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Design Language: Designer Derivations
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Design Language: Designer Derivations

September 10, 2008 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

Dave's account reminded me of several experiences of my own. I also was motivated to improve an existing clunky old-school computer game, in my case a text-based Star Trek game written originally in Fortran. It was played on teletype terminals, which looked like very clunky typewriters. The player input consisted of just typing numbers corresponding to commands, and the output was all text printout on paper as well.

Still, the original Fortran game had several aspects that frustrated me and that had nothing to do with the hardware limitations, so I set out to first reproduce and then improve the game, like Dave, writing in APL. Never very well known, APL (which stood for "A Programming Language") was an incredibly arcane but very powerful language that used a set of Greek letters as well as other made-up symbols. I have to admit that's part of what appealed to me about the language.

Many designers began with paper and other non-electronic means before moving on to computers. For example, James Everett of Sidhe Interactive wrote:

Lego and paper designs for NES, then Genesis, games were my earliest pokes at game design. The most elaborate I remember was a 2D fighter called Warriors of the Worlds or something similar that was Street Fighter-ish with a dozen characters, each with backstory, move sets, and a stage with hazards. I think that was around grade 4 or 5. I wish I still had the notebook that filled, but my Mom tossed it out during a cleaning binge a couple of years ago.

I wrote a bunch of choose your own adventure type games in BASIC in junior high school and started editing maps in Duke 3D for us to play on a local computer training center's LAN. Then I got stuck when trying to make maps for the Quake engine based games as my home computer took forever to compile them and it would slow to a crawl, so when Mom or Dad tried to use it they'd think it was broken and reboot the machine. But I made more progress with the original Unreal when I managed to scrape together my own computer out of spare parts from the computer shop I was working at.

But James brings up a point that plagued me and many others -- most of those early designs were lost or discarded, often many years ago. I ran across some counters from a very elaborate board game I made when I was 16, very much like a paper version of the Game Boy/Nintendo DS series Advance Wars.

I have cardboard cutouts of tanks, planes, ships, oil wells, uranium mines, and hundreds of little fuel and ammunition markers, but not even a photograph of the huge cardboard map I made, that was just too big for me to grab when my parents finally sold off the house I grew up in. It's a good lesson for budding developers to archive their materials -- a lesson that Josh Jay of Epic Games somehow knew instinctively, standing out as one of the few who held onto his early game efforts:

My early board games really weren't anything other than multilevel sets with spaces drawn on them and monsters drawn onto pieces that could be placed into the level to chase the player around. Gameplay rarely consisted of die roll races to beat the monsters out of the map, and I had more fun making the 3D sets than writing the rules.

In the third grade I made a rambling set of cardboard tubes and boxy rooms based on The Bernstein Bears and the Spooky Old Tree (one of my favorite books as a kid). I built the trunk that the bears crawl through, the stair case that the alligator bites in half, and the rest of the path that they run through to escape the tree (including the suit of armor that drops the axe in their path). I remember going crazy trying to get the path of the physical model to conform to what I saw in the illustrations and felt frustrated having to fudge it.

After a while, I got tired of making 3D cardboard sets and really got into writing the rules after getting hooked on the Choose Your Own Adventure and Pick-A-Path books and started writing my own with super simplistic fighting rules. I never finished a single one but I started about four or five different story games.

It wasn't long afterward that I discovered the D&D rule books at the public library in the fifth grade and got really super obsessed with that. I found that crossword puzzles made really neat dungeon maps. I started "porting" over my story game fighting rules into a more nonlinear game where players could wander all through the halls of the crossword puzzle and I told encounter stories through hand-painted acrylic and colored pencil comic strips.

I never finished any of those either (great preparation for the game industry) because then I discovered Zork and the earlier graphical Infocom games.

And Josh provided this intro to some pictures he preserved from his early work:

So... this is Raid on Castle Dracula. It was a fighting game comic book inspired by the Pick-A-Path/Fighting Fantasy game books. I had the first seven pages that lead up to the first fight but god knows where the rest of it went. I had never messed with acrylic paint before , but I was pretty sure it would mix well with watercolors, rubber cement, color pencils, and Sharpie (it really doesn't.)

Josh's creativity as an artist and designer was clearly in evidence from a young age!

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