[I know I kinda promised an entry about video games as brain-washing, mass-murderer-making machines of ebil, but I got sidetracked in more ways than I care to contemplate right now, so here's a coupon : I'll ring you when we restock on that peculiar brand of bile.]
Today on the Chocolate Factory specials :
Is striving to design good games in this age of vapid loudness a waste of time ?
One way video games as a hobby stand apart from many other forms of recreation is by how often gaming enthusiasts are asked to consider whether they may be wasting their time and could, you know, be doing something 'constructive' instead.
Provided they make a living of it (or attempt to), game designers are not called out in the same fashion, because "hey, it's work" is justification enough for anything these days, and the gamebiz is one of those few sectors that's still hiring more than it fires.
The stigma on video games is multilayered : not only is playing them seemingly unproductive, it's very often perceived as masturbatory-like behavior …yet that's not even the worst of it.
Precisely because they aren't passive and casual distractions, it's for their pointless intensity that video games are oftentimes perceived as worse-than-slacking : they're an affront to our deeply ingrained preconception that the worth of an activity can be judged by the level of engagement it elicits — unless you're prepared to accept games may be of some worth, or that there's something wrong with how you assess the value of stuff.
That's why even slouching in front of daytime TV doesn't suffer as much social stigma as videogaming …as long as you don't start acting like you really care about the storyline in that home-shopping show.
'Casual gaming', and social network gaming platforms offer an interesting contrast : playing a few hands of Solitaire or Bejeweled won't lead people to look at you weird, and — as long as you keep it low-key — diddling around with your virtual garden or fish tank while you hold on a phone call may not be a fireable offense in places where being caught playing a FPS would.
The perception is different because it appears noncommittal to onlookers, keeping the games where they belong, next to the paperclip twiddling and the napkin doodling, and far from the podium of important stuff such as your job at Starbucks, your studying for the realtor license exam, your cookie-baking for church or your buttocks-tightening salsa class… you know : duties.
All of which goes to explain why a frequent argument of gamers and game makers in defense of the hobby goes along the lines of "it's really good for something", like improved hand-eye coordination, problem-solving skills or self-confidence. Such benefits, and even the 'spirit of discovery' are routinely invoked to make games look less like addictive time-wasters, which I'm sorry to report is a load of crap.
Certainly, games have a wondrous potential as teaching and learning tools, and I'm sure once in a blue moon somebody actually designs a game with such purpose in mind and maybe doesn't screw the pooch too badly on execution, but trying to justify the whole on the merits of the very few, or claiming credit for unintended, second-order consequences falls somewhere at the intersection of manipulative and delusional.
Another, less common argument to defend the hobby is to say games are just like sports, ie you do it for fun and it's still good for you. That's cute, but no dice : it's part of the sports-as-hobby formula that most amateurs do them largely because 'it's good for you', to get/keep in shape, the fun aspect making sports a more pleasant substitute or complement to other forms of workout.
When it comes to video games, on the other hand, aside from the sub-genre of fitness-oriented games and a handful of dance/rhythm games that require players to stand up and move, the overwhelming majority of titles, measured by volumes of sales or cumulative hours spent playing follow no other agenda than pure distraction (which is not to say they don't have other, possibly beneficial, effects).
Ultimately, there's little point in such weak attempts to vindicate gaming and game making on other grounds than the value of playing for its own sake, for video games need no further justification than literature, dance or movies do : they're art and entertainment.
I've made the case in the past that video games should ostensibly position themselves as fine art rather than mass-market entertainment, as a practical line of defense against would-be censors and other righteous idiots, and that idea still has merit, although I reckon going AO should be more than enough in most cases to ensure creative freedom. Legal standing aside, the notion of video games as creative art holds on its own self-evidence, too, and is not necessarily detrimental to their study and progress as craft and trade, even though I see how it could be a slippery slope and an easy cop-out in some instances.
For being works of art, today's video games are no less heavy machinery, and the craft of them more readily compares to moviemaking than book writing ; such is the nature of the medium that game making faces the exact same challenges and systemic issues other popular hybrid arts suffer from, the same tension between mercantile exploitation and elitist isolation, the same conflicts between the oft-divergent interests of creators, public and financiers, forcing games to grapple with money and technology in the same violent dance movies and TV fiction do.
Facing the apparent disconnect between commercial and artistic value, games creators must therefore individually answer for themselves the same uneasy question so familiar to moviemakers and TV writers : do I want to make creative art that accounts for the need to sell, or commercial art as a means to sell as much as possible ?
Strangely enough, the ongoing transformation of the market may be shifting the balance in favor of the first option, as the second approach becomes increasingly irrelevant.
'Big games' are the exclusive province of large publishers who can back the costs of thumb-thick eyecandy coating, and shoulder the cost of failure when consumers don't bite. These games are risk-averse behemoths that can't afford to get stranded while sailing uncharted waters. Marketing and focus groups reign supreme in this land of ever-cloned franchises, and they all agree : customers want more of the same, only louder, until they don't want it anymore …and then let's clone the next hip thing or die trying.
There's no room for more than a visionary or two per generation in those parts. If that's you, congrats on landing the job, but what are you doing reading this ?
'Cheap games', which can be built on a budget small enough to not prohibit experimentation, break into two categories : junk food and artisanal. They also cater to two distinct types of players.
Junk food games are made by companies that see games as commodities, and go about building, packaging and selling them accordingly. The idea here is to recombine a limited set of cheap elements in a great many variations to give the impression of diversity, pimp them out in attractive, flashy packages, and sell them bite-size so people don't really notice how much they pay in aggregate. Carefully monitor what works best out of your manicloned product line, and iterate.
These are games for people who don't care much, and play for the most part as one would distractedly munch potato chips, except for the few that will develop a strong addiction to some unique recipe of crisps, and are subsequently known by the trade as "whales".
What is called 'art' in these parts is the monkeywork of churning pirate or steampunk themed sprites by the hundreds for a pittance, in infinitesimally distinct mutations of the same templates, seeking the 'bliss point' of the week. As you can imagine, the demand for creative or inspired game design in that field is minimal, as it would presumably just mess up the conjoint analysis routines.
The last group of 'cheap games' is the most promising for people who care about games worth playing, owing to their being creatively designed and carefully crafted — they're what I'd call artisan games.
These, more often than not, are of the indie scene, and unless Raph Koster's musings about Oscar Bait games become a real thing (entirely possible), it's still where most 'passion projects' will sprout from in the future.
Not that all indie games are passion projects, mind you : a good portion of the derivative drivel currently cluttering various app stores comes from independant developers that aren't backed by a publisher or external investors.
Games that qualify as artisanal might sometimes turn out to merely be 'pretty' art, of the vacuous, faux-simple humblebrag sort that draws hipsters in like flies, and there's already some of that a-plenty in the artsiest corners of the indiesphere. If you can run it on dedicated hardware, say an arduino board encased in amber-looking resin, and sell it as handmade unique pocket arcade system on thinkgeek, you're probably it.
Some of those artisan games could also be genuinely fine art, but on that I couldn't comment, because it probably would still look like hipster doo-doo to me (see above).
Alternatively, if you build something that's both disturbingly moving, and still really a game, you could end up making Love, or something like it.
Point being, if you're into creating games that are unique, innovative, moving, or just plainly fun, and are able to understand they're also products that should account for the reality of players, then your kind of art may speak to some, maybe enough to pay for the work.
Provided you're willing to be just a little accomodating and practical about giving others a chance to enjoy your creations (like not totally ignoring usability, looks and stability concerns), the rest of the industry is currently busy doing you a favor, by making it fairly easy to tell what's what.
More importantly, the players are learning, too, and fast.
I mentioned TV last week as proof that good things can come from the less likely places, and I'll do it again : looking at TV fiction and the food business, two fields that are seemingly dominated by the most cynical, exploitative and mediocre products, it seems clear there's also a growing demand (and supply) of alternative offerings that cater to people unwilling to eat crap, however loudly advertised, yet prepared to go out of their way to find the stuff they crave.
It may look like it's all just one big market with some segments only now better served, but it goes beyond that : we're talking about people who will simply not buy at all unless it's good enough for their taste, and will postpone buying rather than settle for an inferior product range, which for them simply doesn't register as a possible substitute.
Anecdotally yours, and keeping in mind how, in addition to my game design interests, I'm also a foodie and a big fan of good storytelling (thus it all may just be a self-serving argument) I find it increasingly easy over the last couple years, not just to find good eateries or good TV shows, but also easier to tell them apart from the junk types at a glance, and not often be disappointed.
As marketing-driven businesses find decreasingly useful to even bother with the overhead of adding any substantial value to their products, instead selling nothing but puffed-up simulacrum, those products that seem carefully crafted are more likely to prove more than just bait, and actually deliver.
All this hints at some new truth to the old saw that if you make it (and put a little effort in getting the word out), they'll come.
So, is it worth the trouble to design deep, or clever, or moving games, even as the marketplace is overflowing with trite tripe coated in bright colors, while creative quality or innovation don't seem to be much of a selling point, judging by the top 100s ?
My bet is yes, there's a public that itches to pay for that, if only they can find the wares, which is what I'll discuss in the next episode.