What inspired you to become a game designer?
I had wanted to be a writer since the age of about six. I grew up as a voracious reader, and started writing stories almost as soon as I could form the letters. I got into D&D and other tabletop roleplaying games as a student in the late 70s and early 80s, and loved the creative side of the hobby – designing dungeons and writing adventures. I even made a couple of false starts on a fantasy novel. White Dwarf was in the process of going from bimonthly to monthly, and put out an appeal for new writers. I started sending articles, and to my amazement, they printed some of them. After four years as a regular contributor to White Dwarf and other British games magazines, I was approached to join Games Workshop and help develop Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay.
How does one break into the industry as a game designer?
At the time, I was able to break in because I knew the games, I had some good ideas and wrote them up reasonably well, and I persisted. It took two years of sending two articles a month before my first piece was published. These days, anyone can get into RPG publishing, either with a blog or with a whole product line published electronically. The internet has lowered the barrier to entry considerably, reducing production costs to almost nothing and making global distribution ridiculously easy. Of course, there’s the matter of letting people know you’re there. The market now has more publishers than at an previous time (according to my unscientific estimate), and the overall hobby continues to shrink as players move to electronic games – and while the internet is great for distribution, marketing is a real challenge. If people don’t know to search for your product, they are not going to find it online.
Video games are a different matter. I had been writing for tabletop games for almost ten years before landing my first videgame contract, and that was a referral. Almost every job and contract I’ve had in that industry has been through a recommendation by someone I have worked with in the past. Breaking into the videogame industry today must be fantastically tough. There are just so many kids who are desperate to work in games, and have worked so hard to get the requisite skills, that the industry is oversupplied at the moment. Employers can afford to be very choosy about whom they hire, and they can pay almost nothing for entry-level positions. If I had to give anyone advice, it would consist of three words: skills, portfolio, contacts.
What was the most memorable game you’ve worked on?
It would have to be Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, because it was my first professional gig and it started me on the path of IP creation and development which is my favorite part of the job. When I got to Games Workshop, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay consisted of three piles of notes (some hand-written) by the company’s three main wargame designers. The Warhammer IP itself consisted of bits of text scattered across rulebooks, magazines, miniatures ads, and elsewhere. I had to pull all that together, and I take some pride in the fact that my work organizing the setting and filling in the blanks has underpinned everything Warhammer ever since, from tabletop to video games to novels and comics.
What was the most difficult game you’ve worked on?
Microsoft’s “Beyond the Limit: Ultimate Climb.” It would be unprofessional to go into details, but I will say there were some serious (indeed, near-fatal) confidence and personality inssues between the development team at Magnet Interactive Studios, where I worked, and the supervisory team at Microsoft. The relationship turned adversarial, which is almost certain death to the development process.
What keeps you inspired?
Lots of things. I read constantly and watch a lot of TV, paying attention to characters and dialogue and the building of plots and story arcs. I also read a lot of nonfiction, especially books about the ill-lit corners of history. Anyone who doesn’t believe truth is stranger than fiction needs to read more history. Sometimes an idea will be sparked by reading or hearing something and twisting it around into a different setting or context. I also make it my business to become thoroughly familiar the IP behind any game I’m working on, and that process sparks questions or suggests stories almost constantly.
What are some creative ways you’ve learned to generate ideas?
I don’t really have any creativity tricks, although I have been known to pound my head repeatedly against my keyboard. All my ideas come from asking “what if?” (Harry Potter’s great-grandfather had served in World War II, magic is fueled by belief, the Cold War had turned hot in the 80s) and by stealing bits of well-known stories, mixing them up, and putting them back together the wrong way.
What keeps players playing?
They must have a powerful desire – even a need – to know what happens next. With any kind of narrative, that’s what drives anything. With fiction, you just have to keep reading, but with games you have take the role of protagonist and overcome the obstacles for yourself. That balance of challenge and reward is crucial to good game design.
Where do you see the game industry in twenty years?
I think we’ll see a lot more augmented reality games. The form has got off to a shaky start, and it’s still defining itself, but I once people figure out what to do with it, there will be no stopping it. MMO games will either have fizzled out completely or will have figured out how to handle story a lot better than they do today. There will also be a lot more crossover – twenty years from now I expect to see interactive TV miniseries delivered to mobile devices and offering each viewer/player a unique experience.
What’s your favorite game?
For tabletop games, Cthulhu by Gaslight. I grew up on a diet of Hammer Horror films, and the combination of Victorian horror and the Cthulhu Mythos is hard to resist.
For video games, Medieval: Total War, the original. I played a lot of medieval strategy boardgames in the 80s, and a turn took forever to complete. I remember thinking at the time, “if only we could have a computer to take care of all this.” Now, we do.
What is a saying or proverb you live by?
“The Emperor is completely naked!” Anderson’s tale of The Emperor’s New Clothes is a fable for the ages, and the amount of technological hype and snake oil out there makes it more relevant than it’s ever been.
Any advice for aspiring game designers?
Play games. Everything you can get your hands on. Play them to destruction, and keep on until you can pick up a game you’ve never seen before and see the wheels going around beneath the skin. Think about what would make them better – not just new units or whatever, but new mechanisms, tweaked gameplay, and so on. Think about why you like or dislike certain aspects of a game, and how you would make it even better. Make games – start with dice, cardboard, and markers, simple mechanics – and keep the best as portfolio pieces. Beta test video games, make contacts in the industry, and blow them away with your ideas and observations. Skills, portfolio, contacts.
Where can readers find out more about your games?
My LinkedIn profile (http://www.linkedin.com/in/graemedavis) has links to a portfolio of cover shots and a list of videogame credits. I also have a blog at http://graemedavis.wordpress.com/ which I update occasionally, but probably not as regularly as I should.
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