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Inside the Execution Labs Incubator: I'm gonna need a bigger canon
by Jen Whitson on 03/01/13 04:50:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Since Adrian Crook‘s day at the lab, I’ve been wondering if I need a bigger canon. Not the cannon that goes “boom”, but a canon in terms of a list of games that define the industry.

Game development, by nature, is interdisciplinary. Artists, designers, engineers, UX and UI designers, animators, and managers each speak a highly specialized language of their own. For example, business managers talk in a near incomprehensible spew of acronyms like KPIs, ARPUs, and eCPAS.

As Casey O’Donnell points out, communication between these different groups would be difficult, if not impossible, without a common touchstone: the games we all play. References to games, mechanics, play styles, art styles, and genres become a means of understanding and communicating about the underlying systems and structures of the games they are working to create.

That’s why game pitches are framed in terms of “it’s like Dead Space but with a Borderlands weapons system”. We immediately get some sort of idea of what people are talking about. Game canons provide a game design blueprint to riff off of and improve upon.

Here’s the problem. I’m a console and PC gamer at heart. And I have no clue what Adrian’s referring to when he’s talking about compulsion loops in Rage of Bahamut or failed monetization in Zombie Gunships. The game language I know is focused on 3rd person shooters, something that really isn’t mobile tablet territory. And I’m not alone in XL feeling this way.

So, the teams here at Canadian incubator Execution Labs are building a new canon: a list of social and mobile games on our internal wiki that we should all play. Every week or two, we’ll play a new game and then meet to tear it down, analysing what works and what doesn’t. Because social and mobile games are easy-access (no hunting down NES emulators), usually free-to-play, and designed to be consumed in shorter time sessions, learning a new canon should be easier. But this got me to thinking…

What do games look like when they’re designed without drawing from a canon? Maybe some of the games coming from the Pixelles or the Difference Engine Initiative might be examples here, as some of the creators are non-gamers. This leads me to a second question: If we didn’t have an established game canon, would we have more original games?

From my own experience, I think it’d be difficult to find any game that wasn’t, at least to some extent, loosely based on another. It’s not that we’re all rip-off artists and plagiarists. (To read more on this, check out designer Dan Cook’s thoughts on the topic). It’s that we want to belong. We are eager to learn and speak this new language.

To get the inside references and jokes about CSR Racing. To join the conversation. So…if you’re the one person on a team of five who can offer a non-canon perspective (i.e. you aren’t a gamer and don’t speak that language) the first thing you do is rush home and google all the games you heard references to.

You play them (or watch youtube clips if you don’t have time to play Evil Genius, Mirrorball Slots, Candy Crush, Jetpack Joyride, Space Team, Puzzle Craft and Flight Control all in one night) and then, come to your scrum the next day magically transformed. Ready to talk about differences in HUDs, tutorial design, currency forms, etc. It’s human nature to want to speak the language.

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Ara Shirinian
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If we didn't have an established canon, we would have more original games but it would be at the cost of accessibility. I don't buy one bit that our reliance on conventions comes from some kind of longing to belong though.

I think most gamers and devs have even more longing for something original, but if a game is too original in a certain way, most people won't understand it. Look at something like Gun Valkyrie, it boasted a totally novel control scheme that made the dynamics of that game really interesting and fresh. But most people couldn't tolerate forgetting everything they knew about how to move a character around in 3rd person perspective to be able to appreciate its depths.

Paul Laroquod
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Not this 'canon' thing again. No offence but in this day and age, when the suffocating concept of a 'canon' has been decisively thrown off by film and literary critics for several decades now, it is embarrassing to witness calling for the world of games to adopt this hoary old, discredited concept. It is as if a literary critic came to a game designer and said, 'Why don't you write your code on punch cards so it will be more permanent?

Wendelin Reich
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Wow, nothing like a little hate from someone who has been angered by the title and didn't care to read the article.

If you had, you might know that Jen doesn't just buy into the idea of a canon, but explores the question of whether a canon might be useful.

Incidentally, I have to agree with Jen that a common language for game developers requires reference points. In that sense, we already have a 'canon'. We expect others to know a small set of famous and/or distinctive games so we can establish common ground. Not calling this a 'canon' doesn't change the fact that that's precisely what it is.

As a matter of fairness towards new or aspiring game developers, we should be open about which games they will often be expected (explicitly or implicitly) to know something about. IMO that is why Jen's article touches an important issue.

Jen Whitson
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@Paul. I'm not saying game developers should or shouldn't have a canon. And I don't care about literary and film criticism, or some idealized notion of how people should make games. I care about how people actually make games. So, half my week is spent working with game makers. And whether we like it or not, lists of 'good' games are used all the time to make games. If you know of a term better than canon to denote this, I could use it instead. But then I'd have to think up a new pun for this post's title. ;)

@Ara. I fully agree with your point about the originality/accessibility balance.
In terms wanting to belong, that's what I got from my own personal experience, and I've seen it happen with others. As a sociologist, this sorta stuff is what catches my eye. Obviously, there's lots of reasons why we use canons in game dev.
Pragmatically, a shorthand for what has worked (and failed) so far in games means that devs can avoid bad design decisions. What's interesting to me is how massively foreign the canon is for mobile/tablet games. Using a console canon to make mobile games can directly lead to bad design decisions instead of heading them off.

Amir Barak
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The problem with using your concept of Canon as a way to decide good/bad design decisions is the simple fact that similar games with similar 'canon' implementations can vary by a large drift when in comes to player acceptance. I think any game design that starts with the words “it’s like Dead Space but with a Borderlands weapons system” is a failed attempt and will yield a mediocre experience at best (look at pretty much most large and small games being made today).

I do agree that Game Design as a field should have specialized nomenclature (with an established body of games to show examples) but let's not confuse using a game as a reference/example for concept implementation and using the game as the implementation concept. Phew, I hope that makes sense to someone other than me :P

Ian Uniacke
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I'm not sure I can agree Amir, from looking at real world examples. Critical taste aside (which is quite subjective) I think you'll find the most successful games can usually be categorised with this nomenclature.

Mario Kart - it's Need For Speed crossed with Super Mario Bros
Pokemon - it's Final Fantasy crossed with Magic The Gathering
Call Of Duty - it's Doom crossed with Saving Private Ryan
Uncharted - it's Tomb Raider crossed with Indiana Jones

and so on, you get the idea. My point is these are all outstanding games and highly respected both amongst developers, critics and gamers alike.

Alexandre Moisan
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Reading this reminded me of this great bit* by typographer Jonathan Hoefler (from Garry Hustwit's movie Helvetica) explaining that designing typography sometimes required to use language that is totally external to the medium in order to describe it.

Games as a young medium have to deal with the same issue, being that while some areas seem to be pretty straightforward when dealing with technical elements, like camera movements (who can rely on the vocabulary already cemented by the film industry), others areas that tend to come up during development are the hardest ones to describe, because contrary to film, the interactivity of the experience doesn't necessarily have any previous examples to trigger our minds.

There are so many uncommon avenues to tackle content creation in games that reaching a moment where you can phrase an experience in that little Tweet/elevetor-pitch format and get people to the "Oh, I get it!" instead of blank faces of incomprehension is difficult.
Sometimes a completed product is required to get to that point.

For example, the clusters of vocabulary that came to be established as genres like "shooter" or "puzzle-adventure" are only fences wrapped around similarly very hard to describe experiences. I just think that as more and more games get created in any media, they will expand this fence, even if it is not within an already existing type of experience, through at least the usual "it's a bit like that game, but with elements of that game" that comes up so often in describing games. I would be curious to hear someone describe any famous painting or novel with the same method though.

In the end, this wishing for a canon of video games is not intended as a suffocating punchcard revival, but as a tool to clarify concepts and experiences and help communication about the subject. To quote Eric Zimmerman at the keynote he gave us at Execution Labs this week: "design is 50% communication". Having a canon clarifies and streamlines not only the design part, but also the communication one, as it gives people common reference points for concepts and experiences.


TL:DR version:
Have you played, for example, ICO? No?
Then we can't debate and discuss about it. Since it's not going to be easily available to people that do not know about it by making it back to this year's top sellers list, having a canon that holds this kind of title in the light as an example of something done right helps keeping its essence in common knowledge.

E McNeill
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Well *I* liked the title. :)

I think your point is a good one. I try to follow different segments of the industry and make an effort to play games that are getting talked a lot about. I played CSR Racing, Clash of Clans, Jetpack Joyride, and others for research purposes, even though they're not really my cup of tea.

Remi Lavoie
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As one of the members of the Execution Labs teams, I feel that describing your game idea to a wide variety of people, from business/investors to fellow game developers is one of the biggest challenges, especially in the game's infancy. It is one we had to face on our very first day at the lab, when we were pitching a still very vague game idea to 30-35 mentors from very varied fields of the gaming industry. When you are still in the early stages, and you don't have those screenshots, that ton of concept art, and a whole bunch of design decisions are still unresolved, for better of for worse, using phrases “it’s like Dead Space but with a Borderlands weapons system” is often to best way to describe your game.
Of course, I'm not saying any game design should be BASED on a statement like that, it's more a quick elevator pitch kind of statement. You want people to quickly understand what the gameplay will be like with the shortest explanation. Is that the best way? Maybe not, but every field in game development has that common ground that it has seen and knows about other games, but not every field knows about design concepts or algorithms or artistic vision, so referencing two or more major successes (or well known games), is sure as hell better than starting to explain the details of game mechanics, player choices, input systems, technology used or other in depth design concepts that they wont know anything about.

So I think the main point here is using other games as references to quickly explain your game is, in my opinion, a totally valid way of doing it. Using it to base your design on, now that's not a good idea.

And what do you do when you don't know a game that is being referenced? You do exactly like what Jen is suggesting, and you expand your canon.

Ian Uniacke
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I'm going to disagree entirely with the general sentiment. I think canon is, in fact, KEY to creating more diverse and innovative games.

Much like early cave paintings that were drawn without examples, most people will come up with the same ideas without prior art. Artists being born with unique and special ideas is an illusion. As they say, "there is nothing new under the sun". Creativity is, in essence, the putting together of previously discovered ideas and creating something new from them. For instance, we could take a barrel and a raft and make a cart. Would you suggest that such an important achievement as the cart is unimaginative? Of course not quite the opposite.

Musicians know this very well and any musician worth his salt will have a solid idea of his influences. Great works of art are a culmination of evolution over years of various ideas combining and intertwining, and each individual artist putting their own unique twist into the mix. Would we have such amazing music as Heavy Metal were it not for combining blues rock with more classical musical theory?

I could go on, as this type of thinking applies to all artistic pursuits in some form, but I guess my point is made, that I don't believe the statement "If we didn’t have an established game canon, we would have more original games" (paraphrasing).

Wendelin Reich
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You're exactly right. An example from the world of game design was featured in Sam Anderson's well known peace on 'Stupid Games' in the NYT Magazine* last year. He mentions how Zach Gage developed the concept for his wildly popular "SpellTower" (iOS): by combining the concept of a word game with that of a strategy game. Simple and brilliant.


Bart Stewart
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Maybe one more way to frame the question is: is it necessary to be a good critic to be a good designer? Does a knowledge of canonical works in a field help you create original and good works in that field?

I'm not sure. It might help, not from "buffet-style design," where you pick one feature from Game A and another from Game B, but from letting you see the unexplored places. Interesting things can happen in the gaps, but that requires knowing where the gaps are.

On the other hand, if you look at the games reasonably considered canonical it seems to me at least some of them were made not based on existing games, but because the designer wanted a particular kind of play experience and there just wasn't anything like that. So it got made, and eventually earned the canonical distinction because it turned out that there were other people who (maybe without even realizing it) also wanted that particular kind of play experience.

I wonder where the gaps are, and what new forms of play can be created with this today's computer tech that couldn't even be considered before.

Ian Uniacke
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I think the original ideas are only the ones we focus on. For example take Wolfenstein 3D. The 3D component is obvious and quite original (at least in the real time action sense), however many parts of the gameplay are derivative of previous action games and also some folks who worked on it were quoted as being inspired by nintendo (eg secret areas). I'm not saying that we can't have amazing original ideas but I do believe the bulk of most games is derivative (and I use that in the nicest sense possible).

Ian Uniacke
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Can you cite some games that you were thinking of? :)

matthew friday
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It's a double-edged sword, I think: understanding a section of games in depth can lead to understanding how they do particular things, which is pretty useful. The obvious danger being is that that knowledge crowds-out other methods of approach.
I suppose what I'm trying to say is that knowing the rules well could help with breaking them.

Bart Stewart
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Ian, my initial draft of the comments above only considered novel games as filling gaps.

As I thought about possible examples, it occurred to me that the examples I kept coming up with -- Civilization, Master of Orion, The Sims, System Shock -- didn't really seem to fit that pattern. The more I thought about them, the more they seemed to have been developed to test some new idea in game design, rather than just as a combination of, or gaps between, Game 1 and Game 2.

Of course it's possible to look for potential antecedents for all these (e.g., Civilization = Hammurabi + MicroProse wargames + Civilization board game). But to see only that would miss that Civ uniquely answered the computer game design question of whether a turn-based strategy game that loosely simulated aspects of the growth and endings of human cultures could be fun. Civ never came across to me as driven by an X + Y market-driven plan, but was born from an idea for a different kind of gameplay experience.

The other examples I mentioned seemed to fit that idea-driven origin theory as well. That's not to say you can't see elements of them in earlier games -- it's a question of what motivated the creation of the "canonical" games.

Jeanne Burch
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In teaching game design, I've had to expand my personal canon several times. I play action-adventure/RPG games; my students mostly play first person shooters. I've spent my fair share of time on Youtube looking up gameplay videos trying to figure out what the heck a student means by "my game has a Borderlands feel, a Bioshock-like setting, and gameplay similar to Halo."