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 experimentalgameplay.com, 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 experimentalgameplay.com 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.