Tuesday, August 19, 2008

A new division of games: some ideas on how to push innovation in a way that makes everyone happy

The most common division of games is "hardcore" vs. "casual." While there have been plenty of arguments saying "the game market is simply more complex than that", I'd like to make two arguments of my own. The first is that some games blend both of these genres (most notably the Guitar Hero and Rock Band franchises), which has likely already been said. I mention it in context of my second argument, however: games can be easily divided into two camps. It's just the wrong two.

A daring argument to make, but hear me out. I watched the most recent episode of Pure Pwnage the other day, lighter fare to be sure. The main reason it caught my attention was that it parodied Yahtzee's Zero Punctuation as Zero Coordination. The doctrine it preached was the one Pure Pwnage has preached (or parodied, if you will) all along: that games are games, not stories, and the satisfaction that comes from them is being good at them. The criticism of games as stories or art, childish as it were, was pretty scathing and convincing. The only reason I don't fully side with them is because I've been capable of this type of appreciation of games in the past, and I also know that games have the potential to be a beautiful, inspiring medium.

But potential is all we've really been discussing. Even Leigh, whom I believe to be a champion of game criticism, has said that there is no game that has justified game criticism to the mainstream, to those who aren't already invested in them. And I believe her.

What we're doing is hoping. Witness Braid. Artistically, it is small potatoes, in fact, vastly inferior potatoes to everything in other mediums. We're all excited about it. We're only excited because it's actually making a step, even if it's not a very big one. Those were the victories Bioshock, Portal, and GTA IV presented us with too.

Still, Braid actually wasn't that good--not as a game, or as a piece of art. And deep down, we all know it. But it still had something to say, and what's more, it did it in a way that required a lot of vision. So we forgive it for its flaws. In fact, I was planning and am still planning to write on Braid later.

To build up to this division, I present two more small anecdotes. The first is the day I talked to Leigh. As noted in my article, the day I interviewed her, later at dinner I asked my dad and my wife what it would take to get women interested in games. My wife had said about the mainstream, "convince people they are more mainstream, popular, and relevant than they think." On women and games, she wasn't sure--she has OCD and a strange relationship to games (right now she plays WoW and only WoW, and part of that is for some personal and obviously idiosyncratic reasons). Anyway, my dad. He said, "they'd have to feel something. If it doesn't influence their feelings, it's not going to occupy their minds."

A few days later, I noticed a comment on Gamasutra on a long, theoretical game design article, probably by an adolescent male. It said, in effect, "But in a game, you have to be DOING something. You can't not be doing things or not have an influence on your surroundings, otherwise they're not really games anymore." About men, my dad had said "it has to be something that is impressive to them. Like, you can further your status in some way by playing them."

Yin and yang? Male and female? Games as sports and games as art? Well, I'm wary of labels for obvious reasons, but use all of those and you'll get what I mean. Anyway, I'm becoming more and more convinced that there are only two basic contexts in which people take games seriously: one is game-playing skill, and the other is games as a medium, a context for aesthetics, theme, philosophy, and art.

As mentioned earlier, a few games blend these; but the blending isn't possible, doesn't work well. Again, for example, Braid. (But [MASSIVE SPOILER] then again, maybe it was purposeful. It seems clear that it was about the A-Bomb, a failure of a solution to peace. But science isn't a solution to peace, it's simply a method to produce desired effects on the physical world; perhaps symbolically, the binary and scientific systems video games create can't allow us the full proposed interactivity AND created art; no having our cake and eating it too; notice the contrast between the princess being a woman and an object [END SPOILER]).

Again, the best games are the ones that only stick to one simple purpose. You can make a game that is a good context for competition and skill, or one that is good aesthetically and artistically, but you can't do both. How are you going to explore the themes people have noticed are absent? Sex? Relationships? Family? How can a game of skill, so object-oriented, possibly explore with depth issues that are so metaphysical?

A split isn't so ridiculous. Before TV and movies, there were picture shows. Some showed the news. Some were for entertainment. TV and movies broke off from each other, though they use the same methods of creation and presentation. Why not (insert name for "art games" here) and (insert name for skill-based games here)? Sure, there are exceptions, some games train doctors and some present political issues, but they aren't thought of as "games", really.

The split has already begun, and one of the revealing places that show this split is the kind of community Pure Pwnage fosters, based in competition. In Korea, of course, games are sports. The term "esports" is scoffed at about anywhere else, but if they become as successful as they aspire to be, laughing will stop. Sports weren't always taken seriously, but anything that can make money for a family is something men and women everywhere will accept, at least as a society. High school, college, pro. Football, hockey, baseball, basketball. Not everyone's cup of tea. Lots of worlds in those worlds. But love it or leave it, sports flourish and sports are seen as a matter of preference, which is what video games have largely become (like it or not, believe it or not).

If Esports does well, this split can continue comfortably. But, for obvious reasons, I'm worried. Profitable esports is difficult, especially in the U.S. And those who participate, train anonymously--you can become good without learning social skills on the playground or in a rec league. The poster kids for esports don't always sound or look good on the camera, and that's bad for business.

It's an odd spot to focus our hopes on, but really: if Esports does well, it will be good for both types of games. Hell, even Halo 3 was developed with input from the MLG. Rainbow Six Vegas 2 was designed with input from the competitive community. They become sport games, as in games that are played for sport.

As for "art games", most of its opposition comes from "hardcore" gamers who worry that they will ruin their fun experiences. But if esports grows, and the games they want continue to be released, they will complain less.

There's no reason we can't have both skill-based games and art-based games. Just make sure that "both" doesn't mean "at the same time, in the same game."


Blogger Glenn said...

male vs female, skill vs art, casual vs hardcore. As you know games are all this and more, I think you explored it all very well :)

Esports is something that has been rumbling on for a few years now. I don't think our medium of games is involved enough for it to be a big success. Obviously games and sport share some similarities, they can be played and enjoyed by both the novice and the professional. The problem however is our games are always changing, the rules are not set.

In football the rules have been the rules for a long time. It has been constant, but for games the new sequel is just around the corner, moving the goal posts again. Starcraft and Counter Striker have come close to breaking this mold but those games have lacked the "real" mass appeal to turn them into successful esports in the west.

I digress, your main points were with the divisions in games. Michael Abbot has just made some very similar observations over at the brainy gamer (I'm sure you have seen) All games can survive as long as the market is there. For every art house film there is a Die Hard. Some of the 'core are just scared of change.

Keep up the good work :)

2:22 PM  
Blogger Michael Abbott said...

Hi Mike. Very interesting thesis you've proposed here. Despite all my problems with Braid, I do agree with Blow's notion that the ludic and narrative aspects of games can, in fact, be married together in meaningful ways inside the same game. The problem is, as you suggest, no one has completely done it yet.

As others have noted, it's odd the way we erect ludic barriers inside narrative games, as if to say "we have a story to tell, but only if you prove yourself worthy of receiving it." If the protagonist faces challenges that can be manifested as "gameplay" it's possible to hook this into narrative, and lots of games have done this rather successfully. But nearly always, the gameplay rules and the narrative tends to be formulaic B-movie stuff at best.

But I continue to believe it's possible to elevate storytelling with integrated ludic elements, and we're getting closer with each Bioshock and Braid. Call me the glass half full guy, I guess. ;-)

8:45 PM  

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