What do we really want from fictional worlds when we’re promised freedom?
In the Elementary series I discuss various game design approaches and figuring out what makes them tick, how to improve them, and brainstorm game design. This one is dedicated to Horror-style games.
UPDATED: Added a fourth genre!
The problem of how to categorize games has plagued the industry since its earliest days. Is there a solution that can reorient our thinking and help us escape the counterproductive conventions of the past? In this article I propose new genres to help better simplify and explore game design.
This is the kind of thing I always mean to write, but don’t because it would consume all my time. Thankfully it’s consuming somebody else’s time, and we can just read it. It’s the first part of a series on “Anti-design” philosophies in the game development community, which I think basically means “Reasons to avoid emphasizing the design aspect of games”.
Part one discusses the popular “Quantity Design” philosophy. He sums it up like this:
“Make as many games as you can! Spend a week or two on a game, and then move on! You’ll get really good at making games by doing this! Don’t get hung up on working on the same game for a long time, that’s a trap that will make you learn more slowly!”
I suggest you read the article yourself. The game development community is in a very interesting time, where indies have the spotlight and everyone is waiting for them to show the industry how it’s done with their creativity and thirst for new ideas, but this sloppy “quantity design” approach ensures that the already narrow distribution channels (Steam Greenlight, Kickstarter, etc.) will get filled up with forgettable, half-finished products that disappoint customers.
I think the root of this philosophy is actually still a failure to understand that game design is a discipline. Indeed, starting and finishing projects every few months is probably pretty good, if you want to learn to be a better programmer, or if you want to learn to be a better general “game developer”.
As the title of the series suggests, he wants there to be an emphasis on actual “DESIGN”, not simply “creating” or “producing” games. Real design has always been a rare thing, from the old 1980’s industry Atari crash to the modern bullshit AAA sequel-fest. In fact, most of the “Anti-Design” philosophies I’ve seen in the game development community are born out of underestimating it, and denying that it’s even really a thing. The tabletop game design scene is extremely aware of its importance, and it’s one reason why I love to follow its resurgence; perhaps people hungry for real game design are finding it there?
UPDATE: After getting some feedback from some programmers, I’ve decided to include the comments.
A blanket generalization, completely unfair, and easily refuted by pointing to plenty of strong examples! But if you ask engineers (including software engineers, ie. programmers) I’m sure they will tell you that there’s a lot of truth to it.
In my article From Nothing: Why It’s Okay to Question Everything (Especially Metal Gear Games) I discussed the fact that games are contrived experiences, planned out by a game designer in order to create an illusion and guide the players along an enjoyable path. My thinking was that games are designed with an end in mind, and that the work of creating the game essentially boils down to manipulating the player into taking the next necessary step.
Well, recently I watched this video, in which Jonathon Blow (creator of Braid and The Witness) confirms that many games are indeed designed this way. However, he argues it doesn’t need to be that way, and in fact limits the potential hidden inside “systems” of the game. Systems, he says, can easily be greater than their creators’ ambitions, and answer our simple questions with something profound. It’s the responsibility of game designers to allow these systems to reveal “truth”. He analyzes a hypothetical game premise: generic men shooting each other with rocket launchers. He steadily deconstructs the systems behind that concept until it reveals the more fascinating aspects: fast objects overtaking slow objects; the nature of first person views; and parallaxing. In the end, the setting and theme of the game becomes a side consideration, and the systems are free to be explored more deeply.
It’s a fascinating insight into the importance of designer-as-explorer, as opposed to designer-as-contriver. The game development community is stuck in a swamp of contrivances, when they could be taming the frontiers of interwoven systems.
What this means, to me, is that there are certainly different types of game design philosophies, and we should be careful to acknowledge them in our discussions. I want to thank Jonathon Blow for articulating the other side of the coin.
So I guess I was thinking about all the things that are severely lacking in videogames today, like protagonists who aren’t “cool”, strong themes about being a parent, anything set in the late 1980’s or early 1990’s, and multi-layered strategy games like X-COM.
What I ended up coming up with was this. It’s an idea I had for an X-COM -type game in which you hunt down and intercept your own wife, who turned out to be an deep undercover Russian agent whose mission was to steal your greatest creation: a floppy disk with a computer program that will change the world.
Set in 1990, the game would feature a world map called “Hunt Mode” in which you expand your network of nerd friends, exploit the resources of government agencies, and evade capture while Continue reading