In preparation for the NYU Game Center’s PRACTICE conference, we are publishing long-form interviews with some of the amazing designers that will be speaking at the event.

The PRACTICE: Game Design in Detail conference runs this weekend, November 9-11 2012.

In this interview, MFA student Zhechuan Zhang interviews Stone Librande, who has worked in the game industry for over 10 years on games such as Diablo 3 and Spore. He is currently the Creative Director at EA/Maxis where he is designing the newest SimCity game and also teaches game design courses at Cogswell College in Sunnyvale, CA.

Zhechuan Zhang: A simulation game of course needs realism or it wouldn’t be a simulation. At the same time it cannot be too realistic — it is a game after all. So how do you balance the elements so that the game is both realistic and entertaining?

Stone Librande: In SimCity we try our best to align the core systems of the game with players’ expectations about how real cities work. For instance, it’s natural to assume that criminals won’t rob police stations and that the citizens of your town won’t like living next door to the sewage treatment plant. There are hundreds (if not thousands) of decisions like this that we have to take into account. But ultimately, the emphasis is clearly on entertainment over realism. Maxis is a game studio and our goal is to make sure the player has fun. After all, if we were going for a realistic city building simulation then most of the game would be about filling out paperwork for permits and meeting with City Council members.

ZZ: I think one of the big gratifications for game designers is knowing players are enjoying our designs immensely. So, when you picture someone playing your game, what sort of reactions do you hope to see most?

SL: If someone is playing my game, then it’s already a win for me. There are so many competing forms of entertainment out there right now that the thought that someone might choose to spend his or her free time playing one of my games is amazing. The bigger win, of course, is getting someone to play that game a second time. I can tell I’m on the right track if the players are deeply engaged in the experience. If they are role playing — pretending to be characters in the game — then I’m sure I have their full attention. However, if the group gets distracted and starts discussing the latest movies or texting when it isn’t their turn then I know I have more design work to do.

[EXPAND Click here to read the full interview.]

ZZ: Some of our projects begin with other people’s idea(s). The cell game prototype of Spore, for instance, came from Will Wright. What did you think of it at first — immediately excited about it or did you have to warm up to it? Sometimes we are asked to work on ideas by others that we aren’t too enthusiastic about initially — what’s your advice in terms of developing passion for them?

SL: When I had the opportunity to work on Spore I jumped at the chance because I was already deeply familiar with the problem space. Several of my game designs revolve around the core mechanic that the player can modify a central piece in the game. This typically involves adding weapons, armor, and engines to robots or spaceships. It turns out that modifying cells and creatures isn’t much different. They still need to attack, defend and move. The trade-offs you make to “evolve” your organism end up defining the experience you’ll have while playing, with the ultimate goal that everyone’s experience will be unique.

It’s hard for me to give advice about how to develop passion for something. You either have it or you don’t. Personally, I have spent so many hours deconstructing game systems that at the lowest level the design challenges seem quite similar, no matter what game I’m working on. Becoming passionate about solving problems at that level means that you’ll have enthusiasm about any game design, whether it is a “Match-3” game on a web site, a AAA first-person shooter on a console, or a game about tossing rocks at a tree in your backyard.

ZZ: In your years of experience of designing, what makes an idea better suited for a board game than a video game? What criteria do you use to choose one over the other?

SL: Math. Computers are great at it and humans aren’t. If the design relies on any sort of math, even something as simple as multiplying or dividing, then I would rather turn over the task to a computer.

ZZ: Speaking of board games, I find manuals don’t always help me understand the rules or the ins and outs of a game. Instead of spending 15 minutes on a manual, I think players are more inclined to just play a couple of rounds with someone who knows. What’s your take on that?

SL: Great games have been verbally passed down over thousands of years, long before the printing press was invented. Have you ever had the need to read an official rule book for freeze tag, darts, or Monopoly? The odds are that someone else taught you how to play those games. That’s because the act of reading a manual has almost zero in common with the act of playing a game. Of course, a rule book is a necessity with a mass-produced, widely distributed board game, so the trick is to make the rule book as easy to read as possible. Large pictures and plenty of examples are a must. But I don’t even bother creating rule books for many of the board games I have made for my friends and family. (That also gives me an out when I decide to change a rule on the fly.)

ZZ: Design is a process, and sometimes it is hard to do it efficiently. Some like to start with game mechanics but there are times when I get bored and maybe even a bit burnt out after putting in so much time and effort into building a solid one. I prefer to start with a point of interest, say a concept that I’m really excited about, and revolve my designs around that. Which is more your style, or is your process different from them all together?

SL: One of my board games, “W.Z.D.: Weapons of Zombie Destruction”, came about only because I loved the title. Every design decision I made in that game had to support the title. Many others are built around cool toys, elaborately painted miniatures, or other unique objects that are great to look at and compelling to touch. I also enjoy working from the bottom up and letting the theme (if any) bubble to the surface as the mechanics solidify. But overall I get the best results by staying flexible and working in both directions. Knowing when to switch modes is key to a holistic design; forcing yourself think in only one direction can be a stifling and unnecessary constraint.

ZZ: Let’s talk career development. As a designer I am quite comfortable with developing games with a small team. I hope to be part of a huge company like EA one day although I must admit the thought is a bit nerve-racking: working with hundreds of people, asking them to have confidence in my ideas and needing them to do several weeks of work just for a tiny adjustment in an idea, etc. You have had vast experience in both types of environment so can you talk about that a little bit?

SL: You can’t walk into a big company and expect to have control of the design process. You have to earn the trust of your teammates slowly and grow your responsibilities over time. In the process of doing this you will naturally gain more self-confidence. Orchestrating a large team is daunting, but there is a deep satisfaction in working on big projects that will seen by millions of people around the world. That’s not to say that I don’t like working on smaller projects. It’s great to work with a small team because it is so much easier to communicate and to share a common vision.

ZZ: The game industry is growing rapidly and shows no signs of slowing down. Sadly plenty of incredible games get buried because there are just so many out there. Some would say marketing > quality, that a game becomes popular not because it is great but rather due to heavy promotion and meticulously built hype. It does seem that these days huge marketing campaigns plays a bigger role in a game’s success. What’s your take on that?

SL: In general, I agree with the idea that you have to market a game if you want people to know it exists. This is true with any product, not just games. But there is no magic marketing formula to insure that a product will be popular, let alone profitable. There are many examples of games that didn’t even generate enough money to cover the marketing costs. Conversely, there are also cases where a game takes off by word of mouth alone (Minecraft springs to mind). It’s great that we live in a time where small personal projects can gain attention simply by being passed along through a social network.

Stone Librande is a speaker at PRACTICE this year. Join us on the weekend of November 9th – 11th for a deep dive into game design theory and practice with Stone and a collection of the best game designers in the field.