Games, Art, and Growing up fast..
Okay, I wrote this entry over a year ago, but I chose not to publish it because I thought it was a little too acrid and rant-like. I decided to publish this today, because of the previous blog post. I wanted to expand more on the idea of “what is art” by showing that some games (but very few, in very specific ways) have very artful aspects to them. So, read on with a grain of salt. I find it overtly moralistic and insensitive in spots, but I’d hate to edit this to death.
I’m writing this is in response to a presentation given by a designer from BioWare to an undergraduate computing science class that I sat-in on several months ago. He seemed knowledgeable, and definitely a battle-worn veteran of the industry.At some point however, the man presented a list of the ten most common flaws that “bad” [i.e. “financial failures”] games suffered from. Afterwards, he presented a list of his ten most common ways of making a game ‘fun’ [i.e. “profitable”].I wondered – why would he assume that good game design decisions are learned from profitability? I responded to him, “I learned this from photography: These are the 100 rules of photographic art. Learn those rules. Now break them all.”
After mulling that comment over for a 1/10000th of a second, his reaction was, “Well, art doesn’t sell buddy. Good luck with that.”
On Design “Rules”
The growing temptation in the industry, both for the corporate developers and independent developers, is to publish their “rules” of game design. You are probably already familiar with statements such as:
“The single biggest barrier is pacing. That’s the biggest challenge to manage. So that suspension of disbelief that you get in a linear medium [like movies] has been very carefully crafted and managed for you.” – Neil Young [Gamasutra]
“Some of the more basic features that can help make your game universally accessible include closed captioning for the hearing impaired. This means be more than just dialog. It also needs to include all game cues, including gameplay hints that might be being delivered through sounds effects or even music.” – Thomas Buscaglia [Gamasutra]
“I’ll present a list of the issues I have encountered, and my suggestions for addressing them…
[Players dislike] Back story in the game manual. Let the player experience it firsthand. Delete the pages from the manual and save the printing cost.” – Jeff Noyle [Gamasutra]
Why do designers feel the necessity to confess the very secrets that make them good at their trade? I would like to offer a very simple, yet insidious, answer: $.
The Almighty Dollar
What I’m arguing here is that what motivates the “sharing” of ideas in many indie game developer blogs has no creative or innovative potential. Most “ideas” are simply tricks for profitability. Over the last couple of years, we’ve begun to see a subversion of the AAA developers through an advancement of new indie developers. And with that, came the indie rhetoric.
Many self-professed ‘indie developers’ have prided themselves upon their “revolutionary” approaches to game design that somehow free the game industry from the creative stagnation of the last 15 years. In doing so, these narcissistic activists make use of rhetorical styles that tie in nicely with the American Dream, “Self-Made Man”, and Revolutionism…
Writers like Greg Costikyan pride themselves in subverting the oppressed gaming masses, freeing them from a tyranny of iterative Madden/NHL/Tiger Woods 2002 releases, with slogans like:
“PC Gamers of the World Unite! You Have Nothing to Lose But Your Retail Chains!”
Yet, what does Greg Costikyan offer as a replacement for an empty industry?
“Building a Path to Market for Independent Games”
Slogans like this appeal to all of the classic American Dream rhetoric that we can call to mind. The Revolutionary. The Self-made Man. Ghandi. Che Guevara. But what’s so unappealing about this kind of approach to game development?
Blogging for “Good” Design
The real problem, as I alluded to earlier, is that the underlying motivaton for making games hasn’t changed one damned bit. In the end, the primary starting point for most indie games is profitability. So – you might ask – who cares? Who cares if profit is the primary goal of a game developer? Man’s gotta eat! Well, the problem comes when you actually start building games. If you start with profitability as a primary goal, you get development decisions like this:
- Players get annoyed with save points.
- Annoyed players are not happy players.
- Let’s let players save whenever they want to.
Now – wait a second. That makes sense. I remember being extremely pissed off in the final boss battle of Final Fantasy VII when I had to start (again!) from the Highwind after the 14th time Sephiroth wiped out my (shitty) level 45 party! Why didn’t they add a savepoint in the damned cave?
But wait …. that was sneaky. There is a problem with that kind of mentality.
Why should it matter if players become annoyed with a certain game mechanic? When I play Chess with a friend, I certainly do not find myself screaming, “Fuck! Who designed this thing? If I designed it, the Queen would be able to polymorph into a flying Pit-bull and the Rook would fire Patriot missiles from its goddamned turrets!”
We should be asking ourselves questions like – why should game designers cater to the whims of players? Are players the best informed judges to decide on the future of game design?
[While I offer these questions rhetorically, they are also important to discuss and should be answered more adequately elsewhere. I think some players are in fact qualified to comment on design, as are some art critics – but not anyone.]
The answer to both of these questions again returns to the ubiquitous $.
The classic logic is that if players become irritated with your game design, they’re going to tell others – and those other potential buyers will refuse to pay for your indie game. Google ads won’t pay the bandwidth that your 10Mb demo has been sucking up. You’ll succumb to a heart failure because you can’t afford your expensive heart medication anymore. And then your wife will lose the house, move into a homeless shelter with the kids, and your rip-off of Bejeweled will be another notch in the game industry’s bedpost.
Where’s the sense of vision in indie development?
I think the move to a more independent industry will produce some interesting changes (and it has been, but in very small ways), but I don’t believe that the “casual games” developers have added much over the years. And they’re the ones dominating the market these days, because they know how to exploit cheesy game mechanics that sell.
And on the tails of that – if the indie market is at all successful, the only people who will profit from this venture are (again) the publishers. Those in control of the means of distributing your indie game (through online portals, etc) will ultimately be the ones with the most control of the game industry. That’s why, if things don’t change soon, history will repeat itself with little learned from its corporatist past. The industry is going to look much the same in 10 years – with different people clawing their way to the top. Already we see that publishing portals make many of the decisions for indie designers – like download size, demo length, title choice, and most obviously the game genre. And designers fool themselves into thinking that these are “good design decisions” because they’ve somehow found ways of working within the limitations of their publisher.
If the indie developer movement’s attempt at freeing itself from the confines of ridiculous crunch-times, abusive management, and dessicated genres is going to have any successes things have to change.
The original vision of the indie movement was to produce innovative games that revived dying interest from ex-gamers – to produce pieces of work that violated the “rules” of finance-driven design. But I don’t see much of a difference these days. If anything, indie developers have become even more conservative in their design ideals – they are terrified of taking design risks that might detract from already miniscule sales. At least EA has the occasional lapse in judgment and releases a good game by accident, because they can afford to make a million mistake.
You’re saying that games are an Art? Fucking prove it.
Sometimes art doesn’t sell; that battleworn designer from BioWare that I referred to earlier was absolutely half-right there. Every artist knows the feeling of releasing a piece of work that just doesn’t succeed – whether financially or personally. But sometimes artists manage to produce something that resonates with a small handful of people and inspires an experience that seems to go beyond the artist’s intent. Sure, it doesn’t make anyone rich – but it did do something qualitatively different: it inspired people – it opened them up to experiences that they’ve never had before. Some pieces of art are so formative that they inspire people to create works of art themselves!
Of course there are games out there that inspire us! “Bad” games! Games that pissed us off. Games that died financially. We’ve all had those experiences – games that move us to think differently, shock us with our own behaviour, games that we talk about with our friends over lunch. Many indie/hobbyist game developers can attest to their first game experiences – and how these experiences game them a passion for the medium that eventually grew into their interest in creating their own games.
When was the last time that Bejeweled inspired anyone?
Despite their good intentions, most indie developers are putting us on the same road that they claim to be uprooting in the first place – they ultimately believe that profitability, in the end, is what dictates whether a game is successful or not. This often happens through a process of identifying what gameplay universals (i.e. game design “rules”) attract the largest number of purchasers, and then spout out these universals through blogs, developer conferences, e-zines, etc.
Here’s a suggestion to those who claim that games are an art: start developing games for people and not buyers. I am not claiming that for games to become an “art” that developers necessarily must become poor, but instead that the vision that developers craft into their game must account for the richness of human experience, and not the likelihood of universal enjoyment (i.e. the demo-purchase conversion rate).
What needs to change is the motivation and not the structure of game development, because in the end the goal of any business venture is profit. Developers must become motivated to craft their art for the sake of the art, and not the sake of their pocketbooks. Start thinking about profitability after you’re satisfied with your game.
But What Other Alternatives Are There?
The response that I’d anticipate from any starving indie developer is predictable and absolutely correct: how do we focus on the creative quality of our games while still turning a profit?
Well, one way involves innovating ways of funding game development so that it is less dependent upon the financial success of the game – and much less upon publishers.
Our company’s approach was to found a separate company that ensures that we stay afloat – as many other indie developers have done. Yes, this does require that we put in ridiculous amounts of hours building web sites, combing through MySQL databases and mindlessly coding PHP scripts – but it does put food on the table. And the reward at the end of the week is spending several hours working on our game prototype, and refining ideas without worrying if the particular idea is going to sell. With any amount of luck, the web business will achieve its own financial independence, and provide enough income for us to hire two developers that can do all the dirty work for us – and leave us to work on the game full time. Creative decisions should not begin with profitability considerations.
I’m sure there are tons of other business practices available out there that ensure some amount of orthogonality between business and design, but we’re not talking about it. Instead, we’re worrying about how to make design work within the confines of business, and I think that’s a mistake. We need come up with ways of making business work within the confines of enjoyable, inspiring, creative games.