Thursday, February 09, 2006

The Gaming Genome Project

Before I begin discussing this idea, let me just say that there's no chance I have enough energy to actually see it through. So this isn't a project I'm going to start, just an idea I have that I think would be interesting.

I was thinking about the history of gaming yesterday. [I can't believe I just admitted that]
I'm always discouraged when favorite development studios close (Mucky Foot killed me, because I dearly loved Startopia), and I always think that something is terribly wrong with the business of gaming when innovative development houses can't survive.

But then, for some reason, I started thinking about it from a genetic sense. Now I'm no expert in genetics, or anything else, for that matter, so please forgive any heinous errors I'm about to make here. From a "gaming genetics" sense, the best thing that could possibly happen would be for the most talented people to move as often as possible. Those people could be considered characteristics, and a game could be considered offspring.

So when people are changing studios frequently and involved in a wide range of games, they're spreading their gaming "seed," so to speak. And they're making the genome more diverse and speeding evolution. The people who never move have a very limited impact unless other people move to them.

We hear it all the time--series go "stale." They don't have to, but it almost always happens. I think what really happens is that without the introduction of new, unique characteristics (new developers) into the genome, the game gets inbred over time. It stops improving. It loses its vitality

What's that? You said "Madden?" Thank you for mentioning that.

I know, I've butchered genetics there, but I think you get the general idea.

So while I was thinking about this, I realized that we need a Gaming Genome Project. Like I said, there's no way in hell that I could do this, but hopefully someone will someday. Here's how it would work. First, you'd have to define a list of games that would be included. The larger the list, the better, because any errors of exclusion would be less important if you're working with five hundred games instead of fifty. And the criteria would be "best." The best five hundred games ever, for example. I know, that's a pain in the ass just by itself, but it's necessary.

It gets harder. Then you have to identify the people who worked on all of those games, limited by the number of roles you define as "essential." Then compile a company history database for each person. That allows you to define genetic makeup, so to speak.

Here's an example. Let's use Eric Brosius of Tribe. I'm working off the top of my head (that's a bad idea, even if I'm using all of my head), so this may not be exactly right. I think it goes like this, though. The first gaming company for Brosius was Looking Glass, so back then, Looking Glass was 100% of his genetic makeup. Now if he moved to another company (Irrational Games), his genetic makeup would then be, say, 40% Looking Glass and 60% Irrational Games. Then we'll magically decide on a .6 multiplier and 40% entry point for succeeding generations. So then he does work on Guitar Hero for Harmonix. That means he's now 24% Looking Glass, 36% Irrational Games, and 40% Harmonix.

Obviously, that math has to be changed, because it disproportionately weights the second company of someone's career, but I type, not count, so I know someone can work that out.

No matter how many companies he works for over the course of his career, his original influences still still be part of his genome, so to speak.

So you have a database with all these people and their genetic structure defined for each year of their careers. Then you take the list of games and write a little program to pull the genetic structure of each developer that worked on the game (using the appropriate years). Then just add the percentages together and you get a genome of each game.

You could also add the genomes together and get a genome for the history of gaming. People like me shiver at the thought of shit like that.

Besides the "Hey, cool!" factor of seeing this all represented in one piece, I think there would be two very interesting things to consider. The first would be look at projects in development from a "genetic" perspective. If there's a game in development and everyone involved has a track record in the industry, but they're essentially unrepresented in the genome, the chances of that game being fun are probably not that high. Young developers with no track record, obviously, can't be evaluated that way, but if a developer's record is suck/suck/suck/suck, I think their next game has a pretty high chance of being, well, suck. And if everyone they're working with has been suck/suck/suck/suck as well, you know where that leads. To suck.

The other interesting thing to look at would be influence. What's more important in a gaming history sense--to put out a few great games, or to work with (and influence) a large number of people who then go out and make their own great games? I'd say the latter, even though that kind of contribution is far harder to quantify than unit sales.

Here's an example. I think Will Wright is terrific--brilliant guy, incredibly creative. And if you talked about the most important people in the history of gaming, he's in the top tier of any discussion. In the last ten years, though, he's essentially released the Sims and a couple of Sim City remakes. Now they were all huge sellers, especially The Sims, but how many people who worked with Will Wright in those years have gone on to make their own great games? And if that number is low, isn't he, in a creative sense, less important to gaming than someone who's done twice as many games in the last decade and spread their creativity to other people who have then gone on to make their own games?

I don't really have the answer to that question, but I'd certainly like to see the outcome of a "genetic analysis" of gaming history to be able to discuss it with more precision.

The ideal way to display the results would be similar to the way TextArc ( analyzes literature. If you want to see TextArc in action, click on the link, click on the "Alice in Wonderland" picture on the front left of the home page, then click on "click on this link" to start the program. It's mind-blowing, and I've written about it before.

How awesome would it be to see the history of gaming represented that way?

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