I’m going to make one thing clear straight away – Jason was unable to discuss Mass Effect or Dragon Age with me. Therefore, this interview does not contain any information regarding the next Mass Effect title or Dragon Age: Inquisition.
What it does contain is a very detailed look at the processes surrounding video game design and an insightful voice from a talented BioWare Gameplay Designer. The interview focuses on Jason’s work history, moving through the time he spent working at Human Head Studios, Irrational Games and BioWare. He offers his views on past, present and future gameplay developments and shares some genuinely insightful advice to those who may wish to take up a career in the video games industry.
Please be advised that the statements given by Jason Richardson are his own, and do not represent BioWare or any other studio in this interview.
Hi Jason, tell me a little about yourself – how did your career in video games start? Where are you presently at? And what have been the highlights of your career so far?
Since I was a child, I always wanted to create worlds, whether with games or books. I joined an MMO start up out of college, which helped get me into the industry. Since then I’ve worked on nine games, and have shipped three. Highlights have been working with the talented folks at Human Head Studios, working on BioShock Infinite, and now Mass Effect.
Working as a Gameplay Designer, what are the core responsibilities of this position?
Responsibilities range widely from working with other designers to build a cohesive vision of what will make a game fun, to proving those ideas through rapid prototypes, to being a spokesman for those ideas to the team at large, to finalizing and balancing those features as the game reaches finish. Game design requires a mix of creativity, technical ability, and social skills that does not really have a parallel in other industries.
Do you have a preference of a particular style of gameplay which you enjoy working on?
I find fulfillment in enabling players to immerse themselves in a new world. This means creating a depth and breadth of player interactions with the world. It means helping players to fulfill fantasies of who they want to be in the world. It also means making player actions feel realistic and empowering. Put all this together and (for me) you get open world, action RPGs. I have worked in a variety of other genres as well, however, from multiplayer shooters to MMOs.
What are your influences which you draw upon as part of your designing process?
Since I’m making games my number one and very obvious influence is other games. However, since game design is such a creative process, inspiration can come from nearly any source (even dreams–it has happened!) Sometimes I see something in a movie and say, “I want my players to be able to do that.” Or I’ll read about a character in a book and think, “I want players to be able to be that.” Last but not least, some of a game designer’s greatest influences are other team members.
Let’s go back to the good old days when my favourite game of all time was released – Neverwinter Nights. How do you feel RPGs have evolved (for better or worse) from this era to present day?
A BioWare game, good choice. I think Neverwinter Nights is best known for its custom modules and multiplayer. Recent years have seen a tremendous amount of pressure on games of all genres to deliver ever greater visual and cinematic quality, ideals that do not easily meld with player-authored or player-driven content. The less control a player has over the world, the easier it is for game developers to deliver a consistent, quality experience and with modern AAA game budgets ranging from tens to hundreds of millions of dollars, ease of development equates directly to ease of budget. The clear downside of this trend is decreased empowerment of players. There are a number of developers, however, who seem to be interested in resurrecting player-driven content. I am definitely watching them.
Notably you have worked at some of the most well-known video game studios, such as Human Head Studios, Irrational Games and BioWare. Can you highlight how the process of each company differs, or is similar, when developing video games?
Human Head Studios is a relatively small, but highly agile team with a generally flat structure, good tools, and resources. I have found that rapid prototyping was easier there than with any other studio I have worked for. I joined Irrational Games toward the end of BioShock Infinite, and at that point the team felt very hierarchical. I operated within constraints, but there was so much raw talent that the product we delivered as a whole had a high quality bar. Here at BioWare, I have found the team to be very intellectual, with a focus on maintaining quality, but still very open to new designs.
Things have been quiet for a long time regarding Prey 2. Are you able to shed any light on this and the reasons for its delay?
That is a very complicated subject and one that makes me very sad. I enjoyed working on that project, possibly more than any other. IGN ran an article on Prey 2 last year, in June I think, that explains what happened better than I could here.
Certain feedback for Bioshock: Infinite showed that the Handymen were not as well received as the previous titles’ Big Daddies. What were the main design choices and ideas behind the Handymen?
Big Daddies in the original BioShock were ambient creatures with which players could choose how to interact, allowing players to plan attacks, to set up tools and defenses, or to ignore them entirely. Handymen in BioShock: Infinite are more of a traditional boss enemy that require the player to engage them immediately in combat. I was not part of the Irrational team at the point that they made this design choice for the Handyman, but I suspect that it was driven by Infinite’s general change of focus away from environmental interaction and emergent gameplay in favour of more cinematic content.
Since working at BioWare, which games have you worked on?
Only the upcoming Mass Effect title.
Which video games (from any company) would you have liked to been a part of and worked on?
Going back to when dinosaurs roamed the earth, I would have loved to have been a part of the Ultima 7 development team (after my previous statement about open world RPGs, you’ll probably understand why). Other games would have been Ultima Online, Dark Age of Camelot (in its early days), or any of the Elder Scrolls titles.
What ideas and style of game would you like to explore that perhaps haven’t been fully experimented with yet?
Hard to give just one answer to that. I’d like to work on a sandbox game that is more focused on letting players build their own emergent stories than telling a pre-written story. I’d like to work on a game with a more original setting than traditional fantasy/sci-fi/modern. I’d like to create a persistent world game where players can find interesting roles to play other than just combat-oriented ones.
“…where players can find interesting roles to play other than just combat-oriented ones.” What type of roles do you have in mind?
Eve Online is a game that offers interesting in-game careers that don’t necessarily involve combat: being a crafter, an explorer, a merchant, a politician. Of course the game is also quite niche. That’s the sort of thing I’m talking about, though done in a way that might appeal to a broader market.
Is there a game out there which you think just gets everything right (or near enough)?
There are many games that I think got a whole lot right, given their goals, time constraints, budget, etc. Mass Effect 2, The Witcher and Skyrim stand out immediately in my mind. But a game that got everything right? That’s like asking if you’ve met a person that gets everything right.
How do you feel about the integration of social media into video games and the effect it has on gameplay? E.g. Share your score with your friends!
Social media is part of modern life now, and as such is an important platform for connecting players and marketing games. I personally have some mixed feelings about this, however, as if not implemented carefully, it can damage in-game immersion.
What possibilities do you think VR (Virtual Reality) technology holds for future game play development? What would you like to explore with the technology?
I might be the wrong person to ask that, as even the more recent VR headsets still make me violently ill. Because the portion of the player base that is interested in VR is still limited, I think game developers will do well to integrate VR tech in the way that Xbox developers often integrate Kinect gameplay: use it to enhance the existing game, but don’t make it a requirement. I can definitely see VR devices becoming more prevalent in the future as the technology improves.
And finally, what advice would you give to any up-and-coming video game developers who are looking to get into gameplay design?
There is no straightforward path to becoming a gameplay designer. By far the most common route is to start out in a different discipline: as a level designer, scripter, programmer, or maybe a producer. I spent the first twelve years of my career as a programmer, but I asked to be allowed to have design input in every position I held. Most studios are open to this, and I got the majority of my design experience while working as a programmer. Other studios, however, do not like to cross disciplines. An aspiring designer would do well to consider this aspect of a studio’s culture before taking a job.
To keep up to date with Jason, please follow him on Twitter @Jason_Eldred