Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

As I wandered around the web, I found some stuff of interest (yes, I know, I really dug hard to find those), more or less related to some material I already published on this blog.

The Good

The first article I’ll point to is Edge’s argumentation in favour of greater menu design, be they at the beginning of your game or during the game. I already voiced my opinion about the terrible PC menu of Bioshock, and I’ll gladly add that Rogue Galaxy’s in game menu system is a nightmare of navigation, a formidable collection of all the mistakes one could think about, professionally crammed into one game for great terror. Unclear and time consuming as hell, this is a good example of what you want to avoid at all costs.

The quality of a menu is important. It cannot be allowed to be wrong, counter intuitive and inefficient. This doesn’t mean you have to spend a good fraction of the budget in it, no, but a greater presentation, a great flow in between the menu’s tabs, appropriate and themed transitions relative to the tone and setting of your game matter a lot, and so does the attention to detail, from music, sounds, alpha masks, glow bits and style.
My main complaint would be how Sony had so many games share the same basic template for saving menus. A bit more diversity would have been appreciated.

The Bad … well, not so much but I needed a neat title…

The second article has Rob Fahey ( talk about the new challenger which Apple is, and how winning the multimedia battle on multiple fronts becomes a necessary strategy in order to implant a console in a living room, to push sideways the giants already in place. Are we so sure of that? Well, there are interesting points he makes.

I’ll add my own stone there.

First, this race for greater multimedia functionalities mirrors Sony’s politic since the first Playstation. Now we are talking about channels to download films, shows and music, and some games. Years ago, the revolution was to be able to play your DVDs and enjoy them on your console.
It’s most unfortunate for Sony not to seem to be successful with their own mantra as they were before, although they managed to sell the PS3 by presenting it as a Blu-ray player, unwittingly admitting they were failing selling it as what it was meant to be, a video games console. Oops, sorry, a computer for entertainment.

Secondly, Fahey cites the great advantages of the iPhone and other Apple products with similar abilities, but as I said before, we shouldn’t forget that ergonomics play a large part in the success of a gaming machine, and we have never seen any single shred of evidence that a machine, not primarily focusing on games and not being made to play them in the best possible way, could beat a console which was solely, or at least largely built with this goal in mind.

One could think the DS and Wii are a bit odd here, but they’re essentially very efficient as far as playing games is concerned, regardless of horsepower or your tastes for the controllers. That said, while the Wiimote remains an easy target for jokes and concerns, touch screens are not, they are respected and allow new ways of gaming, although not very gamey in spirit if you carry like more than two decades of gaming behind you.
Still, Apple has the touch screen, and a damn good one.

The Ugly

Well, not so much again. I suppose it’s time to admit that my choice for a title really does fall apart, doesn’t it?
So, the final article, six pages long, is St├ęphane Bura’s own take on what game design means, its purpose and how it can be made easier if a standardized science of some sort could emerge from that boiling puddle of styles, methods and opinions, in order to write down the magic scroll that would make a good game. He calls this article “Emotion Engineering”, much likely in reference to the Playstation 2’s core.
An appealing title, but I’m not totally sure about the rest though.

At some point, Bura quotes Sid Meier:

A [good] game is a series of interesting choices.

Even if you find gaming in the most unorthodox or mundane activities, like ordering files, catching trains, going for the valley instead of the forest hill, cleaning the plates or whatever, this one feels limited. I’m sure, however, that this line alone wouldn’t represent Meier’s full meditation on the subject.
Adding emotions and synesthesia somewhere in the mix are also necessary. But this is not the real problem there.

Here it is: There are recurring themes present in the article and the subsequently related comments, which are all used in negative fashions to highlight the flaws of our current systems:

- No universally accepted truths, just opinions.

It solely depends of the truth’s level, how much ground it’s supposed to cover, what it tries to firmly put into place.
One can always paste Wright’s tables, still informative among a vast set of studies, the truth can only be held as far as they concern mechanisms which we know will always lead to small results, on limited scale.
For example, knowing that loosing on and on makes a nice truth about how a player’s self esteem will plummet, it doesn’t tell you how to balance your game’s difficulty. At best, it tells you what you may want to avoid.

- Lack of common set of tools and language.

The vast topic we have here. One would be quick to point out that the language is already there, even if you don’t find it deeply entrenched in literature. Some civilizations have been going for ages without much traces of archived scripting of any sort. The secrets of some great inventions have been lost because no blueprint were left behind, no methodologies, nothing. It would be foolish, however, to believe that the talent, mastery, knowledge and excellence didn’t exist then. They simply went into a dead end, never transmitted.
The goal is probably to share the knowledge, to destroy the elites.
Still, you can always put ten people in front of Game Design 101, only a limited number of people will make it through. You won’t create good game designers simply by putting down some arcane rules of game design. However, you'll probably widen the scope of revealed talents.

- Lack of standardized descriptive scientific model.

The kind of system which could be translated into code for machines, so that next time, I’ll ask my calculator to make me a fantastic game, while I’ll fly to the Tau system to meet a friend of mine for his wedding, but only after being sure that my geneids shall be in line with all the slightly anal retentive prerequisites to enter the Consortium of Broca. I’d hate being stuck in the security office at the Karanga station for sure!

I consider we’ve already been through that, and some chosen analogies in the article in question, notably considering the botanist Mendel, really have you ponder the ideology behind such work.
Here was my reply at Gamasutra:

Interesting article, many pros and cons to think about. I'm still stuck on a particular analogy though.

"But Mendel had an advantage over us: being a botanist, he had a fairly good idea of what to observe and measure: colors, shapes, textures, size, growth rates, etc. (Furthermore, he didn't care if his peas looked or tasted great, while game designers are trying to understand what make games good while making good games.)"

A game designer cares if his peas look or/and taste great.

EDIT: the point may not be clear, as my reply was being a tad redundant, but Bura's example was one more argument about what designers were doing wrong somehow, or incompletely, in a kind of blinded way, and needed to change for better design. You know, understand the core and put it into machine code. It was part of a reasonning which followed citing Daniel Cook and his book, wherein it is argued that there are "benefits game designers would draw from a standardized quasi-scientific descriptive model."
Do you need a scientific model to know why people wouldn't like their ice creams if they had a taste of shit?
The will to systemize things, although enabling people to wiggle in their pants and present ordered tables for mystic illumination, is something that might be good for people who want to talk about design.

This way, in a decade, we may end with schools which will bore the shit out of you with pseudo science and annoying complicated schematics, while there is just one reality, that of passion, of experience, of practice. The terrain reality. Fucking pointless chatter.
Why insist that there's a need for a better scientific understanding, which would allow us comparing games objectively? Has someone not paid attention to the fact that both press and consumers could already do it since decades?? See: This level sucks because difficulty rises too fast, the pace is erratic and has boring plateaus, there's a bug there, the camera doesn't help, I loved collecting these tools, etc.

If anything, you could say that the standards of comparison are understood by all players subconsciously, but I think they're just that obvious and many players could clearly tell you what are a game's failures and successes.

Sometimes, I really can’t tell if I hate or love that kind of stuff. Certain ideas seem to be reaching out so far in time that we’ll probably all be dead before anything remotely close to what is advocated comes to fruition (assuming it wouldn’t be considered obsolete by then).

In a way, I just so get full of those pseudo enlightenment speeches, telling us how we’ve been living in the Dark Ages and fiddling with crack pot sciences to obtain “results” which were all the more placebos, completely woven in tissues of great ignorance.
I’m equally fed up of those who think they’re being original in preaching a thousand truths which all unwittingly point to the same old story: they want to play in the Matrix, and code for it.
More emotion and interactions with AI, increased complexity in environments and better physics, more science, more mathematics behind the feelings, more replication and duplication, more standardization and faster techniques through electronic tools, yadda yadda yadda… man, the end of this is just so obvious.

Add a couple of evidences, like how too many cooks spoil the broth (no, really?) and you’re done.

The most amusing part is that no matter the periodic tables and laws of thermodynamics, what has been driving science and its theories is gut feeling and imagination.

Besides, Bura’s been through Kalisto and 10tacle. Yet, when I check their track records, I fail to see anything looking like a truly engaging, complete and successful “emotion engineered” game. (That’s the kick in the balls & nasty bit, but I’d rather be honest about it.)

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