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.

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