Game Design Lineages
Wednesday, 17 January 2018
Last year, I published my first paper with José Zagal, entitled Game Design Lineages: Minecraft’s Inventory. This is the finest academic games work I’ve been involved in, or (as I remarked to José) “the game studies paper I want to be buried with”. But what is a game design lineage and what does it have to do with game design? This piece explains my interest in the lineages of games and how it has informed, in some small but significant way, my professional work as a game designer and writer who will hit fifty published games this year.
Since at least 2011, I have been interested in improving historical research into game design – motivated by my own desire to continuously improve my game design skills, and also to contribute to the academic discussion that has grown up around games. Game studies, the field that engages with games as something worthy of research, has suffered from a number of problems in this regard including a widespread ignorance of the importance of history for understanding games as a creative form, and long standing prejudices that favour videogames over other forms of game. Indeed, until recently ‘game studies’ was a term that has primarily meant videogame studies. As a field, it tends to suffer from a widely held (but rarely spoken) conviction that it ought to be engaged in scientific research, and therefore history is a second class citizen in the academic games world. Yet no media studies field is a science, the methods of the sciences generally produce lacklustre results when applied to games, and historically-grounded discourse about games is arguably the pinnacle of scholarship in game studies right now – whether its focus is aesthetics, tracing relationships between games, or examining hardware constraints.
The earliest piece of mine to voice these views was The Constraint Histories of Digital Games, back in October 2011. It makes the following still-relevant observation about a key issue in historical research for games:
Attempts to provide a taxonomy of game genres founder on the lack of consistent criteria, and usually have to be arbitrarily assigned. Connecting ‘shooters’ into a lineage suggests scrolling shooters were direct influences on first person shooters, for instance. But there's no evidence suggesting Zaxxon has any connection with the design of DOOM, or that Space Invaders inspired Zaxxon. As a historical tool, genre categories can provide some useful connections – DOOM certainly did influence GoldenEye 007, for example – but genre cannot be used as a unifying framework for game history because the genre lineages are narrowly valid and do not constitute a complete description of game history.
In the six years since I wrote this, I can now strengthen this claim: Zaxxon belongs within the various arcade lineages of the late twentieth century that have tremendous influence upon games but that are radically distinct from the lineages that descend from tabletop role-playing games, which proliferated in the wake of 1974’s Dungeons & Dragons. Surprisingly, DOOM is a descendant of this latter lineage and not any of the arcade lineages, since it comes about from modifying the early dungeon crawler form typified by 1987’s seminal Dungeon Master, a form that inspired John Carmack to make Catacomb 3D (pictured above) and from this, mostly by raising the pace of play and switching fantasy weapons for guns, creating the FPS form as we now understand it.
In August 2016, I produced my most complete piece of historical work on games to date, a historical investigation of game inventories – the first part of which touches upon the roots of the FPS in the early dungeon crawlers that converted the dungeon adventures D&D had invented into digital forms. Last year, I worked with my good and excellent academic friend José Zagal to adapt this material into a paper, which we presented at DiGRA UK, just a short distance up the road from me at MediaCity in Salford. The paper contracts some of the historical detail in my original blog serial, but with José’s assistance the general method I was pursuing became more robust and clearly stated. The resulting paper, Game Design Lineages: Minecraft’s Inventory, is not yet included in DiGRA’s digital library but I have made it available in ResearchGate in the meantime (it is also headed to DiGRA’s Transactions journal at some point in the near future). This term ‘game design lineages’ is José’s suggested description for my general method. Here’s an explanation of the term from the paper:
In the context of game studies and game design we feel that little work has been done to explore how best to provide rich and deep insight such that game design knowledge can be understood, communicated, and possibly used, without losing the essential relationships required to make sense of the games in question. We offer the notion of the game design lineage as a means to partially address this challenge by contextualizing game systems within the player practices that provided both the environment that guided their implementation, and the background of understanding against which the game was encountered by its original players.
A game design lineage is rich description of the networks of connections between common designed elements… that is situated within an understanding of the context that conditioned the original design decisions that led to them, understood in terms of player practices. This perspective is important not only in terms of more accurately investigating the historical connectivity of games and their designs, but also because insights from the past remain useful in the future, and can explain problems that are currently misunderstood or taken for granted.
The paper focuses on three specific contexts by which lineages can be traced. Firstly, player practices, which as I have been uncovering through patient investigation (and more than a touch of philosophical influence) are the bedrock of the game design process and the origin of the interrelations between games that give us the genre terms that are themselves too vague to build historical accounts from (as discussed above). Player practices, and not rules as such, are fundamental to games, as I argue in Are Videogames Made of Rules?, since rules are better understood as a means of capturing such practices in words and specifying them more precisely. Material constraints include the kind of hardware issues that Ian Bogost and Nick Monfort engaged with in with Racing the Beam, as well as significant commercial considerations that I discuss often as a consultant but which the academic community around games has largely ignored. Finally, creator vision marks the ways that game designers and development teams subvert player practices and adapt to material constraints in new and innovative ways while still remaining embedded within the conservation of player practices.
I had previously been discussing lineages in terms of Foucault’s work, especially The Archaeology of Knowledge, since his method and mine substantially overlap. I wrote about this in the ‘tin anniversary’ dual serials for my blogs, Foucault’s Archaeology and Player Practices. Disappointingly, Foucault scholars have blocked my attempts to turn this into a paper, requiring me to talk about power (the late Foucault’s obsession), and forcing me to withdraw from using Foucault as a reference at all. To be clear, Foucault’s methods in The Archaeology of Knowledge and mine overlap… I thought it prudent to draw attention to that, the academic community had other ideas, and I don’t have the patience or desire to persist with such a trivial aspect of my work. Easier all around to leave Foucault to the Foucauldians.
Dan Golding has had more success drawing on this angle without being required to talk about power, perhaps by getting at Foucault’s ideas indirectly via film historian Thomas Elsaesser. Dan presented his paper Lineages: Historicising the Videogame at the joint DiGRA-FDG conference in Dundee back in 2016, the same conference that I presented No-one Plays Alone, which has also not made it into the DiGRA library yet but had appeared in their Transactions (linked here). This is the paper that begins to develop the player practices concept, within which game design lineages has been conceived. I view Dan’s work as allied to mine (although he may not), and my means of combining the two methods goes via Walton’s prop theory, which I deployed in Imaginary Games (to very little influence in game studies). At the very least, Dan and I share a perception of the importance of history in understanding games and play, and agree that films and literature are part of the network of relations that have made videogames what they are.
The game design lineages method is the most viable historical research tool I’ve yet encountered for examining games and videogames, although it is only a part of the wider research project into player practices that I have been pursuing for much of the last decade. It began with Imaginary Games, applying Walton’s concept of props that prescribe certain imaginings to games, and then asking about the key props for videogames – such as inventories, maps, and save games, all of which condition the play of videogames in highly significant ways. This also brought out how videogames were dominated by two particular props – guns and goals – leading me to suggest (back in 2011) that authentic artistic innovation in these media would have to subvert the player practices surrounding these props, as Dear Esther, Proteus, and everything by Tale of Tales does to great effect.
As a commercial game designer, I have not had the luxury to explore such artistically-motivated concerns, but my player practices work has had another key influence upon me: it has united the otherwise disparate domains of marketing and game design. When I first pursued the research into play styles that became my book with Richard Boon, 21st Century Game Design, it was because of the recognition that marketing was valued more than game design – and with good cause (despite the abysmal state of understanding in games marketing departments...) since marketing expenditure is a much better predictor of eventual sales than anything else. That was why the original pamphlet for this research, which I gave out to (amongst other people) Eiji Aonuma, was subtitled How to Make Game Design as Important as Marketing. The point here is straightforward, but easily ignored: the conditions into which every game appears are set by the games that are already being played, and when this isn’t taken into account, there is a tendency to produce games that – whatever their merits – acquire no audience because they are either too hard to learn or do not offer an imaginative fantasy players will pay for. The conservation of player practices is the dominant flow of the commercial games market, and it is the major forks in this river that become labelled with genre terms.
When I started to give talks about the history of games, I began to see how interconnected their lineages were, and how genre emerges as a symptom of the conservation of player practices, which provides the bedrock for the craft of game design. We game designers do not build games from game-mechanical Lego bricks but from player practices we have learned by playing other games, often expressed in terms of rules or systems because we nerds are trained to think in such terms. Yet when you think about design in terms of player practices, game design lineages become not just a tool for historical investigations but yet another method for creating games, one that is informed by the knowledge that no-one plays alone. It is both these projects – historical research and creative game design – that I continue to vigorously pursue.
For further reading, please check out the papers Game Design Lineages: Minecraft’s Inventory and its predecessor No-one Plays Alone.