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10 Greatest Video Game Designers Part 1

Thursday, November 27th, 2008

These are the ten heroes of video game design. They have been responsible for games that have forever changed the medium and consequently the video game industry as a whole is indebted to them. Also included in this list is a career highlight list for each designer, a bit about how they personally influenced me as a designer and some fun trivia about them. This is part 1 of this list.

10. Tim Schaffer
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The consummate storyteller. Tim Schaffer’s talk titled: Adventures in Character Design detailed his method of research in creating characters was a big inspiration to me.

Here are some of the notes I took while listening to the podcast so you don’t have to:

  • Characters should be wish fulfillment. This doesn’t mean they can’t be goofy, or nerdy, or losers. There are lots of ways to make characters that are fun to play. Guybrush might not be a badass, but he always has a comeback.
  • Create supporting NPCs as you would the ideal road trip buddies. Making them annoying, offputting, needlessly stupid or generally hateful and then sticking the player with them through the whole game is just sadistic.
  • Write the player character as you would a character in a movie, a character that a good actor would jump at playing.
  • Backstory. Making up pasts for every single one of your characters, big ones or not, makes it insanely easy to imbue them with neat little traits by pulling from the past you’ve created.
  • Steal stuff, but steal it right. Steal stuff from life, especially. From your own life, from your friends’, from crazy things hobos tell you on the street. And steal stuff from other fiction, but don’t steal the surface junk. Steal what makes good things good. So if you’re stealing from GTA, stealing the hookers and mobsters and violence is missing the point. Steal the fun, the open-ended gameplay, the facetious attitudes.
  • Career Highlights
    1. The Secret of Monkey Island
    2. Day of the Tentacle
    3. Grim Fandango
    4. Psychonauts

    9. Ken Levine
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    Ken Levine speaks to the nerd in all of us.
    Ken Levine: PAX 08 Keynote Part 1

    Ken Levine: PAX 08 Keynote Part 2

    Ken Levine: PAX 08 Keynote Part 3

    Here is a really good write up of Levine’s 2008 GDC talk.
    Empowering Players to Care About Your Stupid Story

    What we realized at some point doing the narrator is not a cutscene, it’s not live digital characters, it’s not lip-synching… it’s the world. What is the thing we render best in video games? The world, all the benefits of graphics… this incredibly detailed world. What is your player honestly engaged in most of the time? Think about most games — the warehouses, the sewers, the office buildings… think about the missed opportunities there, in the primary experience, to give the player narrative.

    Career Highlights
    1. Thief: The Dark Project
    2. System Shock 2
    3. BioShock

    8. Yu Suzuki
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    Suzuki was the Miyamoto of Sega. The first fighting game in 3D was no clumsy effort like you would expect from developers trying to cope with an extra dimension, it was polished, complex and beautiful. Yu Suzuki is the man to thank for the Virtual Fighter series.

    The man had the clout and vision to really swing for the fences. Shenmue cost an astounding 70 million USD to make and is the second most expensive game ever created (only recently surpassed by GTAIV’s 100 million USD). Shenmue was a martial-art action RPG game that Suzuki dubbed “FREE” (Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment). It featured “Free Questing” the ability to explore the city of Yokosuka speaking with the populace to obtain clues and further the narrative or the player can simply roam around the city and not advance the narrative and engage in a number of mini-game-like activities. These included Space Harrier, Hang On, darts and snooker. You could also complete a number of side quests and take on jobs to earn money. The game also featured a fully-fleshed out “Free Battle” system. This was a game similar to the side-scrolling Golden Axe only with the complex move set brought over from Virtual Fighter. Not only that the player could learn additional new moves as the game progressed.

    Shenmue was the most visually stunning game at its time of release and featured a full day/night cycle with dynamically changing weather. The Passport feature took advantage of the Dreamcast’s internet connection and allowed players to upload their high scores in the variety of mini-games to online leaderboards.

    Plus, goddamn I loved my Dreamcast.

    Career Highlights
    1. Hang On
    2. Space Harrier
    3. After Burner
    4. Virtual Racing
    5. Virtual Fighter
    6 Shenmue

    7. Hironobu Sakaguchi
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    Hironobu Sakaguchi saved Square Soft. During 1987 Square Soft was close to bankruptcy. The game was titled “Final” Fantasy because if the title failed it would be the end of Square Soft. Needless to say, Final Fantasy was released and Square is still around.

    The first time I played Final Fantasy I thought finally, somebody made the first real D&D game. Final Fantasy VI (III in America) is the only game I can remember that made me really care about 2D sprites.

    Hironobu Sakaguchi’s team up with Akira Toriyama led to Chrono Trigger, which remains one of my favorite RPGs of all time.

    Career Highlights
    1. Final Fantasy – Final Fantasy X-2
    2. Final Fantasy Tactics
    3. Chrono Trigger

    6. Richard “Lord British” Garriot
    Garriot picture
    Richard Garriot is the creator of the Ultima Series and the founder of Origin Systems. He would have a hand in every Ultima game through Ultima Online, which being one of the first graphical MUDs ushered in the new era of MMORPGs.

    Ultima 4 was the first game that had a sense of morality. The player had to obtain various virtues in order to beat the game. While the player could commit any evil act they chose to (murder, theft, boasting, etc…) they were punished through a morality system that would prevent the player from obtaining virtues, which were necessary to beating the game. This concept of good versus evil and morality versus immorality was a new concept in gaming that would heavily influence future games.

    In Ultima 6, did anybody else collect every cannon in the world and stuff them all into one castle like I did? It is a tragedy that Ultima has faded away. If there is one game series I would like to have a revival it would be Ultima.

    At NCSoft, Garriot gave us, City of Heroes, City of Villains before the commercially unsuccessful Tabula Rasa.

    This is a video interview where Garriot describes the innovations in his games better than I can.

    Career Highlights
    1. Ultima 1 – Ultima Online

    Click here to see Part 2 of this list.

    See my other related articles also:
    Become a Video Game Designer: Everything You Need to Know Part 1
    Low Skill Cap and Luck (RNG) in World of Warcraft PVP
    Dead Space Through the Eyes of a Game Designer
    Call of Duty: World at War Through the Eyes of a Game Designer
    Top 5 Greatest Moments in Competitive Gaming (eSports)
    What Video Games Taught Me About Life
    Best Games of All Time by Genre Part 1
    Roger Ebert is Right: Games are Not High Art…Yet
    What’s Bad About Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare Multiplayer Mode?
    8 of the Most Underrated or Overlooked Video Games of All Time
    Pimps at Sea err I mean Age of Booty & Gen 13 Cosplay
    My Student Films 2: EverQuest Documentary and Guilty Gear Isuka Trailer
    Best MMA Fights & Genki Sudo: Real Life Video Game Character

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