Innovation (is it what we really want?)

Stuff I’m thinking about: Flashbang’s next project. Innovation in games, and the results of my panel. The lameness of our current set of game genres. A bunch of game designs including but not limited to a game based on the paintings of Chagall combined with Bionic Commando in 3d, a game of ragdoll jousting knights (Shanke), a game based on the Godspeed You Black Emperor song “Dead Flag Blues”, a game where the avatar is invisible/ephemeral (like wind), a game that explores all the possible puzzle permutations of infinite gravitational manipulation, a game about spontaneous improvisational dancing, and a physics game involving a jetpack, a glider, a grappling hook, and a bunch of tall mountains. Whew! More on all that, sooner rather than later.

My panel was a resounding success, all told. It was interesting; I have never run a panel and, quite honestly, haven’t really seen a panel that I felt was particularly useful before, so I was a bit reticent going in. My fears turned out to be unfounded, though, as all the choices I made – participants, format, having dinner with everybody beforehand – turned out pretty well. I had everybody introduce themselves and give a short mini-rant on the subject of innovation in games. It was interesting to me to see how each member of the panel had interpreted that initial prodding. I sent out emails to everybody asking questions like “Is innovation really what we want?” and “How does one generate Earth-shattering ideas that will change the face of gaming while applying the constraints of small team size and tiny indie budgets?” Each panelist chose a different question to answer, more or less, and the answers were pretty damn awesome.

Kyle took the lead, answering a question I’d asked about the future of interactivity and what the unsolved problems are, what the frontiers are we’re trying to navigate. He said “I think I misunderstood the assignment” but, as I said, there was no assignment per se, just a bunch of topics intended to provide hooks for discussion. He did some research about futurists, looking at their predictions about the future of computing and processing power, and inferring some fun stuff about where those changes might take gaming. I’ll post a link to his slides when he’s gottem up. One thing that Kyle said stuck with me (pardon my lazy paraphrasing): ‘I make delicious candy morsels of gameplay. That’s all I do. I’m not interested in art or innovation or whatever, just making things that are fun to play with.’ I was going to say that Kyle has an inimitable style but, as has been proven by Petri and numerous others at, once people have seen it’s possible, lots of folks have been able to make small, delicious gameplay morsels. Like Roger Bannister and the four minute mile, I guess.

I had remarked to Kyle (who is as genially self-effacing a chap as you’ll ever meet) that before he and the other guys got the ball rolling, there really wasn’t a notion of “rapid prototyping” in the general consciousness. Indie Game Jams had been happening for years but they had been somewhat criminally ignored. He was like “really?”, with genuine surprise. That’s just so cool. That’s what his games are, and his persona is, self deprecating and unassailably cool. They’ve recently formed a studio, 2dBoy, and are working on their first project, World of Goo. My hope is that they create a sort of everlasting gobstopper of gameplay; delicious candy that lasts forever. You go, (2d)Boy!

Next up was Jenova, who is really focused on emotion created by games. I really, really love the quiet, beautiful, naive quality of Jenova’s games, paintings, and writing. He really sees things in a different way. Here are his slides and a short explanation. What I found most striking was his comparison of film genres to game genres (slides 46-50 on his blog there.) I’ve had a feeling for a long time that game genres are totally broken and don’t do even a passing job of expressing the underlying experience of the games they attempt to categorize. As Jenova points out, film genres (and literary genres, for that matter) focus on emotion, the type of experience you can expect to have with that book or film. Game genres are a weird mash of technology, common rules and formats, and esoteric acronyms. Boo-urns. Our current genres just don’t ‘get it’, they simply don’t speak to the underlying experience. If you classify the game Soldat as a 2d shooter, that lumps it with things like Raiden, Worms, and Contra. The experience of playing Soldat, however, is much more like playing Tribes, Counterstrike, or Quake 3: it’s visceral, heart-pounding, a twitch-based game of skill. So, twitch-based is obviously not a good classification, but it’s certainly better than lumping Soldat with Cave Story. Heh. So, in the end, Jenova didn’t really address innovation per se, but said that emotion is the key. Good stuff.

Jon Mak did not use Powerpoint, bringing as he said, ‘my own innovation to this panel.’ My take on Jon’s mini-rant was that he doesn’t think we need innovation. Rather, that if you as an artist (in the more general sense, not in the sense of a craftsman who creates textured polygons or sprites or whatever) are true to your vision, your individuality will make whatever you create unique. So, he says, we don’t need intentional innovation, we just need people to “Don’t innovate; go home, play a bunch of games, figure out which ones you like, and make a game based on that.” I like Jon’s slant on things because it jives well with my own take, which derives in part from my background and training in art rather than programming. If you were to write a detailed design document or detailed pitch for a game idea and give it, without further explanation, to two competent game creators, odds are they’d create wildly different games. This has been my experience both professionally and personally. Ideas != Execution. Everyone talks about the need for more programmer-designers; I think we need more artist-designers. This does not mean game designers who don’t know how to program. Rather, this is game designers who take an artistic approach to design, like Keita Takahashi or, arguably, Shigeru Miyamoto.

Finally, John Blow concurred that innovation for innovation’s sake is a red herring. He noted the fine line between innovation and gimmick, and that being successfully different is more important than just being different. I think that at some level just being successful – making a great game – is a kind of innovation. Since the medium is so new and there are so many things that we haven’t tried and (as Eric Zimmerman noted) “games are fucking hard to make!” it’s a little miracle each time a truly good game gets made. That a merging of art, rules, programming, design, and whatever else has come together to create a meaningful experience is amazing; regardless what homage (or rip-off) is apparent in the final design, a good game is a rare and beautiful creature. So, innovation is perhaps not what we’re really after. Maybe we just want good games. Being different is just a reaction to the fact that so few of the games that have been made to this point have been good.

Or maybe we do need to actively, aggressively pursue the new, the radical, the innovative. I’ll save that counterpoint for another post.

- Swink

Blog Relationship Dynamics

Naughty blogger! I’ve been off doing all these cool things, meeting all these cool people, and I haven’t taken the time to blog about it. At this point, most people would apologize and promise to do more writing more consistently in the future. I started thinking instead about why I hadn’t posted. My relationship to my blog, as it were.

I think the real reason I haven’t posted recently is because it takes a lot of energy to write a post. And energy equals time. Would I rather spend time writing about games or making them? That’s not an excuse, mind you; it just occurs to me that this is the reason. In my mind, writing a post is a large, exhaustive endeavor. So, that identified, I need to find ways to make writing about stuff less exhaustive.

I tend to write things and then delete them, or rewrite them many times. One short piece of writing can take a few hours to complete. I guess it’s the sense that what I’m typing is binding in some way, like it’s adding to my voting record or something. Of course, that’s predicated by hubris; there really aren’t that many people who really care what I have to say :). So, hey, I’m just going to start talking about things that I’m thinking about, which is what I do when talking to friends about games. Bollocks to authoritative writing, bollocks to being too meticulous. I don’t work for EA/Maxis, I can rant about whatever I want without fear of reprisal :). Besides, I do enough writing of articles and things for various publications to see my need for anal-retentive writing well filled. Blog as design diary rather than soapbox. Huzzah.

So, stuff I’ve been thinking about recently (in no particular order and without much editing):

Emotion in games. I went to a killer round table at the very end of GDC, run by my friend Katherine, where the topic was emotion in games. She promised to tabulate all her results and observations from the roundtable and put them up in blog form, so I’ll link to that when it arrives. This is a topic people are hungry for, and one which gets folks pretty riled up. The discussion seemed, to me, to ping pong back and forth between being far too narrow in scope and far too broad. It was dizzying. At first, people were having it out over what the best way would be to increase player empathy, emotional connectivity in over the shoulder 3rd person action adventure games. Next, we’re talking about every emotional moment ever in any game, and whether or not games are capable of emotion without story.

For my part, I don’t necessarily think that games are the best medium in which to express classical dramatic emotions, and I don’t think that “story” in games should have to mean story in the classical sense, or in the Interactive Storytelling sense. My favorite emotional moment comes from X-Com, a game in which the game rules and system give rise to a powerful emotion bond to certain characters you control, but which is constructed in a very simulationist way. There’s almost nothing linear or triggered in the whole game. Because the characters are visually generic and ambiguous and do not speak, they are essentially blank emotional canvases on to which to project. This is something Will Wright has mentioned many times as one of the primary successes of The Sims as a design – because the characters don’t speak a real language, and are intentionally abstracted representations of humans, they invite emotional interpretation. Lots of people who play The Sims construct their families and friends, and play out elaborate scenarios. Because the characters are emotional whiteboards, and because the game rules tolerate a bunch of different activities, The Sims is designed to give rise to all kinds of emotional connection with the player. As Wright has said, ‘designing games is half programming the computer, half programming the player.’

So, in X-Com, the rules underlying the simulation are structured such that it’s a rare mission where every member of your landing party survives. If they do, they are recognized by the game and are given a rank up, from private to sergeant, sergeant to lieutenant and so on. As they rank up, so their stats go up; they become more accurate, stronger, and calmer under fire. In this way, the game encourages the player to have favorites, to project a story onto those members of the squad who survive, to imbue them with personalities of their own and to imagine how they feel about surviving so many missions, about having seen so many comrades die while they alone survive. This points to a different direction for creating emotion in games, one which Rod Humble is trying to isolate with his games A Walk With Max, and The Marriage: it is possible to express emotion, to convey emotion purely though game rules and structures.

This is another great direction to explore, one that I think will ultimately turn out to be more fruitful than milking canned, linear story, or attempting to shoehorn drama into interactivity. I’ve noticed many instances in games where rules, systems, structure have given rise to particular emotional reactions. One example that springs to mind is the game Hitman, in which, once costumed in something intended to fool other people (a busboy’s uniform, or a cop’s or whatever) you must walk painfully slowly to avoid arousing suspicion. In addition, other people of the same function (another cop, for instance) cannot be allowed to scrutinize you for extended periods of time, because they will realize you are not a friend or colleague. So you end up walking long, painfully slow stretches, through crowded spaces, aiming your face away from people who might out you, trying to ‘look busy.’ It’s a wonderfully claustrophobic feel, one that indicates to me a possibility for subtlety and heightened awareness heretofore unseen in games. Would it be possible to create a game about eye contact, where the player expressed themselves by where they looked, what they looked at, and how quickly or slowly they did so? Would it be possible to embed some kind of facial expression system in this? What would a game be like where the players cared whether or not you looked them in the eye? Interesting questions, ones which would need solving with system design, not story writing.

All that said, I think there’s a huge value in using story to “prime” players for emotion. For example, if you removed the Miyazake-like intro sequence from Cloud, you would not be primed to enjoy the serene, unfocused gameplay. Blizzard uses this kind of priming to great effect in all of their products; they have an entire department dedicated to creating brief, trailer-like short films that precede and punctuate gameplay in their games. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb here in saying that this strategy has worked out well for them. Too hook this concept back in to personal anecdote, each time I teach a class, I prime the class for enjoyment. The classes I teach last for four hours at a stretch; even with the most amazing, enthusiastic students, it’s hard to get buy in and keep engagement high for that long. So at the start of each class, I show a funny internet video or an irreverent picture. This gets everybody laughing and engaged and makes the class run smoothly. If I don’t do this, people start losing focus and it takes a great effort on my part to keep the class moving forward.

Woah, and that’s a post’s worth right there! Miraculous.

Other stuff I’m thinking about: Flashbang’s next project. Innovation in games, and the results of my panel. The lameness of our current set of game genres. A bunch of game designs including but not limited to a game based on the paintings of Chagall combined with Bionic Commando in 3d, a game of ragdoll jousting knights (Shanke), a game based on the Godspeed You Black Emperor song “Dead Flag Blues”, a game where the avatar is invisible/ephemeral (like wind), a game that explores all the possible puzzle permutations of infinite gravitational manipulation, a game about spontaneous improvisational dancing, and a physics game involving a jetpack, a glider, a grappling hook, and a bunch of tall mountains. Whew! More on all that, sooner rather than later.