Kevin (erf_) wrote,

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in which kevin waxes zarathustran

In the month following the end of my last contract I've done a lot of recentering. Specifically, I've been trying to rediscover what it is I love about video games so much that I'll gladly work an engineer's hours in an artist's living conditions just for another shot at doing it for a living.

When you're bogged down in interface nitpicking and deadlines and cost-benefit compromises and project management issues, while under constant pressure to come up with a brilliant design on the spot, it's easy to find yourself thinking of games as nothing more than the sum of their parts. You don't see the rapture you felt when you first discovered the zen loop in Pac-Man, or the giddy look-at-me-now thrill of running World 4-1 of Super Mario Bros. in a dead sprint. You see messaging issues in the color of the "HI-SCORE" text. You see meters, gauges, ratios between player resource expenditure and strategic gain. You see points where the scaling risk-reward mechanics from Galaxian can intersect with the scaling risk-reward mechanics of unit specialization in Starcraft. You see pipes. Lego pieces. Playmobils. Prefabricated pieces to be combined, smoothed out, streamlined, made efficient, according to well-understood rules. You know vanilla tastes great and why it tastes great; you know chocolate tastes great and why it tastes great. Your job is to make a better chocolate, a better vanilla, and find new ways to make them swirl.

If you get to this point, the magic is gone. The process of game design has ceased to be a creative endeavor and has become a mere feat of engineering. When you catch yourself building games like this--and I'm sure even the best among us do--you're not making games anymore. You're just making software. You're architecting your game the same way you're building a web platform. And of course no one cares if the newest version of a web platform is exactly like the one that came before it, except easier to use and with some interesting new features--in fact, users prefer it that way. But you know what? Web platforms don't require novelty. They generally aren't designed to be fun.

And this--more than the improbable deadlines, rapidly shifting goals, and grossly underestimated technical challenges, or the fact that I wasn't even officially working on a game--is what led to the deepest feeling of existential dread I felt during my last contract. Even when I was enjoying it. Even when I was having the time of my life, moving toy soldiers on hex grids with my co-workers, tossing around ideas in bull sessions, arguing over diagrams of AI behavior, I couldn't help but feel like something wasn't right. My biggest contribution to the team, design-wise, was that I was the guy who had played virtually everything--that I could pluck one of my co-workers' suggestions out of the air, liken it to the mechanics from five obscure arcade titles from the early 1990s, describe what made it fun in those games and give an opinion on whether it would work in ours--and I wasn't comfortable with that.

Don't get me wrong, any creative endeavor builds heavily on its influences--but we were supposed to be the indies, the risk-takers, who were willing to do all the crazy stuff the triple-As wouldn't touch with a ten-foot-pole, and with the pressures of one-month deadlines and a team of four people, most of them incredibly smart designers who really understood games, the best we could come up with was "hey, let's make a game like X, except," or "let's do Y done right." (Much as we hate to admit it, this is the way with most indies. It's the reason why we have so many reinventions or slight variations on Space Invaders, Tetris, Bust-A-Move, and Arkanoid clogging up the bargain bins, across the aisle from all the top-selling first-person shooters. I mean, Angry Birds has held the #1 spot in the iPhone/iPad App Store for ages now, and it's merely the contemporary iteration of a heritage of very similar games beginning with Artillery, a game first written in 1976. It's distressing.) I imagine the everything-has-been-done-before breadth of my knowledge contributed to this line of thinking, unfortunately, and I will admit it was a problem. What kind of game do you make if the most fun game you can imagine, the kind of game that got you wanting to make games in the first place, is a game that has already been made?

Look at the most anticipated triple-A games announced at E3 this year, the ones that are virtually guaranteed to be top sellers. It doesn't take an insider to recognize that the industry has hit a state of everything-has-been-tried creative apoplexy. Two of them are the same gritty, post-9/11 first person shooter--each of them merely the newest iteration, version n+1.0, of the same game that has been winning awards for the past ten years--itself Tribes 2 with Quake Team Fortress-inspired classes, Deus Ex skills, Gears of War cover, and maybe six or seven hours of flashy cutscenes. One of them is a not-much-different sequel to a game exactly like Grand Theft Auto 3, except with AI followers and better shooting and driving controls. The remaining two are a driving game and a soccer game. Even the indies are disappointing, for all their visual marvel and attempts at deeper meaning--I mean, I love existential tug-of-war games and beautiful, immersive, gimmicky platformers as much as the next guy, but come on. Enough reinventing the wheel! Is this what I have to look forward to, career-wise?

Fuck that shit. I want to be a composer, not a DJ. I'm going back to basics.

After all, look at Shigeru Miyamoto, designer of some of the best-loved and most frequently imitated video games ever. What did he draw upon for inspiration in the thousands of mostly terrible, industry-ending Atari and Colecovision titles that preceded his work at the beginning of his career? Platform jumping mechanics from Pitfall, maybe. Silly hats. A score counter at the top. That's it. All the other crazy amazing stuff he came up with was built out of a deep, very fundamental understanding of play, fun, and imagination. Donkey Kong was inspired by an iconic photo of New York construction workers eating lunch on an I-beam of a half-constructed Empire State Building. The bad guys in Super Mario Bros. were inspired on the movements of creatures he saw while walking in the woods near his home. The jumping-on-bad-guys-to-kill-them mechanic was based on wheeeeeeeee. And one of the main reasons why these games succeeded even as the Western game industry crashed was because Miyamoto, like many of his Japanese successors, built his games purely around the joy of play. He didn't try to squeeze meticulously balanced board game mechanics, hyper-specialized for an experience involving four people sitting around a table scheming to turn those mechanics against each other, into a game for one person sitting in front of a television. He didn't fall in love with the complexity of his own simulations, like Will Wright would, or confuse detail with depth, as the early flight sim folks did. He didn't see a video game as a vehicle for narrative power fantasies like being a millionaire or an action hero or the biggest kid on the block, knowing that such details would get lost in the representational abstraction of early game graphics, nor did he build his games around clumsy abstractions of single moments that sound awesome but play terrible, like punching a minotaur in the crotch.

What Miyamoto made were games. Not board games. Not tabletop games. Not sports games. Not toys. A category of games in their own right, in the same way a game show is a game, in the same way politics is a game, in the same way an obstacle course is a game. He didn't have an agenda in the social construction of games to be something they weren't. Go play Super Mario Bros. again, in its original NES/Famicom incarnation--note how opaque the messaging is, how inscrutable the rules of the game often are (I can never remember how to get fireworks at the end-of-stage flagpole), how the game actively encourages game-breaking exploits like the ability to trap a shell between two blocks and hop on it repeatedly for infinite lives, or how you can be an avid player for twenty years without knowing that Bowser is vulnerable to fireballs. Note the little engineering compromises the programmers had to make--the bushes being a palette swap of the clouds, the graphical glitching that occurs if you earn more than 128 lives, the inability to scroll the screen to the left. As a piece of software, it's a beautiful mess. As a game, it's simply beautiful. Every moment of development time that should have gone into making the game less technically embarrassing, more smooth, more elegant, more understandable, more balanced, more fair--it went into the wheeeeeeeeeeeeeee.

And what did we learn from him, we Americans? We learned that jumping on things is fun. That tight controls are important. That players like whimsical characters. And then we went on flooding our games with unnecessary complexity, because we've learned from board games that complexity is depth, and it was only a matter of time before we had variations on Super Mario Bros. gameplay with hit points, elemental resistances, guns, dice rolls, dozens of special abilities, twenty powerups that do the same thing...

This is what American developers are infamous for doing wrong (don't think Japan doesn't satirize us mercilessly for it). Not that it's always wrong, of course. For genres for which complexity does indeed make play deeper and more interesting--real-time strategy, for example, or sim games, or roguelikes, or any multiplayer game intended to have a tournament scene--this leads to expertly balanced, repeatedly astonishing, Swiss watch-like masterpieces. But does a first-person shooter really need fifty slightly different guns? Is a shmup with eight powerups all that different from a shmup with nine? Why create both an archer class and a mage class for a dungeon crawl if they play exactly the same tactically, aside from that one uses arrows as ammo and the other uses MP? (Don't give me "flavor" as an answer; that's nonsense. Flavor only differentiates those two classes for the five minutes of play, before you get used to the different sound and graphics sets and realize you are doing exactly the same thing.)

I am an American developer. My understanding of games is rooted in chess, Monopoly, Magic: The Gathering, and Dungeons and Dragons; I understand depth by way of complexity. I grew up playing video games, and, of course, all my childhood video game fantasies were built on the games of my youth done better. Sonic with rocket jumping! Platformers with robot protagonists with destroyable limbs, which could be replaced by defeating monsters and grafting them onto your body! RPGs that were part Zelda, part Final Fantasy, part X-Wing Alliance and part Chip's Challenge! Puzzle games with elaborate branching narratives based on your choice of solution! And it took me twenty years to realize this, but while all of these made great daydreams, they would have made terrible games. For one, the sole purpose of those games was to find creative ways to relive gameplay experiences I had already had. For another, they were designed around my playstyle and my experience as a player--not the curious thumbs of a gamer who had wandered in, curious, determined to figure things out for herself and wanting to play her own way. Depth through interesting permutations of mechanics is only interesting to players already familiar with them.

Don't get me wrong, the lessons we as an industry have learned about gameplay mechanics from the early NES days are important. But gameplay mechanics alone are not gameplay. A video game isn't Parchesi, it isn't a novel, it isn't a bunch of guys in wizard hats rolling dice on a table screaming for a 20. It is a thing in which you press buttons and stuff happens on the screen, and yes, we do understand why that is fun. We don't have to speculate and say, no, we don't know why that's fun, but here's some stuff that is, so we'll streamline it and make it part of our game. We need to put down our Warhammer figs for a while, enjoyable as that is, and ride a roller coaster. We need to put away our baseball bats and rock climbing gear for a weekend and watch an ant struggle up a leaf. We need to sit at a desk during a boring meeting with nothing to entertain us but a rubber eraser, and watch what our fingers do with it. We need to get back in touch with the wheeeeeeee.

(Epic has the right idea with Bulletstorm. It's not a game about shooting things. It's a game about bouncing stuff around, with guns merely being the instrument by which that is accomplished.)

This alone is where new, innovative game mechanics arise. Not by playing Super Mario Bros. for the millionth time searching for an as-of-yet-unresolved imperfection or unmined tidbit of genius, not dicking around with variables in the physics engine of a first person shooter until something fun happens, not sitting on a couch with the rest of your team trying to wring out one brilliant idea on the spot as you watch the budget dry up. We have to stop trying to come up with a truly original video game idea just by playing video games.

Come. The weather's great, the sun's shining, and the park is open. Let's go where no gamer before us has dared.

Tags: games, work
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