Saturday, 14 July 2012

Game Designers

You've heard of Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, James Cameron? Sure. All film directors. Visionaries in the medium of film. Artists and creative geniuses every one of them. But what about the medium of the computer game? Who were and are the names in games?

Perhaps like me you also "wasted" many holidays, evenings and weekends, as a youth, playing computer games. The first game I remember was "Jet Set Willy". A friend had loaned their Sinclair Spectrum to my older brother (I must have been about 8 at the time) and after what seemed an age of waiting for it to load there before my eyes was the first computer game I ever saw working in my own home. Since then I have played many games on many systems. Over the years home I have lived in hosted various home computer and game platforms - ZX81, Spectrum 48k, Oric, Spectrum +2a, NES, Game Gear, Atari ST, Atari Lynx, Master System, Mega Drive, PS1, XBOX, XBOX 360 and the Wii. Not to mention more iterations of PCs than I can remember, and of course my old iPAQ PDA, and now my Android smart phone. I played games on them all, more games than I can possibly remember, and behind each game were clever, creative designers pouring their ingenuity into their creations like the Scotts and Camerons of the gaming world.

Having recently become acquainted (and in some cases re-acquainted) with the knowledge of some influential names in the game industry, I decided to do some homework to learn more about other important names that influenced my youth. In other words, who were the Hitchcocks and Spielbergs, the game designers, behind my favourite games, and what do they have in common that I can learn from?

Matthew Smith

While possibly not strictly a game designer by the current definition, Matthew Smith probably represented the nearest equivalent in 1983. Strictly Matthew was a programmer, but as often seems to be the case (the OS user interface and the WWW being prime examples) early uses of computer technology, including in games, were driven by programmers. Mathew is best known for his work on Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy, for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum. Both represented early examples of the platform game genre.

Matthew's games demonstrated that playability was of high importance along with an understanding of the capabilities of the destination platform and how theses can be harnessed in creative and innovative ways. One example of Matthew applying this is the use of in-game sound in Manic Miner, it was the first Spectrum game to include in-game sound by making clever use of alternating CPU attention between game and sound.

Paul Woakes

Paul Woakes gets the first developer and concept credit for probably the game I played the longest - Mercenary. I played it on the ZX Spectrum, but it was available for several platforms. Produced in 1985 Mercenary was the first full 3D game, and first open world game, I ever played. Conceptually and technically it pushed some boundaries (particularly on the Speccy), delivering a unique gaming experience that made it stand out from the flat linear game play that was more common at the time.

Looking purely at game play (and not at 1980s technology limited graphics) Mercenary implements several of the approaches we still see today in open world games, including interactions with NPCs that push the story along and direct the player. I see Paul as a pioneer of 3D open world games.

Robin and Rand Miller

One of the best games I never completed was MYST, designed by Robin and Rand Miller and released in 1993. From a technical point of view it made innovative use of what was in effect a system of hyperlinks, and overcame limitations in the real-time 3D capabilities of the time by making innovative use of pre-rendered static images and animated sequences. The visual design was fantastic and combined with the slowly unfolding story and interlinking puzzles results in an immersive believable 3D world. Although there is no threat of violence ever in the game, the haunting loneliness, ambience and surreal landscapes always had me "looking over my shoulder".

For me this game really stands out as an example of designers Robin and Rand Miller being able to think of absolutely everything while demonstrating a high level of creativity and originality - a complex story that must be revealed in parts, complex puzzles, visual style, architecture, game play, game mechanics, use of available technology... - and how it all must come together to make a seamless whole.

Common Attributes

There are some schools of thought that suggest it is possible to "bottle excellence". That if we knew the ingredients of excellence we could teach anyone to achieve it. What attributes then do these four game designers demonstrate that I can learn from?
  • Creativity - leading to originality
  • Understanding of the available technology - in order to innovate with it and to push its boundaries
  • A holistic view of the whole creation - seeing both the whole and the details and how they fit together
  • Never giving up - because nothing ever gets finished if you do
Thanks guys :-)