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Total War: Three Kingdoms is releasing on May 23rd

Creative Assembly’s creative director Mike Simpson: ‘Designing a game is like designing a bridge’

Every month, the team at Creative Assembly helps us debunk some common development role myths. This month, Mike Simpson, creative director of Total War, explains how game design isn’t just something anyone can do.

Designing a game is like designing a bridge. A great design combines beautiful form with robust function. Anyone who has seen a bridge can draw a picture and call it a design. It may even look good, but if you gave it to a construction worker and told them to build it, they would laugh at your childish efforts.

Triple-A game design isn’t something anyone can have a go at and succeed. If it wasn’t infuriatingly difficult, bad games wouldn’t exist.

Mike Simpson, creative director of Total War

A game design must have both substance and style. Without style no-one will play it, but without substance there is no game. Making a game with charm and style is an art, but making it function perfectly is a science, and great designers combine artistic and scientific skills in equal measure.

This allows them to get their designs right first time more often, so the whole team needs fewer iterations.

Our universities produce thousands of graduate designers every year, a high proportion with first class degrees, but very rarely do they have both aesthetic and engineering skill sets, and even more rarely do they enter the course with the inquisitive passion for dissecting designs that will help them become great designers.

So we generally recruit from any degree subject, looking for talent and an obsessive interest in games rather than specific skills. We build up our designers’ skills, so they get their designs right first time more often and don’t waste team time on unnecessary iteration. 

Everyone has an opinion on design as we all know what we personally like or dislike about a game. In addition, we have the expertise of our marketing and community teams in predicting player reactions to issues and highlighting trends.

Generally, feedback should be treated as equal regardless of where it comes from – it’s whether it’s true that matters, not who said it. That’s an ethos which we hold at Creative Assembly; everyone’s opinion is valued and heard.

But deciding how to act on that feedback using metrics and a deep understanding of what is happening under the hood, including cost and sequence of change, should be left to those with the strongest design skills in that area.

That may be a programmer or artist, but most often it will be a designer-led collaboration across the disciplines. Without the full skillset and a deep understanding of the context, you’ll end up treating the symptoms rather than the cause, and the problem is just masked or moved.

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