Home > Designer Insights, dialogues, Historical Problem Space, Theory and Practice > Historical Game Design Theory and Practice with Luke Holmes, Part 1

Historical Game Design Theory and Practice with Luke Holmes, Part 1

After a too-long hiatus (4 years), a new series of dialogue-blogs start on Gaming the Past with this installment. This time my very-esteemed interlocutor is Luke Holmes, Game Designer at Creative Assembly (previously museum-worker, with a History MA). We’ll set out on what we both excitedly hope will be a series of substantial discussions by talking about developer goals and the design of historical games 

LUKE: I’m going to jump right in! When studying historical video games, historians often think about what games are trying to say, and how they say it. We do our best to draw conclusions from the characters, levels, narratives and mechanics, and to some degree judge these products by their historical interpretations. How faithful was Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey to ancient Greece? How far can Civilisation be used for teaching and studying history?  

We look at the goals given to the player, and we analyse whether they are historical. Is the decision of whether to hire knights or archers in Age of Empires IV reflective of the kind of decisions that historic nations had to make? I know you’ve done a lot of work in this area, Jeremiah, so I’m interested to explore this a little more. 

JEREMIAH: One of the reasons I am so pleased to get to work with you on this, Luke,  is because the developer perspective is so critical to historical game studies but not explored nearly enough. Historical game developers are historians. They meet the basic criterion:  they create curated representations of the past (something any number of historical game studies folks including myself have emphasized, not least of all Chapman 2016). So, it follows that a key to better understanding the medium of historical games is to better understand developers’ approaches to designing GAMES that are historical. Your insights will be of great interest in this light. It’s always good to remember that history, categorically  ≠≠ academic written history.  

LUKE: Very true, and I should probably add that a lot of historical-games devs are historically trained anyway. That said, the historian-questions I outlined above don’t necessarily account for what the developers want the game to be. Partly, this is because it can be hard to tell – short of interviews with game directors. It strikes me, that we should look closer at these developer intentions (let’s call them: game goals) and see how they inform and interact with player goals, historical or otherwise. 

A quick categorisation (I’m sure there’s many other/better ways to do this) of where game goals come from might look something like:  

Pillars – a set of foundational words or phrases that summarise the vision of the game. For a historical-role-playing game this might be: Visceral-Action, Upgrade Everything, Play Your Way. 

Expectations – This might be the expectations players have for a certain genre, a set of mechanics, or even from a certain game-brand. Players might expect some rogue-like features, a variety of equipment, or more specifically an equipment manager with a ‘sort’ function.  

Originality – Developers might want to make something at least partially new. This might range from enthusiasm for a bright new genre-busting idea, to an exorcism of things they don’t like – ‘let’s set our RPG in Australia, we are all bored of Viking games!” 

Mash these together and you have a vision or direction for where the game is headed, and what goals you expect the player to have. I should say here that an additional filter could be marketability, and this can move the above categories considerably. Ultimately, developers want to make games that will be enjoyed by as many players as possible.  

For historical titles, it’s likely that authenticity will be a pillar and a core consideration for the design. The degree to which the developers want the game to be authentic, however, is negotiable. It has to work with the other design choices, for example, creating a fun experience. Here we have the bones of the question: how far are historical concepts and goals that games present to the player, intentionally or otherwise, filtered through the lens of modern game design goals? 

I’d quickly add that a developer’s relationship to authenticity probably changes based on the game in question too – generally speaking the older the period, the fewer historical sources are available, and the more subjective things like accuracy and authenticity can become. 

JEREMIAH: Makes perfect sense to me. I’m a Roman historian by training, and I’ve often thought studying the ancients can make one remarkably flexible about history through games since there is so much speculation and play already even in academic histories of that distant time … 

I’m also very interested to think and hear more about the extent to which these Pillars, Expectations, and Originality precede the actual selection of a historical topic. What I mean is this: when I develop a historical game (almost exclusively tabletop and almost exclusively for my high school history students), I have a historical topic/process/system that I want to illuminate and so I start with that topic/process/system and consider what mechanics (and thus what genre) would best fit the historical topic/process/system. My sense is that historical game developers rarely do it in that order but instead think about maybe a period and put the Pillars, Expectations, and Originality design goals front and center. 

But I digress; what’s an example of these goals shaping the historical game, the history in the game? 

LUKE: Let’s take a common feature of modern games as an example: progression. Levelling-up has been a part of games for a long time, and it’s everywhere. Players level up their characters, their equipment, their followers – what does this say in the context of a game set in Roman Britain? Did centurions solve their problems by buying a better sword? 

It’s maybe a flippant example, but it shows the challenge that could be seen in more serious and problematic areas. If historic games consistently rely upon modern game goals (e.g. progression, accumulation, exploitation) then are they implying that throughout history these have been the concerns of historical actors? Going further, if they suggest something that is true now, has always been true, then is there a risk that games make claims to some sort of human-truth or nature? Is this giving the influential power of games too much credit, or not enough? What do you think? 

 JEREMIAH: One of the things I’m struck by, as you write is that these developer goals, like the attributes of gameplay in a genre, shape the historical content in the game.  So these developer goals function, arguably, like genres do to shape a game’s #HistoricalProblemSpace  (McCall 2020); I will really, really try not to overuse that HPS phrase!). So essentially you are saying that the leveling-up mechanic is the sort of thing a developer would naturally expect to have in a game, maybe even before digging into the historical content? I’m reminded of some recent playtime with Expeditions: Rome. From my perspective it seemed that the developers took for granted that the different party members would have classes – it’s one of the appealing features in many tactical RPGs , and character classes were in the brand-genre conventions established in the two prior games, Expeditions: Conquistador and Expeditions: Viking.

note: For readers,  “brand-genre” is what I call established brands and series of video games and their distinguishing attributes and features. So Creative Assembly’s Total War series is a brand-genre; as are Paradox real-time grand strategy games and Assassin’s Creed games.

LUKE: This is a pretty common motivation for developers I think, if something works in your previous games and players like it, then you want to respect that player feedback. 

JEREMIAH: Anyway so the Expeditions: Rome devs, at least as I imagine it, picked various types of army units from the historical content to label and shape these classes: triarius for support; principes for front line bruisers; velites for light (dps – right?) and the historically un-Roman sagittarius, archer). So here with classes and in your example with leveling-up mechanics, the features of play/ genre attributes/dev goals shape the historical content . Your example does not seem flip at all. I think we often forget that even very seemingly-unremarkable game elements of historical games are examples of game-medium shaping history. No one really seems to even notice analytically, for example, hit points anymore and they probably wouldn’t notice your centurion’s sword upgrade this way.. But that’s the game-medium shaping the content, right?. 

As to the questions you’ve raised, I have some initial thoughts, but we can explore any of these further. Leaving aside the problematic question of how much any given player pays attention to the procedural arguments of a historical video game (Bogost 2007, Chapman 2016), we can still talk about, what I like to call when talking about history games in history education, the take-away test. Hypothetically, take a player with little to no exposure on a topic and suppose that their only exposure to the topic is the video game portrayal. What impressions might they walk away with? This becomes tragicomic if we think about Civilization Gandhi with his appetite for nuclear war. 

LUKE: That’s an interesting test! When I worked in the heritage industry, we would often think about learning objectives: what one thing must everyone who visits an exhibition take away with them? You can say the same things about designing games – ideally a player of a game should be able to tell you what the game pillars are without the designer ever using the words during play (or elsewhere!). So would the take-away test suggest agreement with my proposition above? 

JEREMIAH: So my first thought is yes. If game goals in the historical problem space of the gameworld (for an HPS overview see McCall 2020, McCall 2020) consistently are influenced and shaped by overall game design goals of a progression, accumulation, and exploitation, then we will see games that focus on player agents striving to achieve those goals and thus portrayals of history as, in part anyway, actors who seriously intend to accumulate and exploit. This really shows up when you consider the imperial/colonial critiques of awesome people (Meghna Jayanth, Souvik Mukherjee, Emil Hammar, Tom Apperley, Aaron Tramell,  just for examples) who note that many games, quite often designed by Euro-Americans in socio-cultural positions of power, often  have a very “Western focus” of exploiting, accumulating, progressing through the diminishment of others. 

LUKE: I suppose there is danger of a self-fulfilling prophecy here too, where a Western focus on these processes result in developers producing mechanics and features that players come to expect. 

JEREMIAH: But it doesn’t have to be that way. I suggest that essentially all historical video games  to the extent that they are games rather than play spaces free from any designed goals, are historical problem spaces. Designers of historical games, the vast majority at least, craft a gameworld with a player agent that has designed goals set for them.  Often those goals are accumulation, progression, exploitation and domination. But they do not have to be! Games like Through the Darkest of Times, and When Rivers Were Trails, by choosing player agents and goals carefully, challenge that system.

note: Jeremiah generally follows a definition of game like that proposed by Salen and Zimmerman (2004): games are artificial challenges (you don’t have to climb that hill), governed by rules (your character may not fly to the top of the hill), with some sort of quantifiable outcome (the winner is the one who reaches the top of the hill first). He’s open to alternatives

LUKE: I agree, and in my experience at least, I know that many developers do want to push away from these Western-centric genre-expectations. This is partly why I wanted to include Originality as a key element to developer goals. Something that actually drew me to Creative Assembly were two great articles in Playing with the Past (Kappell and Elliott 2013). The first, by Holdenried and Trepanier, argued that Medieval II was able to display the historical concept of dominance as lived, exerted and suffered by the Aztecs – rather than as something abstract that historians write about. The second by Bembeneck suggested that the Rome games’ representation of non-romans went a good way to shrugging off stereotypes of ‘barbarians’. I think grand strategy games in particular have a responsibility to ensure the way they model the past isn’t teleological, stereotypical, or accidentally ‘fails’ the takehome test by presenting modern expectations (levelling up, exploitation) as things inherent to the past. This is, of course, so much harder with sandbox games where to some extent developers lose control of the game-story; that puts even more pressure on the feature mechanics, and the simulations of relationships to ‘get it right’ (or at least not wrong!).I suppose this challenge is true of non-historical games too. The moment a game simulates something grounded in reality, it’s making a claim about how and why that thing occurs. (“Absolutely!” Jeremiah blurts) All this said, there is a risk of decision-paralysis if developers feel that every mechanic in a game should be ‘interpretation-proof’, and I suspect that a game which completely ignores player-expectations (in order to not present modern mechanics as past systems) will not be all that enjoyable. There must be some rules or methods that can help developers avoid some of these pitfalls. There is an interesting GDC talk by Paradox’s Chris King which touches on this, among other things. (Paradox Interactive: History and Game Design). King argues that game developers should choose their historical interpretation based on whichever suits the gameplay best. I always felt a bit uncomfortable with that, but maybe I have too much of an agenda as a historian!

We’ll take up from here in the next instalment. All cited work should be in the GTP Bibliography

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