Inspiration from Game Design

The list of bloggable topics on my mind is currently very long, and (I am thinking) very good. Prominent on said list are (a) a long discourse on spiritual discipline and its effects, and (b) an explication of a home-brewed, possibly-heretical theology of creation that Nick and I have been kicking around for a little while and are pretty enchanted by, which seeks to resolve intuitions of a good pre-fall state with what evolutionary history says about nature being “red in tooth and claw”–i.e., vicious and cruel–long before humans arrived on the scene. However, something I saw last night on digg inspired me to push these topics yet further back, and that was a demo for an upcoming game by Maxis (creators of all the Sim games–of which the early SimCity and SimCity 2000 were the most groundbreaking, in my opinion–incidentally, you can play SimCity Classic online here if you have a PC).

Now, I want to preface this whole entry with a bit of history, since to many of you it may come as a shock that for most of my life I have considered myself and been considered by others a “gamer”. If you want to skip the history and get to the point, scroll down to “The Reason for this Entry” below.

A Personal Gaming History

My dad was into computers and hardware since I was a baby, so we always had a computer in the family. I think the first one was an Apple, but when we moved back to the States in 1988 from Papua New Guinea, our home computer became a PC with MS-DOS. Being a technically-minded youngster, my dad and I would spend hours together playing with hardware, installing hard drives and so forth–and he taught me how to use DOS commands like “cd”, “dir”, “md”, and so on; he even taught me how to create .bat scripts! Later on I furthered my own education and learned how to write .com programs in assembly using “copy con”. Anyway, seeing that I took well to these sorts of things, my parents allowed me to play games on the computer, even though we had a no-Nintendo policy. Thus began a long love affair with PC gaming (and not, of course, console gaming).

Games were like books to me–little consumable pieces of fun that would transport me to different worlds, or allow me to be creative and imaginative, or give me a chance to learn more about computers (back in those days, things usually didn’t just “work”–before running many games, you had to edit system startup files to allocate the correct amounts of memory to different parts of the system, or set IRQ settings for multimedia equipment because different games used different ports). I would get games usually via one of four ways. Occasionally my dad would bring home a game he’d borrowed from a friend (like Gunship 2000), or found overseas for cheap (like Prince of Persia). More often I would be messing around on one of the many Dallas-based BBSes, looking through the downloads section for shareware games to get and try out (incidentally, BBS culture and reminiscences are worth their own entry, but I probably won’t ever have the time to write such things out). Otherwise, I’d borrow and install games from my friends Nathan or Sean or Ben. This was before the days of cd-roms and copy protection, of course. Very occasionally, I’d spend what little money I had on a game.

Anyway, I thought it’d be fun to make some lists for posterity’s sake, and also to underscore how much of a gamer I was in earlier years–a world which is probably strange to most of you who spent your time at soccer practice or doing homework or whatever. If anyone wants to analyze the psychological implications of all of this, please do so in the comments. So here are lists of my favorite games:

The Elementary School era (1988 – 1991)
During elementary school, we had a computer class every day which was supposed to teach us math or something, and if we finished our lessons early, we could go up to Mrs Mehta and ask for the 7.5″ floppy of the game of our choice, which we could put into the Apple IIs and boot. I’d always play one of four games: Conan: Hall of Volta, Moon Patrol, Number Munchers, or of course, the mighty Oregon Trail.

The MS-DOS era (1988 – about 1996)
The MS-DOS era overlaps quite a bit with both the Windows 3.1 and the Windows 95 era, since both of these operating systems were more or less pieces of software running on top of DOS, and so games created then were typically written for DOS. That’s why the era extends until 1996, even though I’d been using a graphical OS for quite some time. There are a lot of important games to list here, so I’ll do so by genre, and roughly chronologically within that.

Educational games – the first games I played were educational games my parents had bought for the edification of myself and my siblings. For the most part, they didn’t teach me anything, but they were fun nonetheless and so I spent lots of time with them. For example: Reader Rabbit, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, Where in the USA is Carmen Sandiego?, Math Rescue, and my favorite, Word Rescue.

Board games / Strategy games – I wasn’t as big a fan of this genre, but a few games did suck up my childhood time: Hexxagon, Battle Chess, The Incredible Machine, and the tank strategy Scorched Earth.

Side-scrollers (top-down scrollers, too) – This was possibly the most popular style of game for this era, since it allowed for exciting action while avoiding the challenges of 3D. All were more or less awesome: Pharaoh’s Tomb, Secret Agent, Dark Ages, Jazz Jackrabbit, Commander Keen 4, Duke Nukem (the infamous), and Raptor: Call of the Shadows. By far the best of the lot was Prince of Persia. Unfortunately, my dad bought the game in Singapore and it came back without a manual. Many of this era’s games used words in the manual as keys to enter the game, to ensure that you had purchased it legally. Thus we could only play the game after successfully guessing the requested keyword (which happened about 1 in 50 times–until we began writing them down).

Sims (space sims, plane sims, jet fighter sims, racing sims, worldbuilding sims) – We had flight sims like F-15 Strike Eagle, MS Flight Simulator 5, Jetfighter II (probably my favorite–I distinctly remember flying at over Mach 1 underneath the Bay and Golden Gate bridges…and then turning south to fly for over an hour down to the LA coast–where there were only 1-color land/sea bitmaps), ATF, Gunship 2000 (the best helicopter sim ever), Falcon 3.0. We also had space sims like Wing Commander, Wing Commander II, Descent (and Descent 2), Star Wars: X-Wing (the first time I ventured into the Star Wars gaming universe, which has provided endless entertainment since then), Star Wars: Tie Fighter (the best sim experience I’ve ever had), and Terminal Velocity. Notable racing sims included one of my all-time favorites, Stunts, which let you design your own racetrack with jumps, loops, corkscrews. Definitely a plus–and you could even record yourself driving on the tracks and replay them later. Also: SkyRoads. The lone sub sim I played was Silent Hunter. There were two cool mech sims I liked: Ultrabots and Mechwarrior 2. Finally, I already mentioned Sim City and Sim City 2000.

Role-playing games – unlike the MMORPGs of today, the MS-DOS era’s role-playing games were single-person adventures where you typically had to use your brain to figure out puzzles and guide a character through an adventure. My favorite experience in this genre was undoubtedly King’s Quest V, which my friend Nathan and I agonized over together for quite a long time. The most technically wowing game was Return to Zork, which was a first-person adventure utilizing the newly-released cd-rom drives to deliver actual video content as part of the game. Other memorable games included: The Secret of Monkey Island (Guybrush Threepwood is my hero!), King’s Quest VI, Space Quest IV, The Adventures of Willy Beamish, the extremely original, genre-bending It Came from the Desert!, and Solar Winds.

First-person shooters – A fledgling genre, but later to become my favorite, more or less. I played Wolfenstein 3D, and Doom (but only at my friend Michael’s house, since my parents would have banned it).

Other – I used to play one fighting game with my brother: One Must Fall: 2097. Also there was the excellent Nibbles, run as “qbasic nibbles.bas” — I had tons of fun looking at the source code for that one when I was beginning to write my own BASIC programs. Also, this doesn’t count as a DOS game, because it was for the early Macs, but I was absolutely addicted to Bolo in junior high, primarily because it was multiplayer! Also, another fun sim-like game was Coaster, which let you have very fine-control design over coasters, and then ride them, monitoring g-forces, rider experience, etc…

The high school era (1997-2000)
Sometime before high school, I discovered Star Wars: Dark Forces – the Star Wars FPS that would spawn the series I’ve completed the most games from. I probably spent more time playing Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight during freshman year of high school than any other game. In multiplayer (by then the internet had become useful for playing games), I was literally unstoppable if I had the rocket launcher. The subsequent games, Jedi Knight II: Outcast, and Jedi Knight III: Jedi Academy were equally fun, with somewhat more of an arcade feel.

But back to high school: Quake and Quake II initiated the era, but soon I discovered a new genre that would prove to be the one that I thought would be my favorite (but in fact wasn’t): the real-time strategy. First there was Command and Conquer, and its flow of unit creation / control / combat was intriguing. I didn’t get very far in the game, though, before I became bored. Later that year, I traded C&C with my friend for Warcraft II, which turned out to be a much more important game in my gaming history. It was the first time I’d heard of Blizzard, but I loved the way they’d set up the game much more than C&C, because it was fantasy-based as opposed to modern. What really got me, however, was the story–Warcraft II came with a manual which had a short book included, telling the story of the game world. The depth of that story, and the clever way it was integrated into the game itself, hooked me a lot more than the actual mechanics of the game, which were good, but which wouldn’t have hooked me otherwise. I had such a fun experience with WC2 that I went back and bought the original Warcraft as well, which was laughably worse, but still fun. Anyway, Warcraft II was impactful in that it caused me to spend hours and hours on the forums for Blizzard’s upcoming RTS Starcraft, discussing all aspects of the game for almost a year before it was released. As it happened, I was way more into the game before it came out, and I didn’t finish any of the campaigns.

While I was waiting for Starcraft, I enjoyed several other strategy games: Riven, Myth: The Fallen Lords (which had the most awesome 3D RTS engine to date–it actually let you move the camera around!), Age of Empires, and a family favorite, Lords of the Realm II.

During and after the move to Florida in 1999, I played Battlezone, The Wheel of Time (an excellent, very much under-appreciated game based on the Robert Jordan book series), Total Annihilation, Total Annihilation: Kingdoms (an unfairly-lampooned RTS with a very original story line), Age of Empires II (a vast improvement over the original), Thief: The Dark Project (an extremely original first-person sneaker), and most importantly, I finally got around to playing through Half-Life, which was without doubt the best game of its time. The summer before Stanford I also attempted to tackle the new breed of adventure/role-playing games by taking on Ultima IX: Ascension, but it proved to be too much of a time sink (a lesson I apparently didn’t learn, given that I later played both Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind and World of Warcraft (which readers will remember).

College to Current (2000 – 2006)
College was mostly a sad time for my gaming habits, as other parts of my life were fleshed out and took precedence, including but not limited to the newfound athleticism I was cultivating partly to fit in to the more-active Stanford crowd, and partly because it just felt right and healthy. Of course, freshman year would give the lie to that statement, as I would game with my roommate Eric or my whole floor to all hours of the night, playing Counter-Strike. But games were definitely on the downswing as a whole…while I continued to buy games I thought I would like with my bits of disposable income, I rarely had time to finish them. One notable exception (other than the Jedi Knight games), was Return to Castle Wolfenstein, which was the most scary first-person shooter I’d played to date. I would play it with the lights off for a while, but occasionally I’d have to jump out of my chair and run down the hall to get rid of the goosebumps. Needless to say, it was excellent. One summer, I was accepted as a beta tester for the now sadly defunct Savage, a boldly-conceptualized hybrid of FPS and RTS. It was fun to see a game change while I was playing it.

Since I was a Blizzard fan, I also picked up Warcraft III on the day it was released, and finished it over the next couple of years (though I’m still not done with The Frozen Throne. Since college, I’ve really only played two games: the extremely awesome Half-Life 2, which is probably the best FPS game ever, and the ubiquitous World of Warcraft. Oh wait, I did finish Halo for mac, as well.

Anyway, so much for my personal gaming history. I’m not sure what principles we can draw from this, but I will say that most of my best gaming experiences have been ones that have involved other people in some way–I can remember hours of pure, awesome fun playing games with my brother over the LAN, or with my friends. I also formed some friendships online through gaming that, while not particularly long-lasting, were not meaningless. (This would be harder to now, given that most people who play games on the internet are about 10 years of age, or have that mentality).

Essentially, being in communities formed around gaming has made that gaming more meaningful than it otherwise would have been. Which is not to say that these are good or helpful communities, but more the general observation that doing things with people makes you like the things themselves more. That’s why some people have positive connotations of consuming alcohol or tobacco, where others don’t.

The Reason for this Entry
Now that it is clear exactly what kind of nerd I am, I wanted to share news of an exciting game that is in the works. It’s called Spore, and it’s being designed by Will Wright, the same guy who designed the SimCity and Sims games. As the Wikipedia article says, he generally designs “software toys” rather than goal-oriented games–essentially, things that you can play with and do what you will with for an indefinite period of time–there is no set beginning or end. Think about SimCity–you could spend your whole life building and running it if you wanted; there is no endpoint, only your own creativity and tolerance. You can watch a video of a talk by Wright at last year’s Game Developers Conference, where he says a lot of interesting things about game design. In the middle of the talk he gives a demo of this upcoming game Spore which is possibly the most amazing piece of interactive software I have seen. If you don’t want to wade through the talk, you can go straight to the gameplay video.

Basically, the game is a world sim of the most epic proportions. You start out controlling a microorganism, and through eating and modifying the organism through various generations of existence using the game’s editor, you propel your creature-line through various stages of evolution: bacteria, small macroorganism, fish-type thing, amphibious walking creature, etc…

The micro stage

At a certain point your creature becomes sentient and the game changes–you’re now controlling a society, which you grow in ways familiar to Civ players. Other asynchronously-user-designed societies exist on your world with which you interact in friendly or hostile manners depending on how you have been training your creatures. At this stage you use the same world editor to “buy” and/or create from scratch various buildings and technologies, which enable creation of vehicles, colonizations, and other possibilities.

The city (“civ”) stage

Eventually, assuming all the previous stages have been successful, you gain off-world transportation power and are able to travel to other planets in the solar system, using terraforming techniques to make them habitable.

View of your planet

With the resources gathered by all your civilizations, interstellar travel becomes possible, and using SETI-like mini-games, discovery of other sentient beings throughout the galaxy becomes only a matter of time. These sentient beings have been designed by other players–though they are copied from a central database and your actions with them do not affect that player’s world. Anyway, peaceful or warlike negotiations are possible here just in the same way as on your home planet, and thusly you can explore the galaxy. And finally, it is even possible to zoom out from the galaxy and fly around at the most macro-scale imaginable, swooshing past countless similar galaxies, each with their own star systems and habitable worlds, populated with procedurally-generated or other-user-generated content.

While the game itself looks like it will probably be the most fun game ever released, the way it has been conceptualized/designed is fascinating and inspiring to me. First, the game is basically an analogue to the Powers of 10 phenomenon which is so breathtaking–only you’re zooming out instead of in. Second, the game behavior actually changes at each step backwards. In other words, you don’t have one game with one set of game mechanics that you play until completion–no, the rules, methods, and goals of the game change depending on what level of detail you are at in your universal evolution. This promises to provide a completely different gameplay experience than most games, which are somewhat statically designed. Third, everything in the game is procedural or algorithmic, which completely fascinates me. Wright explains at the beginning of his talk how in the early 90s the exponential increase in data storage capacities (via the cd-rom) made game designers think almost exclusively in terms of massive content creation, because they now could, instead of thinking in terms of dynamically generating content based on smart and compact algorithms. This part of the game blows my mind–every creature, every building is customizable in thousands of ways, but the software knows how to treat everything so that it works exactly how it’s supposed to in the world.

In the gameplay video, Wright shows off some of the variety you can have in the creature editor, and he made a creature with three legs. We don’t really have any of these on Earth, so in my mind I didn’t even have a good idea of what a three-legged creature should walk and move like. But the game’s engine analyzed the skeleton of the tripod animal and decided that it would have to walk in a certain way, and it looks completely real. The amount of physics research that must have been done to produce such an engine is incredible.

Another inspiring design point Wright made was that, in their research into gameplay patterns, people are almost always happier when they are given tools with which to be creative regarding content. That content might not be as good as content designed by professionals, but given that it belongs to me, I am more invested in it and therefore feel that I am having a more meaningful entertainment experience. I resonate deeply with this mode of thinking, and feel that it might be the thing that saves electronic entertainment from being completely useless. Fundamentally, entertainment needs to be recreation (see weblog title!), by which I mean re-creation, or creating-after. Games that facilitate this creativity will be much more beneficial for people than hack-and-slashers or for most of the crap that Hollywood spews out (the same principle holds true for other forms of media, even if it’s less fundamentally interactive–good films are the ones that require you to creatively generate something in order to correctly experience or understand it–whether that creativity is in the intellectual or emotional sphere). So this is the tie-in to the personal gaming history, because I’m wondering if Spore might have some ability to re-deem and re-integrate gaming into a well-rounded and well-recreated life.

Moving on to another theme: as someone who essentially designs interfaces for a living (but who is beginning to realize this is neither always nor typically enjoyable), the way the interfaces are designed in Spore is dazzling. Everything is simple, clean, and organic. What is necessary is at hand, and what is not is hidden away. I’m not sure if this good design was easy given the organic nature of the game itself, but regardless, someone is doing something right, and I am excited to get my hands on a copy just to see how they solve all the UI problems that must exist in a game with as large a scope as this one. (Incidentally, I couldn’t find a release date anywhere…hopefully 2006 sometime!)

Lastly, given recent thoughts about evolution, in biological, sociological, cosmological, and theological terms, the bare premise of the game is philosophically interesting. I want to see how the story of evolution is told, what explanations are given, and so forth. I mean, what we have here is basically a model of “theistic” (rather, “guided”) evolution, where the player is actually making cognitive decisions for how to affect the physical or cultural aspects of a creature or society. Given that this is an interesting model in general, I really want to play around with it and see how deep the “procedurality” of the game goes, and how much of it is hard-coded AI.

If anyone has made it this far: what do you think? Did you watch either of the videos? Why am I so excited about this? Is it just my Five-wing expressing itself?

By Jonathan Lipps

Jonathan worked as a programmer in tech startups for several decades, but is also passionate about all kinds of creative pursuits and academic discussion. Jonathan has master’s degrees in philosophy and linguistics, from Stanford and Oxford respectively, and is working on another in theology. An American-Canadian, he lives in Vancouver, BC and has way too many hobbies.

3 replies on “Inspiration from Game Design”

Wow! Words fail me…

Well, on second thought, maybe there are a few words still left standing… I’ve never been able to get into game-playing. I have tried, spend a couple hundred $ at least on various games that I was told were totally addictive, and it just didn’t take. But I’m a five, with a four-wing, and as a five, I am totally impressed with your depth of engagement with the gaming world, Jonathan.

Spore does sound fascinating, though. I might just check it out…

I think I would be sad to let my single-celled organisms go and move on to bigger and “better” things. I would be exploring some newly-terraformed planet one day and wonder whether or not the game-makers made provisions for moving backwards as well as forwards. Do you happen to know, J?

Actually, yes Mike. Once you get to the sort of “end” of the “vertical” part of the game (i.e., the part where you are increasing the exploration/abilities of your creature/civilization), the designers see the game as branching out somewhat like a “T”–where you’re now free to go and do everything you’ve done before in the game, but anywhere. So you could start the same process on a new planet…go down and be a little spore again, etc.

I think the way Will Wright talked about it before was that the “vertical” part of the “T” is really all about training you how to use all the different game editors–and then you’re let loose to create whatever content with it you want! (Which is ultimately shared with other users via the internet database).

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