Archive for August, 2007

Playing Catch-up, Part 1: Reaction and Innovation

August 30, 2007

Clearly, I need to just jettison the idea of “weekly posts” on this blog! I can’t even remember the last time I posted something substantive. And it’s not like my life is going to get any less crazy in the foreseeable future. So… Rather than indulge my need to write lengthy tomes, I’m going to try being short, sweet and to the point this time around, and over the next few days, catch up on a lot of stuff I’ve been meaning to write about.

First, there’s tying up the loose ends on my earlier thoughts about reactive vs. blank-slate creativity.

Where we left things (back in June!), was with me asking, “how do I reconcile the JPS core value of ‘Innovation’ (see my blog post from June 9, 2007) with the reactive/editorial approach to design discussed here? That, and a bit about what comes after the frustration, is the topic for next week.” Leaving aside the unintentionally humorous reference to “next week,” that still seems like an interesting question.

My answer has a couple of parts. First, the way in which you react can (okay, for me it’s a must) include at least one thing no one’s ever seen before. Every game, no matter how small/big a budget you have, how inexperienced/burned out the team may be or how constraining the license is… every game should throw at least one thing at players they haven’t seen before. In the context of the original question, that means your reaction just needs to include one curve ball to seem, and truly be, innovative.

If you take that next crazy step and adopt my personal “kitchen sink” approach to design — there isn’t a minimalist bone in my body, to the chagrin of my teams… If you throw a bunch of new ideas in with a bunch of old ones, your starting point doesn’t really much matter.

Clean slate? Reaction?… Who cares? In the same way complex behaviors can emerge in a game or simulation from the interaction of simple rules, it doesn’t take too many new ideas mixed in with the old ones to result in something new, unexpected and wonderful.

So I guess what I’ve taken months to get around to saying is that there’s no contradiction between innovation and reaction at all. What matters is the end product, what’s on the screen, what happens when the player puts his or her hands on the keyboard or controller, not where you started.

So, with that out of the way, let me address the second dangly bit from my June post — what comes after the frustration? Once you’ve decided to react and have the barebones outline of an idea, what next?

Back in 2004, I participated in the very first Game Design Challenge coordinated by Eric Zimmerman at GDC. It was me, Raph Koster and Will Wright (nothing intimidating about THAT lineup!) and our challenge was to design a love story game. Those of you who attended remember that I wimped out — I was so overwhelmed by the limitations of our medium, I couldn’t come up with a thing.

At the time, I thought Raph — a guy I love and am NOT dissing in any way here! — sort of cheated, conceiving a game that was about characters in love but didn’t do much to make the player feel anything… and Will was just a freakin’ supergenius whose concept was sort of a multiplayer cross between a shooter and a soap opera that should have gone into development instantly! I STILL want to play that game. Anyway, I spent weeks thinking about how I’d make a love-sim, how I’d make a player truly feel love, even down to getting the same chemicals flowing through their bodies that would flow if they fell in love in the real world…

I came up with nothing. So I gave a meta-talk and discussed the thought process I go through when I first start thinking about a game idea. I revealed for the first and only time the Seven Questions I always ask myself to determine if an idea is worth pursuing. (You know the really weird thing? I don’t even tell my teams about this — I go through this exercise alone, evey time, every game… my own private ritual. I’m not even sure my wife, the lovely and talented Caroline, knows I do this!) Anyway, the Seven Questions are:

1. What are we trying to do? What’s the core idea?

2. What’s the potential? Why do this game over all the others we could do?

3. What are the development challenges? Really hard stuff is fine — impossible or unfundable? Not so good…

4. Has anyone done this before? If so, what can we learn from them? If not, what does that tell us?

5. How well-suited to games is the idea? There are some things we’re just not good at and shouldn’t even attempt. A love story, for example!

6. What’s the player fantasy and does that lead to good player goals? If the fantasy and the goals aren’t there, it’s a bad idea.

7. What does the player do? What are the “verbs” of the game?

If I can’t answer the questions above, or the answers come out negative, the idea never makes it to the next stage — conceptualization. If the answers are positive — if there are good reasons to make the game, the development challenges aren’t too bad, the idea is well-suited to the medium (i.e., NOT a love story game!), we move on to concepting and the real fun begins.

So, for me, the scenario goes like this: After frustration comes reaction; after reaction comes questioning; after questioning comes concepting; after that, all hell breaks loose (and if you’ve ever made a game, you know exactly what I’m talking about…).

Ack. I said I was going to be brief, didn’t I? So much for that idea! Anyway, go forth and innovate, and don’t worry about the source of your inspiration. Whether you’re a reactor or a clean slater, as long as you’re inspired and finding that ONE NEW THING, you’re okay in my book.

Coming up — posts about all the stuff that’s prevented me from posting here:

  • Siggraph 2007
  • Preserving the history of games before it’s too late
  • Teaching
  • A recently published book about the 100 best boardgames that includes a chapter I wrote

My how time flies

August 19, 2007

Well, so much for posting weekly. It’s been almost a month since I managed to update the ol’ blog…

The whole acquisition thing has kept me a little busy. And then there was that side trip to Siggraph where I gave one of the keynotes at the Sandbox event the weekend before Siggraph proper. (Gotta post about Siggraph and Sandbox soon…).

And right now I’m prepping for… let me see…

— A September 4th fund-raising event for the University of Texas Center for American History’s new Videogame Archive. I’ll really have to post about the archive some time soon, but for now you can find more information about the event at Video Game Archive Fundraiser. Click on the About the Archive link at the top of the page for more about the archive itself. It’s a very cool deal…

— A course I’m co-teaching at the University of Texas this fall (Master Class in Video Games and Digital Media).

— And there’s a big presentation coming up at work that I’d love to tell you about but that’d just get us all in hot water!

I haven’t even had time to respond to all the great comments you folks have been leaving to my earlier posts. Gotta get around to that some time, too!

You know, when I decided to do this blog thing, friends and colleagues warned it was going to be tough to stick to a regular schedule. I had no idea just how right they were. It never occurred to me this would so quickly turn into a “meta-blog”–more about the act of blogging than about games or anything else.

I still hope to turn this around before you all abandon me and go back to Raph Koster’s blog and Clint Hocking’s and all the rest of my more reliable compadres!

Thanks for your patience.