Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 148 / JANUARY 1993 / PAGE 122

Designing your fantasies. (designers of computer games)(includes related articles)
by Danielle Best, Tracy Mygrant

A pear-shaped creature runs across a grid. Bombs cover tile after tile, and you must determine which bombs the creature will blow up. Make the creature go left, then two squares to the right. That's it. The small bombs set off others, clearing part of the field. But watch it--the bigger ones will make the creature explode. Ah, you've got it now. it's running, quickly but carefully, closer, closer to the final bomb. If you knock it out, you'll move on to another level. As the creature dodges the mine fields to approach the final bomb, you ... wake up.

And then, if you're David Bishop, director of design for Virgin Games (and lead designer of Dune and the upcoming Jungle Book), you grab the notebook and pencil beside your bed and record every detail of your dream. Game ideas can come from anywhere--even from dreams.

But most moments of clarity don't occur in the REM stage. In fact, only 2 out of 24 ideas Bishop has developed solo came to him in dreams. Comming up with the stuff that's fun--or at least what designers hope is fun--is usually a much more technical process.

Imagine trying to spread your creative wings while they're steadily being clipped by limited technology, time constraints, a demanding public, the likes and dislikes of coworkers, and executives who keep one eye on the bottom line.

Critical Gatekeeper

Accolade designer Mike Berlyn (Suspended, Altered Destiny, Tass Times in Tone Town) explains that designers generally come up with their ideas using one of two methods: scientific and unscientific.

Going the scientific route means devising better (or at least different) versions of popular games. By contrast, unscientific ideas develop out of pure inspiration--something just as mysterious as dreams--and are usually something completely different from what's already on the market. Products of the unscientific method include SimCity and Tetris. Since inspiration doesn't always come on its own, most designers merge both methods. "Sometimes, you just sit there, and nothing happens. You just sit there. Then the best thing to do is look at other products," Berlyn explains.

In the early stages of nurturing an idea, Berlyn stays home. "I don't care what office you work in's less conductive to inspirational thought," he says. Once a hot idea is generated, Berlyn takes it to a producer, who may give feedback ranging from "Let's do it" to "Absolutely not." If it's the former, he and the producer write a proposal and take it before a committee to get funding. Then the art director, the producer, Berlyn, and others begin putting in the year or so of work it often takes to create a final product.

Because game design often involves teams, quite a few ideas are generated in groups. Paul Reiche (Star Control, World Tour Golf, Archon) an, independent designer in a group called Toys for Bob, says its method involves almost playing together. "You spend a lot of time talking, and someone will say, 'Oh, wouldn't it be cool if this?' And then someone says, 'Oh, yeah, and this too.'" They play out the games in their minds, adding the neat things as inspiration stikes them, he says.

Accidental Inspiration

Serendipity in everyday life can also spark a great idea. Brain Fargo, the president of Interplay, watched a PBS miniseries on castles one night. When the narrator said that castles are really military machines, bingo! He had an idea for a game that's since been produced: Castles. Or take Josh Mandel's idea for a sushi-bar-in-the-backwoods game. It came during a theatrical tour when he and some partners ended up in the deep woods at a Japanese-style eatery. Mandel (Scarytales, Laura Bow: Dagger of Amon Ra), the director of product design for Sierra On-Line, says he strongly doubts that it will ever became a game, but it's from such offbeat ideas as this that tomorrow's game designs may come.

With so many ideas, how do designers know which ones to pursue? Designer Damon Slye (Aces of the Pacific, Red Baron, A-10 Tank Killer) of Dynamix says his formula requires four checks. First, the idea must be something he thinks will be fun or at least engaging. Second, he has to think the public will be interested. Third, he considers whether the technology will allow him to actually put out the product that's in his head. And fourth, it has to be financially feasible. As he explains, eight years ago a game might have cost around $30,000 to produce. Now, some can run a million dollars and more. As a result, he notes, only about one in five ideas becomes a game.

According to Chris Crawford (Balance of Power, Patton Strikes Back, Eastern Front 1941), independent designer and founder of the Computer Game Developer's Conference, "Depending on how you cut the cake, there are about 500 game design people in the world." Mandel says that the small number of designers, combined with the fact that the medium is so new, creates noticeably big differences in styles.

For instance, Gano Haine (Eco-Quest) sees herself as a storyteller. This designer for Sierra says she lived in her imagination from the time she was a little girl. Her natural knack for storytelling, a background in theater, and a passion for improvisation make her designs like fantasy and fairy tales.

Merging Cinema with Verity

F.J. Lennon (Challenge of the Five Realms, MegaTraveler II and III, Guardians of Infinity), producer for MicroProse Greensburg (formerly Paragon Software), is concerned with developing story lines and creating predictable characters. "People enjoy the games themselves, but they're demanding a cinematic side," he says.

While designers theoretically play the biggest roles, a game's personality has strong links to the company that produces it--especially if it's created in-house. According to Jerry Wolosenko, Psygnosis's CEO for North America, straight-laced executives are less inclined to take risks, while creative types are more willing to dabble in the avant-garde. Business types are also more likely to enforce design guidelines that some say seem more like fill-in-the blanks than anything else. The end result, says one designer, is one game made ten different ways--only embellished with new characters and settings. He likens the situation to being a new writer in Hollywood who expects creative freedom when he writes his first script, but instead is told how each and every one of his characters should act.

Hits and Masses

However, formula-driven spinoffs of current games are what people are buying, meaning those games have greater chances of making it to stores. And since people tend to buy what they know, ideas that don't fit a given niche are a bigger risk. In addition, it's hard to communicate abstract ideas to others. If designers can't pitch their ideas in a language executives can understand, companies aren't likely to back the idea financially, says Reiche.

Although the majority of companies choose to produce "safer" games, Crawford thinks that extreme caution only hurts the industry in the long run. Producing categorically correct games puts the industry in a rut, he says. The chain only breaks, he adds, when someone--usually a freelancer--comes out with a game that defies all the rules, one that doesn't match what's on the market. Companies run out to copy the game, another category is born, and the process starts all over again.

In order to step out the rut, he says, the industry needs to stop being afraid of innovation. But when the realities are considered, few companies want to risk losing thousands of dollars for the sake of design as an art.

However, Lennon adds, there's still the industry has matured, and we're going to have to take risks in order to advance."

Designers are forced to balance reality with the fantasies they want to create--a task requiring quite a mix of skills. "They have to be passionate about games in general... and be passionate about people having fun," says Bishop. They must also have enough imagination, he says, to envision what it's like to play the game after reading about it on paper. "And they must be able to temper their creative juices with commercial reality." But for David Bradley (Wizardry V: Heart of the Maelstrom, Wizardry: Bane of the Cosmic Forge, Wizardry: Crusaders of the Dark Savant, Parthian Kings), an independent designer who publishes primarily with Sir-Tech Software, the bottom line is even simpler: "The two main ingredients for a good designer are inspiration and insanity." You have to be insane, he says, to put up with game designing in a public light as opposed to keeping it as a hobby.