Bruce Shelley answers 10 Questions from the Academy

Introducing 10 Questions from the Academy: A weekly feature from the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences wherein significant figures in the video game industry provide their input on past trends, current events, and future challenges and goals for the entertainment software community.
Bruce Shelley is a member of the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences, where he was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award. He has helped design classics like Sid Meier's Civilization, Railroad Tycoon, and Age of Empires. He mostly recently waved goodbye to Ensemble Studios, where he remained a key figure until Microsoft closed the developer earlier this year.

AIAS: How do you measure success?
Bruce Shelley: Do people tell you that they liked the games you worked on and do they sell well enough that you can make a living at it? For most of the last 30 years that has been true for me.

What's your favorite part of game development?

When a game is just getting started anything is possible. The brainstorming is fun. At some point we have to become more practical and start building something that is not only fun but technically doable and commercially viable. Then the process becomes more like work. But early on we are truly thinking up ideas with little constraint and that is exciting.

What game are you most jealous of?
The board game would probably be Settlers of Cataan, which took a relatively simple game mechanic and turned into great board game brand. It will be played and remembered for a long time. The computer game would probably be World of Warcraft, which may be the greatest computer game of all time. Just a fantastic execution and still evolving.

In the game industry, what's your super power or special ability?
Seeing the glass as half full. We constantly work with incomplete games and it can be difficult for many to get past what is not there or not working correctly and focus on what is there and how it is working. I think getting started in board games helps me with that as we were always fiddling with board games.

What's the one problem of game development you wish you could instantly solve?
A commitment to testing games for game play throughout development, not just near the end. I believe in too many cases games are seen as engineering problems to be worked through like a checklist. I believe they are much more like art that should shaped by the process of real playing. I believe the best studios do that.

Tell us one of your recent professional insights.

For years I have been asked about what all the new technology means for game development. I didn't have a good answer because I felt that good games were not technology dependent. There were great games when we had two or four colors to work with; there are great board games. I now think that technology allows games to reach more people because a lot less imagination is required. In the early days players had to fill in a lot of blanks or overlook very simplistic graphics. Now we have film quality animation that makes the experience much more literal.

Are games important?
Yes, I believe we all can benefit from leisure activities that get us emotionally involved and thinking. The advantage of games over other entertainment media is interactivity. The player drives the story and is the hero. That can be very compelling. At the same time a good game can educate as well as entertain, and help expand your social circle.

Do you think it's important for developers to continue playing games?
Absolutely. The single greatest resource a game developer has is all the games already in existence. From existing games you can learn quite a bit, including where the bar is set that you have to exceed. Beyond that a developer should be relying on his or her instincts as a gamer to understand when a game is working or not. If they don't have good instincts, based on a lot of playing, that can be a problem. If you don't want to play than maybe this isn't the right industry for you.

What's the biggest challenge you see facing the industry?
The business model seems broken. Too many mediocre games that don't sell and too many tired brands. It looks like a red ocean rather than a blue ocean. Independent developers are really struggling but publishers are also. I see signs of change with downloadable games, micro-transaction based games, browser games, mobile phone games, and other things, and I believe there will be some really interesting innovations coming that will change how we get games, play games, make games, and interact with each other.

Finally, when you look at the future is there one great big trend that affects everyone?
I would have to say that migration of gaming to broadband/multiplayer/microtransaction and away from retail boxed games that you install and play alone.


10 Questions from the Academy is reprinted with permission from the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences and appears on Joystiq every week. Read the archives here.

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