PAX Prime 12 began in a strangely fitting venue: Seattle's opulent Paramount theater. Built in 1928, The Paramount was created as a showcase for the then cutting-edge creative technology of movies. Since the 20s, the theater has hosted some of the most important musical artists of the 20th century. At PAX, the Paramount's stage is a showcase for a new kind of artist working in the current cutting edge creative technology of video game. Ted Price, the founder and CEO of Insomniac games, started PAX 2012 with a speech geared toward encouraging creativity, and judging by the reaction of the nearly 3,000 gamers in attendance, the man knows his audience well.
"We are all creators," Price told the assembled Pax-faithful. "Playing video games is creating...Every time you start a Call of Duty match, it's like a blank canvas-- but you're painting with bullets," he said.
Price then launched into his life-story as it relates to making games, touching on a childhood filled with building things of cardboard and paper, and a desire to constantly create. In 1978, Price's world was changed totally when his parents brought home an Atari 2600. There are few crowds in the world that will raucously applaud a slide of a 40 year old game system, but Pax is one of them; Even though most of them weren't even born during the Atari age, everyone in the theater immediatly related to Price's childhood fascination with video games.
Price then described his journey to becoming the head of one of the most important development houses in video game history. Insomniac created Ratchet and Clank, Resitance, Spyro the Dragon and now Outernauts, but the company began in the 1990s with an obscure Playstation title called Disruptor. Not many people played that one, but the positive response from the people who did kept the creative juices flowing at Insomniac, and the drive and determination of Price and his crew eventually created some of the greatest games ever made. Price's mission during his keynote was to desccribe exactly how gamers can go from players to creators, a journey he know intimately.
According to Price, many of the obstacles he faced when starting Insomiac are gone. This is a "magical moment" for game development. Technical hurdles have been overcome, distribution problems have been solved, and information on making games is readily available to everyone. Which isn't to say it's easy, just that the obstacles have changed shape. The ease of game creation has flooded the market with thousands of titles, so Price offered his rules for making a game good enough to stand out from the crowd.
The first step: Do one thing better than everyone else. Price says Insomniac's one thing is creating over-the-top weaponry, and anyone who's ever played a Ratchet and Clank game knows that's true.
The next step to making a great game is a rule that is too-often forgotten in gaming: Fun comes first. Every other aspect of gaming (story, characters, graphics, setting, etc.) should be subordinate to the hard-to-define element of fun, according to Price. To illustrate the point, Price showed off a few minutes of video of a long abandoned PS2 game from Insomniac called "girl with a stick." It featured a pixie-like girl running around a fantasy forest, fighting baddies with, yes, a stick. It looked great, but according to Price, they could just never make it fun enough, so Insomiac canned the whole thing.
The third rule of making great games, according to Ted Price, is to Define Your Audience. This is particulary important in the current climate, where everyone is playing games. You can't make a game that appeals to the whole group -- shooter fans want something very different than sim fans-- so you need to decide which people you're going to "pitch" your game to, and make a game specifically for that group.
The final rule of making a great game is proably the most important: Make it Personal. "You're putting yourself into every game you make," Price said. In the case of Insomniac games, Price's contribution is now a managerial one. He said his own "one thing he does better than everyone else" is building consensus among his team.
While there are four "simple" rules for awesome game design, there are also some common pitfalls for a would-be developer. Self Doubt is the first game-killer Price identified.
"Self-doubt is an acid that eats away at the enthusiam we have," Price explains. The trick to conquering it is to "go with your gut." Believe in your own vision.
The second creativity killer in gaming: Rigidity. Price's own fight with being too rigid came during the development of the first Ratchet and Clank. When he presented the original design of the main character to a room full of Japanese executives, they were less then impressed, and insisted that Ratchet would be better with eyebrows, stripes and a more yellow coloring. Price responded with "Over my dead body," but he eventually relented, and came around to the wisdom of a yellow Ratchet with expressive brows and stripes. If Price hadn't been flexible, we might have a very different Ratchet today, or no Ratchet at all.
The third pitfall is perhaps the most deadly of all: Apathy. According to Price, at Insomniac, apathy tends to set in when a project is around two-thirds finished.
"Apathy is not caring about what you're creating... and it can creep in after the initial flush of excitement dissipates," Price said. In a way it's the worst pitfall, because if you give in, your "awesome idea can end up collecting dust with all the other awesome ideas."
The antidote to apathy is passion. "Passion allows us to get through the most difficult parts of production," Price says. "It's putting a little part of yourself in everything you do."
To close off his inspirational speech, Price stirred up the audience of gamers in the Paramount theater, by pointing out that someone very special was at Pax 12, and was likely sitting in the audience of that old movie house at that very minute.
"I believe there is a Mozart, Rembrant and Alan Turing in each of us, struggling to get out," Price said. "I believe that the next-big-thing in games is going to come from this audience, and I challenge you to make that happen."