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  • Idea Origins

    - Lewis Pulsipher

  •  Mechanics
    The non-electronic version of Dungeons & Dragons can be seen as a game originating in mechanics. There were many fantasy games, but the role-playing mechanic, which more or less began the role-playing game genre, is the defining characteristic of the game.

    Dance Dance Revolution and Guitar Hero can be thought of as games that likely originated in mechanics. In a postmortem of the latter game published in Game Developer magazine (February 2006), two of the developers from Harmonix, Greg LoPiccolo and Daniel Sussman, said Guitar Hero was really designed around letting the player feel like a rock star, rather than a game designed around a new controller. The peripheral device came about as a result of giving this rock star feel to the player.

    In both Guitar Hero and Dance Dance Revolution, we have an unusual mechanic, the flow of directions that the players follow to make certain physical moves.

    A Particular Game, a Game System, or Genre
    A "system" is a case where a set of mechanics has become so well-known that games are made using most or all of the set. Many historical board games begin with a system, such as "block games" (Hammer of the Scots), "card-driven games" (We the People), Risk-like games (Risk Godstorm), Britannia-like games (Italia, China: The Middle Kingdom), and "committed intent" games. Video games, apart from obvious sequels, very often adapt a system, and video game genres themselves tend to involve challenges to players that are common to most games of the genre.

    Many video games originate with a genre. "We want to make a real-time strategy game," or "let's make a shooter." There are genres in non-electronic gaming, but they tend to be broader (RPGs, collectible card games, war games). The genres in video games are quite specific, tending sometimes to straightjacket the designers' efforts.

    Often the genre goes hand-in-hand with a theme or system. Battle for Middle Earth is a The Lord of the Rings themed RTS. LOTR Trilogy Risk is a Lord of the Rings themed Risk-like game.

    In the end, many games derive directly from specific other games. In the video game world, the "safe" way to go is to design a game that is much like an existing successful game, but just enough different to be unique and to be perceived as an improvement. While derivation from another game is probably the most common method of origin, it is also probably the least successful, because too many resulting games suffer badly from being "too derivative."

    Components (primarily non-electronic games)
    On the non-electronic side, components can be at the origin of a game. In my own experience, Law & Chaos originated because I wanted to make a game using the "jewel-like" glass beads that have become popular for plant displays, and another game originated in a desire to use stackable plastic pieces from an educational supply house.

    A component could be a special controller, such as one allowing the video game player to "drive a car" in a natural way. It's possible that Dance Dance Revolution was derived from components. I don't know whether the mechanic or the component came first -- or maybe they came together.

    I'm going to discuss constraints at some length, as this is where the greatest variety and the greatest limitations can come from.

    Are you a person who works better when faced with a deadline? I believe that many people do better work when faced with constraints, whether deadlines or something else. This is particularly true in art, but likely true in most walks of life.

    In effect, everything a designer does is considered working within constraints. The answer to the question "Who is the audience" provides constraints. If your audience is preschool children, you can't design a game that requires a lot of math (or reading). If you know your game will be a first-person shooter, your design choices have been heavily circumscribed.

    When you playtest your game, the constraints are more specific. "Is this enjoyable" for my target audience? Is that too complex, or too simple? Does this element contribute to gameplay, or shall we "lose it?" Instead of that, what I'm talking about in this "origin" are additional constraints on the kind of game you want to make, imposed as part of the process of conception. I think that a good choice of constraints -- choosing more limited goals than "let's make a shooter" -- will lead to a better game.


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