The problem with the video games industry, and the possible bright side of all of it

Currently the video games industry makes billions of dollars, and video games themselves are played by millions of people the world over. In America alone, there are 150 million people playing video games according to the Entertainment Software Association. Anyone can tell that these are huge numbers, and the video games industry is a big deal. But it goes without saying also that this industry has a lot of problems, but a lot of people probably don’t give a shit about it. Or they do, but they misunderstand and misrepresent parts of the problems.

In the past 14 months or so that I’ve started my games design course in university, I’ve been made aware of the fact that, for all the prestige the industry receives, the biggest, most well-recognized, and most successful games companies have themselves gotten away with generally bad game design. That’s not to say the games they release are all inherently unlikeable, but they can often exhibit examples of bad game design, and the designers within big companies can get away with it.

Increasingly, there is a demand for realism in video games, and more movie-like presentation and story-telling in video games, and the industry is responding in the form of the kind of triple-A games being released. In one of the lectures we got shown Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain on an Xbox One so that we can see a part of the game where you start a mission, you have to sit through a scene where you wait in a helicopter to arrive the location of your mission, during which time you don’t get to do anything over than look around until you arrive at a location, and only then can you actually play the game. While one of the lecturers did comment that he actually liked the game when he actually played it, another pointed out that in spite of that it was guilty of bad game design because there is too much time where you are forced to sit and watch the game before you actually watch it. We also talked about the prominence of cutscenes in general, and how too often they interrupt gameplay for the sole purpose of conveying cinematic narrative. Almost as though video games were just becoming interactive movies.

In addition, the demand for realistic visual style and better-than-Hollywood cinematics can only mean demand for more highly skilled employees, but this also goes along side the industry’s demand for employees who can turn out very high quality work within a short timeline. Game designers can probably guess that this is highly likely to lead to crunch time, which is when a development team works above and beyond normal hours to the detriment of personal life as a deadline or milestone draws closer. I believe all of this is down to the expectations we have of video games today, we somehow want video games to join the ranks of classical symphonies, timeless movies, great literature, and revered works of art, but this just devalues video games for what they are and instead prizes them for assuming a role they are not meant to assume. But that’s not the only problem. Another problem is that people in the games industry often look only at the money. They see what’s done in popular or commercially successful games, even if it’s a textbook case of bad game design, and think what they’re doing is the way to make tons of money, and so they want a slice of the pie. Or, like in other industries, companies often don’t like to do anything original for fear of taking risks. And I doubt this is going on only in the world of triple A games produced in the West.

Also, games companies sometimes simply release downloadable content and patches as means of fixing the games they already released, and it’s patently obvious that the games should have been fixed and debugged before they were released, or just create downloadable content as a means of making more money (like when Capcom had you purchase and download the true ending of Asura’s Wrath).

Part of the problem is that we treat games too much like fine art, or too often think of them as art instead of as entertainment, part of the problem is that people in video games companies view games only as a commercial product to make them money, part of the problem is that  part of the problem is that some people think of games only as a technology, and that games are only a matter of programming, and part of the problem is that everyone else thinks so little of video games at all. The last part is especially dangerous because ignorance is what allows companies to continue doing the same thing, and make more games that exist simply as polished products with little originality to back them up. Again, this can’t said about all games.

However, I like to think this situation in the games industry presents its own opportunity.

One of the lecturers tells me that the games industry is need of good game designers, now more than ever, precisely because of the fact that makers of triple A games still get away with rookie game design mistakes and basic ignorance about what makes games great. And with that in mind, I feel like maybe I have my own ideas for how to shine a light in the industry. Learning about game theory, and being able to relate it to my other personal interests, has given me hope about doing game design in university. If I do well this year, I’ll be motivated to reach for a higher standard in order to improve myself and become a great game designer, whereas before I only wanted to prove that I was a competent designer (how foolish to think such a thing back then). Hell, I’ll probably be motivated if I can see I’ve done better than before this semester. And if I complete my course, or perhaps complete the masters course afterward, I will be able to utilize game design theory to not only give life to any ideas I have for games, but also to rebel against the conventions of the video games industry by showing that great games can be not just original and creative, but fun for the player, all without the need to conform to the ideal of that all the best games have to be equivalent to movies and naturalistic paintings instead of just being great games.

In addition, it feels to me like there is still room for some measure of artistic conviction in games. In Game Design Theory and Practice, Richard Rouse III devotes a section of analysis to game called Myth: The Fallen Lords (which I’ve not played), and here’s some notes I’ve compiled from that section.

Myth is game designed by hard-core gamers for hard-core and makes no apologies about it. Far from trying to capture the mainstream or ‘casual’ gamer market that so many companies have tried to court, Myth is a game that would quickly frighten away anyone who is not already familiar with other RTS [real-time strategy] games, and who does not have the quick-clicking skills required by Myth. There is nothing wrong with this, of course, and it is pleasing to see a game that has the artistic conviction to know its audience and to stick to it.

Often when hard-core gamers try to make a game that the mythical casual gamer will enjoy, they end up making a game they themselves don’t like very much, and that the casual gamer does not care much about very much. It is hard for an artist to make art that appeals to sensibilities that are at odd with his/her own, the end result often being works that are without appeal to any group or demographic. But Myth did not have this problem, its developers created a game no casual gamer would ever be able to pick up.

Game Design Theory and Practice (pages 302-303) by Richard Rouse III

I’ll continue to accumulate knowledge of game theory, and I think I’ll post more about it in the winter and spring holidays when I complete my lecture notes, especially considering my last post about game theory was great and well-received.

A selection of Xbox 360 games on sale at a game store.

4 responses to “The problem with the video games industry, and the possible bright side of all of it

  1. To be I have been a video gaming enthusiasts for years and you are on the money. I will enjoy games that do come out wood works sure enough, but I am more so careful then ever about I drop my penny on. Because game developers wind up developing a movie more then a game sometimes. Take a look at Ninja Gaiden a NES classic and its newer updated brothers. Sure the original had story, but it was kept in balance with it to be a game.

    • A key thing for game designers to remember that I may or may not have mentioned is that the most important part of game design is that you’re making something that’s going to be played by other people, so game design has to revolve around how the player is going to experience the game. For people like me, we can’t afford to think of it in terms of sublimating our own vision to the desires of the hypothetical player, but rather we have to take our vision and figure out how to design it so that people will want to play it.

  2. I don’t know if I’m in the minority on this one, but I enjoy the overall experience. So long as the presentation is fitting, sitting through the lengthy cutscenes and intros make the game experience better, not worse. For example, Metal Gear Solid 4 is considered to be the worse installment in the franchise, due to the long cutscenes. (Before MGSV was released) Yet, it was a true conclusion to a saga. Gameplay is primary method of enjoyment for games, but gamers need to dial it back and enjoy a good experience.

    On another note, you are absolutely correct, game design for AAA titles is seriously flawed. Games are NEVER made complete; they buggy, supported with DLC and content cut from the experience before release. It’s all about the money and NOT about keeping customers and fans happy. This way of thinking has to stop or the industry WILL lose all credibility. (Just look at the recent installment of Call of Duty. It’s selling, but gamers are catching on and are getting sick of the same experience, in a different skin.

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