Playing Catch-up, Part 1: Reaction and Innovation

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

8 Responses to “Playing Catch-up, Part 1: Reaction and Innovation”

  1. robzepeda Says:

    Thanks for the insight Warren…really interesting stuff! And thanks for your innovative take on the first person genre throughout the years. You are a big inspiration to me.

  2. tscholes Says:

    What? Warren Spector has a blog?
    What? Warren Spector teaches a class in game design?

    Too much for one day.

    Hello Mr. Spector, I work at DIS Avalanche in Utah and was very happy to hear you were joining us; well – provided they let you do your thing of course 🙂 Looking forward to seeing more.

  3. lazarusledd Says:

    QUOTE=”h 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.”

    Although I’m not a gamer and I’m still at college, I believe this applies to any work and aspect of your life.
    Like in “The Manchurian Candidate” with Denzel Washington, theres a line “You always take to road less traveled” and Denzel replies like “yeah, cause theres no mines, no one would expect us there….”

    With every generation of graphics only the graphics change, only a few people dare to make something new, not because of the money but because of joy of creating.
    To create something new, people should free themselves from the tags and look within themselves.
    In music i don’t listen to it for it’s genre, but because of what I feel in the beat, sound and for the last part the lyrics…..

    should I continue to explore this path, Warren?
    Also keep an eye on The Nameless Mod 😉

  4. Michaël Samyn Says:

    Nice checklist. Thank you for sharing.

    Do you always immediately disqualify an idea if you can’t answer one of the questions properly? Or do you try and rework the idea in order to find the missing answers. I guess what I’m wondering about is, is there ever a theme or a concept that you just can’t let go even if it seems unrealistic after going through your questions?

  5. wspector Says:

    Couple of quick responses:

    First, to Lazarusledd: Of COURSE you should continue to explore your path! Few of us actually feel we’re ON a path–most people, IMHO, coast through life the way they coast through games that tie them to a single path. If you feel like you’ve found YOUR path, your own unique individual path, you HAVE to stick with it until YOU determine it’s time to change paths (or you can’t make the rent!…)

    (Funny, I halfway expected this blog to turn into an exercise in self-psychoanalysis but I NEVER expected it to turn into a self-help column!)

    And to Michael Samyn: I don’t automatically disqualify ideas that don’t answer a single question, of the seven. Sometimes, I rework the idea (or ask the person who came up with the idea to rework it). Sometimes I set an idea aside because there are other ideas that answer MORE of the questions successfully (ideas being the EASY part of game development!). Most often I table an idea until the time is right and the questions CAN be answered in the affirmative. I wrote the first draft of the proposal that became Deus Ex back in 1994, but the tools and tech weren’t up to the job back then. It wasn’t until 1997 (and some would argue we should have waited a little longer!) that I thought we could actually deliver on the promise of the concept. And I’m still hauling around ideas I first wrote up back in the early 90s. I drag those ideas back out and run them through my checklist every once in a while. When the time is right, they’ll see the light of day…

  6. Michaël Samyn Says:

    Thank you for the answer.
    I’m curious as to the nature of these ideas. Are they fairly concrete ideas about a certain game design or are they vague notions like a desire to make a game in a certain setting or with a certain camera framing? I guess I’m curious whether your ideas are already games from the start or if you turn them into games as the concept gets developed.

    (I realize that an answer to this might be elaborate. I would love to interview you about this and other things that you have talked about in the past for our blog - So if you feel like it, I’d be honoured if you’d drop us a note. We have a keen interest in (and some aberant opinions about) storytelling in games and I know you do too.)

  7. lazarusledd Says:

    Ah. you became Dr. Phil in this mini-gaming world =D

    At first I always went with the flow and some streams started to join up. I watched Voayger, I-Man, various other series cause I liked them, I listened the music i liked cos I liked it for the music itself, read the novels set in SF/Fantasy world, or detective novel set in “black&white” 20’s like Peter Cheneys “The Urgent Hangman” and others. I had other tastes too.
    Deus Ex came to me as a recommendation, love it.
    Trigun is my first anime i watched, i model myself to Vash the Stampede, but I find not that I’m already like him in manners and behaving.

    So only recently I’ve become aware of these streams in the river of life and they have become meaningfull to me.
    But this picture isn’t right. I’m actually going upstream to make my path. I see others that just go with the flow.

    Metal Gear Solid 2 theme can be about taking control of your life in this techological/digital world that we are faced with. A lot of boundaries will be lost and people need to take control and shake off from the flow.

    I’m still in my path of finding myself, so all this writing is for me, to see what I learned.

    That for the self-analisys, Dr. 😉

  8. Casually Hardcore devlog » "Reactive" vs. "Clean-slate" game designers... Says:

    […] Warren Spector talks about the difference between reactive and clean slate designers and creativity. […]

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