Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Games are software

One of the pleasant surprises of PAX was the strength of the panels. The talks I attended ranged from academic studies of games to women’s position in the field to the impact of Farmville on the industry. All of them were lively, engaging and nuanced talks that proved the industry was capable of developing and nurturing mature and critical thought in the industry. On top of all that, the show floor was lively – by ignoring the big-budget gameplay demos, I was able to talk to several gamedevs face-to-face about their games, what platforms they were publishing on, why, and etc etc etc. (And yet I still missed Jonathan Blow’s new game! Which, considering the sloppy blowjob I’d love to give to him, is probably for the best.)

ANYWAY. There were so many things going on I can’t help but point you towards Brainy Gamer's last 3 podcasts, which covered the con from the POV of press, enthusiast, and producers. I will restrain myself and only recap the one panel I thought will have the most impact in days to come.

World of Farmcraft: Social, Massive-Multiplayer, and Casual gaming.

One of the amusing things about PAX was the thread of capitalism strung throughout. There {was a time / is an audience} that {would have / currently} gnashes its teeth and self-flagellates on re: wrt: $$$ in games. All the panels briefly alluded to industry / money / profit blithely, an obvious fact that needed no rhetoric of contrition.  This panel’s moderator went the furthest of them all, saying the core difference between casual, MMO and social games was the underlying monetization strategy.

I chose to attend this panel partially because I’m interested in the future of social & casual gaming – they’ve been HUGE movers & shakers in terms of raw profit and audience numbers, which seems to catch in most gamer’s throats. The second reason I attended was because I was sure the Q&A session would reveal some wonderful truths about the mindset of the PAX attendee. I was not disappointed. WITNESS the first 3 “questions”:

* “So, my boyfriend thinks Skinnerville – I mean farmville, isn’t a real game”. Response: “He’s obviously never had an entire crop whither on him”.

* “Farmville is for fucking retards”.  Response from the Zynga rep (who works on Mafia wars): “Well, about 50 million people disagree with you”, which I thought was a pretty classy way to disarm the question.

* “Farmville isn’t making people into real gamers”, spat out with as much venom as one can manage. The response was another vague platitude, but I couldn’t help linking it to the discussion here. I take up the banner in the comments – it leads to an interesting discussion on gender.

People are drawing up the battle lines on Farmville. Lord knows I can’t abide anyone telling me it’s “not a game” or “not worth discussing”, and will launch into a month-long crusade against Farmville haters on the slightest provocation – and I don’t even play Farmville.

It’s idiotic for us to ignore social gaming. It’s idiotic for us to dismiss what is clearly a huge shift in business because it doesn’t align with our interests. Farmville, on its own, may not be the most fun game in the world. Zynga might be a company composed entirely of genetic clones of the leeches that killed George Washington, leeches that have invented time travel and come to 2010 in order to suck life from as many Americans as possible.  The sheer number of Farmville palette-swaps might be overwhelming to the point of revulsion. And yet, last night, instead of writing this post, I went onto City of Wonder and spent hours re-organized my city’s structure while blasting my friends with wall posts begging for help in constructing Stonehenge.

Farmville, on its face, might be simple. Yet that’s no reason why games can’t take the base formula and improve on it, to create a civ-light experience or whatever your genre-boner  demands.  Dismissing Farmville is no different from dismissing Bejeweled – and now Popcap’s past success seems like a eerie precursor to the App Store.

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There’s a huge demand, obviously, for games as software. Not games as complicated, triple-A titles you line up in front of Gamestop for. Not games as glorified tech demos.  Not even games as 60-hour epics. Games as pieces of software that work, reliably, simply, with no setup, and no install process. Games that have strong design ethos, that do what the players expect, and that don’t have complicated inventory management screens.

Because, fuck you, games have terrible design choices. Starcraft 2 requires you to be logged into Battle.Net? Go fuck yourself. Your game requires me to download an .exe, find it, extract it, run the installer, click 6 times, wait for 10 minutes, and then hunt down a shortcut and play it? Go fuck yourself. Your game lets me cancel out of the character creation screen without saving my changes, and with no warning? Go fuck yourself. To switch weapons I have to hit left bumper + d-pad? To transform I have to hit right bumper + left trigger + A? You don’t let me save in between boss fights? You don’t even have an autosave?  Design choices like that would get me fired at work. In the games industry, it’s barely even commented on.

The only reason we accept such terrible, convoluted, impossible, horrible design choices is because we all lived through the evolution of games. We adapted to it, and now we perpetuate it. Now that Farmville has reduced us back to a mouse move + click, we’ve got nothing.

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I loooove agile development. This post talks about how using metrics creates better social game software (although not necessarily better games)

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The worst panel I attended at PAX was “The Future of the PC”. It consistented of a bunch of 40-year old men crowing that 3d and multimonitor setups (IE an $8000 rig) were the future. That Apple and the app store was a threat to Sony and Nintendo, but not the PC. They dismissed gamers who only own laptops (I am one such person). One panelist literally said the keyboard + mouse combo was the perfect control scheme, and “I’d like to see someone snipe with a controller”  - apparently he had never heard of Halo? I walked out at that point.  It was obvious they were not reacting to disruptions and threats coming in. I think the attitude of ignoring threats and changing landscapes is very closely tied to the attitude that dismisses/ignores/pities social games & social gamers.

5 comments:

  1. Well done.

    "The only reason we accept such terrible, convoluted, impossible, horrible design choices is because we all lived through the evolution of games. We adapted to it, and now we perpetuate it. Now that Farmville has reduced us back to a mouse move + click, we’ve got nothing."

    That reminds me of a post I read yesterday at Elder Game re: conventions of the MMO genre: http://www.eldergame.com/2010/09/being-aware-of-genre-conventions/ I disagree with Eric's conclusion that good design can ignore convention without harming market share, but he makes a lot of good points and I think there's a lot of synergy with your argument re: social games.

    You do a great job of outlining the barriers to access that gaming has constructed around itself. These kinds of barriers are insidious: they are all but invisible to people on the inside, while the people on the outside lack the language to articulate the means of their exclusion. The only way to gain the language is to be included, at which point the barriers become invisible.

    This phenomenon is very similar to access issues faced by libraries: identifying barriers to collections access is a huge challenge, because the people designing and refining the policies / procedures / tools have already ingested the existing scheme as a functional system.

    As you outline so well, Farmville eliminates many of gaming's traditional barriers. At the same time, it's creating new barriers. Gamers who are used to being on the inside suddenly find themselves on the outside, and they end up saying things like the panel questions you quoted above. Fascinating!

    ReplyDelete
  2. tnx~!~

    One of the topics I wanted to graze was the boundary between software and game. Obviously "design" is a bit of an overloaded term and can mean game design just as easily as software design - and the two aren't always in harmony. I think the conversation about RPG conventions butts up against that pretty hard. There are some software conventions (usability comes first) that butt up against game conventions (you don't want every sniper shot to be successful, you don't want arrows to seem better than swords). For what it's worth, Mass Effect 2 did away with a *lot* of RPG conventions and to be quite honest worked very well and was rewarded commercially and critically for it. But MMO audiences tend to be a lot more reactionary imo (At another panel, someone mentioned the term "welfare epics" used in WoW to indicate anger over distribution of items.)

    "Realism, as usual, is simply a fig leaf for doing what you want" - http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/?p=10077

    i guess the other point would be re:barriers - every successful company of the past 5 years (Apple, Google, to some extent still Microsoft, Youtube, Facebook) have looked at barriers and said "we can do better, even though people think we can't". That's what irritates me about people rejecting farmville out of hand because they personally don't like it - it demonstrates an ignorance of where business is heading, what new frontiers are being claimed.

    also as an additional lol: one of the comments on the post you linked to "people who care such as myself are being drowned out by the pedestrians — the casual gamers. These people care little about the rules; they are just here to have a good time. That is what MMOs have been reduced to." PERFECT EXAMPLE OF WHAT I'M TALKING ABOUT. Following his profile link to his webpage I found a series entitled "The emasculation of the MMO". but, you know, the fight against casual gamers has nothing to do with gender. emasculation can refer to girls too!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Realism meets counter culture? I feel like this kind of push pull gets mirrored in so many fields! I'm remembering the changing face of motorcycle advertising, gruff rough riders to "you meet the nicest people on a honda"

    ReplyDelete
  4. Well done.

    "The only reason we accept such terrible, convoluted, impossible, horrible design choices is because we all lived through the evolution of games. We adapted to it, and now we perpetuate it. Now that Farmville has reduced us back to a mouse move + click, we’ve got nothing."

    That reminds me of a post I read yesterday at Elder Game re: conventions of the MMO genre: http://www.eldergame.com/2010/09/being-aware-of-genre-conventions/ I disagree with Eric's conclusion that good design can ignore convention without harming market share, but he makes a lot of good points and I think there's a lot of synergy with your argument re: social games.

    You do a great job of outlining the barriers to access that gaming has constructed around itself. These kinds of barriers are insidious: they are all but invisible to people on the inside, while the people on the outside lack the language to articulate the means of their exclusion. The only way to gain the language is to be included, at which point the barriers become invisible.

    This phenomenon is very similar to access issues faced by libraries: identifying barriers to collections access is a huge challenge, because the people designing and refining the policies / procedures / tools have already ingested the existing scheme as a functional system.

    As you outline so well, Farmville eliminates many of gaming's traditional barriers. At the same time, it's creating new barriers. Gamers who are used to being on the inside suddenly find themselves on the outside, and they end up saying things like the panel questions you quoted above. Fascinating!

    ReplyDelete
  5. Realism meets counter culture? I feel like this kind of push pull gets mirrored in so many fields! I'm remembering the changing face of motorcycle advertising, gruff rough riders to "you meet the nicest people on a honda"

    ReplyDelete