The following series of articles is ripe for critique using the critical-language I've developed over the last five years and the Trigon Theory of Video Games that I published recently: Reboot Your AAA Brain with Indie Games; Why We Need to Kill Gameplay To Make Better Games; Killing the Gameplay ...Postmortem. All three articles are written by Adrian Chmielarz a game developer who works for Astronauts. Adrian has a lot to say about a lot of topics. Based on his articles we can get a clear picture of who Adrian is as a gamer. Though it seems obvious by the titles that he is very anti-games-as-art ("kill gameplay"), combing through the details will help us better understand his view and how we could design a game that would help bridge and expand Adrian's appreciation of gameplay.
To reiterate, the Trigon theory is not about putting people into categories to ignore or dismiss them. The theory is best used to identify our core views on video games and to communicate our thoughts better while recognizing exactly how our desires can conflict within facets of game design.
The following is in response to Adrian's Reboot Your AAA Brain with Indie Games. Read it first if you have the time. Consider Adrian's viewpoint, and then read ahead.
Image from the soundtrack by Jim Guthrie
When the previews of your latest AAA game hit the net, it hurts you to see a comment that the game is “just more of the same”.
What you can’t see is that the Internet troll was right. That your game has been done already, a hundred times before. There is always an equivalent of it, done twenty years ago. Yes, maybe only in monochrome and maybe with a crappy skill tree and maybe there was only one enemy type. Still, it already exists.
The "more of the same" argument is often level most by games as business gamers. These gamers generally thrive on experiencing whatever is "new." These gamers don't see a lot of value in refinement or subsequent products that extend the ideas of their predecessors. These gamers are the hardest to satisfy because there's a limit to how much newness an industry can sustain. And because video games are so strongly tied to technology, incremental, iterative design will always be a strong part of what games are. Innovation and unique expression are important. But it's also important to understand that there is a lot of subtle innovation and less obvious examples of expression that go unnoticed by gamers who demand newness the most.
In other words, your precious AAA game commits the worst sin a piece of entertainment can commit. It’s predictable.
So... what? So... that’s why we sell less and less AAA games each year.
It's worth noting here that Adrian thinks of games as a "piece of entertainment." Remember that I explained the games-as-business view can also be thought of as the games-as-mindless fun/time wasters/entertainment. Basically, when what player's desire is most important to companies seeking to turn a profit, then certainly the most obvious appealing elements become the focus. If Adrian wasn't already leaning toward the games-as-business trigon view, then certainty the next line in the quoted section above tips the scale. Adrian considers a strong corelation between video game value and how much these games sell.
We are talking about you. About how well you understand your craft. Let’s try something here. Think of that AAA game you are making right now.
And would the game still be fun if people played it in god mode? If yes, then why don’t you allow for such mode to be one of the difficulty options? Is it to make the game better or is it to hide the fact it’s not very long, really?
Would people love your game even if the visuals sucked?... Would your game still be fun if you removed all violence from it? Would it even exist? Is it too easy to name three direct competitors to your game? Is the game’s story better than the story in your favorite book or a movie?
Here Adrian considers a series of questions designed to challenge his thinking and reveal his understanding of "craft." We're talking about making video games, yet none of the questions challenge or address gameplay design topics. There's no mention of controller design, mechanics, interplay, variation, design space, balance, feedback design, co-op design, etc. The question that comes the closest to addressing a game design topic is the one about difficulty design and the "god mode." But rather than considering challenge, risk-reward balance, and the meaning conveyed through these aspects of gameplay, the conversation shifts to more trivial issues of game length and perceived value ("hide the fact it's not very long") which are issues that fall closer to the game-as-business view once again.
There are two ways in which you can innovate and invent. One, just like the button mashing in Tekken, comes from the lack of knowledge... You need to start clean. You need to start questioning everything you’ve learned about games so far.
I agree. As I explained in my Game Design Conference talk A Crash Course in Innovation and in Critical-Casts Ep2 Expression, when we study game design and take the time to learn its parts and how they work together, it becomes far easier to innovate. When you have language to differentiate every part of a game in your mind, you have the power to adjust all parts in practice. This process starts with language to build a foundation of understanding. Questioning everything you've learned is great, but it's an exercise that's made significantly more effective when you have the language to question individual parts in a highly structured way.
Listen to gamers evangelizing a small mod they just played not because they’re pretentious pricks, but because they found something special there, something that does not exist anywhere else.
Wonder why some indie games make more money than your games even though they don’t look as pretty.
Investigate why millions of people can be good at an indie game even though this game does not feature a tutorial you put so much faith and so many resources into.
Or, to put it in one sentence, start noticing how indie games can be more interesting and engaging than anything you do just because they question things that you consider unquestionable.
Indie games can surprise people.
Here Adrian expresses a strong and skewed perspectiveve on the quality of indie video games. Like Jonathan Blow and many other speakers in the Western side of the gaming discourse, there is a strong indie bias going around. You can tell that Adrian is in part responding to a perceived stigma against indie games. Yet, his extreme counter views are just as inaccurate. Perhaps some gamers have found something special in indie games that doesn't exist anywhere else. Perhaps not. Yes, some indie games make a lot of money (Minecraft, Super Meat Boy, Braid, etc.), most don't. "Pretty" graphics isn't the determining factor of game quality or success. Of course players can get good at the games they work at. Tutorials are great, but depending on the complexity of the game and the type of gamer it appeals to, tutorials may not be a significant factor in the quality of the players experience.
I don't have a bias against indie games. I am an indie game developer after all. And indie games have made it on almost all of my GOTY lists. So I don't see the value in excessively supporting indie games, drawing a hard line between indie games and commercial games, or attempting to group all indie games into a meaningful category.
You are exaggerating. There is a lot of incredible AAA games and a lot of rubbish indie games. The thing is, however, that a bad AAA game is bad in all the obvious ways, and a bad indie game can still be inspiring.
The bias here is blatant. I think this notion of how a AAA budgets should equate to AAA quality is throwing many game thinkers off the mark. I think it's disturbingly odd that so many game speakers and writers talk about the shortcomings of AAA development, yet ignore many Japanese AAA games or AA, A, B tier games. There's more to gaming than the yearly churn of highly marketed Xbox 360 games from EA and Activision. Here Adrian treats indie games unevenly compared to AAA games by claiming the general failures of AAA games are obvious. Does Adrian imply that the failures of indie games are no obvious? And while a "bad" indie game can still be inspirational, why does this not hold true for AAA games?
In part 2, we'll dive into Adrian's main article, Why We Need To Kill Gameplay To Make Better Games.