Arts, Culture & Entertainment

Game designer and USC professor unlocks the secrets to a good game

Richard Lemarchand from the USC Games program shares what goes in to producing a video game, even when you are brand new to creating one.

Headshot of Richard Lemarchand and cover of his book "A Playful Production Process: For Game Designers (And Everyone)"

For decades, Richard Lemarchand has been deeply involved in the process of making games. At Santa Monica-based studio Naughty Dog, Lemarchand helped develop two “Jak & Daxter” games and served as the Lead Game Designer on the first three “Uncharted” games. Since 2012 though, Lemarchand’s been at USC, teaching game design to students and guiding them through the process of making games. Now, Lemarchand has put pen to paper in order to help layout the process for making games in his new book “A Playful Production Process: For Game Designers (And Everyone)” which was released Oct. 12. Annenberg Media sat down with Lemarchand to discuss some of the big ideas in his book, as well as his reason for writing it.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Annenberg Media: What was your reason for writing this book?

Richard Lemarchand: The book is… it’s really just a collection of best practices from both the game industry and games academia, which I observed down the 30 years or so of my career… [that are] working really well. And what I mean by working well is addressing some of the big problems that game developers face. Chief among those problems is that game developers are often running out of time to complete their projects in good style.

The reason for that, I think, is that video games are a different kind of thing to create than a piece of linear media like writing a novel or making a movie because games are highly systemic and they’re also interactive so there’s a role for the player in the unfolding experience of the game that makes them really complicated.

It takes us a long time to work out exactly how each part of the game should work. And once we’ve worked it out, we then have a load of other problems to solve around it, and that means that it’s very easy for game developers to bite off more than they can chew, to plan to make a game that’s actually rather bigger than a game that they can realistically create in the amount of time they have available to them.

So, I’ve been aware of this problem for a long time. Game developers talk about “Crunch,” which is this period of time – it’s meant to be just at the end of the project, but it can often extend to cover much of the project – when we’re working extra hard, working late into the night, night after night after night, working at the weekends, sometimes working for months on end without even having a single day off.

Now that kind of uncontrolled overwork is really damaging. It damages the mental and the physical health of individuals who, while they may be enjoying the work, are missing out on so much in their lives that helps to refresh them and keep them healthy. It’s also really damaging to organizations to game studios and to publishers because, if the individuals aren’t healthy If the individuals are burning out, then the teams burn out. The teams stop working in a healthy, efficient, functional way.

And I participated in a load of crunches in the course of my career. I’m not proud of it. It was just part of the reality of my working life. And gradually, over the course of my career, I began to see methods and techniques that you could use to bring your project under better control, to understand the scope of the project in a fuller way earlier in the creation of the game and thereby make good plans to avoid running out of time at the end of the project.

Really, this book summarizes the production process that we use in the USC games program, which has had loads of input, not just from me, but from all of my colleagues and from our friends in the industry. It’s intended to help people overcome this terrible problem, while still making excellent games.

AM: You layout a lot of interesting research methods, including shadowing, interviewing and web surfing among others. What has been your favorite research method and how do you like to go about finding ideas for yourself?

RL: My personal favorite research method is definitely image searching. I’m a very kind of visual thinker. So, I love to get on the Internet, search up pictures, organize them in a document or maybe in an Adobe Illustrator file to create montages of images. I think that’s a really good way of expressing the kinds of ideas that you are wanting to present to your teammates. Also, just that kind of image searching with the kind of search capabilities that we have online these days can easily lead you on to interesting new ideas that you might not have thought of before.

AM: Building off of that, what’s one of your favorite things that you found through image searching?

RL: Well, so part of my image searching relates to the treasures in the “Uncharted” games, scattered throughout the “Uncharted” games. You can find these little sparkling Points of Light, if you go up to them, you can collect them and then it reveals the treasure that you just found, with a bit of text about it as well.

I’m a big fan of history, and it was incredibly pleasurable to me, just seeking out cool images of treasures that I could hand to our artists, who would then create beautiful 3D models, textured 3D models of these treasures. I discovered a lot of cool and interesting stuff that way, including some very ancient bronze statues from China with a very particular kind of stylized design.

AM: For an indie developer, or someone just working on their own personal project, who might be the only financial stakeholder, how do they go about the review process?

RL: I think that if one is an independent game developer who’s going to self-publish their game, who doesn’t have any stakeholders, or who isn’t in the games program so doesn’t have a professor who’s the stakeholder to help them review their work, it’s possible for us to draw on our friends… to check in with either a single individual, or a group of individuals, or maybe to throw a little party, to hold a meeting where you display the work that you’ve made and get some feedback from a group of friends.

Game developers, even those who work solo, are often part of communities of like-minded game developers. There’s a number of different game-making collectives here in Los Angeles who meet regularly, work together, maybe even hire coworking space together, and those are great. They’re kind of ready-made communities of review… to help us get outside of the bubble, get outside of our own heads, gain some external perspective on what we’re doing, thereby making it better.

“A Playful Production Process: For Game Designers (And Everyone)” is available for purchase through Barnes & Noble, Amazon and Indigo, among other booksellers.