The Cambrian Era of Game Design

I’ve been reading the works of Stephen Jay Gould on natural history, and finding them delightful, as Gould is a magnificent writer. While reading his Wonderful Life, I realized that there is a stunning analogy for designers of interactive entertainment to consider. 

Some background
The history of life on earth is not as straightforward as one might suspect. The first idea we have to discard is the concept of the great chain of being, the linear arrangement of living creatures along a sequence of increasing merit, with protozoa at one end and home sapiens at the other end. A chimpanzee is not 90% of the way to being human; it is a creature ideally suited for exploiting the environment in which it lives. Evolution yields a branching bush, not an ascending tree, and there is no basis for assigning primacy to any path through the bush. Humans are more intelligent, but salmon can swim better, and polar bears handle cold better, and camels handle heat better. It’s just a matter of adapting to an environment.

But even the concept of evolutionary history as a bush has a flaw. We presume that life began in simple form and then expanded in complexity. From the simplest single-celled creatures, ever more complex forms evolved. The bush was initially scrawny, but with each passing millennium it has grown thicker and more intricate, with twigs reaching into ever finer areas of biological specialization.

This notion seems ever so obvious, but the truth is even stranger. Life on earth has undergone a series of great extinctions in which large portions of the taxonomy were eliminated. We’re not just talking here about the death of many individual critters, but of whole species, entire families, even phyla. The cause of these mass extinctions is a subject for continuing investigation, but for now the important point is that these mass extinctions did indeed take place.

Now, long ago, we had the first great explosion of multi-cellular creatures: the Cambrian era. We don’t know why, but suddenly life burst its single-celled bonds and spread its wings, experimenting with a great variety of anatomies. Whole taxa emerged in this astounding burst of biological creativity. The diversity of Cambrian life is staggering. There were creatures with five eyes, creatures with circular mouths, all manner of amazing arrangements.

All vertebrates fall into a single phylum (chordata). All birds, all reptiles, all fishes, and all mammals this huge array of creatures falls into a single phylum, because anatomically they’re all basically the same:a skeleton of bones with a head at one end, four appendages, and musculature next to the bones. With the arthropods (bugs) and the mollusks (snails and clams) we have two completely different basic blueprints for anatomy. There are seven major animal phyla and perhaps two dozen minor animal phyla. During the Cambrian period, there were many more phyla; one quarry in Canada has yielded nearly two dozen distinct phyla from a single Cambrian ecosystem.

There is a catch:there may have been more phyla (basic anatomical arrangements) but there were (they think)fewer species (variations on that basic anatomical arrangement). Nowadays, just within the single class of mammals we have all kinds of variations:whales that swim, bats that fly, rabbits that hop, moles that burrow, cheetahs that run, and humans who occasionally think. We’ve seen a great many variations on the basic theme of lungs-hair-mammary glands that defines the mammal. The Cambrian fossils don’t indicate this degree of variation within a phylum. There were more phyla, but fewer species per phylum.

Later came the great Cambrian extinction. They all died. Out of all those phyla, only four survived the Cambrian extinction, but those four then went on to expand in complexity while retaining their basic anatomical structure.

Back to the Present
We now return to the standard question so common to this journal:what does any of this have to do with interactive entertainment?The answer comes from an experience I had the other day. A friend dropped off some boxes of old games for storage. These were mostly Atari games from the early 80s. As we pawed through the pile, I was struck by the great diversity of designs. There were all sorts of ideas floating around back then.

Many of those ideas, we must admit, were pretty bad. Does anybody remember Alien Garden? You were a kind of alien bee traversing a garden of alien flowers, and you had to pollenate some of the flowers, but some of the flowers were inadvisable to pollenate. It was pretty hard to figure out what the game was really about, but it certainly was, er, innovative.

Before we dismiss those games with a Darwinian sniff, though, please recall that all games during that time were pretty weak. Between the poverty of the hardware and the inexperience of the designers, we just didn’t know how to build really great designs. We look back fondly at such hoary old classics as Star Raiders and Centipede, but they wouldn’t stand a chance in today’s market. Thus, we need to consider what some of these games might have evolved into, had they been given the opportunity.

For example, consider my own game Balance of Power. It was a game about diplomatic conflict, and a big hit during the mid and late 80s. Why couldn’t we have seen a whole series of games expanding on the concepts originally explored in Balance of Power?As it happens, there were a few attempts in that direction, all of which failed badly. So, do we conclude that Crawford is a genius who pulled off what nobody else could, or do we conclude that the genre needed further development before it could find its feet?I prefer the latter conclusion but the genre never got that chance. After just a couple of tries, the industry abandoned geopolitical games and moved on. What a loss! It’s rather like the extinction of the dinosaurs, a perfectly viable group of animals who just happened to be at the wrong place (earth)at the wrong time (when the comet hit). As a result of this historical chance, we don’t have any dinosaurs anymore. Too bad.

But it gets thicker. Consider this:the rise of the mammals was a direct result of the demise of the dinosaurs. The mammals moved into the ecological slots previously occupied by dinosaurs. Thus, if you restarted a new game of "Life on Earth"and played it up through the Cretaceous period, only this time you flicked that meteor out of its collision course with Earth, then the dinosaurs would not have been annihilated, and the mammals would not have gotten their big break and guess where that leaves us? The evolution of man was not inevitable or even likely. It was just a lucky break that put us here.

The same is true of computer games. The current state of design does not reflect the best possible outcome; it reflects the historical happenstances that have destroyed some perfectly worthy ideas and elevated some mediocre ideas to greatness.

Had I chosen to exploit Balance of Power’s success with a whole series of sequels, followup products, and so forth, it is highly likely that today we’d have a viable little corner of the market dealing with political issues. But I didn’t do that -- I had other problems that interested me. So that line of development died out. But there was no historical imperative that killed that genre just happenstance.

To look at it from the other direction, consider just how chancy the success of the Doom-clones has been. Back in the beginning, Wolfenstein 3D was unable to get retail treatment and had to go the shareware route. Fortunately that worked but perhaps it was because shareware retailing was finally getting its act together. It’s entirely possible that, had Wolfenstein 3D come out one year earlier or later it would have died out and the recent E3 show would have been packed with a thousand "Zoom"clones instead.

We would all like to believe that the free market system always yields the best results, that the current marketplace is the best of all possible marketplaces, and that competition always brings out the best. But the sad fact is, not even a laboratory as big as the entire earth, carrying out a Darwinian experiment over 600 million years, could yield perfect or even reproducible results. There are always quirks that distort the results. Statistical forces such as we see in markets and environments operate in a statistical fashion; they can dictate the overall relationships but exert much weaker influence over the individual products or species.

And me, I feel like the little fishy sitting near the shore, gazing curiously out to the dry land, wondering what’s out there, while all the little games-fishies laugh, "You gotta make a living, Chris! There ain’t no market out there! Get your head out of the clouds!"