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The Design Debates
by Christian Nutt on 07/31/12 04:31:00 pm   Editor Blog   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Lately there have been some design debates going on at Gamasutra, and it's been really interesting. This hasn't been intentional, in the sense that as the features director, I didn't set out to liven up the design section of on the site by specifically commissioning deep or controversial pieces; on the contrary, the conversation naturally grew out of the articles we've been publishing, and in particular the Gamasutra comments section, where a lot of things are being hashed out. 

Today's feature by Ara Shirinian grew out of his comments on a December piece on player death by Dan Andrei Carp. The idea behind the piece was that removing death from games could streamline the player experience. Carp looked at how a handful of games, such as Braid and Borderlands, had handled death.

Ara's comment takes the premise of the entire article to task. "Is your premise that breaking the continuity of experience when the player makes a mistake is an inherently undesirable (or even jarring) outcome? If so, I disagree with this premise in general," he wrote, before going on to share his own ideas.

I read his comment and then emailed him immediately, saying that I thought he could take his thoughts and run with them as a feature. It may have taken almost eight months to get there (he's busy working on Epic Mickey for 3DS, after all) but he did. 

I think what's interesting here -- in terms of how we got where we are -- is to consider how the catalyst doesn’t exactly reflect the result by the time we get there. Ara's final piece isn't about player death, but more about the concept of repetition vs. novelty in games, and how THAT affects players -- but if you know what we started with, you can understand how we got where we are today. 

Of course, there have been even bigger debates going on in our features section when it comes to design articles, and those have really snowballed. Keith Burgun made waves with his feature What Makes a Game?, which was published this past March. That feature generated 127 comments, and a lot of interesting debate -- in no small part because Keith saw some video games as not "games" at all. 

This naturally grew into a second feature where he got even more specific about how he wants to see the conversation around games occur. Keith is definitely a formalist, and a trained musician -- he wants a way of looking at games that is like music theory, with rules that can be applied so design can move forward. Of course, a lot of people don't necessarily see the value in being so strict -- including Anna Anthropy, who Keith spoke to in person about this issue and quotes in his piece. Debate once more got heated.

This caused Neils Clark to, I think, get frustrated, and strike back with a piece that argues the best way to define games is to make them, not make manifestos. And he also pointed out that maybe some of the people arguing should do some reading of what’s already been written before they jump into the fray, too. 

Now here's where it gets really interesting, I think, and shows the vibrancy of the debates that happen. Speaking of “what’s already been written”, Raph Koster wrote a blog post (which we reprinted with his permission) which discusses Keith's comments on Neils' feature. The three minds' ideas at this point are swirling around each other; each adds to the debate about the best way to move forward -- Keith proposing the creation of a new system for game design, Neils arguing against the terms of the debate, and Raph defining the culture that gives rise to it.

What excites me here is that these articles are all growing organically out of the thoughts and conversations of the audience, and they feed back into each other, they evolve, and people arrive at new perspectives and new understandings of the medium and how it fundamentally works. 

Gamasutra can serve many purposes for its readers, but if one of them is that it is a forum to hash out the ways in which the medium can grow and engage in debate both in comments and articles, then we’re getting somewhere.

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Keith Burgun
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Good article, makes a great recap of the last few months I think. I am really happy to be a part of this discussion, which is a really important discussion to have (although not everyone agrees about this).

I do really think Gamasutra offers a kind of voice that you can't really get anywhere else. It sort of lives in between the "blog" and "corporate magazine" area; hopefully with the wildness and freedom of the former and the competence and clarity of the former.

Michael Parker
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I do kind of think it's interesting (and a little frustrating) that the best discussions are often started by flawed articles, or articles which people disagree with. Sometimes I write things and people just agree with me and have nothing to add. Whilst that's nice in a way, it does make for boring reading and doesn't really take the discussion anywhere.

It's almost like to promote a good discussion, you need to say something controversial, but I like to think through what I'm going to say before I publish it. Maybe there is a distinction between open ended articles intended to promote discussion, and closed articles intended to purely publish findings or thoughts?

Keith Burgun
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To be clear, I'm probably the guy who said the most controversial stuff, but I sincerely believe it to be true. It wasn't for the sake of stirring the pot or whatever, it was for the sake of adding an idea that I think is correct to the pot. However, what you are saying is also true that whether I'm right or wrong and whether zero or 100% of people agree with me, it gets a discussion going which is positive.

Michael Joseph
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"I do kind of think it's interesting (and a little frustrating) that the best discussions are often started by flawed articles, or articles which people disagree with."

I think in the last few years contributors have gotten a little braver when it comes to taking risks and putting their ideas out there for others to criticize or comment on. And that's been a good thing. In the past gamasutra articles and talk backers were perhaps too conservative and maybe even a little too polite.

That's something I suspect is common in a lot of sites for "professionals." It can too be intimidating for some would be contributors.

But definetly there are ways of disagreeing without being disagreeable. I think this sites users have been pretty good about this. And that has benefited everyone.

p.s. For a lot of game developers not working in a traditional office environemnt's openess provides them with a sense of being connected to the industry.

Ole Berg Leren
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I subscribe to the Burgunian School of Reasoning. We have neat hats and flowing robes!

In all seriousness, I love the pieces in question. The way a certain reasoning suddenly penetrates fully into my mind, spurred on by comments for and against. Said comments teasing forth new chains of thought that might otherwise not have come to fruition, or taken a hell of a lot longer to do so. It might be because Burgun's framework was my first experience with game design theory, that went a bit deeper than the touchy-feely approach of comparing games to other games. It's a great tool to have in my back-brain, ready to be whipped out at a moment's notice.

Michael DeFazio
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my issue/debate with the "formalist" posts on gamasutra is philosophical rather than formal. but it seems like formalists often want to get into the (ihmo) boring formal debate of the definition of "fun", "game"... only for the sake of brow-beating people into believing they (and they alone) have the perfect model and definition for everything related to video games (for all people).

that type of logic often involves some "procrustean" (\prə-ˈkrəs-tē-ən - marked by arbitrary often ruthless disregard of individual differences or special circumstances" ) definitions (of "fun", "puzzle", "game", "interactive system", ...) which limit the scope of the argument to the point where i'm not sure what purpose it serves....i don't care how we categorize "Wii sports", "tetris", or "farmville", they all share components that are worthy of discussion, (and they feel like video games) lets talk about 'em rather than argue whether they are "games" by someones definition of "game".

...even if we could all agree on the definitions of these words "fun", "game", "interactive system", "puzzle", ... they would probably do only an adequate job of defining "prior art"....meanwhile some new innovation in video games will occur which will capitalize on a completely new plane of optimization (for example, a "meditation game" in which your "goal" is to "calm yourself down" and lower you blood pressure/resting metabolic heart rate/calm your mind") then the agreed upon definitions will no longer apply and we'll end up wasting more time and energy fighting and defending these definitions.

Michael DeFazio
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short version-
shared models/definitions can be great at communicating and getting people who share your beliefs to realize a shared vision.

...but dictatorially attempting to apply these definitions/models to all people and products will often be met with disdain by people who do not share your beliefs/values.

Gerald Belman
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I guess I side more with the Neils Clark guy. Personally, I find all these design debates pretty stupid and boring for the reasons Michael DeFazio pointed out. I would recommend Gamasutra moves away from these game design foodfights. Design debates are inherently subjective - and thus it's hard to learn anything from them. It is the tendency nowadays for news organizations(of which gamasutra is one) to worry more about creating controversy and argument(or as they call it "discussion") than they do about the facts and the truth. And they have a tendency to try to be "neutral" even when one side is blatantly wrong - because they don't want to limit their audience and ad revenue.

Personally, I would prefer Gamasutra focus more on the postmortems(and things like that) which I have always read - because they are almost always based on honest reasoning and facts and figures. (the admission of mistakes is quite insightful) However, it is obviously alot harder to produce that kind of content than it is to crap out another subjective game design crapfight.

Just my two cents on how to make people like me read your website more and give you more ad revenue - however I will admit we are probably in the minority.

Ara Shirinian
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Design debates/discussions certainly are not inherently 'hard to learn anything from,' neither are they are inherently crapfights, because it's the quality of the discussion that makes it more or less so.

I think it just seems that way at times when the participants indulge themselves in pedantry and a refusal to honestly consider other perspectives.

I think Gamasutra can and should exist in valuable ways as both a vehicle for news and commentary. For years, commentary in video game media was sorely absent. If the quality of commentary needs to be raised, that's a different and perfectly valid concern. I for one would not like to go back to the days of game media as straight up PR catalogs.

Incidentally - postmortems are no less susceptible to dishonesty. It's just that because you have no means to judge how selectively dishonest they are, at face value it always appears that they are presenting a representative picture of their successes and failures.

Curtiss Murphy
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Lately, I find myself reading gamasutra more and more. Keep it up!