Saturday, April 23, 2016

Session by session

Let's talk game design.

A lot of developers talk about their games as providing hours of entertainment. While I've already covered the idea of money value, a lot of this seems to be based on an overarching evaluation of the game. (It's marketing, so no surprise there.)

The thing is, most video games aren't played all at once. It can take days, if not weeks, of a player sitting down for a couple of hours after work to get through the newest game. (Obviously, there are anomalies like players who have more free time, or sandbox games that can consume entire months.)

As such, games that logically break themselves down into manageable chunks are logically better. And I don't just mean in the sense of letting the player save whenever. This has to also apply to things like the main story or sidequests. In other words, instilling a feeling of progress for the player for each session of playing the game.

This lends itself to a very episodic structure; any quest or storyline either is a "one-shot" that is easily completed, or is subdivided into multiple parts. Some games have even hard built episodes into their core design (I'm looking at you, Telltale).

On the other hand, this puts certain limits on what stories you can tell, so you're left with a tradeoff of allowing people to have shorter sessions (and make it easier for them to follow along with losing them) versus losing design space to tell a more expansive story. There's no right answer here, as every gamer will have a different schedule and be forced to approach their games differently.

I suppose that variety is the best answer, but this is an industry where the AAA studios tend to be more and more formulaic. I suspect that in terms of games that don't match the "average" playtime of the "average" gamer (even though I find such a thing suspect), you'd have to look towards more indie titles.

This is also the kind of thing that has spurred mobile gaming; you can finish your daily tasks in one game in under ten minutes, and if you have time for more, there's a dozen other games just like it for you to pick. With so many people on the go, games like that were bound to thrive and fill the niche of that bus ride to work.

At the end of the day, the amount of time you can devote to a game is yours, but I would encourage developers to keep that kind of thing in mind. Just who are they making their games for? I suspect there would be a lot more games of higher quality if developers were more precise about pinning down how long a session of their game ought to last, and developing it from there.

All I know is that there is so much gameplay, and not nearly enough time. Even for me.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Looking back: Doom

I'm going to sing the doom song!

Doom is one of the pioneers of the FPS (first person shooter, not frames per second) genre, establishing a lot of the classic conventions. Everything from rocket jumps to the point-blank shotgun (not at all realistic) to multiplayer deathmatches, come from this game or its direct sequel, Doom II.

Created by id Software, Doom was their followup to Wolfenstein 3D, one of the earliest FPS games around. While credited as pushing the envelope of building large three-dimensional environments, Doom actually was less advanced than Ultima Underworld, a first-person RPG which featured full 3D movement - something that id would not introduce until Quake.

 Another factor that distinguished Doom was the graphic violence, at least by 1990s standards. Today, obviously, Doom comes off as quite cartoonish in how it looks, but back then there was basically nothing like it except Mortal Kombat - also quite cartoonish by modern standards. This naturally enraged quite a few groups, who complained about the violence, especially in the wake of the Columbine school shooting. This is nothing new, however, as similar complaints were made about television, film, and rock music in their respective time periods. It was these complaints that eventually led to the formation of the ESRB.

Of course, the decision to make the enemies demonic probably didn't help matters on that front. Again, it wasn't the first thing to come under fire from Christian groups - see Dungeons & Dragons back in the 80s - and it would not be the last. (One wonders why said Christian groups didn't rail against the D&D video games that were being frequently released during the 90s.)

Doom also followed Wolfenstein 3D in popularizing the shareware business model, in which a portion of the game was available free while the rest required paying for it. A toned-down version of the model evolved into the concept of free game demos, which would be included with game magazines (which were much more relevant before the Internet took over), copies of other games, or just given out at events.

The exploratory formula of Doom was copied and expanded on by many of the follow-up games, including Quake and the pioneering Duke Nukem 3D. This period lasted until Half-Life introduced the concept of scripted set pieces, and then the coming of Halo basically took those set pieces and made an entire game around them. With the success of those two titles, the FPS genre moved in a different direction, and the influence of Doom waned.

However, a small but devoted mod community continued to make new maps for Doom and Doom II. A lot of these maps moved the gameplay in a different direction: towards the idea of difficulty through waves of multiple monsters and high difficulty, instead of the more methodical pacing the original games used. As a result, a lot of people misremember what Doom actually was.

It's a shame, really, that so many people lost sight of what one of the truly legendary pioneers of the genre is. And while I'm not the hugest fan of FPS games, Doom will always have a place in my heart for what it...wait, you're leaving already? Please don't leave, there's more demons to toast!

Saturday, April 2, 2016

The art of the matter

I considered calling this blog post "Putting the art in heart", but that's was a little too pretentious for my taste. And it doesn't precisely fit the topic

Anyway...there has been a lot of debate over whether video games are art or not. A lot of people have come out insisting that yes, they are art, while others (such as the late Roger Ebert, may he rest in peace) did not view the medium as having artistic merit. So...who is right, and who is wrong?

The answer is a lot more complicated than just "they are art" or "they aren't art".

Art, at the core, is about resonance; it evokes emotions and thought in the person who experiences the art. The best art causes those thoughts and feelings to persist long after the experience has ended. The overall artistic merit of a work can be roughly judged by how many people derived emotions and thought from it. (It's never going to be an exact science, for obvious reasons.)

Any work of fiction, in any medium, can be art, but not every work of fiction in a given medium is art. The main complexity comes from the fact that every video game can invoke one basic emotion; the sense of satisfaction upon completing part or all of it. After all, the challenge of completing a game is much more difficult than reading a book or watching a movie (not that that takes much).

The problem there is that art starts to lose value as a term if it can be applied to an entire medium. As weird as it sounds, something like art is defined as much by what doesn't fall under it as much as what does. We can't just call all video games art and call it a day; the requirements have to stretch much farther.

Which brings us back to the original statement that not all video games are art. So which ones are? There's no easy criterion here. Obviously, every game is artistic to someone, but for that art to reach wide appeal...that's a tricky thing. I do have some answers of my own.

For me, the kinds of emotions and thought are reinforced by the very nature of the medium, the interactivity that video games offer. If a game has limited interactivity - limited gameplay - then it's not doing a very good job as an artistic video game. I could easily get that from a book, song, movie, or comic...but that's not why I play video games. I play them because they are interactive, so using that is part of being the best among the best. It's part of being artistic.

I don't doubt a lot of you will disagree with me. That's fine. But video games are reaching a point where answering these questions is necessary for the medium to grow and develop. And I think we all want that, right?