IGDA Interview Series: Scott Rogers4 Nov 2015
Scott Rogers is the game designer and creative director of more than fifty AAA games for Disney, Sony, Capcom, Namco and THQ. His games have sold over 50 million copies worldwide.
Over his career, Scott has partnered with major licensors including Warner Brothers, Nickelodeon, MGA and DC Entertainment He has collaborated with amazing creators including Blur Studios, Dan Harmon, Susumu Matsushita, Tomonobu Itagaki and Tommy Tallarico. He has directed unforgettable voice talent including Nolan North, Frank Welker, Tom Kenny and Kim Guest.
For the last four years, Scott was an Imagineer at Walt Disney Imagineering’s R&D department where he helped create interactive experiences installed in Disney’s parks including: Mickey’s Fun Wheel Challenge, Legends of Frontierland and several app-based interactive games.
Scott has authored two books on game design: “Level Up! The Guide to Great Video Game Design” and “Swipe This! The Guide to Touchscreen Game Design”. Both books are top sellers and “Level Up!” is a #1 best seller on Amazon.com. Scott’s books are used as the foundation of video game design curriculums at universities all over the world.
Scott lectures and teaches video game level design at the University of Southern California’s prestigious school of Interactive Media. His students have gone on to design award winning games: Threes, Where’s My Water, Ori and the Blind Forest and Nevermind.
Jillian Mood, IGDA: Hi Scott! Thank you so much for doing this interview, looking back at your incredible career it’s hard to know where to start!
Well, let’s start at the beginning! Tell us about your first job and how it launched your career into the creative and gaming world?
Scott Rogers: Just like Lana Turner, I was discovered in a coffee shop.
I had just been laid off from my first job after college at an animation studio and was drawing in my sketchbook. A friend from school saw me and asked me if I could draw. (I can) and if I could draw using a computer (I can). However, the software he used was for the PC and I was a Mac guy at that time. (I have since converted).
He graciously lent me the use of his computer for two weeks to learn those programs. I created a portfolio of work and interviewed at the company. The team was working on this very cool fantasy-themed RTS and I got along well with them, but at the end of the interview, I was informed the position I had applied for had been given away the day before. That small company was called Silicon and Synapse and that game was called Warcraft. Yes, I had missed my opportunity to be on the ground floor of Blizzard by one day. However, with the artwork in hand, I soon found work at another company and started my career as a video game artist. I eventually became a designer, but you can find that story in “Level Up!”
JM: You have worked for some incredible companies, Disney, Sony, Capcom…the list goes on! Was the creative process different at each company or do you follow the same steps? Did each company have a completely different creative culture?
SR: It depends on the company and position I have. Working with Disney Imagineering, for example, was very different experience than the more traditional game developers I had worked for in the past. I had to dust off some skills I thought I’d never use again as well as learn some new one – I even built a tree!
I find that I prefer to collaborate than lock myself away in a “design tower” and generate work. I work better with others and I really like the energy and ideas that can come from collaboration.
I always start with brainstorming and brainstorming always works better with others. Then I do a lot of drawing and writing, taking the ideas, fleshing them out and refining them. Finally, there is a lot of back and forth with the artists and programmers and other designers and lots of iterating and honing of ideas and gameplay. I always say that “all design is liquid”; you should allow for changes along the course of the entire project.
JM: How important was game design back in the 16-bit days compared to now?
SR: It was just as important as it is now.
While 16-bit systems were more restrictive in format, it made it easier to design games – for example, we just had to “follow the grid” when designing levels. It was almost more “mechanical” since every movement or action could be fitted to a grid. Using paper maps and storyboarding gameplay is still one of the best way to plan out a game before you execute. You can spot and solve many problems at the paper stage of a design.
JM: Obviously the image of designing games for Disneyland sounds like the best job ever for a creative! Was it exciting as it sounds?
SR: It was one of the most amazing and inspiring experiences of my life. I don’t know if I will ever get another opportunity to work there again, but I am proud to have it on my resume. While I was there, I scaled the heights of the Matterhorn and crawled through the basement of the Haunted Mansion. I would love to tell you more, but then the Disney ninjas would come after me. (On retrospect, I think they’ve replaced the ninjas with First Order Stormtroopers.)
JM: And you also worked for Japanese companies as well. Was that a culture work shock to you? How did the environment and process differ from what you were use too?
SR: I worked for the American divisions of Japanese companies, so there wasn’t too much culture shock during my day-to-day job, but my work did take me to Japan several times. Despite all of its strange and wonderful differences, Japan is pretty easy for a Westerner to get around in. I found that working with Japanese developers was pretty similar to Americans. Making games is making games, no matter what country you are in. I did pick up many cultural habits from my time in Japan. If you ever meet me, ask me for a business card and you’ll see.
JM: Can you tell us about your favourite (or one of your favourite) projects you worked on and why it meant so much to you?
SR: While I have enjoyed (most) of the games I have worked on, there are two that stand out.
The first was Maximo vs. Army of Zin. I had a big say in the design of that game and was really interested in expanding the world of Maximo. I am proud to say we were creating steampunk-themed characters back in the early 2000’s!
But I like Maximo 2 the most, because I wanted to address the problem of challenge vs. difficulty. People complained that the first Maximo game was too hard and they stopped playing. (which is too bad, because the final boss is really good) so I went into the design of Maximo 2 with a list of 50 things I felt needed to change from the first game. I am proud to say I achieved 49 of them. In my humble opinion, Maximo 2 is a better game than the first. It is much more playable and challenging to the player. It is less cruel.
The second project I enjoyed was the first project I worked on for Disney Imagineering. Sadly, it never progressed past the playable prototype stage, but it was very innovative and would have had a huge impact on the park. The project allowed me to be involved in some amazing things. There is even something permanent in Disneyland that I can point to and say “This is like this because of our game”. How many can say that?
JM: After so many projects as a game designer you started publishing books (makes sense!). Did that come naturally to you because of your career? What was a challenge you found trying to put your expertise to paper?
SR: I was asked to write “Level Up!” by Wiley and Sons. They had seen my GDC lecture entitled “Everything I learned about level design I learned from Disneyland” and felt that there was a book in there. I thought they wanted me to write a “For Dummies” book but they said they wanted the “Scott Rogers’ book of game design” – I am extremely grateful for that opportunity and realize what an honor it was to be asked.
As for writing the book, it was hard work, but it still came pretty easily. I had already been thinking about writing a book before Wiley came calling and I had created a document called the “Platform Primer” that ended up being the foundation for “Level Up!” (You can find the Platform Primer at my blog at www.mrbossdesign.com.)
JM: How would you explain what game design means if you were talking to a group of 5-year-olds?
SR: I have taught game design to a group of 8-year-olds and they were super-engaged and so creative! Kids are often just as sharp as adults and they usually pay better attention to their teacher! Since most of them love games, they catch on pretty quickly to how and why things work. Give them the basics and a few tools to play with and they will zoom off!
JM: And also, if you had advice for creatives entering the game industry today, what advice would you give them to have a full and fulfilling career?
SR: I am teaching a class at the New York Film Academy that preps the graduate students for employment. I tell them this:
1) Just do it. Many of these kids coming out of colleges have already done the two hardest things in gaming: They’ve made a game(s) and they’ve found a team to be a part of. It is so easy right now (in 2015) to make games and find an audience for your game and sell your game than it has ever been in the history of gaming. You don’t need someone else to “invite you to the party” to make games. Make them yourself. I am proud to say that many of my students have gone on to form their own companies and made very successful and profitable games. You can too.
2) If you have to work for a company, find a project you want to be involved with. Having great games on your resume can take you pretty far.
3) Don’t forget to live your life. It’s really easy for people making video games to want to spend all of their time working. What’s not to love about making games? However, it’s not curing cancer. It doesn’t have to be finished this minute. Find a company (or create a company) that makes room for your own interests, projects and people in your life.
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