Interview with Stone Librande, Lead Designer at Maxis

I recently spoke with Stone Librande, who has worked as a designer on games including “Spore” and “Diablo III”.  Stone also leads an annual design workshop at the Game Developers’ Conference and teaches a college course in game design.  We discussed game design process, including a method of paper prototyping that UX designers will find both familiar in concept and new in execution.

Q: Tell me a bit about your background.

A: Before I went into gaming I was actually doing a lot of work in user interface design.  I commercialized a technology that parameterized artwork and allowed users to quickly sift through thousands of drawings just by pulling sliders mapped to different characteristics.  We found a lot of video game applications for it.  Then I took a job managing a Web design team at a company called MPlayer, which was a social gaming network that was a little bit ahead of its time.  But looking all the way back to my childhood, game design was always something I was interested in.  Eventually I worked my way into Blizzard and from there on to Maxis to work on Spore.

Q: How was Spore’s game experience created?

A: Well there were really two pieces to that.  First, there was a high-level description from Will Wright.  In one case, we were asked to make a game about cells swimming in a drop of water.  Then there’s the bottom-up design of the game mechanics.  An important consideration in the cell game was creating the right balance of risk and reward.  In any game you don’t want it to either be too hard (which would become frustrating) or too easy (which would make the game boring).  But everyone’s different and we wanted Spore to have broad appeal to both casual players and hardcore gamers.  The question is: How do you make an experience to fit many different tastes?

One way we approached that was by giving players opportunities to outfit their cell creatures with different pieces as they evolve.  Novice players can finish the whole cell experience with just the basic creature design.  You can get by while taking very modest risks, but you also won’t reap great rewards from it.  But for hardcore players, there’s an opportunity to really dig into the game by experimenting with the effects of different pieces.  They’re invited to take a lot more risks, and they put themselves in more danger of failing.  Since the traits they pick up in the cell game effect the later stages, those players who take on a greater challenge can also put themselves at an advantage and realize a greater reward.

Q: How do you guide players’ behavior in games?

A: A lot of those ideas you learned in Psych 101 like reinforcement schedules are fundamental to game design.  People are subject to the same behavioral influences as pigeons and rats.  You can influence the players’ behavior by attaching a meaningful reward to the actions you want them to take.  For example, say you’re designing a card game and you want players to try to collect three 3’s.  You could force them to do that by making it the winning condition — there’s your reward.  Or you can make people pursue that same goal less aggressively by saying that three 3’s are worth 3 points, while all other collections of cards are worth one point.

The most powerful reward you can give a player is a social reward.  Intrinsic rewards are nice, but adding in a social component exploits people’s basic competitive nature.  If someone else has something that you don’t have, you’ll work really hard to obtain it.  There’s also a element of inclusion, of being part of an in-group that’s tied together by the game experience. 
 
Q: You gave a presentation at last year’s Game Developers’ Conference about paper prototyping.  Tell me about how your method works.

A: First of all, the paper prototype is not a representation of the actual game, and it’s not intended to be.  That’s not the purpose.  Instead, the point is to ask and answer one simple question about the game you’re working on.  Second, it should be something that you can experiment with and iterate very quickly. 

Game board with pieces

This is the prototype game used to design one aspect of Spore's cell game. Click to view full size.

So for Spore’s cell game, a key design question was figuring out the various creature parts that would be available to the player, and how they balance against one another.  So I put together a board game version on paper.  I wrote up a large list of parts and their abilities, going big at first so we could test a lot of scenarios and then scale it back.  Players would assemble a unique cell creature using different combinations of eyes, mouths, graspers and tails. The cell pieces have different game abilities. For instance, tails allow the cell to move forward and rotate. During the game, each cell would either attempt to eat the most green food tokens (herbivore victory) or to attack and kill the opposing cell (carnivore victory).

Chart of creatures

Output from the prototype, used in designing the actual game.

We ended up with 12 parts that were given away over the course of the cell game’s five stages.  We also defined the other creatures you’d encounter in each of those stages, ranging from harmless to more difficult as the player progressed through the game.  That output was what made it into the final game.

Q: Why do this on paper, when you could model thousands of different scenarios in one go using a computer?

A: I run a workshop teaching this technique at the Game Developer’s Conference, and computers aren’t even allowed into the session.  Building  prototypes with paper fosters team interaction.  As people work on it, they’ll start role-playing and getting into the characters of the game.  They also develop a shared vocabulary for discussing elements of the game.  If you did it with computers, everyone would just be working on their own and you wouldn’t get that kind of interaction.

Q: What works best prototyped on paper?

A: You can’t represent the full gameplay experience, that’s just not practical.  A video game like Spore has a lot of physics and math, and that just can’t be done on paper.  Input controllers like mice or keyboards are also really difficult to simulate.  Anything that’s too complex would just be misery to test.  Similarly, if a user interface designer were prototyping the front end for a database, you could show what the form elements and buttons look like but you couldn’t simulate the return of actual data.  That’s just too complicated to do.

That said, when you really abstract a design problem there’s a lot that you can pull into a non-electronic prototype.  In my workshop, I do an exercise where I have people build prototypes of existing video games.  A few years ago one team decided to try doing Rock Band, and I was really skeptical that it would work.  Surprisingly, they came up with a game that captured Rock Band’s core mechanics.  There were five players, one of whom had a shuffled deck of colored index cards.  He would throw out the cards in sequence, and all of the other players had to dig through their own cards and throw down matching colors.  When you matched the pattern, the moderator would give you coins.  If you missed, he would take coins away.  Players could support one another by throwing coins to band members who were missing their beats.  Even though there was no music and there were no plastic instruments, the game really captured the Rock Band feel.

This is a really amazing method.  Thanks so much for taking the time to talk, Stone.

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