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The Statesman

The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman


How to develop a video game, featuring Ken Levine


Ken Levine speaking at the Game Developers Conference in 2014. COURTESY OF THE GAME DEVELOPERS CONFERENCE

Video games have the ability to transport a person into an entirely different world, allowing them to experience a range of emotions and stories. But what steps are involved in creating those worlds? The video game industry can be incredibly overwhelming for amateurs, and no matter how clear and thorough one’s vision may be, creating a game from scratch can be difficult.

In an interview with The Statesman, Ken Levine, who is most known for his work as the creative director of the popular 2007 video game “BioShock,” gave some insight to help prospective developers better understand what the position entails. Levine founded his own development companies such as Irrational Games and Ghost Story Games and gave advice based on his experience from working in the field for nearly 30 years. 

There is no correct way to be creative, and this is not intended to be a strict list of steps that should be followed to a tee. Instead, this article is meant to be a guide and provide some recommendations for anyone interested in joining the gaming industry who doesn’t know where to start.

1. Consider what you’re getting into 

Before any steps are taken, you should understand a very important fact: creative fields are extremely competitive.

There is an abundance of people who are both dedicated and talented trying to achieve the same artistic goals as you. “Make sure it’s what you want to do,” Levine said. “If you’re not passionate about it, it’s going to make you and your client miserable.” This advice applies to almost any field, especially disciplines that are affiliated with the arts or humanities. 

If you hope to make headway in the industry, you have to be excited to put in the work. “Passion is hard to beat. You need talent, but you also need that passion,” Levine said.

2. Get involved

Early on, it’s important to become immersed in the industry and surround yourself with others who have experience. A starting point Levine recommended is to work as a quality assurance (QA) game tester. This role usually involves playing unreleased games while looking for technical issues to pass on to the developing team. 

“I met so many amazing people who came from QA,” Levine said. “The reason they [work in QA], is because you get to be exposed to game development and game developers. And I say this [as] somebody who started [in] development a long time ago but had no idea what it was.” 

Levine originally worked in the film industry before being hired by Looking Glass Studios as a designer. “A lot of people get really wrong ideas about how games are made until they get to the industry, and then they learn,” he said. 

He considered himself lucky to have been hired in a leadership role, but acknowledged that most people won’t be as fortunate. If you wish to direct the creation of a game, it is essential to understand how game development works and how to properly execute your plans. 

“Nobody wants to hear, ‘I have all these amazing ideas but I have no idea how to make them,’ because the ideas are not really [as] important,” Levine said. “Execution is almost everything, because most ideas can be turned to something good with proper execution.” It is necessary to be around developers and learn the basics before you try managing them.

Becoming involved in the gaming industry isn’t solely about understanding how to make games, but also experiencing them firsthand. This notion applies less if you’re interested in becoming a programmer, but for designers, it is recommended that you enjoy playing video games. “If you’re not well-read in games, it makes it much harder because you’re missing all these great lessons in game design, and missing out on a huge amount of knowledge,” Levine said.

3. Ask the right questions

As the director of his own development company, Levine has many people presenting and pitching ideas to him. He mentioned that during this process, he asks three main objective questions that are helpful, especially with reference to a game’s narrative: 

“What story are you trying to tell?”

You should know what message you’re trying to get across to the audience. “Even if I don’t like the story, I’m not everybody,” Levine said. “I don’t really like sports, right? But I would judge the work based on how well it tells the story.”

“How well is this telling that story?”

If the story you’re trying to tell isn’t presented clearly and focuses on irrelevant components, it most likely isn’t telling that story effectively.

“I’ll see if the story they’re trying to tell aligns with what I’m hearing from them, and if there’s a misalignment that’s basically always an objective failure,” Levine said. “Not that the idea is helpless, but they need to go back and they’ll have to align those things.”

“What problem are you trying to solve?”

You shouldn’t focus on adding aspects to the game for the sake of it being more detailed; instead, think about whether it will add to a player’s experience. “Every time you add stuff you’re also adding problems, […] mistakes and bugs,” Levine said. New gaming components need to have relevance, and you should consider whether or not they are necessary.

4. Find the right inspiration

A key part of any creative process is being inspired and influenced by media or real-life experiences. Levine heavily endorsed expanding one’s media consumption and branching out to discover more niche content. You shouldn’t merely watch, read or play things that are popular to draw inspiration from, because there is a good chance your audience will already be familiar with those ideas. 

“BioShock” is well known for having a plot twist that caught many players off guard. Levine gives credit to the 1962 film “The Manchurian Candidate, which he took a lot of inspiration from. “You can sort of borrow some ideas,” he said. “They’re going to be totally blown away by them because they’re not as familiar with that work.” 

He went on to explain that if he had taken an idea from a more mainstream movie, it wouldn’t be new or surprising to the audience.

It’s also important to not only be influenced by things you enjoy — explore media that doesn’t necessarily resonate with you. Levine emphasized taking an interest “in things that people love even if you don’t like it; just because you don’t like it doesn’t mean there’s not something valuable there. It’s going to make you a better developer too, you can’t rely upon thinking you’re going to learn to love everything,” he said.

5. Fail

Throughout the interview, Levine would often mention how his ideas were not initially successful. 

“Almost everything you do sucks at first,” he said. “Usually [the audience is] like ‘this is garbage.’” Making mistakes is vital to improving your skills when developing games. Sometimes it’s challenging to know what mistakes you’re making until later on, but do not let it discourage you. “That anxiety was so stressful for writing because it was so hard to write anything when I was constantly judging it,” Levine said. “I find writing much easier now because I’ve allowed myself to be okay with the fact that it’s going to be bad at first.”

6. Listen, but not to everything

Knowing you will make mistakes is only half of the battle; you also need others to point out those mistakes so you can fix them. When making any product, you should listen to peer feedback before you release it. Try your best to regularly show people your progress to get their reactions. It may be something you disagree with but don’t dismiss it immediately. “Give them a chance even if you hate something, allow yourself to see what they see,” and if enough people give that advice, “you really better listen,” Levine said.

Even though you should take people’s criticisms into consideration, they’re not always going to have the right solutions. “In almost all cases, none of them are ever going to make a suggestion that you should do,” Levine said. “So you should listen to them extremely hard for what they don’t like, but you should listen to them a lot less for what you should do, [as] it’s not really their job. It’s hard for an audience to really understand what should be changed unless they understand the design, [as well as] which members of the staff are capable of what. […] So, take their solutions with a grain of salt.”

7. You don’t need to know everything

When asked if there was any information he wished he’d known when first starting, Levine replied by bringing up the phrase “the genius of the novice.” When someone is unskilled or inexperienced, they will not have any bad assumptions or conventional wisdom about how things are supposed to work. Levine affirmed that his time as a novice was extremely productive. He said that it allowed him to come up with all sorts of “crazy” ideas because he had no pre-existing knowledge of what he was expected to do. You shouldn’t feel like you need to know the answer to everything, as there often isn’t one right way to do something, and going with your instinct could end up being the best solution.

The ultimate key to succeeding in game development is to not be afraid of failure and to dive head first into the industry.

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