A very special session at GDC 2012 brought together celebrated game designers Sid Meier, Will Wright, John Romero, and Cliff Bleszinski to talk about the key game that most influenced them in their designs.
Will Wright named a number of early titles that inspired him, such as Flight Simulator, Choplifter, and Sundog. The key game he singled out, though as a critical influence on his own designs was Bill Budge's Pinball Construction Set. This was an Apple II title that Budge initially self-published, but in 1983 he signed a deal with Electronic Arts to publish it.
Wright was particularly taken with three aspects of the design: The fact that it was a construction set, its systems, and the graphic user interface. These were all important innovations in gaming, and were all the more impressive considering the limited processing power available to make them possible. Of course, it's easy to see the influence of Pinball Construction Set on Wright's later efforts with SimCity and various other simulation titles, most of which fall under the classification of "software toys" rather than games with a defined end state.
Sid Meier took the podium next, citing the classic game Seven Cities of Gold by Dan Bunten as a key inspiration for Meier's future works. As Meier noted, before he saw Seven Cities of Gold, his best game was Floyd of the Jungle. After Seven Cities, Meier designed games like Pirates!, Civilization, and Railroad Tycoon. Bunten's game introduced such key design innovations as random maps, mixed genres, smooth scrolling, and an open world which changed every time you played it. "It's not about what's on the screen," said Meier. "It's about what is in your imagination." The primitive graphics of the time did not keep Seven Cities of Gold from creating a compelling experience, because it was able to engage the player.
Cliff Bleszinski had no trouble picking out his greatest design influence: The Legend of Zelda. He was a huge fan from the time he saw that The Legend of Zelda came a on a golden cartridge, and thought that maybe they were on to something interesting with the branding. When he saw the manual, which his friend brought to school, and he saw the items in the game like bombs and a boomerang and a compass, he was hooked. It ignited his senses, and had a sense of wonder that fired his imagination. Where does Bleszinski suggest you get inspiration for game designs? Go back to your childhood and look for things that engaged you the way Zelda engaged him.
John Romero cited many games as influences on his designs, including things like pinball, Pong, Gunfight, and Space Invaders, but he saved his pick for his favorite: Pac-Man. He would spend up to $200 a month playing Pac-Man, shoveling quarters into the arcade machine. Romero was so accomplished that he could play the first several levels without even looking at the screen, he said. Romero provided some statitisc on just how successful Pac-Man was: It grabbed $1 billion in quarters in 18 months, with 30 million players. In 1999 Pac-Man was recognized as the highest-grossing game of all time. Romero noted important design innovations Pac-Man pioneered, including the first mascot, the maze chase, characters, females, powerups, cut scenes, and licensing. Romero noted that Pac-Man directly influenced Wolfenstein 3D and Doom.
The panel provided some important thoughts about game design and how their designs were influenced by important works of others. This is a crucial lesson for designers, to look to the best games and build on the great ideas you find there. As Isaac Newton put it, "If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants."