Game Design is Dead
Wednesday, 15 December 2010
For videogames, the art and craft of game design is dead. In its place we are left only addiction design and geek design, which is after all only a particular form of addiction design.
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.
Enjoy your winter festivities! ihobo returns in January.
Excellent rant! Very clear-headed, as usual. Also, thank you for recognizing the problem of art creation vs programming. This is sadly often underestimated as an obstacle to evolution of the medium.
Posted by: Michael Samyn | Friday, 17 December 2010 at 22:18
What is "game design"? Why is it distinct from "addiction design"?
I don't think there's a meaningful difference between "game design" and "addiction design"; I think you're just using the latter as a derogatory term to refer designs you don't like.
Games have always been designed with psychological factors in mind. There's nothing distinct about Call of Duty or World of Warcraft that makes them "addiction design" and not "game design". The only reason you find things fun or interesting is because of biochemical reactions in your body: a game that directly addresses those is no less a game.
If you could try to explain your idea without using those two terms I think you would make yourself more clear, because as it is most of your meaning is wrapped up in those opaque terms.
Posted by: Cafesofie | Friday, 17 December 2010 at 22:51
You raise valid concerns that are, while not exactly original, are still timely. Still, having read the rant, I'm left with a desire for further detail. For example, I wish that you had spent more effort discussing the line between making an interesting work vs. making an addictive work. Railing against programmers isn't new either - Chris Crawford has pioneered that area long ago. They're valid concerns, but what are the solutions?
What is it that you find in the works of the companies that you mention that is of merit? So far, two adjectives that describe art games for me are "clever" and "superficial", maybe even "boring". From someone who reads history and philosophy for fun, this is not an entirely empty criticism. I've yet to see an art game with depth matching that of a decently written essay or short story. I would have loved to hear a well presented, dissenting viewpoint.
Perhaps requiring this level of analysis from a rant is too demanding. Rants, by their very nature, invite sloppy reasoning. The problem is that decrying the shallow nature of popular media is a tradition as old as civilization. And starving artists, of course, have been railing against the great unwashed masses for just as long. That is a trap in of itself that has wasted plenty of effort and time. It all whiffs of insecurity borne of failure - not a promising starting point.
I'd have liked to hear something that raises this post above that level. Certainly, there are plenty of reasons to be concerned about the future of game design. Perhaps there are other posts here which examine the matter further? If so, I'd love to be pointed in their direction.
Posted by: AlexVostrov | Friday, 17 December 2010 at 23:17
This is the kind of articles that I like to read, whether I completely agree or not. I think it's all down to production costs. If it is still possible for a team to produce a game for a reasonnable cost, then I don't see any reason game design should be dead. However it is obvious that any average game on console or PC does not fall into that category (even for non-blockbuster titles). So is there anything left? Yes, I think so, what you call the diversion market, but in particular games for mobile phones, which can be produced for a fraction of that cost, and for those games I really don't agree with your depiction: match 3, time management and hidden object. Angry Birds doesn't fall into that. And many other of those games I see and sometimes play don't. As to know whether those game are now moving towards addiction design, that's a valid question to ask, but I don't think they will for the simple reason that they are casual, and meant to remain so. Of course it is not that developers/designers of those game have any more ethic and don't want to cross the addiction line, but rather that most players (of those games) would not be ready to follow.
In conclusion, I really think game design may be dead for the type of games to which you wish it wasn't (because of your professional involvment in those, and probably as a player), something I do understand as they should showcase the best of video games (always getting bigger, with better graphics...) yet they are disappointing (in their design) and there doesn't seem to be any hope. But for other more modest games on their respective platform, at this point, game design is still a very important element that can contribute to making the game a success (and profitable).
Posted by: Roman Age | Monday, 20 December 2010 at 02:46
Obviously, this is couched as a rant, so any interesting side-points that might need picking up would probably be best addressed in a new post next year. I didn't spend much time on this; I was largely just blowing off steam at the end of a stressful year. :) I'll just quickly breeze over the commentary...
Michael: I don't think it's an overstatement to say that programmers exercise a near-monopolistic control over this medium that would be unthinkable in any other form of art. But I see this problem as ultimately soluble.
Cafesofie: I define "Game design" in paragraph 2 as "the creation of tools for play tailored to the needs of specific groups of players". It is distinct from addiction design in that the latter is concerned with compulsion over play. This distinction is fine, but potentially of grave importance.
"I don't think there's a meaningful difference between 'game design' and 'addiction design'; I think you're just using the latter as a derogatory term to refer designs you don't like."
Surely that's some kind of mistake on your part, since many of the game designs I love are forms of addiction design (the original Pokemon, for instance, along with many Japanese RPGs), and I have great respect for the work that's going on with the mega-franchises. This is not just me kicking games I don't like in the balls. If it were, I'd be targeting very different titles.
Personally, I enjoy highly addictive games. But I think the commercial focus upon it is dangerous for the industry and catastrophic for the credibility of the medium. If we want to be subject to stifling legislation of the kind that currently moderates gambling, then we're going about it the right way. If we want to be taken seriously as a creative medium, we took a wrong turn about ten years back.
"There's nothing distinct about Call of Duty or World of Warcraft that makes them 'addiction design' and not 'game design'. The only reason you find things fun or interesting is because of biochemical reactions in your body"
I've catalogued these reactions; there are approximately seven basic neurobiological reactions of relevance to play. Three of them are especially addictive. Commercial game development is now skewed wildly towards those three, and away from the alternatives. That's what I mean when I talk about addiction design.
In particular, what this post is about is the use of schedules of reinforcement to generate compulsion around core play, particularly but not exclusively variable reinforcement. Any game design which makes use of these can be legitimately called addiction design e.g. slot machines, most computer RPGs, the most recent versions of Call of Duty, and many of the popular games on Facebook.
Thanks for commenting!
Alex: Firstly, this was a rough-and-ready rant. Plenty of more detailed materials are available here if you want to dig into my thinking, and I will happily pick up on more specific issues when I return to blogging next year.
"I wish that you had spent more effort discussing the line between making an interesting work vs. making an addictive work."
This is a really valid topic and rather than give you a half-assed response in a comment, I'll aim to pick this up next year. The balance between interest and addiction is of critical importance to this whole issue, and to handle it well means considering other media as well as games. Thanks for the suggestion.
"Railing against programmers isn't new either... They're valid concerns, but what are the solutions?"
Solid middleware for game production. Since the forms of content within games have become channelised into very clear spaces (e.g. toy spaces and fictional worlds), and since the artistic channels do not need to be dragged into the escalating demand for greater resources (a circumstance initiated by hardware and software manufacturers but eagerly supported by the techhead community), this problem should be soluble.
"What is it that you find in the works of the companies that you mention that is of merit?"
Great question! Sadly, beyond my ability to tackle briefly. I'll table some discussion of the aesthetics of art games for next year. Thanks for the suggestion.
"The problem is that decrying the shallow nature of popular media is a tradition as old as civilization."
You're right, of course. But here I am not railing against shallow media - actually, I think shallow media has its place in culture (unlike a lot of art critics). Here I am expressing concern about intentionally gearing a highly creative medium towards addiction and compulsion. And this is a very different kind of concern.
"Certainly, there are plenty of reasons to be concerned about the future of game design. Perhaps there are other posts here which examine the matter further? If so, I'd love to be pointed in their direction."
Well I'm not sure what to point to that will match your tastes, but if you're new here please start with the Game Design as Make-Believe serial, since this is very contemporary to my thoughts. Since you are interested in philosophy, I'd love to read your thoughts on this.
Thanks for sharing your views!
Roman Age: "If it is still possible for a team to produce a game for a reasonable cost, then I don't see any reason game design should be dead."
Isn't the issue not whether they can produce it reasonably, but if they can make a living doing so? Because if not...
"...[the diversion market] I really don't agree with your depiction: match 3, time management and hidden object. Angry Birds doesn't fall into that. And many other of those games I see and sometimes play don't."
You're right, I overstated the case here. The genres I mention are the ones that have shown to have a robust following, suitable for supporting cashflow. There are, of course, lots of small titles that achieve what might be called unique success, and most of these are not leveraging addiction design of the kind I am railing at here. But it might be best to look at the diversion market in more detail at a future juncture, when I've had a chance to review the trends in the new marketplaces a little better. Important to me in this regard is the number of companies that are able to stay open working in this space. And this might take some time to explore properly.
As ever, I appreciate your comment!
Thanks everyone! Don't know if I'll get a chance to comment again this year, but all comments will get answered at some point. :)
Posted by: Chris | Monday, 20 December 2010 at 12:33
Games have always aimed to be sticky because it is through stickiness that we achieve connection with the audience, and moving on from that, we develop a relationship with them that can be life-long.
'Addiction design' as you're characterising it is often good game design. What was Tetris if not that?
Your argument seems contradictory, and seems driven more by a wish of what games could be (but aren't) while failing to acknowledge how brilliant they are. 10-20 million players is not "addicts" any more than the millions of fans of the work of Joss Whedon, nor Tron. I urge you to not judge the cultures of games in a negative light (as Panorama have done) and instead realise that creating cultures is what game design is all about.
Posted by: Tadhg | Monday, 20 December 2010 at 19:50
I'm honestly surprised by any amount of disagreement with your premise! I didn't comment earlier because I simply agreed completely with your rant. Perhaps it's not clearly identified enough for other readers, but I got that the main thrust of this was the fact that almost all games are using variable reinforcement, and like you say - all attempting to become like slot machines.
You're hardly alone in your concerns about this. Jonathan Blow had a pretty extreme take on it, but one I also agreed with entirely:
And I myself have railed against "grinding" (as these types of reinforcement schedule inevitably become):
Posted by: Rik Newman (Remy77077) | Wednesday, 22 December 2010 at 12:06
I wonder how much of this problem is caused by the fact that games refuse to be art. If making games is a business with games filling a need in a market, then turning game design into addiction design is simply an optimization of efficiency, and maximization of profit versus minimization of costs. In such logic, moral concerns seem irrelevant. After all, we are all free, aren't we?
Unlike video game designers, most artists that I know react against the sort of abuse caused by such ruthless capitalist logic. It's sort of the job of artists to keep the audience aware of such things. If video games were created as works of art, this problem would not exist.
Posted by: Michael Samyn | Sunday, 26 December 2010 at 11:52
Rik, if you read all the comments, including my previous one, it is clear that we don't all disagree with Chris, simply it would have been usefull to have a proper look at the mechanism(s) of addiction design (with examples) as opposed to conventional game design.
Chris, not being involved in game design myself, I first heard the concept of addiction design at least a year ago (maybe more), and thought it was a valid concern, so I was at least aware that such questions were being raised by certain people in the game design community.
Now I know that you were merely reacting to it, not trying to explain how it works and what is so specific to it, but I hope another article can tell more about that, as it is an essential point to know about for people (who are not so familiar with design concepts and may not easily spot the difference with what is considered conventional game design) to form an opinion.
Posted by: Roman Age | Monday, 27 December 2010 at 17:37
Tadhg: "10-20 million players are not 'addicts' any more than the millions of fans of the work of Joss Whedon, nor Tron."
Well as I say, there is a fine line between 'fan' and 'addict'. I'm not sure about Joss Whedon, but certainly I'd be tempted to call some Harry Potter or Star Trek fans addicts, at least on a biochemical basis. Fortunately, media other than games do not generate the length of engagement that videogames can. This tends to mitigate the problem.
"I urge you to not judge the cultures of games in a negative light (as Panorama have done) and instead realise that creating cultures is what game design is all about."
As a member of those cultures and a person producing content for those cultures, I think I'm fully qualified to judge in a negative light, and I think that some critique is required at this point.
Creating cultures may be what game design is all about - Miyamoto-san's remarks about the original Legend of Zelda are revealing in this light - but I would like to see this happening through creative engagement and not through the use of compulsive reward structures. It is these in particular which I am deeply suspicious of, and think that the word 'addict' is apropos when these kinds of mechanics are deployed at their most fiendishly effective extent.
Thanks for sharing your views!
Rik: Great to hear from you!
"...the main thrust of this was the fact that almost all games are using variable reinforcement, and like you say - all attempting to become like slot machines."
This is indeed exactly my main point.
But I think because I seem to be knocking specific games, the fans of those games will naturally have an opposition reflex to resist my argument. I welcome these counter-arguments, but it would be great to hear one that really takes the bull by the horns on this issue.
Thanks for the links!
Michael: "If making games is a business with games filling a need in a market, then turning game design into addiction design is simply an optimization of efficiency, and maximization of profit versus minimization of costs."
I do think this is precisely why we have come to where we have come to at this point, although I think the market-awareness of most publishers is very sketchy at best, and comes down largely to copying what has obviously worked in the last 18 months. We can hardly be surprised at this, I suppose, since this is the same in other media industries. Still, its taken just 30 years to reach (exceed?) the commercial development of film.
"If video games were created as works of art, this problem would not exist."
I suppose you mean if they were created *solely* as works of art... And are the games you at Tale of Tales make not made in this way? The Graveyard is clearly not a commercially motivated title! :)
All the best!
Roman Age: I will endeavour to dig into the formal elements of this rant sometime in 2011. In particular, this distinction between 'interest' and 'addiction' is key, and warrants some careful dissection.
Thanks for the comments everyone!
Posted by: Chris | Friday, 31 December 2010 at 16:44
I did not mean *solely*, Chris. I meant rather primarily, initially. I don't think it is necessary for anything to be pure. Especially since impurity can be very practical.
The question is more as to the primary reason of existence of the game. In other words, whether a game was born out of an artistic desire of a person: a desire to communicate, investigate, question, etc, a certain theme, topic, subject, etc.
I'm not expecting high art. I think many films, a lot of pop music and even television soap operas qualify. But most video games don't seem to. As a result they are completely available to be optimized for profit-generation. Hardly anyone is using the medium for art creation anyway.
Posted by: Michael Samyn | Sunday, 02 January 2011 at 21:52
Michael, it is true that the ideathe question is not so much about art, but about addiction design. I can think of hundreds of games that I like (including some very old ones) that I don't consider to use addiction design, but that have very good game design, yet
Posted by: Roman Age | Monday, 03 January 2011 at 01:27
Mmmmh, sorry for previous comment, wrong manip... (how it happend is quite a mystery). Now here is my though:
Michael, it is true that the idea of art in video games is quite at the oppsite end of the spectrum from the idea of addiction design. But I can think of hundreds of games that have excellent game design (including very old ones) and certainly don't use addiction design, yet I wouldn't see much artistic value about them, or if there is it is not the primarily reason for them to have been created, nor the reason for them to be good. It is just pure game design at its best.
Chris, I said I was not familiar with addiction design, the main reason being it is a recent phenomenen and I don't play modern games, except some casual games (occasionnally). Well I have just come across a game for mobile phones extended to Facebook (or series of games by the same company) that I recognize as solely addiction design, it is if a regular game concept had been stripped from its regular fun gameplay element, to retain only the RPG - multiplayer - reward and ranking elements. Addiction design taken to the extreme (with nothing else left)!
Posted by: Roman Age | Monday, 03 January 2011 at 01:50
Great rant! Just stumbled onto this blog via some circuitous surfing.
There is definitely a tendency in marquee titles towards Skinner-box mechanics, on a few different levels. There seems to be RPG-style leveling in just about every FPS title, and some fighters as well. AC 2 and 2.5 have their Farmville-esque building management tasks. One could even argue that the trophy system on the next-gen consoles is another manifestation of this reward-treadmill design perspective.
I wonder if joining the discussion of addiction design to the discussion of art in videogames is useful. Roger Ebert started a storm of discussion last year on twitter and in the blogosphere when he debated whether one could consider videogames art - his objection was mainly from the perspective of narrative integrity. Probably not a fan of choose-your-own-adventure books, either. The art-in-videogames discussion is a huge topic!
It seems to me that there are some non-geek (or at least, less geeky) indie devs out there. I'm liking the resurgence of old-school adventure games on the PS3 and Xbox online stores. Maybe with lower price points, and fewer hurdles to distribution, a new niche for smaller developers who can afford to focus on different kinds of non-addictive games is emerging.
Posted by: Faceattack | Monday, 03 January 2011 at 23:43
Thanks for the continued discussions everyone... Some specific replies.
Michael: It's a complicated issue, because I do believe that some videogames manage to achieve particular aesthetic goals as tools for play, in and of themselves. Flaws aside, Assassins' Creed is as successful at its general artistry as, say, any Hollywood action movie you'd care to point at is successful at its own general artistry. These art forms (the action movie and the commercial videogame) are not so unalike in many ways.
But I believe there are also art-games, such as almost everything you and Auriea do (and similarly with the various people flagged in this post) that have artistic and aesthetic goals which are more than the aesthetic goals of a purely commercial form.
Just as no-one would judge a Bergman movie and a Schwartzeneggar vehicle by the same standards, I believe it would be a critical error to judge an art-game by the standards of a commercial game, while still believing that both have their own legitimate aesthetic claims.
I'll explore this more in a few weeks time, as I think it's an interesting area to explore.
Roman Age: "Addiction design taken to the extreme (with nothing else left)!"
As we adapt the principles of geek design for the mass market on Facebook and elsewhere, the presence of addiction design becomes more and more explicit. There are serious discussions to be had here, and for the most part they are skirted because the industry as a whole dare not play into the hands of its vocal critics. But still, there are companies out there who are leaving themselves open for some serious class action lawsuits should the wind change direction...
Faceattack: thanks for dropping by!
"One could even argue that the trophy system on the next-gen consoles is another manifestation of this reward-treadmill design perspective."
I see no need to argue this point - I believe this is clearly the case, especially on the Xbox 360 where the individual awards tie into a overall reward schedule. (And I feel that Sony only missed this trick because they didn't really know what they were doing).
"I wonder if joining the discussion of addiction design to the discussion of art in videogames is useful. Roger Ebert started a storm of discussion last year... The art-in-videogames discussion is a huge topic!"
I've been tackling the videogames-as-art argument on its own already, though, so referring to it here was merely folding back into my prior discussion earlier in the year. If the topic interests you (which it seems to) you can read my post Ebert's Fence and Games as Art to get more from this side of the argument.
It's my view that the aesthetic question and the addiction question are related in certain important ways, although I take your point that combining too large arguments into one rant risks obscuring the key points! :)
"...a new niche for smaller developers who can afford to focus on different kinds of non-addictive games is emerging."
I hope you're right! These are the companies I most enjoy working with - smaller indie developers - and it would be great to get some more interesting development projects from them. ;)
Personally, I still think these niche markets are still too treacherous - developing for the power consoles is too expensive and (in the case of the PS3) too technically involved; the Wii has no legs as an online platform; the PC has difficulty persuading people to part with money (Steam not withstanding).
I think we still have a long way to go!
All the best everyone!
Posted by: Chris | Tuesday, 04 January 2011 at 11:08