Tuesday 15 May 2012

Score, Comment Threads, Dominant Ideologies

Came across this article yesterday: Score in Videogames. I agree with much of it, but not all. But what I wanted to talk about was how some of the responses I've seen to that article got me thinking. See e.g. the comments on that article, or where it's linked on tigsource, or on RPS. Or actually don't bother, because comment threads are unpleasant places to visit, I'll sum it up for you here.
(Aside: I saw a discussion recently about how much of a nicer place the internet is if you block out all comment threads. But the truth is that it isn't always a nice place, and neither is the world, and there's honest human expression there. Better to engage with unpleasant realities as they are than to construct a filter bubble to censor things you're not comfortable with.)

To summarise: a lot of people take issue with him making claims about what games "should" do, especially where this conflicts with a particular game that they liked. This doesn't come as a surprise; I've seen the exact same response to similar claims before. Nobody likes being told how things "should" be. And that's mostly fair enough, placing restrictions on creativity is a bad thing.
I wrote about definitions before; basically with this kind of article I'd prefer writers to precisely specify what they're talking about - here Keith is implicitly discussing endlessly replayable single-player games (and I largely agree with his conclusions when seen through this lens), and it might have been better to make this explicit from the start. Not all games should aim to be endlessly replayable, and when that's not your goal you'll have different conclusions about what you should do. I don't agree that putting stories in games is a terrible idea overall, but it definitely does conflict with replayability - e.g. Planescape: Torment is akin to a fine novel and I will replay it in a few years time, but most story-based games I'll never play again and ZiGGURAT I'll replay tomorrow. The question of what's "wrong" depends on what ideal you're aiming for.

But there's something I love about such claims, the boldness of saying "you're all doing it wrong, your taste is wrong, this is how things should be done and I'm going to do it better to prove it to you!". It's a fantastic motivation to make stuff. I love that Keith has strong opinions about how games are doing score wrong and how putting stories in games is a terrible mistake, and is making games to show how to do it better. I love that Jonas Kyratzes has strong opinions about how stories in games are important and that people who think we should consider them in a strictly mechanical way are wrong, and he's making games to show how to do it better. I love that Tale of Tales expound their opinions about what games should be doing and are making games to show it - even though I think they're pretty much wrong and their games are kind of terrible. Fighting against the way things are usually done is a good way to make things that are interesting.
I'm more interested in the art that comes out of these opinions than in words written about them, but writing words is a good way to enter a structured mode of thought and clarify ideas for personal use. It's also useful to communicate these ideas to an audience that isn't necessarily ludoliterate enough to interpret for themselves what a particular game says.

I guess part of why this appeals to me is that this is largely my own motivation for making games. Everyone else is doing it wrong and I can do better. If enough other people were making stuff that I considered satisfactory I wouldn't bother, I'd go do something else. (Personal aside: this might explain why I've struggled to maintain motivation in doing mathematics; for the most part I'm satisfied with how everyone else is doing it. There are some things they're doing wrong that I might have to fix sometime, but overall I'm happy with what others are doing.)

However, not all goals are equal! I've maybe veered towards being a bit wishy-washy here. Design choices should be evaluated in terms of your aesthetic goals, and conclusions that are valid for one set of goals may be invalid for another, but the goals themselves need to be evaluated. There's not one true aesthetic that we should all aim for, but there are better and worse aesthetics.

The dominant ideology in videogames follows from the necessities of large commercial studios; the need to sell to a large audience, the need for a clear pipeline that outputs games in a predictable amount of time and can have lots of people working simultaneously on different parts, the need to keep selling new things each year. There's no reason to expect that fulfilling these requirements will produce something that's artistically valuable, that's good for people. And there's every reason to expect that it won't produce something endlessly replayable. (Subscription-based games and the so-called "free-to-play" model work slightly differently, aiming to continuously harvest money from players in a single game rather than selling multiple discrete games; this tends to lead to an even worse aesthetic.)
The necessities of an independent developer are somewhat different; we can survive selling to a smaller audience, we don't need to coordinate large groups of people. We still need to produce new things regularly and sell them to a non-trivial number of people to survive though. (Exceptions of course for people making games as a hobby while getting their income somewhere else, but my experience is that it's really tough to get much done at all this way. Oh, and a big exception for notch.)
But the unfortunate thing is, much of the current audience for games has bought into the mainstream ideology, the types of games that it produces are what they're comfortable with, and so there's a feedback effect that affects all developers - people like what they're used to, it's easier to sell them what they already like, so it's more viable to create things in the same mould, and so that continues to be what people are used to.

I've been thinking a lot recently about what games to make. I kind of need to figure out how to make games that people will buy - not necessarily for everything I make, but enough for a sustainable income. But more importantly I want to change the world, I want to make things that will influence people for the better. The paradoxical thing is that at one level these goals are well aligned - more people playing my games means both more people buying them and more people I'm having an effect on, but at another level they directly conflict - the aesthetics I believe are beneficial are opposed to what sells, what people are comfortable with. I don't have a resolution to this yet.
(Either way, I'll show you all how you're doing it wrong.)


  1. "placing restrictions on creativity is a bad thing."

    Really? I studied composition at music school for 6 years, and visual art privately, and I can tell you that actually, limitations and guidelines are really, really helpful for artists. I think that we *all* already have restrictions on creativity right now that we mostly all adhere to, if you think about it I'm sure you can think of some. I'm just proposing some extra ones that I personally think we need.

    Also, I agree with your motivation "everyone is doing it wrong, I can do it better". This is what has attracted me to game design above everything else.

    Finally, in terms of making money, I think designer boardgames are a great example of how one can make a living by making solid games that are endlessly replayable.

    1. Hm yeah I agree, those were poorly chosen words. Still, for (almost) any restrictions you can think up, there'll be something worthwhile and interesting outside of them. Arguments against atonal music or non-euclidean geometry come to mind.

      Restrictions are definitely useful as a tool. Making rules for everyone to follow all the time is where it gets problematic, e.g. with scoring, I agree that numbers should usually be kept fairly low to be comprehensible, but sometimes getting A MILLION POINTS is just cool enough to overrule that.

    2. There are different levels of limitation. To many saying "story is bad for games" is like saying "drums are bad for music". There are many subgenres to games in the same way music has. And if remove restrictions like "use musical instruments" you can get other interesting things too.

      There are benefits to really thinking beyond the box and deliberately going against the common rules. The output of the recent Molyjam is a good example. Not everything really succeeded at being a game, but there was so much interesting stuff from just going against the grain of what a game should be or is expected to be.

      But, uh, yeah, generally guidelines help :)

    3. What arguments against non-euclidean geometry? All non-euclidean art I know is great... You can go wrong with it, but you can go wrong with Euclidean in the same way.

    4. Zeno Rogue: I'm failing to find a good reference right now, but I've seen writings from 1800s arguing against it on aesthetic/religious grounds. I'm not saying I *agree* with these arguments - I'm saying that I don't, and that fundamentalist arguments about how games 'should' be have something of the same flavour to me.

    5. Yes, I understand your point, but I just wanted to know what arguments they have. Thanks!

    6. Esher clearly show that non-Euclidean at looks great. And you can get really pretty effects when you show a hyperbolic tiling folded onto a flat plane.

  2. Creativity without limitations is randomness.

    I don't think he was talking about that. I think he was talking about limitations of limitations, if that makes sense. The kind of limitations we impose on what sets of limitations we should stick to.

  3. You don't need to appeal to the "current audience" to survive. Niche audiences are surprisingly large, and most importantly, extremely dedicated. Spiderweb Software comes to mind.

    1. There isn't a niche audience for everything though. Vogel mimics old games; people are comfortable with them because they're similar to something they're already used to. The same model doesn't work if you want to do things differently.