Tuesday, December 23, 2003

Christmas Cheer

Just remember that it's not easy for a fat man in a red suit to climb down chimneys and bestow gifts on children in these so-called modern times without getting attacked by the dog, arrested by the cops, prosecuted to fullest extent of the law, and left with his beard shaved in a stripey suit doing 8-to-25 in San Quentin. Especially not 50 million times all in one night.

Christmas = Hard work

So you better enjoy it. Or else.

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Saturday, December 13, 2003

The Y-model

Following on from Designers Without Rules, it occurred to me that any sort of game design that was based on actually conveying the playing experience (as opposed to the production aspects) would need to be direct and involving. A friend of mine suggested that he thought some of the best models for design formats would be things like Prima Strategy Guides.

A Prima guide is essentially a bare-as-bones description of an actual game, and no messing about with long-windedness. They contain full maps, locations of secrets, cheats, strategies for play, and so on. As such, they contain all the relevant detail that a game is from the player's point of view. Wouldn't this be the kind of thing that a game design could be?

I think that there's one big thing missing from the Prima suggestion, and that's the lack of personal involvement. Strategy guides are entirely neutral in their perspective, focusing more objectively on the game and not so much interested in conveying why you want to play. In the Strategy guide view, much like a well-written FAQ, the game is an object to be decoded, and so it rarely (if ever) would get into the possible flavour or fantasy of the game.

Current game designs are also very neutral, mostly because they are essentially based on business plans. In the current design model, everything is theory and statements of intent, essentially. They address the production of the game rather than the game itself, and so are much worse than a strategy guide for design purposes. The current 'design' documents are in fact the same thing as what the film industry calls 'production notes'. I.e. not a design. Let's call that the X-model, because they treat the design of the game almost like a set of equations than a creation. Also, the letter X is linguistically associated with masculinity, which is appropriate.

X-model designs usually refer to player and game in terms such as "Once the player gets to point X, he or she might do this" or "The player is capable of motion in several dimensions through the thumbstick controls and with toggling L and R shoulder buttons" or "Combat between each of the seven available units is worked out as a function of Attack score, Shield score, Cover, Protection, Range and Damage, using a formula as follows:". This is called indirect writing, and it is highly useful for the disciplines of science and engineering, and probably even programming, but it is very dry.

This kind of writing does not involve your audience, and in the case of the game designer, that is a critical failing. The audience for a game design consists of many people, most of them artists, animators, producers, marketeers and coders. If you write in the X-model style, none of the above people will be interested. The only people that are likely to be interested are other game designers. In which case you have failed at your primary task (i.e. design) and wasted a lot of your (and their) time.

In a screenplay, the writing talks directly to the viewer. There is no time that a screenwriter writes "The audience sees..." (unless there is an audience on-screen of course). In a sense, the screenwriter conveys the essential experience of the film to the reader, and he understands it as though he was seeing it. Notation is kept to the absolutely essential. The text describes the essence of each scene without going into windy camera placement descriptions, or marketing explanations. The best screenplays are great READS.

Similar lessons can be drawn from all the forms of writing. It is why a play has stage exits and entrance notations. It's why novels are written the way that they are, spending much time conveying thought as well as action. Poems are nothing if not big bags of literary tricks design to trick the mind into the irrational.

The point is, in each form, writing is used as a means of drawing the reader in and making him live in a writer's imagination. That is its essential focus. Part of that can be perspective, part of it is narrative tricks. But in all cases, it is essential that the writing is focussed on the direct, as opposed to the indirect. Game designs should also be great READS.

With a game design, the focus should not be about we, it, the player, he or she. It should be about You. We should not write "the player can choose to pick up the BFG". We should write "Do you want to pick up the BFG?". The You-perspective (or second person perspective, to get technical) is what gives me my starting point for a new model of game design. I've called it the Y-model, for many loaded reasons, not the least being it sounds good.

So what is the Y-model?

The first part of it is the writing of choice, or the Play-Through. The designer works using the idea of writing a design that actually models choice. Sid Meier once called gameplay "a series of interesting choices", and the Y-model is exactly that. Rather than writing a dry business document, or an informative but neutral strategy guide, the game designer writes a Y-model document as a piece of present-tense second-perspective fiction that offers many choices. The bulk of the document is essentially a tree structure that your reader then uses to actually "play" the game directly.

Or, to put it another way, have you ever heard of Choose Your Own Adventure books?
Or Fighting Fantasy, Lone Wolf, Way of the Tiger and so on?

Choose Your Own Adventure (or gamebooks, as they're called) are models of interactive writing. They talk directly to a reader in the second person, and they involve him in sweeping interactive narratives. Some of them also involve combat in the form of simple dice mechanics, and even some entirely interesting challenges like puzzle solving, item collection, acquiring skills and so on. They even got into the area of wargaming, for example Warbringer.

The way that these books work is that a player reads a numbered paragraph, and then is given a choice "Do you want to use this? Turn to 45" They would then move on to paragraph 45. Every choice becomes part of a series of choices, essentially, sometimes looping back in on itself, sometimes leading on to another branch on the tree. With the addition of basic game mechanics like collection, there is a whole other order of emergent complexity attached. One classic example, from the Way of the Tiger books, was the way that your ninja character could specialise in three of the ten Ninja arts. At certain points in the adventure, you would be offered choices only if you had that skill. "If you have learned Kwon's Flail and want to use it, turn to 182". Otherwise, you would be left with the other choices.

Leaving aside all the roleplaying convention histrionics that the books themselves contain, the actual raw model of the gamebook is a powerful tool because what they do is involve the reader as a character and completely leave the direction of the story in her hands, from the ground up. Just like a good videogame. The story often moves toward one conclusion. Just like many videogames. It contains plenty of game challenges and narrative intertwined. Just like a good videogame.

Some of you are now saying to yourselves, "But it can't possibly cover all the choices that the player makes in a game!". Of course not. But as Sid Meier said, gameplay is all about interesting choices, not all choices. A gamebook format is also about interesting choices. When a screenwriter writes a script, an actor and director (and crew) can choose to shoot the film a hundred different ways, of course, so the screenplay represents a yardstick goal, an inspiration source and a guide. That's what a Play-Throughshould do. It should convey the gameplay, depict the world, and interest the readers by making them players. And they are the people who will be the people actually making it, so you'd better make them interested.

Aside from the gamebook structure, there are probably a few extra items in the Play-Through that would be necessary. Location tags, for example, at the top of each numbered paragraph, so that the artists and animators can evaluate at a glance what locations there are and what changes they'll need. Capitalisation or bolding of names, NPC types, and so on will be tremendously useful as well. Perhaps it would even work best to write a Play-Through as a series of HTML pages, and use standard colours for such significant text, or even links.

The Play-Through would also work better with a strong visual component, to show what the game will look like and what the player will look like in the game. In my earlier piece (Designers Without Rules?), I talked about the need for game design documents to show what the player will see, hear and directly interact with (or 'do', in otherwords), and visual components really help in that regard. Get an artist involved.

Realistically, the Play-Through works better for some types of games than others. It is best suited to any adventure game model, which could mean anything from Splinter Cell to Halo, Zelda to Broken Sword. In otherwords, games that don't require the player to understand rules before proceeding. For more formal roleplaying games, especially of the party-variety, the Play-Through would also be perfectly useful, though more complex. For MMORPGs, Play-Throughs could be used for quest designs and sample playthroughs.

With strategy games, the Play-Through document still works, in a sense, but the designer would have to think in terms of some formal rules that would be included at the end. As for puzzle games, it very much depends on the scope of your interesting choices.

This leads us into the second part of the Y-model: The Gameworld.

With a strategy, puzzle or arcade style game, the Play-Through is going to be less important, for obvious reasons, although still seriously useful for capturing the aesthetics of your game. The second, and highly essential part is The Gameworld. The Gameworld is a very flexible term, used to describe any sort of playing area. A strategy Gameworld might consist of a physical board and pieces for example, which roughly approximate the physical game. A roleplaying Gameworld, on the other hand, would be a series of maps, with a rudimentary rule system that allows players to analog-play the game and figure out what your intentions are.

With a dancing game, you might even take the unusual step of having the Gameworld as a music CD and a timer, a series of mock controls, and so on.

The whole reason for Gameworlds is that they cover "visible" rules, again as part of what players see, hear and do. The guiding light in this regard is whether the player has to learn the rule or not to play. If designing Shogun: Total War, for example, there need to be rules that explain formations, troop advantages and disadvantages, and rules that explain the boardgame section. But there don't need to be detailed rules of ranges and movement speeds for all units, nor the mechanics of how the combat actually works. A statement of intent and possible factors would be enough.

The number crunching part comes later in technical production, and will be done by developers rather than designers.

Between the Play-Through and the Gameworld, the Y-model is essentially an experience-driven design, and this is what professionals in the industry need in order to make the games you have envisioned. There's no point in writing a big theory document that leaves you constantly explaining yourself to fifty different people (all gathering different messages from your explanation). By explaining the design in a detailed way that involves them as players, through a combination of document and world, readers come to understand and appreciate what the game is, and what it is not. Which is far more than with a stuffy-old X-model set of production notes and technical data could. This applies to technical readers, artistic readers, producers, executive producers, and all sorts of business people.

The Y-model also opens the game up to proper analysis and evaluation, as people can give proper feedback and tell you where they think your design is going wrong, which bits are boring, which are too fast, and a sort of editorial feedback that is all-too-often missing from today's games.

Speaking of which, feel free to comment.

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Two short things On Game Design

I am currently reading two books, both called 'On Game Design', one by Chris Crawford and the other by Ernest Adams and Andrew Rollings. Both of them are Very Big Books.

They're subjects are ostensibly all about the mighty and arcane art of game design, but I have to say, I'm finding both quite ennervating. All three authors seem to take a long time getting around to actually saying what they want to say. Crawford's writing style is currently clearer, whereas Adams and Rolling are less so. One very interesting quote from A+R, right at the very start, sums the two books up: "One area that we have not addressed is level design."

They are both huge theory books, in otherwords. At least, as far as I've read them. Both of them are also concerned with very long and boring issues that aren't really all that important. A+R go into very long detail about their definition of gameplay, for example. While Crawford does a much larger job of talking about the roles of Conflict and Interactivity.

What amazes me about these two books is that they both have 'codex' ambitions, to create some sort of "bible" of games and game design lore, starting from the basic foundations of play and then, it seems, moving on into videogames. Yet they both make for intensely depressing reads. To read them and take them at their word, one would think that to be a game designer requires an intense level of academia and a sort of hermit-like disposition. Not to mention a capacity for intellectual spoonfeeding.

I am of the view that game design is both interesting and in need of study, but not like this. For one thing, play is really not that complex a process to understand. What amazes me is why some people seem to feel the need to make play out to be something that it isn't. There are a few basic ground rules to be learned, much like in writing, but it really doesn't need this level of tedium, frankly.

Game design should be anything but tedious, and I'm sorry, but endless windy examples do not really make the case for it. The books are also full of really serious attempts to politicise games and gaming philosophy, for reasons that I haven't fully understood yet. Crawford talks long and loud about how more interactivity must always be better (to which I am forced to point at Steel Battallion and say 'Oh really?') by saying that more 'cinematic' films are nearly always better. Rubbish. Adams and Rollings, meanwhile, are determined to forgo all mention of the actual practical end of design (the levels, see above) and instead take a noble/humble view of game design as a craft, not an art, and advance a model of design documents that clearly are not about the game design, but the game production design. (see Designers Without Rules on this site).

What the hell is going on here?

In a form that is in danger of obliviating itself, shouldn't would-be authors be attempting to inspire new new talent instead of stultifying it? Shouldn't they be encouraging people to actually have opinions and artistic intent, instead of saying "Designing games is a craft, like cinematography or costume design". That's right folks, the last thing that games would ever want to be is controversial or, you know, artistic. Crawford adds to this sentiment by adding that play should always be safe, feel safe, and so on.

I believe that this is the result of the 'videogames are boardgames extended' school of thought: A one-way ticket to oblivion. It is a message to would be designers that they should have no ambitions or controversial opinions. It is Old School. It's time for the New School. The one that says it's OK for a designer to actually challenge players intellectually, morally, even ethically. The tools are right there, but these two books tell you that you are wrong to use them that way.


From the outside looking in, this sort of thing is simply going to scare off many talented individuals. And then authors wonder why there are many games professionals who hold gaming academia in such low esteem. Rightly so, if this sort of thing is anything to go by.

A much better model for a game design book would be something like Screenplay, not because it is about screenwriting, but because it is short and sweet and practical. Syd Field dares to cut to the chase and use examples, lay out a simple premise that works well, and then he proceeds to develop it. He doesn't spend a hundred and more odd pages preaching the pseudo-academic patchy theory of unfulfilled childhoods, 'all games are one' and 'the noble craftsman' to the unwashed.

When will someone write a game design book that starts out with 'You have a right to create!'

You might be able to tell that I'm annoyed.
I'll have more on this when I finish the books in question, and the piece all about game design formats is also on the way.

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Wednesday, December 03, 2003

Designers Without Rules?

Why do videogame design documents have rules?

A quick analogy-history: Did you know that the screenplay as it exists today did not in fact start life that way? In the early era of film, screenplays used to be inordinately technical documents, filled with notations for camera placements, technical requirements and so on. Over time, this sort of detail proved to be unsatisfactory, and the screenplay gradually whittled down step by step, with screenwriters themselves developing an ever-clearer idea of what a screenplay was.

Screenplays, nowadays, contain almost no technical notation at all. The only information that they contain are the things that the audience actually sees on screen. You do not put technical information in a screenplay. You do not put descriptions of character thoughts and emotions in a screenplay either. What a screenwriter does is to write a 90-page piece that portrays the story of the film and how the audience will see it. And it's a very successful format for doing that. The only technical notation permitted in the modern screenplay are directions that will explicitly affect what the audience sees. (Things like scene changes, text inserts, intercuts and so on).

The reason that the screenplay has evolved to such a point is simple: All that extra technical detail seemed so very important, but in actual fact turned out to cause more trouble that it was worth because it's very hard to visualise that level of technical detail, very hard to make it consistent, and is guaranteed to make the people actually doing the directing and shooting feel like they have no contribution at all. The modern screenplay is inclusive because it recognises the golden rule of group efforts: That the written word shows the direction, but the actual process of directing a production requires a whole other brand of creativity. Screenwriters show the path. The production walks the path.

Meanwhile, in the much younger field of videogame design, the document process is bizarre beyond belief. Game design documents are truly mammoth affairs, filled with all manner of arcane detail. They have business information, executive summaries, game mechanics and rules, control schemes, universal selling points, AI, characters, plot, progression, game structure, audience appeal, front end, dialogue, on and on and on.

Now, an honest question to all the coders, artists, animators, audio technicians, QA people, marketeers, producers and executive producers out there: How much of this design doc shit do you actually read? And how much of it do you remember? The answer is bugger all. The reason that game design documents are not read and barely understood is that they are boring, disorganised, replete with redundant detail, insulting, poorly written, badly edited, and so on.

What many game design documents fail to do is actually describe what a game is to play. Like the early screenplay, the current design documents are overrun with production concerns, because designers have not yet learned the golden rule. A screenplay contains no detail other than that which the audience sees and hears. A videogame design document should contain no detail other than that which the audience sees, hears, and with which they directly interact.

The whole point of a design document in any field of any kind is that it shows the way. It shows what the end product you are trying to design actually is. It is not a document that tells the people involved in the various professions of the industry how to do their jobs. They already know how to do their jobs, much as the cameramen already know how to place a camera, and don't need to have it spoonfed to them.

Fashion designers do not write long and complicated documents about how to stitch their designs together because their costumers already know how to do this. What the costumers don't have is the end goal, which the designer provides. Screenwriters (film designers, as it were) don't include directions to lighting and sound people in their scripts any more because the lighting and sound people know how to do this much better than they do, and can bring the intent of the screenplay out much better than the screenwriter can. Web designers usually design a look for a site in photoshop, and then put it together technically afterward, for similar reasons.

Good design of any kind is detailed, clear, consistent and non-technical. It is ideas as they will appear in the final form of the proposed product. Design can be visual, auditory, textual, even a combination of those three. Design and designers are all about communication. They have the ideas and they communicate the vision. With game design, there is rarely any sort of clear communication chiefly because the vision gets muddled between designing an end product and designing the way that it works. Why?

One possible answer is cultural. As I wrote previously, the ancestors of videogames are other games, especially boardgames and other formal games. In those elder game formats, the rules for the games can be quite technical. Some of the more convoluted 18XX train games, for example, have a whole variety of rules. Movement rules, combat rules and so on form the bulk of many roleplaying games as well, because they are necessary to know to play the games. Yet in many videogames, the rules of the game are invisible to the player, a part of code design and playtest tweaking instead of game design.

It is therefore naturally instinctive on the part of a videogame designer from these traditional game roots to follow the paths laid down by these older forms. But, as I talked about in my previous post, videogames are not boardgames. In boardgames and roleplaying games, those rules are all shown because that is part of the player's need to know. In videogames like Halo, there is no need for a player to know how fast in meters per second he can run. All he can see and feel is that he runs fast and slow. Therefore the design document should only include that information. How fast and how slow is irrelevant detail that no-one will follow during production.

Technician versus Artist
Perhaps part of the answer lies with how designers see themselves and how the rest of the production team sees the designers. Designers should occupy a role of ideas men, consistency police, directors and editors. (Actually this lumping of all these duties under one job is the subject of a future blog, but for the moment, we'll let it stand). This is basically a role for someone with artistic flair and sense, communicative English (or Japanese etc) and the ability to develop concepts.

Yet many designers seem to think of themselves as adjuncts of technical staff. Studios confuse "designers as idea architects" with "designers as gameplay implementers", which is a much more technical role. Many designers try to design code, AI, rules systems and so on, and think that is what a game design is. This couldn't be further from the truth. Firstly, most coders are much better at inventing AI systems and so forth by actually writing and compiling and testing code than someone in a room writing down a whole load of notions for how it should work on paper. Secondly, it ignores the basic function of design, which is the guiding vision above all else.

Communication Skills
Part of the problem is definitely a lack of training in basic language skills. Some designers can write well, many can write passably. Many have the problem of being overly-referential or technical when trying to describe something, however, and most do not really have strong layout or editing skills. This is because they do not receive the training to be good writers. Writing is among the most important skills that a designer can possess, and so is editing. It is very easy to over-egg a document so that it just drags down. Design documents should not be a chore to read. If they are, then how can we expect the people working on the project to be interested in it if the documentation makes it sound like the dullest thing ever?

Some designers can draw, others cannot. Visual aids are very important in any game design, because it is all on screen. In film, they use storyboards because many screenwriters cannot draw. In game design, if the designer can draw, then that is a valuable addition to communication. If he cannot, then he should work with a concept artist who can.

Either way, there are strong communication problems at most studios that stem from non-communicative designers.

Another equally valid reason is paranoia. With the usefulness of designers always being in question, they might naturally reach for the high ground (see Innovative Gameplay below) and in so doing try to impress everyone with their expertise. So a designer will pore over and produce a weighty tome of a design document that is intended to show everyone that they know what they are talking about. Publishers bow in fear, producers balk at reading it, artists assume that they must know their stuff and coders grumble in the corner. This sort of paranoia comes from not having any power.

Designers do not have the power in most development environments. Producers have management power. Coders have technical power. Artists have visual power. But designers have no power. This is because the production houses of today don't understand that they really need people in directorial positions, not just producers. As a result of not having the power, designers don't trust that anyone will really see through their vision unless they specify in excruciating detail exactly how everything works. In actual fact, the game will most likely go in wildly different directions than they intend anyway, perhaps more so as their document grows ever-more-lengthy.

Lastly, a strong reason, also related to powerlessness is fear. If you look at a design document, you will often see business information nestled in its pages. Often the front pages, in fact. This comes from believing that the design document is about giving everyone what they want. So, the theory goes, a producer can read his part of the design, and get what he wants. A marketing guy can read his part of the doc, and get what he wants. A coder can read his part of the doc and get what he wants. And so on. WRONG.

What actually happens is that everyone reads their part and assumes that the person who wrote it doesn't know what they're talking about. They know their field better than a designer does. They then don't understand how their part is supposed to relate to any other part, make up their own version of what they think the executive producers will like, and the result is a stinking mess. Design documents in any field are not supposed to be all things to all men. They are the DESIGN.

Studios have a habit of treating them like they are the Big Document of Everything. Do you see business information, technical descriptions, selling points, directorial notes and all the rest of it in a screenplay? No. But why? All those things are important to a film. They are, but they are not part of a film design document (a screenplay). The film design document details the DESIGN of the film. All that other information about business and technical details belongs elsewhere.

So what is needed is a serious rethink of the basis of a design document. Quoting screenplay analogies is useful, but we should not make the mistake of replicating the screenplay. There is a whole extra dimension involved in a game design stemming from the fact that the player can actually interact with the videogame, as well as just watching and listening to it. In rethinking the format, we should focus on trimming out the noise and allowing people from other parts of the industry the freedom to create in their own right while remaining consistent to the whole.

Next time: The New Game Design Format (suggestions)

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Sunday, November 30, 2003

Videogames Are Not Films, But They're Not Boardgames Either.

Greg Costikyan wrote a post in his blog a couple of weeks ago entitled "Chess" in which he got into the whole subject of games, stories and character. He finds that people from outside the field of gaming tend to approach it from the vantage of story and character, whereupon his question is; "What is the story of Chess?".

This is a good argument, because it illustrates the fact that a game like Chess is nothing if not possibilities, whereas a story is one road. But in response, I wrote a "story of chess" in his comments section, illustrating my favourite game of chess. Fair enough, he says back to me, but that is YOUR story of Chess, not the THE story of Chess. And he's quite right.

Nonetheless, I think that there is a relationship between stories and games that cannot be ignored, because one leads into the other. It is a common wisdom in gaming circles that games do not need stories to function. They can have them, but they are not necessary, goes the mantra. And so an unconscious order of precedence is formed, which I touched on in my last post. Is this precedence correct? I'm not so sure.

The reason I'm not so sure is the same reason that I wrote out my story of Chess in response to Greg's article. That reason is this: Games become stories.

In any game worth a damn, the game becomes fun because the experience provides tension and release, and helps to evoke emotions in the player in real time. Whether it's the thrill of the kill, the satisfaction of a princess well saved, or the bitter frustration of not beating that high score, games and emotions are intertwined. Sometimes, these emotions thread together for us into a sort of living drama. In creating a drama that others can appreciate, a story of sorts eventually emerges.

The best examples of this kind of thing are some of the great sporting events of the 20th century. Ali vs Foreman. They think it's all Over. DiMaggio's famous record. Games become drama because of their structure, their elements, their beginnings, twists, turns and conclusions.

Take the analogy a step further, and consider that every film that you have ever seen is essentially a group of people organising themselves and recording a series of formalised sessions of Lets Pretend. In the theatre, they do Lets Pretend every night live. In a novel, the writer plays in his own head. You see, it's not just games vs stories. It's games AND stories.

Games are potential energy.
Stories are the record of potential energy put to use.
They're just two sides of the same timeline, separated by the split hair of Experience.

We set out to play a game, we experience it, and then we talk about it afterwards. Game, Experience, Story.

Videogames blur the distinction even further, as many of them use story pieces to guide the flow of experience from one point to another, and this cannot be ignored. The story elements in games are generally laughably bad, of course, which helps fuel the conviction of many people that games and stories do not belong in the same console, but they are getting better.

Recently, I had the occasion to play Max Payne 2, for example. MP2 is a very interesting game, for those that haven't played it. It uses comics sections to tell its story rather than simple CGI. The creators of the game obviously understand the use of elements as well as any game studio these days, because even though the gameplay is predictable, the depictive elements are very strong throughout. I found that as I played the game, for example, I did not get into being the character of Max Payne or Mona Sax. But I did get into watching him get through his story and willing him on to do it. As I had control, so I pushed him further through the whole game until the end.

And the end of Max Payne 2 is where the payback comes through. It has, for me, the best closing line that I've read or heard in games in a long time. I found myself thinking about it for days afterwards, and then going back and playing through the last battle again, just to experience the ending again. I don't remember doing that since the ending of Final Fantasy VII.

My thoughts brought me back to a common gamer mantra: Videogames Are Not Films
I have no argument with that. But They're Not Boardgames Either.

It is common practise for designers and critics to try and find some means of reference for videogames, to be able express their feelings on the subject. In this view, videogames are a sort of spiritual successor to thousands of years of regular games. So, Greg Costikyan uses the primo example of Chess to illustrate his point. However, there is an audiovisual aesthetic dimension that is not generally captured by boardgames like Chess that are very much a part of videogaming.

The situation is analogous to the differences between cinema and theatre. Theatre is live, cinema is not. Cinema controls the viewpoint, theatre does not. Theatre requires suspension of disbelief, where cinema generally doesn't. And the language differences in writing a play vs a screenplay are many.

Boardgames are systemic, with rules that are explicit. This is not true of all videogames, or even the majority of them. In most videogames, the rules are implicit, enforced by the game's internal engine. Boardgames are also static, in the sense that the pieces just sit there, and the board itself has no activity outside of what the players do. This is also not true in many videogames, where the depicted world around can and does do things of its own accord. Boardgames are almost always social experiences because you need to two to tango. But videogames, like films, can be entirely solitary experiences.

There is no denying that there is common ground between videogames and boardgames, or between videogames and any other kind of game. But videogames have a dimension all of their own which makes them better than those formalised games in some ways, and worse in others.

It is no accident that we have referred to this new form of entertainment (via console or computer) as games, of course, because what else do we have that can describe it. In cinema's case, the cinematic arts have themselves gone through a very long process by which they slowly separated themselves from the theatrical arts. In the earlier days of cinema, theatre was about the best reference that could be provided. Cinemas were even called movie theatres (and they still are in the US).

But today, we can see that Plays Are Not Films. And Films Are Not Plays either.

By the same token, where the film used to be called the "Moving Picture", we have taken to calling these tenth artworks "Video Games", which is a highly possesive term. Videogames tells us that these things belong the in the twin camps of videos and boardgames. Is it any wonder that the modern media second-strings them as a result, when the games industry itself seems so ready to define itself against everything else instead of its own-generated creative form.

Not all videogames are games (some are really toys), and there is yet to be a solid reason as to why they should all toe some line that is established for and part of a whole other sphere of entertainment.

While it is a good starting point to use normal games as some frame of reference, it behoves us designers to understand that they are only just a beginning, and as theatre analogies cannot hope to define film, so we must not let games analogies define this precious new art. Maxims about story vs no story, orders of precedence of game over story etc. simply can no longer apply, because they don't fully encompass everything that the form can be.

Part of what we need to do is to rename the form to get away from the possessiveness of Videogame. The "movies" eventually became "cinema". Taking "pictures" eventually became "photographs". Serious "comics" are now "Graphic Novels". Rather than dwell in the dungeons of genres and acronyms, what will videogames become?

Whatever the new terminology might be, it would do well to simply be one or two words, not long words, not some 'interactive fiction' rubbish, and a word that is of the form itself. In film, they settled on the name of the substance itself.

Digital play?


Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Saturday, November 29, 2003

Is Innovative Gameplay a Dead End?

If the film world was like the game world, filmmakers would be constantly obsessed with reinventing the camera. If the book world was like the game world, authors would be forever attempting to create new kinds of letters to get beyond the basic 26. If the music world were like the game world, musicians would be forever trying to invent new notes. If the art world were like the game world, artists would be forever trying to invent new colours.

Which, in all of those respective fields, is clearly a giant waste of time. There will of course be new cameras, new letters. Somebody might invent a new music note one day, and someone else might even invent that new colour. But in the main, these factors are not what drive these other media onward. What drives them on is their capacity for ideas and their ability to constantly depict the human condition in eternally refreshing ways.

In the games industry, designers mostly reject the whole idea of using videogames as a way to depict anything (never mind the human condition) and instead are mostly focused on trying to reinvent the camera, the note, the letter and the colour. Many game designers have gotten stuck trying to reinvent gameplay, and their products are consequently neither refreshing nor eternal.

In a film, a book, a painting or a song, the creativity is not in reinventing the components, but putting them to good use. Every creation is, in essence, a series of elements woven together in the right way to make the piece come alive. The available elements are very broad, from types of instrument to different brushes, particular actors or stylistic tricks. The real challenge is creating something original using those elements, and that's where the soul of a project really comes to fruition.

But not in gaming. In gaming, there are a very broad set of elements that can be put to use. From game mechanics to play styles, audiovisual possibilities and controls, games can really be very broad in their scope. Yet they rarely blend well, and when they do they almost never blend into something that approaches any kind of soul. This is partly because of the industry's tendency to clone other material. But I think it's much more to do with designers and their obsession with gameplay to the point of paying attention to nothing else.

Are designers afraid? Are they unimaginative? Or too riddled with preconceived notions? I believe that these three questions summarise neatly the core of the problem.

Designers are afraid.
Perhaps because games are a new medium, and a heavily commercial and stigmatised medium, designers simply do not feel that it is their place to try and make a game anything more than entertainment. To make that first tentative step into the world of being a true artist is daunting, especially when no-one has ever done so before you. It took thirty years for filmmakers to begin to make work that could be described as artistic, and even then those efforts were mostly halting. It took many years for film directors to actually gain some level of respect. Designers seem to be in the same position. They are in many ways the heir to the director's chair, but they would seem to be completely not ready to actually direct.

Designers are unimaginative.
The industry culture is not exactly healthy when it comes to creative expression, and much of that is related to its habit of thinking too much like a business for its own good. Furthermore, many of the designers working today come from the 80s culture of games all being bright lights and blips, and many secretly yearn to get back to their roots. But they have the problem that those kinds of games are no longer culturally relevant to any other than historicist gamers. Many designers are completely out of touch in that regard, and their ideas often appear as respawned versions of those in earlier decades. I think that the unimaginative problem that designers have stems both from a lack of confidence in their modern-day tools, and also a twisted sense that the past was better than the present. Also, many of the designers of today are in fact hired in a company from the QA ranks on the basis that they have played lots of games and therefore must know lots about games. This may be true, but it has nothing to do with whether they'd be good designers. QA people are very important, and they must be listened to as bug catchers, but more importantly as editorial feedback. But this does not mean that they would be good creators off their own bat.

Designers are too riddled with preconceived notions
The whole field of design is highly notional, but in a very fractured way. There are no central codices of game design that are universally accepted and applied, despite several attempts having been made to codify them. Some designers will talk about every game they want to make in terms of everything else they've ever played. Some designers maintain highly prejudicial views about the supposed stupidity of mainstream gamers, and so treat their mainstream project as a series of sops. Others have simply insane notions about the absolute need for licenses. And most have the idea that gameplay is actually the be-all and end-all of all gaming, and all the rest (graphics, story, audio, etc) is mere poppycock.

In otherwords, the problem is that most game designers simply do not have enough confidence to be the artists that they should be, and so they focus on the one aspect that they are supposed to be experts in: innovative gameplay.

Is innovative gameplay even possible?

Videogames have been around for forty years and more now, and they are still the same basic set of rules, verbs and mechanics that they have always been. Gameplay itself is not a quality that even started with videogames. It started with games. For thousands of years, humans have played games, sports, enacted fantasies, tested their skill and strategy. All that videogames do, is translate those experiences onto the screen, and enrich the fantastic element. It is the translation of fantasy into a depicted reality that makes videogames interesting.

The difference between a game of Fifa and a kickabout with your mates in the local park is that the Fifa experience is enriched with audiovisuals that make it interesting, and controls and AI reactions that make the game more tactical. But at root, they are the same thing. The difference between Max Payne 2 and Cops and Robbers is merely a matter of formal structure over freeform imaginations. For every single videogame that has ever been published, there are equivalents that exist before them. What the videogame does, is literally take the game and put it in a video setting. The videogame adds rules, add texture, creates a world. But videogame designers don't innovate gameplay, as such. The synthesise it into a different context.

So why the obsession with reinventing the wheel?

I think that it's a defensive reaction to the state of the modern industry. Many designers come from the older, much freer and much younger days of gaming. In those days, like the formative era of any artform, things were much looser than they now appear to be. The greater public and its money had little or no interest in the videogame, and even when they did, the limits of the technology kept the free-willed experience of it alive. Many other designers have come from this period when, as children, they were filled with the wonder of these games. Between the two groups, there has formed a strong contention that those days were the best days in gaming, and that ever since the market became involved, that everything has somehow been polluted.

The current strong obsession with both retro gaming, and some really insane levels of defensiveness against the symbols of the old order (in particular, Nintendo) reflect these obsessions. There is a strong component of the design community that essentially wants games to stay in their 'silent movie' phase forever. But, to quote the Guardian quoting the Spectator recently "No power on earth can sustain an idea whose time has gone."

The major thrust of this essentially conservative retrenchment is the evolution of the whole idea of innovative gameplay, and discussions on gameplay, gameplay theory, and so on. There is a very good reason why this has happened: Designers feel that the business has essentially poisoned almost every aspect of their precious past (even the mighty Nintendo is synonymous with doubt these days), but the one area that they still have which complete control over is game theory. Game theory makes designers sound important. It makes them sound relevant. As long as a designer can sit with a straight face and talk about emergent mechanics and reward structures in their platformer, they are safe to obsess on recreating the genius of Mario World. (Even though the genius of Mario World is really to take the play instincts of children with plastic figures and add rules like gravity).

What we must realise is that the 'Innovative Gameplay' is much more a political movement than a creative one. Gameplay, as a term, gets misused terribly in this context. It is a badge of 'Those in the know', along with a whole lot of entirely false oppositions. "Ludology vs Narratology" is the prime example, where designers deliberately try to undermine the idea of story in a videogame by saying that such things are inherently not of the game, but an extraneous element. 'Games are Not Films', in otherwords. Which is almost a point of religion to many.

This is what happens when a subculture evolves into a popular culture: Purists get left behind in the ghetto because they fail to grow with the culture. That is what has happened in videogaming today, and it is no surprise that the relevance of designers and their input has waned. In the quest to be innovative, designers have taken their eye off their job. Videogames are not about gameplay. They are about the experience of playing them, of which gameplay is only a part.

Games have the potential to be depictive entertainment, and they are at their strongest and most popular when they successfully depict a world. By 'world' here, I can mean anything from the simple fun aesthetics of Mario to the dark brooding Max Payne, to the rolly-polly hilarity of Grand Theft Auto. The whole attraction of games is only in small part based on how they play. It is much more based on the emotions that they project and the experience that they deliver. This can involve story. It can involve soundtrack. It can involve any one of a number of perspectives.

The trick to successful depiction, and therefore successful games, is quality application of elements. As I said earlier, successful creators in all media are successful by weaving together a series of elements in the right way to make the piece come alive. This is where designers are failing at their jobs.

Designers will think nothing of copying the same old tired fantasy, sci-fi, horror, or childlike 'wonderscapes' as the base of their games, but then spend ages solely working on the combat mechanics. They will succinctly ignore the possibility of using particular kinds of mood music, preferring to tell a musician simply that they liked Jak and Daxter's music, so can they have something like that, only orchestral, with 20% extra tempo. They will input very little into the visual side of the game that they are supposedly designing, again because they just don't realise the importance of these elements.

And all this despite the fact that every major critical and commercial success since God Knows When has been so because it weaves its elements together in the right way. Everybody says Rez is basically Space Harrier. It's not. Rez is Space Harrier with competent visuals and wonderful music, and a believable world that depicts something.

Grand Theft Auto 3, one of the most successful and acclaimed games ever, is a success because it depicts a world in glorious detail. Max Payne 2 is an entirely simplistic shooter, yet it is very engaging because it pays close attention to its visual aesthetics, its music and its story elements. The much-lauded bullet time is really incidental. Mario 64 is as memorable for the really vibrant Nintendo-ness of the graphics, and the wonderful music, as it is for the excellent controls. Mario Sunshine, on the other hand, gets rightly slammed for being spectacularly uninventive compared to its predecessor, despite having a whole new set of gameplay mechanics.

Depiction does not exclude gameplay elements, of course. It includes them to the hip. A pretty game that cannot manage a professional level of collision detection, AI behaviour, or character control can have all the audiovisuals in the world, but it still won't cut the mustard. Focusing on all the elements of depiction is also how games might pave their own way into the realms of respected art. Consider the possibilities of 911 Survivor, for example. By placing a player in that context, the designers of that game are really trying to say something. And yet there is no innovative gameplay attached (you run away a lot, essentially).

What designers must do is step up to the plate.
The new era of gaming has been at hand for a while, but most are too busy with their heads in the sand remembering Head over Heels to see what could be done. Designers really have to become more involved in all the other aspects of the games they are creating, so that they really do DESIGN them as opposed to simply designing rulesets. The designer is the only person in any game project that has access to all of the vision of the game at once, but without the courage or the convictions to make something that matters to him, his lot is to stay isolated in a corner, dreaming of the NES, and what the world was like when he was younger.

My instincts tell me that change is not likely to happen for a while yet, not until the people that come through gaming to design their own are those who are growing and experiencing gaming now. Many things will change in the next ten years, not least of which will be a generational shift in power from the older guard to a newer generation for whom true gaming is not just 8-bit sprites that jump around the place, but something so much more.

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.