A couple of weeks ago I started out writing about my habit of getting obsessed with games I’d never think about making, which last week led to some thoughts on different kinds of creativity and how my kind of creativity starts with frustration about…something, anything, but mostly about games styles that I think could be improved so easily if developers weren’t so committed to convention. (You know what I’m talking about — games that seem driven by “Do what we’ve always done because it works…and we can always add prettier pictures!” That kind of thinking just frustrates the heck out of me.) And that led to the realization that frustration gets me thinking, which (paradoxically) keeps me playing and (ultimately) gets me reacting. Next thing I know, I’m waking up at 4 in the morning, scribbling furiously on a notepad and before you know it, there’s a game I have to make.
Those 4 a.m. creative bursts (which often drive teams crazy — “Oh, no, Warren didn’t sleep last night… we’re all in trouble!”)… these reactions to frustration, stand in stark contrast with what I’ve started thinking of as “clean slate” creativity. And, while some of the folks who emailed me or posted comments here pointed out that everything is a reaction to something (nothing new under the sun…), I do think there’s a difference between my approach and that of other folks. I say that because I’ve been lucky enough to work with plenty of “clean slate” guys — Allen Varney…Greg Costikyan…David “Zeb” Cook in tabletop games… Richard Garriott, Chris Roberts and Doug Church in electronic games… (And anyone want to quibble with me throwing Will Wright’s name into the “clean slate” bucket? We haven’t worked together, but I think he’s a safe addition to the group!)
These guys routinely come to the table with a vision of something entirely new, a game unlike anything anyone’s ever seen. Half the time they sound nuts when they describe what they want to do, even to me. The other half of the time, I can’t wait to play their games and immediately start looking for ways I can help to enable and empower them — when you run up against something Totally New, you kind of have to help realize the idea, don’t you?
In contrast, while I have plenty of ideas, I don’t often find myself with all-new ideas like that — as I said, I’m more a reactive kind of guy. I play a game or read a book or watch a movie; I get frustrated at how lame it is or how conventional or how easily it could be improved. I see ways to add an element here or bring in an element from another kind of game. My pitch slides always (ALWAYS) include a couple of slides along the lines of “Take the best of games like X, throw in a bit of what makes Deus Ex or Ultima great and you’ve got Warren’s New Game Idea.”
In other words, I look for ways to take things that frustrate me and fix them.
Sometimes, my frustration is with a game’s fiction, sometimes it’s with gameplay, sometimes it’s with an underutilized feature, sometimes it’s with an entire genre I think needs a kick in the rear. But, like the princess who can’t sleep because of the pea under her mattress, I can’t rest when I see something dumb in a game.
For example, as much as I love fantasy, and loved the world of Ultima, I couldn’t shake the feeling back in 1989 that fantasy was limiting us–commercially and creatively–and a more realistic, historical approach would help us tell cooler stories while reaching a larger, more diverse audience. “Why the heck don’t you use that great Ultima VI engine for something more broadly appealing, Richard?” I thought. The result was Martian Dreams — an Ultima-style historical science fiction adventure set in the Victorian era. (Okay, so I was wrong about reaching a larger audience with a non-fantasy Ultima title, but the spark that started the project was definitely frustration, not a desire to create a clean slate design…)
A couple of years later, Ultima VII came out — a perfectly fine game but one that didn’t seem “epic enough” to me (though, in retrospect, that’s clearly absurd!). From a technical and graphics perspective it was groundbreaking, but the player experience seemed old ate. The story and playstyle could have been better. Out of that frustration came Serpent Isle. (There was also the fact that Britannia was totally Richard Garriott’s world and anyone else trying to explore interesting ideas there had to face the inevitability of those dreaded words, “That would never happen in Britannia” or “Iolo would never do that!” Serpent Isle was born of frustration with that, too — I told the team we were going to create our own world, within the Ultima universe, so Richard could never say that stuff to us! But that’s a story for another time…)
Wings of Glory was sparked by a plane ride I took with Chris Roberts while he was working on Strike Commander. Here was his team of supergeniuses, creating the most amazing flight sim engine to date — best looking models, best looking terrain, a 3D cockpit you could actually look around to check your surroundings — and all he could think of to do with it was a jet fighter game?! That seemed ludicrous to me. Jets don’t really dogfight. They fight from a distance, guaranteeing you’d be too far from Strike Commander’s beautiful 3D models to see them… flying too high to marvel at the incredibly detailed terrain… relying on radar to spot far-off enemies, ensuring you’d never have any reason to look around the 3D cockpit. It was nuts. I was frustrated. From that moment, I had to do a WWI flight sim, so you could get up close and personal with beautiful slow-moving planes, fly low to the ground and marvel at the terrain, swivel around the cockpit straining to catch a glimpse of an enemy before he got the drop on you.
Deus Ex was completely a response to Thief. I remember sitting in meeting after meeting with the team, arguing that it was a bad idea to de-power players to force them to sneak and avoid combat. “What if I’m not good enough to sneak past a guard? Or I just want to bash a guy over the head once in a while?” I lost all those battles (and, the way Thief turned out, I was clearly in the wrong — the game rocked). However, those lost battles led me to a place where all I could think was, “I’ll show those guys. I’ll make a game where you can sneak, fight or talk your way past any problem.” The next four years were just details — the game was born out of intense frustration with Thief.
More recently, working with John Woo on the Ninja Gold movie concept, I was driven by frustration one two levels: First, the Hollywood/Game collaboration just never seemed to work right and, second, ninjas are always treated so stupidly, in such a juvenile manner. I saw an opportunity to address both of those problems. (That’s really about all I can say about this, other than to warn people not to draw too many conclusions about JPS’s activities from the published reports.)
This bringings us back to the here and now. If you recall , this all started with Paper Mario on the Wii (again, a fun enough game I’m not dissing!…) Paper Mario fed right into my perpetual frustration with games that lead players around by the nose, offering false choices, when they offer choices at all, offering players the opportunity to solve puzzles (exactly the same way every other player solves exactly the same puzzles). In other words, it’s a game that allows players to pass some time but not much more. And that drives me nuts. In fact, much as I love Mario and Zelda and platform action/adventure games and all, there’s not much that frustrates me more these days. So, of course, I’ve been playing them obsessively and (surprise!) we’re working on a concept at JPS that will help address my frustration — a concept driven, as always, by a weird combination of love and frustration for specific games.
I’m hugely motivated these days by my love of and frustration with Zelda, Mario and other games of that ilk. Clearly, part of the appeal of these games is the chance to immerse oneself in familiar worlds and familiar gameplay. And there’s something soothing about knowing there’s One Right Way to do things. But as appealing as that idea is, there’s danger in too much reverence for the past, and these games seem so mired in their history, so married to convention they kind of make me mad. Prettier pictures won’t maintain sales forever. Someone has to offer a different take on action/adventure gameplay — why not us here at JPS? The frustration is definitely building! And that means there’s a game coming… Man, I can’t wait to talk more about this, but I better stop before I get myself in trouble.
Back in the world of generalization…
Whatever the frustration that drives my creative urges, it’s always screaming frustration of some kind that drives me. Everything I do is a response to something, a dialogue with someone or something (even if the other party doesn’t know a thing about it!). For me, art requires something to push against — maybe even something I want to destroy. (I really did want to shame other developers with Deus Ex, to ensure they could never make a straight shooter or simple save-the-world RPG again without feeling a little embarrassed about it. You can decide if we succeeded or not…)
I need an “I’ll show them!” moment before I can muster the energy to devote three years of my life to something. As my lovely wife Caroline will gladly inform you, I go out of my way to find things to get worked up about, things to get mad about, things I think are stupid in games — things to react to. For me, right now, I’m reacting to stupid ninjas and conventional platformers, just as I reacted ten years ago (jeez, has it been that long?!) to conventional shooters (and “sneakers”), back in the days of Deus Ex.
This all leaves one big question, of course — how do I reconcile the JPS core value of “Innovation” (see my blog post from June 9, 2007) with the reactive/editorial approach to design discussed here? That, and a bit about what comes after the frustration, is the topic for next week. For now, though, I turn this over to you folks, ending with two questions:
First, I see other “reactive” designs out there (though I won’t name them, for fear of offending friends and colleagues who may not find the idea of being reactive, rather than more conventionally creative, all that appealing!). But that doesn’t mean you folks can’t name names. So what reactive designs do you see out there?
Second, what game types/styles/categories bug you, frustrate you, make you want to tear your hair out — which genres, in other words, do you think are ready for reaction and reinvention?