Thursday, November 15, 2012

On the Influence of Masters

Melissa Kronenberger
Game Design Auteurism
Fall 2012 SCAD Hong Kong
On The Influence of Masters

Take any great artist and you should be able to find the previous Masters she or he drew inspiration from. Whether this 'artist' is a painter like Pablo Picasso, a philosopher like Aristotle, or a game designer as myself, all of them are inspired by other Artists. Nothing comes from nothing. Ideas are like plants. They may root themselves in untilled soil, but something must drop the seed they spring from. And something must water them as they grow.

For me, the Masters we admire are the rain that helps direct our growing curiosity- the growth of our branches. As we stumble out to explore the world, we come across signs of the Masters' passing; Marks and instructions they've left to tell us about the path ahead. They point out exotic sights and scenery. We follow some of these signs and visit the same scenes; in other places, we strike out on our lonesome.

Those Masters are not the ones who plant the original seeds in us. Those seeds are far deeper, their roots cradled in the substance of who we are. Those seeds bring us to the Masters in the first place, and later mandate that we seek out many different Masters to follow.

Let me clarify these metaphors by using myself as an example. If I look deep within me, there is no Bach or Dali who scripted my core. The seed at the heart of my design philosophy was not placed there by any master. What drives me is a sense of wonder. A curiosity, a thrill for adventure, a spirit of competition and accomplishment.  I want to discover, explore, outwit, and overcome! I still imagine fairies when walking alone in a beautiful garden. I want to know whether there's another world in the back of an old wardrobe. I'm even afraid the boogeyman will jump out from beneath a bed to grab at me.

None of that has anything to do with Masters. Yet all of it shapes my games. As a result of my 'seed,' I want to great games that bring you into a totally different world, that serve as a perfect escape into an alternate reality, and that encourage your sense of wonder and adventure until your safe return to earth. I want to model and simulate and bring to life worlds, characters, choices, and possibilities that could never exist in our world. My ideal game is a person's own, individualized, Where the Wild Things Are.

If you take a broad sampling of my work, you'll find that I'm interested in topics like women and-games,  simulation, strategy, god games, digital life game, storytelling, procedural generation, and education. Now that you know where my seed came from, you can see how these different topics relate to my core self. I'm interested in education and women-in-games because I'm an adventurer, and I'm always off on quests to make the world a better place.  God and digital life games aren't just creative outlets for me; they unleash a player into a world of their own, customized making. Storytelling and procedural storytelling are a way to bring those worlds to life. Simulation is a mechanism through which I can create an emergent, fantastic world for players to explore. Strategy is likely related to my boundless curiosity.

The Masters I admire do not always come from the same seeds as me. I look up to game designers like Danielle Berry, Will Wright, Sid Meier, and Roberta Williams. The first two are pioneers in simulation, Sid Meier is a strategy game designer, and Roberta Williams is known for creating story  games. I'll go over how each designer has impacted one at a time. I will also discuss each designer in  terms of the 4% and 16%, percentages which represent two groups of innovators.  The 4%, or 'Scouts,' represent individuals who are constantly on the move to explore new territory. The 16%, or 'Generals' represent individuals who piece together new ideas from the Scouts and plot solid, long term expeditions into these new territories. The Generals are less groundbreaking in their products, but are usually more successful (they don't discover the gold deposits, but they mine them thoroughly and well). The Scouts are always breaking new ground, but often don't remain with the idea long enough to become successful. I will look Danielle Berry was interested in games for their social component. She liked the way players could compete and collaborate together, and saw games as an inherently social activity. Her belief system manifested in a series of surprisingly advanced simulations and complex strategy games, which allowed players incredible freedom of choice. Danielle underwent gender reassignment to become a woman, and suffered socially as a result of her choice. It is clear that freedom of choice- and the ability of the system to recognize and use that individualized choice- were very important to her. The result of this passion was that she founded a new genre of games, and is still cited as a source of inspiration for simulation titles launched years after her death.

In many ways, Danielle should probably be considered  a Scout. She never earned the notoriety of other designers like Will Wright or Sid Meier (although the latter was arguably a narrow miss, as she had wanted to work on Civilization). She had strong ideals and couldn't always compromise to push a   game through to completion, such as when she refused to work on M.U.L.E. 2 because the publishers  were talking about putting guns and bombs in the game.

I admire Danielle because she used her emotional and social values as tools to sculpt her games. She was always working on projects she truly believed in, not toys that had happened to catch her interest. Games had a lot of meaning to Danielle. On the other hand, I can look to her story as a cautionary tale. Danielle's talent isn't up for debate, but very few outside the industry ever knew her name. Her impact was only in how she influenced other designers. I can appreciate that- but it's not a route I'm interested in pursuing right now.

Will Wright is the General to Danielle’s Scout. Sort of. In fact, Will Wright would probably rather spend his days scouting, and spends long stretches of time off in the wilderness, researching new things. Danielle is credited on his latest game, Spore. Yet Will Wright can do something Danielle could not. For one reason or another, he is capable of 'flipping his hat' so to speak and taking on the mantle of General. He has established a legacy. People still know his name, and companies are still making his games. He had an enormous impact not just on the industry, but on everything outside the industry. The Sims was one of the founders of casual gaming, and brought countless women to video games for the first time in history.

Will Wright is an interesting fellow. He went to a Montessori elementary school, and in light of that his design choices make a surprising amount of sense. In one respect, Will Wright chose a single area of experimentation- simulators- and using his Mantle of General-hood he expertly explored every last corner of the simulator genre, creating countless games and having a massive effect on gaming. In another sense, Will Wright was constantly breaking new ground. He made games about subjects no one had ever considered making games about before. He invented game mechanics that had never been seen before. He caused the dawn of casual gaming. In this sense, Will Wright did not make a single kind of game. He was simply a digital toymaker, and his works were each more innovative than the last.

Out of all the designers I could want to be like, I think Will Wright is the choice that I admire most. His Scout instincts are apparent in that he was unable to remain with any series indefinitely. The latest Sims 3 and Sim City iterations have been left to a new generation of designers. I know that I have both Scouting and General tendencies, and that- like a Scout- I couldn't remain with any one idea forever. At the same time, Will Wright was able to remain with each of his creations long enough to turn it into a self-sustaining success. I can look to him to understand what's required of me as a General, so that I can also make games that last.

Of course, my seeds are different from Will Wright's. He has a phenomenal curiosity for the system in itself. He loves systems, loves watching their interrelated parts, to the point that even social systems between his fans are of great interest to him. For Will Wright, the focus is on the system- the toy- itself, and then on the creativity expressed through the system. For me, games are about briefly hopping over to Narnia. This is the reason I say that we must follow more than one Master, and that Masters are merely rain to help us grow, not foundations on which to stake our futures.

Sid Meier's has his name on the cover of his games. He's one of the few designers to have this honor. Officially it was for marketing purposes, but to me it has an aire of arrogance about it. An aire I admire. I should look at him more closely! Movie directors and producers have their names on movie
covers, and I fail to see why game designers shouldn't stamp themselves on game boxes. When I want to escape reality for a little bit, my game of choice is actually a strategy game.

Strategy games are neat because I get to keep using my brain, but for a totally unproductive purpose. It is sort of like exercising the body. On one hand, physical exercise involves a lot of manual labor for no manual product. On the other hand, physical exercise keeps our bodies strong and flexible after confining them to positions and tasks that forbid freedom of movement. My passion for strategy games comes from a totally different place than my passion for other games. In fact, we could probably diagnose a completely independent seed that my strategy-love springs from. But the two are often related in the real world- after all, aren't strategy games a simulation of war?

Meier is another, different case study in how to make simulation games work. For instance, Civilization is fun while other simulation games are  frequently boring or frustrating. Simulation games can be very limited by accuracy, intuitiveness, and pacing. In any other game, elements like pacing and balance can be directly built into the game rules. In a simulation, these elements have to emerge indirectly through the system. Problems can arise when the system doesn't correct itself to pace the game appropriately, or when the underlying logic of the system is too unintuitive or concealed for learners to develop a working understanding of how to use it. Meier's games are neat because they succeed both as fully developed games (not just toys) and as simulators. I learn a lot by observing his work.

I study Sid Meier also as a lesson on how to 'switch hats' even better than Will Wright. When Meier finished his last flight simulator, he stated that he had put everything fun he could think of into a flight simulator, and when he was done there was nothing more to do. So he moved on to something else. This is a perfect example for me to study how to be both a Scout and a General. Meier found an area of interest and then explored it to its fullest potential. At a certain point he determined that any further focus in that area would be work instead of play; he had already made the game as fun as he knew how. So he moved on.

This sheds some light on why Will Wright was also so successful. Each individual founded a core game system, a new collection of IP, that could stand on its own. When each IP was firmly entrenched, they moved on to tackle other problems. But they focused on each of these projects to the exclusion of all else until they had exhausted the possibilities, so to speak. And they used 'fun' as their meter of when these possibilities had been exhausted. Both men remained enamored with their projects by having fun with them, and I can use that as a technique for anchoring myself to one project or another as a General. By seeking out what is fun about my game and continuing to develop it. Meier, like Wright, was also interested in the system itself. In fact, most early game designers were. From John Carmack to David Perry, game designers were fascinated by systems and moving parts- that's what made them early adopters of computers, after all. Now this is troublesome for me, because the machine itself doesn't really interest me. I can find a lot of 'General' or 'Scout' game designers who are passionate about story and new worlds, such as Tim Shaffer or Chris Crawford, but finding hybrids is more difficult.

The last designer I shall mention is special to me, not only because she is she one such 'hybrid' game designer, with no particular interest in the system and a passion for storytelling, but also because there is no clear divide between when she is being a Scout or a General. In all of the other hybrid designers I mentioned, there was a clear divide between when they were acting exploitative and when they were thoroughly mining out an idea. For Roberta Williams, this whole classification scheme might as well not apply. She just designed games.

Roberta Williams is, more or less, the mother of graphical adventure games. She was once named by GameSpot as one of the top ten most influential people in computer gaming of all time. Her games changed the relationship between game play and story, and led to the modern RPG and adventure game genres. Though she retired before video games became too mainstream, her works had the impact and success of any Will Wright or Sid Meier. And she took players to another world! Coming from a background of mythology and novels, Roberta Williams didn't have the adoration of the system that my other Masters held. She treated games more as if they were a medium, and less as pieces of technology. Despite this, her games always pushed the envelop of graphics and sound. How is it that one person managed to break new ground, mine that new ground, constantly push the envelope, continue some successful titles, and constantly release new works as well? How did one person wear two different hats simultaneously, all without breaking a sweat, all without growing bored?

Or did she? She did retire, after all, which is more than can be said about any of the other game designers I've mentioned. Perhaps the key to Roberta Williams success is that it wasn't forced, manufactured, or driven by complete exploration of a topic followed by border-fueled-flight to another topic.  She simply focused on doing something neat, that she enjoyed and that was passionate about. She sat down to tell a story, and she told it. She didn't constantly have to be seeking out new things, because her passion for storytelling was constantly filling her with new ideas. And twenty years later, when she was no longer passionate about pursuing games, she simply quit. As if quitting games was quite easy and natural once one was no longer entertained by them.

I think I have the greatest lesson to learn of all from Roberta Williams. It feels that all the other designers I mentioned were doing a lucky and precarious balancing act between passion and irritated boredom to be both 4 and 16 in one. Roberta seemed to lack that inner conflict. She did what she was passionate about.  And then she went off to write a historical novel. Perhaps the key to being both Scout and General is not to constantly weight each side so as to balance the two, but rather to ignore their existence all together. Maybe what I need to do is to follow wherever my seeds take me, and to accept any and all rainfall while on the way


  1. A reflection on this paper, part A

    For midterm critique, I discussed this paper with my professor. The largest change we decided I would have to make would be to make the entry more personal. Although I wrote to talk about my own inspiration as a result of these designers, it was decided that I had written in a very academic and reporter-like fashion.

    The desired alternative would have been to discuss the artists in a more personal manner, in how they related to my history, or how their stories made me feel emotionally.

    For example. I discussed Danielle's achievements from an exterior viewpoint. I mentioned that she was less well known than the other designers I had picked, and I vaguely insinuated that this was something I wanted to avoid. And I applauded Sid for stamping his name on his games, but I only mentioned that I found this behavior laudible. I didn't say why.

    What I didn't mention was that I crave recognition as a designer. I want the same recognition as a director of a movie. I want to be remembered for my works, to build a library of them, and to let the world know who I am. I want to be able to do a director's commentary for my games and have people stop to watch it once the game is through, in the hopes of getting inside my head.

    Whether we could call that one of my 'goals,' or not, it certainly influences my design and career choices- it influences me as a designer- and is a lot more personal and specific to me.

    I also found Danielle interesting because I'm currently going through a period of anxiety and stress in my life, and she is one of the few designers we had so far mentioned that had talked openly about ever being unhappy. She was very emotional and open with her feelings, writing blogs before blogs were cool, and making snippets of her correspondence available online. It was interesting to watch how she succeeded, and yet at the same time slightly disturbing; I felt concerned that her personal woes may have kept her from succeeding in ways that I personally would like to succeed in. Based on her interviews, the people around her were kept well informed on her problems, which means to me that she wasn't able to separate her personal and work lives. I'm worried that they interfered with one another. And I worry about facets of my own personality that could interfere with my artistic/career goals, and keep me from developing into the kind of person I want to actually be.

  2. A reflection on this paper, Part B,

    Previous to the midterm and previous to writing this paper, I had not yet narrowed down my design philosophy, or quite placed my thumb on my current thesis. This paper helped me move towards a better understanding of my own motivational factors, and eventually an unwrapping of what it is that makes me tick- what my 'seeds' are, according to the metaphor I used above.

    Another thing I realized is that something unites all the different designers I mentioned- as well as a great many more designers, such as Steve Jobs, that I had yet to read about in great detail. My teacher believed that these designers displayed a sort of arrogance, a fearlessness, a disregard for what negative things people would think about their products. And in many ways I knew he was right. However, I believe at the time I was looking for a slight variation of his definition, a revision that I could put in my own words.

    I was preoccupied with the fact that both Will Wright, Sid Meier, and John Carmack were utterly obsessed with the machines they worked with. I didn't see myself as possessing this trait. I didn't need to know absolutely anything and everything about every new powerful device that came out on the market.

  3. A reflection on this paper, Part C,

    This concerned me. I wondered what it meant. I didn't truly feel like a technical person at the time; I felt like a /designer./ To me, being called a technical person or a programmer had possibly the same effect on me that an Architect might experience upon being called an Engineer. So the idea that some of my favorite designers had all been obsessed with technological tinkering disturbed me. If I didn't share their passion, did that mean I couldn't be as successful as they were? Was I hopeless?

    The reason Roberta Williams makes it on to my list is because she more or less answered that question for me. Her story made me feel safe again, secure, capable. It might have been the case that Wright and Meier were preoccupied with technology, but Roberta Williams came from a background of mythology and story. Her success tale was almost unrelated to theirs, for all that they were operating in the same industry. She had neither Daniel Berry's emotional uncertainty, nor the overwhelming technological obsession of Wright.

    Although she clearly liked technology and saw it as a cool and innovative thing, she is never described as purchasing a pre-monitor-era computer and fiddling around with wires and switches to figure out what made it work.

    As a result of Roberta Williams, I was able to phrase my teacher's observation in my own words. Successful game designers- indeed, successful people!- did not come from a single background, a single mindset, or even a single personality type. But one thing they all shared was an obsession with their own power over their medium. That is not to say they were all ego-centric narcissistic maniacs(I'm looking at you, Carmack).

    Rather, this is to say that these individuals, at one point or another, in fits and spurts or over the full length of a career- were entirely possessed by their own 'Awesomeness.' Their own power. Their own creativity. For a portion of each of their lives, these individuals did not doubt themselves or hear the voices of naysayers. They knew they had power over their medium; they were confident in that power. They knew they had something new to bring into the table. They could not be convinced by any of the powers that be that they possessed anything other than a good idea. An idea that needed to be implemented at once.

    The biggest thing I learned from reading about these designers, the biggest mark and inspiration they left on me, was that I needed to start being confident in my own power again. That if I had been undermined, the only way for me to be a great designer was not to study algorithms or write better stories, but rather to re-arm myself with the belief that I Am Awesome, that I Have A Good Idea, and that I Need To Implement My Idea Now With Whatever Tools Are Available.

    In sort, I needed to re-obsess myself with my own power over my medium.