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Friday, February 18, 2005

The Definitive Three-Step Method for Game Design

More and more often, I see articles denouncing the lack of complete freedom in games, linearity, cutscenes, etc. When describing the ideal future of gamism, the writers of such articles describe that such nuisances will be a thing of the past. They envision a future where all gamism allows as much freedom as you can possibly imagine. I personally think this philosophy could lead to some of the greatest experiences in the history of gamism. Furthermore, this way of thinking is fundamentally inadequate.

The logic goes something like this:
  • Gamism, unlike film, painting, literature, or dance and music [These two don't actually belong in this list, but most people wouldn't think of that.], is interactive.
  • Gamism should stand as one art form, alongside the existing art forms. [These people have not bothered to analyze gamism to find out what it really is, but they would like to attribute significance to their hobby and think that an art form is the most respectable entity it can be portrayed as.]
  • All existing art forms have been developing for a long time, but gamism is brand new, and obviously less refined.
  • The more similar gamism is to other, more developed art forms, the more likely it will seem outdated and superfluous next to the other art form it is [supposedly] competing with.
  • Therefore, gamism should always focus on the area in which it differs from all other art forms- interactivity. Any games which "overlap" in purpose with other art forms should be discouraged in order to encourage gamism to move uniformly in the right direction.
Note that I am not speaking of the Industrialists, but of people who are genuinely interested in the future of gamism for reasons other than personal greed. The Industrialists are interested in enabling more freedom only because this seems to make money (see Grand Theft Auto). They don't see gamism as an art form or a medium for art forms, but as a source of revenue. With them I cannot argue, as the Game Industry does in fact make money. But the more idealistic gamers who dislike restrictions are misguided. Say there were a game, with non-abstract graphics and a third-person perspective, in which the player does not play the main character, but an observer, the eyes through which a noninteractive story is told. This would be close enough to the accepted definition of videogames for all gamers to recognize it as a game. The "interactivists" would call it a waste of time and energy and recommend that no one play it. And they'd be completely missing the point. Just because it is played with a controller does not mean it is the same Form as, say, GTA. And if it is a different Form, then what's wrong with getting closer to literature and movies, as this game would? It doesn't pull back gamism, because the rest of gamism would not even be related to this game. Additionally, allowing diversity in gamism would attract new gamists by giving them Forms in which it is easier for them personally to express themselves. Allowing gamism to grow in many different directions will not necessarily lessen the positive growth in the area of interactivity, because the people who make GTA are not the same people who would compose in less interactive Forms.

Gamism should not try to set itself apart from nondigital art forms, but embrace them. However, each individual Form should set itself apart from other Forms. The epitome of unrestricted freedom, in my opinion, is the MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game). In case you've not heard of such games (World of Warcraft, for example), the concept is that many players are "living" in a virtual world on the internet, with a working economy which they should participate in. In these games, each player has a unique voice, and can choose from many different ways to play the game. This Form should be developed a lot, as I believe it has a very important role to play in the future of humanity - MMORPGs will eventually evolve into virtual reality societies in which people will spend more of their time than in the real world. But this Form is not and should never be allowed to be the end-all, be-all of gamism. If a gamist wants to tell a story, MMORPGs are a horrible medium in which to do so. He might put in cutscenes or other noninteractive elements, and this would be counterproductive and misguided. The noninteractive elements will feel completely out of place in this Form which is designed for maximum interactivity. The only way to make noninteractive elements work in a game similar to a MMORPG would be to branch off from the MMORPG Form in a different direction which does not give the player as much freedom, thus creating a different but related Form which would grow farther apart from the MMORPG Form as they develop over time. The more freedom you give to the player, the less artistic freedom the gamist has. How can you tell a story when you keep allowing the gamer to contradict you? Similarly, in less interactive Forms, the gamist must restrict the gamer's options in order to be able to express himself better.

Someone from Square-Enix once stated that the future of "games as an art form" lies in MMORPGs. This is actually fine by me, provided the company does not try to turn other Forms into MMORPGs. What it means is that Square-Enix will progress from now until the revolution in that direction, focusing on that particular Form as if it is the only existing type of game. If every game company were to believe that strongly only in the future of one Form, we'd have a nice variety of well-developed Forms, although creating more diversity might become tricky. The problem is when the press adopts positions which limit all of gamism to one singular path. For instance, in IGN's review of "Star Fox: Assault", Juan Castro wrote:
OverallAll [sic], Star Fox: Assault equips the same brand of action as before, yet it carries over the same limitations as well. In an age where complete freedom of movement is the norm, players will still find themselves confined to rails. Not to say these sections aren't fun, far from it, in fact, only to say that it's about time Star Fox and crew stepped into the present.
Now, I haven't played this game, but what kind of a ridiculous criticism is that?! Star Fox isn't a series of flight simulators, it's a series of 3D shmups (shoot-em-ups)! A reviewer can criticize a game for doing what it sets out to do badly, or getting distracted from what it sets out to do (this game, incidentally, looks like it suffers from this, but IGN's review doesn't care), but to criticize a game for not setting out to allow more freedom, for a Form in which freedom is more or less irrelevant, is absurd. If Mr. Castro and his IGN associates had their way, there would be nothing that did not allow them to do whatever they want. Their reviews impact the buying decisions of many gamers. If gamers are turned away from buying 3D shmups solely on account of their being on-rails shmups and not being "interactive enough", the shmup Form will never be developed. Who can possibly benefit from this?



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