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"To be a good game designer, you have to be a good designer first"

Will Wright talks about learning the craft and the state of developer education as he partners with MasterClass for an online video course

"My generation of game designers grew up with no other teachers or books or anything," Will Wright explained to in an interview this week.

"Today there's a wealth of material out there and a pretty broad range of interesting games to learn from as well. Today it's a serious industry. When I started out, it was this strange, eccentric hobby, so designers from my era all had to learn on our own, or from each other, which we did."

Today's developers may have other options, but they'll also be able to learn a bit from Wright, as the designer of classics like SimCity and The Sims has been announced as the latest addition to the Masterclass online education service.

This is the first foray into video games for Masterclass, which features video classes of prominent people teaching their area of expertise (for example, there are courses where Steve Martin teaches comedy or Margaret Atwood teaches creative writing). It will feature Wright delivering 20 lessons, most of them running between 10 and 20 minutes long for a total span of just over four hours. Permanent access to the course will cost a flat fee of $90, although MasterClass also offers an annual subscription covering all of its courses for $180.

"I try to take it almost more like an industrial designer would. Here's a blank slate. Here's a design task. Here are the tools and resources I have available. How do I make the most of it?"

Wright's approach to his course is intended to mirror his own introduction to game development in some ways, when online courses like this and academic programs dedicated to game design simply didn't exist.

"Because there wasn't really a lot of material out there for me, I had to go back to first principles," Wright said. "One of the points I try to make is that to be a good game designer, you have to first be a good designer. And that's really a way of looking at things and thinking of things. So I was forced to become a designer in the way I thought so I could teach myself game design on my own."

That's actually something of a weak spot Wright sees in game academia currently. While there are quite a few programs across the country turning out well-prepared interactive designers--he specified Carnegie Mellon, UC Santa Cruz, and Georgia Tech among them--Wright believes much of the education aspiring game designers receive is overly focused or technical in nature.

"When they talk about game design, they're mostly talking about game engineering or game taxonomy," Wright said. "They don't really take it from a design point of view. So I try to take it almost more like an industrial designer would. Here's a blank slate. Here's a design task. Here are the tools and resources I have available. How do I make the most of it? That's a paradigm I haven't really seen presented in other places."

Interestingly, Wright is more concerned that the question of how to teach and train game developers is one that stops being asked once people are out of school.

"Once somebody gets into a company, [the industry does] maybe not as good a job [of educating]," Wright said. "People get put in a role, and they get stuck in the day-to-day stuff. They don't think so much about how to grow their employees and train them."

As Wright mentioned, these sort of problems didn't exist when he was breaking into the industry because there was barely an industry there to break into. And while the lack of guidance for aspiring game designers of the era could certainly be considered a hurdle, Wright isn't certain he would have benefitted entirely from having more options in front of him.

"The biggest challenge to game design is always going to be the player psychology"

"Nowadays, if I were growing up and wanted to enter games, I'd probably dive right into YouTube, look at a million videos and I'd start downloading lots of games," Wright said. "Right now there's so much out there to learn from. But at the same time, it feels like everything's been done. It's like movies. There are thousands or millions of movies out there and it's almost impossible to think of a plot that hasn't been done somewhere. Still, every creative work is different. I think I'd probably spend almost too much time studying right now because there's too much material."

While some of MasterClass' offerings are more inspirational than practical (Chris Hadfield teaches Space Exploration springs to mind), Wright thinks his course strikes a balance, providing a good foundation novices can still grasp but "hitting a sweet spot" for designers who have a few titles to their name already.

"They're at the point where they can understand the technical aspects to some degree, but I think the biggest challenge to game design is always going to be the player psychology," Wright said. "The machines are going to change every year. Those fields are very specialized and they evolve very quickly, but the psychology of our players is always going to be the same. And that to me, especially nowadays, is the trickiest part of the whole design process."

Wright estimates about a quarter of his class focuses on psychology and would be applicable beyond the field of games.

"I wanted to focus on the stuff game designers or aspiring game designers were least likely to find in other places," Wright said. "There are plenty of resources for learning how to program, do animation, that kind of stuff. I really wanted to focus on the design process and player psychology, primarily, at a very fundamental level. Why do people enjoy games? What hooks them? What's going on in our heads when that happens? And as a designer, how do you navigate this huge tree of possible design you might create?

"I get excited and fascinated about that stuff," he said, "understanding the ways our brains work and why we enjoy certain things, what things make us want to socially share them or get creatively involved. If anything, I try to inspire designers to take psychology seriously. But as a designer, you have a task. And it's a pretty formidable task. What are ways you can think about and approach this process to efficiently come up with something cool and creative?"

He added, "I think game design is possibly one of the most challenging design fields out there because it encompasses almost anything, from architecture to fine art to programming, storytelling, etc. All these things are part of game design. So the first thing is, how do you teach somebody to be a great designer first, because they're about to enter one of the most challenging design fields there is? To me, this is the fundamental way to teach game design."

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Brendan Sinclair avatar
Brendan Sinclair: Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot.
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