Quick Thoughts on Gaming Suckitude

Got lunch with Alex and Nate during the week and chatted about games, as usual. This time it was over Thai food. I got the fried chicken. The E3 fever has died down now, and we’re back in our usual gaming lulls (lulz). Nate shared some EVE Online stories, Alex still hasn’t progressed at all in Earthbound, I’m trying to cram in time for SC2/MVC3. We’re back, and comfortable.

About four or five bites in, I said something like “it’s easier to make a fun multiplayer game”, and figured I’d use that as the jumping-off point. So I wrote a big post, then WordPress ate 500 words of it when I tried to save because FUCK YOU WORDPRESS, and now I’m going to do the tl;dr version.

To me, I enjoy games that are good movies or good sports. Mother 3 and Shadow of the Colossus are both games that I dig on far more than any movie because they are a splendid example of a game design that feeds the story that feeds the game. The two are intertwined, see. Bulletstorm might as well be Serious Sam as far as the narrative/game connection. A great single-player game with a crappy narrative might as well be a pick-up-and-play arcade game, which is great but not the kind of game I would spend hours of my life playing. A shitty game with a great narrative is a movie that makes it hard for me to press “Play”.

A “good movie” game is hard to design–and with good reason! When we tell stories, we don’t ask the audience to write their own dialogue. When we see movies, we don’t pass the script around and read the lines ourselves. In a sense, the most important person in a movie theater isn’t even there–it’s the director who controls what story is told, and how it is told. If you don’t like it, or you don’t get it, you don’t matter. You probably won’t even get your money back.

With a game, however, the “audience”–that is, the player–is the most important person. That avatar standing onscreen ain’t going nowhere if you don’t pick up the controller. But when you do, you might go somewhere that isn’t where the director wanted you to go. Let me tell you, Indigo Prophecy is a pretty bad game, but it’s way worse if you spend 20 minutes in the bathroom in the opening scene just looking at every single toilet and washing your hands obsessively. Unless that’s the game you want to play, in which case, I guess you like it.

See, if a film director immediately tried to “direct” a video game, it’d be futile. The roles are practically reversed; instead of the director dictating what you saw in the game, all you have is the player. It’s kind of dumb, if you think about it: The player is the person who “performs” the story in a game, but we’re going to tell the story we want to tell, not the story the director wants us to tell, because A) we want what we want, even if it’s to sniff the toilets in Indigo Prophecy, and B) we didn’t make the damn game! How are we supposed to know how the game should be “told”? Am I right to call Super Metroid “slow-paced” when I just watched a tool-assisted speedrun of some guy beating it in 30 minutes?

When you think about it like that, making a movie sounds pretty easy compared to making a good video game.

Stick a group of people in a room, however, and they might have their own mature, emotional experience–even if you don’t put anything in the room. This is the “good sports” subset of gaming: The Starcrafts, the Street Fighters, the Codblops, etc. Just take a bunch of people and tell them to amuse themselves, as a group, for an hour. Maybe they’ll play Truth or Dare, or Mafia, or Tag, or Hide and Seek. Those games might not be quite so sublime an experience as a video game Citizen Kane, but they’ll engage people in the same emotional and intellectual way.

That’s because people are interesting. People have drama, and feelings, and relationships, which makes them fun to beat (SC2/SF/CoD) and fun to play with (EVE Online and assorted MMORata). I don’t really give a shit about the MMOs, which is why I omitted them earlier, but I think they fit the same model. Namely: Give people toys, and they’ll play with each other. Give me Siege Tanks and I’ll park them outside your base, give me a Muay Thai kickboxer and I’ll have him beat your fat Kung-Fu biker guy up, give me a wholly virtual star system and I’ll form alliances with your enemy to destroy you (and then him).

Designing a compelling single-player game sounds like it takes someone who is equal parts artist, psychologist, and mathematician. (I wouldn’t know, as I’ve never done it, though I might try with this awesome game concept we came up with last week that I’m blogging about next week so fuck you Alex and Nate if you try to steal my post about the dance battle RPG.) Presumably, you’d need the sense of narrative skill, style, and pacing that film and literature demand, plus the psychological insights to predict human behaviors in any given game situation and the mathematical skill to create structure of incentives and disincentives that let you guide the player into playing the game in a way that doesn’t suck/isn’t boring.

Designing a multiplayer game, on the other hand, is like taking a room full of fifth grade boys and giving them the right toys so that they’ll have fun, but won’t be unduly bullying each other or anything like that. Certainly not an easy task (and it gets harder when you need to make it fun for people to watch those boys playing–hello, eSports), but from here, it seems leagues easier than being a psychomathemadirector.


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