The Aesthetic of Play
Brian Upton's The Aesthetic of Play is Available Now on Amazon
Brian Upton's The Aesthetic of Play is Available Now on Amazon

Tell us a little about your history here at Santa Monica Studio and what you do?

I’ve been at Sony Santa Monica for almost 13 years. Before that I was the Creative Director for Red Storm Entertainment where I designed Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon. My title at Sony is Senior Game Designer, but when I’m describing my job to people I usually say I’m “a script doctor for games”. I’m in the external group that handles small indie games. At any time I’m collaborating on 3-4 different titles. I give feedback, critique and design support – whatever is necessary to help the team achieve their vision.

To date, what has been one of your favorite Santa Monica Studio games you worked on and why?

My favorite title was the one that was the hardest to bring to completion: Sorcery for the PlayStation 3. It was a Move exclusive, and there were a lot of challenging design problems to solve around using the motion controller for casting spells. I still love the organic feel of playing it.

What inspired you to write a book? With family and a full-time job, this takes a large commitment of time, over a long period time, what drove your motivation for this?

Two things: I was unhappy with a lot of the design books I was reading – I didn’t feel like they addressed the things I valued in design – and I’d just had several tough projects at Sony. One game in particular that I cared a lot about was cancelled (in retrospect, deservedly) while it was still in preproduction. I was at a low point in my career and wondering if I even should be working as designer at all.

So the book started out as something I could work on that was all mine. I didn’t have to worry about collaborating with anybody, or anybody cancelling it. I could just focus on writing something that felt useful and true. Of course when it came time to talk to publishers all that changed – the final book is the result of a lot of collaboration with a number of readers and editors. But for the first few years it was just me.

The bulk of the writing was done in the time between when I’d drop my kids off at school and when I started my day at Sony. After drop off, I’d go straight to Starbucks and write on my laptop for 60-90 minutes before I’d have to pack up and head into work. It turns out if you do that for five years straight you can write a book.

How did you develop an interest in game design? Were you playing and tinkering with games at a young age or was it an interest developed over time?

I’ve always loved games. When I was a kid I used to pester my family to play board games with me, and when they wouldn’t I would sit in my room and pore over the rules by myself for fun. It was a weird way to engage with games, but one that had a profound effect on me. I still often get more enjoyment out of reading rules and thinking about them than I do actually playing a game.

When I was twelve I discovered Dungeons & Dragons, and a few years later I found a gaming group through my local hobby shop. By the time I was in my 20’s I was designing board games and playtesting them with my friends. I still love the purity of board game design. The rules are all right there in the open. As a designer there’s no place for you to hide.

How has your personal concept or understanding of play evolved throughout the years? And have you had a core tenet (or tenets) related to design that have guided you through the course of your career?

I do have some core design tenets, but I didn’t realize that I had them until I started writing the book. The biggest one is this: The player is part of the system. A lot of design theory treats the game as something that stands by itself apart from the player. It’s there for the player to interact with, but the player as an individual is abstracted away from the design of the rules.

When I was designing Rainbow Six, I designed in a number of moments where the player just stops and thinks. During these moments the player isn’t interacting with an external system. The game isn’t doing anything. The player is just standing there, thinking about his situation, considering. And these moments were often the most entertaining part of the game. Understanding how these moments work requires that you think of the player’s mental state as being part of the game, not something external to it.

Coming up with a design methodology to describe that sort of play was difficult. When I started work on the book I didn’t realize that’s where I was headed, even though I’d been designing that way intuitively for years.

Brian helped design the original Rainbow Six for PC
Brian helped design the original Rainbow Six for PC

Have you had a process when it comes to design, for example, just jotting down notes here and there or drafting an outline linear or non-linear way?

I work things over a lot in my head. I like to always have a couple of active design problems to think about when I’m relaxing – mechanics or systems to fiddle with conceptually. If I land on something that feels solid, only then do I write it up as rules, or code it, or spreadsheet it. I don’t like having loose random ideas written down. Before I commit them to paper/bits, I like for them to have some degree of systematic consistency. Combining a lot of disparate ideas is hard.

The player is part of the system. A lot of design theory treats the game as something that stands by itself apart from the player. It’s there for the player to interact with, but the player as an individual is abstracted away from the design of the rules.

The Script Doctor is assisting design with developer The Chinese Room on their upcoming PS4 exclusive Everybody's Gone to the Rapture

When it comes to design, do you have a high-level approach where you conceptualize a broad idea that’s then refined, or is it the other way around with a handful of specific ideas that are worked up into a unified concept?

I start from an experience. What do I want the player to feel from moment-to-moment? Powerful? Scared? Curious? Relieved? And then I work backward from there to the mechanics that will support that feeling. Finding the right mechanic is like sifting through pieces to a jigsaw puzzle. I know the hole that I’m trying to fill, but I have to pick each piece and hold it up to the hole to see if it will fit.

Play isn’t restricted to games or childhood interactions, which at times can be a stereotypical view. Are these viewpoints detrimental to a broader understanding on play and its effect on human interaction?

They’re all pieces of the whole. The problem with using games as a starting point is that they’re often about competition and winning. So right away you’ve got a conceptual frame that limits your ability to think about other types of play. How do you win a game of make-believe? How do you win a short story? And how do you proceed if make-believe or story is an important part of the game experience you’re trying to create?

The challenge with starting from make-believe is that a lot of the scholarship on child’s play is directed toward understanding childhood development. So instead of make-believe being considered an experience unto itself, it’s often approached as a tool for accomplishing something – how does make-believe help children grow emotionally or intellectually? You see this attitude in the gamification movement – it’s about harnessing play to do useful work. Which kind of misses the point, in my opinion.

I start from an experience. What do I want the player to feel from moment-to-moment? Powerful? Scared? Curious? Relieved? And then I work backward from there to the mechanics that will support that feeling.

Is there a specific type of game or genre that you’ve always wanted to work on?

I really like strategy games like Civilization, but I’ve never worked on one. Now that the book is done I’m using my mornings to write a Civ game by myself. I’m trying to create everything algorithmically – there aren’t any models in the game, just polygons generated by code. Partially this is because I’m much better coder than artist. And partially it’s because I like the flat-shaded aesthetic. Maybe in another five years I’ll have something for people to play =)

A fun side project, just polygons generated by code

Follow Senior Game Designer Brian Upton on Twitter @bbupton and stay up to date with us @SonySantaMonica for more features on the creative developers of our studio. Click Here if you're interested in reading Brian's The Aesthetic of Play. Additionally, we're ALWAYS seeking great talent. Please visit our Career section for open positions.

Listen to Brian Upton on The Dork Forest Podcast with Jackie Kashian to learn more about The Aesthetics of Play and even a bit on the Origin of DnD. THAT is awesome, enjoy.

topics: culture, studio
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