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  • On Game Design: A History of Video Games

    - Jason Weesner
  •  Introduction

    So, you want to be a video game designer? There are many articles and books available on the subject and the fundamentals of good game design can be attained through any combination of approaches: job experience, educational training, or more of hobbyist tact. However, many published resources deal largely with game design theory which is often little more than conjecture or discourse with no practical application for the budding video game designer. Outside of entry-level test positions, beginning video game designers may find the industry difficult to get into without any experience. Educational programs may focus on some aspects of game development, but not provide enough emphasis on game design or how it applies to other disciplines.

    With all that being said, this series of articles won't guarantee you a professional career as a video game designer, but it will help give you a great deal of background in the role as well as some applicable exercises and a solid grounding in the vocabulary of game design. Each article will cover a specific facet of design, but skirt theory as much as possible in favor of a more practical approach. So, no master lists of rules for game design or Twinkie denials! But, that's not to say that we'll proceed with no caveats. There's only one: most of this information comes from personal experience and, as any small print at the bottom of a medication advertisement will tell you, your experience may differ!

    Now, a quick, spoiler-free rundown on what you can expect in this and future installments:

    • 1. A brief history of videogames: a quick jaunt through some of the events, products, and trends that would eventually help define the modern video game designer.
    • 2. The experience of design. Honing and applying good game design skills in relation to brainstorming and creative solution making. Where do good ideas come from?
    • 3. The application of good and bad ideas. Different forms of documentation: pitches, specs, and design docs. The various roles of design in production. A dictionary of game design terms.
    • 4. Programming and technical design for the aspiring video game designer. Programming basics and how the video game designer uses this for scripting and communicating creative ideas to the tech department.
    • 5. The video game designer's canvas. The artistic aspects of game development and their relationship to good game design.
    • 6. Series wrap-up. Interviews with real video game designers about real game design.

    At 822 Orange Avenue in Coronado, California there's a nondescript dry cleaner sitting next to an abandoned, art deco movie theatre. The theatre has been dark and closed for over a decade and the property owners would rather let it rot than consider allowing somebody to invest a respectable money and time into making it special again. To say the magic is gone from these places is a gross understatement. But, it wasn't always like this. If we were jump into a time machine and dial up a blue skies and sunshine week in the summer of 1982, we'll find quite a different scene. The Village theatre is showing a double feature of the Road Warrior and Escape From New York and Ed's Model & Hobby Shop is open for business next door.

    The abandoned Village Theatre next to the Island Cleaners.
    The Island Cleaners was once Ed's Model Shop.

    Because of Internet commerce, mega-stores, and the resulting slow death of small business, stepping into Ed's Model Shop has no real equivalent / comparison to any place today. Part of the Model shop is indeed models: Revell, Airfix, and AMT, but beyond this there are shelves of Dungeons & Dragons modules and player's guides: the Village Of Hommlet, the Monster Manual, the Dungeon Master's Guide, Deities & Demigods (the illegal Cthulu version), etc. On a nearby counter are several rotating racks filled with Ral Partha lead ogres and orcs and umber hulks. This probably sounds likes one of today's hobby shops, but there's something more to this place. Scattered around the store floor and huddled in a dark back room are a wide assortment of arcade video games and pinball: William's Black Knight, Namco Pac Man and Galaga, Atari Battlezone, and even the good old black and white Space Invaders with the color overlay. But, wait. There's more. On a nearby wall are a variety of games for the Apple 2 (the predominant home computer at the time), Atari 400/800, and IBM PC: Akalabeth (Lord British's precursor to Ultima), Raster Blaster (awesome pinball simulator), Temple Of Apshai (Early RPG similar to Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest), Avalon Hill strategy games (conversions from their board games), and Wizardry are in cardboard boxes or zip lock bags with photocopied manuals.

    This is where the history of the modern video game designer starts; somewhere toward the end of the 1970's and the early 1980's at the nexus of four significant trends: the popularity of traditional roleplaying and strategy games, the success of arcade video games, the boom in affordable home computing, and the market saturation of home consoles like the Atari 2600. The following quick jaunt through videogame history is not meant to be too comprehensive, but pay attention to the different landmarks and events because they'll be referenced in all the articles to come!


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