Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Spiritual Gaming

The Guardian website printed a really interesting article on the subject of inspiration, talking specifically about the uncontrollable nature of it, the associations that it was with religion, and how we can set the right conditions for it (for instance, through ritual or habit or self discipline), but that its appearance is arbitrary and often apparently easy. Which vaguely brings me onto the topics of products, spirit, religion, creativity and video games, roughly in that order.

I first ran across the idea of using the methods of product design via Daniel Cook's blog, Lost Garden. Dan is exploring the idea that games can be viewed as products, and so there is a lot of use to be had from the techniques of product design. Dan's not just talking about just marketing surveys etc, but rather a far more complex and in-depth field that seeks to determine what it is that customers really want, and understanding what kinds of products appeal to what kinds of customers through various focused exercises. He talks a lot in terms of value propositions (what it is that the game is offering the prospective customer), and warding the would-be game developer against committing the sins of weak product design, half-way house innovation, and opting for the cheap gimmick that appears to offer good answers for products, but which, in fact, don't (like always opting for visceral feedback).

His is what I call a "positive-capitalist" approach. What that means is that he's trying to explain a means of resolving the desire to do good work versus the desire of the market by teaching the would-be creators about the real world, but in a positive re-enforcement sort of way. Make that world war one strategy game, he might say, but make it in a way that people might actually find appealing. In this respect, he reminds me of Joel Spolsky.

However, I'm not convinced of the central thesis that games are in fact a product.

Products are all about love. People love their ipods. They love Google. They love their Thinkpads. They love Paul Newman's range of pasta sauces. They love Coca Cola. They even love Big Macs. In every case, the successful product inspires devotion. The kind of love that products inspire is one of reliability, security and in some cases a sense of wonder. You always know that a can of Coke will give you a certain buzz, that your ipod and Itunes will not let you down, that Google will help you find what you want and that Wikipedia will open up a whole world of knowledge to you.

Entertainment media have never enjoyed this sort of relationship to any great satisfaction, and they have always had a difficult time fitting into the product mould (much to the irritation of their owners). News media has, magazines are usually fairly easily identified as products, but after that it gets murky.

Television, for instance, is often the best example of attempts at product-centric entertainment. Shows are regularly syndicated and run for years, becoming very reliable brands in the process (Friends, ER, The Simpsons). Audiences are profiled, rated, dissected on the basis of advertising slots, and so TV executives are always asking themselves what it is that people want to watch, and then trying to fill that gap.

Yet the television industry has found no better means of finding new hits in all its years of operation other than showing a shed load of pilots across a blizzard period from September through November, and keeping the few shows that make ratings gravy. Every year, more than a hundred new shows broadcast all across the American airwaves, and - if they're very lucky - 3 or 4 strike it rich, most of the rest get cancelled, and a few remain on the bubble. The TV industry spends a lot of money on audience research, yet at the end of the day its still a craps-shoot.

The film industry was a similar story until DVD effectively raised the profitability of pretty much every release. Until a few years ago, studios would regularly field over a dozen big-budget films every year in the forlorn hope that one of them might strike some sort of note with the public and be enough to carry the rest of the loss-making ones. DVD changed that to an extent (secondary income streams, as did packaged deals with satellite broadcasters etc) so that many more films now make their money back, but at the same time cinema attendance is down, there haven't been any huge hits in a couple of years, and the economic bubble of DVD is slowly readjusting.

Book publishing is a venerable industry that has thrived for hundreds of years safe in the knowledge that the public are more or less unpredictable when it comes to its reading tastes. There are some reliable imprints like Mills and Boon or Dragonlance fantasy novels, but these always do fairly minor business compared to a Helen Fielding, Iain Banks, Norman Mailer, Isaac Asimov or whoever. Thousands of agents, publishers and editors are always on the hunt for new talent, but once again the best method that they have found of securing new books is the slush pile. And again, this is not for the want of research on the part of Random House etc.

What does work in entertainment is branding. Authors, movie stars, musicians and TV Shows are brands, and the successful ones carry enormous power. Tom Cruise, JK Rowling and the Rolling Stones have crossed over the threshold into the public consciousness and they are now reliable. The problem is that these brands all come about by seeming chance. There are a thousand other children's fantasy authors out there, so why is it JK Rowling's work which gets picked up and not the others?

What also works in entertainment (to an extent) is cloneware. Once JK Rowling broke through, the various publishers scrambled over each other to find children's writing, with some success. When a TV show like the X-Files blasts a hole in the ratings, the other networks move to create their own mystery shows. Sometimes a cloneware piece of entertainment manages to carve enough of a distinction niche to stick around (the Monkees cloning the Beatles, for example), but that doesn't mean that the publishers are able to go out and create a new "product" with any great ease.

Where product design *appears* to work in entertainment media is when limited distribution becomes a factor. Tightly controlled access to only a few channels creates a sort of splash effect where either/or choices effectively create support for one product or another. However, this is rather like saying that the Republicans and Democrats are fully serving the needs of their customers (i.e. their voters). They're not. The electoral system generates a landscape such that often there are no other credible choices, and so electorate apathy is the result.

Restricted-access media paint the same story. When there are only thirty singles paid for and played on the radio from a mixture of new and old groups, MTV and so on, then somebody will buy them. It's not a function of the product at that stage, it's a function of limited choice.

The restricted-access system also seems to serve particularly well when targeting younger customers. The reason why the advertising industry so heavily goes after the 18-year old market is that they find them easily swayed. Similarly, the reason that the music industry is always on the hunt for teenagers is that they know full well that although mature adults listen to plenty of music, their tastes are diverse and difficult to render into products.

In an open forum, restricted access vanishes and predictability goes out the window. To nick the famous quote from William Goldman, "Nobody Knows Anything".

Love Affairs
So why does entertainment have such a hard time of it in the product-design universe? The answer is that while entertainment does inspire a love relationship, that love is founded on something other than security and reliability. Like traditional products, part of entertainment's allure is based on wonder, but the other half is based on surprise. We watch X-Files, read Harry Potter and listen to Queen because we find them pleasing, but also because we find them surprising. New.

Product-based love is like the love of family. It is the stuff of bedrocks, of centering, of security. Entertainment-based love, on the other hand, is like steamy passion. It comes from somewhere inexplicable, it leaves us feeling confused as to why exactly we love it, and when it disappoints us (like when a favored band produces a duff album) we are full of denial and devastation. Entertainment is inextricably tied up with risk on the one hand, and inspiration on the other.

What then is inspiration?

Well, if you read that article that I linked at the top of this one, the answer seems to be that nobody really knows. Its existence is real enough, yet it seems to be completely outside of our control. Two equally talented artists can work on the same sets of paintings for years, training their minds, and yet one may become inspired but the other does not. Inspiration is also difficult to explain without veering into the realms of the spiritual and the religious. So let's veer into them.

The word inspiration literally comes from 'in-spirited', a spirit of some kind coming from quarters unknown unbidden into the mind and fills it with a sense of energy. Many artists and writers speak vaguely on the subject, effectively saying that they don't really know where they get their ideas from. They can work at them, but sometimes they don't come. And then at other times they're sitting on the bus and suddenly a whole novel pops into their heads whole and complete (JK Rowling famously says that she had the idea for Harry Potter while on a train, and the whole thing came to her in one jolt).

When people talk about 'spirit' in this context, they aren't necessarily talking about ghosts or the Holy Spirit. They could be talking about a spirit of adventure, for instance. But they aren't ruling out the notion of the other-worldly, the invisible and the Mystery either. Creativity and the spiritual sense are closely linked, which is why many artists and entertainers - even in the age of post-modern deconstruction - struggle with God (or Gods) in some shape or form, often seeing themselves as conduits rather than innovators. Some, like the writer Julia Cameron, see this relationship as overtly divine. Some regard it as a function of their unconscious minds. Most aren't entirely sure one way or the other.

Either way, the result is the same. Certain people operating in certain creative fields become inspired in the course of their work. Some of them work very hard, others seem to have a light touch and a ton of talent, and the result is that they produce entertainment which the public seem to enjoy. And then everybody else piles in after them hoping to exploit whatever new trend the inspired person seemed to have hit. There may be a better way to do it, but a lot of people have tried and nobody seems to have figured out how yet.

So what about games?
Of course, it goes without saying that the hardware devices that power these games are all products much as televisions are products. Which is as it should be, but the big question is whether the video games themselves are a form of classical product, or of entertainment. It depends on their type.

I recently wrote an article positing that there are four very different video game types, each very different from the next in terms of the role of abstract gameplay versus fictional elements.

Type 1 games are abstract contests within a defined area.
Type 2 games use fiction as a window on a world, often in a quasi-narrative way.
Type 3 games are care and creativity-oriented games, toy sets for the imaginative.
Type 4 games are virtual worlds.

Understanding whether each of these types conforms more to the product model or the entertainment model is dependent on the surprise vs security value inherent in each.

Type 1 games are more easily regarded as products. A type 1 game sets up a situation of player vs player or player vs environment using a defined scenario (like shooting the bugs, arrange the blocks, terrorist vs counter-terrorist), so in a Type 1 game the rules and the mechanics are open and transparent. Usability is important, innovation of mechanics are important, but most important is the emergent effect of gameplay.

For this to exist, the player must come to really know the game, and therefore to love it as is. That is the kind of love associated with products. Counter-strike would be no fun if the rules kept changing, and Tetris would likely just piss people off if it did likewise. Surprise of an entertainment variety is generally not liked in this game, and often equated with cheating either from an opponent or from the game itself. Type 1 games like FIFA and Pro Evolution Soccer compete with each other on the question of which is the better football game, and this is no different from car manufacturers competing over their sports car models.

Type 2 games are almost completely the opposite. The most frustrating kind of type 2 game is one where the fiction is blase, because they often as not feel like one is going through the motions. A really good example of this is FEAR, a game which has a very accomplished engine, physics effects and good set of weapons etc, interesting use of bullet-time mechanics etc, and yet is pretty dull to play through if you're looking for more than just visceral kicks.

Interesting discovery is at the heart of the type 2 game. It should feel that there is a reason to go on through the game, but the problem with that is that familiarity breeds contempt. This means that the game's developer is more less placed on a path of trying to developing something that is, in and of itself, surprising like any other piece of entertainment, which requires inspiration rather than pure product testing. It is unlikely in the extreme that Shadow of the Colossus came out of a series of Sony marketing exercises. Somebody somewhere woke up in the middle of the night and said to themselves "What about a guy, a horse, and a hundred-foot tall giant?"

Type 3 games function more in a product mindset than the inspirational one, although from an entirely different kind of value proposition than a competitive type 1 game. The type 3 game is really at root about providing the player with a garden that they shape to be their own. So you give them some azaleas, some rose bushes, some tools, a pair of wellies, show them how to plant seeds and send them on their way. Or, if you're Will Wright, you give them a whole clanking universe.

Key to this type of game is the notion of enchantment through enablement, teaching the player how to do something that they've wanted to do, and showing them how to be the best painter/dog handler/movie director/doll's house owner that they can. There is also some enjoyment to be had in discovering little secrets in the game (like watching their Sims dance and sing etc), and no doubt some of these have an inspired quality much as some of the features of an Apple Mac have an inspired quality, but overall the objective here is to get the player to entertain themselves. A type 3 game enables you to much as an ipod enables you.

Type 4 is really the hardest of the four to pin down, possibly because they are still so new that the real traits of the form are still only emerging. Certainly on the surface, they are more like products than vehicles of inspiration, encouraging players to come together and play together in the kinds of worlds that they have always dreamed of.

But they also have the potential to be inspiration-based as much of the fun in these kinds of games lies in discovering the new and unexpected, whether created via the developers (like WoW) or the community (like Second Life or EVE). The real question for the type 4 game, and it is an open question, is what value the players find in the world itself and therefore what kind of relationship they have to the fiction. If they purely regard it as a skin covering a series of stats that they use to communicate with each other, then the product design method is probably of great use to them.

On the other hand, if they're playing it because of the fiction, because their actions are driven as much by the desire to explore and find out the mysteries of the game as purely by the mechanics, then inspiration must play a part in that.

Settling on the best methods of creating games is a difficult task. We have so much to learn still, as much about ourselves as creators and designers, inspiration seekers and methodical analysts. With so many kinds of game and so many kinds of game player out there, it frequently happens that any method or classification system that emerges is usually incomplete.

What can be said with certainty is that anyone who rejects the ideas of product design as they apply to games is going to look foolish. Whether you are creating a small shooter or a multi-tiered on-line world, it pays to know whether your game is about discovery or competition, whether your goal is to enable the player to entertain themselves, or whether you see yourself as the entertainer.

Neither is correct, nor the right answer. Each is an expression of the different forms that this video game medium (or meta-medium) can take, with very different design goals and passions driving them. It's my belief that a bit further down the road the separation of the different types of game will become more and more real as time goes on, and we will see a clearer understanding of the right method to use in the right situation.

So whether you are one of those who believes in the spirit from beyond, or one who believes in looking to the people for guidance, the future is surely bright.

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