Myth of the Inventor

We like to believe in the myth of the inventor. It’s prevalent in our fiction. Ray takes out a second mortgage and we don’t even get a montage of failures before the Ghostbusters are strapping unlicensed nuclear accelerators to their backs. In a hole in the ground, and at gunpoint, Tony Stark is able to cobble together technology that a whole team of scientists who work for him can’t replicate. And one good whack on a sink is all it takes to conceive of the flux capacitor; nuclear fission reactors aren’t too hard to come by, it’s the Libyan plutonium that’ll get you.

The myth pervades our history as well. Isaac Newton, Ben Franklin, Thomas Edison, the founding fathers, all credited with accomplishments that sit in our consciousness as figurative (and one literal) bolts of lighting; ideas that didn’t exist and then suddenly did.

There are two aspects to this myth that are clearly false, at least in regards to game design. The first is the work and struggle involved in the act of creation. Our constitution was discussed and fought over and compromised on before ever being presented for signatures. And the invention of a game involves all those same verbs before ever being ready for the hours upon hours of required playtesting.

The second inaccuracy is more pertinent to my current experience, which is the idea that what these people did, they did alone. That the light bulb ding-ed above their head and they reached up, pulled it down, screwed it in, and said, “Hey everyone, look! A ‘light bulb.’”

But often the people we think of as the inventors were just the people who put the last finishing touches on the works of others. Or were just the more prominent or lucky of the members of a group. Edison’s first patent was titled “Improvement in Electric Lights.” Invention is a social process.

In game design, sometimes it’s borrowing ideas from other games. Sometimes it’s a friend or a playtester with a good idea, an artist with a different take, a developer with a better approach. In the case of Other Suns it’s a co-designer. The real Doc Browns and Wayne Szalinskis of the world bring in others when needed, and if they’re good they bring in people smarter than they are.

The hardest and most profound effect of working with someone else was giving up on the idea of this being my game. It required letting go of the ego-fuelled need for everything to line up with my original vision and go my way. Regardless of your talent or fame, not all of the ideas in your first draft will be of the highest quality. But taking the best ideas between the two of you can elevate that average quality, and is often a faster process than identifying all of your own bad ideas by your lonesome.

But you don’t get access to other people’s best ideas without their ownership. Other Suns is no longer my game, and that was precisely the point. It’s better for it.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve started an e-mail explaining an amazing new mechanic, and for the simple act of explaining it, realized halfway through that it wouldn’t work and trashed the whole thing. Or the numerous times I’ve cracked my knuckles before penning an airtight rebuttal to someone else’s most recent hairbrained idea, only to have it dawn on me that it elegantly solves all our problems and I’m an idiot.

Despite our stories to the contrary, almost no creative effort arrives in one’s brain fully formed and infallible. And yet we have a tendency to maintain a white-knuckled hold on those inspired but faulty ideas, and throw good money (or in this case, time and energy) after bad. Being open to, and trusting of, others’ perspectives can loosen your grip.

And in the end, if inspiration won’t strike the lot of you, one of you can always go smack your head against the bathroom sink. Wear a bulletproof vest.

Posted by Jack on Thu, 20 Apr 2017