Tooth and nail

In my class we were told a few days ago that in the third year of university, once we submit individual game design documents (design documents for game projects we each want to see made) and complete the second year, two of the design documents will be chosen by the lecturers as the basis of two major projects for which the entire class would be divided into two groups each working on one project. The people who are going to be in those groups aren’t going to be decided by the students, which means that the person who made the idea in their design document may not necessarily be the one who created it. The rationale behind it is that the lecturers feel that when the person who came up with the idea gets involved in the project, they’d take a lot of control over the project at the expense of becoming too dictatorial towards the other members. To be honest, I understand where that would come from. If I was behind an idea and I had the idea of how it would be envisioned, I’d fight tooth and nail for my vision because I don’t like people changing my ideas, and when I said that in one of the classes one of the lecturers said “Exactly”.

For me, I get the sense that game design isn’t a profession where creative control is guaranteed. In fact, I’m fairly certain there’s not many professions in creative media where you can maintain creative control without being very dictatorial and risking the possibility of being an asshat to the other members of a production team you’re in. And I don’t know a lot about bands but I can’t helping thinking it’s a similar situation because, unless you’re a one man band (like some contemporary black metal bands that I’ve heard of). I’m fairly sure now the only creative profession where you have full creative control is self-published novelist, which is, funny enough, what my brother is considering doing. I sure hope that extends to graphic novels as well. I still don’t think I’m done with game design, not yet anyway. There’s still stuff I can learn, that I can then use. I just have to wonder though how I can operate as the egoistic creative that I know I am without being asshole towards the rest of my production team, and it does get me thinking of what I’d actually do once I finish the game design course.

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.

A desire for narrative

Ever since my brother and I were children, it seems we were defined by a desire to creative our own narratives, stories, characters, and universes. If we have anything in common, it is the impulse for creation (though I think of myself as more attentive to the mystical layer of this than my brother).

Constantly we would play out stories and fictional events between us, create characters and environments, and I would often create avatars of myself for the sake of putting myself in the story. Interestingly, my brother seems to be less reluctant than me to employ the idea of the author avatar.

The impulse for creation runs through my life and his, and has never stopped, nor shall it.

Crossovers have no real creative merit

Easily one of the stupidest ideas ever

Let me say this: I don’t think crossovers are not inherently bad. Look at Smash Bros. I just don’t think they’re very creative. This is because you throw in characters from different universes and you have to combine their universes, and somehow create a story involving all of them and often explain how or why they came together. Worse if you try to include a completely new bad guy who exists solely as something to be opposed by the existing characters.

With Super Smash Bros., at least, it was fun, and, admittedly, original, mainly in gameplay. Hell, it was cool. Playstation All-Stars Battle Royale, on the other hand, is nothing other than an attempt by Sony to try and capitalize on Nintendo’s idea. Somehow, when Nintendo did what they did, it was great and original, but when Sony tried, it’s very unoriginal. And the nature of the crossover is even more ridiculous, and a heavily out of place roster. The only thing Sony did was pull a bunch of their characters together and fight each other in a manner that nigh copies Smash Bros.

Even Smash Bros., though, can be quite uncreative in the way of story, but that is mainly because it’s a fighting game, a genre that in general suffers from lacking in story.

That aside, I think crossovers just aren’t very creative. If you can find me a crossover that is, be my guest. But that doesn’t make them bad. Gameplay-wise, they can actually do great. I just wish the story could be more tolerable in its quality.

By the way, Shin Megami Tensei x Fire Emblem? What is Atlus thinking?