May 12, 2020

The Gamer Dome - Making a Game Out of Game Design

There was a lot of information to digest at GDC, especially for someone looking in from the outside. Still, I found that most of what I heard jibed with things I already knew about the video game industry. There was some interesting speculation about the future of virtual worlds and MMOs, but most of it had to do with revenue models rather than game design. What was said about game design was, frankly, not really about game design.

Video games and hobby games couldn’t be farther apart in just about every way possible, and this was on display at GDC this year. As a flippant example, GDC shirts came in no size bigger than Large.

One of my big takeaways from my week in San Francisco was that innovation in the video game market is stale.

Almost everything related to video games is moving online these days, thanks to the consoles and downloadable content quickly eating away at the PC gaming market. We already knew that middle-aged women were playing three-in-a-row and card games almost exclusively at Web portals like Pogo, but the hardcore audience (which is shrinking) is also moving online and to consoles at an astonishing rate. This means the ultra-high budgets we’ve seen in the past are on their way to extinction, perhaps first portended by the blowing up of E3.

Hobby game companies are feeling this trend as well, but in a different way, as a greater percentage of sales moves online. Still, hobby games require people to come together face to face and engage (ignoring things like Brettspielwelt and GameTableOnline, as well as a trickle of games moving to XBox Live Arcade), and that means they appeal toward a crowd that requires more interaction, with both game and players, than online games. Nowhere is this more apparent than in game design.

Let me just say it: the aim of online game design is to facilitate the wasting of time. Not a waste in the sense of non-productivity, but the sense that the time one spends in the game should be devoid of content and meaning. Let’s take a look at a three-in-a-row game like Bejeweled.

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What are you doing in Bejeweled? You have no real control over what comes onto the board, and the timer insures you have a limited ability to meaningfully structure your play. It boils down to maneuvering shiny bits and hoping the flow of shiny bits never stops. When it does stop, you click Play Again and maneuver more shiny bits. I wouldn’t be surprised if the brainwave patterns associated with playing a three-in-a-row were very close to those of watching television. It’s shiny solitaire.

There were some speakers who seemed frustrated by this, but none offered any answers, and it seems that the trend is only going to continue down this path because they’ve decided it’s what their target market wants. Will the video game industry stifle its own creativity by pandering to a wide audience instead of rewarding innovation?

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The industry is fond of the factoid stating that more money is now spent on video games than on seeing movies, but is this a blessing or a curse? As the video game industry attempts to expand, it is building the same restrictive infrastructure that caused movie studios to be crushed under the weight of their own mediocrity. The internet was supposed to be an antidote to traditional movie distribution, but video game companies are building an online model with the same flaws as movie studios.

What’s this got to do with hobby games? I’ll let you know in Part Three.

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