The Power of Analogy

Feb 18th 2004

From Creativity and Intuition: A Physicist Looks at East and West

by Hideki Yukawa

‘Suppose there is something which a person cannot understand. He happens to notice the similarity of this something to some other thing which he understands quite well. By comparing them he may come to understand the thing which he could not understand up to that moment. If his understanding turns out to be appropriate and nobody else has ever come to such an understanding, he can claim that his thinking was really creative.’

This quote I think brings up two distinct aspects of the game designers process which are vitally important.

1. Analogy within games.

As a designer working through problems and issues in gameplay design on a daily basis, it’s vital that you have enough knowledge to be able to draw analogies between the work you are doing on your project, and the work already complete in other games on the market. Good designers make an effort to find these analogies and for great designers this it is an unconscious process.

You may find for instance that the precise issue of button assignment for your object interaction system has been solved more elegantly in an RPG or you might find that there’s a beat ‘em up with a great progression structure that solves your issues of plot development in an FPS. An encyclopedic knowledge and a keen eye for analogy within games is essential in your day to day work. You need to be able to see across genres and apply abstract structural analogies to find solutions to problems. In the same way a scientist is able to see beyond the surface of a subject to see the hidden patterns and logic beneath, game designers need to have a mental record of the structural blueprints for all the games they’ve played. In what way is Mario 64 like GTA?* What are the similarities between The Sims and Crystal Castles?** A good analogist sees them in seconds.

2. Analogies outside of games.

He’s the most over-quoted game designer of all time, but Will Wright was making a great point in his 2001 GDC keynote when he made analogies between game design and architecture, toy robots, comic strips and Japanese gardens. The rather typically insular psychological make up of game makers, and the huge obsessive effort that is required to learn the craft of game development doesn’t exactly foster an ideal breeding ground for familiarity with the wider world, but Wright’s point was that there is a huge amount of rich and varied information in other subjects that can lead to a better, fresher understanding of games.

A keen analytical mind will often search around subjects to try and find patterns and structure that can be applied to other subjects, just as Yukawa describes in the quote. Perhaps there is something to be learnt for game designers in subjects are diverse as food design, pornography and the elegant combination of function and form in a pair of jeans? By limiting our analogies to games, films, literature and comic books we are potentially limiting the creative possibilities of our craft. I have a friend who works as an architect, and we often talk together about our experiences in the workplace in terms of project and team dynamics, the design and implementation process and the interesting dynamics between predominantly creative and predominantly engineering people. Each time we speak I am surprised by the huge degree of correlation between our two experiences. I would even suggest that he has more common experience with me than many of my contemporaries in game development. In the future I might be able to solve problems in game design by talking with him about them. The same might be said for what I can teach him about my experiences.

Learning about other subjects, talking to people in other complex fields and observing the world around you can open up new ways of thinking about and approaching your work. It doesn’t always work (I read about ten almost identical mountaineering books before I realised there was absolutely nothing in common between mountaineering and game design), but it’s always fun finding out.

* The most striking similarity is in the way the games carefully deal out tasks for the player so that at any point there is more than one ‘mission’ available. Players can get very frustrated by the difficulty of one mission, without it stopping their progression in the game, as there’s always something else to try somewhere else. I’m surprised more people don’t rip off this idea, as it’s technically simple and easy to design.

**Both are isometric (duh) and both deal with sensations of panic related to time management.

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