Thursday, March 31, 2011

What Is Forfeit

Last week, I discussed the unfortunate tendency a great number of developers seem to have- the need to turn their inward creative process straight outward, with little modification or filter. Players find themselves under fire from mortars of seemingly irrelevant and excessive information. This bombardment leaves us with an oversaturated, shellshocked mindscape, unable or unwilling to devote any neurons to thoughtful consideration of our games.

A great host of people enjoyed Lost (myself among them, although the last season was a bit ragged). Even if one doesn't care for it, it's difficult to argue that those first handful of episodes weren't tremendously engaging. Structurally, Lost worked so damn well because it didn't front-load its information. No great prologue or origin story got in the way of the action. In started immediately with tension and led us into the pure unknown, slowly dispensing more information and more mysteries. By being mindful of the audience's "Why should I care?" perspective, we were presented with a mystery and left to ponder it. Once more information was finally manifest, we'd been given a reason to care- because we had formulated our own ideas and want to see if we're "right."

In his book Everything Bad is Good for You, Stephen Johnson argues that television today is leagues more complex than it was, say, 20 years ago. In direct contrast to the "TV is so dumb now" contentions heard by many, Johnson argues quite convincingly that we're getting smarter as an audience. Audiences are able to understand and engage with more complicated storylines involving far more plot threads and characters. Part of the reason he argues is writers have become more adept at keeping their audiences engaged and interested, rather that simply marching forward with de rigueur plotlines.

If it wasn't Lost for you, imagine a show, film or novel that instilled that feeling of engagement. Not just wondering "What will happen next?", but a deep pondering of what was going on and why. What the work really meant. Now think about how many times that's happened to you playing a game.

There's a handful of canonical examples (e.g. Shadow of the Colossus, Braid, Planescape: Torment), but the ratio is far, far lower. I hate making games vs. other media comparisons, but I beg your indulgence on this one. As games have become more playable, readable, they've also adopted the least appropriate ways of communicating a message. I don't mean a plot necessarily, I mean something more fundamental than that. The core thing a game is actually about, what an architect would call the "parti" of a building's design. Having a plot with characters and events is certainly one way to communicate that message, but there has to be something there to begin with. Otherwise, it's just sound and fury signifying nothing.

Even if such a core does exist for a game, it's so often communicated with no more nuance than a Styx concept album. Rather than subtlety, players are drowned in information and exposition. This seeming irresistible urge to explain strips all mystery from a game. It also establishes a tone of interaction that should the player need to know something, even something thematic, they'll be told it explicitly. They're given no reason to consider what the game could be trying to express, and adopt a passive mental stance. Many will just switch off and sit back, waiting to be told and likely ignoring most of it.

Even more worrisome than this is the leap from "We'll tell the audience everything we think they should know" to "We'll make sure the audience does everything we want them to do." Player agency is flayed away, what little choice remains amounts to choosing how you'll shoot these three dudes before hitting the next cutscene/NIS trigger. When John Walker says "Homefront is barely a game," this is exactly what he's referring to. (While I haven't personally played Homefront, this trend is easy to spot in plenty of recent titles)

John encapsulates the problems with this style of design better than I, but I'll add that I think this stems from the same thinking that leads to heaping irrelevant information upon players. We're so worried every single person that touches our game won't have the same experience, we exclude any possibility but the exact one we've manufactured. It drives players toward passive roles. It's almost training the audience to only respond to prompts and only engage with the most explicit, surface message.

The undercurrent in all this is that we can't trust our audience. We can't trust them to understand what's going on without heaps of exposition, can't trust them to be engaged unless they're doing exactly what we think they should be doing. We ought to have more confidence in our audience. We have to trust that our players aren't mindless, that they don't need to be spoonfed and hand-held. Elegant and effective design can mean the difference between player agency being enlivening and not aimless and frustrating, but the right response to that is better, more rigorous design, not stripping away all agency until only the "right" choice remains.

If we're willing to have something to say and have faith that enough people will understand that, we needn't yoke ourselves to tired and constricting plotting. Not everyone will get that message, and that's okay. Encouraging thoughtfullness and having an otherwise engaging game is fine, even if not everyone engages with it on a deeper level. You can't catch everyone and you can't ensure everyone will have the same perfectly paced, dramatically timed experience. Trying to do so will likely result in something that's, well, "barely a game."

Labels: , ,

Monday, March 21, 2011

And Further Outward Still

Last week, I talked about the processes I've been using to communicate design ideas with other people on my team. Today, I want to discuss applying those same lessons to communicating outward to the audience. To quote Jaime Griesemer again, "A tool that is useful for generating an idea is rarely useful for communicating it effectively."

What I'll contend is that observation applies equally to communicating the ideas of a game to the people playing it. Simply, nobody wants to read your design doc. Yet how many times has a game offered up a massive text dump of nearly context-less backstory, or had some NPC prattle on about names, places, events you have no knowledge of? It's been almost two years since Jeff Kaplan said Blizzard needed to "stop writing fucking books" in World of Warcraft, because nobody wants to read them, but I'd say his warnings have not been universally heeded.

My experience in game design started with tabletop RPGs (and persists to this day, and it's something I wish more professional game developers spent time with) and this is a phenomenon I've not only seen bog down many a game, but I've committed such transgression myself on more than one occasion. The motivation is simple enough- the GM wants to tell a compelling, rich tale, so they end up writing pages upon pages of backstory with little regard to how relevant any of it will be to the players.

The question running through most players heads will be, "Why should I care?" This isn't a cynical thought, it's a necessary thought process. Players exist in a state of constant triage. Even in a digital game, they're bombarded with new information. They're trying to sort out the verbs they possess, the place they're in, the characters they are meeting, etc. During the process of creation, the GM/designer ought to bear in mind that same question, "Why should the player care about this?" If the only answers to be found are "Because we told them to," it's time to start editing and paring.

As is so often the case, it's a matter of perspective and habituation. The creators have this information so entrenched, it's impossible to ever come at it again tabula rasa. What seem like a few small but "important" details are just noise in the din on everything they're being asked to take in. It's challenging but vital to keep coming back to "Why should the player care?" Ask other people on the team, get them invested. The key is to ensure you can enunciate what reasons the player has to be interested and how what they're being presented with meshes with those desires.

Of course, I'm speaking in absolutes, but there will always be some folks invested in everything right out of the gate, and others that will never be attached. But there's a great wash of folks in the middle and we want to entice, not overwhelm and ignore, as many of them as possible. And different notes appeal to different people. But I'd say it's a safe bet, and this is the point Jeff Kaplan was making about WoW, the number of people who care why they're rounding up twenty orc snouts would be dwarfed (horrible pun intended) by the number of people who only care about the reward.

I'm going to expand this into one post further still, because there are two severe and unfortunate consequences of this excess of information, and it's more worrying than people skipping quest descriptions (that's just wasted effort and, at worst, missed opportunity). I feel they deserve greater emphasis, so I'll leave them for next week.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Inward and Out

More of a process-related post this week because, well, I've been doing a lot of this lately. As I'm discovering, one of the biggest challenges with design is actually communicating those ideas to the rest of the team. The best ideas are naught but vapour if you can't get them out of your head. Getting your collaborators on the same page, and allowing them the freedom to make their own mark in ways that integrates elegantly into game. The worst position a designer can be in is sitting on high, issuing decrees not understood but obeyed by fiat alone.

Jaime Griesemer, responsible nearly all of the Halo series' combat design, recently started blogging at The Tip of the Sphere. If you're a professional designer and aren't reading his site, you're mad. Fortunately, that malady can be cured with a simple RSS reader add. One of his posts was about paper designs, including this astute observation, "A tool that is useful for generating an idea is rarely useful for communicating it efficiently."

As nearly anyone in the industry knows, writing monolithic, 100+ page design bibles provides little but a guarantee nobody on the team will read it. If you're lucky, folks might skim five pages directly related to their domain. And honestly, that's completely fair. Wall o' Text is just about the least effective way to communicate anything, especially something as visual and tactile as a game. The perpetually out-of-date project wiki fares only slightly better.

What Jaime encourages is writing a simple, concise paper design for any meaningful feature. Long form writing is important for the designer, to ensure they've thought things through (it's really, really easy to hand-wave important details unless you're forced to put ink to page) but that doesn't mean that dumping that text on someone else is the best way to communicate what about that design is important.

At GDC 2010, Stone Librande took this idea one step further and encouraged creating highly visual one page paper designs. Slides of his presentation are here, lots of good examples within. The basic idea is similar to Jaime's, except each design idea is communicated via a highly diagrammatic design. Think educational placemats, but for games.

I've been doing some of this and even though I don't nearly have the same level of layout/graphic design skill that Stone does, I'd say it's markedly better than the Wall o' Text. I'm treating it as a way to start conversation and communicate visually in a way more permanent than whiteboard scribbling (although there's still plenty of that too). In this regard, it seems like it's been quite useful. We're still quite early in, but it's something I'm planning on continuing until enough of the game just lives in implementation that the one page designs become necessary only for certain things. But if you're currently struggling with clearly communicating design ideas, I'd highly recommend checking out what Jaime and Stone have to say. And I'm happy to answer questions over email, if I can.

I'm going to cut things short this week because, well, I did just rattle on about brevity and also, well, how much of this stuff I've actually been doing lately. But next week, I'll talk about how those same principles can be applied outward to make a game clearer and more meaningful for an audience.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Trunk Full of Bass

I have returned from what was, without a doubt, the best GDC. Not the best I've ever been to, the best there has ever been. That last bit might be hyperbole, but only slightly. I met up with a legion of awesome, brilliant people, old friends and new, and had my grey matter hosed down with learning by some of the brightest folks in the industry.

Possibly best of all was an observation Michael made on his audio diary of day one. After having dinner with Michael, Chris, Ryan and Gus one night, Michael remarked that I seem tremendously happy with what I'm doing at Klei. While I certainly have been feeling that way, I guess I just hadn't realized to what extent. Michael's remark made me recognize how incredibly fortunate I am, to be able to do this with such excellent people, both at Klei itself and with colleagues both in and outside the industry. So bloody fortunate.

Now to cease the touchy-feely stuff, and on to unverifiable claims!

There was a lot of discussion at GDC about how games create meaning and what kind of meaning designers should be exploring more thoughtfully. And I certainly do not disagree, these are tremendously important ideas to explore. They're ideas I want to explore in my current project.

But at the same time, we wring our hands about the lack of substance in mainstream games. We malign their shallowness, question what schizophrenic meaning could possibly be embedded in their incoherent narratives. But there's another tremendously prevalent form of culture that suffers from being similarly empty, yet far less concern is heaped about it. I contend mainstream games have much in common with pop music.

Listening to most pop music and asking "What is this really about? What does it mean?" will lead you to draw some truly tragic conclusions about modern culture. The meaning of most popular music, where it even exists at all, is pretty dumb. Sometimes, fantastically dumb. A random sampling of the current Billboard Top 10 yields such lyrical gems as, "Mad woman, bad woman, That's just what you are, yeah, You’ll smile in my face then rip the brakes out my car" or "Sex in the air, I don’t care, I love the smell of it, Sticks and stones may break my bones, But chains and whips excite me." This I will simply present unaltered and without further comment:

I’m loose
And everybody knows I get off the train
Baby it’s the truth
I’m like inception I play with your brain
So I don’t sleep I snooze
I don’t play no games so don’t get it confused no
Cos you will lose yeah
Now pump it up
And back it up like a Tonka truck
That badonka donk is like a trunk full of bass on an old school Chevy
All I need is some vodka and some chunka coke
And watch a chick get donkey konged

But the thing is, for the majority of popular music, it doesn't matter. The joy of the experience isn't derived from the lyrics or the meaning, it's from the composition or the beat or the mere dance-ability.

I imagine there are a great deal of people that derive a similar joy from shallow popular games. If the mechanics are solid, the flow tight, what the game may or may not be saying is quite possibly irrelevant. There are plenty of games I've enjoyed simply because they're a tremendous joy to play, not because there was some thought-provoking underpinning that kept the gears of my mind spinning after the game was done.

The vast majority of viewers experience film/TV exclusively through its narrative content. I suppose it would be possible to appreciate the pure cinematography, composition of shots, etc. But most people see only the narrative and evaluate a work solely on those merits. With games, and with music, that's not the only source of engagement. As we've said, for popular games/music, it's not likely to be so either.

And I am actually fine with this. I think the lack of depth in games does sting sharper because there isn't exactly the volume of alternatives as there is to pop music. But every year, the independent games scene (and some larger studios) provide games with more substance and thought. Inroads are made, progress is blooming and every year we see more fruit borne from these labours. Given the spirit, diversity and vigor I saw amongst independent developers at GDC, I'm not particularly worried that we'll be giving up the quest any time soon.

It's important to note though that I'm just talking about a game's meaning, not its mechanics. There are still distressing trends in design that conspire to steal away greater and greater portions of players' agency, which is at best a dead end and worse, actually detrimental to games as a medium. It's only with a little exaggeration that I say those designs really do rob the soul of what makes games interesting.

By all means, please seek out and support the games you like. But I think it's not the best use of our time to malign those games we fine shallow. Honestly, deep down, we know some of them can be really enjoyable at times. We can be okay with that, while still acknowledging that we want more diverse offerings as well. And come on, who doesn't have a handful of guilty pleasure bands? Those acts we know are terrible and braindead, but can't help but smile when they slide into iTunes.

It's okay to have a few gaming guilty pleasures too. And for the stuff we can't stand, it's fine to avoid it. But we're probably better using our energies to seek out interesting new games ripe with substance than howl about the absence of the game in popular games. No more can we make auto-tuned "in da club" beats disappear by listening to indie bands nobody has ever heard of than can we make über-bro games disappear by playing 2D sidescrollers rich with harpsichord score. But we can at least make the latter financially viable for its creators.

As an aside, if you are interested in some music with substance, my good friend Kirk Hamilton has made his album The Exited Door half off this week. You can stream the album free and drop $5 (or more, and it's worth far more!) his way if you dig it. Give it a listen, it's absolutely fantastic stuff and makes me absurdly jealous of Kirk's talent.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have some dudes to stab.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Skip Week for GDC

That post I said I'd get done before GDC? A horrid falsehood and apologize for playing with your heart so. But in my defense, I was inundated with work and a pre-GDC day trip. I'm actually composing this from my iPad sitting on the floor of Moscone North as I wait for the talks to start. Only one day in and it has already been fantastic. But I will have something for next week, for really reals this time.

Also, if you're at the show and haven't found me yet, do so! Hit me up on Twitter or something and we'll try to get to the same place at the same time. And everyone else, wish you were here.

Labels: ,