Warren's Mailbag: Games are still niche, too expensive

Thanks to the overwhelming response to Warren Spector's column, the veteran designer is replying to some of your most interesting comments

First of all, thanks for all the responses to my first column. I heard from a lot of you via the comments section of GamesIndustry International, of course, but also via email, Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter - any place people share their thoughts with one another in this interconnected day and age.

But even more than the number of responses, I was super impressed by how you didn't rant or behave like trolls. I said at the outset that I wanted to write about questions I couldn't answer and problems I couldn't solve to my own satisfaction. My intent was to get input from as many of the Really Smart People who make up the games scene as I could, in the hopes that you could answer my questions for me (or, at least, show me where I was going wrong in my own thinking). You folks, whether from the world of developers, publishers, critics, educators or players, came through in spades.

The thoughtfulness of the responses - even those that disagreed with my premise or dismissed the need even to ask the question I was asking - filled me with confidence that the future of gaming is in good hands.

The fact that some of you wrote more in response than I did in the column is pretty incredible, too! The responses alone ran to 40+ pages and almost 16,000 words! Heck, I should publish the full list of responses and my re-responses and the inevitable re-re-responses as a Kindle Single or something!

I asked the editors at GamesIndustry if they'd give me more space on the site to address some of the aggregated commentary and, foolishly, they agreed. If future columns generate as much feedback, I'll ask for space again - giving people a couple of weeks to comment before I respond. (If you see a comment of yours restated and/or mangled, understand that I was space-limited and aggregating, rather than quoting verbatim.)

So here goes!

Triple-A games are now a small part of the world defined by the word "Game." Everything I'm asking for is happening in indie/art games.

Everything in mainstream films isn't a tentpole. Everything that's indie isn't art. In games, we lack mainstream, non-childish games. Ian Bogost answered this as effectively as I could when he talks about the idea that triple-A games aren't the dominant game form anymore. As he put it, "It's true in a certain sense, but false in the context of culture more broadly. It's also dangerous, because it gives those with the capacity to invest in projects of Oscar size, scale, and influence an excuse not to bother."

The point is we don't even bother. Mainstream game developers as well as many indies are content with things the way they are. And that drives me nuts...

"Toddlers turn into teens, and teens into adults. We look at cases of arrested development as problematic. Let's choose to grow up a bit as a medium, okay?"

Movies and novels are mature media and have been for years. Their tools and modes of expression are static and have been for decades. In games, we're still inventing "new cameras, new sets, and new projection techniques."

There's no debating the truth of this statement. We are a young medium and movies are a medium where the position of the sprocket holes hasn't change in about 120 years. However, I think it's time we stopped making excuses about why so many games are lame and admit to ourselves that we CHOOSE to make and market them the way we do. We could be making different choices. I'd like to see more of us doing so.

Toddlers turn into teens, and teens into adults. We look at cases of arrested development as problematic. Let's choose to grow up a bit as a medium, okay?

Available technology doesn't allow more sophisticated character interaction. We need natural language processing and NPCs that exhibit body language to get banter that's not pre-scripted and truly responsive NPCs.

There's no question that, as software developers we are and always will be limited in what we can do by the technology we have available. Having said that, we've faced very few technical problems we couldn't solve (or at least fake our way around) once we put our collective minds to the task.


The Walking Dead - a step in the right direction for the medium, according to Warren

The problem with the technology argument is that it doesn't take into account how few of us even try to solve the problems of enhanced non-combat AI and more robust conversation systems. I'm not saying we WOULD succeed in solving the very real problems associated with more compelling non-combat AI and more compelling ways to interact with "smarter" characters. And I agree that those are two critical elements in getting to the kind of games and game stories I'd like to see. What I KNOW is that we won't solve those problems or make those games until and unless we choose to make them a priority.

We need our smartest people and our most forward-thinking publishers working on this stuff, not just on prettier pictures and higher frame rates (both of which we need, too, of course!)

Our existing tools lead to development of certain types of games more easily than others. Simulating the pull of a virtual trigger is easy and fun to repeat thousands of times, as required in any game. Making highly complex software is hard and focusing on technical problems, even in relatively simple games, inevitably results in minimized creative risk.

Easy is great. Easy reduces risk. Tackling hard problems is scary and a lot of work. We might fail. I get it.

But what's the penalty for failure in the game business? We don't go to war because a game fails. No one dies. Cancer doesn't go uncured.

The penalty for failure is that someone loses money. More seriously, people - maybe lots of people - lose their jobs. I'm happy to minimize the former but not the latter. I'm not arguing that everyone should go crazy and stop making the kinds of games that are proven successes. I'm arguing that SOME people should do so - those who can afford to take the risk.

I'd also argue that whatever constraints you are forced to work within, you can always sneak SOMETHING past the moneyed interests. It's possible to do One Crazy Thing even in the context of an otherwise completely conventional game.

We just have WANT to do it and not be content with the status quo.

The industry puts too much emphasis on a few individuals (executives, advertisers, etc.) and not enough on characters, programmers, QA, etc.

There's no question that a few high profile, semi-celebrities dominate the public discussion of games and game development. There's no question that lots of deserving team members get far less attention than they deserve.

The interesting thing is that few media outlets are interested in the "real" story behind a game's development - their readers and viewers, they say, want a simple story not an accurate one. I remember back in the Underworld and System Shock days, Doug Church and I wrote an account of how that game was made - i.e., that it didn't spring full formed from my fevered imagination! Guess what? We couldn't get anyone to run the story. It was a classic case of "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." (If you don't get that reference, go watch John Ford's film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance immediately...)

"The work aspect of games will, I suspect, always limit our audience to some extent. I've always said we're not a mainstream medium but, rather, a niche medium that overcharges for its product"

Are people intimidated by art - especially an art where they can "screw up" in a way they can't in traditional, non-interactive media?

This was a really interesting comment, one I hadn't considered. The closest I can come to answering this question is that there may be a real problem here.

The truth that dare not be spoken about games is that playing games is work. It's engaging work, to be sure, but work nonetheless. It ISN'T as easy to play a game as it is to plant yourself in a comfy chair and watch a movie or let a TV show wash over you, or listen to a favorite piece of music or even read a book.

The work aspect of games will, I suspect, always limit our audience to some extent. I've always said we're not a mainstream medium but, rather, a niche medium that overcharges for its product. Still, the growth of the gaming audience is apparent and to keep it going we have to broaden the range of our content.

Yes, some people will be intimidated by games and by more challenging games (challenging in the participatory sense, and the content presented, NOT in the skills-required-to-succeed sense). But we can't worry about the people who will never be won over by games. We have to try to reach those who CAN be won over but won't be until we stop insisting they jump and shoot to rescue a kidnapped princess.

You forgot to mention games with a ball.

I did forget that - mea culpa. But I'll stand by the column as written because I was focused on games that provide a narrative, not on games that depend on a "narrative" constructed entirely in a player's mind.

Still, I recognize the adult appeal of sports games and should have called that out as a case I wasn't going to deal with. So good point.

Must all games do [thing X, take your pick]? I'd rather get my story and seriousness from other media. And why do we have to give up genre conventions to make "grown-up" games?

Obviously not, and I'm not trying to limit game content - in no way am I or would I say all games should do ANYTHING, that we should give up genres, that our medium should eclipse some other medium or that we should try to do what any other medium does well.

I AM suggesting that the medium benefits and our audience grows when SOME games do thing X, however you define X, and when we introduce new genres to supplement the ones we all know and love. (Hey, I'm into zombies, elemental magic and ray guns as much as the next guy!) We need to expand the range of game content, not limit it just to what we do now.

My point is, no one should have to play "intellectual" games, but that doesn't mean people who want such games shouldn't be allowed or able to play them. We deserve and our medium needs different games for different audiences.

Finally, I'd argue that the desire to get story and seriousness from other media stems from the fact that, well, not to put to fine a point on it, we suck at delivering interactive stories and serious content. But I'd argue that's because we haven't tried hard enough, not because the medium is incapable of going there.

There already are games that explore serious content - BioShock Infinite, Grand Theft Auto, Red Dead Redemption, PaPo & Yo, LA Noire, Heavy Rain, the Walking Dead... Even (ahem!) Deus Ex - an example many of you brought up, not me!

As several of you pointed out, nearly all of these games rely on standard game action (i.e., killing stuff or jumping around in a heavily disguised corridor) to explore their "serious" content.

The exceptions, notably Heavy Rain and Walking Dead - both of which I've identified as the best experiences I've had as a player recently - are steps in the right direction. They make you think about yourself, not about the character. What would I do not, as in most games, Lara Croft or Tony Stark. As one commenter put it: "The game didn't punish me. My conscience did."

"I don't think you can generalize from one example to the statement that non-action games don't sell"

That's a huge win, when a game tells you more about yourself than about the character you're ostensibly playing. But every exception I can think of falls short in one significant way: They deny the player any real control over the experience. It isn't possible, near as I can tell, for a player to surprise himself by doing something the creators of these games didn't preplan.

I'm wondering if and how we can make games that don't involve killing and jumping - that define "action" differently - without denying players the joy and satisfaction of driving a story themselves instead of being driven by it. I'd argue that no game has done that yet. I'm honestly not sure it's possible, but I'm sure the effort to determine that, even if it results in failure, is worth whatever effort is required.

What's wrong with violence?


I've never said or meant to imply that I was opposed to violence in media.

I just think we should do a better job of offering a wider range of content. Currently, about all we offer players is virtual violence and puzzles. That's not enough.

I want more variety, not a pacifist medium!

You can't make money on more serious, non-action oriented games - look at the example of Psychonauts. Plus, we have no secondary market to improve the odds of a game being profitable.

The lack of a secondary market is a HUGE problem for gaming. We're just about the only medium that has just one way to make money.

Movies have theatrical release followed by pay-per-view, then disc, cable, broadcast.

Books have hardcover, paperback, audiobook and probably some others I'm not thinking of off the top of my head.

Comics have monthly publication, graphic novel collection, digital.

And so on and so forth. Only games have "in a box on a shelf" as the only option. Well, I guess there's digital distribution now, so this is changing - finally! A long overdue change in the business model and one that's just a beginning.

As far as Psychonauts goes, I'm Tim Schafer's biggest fan (with the possible exception of my wife, Caroline, who turns into a bowl of melting Jell-o every time she sees him...) but I don't think you can generalize from one example to the statement that non-action games don't sell.

"I look forward to disagreeing with you."

I loved this comment and look forward to the disagreements! I did say that the whole point of my column was to deal with "big questions I can't answer." Obviously, I have opinions, which I'll express. (Heck, for every topic, I probably have three conflicting opinions!). But disagreement, respectful argumentation and the questioning of sacred cows is the only way we move forward. That's true of games and, I'd argue, true in all aspects of life. Agreement leads to stagnation. Bring on the arguments - I'll certainly be trying to provoke them!

(Oh, and I have a real hard time responding to "Mr. Spector" - please call me Warren! Thanks.)

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Latest comments (7)

John Kauderer Associate Creative Director, Atari8 years ago
"Hey, I'm into zombies, elemental magic and ray guns as much as the next guy!"
Coming soon on PC Warren Spector's Elemental Zombie Death Ray.
It's like a hit inside of a hit!

"I'm wondering if and how we can make games that don't involve killing and jumping - that define "action" differently - without denying players the joy and satisfaction of driving a story themselves instead of being driven by it. "

A number of indy games come to mind that do a good job of handling this, or at least the first part. The Japanese market also seems to release unusual games that follow a narrative but don't force you into common game conventions. I'm thinking of games like Katamari Damacy (which loosely has a narrative) and something like Disaster Report which was a really interesting idea that missed the mark. Then you have more strangeness like Mr. Mosquito and quite a few others that escape my memory.

Also during the heyday of arcades there were many types of games that didn't necessarily fall into shooter or platformer. Think about Paperboy, Toobin, Marble Madness, 720, Tapper etc.... All pretty successful and none are shooters really (although you do jump in 720). I guess in the modern era we've lost some of the creativity (at least in big box games) which is a little bit sad.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by John Kauderer on 23rd April 2013 5:50pm

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Caleb Hale Journalist 8 years ago
I'm wondering if and how we can make games that don't involve killing and jumping - that define "action" differently - without denying players the joy and satisfaction of driving a story themselves instead of being driven by it.
I recently said of Bioshock Infinite I wished the game would have been something other than a first-person-shooter about halfway into playing it. Exploring the world, the characters and the story were just inherently more interesting than the gun fights, which seemed noticeably contrived, given the meticulous nature with which the rest of the game was put together. You never actually fought any of the major adversaries or villains, so the path of the story seemed set to play out in a very specific manner. That just left you fighting arenas full of grunts every so many steps, making it seem like this element was more of a concession to the marketers, who would need some guns and gore before believing they could sell the game.

That's a shame, because if there is one thing that's holding me back from immediately replaying Bioshock Infinite, it's knowing that I'd have to slog through more of those spastic and twitchy firefights. Had it been something more along the lines of TellTale's The Walking Dead, I'd be ready to jump back in.

Game franchises get married to genres pretty early, and players, maybe the industry as a whole, get nervous when they tries to switch things up. Metroid Prime got most of its pre-release attention back in its day simply for daring to switch perspectives. Turned out to be a brilliant and modern way to explore the worlds of that franchise. I think Bioshock might be ready for a similar kind of leap.
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Chris Lewin Software Engineer, EA8 years ago
Well now, I didn't expect Warren to actually reply to my comment!

I agree that almost nobody has tried to do anything with social interaction recently in the AAA space, and it does indeed suck. I think the reason this has persisted for so long is that if 'active' social interaction gameplay (as opposed to the current 'passive' style) is anything less than perfect then it will stick out like a giant sore thumb. Can you imagine Nathan Drake talking like Microsoft Sam? To use a maths analogy for a moment, the current standard for social interaction is a really deep local minimum which it's super hard to escape out of. It's just easier for devs to stick to what's tried and true, because if they wanted to experiment with these concepts then they would have to actively lower the quality of the rest of the game to fit in.

Really, we should be seeing more indies tackle this kind of stuff, but it's extremely rare in that space too. Instead of 8-Bit Nostalgia Platformer #65534, how about a game where you actually have to talk to simulated people?
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Show all comments (7)
Tim Ogul Illustrator 8 years ago
I still think it comes down to the hard part being, if you design a game in which a player makes meaningful choices, then you also have to have the game react to those choices. I mean, if you shoot a guy, the game just has to be programmed to make him drop, it's pretty simple. But if a player can shake the guy's hand, give him a hug, ask him about his kids, for each possible interaction you give to the player, you need to design responses from the NPC. The more complex the interaction, and the more possible outcomes from that interaction, then the more possible places that interaction leaves the character. And then, where do you go from there? You then have another interaction, with more possible outcomes, none of which could even be initiated by someone who chose differently during the first interaction.

Real life has millions of these situations per day, moments in which you make a choice, either deliberately or just through happenstance, and that choice shifts every outcome that happens afterwards. You're talking with someone, and you make a statement that pleases him. You then ask him a question and he gives you a good answer, and continues the conversation for several minutes. You head for the elevator and get there right in time and take it to the next floor, etc. . . instead, you're talking to that guy, and you say something he doesn't like, which makes him slightly cross with you. You ask him a question and he gives you a terse answer, ending the exchange slightly earlier. You arrive at the elevator slightly earlier because of this, and get involved in a conversation with someone else waiting. That person, who you wouldn't otherwise have met, ends up becoming a very important part of your life.

The real world adapts to whatever choices you make, because every NPC has great (or at least decent) AI, and every object has perfect physics to it. Making a game is (usually) about trying to fake as much of that as possible, as best you can, and then trying to shove all the scraps under the bed so nobody will notice. If you give them a puzzle involving a locked grandfather clock where they have to open the glass face to work the hands, you hope that they dutifully seek out the key to the clock, rather than realize that they aren't being allowed to smash the clock face open with their handy board with nails in it.

If you give them an NPC to interact with, you hope that they are fine with the dialog choices you've pre-programmed in with appropriate responses, rather than feeling that what they really want to say is something completely different. But of course they can't say that dialog, because you didn't think about it, or you did but didn't want to program in the numerous consequences of making that choice.

So basically, developers don't make games with adult consequences because they can't or won't incorporate all the possible consequences of that. I think it'd be impossible for a developer to make a truly interactive game. It would take a year just to plot out all the possible outcomes of a single day. The only way to come even close would be using AI advanced enough to basically write the game as it goes. All the designers would be for is building the conditions in which the AI and the human would do psychological battle. ;)

So developers make games in which either the player follows a linear adult story from beginning to end, or one in which he shoots a bunch of guys. Maybe both at the same time.
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Jakub Mikyska CEO, Grip Digital8 years ago
@ Caleb:
I recently said of Bioshock Infinite I wished the game would have been something other
My thoughts exactly. It is funny, actually. The main idea behind Bioshock Infinite's story was choice and the huge consequences that even a small choice can have. But the game never really gives you a choice to do anything. You can run through corridors and shoot. There was actually much more choice in the previous two Bioshock games than in Infinite, which just feels dumbed down.

The real shame is that there was enough money to make Infinite so much more. Keep the shooter elements, but add depth to Columbine, which seems just like a stage set.

If a team as talented as Irrational Games, with all the time and money they could ask for and with a franchise that will sell regardless of whether the game is great or "just good", does not aspire to achieve more, then I am afraid that perhaps we will never see AAA games that aspire for more (sans a few exceptions like Quantic Dreams' games) and it will be the smaller teams and indies who will have to turn our "teenage" industry into an "adult".

I also have to use this opportunity to call Mr. Spector "Warren", it just makes me feel privileged ;-)
Thank you, Warren, for starting this great debate. I already can't wait for you next column.
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Tim Ogul Illustrator 8 years ago
Why are studios with expertise in a genre not working together either to make an interactive experience that could involve both, for example, a 4x game, a FPS game, and a Point&Click diplomatic game (meaning none of the 3 would actually be a mini-game in the other and each would be a stand-alone) that would actually communicate with each other in some way (which doesn't have to be 100% real time, if we are smart enough to conceptualize it well).
You bring up some interesting ideas that could be explored. I'm pretty sure there have been games that involved both ground troop players and strategic level players and non-combat players. I have vague memories of at least one WWII game existing, and I think EVE does this to some extent. The problem is, the more unique types of gameplay you involve, the more complex the game is to make, meaning the more ways it can fail, especially if these elements interact in a way that one collapsing could collapse the whole thing.

In most AAA development, each game studio becomes known mostly for a specific type of game, like they make tactical FPS, or RTS, or text adventures, and putting a game together that does all these things would typically leave most of them in a slightly amateur state. I mean, Assassin's Creed: Revelation included a Tower Defense game, but it was rudimentary at best and I did my best to make it impossible to occur at my earliest convenience. It also included a sort of strategic domination game, which was marginally entertaining but was more busywork than anything else, interesting but certainly not a highlight. And what if one of those elements failing actually made it impossible to complete the "primary" game element of the stealth action game?

That's another issue with developing a more "real life" game that GTA has dabbled with, but only at a surface level. In some of those games, you can steal ambulances and actually cart patients to the hospital, or steal fire trucks and become a fireman. This is all done in a fairly simplistic and cartoony fashion, of course you'd get in a lot of trouble very quickly if you really did that sort of thing, but imagine a game that actually tried to let you do what you wanted with realistic consequences. Imagine one where it allowed you to get a desk job at a marketing company, where you had to come up with a clever pitch while negotiating office politics. But you could just as soon join the police force, and get into shoot-outs with gang members, working your way up to a detective and then captain. Or you could get a job as a stunt man in the movies. You could sleep around, get married, have kids, get divorced, get remarried, whatever. There are just so many options

So most games involve a simple, linear story. You travel from A to B. You might make choices, but not any choices that would make getting to B impossible (except those that lead to "game over" screens, if they're being mean). Enemies get in your way, but your option is binary, die to them and lose, or kill them and continue to B. Some games broaden this by doing one of two things. Either 1, they have a lot of sub quests that are optional (and ideally mutually exclusive), but give each run through a slightly different experience, or 2, they they have a few slightly different endings that play out based on the things you've done to that point. Many games that incorporate one incorporate both. But of course this adds a lot of work. It means that you're effectively doubling or tripling the content you need to fill those paths, paths which the player might not ever take. It takes a very strong will to build 80 hours of gameplay in the hopes that the player might experience 40 hours of it, and a very supportive publisher.
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David Serrano Freelancer 8 years ago
"The point is we don't even bother. Mainstream game developers as well as many indies are content with things the way they are. And that drives me nuts..."

As much as I loath advertising, there's a line in a commercial currently in rotation which sums this problem up nicely: "you can't create the future by clinging to the past."

"The work aspect of games will, I suspect, always limit our audience to some extent."

Jane McGonigal said "games make us happy because they are hard work that we choose for ourselves, and it turns out that almost nothing makes us happier than good, hard work." The problem is the overwhelming majority of games don't allow players to choose the types of work they prefer. Designers, programmers and narrow sub-segments of the audience make the choice for them. There are some types of games with do allow players to choose for themselves, i.e. virtual worlds like Second Life, but the development community has dismissed them as non-games, or not "real" games. Because virtual worlds don't adhere to the very specific form, structure and rules the development community insists represents a game.

So the truth is it's not the work aspect of games which currently limits the audience, or will limit it in the future. It is, and will be the development community's definition of what constitutes a game, and play. And this will be the case until development technology advances to the point where mass market games can be customized for, or by individual players. Or until the development community simply accepts that virtual worlds with little to no formal structure, rules or goals can be real games too.

Personally, I believe the games which will eventually be embraced by the larger mainstream audience will be hybrids of core games and virtual worlds. Games which will provide enough formal structure to avoid confusion and boredom but enough freedom (and the tools) to allow players to decide for themselves what constitutes play. And in some ways, I think Skyrim represented core gaming's first baby steps in that direction.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by David Serrano on 25th April 2013 10:25pm

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