Thursday, December 23, 2010

Against Dilettantism

Thursday, December 23, 2010

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.)

14 comments:

andrew said...

I'd be interested to know what particular inaccuracies you might list regarding v-game firearm mechanics... obviously i can think of a few, such as ammo counters/unfeasably large amounts of amoo/weapons, reload cycles and the relative nonexistence of recoil... what else have they missed?

BJ said...

@andrew: the one stupidest annoying thing that 99.8% of shooters do (even ones that have otherwise excellent firearms) is putting the damn ejection ports and bolts and other mechanisms on the LEFT side of the gun (when the player is clearly shooting right-handed). Apparently the idiots in marketing think it just looks so sweet to have the brass always flying across your field of vision (and hitting you in face?).

also another thing 90% of shooters fail hard at is sound design for the weapons. for an example of how to do it right see Bad Company 2 (it also gets weight and feel of the guns perfect too, and manages to make them all feel unique, not to mention actual bullet physics). actually after spending time with bad company 2, it becomes very clear just how terrible most other shooters do this stuff, the guns in call of duty and such all just feel (and SOUND) like generic interchangeable plastic toy pop guns copy pasted from half life 1.

Dhatz said...

if you were to blog about some game again, i want it to be the Cobra 11 Crash Time series, the last installment(4) is the first to really feel like you are cop patrolling in area with more criminals than police patrols.

Dhatz said...

@BJ: its enormously stupid having ejection on wrong side or just mirroring the gun if you change hands(yep counterstrike,you suck a big one on that). Sound is one thricky thing and unless handled complexely, it cant be good, it turns out mediocre. I am yet to meet game that stuns me with doppler effect, reverb(necesary to simulate higher loudness), interpolation for given speaker layout, aerodynamical sound and material interaction sounds. its a best to do just samo of the aspects, but it is definitelly worth the climb. However you dont explain it to shareholders or CEOs. This age of overcommercialisation and hierarchisation must end ASAP.

hamster said...

Unfortunately, i must say that the argument expounded in the article doesn't make much sense. To assert that better research in the subject matter would enable the devs to inject authenticity in the game world is one thing; to say that such scientific research would lead to a well-spring of creativity and solid game-systems is another: in the sense that there is no casual relationship between the two.

I would venture to say that in many cases the opposite is true. Instead of focusing on mirroring reality, novel game-systems that are not dependent or based on *things* based on what's real may easily be more innovative. For example, Braid introduced the fairly trite concept of time travel as a game mechanic (scientifically impossible as of yet). It then layered on top of that objects immune to the player's time manipulation. And after that, it introduced "shadows" which mimic the actions of the player *forward* in time (ascertainable because shadows only manifested themselves AFTER the rewind-time power was used). Now this shadow isn't based on any scientific or even logical understanding of anything. It is not internally consistent with the time-travel power either. It just IS. And through it, a myriad of gameplay possibilities (I'll just assume you have played the game) are enabled.

That the ejection port of left-handed guns remain on the right side is certainly a logical anomaly. That car doors are represented as formidable barriers to hand gun rounds is, again, not in accordance with reality (the only safe place to hide behind a car is by the engine block). That sniping past a distance of 1000m requires minute adjustments of windage, dynamic calculation of distances via the crosshair, a spotter, a stable shooting position and a very stable and smooth trigger pull and probably a heck of a lot more things vs. the game-portrayal of simply snapping your crosshairs on firing away doesn't necessarily make the game portrayal inferior. In fact it makes things less tedious. Of course, simulators like ARMA, MS Flight Sim etc. are going to benefit from thorough research and let me just stress that i am NOT saying that extra research on the subject matter will always make things worse. My position is simply that inspiration could come from many arbitrary sources and research on one particular thing has no causal relationship with its "quality-of-play".

hamster said...

There is no causal relationship between authenticity and developing sound/inspirational game mechanics. Games like Braid introduced concepts/mechanics such as rewind-time (scientifically impossible as of now), time-immune objects; more exotically, "shadows" that mimic actions of the character FORWARD in time (actions ascertainable as shadows only manifested AFTER a rewind-time), the concept of which is completely unrelated to not just reality but logic. This is just one example. On the other hand, arbitrarily, in-depth analysis of real-life systems MAY trigger the inspiration for creating a better game-system. However, the fact that such inspiration was sourced from research on real-life function is completely arbitrary.

BJ said...

@hamster: a lot of what the article was saying i think was not so much about realism/authenticity. there is nothing wrong with changing mechanics for the sake of gameplay (simple example: reload speed), just so long as doing so is a CONSCIOUS CHOICE by a designer with reasonable knowledge of the field they are working in, as opposed to lazy neglect or genre regurgitation.

And seriously it really is just criminal neglect, when all the knowledge of the universe is just a few googles away, there is no downside to spending a little time on research.

Bending the laws of nature or entirely re-inventing them can make for some of the most innovative/fun gameplay out there, as long as its always the designer making conscious and informed choices. Ignorance or willful not-giving-a-shit are just simply inexcusable.

Dhatz said...

and i almost forget that sound is waves and has to behave as such, so refraction and audibility in given nevironment are also measurable factors.

Anonymous said...

@hamster-- Research is absolutely a well-spring of creativity! Truth is often stranger (and more interesting) than fiction, but more importantly abstracting a concept into a game world requires knowing something about that concept. How can you make a game about riding horses if you've never ridden one or don't even know what a horse looks like? Given two identical designers, one who has never seen a horse and the other who rides them regularly, the latter will make the better horse-riding game. Whether it's a simulation of horse-riding or an abstraction doesn't matter, as either way the designer will be drawing upon his/her experience with the subject to make gameplay decisions.

Johnnyburn said...

So, one way to be creative is to look from a different angle -- and learning something new is the only way to intellectually "re-position" yourself.

Nice article, and an inspiring manifesto.

I begin my own research here, for the benefit of other readers,
dilettante, n:

1. a person whose interest in a subject is superficial rather than professional
2. a person who doesn't know his shit (ca. 2010)

Anonymous said...

Agree. To draw an analogy let's look at nightclubs.

A good nightclub has DJs that constantly play new music, or mixes of music.
As opposed to just playing, drone-like, whatever is popular on the radio or the usual 80s hits. Unfortunately uninformed masses are uninformed and rely on artists and designers to do the work for them.
What happens if this doesn't happen? Nightclubs play the same old rubbish and the punters don't get to learn about new music (that they might even really, really like if they got the chance) and in the same way games stagnate and become the same old carbon copy mindless affairs - and people just buy them because that's all there is.

And before you get the impression I'm being arrogant or something I say this from the perspective of the punter.

roleplay said...

I have expirienced, that most of game designers put a lot of cool things into their projects from everywhere and it will a mythological mess.

It is especially true for dnd.

Anonymous said...

In my opinion, you are a terrible writer. You practice no economy of expression, and you apparently lack the ability to both think before you write and edit once you've written.

gauss said...

Thank you for the comment, anonymous.

I think you misapprehend how I write so poorly. It comes from over-thinking rather than under-. Ever post on this blog was drafted several times and micro-edited within minutes of posting. As for this blog post, I should think the subject being so personal leads to an especially poor clarity, not an uncommon mistake.

Were I to resume this blog--a nearly fulltime endeavor at the time--I should hope to do better?
But I enjoy working on games somewhat more than endlessly pontificating (and poorly at that!) about how they ought be made.


Economy of expression is a rare gift, it's a good thing I don't consider myself much of a writer then?
More explicitly, in the intended spirit of the original post: I don't claim to be a very good writer. And while I wonder at the desire to write a negative comment on a year-dead blog post, I'll agree to the point willingly.

But what does that get me--anymore that than posting an anonymous dismissal gets you?

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