A cry for games that matter

I find it laughable and sad that despite the fact that the average gamer is 33 years old, games are still mostly juvenile power fantasies. We have a few settings and mechanics we revisit time after time, and there is very little debate about leaving this well-treaded path to explore others.

Now, listen. I don’t want to shoot another alien. I don’t want to survive among mutants in a post-apocalyptic world. I don’t want to save the princess or the world. In fact, I’ve grown rather tired of killing things all together. And I know I’m not alone in this. We’re adults now. We crave games with topics adults give a damn about. Most of the time, that doesn’t include space marines or headshots.

Of course, gameplay needs some sort of conflict, and violence is a conflict that is easily translated into gameplay. And the gods know we’re good at it; we’ve done it since the birth of the industry. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t aspire to find mechanics that can portray other conflicts.

At GDC 2008’s Game Designer’s Rant, Clint Hocking stated that the industry did not lack creativity, it simply lacked the courage to create something that challenges people.

“Why can’t Call of Duty be about duty? Why isn’t Medal of Honor about honor?”

[…] “Even with 6 million Halo users, you’ve reached only 10% of the audicence size of the LoTR movies. That movie is fundementally about the mechanings of trust. Those should not be harder to simulate than the mechanics of rope.

The industry is not completly oblivious about this. There’s been discussions for quite some time if games are art, and if games can make players cry. At this stage, someone always bring up the death of Aeris in Final Fantasy VII. I have two problems with that. Her death is predetermined – it happens in a cutscene and the player has no chance to effect the outcome and doesn’t even really take part in the event.

Secondly, trying to evoke feelings of sadness like this is a very simplistic way of touching the player – it usually happens by portraying a character in a good light, and then killing her halfway into the game. It’s storytelling on a very simplistic level, and those who’ve read and seen many stories are likely to scorn at it.

It seems like the most powerful moments appear through emergent (not intended) situations. John Walker writes on Rock, Paper, Shotgun about the guilt he felt when he let his comrades die in battle while he remained hidden in Call of Duty, in an in-character piece called “I Am A Coward“. Just as interesting are the comments of the readers. One guy talks about Stalker.

“I was tackling the Monolith base in the Pripyat Palace of the Arts and a Freedom guy was doing the same. I sort of hung around him, shot people who were shooting him and he ending up shooting some guys who were shooting at me a couple of times. We continued inside, our partnership going well, but eventually got split up.

[…] Just as I got there the Freedom guy came in the room behind me and said something quite friendly sounding in Russian. I freaked. Before he could finish talking I’d spun around and emptied my clip into him and he slid to the floor.

I had to quit the game. There was just no point going on. I didn’t want to play any more. I felt utterly despondent. If I’d paid attention to my scope I would have seen that little green dot. But this would never happen again on reload. It could not be undone, redone or made up for.”

But these cases are few and far between. Our medium can be the most powerful one there is, if we look for other adjectives than “awesome”. We must strive to produce games that matter – matter to us.

Explaining Everything: Derek Smart

Derek Smart is a phenomenon. On forums he’s taken a lot of flak for his attitude, and from time to time there’s been jokes on the quality of his games. Yet he’s just gone gold with his tenth game (Galactic Commando Echo Squad SE), and after all these years he still manages to run a successful business as an independent developer.

It’s a bit strange funny that a man that continuously succeeds where so many others fail is not taken seriously in online discussions (like the forum on Blue’s News), and as I’ve seen very little of what he has to say about the industry itself, I decided to ask him myself.

Pixel Park: What made you join the gaming industry?

Derek: You mean aside from fame, fortune and the potential for picking up chicks? Oh, I dunno. I’ve always been a creative type and an avid gamer. Once I started thinking that it would be cool if I could create my own game. So, I set off to do just that. It wasn’t all Roses of course, but as you probably know (from my Wiki) the rest is history.

Pixel Park: How come you’ve never chosen the easy route and joined a big, safe games studio?

Derek: Because I like calling my own shots and doing my own thing. Besides, what constitutes a “safe games studio”? Especially given the current state of the gaming industry. If I wanted to keep working for someone, I wouldn’t have left the highly lucrative (at the time)
IT industry to go into gaming.

Pixel Park: You’ve received quite a lot of negative attention from gamers on the Internet; how have this affected you personally, and how have you dealt with it?

Derek: It doesn’t affect me in the least. I’m not that egotistical whereby a bunch of idiots on the Net can intimidate me. And you’re using the term “gamers” loosely. What makes you think they’re gamers? Just because they happened to be on the Net? Most of them are antisocial misfits who probably never buy games, but since they can pirate them, it makes them “gamers”.

Pixel Park: There is so much potential for games in the future. Where do you see the industry going, and what is your vision of where you want to take it?

Derek: I said this many years ago in one of my blogs, digital distribution is the wave of the future. Here we are. With the steady decline of the PC gaming industry, we’re going to also see a shift to pay-for-play being the norm. Not unlike MMOs of today. In other words, you’re not going to see one off games (PC or consoles) in the near future. And piracy is going to force us to transition to backend server authentication (ala Steam) of games being the norm; be it single or multiplayer.

Big thanks go out to Derek Smart for answering my questions!

If I produced an indie game

I’m not an independent developer, nor do I run a studio, but if I were an indie there are a few points I’d adhere to for my first title. The points are based on a few key ideas; make the production cheap, use word-of-mouth as a marketing strategy and aim for a casual crowd. Making it casual enables a cheaper production as casual gamers don’t demand AAA production values, and their treshold to try out new titles online are low.

1. Accessibility.
Minimize all that stands between the game and the player the first time she’s about to experience it. Use Flash as your platform – click a link in your browser and you’re playing. Make the control barrier as transparent as possible by using a simple, intuitive mouse control.

2. Embedded viral marketing
Use the players to spread the word – make their gaming experience produce something they want to show off , and something others will be impressed by. Provide the tools to easily send a unique URL that carries the viral content to friends.

3. Community
Have some form of multiplayer, even if it’s just a social lobby. Provide features that drive the development of communities. Being part of a community makes players stay, and encourages them to bring their real life friends with them into the community – and the game.

4. Art direction
Go with stylized art that won’t require the creation of highly detailed graphics or a lot of unique resources.