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Force Majeure

Overlord Analysis

Much like Hypnos, I have been mulling over the Wii Overlords article for the past few days. Much of the discussion I have read has focused on the viewpoint of the author. Certainly, as the brother of one of the designers for Gears of War he is not unbiased.

My initial reaction to the article is one of great caution. The urge to cater to the hardcore element of the industry is one fraught with danger. One could look at the state of comic books in the United States to see the state of an industry that has done exactly that for the past twenty years. Sales are down to a fraction of what was achieved, and the actual media has been marginalised. Certainly it is not due to a lack of interest in the product; even mediocre movies based on comic books regularly earn blockbuster status in the theatres.

While the video game industry is not a direct comparison, over the past five to ten years it has increasingly catered to the so-called hard-core element. Sales have not yet suffered, but competition has narrowed (both in terms of focus and the number of companies providing products) and budgets have continued to increase. Continuation along the same path could be a very unwise decision, economically.

However, there may be a valid point of core concern within the argument. At the very least, he brings forth some interesting questions. In truth, I do not think the concern is truly about hardcore versus casual but rather a focus on game design choices. What importance should technological advancement play in video games design?

The recent focus on hardcore gamers has gone hand-in-hand with a near religious adherence to advancement. This makes sense, in as much as those players are more likely to be people who will have the latest multi-channel audio systems, large flat-panel HDTVs, and computers running five-hundred dollar video cards. This approach has clearly worked in some ways. Games aimed at this market are very pretty. The production standards are high.

But I must stop and wonder, right now, why is such advancement tied to game design so closely? I cannot think of any other industry where this is true. In most cases, a revolution in design will happen in two ways. First, someone working on a product will consider a piece of technology and how it can make the product better, easier, more efficient, or more impressive. The internet was not a piece of technology developed for fiction writers, but they have managed to utilise it quite well to further their craft.

Second, a creator will want to do something and be force to figure out how to do it. In some cases, this leads to technological innovation. You can see this with movies, as new technology is developed to make special effects more impressive.

In both cases, the creation comes first; technology is a tool, not a directive. In video games, the paradigm seems to be backwards. Technology drives the game design. What this sadly seems to generate is a situation where emphasis is put upon the technology and not the design itself.

We can look at Gears of War as an illustrative example. During this year's Game Developer's Conference, it did quite well in the Game Developer's Choice Award, winning awards for technology, visual arts, and game of the year. Afterward, there was a bit of discussion among the Ringers about the appropriateness of these choices. When I finally got a chance to play the game, this discussion crystallised itself.

Gears of War is a visually impressive game. I am sure it does quite well with the technology it uses. However, as a game, the design felt very dated. The third-person action setting is not innovative and despite the addition of a few interesting manoeuvers it felt derivative of many games that have come before. In comparison to the other options available, it seems the award was more for popularity than innovative design.

While I do appreciate pretty games, I must question why so much energy is dedicated to utilising new technology rather than pushing the boundaries of design. I honestly cannot see, as the overlords article, that the hardcore game design truly provides an in-depth and unique experience that truly utilises the advantages of video games. While I may enjoy the occasional console RPG, I usually do not find the storytelling, characterisation, or immersion to be any more advanced than a choose-your-own-adventure novel. In many cases, even that amount of branched storytelling is too much.

I shall explore some design choices and options next time, as I am more sure that, contrary to what the article argues, technological adherence is detrimental to good game design rather than an enabler.

Comments:

Posted by Hempline

The more I have studied Film, the more similar it appears to electronic gaming. There was a time in cinema history that was egged on by technological advancement. But it is the truth in that the video game industry is flawed in believing advancement is such an important issue. There was a time that film directors kept stretching their movies into larger and larger screens just to be different or spectacular, but in the end, they didn’t utilize their technology well and were lost in the landscape. This is in effect what the game industry is going to reach: they’re going to have every sunbeam bounce of a photo realistic wave perfectly according to real life thanks to their indomitable RealityEngine (tm) yet their game is going to be the same product created ten years ago. With so much power behind games, it takes an incredible team and lead to use the available resources to its fullest.

I personally blame the gaming magazines that pulled so much focus on the advancing technology, considering they needed to put out a magazine a month; they had to write about something. That new graphics engine filled pages and made people excited about a project, and so they kept doing it. It’s now ingrained in the gaming industry’s systems to be wowed by their own advances, and everyone gets easily caught up with it. Yet there’s going to be the plateau: technology can only move so much, and then the industry will have nothing to focus on but the quality of their product. I most definitely look forward to that time.

Talking about this subject, I’m just constantly reminded of the popularity of the Gameboy, another Nintendo product. In nearly every instance, its games are in 2d, it’s non-realistic, cartoony or just plain. Yet there are some bloody fun games on there. They don’t require photo realistic graphics because they concentrate on having a fun game with fun animation to fit.

June 17, 2007 at 10:10 PM PDT | permalink

Posted by Bia

The media element was one I had not considered when I began writing the above post, but a friend mentioned it in a discussion afterwards. I shall try to revisit it in the future.

June 18, 2007 at 05:46 AM PDT | permalink

Posted by BrazenBecky

I still maintain that there is more to the attraction of a game than impressive graphics or amazing technology. Take chess or checkers for example. Their attraction is not based on being impressive visually, no snazzy technology there either, but every generation for hundreds, perhaps over a thousand years, has played them. A good game that can be played for years has its attraction in the play, not the increasing technology or realistic graphics. Yes, a visually impressive new game or interesting new technology can give a short burst of profit but if there is nothing more substantial to the game, they will just be replaced in a year or two by the next flash of technology.
I also agree with Hempline about the fate of limiting your market as was done with comic books. When I was a kid, 30-some years ago, comics were sold for pocket change at every store. Most kids/teens read them. Now there is one specialty store within 50 miles of me where they are available and most of what is available appeals to a very limited audience. I know of no one among my kids friends(ages ranging from 2-16) who has an interest in them. Even with the huge increase in price they surely aren't making as much money with such a limited audience and here in the Bible Belt they have a reputation only slightly above porn. Do video games want to end up in the same place?
I commend the ringers for enjoying technology and graphics without substituting it for game-play substance.

June 19, 2007 at 11:33 AM PDT | permalink

Posted by Sev

The worst thing about the current pandering to the 'hardcore' gamers is the often degrading armour provided for female avatars in some RPGs, it actively pushes people away from the games. Who would volunterily enter a world where sexual harassment is a sometimes daily occurance?

June 20, 2007 at 12:17 PM PDT | permalink

Posted by Cephalopod

"Take chess or checkers for example."

Two words: Battle Chess

Mmmm. I played my fair share of that back in the day.

June 20, 2007 at 02:24 PM PDT | permalink

Posted by PractialM

I used to take computers to gaming conventions back in the late 80s when I was in college and one of the most popular games that people played was Battle Chess. Not any of the many networked games we had in a room of 20 or more computers, but Battle Chess. A solo game of chess where the battles between the pieces were predetermined by who moved into which square. Never really understood why it was so popular. It wasn't like it was Archon or something.

June 29, 2007 at 05:05 PM PDT | permalink

Posted by rubyspoon

Okay, I'm just rolling up to this discussion somewhat late, and it's been very interesting. I'm personally very keen to find out where Wii will be in 1 or 2 years time because the possible futures I see cover a very wide range.

What I would like to do here, though, is give some support to the idea that better graphics can make a better game. I'm all for gameplay first, graphics second, but the other part of the argument never seems to get a fair hearing.

Ceph has of course already made the great point about Battle Chess. Put in a few nifty animations and a game I couldn't be bothered to get into (at the age of 10) suddenly became attractive.

Similarly, the animation and graphical flourishes in Okami make the basic action of travelling from one part of the world to another enjoyable. Of course, in Puzzle Pirates we have sparks in our Blacksmithing and water droplets in Bilge, which do nothing for the gameplay, but were added to make for a better experience and therefore a better game.

That general ability of graphics to enhance certain parts of games aside, there are three major genres that always come to my mind when considering the improvements that graphics can make.

The simplest is first-person shooters. I'm a peace-loving anti-violence kind of hippy, but I still get some kind of primal kick when I'm engaged in a simulation of hunting/killing/surviving. Bad graphics can jolt your consciousness out of the experience just as surely as bad acting in a film or bad grammar in a novel.

Another genre that benefits is horror. That genuine creeping sense of dread found in F.E.A.R. or Project Zero could not have been achieved with the Doom engine. Once again, the less the graphics jolt you out by failing to match reality, the greater one's engagement and hence emotional response to the experience.

The final genre is that of stealth. I watched a friend playing such a game and could not begin to understand the attraction. I got Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven purely because I liked the idea of playing a ninja dog in vs. mode, but within five minutes of playing the game proper I was hooked. Crouched behind a bush, watching my character's breath disperse in the wintry air, listening for that shift in footsteps on snow that told me the guard around the corner had just turned and now had his back to me, my emotional state was in a place the SNES could never have got me.

I suppose I'm most drawn to the film analogy. Good gameplay is like a good script - an essential starting point. But it takes a great concept combined with a great execution to make something really shine.

July 18, 2007 at 01:30 PM PDT | permalink

Posted by Diamondblade

Sev - Believe it or not, there are female gamers who like the skimpy armour. Kind of like there is something appealing to male gamers about hypermasculine men running around with their tops off picking up women- we like the idea that we can pretend to be some sort of sex gods ;)

I agree in principle though- games shouldn't degrade women. But sexualising them isn't necessarily degrading them, as long as it's done to roughly the same standard to the game's men.

WoW does a lot of this inconsistent sexualising, yet it still manages to appeal to a wide range of women. My friends in that game are almost as diverse as my friends in Puzzle Pirates. While we may object, it doesn't necessarily seem to put women as a whole off. (I can't count the number of actual women I've seen dressing their characters up like strippers and then dancing ;) ) Don't ask me WHY, of course.

July 18, 2007 at 02:02 PM PDT | permalink

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