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July 2023

ihobo at Gamescom 2023

Ihobo Banner Tableau 2023 (June)
Award-winning game design and narrative consultancy International Hobo is doing the rounds at Gamescom again this year!  We're looking for:

  1. INVESTORS/PUBLISHERS open to discussing future projects and bizdev opportunities for our developer clients
  2. PUBLISHERS who need 2-week design audit reports of projects at any stage from Vertical Slice through to Beta that will help steer discussions with development teams in productive directions (ideal for troubleshooting, or unblocking problematic projects)
  3. DEVELOPERS willing to invest ~1% of their development budget on ensuring superior player satisfaction and robust narrative experiences.

Does this sound like you? Get in touch with the contact link! We'd love to meet up. (Please, no service companies - we're not the gig you're looking for.) For a detailed list of our standard services, follow the Services link here or in the menu to the left.

Ten Player Motives

0a - Ten Player MotivesTen Player Motives was a twelve part serial examining the ten most commercially important reasons people enjoy playing games, and one non-commercial reason as well The serial ran from 22nd February 2023 to 19th July 2023 (with a short break in the middle). Each of the parts ends with a link to the next one, so to read the entire serial, simply click on the first link below, and then follow the “next” links to read on.

The twelve parts are as follows:

  1. The Ten Player Motives
  2. Victory
  3. Problem-solving
  4. Acquisition
  5. Luck
  6. Thrill-seeking
  7. Horror
  8. Social
  9. Curiosity
  10. Narrative
  11. Agency
  12. Aesthetic

Thanks for everyone who supported this serial - and if you enjoyed it, please leave a comment!


Ten Player Motives #11

11 - Aesthetic-revisedWait, eleven? You said there were ten player motives! Actually, although there are ten player motives that are commercially important, there are many other motives to play games - they're just not as important to the industry making and selling play. This 'eleventh motive', which I call 'the aesthetic motive' does not drive sales quite like the others, but it encapsulates everything that makes games such an intriguing, creative medium. As such, even if this isn't your best bet for making money at making games, you really have no excuse not to support those auteurs who are finding ways to satisfy our aesthetic desires for creative originality and unexpected experiences.

2005 was a banner year for the aesthetic motive in games, as it was the year that various voices began to consider what it might mean for videogames to be artworks. It was the year of Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern's stage-play inspired Façade, and it was also the year of Tale of Tales astonishing debut The Endless Forest. Dubbed a 'massively multiplayer screensaver' by the impish genius of its creators, Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn, the game would go on to influence the hugely popular Journey by thatgamecompany, with its incredible conceit of encounter, a theme that recurs in Tale of Tales brilliant but under-appreciated Bientôt L’été (Almost Summer).

There followed a glorious explosion of aesthetic exploration of what games could be. Jason Roher's Passage in 2007, Dear Esther's deconstruction of gameplay to the thinnest play imaginable in 2012, and 2013's Proteus by Ed Key and David Kanaga, which I consider the most beautiful videogame ever made. However, another strong contender for this title is Tale of Tales final game, Sunset in 2015, an utterly astonishing game that, while flailing slightly in its narrative, manages to play with light, shade, and colour in a way that transcends almost anything I can think of in any medium.

Yet this way of telling the tale of the aesthetic motive is misleading, as it makes it seem as if it all happened in 2005. But this was really the rediscovery of something that game developers had in some sense always known: that videogames were a creative, artistic medium, capable of being much more than entertainment. Mel Croucher's Deus Ex Machina in 1984 served as a mind-bending refusal to accept the player practices of the arcade, showing for perhaps the first time the tremendous possibilities inherent in a medium that was capable of creating unique artworks but had largely settled with satisfied itself through 'mere' awesome entertainments.

I have mentioned before the utter lack of investment in indie games that blights the games industry. Small scale publishers do not feel they need to put money into making smaller games, as a lively wellspring of 'bedroom coders and artists' are making games in their own time and then selling them to the publishers. But the aesthetic motive is a reminder that however commercially logical this strategy might be, it sells the medium of videogames quite short of what it is capable of achieving. The Endless Forest would never have come about without investment from the Belgian arts council, and nothing that thatgamescompany made between Flow and Journey could have happened without EA first funding Jenova Chen's student project Cloud, and Sony deciding to invest in aesthetically interesting games.

Movie studios understand that as well as making big-budget movies that garner equally gigantic returns on investment, they have a creative obligation to invest in smaller, more creative films - so-called 'art house cinema' - that nourishes both the sources of creativity, and the creative people at work in their industry. Videogames continues to deny this necessity. When your corporation is earning billions of dollars from its games, what possible excuse could there be for refusing to invest a few hundred thousand in creative experiments on the side...? The games industry wants all the glory of being declared an artistic medium without being willing to put its money where its mouthpiece is. Until the industry as a whole invests in artistic games at all scales of development, there is a certain hypocrisy to the cries of our artistry.

Throughout these short reflections on our motivations for playing games, I have focussed on the ten most commercially significant motives players have for engaging with the games they love. Yet while videogames may be a mature industry in terms of revenue, we are still all but destitute when it comes to the aesthetic potential of our medium. There might be no better way we can shed our terrible yet deserved reputation of being little more than monetised violence and compulsion porn than finally resolving that yes, games are artworks, and any culture that praises art must have patrons that invest in bringing it about. Until we do, we will never come close to fulfilling the incredible aesthetic potential of games.


Ten Player Motives #10

9 - NarrativeDiscussing the narrative motive, we came up against an essential problem of using games as a storytelling medium: the player expects to have influence within the game world. This is the domain of the last of the ten key commercial player motives: agency. But in order to understand how the agency motive works, we have to appreciate that there is an essential tension. Not between stories and games, as the line is typically drawn, but between agency and narrative.

There is perhaps no better way of illustrating the distinction between the narrative and the agency motives than comparing the long and distinguished lineages of Japanese computer RPGs and their 'Western' variants. Although these lines are increasingly blurred today (as AAA cRPGs will tend to draw heavily from both traditions), there is a clear historical period after the Ultima-Wizardry split that dominates more than two decades of cRPG design. In many respects, Final Fantasy VII and Bioshock that were mentioned in the context of the narrative motive highlight this very split: the Japanese took Wizardry and choose a form that prioritised the narrative motive for its storytelling (hence the 'animated movie cut with a game' that followed in the 1990s). Conversely, Ultima placed the agency motive above the narrative motive - the play itself creates stories from the toy box the game provides.

Nowhere is this foregrounding of agency above narrative more evident than in the open world games - whether we're looking at The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim or Grand Theft Auto V, these games give the player the illusion that you can 'go anywhere and do anything'. This is the agency motive in a nutshell: our psychological need for autonomy manifests in games as it does in life. But in games, we come across a specific barrier that causes problems, and it is one we met before with the problem-solving motive: confusion.

Agency arguably hit its peak in The Elder Scrolls III: Morrorwind - a game with unparalleled player freedom! There was only one problem: the majority of players had literally no idea what they were supposed to be doing. Players for whom the problem-solving motive was a key part of their play had a blast with this game - enduring confusion being the 'mutant power' of such players. Most players of the game were just hopelessly lost. They needed much more help than it provided. Grand Theft Auto III provided the solution: use a film-like narrative to block out a prescribed route to follow, so that the player alternates between intervals of 'infinite agency' and following-the-path. It is the model that all contemporary open world games follow.

Yet the agency motive has more to offer. We have lost sight of the possibility of playing with the implicit narrative of The Sims or Ultima. The original inspiration for Grand Theft Auto were a series of British videogames that were the first to offer 'playground worlds'. All of these games were published between 1984 and 1985, and while Elite is the most famous, Paradroid, Mercenary, and The Lords of Midnight all show this same capacity - overcoming the limited technical capabilities of 8-bit hardware by providing a framework with which the player has maximal agency.

For a brief time there, it felt as if we might rediscover the power of the agency motive that these pioneering proto open world games unleashed. With the meteoric rise of Minecraft in the mid-2000s, we once again experienced worlds that overcame technical capabilities to offer unparalleled agency. In this case, the trick was the simple expedient of simplifying the world into cubic blocks. In a brutal yet hilarious irony for me personally, I had done exactly this several years earlier with Play with Fire, a project that eventually flailed and fell into obscurity because of the utter lack of investment in indie game projects (a problem, I might add, has never gone away).

What happened with Minecraft, however, was that it succeeded as much because it was virtual Lego as because it successfully channelled the agency motive. It enjoyed great and deserved success, but the key to its prosperity was its support of diverse regimes for play - enormous risk-reward in Hardcore, exciting exploration in Survival, and boundless imaginativeness in Creative. Yet successors copied only the substructure of Minecraft, and fell back on the familiar tricks and techniques of the game designer's playbook. If we want to truly push the agency motive forward, we need to understand why Minecraft's freedom to choose exactly how you want to play opened a door the games industry has remained reluctant to walk through.

Next week, the final part: Aesthetic


Ten Player Motives #9

9 - NarrativeWhen I talk about our motives for playing games, I am usually able to identify a clear set of emotions that show the psychological underpinnings of why we are drawn to play that way. This becomes impossible when we talk about the narrative motive, because any and all emotions can be evoked by a narrative! But it would be wrong to suggest that there is not still a clear, if you will, 'psychic shape' to our engagement with narrative. So what is it? Why do we love stories so much?

A short and lazy way of answering this question is to state that stories are the basis of the entire human operating system. We live on a daily basis within our stories - the whole idea of a 'you' as opposed to a 'me' is a framework set up by our need to tell tales about everything. We are the most imaginative beings that we know of, and our inner life consists primarily of telling stories about who we are, as individuals, as cultures, and as a species. This same impulse can be found in our relationship with games because, well, there's no escaping it! Even scientific research is absolutely built upon metaphors. (I mentioned above 'human operating system' - a loaded metaphor if ever there was one!)

But precisely because we live in a world of 'stories everywhere', we need to be careful to understand how games engage with narrative. There is a long standing belief among game developers that stories are something other than games, and that something like Final Fantasy VII is basically an animated movie cut with a combat game and an inventory management game. This interpretation is basically spot on, but it applies just as much to a game like Bioshock, which attempts to place the player right in the heart of a story that could not be adequately be told in another medium.

The danger in coming at this problem this way is that it leads to us thinking that narrative and games are different kinds of things. But if we look at games like The Sims or Nintendogs or the hugely successful Animal Crossing series, we can see that the kinds of explicit narratives that we find in games as well as movies and books aren't the only way stories make their way into our games. There is also the implicit narrative that comes from playing with a virtual doll set - and what is The Sims if not precisely this? Sure, the climax of Animal Crossing - let's say, paying off your final mortgage - is not so much a surprise as a distant goal, but we are still engaging with a fictional world with characters and events that build to a satisfying conclusion. And that's narrative. It was never just about conflict, as Hollywood screenwriters are wont to claim - it was always about uncertainty, and 'when' is just as uncertain as 'what'.

What's fascinating about how the narrative motive expresses itself through games is that we can eliminate all of the overtly 'game-like' aspects of the experience and still end up with a narrative that is not at all like a movie or a book. Dear Esther opened a brand new path here, where other games like What Remains of Edith Finch have followed. The genius of The Chinese Room's ground-breaking ghost story was to see that a game world is a canvas upon which stories are painted just as much in a walking simulator as in a so-called open world game.

Yet there is a problem that the narrative motive faces when we play games that we do not face with other narrative media like film and written stories. Games love to fool the player into believing that they have control and influence in the game world (which they do - but only of a much narrower kind that we tend to recognise). This means that, for instance, killing a character for dramatic effect, as in Final Fantasy VII, works only so much as the player is primarily letting the narrative motive draw them forward. If the player is otherwise motivated, this attempt fails because it does not feel like the player's action, it is something forced upon them.

This is the brilliance of the twist in Bioshock: it takes this essential weakness of game stories and inverts it, turns it into a knowing twist without ever breaking the fourth wall. It reminds us that it is not quite true that stories and games are two different things - it is rather that when we engage with games as stories, we have to understand and accept the strengths and limitations of this specific narrative form. And this is something that every story faces in its own way, regardless of which medium it flows through.

Next week: Agency