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Analysis: In An Era Of 'Anguish', Game Design Searches For Its Soul

Analysis: In An Era Of 'Anguish', Game Design Searches For Its Soul Exclusive

October 13, 2010 | By Leigh Alexander

October 13, 2010 | By Leigh Alexander
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[As new markets emerge, social game designers are finding themselves oddly divided from their AAA peers -- is this really a battle of ethics in design, or is it a quest for the "soul" of interactive entertainment? Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander investigates.]

After years of struggling together for creative and spiritual recognition from the wider world, game designers seem to be turning on each other.

When a mobile game company is worth $400 million, and when whispers of a possible IPO for the industry's largest social game developer build to a dull roar, it's clear that new platforms have "broken in" to the mainstream.

Many of them, in medium or message or both, have been aided significantly by the input of storied veterans of the traditional AAA space: folks like Brian Reynolds, Raph Koster, Steve Meretzky and Brenda Brathwaite.

Designers like these have spent years, even decades, paying their dues in service of video games' battle for legitimacy in the eyes of a mainstream audience. And now that they're transitioning to a different space, those with whom they used to work are questioning their legitimacy as designers.

Few devs have put themselves on the line to call out their peers with constructed specificity, but it's clear that despite the millions of dollars their sector stands to rake in, social game developers are on the defensive. It's in the critical comments on our coverage of Raph Koster's first GDC Online lecture, where he stepped in for a Playdom exec to talk, perhaps not coincidentally, about "making the leap" from AAA to social games.

It's in the environment of disdain that permeates Twitter; it's in the silent rejection of peers' titles on Facebook. It's in the snarky tone the hardcore blogosphere takes in its reluctant coverage of the emerging markets that are getting harder and harder to ignore, it's even in the late-night cocktail chatter that follows the numerous conference talks that social game developers are increasingly traveling to present.

Ian Bogost, who with his satirical Cow Clicker title quickly landed himself on the side of the social game critics, frequently describes it as an environment of "anguish". In what was perhaps also not a coincidence, his GDC Online talk on the subject seemed to serve as an accidental counterpoint to Koster's although they took place in proximal time slots.

What's strangest of all about the defensive stance social game developers are taking, as if they felt the need to justify themselves to their peers or former colleagues, is that both camps are making games for the mainstream. Everyone, get over yourselves already.

What Are The Alternatives?

Is designing a metrics-driven title designed to engage users in a compulsion loop so that they'll keep logging in and spending money any more ethical or soulful than being one of 200 pairs of hands on one of however many market-researched, risk-averse mass-market console FPS releasing in the next few months?

Would colleagues respect the likes of Brathwaite and Reynolds more if they'd "stayed behind" to oversee the next painfully-subtle iterations in the sixth, seventh and eighth incarnation of a franchise that will never expand beyond its hardest-core niche?

It's hardly wrong to work on a product as beloved and successful as Civ, of course. Just as there's nothing wrong with making a product as beloved and successful as FrontierVille. Why do the opposing camps appear to feel the need to even make the argument that one has the same or more right to exist than the other?

But when we examine the "anguish" that Bogost describes, more interesting questions arise. If, as a reasonable hypothesis suggests, our veteran designers felt they had little more to do in a creatively-constrained and economically-dependent AAA space, are they resented for "escaping?" Should they have stayed behind, nobly frustrating themselves in fruitless aims to force drastic reinvention in a time and a space when to achieve it seems more down to luck than skill or effort?

Further, do traditional game developers expect "more", somehow, from those that flee the mill? Is it disheartening to witness that the most viable alternative to the wringer that most AAA development tends to be is spiritually and creatively a lateral move?

The Secret Sting

The answer we've used thus far is that traditional developers feel "threatened" or insulted by social game development: When some venture capitalist gets up and speaks at a summit entirely devoted to the economic models surrounding 50 cent Flash game hats and says consoles are irrelevant, it's fair that it raises the hackles of those who've been pouring their sweat and tears into devkits. When someone like Koster, who's helped parent long-held principles, says things like "you can no longer be a designer that doesn't understand money", it's probably actually painful to some.

But is Koster wrong? While there may be some "impurity" or distaste associated with admitting it, is there any segment of game development -- or any creative endeavor -- that realistically isn't concerned with money, least of all the traditional space in today's ever more hit-driven era? Even the indies care, battling one another valiantly for festival prizes and a drink at the communal funding hole.

Others argue that it's not the money issue -- it's the way social games are made. The common accusation is that so dependent are they on clicks and retention and user-numbers that they employ empty tactics to play on users' neurochemical reward centers. They're no better than slot machines, people say -- one could have even heard the word "cocaine" tossed into a few heated GDC Online debates.

So? Is that really better than the AAA space? Raising a virtual farm and clicking on corncobs is really so much less moral than smashing pumpkins or killing 12 wolves for a World of Warcraft villager the player just met? At least Facebook users all know each other's real names and don't seem to have a problem being civil to each other. Maybe it sucks that Facebook games ask you to view your online "friends" as services to be employed and points to be got, but how is Achievement and Trophy-whoring all that different? Your Facebook "friends" won't call you homophobic epithets if you let 'em down.

The point is, both are forms of entertainment without specific moral or spiritual quality. Their respective userbases enjoy them, so why keep clicking a dead cow? And even still, there is storytelling of real depth taking place in the traditional space, and one doesn't even need to continually resurrect Ico and Portal to find them.

Soul-Searching

Look at BioShock 2's carefully-authored Minerva's Den DLC, the emergent storytelling players have found in Red Dead Redemption, or the personal and philosophical approach to development employed by studios like Thatgamecompany.

Conversely, there is surely real socialization happening in the Facebook space -- personally, my friend and I have developed a series of lively real-world in-jokes thanks to some simple, frankly stupid "fortune-telling" wall spam apps, so imagine how much fun real people are having with FrontierVille. Give the audience some credit -- they can't all be cattle, ripe for the suckering!

So if there's actually merit on either side of this rapidly-emerging aisle, what's the debate really about? If both schools of thought are as equally-likely to be lifelessly commercial, then perhaps designers are pointing fingers at one another in a much bigger fight: The battle to recapture the soul in video games.

Because that's what everyone's struggling for, isn't it? For proof, one just needed to be in the room for Richard Bartle's show-closing talk on the history of MUD. He quipped that the only way he could present a critique of modern design was in the guise of a history lesson, and that's exactly what he did. MUD was motivated by the need to say something; most games today just aren't.

"You must want to say something," he told the packed audience, his voice taut as if he could inspire them with the kind of urgency that had once driven a pair of teenagers to create a multi-user world from scratch.

It's that ideal of soul in design -- a concept that doesn't depend on whether something's commercial or not, or metrics-driven or not. It's the goal of a game that is about something bigger than oneself, and perhaps all the "anguish" in the conflicted design landscape is that those on both sides of the argument are struggling to achieve it. Maybe it's just easier for each to accuse the other of failing than confront its absence.


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