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 Jonathan Zungre interviews Tracy Fullerton, an experimental game designer, professor and director of the Game Innovation Lab at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and author of “Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games,” a design textbook in use at game programs worldwide.

Jonathan Zungre: What do you find motivates your students at USC to take risks and innovate? Is there something you always tell them?

Tracy Fullerton: I try to get my students to find inspiration in activities and themes that mean something to them personally, that feel like interesting and evocative areas for play. I don’t like to prescribe where students should get ideas from, but I do like to poke at them, test them, and make sure they are really getting the most out of their inspirations. For example, I’ve had students make games based on a short story, or on a single line of poetry. I’ve had them come in inspired by an economic theory; by the physics of a magnet; or by the sound a Lego makes when it clicks into place. A lot of students are interested in relationships these days and using games to work through ideas around relationships. All of these are great areas of inquiry, and the key is really to find something about a particular area of inspiration that is playful or open to being made playful. Sometimes a student will start with an area of inspiration that actually winds up leading them into a completely unexpected mechanic. Serendipity is a great design strategy, and letting yourself recognize that you’ve found something great even though you weren’t looking for it is a perfectly valid response in a design process.

JZ: As a game designer working in a group, what’s the most telling sign that you’re getting off track and that things are starting to fall apart? What’s the biggest problem new game designers run into?

TF: When nobody shows up to work. All the work we do here is basically voluntary – everyone is working on each other’s projects all the time. So if your crew doesn’t show up, there is likely to be a reason for that. I remember when the Spectre crew was working a few years ago, they actually had to prune the volunteer team down because so many people were just showing up to work that they got out of control. At some point they did a team cut and kept the most dedicated workers. So that’s the other end of the spectrum. When a team isn’t into the project, or if the personalities aren’t working, that’s when you see crew coming in late or not delivering at all.

In terms of problems that new game designers run into, I’d say protecting the idea. Not letting the idea grow and morph and change with the process. Rarely do you conceive of an idea in its perfect, final format, so you really need to be open to letting it live and become what it needs to become to be a great experience. New designers are often anxious about losing control, or authorship, of the idea. They don’t realize that this is the only way the idea is going to develop.

[EXPAND Click here to read the full interview.]

 JZ: When you look back to guiding the teams that created Cloud and Flow, what design decisions or practices did they employ that you found especially successful?

TF: We did a lot of concept scoping early on during the development of Cloud. The original idea was pretty huge – it was great, but it was huge. I worked with the team to cut the idea down to its essentials so that we could get a deeply polished “slice” of the experience up and running. We had a couple of simultaneous prototyping efforts – one for the cloud simulation, one for the core mechanic, and one for the “feel” of the camera. It was really working through all of these key problem areas that led to the final design. One thing that was particularly successful for this team was having the composer as part of the design team from day one – Vincent Diamante’s music set a tone that all the other elements really strove to align with. Also, Jenova’s concept art, which again set the bar for the emotional experience we were striving for. The team had a lot of ups and downs; especially when more conventional playtesters asked for cloud enemies and fighting mechanics. But we had a very strong sense of what we wanted and that drove the process past the rocky points.

JZ: Out of all the techniques you discussed in your chapter on brainstorming in Game Design Workshop, which do you find to be most fruitful and which is your favorite?

TF: That’s a great question – the most important message in the chapter is not a technique, though, it is just the premise that if you want to design games you should do so. There is absolutely nothing stopping you from designing a game today, right now, using the objects you have on your desk or in your pocket. I run into a lot students who are waiting for permission to design a game and my answer to them is, don’t wait for me to assign you a challenge, challenge yourself right now. That’s the overarching theme that I try to communicate through all the exercises in the book.

In terms of the techniques, I would have to say that the one that has made the biggest difference in my experience as a designer is keeping a journal of play experiences. When you are playing a game, you often have these amazing epiphanies about how the game is operating on you, on your imagination, on your intellect, and you mean to remember them. But then you get sucked in and those inklings of ideas and understanding fade away as your understanding of the entire experience grows. I like to write those down as soon as I can. Just the act of writing them and articulating them to some future version of myself helps me to add those ideas to my repertoire of design ideas. And to be clear, it’s not the solutions as they were implemented that I’m interested in, it is the way they worked on me as a player. What they made me think and do and suppose and feel. These are valuable pieces of research that I can’t get by watching others play games, but only through listening intently to my own responses to play.

JZ: As a new game designer, I find that I’m copying existing games or genres, and changing something small. Is this bad? What’s the best way to discover or create new types of games? 

TF: It’s not bad; it just isn’t that interesting. I think I answered this question already above, but I’ll just add that the richer your life is, the more varied your inspirations, the better I think your games will be. If you’re copying other games, is it because all you’re filling your mind with is games? Go see a play, listen to music, make a sculpture, whatever. Think about other things and do things that fill your imagination with something other than typical game mechanics. And, as I’ve described above, write a journal about your experience with those things. How do they work? What makes them compelling? Is there something about them that inspires you to make an interesting mechanic?

JZ: How valuable are programming skills as a digital game designer? 

TF: On the one hand, I think they are extremely valuable. I think if you can code, you can get your ideas up and on their feet much faster and on your own. Being able to prototype your ideas on your own is a great asset to a digital game designer. On the other hand, you don’t have to be a great programmer to be a great game designer. In fact, sometimes being too close the machine and being influenced by how it thinks about the game can detract from the creative process of putting yourself in the mindset of the player. You need to keep that perspective clear, and you need to remain human facing even as you are implementing your game digitally. Because ultimately, unless you’re making a game for computers to play, most of the time your concern should be with the player experience of the game, and to do that, you do need to be able to maintain the kind of perspective that I find is easily lost when you’re too focused on the code.

But the truth is, you’re likely going to have a team that helps you bring the game to its full vision, so being a master coder isn’t the objective. There are different kinds of designers, just as there are different kinds of games. Some designers are going to be really focused on the system, so much so that they run the risk of losing sight of the players. Other designers are going to be focused on the overall experience, and they might lose touch with the specifics of the system. It’s important to know your role on a project and keep your focus on that specific responsibility.

JZ: Do you believe that the formal elements should always come before the dramatic elements in a game design process? How important are dramatic elements in games?

TF: No, not at all. Some games are inspired by great mechanics and others by a dramatic moment that you then build mechanics to reach. There is a great quote that I show my students from Reiner Knizia: “I don’t have a fixed design process.  Quite the contrary, I believe that starting from the same beginning will frequently lead to the same end.  Finding new ways of working often leads to innovative designs.” This statement rings very true to my experience of design. Each project comes from its own inspiration, and has its own process towards a solution. There is no one way to design games, only techniques that you can use to get yourself started and to get the project into its own special progress cycle. All designers know when they get into that good cycle, where decisions are layering on each other in useful ways and the design takes on a kind of life of its own.

JZ: Do you have any inspiring quotes hanging on the wall of your office?  If you did, what would they be?

TF: On the wall of my office I have a drawing that Bill Viola made for me while we were working on The Night Journey game. It is of a world, half light and half dark, just forming. The quote is from St. John of the Cross: “Human science is not capable of understanding it, nor experience of describing it. Only the one who has passed through it will know what it means though there will be no words for it.”

Tracy Fullerton 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 Tracy and a collection of the best game designers in the field.