I need to write this year's "Nuts & Bolts" column soon. (If you don't know what those are, you can check them out here, here, and here.) I recently spoke to my daughter's school for a Job Fair with a theme of "How Do You Get a Dream Job?" My last article inspired by a talk to my daughter's class went well, so it seems another one would be worth writing. There's also a famous article from my past I've been thinking about revisiting (much as I did with "Timmy, Johnny, Spike" in "Timmy, Johnny, Spike Revisited"—note the tests don't currently work for either article). But none of these topics really has to do with Dark Ascension and hey, when a new set comes out I try to keep my themes somewhat connected to them. So today I am going to write on a topic I've wanted to talk about for a while—one that had a big impact on the design of Dark Ascension.
In today's column, I'm going to talk about a conflict creators of all kinds have to deal with—the age-old battle between old and new. What am I talking about? I'm talking about the tension that comes whenever you follow in the footsteps of a previous creation. Sometimes they are thought of as sequels. Sometimes they are thought of as follow-ups. Sometimes they are thought of as a series. What I'm talking about is when you are creating something that has to build upon something already created.
While my job is very creative, I'm not building something from scratch. In fact, far from it. Dark Ascension is the fifty-seventh expert expansion. That's not counting core sets. That's not counting things like Portal or the Un-sets or Planechase. When I set out to design Dark Ascension, I followed up on eighteen years of history. Most creative endeavors don't have to follow that much previously created material, but still, a large number tend to build on something that has come before.
Every artist who tackles this challenge runs into the following problem.
In my DailyMTG.com 10th anniversary column ("Turning Ten"), I talked about the importance of comfort (it was one of the three legs of communication theory). People flock to things they know and understand. The world is a scary place and it's nice to cozy up to something familiar. That means whenever you are building on something that came before, it's essential you have enough elements in your new piece reminiscent of the old one. Otherwise, the audience will complain the new thing doesn't feel connected to the old thing; it's not comfortable. The old thing is what they loved; don't forsake it.
Also in my "Turning Ten" column, I talked about the importance of surprise (another leg of communication theory—the third one's structure but that's not so important today). Humans get bored easily. The same old thing can become uninteresting if there's no variance. When they come to a follow-up, they're interested in what's new, what's different. How does this new thing excite them in a different way than the old thing? They've already seen the old thing. What's different that this new thing has to offer?
Yes, every new venture has to both be familiar enough to be the thing they loved and different enough to excite them. The balance between these two forces is a tricky one. Today, in my column, I want to talk about the tricks artists use to solve this problem, and I'll use Dark Ascension as an example of how we do this in Magic.
#1—Tweak the Old to Make the New
The easiest trick is to take something from an earlier version and change it in some way. If Dr. Evil was funny in the first Austin Powers, why not create a miniature version for the sequel? This trick tends to work because it manages to straddle old and new. The new thing has a novelty to it but is clearly built upon the old thing as well, making it nostalgic.
The example of this in Dark Ascension was our evolving of the mechanics from Innistrad. Double-faced cards are back, but now they aren't just creatures (or a planeswalker). Flashback returns, but its off-color cycle goes the other way around the color wheel and there's a rare cycle that does something splashy (double the flashbacked effect) the audience hasn't seen before. The tribes all return, but now there are new tools for them and tweaks to their strategies.
The trick to this technique, though, is understanding what part of the earlier piece the audience enjoyed. A common myth about popularity is that when an audience likes something, it likes every part of that thing. Humans tend to polarize by nature because our brain likes condensing things. Nuance is hard. The brain tends to pick a few identifiers (often just one) and associates things by those identifiers. Because of this, there is a sense of "it was good" or "it was bad" rather than "most of this was good" or "I disliked the bad parts more than I enjoyed the good parts."
It's key when tweaking to tweak the parts that made the early thing succeed. How do you know what that is? That brings me to number two.
#2—Understand the Essence and Then Create Something Brand New That Matches It
Okay, there's only so much you can tweak. At some point, you have to actually make something new. How do you do this? By understanding the center of what made the earlier thing work. The idea of a center is that, in any creative endeavor, something is at the heart of the design. To use a metaphor, if your design is a building, the center is the foundation. Your whole building has to be built on top of something. Understand what this is and you can use it to build something new because you will be creating from the source that led to the earlier success.
For example, I knew the center of Innistrad's design was the intent to capture the feel of the horror genre. Every mechanic, every card, was designed to evoke the essence of horror. This meant I could use the center to start from when designing new things for Dark Ascension. This can best be seen in the set's two new mechanics.
Undying was created to capture the trope of the supposedly dead monster popping back up after the hero just killed it, apparently more deadly than ever. Attempting to kill it only made it stronger. Fateful hour was created to capture the trope of the cornered human. When things are at their worst, humans are at their best. Things might look bad, but never count humans out.
In each case, the mechanics were brand new, but because they tapped into the essence of Innistrad they felt like extensions of it. The essence served the role of comfort. "I liked how Innistrad felt like a horror movie. Dark Ascension also feels like a horror movie."
The big thing to remember in this category is the importance of separating the idea from the execution. Too often in the creative process, success leads to artists copying what they did before rather than finding the center. They keep using "what worked," not understanding that individual choices were not as important as the major leap they made.
Let me take Alpha as an example. The true genius of the very first Magic release was the number of staggering ideas in it. I often talk about the golden trifecta—what I consider the three great concepts that gelled to create Magic: the trading card game genre, the color wheel, and the mana system. While each of these systems is truly revolutionary, not every choice made in making them has stood the test of time.
For instance let's take a look at each one:
The trading card game—Richard had ante cards that proved not to work out. The rarity system was based upon a cash estimation (Richard assumed people would only spend what they spent on other traditional board games with expansions, about $40–$80) that proved to be way too low. The company originally tried to hide rarities so players wouldn't be quite sure of how rare certain cards were. That quickly fell by the wayside. Card limitations were created (to four-of) and deck size was shifted (from 40 to 60).
The color wheel—You only need to look through early Magic cards to see how out-of-whack the color pie was. Blue did direct damage, green countered spells, red could destroy enchantments. All the basic philosophical tenets were there, but Richard allowed flavor to overrun color consistency.
The mana system—Ironically, the one many players see as the most faulty was actually the closest to its current incarnation. That said, early Magic made it too easy to get both fast and colored mana (much of the early broken stuff revolves around mana). Plus, it had mana burn which, while flavorful, added needless complexity.
What made Magic awesome in Alpha were the many great ideas Richard had. The execution had room for improvement, but that wasn't a limiting factor. Early R&D could have taken Richard's execution and just copied it, assuming that if they did the same thing they'd continue to get the same reaction. There's a good chance Magic wouldn't be around today if we had taken that approach.
Magic has thrived because we're willing to work to keep improving execution—not resting on our laurels but, rather, challenging them.
#3—Don't Use Everything; Leave Stuff Out
There is a common phenomenon in the act of creation known as inertia fatigue. Here's how it works. An artist creates Thing A, which is very popular. The artist then creates Thing B that uses many things from Thing A, as well as a few new things. Then, for Thing C, the artist tries to use everything successful from A and B. Eventually, the artist becomes so beholden to what worked in the past he or she no longer has the room to do something new.
Another way to think of this is that artistic properties can become victims of their own success. When you are creating something brand new, you are beholden to nothing. As an artist, you make choices based on your art. With success, though, comes expectations. The audience begins to assume things it takes as a given. You keep including things because you feel your audience expects it will be included.
Magic has several tools to deal with this phenomenon. The first tool is the amount of change built into the system. Every year, we go to a new plane with new mechanics and a new feel. As I like to call it, we push the pendulum (think pointer on string over a sand pit) so the game keeps swinging into new territories. Our willingness to do this helps the game from becoming stagnant. There are, for example, successful things we have done in the past we don't do in the current set.
All this is to lead up to a very important point: just because you did something before doesn't mean you have to repeat it, and it also means you don't have to evolve it. Because Magic changes every year, we have less worry about inertia fatigue, so I didn't feel a great need to cut things from Innistrad in Dark Ascension. I did, though, choose to keep certain elements the same, rather than advance them. A good example in Dark Ascension would be the morbid mechanic. There are a few cards with it in the set, but nothing was done to advance the mechanic beyond what was done in Innistrad.
To quote Pablo Picasso, "Every act of creation is first an act of destruction." When building on what has come before, it is important for you to understand not just what to use but what specifically not to use. At first blush, one might assume you keep the good stuff and get rid of the bad stuff. That's not what I'm saying, though. Of course you should get rid of the bad—but some good has to go as well. Part of keeping your art fresh is understanding that sometimes you have to let go of your successes.
This is a driving force in Magic design. Every year, we create new cool stuff knowing it has a specific timeline. If it's cool enough it will return at a later time, but regardless, it's here and gone. A common question I often get is "People really seem to like Thing X. Why don't you make Thing X an evergreen thing like you always do?" The answer is this very point. The way you keep a thing exciting is by not making it readily available. Having sets chock full of multicolor cards every year, for example, would only make players take multicolor for granted and lessen their overall desire for it. Holding back when players get a particular popular thing makes its return a cause for celebration and excites people.
#4—Be Willing to Change
Why is Magic still around after eighteen years? One of the biggest reasons is that it's not the same game it was when it started. This is no sleight to Richard or Alpha. The reason the game took off so quickly was because of Richard's genius game design. The reason Magic kept thriving, though, is because the game stuck to its original vision—exploration.
You see, when art is new it gets to be risky. It has nothing to lose. Why not shoot for the moon? But once you have some success, you start gaining risk. Now that you've built something, you have something to lose. This phenomenon makes many artist wary. They stop taking the risks that brought them success in the first place.
Extend this idea to Magic. What made the game stand out was that it broke rules. Everyone didn't get the same game when they bought it. The game was, in fact, bigger than any one copy of it. Players didn't know what was possible. Part of playing the game was exploring what existed.
I feel Magic has thrived because we have never lost the importance of exploration. Eighteen years later and we are still able to surprise you because we do things players don't expect—things that often don't have any precedence in the game. For example, Magic cards only have game text on one side. That is, until Innistrad proved that not to be true.
Part of creating a new design is the willingness to try new things. Yes, there needs to be some connection to what came before, but don't feel as if everything must tie in. Just as it's okay to reuse old stuff, it's also okay to use new stuff.
Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks
That's all the time I have for today. I hope you had fun looking at a slightly different issue sets like Dark Ascension have to deal with.
Join me next week when I'll talk about something I've been undying to talk about.
Until then, may you make new ideas but keep the old.