The Risk of an Idea
A good friend of mine, who has practically become my codesigner for Straylight, has just returned from Nevada. Before he left to try out new job opportunities over a year ago we talked endlessly about open-ended games, consequences, and what real freedom might mean in a game like Straylight. In fact, years ago it was his input that made me see the merrits of cooperative play and console gaming, and without his fervent arguing on dozens of points Straylight might have well ended up as Asteroids: The RPG. Of course, it would have been done by now... but anywho...
The process of arguing a game idea, particularly a risky one, is always interesting because it relies so heavily on "mights," "ifs" and "maybes." Reaching out into the unknown takes a certain amount of faith, and maybe even a basic amount of skill of handling the very concept of "newness" (seen best in not treating it like the "oldness" you already know). Take, for instance, the idea of not being able to quickload in an open-ended game. Very controversial (just search the near-flamewar wasteland of Game Design under this topic if you want examples). Ninety-nine percent of the time I'm a foaming at the mouth, rabid "let the player play the way they want to" adherent, which means free-saving whenever, why-ever.
But as I've narrowed down the experience I'd like to be able to offer with Straylight the idea of removing the need to quickload has become EXTREMELY compelling. Not from an arrogant, "I say you can't save" position, but from a "death is uninteresting, loss is far more interesting" place. More and more I'm convinced that certain really fun, really engaging experiences will be impossible with saving. But while the idea may have promise, not a lot of games do it well, and it is very risky (remember the first Predator vs. Aliens and how the fanbase kicked Fox's *** in the press until they issued a save patch?)
So arguing an idea like this with my friend is a very fascinating experience. He doesn't, like many, fall back on the hazy "if it's done right" aphorism that seems to plague surface-level game design. That doesn't get you anywhere. Instead, he goes right for the throat. How, he asks, can you be sure that players won't fall into some unseen negative experience unanticipated by testing and planning and programming? How do you make the process of recovery from mistakes as interesting as whatever preceded making them? How do you distinguish between a stupid mistake (like accidentally firing on a dreadnaught while in a shuttle) and a fateful choice? What about crashes and file corruption?
My temptation is to reach for the mights, ifs and maybes. But the real answer-- the only answer you can ever give-- is that you won't know until well into building it. Sometimes I wonder if this is exactly how Fable and Freelancer stumbled. My friend raised that point during our last discussion-- that Molyneaux basically said that he was trying to do so many new things that the game they were making, over time, less and less resembled the game they'd hyped.
I'm not, of course, comparing myself to Chris Roberts and Peter Molyneaux. But its interesting to see how even the well-heeled and funded, experienced developers, when reachng out past the well-trod "X was popular, let's make a game like X" ideaspace run afoul of the same problem, again and again. It's almost as if, when reaching into the untested, you need to constantly keep the logic of your assumptions-- and all the implications for gameplay and the player's experience that they embody-- organically modelled and alive in your head as you plan; then that plan has to be reality-checked by bouncing it off of others and validated in playtesting as much as possible before coding.
Obviously, this whole process of reaching into the unknown to solve problems isn't unique to game design. This makes me wonder what other methodologies other creative or pioneering disciplines might have to offer. Heh, we might turn this whole gaming thing into a science yet. [smile]
And speaking of risky ideas...
After lots of good feedback from friends and the great folks of Game Design, I'm going to risk casting you in the role of an Indwelling, a spirit-like entity inhabiting human flesh. But I've decided not to spring it on you all at once, keep it story-drive and understated, and make you something of a human-spirit hybrid.
I'll explain more in my next post, but the gist is that you're the essence of destiny, the embodiment of choice. There are other Indwellings in the world just like you, embodying essential natures humans would identify with, such as fear or honor. Indwellings have symbiotically existed in humans throughout history, gradually uplifting us and directing our path. That delicate balance ends abruptly at the start of the game when you, the Indwelling of destiny, are murdered.