Interview with Fawzi Mesmar, Head of Design at EA DICE

Fawzi Mesmar has been working with games his entire life. As a kid, he made guides for his classmates, in college he made a game with friends, and now he is the Head of Design at DICE in Sweden. We talked with Fawzi and learned why game remakes are so popular, what is taught in college gaming departments around the world, how game designers come up with ideas, and why you sometimes have to let them go.

“It was 40 degrees [Celsius] outside, but it must have been 50 where we were making the game”

— Fawzi, how did you get into gamedev?

— Making games is something I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid. Еver since I played Space Invaders, I was completely infatuated with that world. In fact, I remember them asking us in kindergarten what we wanted to do when we grew up, and all the other kids in class wanted to be astronauts or pilots, and I said I wanted to make games in Japan. So, I’ve known what I wanted to do ever since I was a very young kid.

— How did you get into game design?

— I think the first time I discovered what game design actually meant was when I would finish games, write strategy guides in my school notebooks, and then give them to the other kids in class to help them finish the games. Around 1996, I was writing a strategy guide for the first Resident Evil, and I was tracing the mansion, like drawing maps in my notebooks. And then it hit me that somebody actually drew this from their imagination. Somebody actually imagined this, put it on paper, and then made it a reality. And I thought, “This is what game design is, and I definitely want to do this.”

 And you started studying it?

— In my first years of college, a group of friends and I were studying Japanese together as a hobby, and we were all talking about how we wanted to make games. There weren’t any game dev schools or anything like that in Jordan, where I’m from. There wasn’t any game development happening in the Middle East really at that time, so those guys and I decided, “Alright, we want to make a game.” We wanted to make a game on the Game Boy Advance. That’s how our journey in gamedev started.

Basically, we rented a tiny space, like 40 square meters [430 square feet], and we brought in furniture from home. You know, those plastic chairs and tables that people usually put in the backyard.

It was ten people on four computers in a very tiny space, above a baker’s shop as well. It was 40 degrees [Celsius, 100 degrees Fahrenheit] outside, but it must have been 50 [120 Fahrenheit] where we were doing this thing. It was very cheap to rent that place for obvious reasons.

Most of us were studying computer science at the time, but I also had music as a hobby. So, I was writing the music for the game as well. That annoyed a lot of people because we didn’t exactly have a music room or any insulation, and people were trying to focus while I was strumming. It was a very tiny demo that we put together at the time. But another thing that was really difficult is we did not have any access to devkits for the Game Boy Advance.

We ended up hacking commercial units to make the games, and we made a gigantic 2-megabyte game, of which I had 300 kilobytes for the sound and music.

That’s how it started. It was completely indie before indie was a thing, I guess. I started programming and doing music, but the guys on my team were telling me, “You’re such a wiseass, always talking about how things should be. Why don’t you also design the game, because we’re too busy building it?” I’ve been a game designer ever since. I haven’t done anything else in 17 years now.

“There are now dedicated game development schools that focus on teaching how to make games”

— You’ve worked in game development in seven countries. Could you tell us if there are major differences in the way gamedev and work in general are approached around the world?

— There are a lot of similarities, like people’s infatuation with games, how passionate they are about the medium, and how they devour pop culture. That is what I like about going to game development conferences. You walk in, there are people from all over the world, and they all have everything in common. Almost everybody there is unanimously inspired by games to some extent when they were growing up, and they started to make games because they wanted to inspire others as well.

There’s a talk I actually do quite frequently at conferences in which I talk about the differenсe in management styles, because I’ve been a manager of design teams in the Middle East, the West, and the Far East. The biggest differences are in the work culture and how organization happens.

In Middle Eastern companies, the management style is a little bit more traditional and autocratic. It is very hierarchical, and the management style is more about leadership enforcing or instilling strong visions that then trickle down. The manager needs to be this expert that has all the answers all the time, and people come to them for guidance.

In Japan, it’s quite different. There’s a culture of harmony in which people need to come together in their decision-making. There’s huge respect for people being able to do their jobs the proper way. The game director gets a lot of respect and obedience from the game teams. In general, in Japan, there’s a culture of loyalty to the company, so most people spend their entire career at the same company, and they dedicate their lives and resources to make sure that the company is always doing its best in terms of competitive edge. While overwork is a very common thing in the game industry everywhere, in Japan it’s part of the culture. Many people there see their calling in life as working a lot.

In Europe and Western countries in general, there are regional differences. The German management style, for example, is quite different than the Swedish management style and the New Zealand style. But, in general, there is a lot of trust in teams to be able to perform their jobs the best they can. They apply more agile methodologies to their way of thinking, motivational theories, and all that.

 Companies from post-Soviet countries often incorporate their regional aesthetic into their games, like STALKER or Metro. Do you think we’re going to see games using the local aesthetic and atmosphere of MENA countries?

— Games that are developed in and coming out in the Middle East are very much inspired by the local culture. You see a lot of games that have perhaps desert environments or Bedouin culture showing up. There’s a game that was released on PS4—I think it’s called Unearthed—that was based on a lot of Middle Eastern cultures.

I think that’s great because that’s the unique voice that these regions can bring to the gaming scene, like the Japanese gaming industry has been very strong and relies a lot on Japanese culture and exporting concepts like ninjas and samurais. We’ve seen similar things in the West as well with games inspired by locations and areas around the world.

I think game development in the Middle East now is definitely on the rise, but it’s still in its very early stages. We are yet to see big-budget global hits come out of the region in a way that will help export a lot of this knowledge. But, for me, that’s only a matter of time. It’s all about rallying together around a concept and getting the funding to be able to ship some of those projects all the way to completion.

Bigger publishers are now looking into localization into Arabic for a lot of the big games for the Middle Eastern region, so there is consumerism going on over there. It’s only a matter of time before a development team strikes gold.

 Speaking of Arabic, you’ve written a book on game design in Arabic. Is it more or less All You Have to Know as a Game Designer?

— Pretty much. I released that book two years ago, and it’s 400 pages of my experience in game design. That knowledge never existed in Arabic before; you had to learn another language to get that information. I ended up importing books about game design back when I still didn’t know what I was doing. I needed to understand if I was on the right track. I just wanted to pay it forward so other people could get information in their native tongue.

I even wrote a chapter about how to get a job in the industry, like how I did it and many different ways that you can do it.

The gaming industry has existed for more than 50 years, and there is still, to my knowledge, no major designated game schools. There are different departments where you can learn how to do game design, but there is no one place to go if you want to make games. Why?

— I think that’s changing, actually. Over my career, as I traveled around the world, I did see a bit of that at first, when there’d be design or game design departments as part of design studies in general. But then I’ve also started seeing dedicated game development schools popping up. I’ve taught in a bunch of them, like Media Design School in New Zealand, the Berlin Games Academy, and Futuregames in Stockholm.

There are now dedicated game development schools that focus on teaching how to make games. They bring in experienced people from the industry to translate their experience back to the students, and, most importantly, a lot of these schools have very strong connections with game development companies. We used to rely on game development schools to hire interns and get them into the industry. So, actually, now they’re a very viable way to get into game development.

The students that I teach study development design, and some schools include art as well. A graduate from these schools comes out knowing Unreal, Unity, or both, they’ve taken game design courses, and they’ve worked in teams and produced at least four game projects. They have more knowledge than I had at the start of my career.

— Do you think in ten years when gamedev schools are more established, people will go to them to study, or will there still be more self-taught developers?

— I think it really gives you a bigger shortcut. Back in the day, all developers were self-taught, and it was very difficult to break into the industry, so very few people got in. Every time you speak to somebody about how they got into the industry, they have a very interesting story about a huge coincidence or somebody knowing somebody. It’s never a straightforward case of “I was qualified, I applied, and then I got the job.”

This is because game development requires a very specific set of skills. There’s a lot of deep specifications, and the only way for you to know them is by doing them. I could probably get five game designers in the room and they’d all have different ideas about what game design is or what kind of qualifications you need. Getting that kind of knowledge and experience in a school would really help you get your foot in the door.

Most companies have internship programs. At DICE, we get interns from schools regularly. Back in the day, we had to fish for people. We’d be like, “There’s this person on this forum that seems to be really interested in this very tiny section of our game. Maybe you could bring them in?” It wasn’t a systematic approach. Schools and education are really making that better.

— If you’re a young person that wants to get into gamedev, you should look for game schools – they will help.

— It’s one of the things I really recommend. If you’re interested in game development, I would definitely recommend going with computer science. It always helps, and if everything else fails, hey, you’re a programmer—you can get a job anywhere.

But, in general, if you want to get into the game industry, you gotta make games, whether you make games on your own, you make games within an online team, you do game jams, or you do mods. The only way to get experience in making games is by making them yourself. The more you can demonstrate that you’ve been making games, the easier it becomes for you to get into the industry.

“Modern games involve more ‘hand-holding’ because there’s a lot of competition”

— You’ve worked on AAA titles, mobile games, and flash games. What would be the main differences in regards to game design?

— Players are taught gameplay aspects and are engaged the same way in both consoles and mobile games. The same principles apply, but the number of mechanics, their functionality, and the complexity changes.

— I think there are some major differences in the way tutorials work in mobile and traditional games. Mobile games tell you to tap here only, but in Half-Life 2 a Combine throws a can on the ground.

— Yeah. Because the circumstances around the two games are quite different. So, for example, in a mobile game there’s a smaller level of investment. It’s probably free, you did not pay much for it, and there’s a lot of competition on mobile. Most of the time, when you’re choosing to play a mobile game, you’re waiting for something. You think, “I have some time to kill.” So, your attention span is quite limited: “I’m gonna check this out, and if it doesn’t impress me within the first two minutes, I’m out. I’ll just delete it and find something else”.

Whereas for a console game you pay a good sum of money to get that game. And if you are playing on PC, you need some time to set everything up. By the time you plug in this game, your mindset is, “I want to sit down and dedicate all my attention to this thing because I put a lot of money into it and I’m gonna give it an hour or two, or even more, to see if I like it or not.” That is a luxury that mobile designers don’t have, so they need to make sure that the person understands what they are trying to convey in the best way.”

And eventually you will see traditional gaming applying a similar kind of technique in tutorials in their games as well. The best tutorials, even in traditional games, are the ones you get without having to open stuff or read online. Back when you could only afford one game a month in traditional games, there wasn’t that much choice, even though there was a lot of competition. If you didn’t understand the game, you asked the kids in class, you bought magazines. And now you hear a lot about how modern games involve more “hand-holding.” It’s because there’s a lot of competition out there, and if they don’t explain what they’re trying to do, they will lose you as a player. They need to be improving their tutorials, even in the bigger games.

— Why do you think remakes are so popular? Is it just players being nostalgic and companies knowing that people will love it because the average gamer is getting older every year?

— There’s a bit more to it. I definitely think nostalgia is a strong factor; we can see that in a lot of reboots in movies. If you loved The Lion King as a kid, you’ll probably want to see the new one now.

But you’ve gotta keep in mind that there’s generations of gamers that grew up with our current internet culture, and they’re familiar with a lot of the stuff that we take as the standard for gamer culture that they’ve never got the chance to experience themselves. It’s hard to be on the internet without seeing spoilers about Final Fantasy, and now they’re getting the opportunity to experience that for the first time. So, some of them were like, “I wanna see what the fuss is all about.”

Similar thing with Shadow of the Colossus. The remake came out on PlayStation 4 a couple of years ago and, for the people that played at that time, it’s like a bona fide classic. But not everybody got the chance to experience it properly, right? It allows a new generation of people to experience it. There are other games that are dear to my heart that I used to enjoy quite a bit, but I’m not gonna go and find a CRT TV now and hook up my own Super Nintendo or Playstation. I won’t play with a corded controller and see if they still have a memory card somewhere just to enjoy Metal Gear or Goldeneye.

They were great for their time, but I still want to enjoy them now. I remember earlier they released PlayStation Classics on PlayStation and some of those games did not really hold up as we remember. The remakes or the HD revamps bring those classic experiences to our standard today. We play them as we remember them, but that’s not exactly how they were, and I think that’s great.

“The best way to make ideas more unique is to make them closer to you”

— How do you and your team come up with new gaming ideas?

— Something I teach quite a bit to my students is inspiration always comes from personal experience. It can be what we consume as media: music, movies, comic books. You may notice that a lot of game developers probably have a lot of similar sources of inspiration. I don’t know a single game designer that hasn’t at one point in their career gone, “Oh, I had this great game idea, and then PUBG came out,” and it was exactly the same idea. And PUBG is inspired by a Battle Royale series of books. When artists create a very imaginative character, that character is most likely inspired by a bunch of real-life characters that they see. They are mixed together or deformed into a humanoid fish or something like that.

The best way to make ideas more unique is to make them closer to you. The personal experiences that you’ve had from your perspective will create more originality and uniqueness in your ideas. Miyamoto famously used to go out, run around Kyoto as a child, and look down pipes on the sides of buildings. He used to think, “I wonder what the other side is gonna be like if I go into that pipe. On the other side, I might come out in a different world entirely,” and you know that obviously made its way into Mario eventually.

There’s a lot of these details that evoke emotion. Identifying them later is the source of inspiration, and that’s where new ideas come from. When I work with teams that want to come up with original things, I urge them to think that way.There’s a common misconception that your job as a game designer is to come up with ideas, but in fact our job is to make other people’s ideas work.

—So, who comes up with the ideas then?

— They can come from anywhere. You can read a comment on a YouTube video where somebody goes, “Oh man, it would be great if that weapon did this.” And you go, “Hmm, that’s a good idea, but if we did that, it might screw up the balance in some other ways, but we can do it if we do this, this, and that,” and all of a sudden that idea makes its way into the game.

So, we identified that the idea exists, we identified the potential of the idea, and we identified all the problems that idea might cause, and then we solve these issues to fit that idea—that’s a game designers’ job.

— I’m sure it’s happened where you’re working on a game mechanic and thinking, “Wow, this is gonna be amazing,” but then you implement it and it doesn’t work. What is the main criteria to identify when, although development was fun, you shouldn’t implement a feature?

— I always tell my team that we need to prototype those ideas that we are uncertain of before we build them. Going straight into building things is when we get those unpleasant surprises like, “We thought that idea was great, but it’s not working at all, and we are in the middle of development and now everything’s on fire.”

We want to avoid those circumstances as much as possible by trying to prototype that idea as early as possible. First, we need to identify what the things you need to prototype are, how we make sure that we find a quick and dirty way to identify if this thing works or not, and, if it doesn’t work, it’s fine. Failure is a good result coming out of this, so we can scrap it and come up with something else.

My solution is that we always prototype and we never fall in love with our own ideas. If something is not working, we should definitely cut it, regardless of how much time or how many resources we invested. If we invested a lot of time in something but it’s not working for the benefit of the game, that thing has to go.

— Sometimes games are viewed as a creation of one person, like a game by Sam Lake, Neil Druckmann, or Kojima. Is it valid to give one person so much credit for game development, considering teams now involve thousands of people?

— I think there’s two facets to this. Proclaiming that one person is responsible for shipping an entire game is absolutely ridiculous. The creative directors are often thanking their teams for their work and effort—it’s a group effort. With a bigger-sized game, there’s no way that one person will know every single detail about how every tiny aspect of the game is being developed at the same time. There’s just too much going on for one person to be able to keep track of all that together.

However, there is always the aspect of a vision holder in a game. In a lot of game companies, there will be a creative director who is in charge of rallying the team around a vision. Because when game projects expand in size, there’ll be a lot more people, and with a lot more people, there’ll be a lot more opinions. And sometimes there’ll be two decisions that sound just as good, and it’ll be hard to move forward without somebody saying, “We’re going this way instead of that way,” and that’s where creative directors really come into place.

So, saying that Kojima shipped this game on his own is obviously ridiculous, but saying that Kojima was not responsible for the vision of his creations is also ridiculous. He is, by all definitions, among the main reasons why the creative output of his studio has a very similar taste, tone, and feel and all that. He also collaborates with a lot of the same people, so that helps a lot with their creation. We need to appreciate both the leadership and the hundreds, if not thousands, of people involved in the creation of amazing games.

“There will be new types of games that we are yet to imagine”

— In recent years, there were a lot of games with what I would call non-traditional gameplay loops. If 15 years ago you came out with a walking simulator, people would be like, “Yeah, but where is the game?” And nowadays it’s kind of okay to make a game without gameplay. Do you enjoy playing games like that?

— I enjoy playing any kind of video game, and I enjoy game developers that are challenging or expanding the notion of what a video game is supposed to be. And what we’ve seen throughout the years is that there has been a lot of people pushing the envelope about what a game should be. I remember there was a period back in the day when games were not supposed to be about stories, right? People used to say, “I want to just play the game; if I wanted to watch a story, I’d watch a movie.” You don’t normally hear that anymore because gaming as a medium has the ability to deliver emotions and experiences in a way that other mediums just cannot.

— Do you think there are unique genres that have not been developed yet?

— I’m confident that there will be more and more new types of games that we are yet to imagine, and that’s the beauty of it. We are only bound by our imagination, inspiration, and the new different perspectives that are gonna come from different parts of the world to amaze us and excite us. There can be things coming out at any time.

Dota was originally a mod to Starcraft before it moved to Warcraft 3 and became Dota as we know it. That started an entirely new genre that came out of the blue, and that’s a genre that has been going strong for over a decade at this point. Now, within Dota there was a mod that came out last year called Auto Chess that has now become a genre, and there are many games out there to play it. It’s basically you making choices but the game plays itself. And that challenges a lot of what people would say is traditionally a game, but there’s so much depth that it became really popular.

Minecraft was one of those games as well. Minecraft challenged the traditional expectation of a game to have a start and an end, to give you a set of objectives, and to tell you what you need to do one step at a time. It also changed the attitude towards graphics at a time when people wanted everything to be HD. Here’s the most popular game in the world right now, and it doesn’t aspire to anything that we would deem traditional.

— The modding community used to be more prevalent in a lot of games, but in the last couple of years we’ve seen less room for modders. How crucial do you think modders are to pushing the industry further and adding new ideas?

— I think back in the day modding was one of the few ways to come up with new ideas because it’s basically the democratization of game-making.

It’s not just the developer that makes games now, as everybody can be a developer through the set of tools that are going in. It’s kind of sad that developers are moving away from modding in some ways, but I can understand that, because modern technologies and everything are moving away from a lot of the tools that allow modders to work the way they want to work.

There’s also all sorts of copyright concerns and people using modding in wrong ways, let’s say, that are definitely delivering negative experiences to other players. So, there is a downside of modding that is unfortunately one of the reasons communities are becoming a little bit more careful about it.

However, we are more focused on user-generated content than ever before, and a lot of games are giving tools to users to be able to create their own experiences. I’ve already mentioned Minecraft, for example, which allows a lot of creativity, as does the Mario Maker series or even Dreams, recently released on Playstation.

Rapid-Fire Round

— Your top three games of all time?

— Super Street Fighter 2The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, StarCraft: Brood War.

 Best video game story of the last decade?

— To the Moon. It’s an amazing game, a beautiful story.

— Bad Company 2 or Battlefield 4?

— Oh, that’s tough… What I told my team is that my favorite Battlefield is Battlefield Vietnam, actually. That’s a really good time—I have very fun memories playing that game. Bad Company 2 is great, and Battlefield 4 is great for different reasons. I love both. I can’t choose.

— PS or Xbox?

— I have very fond memories of my first PlayStation, so I was always playing a lot of PlayStation games, but I use Xbox a lot as well, so it’s difficult to answer that. But yeah, I’m a PlayStation guy, I think.

— As a gamer, single-player or multiplayer?

— I like both. Of the top three games that I told you just now, there are two multiplayer games and one of them was single player.

— What is your ideal weekend?

— Being around friends and family, playing video games, having a good meal and some beer, waking up late the next day.

— Can you recommend some professional resources that you read about the industry or game design in particular?

— I go to the usual like Gamasutra and I go to those quite frequently for game industry stuff. GDC talks, I highly recommend those for everybody. They offer a lot of their videos for free on YouTube. You can also check them out if you have GDC Vault access.

As for books, I recommend Jesse Schell’s The Art of Game Design, Raph Koster’s Theory of Fun, and Eric Zimmerman’s Rules of Play—fantastic books, fantastic people as well, by the way. Really, awesome, awesome human beings.