If game design means the creation of tools for play tailored to the needs of specific groups of players, the rising cost of development on the power consoles has strangled this possibility out of existence in the blockbuster market. The concern there is in attracting, addicting, and retaining a community of players – and as ever, it's chiefly the adolescent boys (and their adult successors) who are sufficiently compulsive to be gouged regularly for 60 bucks a pop. Other players are unwilling to pay so much for their play.
Because of the sheer scale of modern development costs, the brands in the blockbuster space overshadow teams in importance by a wide margin. It is no coincidence that newly-matured cash cow Call of Duty has two different developers working on it. The new mega-brands will increasingly demand steps like these if they are to sustain the 10-20 million strong communities of addicts at their core.
Addiction is also on sale elsewhere. Via a more expressly social fictional world, a wider demographic containing geeks of all stripes are willing to pay 15 bucks a month to feed compulsive reward schedules like slot jockeys playing in teams. Comparable to Call of Duty, World of Warcraft sustains a community of some 10-20 million addicts. Most are happy with their habit; others lose all sense of proportion once they get hooked on communal fantasy life.
Against this, the only creative counterweight comes from the indie programmers, since at the opposite scale of development the market is open solely to those who program, and any artists they choose to bring along for the ride. Incredible games for geeks are made in this space, but geek design, ultimately, is a limited form of game design, one that is ultimately self serving. Geeks themselves have great respect for those who program the kinds of games geeks want to play – but this kind of respect is simply fandom in another guise.
Furthermore, geek design inevitably revolves around addictiveness, since the typical geek's buttons are ready and eager to be pushed. What makes games like Dwarf Fortress and Minecraft so beloved by their fans (myself included) is the powerful freedom to set your own goals within the constraints of the fictional world. The former presents itself as challenge ('losing is fun' is the game's motto), the latter compels the churning of resources in the pursuit of one's own projects to drive highly compulsive play. Both approaches are recognisably addictive for the player geeky enough to overcome the apparent strangeness of the representation, and the complexity of the processes to be learned.
And what of the non-geeks for whom such games are arcane and unappealing? The diversions market seems to have graduated from its experimental phase (the Casual game gold rush having concluded with just three viable genres: match 3, time management and hidden object) and gone straight to packaging addiction in more accessible wrappers. Zynga's Farmville takes the RPG reward schedules that originated with Dungeons & Dragons (and are now central to both Call of Duty and World of Warcraft) out to the masses with massive profitability as the result. Thus all game design has become addiction design.
But of course, I speak in a cavalier fashion of addicts and addiction. We don't talk of 'sports addicts' with respect to habitual sports fans (although we sometimes speak of 'soap addicts' with respect of TV shows). There's a thin, treacherous line between fan and addict, but as long as the profit motive rules, everyone will be looking for 'sticky' content – marketing speak for 'addictive'. While there are many forms of enjoyment, they all relate to the same biological mechanism (dopamine and the nucleus accumbens), and all have the potential to become habit-forming. TV, music, films, books, websites – whatever the medium, the corporate mission remains the same: find the sticky brands and strip-mine.
Which is why it's a shame that geek design always tends towards addiction design. If anything might avoid commercialism, it should be these small projects, but the centrality of the programmer seems to allow compulsive play to trump artistry every time. If it were not for extraordinary outfits like Tale of Tales, newsgaming, Prize Budget for Boys and thatgamecompany, there might be no art games outside of the growing cloud of 'artlets' by individuals such as Mory Buckman, Ferry Halim, Rod Humble, Deirdra Kiai, Jordan Magnuson and others too numerous to mention. The struggle for respect that digital games face is intimately connected with the difficulties of connecting revenue to artistry, a problem that art in all forms suffers from but which is acute in the case of infinitely reproducible media where there is no object to acquire the mystique that drives the auction market for conventional art.
Game design is dead. Designing addiction has taken its place. But the medium of videogames is still very much alive, and exciting possibilities lurk around every corner. Geek design still has remarkably original visions of play to explore (albeit, only compulsive play), blockbuster games are achieving incredible new high watermarks for polish, and when it comes to interactive artworks we can only guess at what might be possible. But it is all overshadowed by the commercial exploitation of addiction, a professional niche I find myself working in, and not without reservations. We live, as the saying goes, in interesting times. For the time being, that also means we live in addictive times.
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