3 Reasons Cool Ideas are Damaging Video Games
I don’t think anyone would argue against the idea that children and vivid imaginations go hand in hand. Using your imagination in weird and fantastical ways when you’re a kid is the prelude to more serious skills like deduction, extrapolation and abstraction (all of which I’m told are real words for things that exist).
So I don’t begrudge people thinking in terms of “wouldn’t it be cool if…” about video games, especially games that I’ve worked on. If anything, it’d be sad if it were the other way around, and the players’ imaginations were not triggered by my games. That’d mean that I’d failed as a game designer and that the player(s) would soon have to revert to more mundane thinking patterns, like “maybe if I didn’t cry so much my dad wouldn’t drink all the time”.
But while leaps of imagination and other forms of “cool ideas” are important, they are supposed to be the starting point of a larger discussion and a whole lot of hard work. Any kid could think of going to the moon; the idea isn’t what got us there.
Thing is, I’ve been in the games industry for over 12 years now, and I’ve seen it from many different angles. I’ve been a journalist (more like “freelance hack”) and copywriter, but above all a developer, working my way up from testing to editing to design to creative leadership over the course of my career. And I’m sorry to report that unlike most kids outside of mental institutions, the games industry as a whole has yet to outgrow of its love for naïvely simplistic solutions, incidental water-cooler-moment thinking and wouldn’t-it-be-cool-ifs.
This is a problem because…
1.) It creates a fanbase of idiots (which we then have to cater to)
I got my very first job in the games industry straight out of 12th grade. I had to leave my European home country and head for Canada to work in the QA department of what was, and still is, one of the most hated publishers in the games industry (they are also great at writing contracts and non-disclosure agreements, while also being extremely litigious and known for holding grudges, so you’ll have to figure out their identity for yourselves).
I can hardly describe how fortunate I felt to land that job. I was going to be living the dream, or at very least have my feet firmly planted on the gilded path to geek bliss.
That obviously didn’t happen.
What I got instead was part-time, hourly employment (which in that context meant at least 40 hour weeks, with 60-80 hours not being uncommon) for basically no money, very little support and an often completely toxic work environment. This is not news to anyone who knows anything about the realities of games industry QA, and whether or not it’s acceptable is a topic for a whole other debate, but the point is that there was nothing that had prepared me for what game development, even at that entry level, would entail.
That’s not the problem, though. The problem is that there really wasn’t anything that could have prepared me for it. Thing is, I was a hardcore gamer in the truest sense of the word. Maybe I wasn’t logging speedruns or importing super-obscure collectors’ editions of tentacle porn games, but I was playing as many games as my time and budget allowed. I read games magazines and watched terrible low-resolution videos over dial-up Internet. But that didn’t end up helping me make the transition from consumer to producer in the slightest. If anything it just left me painfully disillusioned and depressed once I’d made the jump. Because as it turns out, there is a massive chasm between the realities of making games and the narrative that we present to the consumers. Now, I’ve written a bit about this disparity elsewhere in the past, so I won’t hark on too much about it. Let me just summarize some of the most prevalent and insidious delusions that, to this day, permeate much of our industry:
* Game design = having cool ideas
* Number of features= quality
* Number of memorable moments = quality
* Hours of play time hours = quality
* Numbers of players = quality
* Number of pixels pushed = quality
* Amount of non-redundant data on the disc = quality
* TL;DR: Anything quantifiable = quality
Don’t believe me? Just read the average games forum. Go on, read something even remotely technical, like a thread about Starcraft or League of Legends balancing and remember to set a timer – I want you to count how long it takes before someone not only suggests, but outright demands a completely game-breaking solution to a minor niggle. If you think that you understand those games and it takes you more than a few minutes then you’re quite possibly part of the problem.
There are plenty of examples on the internet of people’s righteous indignation that’s completely based on their own lack of understanding of key aspects of games design and development. These morons really think that they are in any position to lecture the rest of us on how we should really be doing our jobs, never noticing how their statements are never echoed by people who know what the hell they are talking about (read: actual game developers).
And the worst part about all of this is that the industry is complicit in making people uninformed and stupid. Sure, every once in a while someone will sound off and try to punch a hole in the Matrix, but as a whole we, as an industry, have created a simplified Reader’s Digest-like narrative that serves to make it easier for us to disseminate certain messages to consumers. The flipside is that we’ve now created a user base that’s woefully misinformed about pretty much every aspect of games and their development, and their purchasing power is massive – which creates a feedback loop where we’re forced to keep selling them all the same shit we always have.
This practice has over time ended up biting us in the ass in even more ways, as…
2.) It keeps the wrong people in charge at game studios
They say that if you repeat a lie often enough it becomes the truth. The corollary, of course, is that the liars themselves will become so invested in their lies that they can’t afford to go back and it all goes horribly overboard (see virgin birth, Christianity).
The games industry is pretty good at believing its own bullshit. And now that game design has been reduced to a handful of quantifiable bullet points that may or may not end up on the back of the game’s box, then what good are game designers? Oh sure, we still need a few in there to write executive summaries, and figure out those little details that
MAKE UP THE ACTUAL FUCKING GAME nobody upstairs understands, but to be honest they are hardly the most important people in the pipeline any more. We’ve figured out fun now. All we need to do is apply the formula. And hey, if it still doesn’t end up selling, we probably weren’t doing it hard enough. Next time, put more stuff on the disc and more numbers after the bullet points.
In this kind of environment is should come as no surprise that the wrong people are also in charge of the day-to-day of development. The marketing departments, for example, can scare the crap out of chief executives by simply saying “I don’t know how to sell that”. Gone are the days when a statement like that would get whoever uttered it fired for being a complacent dickhole; these days the developers have to create the most easy-to-sell product because, it would seem, the people who work in marketing have gotten tired of actually doing any work. The whole idea of figuring out how to “monetize” a good product is, apparently, so last millennium. These days the best product is the one who is the easiest to piggy-back onto an already existing trend.
Then there are the Producers. Now, to be fair, one of the many issues in our industry is how terribly inconsistent we are in how we use job titles, so let me clarify: I’m talking about Producers as “general managers” of game projects, in whole or in part. Many of these people have never made games before, others have never done any creative work – and about 99% have never done any design work. But because of how certain MBA-wielding douchebags define the job, they end up being the project autocrats, having absolute authority but few tangible skills. Worst of all, they’ve often bought into the same myth we’ve helped to sell the general audience, taking on a “how hard could it be” approach to even the most daunting and/or risky tasks.
“But”, I hear you thinking, “why should I care?” All industries have problems, and if the games are good then everything else is just collateral damage, after all. Well that’s kind of the thing – the games aren’t good. And I don’t even mean that in a snobby “you have bad taste in games” way (though you do have bad taste in games and should grow the fuck up), no, I mean, even the games that you like could’ve been a damn sight better if not for the two issues I’ve mentioned thus far. I mean, think about it – endured any botched launches recently? Any games with unjustified always-online requirements that later had to be patched away in order to avoid, oh I don’t know, arson?
Now, even all of this is not an insurmountable problem. A skilled, balanced, experienced, well-staffed and properly financed team can overcome even these issues and still make a good game. That, however, is becoming increasingly difficult too. Because another problem with the focus on just having cool ideas is that…
3.) It degrades the things that actually make games great
It’d be one thing if the only consequence of the above mentioned developments was an abundance of career managers and marketers being annoying. The best dev teams in the business can tick those boxes and still make time for putting some actual quality into their projects.
Sadly, that’s not the situation we find ourselves in. Because the shift in focus has happened in such a way that it’s directly eating away at the teams’ ability to actually deliver quality products. I was recently speaking at a developer’s conference and got the opportunity to sit in on a lecture by a gentleman working as a Level Design Director for one of the few respectable companies still making so-called triple-A games. After a bit of prodding, the two of us shared in each other’s frustrations regarding the sadly neglected art of level design. He explained that he’d had something like one million applications for a level design position, and out of those applicants a pathetically small amount knew anything at all about the job they were FUCKING APPLYING FOR. And it wasn’t exactly advertised as an entry-level position or anything; the applicants just thought “meh, level design, how hard could it be”.
His experiences closely mirror my own. I’ve been quite lucky in recruiting game (sometimes called “systems” or similar) designers – but good, committed level designers are nowhere to be found. The few you do find usually see their job as a transitional position on the path to getting to do the game design, because somehow that’s the prestigious kind of design.
Neither myself nor the other gentleman had any immediate answers to how we’d ended up in this position, and what we could do about it – which was a little embarrassing considering the question arose during public question time and the room was packed, making us both seem a bit less guru-like than we would’ve wanted. But since then I’ve thought a bit about it, and I think it’s that same problem again: cool ideas and incidental thinking dominates the discourse on both the consumer side and the development side, and we see the whole development community adjusting to the trend.
It’s sad in more ways than one. On the one hand it’s sad that it’s even happening. But it’s also sad that we as an industry have allowed it to happen. Those cool events that stick in everyone’s memories would never have worked without all the other content leading up to them. And however cool your game mechanics are, if your content and level design aren’t up to scratch, said cool mechanics will never scale up to 20+ hours of gameplay.
Luckily it’s not all doom and gloom. Some of the most lauded games of the last couple of years, like Dear Esther, The Stanley Parable and Gone Home are nothing but level and content design and writing. I mean, seriously, imagine elevator-pitching any of those: “Wouldn’t it be cool if you had this game where you walked around on an island and a narrator spoke to you”? Or “wouldn’t it be rad if this one game gave you a choice of walking through the door on your left… or the door on your right”? Or “what if there was this house… and there was stuff in the house… and you could look at the stuff…”?
Now, none of this is to say that there can never be any value in cool ideas and expansive feature sets. Grand Theft Auto and World of Warcraft are both really cool games, after all. But those kinds of successes are very, very hard to replicate. Many would-be clones or competitors of other big-name titles have fallen way, way short of their sales targets and ultimately bombed, sometimes so hard that they’ve ended up taking entire studios with them into the abyss.
So how can you help? Well, that’s easy – just try to be less of a lazy ignoramus! For example:
- Don’t make any day-1 purchases whatsoever. Wait until as many reviews as possible are in, then read the most critical ones without having made up your mind already (this can be hard, apparently). Try circumventing the entire marketing machine altogether. Figure out which websites and reviewers are trustworthy and which ones are bought (because many of them are).
- If you want a certain game, and it’s in a seriously broken state (you’ll know it when you see it), don’t purchase it until its issues are confirmed to be fixed. Also make it clear on message boards and in other correspondence with the publisher that you are holding off on your purchase specifically because they tried to sell you an unfinished product.
- Read Gamasutra and development blogs every once in a while. Try to get the rawest possible stories, not just the doctored stuff that’s actually marketing material. If someone writes in a post-mortem that one of their biggest fears was “that we thought that maybe we’d end up making the game too good”, keep walking. Add some game devs on Twitter.
- Make a game. Yes I’m serious. You can make anything from simple branching text games to side-scrolling platform games with very simple, freely available tools. Try to get your game as close as possible to what you think qualifies as “release quality” to really get an idea of what it means to make a game.
You’re quite likely to enjoy yourself in the process, and hey, maybe it’ll make you want to consider a path in professional game development (or, perhaps, the opposite). It’s quite likely you’ll learn to appreciate new aspects of games overall. But what’s absolutely guaranteed to happen, if you do the exercise in earnest, is that you’ll stop talking out your ass as much as you did before. And that’d be a welcome development.