Design Without Greed

I noticed a site on my morning Internets wandering, a site which exists at the URL I shall not link for reasons described later.

A site about generating game ideas, a “veteran designer” interested in honing his craft by committing to choosing a random concept and platform each week and designing a game based on what’s drawn. So, cool, I’m sold on the concept. I’m even sold on the execution – using a random quantity to stimulate creativity is a classic brainstorming tool. And constraints (platforms) are the mother of true creativity. As I’m fond of saying, the human brain is an amazing thing, and much of creativity is relating the unrelated. If you pick two random words from the dictionary and force your brain to mull them over, it will find some way to connect them. Even better is to apply random quantities in the context of a well framed problem such as “create a game with three unique goals.” If you push through until you have a list of 30 answers, you’ll find some pretty amazing, creative answers. So, huzzah, sir, great concept for a blog. Unfortunately, the concept is where the huzzahs stop.

I immediately sifted to the bio looking for titles shipped, an inclination I’m not proud of. Unfortunately, this is the only reasonable metric for the success of a game designer at present. What experiences has s/he created? Have I experienced any of them? Did I like them? These are the questions at the most basic level, and they immediately determine the value I’ll ascribe to anyone’s thoughts on game design. It seems a bit brutal, and I found myself feeling guilty – after all, I’ve shipped only Tony Hawk Underground and some casual titles, and I’d still like people to read my blog ;). So, I read his first self imposed design challenge: Film Noir + PSP. BARF! What a sad, sad lack of creativity, and a ponderously misinformed take on game design. Compounding these problems (or perhaps a symptom of them), he has Miner’s Syndrome about his “brilliant” ideas:

You Want to Use a Design?

So, you really like one of the game concepts on this site and would like to make a game out of it? Great! I’d love to see that happening!

These game designs aren’t entirely free, however. I love sharing my ideas with the world, but if you’re going to sell a game based on them and make a ton of money, I think it’s fair for me to get some of that money for my efforts.

If you want to make an actual game based on the ideas on this site, just contact me and I’m sure we’ll be able to work something out — even if it’s for a freeware game. I really don’t want to rip anybody off, but I don’t want to be ripped off either. If nothing else, I’d like to know where my ideas end up being used.

Ah, the easy arrogance of the ignorant. I dare not link to the site, lest his pomp floweth over and infect mine as well. I, too, might end up with an emo-vatar and a perennially furrowed Brow of Brilliance.

This makes me crazy, if only because he’s got the domain I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, ideas are worthless. Of course, that phrase is intentionally incendiary. Obviously, I am hugely invested in and deeply love creativity and the technologies for generating brilliant, revolutionary ideas. Stating that ideas are worthless is a reaction to the notion that ideas are like a mine: an exhaustible resource, a rare commodity. This is, of course, absurd. Ideas are not a commodity. What’s useful isn’t the ideas themselves but the mind who generates them. Given a well framed problem and the proper brainstorming tools, one can easily generate hundreds of amazing ideas. It is, as ever, implementation which holds the key.

As David Jaffee (God of War) said to Harvey Smith (Thief, Deus Ex) after an extended explanation of a game idea about experiencing death at different ages, ‘that’s lovely, Harvey, but how would you make a game out of it? This is the crux of it all, the only context in which a brilliant idea for a game has any meaning. You sit your ass down, you with your crazy ideas about games in which the player plays as a shadow in a 3d world or in which the player plays as natural harmonic resonance, and you make that fucker. You figure out how it would work, what the pieces would be, how they would be constructed, and, most importantly, how the pieces would interact. The dynamics. Then, you build it. Or a part of it. You check those myriad assumptions against harsh, hard-as-a-hammer reality and find out if what you thought would be fun is actually fun. You get someone with no investment – emotional or otherwise – to sit down and play what you’ve made, and you get the most objective read you can on the experience they’re having with your creation. You want to know what would happen if you weren’t in the room? Brace yourself: the player would likely turn the game off in a matter of minutes, or never have started playing at all. The inconvenient truth is that translating a brilliant idea into compelling game is extremely difficult, takes a crazy amount of work, and is the core competency of game design. It’s much important than generating and developing good ideas. Generating and developing good ideas is the fun part, the exciting part. If you want to be a game designer, though, you have to be willing to get your hands dirty.

…and now back to our story. Reading this gentleman’s pages of text about film noir and stealth gameplay and story, I can see that he’s still caught in the idea phase. He thinks that by saying ‘we’ll take some stealth gameplay from Splinter Cell and the structure from Mario 64, sprinkle this Film Noir theme over it and we’ll have an awesome game!’ his jobs as designer is done. It hasn’t even begun yet. Things like lists of locations, art treatment, making up names for characters, these things are not game design. These are the things that freshfaced students in my Gameplay and Game Design class think are game design. The fundamental disconnect comes into delightful relief when I assign the first board game prototype, tasking them with translating their ideas into a functioning, dynamic system. You want to make a game about the evolution of technology on an alien world? Great, how does it work? What are the pieces of your system, how do they interact, and how do they give rise, with players at the helm, to interesting, engaging experiences? It takes most students three to five prototypes to find any kind of answer to these questions.

If you want to be a game designer, you can’t just scribble down some vague notions about story and treatment and expect your peasant workers to scurry about solving your problems for you. Neither can you simply rattle off the names of successful games, standing on their shoulders and assuming that because you’re borrowing from them, the systems will work the same way in the context of your idea. Games are a cohesive whole, where every piece, every tiny variable can mean the difference between Mario and Monster Party.

And, please, design without greed.

I <3 Cory :)

4 Responses to “Design Without Greed”

  1. Rat
    October 25th, 2006 | 8:57 am

    I don’t think my asshole is unique or special. I think it’s just an asshole.

    Anyways, I read through his “designs” before I read your article and the entire time I was thinking to myself, “What exactly is being designed here? I see him taking a certain aspect from other games/videos/etc… and putting them all together in his almighty goo.”

    Well at least you can take into account that this particular guy won’t be much of a competition in the game design market.

  2. October 25th, 2006 | 9:44 am

    I guess I just I get upset by the possibility that someone impressionable would read and believe that game design was about making up names for characters. Game design is so poorly understood, and this kind of waffle is a huge part of the problem.

  3. October 29th, 2006 | 11:38 am

    game of the year ftw.

  4. November 4th, 2006 | 10:51 am

    Amen. I think Richard Garriott once said something to this effect, too.

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