12/03/2007

12-03-07 - 2

I'm listening to Jon's talk at Montreal on game design. It's worth a listen, but it's kind of long, so you can just read the PPT slides and pretty much get the point (I listened to it, there's not a ton in the dialog that's not in the slides).

I definitely agree with the general idea that games are uninteresting and could be so much better and aren't. I'm also very glad guys like Jon and checker are out there shaking up the industry trying to get people to do better work.

Jon does a really good job of presenting it as sort of an attack on the game industry, which makes it sort of controversial, but without being too offensive, and also sort of making it a challenge for the industry.

Games are an interactive medium which could be an art form which could let the user experience a wide range of discoveries and emotions and different intellectual and physical challenges, but they rarely get outside of a very narrow band. Almost all games (and not just video games, but also board games and card games and sports) are in the mode of "work on a skill, get rewarded when your skill improves, repeat".

For one thing I object to the idea that games take advantage of players and are only enjoyable in Pavlovian "drug-like" sense. Good multiplayer games certainly hit the exact same mental pathways as sports or board games. I don't think that anyone claims that sports or board games are mentally destructive or that the pleasure they give you is somehow inferior to other forms of pleasure. Now, of course that is not the only form of pleasure that games work via. Another is the "slot machine" pleasure which is indeed "drug like"; this is almost a trance-like mental state, and again I don't really think there's anything inherently wrong with it. Pretty much every Popcap game works on this level, and it's not really too different from sitting and playing Solitaire with cards, or even to watching TV. It's not really a high form of pleasure, but criticizing people from wanting a low form of pleasure or companies providing it is pretty goofy; 90% of consumer products cater to simplistic "low" forms of pleasure, be it TV, junk food, booze, sex, etc. it's no surprise that tons of games work on this same level.

In general, it should be no surprise that 90% of games suck. It's the same way with TV and movies and books. The ideal is just that there's a small portion of games that are more interesting and appeal to a more refined consumer. To some extent, those games already exist.

What Jon is really pining for is "games" that aren't actually games, in the sense that you don't play them and you don't necessarilly win, they're just interactive experiences. When people read a book or watch a movie it's not necessarilly to have fun, it's to experience something different, and in theory "games" could be the same way.

The thing that I think Jon gets wrong is the idea that game designers are not trying to get outside of the box. (sure, some of them just suck and are trying to reproduce Doom, but those guys are not the innovators). Every really good game designer I've ever met really really wants to do different interesting things. And in fact, I'd say that 50%+ of games start out development with more interesting experimental mechanics driving them. But, during dev, things start going wrong. Really novel free form mechanics are hard to control and lead the player to getting stuck in unplayable situations, or ruining the game world. They're really hard to balance so you can't create a progression that works. Often they just aren't fun. You play test them and people don't get it, or get it and just don't enjoy it. So, the new game modes get stripped out or toned down into simple controllable mechanics that work in the tried and true forms. For the most part this is still within the "game" paradigm and is for the purpose of giving the player fun and challenges.

Making interactive "art" which provides an interesting experience and is also playable (in the sense that you actually want to spend more than 10 minutes doing it) is really hard. Pretty much all the novel interactive experiences I've ever seen are just not a piece of software that you would want to choose to spend your time playing with it.

In practice, in terms of making a game that's interesting for adults and people who don't like typical games, the most important things are easy install and quick loads, compatibility with all machines, great art and content and dialog and characters, not too much frustration and repetition, very forgiving mechanics for people who screw up or don't get it, never getting stuck for long periods, never having big long boring sections, a steady supply of new pleasing content and experiences, a good progression of difficulty that ramps up and keeps the challenge moderate, a good variety of play styles or movement styles to break up the monotony, etc. etc. Stuff like that.

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