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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?

Nothing.

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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Warren Spector

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Warren Spector is a veteran game designer best known for his work on System Shock and Deus Ex.

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