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April 2009

Ten Game Development Vices, Part One

Mason_vices What are the principal vices of the videogames industry? What do game developers do that they really shouldn't? And why do the same mistakes get made over and over again? This two-part examination of some the classic game development vices exposes some of the problems from inside the videogame industry.

The videogames industry is young, less than forty years old, and racked with bad habits. An industry friend of mine puts the chief problem of the games industry like this: When the new Star Wars movies premièred in Hollywood, Mann's Chinese Theatre was thronged with diehard fans dressed as a Stormtroopers and Wookies. You wouldn't put the geek dressed as a Stormtrooper in charge of writing a Star Wars script and expect anything good to come of it, but the videogames industry routinely puts its most obsessive videogame fanboys in charge of game development. We shouldn't be surprised that this gets us into trouble.

In this piece, each of the departments involved in making a videogame are examined and accused of one particular vice. In making these assessments, the assumption behind each is that the purpose of the videogames industry is to make games that players want to play, and not to make the games that developers want to play. Small indie developers may have that luxury – they can afford to be developing for a niche market that they themselves also represent. But this is rarely true of any developer with scores of employees. It is to developers such as these that the following criticisms are addressed.


1. Production: Over-refined Sensibilities

The chief problem with production – and it extends to everyone in videogame development – is over-refined sensibilities in connection with what a game is and does. To put it another way, producers have generally played just enough games to make them believe they know what they are doing, but not enough to really have insight into what makes a game work for its audience. To get to the point of understanding games, you need to play or study many games of different budgets and examine what works and what doesn't, and discover what can be achieved easily, and what with great difficulty. 

But it seems that the majority of producers, especially at publishers, play only the big titles i.e. games like Gears of War. They then make their decisions based on the quality of these titles. Yet these flagship titles have budgets in excess of $40 million, and are given the time to get everything right. Most videogame projects are developed on just a few million dollars, and cannot aspire to the standards of presentation of the top-tier titles. Trying to compete with these titles on presentation draws time away from every other department making everyone's job far harder than it need be.

There are some great producers in the videogames industry – especially those whose attitude is “what can we do with the resources we have?” But there are also some terrible producers who look at the games they themselves play and expect to bring the presentation values of those games to the table at their own company, irrespective of budget. Every project must be judged in the context of its own scope – and only top-tier titles can afford to be perfect. Most games don't need that level of polish, and to push for that standard is to squander development resources chasing a dream.  


2. Game Design: Complexity

There are a lot of great game designers working in videogames – or at least, there are a lot of great game designers working on the styles of games that game designers enjoy. But for an industry which sells a huge volume of titles to people with radically less game literacy than its employees, there are very few game designers with a working understanding of what the mass market's play needs might be. Worse, there are game designers who are blinkered by highly ideological dogmas such as notions of “what a great game is” (usually corresponding with what that game designer would want to play themselves).

Almost all game designers have a gift for dealing with complex systems – much of the game design process is system design, and when it is not, it is tinkering with systems that someone else has already designed for you (as in first person shooter developments, for instance, which borrow most of their design elements). Furthermore, game designers love complex game systems – which is why they enjoy playing strategy games (perhaps the most complex genre), strat-RPGs and tabletop hobby games with hefty rulebooks.

But most players aren't good with complex systems. They need adequate training to handle systems of even intermediate complexity, and when the game overwhelms them they switch off and lose interest. Game developers often fail to notice just how complex their game systems have become, because they have been working with the game for years and know it inside out. They fail to adequately consider what a new player will face – a problem exacerbated if there is no blind testing.

Even strategy games can be too complex, as the following story illustrates: Black Cactus were a London-based developer specialising in strategy games, a solid outfit with shrewd management and good staff. But their first release, Warrior Kings, suffered from having too many game mechanics. The developers pleaded with the audience after release, saying “it has a long learning curve, but once you get into it it's a great game”. They knew this, because they all played and enjoyed the game throughout its development. But there was too much for a new player to learn – they had priced out the audience through complexity. They went under two years later.


3. Programming: Physics

It seems to be a fact of life that game programmers are obsessed with physics. It's not surprising – the mathematically-adept, high-octane programmer wants something to sink their teeth into, and the maths are satisfyingly complex in physics systems. Trouble is, for everyone other than the programmers, physics are actually really quite boring. Yes, it's fun to see boxes tumble around when you throw someone into them, but this is a minor cosmetic addition to a game – it's rarely enough to support gameplay by itself.

Of course, you can make puzzles out of physics, which games like Half-Life 2, Portal and World of Goo embody. Nerds, programmers and game designers enjoy a brain-melting puzzle. But the mass market audience can’t solve difficult puzzles and has very little interest in trying – there’s a reason that the tasks in a game like Brain Age are not very difficult, and it’s also the reason it’s been able to rack up 17 million unit sales, a figure on par with Grand Theft Auto’s most impressive achievements yet on a tiny fraction of the development cost.

Physics modelling certainly appeals to geeks and programmers, but it represents a rather expensive means of showing off the power of the latest hardware. It rarely represents a source of unique gameplay.


4. QA: Punishing Challenges

It may be unfair to lay this complaint at the foot of the Quality Assurance department, the unthanked-yet-vital front line of the development process, but the wider market for videogames are looking for more than just punishing challenges in their games. Really, this is a blight that affects developers in general, and this complaint could be just as readily directed at producers, marketing or even game designers.

Game developers are packed full of players who like to strive to overcome, who rise to the challenge when a game smacks them up, and having played a lot of games (often in quite narrow genres) such players are more than capable of beating any obstacle when given time. But in the audience at large, it is a minority of players who want their games to beat them to a bloody pulp and dare them to rise to the challenge of beating them (the last ihobo audience study suggests only one in five players enjoy a game riling them up to anger).  

Far too much time is spent making sure the game is hard enough, and nowhere near enough time is spent ensuring that the game is easy enough. A well-crafted Easy mode can satisfy an order of magnitude more players than a well-crafted Hard mode, with the only counter argument being that the hardcore gamers who evangelise games may need their desire for adequate challenge to be met in order to publicise the game. But does a game crafted to meet the needs of such a player really have a future of mass market sales? Almost certainly not.

The “casual games” market has exploded on the back of the realisation that games can be short, simple and most of all forgiving. Console development falls short of incorporating this revelation about the wider audience for games, held back by arguments that amount to self-fulfilling prophecies: “The players who buy console games want punishing games, so that's what we make.” Not only is this claim a half-truth at best, it's small wonder that Nintendo's lean and user-friendly Wii and DS platforms are kicking ass in the console marketplace with a 59% share when their competitors have narrowed the horizons of their audience to match their own rather parochial tastes in games.


5. Art: Oversized Novelty Breast Syndrome

The art departments are generally the people who have their act sorted out; the quality of videogame art is often exceptional. Yet we still see female character models in many games with vital statistics fresh from the imagination of a hormonally-possessed teenage boy. Motorstorm was a top-tier release for the PS3, and it has a female motorcyclist with a physique better suited to a porno movie than a racing tournament. It's not just offensive to women to use these hyper-sexualised character models, it’s bad business for any game targeting a mass market audience to present itself with such amateur aesthetics.

Note that I'm not saying games should be populated with obese crew-cut lesbians or austerely dressed Victorian ladies – by all means have (conventionally) attractive female characters; both male and female players enjoy an appealing, well-crafted model. Just keep the super-sized T&A under the mattress, where it belongs. 

The opening image is Cathy Mason's Vices, which I found online here, at the Arkansas Arts Council website. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.

Next week: Ham, Hollywood and Hell

The Crowd as a Player

China_night_01 In a sporting match, does the crowd merely spectate? Or should the fans be considered another player?

Although my own personal interest is more in videogames and board games, since these are what I professionally design, I am fascinated by all forms of play, and professional sports interest me more as a psychological phenomena than they do as an activity to follow. Watching other people's commitment to their football, baseball and basketball teams fascinates me, as their behaviour in this regard is often far more compulsive than any videogame addict (perhaps with MMOs excluded). Fans watch their team play every week, with religious dedication. They become quite upset if they miss a match.

Watching from home, one can easily argue that the player's sense of connection to the match is that of a spectator (although the individual may feel they have an influence on the outcome - even, sometimes, if they are watching a recording, since our impressions of agency need not be rational). But from the stadium itself, the crowd is something more than a spectator. They can actually influence the outcome of the match.

The most obvious example is with crowd noise: in a game of American football, for instance, in which the play requires expert co-ordination between the players, which in turn requires accurate communication, the roaring din of the home team can put off the visiting players, potentially leading to an edge. Then of course there is the effect on the morale of either team - there is certainly a psychological advantage to hearing a stadium full of fans cheer you on, and a disadvantage to having them shout you down in disgust. The term "the twelfth man" has been used in both football and American football to indicate the extent of crowd influence in the game.

With this in mind, is it really reasonable to consider the crowd as mere spectators? Are they not something close to an extra player - a super-organism of fans acting as one collective extra player for their team? And if so, what does this tell us about the disposition of play?

GDC Snapshots

Ihobo triumvirate
Wendy, Chris and Ernest - the "ihobo triumvirate" at the IGDA Members Party. Is this the first time all three have been in the same place at the same time?

Beyond Game Design Authors
Noah, Nicole, Katherine, Chris and Sheri (five of the eight Beyond Game Design authors) at the author's meal at Sanraku, the place where the idea for the book first emerged, two years earlier.