done. You can’t change when you’re afraid.”

Play is different, though: “When you look at the people who have managed to frame things as play – they’ve done a bunch of, basically, simulations. So, let’s simulate what the world is going to look like when we hit peak oil. Let’s play a game. And then people are like, ‘Oh, this is interesting! I want to try to solve this,’ since it’s a game. And if you had said, ‘Peak oil is coming in the next twenty years, we’re going to reach a point where our economy is going to crash,’ people would have said, like, ‘Mm, nope, nope, la la la la,’” she said, fake-sticking her fingers in her ears.

And, Of Course, Gear Doesn’t Hurt

Chelsea told me that getting a game design setup going is one of the best first steps you can take. She recommended Wacom tablets, which she described as essential for working woith her design team in an interview with The Setup: “While I’m neither an audio designer nor an artist/animator, knowing the basics and being able to scrap together sample art or sound design is hugely helpful when it comes to communicating design ideas.”

For software, she recommends a lot of stuff you may already have – like Microsoft Office and Adobe creative products – for organizational and visual design tasks. But as far as the mechanics of actual game design goes, she says that Game Maker from YoYo Games is her go-to. And, great news: We have a Wacom Intuos Pro tablet and a year-long Game Maker license ($500 value!) to give away this month – enter below and click here to read the official rules!

A big, gigantic thanks to the fantastic Chelsea Howe for this month’s What It Takes, and an additional thanks to Wacom and YoYoGames!

Send me a line at rebecca@thefrisky.com.