Talent > Experience > Education > . . . Ego?

A little snippet about game design from Blizzards almightly Lead Game Designer, Ghostcrawler.

“Do you know how many professional game designers I know who were trained as game designers? Zero. I imagine that will change over time though. This is, happily, one of the few industries where talent > experience > education. “

 One of his atypical responses to angry forum posters making fun of design decisions because he was trained as an oceanographer. The entire thread, if you dare so brave the WoW forums, can be found here.

I am not writing this to pick on Ghostcrawler. I don’t care where he came from, or what degree he has, or how he got to where he is right now. I am going to analyze that statement of his to have a closer look – only because I want to know if that is true. It is a pretty bold statement from the man at the helm of the ultimate cruise ship experience. He may even be right – but i’m not so sure. Truth searching after the break.

Let’s discuss each of the traits, before working out the ranking of them.

Talent: How do you define talent? Is it a natural affinity for an action, set of actions, skillset, natural attributes, – a combination of the aforementioned, or simply all of them? Is Talent something inherent or learned?  I don’t work for, or have insight into the industry. Is the industry really full of talent-full, experience-less, uneducated go getters? Perhaps that would explain the quality of patch releases (hello, Blizzard 3.1) and game launches (hello, WAR, AOC, et al.)

Experience: If history has tought us anything it is that people rarely make the same mistakes twice. This is what makes experience a beautiful thing! Mark Jacobs is a great middle MMO manager who had a great title under his belt (DAOC) and proceeded to make DAOC 2 (WAR) in the same fashion. That wasn’t a mistake at all – but things have changed in MMO expectations and uh, experiences. Creating the same game using his experience wasn’t a failure – it has a healthy population base, perhaps even growing. He used his experiences with DAOC and built the same kind of game with additional experiences with design decisions from a  2004 title (WoW) to try and produce a 2008 title. The importance of this point is that experiences change with progression – a good way to do things 4 years ago may not be a good way to do things now. However, if you absolutley did it wrong 4 years ago you would be apt to not make the same mistakes now.

Education: While GC specifically states game design education we definitely need to delve further. Education, especially University, doesn’t just teach a specific skillset – more importantly it teaches the ability and capability to problem solve, analyze, and communicate in a coherent and academic manner. That is why employers in many industries tend to care less what your degree is in, and simply look for a degree to begin with.

I would argue that Talent is the sum of natural expertise, learned experience and studied education. The absence of any of those pillars produces a far weaker sum – therefore, Talent = Experience + Education (with a dash of natural skillset). If the industry is indeed looking at it from a Talent > Experience > Education – without quantifying where that Talent comes from – would help explain the state of the gaming industry as it stands currently. True talent can’t exist without the experience or education.

9 comments / Add your comment below

  1. My favorite quite from a high school teacher was from my art teacher: “Talent is merely the will to work hard at something”

    I’ve always read that as meaning that anyone can develop talent, if they spend enough time educating themselves and gaining experience. There was a great article in Scientific American a while back about the notion that it takes a decade of dedicated effort to make someone an expert in a field… but that “inborn talent” really didn’t have a significant effect. People still need to put in the time and effort to develop “talent”. Inborn “talent” (a natural aptitude with something) might set someone a little further along that path to mastery at the outset, but it’s the effort that is the ultimate cause of mastery, and what I’d call “talent”.

    I’m not sure if you’ve been reading Broken Toys or Wiqd’s Immovation blog, but there’s a bit of a kerfluffle around lately where some people are deriding design blogs as being useless. There’s a bizarre notion at the root of that that puts professional designers on a pedestal that the mere proletariats don’t understand, and can never hope to ascend to.

    It’s almost like professional game designers are content with the state of the industry, where they are the high priesthood of a mystical order of game design, sole guardians of what constitutes “fun” and “good design”. If they can marginalize bloggers, and somehow make what they do seem like the product of some sort of mystical (undefinable) “talent”, it’s easier to make themselves out to be the sole authorities and arbiters of quality.

    …I’m not sure that’s quite what Ghostcrawler is getting at, but I see it elsewhere, and the notions intersect enough that I thought I’d take a moment to poke holes in the idea.

    So yes, I agree with your comments, and I always find it interesting when someone falls back on the “talent” argument to define their work. To me, that’s usually a sign of desperation and lack of intellectual rigor. If you can’t quantify what you do and look at it as a process that can be refined and taught to others, you don’t really know what you’re doing. You’re just lucky.

    Unfortunately, we see a lot of that in the game industry.

    Tangentially, “talent” and “passion” are often touted for people who work in games… but those are all too often keywords for “willing to be abused by crunch”. Also, the popular notion of “talent” tends to suggest that some people just have it, and others don’t, so why bother? What nonsense.

  2. I didn’t even know Wiqd had a blog. Better search that one out =) Plus I haven’t been making the rounds as per usual (been in and out of town, swamped with work), so am far behind on the comment contributions.

    It’s all about the old guard, even in this industry. Fun part about that is eventually it gets turned on it’s head. You see it happening already with garage startups producing great titles on tiny budgets – eventually that old guard will get the greed enough to give them a budget. Who knows, maybe for Alpha Hex =)

    I’ll go make the rounds and see what the marginalization hubbub is all about. Thanks for the lead!

  3. If I were in a conspiracy theorist mood, I’d suggest that the “old guard” is feeling threatened by the increase in indie development and success. Braid and World of Goo have made some good waves. I see that as a good thing; keep the big boys honestly competing for quality and attention.

    I’m not even sure the marginalization feeling I get from some of the discussion is something conscious on the part of the establishment. There just always seems to be a resentment on the part of devs when there’s someone who says they could be doing something differently. It’s human nature, and when these rock star devs get high on themselves, it’s hard to get anything objective out of them.

  4. Ghostcrawler’s statement might look as if he would look down on education and experience in the field. Or brag his talent. He does not. We are a bit too much dissecting his words, I understood him this way:

    But is he not actually saying that everyone can potentially be a good game designer?
    That this guy does not need to have shipped several AAA titles to have a good idea for a game?
    That some education is always a plus, but no necessarily a requirement to design a game.

    So why should an oceanographer not design a MMO. 🙂

    Ghostcrawler designed a very good class, the Death Knight.

    Most of his ideas are also just great – but the implementation is problematic. Is this maybe not a sign of lack of experience?

    Just see the issues that the absolutely accepted mantra “bring the player, not the class” caused. Now we have classes that are played less and less, despite the mantra and all good intentions.

    I can tell you, I smell some internal conflicts regarding the way the WOTLK instances were done.

    The aim was to make them easier, more accessible – and the result was they were dumbed down enough so that they bored a lot of players. In fact I was so bored that I quit this AoE nukefest. Which is a pity, as the quests and world, the sheer looks and detail of WOTLK was just amazing, better than ever before.

    This is something that really needs to be researched.

    I had so much more fun in TBC for longer periods of time.

    I say WOTLK was better in so many regards, and named a few reasons why it still turned me off. There are more that need to be identified.

    It was not just that I burnt out, many people suddenly burnt out, there is more to it than just the game getting old.

  5. @Longasc: Funny you mention the dissection – I almost put in a disclaimer about doing that – that devs know their words are dissected and it’s not really my style to do the same thing. However, in that thread, what you allude to is definitely the tone that it came accross. Me, being an absolutely reasonable and logical person (ahem) didn’t want to jump all over him for that. However, I just got the feeling that he meant it truthfully – which I found dangerous.

    Perhaps he is saying potentially that “anyone can be a game developer” and to that I would say is complete bunk. Without the experience and education you are looking big trouble, regardless of ‘talent’ level as he describes. That’s the danger in the statement.

    However, him being trained as an oceanographer absoultely helped him as that is no easy discipline. So props to him there. =)

  6. Sort of like “Anyone Can Cook” meaning “not anyone can be a great cook, but a great cook can come from anywhere” with the unspoken caveat that there’s definitely a requirement for experience and education. 😉

  7. In my opinion, Talent does exist. I know 2 girls who are studying music. Both love their stuff, both are working hard on it. But one hears and understands far more things than the other. Not a question of experience: she clearly has a gift.
    As for working hard, I like statistics. I truly do, and have worked quite hard at them on my own time. But I don’t “get it”. There is something fundamental that my mind can’t grasp, and bar me the way to the high orders of statistics…
    So working hard and being gifted aren’t the same. Still, a gifted person who doesn’t work will reach an apex eventually. Talent does not make everything. Working, researching, reflecting on something is clearly needed. And, of course, not getting to sleep on one’s bed of roses. As you said, past experiences can’t always be relevant to the present.
    But, to paraphrase Zhuge Liang in “3 kingdoms”, “outmoded tactics can be made efficient again with a few twinks”.
    There are no requirements to have the three. But having at least one or two can definitely help ^^

  8. @Modran: Good points! The core of what I was trying to get accross is (using your example):

    Take those same to girls. The one with the natural ear doesn’t study music, and doesn’t gain experience with it while the second one does.

    Obviously, even with lesser “talent”, the second girl will surpass the first in terms of ability at some point. (Much what you alluded to). I’ll even say, regardless of what people think of Ghostcrawler, he wouldn’t even have his job if he wasn’t educated to begin with. Regardless if it is an oceanographer or not!

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