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Where Do Ideas Come From?

July 25th, 2008 by Troy Goodfellow · 13 Comments · Design, Electronic Arts, Wargames

Last year, Irrational’s Ken Levine famously said that the problem with most game designers is that they’ve read one book (Lord of the Rings) and seen one movie (Aliens). It was typical Levine exaggeration, but the point was clear – game designers (and, I would add, games journalists) take their entertainment cues from a small menu of experiences and the industry is much poorer for it.

So it’s always great to read one of the three or four most important people in game design history speak about his influences, and, since Will Wright is a child of the sixties, he’s not from the primary Aliens age bracket.

Like many people of that generation, Wright grew up fascinated by the future – Jetsons, Star Trek, 2001, etc. He reveals that many of the concepts in Spore were driven by a viewing of the classic short film The Power of Ten. Showing the mind of a man who has actually thought about these things, Wright notes that both aliens and robots are used to reveal things about humanity.

Beyond drawing from cultural artifacts, Wright compares game playing to model building, which explains the designer’s emphasis on toys and sandboxes over games qua games; I recently went back to play SimEarth and it’s a terrible game, though entertaining as an interactive textbook. Designers who have matured in the world of sophisticated video games will give us much different things than someone who grew up building battleships with glue or playing Avalon Hill wargames.

I’ve written before about the decline of designer’s notes and forewords in game manuals. Even before the current scarcity of manuals, publishers were backing away from this sort of introspection or introductory remark. This sort of discussion is the kind of thing that fits naturally into a foreword or afterword.

You can still get this sort of information on podcasts when developers sit in. “What has influenced you?” is one of those rote journalistic questions that usually typifies laziness on the part of an interviewer, but can lead to some really interesting talk. Of course, you can’t search podcasts (yet) and game historians and archivists of the future might no be able to find this sort of thing. Occasionally you get a great interview with someone who has a real understanding of gaming history, but rarely does the discussion stray to inspirations outside of the business.

So, I want to know more about developers and where they get their inspiration. I’m sure it changes throughout a career, and I suspect that Levine is selling his colleagues short. But as I sat through game demos last week, I was struck by how many games I saw seemed to be inspired solely by other games and usually only other games in that series. (Spore aside, I think only Rise of the Argonauts was actually drawing on things much larger than itself, even if those things were Kevin Sorbo and Lucy Lawless.)

To some extent, wargame developers have easy answers to this question. They like the Civil War or tank combat and therefore make games about them. This only moves the question one degree rearward, though. I think of ProSim’s Pat Proctor, a professional soldier who has been overseas in combat zones, deciding to make realistic and foreboding simulations that have a quiet elegance once you get past the frightful surface. Norm Koger made his name with the expansive Wargame Construction Set series that culminated in Operational Art of War – games that were all about sum totals of weapons and men – but has now turned to bathtub ship combat.

Why do designers make these shifts? What books have they read or things have they seen that affects what types of games they decide to make? Why has Koger embraced 3D technology to make very good naval sims where his contemporary John Tiller has stayed committed to very traditional ways of presenting wargames? (I suspect the answer to that question is rooted in more than learning new skills; The History Channel’s love of 3D battle displays could do more to advance wargaming than anything you’ll see at a con or on this site.)

Yes, I could, as a professional journalist, get these questions answered, but that would only serve me and my few dozen readers. I could write a book about the evolution of strategy and wargames (if anyone knows anything about nonfiction publishing, send me a note) but ultimately the discussion of gaming inspiration should be left to those who are inspired. Blogs, designer notes, Gamasutra essays…there are so many places to get this discussion going. I can’t be the only person who is curious about what has influenced designers, and it’s really a shame that we only really get to hear from the top selling developers or the ones who think that Scarface is a cinematic masterpiece.


13 Comments so far ↓

  • Dave

    You raise some good points, especially with the Koger vs. Tiller comparisons.

    Tiller is definitely of the “one good idea” school of game design. He reminds me of the spoof in the Brady Bunch movies, which had architect Mike Brady making every building he designed look just like his house. Tiller got one good idea *over ten years ago* and hasn’t changed it a bit. Tweaks on the margins, little changes here and there, and that’s it.

    What I find so frustrating as a hardcore wargamer are the “It’s A.I., it’ll never beat a human opponent” arguments. That may be true on the timescale of our lives, but instead of doing their best to advance the art of good A.I., most game designers appear to have just given up. Worse, they’re endorsed by this mob mentality that A.I. isn’t important, so don’t bother– and anyone who criticizes the games for that are just being bomb-throwing trolls.

    Alas, I think folks who think like me in this regard are simply pointing out the Emperor’s wardrobe malfunctions.

    Personally, I think Tiller had a great idea in one sense– the way forward is not to design games around ideas, but to design ideas around games. *LEAD* with the engine, then let everything else flow from that.

    Trouble is, when the engine isn’t capable of simulating what you want to simulate in a challenging manner, the answer isn’t “I give up, play PBEM”, the answer is, “Well, perhaps we shouldn’t design such a complex game?”

    No one ever thought a computer would beat humans at chess. It has. Chess is “simple,” but of course, it’s not. At the basic competency level, why don’t wargame designers build from the A.I. up, and create more challenging games?

    Sorry for the rant. I’ve just spent over a decade playing Tiller’s Talonsoft and HPS games, spent more money than I can count on them, and I just wish I had gotten something more for my return than “Same old engine, same laughable graphics, same old stuff. . . but hey, you have hoplites now instead of panzers, how cool is that!”

    Feh. Wargame design is *still* stuck in the SPI days. Even the ingenious attempts to use the unique capabilities of the computer to breakout from the mold– Combat Mission, I’m thinking of you– get beaten down and forgotten.

    Where’s the innovation? Where’s the creativity? I *want* the old guard to die off if they’re going to keep doing the same thing year after year.

  • Troy

    I’m not sure that AI is necessarily the problem; it’s bigger than that as far as a lot of design is concerned. AI is just a larger symptom of the malaise in a lot of wargame design, which is that it is still, for the most part, stuck in a cardboard mentality.

    One of my own personal influences, Dr. Geryk, has written extensively on this throughout his wargaming columns and essays, probably best summarized here. Bruce wrote that three years ago, and I think things are better now in wargame design than they were then – I think that a lot of designers are starting to rethink the assumptions, even at HPS; Defending the Reich is one of the simplest and most original wargames in recent years.

  • Justin Fletcher

    “But as I sat through game demos last week, I was struck by how many games I saw seemed to be inspired solely by other games and usually only other games in that series.”

    But how much of this is due to a lack of developer inspiration versus a lack of publisher imagination? Will Wright is an anomaly in the industry in that he can pretty much make whatever he wants.

    While I’m sure that a large portion of developers willingly jump on the “me too” bandwagon, I would bet there are many folks out there who have been influenced by their own versions of Atlas Shrugged or The Power of Ten who believe they can’t sell those ideas in the current market.

    As for your larger point, I was just flipping through Soren Johnson’s essay in the Civilization IV manual for the umpteenth time and wishing that this sort of analysis wasn’t so rare. OXM had an interesting series a year or two back with designers interviewing other designers about their games. It lasted about four months before it fell apart, seemingly due to the schedules of the interviewers and the interviewees.

    Perhaps the main reason for the dearth in this kind of material is not a lack of space or money but a lack of time.

  • Justin Fletcher

    Hmm…I notice in your link to your previous entry that Soren actually brought up time as a major factor. You responded that time didn’t have to be a major barrier if developers kept their notes succinct. A short summary would be interesting, but I fear that wouldn’t scratch my particular itch.

    Perhaps instead of the obligatory “Making of” DVD in Collector’s Editions or GOTY reissues, we could get something along the lines of Valve’s developer commentary in Portal. It seems like it would be cheaper than a video and more substantial to boot.

    But if publishers don’t want to pick up the gauntlet, hopefully some zealous gamer with a hosting account and a lot of free time will.

  • Troy

    Oh, I’m sure that publisher pressure and narrow-mindedness is the biggest restraint on original products or revelation of alternate inspirations, but it’s interesting how few developers decide to use whatever leverage they have from a hit game to express new visions. But even developers who can do whatever they want seem to prefer to plow the same fields.

    And gamers aren’t free from blame either. How many weeks does a game get before forums are full of threads about things they want to see in the “sequel”? Gamers are full of ideas about games they want to see, but see to prefer their favorite developers just improve on stuff that someone else has already done.

    We’re at the point, after all, where Ensemble, some of the best designers in the field, are making a prequel RTS to an FPS. And though the game looks very good so far, it is simply drawing on the Halo money machine. And the mechanics of the game are pillaged from earlier Ensemble titles, only grafted to the 360 controller.

    I love the idea of developer commentary, and I’m addicted to post-mortems for games. I just wish that this sort of discussion was as commonplace as a VJ asking a rap singer about how Public Enemy changed their world.

  • steve

    “But how much of this is due to a lack of developer inspiration versus a lack of publisher imagination?”

    It’s 100% a lack of developer inspiration because, even if you’re making licensed dreck, you can always find inspiration everywhere you look. But I do think you see more of this than Troy’s letting on; developer diaries offer glimpses of some of the thinking behind some games.

    Because I’m a pretentious twit, I’ve talked to team members about some of the things that inspire me; so, one person says, “Let’s make a cut scene like a comic book,” and that’s interesting and cool and whatever, and a publisher can totally grok that.

    But internally, I say, “hey, we can make it like La Jetee, which used static images to tell a story that was just as detailed and emotional as a movie. Anyone want to borrow my DVD?” And to bring it back to earth for the people who are saying, “buh?,” mention that it was remade as 12 Monkeys.

    One concern people would have about expressing that kind of thinking outside the office is that it may give the idea that you’re making some sort of pretentious art game. God knows no one wants to see something like that, right? The bloggers would have a field day, repeating the, “It’s the game inspired by some obscure 60s French film, sacre bleu!” meme until it became viewed as the truth.

  • Justin Fletcher

    Well, that happened to some extent with the objectivist hullabaloo over Bioshock, but it certainly didn’t impact the sales in the end.

    And if “pretentious art game” doesn’t describe the Final Fantasy series, then I don’t know what does. (And that’s coming from a fan.)

    While I don’t know that developers would want to lead with the La Jetee stories at E3, I’m surprised to hear that developers feel that there’s a stigma involved with sharing such a vision with the public. I mean, it doesn’t seem to hurt Hideo Kojima.

    So stay true to your inner pretentious twit, Steve. :)

  • steve

    It’s actually amusing that Rand is considered highbrow or pretentious or “artsy” or something. But it did give the game a unified theme that was beyond, “kill the evil wizard.” It also had better characterization, particularly for the big reveal.

    I wouldn’t call Final Fantasy a “pretentious art game” myself; I find the storylines pretty juvenile, at best, substituting length of story and characterization for depth. I’d be curious what you think makes them particularly arty.

    As for Kojima, aside from being established and famous (meaning he can pretty much get away with anything), his influences make Metal Gear Solid virtually incoherent. And I don’t recall the influences being anything more than a mishmash of pop culture elements.

  • Justin Fletcher

    By “pretentious art game” I mean that FF has pretensions to art with its long, juvenile storylines and its focus on narrative style over substance. Since at least FF VII, the narratives have taken on some of the worst aspects of anime– most notably a reliance on overwrought characterizations and opaque plot points–and portrayed them as sophisticated storytelling. Kojima does the same thing with MGS, only his primary influences seem to be American science-fiction movies from the last 40 years.

    So if two of the best-selling series in the world can flog these styles of cinema to death and be considered “deep” by millions of fans, then I can’t understand why a developer would be hesitant to mention an obscure yet respected film as an influence on the narrative of Super Shooter X. Sure, anime and American sci-fi are much more popular–and therefore more relatable–than La Jetee, but how many gamers knew what objectivism was before they played Bioshock?

    Objectivism may or may not be “artsy,” but Bioshock’s success proves that developers can bring more complex influences to their games as long as the gameplay still brings the goods. If Rapture had been more Verne than Rand, the game would probably still have been a hit. But the fact that it did deal with more “highbrow” fare greatly enhanced the experience without obscuring it.

    What I’m really trying to say is that I think you should pitch La Jetee: The Game, because I think it could be cool as hell.

  • JonathanStrange

    How about making the old ideas work? Anyone’s who’s ever seen the A.I. attempt to capture a victory hex using trucks against machineguns or did little or nothing in response to your flanking movements would welcome the appearance of an A.I. that wasn’t completely befuddled. Skip the ammo depletion rates or command & control rules and make the A.I. more challenging.

    Oh yeah, since apparently wargamers are a rapidly aging group, better allow for more and higher screen resolutions.

  • Scott R. Krol

    Oh yeah, since apparently wargamers are a rapidly aging group, better allow for more and higher screen resolutions.

    Heh, have you noticed the sudden increase in larger and larger counters in the tabletop world?

  • James Allen

    What? SimEarth is a terrible game? My M.S. in Geophysics is angry!!!! Actually, it is a terrible game, but I find it interesting on a historical geology level. Whatever that is.

  • JonathanStrange

    Dave was right on target to compare John Tiller to Mr. Brady in terms of design ideas. Good choice.