Who was there: Game developer Jonathan Blow (of Braid fame) spoke at this year's GDC Europe about the importance of cultivating simple ideas to yield complex video games.
What did he talk about:"More ideas came out of the development of Braid than I put in as a creator," Blow said at the top of his presentation. "There's an extent to which this game designed itself." He elaborated by saying that when programmers sit down to design a game, they cannot foresee everything that is possible within the game's design. They may have some ideas of how they'd like the game to play, but once they enter the code and start testing it, chances are they'll come up with some unexpected results.
Blow encourages his peers to watch out for these unexpected results. "Designers come to the game with questions," he said. "Let the code provide the answers." During the development of Braid, Blow was always looking for ways to make the levels simpler. By removing extraneous elements, he felt it provided more room for truth--the elements of pure, unique gameplay with which the player could interact.
With the development of The Witness, a first-person puzzle game, Blow chose to highlight the development of one aspect of the game: panel puzzles. These simple puzzles task the player with drawing a line from one point on a maze to another. While they will tie into the main game in some way, Blow wanted to make sure they could stand on their own as an enjoyable experience. At first, he wasn't satisfied with the quality of the puzzles, so he took a few months to work on other aspects of the game before retuning with a fresh perspective. "A huge variety of ideas became apparent that I hadn't seen before," he admitted, attributing this insight to discovering ideas that already existed and not forcing new ones into place.
There isn't a hard and fast rule for coming up with these ideas, he added. Instead, developers need to take some time to really analyze what's at the core of their games and explore the very basics. As an example, Blow chose the most basic of video game experiences: two guys blowing each other up with rocket launchers. He then asked attendees to imagine stripping away all the fluff and uncover the fundamental concepts behind the game, such as studying rocket trajectory and how one must lead shots to hit a moving target.
With that in mind, rebuild the game around these basic ideas from the ground up. All of a sudden, you have a game with guys shooting rockets at each other, but it's not about guys simply shooting rockets at each other.
Blow said he rarely sees this design philosophy and that developers need to be open to what is right in front of them--to what the universe has made available. It's a design skill that developers have to practice because too often game design is about dictating rather than listening. Being a game designer doesn't have to mean being stuck crafting something from nothing. Instead, developers can think of themselves as explorers on a voyage of discovery. There is still a capacity for authorship, but they find their games by trial and exploration rather than forcing the code to do what they first wanted.
"The role of the author is to build a bridge between what is there and what our human minds and senses want to see," Blow said. "As game designers, we have this power; we can build systems, listen to them...and find out what they want to show us." Of course, he added, this is not the only way to design games; he would just like to see more of it. The universe has an "unlimited supply of surprises" built in for game developers to explore; they just have to go out and find them.
Quote:"There's more to a system than you can understand by reading rules; you have to engage and play with it."--Jonathan Blow, on game development.
Takeaway: Some of the best games thrive by taking simple concepts and finding unique ways to explore them. Blow urges developers to stop building up endless towers of game modes, weapons, levels, and power-ups. Instead, dig down into the game and reevaluate its basics. Find what makes the game tick at its very core and spend some time playing with that system. Let the system speak and listen to what it has to say.