My interest in this game was driven primarily by the desire to see and explore its celebrated and vast open world. I’m a big believer in the benefits of discovery as an interactive design mechanic, and there is no easier or more effective way to integrate discovery and interactivity than allowing players to wander through a virtual environment at their own discretion. In a narrative context there are significant obstacles to pulling off such an environment in a compelling way, but I also knew that Elden Ring was billed — correctly — not as a traditional role-playing game, but as an Action RPG. Meaning the emphasis was decidedly on combat and boss fights, and not on story or character development. [ Read more ]
Stand beside a mountain stream and observe the water for a while and you’ll see that most of it moves in a continuous flow. Look a little closer, however, and you’ll see that the bed of the stream and objects in and along the stream — logs, boulders, the legs of a bear — all have an effect on the flow due to friction. Look closer still — say, at a rock near the edge of the stream — and you’ll find that the flow may slow to a halt if not actually move in the opposite direction, creating what is commonly called a whirlpool, but more accurately described as an eddy. Peer at the boundary between the flowing current and the eddy and you’ll see smaller eddies form and detach again and again, dissipating as they flow downstream because they are no longer powered by the object in the stream that created them.
Known as detached eddies in the science of fluid dynamics, these disconnected but still churning whorls can also be spawned in the atmosphere, as bodies of air move over the landscape or interact with each other. Heat water to the right temperature and move a low pressure area over that water and you may spawn a monstrous hurricane that lasts for days and travels thousands of miles. Move that same hurricane over dry land, however, detaching it from its power source, and it will slowly dissipate, even as it may still wipe entire communities off the face of the earth.
The key component of an eddy, and what distinguishes an eddy from a vortex, is that in the middle of an eddy there is a void — a place of calm that experiences none of the rotational effects of the moving fluid that defines the eddy itself. Drop a leaf in the center of an eddy caused by even the most ferocious mountain stream and it will float exactly where you dropped it. In a vortex there is no void, but vortices can also detach like eddies. This is known, sensibly enough, as vortex shedding — a phenomenon that has led to practical applications in the real world such as winglets on airplanes. [ Read more ]
In my last post I observed that the design mechanics of even simple, non-narrative board games induce different degrees of emotional involvement, however subtle such differences might be. From this observation I posited a z-axis of interactive design that we might use in designing interactive entertainment that is more emotionally compelling. Unfortunately, initial returns on that post suggest that instead of prompting a discussion about how we might increase emotional involvement in our games along the z-axis, I seem to have created the design-theory equivalent of a Rorschach test.
Having spent the better part of a decade trying to be respectful of diverse views, while at the same time advocating for changes that I think our industry needs to make, I find myself at a point of departure in trying to reconcile those two aims. As recently noted I decided to skip the GDC this year if not pull back from the industry entirely, so on that point alone you should feel free to discount what follows as tainted with spite.
Speaking of the 2004 GDC, I’ve checked several reliable web sites over the past few days to get some sense of what transpired, but I’ve seen little mention of the proceedings overall, and almost nothing in the mainstream media. That is, until last night, when I happened by pure chance to notice the following headline while checking an email account: “Video Game Industry Faces ‘Crisis of Creativity’.”
As someone who believes the interactive industry is facing a crisis of creativity, that headline caught my eye. Linking to the story revealed it to be a Reuters article about the GDC in San Jose. Here are the first two graphs:
SAN JOSE, Calif. (Reuters) – The video game industry is facing a hardening of the creative arteries as aging gamers’ tastes increasingly shift toward sequels and games based on movies, industry participants said this week.
With more and more titles chasing the success of their predecessors and content owners digging deep into their libraries to tap older material for quick fail-proof conversion into games, the industry is faced with a question more serious than rhetorical: What’s new?
As someone who believes the game industry is facing a hardening of the arteries as aging gamers’ tastes increasingly shift toward sequels and games based on movies, that opening paragraph also caught my eye. I also agree that the question at the end of the second paragraph – ‘What’s new?’ – is more serious than rhetorical.
So let’s ask ourselves: What’s new? Which craft subject, of all the subjects related to interactive entertainment, no matter how tangentially, really deserves exploration?
Wait a minute – how about emotional involvement? I know for a fact that almost no serious work has been done on the subject, meaning there should be good avenues of exploration available right off the bat, and perhaps even a few unexpected riches within easy reach. As it stands, the faint acknowledgment the industry gives to the idea that players might want their choices to have emotional as well as rational consequences usually leads to the use of filmic techniques that are antithetical to interactivity. How crazy is that?
Yet we shouldn’t be rash. If the interactive industry hasn’t really taken the subject of emotional involvement seriously, there must be a good reason. Particularly given that there’s no conceivable downside to increasing emotional involvement in a product. I mean, who wouldn’t want to have a more powerful effect on the player than we’re already having? Only a crazy person, that’s who.
After a good deal of thought, here are my top-five prioritized reasons why the interactive industry has yet to embrace emotional involvement as a specific design goal:
5) Paralyzing Groupthink
It’s only natural: you do the same thing again and again and after a while it gets hard to think outside the box. Somebody says ’emotional involvement’ and you think ‘cutscene’. Who doesn’t? I mean besides this guy. (To see a classic example of industry groupthink in action, read the rest of that Reuters article and try to find any hint of a new idea anywhere.)
4) Institutional Gatekeeping
Industries and bureaucracies tend to protect themselves even when they aren’t working efficiently or profitably. In our business there are myriad entrenched interests that support the current design methodologies almost reflexively, while opposing innovation with equally thoughtless ease. Key people preside over key power centers and transaction points, and over time those people act more as gatekeepers than facilitators.
3) Condescending Ignorance
This one’s a little tougher to brush off. Unfortunately, there are some people in the interactive industry who will look right down their nose at you and tell you they see the universe in three dimensions, when in fact they barely see it in two. The problem is that it’s hard to talk to somebody about the z-axis when they live in Flatland. How exactly do you explain to someone what they don’t know when they don’t know what they don’t know?
2) Bald Ego
If it seems impossible that the interactive industry could be in trouble when it employs so many talented people, consider this example from another industry full of bright lights. One day several key players were called into a meeting room to discuss a problem with potentially life-threatening consequences. After going around the table there was unanimous agreement – albeit some of it due to timidity – that there was absolutely nothing to worry about. The work product of that meeting was a space shuttle disintegrating over Texas.
1) Economic Cowardice
If you’re a gambler – and anyone who predicates a business on creative content is a gambler – you want to hedge your bets. If you don’t have bankable stars like the movie industry or the recording industry you look for other identifiable means of assuring a return on investment. In the interactive industry that means sequels and licenses. If you have an original idea, remember this: Will Wright had to go through hell to get The Sims made. And if the money people don’t believe Will Wright is worth the risk, they won’t believe anyone is worth the risk.
As I look back on my time in the interactive industry, what’s fascinating is that despite the fact that all passive entertainment mediums derive great economic benefit from involving their audiences emotionally, our industry still believes that getting people to care emotionally about the interactive choices they make should be an afterthought. To the extent that people think about it at all they tend to confuse the issue of aspiring to emotional involvement with aspiring to interactive storytelling as if they’re the same thing. They aren’t.
Labels aside, our industry needs to craft experiences – memorable emotional interactive experiences – and we’re not doing it. Worse, we don’t seem to recognize that that’s a problem, or care enough to take the time to figure out how to solve that problem.
The first step to solving a problem is admitting you have one, and I admit it.
A few months back I got my annual e-mail announcing the upcoming GDC this spring. I opened it, looked at it, closed it, then deleted it.
A few weeks after that came an e-mail from a really great group of people that I’ve had the pleasure to dine with at the GDC for the past few years, announcing this year’s dinner location and menu. I opened the message, read it, closed it and never replied.
A few weeks later the renewal notice for my subscription to Computer Gaming World came in the mail. I’ve had a subscription to CGW for almost a decade, but I threw the notice in the trash, unopened.
A few weeks later I received some materials in the mail about the upcoming GDC. They went in the trash, unopened.
A few weeks later I talked with a good friend who’d just heard that his company was sending him from Europe to the GDC this year, all expenses paid. We’d shared a room in prior years to defray costs, and I knew I’d miss seeing him again, but I felt no pang of loss at not attending myself. Even the location, which I knew so well, seemed an echo in my mind’s eye. (Except for the little drive-up/take-out Mexican place a couple of blocks down from the conference center that I’d become enamored with.)
Somewhere along the line I began to think about these individual moments in sum, and I wondered what they really meant. Was I truly sick of the games biz, or was this just an emotional low after the letdowns I’d had the previous year? What did it all mean?
Honestly, I didn’t really know until by chance I happened to look at the Mission Statement here on my site, which reminded me why I used to like working in the games biz more than I like working in it now. I don’t know if I’ve reached any real conclusions about where all this is leading me, but I do know there’s a trail of breadcrumbs here, and I don’t think they lead back to interactive entertainment the way the business is right now.
As an antidote to this malaise, I involved myself in an entirely new enterprise over the past six months, during which time I was able to rise through the ranks in fairly short order and materially participate in one of the most amazing and important reversals of fortune that I’ve ever seen. I may write about the specifics later, although probably not, but two points about the experience stand out. First, it reminded me that I have been most successful and helpful when I trust my own judgment, rather than following someone else’s lead. Second, any time money becomes important to me, it probably means I’m not enjoying my work.
— Mark Barrett
In my years in the games biz I’ve been fortunate to enjoy most of the projects I’ve worked on. I’ve also enjoyed watching people have fun playing games I helped create, as I have enjoyed attending and speaking at conferences and evangelizing for the cause of emotional involvement in interactive works. All of that pales into nothingness, however, when compared with the peers I’ve come to know as good friends.
In working with and getting to know some very talented people, I’ve also learned that nothing motivates me to excel more than collaborating with people I respect and admire. It is a kind of peer pressure that I view as entirely positive, and I hope in your own professional life you get to experience the magnitude of satisfaction that comes from measuring up to the standards of respected peers. I know people give lip service to the idea that no amount of money or authority can compensate for such joys, but in my case – as demonstrated in the previous essay here – it’s actually true.
So today I want to take a moment to introduce you to two friends I’ve worked with on multiple projects, and grown to have a great deal of respect for. I also consider them important to the long-term health of our industry, which is another reason I think you should know who they are.
Many of you know Lee from the lectures and talks he’s given at the GDC and other conferences over the past decade, and you know he knows his stuff. For those of you who don’t know him or his work, you can take a tour of his site.
Quite coincidentally, while I was working on a post about design basics a few months back, Lee sent me the first in a (now completed) series of articles he was writing concerning storytelling in MMORPG’s. What interested me about Lee’s point of view was that it mirrored my own: we’re simply not getting it done. We can talk about possibilities ad nauseum, but the bottom line is that as an industry we’ve made precious few gains over the past five years, and our inability to grow and compete with mainstream narrative entertainments is having a negative effect on our industry, and limiting our potential.
As Lee continued cranking out his essays I found his line of thinking in agreement with another essay I was working on, which made the case that it was time producers started hiring professional storytellers to actually do the storytelling in their games. Now, the usual caution on this point is that writers who don’t understand interactivity and game design can do more harm that good, and I agree with that. The problem is, designers have historically used that concern as leverage for doing the storytelling themselves, even if they’re not qualified.
My response to all this is that I started out as a storyteller and learned the interactive ropes, so I think others can too. I also believe storytellers will be able to learn about design issues and how they impact storytelling more quickly than designers will be able to learn how to do first-rate storytelling, and I think that argument has already proven out in film. Good screenwriters know the movie-making craft and process, but at their core they are good writers. And being a good writer involves some skills that are mighty hard to teach.
Okay, so what does this have to do with Lee? Well, here was Lee writing a series of solid articles about failed storytelling in MMORPG’s (specifically Star Wars Galaxies), and that suddenly hit me as patently absurd. There probably isn’t anybody on the face of the earth more qualified to tackle the issue of storytelling in MMORPG’s than Lee Sheldon, so what’s he doing on the outside looking in at failed implementations? But there’s more to the story.
See, before Lee was a gaming dude, he was a Hollywood dude, and his background even includes taking the lead on a soap opera or two. While that probably sounds a little old-school, can you think of another storytelling medium in which the demand for ongoing content is even remotely comparable? Soap operas, like MMORPG’s, are designed from the ground up to never end. They’re built to keep people coming back again and again, which is an awfully good thing to know how to do if you’re trying to run, say, a subscription-based entertainment service.
I have no doubt that at some point in the future a producer is going to think to themselves, “Gee, this online game thing is kind of like a soap opera, so maybe we should talk to some Hollywood people who know that territory….” The problem, of course, is that the people they talk to won’t know anything about games, which means the resulting effort – however noble and sincere – will probably fail.
So, if you’re putting together an MMORPG, and you want to deliver story, your first and biggest mistake will be not hiring Lee Sheldon. Sure, you can hire other people, but they’re not going to know what Lee knows about story, and they’re not going to be able to deliver the storytelling he can deliver. Which means instead of having customers who say, “Wow!”, you’re going to have customers who say, “You suck!”
And that’s why you should get to know Lee.
Over the past eight years or so, if there’s anybody I’ve spent a lot of time talking design theory and practice with, it’s Jurie. Dutch by birth, Jurie has worked in Germany, France and now Austria, in a variety of capacities that almost always underestimated his capabilities and talents. Did I mention he speaks four languages fluently, not including C++ or Python? That’s the kind of smarts he’s got, and we’re not even talking interactive yet.
About a year ago Jurie joined RockStar, but soon after that he dropped out of sight. For a while I thought maybe he died, but it turned out he was the project manager on the XBox port of GTA3: Vice City. (This should be a warning to those of you thinking romantic thoughts about the games biz. Instead, think 2 a.m. phone calls about bug fixes.) After a little R&R, a transfusion, and some illumination from sources other than an electron beam, Jurie is not only back in the swing of things, he’s posting to his blog faster than I can comment. [Note: Jurie’s output has now exceeded even the pace of blogging, and he can be found on Twitter here. — MB]
While his posts are eclectic, he’s not a dilettante. Jurie knows a lot of the heavyweights in the business on both sides of the pond, he knows the core design issues we’re wrestling with, and many of his musings are concerned with the basic problems that our business is facing. Tag along for a few days and you’ll see what I mean.
— Mark Barrett
Have you noticed lately how often a television show you’re watching will be interrupted on the fly by a promo, a logo, or some other form of advertising? It’s gotten to the point that I can’t watch Spongebob anymore because Nickelodeon keeps running ads for upcoming shows on the lower part of the screen – which right now you’re thinking is maybe the bottom inch, but I’ve seen them take as much as the lower third of the on-screen image. Or take some of the NBA games I watched this year, which included on-screen promos during the game that momentarily flashed close to the center of the screen, forcing your eye to acknowledge them.
I mention this because I think it’s a measure of the degree to which television has been trivialized in the current offering of entertainment options. Sure, taken as a whole television itself is still popular, but there are so many channels now that the model is more like that of the magazine business than anything else. And like the magazine business, channels are struggling to attract and keep eyeballs while building a brand, because building a brand on TV means doing intrusive things like having omnipresent on-screen logos, border ads, overlays, etc.
What’s interesting about this relative to interactive entertainment is that it wasn’t that long ago that people were worrying about product placement practices in TV, and wondering if it was going to destroy the business, or save it. Well, those concerns are long gone in TV land, but they’re soon to roost in the interactive industry, which is already tipping toward licensing as a means of catching the eyeballs of those same consumers – who today have a ridiculous number of entertainment options available to them. I’m already seeing intrusive overlaid ads on pages like Gamasutra (that irritating Radeon-slime ad), and I guess I’m wondering how long it’s going to be before I fire up a piece of interactive entertainment and have to deal with an omnipresent logo in the lower right corner of my monitor while I’m playing a shooter.
When that happens, I’ll know the industry threw in the towel on suspension of disbelief. I’ll also know that the part of the industry I cared about died.
— Mark Barrett
Speaking of licensing, the debate framed by Warren Spector’s 2003 GDC speech and Greg Costikyan’s GDC lament may have less to do with the economic rigors of our business than I originally thought. While reading a book called What Einstein Told His Cook, by Robert L. Wolke, I ran across the following quote:
GE’s market research [on microwave cooking] discovered that 90 percent of all American Consumers’ cooking entailed only 80 recipes….
Familiarity may breed contempt in human beings, but in what we eat, and in what we choose to do with our playtime, it may be a much more important ingredient than we’re admitting. While that kind of oversight isn’t surprising given that many of the people doing the commenting, like me, are creative types who get their enjoyment from pushing boundaries, it’s at least a reminder not to dismiss the choices of the masses outright. From their point of view the question isn’t whether there’s enough new stuff being made, the question is whether there are enough choice available so they don’t feel like they’re playing the same thing all the time.
On the off chance that the entire interactive entertainment industry may only have room for eighty licenses, you should probably lock one up today.
— Mark Barrett
A few days ago I suggested that we as an industry might do well to get ahead of attempts to blame our entertainment medium for the deranged sniper homicides near Washington, D.C. While I’ve only heard speculative mention of any possible association between those killings and the sniping simulations on the market (see partial list in previous post), I wasn’t at all surprised to open my Gannett-affiliated local newspaper yesterday and find an article entitled “Sniper deaths stir video-game violence debate.”
The game primarily targeted in the article was Konami’s PS2 title Silent Scope 3 (SS3), which carries a ‘Mature’ ESRB rating. The ‘Teen’ rated Silent Scope, “a less sophisticated version,” was also noted as being available for GBA. Leaving aside the question of what actually makes SS3 more “sophisticated,” the article clearly intended to establish that not only are there sniper simulations on the market, but that some of them are squarely aimed at kids, whom the non-gaming public assumes are the only consumers of interactive entertainment.
If there’s a wedge to get behind regarding concerns about violence and games, it seems to me that the point of that wedge might be raising the consciousness of the average consumer about the demographics of the game-playing public. While I have serious concerns about the ready availability of hardcore titles, and I’m not convinced that violent works in any medium are benign to children, I’m also concerned that the public and press don’t seem to differentiate between children and adults in their concerns.
For example, nowhere in the article is there any assertion that the sniper on the east coast is underage, yet the article only takes five sentences to get to a quote from a concerned “New York City mother of two” in a Yahoo chatroom: “These kinds of games are disgusting and shouldn’t be available to kids.” Well, I agree that some games are disgusting, and there are plenty that shouldn’t be available to children, but what does that have to do with the killings, or with the possibility that the sniper may be an adult?
Having joined the battle in predictable fashion, the article mentions a few more sniping titles, then brings in Douglas Lowenstein, president of the Interactive Digital Software Association (which may be the most redundant title I’ve ever heard in my life) for counterpoint. Dutifully championing the industry, Lowenstein scoffs at the idea that video games ever cause aggressive behavior, cites a few allies in his cause, then closes with the following: “…all repudiate claims that violent media and/or video games do not lead to aggressive behavior.”
Whether that’s a typo, or Lowenstein was misquoted or misspoke, if that’s as good as it gets then I suspect our industry is going to take a beating for the foreseeable future. If the sniper turns out to have been a devotee of one or more sniping games, I suspect there will be hell to pay.
— Mark Barrett
The recent spate of sniper killings in the northeast has unfortunately produced another line of thought on the subject of violence in computer games. Note that what follows concerns only adults and violent interactive entertainment, not children.
A few days ago I was watching one of the ubiquitous talking-head entertainment programs that passes for journalism these days, and a retired NYPD homicide detective was being asked for his take on the sniper killings. His opinion was that the sniper was different from the ‘normal’ spree or serial killer, primarily because the attacks, like the killings at Columbine, seemed to him to be part of “a game.” Before I had a chance to wonder whether he was using the term metaphorically or not, the detective asserted that the killers at Columbine had been acting out the fantasy of a computer game that they had played.
In a frozen moment I realized that while most people would be relieved when the sniper was caught, I, as a member of the interactive entertainment industry, would still be waiting apprehensively to find out if the killer’s software library included any computer games that featured sniping. Assuming for the sake of argument that I’m not the only person in the business who’s had this thought, why we aren’t getting ahead of the curve this time? [ Read more ]