Keep It Simple

Complex simulation games such as Spore are all well and good, but game developers need to use the tools at hand to concentrate on creating intuitive user experiences

So lately we've been swinging back toward thinking about games as a medium of expression. It's not a new concept; way back in the early '80s, companies like Activision and EA put all their energy behind publicizing game designers like rock stars – or better yet, like book authors – and their games as unique works by your favorite authors. This all happened just after figures like Ed Logg and Toshihiro Nishikado started to extrapolate Pong and Spacewar!, incorporating more overt narrative frameworks and exploring more elaborate ways of interacting with the gameworld. From this initial explosion of creativity came Steve Wozniak and the Apple II, providing an easy platform for all of the early Richard Garriotts and Roberta Williamses and Dan Buntens to come.

Then stuff happened, particularly though not specifically the crash; the industry changed in focus. On the one hand we had ultra-secretive Japanese companies that – like Atari before them – usually didn't credit their staff for fear of sniping and for the benefit of greater brand identity; on the other, what US companies remained tended to inflate beyond the point where small, expressive, intimate games were economically feasible. And then there's just the issue that, as technology grew more complex, design teams grew larger and larger, making it harder for any one voice to stand out, leading to more of a committee-driven approach. StratificationFurthermore, as videogame talent became more faceless, more nameless; as the variety of approaches to design began to be whittled down to a couple of tight schools with their own particular doctrines; as the outlets and encouragement for original ideas became fewer and narrower; as the medium became stripped down and simplified, videogames found a kind of mass market acceptance unlike any they had previously experienced. The revolution apparently was over, and in its place was a kind of "fun" based in a fetishism for the ideas and theories and mechanisms that had been established as popularly successful. Thanks in part to Miyamoto, everyone seemingly got the idea that our job was done; that mass acceptance was ours, that videogames had been defined, that we knew what to do, and all we needed from now on to was follow the rules, fill in the blanks, giving the audience what they've already shown they wanted. Likewise, videogames had become too big, too popular, to screw around anymore. Shareholders were impatient with slow growth and steady sales; the only thing that would impress them was massive blockbuster profits. Small, personal or experimental games were less likely to be visible or broadly entertaining, therefore were less likely to sell, therefore less worth bothering to produce. Thus, a focus on what Ernest Adams has described as "Wheeee!", dosed out in one of so-many prescribed genres: mass, populist entertainment, fine on its own right yet without much ambition to use the medium for anything more innately significant or interesting. The Rubber Band EffectPartially in reaction to the boredom and frustration that will result from such a narrow range of perspective, we've got our current wave back in the other direction – a sort of mass existential quandary about what on Earth we should do with this medium. It's a great medium, full of potential; we just haven't been spending much time, the last few decades, exploring how to take advantage of it. So now that we recognize there's a problem, and that maybe (speaking ultra-long-term) the future health of the industry is at stake if we can't figure out something more mature to do with its underlying form, we're stuck in something of a helpless position. We know something's wrong, and we've got a good general idea what; we just don't quite know how to address it. It feels like high school all over again, and isn't that just icky.Most recently, in a stream of articles semi-initiated by the above-referenced Mr.

Adams, we've seen rise the issue of "highbrow" games, a classification offered as a counterpoint to the mass market entertainment that makes up most of the rest of the industry. In the first such article on GamaSutra, Adams suggests Merchant Ivory as a model for what videogames need – not so much to innately improve the medium as to raise the public perception of the medium. Other articles have since observed that that – though it would be nice to be taken seriously – it's not so much what the New York Times thinks that's at issue here. Life Ain't That Complex, PeopleStill, the article does reflect a common analysis – one that often manifests itself in our current "games as art" movement, and also seems embedded somewhere in the PC gamer subculture – that existing games, especially console games, are innately too simplistic – too broad – to challenge a person intellectually or emotionally. In particular, the console-centric focus on action (also seen in PC genres spun off of them, like first-person shooters) is perceived as juvenile and shallow. Japanese games in particular (with their tendency toward limiting player action for narrative focus) are seen as too restrictive, while the future lies in the complex, in the procedural – in making games so elaborate that anything can happen. As such, talents like Will Wright, Sid Meier, and the Rockstar North gang are held up as our beacons of hope. Anyone who can provide a simulation that allows the user to build his own order out of apparent chaos (SPORE! SPORE!) is moved to the top of every list we're discussing: the "games as art" list; the ludological hit list; the list of games sufficiently "highbrow" that you wouldn't be altogether embarrassed to be caught playing on your lunch hour.

Well, bollocks to that. All respect to Messrs. Wright and Meier, producers of some of my favorite games ever, simulation is not the way of expression any more than the latest high-definition realistic graphics are the way of faithful illustration. This is the way of convolution (sometimes glorious, beautiful convolution). Likewise to those lamenting the apparent genre entrenchment in our current industry; genres will form organically, in any medium, whatever you do. The task, as I see it, before we start complicating, before we start getting pretty, before we start trying to create whole new ruts for ourselves, is simply to learn to use what we've got – which is, frankly, the biggest problem we've got now. We've got this great medium, we've got a zillion amazing tools, we've got thousands of talented, inspired artists at hand; what we need to do now is to build a set of aesthetic criteria; to build a mature theory and language based upon the principle goals and essential fabric of the medium, and to figure out how to achieve those goals. And the best way to start off is to start small. And the best way to start small – as anyone who relies on middleware will attest – is to use what we've already got at hand.

Tools of the TradeWhat do we have at hand? Well, familiar genres, for one thing! And simple, intuitive control interfaces (perhaps the simplest and most intuitive of which is pending, later this year). Existing player expectations. Years of observations on how other games have behaved, to what end, and why. Ideally what we will do, once we come up with a premise that we feel is worth exploring – say, affection or violence or enlightenment or depression; something ideally with a human basis – is choose an existing form that seems both simple and suited to our premise, then we'll strip down that form and rebuild it from the ground up so as best to illustrate our premise. The result will almost certainly be a "small" game, simplistic in design, focused nearly entirely upon the ideas we're attempting to explore, for the sake of those ideas themselves rather than for the sake of videogames as a whole, for the sake of our own cleverness, or any other academic or righteous purposes.

The idea is to get down and get practical for once, and stop getting ahead of ourselves, either on the business or the artsy-fartsy ends. This medium is not yet complete, and it's probably to everyone's disservice to keep pretending that we yet have a clue what we're doing.What genres are ripe for exploration? You name it, though the simpler the better. Rail shooters, 2D platformers, first-person shooters, survival horror. Deconstruct the rail shooter for the purpose of higher expression, and we get Rez. Re-examine the first-person shooter on a basic level, and we get Half-Life 2. Use a goofy game like Resident Evil as a template, and you can make something like Silent Hill 2. Or, if you like, take apart Super Mario Bros. and all the expectations it's given us about cause and effect, and turn out something like Jonathan Blow's Braid. And you don't even need to be artsy to be critical, and therefore to illustrate some important points; even reinventing an individual game, in light of its thematic motives, can lead to a narrow sort of epiphany about the way videogames are built. Check out OutRun2 and Gradius V, and see how they get you thinking. I'll take five Rezzes over twenty Spores. For one thing – though they don't attempt as much all at once – they're smaller and cheaper and easier to understand. For another, collect enough of these scattered pieces, each one polished to perfection, and you'll get a much broader, more colorful, more inspirational collection of perspectives. And then, once you're sufficiently inspired, all you need do is collect the pieces. Imagine what we'd get by putting Fumito Ueda, Takayoshi Sato, and the Valve guys together in a room: Valve for their nuts-and-bolts genius, Ueda for his conceptual insight, and Sato for his expressive talents. Lacking that, imagine what you'd get by adding the non-gamey bits of Shadow of the Colossus, the gamey bits of Half-Life 2, and the human bits of Silent Hill 2 – all very simple games, all based in apparent quagmires of genres. All very excellent, well-respected games. All very deliberate, progressive development. All stuff that just kind of happens when you stop thinking about videogames as an end in and of themselves.Hands before MindsA curious thing to note about videogame genres is that, on a whole, they tend to be focused more on action than on human emotion or intellectual themes. Whereas for other narrative media – novels and films, for instance – we have mystery and horror and romance, thrillers and dramas and comedies, here we're working with brawlers, shooters, platformers (jumping), and role-playing games. Sometimes the genres are modified with our perspective, as players: first-person or overhead-view shooters. Sometimes they're modified by the game rules: action RPGs, MMORPGs. Only rarely are videogame genres based directly in the emotion or abstract concepts they attempt to engage in the player: adventure games, for instance, and survival horror (itself a subset of the adventure genre). This distinction makes some sense if you consider that videogames are in effect defined by player interaction. Therefore, it's kind of logical that a game's genre would depend overtly on what the player is asked to do – on what the primary verbs are. Sure, it's shallow. On the other hand, for where we are right now in understanding the medium, it also makes genres really easy to exploit existing genres as a basic template. If nothing else, the existing genres provide a clean method of transition toward perhaps a more sophisticated understanding. People buy a shooter expecting to shoot things – so when they get something like Ikaruga, that indeed delivers what it says on the box and yet... does something rather more grand with it, firing off emotional sensors that would seem to have no reason to get triggered, we're automatically elevated just a notch. There's just a little more discrimination at work; the people who played the game start to think a little differently about videogames, and what they expect from them.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.