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  • Idea Origins

    [12.09.08]
    - Lewis Pulsipher

  •  Let me generalize. In many fields of art, periods of fairly clear "rules" for how to create art (for example, the sonata form in music or the three-movement form of a concerto) are followed by periods when there are no rules, until new rules are established. The greatest art comes from the periods when there are established rules. My example is primarily from music.

    In the Rococo period following the Baroque, Johann Sebastian Bach's sons and others made good music, but not the great music we saw before and in the succeeding Classical era as defined by Hayden and Mozart. In the current era of "modern art" (painting) there are no rules. Not everyone thinks modern art is rubbish, but I think it won't get much respect in the future.

    Yes, great artists often break some of the rules -- Beethoven comes to mind -- yet even they follow most of the "rules." When all the rules are swept aside, people grasp for new sets of rules (Schoenberg's 12-tone music?), but for a time the chaos results in little that is later recognized as great art.

    Consequently, a designer usually benefits from additional limitations, whether imposed by a publisher or studio ("no foul language"), or by himself ("I want a one-hour trading game"). Even though a self-imposed limitation may ultimately be abandoned in the interests of making the game better, initially it focuses the designer's efforts and is likely to provide better results. There are always self-imposed limits, because you have your own preferences. And if you work for a game studio or publisher, you might find that you have to jettison some preferences: If they say "make such-and-such a game," you'll do it or you'll be out of a job.

    In other words, self-imposed constraints are "rules" you use to try to help yourself create a better result, just as the "rules" for the various arts tend to yield better results.

    In any case, be sure your idea origin isn't simply based on the game being "just like I'd like to play." You are not the audience. You are very unusual or you wouldn't be designing games. And the game you'd like to play has likely already been designed. My favorite game for 20 years was Dungeons & Dragons, but I have never tried to design a role-playing game. I like D&D -- why would I want to design something just like it?

    It's too much time and effort to design a game just so you can play it. Game designers should design games that other people will enjoy playing. Most of the time, you'll like to play them, too.

    Let me quote Sid Meier (Civilization, Sid Meier's Pirates) from GameInformer 182, June 2008:

    "[T]here's a danger with some of the newer designers, a tendency to design the game you like to play. That game has already been designed -- we need new games. There's a loss of a little bit of that ‘sky's the limit, anything's possible' approach we had in the early days. We have these genres -- we have first-person shooters, we have real-time strategy. If you've played games all your life you've gotten these certain styles really beaten into you. To get people to think out of the box is a little harder these days."
    On the other hand, do not design a game you dislike to play yourself, at least not until you are very experienced. If you dislike it, why would you expect anyone else to like it? As you get more experience and understand players better, you may be able to design a game that appeals to a certain segment, even though it doesn't appeal to you. At some point this may be worth doing, to get you "out of a rut," to "think outside the box," but it's not something to be done lightly.

    In any case, write down whatever you come up with. This is not naturally what younger people do, but you'll forget many details if you don't. The famous writer and director Stanley Kubrick (Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Eyes Wide Shut) is said to have distrusted anyone who didn't write things down. Where games are concerned, I feel the same way.

    Dr. Lewis Pulsipher comes from the non-electronic side of game design, and teaches video game design at Fayetteville Technical Community College, NC. His most well-known game, Britannia, is among the games described in Hobby Games: The 100 Best, edited by James Lowder.


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