Thursday, March 23, 2006

"Video games are meant to be just one thing: Fun."

That was the closing line at Nintendo's GDC presentation, according to Gamasutra. The presentation was one all about the company's resurgent success on the back of 'disruptive' business practices. Through their long standing innovation strategy, Nintendo are all about making the industry less black and white, and they should be lauded for getting in there and mixing it up.

But "Video games are meant to be just one thing: Fun." can be read in one of two ways. Either it can mean that "Video games are capable of anything and everything, for they are liberated. Their only constraint is fun". Or it means "Video games are just meant to be fun, they have no other purpose".

The key word for me here is not 'Fun'. The concept of fun is well understood, I should think, after many years of games and many hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of releases. There are theories of fun, analyses of fun, examinations of the fun of one aspect of a game or another, and whole schema devoted to separating out different kinds of fun.

No, the key word for me here is 'meant'. Meaning is an interesting concept, in both positive and negative, because it suggests purpose or exclusion. Saying that a product is meant to be a certain way can implicitly imply that it is not meant to be another way. Big Macs are meant to be tasty pleasures, they are not meant to be nutrition supplements, for example. They are designed with that intent.

What I'm driving at here is a kind of pre-judgment, and video games are unique as a medium (that I'm aware of) in that the greater majority of its creators, designers and producers otherwise actively pre-judge themselves and their work according to a 'fun' standard not as a key trait of enablement, but as the end goal in and of itself. I have always found this to be a very strange sort of ideology, and yet it persists with great tenacity. Most developers and designers that I've worked, discussed and otherwise engaged with hold the view that the goal of the video game, its meaning if you like, is fun.

To me, it's like saying that the goal of music is harmony. "Music is meant to be just one thing: Harmonious". And the development community often extrapolates that to also mean that video games are actively not meant to be, say, tragic, or serious, or reflective on the real world. Video games are meant to be fun. Only. Period. Take yer high-fallutin ideas of idea expression and concept vehicles and shove 'em. Fun is the Alpha and the Omega.

Film-makers think that most films should probably have a story, and that they need to engage an audience for however long the film is on. This doesn't mean that they think that films are meant to entertain, however. They need to engage, but the 'meaning' of that engagement is left open to question.

Novels need to be readable. Their basic craft requires that readers are invited to keep turning the pages until they get to the end. But what are novels 'meant' to be? Nothing. They're meant to be whatever the author intends for them to be. Ditto music, ditto poetry, ditto television, sculpture, comics and so on. In all these forms, the basis of aesthetics or pace or whatever are regarded as the core necessity.

Video games are not meant to be fun. They need to be fun.
If they are not fun then they are by definition boring.

They need it in order for the player to keep going, keep discovering new areas, levels, bits of the story, whatever. Fun is the baseline, not the end point. As with the novelist who needs his reader to keep turning the page, the experience has to be interesting, enlightening, educational and emotional. It has to be fun or they won't play.

A novel that is purely based on page-turning is usually not a particularly good novel. Such novels are the barnstormers, the airport books and thrillers and erotica that regularly pile up the shelves of stores. You can read them, you might even find them enjoyable. But they are not the best that books can be, and they are also not the best that the book business can be either. Rent-an-action movies are likewise. They can tick all the boxes, as they say, for action, one-liners, special effects and so on, but they ultimately are not very memorable and likely not very profitable in the long run when cost effectiveness is taken into account.

By focusing only on the core necessities, a piece of entertainment runs into several problems:

  1. It's competing in the same space as a lot of other, similar pieces. The action movie and the bonkbuster novel are heavily over-subscribed genres which have a couple of well-established key names that dominate while everyone else becomes a bottom feeder. Bottom feeding is rarely a worthwhile business activity.
  2. It encourages audience self-selection, meaning that you get stuck with servicing a clump of the audience rather than the whole group.
  3. That then doesn't offer a lot of room for different ideas. There's a reason why almost all action movies from the 80s basically take their cue from Rambo, and the ever-increasing sense of weariness that pervades the genre as it progressed into the likes Stephen Segal etc doesn't seem to let up. A similar thing happens in games, in that developers are very very prone to cloning one another.
Or, more simply, the problem is that there are only so many ways of focusing on the same thing before it gets dull. A romantic thriller focusing only on its core necessities is going to be like every other romantic thriller focusing only on its core necessities. For Nintendo, this is not a problem. They keep changing the format of the fun every few years, which gives off the appearance of change, but quickly thereafter the basic forms of fun will all have been mapped out in the Rev (probably to Nintendo's great profit) and then it's back to cloning again. As long as Nintendo can keep changing the field of core necessities, they are safe.

But for everyone else, this means a continuance of bottom feeding in the long run. What the games industry needs is designers who are looking to innovate beyond fun.

In entertainment, what really changes things is depth. A comedian can stand up on stage and do one of three things. He can make you laugh. He can rant and make you bored. Or he can make you laugh and think at the same time. The first comedian is the type who stands up and tells good jokes, funny little stories and so on, but you won't remember his name a week later. The second comedian is just the tedious type who wants to use the stage as some sort of venting platform, and you probably won't even stay til the end of the show.

The third comedian is Bill Hicks, Steve Martin, Richard Pryor, Whoopi Goldberg, Eddie Murphy, Eddie Izzard, Bill Bailey, and so on. What these entertainers do/did is mix their natural talent for making people laugh with funny stories and combine them with stories and perceptions that resonate. Comedy needs to be funny, but it's not meant to be only one thing: funny.

Resonance is a trait in entertainment whereby the audience recognises or identifies something of themselves. Resonance is a recognition of truth, and truth is sometimes hilarious, sometimes uncomfortable, and sometimes both. Resonance is often easier to achieve by using real-world settings and ideas, but it applies to any kind of fiction that you care to mention. The best entertainment is truthful, and it is innovative in so doing.

So when I say that the industry needs designers who are looking to innovate beyond fun, what I'm really saying is that the industry needs designers who are looking to show the truth. Fun is an enabling quality in our medium, but by itself it is just escapism. Escapism is amusing, but without some element of depth and resonance, it becomes very bland very quickly, necessitating the developer to spend a whole hell of a lot of money making their game pretty to compensate. Nintendo's business strategy derives from wanting to stay ahead of the innovation curve, and so should every good game designer who wants to do good work.

However, for game designers this means innovating away from the idea of just another round of escapism. Escapism has become boring. It's time for engagism. But it must be fun. Bill Hicks without a wicked sense of humor is just an angry addled drug addict ranting about how he hates the world. Who needs to hear that? Without the humor, there is no comedy, no show and no engagement.

There's a lot out there in the world to engage with. There's political struggles, terrorism, vast opportunities for satire coming out of the White House. There's little stories of peoples' lives, hopes and ambitions. There's the state of the economy, there's crime, drugs, occasional wars. Why aren't we making fun games based on these? Why aren't we lampooning famous people in our medium like they do on South Park? Why aren't we making sarcastic games about modern combat rather than the usual round of gun porn like Battlefield 2? There are goldmines of opportunity for fun in the world around us. Why are we cloning Zuma instead?

As I see it, the reason why the mainstream games industry is not doing this is obvious. Costs, lack of proven markets and so on are perfectly reasonable grounds to not want to rock the boat heavily. This is common in all other media as well. What these media do is turn to their independent sector for fresh ideas and direction. As should we.

But a lot of indie developers don't want to hear that. To them, innovation means Spore. It means millions of dollars spent researching complicated interaction models and in-depth procedural animation technologies. It means crafting complicated AIs, years of work overcoming technical hurdles, and so on and so forth. And of course they can't afford that, so their instinct is to go back to match-three games and the so-called 'casual' market.

But technology is not the only kind of innovation. There's social innovation, meaning using the structure of a game environment to create situations. There's fictional innovation, such as creating a roleplaying game where the hero is gay. There's opportunities for humor, such as making a 2-d top-down game of the battle for Fallujah where the opposing sides are represent by Yahoos and Houyhnhnms. There's lots and lots of room for innovation of ideas through engagement.

Video games need to be fun, but they are not meant to be fun. They can be engaging or escapist, basic or artistic, simple or incredibly complicated, tragic, comic, and so on, but the independent sector needs to lead the way. The mainstream industry can't do it because it needs to pay a lot of pay-cheques, and Nintendo can only offer different models to create new genres which will, ultimately, go to seed quickly. What's needed is for the people who don't have to spend a lot of money and don't have to spend years figuring out in-depth models to stand up and take a look around in the world.

This medium, like all media, is about entertainment above all else, and the best entertainment is about resonance. Stop escaping. Engage.

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