Now, perhaps more than at any time in the short history of video-games, a multitude of debates rage on about gaming. Some of these are the expected, familiar but no-less relevant controversies surrounding the merits and effects of gaming. But for game makers the arguments are increasingly about the future direction of the past-time we all love, from a creative stand point and also a business one.
A couple of years ago Will Wright, creator of The Sims, likened the near future of games to the Cambrian era of Earth’s history – a period of time when there was an explosion in the number and diversity of new species evolving. It’s hard not to see his point either – the scope of what can be considered ‘games’ is widening more rapidly than most of us can keep up, from mobile phones to social networks, browser-games to MMOs, boxed-retail to digital distribution and free-to-play.
Go back a few years to 2004 and a little game called World of Warcraft launched (admittedly with some teething problems). 7 years later this one game generates over a billion dollars a year and has forever changed how the industry thinks about games. Similarly, in that same year Nintendo launched its DS, the first serious attempt to use touch-screens in games. Meanwhile the Wii, the first motion-control system in games, was merely in development and wouldn’t see daylight for another couple of years. Today it’s fair to say that both touch-screen and motion-control gaming have gone from being non-existent to segments that are each as large as the traditional console and PC ones.
Against this backdrop, game designers are wrestling, whether they know it or not, with debates and choices that are far from settled in a rapidly changing medium. What is the purpose of narrative in games? What form should it take? How much of it should be authored by the player? How much can games learn from other media, or should designers be emphasising what makes games unique? What, if anything, is ethically ‘off-limits’ in the games business? These are some of the bigger questions but equally interesting to me are the multitude of small decisions designers make that combine to make up the rather hard to describe ‘flavour’ of a game – ultimately these are the things that distinguish one game from another within a genre. These are the decisions, beyond obvious plot details and graphical updates, that can change between one title and its sequel and create a huge difference to the invested fan.
I might be a games programmer but I’m also hugely interested in games design and the industry itself. As much as I play most games for my own enjoyment, a lot of the time I’m also taking away what lessons and observations I can about what works and what doesn’t for the player. And occasionally I play a game purely to see what I can learn, since I know I’m not going to enjoy it much! Admittedly these lessons are only my opinions of what is and isn’t good, but I still find the process of thinking about, critiquing and analysing why I like a game useful for deciding why one design choice might be better than another. This video editorial from Extra Credit does a good a job of explaining a lot of my own approach when I play games, and some of the reasons why I’d want to identify my own likes and dislikes.
Ultimately, that’s what this blog is about – it’s purely for my own purposes in the hope that I might be able to nail down exactly what the Je ne sais quoi is in some great games and what mistakes I should avoid, as well as formulating my own opinion on where the industry as a whole should be heading. I don’t claim to be a design expert or an authority of any kind, I merely come to this from the perspective of a games programmer, a gamer of 20+ years and a former games-retailer. If anyone else finds my reading interesting, well that’s just a bonus!