programming in the
twenty-first century

It's not about technology for its own sake. It's about being able to implement your ideas.

Trapped by Exposure to Pre-Existing Ideas

Let's go back to the early days of video games. I don't mean warm and fuzzy memories of the Nintendo Entertainment System on a summer evening, but all the way back to the early 1970s when video games first started to exist as a consumer product. We have to go back that far, because that's when game design was an utterly black void, with no genres or preconceptions whatsoever. Each game that came into existence was a creation no one had previously imagined.

While wandering through this black void, someone had--for the very first time--the thought to build a video game with a maze in it.

The design possibilities of this maze game idea were unconstrained. Was it an open space divided up by a few lines or a collection of tight passageways? Was the goal to get from the start to the finish? Was it okay to touch the walls or did they hurt you? Two people could shoot at each other in a spacious maze using the walls for cover. You could be in a maze with robots firing at you. Maybe could break through some of the walls? Or what if you built the walls yourself? "Maze" was only a limitation in the way that "detective story" was for writers.

And then in 1980, when only a relative handful of maze game concepts had been explored, Toru Iwatani designed Pac-Man.

It featured a maze of tight passageways full of dots, and the goal was to eat all of those dots by moving over them. You were chased by four ghosts that killed you on contact, but there were special dots that made the ghosts edible for a brief period, so you could hunt them down.

After the release of Pac-Man, when someone had the thought to create a game with a maze in it, more often than not that game had tight passageways full of dots, something--often four of them--chasing you, and a way to turn the tables on those somethings so you could eliminate them.

Because by that time, there were no other options.

(If you liked this, you might enjoy Accidental Innovation.)

permalink January 23, 2013


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I'm James Hague, a recovering programmer who has been designing video games since the 1980s. Programming Without Being Obsessed With Programming and Organizational Skills Beat Algorithmic Wizardry are good starting points. For the older stuff, try the 2012 Retrospective.

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