Design by Trane

Message boards clamor for it; freshly minted designers can’t help but gravitate toward it. Oh, for that revolutionary MMO gameplay that’s going to flip the genre on its ear and take it in a whole new direction. The thought of shaking off the baggage of EQ and WoW and never looking back is a very popular notion these days.

It’s also a path fraught with peril… but not for the reasons you might suspect.

I’m not talking about the risk inherent in thumbing your nose at a model proven successful by 9 million players; that’s for investors and executives to deal with. I’m talking about approaching this from a design standpoint, because when it comes down to it, game design is a discipline like any other. And like any discipline, you need to develop a toolset and learn how to apply it.

See, it’s tricky with game design. Everybody who ever played an MMO has come up with ideas they think could make the game better. But as my colleague Dymus is fond of pointing out, ideas are not the same thing as game design. However, since good design is harder (in a general sense) to quantify than other forms of artistic expression–and since everyone thinks they can be a game designer on some level (c’mon, admit it!)–the discipline doesn’t always receive the respect it deserves.

Allow me to illustrate my point courtesy of one of my favorite musicians of all time: John Coltrane. By the late peiod of his career, Coltrane was known for taking jazz into unheard of new directions. He shattered expectations and turned out amazing avant-garde work that blows away most artists who have tried to touch it.

But Coltrane didn’t always play this style of music. His early recordings are much more traditional jazz, and while unquestionably brilliant and creative, they follow a much more expected progression than his later material.

What does this have to do with game design and the danger I alluded to back at the start of this piece? If Coltrane hadn’t learned the basic tools of his craft, he would never have evolved to the point in his career that he eventually did. Sure, someone who has never played an instrument could pick up a saxophone and delve immediately into atonal work, but without the fundamental training to back it up, odds are they’re just going to make noise.

MMO design is the same way. If someone fresh off the street jumps in with the intent of revolutionizing the industry with their grand new ideas, odds are they’re going to blow it. Why? Because they likely lack the basic toolset necessary to hone their craft. It would be like trying to paint the Sistine Chapel the very first time you pick up a brush–you really need to learn how to paint a bowl of fruit first.

This is not to say that the only way someone is going to innovate is by first making a WoW clone. But unless you get inside the basic concepts and execution which made that game what it is, you’re not going to really understand them… which in turn makes it less likely that you’re going to transcend them.

And though I hate to break it to all the bloggers out there, just playing these games is not the same thing. Listen to Coltrane in Japan a thousand times and you might be able to visualize the notes and appreciate their structure, but in no way does it mean you can make an album with the same skill and intensity.

Ideas live in a vacuum and can be debated ad infinitum. Game design is the structured implementation of lots of carefully considered ideas into a cohesive system that feels like an organic whole. To do it well, you must practice your standards and paint your flower arrangements so that one day you can take the tools you’ve mastered and build something truly unique and every bit your own.

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