The end of an age in computer gaming

Reading Justin Hall, Jane Pinckard and Greg Costikyan's reports on the Game Developer's Conference makes me really wish I had been there.

Greg's comments have clearly lit a fire under a number of developers, judging from the very active and interesting discussion at his site.

I agree with Greg: computer games as a cultural form are at a creative and economic standstill. There are very little few games scheduled for release that excite me. I have found myself playing a number of older games in the last couple of months, enjoying a few of them, bored by the rest. Even visionaries like Raph Koster have been ensnared in the industry's limitations like Gulliver pinned down by Lilliputians.

My main disagreement with Greg's critique of the computer games industry is that he holds designers accountable for a failure of imagination and their employers responsible for a conservative business model that favors sequels and licensed properties. I think these complaints are valid, but they don't go deep enough to the source of the malaise. The more fundamental problems cannot be tackled simply by will alone, and aren't simply the fault of designers. Nor is there any reason necessarily that sequels or licensed games must suck.

Poking at those deeper foundations, I see five very different problems. One is generic to all "culture industries", while the other four are specific to computer and video games.

Problem #1: All cultural industries have a problem recognizing and recruiting creative talent.

This derives from a pragmatic but ultimately short-sighted assessment of the cost-effectiveness of seeking a wider variety of creators.

I sometimes get phone calls from reporters who are trying to figure out why a particular television show or movie was successful, trying to boil it down to a magic formula. Hobbits + wizards + Manichean morality = boffo box office! DiCaprio + a sinking ship = mucho dinero! The same conversations are going on all the time inside Hollywood, or the major networks-and in the game industry.

The problem is that the only clear principle I can see behind the vast majority of gigantic successes is that originality, distinctiveness, freshness and quality often pay off big time. Not always, and sometimes what middlebrow cultural critics describe as original isn't particularly when you take a step back from it, or it is only original from the perspective of a jaded art-house crowd. Originality is not the same thing as artiness or complexity. I didn't care for "Titanic" but its combination of sentimentality, teenage love and big-budget special effects was distinctive within the cultural marketplace, however hackneyed any of its particular components might have been.

In the gaming marketplace, this applies to Grand Theft Auto 3 or The Sims: the latter was a revolutionary design, the former is a blue-chip implementation of a fairly ordinary idea. Either way, that's what sells: The Sims because it is different than any other game, GTA 3 because it has better gameplay than 99% of the games on the market. I don't especially enjoy whacking virtual people over the head with a digitized baseball bat (well, ok, now and again) but GTA 3 is such a good game in its design that it's worth playing regardless of its theme.

Why don't cultural industries generally act on this basic principle, and find new ways to recruit the Peter Jacksons and Will Wrights instead of going back to the same old hacks time and time again? Because there's two kinds of profit to be made: the big boffo profit and the small but reliable profit stream that comes through making lots of the same-old same-old. Searching for the fresh creative voice is like putting your chips down on a single number of the roulette wheel: you're going to lose a lot of chips chasing the big score. It makes a certain amount of sense to put most of your chips on black or red.

The only way the gaming industry, or any other cultural business, can bring in fresh talent is to develop some new heuristic, some new feeder system, that pre-sorts the huge array of aspirants creators into the quick and the damned. American Idol is great fun to watch in its early stages, but if you were seriously embarking on an effort to find new talent, it would be inordinately expensive and exhausting to simply open yourself to the entire world.

Here is where we start to get into problems that are more specific to the gaming industry of the moment. Some creative businesses have reasonably good heuristics. You want to get into acting? Wait tables in New York and appear in off-off-off Broadway plays, and hope for the best. Pay your dues and struggle. You want to get into poetry? Go to writers' workshops, write a lot of poems and submit them to small literary magazines and hope someone takes notice.

This is where the deep problems that are particular to game design come up.

Problem #2: The sorting heuristics that the games industry uses to identify possible designers are still the old "let the geek cream rise to the top", looking for people who get out and teach themselves to program and work the machinery. It's not working anymore for the gaming industry, because geeks mostly don't have the creative vision to make it work.

Geeks usually can only make games for geeks, games that reproduce the genres and forms that geeks have played with before, that draw on the same two or three deep veins of popular culture, the same patterned ur-experience of science fiction, Dungeons & Dragons and cyberculture.

It's a closed feedback loop, the output becomes the input. Gamers make games for gamers who make games for gamers and thus it shall ever be. So more than most culture industries, the games business desperately needs a new heuristic that brings entirely different people to their collective doorstep, and NOT, NOT, NOT movie producers or TV producers or the other dead weight and effluvia of other culture industries.

This raises, unfortunately, the next problem.

Problem #3: Some of the people who have the best understanding of computer and video games as a form, and the deepest creative vision of how they might be improved, lack the technical skills to do even the most elementary programming or visual work on a real game.

Many gamers understand far better than game designers what makes a good game. This is something of a commonplace on bulletin boards where gamers congregate, and is sometimes expressed with a certain amount of youthful bravado and stupidity. But if you sort the signal from the noise (lots of it) on such boards, you'll often find a surprising number of gamers who not only hone in on the structural and aesthetic shortcomings of a particular game with deadly and rapid accuracy, but who suggest a variety of quite reasonable and feasible improvements and changes to address those shortcomings.

For example, the vast majority of changes made in the massively-multiplayer online game Dark Age of Camelot in the last eight months or so were proposed by a number of players (disclosure: including me) within two months after the game's launch. The developers dragged their heels for almost a year before beginning to implement these changes, some of which they initially mocked or dismissed when players originally suggested them. The ostensible reason was that the developers wanted to "collect data", but I think it is also that they simply did not understand their own game as well as the people who played it. Everquest has suffered even more dramatically from the same problem at times in its history.

Sometimes gamers' ideas are for various reasons wildly impractical. Haemish, who has written a long series on his vision of the perfect MMOG at Waterthread, has some great ideas but at least a few of them strike me as difficult or impossible to implement. Some gamers whine or carp or are hopelessly cynical about games. And many gamers are geeks and limited in their vision in the same way as the geeks who make the games.

Some aren't. Clustered around the world of game design are a goodly number of middlebrow critics and fringe designers who could meaningfully help to shape a richer, better vision of what games are and games could be if only there was some way to incorporate them into the process of design. The designer and artist Eric Zimmerman is one great example of the possibilities, as are visionaries like Raph Koster and Will Wright. However, Zimmerman and Koster and Wright know how to program. They know what the technology is and what it can do.

That is too great a barrier for most of the people who have a good understanding of the form of computer games and their untapped potential. Movie-making is a demanding technical exercise, too, but there is a crucial place for someone who just has a good idea and a lot of imagination: a screenwriter only needs to grasp the barest bones of the process of film-making to craft a script worth producing. Until game design has a similar niche, it almost cannot tap into richer, more generative, more connected streams of creativity.

Games are old enough to have produced a second generation of people who grew up with them, immersed in a world of games. When this happened in the comics business, you had a massive creative explosion fueled by writers and artists like Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Todd McFarlane, Scott McCloud, Kurt Busiek, Art Speigelman and many others. When it happened in the movie business, you got Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorcese and other directors of the late sixties and early seventies. The games industry is stuck, because most of the people who understand what makes a better game have no structural role to play in the process of game development.

Problem #4: Games are expensive to make.

The question of how game design actually works underscores yet another fundamental problem.

It is not merely that the tools of game design are difficult to use, and therefore a barrier to entry. It is also that games designed to run on current computers and consoles simply cannot be created by one or two people on the cheap. In an era when the costs of publishing writing have potentially dropped to near zero, and even the costs of movie and television production, traditionally monstrous in size, are dropping rapidly with digital technology, game design is moving rapidly in the other direction, becoming more and more expensive in terms of the human labor and tools that are required.

The more any given game requires for its production, the less likely it is, for very good reasons, that a developer is going to tolerate exotic experiments in its conceptual design or in the process of producing the game. When you're paying a huge salary budget on a given game, adding one or two or three more people who do not appear to have a vital and direct role in the day-to-day production of the game is fiscally irresponsible.

Problem #5: The technology of gaming is highly unstable, and its instability leads to a confusion between the tools and the task.

Game design is hostage to Moore's Law, to the notion that always just beyond the horizon is a technology which will magically solve basic design problems: better AI, richer graphics, faster processors, the Internet 2. This is a will o' the wisp. Some of these hopes are groundless: there is no point in hoping for the imminent arrival of AI which is not simply a clever trick designed to convince a solo player that he is playing someone other than himself. The only thing to hope for is the aesthetic vision that will make that trick convincing, and that is possible with current technology. Richer graphics themselves have little to do with whether a game grabs and keeps the imagination, with whether immersion happens or not.

Many designers design for tomorrow's technology, and reach for technologies reflexively, even when they create more problems than they solve.


Some suggestions about the road ahead

The game industry needs to invent new heuristics for recruiting designers and open up the process of game design to new inputs. They have to actively start seeking ideas and visions from a wider variety of people, and stop seeing skill in programming as being the same thing as a creative idea of what a game is or should be. Games need a wider variety of themes, a wider variety of narrative structures, and a richer, deeper connection to popular culture as a whole.

This is where Greg Costikyan's concerns about sequelitis and licensed properties kick in full force. There's a reason why movies made about computer games suck, and it's because computer games are already mostly a derivative cultural form, parasitically deriving their themes and ideas from pop culture archetypes and tropes. Games need to a place where new characters and stories come from, not just a place for making old ones superficially interactive.

Another step forward might be the further development of authoring tools. Neverwinter Nights excited many players because of its promise in this regard, but in the end only exhibited the cruel paradox of such tools. The more flexible and powerful they are, the harder they are to use. The easier they are to use, the more rigid and limited they are. Authoring tools take more work than the game itself in many cases, but the commercial and creative potential is enormous. Just look what the gaming community has done with Half-Life and Morrowind, to cite two examples, neither of which is exactly simple to modify. Imagine what might happen with a more robust set of authoring tools.

Designers need to be driven less by Moore's Law. Design for today or even yesterday's technology. Designing for tomorrow's nVidia card or Pentium processor makes the process of design more difficult and expensive without necessarily solving any creative problems.

Finally, I would like to suggest that an alliance between one or more universities and one or more major game-producing companies to create something like a game developer's version of XeroxPARC might be exactly what is needed to take the next step forward: a well-funded institute freed from the tyranny of deadlines and bleeding red ink, free to think about and tinker with the fundamental ideas underlying games.

Something has to be done. Computer and video games should be the 21st Century's revolutionary cultural form. Their creative energies should match their gargantuan revenues. But as games become bigger business, their imaginative horizons are falling rapidly. In the end, that will bad for both the business of gaming and the experience of it.