Home > Designer Insights, dialogues, Game Design, Theory and Practice > Historical Game Design Theory and Practice: Dialogue with Luke Holmes, Part 2

Historical Game Design Theory and Practice: Dialogue with Luke Holmes, Part 2

Part 1 of our dialogue blog is here. Last time, Luke left us with Chris King’s argument 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 start this second instalment from there.

JEREMIAH: That does seem to be a rather bold statement. Here my response as an educator with historical games and as an academic studying historical games might differ. King’s suggestion works perfectly for a history class so long as the teacher presents the game as an interpretation, a model, that needs to be critiqued for defensibility by students (McCall 2011 and now McCall 2022, forthcoming). I suppose though that even from a more formal academic analysis, the idea of picking a historical interpretation based on mechanics is probably not noticeably different than the practice we mostly all seem to recognize: that in a conflict between fun/playability and historical accuracy (leaving aside how problematic that term can be), devs on record tend to say that they will usually go with fun/playability–I’d have to go back to look for references; pretty confident Sid Meier has said that. Also pretty confident that Soren Johnson agreed and elaborated on this principle back on my first GTP:Designer Talks podcast. In a sense “picking the historical interpretation to suit the game mechanics” is just a variation on this right? Even so, it’s a generalization of course, so whether devs pursue something more on the consistent with historical evidence (“defensible”) or less will depend on their originality pillar, right, to the extent that advancing a certain historical proposition could be part of a game’s originality? (or the expectations pillar if players expect a defensible historical model?)

 LUKE: I wonder too if video games’ position in media-culture-hierarchy also gives game devs a lot of flexibility precisely because they don’t have to be defensible. Academics (and a lot of devs, too) would I think argue that video games very much are vehicles of history, but I’m not sure all audiences would agree. When video games aren’t presented as an authority (in the way that a book, museum, or academic might be, however flawed that is) the worry about whether a historical model fairly represents the period or discourse becomes unimportant – it is, after all “just a game”. For me though, games that take this line run a risk of trivializing the past, or even exploiting it for inspiration and genre appeal. It creates a nonsense proposition: that fun is directly incompatible with good history. 

JEREMIAH: Fair enough. So, going back to a question that intrigues me in all this talk about dev goals external to the game and internal, maybe this is a better spot to bring this up. 

Just to frame this a bit more: When I develop a game prototype, I have a historical topic (these days a historical problem space) I want to illuminate / let my students explore. So for me, quite often, the historical topic/historical problem space precede and strongly inform the chosen mechanics. And then I think about what mechanics might most effectively model the historical systems and agency for players (especially my student players). And it also happens to be true that I LOVE thinking about how this or that game mechanic  captures this or that historical system better or more effectively. So I’m definitely coming from a particular frame of reference.

LUKE: This is also true of the heritage/museum sector approach. We designed games/mechanics to suit a particular learning goal or historical topic. If the game didn’t represent the historical concept relevant to the exhibition, then it didn’t really have a place there – regardless of how fun it could be. 

JEREMIAH: Cool, yeah! But it’s my impression from the GTP: Designer talks and Soren Johnson’s awesome Designer notes podcast and reading whatever I can from historical game developers is that #1 is not the sequence for many, maybe even most, commercial devs. So devs more commonly start with basic genre ideas either at the same time as the historical content or before the historical content. This seems for me  very true for brand-genre games like Assassin’s Creed and Total War, many of the genre features, roughly, of the game are a given (“We’re going to make a new Assassin’s Creed game; let’s make it about the Mexica”) at the same time or before the historical topic, not after. This suggests some things to me when studying historical games but I’d really like to know your thoughts on all this, Luke.

LUKE: I suspect that most studios vary in their approach. While I broadly agree that choosing a historical topic is unlikely to precede genre ideas, I wonder if the distinction isn’t held that strongly in practice (I should come clean here and state that making the big decisions about which games to make next is well above my paygrade!). Sure, on the face of it the historical topic might have strong market appeal – see every game being Viking themed lately – but the relationship can (should?) be more bilateral. The historical topic might encourage the game/series to develop or expand a feature-set in a new way – the best example I can think of is Total War: Three Kingdoms which placed much more focus on characters and diplomacy than previous titles. I suppose Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey could afford a more RPG-theme because epic-heroism is more aligned to the classics than stealthy murder (maybe). There is something of ‘best practice’ here – where the historical topic is chosen because it enhances the gameplay, not in spite of it. 

JEREMIAH: That comment about next game decisions being above your pay-grade is really helpful, Luke. We don’t have to stay on this topic of genre and history overly long (it’s one of my absolute favorite points, so I tend to drone on), but let me hear your insights about this next step. It is easy for me to forget, and perhaps a lot of us, how large the companies can be developing particular games. So a small independent developer may well choose the historical topic and game features in a more “bilateral,” as you said, way, considering both topic and game features. Let me put my point slightly differently: from what you’ve suggested about dev goals and what I’ve observed and written about in terms of the influence of genre on historical presentation (McCall 2020, 2022), it seems to me that many historical games have identifiable genres and those genres significantly shape how historical content is presented.

I should probably explain what I mean by those terms.  So, for me, genre is that sometimes loose, sometimes rigid, set of design practices, gameplay features, and user interface components that certain games share with other games (McCall 2020). In GTP 2.0 (getting closer to the November release!) I use  the term “brand genre” to go a step further and refer to “practical genres that result when particular designers have established their own conventional approach to the games in a series and design them with some common attributes” (McCall 2022, forthcoming))” So games in the Total War, Civilization, Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty, Crusader Kings, Europa Universalis, Age of Empires series etc.  It seems to be the case, and it would certainly make sense, that brand genres are often, though not always, the domain of larger developer/publisher teams. This connects well, I suspect, with the “expectations” pillar of game design goals you introduced to us in the last episode. It is probably not controversial to suggest that when a game in a series is successful enough to justify a follow up, that follow up is often going to meet with player expectations, to be designed to be similar enough to the predecessor in hopes of speaking to the expectations of original fans. Not that that has to be rigid: I assume game devs would always love to have new players enjoying their games too. In any event, new games in a series strongly tend to share a lot of features, a brand genre, with previous titles. So, for example, every Assassin’s Creed (not to be confused with Assassin’s Creed Chronicles) player agent to date has what I’d call an embodied agent with a following camera and the player-agent personally does most of the player actions in the world– i.e. it’s a third person action/adventure game. And Age of Empires has an unembodied player agent (functionally anyway; hopefully my article-in-progress will clear that up) with a free camera and the player-agent orders nonplayer agents to carry out most of the actions in the gameworld–i.e. It’s a real-time strategy game.

LUKE: I think it’s also important to see the way in which large studios approach their game-series (and genres) in terms of modern project management. People who work on games are called ‘developers’ not ‘creators’ or ‘makers’. Testing, reviewing and iterating are the life-blood of game-development and so it’s natural to take a success (something that works – by whatever metric) and want to retain that magical core, while adding in something new, modernising it, and seeing where it goes. Somewhat tangentially, I think this mirrors the practice of history too – theories are tested, critiqued and developed. 

JEREMIAH: Thanks for that important point –I have certainly been guilty of talking about designers rather than developers, and I want to continue to improve in that. By the way, I really would like to stress at this point, that none of this is a criticism of historical game design practices or even general game design practices. I actually think it’s a pretty cool phenomenon that the genre conventions of a new game in planning can often shape the history presented. I also think that even when a developer chooses a topic and game design together with each informing the other, the gamic medium, the fact that the end product is a game, is still going to heavily shape how historical content is delivered. A narrative history is going to turn a historical topic into a narrative; a gamic history is going to turn a historical topic into a game. 

Anyway your original introduction of the concept that developers have four broad sources of motivation when designing, drivers for designing a historical game really helps my thinking about this all. Let me quote it so readers don’t have to go back to the first installment 


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.  

So, exploring why brand genres exist a bit more, expectations are probably a very important part of determining the genre features a game retains. Pillars also can play a critical role: just a few weeks ago as part of Ubisoft Forward (sorry I keep using Assassin’s Creed – I’m just playing and studying them a lot lately), Narrative Director Sarah Beaulieu, talking about the planned AC: Mirage noted for us fans, “We’ve been focusing on stealth, parkour, and of course, assassinations” (Ubisoft Forward 2022) ; Beaulieu says this about 1hr 39 minutes into the video). That seems to me to be a statement about pillars and it absolutely refers to common gameplay elements of the brand-genre. And I suspect that marketability is a strong driver of continuing within a brand-genre: and here your reminder that the decisions about which game is made next happen at a pretty high level is really helpful).

But then, you point out areas where the developer historian’s relationship with historical topic becomes more complex and the relationship between a particular game and the historical content as well. The originality pillar is such an important part of the spark of game design and can push against brand-genre to make the particular entry in the series, but then also, as you explain it, a bilateral dialogue between devs, brand-genre, game design pillars, and historical topics can perhaps (should perhaps?) result in something new.

LUKE: For me that’s where the overlap on the venn-diagram of ‘good history’, ‘good game design’ and ‘good appeal’ sits. It’s easy to see that as a triangle, where one comes at the cost of the others – but that seems a little unambitious. The closer we can get to an ‘eclipse’, the better. Leave anyone out and you end up with a game that is obscure, or boring, or – to return to my original point in the first blog – historically hollow at best, potentially misleading or dangerous at worst.

End of Part 2

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  1. October 23, 2022 at 9:42 pm

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