new challenger

I make games. I also play them. I talk about both activities here.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Games I'm Playing Right Now Part 4 - PSP Edition

I didn’t make a conscious choice to stack a bunch of PSP games up and play them all back-to-back until I realized just how many PSP games were in my “to play” stack. The last couple of months have been extremely strong for the Sony handheld, and there are some pretty interesting games on the horizon that may permanently legitimize the PSP as an actual gaming device, despite Sony’s best efforts to sell it as something more convergent.

Pursuit Force (PSP)
When I first saw Pursuit Force, my interest was piqued immediately – primarily because in all of the pre-release footage of the game, it seemed to be a mechanic-driven game. Let me clarify the term “mechanic-driven” before I go further. Super Mario Bros. is a mechanic-driven game. In it, players use a jump mechanic to perform most of the game’s activities. You jump to kill enemies, clear gaps, access power ups and end levels. There’s even a special reward for performing 8 successive jumps without touching the ground. It is the mastery of the jump and its varied use that drives the game’s play. You can jump anywhere, if you’d like, and oftentimes experimentation leads to interesting and entertaining outcomes.

Pursuit Force, on the other hand, would probably be better categorized as a gimmick-based game. Its main distinction is that the player takes control of this sort of highway patrolman (although to be fair, not all the action takes place on roads), whose goal is to thwart the activities of a handful of crime syndicates. This is largely accomplished by killing them all during high speed chases, during which the player jumps mightily from vehicle to vehicle, blowing away driver and passenger alike, then taking the recently appropriated vehicle, advancing to the next target, and doing it all over again. The jumps, while visually impressive and exciting are only possible when you orient yourself in a very specific way in relation to your destination. When in place, an icon appears, letting the player know that they can perform their aerial assaults. So really, getting your vehicle into desired locations is the impetus of the game, whereas the selling point – the gimmick – of the game is the jumps.

So with that clarification out of the way, all that’s left is to judge the game based on what it is. The game is fun enough, and it’s certainly presented well, and I was really into it right up until the moment I first died. Now before any conclusions are jumped to, this is not a rant about difficult games, I’m quite fond of challenge – I’m currently playing Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence on European Extreme difficulty (you know, the one where if you’re even seen, you die). My issue with Pursuit Force is that when I retried the mission that had previously killed me, I successfully completed it without a hiccup – The part where I died before didn’t even come up again as a tense moment. I didn’t feel that successful negotiation of the mission was due to some sort of masterful negotiation of a challenge. When I’m spotted in MGS3: S, it’s because I’m in the wrong place at the wrong time, or I didn’t disable a guard quickly enough, or my camouflage isn’t appropriate for the environment. There’s something that I as a player can improve on. Death in Pursuit Force is not a tool used to show what you shouldn’t do because death in Pursuit Force feels entirely arbitrary. The player’s interface with the world of Pursuit Force – particularly the aforementioned jumps, but also in the actual killing of your targets – is so rigid that it doesn’t really feel like there’s anything at which to excel. My understanding of the game seemed to have reached a plateau – and unfortunately when there’s nothing left to learn in a game, player interest drops dramatically. I’ve played it a bit since this realization, but I’ve mostly moved on to other things. Such is my experience with Pursuit Force.

Daxter (PSP)
I’m going to go ahead and get it out of the way here: Daxter is my current frontrunner for Game of the Year 2006. I have had no greater addiction, enjoyment, and satisfaction from any other game released this year, and I couldn’t be more surprised. I’ve been a fan of Jak and Daxter primarily through proxy. The few times I’ve played the series, I’ve found it competent but flawed. While I respect it for many things, including its technological achievements, I have always found its spiritual sibling and stable mate Ratchet and Clank vastly superior. I’ve always rooted for the series, as its roots lie deep in the platformer, where my console gaming obsession began. Plus, their former leader Jason Rubin is a vocal critic of the current state of the videogame publisher/developer relationship, and his developer call-to-arms from a few years back was both invigorating and inspirational.

Daxter was not developed by Naughty Dog. It was developed by Ready at Dawn, but it seems as least plausible that the two companies had some back-and-forth with the development of the title. The most obvious giveaway for me was the masked loading – there are little if any loading screens once you get underway. Levels are streamed, and lots of zone changes are hidden with elevators and doors that take a while to open. This is actually a really nice touch for a system like the PSP, where loading time can really eat in to the shortened play sessions I typically allot for handheld play. The graphics are spectacular, consistent with the cartoon-like style that the Jak series has always retained. And then there’s the actual play itself – pure platforming goodness. Sure, the inevitable vehicle levels with their sloppy friction rear their heads, but that just seems to be par for the 3d platformer course these days. Daxter is a perfectly polished, well-executed wonder of a title; I give it my maximum recommendation.

Exit (PSP)
I decided to buy Exit based on the first impressions I got of it from Tokyo Game Show last year (wow, marketers must love people like me). I saw the graphics, I heard it was about rescuing people from dangerous situations, I read the inevitable comparisons to Elevator Action, and I made my choice. This game hits on a lot of the things that I approve of in games. Its graphics are bold and distinct. Its play seems specifically targeted towards brief handheld-friendly play sessions. And its premise is about helping people. Ah, helping people.

I have a weakness for games about helping people, and I don’t mean the world is in danger, and I need you to kill 4,000 aliens to save the world type of helping people. I mean an earthquake has stranded people in precarious situations that require your assistance, and an evil mom has locked away her daughter in a big castle full of easy-to-push blocks type helping people; a more personal approach to the concept, you could say. This type of play is my videogame kryptonite. Thus, Exit seemed like a perfect fit for me. And it almost is.

Where Exit breaks down is in its controls. It’s just too damn clunky, relying on grid-like movement and precision when actually manipulating your avatar is annoyingly obtuse. Some of the control decisions are perplexingly arbitrary, like the mouse cursor you use to associate your companions with certain environmental instructions. It all just comes together a little jarringly, and the game ends up feeling more like a puzzle game with human-like avatars than an action game with rescue as a motivation.

Despite this I still recommend the game – it’s very fun, if you’re a puzzly kind of guy, which I most certainly am.

Syphon Filter: Dark Mirror (PSP)
I saved this game for last, not because it’s the best, but because I played it for the longest before reaching a conclusion on it. I spent at least 4 or 5 play sessions just going through the tutorials with different controls options, trying to find something that was comfortable. Although I still haven’t yet reached Syphon Filter Nirvana, I can at least say with some certainty that I’m enjoying the hell out of this game. Based purely on the recommendation of new challenger reader cog (who apparently shares my distaste for capitalization of proper nouns), I went out and bought Syphon Filter, half expecting not to like it. You see, I haven’t played a Syphon Filter since the PS1, and back then I billed it as a sort of poor man’s Metal Gear Solid. Having not been a Metal Gear fan at the time (that would have to wait until 2004’s masterpiece, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater), you can interpret this to mean a greater insult than it may appear to be.

Okay, so I’m not completely wrong in my characterization of Syphon Filter as a poor man’s Metal Gear. The first “boss” in the game is a watered-down version of The Fury, complete with flame thrower and fire-retardant outfit. Also, the main character is supported by a varied cast, including several women; your main sidekick is even a Chinese woman, a la Mei Ling. Again, in and of itself, a Chinese woman as a partner in a videogame is not enough to warrant screams of “MGS clone,” it’s more of an accumulation of coincidences is all that leads me to the conclusion. Perhaps it’s a bit of tongue-in-cheek on their part, I don’t know, but the similarity is enough for me to notice. One thing that’s hugely different between the two games is that where Metal Gear promotes stealth and non-interaction, Syphon Filter is all about blowing people away with various weapons. The developers encourage conflict most of the time, and when they do want you to be stealthy, they’ll place enemies with their backs to you, intensely focused on one goal or the next.

I know it sounds like I’m kind of bagging on the game, and I partially am – the game is not perfect. But Syphon Filter is the real deal. I used to have a pretty strict rule about not playing console-styled games on the handheld (the first time I sat down to play the story mode, I literally turned off the game as soon as the opening cut scenes were done playing out – they took that long), but Syphon Filter has taken a sledge hammer and reshaped my tolerances of what I will give a chance on my PSP. That doesn’t mean I’m buying Me and My Katamari!

Thanks for reading.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Defining Success

Derek has started a series of articles on fighting games. The first entry lists his top 5 most successful fighting games ever made. The original source material for this and the forthcoming articles dates back some years, and when I asked Derek how he defined “success” in his article, he told me that he didn’t remember. This got me thinking about my personal definition of success and videogames, as coming to terms with something I feel comfortable with as both a developer and a player has been very difficult for me over the years. My first definition of a successful game went something like this:

A successful videogame is one that satisfies my personal requirements for enjoyment.

I call this my naïve definition. For the general videogame public, this definition is reasonably functional. From the perspective of a consumer, games should strive to satisfy my needs, and if they do so, they have accomplished their mission. But this definition is woefully myopic when I position myself as a developer. Surely I can’t responsibly hope to satisfy one, two, or even a few thousand people. If fifty thousand people walk away from my games satisfied, even that is a horrible failure. The longer I’ve been in the industry, the more expensive games have gotten to produce, and to make enough money back to justify the investment made in development I now have to satisfy hundreds of thousands, and perhaps even millions of people. This realization led me to my second definition of videogame success:

A successful videogame is one that appeals to the broadest number of people possible.

I call this my pragmatic definition. From a business standpoint, this is an ideal definition of success, and undoubtedly it’s one that is held by a great many developers, but also probably by a great many people who sit in much larger offices and have much fancier cars than any developer has. I’m talking about the money men – the management and publishers that really drive this industry. The better my games sell, the better I appear in the eyes of the bigwigs, the more games I get to make – with bigger budgets, and better people, which leads to better sales, which leads to more stature in the eyes of the bigwigs, and on and on. But this definition began to eat at my soul a bit. After all, I don’t consider game gesign a job people take to pay the bills or to climb the corporate ladder; this is a job of passion and love. Developers dedicate more time and energy to their jobs than most people could possibly imagine. There’s a reason the average career span of a game developer is only 10 years – this shit is hard. Digesting this, I began to explore the realm of critical analysis, commonly known as game reviews. The games industry has its own vibrant system of critical commentary, and just like other entertainment media, the videogame review system even has its own review collation sites – my favorite is Gamerankings. Armed with this new tool of observation I came to yet another definition:

A successful videogame is one that gains wide critical acclaim.

In and of itself, I still maintain that this, my humanist definition, has merit. It might seem odd then, that I recently abandoned this definition with great relish. You see, my educational background is in Literature. Before I got around to game design, I was seriously considering a career in writing. I spent nearly two years of my college career taking nothing but literary critical analysis classes. I fell in love with both the subject matter of the analysis as well as the art of analysis itself. I began to understand how external the definition of what is “good” and what is “bad” can be. Unfortunately, and I don’t mean to reignite a debate on videogame journalism, but videogame reviews as an entity aren’t about objective analysis and worth quite yet. They’re about political machination and emotion. I came to this conclusion in the past year, and one game above all illustrated this to me rather clearly – Shadow of the Colossus.

Shadow of the Colossus is a game I’ve been looking forward to pretty much since the moment I completed ICO. Before even playing it, I would imagine how much I would love it, and what important work Fumita Ueda, Kanji Kaido, and the entire crew over there on Team ICO was doing. I felt that they were making the kind of games that the industry needed more of. And you know what? A lot of videogame reviewers were feeling the same things I was. They wanted Team ICO to succeed. They wanted Shadow of Colossus to serve as some sort of call-to-arms for the industry to make more esoteric experiences, to challenge art standards, to evoke emotional responses. The difference between me and those reviewers is that I’m not paid to review videogames – I’m a fan. The only thing that matters to me as a fan is my naïve definition, my personal requirements for enjoyment. These reviewers, in my view, let this investment of desire get to them, and it completely ruined their analytical perspective.

Playing Shadow of the Colossus revealed many things to me. The first was that Team ICO is not infallible. As a game, Shadow of the Colossus is not a masterpiece. Ueda is an animator by trade, and it’s obvious that subtle nuances communicated through motion are very important to him – more important than, say, how his game actually feels to play. In some cases, it works out. Climbing the colossi and killing them is exhilarating, and the information exchanged between motion on screen and the player’s awareness contributes to this. But sometimes it goes horribly wrong, as is the case with your horse Agro. Quite simply, Agro is a pain in the ass to ride. He doesn’t respond well enough to the player’s input – intentional, apparently, to communicate the free spirit of the horse. It’s hard to point him straight. He crashes into collision and ledges violently. And because you spend so much time on him – I would say at least 1/3 of the time you play the game – he sullies the experience. The game is worse because of Agro (there are also huge problems with actually tracking down the colossi, which exacerbates the Agro problem, but I’ll stick to shitting on Agro for now). Yet somehow, this was lost on reviewers, as they celebrated Shadow of the Colossus as a near-flawless landmark achievement in gaming.

I don’t think videogames are ready to rely just yet on their journalists to provide the kind of service that the literary community yields from theirs (although even the literary critics get pushed and pulled by politics every now and again). So what definition do I use to define success in gaming now? Well, it’s kind of an amalgamation of all these definitions:

A successful videogame is one that achieves a meaningful connection with its audience.

I call this my abstract definition. I don’t really have the intricacies of what it truly classifies all figured out, but somehow it makes sense to me, and that’s good enough for now. Maybe you all can help me come to grips with a formal meaning.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Games I'm Playing Right Now - Part 3

The ongoing series returns! I was trying to hold off on one of these until I finished the giant stack of games I have in front of me, but I realized that it might take a while to do so. So instead, I'll give you a rundown of what I've gotten to so far.

Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter (Xbox 360)
This game almost proves my photorealism argument without me having to lift a finger. So you've got this pretty damn good looking game space, complete with lots of next-gen buzzword technologies like HDR, and then you've got this annoyingly garish HUD system to help you figure out what the fuck is actually going on in the game. It's almost comically difficult to discern what a crucial game aspect is and what's not.

I don’t mean to be overly harsh, but I feel like a lot of reviews have been overly kind, perhaps blinded by the HDR-laden glare that paints every horizon. The game does do some cool things. For instance, I like the wobble on the camera in 3rd person mode when you run - It reminds me of the chasing bad guys through the backyard look of the television show COPS. I also like how world objects react when they take fire. Cars shake and rattle when shot and explosions are both graphically and audibly satisfying. Once you get the hang of manipulating troops/vehicles/spy planes the control system is pretty handy as well. And then, of course, there are those pretty graphics.

So far GRAW has left me pretty “meh.” Hopefully that changes, because I really do want to like it.

Super Princess Peach (Nintendo DS)
I haven’t been in awe of Nintendo since 1996. That’s not to say I haven’t enjoyed a great many of their products, because I have. I love the Mario Kart series. I got suckered into Nintendogs, as did a couple million other people. But I haven’t been humbled by Nintendo’s ability to create a product that is simply impossible for any other developer to make in essentially my entire adult life. I don’t know if that speaks more about me as a person than Nintendo as a company, but it is how I feel.

So yes, I’m enjoying Super Princess Peach. I’m enjoying it quite a bit, actually. It’s gorgeous, it’s well-thought out in terms of puzzles, and the Princess feels really good to control. It does what I think all good platform/puzzle games should do – it makes me feel smart for figuring stuff out. I had to force myself to stop playing it last night, I became so fixated. But it doesn’t put the fear in me like I want it to. I guess I’ll look to another game to fulfill that need.

Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance (PS2)
You read that correctly – I’m playing MGS2, not MGS3. I’m playing it for the 3rd time, although in my previous attempts I had never made it off the damn boat, which is the first level (I have done so now, thankfully). Having played MGS1 and not been terribly impressed, and having played MGS3 and finding it be one of my favorite games of this generation, I didn’t know what to think of the middle child of the Solid series. I now find it to be a combination of both good and bad.

It plays like a mix of MGS1 and MGS3, which makes sense. The controls and game rules feel like a stepping stone, and while functional, I feel myself yearning for MGS3’s sophistication. The game is also terribly codec-heavy so far, more so than I remember MGS3 being. One thing that strikes me as odd is that after playing the game for an hour or so as Snake, and being offered little if any instruction on how to play the game (which I didn’t need anyway), you’re immediately thrown into several tutorial-like objectives with Raiden. It really feels like Konami meant to ship the game without any Snake at all, and they threw in the first bit as a last-minute addition. I haven’t gotten far enough into the game to explore its more esoteric elements, but I’m eager to – there’s something about how ferociously debated the game is that I find compelling. For the record, I have no problem playing as Raiden at all. Maybe if I had the unexpected shock that so many people had of not knowing beforehand it would be different. Maybe if I hadn’t watched Metal Gear Saga Vol. 1 immediately before playing MGS2, in which Hideo Kojima explains that Raiden was an attempt to attract a segment of players who had no interest in Snake as a character, I would mind more. But hell, functionally Raiden is superior to Snake, and from that perspective I prefer him.

And so it goes. I picked up some other games this past week – Pursuit Force, Black, and Onimusha: Dawn of Dreams to be specific, but I haven’t played any of them to a level where I feel comfortable talking about them. I’m actually pretty enthralled with the three games I talk about above, and I feel no rush to move on just yet.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Symbols, Icons, and the Best Games Ever Made

Exclamations > Snake.

I’ve been thinking a lot about photorealism lately. In the midst of the current console transition, the actualization of what could truly be considered photorealistic recreations is upon us. Personally, I find this to be a great thing; there are many games that will benefit from the ability to accurately reconstitute the subject matter upon which they are based – racing and sports games in particular will undoubtedly experience a golden age within this console cycle. But the wholesale push towards photorealism concerns me quite a bit as well. I think in many cases that voraciously replicating real-world objects, settings, and characters can actually have a negative impact on a great many games. In fact, I assert that some of the most successful videogames ever have utilized iconic and symbolic imagery to reach unparalleled levels of consumer penetration and cultural awareness.

A symbol is one thing that is meant to represent something else. In the case of videogames, it's typically a graphically simplified version of an object used to convey a concept or idea. You know, like the hunks of meat that drop in Streets of Rage, symbolically representing potential health rejuvenation. A symbol becomes iconic when it retains a core likeness with the object it represents. The mushrooms in Super Mario Bros. are iconic representations of the magical mushrooms from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. The usage of symbols and icons throughout history is well documented, and the human aptitude for symbolism allows us to make associations between objects and concepts on a level far exceeding any other beings on earth. It's is an innately powerful ability that videogames have taken advantage of since their inception, when graphical limitations precluded the ability to do much of anything else. However, with the advent of new and more powerful technology that frees us from iconic “restrictions,” it’s important to recognize that in many cases, symbolic imagery is more effective than other, more complicated means of communication.

Symbols are so intrinsic that the brain doesn’t even recognize them as unusual.

There is one thing we should get out of the way here – good graphics and technological advances impress people, including me. Project Gotham Racing 3 and Fight Night Round 3 both attracted enormous (deserved) attention due to their stunningly photorealistic graphics. Resident Evil 4 has also received enormous acclaim for exhibiting a graphical level considered impossible on the Gamecube (which is strange, considering on paper the Gamecube is in many ways significantly more powerful than the Playstation 2…). But what has not kept up with the graphical achievements in these games is the nature of interaction that the player has with these worlds – players interact with PGR3 and FNR3 in much the same ways as they did in their predecessors. In Resident Evil 4, for all of its graphical prowess, players still move along largely linear paths, rarely (if at all) interacting with the world in any meaningful way - certainly not in any way previously impossible due to graphical limitations. So perhaps the assumption on the part of publishers and developers is that photorealism yields better sales than advancements from a gameplay standpoint?

That forest sure is pretty. Too bad you can't touch it.

Well the evidence just doesn't support it. In 1980, a little wonder of a game called Pac-Man was unleashed upon the world, spreading like wildfire and ultimately becoming the most successful coin-operated videogame ever made. Pac-Man is a stunningly well-executed collection of symbols. The game space is defined by a simple blue border. Enemies are rendered as iconic ghosts. The pills/pellets are simple off-white balls; the small ones are required to clear a level, the large ones imbue Pac-Man with the ability to eat his enemies. And Pac-Man himself is a yellow circle with a wedge removed. Few games have the public awareness saturation that Pac-Man entertains; its infectiously pure gameplay coupled with its universally appreciated symbols and icons made it a certifiable phenomenon the likes of which is unseen in videogames today. So what, then, does constitute a cultural peculiarity in today’s marketplace?

Pac-Man – perhaps the perfect iconic game.

Chess - another game that has entertained some moderate success through the use of symbols.

Well, The Sims is a good candidate. Also known as the best-selling PC videogame of all time, The Sims single-handedly kept the PC videogames industry afloat for half a decade (until a moderately successful role-playing game came along to help shoulder the burden), and it continues to be a videogame juggernaut with its subsequent sequels and expansions. The Sims is a fascinating jumble of both universally recognized and contrived symbols, such as the green diamond “plumbob” that shows which Sim is currently selected or the entire Simlish language, that has no publicly understood meaning yet is nevertheless effective (coupled with emotional voice-recorded delivery) at communicating the states, moods, and emotions of the denizens within the Sim world. Certainly the game could achieve a more realistic portrayal of people and objects if it sought to, but what exists is powerful enough to communicate the general ideas and concepts that the creators wish to convey. The Sims 2, which deviates even further from a realistic style to near complete iconography, is compelling evidence that the creators are purposefully attempting not to recreate reality, and are being rewarded for their efforts with stunning commercial success.

Sims 2 - Easily mistaken for reality.

What about consoles? I know what you’re probably thinking – Super Mario Bros. is a perfect candidate for discussion, what with its iconic imagery and status as the best-selling console videogame of all time – but that might lead to indeterminate conclusions. After all, Super Mario Bros. was released at a time when virtually all videogames took advantage of iconic imagery. It’s difficult to conclusively argue that Mario’s symbols were any more significant than any other games’. Instead I’m going to talk about the most successful console videogame of the modern era – Grand Theft Auto, which relies heavily on symbols and iconic imagery to convey its messages to more people than any other series in gaming today. I’m going to skip over the first two games (like most people do anyway), because it could be argued that those games relied on icons due to technological limitations. Instead I’ll focus on the GTA trilogy (3, Vice City, and San Andreas), and the PSP game Liberty City Stories. First off, all of the games rely on a highly stylized depiction of reality – character proportion, lighting, and world logic like car physics all behave as gross approximations of the entities they represent – a cornerstone of symbols. But it is in GTA’s crucial gameplay identification system that uses symbols in the extreme. Want some health? Look for floating red hearts encased in blue circles. Looking for a way to get the cops off your back? A blue shield with a golden star will do the trick. And what about that star system? One star prominently displayed represents the basest level of law response, with subsequent stars directly correlating to the escalation of retaliation against the player. The world layout is expressed through a thoughtfully useful iconic mini map, permanently displayed in the corner of the screen, indicating where weapons can be purchased (little handgun icons), food can be eaten (disembodied chicken head icons), the game can be saved (house icons) and missions can be undertaken (letter icons). It all makes for an immediately communicable experience, one that again, reaches more people than any other photorealistic game can claim to.

Hail to the King.

I could go further and talk about Tetris, the best-selling handheld videogame of all time, but by this point my argument has been pretty well exhausted; suffice to say Tetris is about as stripped of any real world graphical representation as you can get.

Symbols 4, Photorealism 0

I personally am all for graphic and technological advancement - but "advanced graphics" is not synonymous with "photorealism." There are many games – like some of the ones mentioned above – that take advantage of bleeding edge of technology while still benefiting from symbolic imagery. This utilization – coupled with all-around good design motifs – has benefited these games and many more with mind-blowing sales figures. And truly, it’s the ability of a game to connect with an audience that makes for the most tangible conclusions regarding its merit (one might suggest that critical acclaim and analyses are valid measuring tools of a game’s merit. I would agree with this if the ruler by which games were judged was a lot more sophisticated). Great games that use symbolic imagery have consistently performed at the top of the industry – and those that remain on top know this, and consistently employ them in their projects.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Self-Inflicted Wounds

The internet is getting to know both Dave Sirlin and Raph Koster a little bit better lately. Sirlin wrote an article about World of Warcraft, and he used a definition of fun offered in Koster's absolutely phenomenal book, A Theory of Fun for Game Design. I really have nothing to add to the argument that Sirlin proffered; it just so happens that I had started reading A Theory of Fun days before his article hit. In it, Koster touches on a point dangerously close to home - that of the designer's aptitude for playing an inordinate amount of games - what Derek calls the Game Designer's Tax. Specifically, Koster worries that designers digest the systems in scores of games wholesale and create a sort of mental rule set not only by which to live, but also by which to create. This, he asserts, leads to a cyclical regurgitation of the same systems, thus stifling creativity.

I have to admit, the guy's got a point. I've written about my adoration (and mass consumption) of other games, as well as my desire to recreate the elements of games that I find noteworthy. I've pointed out this phenomenon of recycled ideas in other games, undoubtedly designed by people suffering from a similar affliction. I've also touched on the scaling sophistication within established genres, spurred on by the accumulated knowledge that designers bring to the creative process. All of this is almost certainly leading to an industry full of games produced from a very refined, exclusive, and prohibitive collection of ideas.

Koster also asserts that the most productive designers draw very little motivation from games. I know Miyamoto, for one, is often characterized as a banjo-playing, bike riding, mountain hiking Renaissance man. I, on the other hand, must admit to playing a lot of games and doing very little of anything else. Does this mean I'm doomed to forever mimicry, making a career of incremental progress based on the work of others? I don't think that's what Koster is suggesting, entirely. I'm pretty sure he doesn't think I'm helping my odds of creating something new and original by obsessively cataloging the modern history of videogames. But Koster does think there is value in a side effect of the game designer’s incessant need to absorb so many games. By playing games and then talking about them, we begin to formalize the analysis of game design, essentially paving the way for true videogame criticism.

I guess, in a way, I engage in videogame criticism with this blog. In the vaguest of terms, criticism is an interpretation or judgment of merits; when I write an article about why I think Power Stone’s external objective reflexive gameplay systems are noteworthy, in some tiny way I’m subscribing to the idea that videogame design is a legitimate discipline. Doing so is a crucial step in getting this thing we do to grow up – not in the sense of subject matter, but in terms of recognition and acceptance. No, I’m not talking about videogames as an art form – I couldn’t be more tired of hearing that argument. I’m simply talking about videogames being recognized for something more than just fun. Chess is fun. Going to see a movie is fun. Reading a good book is fun. But the notion that they can be something more is an accepted given. Can the same be said for games?

So no, I don’t think I’ll be taking up the banjo any time soon, but what Koster suggests has given me pause, and while I don’t think I’ll stop playing as many games as I do, I will certainly be mindful of broadening my horizons and seeking out new influences. His book, for one, has been quite inspirational - I recommend it to you if you're even remotely interested in game design.

Thanks for reading.