Gaming Magic in the Making

Website: https://peoplecanfly.com/

Greg sits down with Jamie Smith, the principal game designer at People Can Fly. We explore the world of game design and the magic that goes into creating unforgettable player experiences. In today’s episode, we dive into the concept of the 3Cs – character, control, and camera – and how they form the foundation of game design. We also discuss the importance of marginal innovation, finding those small but impactful improvements that elevate gameplay to the next level. And finally, we uncover the secret sauce of game development, the little touches and decisions that create that special video game magic. Get ready to explore the inner workings of game design and discover what makes games truly captivating.

Transcript

Intro: 00:00: 00:15: Welcome to the Player Engage podcast, where we dive into the biggest challenges, technologies, trends, and best practices for creating unforgettable player experiences. Player Engage is brought to you as a collaboration between Keyword Studios and Helpshift. Here is your host, Greg Posner.
Greg Posner: 00:16: 00:39: Good morning, everybody, and welcome to the player engaged podcast. I’m Greg Posner. And today we are joined by Jamie Smith, the principal game designer at People Can Fly. He’s got a really impressive background working on games such as The Division, Far Cry, Driver. Call of Duty Vanguard. He’s been at Sumo Digital and more. And before I take too much credit and too much of what you can talk about, Jamie, can you do a quick intro of yourself?

Jamie Smith: 00:39: 01:23: Yeah, no problem. Yeah. Nice to be here. Nice to chat to you. So yeah, I’m Jamie Smith. I’ve been working in games for over 13 years at this point. Most recently, I’m working for People Can Fly as a principal game designer. We can kind of cover that in more detail as to what that kind of involves day to day. But prior to that, I’ve been at various studios, including Ubisoft, Electronic Arts, helping out in the Call of Duty franchise with Activision, and then also Sumo Digital. And during the majority of that time, I’ve worked on all different types of games, you know, open-world games, such as the Division, driving games, the crew in Driver San Francisco, and helping out in a various bunch of others. Some not released, unfortunately, but the majority of them have, you know, hit the shelves and are available for people to play.

Greg Posner: 01:23: 01:34: I’ve heard that most game designers have a lot more cancelled or canned games under their belt than actually successful released video games. Would you find that as being true?

Jamie Smith: 01:35: 02:10: It can depend i’ve been one of the lucky ones in the sense that i had a few council projects probably earlier on in my career and then didn’t have any for a really long time. And then had a couple of probably not gonna see the light of day towards you know this point my career just you know it’s unfortunate things happen it can be a multitude of different things. It could be the market is not quite right for that particular game. In terms of, you know, there’s too many competitors. Maybe it’s the wrong time of year. Maybe the amount of money that needs to go into the game to make it kind of shine is not worth the kind of the budget and so on. So normally it’s factors out of any given individual’s control.

Greg Posner: 02:10: 02:53: Yeah, and we could dive into that, but I want to kind of start high level. And I’ll tell you what’s most exciting to me about this podcast episode here with you is that a lot of times we deal with the player experience from the customer success side of things. So people who are dealing with customer support or trust and safety or something else. And then you reached out to me after we released my episode with Matt Ambler, who was doing sound design. And that was a new world for me because I never really thought about the player experience in sound. Obviously, it’s there. And now you’re a principal game designer, which my first question is going to be, because this is a new podcast for me that everyone’s listening. I don’t really know much about the true front end. I’m not calling it front end of game design, but what’s the role of a principal game designer?

Jamie Smith: 02:53: 06:12: Perfect. Yeah. A principal game designer, and it’s a loaded term because it’s a long title, but I’ll break it down into a few different things. On the design side, designers in general are responsible for the player experience. So what is the core nugget of the game? Like what is the goal that you’re trying to achieve? Is it in Mario a really satisfying kind of playful character that you can run around the world and kind of have fun with? That might be the direction that comes from a director. And I’ll touch upon that in a moment because the designer and director is two slightly different roles. The designer think of it a bit like you’re at an orchestra and the designer is the conductor. They’re the ones that are trying to get everybody on the same page. Everybody plays instrument. They’re trying to play a symphony. But the conduct is there to make everybody be aligned. Because if not, it could just potentially be a lot of different noise. So that’s one side of it. So that’s the design side. It’s all about the core experience. On the game design side, it’s the thing that nobody ever mentions. But a game designer is kind of a fake title. in the sense that for the majority of people’s careers, they will never actually work as a game designer. They will work as a feature designer. And when I say feature, I mean a small piece of the pie. So if you’re working on a Mario game, for example, the chances are is that you might be involved with Mario, You might be involved with the enemies. You might be involved with the boss fights. But you might not necessarily touch any given other aspect of the game. So when we say game designer, it’s a catch-all kind of term. But there’s lots of different types of designers. But most of them will be responsible for a particular chunk of the game. And that leads me to the principal part, which is, so as you go through your career as a designer, you might start as an intern or a junior. work your way up to an intermediate, to a senior, to a principal. And the only real difference between each of those roles, outside of the experience that’s required, is the amount of ownership and autonomy that you have over the particular experience. So if I go back to the Mario example, you wouldn’t necessarily give control or ownership of Super Mario. to somebody who is on their first ever project on their first day, but they might get hands-on to maybe one of Mario’s moves, or maybe it’s an enemy that Mario comes across. As they work their way up to a principle, maybe you get full ownership of the characters that are in the game, because you’ve worked your way there, you understand the systems and what it takes to basically build Mario. So that’s it in a slightly longer nutshell. But the only other thing I want to touch upon is just about director. The director is the person that brings the vision to the project. And the difference between a director and a designer, because directors can be designers, there’s no prerequisite as to what discipline they come from, is that a director is basically about, what is the type of experience we’re going to create? And maybe, who is the audience? And why are we making it? Whereas the designer takes that kind of knowledge, and then how do we build that particular thing? And who is the people that we need on this team to bring these kind of features to life? So it’s kind of a designer’s a more low-level kind of consideration of what the director is actually intending to do with that game.

Greg Posner: 06:12: 06:33: So if I could dumb it down for myself just a little. So designers actually knows the technology, is maybe coding, is designing, is creating an asset. Whereas the director, who can be that person, but the director is the visionary saying, I want to see Mario jumping through a cloud world now, and I want you to make this happy. So it’s just like a movie at the end of the day, right?

Jamie Smith: 06:33: 07:22: Exactly that. And I always like the movie kind of analogy because it’s kind of, you know, you get your Ridley Scott or your, you know, your Chris Nolans or something like that. They’ll come over and they will just say something like, Hey, here is this wild idea I’m going to bring, you know, 200 BC, Rome to life, or wherever it may be, go. And then that’s what the team is responsible for. And it’s the designers that are at the vanguard at the front of that. And you do find, as well, is that some designers might not necessarily agree with what the director is wanting. But that’s the whole purpose of the designer, is the designer is there to bring the director’s vision to life, regardless of any subjective aspects of that. There’s a time and a place to challenge the direction. But the goal of a designer is to bring the direction to life, not to argue against it at every step of the way.

Greg Posner: 07:22: 07:39: Okay, so this is all making sense to me. I’m going to have questions that dig more into this. And the first one being, is that as a game designer, do you aspire to one day be a director? Or is it two different skill sets at the end of the day? They can mesh and overlap, but are they two different paths?

Jamie Smith: 07:40: 08:42: Yeah, it can be interesting, actually, because as I said earlier, there is no prerequisite for who can become a director. I suppose most people, including myself, have aspirations of getting to that kind of stage one day, mostly in the sense that you’re at the stage of your career there, especially if it comes to a new IP, like a new product, a new game, a new idea, that it comes from the designer first. Sorry, from the director first. So go back to the thing I said earlier, about there is no real such thing as a game designer, I would probably argue that a director is pretty much that role. You know, you can come up with a game, you can come up with something out of thin air and bring that to life. So definitely I aspire towards that. And also when you’re getting into a kind of a principal position, maybe you’re an associate director, you know, the right hand kind of person, you’re probably doing bits and pieces of a director’s kind of role anyway. especially if they’re away on holiday and you’re the kind of stand-in to go talk to the publishers or whoever may be on the project.

Greg Posner: 08:42: 09:08: What type of, and maybe this isn’t the right type of question to ask and feel free to stop me, but what type of conversations do you have with publishers? Like just updating them on the project itself, letting them know how it’s going. I mean, right. It took me a long time to understand what the difference between like a development group and a publisher was. Right. It’s like, Oh, the publisher is kind of just the funding people. They’re the ones paying for this. And then it goes to a studio who’s actually building the game. Right. It’s kind of, how do you build this, this machine?

Jamie Smith: 09:09: 10:53: Yeah i mean there can be lots of different types of relationships i mean the financial aspect is definitely one part of it which is there is a team a development team a particular studio they wanna make a game. Maybe the studio doesn’t have the money to kind of pay for it so they’ll bring in another company to kind of help on the project. But the strings attached that come with that is that the publishers are getting a big buy-in to how they feel the project should look, how it should behave, the final quality. And it’s the same for anybody who watches movies. The start of the movie, you will see five or six different production companies that come up that say how they brought this thing to life. In games, it tends to be one publisher, one developer. And those relationships could form over time. Maybe it’s some historical kind of relationships. People have moved from a development team to a publisher. And the best way I’d describe a publisher for me is they’re a bit like a guardian angel in the sense that the development team is so ingrained in the weeds, working on a game, grinding through tasks, kind of working day to day. The publishers almost like the eagle in the sky that can kind of see things how they’re going on, maybe they’re more aware of the markets. So sometimes publishers bring in market calendar knowledge, market experience and specialism. And we’ll say, Hey, we can see that boulder further up the road that you folks haven’t even realized is even there yet. So they can kind of, you know, point out the mine fields before people kind of come across them. And also they’re an external voice to the team. You know, they’re not hands deep in the project day to day. They can see things that the team might, you know, overlook and would provide suggestions as to how other projects or comparable games have solved a particular problem.

Greg Posner: 10:54: 12:04: Then there’s the opposite of that though, right? Where maybe the publisher is trying to push their own narrative. I watched this whole video, I forgot who published it on SimCity 2000, and then they were talking about the latest SimCity when EA was trying to push Origin into the game. It just broke SimCity, right? So at a certain point, and it’s interesting, the studios that you named for, right? Because again, living in the world of Reddit, I make my own perceptions of what each studio is like. EA, people think is overbearing, although the more I talk to people, I less think that’s the case. Activision, and even going back to what you talked about, your game design, right? Like when you’re working on Call of Duty Vanguard, right? You’re kind of limited in what your creativity can be, right? Because you’re coming into an already developed franchise, same with Far Cry, same with Driver, right? And I forgot if it was Division 1 or 2, at least Division 1, maybe you’re building something new, so it could be anything, right? I know there’s no direct question I’m asking here, right? But your freedom definitely Is that the mercy of the type of franchise and the publisher you’re working for? Is that a fair assumption?

Jamie Smith: 12:04: 13:45: Yeah, I mean, in a simple answer, definitely yes. But also that’s also the beauty of game development, which is I have had some projects that are more along the lines of what you’ve just described. I have also had experiences that are the complete opposite of that. And I tend to find, especially when it comes to… When you talk about autonomy, definitely creating a new IP opens the doors for new ideas and, hey, where do we go? Because you don’t know what you don’t know when it comes to a new IP. You might be able to point at a successful game that’s on the shelf and say, hey, we want to be like Destiny or something. So you kind of move towards that. But if it’s an established kind of franchise, There’s already metrics, there’s an ingrained knowledge, there’s an audience, there is publisher, there is the financial kind of side of it. There are a lot more factors that feed into every decision that you make so that things might not necessarily go your way this time. Or think of it a bit like an oil tanker. It’s going to get there, but the turning rate is going to be much slower. Whereas if it’s a brand new IP, if you don’t like an idea, much like a jet ski, you can just turn the other direction pretty quickly. But I do find a lot of that comes from regular discussions, especially on the publishing side. Don’t leave it six months and have a catch up with the publisher, and then they throw lots of curveballs or lots of surprises at you. The best projects I’ve been on in terms of a collaboration, especially when it comes to a new IP, have been with chatting to the publisher on a regular basis. We know roughly where we’re kind of heading, but they can keep kind of nudging us in the right direction. We can kind of keep nudging them in the right direction. And it’s more of a conversation as opposed to more of a mandate.

Greg Posner: 13:45: 14:16: Communication always seems to be key. And if I could say one consistent from company to company I’ve ever been at is that communication is really poor for the most part. And where do you collaborate and different workspaces for everything? And it’s super important for any studio that’s working on the collaborative project together to make sure that everyone is kind of at the same place, right? So, I mean, from different companies you’ve been at, what are the successful ways you’ve seen collaboration done I guess tools wise or I don’t know?

Jamie Smith: 14:17: 16:37: Yeah, I mean, there’s lots of different things. Well, funnily enough, you mentioned communication. One thing that we do have is kind of retrospectives and postmortems, which are effectively discussions at a given point in the project or certain, you know, heartbeats through the project, which will take stock of how things have been going up until a particular point. No surprises and no guesses that unanimously, almost every single project ever, communication is always top of the list in terms of a problem of any project. It doesn’t matter how big or small the game is, if it’s new or not. But in terms of what tends to work is, a lot of people work in feature teams. And I didn’t cover this earlier, so a designer is just one part of a small team And that small team is a mixed discipline team. So it could be animators, audio, like you’ve had in the show previously. It could be programmers. It could be any, whatever the need is for a particular feature, those people kind of get together. And the idea is that that feature team is working towards a shared goal that the team completely owns. And typically it’s the designer that’s kind of spearheading that team. In terms of going back to communication, those are the best teams. It’s a small-scale kind of unit of cross-discipline, mixed-discipline peers working together on a shared goal and then adding some value to the game that everybody is kind of bought into. And then when you start to see that enough with small features and eventually they become bigger features, normally what happens is the most successful small teams on the project the learnings of that team then get applied to kind of others on the project. And that might just be the way that standups are conducted in the morning, you know, how we all jump on a call, everybody’s on camera, everybody, you know, cracks a joke or something. There might be lots of menial, small things that add up, you know, any given small thing on its own doesn’t really make much of a difference. But the combination of how people approach each other and how they review work together, sharing screens, we’re in a remote space. So we’re looking for tools that have high frame rates, because we’re trying to show the game off in the best light and the highest quality and stuff. But ultimately, there is no one given thing. It’s just lots of little, you know, best practices that amount to something much greater.

Greg Posner: 16:37: 16:47: Is it difficult in a large company like Activision to get that message across? Or is it when you when one team sees another team doing really well, is it very apparent?

Jamie Smith: 16:48: 18:25: That can depend. I mean, definitely the scale or the scope of the project is a factor of limitation, I would probably say, because on Vanguard, for example, as a Call of Duty Vanguard, I was part of the campaign team. And maybe I have some feedback or maybe I have some communications about Battle Royale or multiplayer in general or the co-op mode or zombies or something like that. But in general, we’re all just focused on the campaign. and more specifically, I’m focused on the weapons, and more specifically, I’m focused on the team that’s involved with the weapons. It’s almost like layers of communication. And then if a certain feature of the game was coming out more prominent than others, or maybe a team was delivering successfully, they were delivering things in advance of what was estimated a lot, then people would start to look at that team and say, hey, why is this team doing so well, but this other team is really struggling to get things up and running? That would be the point of where it crops up. And in terms of making that apparent, you have a producer on the team. The producer, in some companies, especially bigger projects, are more like time managers, or they’re making sure that we’re heading towards deadlines within meaningful timeframes. they’ll be the people that will have access to that kind of data that makes it apparent because they can set those graphs up, they can set the curves. Maybe the people that are doing really well on the weapons team, well, maybe now they need to go help the enemy AI team because they’re struggling. And one team is ahead, one team is behind. So they would be the ones that would have that kind of information.

Greg Posner: 18:26: 18:47: And the skill set, I mean, right, from the from the technical side, the skill set translates from one to the other, right. But like, from a mindset perspective, like I just spent the last two months designing every different gun in Call of Duty, like, and now all of a sudden, I gotta go take a look at levels. Is it like a, oh, crap moment? Like, I have no idea what I’m looking at here. Or is it just kind of like, alright, riding a bike, I’m going to get back on and just go?

Jamie Smith: 18:47: 20:18: Yeah, this is a really good question, actually. And I skipped over this kind of earlier. So when when a designer is set to start their career, typically you’re going to get thrown whatever bones you get thrown. So if you are going to work on the enemy AI system, that’s what you’ll be working on. If somebody throws you a bone to work on Mario, that’s what you’ll be working on and so on. So at the start of your career, you don’t necessarily get to pick and choose, but what you will get is access to the whole buffet. So you’ll do lots of little samples. you might find there at the start of your career that you actually prefer that you like working on weapons, and that’s all you want to do. So what you tend to find is, as people, especially designers, stay in the industry longer, they will almost gravitate towards a specialism, especially if it’s on a big AAA kind of project. So whilst I’m working on the guns on Call of Duty, for example, that’s an interest to me, what’s called moment-to-moment design, the game feel kind of side. I might get thrown a curveball to go work on the enemies, but I’d worked on enemies on a previous project, so it’s not unfamiliar to me. But if you are somebody that’s coming in brand new to the industry, you’re learning just on the go. Typically, you’ll be alongside a more senior designer and more senior developers that are on the team that will guide you. But for most designers, especially when you’ve been in the industry for 10 years or so, you’ve probably experienced most of what there is out there, unless you’re constantly changing genres, because there’ll be different skills needed for that kind of stuff.

Greg Posner: 20:18: 20:29: Do you have a preference in how you like to operate? Do you like, I mean, looking again at the games that we named earlier, they’re literally all over the place, right? Is that your preference? Do you have something you like to work on the most?

Jamie Smith: 20:29: 21:10: Yeah, I like to do lots of different things. I mean, that’s shown in my CV, mostly third-person, open-world games, so the types of things that I would play, co-op squad games. But at the start of my career, it was more driving games, at a time when I didn’t really, as a player, play driving games. So sometimes you don’t necessarily get to pick and choose. But right now, I’m more involved in 3Cs, which is Character Controls Camera. And that’s basically hands on the pad, moment-to-moment gameplay, and that is everything about how the game feels, kind of moment-to-moment. So I’m not particularly precious if it’s a Mario game or a Call of Duty, as long as it’s in that kind of realm of what the player feels every moment.

Greg Posner: 21:10: 21:32: I want to talk about the three Cs, but before we do, we kind of have this fire, fire something round. I think my marketing name, I forgot, right? So I’m just gonna ask you some five quick questions, whatever comes at the top of your head, think about it. Then I want to jump back into that. Good to go? Cool, yeah. If you’re going to go to a bar or a bar and order a drink, what type of drink are you ordering?

Jamie Smith: 21:32: 21:36: Normally desperados. It’s like tequila beer. Yeah. All right.

Greg Posner: 21:36: 21:37: Last book you read?

Jamie Smith: 21:37: 21:43: Oh, it was just this morning. Psychology of Money. Psychology of Money.

Greg Posner: 21:43: 21:46: Nice. What did you have for breakfast?

Jamie Smith: 21:46: 21:49: This morning I had oats and yogurt.

Greg Posner: 21:49: 21:52: What is your dream vacation?

Jamie Smith: 21:52: 21:54: New York. It’s where I’ll be headed soon.

Greg Posner: 21:54: 21:59: There you go. And finally, last but not least, if you weren’t working in the video game industry, what do you think you would be doing?

Jamie Smith: 22:01: 22:12: Detective and the police, I think. Yeah, so something to that kind of realm. I like James Bond kind of stuff, so anything along those kind of lines, like investigative kind of sides. Nice.

Greg Posner: 22:12: 22:55: All right. There we go. All right. So I took notes on some of the stuff I listened to, and one of them was the three Cs you talked about, like you just mentioned, cameras, control, characters. I wanted to dig more into them, what you meant by that. I think I imagine playing all those platformers and understanding everything, looking at the field. You also talk a lot about marginal innovation. And I wanna, I think you do, right? I took a note for you. I’m just more curious on kind of what you mean by that, right? Because you play Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2, then Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3. What’s marginal innovation and when does it matter, when doesn’t it? So, you just started talking about the three Cs as kind of your design philosophy, it seems. Can you break that down so I get a better understanding of what that means?

Jamie Smith: 22:56: 26:37: Yeah, yeah, no problem. So the 3Cs is kind of an acronym that originally came up from, I think it’s a Mark Cerny talk in 2002. So I’ve heard some people online chat that it’s a Ubisoft-specific term, but actually the first origin was from Mark Cerny. Mark Cerny is a really famous game designer who worked on Sonic 2 and a bunch of other stuff. He’s involved in the PlayStation 5. And anyway, he came up with this term, which is 3Cs, character control camera. And the notion of that is, Every single game has the three Cs, pretty much. You’re not always a character. In Tetris, you’re a block. That’s the character, but the camera defines your window into the game world. The controls is what’s the peripheral device that you’re using. It’s not always a game pad. It could be a motion controller. It could be a Game Boy, Flight Stick, wherever it may be. And then the character is almost like the avatar that’s in the game. So in some games, it’s a physical avatar, like Mario or a car, for example. In other games, like Tetris, it’s kind of a block. That’s what you are. So that’s cool. But the 3Cs, the idea is that you have to consider them all almost like a triangle. You can’t change the camera without considering how that impacts upon the controls of the character and any kind of variation on that. It’s almost like a triangular relationship But the most important part there is that if you get any of those three things wrong, or they’re not comfortable, people will know about it straight away. Because the 3Cs is the thing that you experience in every single game, every moment of every single game. Some people tend to refer to this as more like moment-to-moment design and game feel, which is the expansion of that, which is the thing that you’re doing moment-to-moment always needs to feel satisfying. So in Call of Duty, the thing you’re doing moment to moment is firing guns. So the three C’s for the guns should be good. The controls are nice and responsive. The camera is nicely framed. So basically the player gets to see everything they want. They’re not getting motion sickness. You know, maybe they’ve got some nice depth of field kind of effects on the camera and then the character itself, especially in a first person game. it’s not just a floating camera, it’s a convincing depiction that you’re playing as a third-person character. Because if you go back to something like GoldenEye, it literally is just a floating gun on the screen, whereas Call of Duty’s got really advanced animations that make it feel like you’re a real character. So that’s those. And then when it comes to Game Feel, Game Feel is about how it feels satisfying to do the thing that you’re doing all of the time, moment to moment. So in Call of Duty, the thing that people never chat about is, it always feels good to shoot things in Call of Duty. It feels good to get the headshots, the sniper kind of kill. But the thing that you’re doing all of the time is missing. Every time a player plays a game, good accuracy would be 33%. So that means every player, on average, is going to miss two out of every three bullets. Obviously, that can go up and down depending on if it’s a machine gun versus a sniper rifle. But the general notion is, If you’re playing a shooting game and you’re missing all of the time, it needs to feel good. The same as Mario, you play any Mario game, especially Mario Odyssey, you start in an area where there is no enemies. There’s just some rolling hills. It feels good just to run around in a circle with Mario because a 3Cs designer has spent several years of their life trying to make Mario feel as good as possible in a scenario where there is absolutely no challenge kind of whatsoever. And people make their entire careers out of that kind of sub-discipline of design. And that’s mostly what I’ve been leaning towards the last kind of five or six years.

Greg Posner: 26:37: 27:49: It’s fascinating. I’m sorry, I’m taking notes here. So if I’m looking away, I just find this amazing because, you know, I also think it’s a lot to do with the, you say game feel, right? Like the immersion, how much do I feel? And I think, I think of some of these more recent Sonics, not the latest one, but like where it switches from 2D to 3D and like, the camera pans and does all this stuff. And I can’t tell you I’ve played those games. Right. But I play games where all of a sudden the camera changes and you don’t see your player anymore and things just feel stuck or broken. And compared to like a game like I’ve been playing Starfield a lot. And when you’re encumbered, you run slowly and it just feels like, all right, I hate this, but it feels accurate. Right. And I know it’s interesting to kind of think about this stuff. I love the fact that even bringing up like Most of the time when you play a shooting game, you miss. And someone’s got to sit there for a lot of time talking about like, all right, well, we got to create a whole design for missing because that’s the biggest thing that everyone’s going to continue to see time and time again. How do we make that focal? How do we make that feel good so people don’t get pissed off and quit when they miss? It’s crazy. It’s an interesting way to think about that. So, I mean, at the end of the day, would you consider that like your design philosophy? Is that the right word for it? Like, is it a philosophy that 3Cs or is it?

Jamie Smith: 27:50: 30:38: I don’t even really know what I mean by philosophy, but… Yeah, I mean, philosophy-wise, I’m a big proponent of kind of loving the player. That’s something else we can touch upon about kind of low-level things. But when it comes to 3Cs, nowadays, I sound a bit like an old man saying nowadays, but In games now, a lot of companies will have a dedicated hero designer or a dedicated character designer. They will all go by different names, typically. But ultimately, it’s the person that is responsible for the moment-to-moment gameplay. So on Forza, there will be a car handling designer. All they do, all day, every day, full time, for five years, is design how the cars feel. They don’t touch any other part of the game whatsoever. And Mario, there is somebody’s full-time job just to work out Mario and how Mario works and all of the transitions of their moves. What animations do we need? What are the inputs? What can you transition between? And it’s the same as Call of Duty. There’s a full-time job for somebody to come up with just the weapons. And then just the thing you mentioned earlier is Well, if they’re doing it for so long and they’ve got so much experience, what’s the difference between Modern Warfare and Modern Warfare 2, or Modern Warfare 2 and Modern Warfare 3? And that’s where the marginal kind of innovation side of it comes in, which is you’re trying to look for, you know, you’ve done the 90% counterpart. You’re trying to look for those marginal gains that kind of bump the 90% to 91 or 92. And between Modern Warfare 1 and Modern Warfare 2, the new versions of the game, they added a, every time you shoot, they added a screen effect where the screen flashes white intermittently to make it feel like the flash of the weapon muzzle is appearing on your screen. That didn’t appear in the previous game and it made the weapons feel more powerful because now every time you were firing it was physically impacting the camera in terms of a flash. And then Modern Warfare 2 to Modern Warfare 3, which is the new one, When you have a big rifle and you have a pistol, you can weapon swap. So you pull out the pistol and then you swap it and then you pull out the rifle and vice versa. The difference this time is that when you pull out the pistol, they keep the rifle on the screen. So it’s almost like your hand is resting on the rifle with the pistol. And then when you put the pistol away, you pull the rifle back up again. So the difference there is that the rifle remains on screen. Whereas previously, the rifle used to just disappear into your inventory. So again, it makes it feel more grounded and more immersive, because a sniper is not just going to throw the sniper rifle on their back. They’re going to try and hold it in a comfortable way as possible. And again, that’s the life of that type of designer, which is trying to look for those marginal gains year on year, product on product.

Greg Posner: 30:39: 30:56: So you talk about Call of Duty, three different games, three different effects. Is there someone out there that’s collecting data from players? Which one did you like the best? How do you measure the marginal innovation and if it was a positive or negative?

Jamie Smith: 30:57: 32:36: Yeah, I mean, lots of games will have telemetry now. So they’ll have things like, what’s your favorite class of weapons? And they don’t even have to ask players these things, because the telemetry data that they’re built into the game will tell them lots of people are using the shotgun, and they use this particular shotgun. And we can kind of guess the reasons why. That might be because of the kill rate of the weapon. It might be that they tend to be more accurate with that particular weapon. But in terms of the sample, or getting a proportion of the audience to say, hey, I think this shotgun is the best, and here’s why. That might be an intermittent survey that they’ll do. There’ll be lots of internal playtests that will tell people, hey, here’s two weapons. Use them both. tell us which one’s your favorite and why and that would be almost like an A B test and the difference there might be one of the weapons might have had the audio has been bumped up maybe they’ve changed the audio made it feel much more visceral the other one they’ve just kept the previous weapon from the previous game no changes whatsoever and then they will ask people what do you think and they’ll know ahead of time if they make reference to the audio then we definitely know we’ve done our job but sometimes people will say or this gun feels more powerful and they can’t really describe why. And a lot of the time it will be because of the audio, because the haptics, the visual effects on screen, the animations that when you shoot an enemy, the enemy flips over backwards or something. But yeah, success would be defining that kind of stuff beforehand. And then having the player testers kind of mention those things.

Greg Posner: 32:36: 33:34: Yeah. I want to talk about the audio. And the one thing I just want to make a quick mention of, because I think it’s really cool technology is just the fact that you mentioned haptics, but the PS5 controller, right? Cause that’s going to add a whole nother level of immersion when a player is playing a game. And I don’t have a PS5 and my son’s mad at me about that because he wants Spider-Man, but like, it seems like that’s like the new that’s like next gen. Right. I was also reading about Spider-Man, how they do fast travel and that’s a next-gen technology. I think everyone always talks about next-gen technology being the greatest graphics in the world, but no one thinks about things like load time, about immersion of playing in the controller. And I think it’s a cool thing and it falls under the control of your camera’s control character. I know that’s not what you mean there, but I love that fact that companies are starting to think of new ways to get people immersed into games. And I don’t know how many people are actually taking advantage of the PS5 controller, but I think that’s probably one of the coolest parts of next gen is rethinking how people are playing the game.

Jamie Smith: 33:34: 36:19: Yeah. And another part of that is that, I mean, there’s two sides of it. Well, so one part is there’s a new technology and then you have to kind of leverage it in a way that you think is going to improve your particular game. So when I worked on Hood Outlaws and Legends and I’d worked on the crew, Both of those games were cross-gen kind of games. So I was working on PS3, and then the game was coming out on PS4. And then for PS4, the game was coming out on PS5. And at that time, you don’t have games on the market that you can look at and say, hey, we’re going to do our haptics like Gran Turismo or whatever game that was kind of out there. They didn’t exist at that time. So that’s the cool part of it is you’re trying to set the new kind of standard for everybody because it doesn’t exist yet. So that’s pretty cool. The downside of it, though, is that for some teams, there’s not a lot of incentive to do that additional work because it’s a bit more work for a platform that, for example, Xbox is not going to benefit from. So if you put more time into the player character, the player character is in both games, But if you put time into the DualSense controller, that’s something that’s Sony-specific. And if Microsoft were to do their own controller, now there’s another piece of work that you’ve got to do. And unfortunately, some developers look at it that way, which is, it’s additional work, it’s additional time. Maybe we could spend it fixing bugs or improving this particular feature. But I’m a big advocate of that kind of stuff. Haptics in general, I love. The real trick with haptics, because it’s a real dark art for a lot of people, is A lot of people throw haptics on everything. literally everything, reload the gun, shoot the gun, jump up and down, fall off the ledge, literally everything. And what happens is the pad just becomes like noise. Whereas the few classic examples I’ve seen is in one of the Naughty Dog games in Last of Us, you see a flash of lightning into the distance. And three seconds later, the pad rumbles for the effect of the thunderstorm. And that was super cool because it doesn’t happen very often. The pad is completely mute aside from that. and the other one is a there’s a game on ps5 called wrc world rally championship and every single track that you’re on the pad is going crazy because of the you know the the different surfaces you know the the mud the the dirt the gravel whatever it may be it’s going crazy and then you get on a track that has tarmac and the rumble is absent. And it’s that classic feeling of the absence of sound, or silence is golden, or however you want to call it. And straight away, you think, oh, my words, the pad isn’t actually doing anything. And it really makes it feel like the asphalt is even smoother, because there’s no rumble on it whatsoever. It’s really cool.

Greg Posner: 36:19: 37:12: I remember, and this was years ago, I had the Microsoft Sidewinder joystick for my computer and I think I was playing a game Midtown Madness 2 and just driving through the streets of San Francisco, hitting bumps and feeling it. It was just like, this is the coolest technology and it would fight you sometimes there. I mean, Microsoft did this years ago. It’s a bummer it’s not in the Xbox controller. I’m sure it will eventually find its way in there based on the feedback Microsoft has, or Sony got. But I just, I mean, this all started with sound, right? The other night I was trying to play Call of Duty, I keep saying Call of Duty because I’m playing it right now, but like with almost no sound on, it just like, it takes away such a big feeling from the game when you don’t hear the bullets like they’re meant to be. It almost feels like it’s a kid’s game. I don’t know if it’s a weird thing to say, but like, It just doesn’t have the same oomph or power that you want it to have. And it’s such a cool time to be a gamer and feeling all these feelings.

Jamie Smith: 37:12: 37:52: Yeah. And another good test of that, I know you said you didn’t have a PS5 yet, but a really good test is if you get a PS5 or you can get hold of the controller. play the game for 10 minutes, some cool headphones, nice audio, wherever it may be. Then mute the game and look at what the pad is doing, how it sounds. And it’s just alien. It just makes no sense what it’s doing. But when the game audio is absent, it makes it sound like that. When the game audio is present, it elevates it. So everything complements each other. And if you’ve got one piece of the pie missing, everything else starts to fall down.

Greg Posner: 37:52: 38:13: It’s like a giant orchestra. Everyone’s got to be in sync. So I have a couple more questions. First one is going to be kind of a basic one, but what did you want to be when you grew up? And a lot of times I talk to, again, customer success people who aren’t dreaming of being a communication person in gaming, but maybe you did dream of making games, but where did you want to be when you were growing up other than James Bond?

Jamie Smith: 38:15: 39:06: Yeah, definitely James Bond. For most people, especially kind of younger guys in the UK, big kind of football fans, as in soccer. So most people kind of age five to 15, you know, think they’re going to turn pro. And the reality is it’s a fraction of a percent of people who even get to turn professional, nevermind playing the Premier League. So that’s definitely one aspect of it. But probably towards my kind of mid-teens, the viability of a career in not just games, but tech in general was kind of kind of cropping up. Obviously the school teachers and the career advisors never really mentioned that kind of stuff. They said about the army and, you know, becoming a teacher or the police or something. But yeah, I’d probably say a footballer and then transitioned into what I’ve become kind of now more of a designer creative type.

Greg Posner: 39:06: 39:10: Did something lead you in that direction?

Jamie Smith: 39:10: 39:59: A mixture of stuff. We had some local game studios. I’m in the northeast of the UK, so we’ve always had a games or tech sector. It’s almost like a mini Silicon Valley locally. That was cool. There’s some game TV shows that used to be on that used to have celebrities or sometimes they would showcase, here is the designer of Tekken or something from the 90s. And then that had a spinoff magazine. And that magazine would tell you behind the scenes of how those developers got their jobs. So I used to keep all of the paper cut-ins of those. You had the local field of these game studios nearby. And then my local university was also one of the highest rated in the country for games. So it was all on my doorstep. The whole things coalesced with each other.

Greg Posner: 40:00: 40:06: So you started by collecting football cards of your favorite footballers, and then you started collecting game designer cards from your magazines?

Jamie Smith: 40:06: 40:13: Exactly. Yeah, yeah. That’s an idea right there, because yeah, I didn’t have many of them, but they could have done the whole industry for sure.

Greg Posner: 40:13: 40:43: You know, I’ve spoken to a lot of people that once they kind of start building games, they kind of get sick of playing games once you know how the sausage is made, right? you know, there’s still a bunch of great games out there, especially this year is a great, great year for games, right? When you play a new game, are there certain criteria you look for on saying, hey, the design of this game is really good? Or is there a game you pick up that the design is so bad, you’re just like, forget it, I can’t play this. Like, how does your brain processes?

Jamie Smith: 40:43: 43:28: Yeah, so this, this is a great question. I think in contemporary kind of times, the game passes both It’s the best and worst thing I think that happens to everybody that’s a consumer. And more particularly speaking from my perspective, it’s the best in that you’re getting a sheer variety, large volume of games. You don’t necessarily know which ones are the greatest until you try them. But that’s the downside, which is that I think a lot of them are really disposable. So in some cases, It can take longer for you to download that game than you will actually put time into it. So go back to the 3Cs I mentioned earlier, there’s a reason why Call of Duty is so successful. And it’s not just because people talk about the file size being so large, it’s that it’s a well-established, great shooter where the gunplay feels satisfying. And if you’re going to download a game on Game Pass, the expectation is going to be that the gunplay is comparable with Call of Duty. And if it’s not, you’re going to bounce off it pretty quickly. And I would probably say that for myself, is that I’m just as culpable for that. If I have a limited amount of hard drive space, that’s the limiting factor. And time is also the limiting factor. So more nowadays, I’m playing games maybe for an hour a day, maybe 90 minutes per day. On average, I should say, any given individual is playing games for 90 minutes per day. So what I’m looking for in that 90 minutes, realistically now, is meaningful progress. If I feel like I’m playing a game where the game is arbitrarily trying to trip me up, or has excessive amount of tutorials, or cutscenes that I can’t skip, or I can’t customize the controls the way that makes it most comfortable for me, and a whole myriad of other factors. that would be the thing that would push me away from that particular product. And the opposite of that, which is, these are the types of things that I’m not looking for, but they’re almost like the baseline, that’s table stakes. And then the great stuff is when people take something that maybe you either underestimate, or maybe they take the gunplay and they take it in a slightly different direction from Call of Duty so that you get more surprise from it. That’s the type of stuff I’m looking for. And just the notion of loving the player, I’ve mentioned that a few times kind of earlier. A lot of games tend to use randomness kind of factors, or they really want to get a kick out of kind of punishing people, you know, Dark Souls. I’m a big advocate of just love the player in general. Be really generous to them in terms of ammo counts, enemy perception in stealth games. If you felt like you got a headshot, then you did get a headshot. It’s that kind of stuff. If it’s a dice roll, give the player a six more often than they get a one. It’s that kind of stuff.

Greg Posner: 43:30: 43:46: You kind of mentioned this a couple times now about kind of metrics in game, right? Like telemetry, what type of guns are you picking? How often are you logging in when you’re quitting? As a game designer, do you have access to a lot of these metrics? Is this something you monitor? Is there someone else there that that’s their primary job?

Jamie Smith: 43:46: 45:07: Yeah that i can do it’s good question cuz i can depend on the team actually i’m on on some projects i worked on hud outlaws and legends that was a smaller scale double a project we didn’t have a dedicated live designer or somebody who’s looking at post launch and that’s what that person’s job would be it would be. when the game goes live, this person is responsible for what’s the community saying about the game or what did the telemetry kind of suggest about the experience. So in that project, I direct access to all of that stuff. On Call of Duty, I was helping them write the tools for what’s the type of things we wanted to track because I was involved with ammo scarcity and resource scarcity. So the idea being is that we wanted to create a game where the player felt like they were really tense and that every bullet felt like it mattered because in a world war, we weren’t going to give you infinite kind of ammo. So I helped write the telemetry tools that would basically track a heartbeat of what the player would have at any given moment, how much they would gain, how much they would lose, how much did the enemy drop, what types of bullets did they drop and so on. But on larger projects I’ve been involved in, some of them I’ve never even seen that stuff kind of whatsoever or I’ve not seen that stuff outside of my realm. So, I know everything about, you know, the gunplay but I don’t know anything about the multiplayer maps and you know, which one was the most played because there’ll be a separate set of telemetry for that.

Greg Posner: 45:07: 45:50: Yeah, it’s an interesting thought, right? Like you can create the best gun in the world and if it’s on too big of a map, your gun is going to be pointless or if it’s a shotgun, right? Like… Yeah. And if you’re in a role that you can’t combine that data there, it’s kind of like I only know what I know but I have to imagine most of these big companies have people that have visibility over high levels. being able to see most of it and I don’t know. I’m a fan of numbers and metrics so being able to see data like that is something that excites me and kind of you can start to make educated choices based off of what you’re seeing. Yeah, exactly. We are coming to time. I had a couple more questions but we’re in a position where I don’t really know the types of questions that you ask a game designer when you’re talking to them. Is there some magic that’s happening back end or something that you just excites you about this that you just want to share or

Jamie Smith: 45:51: 48:46: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I mean, the one thing I definitely want to touch upon is just about the notion of the secret sauce. I mean, we chatted about this a few times kind of off air, but it’s just going back to the thing about loving the player. It’s the types of decisions that designers make and not just designers, but people making game development that really helps sell the experience and make it a game as opposed to real life. So I just had a few examples in mind is in a combat game or a shooter game. when you throw a grenade. just bounce the grenade a few extra times for it to get to its target. So it’s almost like the grenade has its own little gravitational kind of pull. From a player’s point of view, you threw the grenade, and you got the awesome shot. But from the designer’s point of view, you did 90% of the work, and we helped you with the 10%. That kind of mattered, or kind of vice versa. And obviously, it’s a subtle thing as well. It’s a gravitational pull. It’s one extra bounce. A really good one just for combat, because you mentioned Spider-Man. In Spider-Man, there’s an enemy that fires a timed bomb at you. If you grab that with your web sling, instead of going 3, 2, 1, explode, it goes 3, 2, 1, and then it stays in the 1 state for as long as you hold the bomb, and then you fire it back at people. And it’s a little rule change like that, which is the bomb timer has just frozen in time because the player is now going to use it as a tool. Platforming is a good one. They have the notion of when you walk off a ledge, you get what’s called coyote time. So you walk off a ledge, and then for a brief moment, you can still push the jump button, even though you’re in midair, exactly like Wile E. Coyote in Road Runner, in the sense that it makes it more generous to people. So if they were too late with the button press. Driving games, when you talk about burnout or games where you’re driving really fast, The general notion is the faster you drive, the more likely you are to crash. In the burnout games, they do the opposite to that, which is the faster you drive, if you clip the side of a bus, just something on the edge, it will actually push you back into the road instead of causing a crash because they want to sustain the speed as opposed to penalizing the player. And then another really low level one for stealth games, for example, is if you have a stealth cone on a character, you might expect that the eyes for a character in a stealth game are where human eyes are. but typically you tend to put the vision cone of an enemy on their chest or at the top of their clavicle. because there’s more rotation in the head than there is in the clavicle. So when the enemy looks at you, they might see you at the peripheral of their vision, because the chest has got a lower turning circle than the head has. So there’s little subtle tricks like that in lots of games, where it’s done to make it feel like the player is the master of the game, as opposed to trying to punish people. And there’s an infinite amount of these in tons of games. You can look for them and find them. But most people, it just goes over their head, and they don’t notice.

Greg Posner: 48:47: 49:46: I feel like you just broke my heart. I feel like it’s something I didn’t… I think of even just playing Starfield, like you use your jetpack to get as high as you can to the top of a mountain that you shouldn’t be climbing and all of a sudden like you stop for a second like, oh, why am I stopped right here? I’m going to jump again real quick and it’s just like, it seems like it’s the… enhancing the player’s experience. Like how do we give them a, not a God mode, but how would we make them feel a little more powerful? I even think back to my days of playing Burnout Paradise. Now that you mentioned it, like you’re trying so hard to crash into the middle of that intersection, but you just miss every time. You’re just like, what’s happening here? And I guess it’s just the game kind of building this in that you can, you don’t, it’s, I can’t even finish my saying there, but it’s just, it’s fascinating to think about, like, I guess a good game designer, you’re doing that. You want to make it feel like a special experience. The grenade hits the wall. Yeah, you aim where you aim, but we’ll make the path unique.

Jamie Smith: 49:46: 51:03: Exactly. And it depends on the type of experience, but you can make that as obvious or as subtle as you want it to be. The example you mentioned of Burnout Paradise, I’ve had exactly the same thing. You want to hit the intersection, and the game is doing the opposite, and you’re almost fighting against the rules. But even something simple, if you think of it like John Wick, John Wick will punch somebody in the face. He’ll kick the gun out of the hand, turn around, shoot somebody in the head, and then he’ll catch the gun in their hand. There’s a game called Superhot. It does exactly that kind of behavior. It’s very John Woo. You shoot the enemy, they throw the gun up in the air, and the gun just so magically happens to land in your hand. It could have landed anywhere in the room, but it’s gravitated towards your hand, and then that’s the gun that you use to shoot somebody else. And again, it’s just… it’s what’s the type of experience you’re trying to create, and then what are the things that you need to do to push it towards that experience. And yeah, I’ve seen on some projects where people say, oh, well, that won’t work, because they’re taking it from a real-life kind of perspective, as opposed to what the game is supposed to be soliciting. It’s movie magic. Exactly. Movie magic. Yeah. It’s, it’s the Ferrari in the rock, you know, dry. I love that other Hollywood reel that they, you know, the Ferrari drives on the paths and people just magically get out of the way. That’s how it happens. Yeah.

Greg Posner: 51:04: 51:46: Love it. It’s great stuff. And this is a great conversation. I really enjoyed this. I mean, I still want to continue to learn more about the process of how a video game is made. And I also, I mean, I took other notes of what things you mentioned. Alex, Kid being your first game, you talked about Crazy Taxi, which I love because, you know, we talked about just the feeling of the game. And I feel like Crazy Taxi is such a good feel when you start driving that car and then the beginning of the music with the offspring. Yeah. Lots more we could talk about, but I know we’re getting close to time and I do appreciate you stopping by and reaching out to be on the podcast. It’s an honor and I appreciate you doing that and helping opening my eyes to what’s going on. Is there anything else before we end today that you want to share with our listeners?

Jamie Smith: 51:47: 52:19: No, I mean, that was pretty much everything. I mean, the stuff I’ve mentioned there in general is just almost like scratching the surface of design kind of in general. But if anybody wants to kind of know more about that kind of stuff, GDC Vault is a great place to go. So Game Developers Conference, it’s a paid kind of service, but they put a lot of free talks on YouTube and on their site itself. So yeah, search for GDC Vault and you’ll come up with lots of videos that talk about exactly this particular stuff. for very specific games like God of War and Spider-Man and so on.

Greg Posner: 52:19: 52:39: Actually, before we jump, my last question to you would be, where do you source your information from? For example, we’re having this great conversation and I did another one with Tim Bendison from Hothead Games who talks about game pillars. I’m just putting all this stuff together and it’s making sense, but where’s your source of knowledge? Do you have a go-to source?

Jamie Smith: 52:40: 53:35: Yeah, in general, podcasts is kind of a big one. I’d probably get through three hours of podcasts or so, kind of a day. It’s part of my morning routine, just when I’m at the gym, I’m kind of out and about and stuff. So that’s a really big one. And then otherwise, GDC Vault, which updates once a year, I think it’s in March and April, but they literally put easily six months worth of content to get through on there. most contemporary because it’s recent developers on recent games. So you’re getting the most up-to-date knowledge on how they’re addressing problems that people have in the industry. And then otherwise, it just comes from the combination of those two things. But because we’re mostly problem solvers, that’s the type of stuff I’m interested in, is how people solve problems in different ways. And it’s not always coming from games. As we said about The Rock or Hollywood Reel and stuff, people have done this kind of stuff in movies since the 30s, just take that kind of knowledge and those learnings and apply it to games.

Greg Posner: 53:36: 54:05: Yeah, it’s your best source of knowledge of seeing what else is out there, what other industries are doing. I know I’ve had people reach out to me just about the podcast because the user experience, player experience, no matter what you want to call it, it’s the same thing, different industry. And I don’t know, it’s great stuff. And again, Jamie, I really do appreciate you coming out today. This was a fun conversation and hopefully we can meet up when you’re out on the East Coast. And again, thank you very much for coming on today. Perfect. No, thanks. Thanks for your time.

Greg Posner

Avid gamer with a passion for storytelling. My goal is to unpack the narratives of customers, partners and others to better understand how industry-leaders tackle today's challenges.

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