Game Designers Are Human Too: Tom Cadwell, Design Director at Riot Games

On January 19, local game publisher Garena hosted a talk by Tom Cadwell, at the Games Solution Centre in Singapore. Cadwell is Design Director at Riot Games, a publisher and developer of premium online games for a global audience. While its headquarters is based in Santa Monica the company also has offices in St. Louis, Dublin and Seoul. Riot’s most well-known game is League of Legends a free to play, online action RPG from the creators of DoTA (Defense of the Ancients).

With a degree in Computer Science from MIT and MBA from Kellogg, Cadwell was previously a Designer at Blizzard working on World of Warcraft and Warcraft III The Frozen Throne. He has also been winner of Blizzard Brood War Beta invitational and #1 several times on the StarCraft and Brood War ladders.

During his talk “Game Designers are Human Too” Cadwell imparted some game development wisdom based on his experience as an industry professional and leading competitive gamer. Although professional game design has been around for over three decades Cadwell noted that game development could and still does produce bad results. “There are lots of examples of really well executed games,” he said, “But despite that, you still see tons of really bad outcomes and decision-making even on good projects. The question is how can a designer who is really good at designing, still consistently make a lot of errors?”

Process can impede good decision-making. 

Sometimes the way in which the game development process is structured actually impedes the ability of a team or individual to make good quality decisions. To circumvent this problem Cadwell stressed the importance of establishing a formal review step or process of submission. Goals should be clearly defined from the outset allowing developers to measure their progress against expectations. Studios should also encourage a culture of honest feedback. Citing an example where his team ran into difficulties while creating a new character, Cadwell said, “saying that something is ‘bad’ is much more difficult than saying its ‘not bad’.” However if staff are empowered to assert (in a constructive manner) that an element is not working or meeting expectations, it can save a lot of time, money and heart ache down the track. Consistent rounds of presentations can also reduce the risk of development going too far off track.

Designers can be influenced by emotional and social motivations. 

“I believe that good game development comes from iteration. Inherent to that is the idea that you have to get feedback from others,” Cadwell said. But feedback is hard to obtain when team members choose to work in isolation for too long or during critical stages of development. A common scenario is the ‘grand unveil’ where individuals will pour over their work for hours (alone) leading up to presentation of the concept with a grand flourish only to be met by the sound of crickets chirping. Although unhelpful, the behaviour is understandable. “Designers are worried that their great idea will be misunderstood or unfairly judged. A lot of designers, especially junior designers, view themselves as successful if they get a lot of their ideas into the game, when their goal should be: is the game good?”

To alleviate this difficulty and perhaps protect sensitive egos, Cadwell suggested introducing the notion of a ‘crappy first draft’ which reduces pressure for initial idea generation, provides creative freedom and encourages a mistake-forgiving environment that doesn’t seek to blame, judge or embarrass others. Aligned with this approach is making feedback or the peer review process a fun, positive and helpful experience.

Designers, in any creative profession, understand that creating ideas is a bit like having a baby. We conceive them, give birth and then want to protect them as much as possible from judging eyes. Cadwell describes a similar situation called ‘too awesome to cut” which is when an individual or team have emotional attachment to an idea that has a lot of promise but also serious flaws. “When you invest emotion, you start to lose objectivity,” he said. In these situations, try to involve people who aren’t personally involved on that project to provide honest feedback or consider formalising a process to identity costs and risks associated with alternative design decisions.

But no-one said coming up with amazing ideas was easy. Creative fatigue is a well-known risk in an industry often subjected to tight timeframes and strict deadlines. However there a many counter-intuitive practices such as long meetings. Cadwell pointed to research indicating that people are most creative during the first 15 minutes of a meeting followed by a steady decline in attention. To stimulate fresh thinking he suggests that teams take frequent short breaks or work on another project entirely before returning. Mixing or rotating team members can also bring new perspectives.

Another common problem that affects designers is the notion of designing for yourself. “It’s easy to be excited by games you like and things you like.” Similarly, its easy to design games that you’d like to play but you are not always the game’s target audience. Being self-aware enough to recognise when you may be doing this is central to ensuring that you are designing an experience that may not be your cup of tea but in the end will delight and entertain the intended players.

Unnecessary constraints.

Although constraints are often based on specific timing, budget, resource or cultural considerations, trying to adhere to too many constraints can “produce  mediocre results”. Consequently its important to identify which constraints are requirements versus those that are merely preferences. Creating innovative game experiences can be difficult enough without also trying to honour competing objectives.

In summary, Cadwell noted that it was important for designers and other team members to identify their own personal weakness from the aforementioned flaws in order to develop strategies to overcome them. For junior designers specifically, as they develop their careers in the game industry it is important to have a circle of design mentors, people who they can bounce ideas off and give constructive feedback on both good and bad work.

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