"We have always been shameless about stealing great ideas." - Steve Jobs
Full quote here.
Note: This is the second in a five-part series of blog posts discussing the lessons we learned while making our first game, FAST FAST LASER LASER. It was originally posted on UtahRaptorGames.com
There is no secret formula for coming up with great game ideas. If there was, there would be at least one game designer in the world who has never had trouble coming up with great games, and to my knowledge there is no such person in existence. The fact that Peter Molyneaux just put out a glorified, collaborative version of Cow Clicker is evidence enough of that.
However, with FAST FAST LASER LASER, we came up with a very specific creative process that guided us in designing its various mechanics--stealing from other game designers. I like to call it "creative stealing."
The game's "lasers-reflect-off-a-sword-and-gain-speed" mechanic? We just stole that from The Legend of Zelda. The angled mirrors that turn lasers around corners? Um… well, I guess we stole that from The Legend of Zelda too. The rest we pretty much stole from Bomberman '93. And yet, FAST FAST LASER LASER plays nothing like either of those games.
Before I get too far into that, let me talk about some other games that have been designed similarly.
Zach Gage says this his excellent iPad game Halcyon is sort of a hybrid of Tetris and Flight Control. Looking at Halcyon, you might think that Gage must be wearing his head-bandana a little too tightly, but think about the individual elements that compose Flight Control and Tetris, and you may start to see it on your own.
Specifically, Gage was looking at the line drawing mechanic and collision fail-state from Flight Control and then thinking about the grid-based clutter-management that makes Tetris so much fun.
"Tetris severely limits the amount of options the player has for the moment, but that allows a huge increase in the amount of thinking you can force the player to do about the state of the field," Gage told me when I interviewed him for my book, "Buttonless."
Beneath that worn-out headband is a million ideas for original games.
Image taken from this story on Edge-Online
Halcyon, Gage says, limits the play field in a similar way. The line-drawing mechanic was just one of many elements of the "system" that is Flight Control. Similarly, the "limited field" mechanic is just one of many elements from the system that is Tetris.
Gage's brain connected two disparate ideas into something original. He steals creatively. He took cool pieces from systems that he admired and mentally disconnected them from their source, allowing them to collide with previously unconnected pieces in his brain, creating something new.
There is no such thing as a true "epiphany." All thoughts come as a result of connecting one idea to the next. The clichéd phrase "train of thought" is a surprisingly truthful way of representing the creative process.
Gage didn't invent the line-drawing mechanic. He didn't come up with some new technology that made Halcyon stand out. He just thinks about games as systems composed of many interesting parts, and recognizes that some parts can be moved elsewhere for cool results. The train of thought that he took a ride on dropped him off at Halcyon.
This is why thinking about games in terms of "genre" is so dangerous for a creative person. When you think of something as an "RPG," your brain automatically lumps in all of the separate elements that make an RPG what it is -– inventory management, an overworld, NPCs with text bubbles, and turn-based battle systems. This leads to bland games with only incremental improvements or differentiating factors separating them from the hundreds of other games in their "genre."
This is why we get boring, unoriginal games like Medal of Honor: Warfighter, a game in the "military-shooter" genre, which is the proper term for games that aren't Call of Duty but would sure love to be.
I don't mean to pick on Imangi Studios, but this is also why a game like Harbor Master is invented. Imangi looked at Flight Control and saw it as a "genre" waiting to be exploited. They saw the line-drawing mechanic, and couldn't separate it from the other parts of the system: vehicle manipulation, a top-down view, multiple vehicle types, maps with different landing zones for those vehicles, etc.
The line-drawing mechanic was the real innovation of Flight Control, and Imangi could've made a great game by combining that one piece with something else that they were interested in. Instead they made a game that's doesn't manage to properly differentiate itself from its source material. It wasn't really creative stealing. It was just stealing.
I've interviewed the good people at Imangi Studios, and I know that they're smart, creative people. What they did with Temple Run is a true example of creative stealing. Everyone before them had seen Canabalt and become attached to the other pieces of its system. Most game designers thought that endless runners had to be a 2D side-scrolling game with super simple tap controls. Imangi blew up the genre and invented their own thing by asking themselves "what if you were a guy endlessly running on those Windows screensaver pipes?"
Old ideas, abstract thinking, new combination, new game. And a great game, at that.
And of course, now that Imangi has innovated and created something new through creative stealing, other people have started pumping out games that are basically Temple Run with a lame twist.
Four out of five Bomberman '93 players are suicidal.
So let's take this back to our own game, FAST FAST LASER LASER. I knew that I wanted to design a game that people could play together sitting around a TV, and I'd recently played a lot of Bomberman '93 with some friends. That game does a lot of cool things, such as:
- Local, same-screen multiplayer: it's easy to play with friends sitting in the same room.
- Simplistic controls: you just move and drop bombs. Sometimes you kick bombs.
- The ability for players to accidentally kill themselves when their own weapons are used against them. This is almost always hilarious.
- Weapons interact, often in unexpected ways. Bombs set off other bombs. Complex chains of events are possible because of this.
- Players evolve over the course of a single match. By the end of a game in Bomberman, you're zipping around at light speed, dropping dozens of bombs at once. It's empowering.
- Grid-based movement makes it very easy to calculate exactly what range of effect your weapons will have.
Bomberman '93 also has some serious issues:
- Matches are too slow and tedious to start off, since players have to work to gain access to each other.
- Once you clear the map, killing each other becomes less about strategic weapon placement and more about spamming the bomb button as fast as possible.
- Too many useless power-ups.
- Information about the power of your weapons is only revealed by using them.
FAST FAST LASER LASER is designed to do all the great things Bomberman '93 does (and avoid its design flaws) within a completely different context. It's local same-screen multiplayer. The game is played with only two buttons and a directional stick. Players can be killed by their own lasers. Lasers interact bounce off each other, often interacting in unexpected ways. Players get faster and earn more ammo over the course of a match. There's grid-based movement.
These are all big ideas that we've stolen. There's far more that we didn't steal from Bomberman, to the point that many people won't make the connection between the two on their own. Whereas Bomberman is a game about chaining and timing, FAST FAST LASER LASER is about using your environment to overwhelm players with moving attacks coming from all directions. By examining the parts of Bomberman that make the game fun, we've created something that offers a whole new sort of fun, while owing a lot to the essence of its source.
It is a wholesale lifting and recontextualization of an entire set of ideas. By eschewing ideas of genre and examining individual elements of a game you can start to come up with ideas for far more interesting, complex games.