A Response to Mr. Blow's Article
(Disclaimer: All opinions herein are my own, to be affiliated with me as an individual.)
A few days ago, I read a very interesting article by Mr. Jonathan Blow on Gamasutra. I’ve been thinking about some of what he was saying. I agree with him. I’d like to present some of my own thoughts as a response to his article.
First of all, before I start talking about my own take on some of what Mr. Blow said, I’d like to point the reader to an excellent book that has shaped some of my personal views of what games can achieve: Neal Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age, or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer”. Without ruining the book, the Illustrated Primer is essentially an interactive entertainment device used to help teach the main character, a young child, how to make it through life and eventually become a very important leader in her time. What the Illustrated Primer did is nothing short of amazing; I think that we can get to that point and make games that really transform players.
Mr. Blow talked about why people wanted to play games, likening the enjoyment of games to the enjoyment gained from food (good for you) or drugs (bad for you), but lamented that “[game designers] don’t know how to make food, so [game designers] resort to drugs all the time.”
Currently, game designers use “scheduled rewards” to keep people playing several games, including MMORPGs. I agree with Mr. Blow - scheduled rewards are hollow.
However, I think that games such as Guitar Hero do it right. Although the game includes rewards such as virtual characters, guitars and costumes, I feel that most players (including me) don’t play for them. We play because we get better at the act of playing the songs presented by the game. There’s a true feeling of accomplishment there! I think that building on this model will give gamers a new sense of accomplishment, and provide the “food” that Mr. Blow talks about.
(Sample ideas were removed to reduce this post's length.)
Mr. Blow also talks about architecting versus exploring. I really liked his comment that games can be a “method of exploring the universe”. He also stated that games “by definition teach, the only question is - what?” I’ve been thinking about this for a few days, and here’s some of the ideas that I’ve come up with.
First, however, I’d like to relate something that I learned in my time in the Navy. Naval officers are different than other officers because we are traditionally given a lot of latitude to complete tasking. A well-given Naval order states what a senior officer desires to happen, given with any required constraints; the subordinate who receives the order is expected to find out more information about the tasking, develop a plan, execute the plan and report completion to the senior when it is complete. This goes for very small projects, and very large ones as well. In fact, when training new officers, those that do not show enough initiative to work within this open framework are given the task of locating the “Message to Garcia".
The Interactive Entertainment industry can apply this to players! Give players a chance to “explore the universe” by giving them an open environment and tasking to complete. Teach them! Don’t force the player into a certain path - then its mindless gameplay. If required, set up certain constraints. But the industry should make the actors and environments more fully interactive; let the players learn and explore.
Here’s an example:
Let’s say that the player must kill a boss in a compound. Normally, the player’s path is controlled via physical paths (trees and bushes block off access except for certain routes) and artificial paths (keycards carried by certain guards in other areas). The environment, which may be destructible or have other interactions, is very limited and cannot really be used as the player would envision. This is how I believe games are currently “architected”.
Instead, imagine a game where the engine has been meticulously developed to accurately reflect physics of this particular game world. EVERY item in the area map is not only destructible, but usable (if player can hack at any tree long enough to actually cut it down, when it falls, it falls appropriately and can be used to walk on or to fall on a bad guy). The actors in the world make sense (even if they are not all “active” all the time, they are more realistic - they talk to each other, they use their security cards to enter various rooms that they need to “visit” during their night shift, etc). Instead of forcing the player to do one thing, the game developer simply makes the environment, actors and props and places them in some large area... then lets them run. The player is merely a visitor to an otherwise autonomous virtual world that would “go on” with or without them.
How This Example Can Relate to Exploring and Ethics:
Obviously, a world set up in the manner leads to it being explored. Anything the player does has a reaction, good or bad. But it gives the player the ability to really push himself and the environment, and to learn something in the process.
Another big part of Mr. Blow’s discussion had to do with the ethics that were “architected” into the game. His example the Little Sisters decision in BioShock showed one that was more obviously architected (Mr. Blow considered it “clumsy”).
I feel that moral dilemmas can be added in a few ways. Game designers can add relationships between the actors, take away the ability to return to a previous point in the game, and add other types of dilemmas that aren’t immediately apparent.
Adding relationships to the actors in a meaningful way is difficult, and I’m not sure how well it is being done. A friend of mine was playing Assassin’s Creed when he knifed an NPC enemy guard next to this guard partner, who didn’t even react. There’s obviously no relationship there. I’m talking about adding relationships that exist regardless of what the player does; two guards might be “best friends” in our example world, so all night long they call each other up on the radio and joke. Two guards might hate each other, and ignore each other’s requests for help, writing it off as idiocy. But these relationships exist no matter what the player is doing. To add to the drama, make some of the actors sympathetic - maybe every night one guard’s wife brings him food, at 11 pm; she’ll show up regardless if her husband has lost a gun battle with the player, and if she finds him dead, she cries over his body.
Removing the ability to return to a previous point in a game will remove the player’s ability to “test” a moral dilemma’s consequences. Instead, tweak the game so that while death seems immanent, it needn’t actually occur (BioShock’s method was a good one, I felt). Imagine how, if after our example “mission”, the player returns to a nearby town to rest, he finds that he has killed the guard son of the local family that was hosting him. The reception might not be as warm as the player expects - or perhaps the family’s father will tell the player about the young man’s soccer aspirations before he decided to work for a drug lord. Either way, it’s an interesting, painful way to learn that all actions have consequences.
Finally, I’d like to talk about the moral dilemma that isn’t immediately apparent. I’ll use a work-place example here, but it’s only because I feel that it’s the best example I can come up with on short notice. Imagine if you are in an office, and you overhear two people talking about someone else in the office in a derogatory manner. You have the choice to go and stop them, which is the right thing to do - the moral thing to do - or you can let them go on. It may not seem like a dilemma at all - but it is. Would you have the moral fiber to be able to go to the two and tell them to stop back-stabbing their coworkers? Or would you do nothing? Perhaps, in our game world, one of the guards is mercilessly torturing an innocent; the player can either save the innocent or not - if saved, the person is grateful, and if not, she may be killed brutally in front of the player.
What This Architecture Might Give Us:
Games that feature this sample architecture might allow the player to really try to learn more about the game world. It might allow them to try out new options (in completing tasks) but might teach them that their actions, even digitally, have consequences. It might also teach them how to act in the world afterwards; they’ll see real life not as a series of “quests” leading to a hollow reward (money), but instead as limitless possibility that leads to accomplishment, with just a little initiative.
Mr. Blow ended his article with the statement that he has “a desire to be transformed, but [he’s] not getting it.” That’s what I want to see too. I want to see the world transformed by games, and there’s no reason that it can’t happen!
In the military, young people are transformed from people who live life with the MTV attitude that “I” deserve it all, that concessions should be made for “me”, and that “I” should get everything without having to work for it. After only a few months of service, most of them realize that they are defending something bigger than themselves, that teamwork is key, that the individual is less important than the whole and that hard work is its own reward.
Games can transform players almost as completely as the military transforms young people. I truly believe that games can transform players in a positive way, becoming a truly world changing force.
While I understand and agree with most of your statements, I find that most of them are already implemented. For instance interactive open ended worlds are not absolute but are certainly becoming more and more interactive. I just got done playing Assassins Creed for instance and the ai and reaction of the people and environment is ridiculously good.
I wanted to make a lot of specific points but upon reflection they all come down to the same idea which is over acclamation. I believe that you can make a game too realistic, too interactive, too moral, or too open ended. There's a fine line between all these balancing properties and I will not pretend to understand where that line is but I do recognize it's existence.
Vanguard-Saga of Heroes = too open ended, game time is consumed by travel and lessens the action.
Mass Effect= too moral, they stress morals through the whole game and half way through it i was so tired of the game harping on it incessantly that I just killed everything and skipped dialogue constantly.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. = Too realistic, while I feel it was an important breakthrough to see a video game digitally recreate factual disasters of mankind it was done poorly which didn't really inform any of the players or move for a solution to such violence.
I actually can't think of an example of a game being too interactive so I retract that statement as i'm under the impression lately the interaction is by far the most important part of a game, maybe that view will change but for now it feels right.
McDonalds is a fast food business, they are there to make money. Their target audience are the average Joe and Jane on the street who are looking for fast, cheap and reasonably decent tasty food. These people don't tend to be concerned about how healthy the product is.
Games companies are there to make a profit. That is what keeps them going. Most of the income is from the average Joe and Jane on the street who want something enjoyable to play and also something that they recognise (i.e. brand). These people are unlikely to care about what the finer ethical concerns or how sophisticated the design of the game is if it doesn't fit into their definition of what 'fun' is. They are usually more taken by the experiences that happen continuously such as the free running in Assassin's Creed which is simple to do by the player but looks frigging cool in game.
A good game from a design point of view is not always a good game from a 'average Joe's' point of view (e.g. Ico). Until they change their mind, that is what the industry will keep giving them because that is where the money is.
Aside: The note on Assassin's Creed on killing guards next to each other without reaction sounds more of a bug rather then a design decision.
I see what you guys are saying. Even I like to play games that are mindless (sort of like how I like to watch Spongebob Squarepants sometimes after work) - it's a way to relax and to forget about the real-life difficulties that I face.
I also enjoy games that are just "cool" too. Running around in Assassin's Creed, stealing cars without consequence in GTA, riding motorcycles in MotoGP - those are all fun.
But, sometimes I feel for something really interesting and thought provoking. Usually, I get it from a really good book that forces me to chew over what I learned for a few days - but I'd like to start getting that from games! That was what I was trying to point at. And although my example was FPS-heavy, that doesn't mean that's where the next ground breaker has to come from - it was just what I came up with for my post.
Every once in awhile, a movie comes out that challenges what the "Average Joe" thought that they enjoyed. Those movies sometimes become huge hits, and it changes that way that movies are made. One day, I hope the game comes out that changes the way that games can be played, and what that game can do for the players - something that can change their views, teach them more about life, allow them to explore new ethics and morals - but in a more natural way.
hardcore vs. average
The comparison to McDonalds is really not concrete since you're comparing different fields of product. I understand what you're trying to say but I still think people give this idea of "the average gamer" too much weight. It's a mixture of both entertaining the masses and appealing to more adament gamers. Companies will make what will sell, no matter what crowd it appeals to. I really think that's as general a statement as one can make rather than saying they only sell games that the mass public will buy because frankly, there aren't many average gamers just yet. It's still a widely dominated field by "hardcore gamers" and will continue to be for a few more years. Of course there are many variables, the most notable I can think of being the platform since many average gamers will play mobile phone or flash games more than a hardcore gamer will. Anyways, my point is that there's no difference between the two gamer types. Whether you play a game 40 hours or 4 hours you still spent the same amount of money on it thus appealing to only one crowd is ludacris and literally bad marketing. I don't believe any company thinks this way because it would never work in my opinion.
The reference to McDonalds was due to the article linked in the first post where the author said that game companies were producing games like McDonalds.
Then why is Brain Training consistently in the charts in terms of sales even after a year(?) since it was released? It doesn't look like the type of game that would appeal to the hardcore player. The hardcore gamer share is still a tiny percentage.
You always develop a game to a target market and in most companies, that means the one that is going to bring in the most money. Look at Harry Potter for example, recognisable brand, aimed at kids and sold really well. Is it a game that a hardcore player would play let alone buy? No, but the average kid doesn't really care as it is something that they recognise and therefore it sells really well because there are A LOT of kids who like Harry Potter but I highly doubt that most of them hardcore players.
Ico is a fantastic game and loved by hardcore players, but as the sales in retail suggest, the average Joe doesn't agree. Why is that if it was such a good game?
Smaller companies can afford to bend this rule and appeal to niche markets such as Introversion. A company of 3 or 4 people doesn't require much to make a profit and therefore more likely to try more unique ideas that would appeal to a certain niche market. E.g. Uplink, appeals to a niche market but the mass market? I don't think it does.
Of course, then you have the argument of what defines a 'hardcore player'. I define it as someone who plays most games to full completion (collected everything with 100% achievement points).
Well I can't argue many of those points because i'm certainly not an expert; However, I will say that I don't believe a gamer can be either "average" or "hardcore" as i've found that either or will frequently meld the two or dedicate a certain attitude to a specific game. Everquest for example is something I used to be very "hardcore" about but at the same time I played many arcade based games on xbox live frivolously and without care. Lately i've been wholly consumed by Call of Duty 4, yet I go back to Doom on xbox live to spray and pray every other day.
I suppose if I had to consider a specific market as you mentioned I would target the "masses" and use the "easy to learn, difficult to master" style of gameplay in order to possibly draw in the "hardcore" gamers as well. I don't understand why a game can only target one crowd.
1. Makes it easier to focus game design to certain aspect. For example, if you're designing some sort of traditional role playing game, you traditionally don't include straight first person type combat (I'm not saying that it doesn't work - see Mass Effect and Oblivion - its just not traditional). If you're trying to reach "everyone", you stand the chance of watering down the game's various parts.
2. Makes advertising and marketing easier. For example, role-playing games can be advertised in Fantasy magazines, Roleplaying magazines, on those websites, etc. Again, trying to reach everyone is expensive.
3. From a business standpoint, a target market can also be used to estimate a profit for the project. If a company is to survive, it has to make some money somewhere. So, companies need a method to determine if a project should be done or "passed over". Based on the same concept of a large industrial purchase, corporate-types probably analyze a game based on production costs versus expected profit based on target markets (which carry some type of known, expected average profit margin) - if its positive profit, they'll take on the project - this is possibly a reason that crappy, crappy games associated with movies come out. (On a side note, this allows companies who have already released enough profitable projects to release a concept project or fun project.)
Besides, making a game "easy to learn, difficult to master" is probably one of the hardest things that a game designer can take on. That's just from a balance standpoint. Add this to it: how do you define "easy to learn"? Do you mean easy for your grandmother, or easy for your fifteen year old, or easy for the average gamer?
So, targeting a game for a particular market is helpful on several levels. I can see why it happens. The real difficulty is what yaustar brought up: why is it that brilliant games that "should" transcend markets fail? Why do games that don't even seem like games succeed? How can you determine when a game will make that leap?
To target more then a few of these groups becomes a logistical nightmare to please all of them.
targeting specific groups
That was my point though, that it's impossible to target a market correctly because you can't categorically say which market plays which. I'm sure their are numbers to support a majority of any one market but the culmination of all the others you'd be missing would be wasteful to ignore. I got that phrase from the developers of Starcraft by the way which I feel took it to it's most amazing level of tangibility. The game is played by virtually everyone because it's fast and destructive and the units are easy to understand; However, the game is so perfectly balanced and deeply strategic that it single handedly spawned e-sports and competitions such as the WCG. It's an actual pro sport in South Korea. I agree that this is something that is very, very difficult to achieve but if it's possible and the game you're currently designing isn't a movie remake or some variant aimed at not doing much then such a theory should be employed. Am I aiming too high?
As for age ranges, fans, and other specific markets. I still have a hard time believing any one market plays only one style of game. I'm no marketing genius or by any means an actual game designer so I don't mean this to sound as though i'm saying "I'm right, you're wrong" I just ask a lot of questions and theorize a lot in general :)
I do agree however that targeting a specific market does help define the goals and other variables of a video game, I guess my problem is that it sounds like marketers are overthinking these target crowds and trying to break them into smaller clusters than I feel they really are. As an avid gamer and aspiring designer my interests lie in all types of games, consoles, design, and effort.
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