Thursday, December 23, 2010

Against Dilettantism

Thursday, December 23, 2010 15

I've redrafted this about four times now, but J. Shea's combined forum and blog output (recommended reading) have shamed me into rewriting it fresh and just getting it out there. Blog posts that are up are always better than the perfectly drafted ones that never get posted.

So here follows the closest thing to my manifesto--if not that, the guiding principle of my current design philosophy:

Designer, know thy shit. 
The less pithy formulation being that the onus of expertise lies with the designer.
 I suppose that's a little opaque; I am suggesting that a more research-driven approach benefits all game design, that it is central to sustaining the creative lifeblood of the form. And what's good for the form is ultimately good for the business. 

I know what you're thinking already. "Yeah research is cool and all, but I'm not trying to make a simulation," or that perfect chestnut, "it's not about realism, it's about fun." 
Let's approach the latter point first: I'm not the first to point out that the semantic breadth of the word "fun" is so huge and varied as to make it next to useless. Jonathan Blow, in a recent public talk, gave a much more eloquent criticism of game design being driven by "fun", whatever that means--and you'd better believe it means very different things to different people. 
Another developer and thinker I respect is Chris Bateman, who has done excellent research and elucidation of play styles based on the work of Roger Caillois. It should surprise no one that there are greatly differing concepts of fun, some in active opposition to each other. A lot of videogames limit their markets by assuming competition/triumph over adversity as the only model. So if we are going to keep talking about fun, which we ought to, let us be more exacting in our terminology.
But it still can't be the only driving force behind a game, this amorphous conception of "what's fun." To address the former point: the idea that somehow research-driven design is going to end up with dry, simulative games because surely that's the only way we can model reality. Research does not equal realism. 
Research allows us awareness, inspiration beyond our purview, and when the vast majority of game developers are still some stripe of middle class white men, perspective-taking ought to be a serious consideration. Certainly we need more diversity in our designers, but diversity here will only go so far if new voices in the industry arrive only to join the hivemind chorus--making and remaking the same terrible AAA-model titles chorus, their diversity often little more than a potential marketing ploy.

A few examples are in order of what I mean by a research-based approach.
Take one of our earliest and best designers, Lord British (also known as Richard Garriott, I suppose). The man had an enormous influence on the earliest forms of CRPGs, and Ultima series stand as a unique set of games both in startling freedom of gameplay and expression, but also in world lore. Like virtually everyone operating in some aspect of the fantasy realm, he was enamored of J.R.R. Tolkien. 
The difference between Garriott and most other authors or designers in love with the Lord of the Rings is that Garriott didn't just read Tolkien in order to understand what Tolkien did, Garriott researched all the things that Tolkien researched
This dodges that fatal generation loss that comes from making your own copy of a good thing--which is that it is worse for being an imperfect copy, a copy of a copy. The foul taste in your mouth when you play most AAA videogames today comes from knowing you've had this meal before, and better--it was a lot better before it had been digested and excreted several times in succession. Garriott followed his idol correctly. If you want to be like Tolkien, immerse yourself in the primary sources he used to create his definitive fantasy world and synthesize your own influences as well; simply reading Tolkien and changes place names or plot points won't cut it.
A quote (from here): "Designers tend to be gamers who want to fix what they think was broken in the previous game. But that's not the way to be a great designer."

Jenova Chen and thatgamecompany are also a worthwhile example of research-driven design, if a less obvious one. Their acclaimed projects are not only built on innovative control concepts, but also on exploring novel emotional spaces in games. There is a research here that is experiential in nature. In order to say, "this game is giving me the sense of childlike joy of playing in a windy field on a bright summer's day," presumably one would have had the experience in question in order to know if the game is evoking the same emotions. Maybe this is obvious; maybe not. Most game designers I know are constantly considering the world in terms of gameplay mechanics, gauging their daily lives in terms of it's potential "game-ness," and most things in life have something going that could be extracted, abstracted mechanically. The key point here is that you need to have had these life experiences to draw upon, experiences occuring somewhere other than in front of a glowing screen. (Turn off the computer and take a walk, weirdo. And stop reading blogs, geez.)

A related anecdote: Takeshi Kajii, producer of Demons' Souls, quoted an unlikely point of inspiration for the game's highly unusual but praised multiplayer component. In the game, players cannot speak directly to each other and seldom even exist in each others' worlds fully, usually appearing as phantoms--but nonetheless rely on each other by leaving messages in the world, warnings or tips. The designer said the kernel of inspiration was getting his car out of the snow with the help of strangers. "I wondered about things like whether the last person made it home, whether I'd ever meet the people who helped me again... Maybe if I'd met them somewhere else, I would've made friends with them... Many thoughts crossed my mind."
 Here but for the impasse at hand these people would have no interaction at all, but they are forced into collaboration; Kajii has as chance encounter with anonymous strangers banding together to get back on their way and the memory stays with him. 
The intended illustration is that varied life experiences are grist for the mill for any creative person--from poet to filmmaker to game designer. 

The final and probably most straight forward example of research informing game development is JE Sawyer's lead design work on Fallout: New Vegas. Sawyer has been rightfully ascendant as an RPG designer--first on the fabled Van Buren, and later FO:NV. As project director Sawyer has been responsible for the more gun-savvy elements of New Vegas, notably the portrayal of firearms and the reloading bench system.
Since my own initiation into researching and collecting firearms (much to the general annoyance of friends and loved ones), games have seemed maddeningly obtuse in their depiction of guns. Which seems strange, when first person shooters focus on little else than the gun in your hands shooting other people and things--and most haven't bothered to get that right. FO: New Vegas redresses that in a game that most thought unlikely to do so. It both deepens and corrects the flawed gun combat in the original FO3; no mean feat/
 Not that games haven't already had their endless share of gunplay-related mechanics, but so many of them are invented from whole cloth. In a laudable display of a designer's private interests informing his public work for the better, Sawyer's initiation into the world of firearms made an considerable impact on how the game can be played. Peppered throughout the world are reloading benches--essentially crafting stations for ammo, that just happen to actually exist, too. Sawyer understood the myriad "game-y" mechanics all around him with firearms, and the game is both more grounded in the way firearms actually work and also far more distinct in the series of Fallout games. It is not suddenly "realistic," but it incorporates enjoyably "game-y" elements from reality quite admirably.

So what does any of this have to do with the quote at the beginning of the article? It's from the medieval Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides and has echoes in my mind again and again over the years as an admonition of humility in intellectual endeavors. First have to admit you don't know as much as you think you know--about guns or space or marines or swords or knights or what have you--and then you can start learning. And once you're designing from a position of knowledge, rather than of ignorance, you're free to make calls as you see fit, informing your design work with some sense of authenticity, rather than as some interchangeable gloss or slight reworking of the last big game you played. 
Game design will gladly continue to regurgitate and eat itself forever, much in the same manner as film and television does in such a bald and ugly fashion, if we don't strive for fresh material to process. The best way forward I know is research. 
More games need to be built from a position of knowledge, not simply lateral cannibalization with some kind of new conceptual hook slathered on top.

Discuss this post in the forums (please do, it's rather interesting in there.)
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