Interview with IG Lead Designer Ed Orman!

I was lucky enough to get Lead Designer Ed Orman to take time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions about his job. Ed works out of Irrational's Australia office and played a key role in Tribes and Freedom Force. He offers some great insights into the life of a game designer and reveals some unresolved issues involving yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum.

First of all, I assume you are a gamer? What is your favorite game? When did you start gaming? Did your parents let you play games and if not were you horribly traumatized? Do you spend a lot of time gaming now even though it is now kind of work related?

Ed: Arg, what a question to start with: I like a lot of games in lots of different genres and eras. Given the amount of time I spent playing it, my most recent favorite would be Prince of Persia: Sands of Time.

The earliest videogame I can remember playing is some iteration of home-video pong or other, which must have been around '78. I also got a dual-screen Game and Watch version of "Donkey Kong" for my 8th birthday (I think), which was the first game I over-played to the point where it turned up in my dreams. Plus my dad worked for IBM, so we were one of the first people in our area to get a PC and I still remember booting up "Adventure" off a very large floppy disk.

I currently spend 10-16 hours a week playing computer and console games. The larger proportion of that is for research - playing a game to pull it apart is always fascinating but tends to suck the fun out of it. Recently I've been trying to spend even more time playing other types of games such as board and card games.

How does one get into game design as a career? What made you decide that this was the right path for you?

Ed: My path was a little weird - the short version is I got a job doing illustration for a games company. Because of my background in running paper-based role-playing games (and because there was no-one else at the time to do the job), I was given the opportunity to try my hand at design.

Game design is a chance to create little worlds for people to mess around with. That's essentially what I was doing with role-playing and illustration, but games are far more direct and rewarding (for my money, anyway) so I stuck with it.

What kind of educational/work background is desirable and/or helpful for the job? Is a degree necessary? What skills are useful for the position? How did your previous experience prepare you for the job?

Ed: One of my previous jobs was in advertising and entertainment. While it wasn't directly related, it did get me used to the concepts of dedication, long hours and hard work. It also put me in positions where I had to deal with people on a daily basis, be it clients or my colleagues or my boss. Being able to talk with all those people was challenging, but it's an invaluable skill to develop if you're going to be a designer, where communication is most of what you do. I'm still working on being a better communicator.

I don't exactly know what kind of degree would be most useful, although I understand that there are places in the U.S. that offer formal game design training now. Regardless, if I was hiring another designer I'd expect them to:

  • be able to work within a team
  • have good analytical skills, and be practiced at pulling apart other games to see what makes them tick
  • have the ability to clearly document and communicate ideas
  • have a real passion for games.

It helps to have at least some understanding of the other disciplines involved in game production, as well.

What is the overarching role of the designer in game development?

Ed: To force an analogy, a designer is like a map-maker and a navigator and that guy that yells all the orders all rolled into one. And a bit like a pirate.

When I first started, I thought it was my job to come up with all the ideas. It's not - every member of a team has ideas, and lots of them are good. The Lead Designer's job is to establish what the overall philosophy of the game is, and to vet all those ideas (including their own) against that established philosophy as development progresses. Then you have to communicate to everybody why an idea does or doesn't fit, which tends to be the hardest part.

Ok, so not much like a pirate.

What do you on a daily basis? Describe a typical day.

Ed: That differs depending on where we are in the life cycle of a project. Broadly speaking:

At the beginning of a project, I tend to have a BUTT-LOAD of meetings which are the first pass at establishing that philosophy I mentioned before. These involve the publisher, the team members, pretty much anyone who has an interest in the game, and invariably result in a document of some kind. There's also a lot of analysis of similar games at this point, seeing what established expectations are and what ideas do or don't work. Typically, all the crazy ideas get put on the table at this point, and over the course of a few months we whittle them down to the ones we think make the best fit.

In the middle of a project, most of the core detail of the design has been established, so it's a matter of keeping that communication going, updating people on anything that's changed and making sure that what's being created fits the game. There can also be some hands-on work, as in Tribes: Vengeance where I built levels as well as managed a team of designers.

At the end of a project, all the systems should are implemented in some form, so there's more hands-on time in playing the game and fiddling with the balance. There are cool moments in earlier stages (for example, when you see a brand new idea working for the first time), but this phase tends to be the most satisfying to me because the game has matured enough that you can make all your tweaks with a full understanding of how it will affect everything else.

Throughout this whole process, there's a liberal amount of communication between disciplines to make sure the direction is clear, there's communication with the publisher, and there's communication with the community (if one exists) and the press. That last one tends to be the most difficult since in most cases you're using email or forums which are not the best communication tools in the world.

(And if we're between projects, my typical day involves drinking coffee, writing pitch documents for the next project, and sussing out the competition by playing lots of game demos)

Can you talk about how you and your team interface with the artists and programmers to get a game done? When does the design team come into the planning process of a game and how do you as lead designer run the process, figure out what to delegate where, etc.?

Ed: Design is involved in planning from the very beginning, and in my experience tends to be the driving force. But that's not to say it all flows in one direction - any project has production, technical and artistic constraints that extend beyond the basic design of the game. So all of that tends to come together right at the start - if I'm writing a pitch document, I'm doing so having already been informed what my practical boundaries are.

Beyond that, there are regular meetings between the leads of each team to discuss whatever is being created for the current milestone. Plus I do my best to just visit each department and talk to another lead when I have a problem I want to thrash out (as do they when I haven't explained a particular feature of the design clearly enough).

Delegation is a tricky one. We had an unusual team structure on Tribes: Vengeance (for me at least) where the Single and Multi player design responsibilities were split between two people. In the future, as our teams grow larger, I expect that level of delegation to go even more fine-grain, with one designer being in charge of a specific system. I think that will be a pretty challenging exercise.

Are certain types of projects more or less desirable from a design standpoint?

Ed: Absolutely. There's a certain amount of professional interest in analyzing and designing any type of game (believe me, in this job I've played far more games that I didn't like than those I did), but just as with other forms of media, I have my preferences.

Specifically, I enjoy working on more open-ended games, where the player is given lots of choice in how they want to play. I'm pretty lucky that Irrational puts a lot of emphasis on that kind of design.

How does the IG development process differ from your previous experiences?

Ed: I've been working at Irrational for nearly four years. The development process is quite different to my last job, as it is far more clearly structured and the people I'm working with are more experienced. We also commit a lot of time to refining our processes as we learn something new with each game.

As a company Irrational is very focused. The founders have a stated direction for the types of games they want to make, and they've stuck to that with every product they've created. That's a really valuable attribute from my point of view because there's always something against which you can measure your ideas.

What do you find most satisfying/enjoyable about your job?

Ed: There are two answers to this one. The "nice" answer is watching somebody play your game for the first time, maybe in a focus test, and seeing them totally grok what some concept is about. It might be something as simple as understanding how a particular movement system is supposed to work. That's pretty cool.

But the real answer is meeting someone who has played one of your games and who tells you that it took over their lives. I dig that.

What do you find most challenging?

Ed: Keeping everybody informed and paying attention to what everybody else has to say, too. Everybody has to be a communicator in this business - Design, Programming, Art, Production - so you have to dedicate a lot of mental bandwidth to what's going on at all times.

What has been your favorite game to work on and why?

Ed: Probably Freedom Force. Although I only got to work on it for the last 6 months or so, I was lucky enough to score the task of writing all the funky text descriptions for the objects in game. I'm a comic collector and I have some of the classic stuff on my shelves, so that was a lot of fun.

--- Meredith Levine