new challenger

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

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.


  • At 4:12 PM, Blogger jchensor said…

    I think your post speaks volumes, Omar, about the state of gaming. Everytime a decent idea comes up, it gets cloned like nobody's business. I mean, as soon as Devil May Cry got created, everyone makes Devil May Cry (I somehow managed to try Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, for example... even THAT was a DMC clone. What the hell?). When Mario Kart was made, EVERYONE had a Kart game from Sonic to Banjo to Woody Woodpecker. And though some succeed at improving the game (like God of War, for example), most do not.

    That's why I'm always inspired by the likes of Miyamoto and why I place so much faith in what he does for Nintendo. If it weren't for him, for example, could we ever have had Wario Ware? Who would dare fund such a concept? Even though it sounds stupid on paper, it turned out to be one of the most compelling games I've played in recent years. While trying to avoid sounding like a Nintendo fanboy (though many, like Derek, label me as one... fairly justifiably), I can't wait to see what the Revolution brings to gaming.

    I play a ton of games and I do wish I was in the industry of designing games. My mind tells me that if I did make games, I'd always try to do something new. Some form of new gimmick that separates it, even if it is building upon an older idea, such as cancellable attacks in God of War (being able to interrupt a string with a block, parry, throw, roll, etc), which IMO made it heads up and above any other DMC clone. I would kill to make DS games, for example, just for the ability to do something completely new and crazy and unheard of in today's industry. This also, of course, leads to my belief that any game I made would never sell and no one would ever play them, given how Madden sells like hotcakes every year with just updated rosters, pretty much. ^_^

    But regardless, this is what the industry needs: new ideas. And with the cost of making games going up and up, I feel like the console gaming world will lose ground to the PC gaming world, and fast. As long as independent game-makers can still create games on the PC, I'm betting that in a few short years all the best games will be coming from the PC. The Revolution and XBox Live Arcade, I think, are the brightest hopes for reversing that trend.

    I still think gaming was at its brightest, back in the days of the NES, when people created games. I mean, what the hell was Clu Clu Land? Does it matter? I'm just happy that people tried different things. When you look at that first poster that came with all NES games back in its debut, every game on that poster was wildly different than each other. Ice Climber, Wrecking Crew, Super Mario Bros, Gyromite, Golf, Donkey Kong... I think back on them and smile. I wanted to play them all! Now, gaming is all about the quest to see which game is the paragon of its genre, and only getting that one. There's no reason to try all the other crap out there anymore outside of gaming tax.

    These days, with the focus on realism and just trying to one-up previous games, I've grown bored of gaming. I look at the release games for 360 and PS3 and see sequels, First Person Shooters, and Driving games. Whee. I need game-games to spark my interest these days: Katamari Damacy, for example. It's a fun game, and that's all it pretends to be. And I've never played anything like it. But even now, Katamari is getting pimped out with too many versions. We don't need more Katamari games, we need more games that learn their lessons from Katamari.

  • At 12:08 PM, Blogger Derek Daniels said…

    I remember reading in an article of Edge about the peeps behind Wario Ware and how they were so excited to finally not do a traditonal 'miyamoto nintendo' game like Zelda, Mario, etc. They commented about how they worked really really hard to make sure that Wario Ware was a good game.

    I looked up the credits and I don't see Miyamoto's name anywhere on them:


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