Monday, April 23, 2007


According to a recent article on Next Gen, the BBFC have published a report that identifies 11 key things about games and gamers. Many of the points are rather obvious and well-repeated, but a few are interesting:

6. People view game playing as a risk-free means of escapism and feel in control of game experiences as opposed to real life.

7. Game playing is active and brings about feelings of achievement as opposed to passive forms of entertainment such as TV and film. Gamers are driven by achievement but are unlikely to become emotionally involved. They care more about progress than elements such as storytelling.

Imagine if similar research was done with regard to readers. Most of the reading done on a day to day basis is probably newspapers, websites, emails and other functional reading. After that, perhaps glossy magazines and tabloid celebrity journalism. Then perhaps cookbooks, gardening manuals and educational textbooks. Based on this, as a global picture, you could be forgiven for thinking that

People view reading as an information gathering exercise that informs them of their world.


Reading is active and brings about feelings of knowledge imparting. Readers are driven by the need to acquire knowledge, and care more about that than storytelling.

A mad conclusion?

Perhaps not, going on the majority use.

Of course it's mad. The reason it's mad is that we can distinguish between different kinds of reading activity. Any study would begin from the point of view that reading poetry, fiction and the sports page are different things. A poem is not a play is not a web page is not a novel is not a technical manual. We understand it because it's convention.

There exists no such convention for games. Where we see different forms of reading, surprisingly few see different forms of playing. They see "games" and they see "gamers". Beyond that they see "hardcore gamer" or "casual gamer" maybe, but that's about it. In terms of game genres they see functional categories (puzzle, shooter, etc) and also aesthetic categories (survival horror, freestyle crime, roleplaying game) all sort of jumbled together as "genres".

What they don't see is forms.

It is my suggestion that there are in fact several forms of what we call game, and what we call gamer, and that by assuming that Minesweeper and Resident Evil are the same means that we will assume a series of majority-based ideas about what all games are.

There is a difference between those who interact to "game" and those who interact to "play", and the difference between gamers and players is one of perspective, much like the difference between factual and fictional readers.

Gamers play because they see a game as a system. Their perception of interactive games is very literal, about understanding the semiotic language of a game and figuring out how it ticks, how far it goes, or a combination of the above. Gamers are not automatons, and they much enjoy the visual or auditory elements in games, but they enjoy them because of their signifier value rather than their cultural content.

Players, on the other hand, see beyond the edges of the game into fantasy. Players see an imagined world in their heads when running down a corridor, flying a spaceship or typing "Go North". A player sees a conversation between himself and the game. They're the ones who think they can see things waving at them in the distance in Another World, and the ones for who adventures and some sense of creative direction tend to matter.

Of course, we are all gamers and players in part. Most of us are habitually more one than the other and most games cannot please both types equally. That's like hoping that the latest cookbook will entertain us both in terms of what it can teach us about boiling a Christmas ham and its lyrical evocation of Greek poetry. Gamers are like factual lovers, whereas players are fictional lovers.

The problem that both types have is that they are messing up each other’s turf. At the moment we have an ongoing debate and/or struggle between gamers and players over what the direction of the videogame should be. There are those who think it should be about the innovation and those that think it should be about the creation, and ne’er the two do meet but to fight. At the moment the gamers are in the ascendancy, but the players are due for a comeback.

There is no such thing as an all encompassing label that can define everything for both players and gamers. That is an anachronistic idea that belongs in the 80s. "Videogame" in that sense is old news. There are "videogames" and there are "videoplays" and they are different.

Some of you are going to think this is nonsense. You're going to say games are games are games. It’s only appeared that way up to now, as the medium is still young and has been finding its feet. Games are games, but they're not plays.

Poetry and cookbooks are both texts written in a common language, but there the similarities end. They are two forms of the same thing: reading. Videogames and videoplays are two forms of the same thing: interaction for entertainment.

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Friday, April 13, 2007

Eight Steps for Good Game Design Documentation

1. Write with active verbs in the present tense and use consistent perspective viewpoints.

2. Use bullet points. Lots and lots of them. And indented ones. Make the document bulleted as much as possible because bullets force you to think in terms of short sharp points. Always use the same bullet point style.

3. Keep your document map consistent. Actually, step back two from that: Learn how to use MS Word Styles properly, learn what a document map IS and then keep your document map consistent.

4. Use diagrams. Lots of them. Visio-style diagrams are fine. Use the diagrams to lead your points and explain the complicated things as simply as possible, and the bullet points to support them.

5. Edit. No, really: EDIT. I honestly think no doc should be released from design until it has had at least 3 passes from first draft to final version. One for content, one for flow and the last one for mistakes. Have an editing loop whereby the original writer makes all the instructed changes. The editing loop is the single best way to make your writers better at their jobs if only to avoid feeling humiliated.

6. Build the GDD/whatever document from a series of consistently formatted and written spec documents. These can be in wiki or in doc form, whatever suits you better. Writing GDDs from scratch is a pointless waste of time. They should be built alongside prototyping. A spec doc is simple to write and revise in the face of reality. A whole GDD is a nightmare.

7. Somebody needs time in their schedule to maintain and loop old documents so that they do not become irrelevant. Somebody else needs time in their schedule to edit those changes and loop them back to the writer.

8. Design documentation should not be either fiction or technical documentation. The job of design documents is to explain, without recourse to vagueness, pretentiousness, game theory or windiness, what the player can see, do and hear in the game, how those things work from the player's perspective, and the supporting game rules (not technical specs) that are needed to do that.

Everything else is guff.

This makes me think I should start some sort of freelance documentation editing/teaching company for game developers. Documentation is as much a problem as it was 5 years ago, and sorting it out is something I'm really good at. What do you think?

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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Has GTA Jumped the Shark?

I knew something ineffable had departed from the Grand Theft Auto series when I was playing San Andreas. This is a pattern that happens frequently with me. All the world gets excited over some new TV series, film, game, gadget, whatever, and I often find myself as the voice on the other side of the fence, stroking my chin, looking uncertain and feeling a sense of reality not quite matching up with collective fantasy. Sooner or later the world usually comes around to my view.

How's that for hubris?

I got that uncertain feeling with San Andreas. Whereas I had loved GTA3 to bits and liked Vice City well enough despite it's broken narrative structure, San Andreas felt wrong. It had taken its free-form logic a step and a half too far, including nonsense like beefcaking your character, over-blowing the dress-up game and producing a truly huge world that was just a pain to drive around. It's narrative was initially interesting in the first city, but quickly became a highly rambly mess. It had hip-hop stylings, but it seriously missed a beat with the radio selection. It was, as many franchises become, the extension of the wrong bits while forgetting the right bits.

Liberty City Stories brought some of that back, almost by necessity because of the reduced format of the PSP (and the PS2 port, which is the version I played). There was a sense of fine nostalgia about LCS, driving around the streets of Liberty again, checking out my old haunts, but it was also pretty pedestrian in places and omitted the inclusion of crouching (or if it did I never found out the control to do it) making many of the gun fights really plain rather than tactical.

I saw a trailer for GTA4 a few days back (here), and to be honest I found it pretty underwhelming. It's very lovely physically, a definite step up from before, but it's basically a re-creation of New York with a dash of Koyaanisqatsi. However, I get no sense of imagination. Then today I saw this, and it feels like my suspicions are justified. Removal of features (GTA has always been about features), talking about graphics and animation physics instead (GTA has never been about high polish), and key phrases like "That means there will be no rollerblades, no unicycles, probably no jetpacks and indeed no planes. Rockstar are giving choice and variety which feels right for the character." are all very grand sounding, but they also sound more like "We spent too much time and money on the graphico-techno wizardry, so something's gotta give."

I suspect that with instalment 4, GTA has jumped the shark.

Soul is something highly absent from games today. It seems that as we climb the costs tree and convince ourselves that we must compete even further, we lose something of the joy of why we make games. Like musicians who become addled by the stadium-concert lifestyle games have become parodies of themselves. They include lots of in-built expectation from fans and are built by conservative thinking that views the project as a series of nuts and bolts, innovations and interaction opportunities, and various other crowd-pleasing functions wrapped up in bloom and complex shaders.

It's a mindset that robs a game of reason to be, and so of its ability to entertain the soul rather than just the eyes. Once a game has lost its soul, all the effort put into it is not worth a damn because the game is fundamentally not worth playing. All it's doing is helping you pass the time. Filling in a series of entertainment checkboxes. Unchallenging, uninteresting and ultimately unremembered.

With GTA, I really hope I'm mistaken. Judging a game entirely on the basis on a 20-second video clip and a mag preview is hardly scientific, and it goes without saying that a lot of very hard work has no doubt gone into the project over the last 3-5 years. Looking at it though, I can't help getting the feeling that something is just wrong.

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.