Soundbite: Age of Empires and Civilization co-creator Bruce Shelley's 'inverted pyramid of decision making'

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Here's some great game design wisdom from one of the legends of the business.

This interview excerpt is plucked from my set of Age of Empires history interviews that I did while putting together an oral history on the AoE series for Ars Technica a while back.

Bruce Shelley has been in the industry for some 30-odd years, with credits including co-creator of Sid Meier's Civilization, Railroad Tycoon, and Age of Empires, as well as key roles in Halo Wars and F-19 Stealth Fighter, among other games.

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This is a Life and Times of Video Games soundbite. I'm Richard Moss.

There are certain names in the games industry that, when they talk about good design, I pay extra close attention. They've proven, through their past work in the industry, or their writings and talks and media dealings, that they have that "design sense" that leads to brilliant insights. And I've noticed that when you talk to them about game design they make everything sound so right, so obvious — even when it's actually not.

And when it comes to designers making smart arguments about good kinds of design thinking, few people can match the wisdom of Bruce Shelley, the co-creator of Sid Meier's Civilization, Railroad Tycoon, Age of Empires, and numerous other highly-regarded strategy and simulation games.

I had the privilege of interviewing Bruce two years ago for an Ars Technica article on the history of Age of Empires, and working on the Wololo episode in December got me thinking about that time again. So I had a quick look over my interviews and picked out this excerpt you're about to hear where Bruce drops some major design insight that dates back to his time working with Sid Meier in the 1980s and early 90s. Enjoy!

Bruce Shelley: I had a phrase, I guess, when I worked at Microprose Sid said it was my phrase. It's called the inverted pyramid of decision making. So the idea is that you start the game with one unit and you make a decision with it and then that opens up a door.

Now you can make two decisions. Or you build a second unit. Now you have two units to use. And then you have four and you have eight and you have 16. And these decisions like ramp up, so it starts off as a tiny bunch of decisions and it quickly grows, balloons. And I think that does a great job of getting people engaged. And we had this idea that you had 15 minutes to engage somebody or you'd lose them. And if we did it really right, and they got absorbed, they were totally engaged and lost track of time.

I remember when Age actually published I think there was an article in The Wall Street Journal about the game, of all places, and they called it digital cocaine.

And so I said, 'well we've done our job if we've created digital cocaine. If people are so engaged the passage of time just goes right by them, then we've done our job.' I think a psychiatrist or a psychologist wrote a book about creativity or — he called it flow. He had a word for this, flow. You can achieve flow playing chess or on an assembly line or reading a good book or watching a movie. And the whole concept of time just goes away. You're absorbed and engaged in what you're seeing.


The Life & Times of Video Games

The Life & Times of Video Games: A documentary and narrative-style audio series about video games and the video game industry — as they were in the past, and how they came to be the way they are today.

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