Category Archives: Blatant self-indulgence
As game designers, is it our responsibility when someone spends more time than they want to on a videogame?
It’s a common enough occurrence in this world of social game systems like Raptr and TrueAchievements. Someone buys a game, and straightaway fills their Twitter and Facebook feeds with their journey towards completing every single little challenge in that game.
Achievements, for the uninitiated, are meta-medals that are associated with a player’s profile across multiple games. They are earned by completing small or large challenges in the game – or at least, that is how they were designed. The best achievements record things that players might do just for fun – to see if they can. Today, the effort required to get an achievement is approaching rather silly extremes. From the ‘turn-on-the-console’ achievements, which reward you for starting the first mission or shooting your first enemy, to the achievements which require literally hundreds or thousands of hours of play. An example of the latter is the now-infamous ‘Seriously…’ achievement from the Gears of War series. Here you can see the Seriously 2.0 achievement from Gears of War 2. This achievement requires you to kill a hundred thousand enemies.
Anybody who is of an obsessive frame of mind – and some gamers certainly are – might waste incredible amounts of time trying to reach this goal, way beyond the amount of time they would spend on the game if there were no achievements. I realise that designers want to encourage players to spend more time (and sometimes more money) on their games, but achievements like this are simply gratuitous.
I play games for fun. Achievements are fun in general, and some of them can be entertaining to strive for, but the pressure of earning every single one in every single game would drive me mad. And yet some people feel that pressure. As game designers, I think we have a ethical responsibility not to enable this kind of anti-fun idea. Not that I think achievements are bad, just that there will always be players obsessive enough to spend the time earning the silly ones like Seriously…, and that we should think carefully before adding such achievements to our games.
When we discuss game spaces, it is usually in the context of Huizinga’s ‘magic circle’ – a space, virtual or otherwise, that we enter to give “meaning” to our play. Without the magic circle of a marked-out playing pitch, twenty-three men would look rather silly frolicking all over the grass with an oval-shaped ball.
To my mind, though, game spaces are designed to encourage particular modes of play in their occupants. The fact that they may do this by giving meaning to the play takes a back seat to this actual goal.
Grand Theft Auto (the original) placed the player in a sprawling city, with cars and guns everywhere. The game offered missions at various phone booths if the player ever felt like gaining ground in the game’s narrative, but equally these missions could be ignored. No great restrictions were placed on the player’s movements within the city, so there was plenty of exploration to be done if the player was so inclined. The game space incentivised this by placing better cars, various shops, and secret powerups in specific locations. Because the locations of most of these exploration rewards never changed, the player was encouraged to learn the layout of the city. If the player did learn the layout, they would find the missions much easier, becasuse they usually involved driving in some way.
On the other hand, if the player focused hard on the missions (an explicit ‘meaning’ to the play), and did well, they would inevitably end up finding some of the secrets themselves, as well as getting a good idea of the layout of the city. So in the end, the game manages to inspire roughly the same modes of play in players who play the game in ways which seem very different indeed.
The theme of exploration continues in my other example, the genre known as ‘Metroidvania’. Named for the two most famous examples, Metroid and Castlevania (which both started on the Nintendo Entertainment System), these games place the player in a large, sprawling area, with lots of passages and hidden doors, etc. Unlike Grand Theft Auto, though, these games do not let the player roam wherever they please. Usually, all but one or two paths are blocked by locked doors or other obstacles. These can only be bypassed by proceeding along the open paths, and backtracking later when a new power or key is obtained. Again, learning the layout of the map is encouraged, but in a less organic way – if you get a new power/key but forget the place where it is needed to progress, you can be stuck hunting in every single room for it. So you are strongly incentivised to somehow record or remember each blocked path, and why that path is blocked.
The conclusion I’m drawing is that game spaces can encourage modes of play that the developer wants to see or thinks will benefit the players.
(Incidentally, if you are a fan of Metroid, there is a chance you will enjoy this video.)
First, can we define anything as art? Art is an increasingly difficult thing to pin down. Once upon a time, art was simply folly: something made without a real purpose. As humanity has advanced, luxuries have become more and more prevalent, until now. Only a very small subset of things we own are strictly necessary for life.
Art has grown in parallel with this trend. Where once owning a Piece Of Art was a sign of status, now we all of us own hundreds or perhaps more things that could be called art. Every music album, every photograph, every film…and, perhaps, every videogame.
I’ll be talking about games as art with reference to Gaut’s “properties of a work of art” (Gaut, 2000: 28).
(1) possessing positive aesthetic properties, such as being beautiful, graceful, or elegant (properties which ground a capacity to give sensuous pleasure)
There are many games with impressive graphics out there. As a student of games development, I often look at such games and marvel at the number of polygons and the detailed textures. But some games are beautiful, graceful, and elegant. They make me forget what I know about their inner workings. Wind Waker is the example that immediately springs to mind. A game so lovingly put together that I found myself deliberately bumping into walls just to see the pretty effects, hear the ‘dsh’ sound and watch the protagonist get up and dust himself off.
(2) being expressive of emotion
Some games certainly do express emotion. Characters and their stories, if done right, can communicate a feeling just as a film or book would. But what about the emotions that games inspire? Not explicitly engineering them (’emotioneering’ – what a great word) but inciting rage in the player who can’t quite catch an enemy, bursts of excitement in the player who dodges a fast-moving lorry, and pangs of glee in the player who emerges from a cave and sees the huge open world for the first time. That is one of the great things that games bring to the table of art.
(3) being intellectually challenging (i.e., questioning received views and modes of thought)
I think this can be a negative as well as a positive feature of games, but it’s definitely there. Negative examples would be when a player thinks a trigger-shaped button fires their in-game gun, but in fact a regular button is mapped to that function. The player has to ignore their instinct – to pull the trigger – and use the button to fire. That’s a simplistic example, but it exists. Positively, many games grant players powers they do not have in real life. In Minecraft, most of the mechanics at least try to approximate the real world, but the first time I realised I could double-tap Space to fly, I was reminded that games truly can do whatever we can imagine.
(4) being formally complex and coherent
I would go so far as to say that games are more formally complex and coherent than several other kinds of art. Even the most basic game must have a degree of underlying complexity – what the player sees is always much simpler than what the developer wrote. As for being coherent, if a game is to be played it must have a certain level of coherence – for example, when the player picks up a particular item it should always do the same thing, unless there is a good reason.
(5) having a capacity to convey complex meanings
Games are often allegorical – they give the player one experience, in order to show the player the essence of another. A while ago my friend Gerry wrote about a game called Dys4ia, a simple Flash game with a very complex message. Dys4ia is a small suite of minigames, similar to WarioWorld, that give the player a sense of the experiences the game developer had in her transition from man to woman. Simple things like trying to manipulate a shape into a gap that won’t accommodate it represent this woman’s adjustment to her new situation.
(6) exhibiting an individual point of view
Although some games present a story (or multiple stories) from different points of view, the majority of games I have played are based around one character or a tightly-knit group, presenting everything from their point of view throughout the game. I think games do this more than other story-telling media, because the player must identify on some level with the characters they are playing.
(7) being an exercise of creative imagination (being original)
It’s often said that no game is completely original, but this is also true of art in general. Originality is not easy to come by, with such a rich history behind us. Is it original to draw a landscape of rolling hills and dales? Not particularly, but people still make valid art doing so. I think it’s more important that games can be original in execution than concept. There have been countless shoot-’em-up games over the forty years of gaming, but titles like Geometry Wars and Ikaruga bring something new and that can be appreciated independently of their genre. Genres themselves detract from originality – ‘just another <genre> game’ – but at the same time, it helps people to have a frame of reference for the game, and allow people to easily find the original, interesting elements.
(8) being an artifact or performance which is the product of a high degree of skill
Making games isn’t easy. Making bad games is possible, of course, but even a game that nobody likes can be the product of considerable time for talented people. Modern ‘triple-A’ titles like Halo and Legend of Zelda occupy large numbers of designers, developers, and artists for a couple of years before emerging to the market.
(9) belonging to an established artistic form (music, painting, film, etc.)
This is the most problematic of the ten properties. It’s disingenuous to use art to define art. A hundred years ago, this list would not have included film, even though film was extant as a medium. Graphic novels were still looked down on snootily as recently as ten years ago – even now, some people do not consider them art. This is just another case of people resisting change and fearing the new. Soon people will be saying ‘of course games are art!’. I have every confidence in this. It’s just a matter of time.
(10) being the product of an intention to make a work of art.
I don’t really agree with this, either. Games need not have been intended to be some lofty work of art to be breathtaking, aesthetically beautiful, and technically impressive. And these very qualities mark it as art, by this cluster theory.
If I were to summarise my opinion, it is this: any definition of art (that fits all currently accepted art media) will fit games as a medium, as well. As such, you may consider and criticise a given game as art if you like. I have given this quite a bit of thought, and cannot produce any definitions of art that would exclude games. However, I reserve the right not to treat a game as art. When we cross the line of treating something as art, we open ourselves up to a lot of negative thinking. Video game criticism is already an incredibly harsh world. How much harsher would it be were it suddenly the domain of traditional art critics?
JustEvasion is a game that I developed in 2011. I wanted to make a simple game to keep my programming hand in over the long summer months. I developed it in C++, using OpenGL and the freeglut library. I was relatively unfamiliar with C++ at the time, but I had some sample freeglut code to learn from. The low-level nature of the libraries made some features quite difficult to implement, but it was a very good learning experience for me.
JustEvasion is a game in which the player moves a star shape around the screen. The star is chased constantly by circles, which use an extremely basic chasing mechanism. As such, the circles often line up or overlap as they attempt to reach the player. Players score points by effecting these overlaps. When two circles overlap perfectly (so that only one can be seen), one of them will disappear and the score will increase. If there is more than one overlap happening at once, the player gets a combo bonus.
I had JustEvasion working to this specification within a relatively short time, and I wasn’t sure what to do with it next. Some time later I was investigating Adam Saltsman‘s Canabalt, a very entertaining one-button Flash game.I discovered that the library he used to make the game, Flixel, is open-source. It is possible to develop a full game using only Flixel and FlashDevelop.
I was very excited about Flixel, so as a first project I decided to remake JustEvasion as a Flash game. Although I had made JustEvasion open-source on Google Code, almost nobody I knew had been able to play it because of its dependence on system configuration. A Flash game could remedy this, and allow everyone to at least try my game.
I started by reimplementing all the features that JustEvasion had, then started to add new ones, like a high score cookie that is stored on the computer for the next time you play, and different behaviours in the enemies. The development in ActionScript3 was slow at first, because I had limited Flash experience before, but once I grasped the differences I made progress quickly.
JustEvasion was a landmark project for me. Being able to publish a game in a medium everyone could understand and play made for a great feedback loop. Catching bugs was a lot easier with ten or fifteen people trying each build. It also boosted my confidence in my own abilities.
Modern ‘war games’ fall across multiple genres, from turn-based strategy to intense first-person-shooter. Here are a few examples:
– Civilization V: Build an empire and command armies in this turn-based strategy game. Each turn you can move and manage units, found new cities, and attack other civilisations to expand your area of control. Very far removed from the action of war, but most games involve a lot of battles. Turns can take as long as the player needs.
– StarCraft II: The most competitive real-time-strategy game in the world at the moment. Players start off in opposite corners of a large map, with no vision of each other. They must micromanage resources and individual units very quickly to eliminate their opponent’s units first.
– Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3: The latest instalment of the wildly popular Call of Duty series
Call of Duty games are interesting in that they only and explicitly reward violence. In the other games mentioned here, war is still going on, but for example in StarCraft, you need to manage your resources well to win. In Civilization, there are rewards for various diplomatic or trading successes – you don’t have to solve every problem by attacking.
Call of Duty was originally a PC game, but later instalments have been converging heavily on the console market (with interfaces to reflect this), because the console players are a better market for this kind of game now. StarCraft and Civilization have always been PC/Mac only games. Most management/real-time-strategy games, of which there is a large subset that could be called war games, work better with the mouse/keyboard interface. First-person-shooters can work well with this, too, but they have also traditionally worked well on consoles, and that is a rich market for people who can’t be bothered installing graphics drivers.
In Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, the writers attempt to imagine how war will look in the next ten years. The usual hyper-violence is interspersed with scripted cutscenes telling a Tom Clancy-esque story of political terrorism and dodgy military practices. Most of the game time is spent in online multiplayer modes, as this story isn’t actually very long. The multiplayer modes range from free-for-all deathmatches to point capture. Civilization has mostly emergent stories, stemming from what you, as the commander of the civilisation, do. StarCraft’s story happens mostly in the background. Even more than Call of Duty, this game is played for the online component, which is entirely based on player-versus-player battles.
War Game Culture:
War games have a tendency to desensitise players to situations or events that would be disturbing to someone who does not play them. This can come across in the lexicon of players: ‘I killed him! Woohoo!’ or simply in the comfort and ease with which the average player can sit down to play through a mission which requires the killing of thirty or a hundred virtual people. And this is only at a micro level (first-person-shooters). At a macro level, games like Civilization can involve decimating entire armies with one click of a button, sometimes even the player’s own armies if they miscalculate the odds. It’s interesting to think that being told you have had a hand in thousands of deaths, by a game, might not be at all distressing to the player on a moral level.
America’s Army is a game developed by the American military to engage players in army-like situations through their computers, and allow them a glimpse of what army life might be like. Its site claims it offers ‘the most authentic military experience available’. On the other hand, to me it seems like advertising at best (which might be acceptable), and propaganda at worst (which of course is not). As much as I have enjoyed Call of Duty and similar games in the past, I’m not sure how comfortable I am with the military publishing their own version of what war is like. It feels too easy for them to twist what they show to players, who may be as young as twelve, according to the ESRB Teen rating.
What wars are being fought in videogames?
Videogames used to be quite removed from reality. Even if the wars depicted were ‘realistic’, the limitations of hardware and (sometimes) censorship kept the game mechanics simple enough to be far removed from anything that really happened. For example, in Chopper Command for the Atari 2600, the helicopter you control engages fighter jets at its own altitude, which I don’t think is realistic. It can blow up other helicopters and these jets in one shot, and it seems to be firing laser beams, even though it was a modern setting in the desert.
Now, though, games like ARMA II are making war as realistic as can be reasonably imagined. Large-scale battles happen around the player, instead of the player being the only one having an effect on the scenario. Food, drink, fatigue, and many other things are factors. If you get hit by a bullet, you will probably die. No gun is guaranteed to hit.
Future war games:
I think we will see a split soon between war games that are realistic to a fault, like ARMA, and more arcadey first-person-shooters coming from the current Call of Duty games. Similar to the way all racing games used to be billed as simulations, but now there are simulation games and arcadey games, I think the next few years will see serious ‘war simulation’ games that are played by serious people who want to do everything correctly and know exactly how it works.