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Where Are Gaming's Role Models?

Where Are Gaming's Role Models?

Thu 04 Apr 2013 2:17pm GMT / 10:17am EDT / 7:17am PDT
Development

In his first exclusive column for GamesIndustry, Warren Spector ponders why game designers aren't making games of real significance

The following is an introduction and the first in a series of exclusive monthly columns from renowned video game designer Warren Spector. As the long-time games veteran phrased it, his regular column will be about "taking games seriously or big questions I can't answer," and each month Spector will aim to pose critical questions about the industry. We hope you find them interesting and encourage you to join the conversation in our comments section.

I've read lots of columnists - heck, I've written a couple of regular columns over the years - and most of them, probably including my own, are simply opportunities for pundits to pontificate on subjects in which they are considered "experts." I expect there'll be a fair amount of that in this column over time. But I'm going to try (really try...) to take a different approach.

Instead of offering readers answers to questions I've already thought through, discussing my answers to gaming's vexing questions, I'd like to offer up the questions I can't answer. And trust me when I say there are enough of those to keep a monthly column going for decades!

Why is that?

Well, first of all, we're an incredibly young medium, as I've been saying for the better part of three decades. We should have lots of unanswered questions to ponder and debate.

"Can you imagine a game about a guy on a spiritual quest in a boat with a tiger? ... The breadth of content game developers are allowed to explore is stultifyingly narrow"

Second, in 30 years of making games I've never been anything less than awestruck at the intelligence of the people playing and making what often seem like mindless entertainments. That's always seemed an odd contradiction, and I'm hopeful (and pretty certain) that engaging gamers and developers is the best way to get answers to questions I can't answer myself!

Maybe, just maybe, asking these questions might encourage someone to change the way they think about games or make a kind of game they wouldn't otherwise have made. That's the goal, anyway.

In future columns I'll talk about the seriousness of mainstream games... the role of games in public discourse... what we can, can't and shouldn't learn from other media... The oldest form of storytelling and how it informs the newest... And other stuff that happens to come to mind and confuse me. I don't think there'll be any shortage of material, but if you have specific questions you'd like see addressed, let me know and I'll flail around a bit before giving up and throwing the question back to the crowd here!

--

In the March 17, 2013 issue of the New York Times film critic Brooks Barnes wrote a column, "Hollywood's New Role Model (Beard Optional)." In that column, he talked about movie stars as role models - but role models of a very specific sort.

There is now a class of celebrity whose lives and (occasionally) work break out of the pure entertainment mode to deal with matters of serious significance to the world.

So, for example, a Ben Affleck can go from "Gigli" to "Argo" in the course of his career - and others of his generation can make similar transitions (witness Sean Penn, Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Leonardo De Caprio and, precursor of them all, George Clooney).

Clearly, some movie people are bringing a social conscience and a seriousness of intent to at least some of their work. Being unable to divine what's happening in the soul of another, each of us must decide whether this reflects a cynical approach to career development or a sincere desire to express in their work what they find important in their lives. I, perhaps naively, choose to believe the former. However, whichever way you look at it, these celebrities are offering audiences greater variety of content and a level of seriousness that benefits their medium, even at the expense of their own and their studios' bottom line.

So here's my question: Is there any analogue to all of this in games?

I look around and, outside of a very few indie games and, of course, the self-styled and largely unheralded "serious games" movement, I don't see any mainstream developers or publishers offering this kind of serious fare. Ever. As a medium we remain mired in action and genre conventions. Even what passes for seriousness in mainstream gaming seems to require zombies, serial killers, aliens or demons to attract an audience.

If I were to say I wanted to make a game about rescuing hostages in Iran - without guns! - assuming I could figure out how to make such a game, I'd get laughed out of the pitch meeting.

"Even what passes for seriousness in mainstream gaming seems to require zombies, serial killers, aliens or demons to attract an audience"

Similarly, there's no way any publisher is going to fund development of a game about Abraham Lincoln that doesn't involve actually fighting alongside the Union army, leading it to victory. The behind the scenes machinations would take a backseat to an elevator pitch along the lines of "You are honest Abe! Once you used your axe to split rails. Now you must use it to split heads!" or, if you're a gamer of more serious intent, perhaps "Do YOU have the military expertise to Defy History and lead the rebel troops to a victory the real world denied them?!"

Can you imagine a game about a guy on a spiritual quest in a boat with a tiger? How about two old people struggling with the pain of love and aging? Or the story behind a raid to kill the world's most notorious terrorist? Okay, we could probably do an okay job of that last one, though probably not the events leading up to it - do you water board that guy or not? Seriously? But you get my point.

The breadth of content game developers are allowed to explore is stultifyingly narrow. In mulling this over I can come up with only five possible explanations, none of which feel right or satisfying:

  • One, I'm just missing something and serious, real-world concerns are being expressed in mainstream games and/or by mainstream game developers. (I hope this is true.)
  • Two, games are incapable of expressing ideas that lack a strong action component. (I hope and believe this is not true.)
  • Three, we're still such a young medium that we haven't figured out how to move much, if at all, beyond spectacle. (I hope this is true but it's not a very good excuse!)
  • Four, gamers and game developers are arrested adolescents with no interests outside the childish worlds of Alien Invasion, Zombies, the Mysteries of Ancient Magicks or the Activities of Criminal Masterminds and Lowlifes. (I categorically reject this, though I'm sure many will feel it to be true.)
  • Five, the monied interests that support, and therefore direct, the work of game developers have no interest in a different kind of fare. Or, related to that possibility, no developers have yet achieved a level of clout that would allow them to buck the system. (These points are almost certainly true and likely to remain so until and unless new business and financing models allow us to broaden our perspective.)

So which is it? Or, as is usually the case when I think I've begun to understand something, are there other possible explanations I haven't considered?

Brooks Barnes ends his piece by trying to put a label on this new breed of movie star: The PAC Pack, The Give Back Pack, The Strat Pack. But he proposes the most exciting and hopeful label of all - this new generation of socially conscious stars are, simply, Grown-Ups.

Where, I wonder, are gaming's grown-ups?

Warren Spector left academia in 1983 and has been making games, as well as lecturing and writing about them, ever since. You can follow him on Twitter under the user name @Warren_Spector.

40 Comments

Nick McCrea Gentleman, Pocket Starship

222 459 2.1
Here's another semi-plausible reason for your list:

Six, games are software. Creating highly complex software is an extremely difficult, unpredictable and time comsuming task. When the medium of expression is software, the risks of technical failure are so high (particularly when making untested genres) that there is an extreme temptation to minimise creative risks to compensate. Creative expression is most unrestricted in those mediums over which we have complete technical mastery. Software is not one of those, yet. When the games industry can schedule to within the kinds of budget and time tolerances that the movie industry can, we'll know this isn't a contributing factor any longer.

Posted:A year ago

#1

Caleb Hale Journalist

157 238 1.5
If the medium of games is still young, then it is in adolescence, enamored with guns, explosions and breasts. It hasn't grown as a storytelling medium in a way that allows it to break away from manifesting external conflict on screen. A character's existential crisis is hard to translate into something fun to play without resorting to making those inner demons actual demons in need of a good sword smacking.

Posted:A year ago

#2

Chris Lewin Software Engineer, EA

21 71 3.4
Popular Comment
What is lacking in games that constrains their design is meaningful social interaction. Until we can have a reasonable conversation with NPCs in which the player has full agency, we will continue to see violence be the primary interaction players have with game worlds. Allowing the player a few choices (Mass Effect) or even quite a few choices (Planescape: Torment) still removes most of their agency, reducing the social interaction parts of these games to a passive activity.

Games are more constrained by technology than any other medium. Until we have good conversational AI and speech recognition technology, we'll stay where film was in 1890 - watching trains chuffing towards the camera, oohing and aahing. But the first game to get these things right will cause a real revolution.

Posted:A year ago

#3

Todd Weidner Founder, Big Daddy Game Studio

429 1,019 2.4
Popular Comment
Part of the problem is that we are interactive entertainment not passive. Books and movies allow for a narrative to be explored fully without interruption, gaming doesn't allow this. Example, I really enjoyed the movie Sunset Limited, it took place entirely in a room with just two guys talking, you simply cant do that in gaming.(edit clarification- "cant do that and seemingly get any type of audience.)

I do appreciate where you are going with this however and I do think there is some room for improvement. I would like to see games question things more, blur the lines of good and evil, allow and make players choose between two bad choices more often, etc. The problem I see today is that the up and coming generations just dont seem to be able to be content unless they are constantly being stimulated. I have a hard time just sitting down with the younger adults and kids in my family and just having a conversation, and if it hard for us adults in a family to do this in person, it will certainly be an uphill battle to have a conversation via our games.

But again, this is a good topic and thanks for bringing it up.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Todd Weidner on 4th April 2013 5:07pm

Posted:A year ago

#4

James Brightman Editor in Chief, GamesIndustry.biz

262 466 1.8
@ Chris, fingers crossed that the next-gen consoles will enable big improvements in AI! As for speech recognition, I have a feeling MS is working hard on that for Kinect.

Posted:A year ago

#5

Mark Kington Blogger & Content Editor, Train2Game

1 1 1.0
If you enjoyed that story you might enjoy the views of these young people on the games age rating system http://train2game-news.co.uk/2013/04/03/train2game-news-young-peoples-views-on-game-age-ratings/

Posted:A year ago

#6

Todd Weidner Founder, Big Daddy Game Studio

429 1,019 2.4
Eric,
you probably could I agree since text adventures have allowed game designers the ability since the beginning to create meaningful worlds via nothing more than text and a conversation with the gamers. I loved INFOCOM games, but even myself havent played a text adventure in decades. Maybe that could be another topic explored here, why did text adventures die, why arent we playing interactive novels?

Posted:A year ago

#7

Mike Becker Translation Specialist, Pole To Win Europe

4 9 2.3
Two weeks ago, this might have been true, at least for mainstream gaming and blockbusters (apart from some games like Red Dead Redemption or Spec Ops: The Line).

But now, we have Bioshock Infinite.

Real world concerns, check.
There are action components, but they rather act as counterpoints to the narrative - especially close to the end.
As for the rest - it's not about art, it's about profit. People want mindless shooting and explosions and easy-going entertainment at first sight so the publishers deliver.
Thankfully, many games - especially Rockstar games - offer more. Think of it as the Simpsons or South Park of gaming: On one layer, GTA IV is about violence, shooting, killing, missions and finishing the game. On another layer, it is vitriolic criticism of capitalism, the American dream and politics.
The same goes for Red Dead Redemption and L.A. Noire.

Bioshock Infinite is one step further. It has many layers, it introduces many ideas and ideologies, and the ending is easily one of the best twists in all of entertainment.
Spec Ops: The Line and Bioshock Infinite use our trained perception of games to deceive us. We need more of this.

Posted:A year ago

#8

Steve Peterson West Coast Editor, GamesIndustry.biz

111 73 0.7
Warren, I think part of the reason most game designs focus on action is that it's an easy concept to design. Controlling a targeting reticle, determining damage and such is pretty straightforward. Dealing with conversation, seduction, persuasion, manipulation... not so simple. I think efforts are being made in those directions, but the bulk of the development resource (time, money, talent) so far has been spent on graphics, and games that are known quantities, like sequels to successful games.

I hope we get to a point where action is just one element in a broad set of tools designers can use to create compelling games.

Posted:A year ago

#9
In the AAA Game Industry, there are NO secondary markets. If a game fails, there's no parallel to the film industry's "dvd/offshore/rental" opportunities. The main console game publishers are conservative in their creative activities because they have to. I do look forward to "The Last of Us", yes Zombies of a sort, but it does seem to have interesting character interactions between the man and his young companion.

On the other hand, in the Casual/Mobile space you see more experimentation with deeper themes and issues. Witness the end of the "Walking Dead" adventure, which is as emotional as any game I have seen in 30 years. Maybe the Japanese "dating games" will evolve into deeper interactions. Probabily not.

If I was running a AAA Studio, I'd use the mobile market as a test bed for new franchises.

Posted:A year ago

#10

Paul Gheran Scrum Master

123 27 0.2
Do you lament Sports being about Sports?

Posted:A year ago

#11

Martin Darby Design Director, Strike Gamelabs

1 0 0.0
'removal' or 'elimination' is at the heart of pretty much every game. What the computer allows us to do by simulating death and destruction is to skin it in visceral qualities that we would not normally see or interact with in real life, thus they are exciting. Death is also the perfect manifestation of removal or elimination because it is the one absolute that everyone implicitly understands without explanation. And lets face it, understanding quickly is important in mass market products because the less that people understand something, the more that drop off the wagon (true of anything).

Can we make death less crass, more mature and more relevant over time? -yes probably, in the same way that there is a big difference between the pulp films of decades gone by and a modern action thriller drama of today (e.g. 24 or something like that). Will improvements in technology and AI lead to gameplay that abandons these rules/themes? -I seriously doubt it because an increase in possibilities or outcomes (e.g. I can talk to someone and they can respond however I want) is inversely proportional to tight, perceivable, and logical patterns that make up the cognitive systems that are game.

Posted:A year ago

#12

Paul Smith Dev

189 154 0.8
Number 2, Games need to have action(s), without action(s) you would be left with a visual novel/interactive story. Taking the Iran hostages example I'm guessing what Warren meant by not using guns was being diplomatic about it rather than violent, You could make a game about being a diplomat but it would still need to have actions, win/loss scenarios etc. the hard part about making a game like that is how do you make it a lengthy game? If the game only needed to be 2 hours long then it could all be about getting from A to B and talking to people (imagine Deus Ex mixed with The West Wing) but if this is a AAA game then its needs to be at least 3 times as long and at that length the games mechanics are going to get stale and repetitive.

Even Text adventures had actions.

Posted:A year ago

#13

Todd Weidner Founder, Big Daddy Game Studio

429 1,019 2.4
Eric, sorry not to derail the thread but
The reason of their existence in computer games was actually very similar to any physical role-play gamebook (who also somehow "died" in the sense you used the word - some people still collect them) and without the hassle of having to look for the right number of chapter/page or even rolling dices/random table and updating the character sheet
Im gonna guess you werent around when text adventures ruled? I am I right? Text adventures came into being because at that time that was a far as the technology allowed. When tech improved we had graphic text games, and then we moved on from there.
As far as text game, You do know INFOCOM were TOP selling PC games at the time, so in reality, yes text adventures have died. Sure there may be a small niche of them still around, but they dont even register on the radar of top selling games.
As you point out, it is even hard to get people to read a simple paragraph in a quest these days, leading further evidence as to the problem faced by game designers who wish to develop deep conversations with gamers.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Todd Weidner on 4th April 2013 6:40pm

Posted:A year ago

#14

Andrew Haining Programmer, Ratus Apparatus

2 3 1.5
I think it'll take the Warren Spectors of the world to realise they can make Triple A games with smaller teams before we can get there, hope it happens soon, because i'd love to see what you'd do with that kind of agenda

Posted:A year ago

#15

Michael Vandendriessche Studying Computer Science, K.U. Leuven

85 12 0.1
Some examples I thought about while reading the article and the comments.

* Remember how in Rollercoaster Tycoon (or zoo tycoon, or the sims), a completely nonviolent game about managing a theme-park, you end up grabbing random people and dropping them in the water to see them drown? Or design a rollercoaster specifically designed to fail spectacularly.

* The Ace Attorney games provide an interesting way of incorporating dialogue in the gameplay. Of course, they are still pre-determined and programmed but they may be a precursor of what we can expect in coming decades. A more intelligent way of playing. (Don't get me wrong, I love some brainless hack and slash. And even a lot of those games require a lot of brainwork to play properly.)

* I have not played LA Noire yet but I like the system it uses for conversations. Just as in the previous point, it may be a precursor of what to expect and I sure would love to see more games doing something similar.

* I love the codec conversations in Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance (a pure action game, slash badies to pieces). It's in contrast to the gameplay but definitely a great addition. And yes, I actually do read those.

I believe games are used as a sandbox for people to unleash/unwind themselves in and do things they won't or can't do outside the game.(Obviously like slaughtering dozens of bad guys) I suppose most people do not want to destroy cities and make everything explode or launch their car as high as possible. That is why most games focus on spectacle.

Posted:A year ago

#16

Paul Smith Dev

189 154 0.8
@Andrew Haining
I guess that depends on your definition of a AAA title, by most peoples definition of a AAA title it is a game with a huge budget/staff behind it and a £40RRP. So making a AAA title with a small team makes it by definition not a AAA title.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Paul Smith on 4th April 2013 7:41pm

Posted:A year ago

#17

Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic

1,628 1,509 0.9
Three, we're still such a young medium that we haven't figured out how to move much, if at all, beyond spectacle. (I hope this is true but it's not a very good excuse!)
I'm in the middle of trying to untangle an essay that involves the similarity of the gaming industry to the comics industry, and the above point encapsulate the issues, I think. Look at comics - it took 40+ years to go from Superman to Watchmen, and another handful to get to Sandman. Only in the last 30 years (again, 40 odd years from Action Comics #1) have indie comics taken root, and supplied the industry with more mature fare. What's needed is a sea-change of sorts from mainstream publishers to recognise that gaming needn't be just shooting people, just like comics publishers realised that it needn't be just superheroes. The games industry is part-the-way-there: Deus Ex:HR, Sleeping Dogs and Analogue: A Hate Story all deal with mature themes, but the first two there are mired in SquEnix's troubles, and the last is indie (not exactly going to make a mark with the big names in the industry, is it?).

I think that sea-change I talk about is rooted in sales-expectations - when publishers tone-down the gaming budgets, and expect less, then the market will mature to the point where mature themes can be explored. Until then...

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Morville O'Driscoll on 4th April 2013 9:17pm

Posted:A year ago

#18

Nick London Programmer, EA Mobile

5 0 0.0
We do have the technology and precedent for making games that are not primarily about action and violence, but even given those situations we still choose to make the subject matter violent. Look at Heavy Rain; it's a principally non-violent game that mostly involves interacting with people or studying the environment, yet the subject matter is still centered around a serial killer.

It's quite probable that we're mostly being held back by two things; investors that are adverse to risk and want to go with 'what works', and just simple saturation of current media, being that games are normally violent or competitive so that tends to dominate our creative minds.

I think what we need is a break-out title, something that is noticeably commercially successful and tackles interesting, adult subject matter. Once we get a success, you'll see many, many titles follow suit as investors try to cash in on the latest thing and designers have new room to tread. The difficultly lies in getting that first one out, and making it good.

Posted:A year ago

#19

Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing

1,182 1,267 1.1
Popular Comment
Chris Lewin is wrong,

it is not a lack of gameplay interaction holding us back. We do have the toolsets necessary for games to move away from a violence focus. Everything is in place, those games simply do not get funded, that's all. Particularly adventure games are in a premium spot to deliver an experience focusing on the inner journey longed for by Mr Spector. Monkey Island is 23 years old now and you could easily retool that engine into telling every serious story you wanted.

Which brings me to Mr. Spector's next question of how George Clooney and Ben Afflec can do the things they do, i.e. Argo. The answer is simple. They do not go to pitch meetings, they put the money on the table themselves and whoever wants to join, joins in. They leverage their star power without a shred of self doubt and they get away with it. You can see why publishers do not like developers to get too much of a name. They might divert time to projects not in the service of the publisher.

Books do not get better or more serious because they have more ways of interacting with their reader and neither do games need more interactions to get more serious. Both media get more serious when they shed juvenile antics, when they are more than carefully created crowd pleasers operating on lowest common denominator levels and instincts of sex and violence.

Which reminds me, the 19 year old game DreamWeb is freeware now. Here is a serious game to ruin your day and question the sanity of people committing acts of violence.

Posted:A year ago

#20

Murray Lorden Game Designer & Developer, MUZBOZ

203 72 0.4
<waffle>
The great artistic forms of storytelling and drama are built around suspense and tension.

Films, plays, books, they are all written with specific structures that can enforce a building tension of a specific momentum, denying the story distracting tangents or palpitations of the pacing.

The author is in control of what information is portrayed, what light is shone upon events and details of the scenes. And the resolution of an outcome can be extremely fine, or explosively large. The author is in complete control of an elastic psychological bond with the audience.

I think for games, where we want the player to feel in control, to have moment-by-moment agency, to not just be a passive audience member, we feel obliged to not throw them around too much, to not make them sit and watch as we show them something subtle or confusing. It's almost as if we paint a picture with a large bulky brush, lest the audience be confused by all the intricate detail as they run past.

Games are system based, and we focus a lot of effort on mechanics that are used over and over. Designing mechanics that account for a massive language of different intricate storytelling techniques just doesn't seem possible. How can we simulate everything, perfectly, at all resolutions, all the time?

It seems we can't.

So I think the most interesting games are those that choose their dramatic goals carefully, focus on a few systems that facilitate a rich dramatic palette, and then use their creativity to really get mileage out of that toolset.

Games, after all, are a complex set of psychological "magic tricks", that work for as long as we bind the player into an agreement that they want to remain hypnotised by our spell. This requires technical mastery, inventive design, careful planning, all brought together with great showmanship to keep the audience swept up in the experience (rather than the technicalities).

I think if you have something interesting and original to say (or discuss), the surrounding magic trick doesn't need to be so complex.


Consider this, though...

Computer games are not necessarily the best medium for all topics of human thought and consideration.

I'd probably rather "engage in a discussion about a particular environmental issue" through a documentary. This way I can take in a lot of information, thoughtfully presented - at the hands of many writers, producers, cinematographers and editors, of countless hours - in a medium that I can enjoy without sitting and clicking and scrolling and interacting with physically. How do you give the audience the effect of a good documentary through a computer game?

I like to experience comedy through TV shows, like Community, Parks and Rec, 30 Rock, Spaced, Peep Show... how do you offer a great comedy experience through a computer game? Do you really want to work interactively with your comedy experience? I would be open to trying, but I'm happy getting my comedy experience through TV series.

Do computer games need to eclipse the function of a newspaper?

Do computer games need to eclipse the function of television comedy?

Do computer games need to eclipse the function of documentaries?

Do computer games need to eclipse the function of the novel?

Do computer games need to eclipse the function of the internet?

Some concepts seem to be better experienced elsewhere... for now.

But like many people, I'm really hoping to see a wider range of experiences coming to gaming platforms in the future.

Mainstream games generally bore me, even those that push the boundaries the furthest, or provide the richest experience.
As I get older, I think I'm more interested in character, story, the "text".
And to be honest, I'd just rather get my story and character experience from television, books, movies or the internet.

</waffle>

Posted:A year ago

#21

Murray Lorden Game Designer & Developer, MUZBOZ

203 72 0.4
The important thing for us game developers to do might be to ask...

"What are our questions about life, about the world, about animals, plants, the environment, politics, economies, war, Earth, the universe?"

What do we really think about these things? Are we happy with the world? Can we change the world to be a better place? Should we be trying to do that?

And think about if these ruminations could be explored through the interactive form of computer games in a way that improves the world...?

I think that traditionally, soul searching and wrestling with the big questions about world, life and everything, have not gone hand in hand with "supporting yourself economically".

But such topics have definitely come to the fore in the past few decades, and have become much more mainstream topics even within entertainment media, such as "blockbuster documentaries" such as "An Inconvenient Truth" or "Bowling for Columbine", bringing serious issues into the public eye, and actually getting your average movie goer to buy a movie ticket to a documentary about global warming instead of an action movie about explosions.

Posted:A year ago

#22

Tim Ogul Illustrator

335 466 1.4
I think it comes down to this, games are interactive. That means that whatever story you're trying to tell, you have to give the player something to do, and it has to be fun and engaging or they'll stop. You can't just "veg out" in front of a game like you can with a movie, or if you can, it's not a very good game.

This doesn't mean you need action, plenty of games lack action, but you do need to think up interesting game mechanics, and that can get tricky. Basic narrative has all been done before. The structure of Lincoln, or Life of Pi, or Argo, has been done a million times before, they just tweaked it for a new story. People know what they're going to be getting with those movies, and the producers know how to make it work. They are the FPS or platformers of movies. But to translate those movies into games, you'd have to use game mechanics that are fairly out there. it could be done, but will players find it fun? Maybe not.

The other problem is games are expensive. Not just to make, but more importantly to buy. If you make a AAA title, you have to charge people $50+ to engage with it. Frankly I can't imagine a game based on Lincoln, Life of Pi, or Argo that I would drop $50 on. I doubt I would ever pay even $5 for such a game. Maybe Argo. Now an indy game studio might be able to make that sort of game, and plenty of them do, apparently, they just don't get as much attention for it.

I don't know, I really doubt we'll see too many AAA titles that don't feature action elements (perhaps not violent, but something seriously engaging), at least not in this generation or the next. I don't see a Lincoln, Life of Pi, or Argo. The real dividing line is when new interfaces really become availalbe, the sort of sci-fi gadgets where you see through the character's eyes, where you can control him using your own body or mind rather than a controller, when you can "inhabit" the character, and when AI is adaptive enough to react naturally to player inputs, then I think we could have games like that, because then we would have a role to play that would truly engage the player. Until then we're stuck with Heavy Rain.

Posted:A year ago

#23

Martin Klima Executive Producer, Warhorse Studios

26 50 1.9
I think Chris Lewin is right. However, it is obvious that such an AI would be able to pass the Turing test, so I am not holding my breath.

In the meantime, it is good to realize that games are just not very good at telling stories, at least tight, focused stories like the ones we see on TV or read in books. The best games of the past had no story at all (Tetris), a very weak one (from Mario to Doom), or a very broad, emergent story (Civilization). It is this last approach that seems most valuable to me in computer games: what's the point of interactivity if every player ends up with the same story?

The point of playing the game is beating the game. Can you imagine somebody saying: "I've beaten 'War and Peace'. It was boring me stiff, but I persevered and managed to finish it."? But that's how players are talking about game. "I finished new Bioshock. It was tough, but I am really good at killing virtual humanoids and the ending was worth it."

Posted:A year ago

#24

Ola Holmdahl Producer, Tarsier Studios

4 6 1.5
I personally believe that conversational AI won't change things nearly as much as Chris Lewin believes. Computers games will still offer voluntary contingency (risk); none of the consequences of the game world translate into reality. This is just part of the definition of computer games. Without social, economical, physical consequences to the player, an AI in a game will forever be just an easy-to-objectify plaything, temporary amusement if you will, there for you to test its limits and not much else. If the credibility of another entity within a game is the key, we already have multiplayer games, persistent and not, like WoW, LoL, WoT, CS, BF, some iterations of Minecraft, where we can interact with actual people within the confines of the game. We also have MUDs, MUSHes, MUXes, etc. An AI that can pass for a person is not a game changer in such a setting.

The computer game medium has clearly moved past the earliest moving pictures. If anything we're closer to the 1930-1950 era film which had sound, editing principles, montage, storytelling, color film, and different and clear-cut genres.

I'm sure gaming has a long way to go, but any analysis to form the foundation of speculation as to which direction should be informed.

I agree that visual (photo)realism is not going to improve the moral and intellectual level of gaming as a medium. Gameplay inventions, contextualization, accessability, intertextuality are more likely candidates to change how games are percieved. I think the most likely trend to result in improvements would come from artistic, articulate and driven individuals (power creatives). Historically, these have been responsible for moving known forms of media forward into new dimensions of meaning.

So basically... what this column said :/

Posted:A year ago

#25
@Mike Becker
I have to disagree - I am playing Bioshock Infinite at the moment and I am thoroughly enjoying it but at the same time a little disappointed. This article is asking why games seem to feel they need mindless action over thoughtful content and think how you spend maybe 70% of your time in that game; mindless violence. Really well made made and fun violence, but mindless none the less. You fight wave after wave of faceless foot solder with little to no narrative justification. That early section in the hall of heroes is especially grating; you run from one end of it to the other fighting hordes of war veterans and why? Because they would rather fight you - a stranger who is, they have been told, a real solder - than face Comstock, the man they are actually meant to be taking a stand against. All just because they want to die fighting? That's not thoughtful content, that's not even self consistent. It's clearly a bit of a weak excuse for an interesting fighting scenario the devs rightly thought would be fun. Walk a single step past a guard blocking an area and what happens? Do they argue with you? Do they react realistically? No, everyone in the scene takes up arms against you and fights to the utter death just because you walked too far or picked up a single coin. You can't hold up a game like that and says it carries an important message, or real world concerns, like a book or film.

And as for the the real world concerns in the game, these seem to be limited to over simplified depictions. Depicting racism isn't the same as saying something about racism. Yeah, I get it, people in your fictional floating city are racist? Your point? Simply having some racist people in your game doesn't mean you could put it next to say The Color Purple, and say they are equally culturally important. And then there's the actual way the game chooses to illustrate it's points. Audio logs? Seriously? Imagine if you were reading a book and each time the author wanted you to find something out about a character rather, than reveal it through conversation or some other narrative devise, instead they have the main character find a page from that person's diary lying on the floor - every single time, no matter where they are. It's deeply lazy almost to the point of being patronizing. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy hearing the audio logs and hunt them all out, but if that really is the level of sophistication of story telling in games, especially in games that otherwise attempt to create a self-consistent world, we really do have a long way to go.

I may yet be proved wrong on a lot of this, having yet to finish the game, but the fact that the things I have mentioned are in there at all suggests to me that this is absolutely not the game you should be holding up as evidence of the medium maturing. Similarly Red Dead Redemption and Spec Ops: The Line are basically action games; no matter how meaty their subject matter may be between the action scene, they still feel the need to have those action scenes. They are still the equivalent of of western and action films; films carried by action with perhaps the occasional thoughtful reflection to justify themselves. They may not be absolutely mindless but that's not what the article was asking. It was asking; where is the Life of Pi of video games. A game that is thoughtful, compelling and culturally relevant, if not important, without relying on action to drive the story or plug the gaps. To find that kind of a game, you are going to have to look to indie games, text adventures and good old point and clicks, as a number of other commenters have already said. Even then you probably won't find many.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by James Hastings on 5th April 2013 9:01am

Posted:A year ago

#26

Aitor Roda Game Designer, Cyanide Studio

6 0 0.0
@Paul Trillo
Number 2, Games need to have action(s), without action(s) you would be left with a visual novel/interactive story. Taking the Iran hostages example I'm guessing what Warren meant by not using guns was being diplomatic about it rather than violent, You could make a game about being a diplomat but it would still need to have actions, win/loss scenarios etc. the hard part about making a game like that is how do you make it a lengthy game? If the game only needed to be 2 hours long then it could all be about getting from A to B and talking to people (imagine Deus Ex mixed with The West Wing) but if this is a AAA game then its needs to be at least 3 times as long and at that length the games mechanics are going to get stale and repetitive.

Even Text adventures had actions.
Or you could just make a 2 hours-long AAA game and sell it for 10 bucks or whatever is the price of a movie ticket.
Hollywood also makes $100m movies and they seem to do fine with that model otherwise they wouldn't keep sinking money down the toilet.

I, for one, would be more interested on AAA games if they'd propose me something compelling and interesting in an intellectual level rather than just meaningless clicks. If I pay to go to the cinema for a 2 hour entertainment, what makes you think I wouldn't do the same, with more reason, from the comfort of my sofa?

And for DVD/television, etc... I think there are possibilities out there and more and more accessible for everybody with free-to-play and mobile, but that requires an extra effort because instead of stopping right after the game is done, you will need to keep working on adapting it to the new mediums. Film-to-DVD may be a more streamlined process than full-price to f2p but for me that is just a matter of tools and processes, nothing that can't be overcame.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Aitor Roda on 5th April 2013 12:43pm

Posted:A year ago

#27

Jakub Mikyska CEO, Grip Digital

208 1,137 5.5
Despite all of its flaws, Heavy Rain represents for me what Mr. Spector is calling for. The game asks a question "What would you do to save those you love?". And that's a every deep question, actually.

The moment when you are tasked with killing a total stranger who means nothing to you and his death would bring you much closer to the goal of the game, still remains the strongest moment I have ever experienced in a game. I have killed thousands of virtual people in games, but this one person, begging for his life, represented what the games could be. Where they could evolve.

I had to pause the game and think, emotions whirling. What should I do? What would the game's character do? What will be the consequences? Do I really have a choice?
I have eventually decided to shoot and I literally had live with myself ever since. The game didn't punish me for killing a person. My conscience did.

From what I read about Heavy Rain, the most players decided not to shoot. For me, that's a proof that games can elevate themselves above the mindless violence and tackle deep and important themes and that these game can be successful. Critically as well as commercially.

Posted:A year ago

#28
@Jakub Mikyska

Heavy Rain did cross my mind as an example of a game that rises above the problems mentioned in this article, and to some extent it does. However whilst it's not the vapid non-sense of 90% of games, it's hardly a game with an important message. If you try to find an equivalent for it in films or books you probably end up with a pretty uninspired thriller. An enjoyable Who Done It where the element of interactivity adds an extra dimension but that doesn't give it an extra or deeper meaning, in my opinion. Remarkable among games but run of the mill in other media.

Posted:A year ago

#29

John Bye Lead Designer, Future Games of London

486 457 0.9
For me, one of the cleverest moments in Heavy Rain was right at the start. You're out in the yard playing with your son. You're kicking his ass by matching all the on-screen prompts. Then you stop and think, hang on, maybe winning isn't the best solution here. Maybe I should go easy on the poor kid and let him win. You can "win" that scene by failing the quick time prompts and losing the fight. I have no idea if the game pays any attention to this, but I even took to winning a few prompts so it wasn't too obvious I was letting him win. This scene is really simple, but it turns everything you've ever learned about video games up to now on its head.

Sure, ultimately the game is about a serial killer, and it includes some violence and nudity and even a couple of explosions. But it's one of the most adult games I've played, and makes you think about what you're doing in a way that most games fail to.

Back before I got into the games industry full time I was making Neverwinter Nights modules. My favourite comment from all the feedback I got about the series was from a player who started what seemed like a straightforward quest to find a missing farmer, found the quest item, and took it back to the quest giver to get his reward. Years of playing RPGs had conditioned him to do this.

It wasn't until the quest giver reacted with shock and anger that the player stopped to think about what he'd just done. Which was to pull a severed head (the quest item) out of his backpack in the middle of a crowded tavern and hand it to the dead man's wife (the quest giver). There were several other ways he could have completed the quest by making different choices at various points, but taking the item and returning it to the quest giver was so ingrained in him that he didn't even consider how the NPC would feel about it.

Sometimes it's good to break players' preconceptions and make them think about what they're doing, beyond simply ticking off tasks in a list, picking up every item they can interact with and shooting every enemy in the face.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by John Bye on 5th April 2013 2:06pm

Posted:A year ago

#30

Paul Smith Dev

189 154 0.8
Or you could just make a 2 hours-long AAA game and sell it for 10 bucks or whatever is the price of a movie ticket.
Hollywood also makes $100m movies and they seem to do fine with that model otherwise they wouldn't keep sinking money down the toilet.
Movies have bigger audiences they also have 3-4 different ways of making money (blu-ray, box office, tv, sky etc) games only have one, the game would have to be cheap to make any profit

Posted:A year ago

#31

Tim Ogul Illustrator

335 466 1.4
Movies have bigger audiences they also have 3-4 different ways of making money (blu-ray, box office, tv, sky etc) games only have one, the game would have to be cheap to make any profit
Yes, I highly doubt that you could make a AAA title that could be profitable at ~$10. The Walking Dead is probably the closest to this, in which they made multiple "episodes" of only a little content each at a low price, which added up to a "season" which was later available as a full package. We might see more games like that in the future, but I don't know how much you could scale that up to bigger and broader games.

I do suppose that it's becoming easier and easier to make games these days (not to discount the hard work people put into it, but there are plenty of tools available for making certain types of games). Perhaps in time it will be easy enough that the effort of production will be fairly minimal, and all the work can be in the design, which would give developers a lot more flexibility to take more risks while releasing at a very low price point.

Posted:A year ago

#32

David Serrano Freelancer

300 273 0.9
@ Tim Ogul

"Perhaps in time it will be easy enough that the effort of production will be fairly minimal, and all the work can be in the design, which would give developers a lot more flexibility to take more risks while releasing at a very low price point."

To put this into context... 25 years ago you needed a large team of people and external vendors with specialized equipment to design, produce and ship a consumer magazine to press. Today, I could do this from home for a fraction of what it use to cost. The same thing will happen in game development and the evolution will probably occur much more quickly.

Posted:A year ago

#33

Axel Cushing Writer / Blogger

109 134 1.2
This part stuck out for me, and it suggests to me that the question might be the answer.
As a medium we remain mired in action and genre conventions. Even what passes for seriousness in mainstream gaming seems to require zombies, serial killers, aliens or demons to attract an audience.
Why do we have to give up the genre conventions to make "serious" or "grown-up" games?

Let's use the serial killer trope as an example. In real life, they're equal parts horrifying and fascinating. They do exceedingly depraved acts that disgust us and frighten us, but it's their apparent normality and innate ability to charm that keep us interested in them. In literature and film, on one end of the "seriousness" scale, you have works like The Silence of The Lambs, which goes into the arcana of forensic psychology, criminal investigation procedure, and a pinch of political drama. On the other end, you've got Child's Play, which wallows in the absurdity of a serial killer's soul being relocated into a toy. And you've got a lot of titles that fall somewhere in-between.

This is not to say that a "grown up" game can't also be funny. On one end of the "space marine" trope, you've got works like Hammer's Slammers and Bolo, both of which would be ripe for game development as a basic RTS as well as more nuanced adventure or RPG titles. They're incredibly violent, but they also look at who's engaging in the violence and the toll it takes on the personality of soldiers. On the other hand, you've got Phule's Company, which goes for the comedy angle as well as covering all of those boring moments when one isn't in combat and is going about their assigned routines.

Genre conventions don't have to be something you shun. They're as much a tool for design and development as game engines and level editors. You get what you put into them.

Posted:A year ago

#34

Samuel Verner Game Designer

131 243 1.9
whats wrong with violence? its driven by our deepest emotions. the only reason why we dont kill each others are culturally (imposed and conditioned) boundaries. games are free from these boundries and thats where the interesting part begins. we can go down paths which are usualy unthinkable for ourself, but totally fine in a virtual enviroment with a completly diffrent frame of rules to connect to primitive impulses. or with other words: why do you want to go on an intellectual journey, if you can feel awesome by beeing like a primitve animal and slaugther everything on your way to total dominance? aliens, zombies and whatever are just excuses to make the massmurdering less obvious and to eliminate the last few conflicts with the culturally boundaries.

this leads to the real question here: how big is the AAA market for games with a focus on sophisticated content (which is the other end of the same bar)? propably as same as the market for lets say "french movies with subtitels" in america. or combine both? forget it. most people didn't even got matrix.

so here is the answer to the "why": because AAA games are products.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Samuel Verner on 6th April 2013 12:19am

Posted:A year ago

#35

Jon Grande Senior Director, Franchise Management, PopCap Games

1 0 0.0
Excellent article Warren - but I would counter your #5 with the example of Psychonauts from our friend Tim. A great example of a game that had a "higher calling" but failed as commercial endeavor. In addition to the root causes you outlined, games with a higher calling face challenges of the immaturity of our medium and the lack of ubiquity in access. If playing Psychonauts was as easy as turning on The Big Bang Theory <<insert your favorite prime time comedy here>>... then I think you would see more experimentation, both from creative individuals and commercial entities willing to back them.

Posted:A year ago

#36

Kevin L. Clark Founder, Editor-In-Chief, Fresh Thinking Media Group, LLC

27 5 0.2
Good thread. Just want to add that there are quite a few titles that are challenging gamers in more than hand-and-eye coordination. I am excited about where we are heading as an industry.

Posted:A year ago

#37
Those of us lucky enough to be developing games 20 or more years ago will remember the time when anything was possible. When every other game we created was a new genre, or a significant new spin on an existing genre. When it seemed like there was no end to the different types of games we could make. This was all crushed by the console era that started in the early-mid 1990s and we have never recovered from it. Suddenly 3D art became the focus and development cost rose exponentially, in order to counterbalance this publishers demanded safer and safer content, ie the type of stuff that was already out there and selling well, this was soon accompanied by the further demand for a know license to be tacked onto the known gameplay, or else the game wouldn't be financed. Within 5 years the wonderfully open creative environment we knew had been sabotaged by conservative bean counters.
Warren has been around a long time too and remembers these old days, so I guess he sees the wasted potential of our medium in a way that the younger generation of gamers simply cannot relate to. On the surface the new Indie move in gaming is at least reclaiming the freedom we used to have anyway (at least in Europe), but this time no-one gets paid advances and anything overly innovative will be greeted with high suspicion until it has proved itself in the market (not the same as the 80s and 90s at all).
Furthermore with the rapid disappearance of mid-range software it is very hard to find the market niche for these more significant games that Warren longs for. No-one is going to be able to finance them to AAA quality, yet neither do they belong in the roulette wheel of free to play touchscreen games... which only leaves XBLA, PSN and maybe Steam as outlets with a price point of $4.99 - $19.99. Unlike the 1990s it is now very hard for developers to carry much clout on their name alone, particularly so much artistic clout that they can persuade their publisher that their next game is not going to be another FPS but a game about raising public awareness of Global Warming (for example)... and very few developers with that kind of artistic and social leaning also have the
$5 - 20 million in the bank themselves necessary to create and release a top quality game of such nature backed up by a significant marketing campaign.
Hopefully as middleware becomes more powerful and cheaper we may see the cost of good looking console quality development come down enough that 5 - 10 man teams can have a run at making these kind of games, some of which might have significant social, emotional or political content, or might even be part of a few NEW genres of gaming... such games in my opinion are going to need pretty nice graphics to convince the public to take them seriously as anything more than part of the current retro fad (of which mobile gaming is part). But as long as we allow the hardware companies to drag us by the nose in order to by more and more of their latest offerings so the same old games are endlessly going to keep on being regurgitated onto newer and newer machines, usually at the expense of more diversity in content that would naturally follow if the hardware stood still for a bit longer.
I am sure that at some point the time will come when exactly the type of games, or entertainment software products, that Mr Spector is talking about will be commonplace, but I doubt this will start to happen until us old timers are virtually at pension age ourselves.
Where hardware companies go so we will follow, and when accountants are controlling the purse strings of every significant publisher, developer and investment fund in town, we will always be led into the dull, flat, low ground of the valleys where the semi-stagnant waters are most likely to flow, not up onto the hills where we can seek out the sources of new rivers entirely.

Posted:A year ago

#38

Sandy Lobban , Noise Me Up

319 231 0.7
The important thing with any game is to first identify where the fun is. That's all that matters. If there's no fun in your concept then the idea might as well go in the bin, because no one will buy it. Just so happens boys like shooting stuff so this is obviously going to come up now and then in a game.

On the AI thing: Talking to AI in games is generally quite boring, unless there's a very very good reason to be doing it. Therefore you're wise to keep AI as lightweight as possible so you don't have to worry about the sandbox eating up everyone's time trying to mirror every nuance of human behaviour that may potentially happen. I've worked on a few games where it became an obsession. Its rarely a good outcome for anyone trying to perfect that particular area of a game.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Sandy Lobban on 8th April 2013 2:23pm

Posted:A year ago

#39

Patrick Block gaming conceptual artist / comic artist

2 6 3.0
Warren said-
“The breadth of content game developers are allowed to explore is stultifyingly narrow. In mulling this over I can come up with only five possible explanations, none of which feel right or satisfying:
One, I'm just missing something and serious, real-world concerns are being expressed in mainstream games and/or by mainstream game developers. (I hope this is true.)
Two, games are incapable of expressing ideas that lack a strong action component. (I hope and believe this is not true.)
Three, we're still such a young medium that we haven't figured out how to move much, if at all, beyond spectacle. (I hope this is true but it's not a very good excuse!)
Four, gamers and game developers are arrested adolescents with no interests outside the childish worlds of Alien Invasion, Zombies, the Mysteries of Ancient Magicks or the Activities of Criminal Masterminds and Lowlifes. (I categorically reject this, though I'm sure many will feel it to be true.)
Five, the monied interests that support, and therefore direct, the work of game developers have no interest in a different kind of fare. Or, related to that possibility, no developers have yet achieved a level of clout that would allow them to buck the system. (These points are almost certainly true and likely to remain so until and unless new business and financing models allow us to broaden our perspective.)”


I would offer up the notion that point five is the most accurate single explanation for what haunts not content exactly, but the overall design themes for the gaming industry.

All art forms down the ages have had the same basic problem. The people with the money- the suits of industry- want to create the fiscally safest, fastest, cheapest product for the consumer. The suits, the patrons of the past age, don't necessarily have good taste, nor do they know much about the art form at all. They are concerned with their wallets and purses.

They tend to want to have a product which can reach the widest audience that is possible. Lacking any actual artistic skill or vision themselves, they have to rely on what has succeeded in the genre or art form before. It's entirely about money. They often prove to be quite blind when it comes to art.

This tends to dilute any personal vision that the creators may have. They are forced to follow the successful patterns of their predecessors.

The artist struggles to reach beyond the envelope by his very nature. He or she wishes to create something their own, which means something that has not been done quite this way before, and becomes naturally frustrated.

The answer to this vicious cycle is for the artist to have the discipline and stubborness and creativity to successfully overcome the enforced boundaries to which he finds himself and still create something new and fresh.

The secret in the gaming world as a creator is found not in the general themes- which can't be successfully thrown out, unless you are a millionaire artist who needs no patron. The secret is in working creatively with the more subtle intricacies of story, narrative and emotionally impactful elements that the suits are too uninterested in or too dull-witted to even realize exist.

You include the pre-requisite sex and guns, but you go beyond that, and include a meaningful, insightful look at what it means to be human. The guys with the money never pay attention to the narrative. They look at the shiny special effects, they consider the way that speed and gravity work in the game. They miss the quiet moments, the interesting twists and turn to character and plot.

That is the area where a mundane action game can transcend to something more...to art.

There are plenty of games that have done this. Art is alive and well in the gaming industry. Hiding behind seemingly mindless action oriented zombie killing, nuclear fallout and shiny spaceships are a lot of poignantly told stories and excellent aesthetics.

We may have to suffer through a narrow scope of general themes in game design for the suits at the top, and narrow expectations of the widest group of consumers, but there is no reason to not produce exceedingly fine art in the process.

Violence, nudity, death and destruction, while they are certainly the stuff of cheap escapism and childish fantasy, do not preclude the inclusion of high art also being slipped into the medium. Think
Kurosawa and lovely RAN.

I think it is much easier to simply create real art within the parameters of the corporate machine, because we are, after all, artists. There are, of course, some successful building/social games that have managed to survive...and not all of the games with guns require players to use guns or swords to have fun in them. The more “sandbox” oriented exploration games do offer a variety of experiences, with violence not required, which perhaps proves that there is more than one way to skin a cat. (Oops-what have I done!)

That would be my observation on this interesting topic, anyways.

Posted:A year ago

#40

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