This is RPG-ology #52: Edison, for March 2022.
Our thanks to Regis Pannier and the team at the Places to Go, People to Be French edition for locating a copy of this and a number of other lost Game Ideas Unlimited articles.
Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.
Those are probably the most famous words ever spoken by arguably the most creative mind of the industrial age. Well, either those or Mary had a little lamb.
Thomas Alva Edison holds the record for number of patents granted to a single individual. His first invention was a minor improvement in the telegraph. Before he was done, he had invented several major industries–motion pictures, audio recording, electric power, electronic amplification. He had a genius for recognizing the potential of an idea and bringing it to fruition. And this simple aphorism encapsulates his contribution to our understanding of the creative process. Most creative failures can be traced to this.
When I first started writing songs, I would take an idea and work on it until I’d hammered out a complete song. Nearly all of those early songs have been trashed. Why? It certainly wasn’t because I didn’t work on it enough. It was because the original idea was garbage, and no amount of work could save it.
On the other hand, I can’t begin to tell you how many great songs I never wrote because I didn’t take the time or effort to work through the great idea I had, and I forgot it. I still remember fragments of quite a few unfinished songs that had a lot of promise, and several that I’ve promised myself I’ll finish–one day.
Edison’s most famous invention was the lightbulb. It wasn’t exactly a simple idea, but it was evident enough that several others were working in the same direction. If you force more electricity through a wire than it can handle, it gets hot. If it gets hot enough, it glows and then bursts into flame. But if you were to put it in an oxygen-depleted atmosphere, it would not be able to burst into flame, and so would only glow brighter and hotter. Eventually it would burn itself out anyway, but meanwhile it could produce light.
So that’s the idea. Simple, right? The application comes next. The trick is to find a material that can’t carry much electricity and so overheats at a relatively low current, and glows very brightly when it gets hot, and can stay hot for a very long time. He tested scores of materials, sitting for hours observing how bright they got, how much power they could handle, and how long they lasted, before finally discovering the material that did the job, and the incandescent light bulb was born.
It’s that part about sitting for hours testing scores of materials that stumps most people. We want our ideas to be enough–we’ll have the great ideas, and they’ll make us rich and famous; someone else can do the work. You can’t do it that way, generally–maybe you can find someone willing to split the riches and fame with you if you let them do the work on your ideas, but that’s rather rare; and they’ll probably bring their own ideas to it, and you’ll have to compromise, and in the end you will probably wonder whether you could have done better without them no matter how it goes. There are a lot more people out there ready to sell ideas than willing to develop them.
E. R. Jones had some ideas in the 1980’s. He wanted to design a role playing game that would let player characters move between universes, that would preserve the feel of each universe by not letting a lot of magic get into sci-fi and realistic settings or a lot of technology infect fantasy worlds, but would at the same time allow characters to preserve their abilities and identities as they moved between worlds; and he wanted to make a game in which player characters never really died, but at the same time were afraid of death. He had some ideas that could make this work, and he worked on them. And in 1992 he still hadn’t worked them through, but he asked me to help, and I worked with him on them for the next five years–until in 1997 Valdron Inc was incorporated and licensed the first edition of Multiverser: The Game. I had spent five years trying to turn a few good ideas into a good game; he had spent twice that time. We had finally created the role playing game, the next step in gaming, the idea that was going to take the role playing game world by storm overnight.
And it was immediately met with a resounding indifference.
One night I was running the radio dial looking for something to listen to that wasn’t some form of the latest popular music, and I paused a moment on a talk show because I had expected it to be something else. The host suddenly offered a quote–admitting both that he didn’t know if he had it exactly correct and that he didn’t remember who said it. It went something like this: The world will never know how many people failed because they didn’t know how close they were to success when they gave up.
I was immediately reminded of a story I’d heard back in college. It seems that in the late 1800’s (which is actually quite a bit before I was in college) New Zealand was facing economic problems. They had sheep, but the wool market was failing and it wasn’t feasible to ship the animals for meat to any port that could use it. Someone (and my efforts to discover his name have proved futile) realized that refrigeration could solve the problem: England was desperate for food, and frozen lamb would be a welcome import. He gave himself six months to solve the problems; it took ten years. He lived to see the first shipment leave port, but died before it reached its destination. Today New Zealand spring lamb is exported frozen to ports all over the world.
According to the story as I heard it (from a New Zealand-born Anglican cleric), an Anglican bishop now lives in the house which was once this man’s home. There’s a study in that house, the sort of library old houses had, lined with bookshelves. Around the top of the room, above the bookshelves, written repeatedly, are the words To persevere is to succeed.
I remind myself of these stories and these phrases from time to time, because I’ve learned that creative genius is only partly the ideas you have. Every idea needs work; none are born fully formed and ready to use (well, almost none–Paul McCartney wrote Yesterday in a dream he had; I wrote All I Need in a dream once, but I only wish it was as good a song as Yesterday). If you have a good idea, you have to work on it until you have a good finished product. For many people, that’s the hard part.
Of course, the other hard part is knowing whether it’s a good idea worth the work in the first place. But that’s the subject of another column.