Expert Interviews > Richard Bartle

Richard bartleRichard A. Bartle is Professor of Computer Game Design at the University of Essex. He is best known for having co-written in 1978 the first virtual world, MUD, and for his 1996 Player Types model which has seen widespread adoption by the MMO industry. His 2003 book Designing Virtual Worlds is the standard text on the subject, and he is an in?uential writer on all aspects of online design and development. In 2010, he was the first recipient of the prestigious Game Developers Online Choice Award of Online Game Legend.

What is it about (computer) games that interests you most?

Their design. I'm a game designer, so it's the design of a game that interests me most. I usually get more fun from reading the rules than actually playing; like most game designers, I have scores and scores of games I've read the rules of, but which I've only ever played in my head or against myself.

What do you think makes a really good (computer) game?

In the best games, the designer is trying to say something that they can only say through the medium of the game. Game design is an art form. If you can say what you want to say using some other art form - a novel, a drawing, a movie - then you should do that instead. If you can only say it through a game, that's what makes the game powerful. It's passion and vision that makes a game. Sure, you need mechanics and genre and balance and so on, but it's the heart of the game that makes the difference between a curiosity and a revelation.

What are the most important lessons you have learned about how to engage players in (computer) games?

You need to understand who is going to play your game. Everything flows from that. A game you make because a piece of gameplay is interesting, or because you like a particular setting, or because you want to see how systems will interact, can result in a game that is fun to play. However, unless you know who is going to play it, you can't say anything meaningful to them. Games aren't designed for you to play, they're designed for people to play.

What advice would you give a novice (computer) game designer?

You've been designing games already, right? For fun? You have a stack of half-formed ideas sitting around in text files or in boxes or in half-implemented pieces of code? You have half a dozen such projects on the back burner right now, yes? Games you started work on and keep meaning to revisit but you keep getting other ideas for games instead?

If so, you're a game designer. Just keep at it. If not, you're not a game designer, and no amount of studying will make you a game designer. Game designers design games because they have to, it's who they are. If you haven't been designing games for your own amusement yet you're old enough to have been doing that, you're not a game designer. You may be a gifted playwright or choreographer or animator or composer, but you're not a game designer.

Do you think that games have a place in education?

Yes. Then again, I think novels have a place in education, and film, and mime.

If so, how do you think they can most effectively be used? If not, what are your reservations?

Games are good at teaching at two ends of the learning spectrum: they can teach high-order problem-solving and they can teach facts. Anything in between, you're going to get better results using other techniques.

Important: if you want to teach facts, the game must not be about those facts: the game must be about something else, and the facts be merely incidental. Facts are not fun in and of themselves; people aren't going to play a game to learn facts. They're going to play a game to have fun. I can name every country in Europe. I can do this because I've played so many games that I just know what those countries are. I don't know which game in particular told me where Estonia was, but I know where it is (and that the Baltic States are arranged in alphabetical order north-south). I also know that whatever game taught me where Estonia was, it wasn't anything to do with teaching the geography of Europe.

How important do you think that graphical quality, and realism, is in computer games?

Important for what in computer games? Tell me what you mean by "important" and I'll give you my answer; it'll be easy for me, because in defining "important" you'll have answered the question yourself.

Where do you see the future of (computer) games?

In the imagination.

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