George Ziets - Interview @ RPGCodex
RPGCodex interviewed game designer and writer George Ziets about the games he worked in in the past, the games he is working on currently (Project Eternity, Torment Tides of Numenera), Baldur's Gate 3 and more.
How would you describe the 'Ziets approach' to game design? Which designers and writers have influenced you the most over the years?What’s unique about the medium of games is its interactivity. A game is really a shared narrative between the developer and the player, and the more we can do to make the player an equal partner in that exchange, the better.
So my goal as a designer is to make the player feel like the most important character in the game… and to give the player as many ways as possible to customize their experience. Examples: Let the player decide who their character is and was – avoid imposing an identity upon the character if you can. Provide multiple ways to solve every problem, make sure the player is aware of their options, and provide clear consequences for the player’s choice. When important events happen in the story or world, they should result from the player’s actions, or they should play out differently because of the player’s choices. Anticipate what cool thing the player would want to do in any given situation, and try to find ways of letting them do it. Make your villains threaten things that are important to the player - not just to NPCs. And never impose words or actions upon the player in a cutscene (or anywhere else).
Another important goal is to think of all elements of the game as part of a coherent whole. No element – gameplay, story, art – is more important than any other. They all need to work together to create a unified experience. Ideally, we should approach every game with a high-level idea of what kind of experience we want to craft and then make sure that the story, mechanics, and art style all reinforce that big idea.
This perspective can be difficult to keep in mind at mid- to large-sized studios, where disciplines have become increasingly specialized, with one person doing nothing but combat design, another doing nothing but writing and story, another focused entirely on items, etc. This is one of the reasons I favor the older system of designers as generalists, which tends to encourage us to look at the whole experience, rather than one specific part.
Finally, I always prefer to put the player into a situation where they don’t know the rules. I’m not referring to game mechanics (which should always be clear and understandable), but to the story and the world. If you can drop the player into an unfamiliar situation that isn’t quite like anything they’ve seen or experienced before, they’re going to be more attentive and engaged, leading to a more memorable experience. Everyone likes a mystery – the key is to use plenty of unanswered questions about the setting, the story, and the characters to drive the player through the game.
Influences are tough. I’ve ingested such a mixed-up cocktail of games, books, movies, and TV over the past 30+ years that it’s difficult to pick out the ones that have had the greatest effect on me as a designer.
Certainly the team at Obsidian – Chris Avellone, Josh Sawyer, etc. – has had a significant impact because we share a lot of the same sensibilities and because I’ve worked with those guys longer than anyone else. The Infinity Engine games, in general, had a strong influence. Also the early to middle Ultima games from my childhood, so I’d include early Richard Garriott and Origin Systems as another influence. Sid Meier too – especially the open-ended structure of his original Pirates game, where the player could even determine when the game ended. As a storyteller / world builder, influences include Greek mythology, real-world history, psychology, and current events, Japanese animation (especially Miyazaki, but others too), the Fighting Fantasy novels of the 80s, Tad Williams, George R. R. Martin, David Brin, Steven Erikson, Gene Wolfe, and probably many authors that I’m forgetting. And it’s difficult to ignore the influence of D&D, since it played such a big part in my early creative work.
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