John Romero, Cliff Bleszinki, Sid Meier, and Will Wright talk about the videogames that inspired them as young game designers during the Forgotten Tales Remembered: The Games That Inspired Leading Innovators panel at GDC 2012. From Pong to Seven Cities of Gold to The Legend of Zelda, find out what these gaming luminaries played growing up, and what influenced the games you play and love today.
Every year design students and professionals flock to the Game Developers Conference to soak in knowledge and advice on how to get started and improve in the games industry. Innovators like John Romero, Cliff Bleszinski, Sid Meier and Will Wright serve as senior figures whose words will be analyzed and digested by attendees attempting to glean knowledge. But what were the games and the developers who provided that same inspiration and wisdom to the senior figures of today?
Will Wright got his Apple II back in 1980, in a day when every game was almost its own genre. Bruce Artwick's FW1 Flight Simulator introduced Wright to wireframe graphics, Choplifter showed that you could rescue people and not just kill them, and “Sundog was almost like the first Grand Theft Auto, but you were in a spaceship,” Wright said.
The game that inspired Wright the most was Pinball Construction Set. Due to the popularity of pinball and how it fed into the development of arcades and hence video games, a lot of very early video games were basically simulations of pinball machines. Billy Budge, who designed the game Raster Blaster, was the creator of Pinball Construction Set. Budge took inspiration from the Apple interface and created one of the first graphical user interfaces in a video game. Budge conceived of the Set as a “software toy,” which Wright noted is a much broader categorization than a “game.”
The pieces in the Pinball Construction Set were surprisingly elaborate. Players could also re-color the components. The Set introduced Wright to construction, and the fun of being creative and sharing those creations. It made Wright think about systems: The Set had players tuning gravity, changing the speed of the ball and bumpers, and essentially teaching people to become pinball game designers. Wright learned the value of a graphical user interface as a simple way to control complex operations.
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Budge enjoyed making tools more than games. He was packaging Pinball Construction Set himself. Wright noticed that the address of Budge's company ( which operated out of Budge's house) was on the game box. Budge lived only a mile away from Wright, who considered popping in unannounced but didn't. When Electronic Arts picked up the game, Budge became one of a group of developers touted in the Electronic Arts “Can A Computer Make You Cry?” ad campaign which sought to legitimize video games.
Pinball Construction Set was state of the art when EA released it, and spawned what was almost a franchise, including games like Racing Construction Set and Music Construction Set. Wright started working on SimCity on the Commodore 64 right after he played Pinball Construction Set, while Budge thought about what to do next. Wright said that he knew Budge had been thinking about making a Construction Set Construction Set, which was never released. “I think his brain got caught in a loop or something,” Wright said.
Sid Meier was inspired by Dan Bunten's 1984 game Seven Cities of Gold, which was a game about exploring the American continent between 1492-1540. Players would talk to the King of Spain to get money, buy provisions, sail across the Atlantic, decide where to land in the New World and interact with the Indians who lived there.
The graphics were rudimentary and functional, maybe only 1% of what modern developers can do visually, but Bunten still created an expansive and immersive experience. “There’s a lesson there for us,” Meier said. “Our games are a hundred times more powerful, but are they 100 times as cool?” Meier believes that even with the amazing graphics modern day developers can put into a game, the player's imagination is still the most powerful tool game designers have to bring worlds to life. The more designers can get the player thinking ahead and thinking about possibilities, the more powerful their games will be.
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Before Meier played Seven Cities of Gold, he had created a game called Floyd of the Jungle. After playing Seven Cities, Meier created Pirates!, Railroad Tycoon and Civilization. Seven Cities of Gold really opened Meier's eyes to the power of setting the player's imagination loose. It also convinced Meier that games could be based on historical events. “Floyd of the Jungle was not based on any historical Floyd,” Meier quipped. Seven Cities of Gold inspired him to take real world events and bring them to life. Things that Meier thought were cool as a kid, like pirates and model train sets, suddenly became legitimate ideas for games. Realizing Meier could explore these areas was a revelation.
Seven Cities had a random map system, the first time Meier had ever seen such a thing. “It's something I certainly stole for Civilization,” he admitted. Seven Cities was also a mix of genres. It wasn't just an arcade game, or an economic, or an exploration game. Players traded food and had to navigate the world, but Seven Cities also included a mini-game where players had to make their way through Indian villages to meet with their King. If the player jostled too many Indians on the way, “bad things would happen,” Meier said. Players had an ability to “Amaze The Natives” which would make them jump back, which gave the player room to move forward. Seeing those words on the screen made Meier feel like he could do anything. Just those three words on the screen enabled him to conjure entire stories in his head.
Seven Cities also featured cool technology for the time. It was the first time Meier had seen random map generation and smooth scrolling off the game disk, with no breaks in the game. Meier realized the full degree to which new technologies really pushed the design of video games.
Meier argued that Seven Cities of Gold pioneered the open world game. “You were your own boss, you could travel where you want, and cool adventures happened wherever you went in the world.” Meier wanted to capture that feeling in Pirates!, which was the player's story, a unique story that no one else would have. That was a powerful concept that people latched onto. Their preferences and choices created the story. Pirates! also built on the idea of mixed genres, and featured action, adventure, and exploration.
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Meier showed the same “Can A Computer Make You Cry?” marketing ad that Will Wright showed, and pointed out that Dan Bunten was also in that picture. Meier saw this campaign as a desperate desire to be cool. “We're not all geeks. Some of us look good in black shirts...we're rock stars. Trust us,” Meier said. It was a time when designers were trying to figure out where they fit into the sphere of entertainment. There was a lot of insecurity: were they hardcore geeks who didn't have much to say, or were they artists? That Electronic Arts campaign sought to convince themselves that games were an art form, and they were cool.
Cliff Bleszinski believes geeks are the rock stars. “I'm a little freaked out that I'm up here with these guys,” he said.
Bleszinski believes in making games personal, so he chose The Legend of Zelda as the game that inspired his creations. Bleszinski was raised in a suburb of Boston, which was an area that he still considers magical with its covered bridges and old cemeteries. “Someday I will get around to making a video game there, because it's a perfect setting,” Bleszinski said. He used to walk into forests and swamps, catching bullfrogs and letting water snakes bite onto and dangle from his finger. He went into the woods to find treasures.
Bleszinski loved his Nintendo Entertainment System, even if it wasn't perfect. “We'd eat Queso dip and play the shit out of Mario,” he said. Bleszinski said he remembered the first time he jumped and hit an invisible block and realized that video games had secrets, and his mind was blown. That moment changed everything.
When the first Legend of Zelda ads ran, which featured a man in a black mock turtleneck and a white afro screaming out the names of Zelda creatures like Octoroks and Leevers, Bleszinski and his friends were suspicious. He characterized their reactions as, “Really? You're going to take me from Mario to this?” Then Bleszinski learned that the cartridge was gold. “Nintendo might be onto something, here,” he thought. It was Bleszinski's first lesson in the value of a premium brand.
As much as Bleszinski advocates digital manuals versus physical media, he still remembers the scent as he opened the Legend of Zelda manual. “Sometimes I'll still sneak a manual and get a little hit,” he joked. The manual showed him a compass and bombs and boomerangs, and Bleszinski hadn't played games like Ultima so it was all entirely new to him. The youthful shenanigans of his childhood were about to end, then Zelda came along. Bleszinski spent weeks saving money from his paper route in order to buy Zelda, which became one of his first lessons in working hard to get a thing he wanted.
Zelda ignited his senses. It was a guided experience that felt like an open world. He and his friends mapped the world out on graph paper. “When's the last time you did that in game? When's the last time a game asked that of you?” he asked the crowd.
Zelda showed Bleszinski a new genre of game. Just as he was leaving that period of his childhood behind, Zelda was like a love letter that encapsulated the feeling of exploring those woods and the idea that something could be around the corner, and you never knew what you might find. Bleszinski believes that game designers should go back to their childhoods if they want inspiration. Hide and go seek, kick the can, tag, they're all games that tap into “this tribal thing within us,” in Bleszinski's words.
John Romero played a lot of pinball games in the 1970's. They had lights and interesting sounds and were more exciting than the G.I. Joes and Matchbox cars he'd been playing with as a kid. The 1970's were filled with pinball references, like The Who's Pinball Wizard album and the Brooke Shields movie Tilt.
In 1969 Romero played a different kind of game called Speedway. Sometimes it was played on giant screens, like back-projected home theater type setups. Romero saw that games were moving from a mechanical thing to something different, and he began going out of his way to play other kinds of games besides pinball.
In 1972, a game called Dune Buggy came out which really excited Romero. The game was in a cabinet that was kind of like a pinball cabinet, but was more similar to the arcade cabinets that would come later. It had a steering wheel in front of glass, and behind the glass was an actual wheel that rotated with florescent paint and blacklights. These sorts of games were called “electromechanicals,” and lay somewhere in-between pinball and video games. There weren't many electromechanicals produced because video games came about shortly thereafter.
In 1972 Pong happened. It was simple, black and white video, and then everyone was playing it at home on their Sears machine. Gun Fight was released in 1975, and Sprint 2 was released in 1976. They were all monocolor, or black and white. In 1978 Space Invaders was released, and it was very different. “Whoa! Shooting aliens?” Romero said. Space Invaders began a “semi-color” period of arcade games, with techniques like colored film introducing variety of visuals.
“I would go anywhere there were arcade games,” Romero said, and in 1980 in a bowling alley arcade he discovered his first real color game, Pac-Man, and it totally blew him away. ““I remember exactly where I was, and what it looked like,” Romero told the audience. Pac-Man influenced everything. It had great game design, great sound, and a great cabinet. Romero realized that game design was very different than anything he had seen before.
Pac-Man's creator, Toru Iwatani, wanted each of the four ghosts to have a different personality. Blinky, Pinky, Inky and Clyde were also called Shadow, Speedy, Bashful and Pokey. They each had their own identity, and their own behavior. No other game had done that before. Pac-Man proved to Romero that video games could be whatever you wanted them to be, and demonstrated the limitless possibility of game design.
Romero got in trouble with his parents by spending his paper route money exclusively on Pac-Man. “I could spend $200 a month on the game,” he said. “The only thing I really wanted to do was really understand the game.” Romero didn't study patterning, he just learned them himself. “I could start the game and not even look at the first three screens and still beat them,” he said.
Pac-Man was the first game to have powerups, and cutscenes, and was one of the first games to be licensed from a Japanese company to Midway. Romero cited Pac-Man as laying the foundation for the stealth genre, as the goal most of the time was to avoid the ghosts and not engage them. Pac-Man was so influential to Romero that he cited their influence on Wolfenstein 3D and DOOM, if you consider the “pellets” to be the demons and the people in the mazes of those first person shooters. For a while, Pac-Man was the only video game in the offices of id Software.
Dennis Scimeca is a freelance writer from Boston, MA. In addition to feature writing and event reporting for G4, his work has been published on Kotaku, Ars Technica and Gamasutra. His weekly column First Person runs on The Escapist, and you can follow him at GDC this week on Twitter: @DennisScimeca.