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  • On Game Design: A History of Video Games

    [01.11.07]
    - Jason Weesner

  •  Traditional Board Games

    Many types of traditional board games have been around in some form or another for centuries. Strategic games like Go have enjoyed lasting popularity around the world from as early as 200 BC in ancient China. Ancient Egyptians played an adventure-like game called Senet to plot their journeys through the afterlife. Monopoly (essentially a simulation) was first played in 1904 to teach basic economics. In 1974, TSR's (Tactical Studies Rules) Dungeons & Dragons was the first commercially available fantasy roleplaying game. Prior to that, role-playing elements were found primarily in historical reenactments dating back to the early 1900's.


    The ancient Egyptian game of Senet with some very fancy packaging!

    There are many important elements of traditional board gaming that apply directly to video game design. Let's look at a very simple board game: Tic-tac-toe. Tic-tac-toe is probably one of the earliest video games ever created back in 1952 on an ancient British computer called the EDSAC (Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator) where it was referred to as Noughts and Crosses. Tic-tac-toe consists of: a board separated into nine squares and two sets of player pieces representing the opposing "armies" of X and an O. The rules are simple. Two players alternate turns placing down X's and O's until one of them gets three in a row or the board is all full and nobody wins. So, what can we draw from this simplistic game in relation to video game design? Well, for starters, a couple of fundamental elements of all games: game space and the game mechanic.

    A game space is defined by any number of criteria (generally boundaries and movement units) in which a game takes place. This can be everything from our simple Tic-tac-toe board to a bunch of interconnected snakes and ladders to a football field to a sunken ship in a moonlit lagoon. A game mechanic can be anything from a player's movement to a win condition (three of an X or O in a row) to an individual game rule or device. In Tic-tac-toe, one of the main game mechanics is that a player can only put down one piece at a time in an empty square. In Mario 64, something as simple as Mario not being able to step on lava is a great example of a single game mechanic.

    There are a ton of traditional board game companies that have been influential on today's video game genres, most notably roleplaying games (RPG's), strategy games, and simulations. A quick look back at some successful board game companies reveals a virtual tangle of roots connecting paper and pencil to pushing pixels:

    Tactical Studies Rules (TSR): TSR was founded by Gary Gygax in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin back in 1973. Dungeons & Dragons (1974) and Gamma World (1978) were two of their most popular products which brought roleplaying games to the mass market. Today's RPG's (like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest) are not that much different than their paper predecessors. Complex battle systems can be boiled down to simple exchanges of virtual dice rolls and hit tables. Beautifully rendered cinematics are essentially the same mechanics used by dungeon masters to describe fantastic places and events.

    Avalon Hill: Avalon Hill was founded in 1958 by Charles S. Roberts. Avalon Hill popularized the strategy / war gaming genre with innovative game elements: hexagonal grids on boards for increased movement choices, variations in terrain, and complex combat rule sets based on actual historical events. Games like Final Fantasy Tactics and Warcraft are all design descendents of Avalon Hill games minus the historical aspects. Some of Avalon Hill's most popular titles were Panzer Blitz (1970), the Battle Of the Bulge (1965), and Blitzkrieg (1965). One of the coolest things about Avalon Hill games were the big, bookshelf style boxes they came in which contained not only the game, but usually an exhaustive amount of supporting materials which offered a wealth of information to both casual and hardcore gamers.

    FASA (Freedonia Aeronautics & Space Administration): FASA was founded in 1980 by Jordan Weisman and L. Ross Babcock. Two of FASA's bigger titles that made the translation from board game to video game were Mechwarrior and Shadowrun which still enjoy large followings. Jordan later went on to form FASA Interactive who took over the handling of the Mechwarrior videogame series from Activision.

    Game designer's Workshop: GDW was founded in 1973. Arguably, their biggest success was Traveler (1977) which took the traditionally fantasy realm of RPG's and placed it in a futuristic setting mixing roleplaying with strategy-like space combat. Video game designer's Workshop dissolved in 1996.

    Games Workshop: Games Workshop was found in 1975 by Sir Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson (not to be confused with Steve Jackson of Steve Jackson games who we'll also talk about in due course). What started as a distributor for existing products (like D&D) became a developer and publisher of the immensely popular Warhammer (1983) series. Ian Livingstone took a few minutes to answer some questions in relation to his experience:

    What was your background in gaming prior to founding the Games Workshop? - "I played Avalon Hill and SPI games as a hobby and wrote articles for a Diplomacy fanzine before co- founding Games Workshop in our London apartment in 1975."

    The Games Workshop published a wide variety of licensed and original properties. How difficult was it to create and market an original property versus a licensed property? - "The early years of Workshop focused on publishing games under license like Dungeons and Dragons, Traveller, Runequest, etc but we realised that we needed to create our own content to secure our future. Hence the launch of White Dwarf magazine, Citadel Miniatures, board games like Talisman and of course the hugely successful Warhammer. We had a dedicated fan base who were eager to buy original Workshop content and that was very gratifying not to mention making our job easier!"

    A lot of today's single player video games rely on a lot of the same types of systems you used in your Fighting Fantasy series of books. Can you talk a little bit about the creative process you used for coming up with narratives and game systems in the Fighting Fantasy books? - "The main idea behind Fighting Fantasy was to create exciting interactive adventures that were easy to play but had plenty of choice and consequence. We wanted them to be accessible and involving. The reader had just three characteristics to keep track of - Skill, Stamina and Luck. This was to allow the adventures to flow smoothly without unnecessary rules checking. The adventures themselves were mainly based in fantasy environments with quests that challenged the readers. Deathtrap Dungeon was a particular favorite of mine as it was a game about survival. It also required the reader to have to fight to the death Throm the Barbarian, an NPC who was your friend and ally. I wanted the reader to feel emotional about the decision! I still get comments about it today - 22 years after publication."

    What was your first exposure to video game design and how much did it differ from traditional game design? - "My first go at video games design was in 1985 when I was asked to design Eureka! This was the launch title for Domark, a new British publisher. (Domark became part of Eidos in 1995). Eureka! was a PC adventure game based on time travel. The experience I had gained from writing Fighting Fantasy game books was obviously very useful in creating the structure of the adventure. The frustrating part of it was that I couldn't do it all by myself! I needed the help of programmers and artists. Suddenly I was part of a team involved in an ethereal process. There was no visibility of what the game was going to play like for what seemed like ages."

    Having seen first hand the rapid growth and resulting ups and downs of the traditional gaming market, can you draw any parallels to the video game industry and its future? - "The industries are quite similar in many ways: establishing strong brands and franchise, you are only as good as your last hit, follow consumer trends, game play is everything, don't complicate stuff, keep costs under control and innovate or die!"

    Do you play any video games for fun and, if so, which ones? - "Funnily enough I enjoy playing Tomb Raider: Legend, Hitman: Blood Money and Just Cause but I'm also enjoying FIFA '07, Guitar Hero and several NDS titles."

    Simulations Publications Inc. (SPI): SPI was started in 1969 by Jim Dunnigan (also the designer of Avalon Hill's Panzerblitz) as a publisher for Strategy & Tactics magazine. SPI became famous for a wide range of historical strategy games like War In the East, War In the Pacific, and the Campaign For North Africa.

    Steve Jackson Games: Steve Jackson Games was founded in 1980 by Steve Jackson. Steve Jackson games popularized self-contained simulation and adventure games. SJG is best known for GURPS (Generic Universal RolePlaying System which created an all-purpose system for all genres of roleplaying), Ogre, and Car Wars as well as a variety of card games and traditional board games. Steve Jackson was kind enough to answer a few questions in relation to his experiences as one of the original video game designers:

    What inspired you to become a video game designer? - "It was completely accidental. I answered a "help wanted" ad; the ad was for a job editing a zine (yes, it used the abbreviation "zine" in 1976) for what turned out to be a game company. I didn't even get the job, but one thing led to another."

    What are some of your favorite, classic board games? - "How old is classic? Chess (though I have not played in years now), Monopoly, Scrabble, Risk, Axis & Allies, Cosmic Encounter. And lots of the old SPI games, with the most hours going to Strategy I."


    Steve Jackson Game's famous Car Wars in the original, fancy packaging!

    What do you consider to be fundamental game elements that apply across all types of gaming media (board games, video games, etc.)? - "Elements"? I realize I may be misinterpreting, but I'm going to take that as "elements of a good game." It has to be fun - SOME kind of fun - that should be obvious. It has to be learnable, and the learning itself should be fun. For me, at least, a roleplaying element is important. I see roleplaying everywhere - Monopoly is roleplaying. Any really engrossing simulation is roleplaying. If there's no roleplaying, there should be a serious challenge to the intellect: Chess, Scrabble . . . even Yahtzee presents a challenge. People who just roll the dice will not prosper. A social game should have a "wow" factor. If everyone at the table goes "Wow!" once in a while, they'll remain interested, and perhaps someone else should come to see what's happening. And there needs to be an element of both competition and risk, whether it's interplayer, player vs. environment, or players cooperating vs. the environment. A game with neither risk nor competition is tedious. I think humor is an important element, and use it in most of my games, but I acknowledge that it's not vital."

    How do you come up with an idea for a game? Do you start with an overall concept or a single game mechanic? - "A concept, always. I have to know what my game is ABOUT before I start. Sometimes a mechanic occurs to me independently and I write it down, but I cannot ever recall going "Here's a mechanic, I have to make a game about it." I don't think that mechanics in themselves inspire the imagination."

    Do you play video games at all? Which ones? - "A few. I don't have time to try nearly all of them, but some that I have tried and then liked enough to play over and over and over: Puzzle Pirates, Caesar III, the *original* Sim City, and Starcraft. And various rogue-like games ate my brain for a while. More recently, I very much admired Katamari Damacy, though I don't own a console system so was saved from playing it over and over and over and over and over."

    So, what do traditional board games have to do with the modern video game designer? Arguably, the origin of the video game industry can be tracked back two different sorts of applications: the simulation of game space on a computer as well as the automation of game related systems (like the ability of a computer program to fulfill the role of a dungeon master). We'll see elements of traditional board game theory in future articles being applied to just about every video game system / mechanic you can think of. A comprehensive knowledge of traditional board games is certainly not a prerequisite for becoming a video game designer, but a basic understanding of the various genres and systems can be a definite asset. Combat systems, weapons balancing, character development, and game narrative are just a few examples of traditional board gaming elements that can be adapted to related aspects of video game design.

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