From the beginnings of the computer game revolution, way back when some Ph.D. geek first decided this amazing new technology just had to be turned to the lofty pursuit of tic-tac-toe, there has been an implicit assumption that technology can and will solve any problems that come our way. Indeed, back then natural language processing was thought to be right around the corner, and the development of sentient AI seemed easily within reach. It was only a matter of time before humanoid robots became our confidants and contemporaries.
In the harsh reality of the following decades all attempts to build AI that can handle believable language interaction have failed. On the interactive fiction and storytelling front, the most agile programs remain unable to sustain suspension of disbelief for more than a moment or two. Even comparatively simple pursuits such as pathfinding and NPC behavior often destroy suspension of disbelief, forcing developers to turn to scripting and predetermination in order to keep players imaginatively involved in their games.
Despite these apparently crippling limitations, however, some developers seem to have figured out a way to make great games. Among these notable titles are the Civilization series, first-person shooters such as Quake and Half-life, real-time strategy games such as Starcraft and Age of Empires, strategy games such as Rollercoaster Tycoon, and simulations such as The Sims. Amazingly, despite the fact that none of these games features a holodeck, their developers managed to produce works that were both entertaining and commercially successful.
How did they do it?
By working with what they had.
By putting the player’s experience first.
By maximizing design instead of technology.
By creating entertainment instead of a marketing campaign.
Fortunately, for any level of technological sophistication there have always been myriad design choices that developers could make to improve the quality of their products and separate themselves from others in the marketplace. All of the above-mentioned titles are games in which non-technological aspects of development and presentation elevated game-play above that of the competition, and there is every reason to believe that emphasizing advances in design sophistication will produce similar positive results in the future.
What isn’t talked about much these days, however, is that the same is not true for technology. Unlike the radical shift in craft that took place during the 3D revolution, most of the technological advances that remain to be discovered will be to interactive entertainment as new pigments were to painting after it became a viable medium of expression. While new algorithms and graphical advances will certainly give us more choices, they will do little to determine the craft we will use to create more compelling and entertaining works. Ultimately, as technology inevitably becomes more standardized, there will be less opportunity to differentiate products through tech, which will increase the need to differentiate through design.
Unfortunately, because we have been able to do some amazing things with our machinery, the belief first embraced by those pioneers decades ago – that we should be able to achieve any goal – still pervades the development process. This kind of inanity-by-proximity is reinforced by micro-focused efforts such as Big Blue, which became the first chess program/machine to beat a standing world champion. Despite the magnitude of Big Blue’s achievement in gaming and computing circles, the technology that was used to ascend the chess pecking order has almost no value to the interactive entertainment industry. Having all the time, money, and processing power in the world may allow us to create machines capable of beating the most skilled of humans at narrowly defined logical exercises, but it moves us no closer to being able to create believable NPC dialogues on the fly.
Now, none of this means we shouldn’t be down-on-our-knees grateful to the thousands of people who built the technological tool set our industry relies on. Some of those people are quite rightly legendary, and continue to make important contributions today. What has changed, however, is that artistic sensibility must now take center stage in the development process if we’re to have even a vague hope of bringing emotional life to our machinery. However uncertain we are about our ability to reach that goal, as an industry we must admit that tech won’t get us there, and act on that admission.
Instead of looking for answers in algorithms, we must now approach this problem the way creators in passive mediums do, by developing artistic techniques that use the technology we have on hand for creating emotional involvement. It should be emphasized that although the people responsible for leading this charge will necessarily be designers, this is not a knock against programmers or an attempt to factionalize our industry along old fault lines. The position of designer on any title should be open to anyone with the proper qualifications, period.
What concerns me is that design decisions often seem to be made by people who do not have the proper qualifications for today’s games, many of which include and even emphasize dramatic relationships and content. Just as I was always told that I needed to learn to program in order to understand the interactive industry, the time has come to insist that anyone designing interactive entertainment must know how to create and sustain suspension of disbelief in the mind of the user. In the absence of impending technological salvation there can be no other choice if we are to have any hope of advancing the power of our medium.
— Mark Barrett