Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

31 January, 2009

Doing research
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 5:38 PM
(This post has been viewed 4690 times.)

I'm working on a writing project (details to follow once it gets to the point where I have something to announce), and I started doing some research about various topics I'm writing about.

Then I started to think back about the stories of research authors and game developers do. Wait, do game developers do research?

As my hobby is writing, I learn everything I can about it. When I go to Dragon*Con, I love the writer's track for all the information about writing. I've heard lots of stories about people doing deep research into their topics to give it authenticity.

In game development, there are less stories about this. If we were honest, the most used source for research for game development would probably be The Lord of the Rings. (LotRO gets an exception from the snark in that sentence. ;) Or, we play other games to get a feel for the "state of the art" and how we might expand it.

The problem is that this doesn't lead us to new ways of thinking about games. As I read Guns, Germs and Steel, I thought about new ways that societies in fantasy worlds could change over time. Instead of having a world that is created out of whole cloth and that rips off every generic fantasy creation myth out there, what if the forces described in Guns, Germs, and Steel affected people? Not something that a game designer looking to create the backstory for a fantasy world might consider.

Of course, not all game designers are guilty of this. I own a copy of Guns, Germs, and Steel because Raph Koster recommended it and the recommendation was echoed by many other developers. But, what lasting impact has this had on game development? Raph's posts on that page indicate that he was considering the book more as a primer about how player-focused social organizations develop, instead of looking at how a fantasy world would develop.

What about you? Have you done deep research for your games besides reading fantasy books or playing similar games?


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  1. See: A Tale in the Desert's wine-tasting system. That sure as heck didn't come from LotR :)

    Actually I'm doing a little bit of art right now for something I'm working on, and I realized yesterday that I don't know what a primitive smelter looks like. I googled it for a while, and I was amazed to see what people build in their yards. Clay ovens with gigantic bellows mounted to nearby trees, and PVC air-delivery systems, websites talking about how 'we made thirty pounds of steel last week with this thing'. I think this sort of knowledge is pivotal; it's the difference between a game that merely delivers a facsimile of 'success' or 'plenty' (how can a player relate to 'Dark Iron', for example? Nobody intuitively knows why this substance would be valuable), and a game where 'I made thirty pounds of steel in my guild's crude smelter'.

    Comment by Bret — 1 February, 2009 @ 8:43 AM

  2. I've been researching an idea based around space exploration and colonization, and have found books about early westward expansion in the US (early fur trappers and Oregon trail) a good read. Also "Endurance", about Shackleton's Antarctic expedition. What they both teach is improvisation and making due with what you've got on hand. I actually worked on oceanographic research ships for about 10 years, and it really struck home the same lesson. When you're 500 miles from shore and something breaks, you figure out how to fix it with what you've got.

    Oh yea, and thank you Brent. I must try this out!

    Comment by Tim — 1 February, 2009 @ 11:19 AM

  3. Well, I suppose it's cheating, since I'm a graduate student and work in a research lab that explicitly tries to link research and game-making. But I'd introduced some arguments from an anthropologist's response to Guns, Germs and Steel (1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus) into a D&D campaign I'm running. And I know that many game developers who work on educational games have to delve into lots of background on the topics they're designing.

    But, especially as it comes to world-building, I'm wondering if Guns, Germs and Steel presents a particularly attractive choice for game designers. It's well-known and accessible to non-specialist audiences, and Ian Bogost laid out a case (in Persuasive Games) that it presents a very "procedural" view of history, one that might make it easier to adapt than, say, a culture-centric argument about civilizations.

    Comment by dizzyjosh — 1 February, 2009 @ 3:41 PM

  4. The consequences of our world designs

    [...] There is a new post on Psychochild’s Blog that got me thinking. What about you? Have you done deep research for your [...]

    Pingback by Dancing Elephants — 2 February, 2009 @ 2:35 AM

  5. This is one of the perks of having a background in history. Having a basic understanding of how ancient armies worked or how they built boats or anything of the sort really is extremely valuable when trying to come up with a fantasy world. Ideas a plenty are just waiting to be stolen from the pages of history.

    A few good examples.

    The Odyssey, by Homer. This is a given. I am sure everyone has read this at some point, but go back and read it again. If this doesn't inspire you to create a crazy island chain I do not know what will.

    Histories of Herodotus: Herodotus was considered one of the first historians in world. This was at a point where the idea of "history" was in its infancy. So instead of a cut and dry telling of the past, you get a rather long winding narrative in more of a story format. The best part is while some quite accurate, some parts are completely made up. At one point he claims India has giant ants the size of foxes that mine gold for them.

    No single book, but the Italians during the middle ages: They built an amazing sea trading empire when everyone else was still trying to pull themselves out of the mud. If you ever need a basis for a merchant marine type world, look no further. Plus, they had monkey/midget knife fights. I am not making this up.

    Comment by MoosehatIV — 2 February, 2009 @ 12:40 PM

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