Game design is a bit like being a shark in that it has to keep moving, or it will die. Of course there are always exceptions, because some sharks have adapted to be able to keep breathing without having to move. This can have its advantages, but sooner or later you've reached a point where you stop moving. Then you become dead in the water.
This week's essay was sparked by my watching a couple of episodes of the new Netflix documentary series Abstract: The Art of Design. It dropped last week, but it popped up on my feed there a couple of nights ago. Each episode revolves around a designer in a different field: an illustrator, a shoe designer, a stage designer, an architect, an automotive designer, a graphic designer, a photographer and an interior designer. On the surface these all seem to be very different from each other, but as you zoom in, you start to see the commonalities. Tinker Hatfield, for example, was an Olympic pole vaulter hopeful whose future in that was ended by an injury. He fell back into his studies as an illustrator and architecture student, and used this training to work with his track coach at the University of Oregon to help him design athletic shoes. After an audition with Nike he started working for them, and ended up revitalizing and saving the Air Jordan brand.
Whether as a GM, or as a game designer, the ideas of design, whether in photography, graphic design or architecture, influence how I think to a great degree. In fact, the next book in my "to-read" pile is a book that I picked up on my recent trip to Las Vegas for my birthday, Obsolescence by Daniel Abramson. It is a history of architecture that looks at the idea of creating buildings and spaces that aren't intended to last for hundreds of years, but become obsolete within a short span of years (architecturally speaking, of course). You can see this principal at work in some buildings from the 1960s and 70s. Malls in particular.
The book interested me because it seemed to sync up with some ideas that I read about a while ago, the research sparked by Desolation Jones, a Warren Ellis-created comic published by DC Comics. On the surface it was a spy comic that presages the Burn Notice television program, but with that crossroads of vision and brutality that you really only see when Ellis is firing on all cylinders. Of course, the story is just a carrier for Ellis' ideas, in this case a discussion of the architectural concept of supermodernity. Supermodernity and Abramson's Obsolescence tie together because one of the principle ideas of supermodernity is the idea that there are spaces (mostly public spaces like airports) that are designed for a transient experience, rather than a permanent one. The idea that spaces can be made simply to pass through, rather than to take root in.
As you can imagine, this idea was one that a lot of people had a hard time coming to grips with. Most architects and designers felt that even transient spaces should have a sense of permanence to them, because permanence is calming to people. This shows how mindsets can be shifted.
So, you're probably thinking to yourself right now "I've just read about 500 words on a site about role-playing games, and I haven't read anything about games or game design yet." In a way, that is what I have been talking about all along, and it ties in to the opening of this essay about sharks. Yes, you've stumbled into another "Chris thinks about gaming" piece that the internet loves so much.
If it isn't obvious from my writings about gaming, its industry and the "culture" around, I'm not one for status quos just for the sake of keeping the same thing around.
To bring things back to the start of the circle, it is probably fairly obvious from my writings that I am not one for maintaining the status quo just for its own sake. This is where the "sharks much swim or die" metaphor that I started this column with comes into play. We need to start looking for the game designers who want games that have different influences than an ancient list of mostly out of print books in the back of a Dungeons & Dragons book that Gary may, or may not, have read. One of the things that the interviews with the designers in Abstract points out is that successful design does not say in one place, and this principle applies to the design of tabletop role-playing games as well.
It is more than just the influences that inform the settings, worlds and characters, too. It is just as important to keep looking at how games are made, and how they are played, in order to get, not necessarily better games, but games that have different perspectives and outlooks. This might even inadvertently lead to a more diverse set of games being produced.
I follow a lot of different people on my various social media feeds. I have a lot of different interests, from gaming to comics to music to a lot of things, and my feeds feature that. I follow a lot of people who make the things that I like, and that I want to know more about. Joe Illidge, who was an editor at Milestone Media and a Batman editor at DC Comics, recently shared some art from a Brazilian artist who was doing homages to famous Marvel Comics covers by artist Jack Kirby.
The art highlighted figures from African religion, which have also figured into Voodoo and Santeria beliefs, and they were incredible. When I saw them pop up in my Facebook feed my first thought was "How cool is this?" but that thought was quickly followed by "When can I get a role-playing game that is based around this concept?" This is the core of what I am getting at with this column. Role-playing games really need to look outside of the shrinking circle of inspirations and influences that have been done over and again during the last 30+ years.
For game design to stay fresh and relevant there needs to be designers who are willing and able to look beyond these already existing influences, and figure out how to make the things that excite them into concepts that might work in gaming. They won't always work, Tinker Hatfield nearly torpedoed the Nike and Air Jordan brands with a misstep on one of the shoes that he designed for them. Yes, sometimes you can be too daring, and take things too far. The problem is that unless you push those boundaries out, you will never know if you've gone too far, or not far enough.