Friday, July 30, 2010

Why do we play games?

Upon its release, Braid made us ask ourselves questions about regret and remorse - its unique time-travel gameplay interwoven with a story vague and suggestive enough to be evocative in nearly every player.  Perhaps what was best about Braid wasn't so much its core mechanics, which were solid and sometimes allowed for devious level design, but in how much it resonated within us.  "What if I could go back and change things?" is a question that none of us can go through life without asking, and usually, it's a very personal question that we don't like to think too much about.

I'm not here to talk about Braid, today, but it's a good jumping off point for my discussion about why games are appealing to us.  This is a question that has been addressed in the past plenty of times, but I'd like to give my own take on exactly what it is that games offer us that other forms of media can't quite give us in the same way.  The most obvious answer would be fun, but I don't think that fun itself is exactly what causes us to play games; fun is simply one of the side of gaming that strikes a chord for us.  Rather, what I think makes gaming matter to players is in how it reflects the human condition in extremely fundamental ways.

Braid is appealing because, through rewinding time, it lets us correct mistakes that normally we would have to live out our lives with; its themes of regret are central to us as temporally-bound human beings.  However, Braid is also a fairly easy example to use, especially as it is often championed as one of the best by the "games as art" movement.  Another game that mirrors Braid in this respect is the more recent The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom, which, despite its much less serious tone, makes us consider certain questions about the nature of human motivation and about the limitations of our actions, and what we could do, and would do, if we transcended them.  These two games are enough to prove that some appeal of gaming is in how it relates to human experience, but then, these are "artistic" games, and so it's very easy to say that they are exceptions.

Much of Braid's appeal is in allowing us to turn back the clock.

Because of that problem, I'd like to pick something a little bit more abstract and less obvious to demonstrate that the point is relevant to all games; namely, I'd like to discuss Super Mario Bros.  This, I think, is a particularly interesting example, because often Super Mario Bros. is cited as perhaps the ultimate "fun" game - simple and elegant play mechanics collide with appealing visuals and sound to produce something that is wholly engaging, playable, and enjoyable, no matter who has the controller in hand.  Yet at the same time, when we speak of "fun", this begs the question of "why is it fun?"  The easiest answer, of course, is to say that it's playable, good-looking and well-designed, but this, I think isn't the full extent of the answer.

In the span of only a few minutes of Super Mario Bros. gameplay, one has already been touched by a number of fundamentally human actions: movement, acquisition, sustenance, loss, danger, aversion, success and potentially, death.  These are things which we engage with in limited degrees on a daily basis, but in Super Mario Bros. we get to live out all of these extremely base experiences in the span of a few seconds - and it is through a combination of wit, skill and luck that we are able to prevail.  The appeal of Super Mario Bros. doesn't just come from the fact that it touches upon all these things, but because it does so in a way that is both subtle and succinct; unlike our real lives, we aren't bound by time and coincidence in how events play out.

Not surprisingly, these reasons, in combination, also make up why the game is fun.  For example, if I were to remove some aspect of movement from Super Mario Bros., say, walking, then our enjoyment of the game would be severely diminished; while Mario might still be enjoyable in the short term as a simple jumping game, I think it's fairly clear that movement, or more precisely progress, is needed for a game to be fun.  Taking the example of collectibles, specifically coins, it's easy to imagine Super Mario Bros. without them, though it'd also definitely impact the game experience by a noticeable degree; similarly, removing power-ups would retail much of the game's fun, but it would diminish elements of success and growth.  Conversely, aspects of the game such as danger and death are wholly fundamental to our enjoyment of it; without any sort of risk in Super Mario Bros., no pits to fall down or enemies to run into, the game would lose its edge, and there would be no real reason for us to actually play it.  Thus, it's clear that how much a game resonates with us doesn't just depend on the fact that it does relate to the human experience, but how much its fundamental activities relate to our own, and in what proportion.

So, Super Mario Bros. is evidence that simple fun is a product of the combination of various fundamental human experiences, but there are other games which don't fall on the extreme "fun" side of the scale, just like there are those which don't fall on the extreme "art" side as well.  Because of this, I need to pick a game that falls somewhere in between to see how my argument still holds up.  I think Prince of Persia, the 2008 version, is a great example of a title that straddles the line between the two nicely.  Its appealing watercolour visuals aside, Prince of Persia deals with fundamental themes like life and death as central aspects of its story, and this is reflected in gameplay as the player has to make death-defying leaps and fight for his or her life to restore order to the world.

Prince of Persia's platforming isn't all that dangerous, but
does that reveal something about why we play it?

I also chose Prince of Persia for another reason - namely, its lack of player death.  This was, predictably, extremely divisive for almost everyone who played the game.  Many players cursed it as far too easy, unchallenging, and generally no fun because of it, which plenty more were content and even relived with the fact that it wasn't overly punitive for player death.  I'd like to think that this division doesn't shoot a hole in my proposal, but that it actually strengthens it.  Different aspects of games are appealing for us in different proportions; the reactions to Prince of Persia suggest that this is a highly individual thing.  Not all of us fear death equally, and not all of us have the same punitive stance regarding failure.  Going back to Super Mario Bros., we see the same phenomenon in different players, with some valuing high score, some valuing mere game completion, and some valuing exploration and secret-searching.  Some may just take pleasure in the mere act of running and jumping.  I'm not a psychologist, but I'd imagine that a very large deal of information could be gleaned about a particular person's beliefs regarding life, based entirely on the games that they play.

Of course, after saying all this, I'm not dismissing all other reasons why games are enjoyable for us.  Sometimes, games have very little to do with things that matter to us as humans, and are still enjoyable.  For example, abstract puzzle games often don't deal with these heady and deep ideas about human experience.  Yet I think that, in examining nearly every game, whether it's Pac-man, Need for Speed, or The Elder Scrolls, we don't play just because of some core "fun factor"; if anything, fun comes out of how game mechanics relate to ideas that are relevant to us at a base level, whether we are made to think about them or not.

As a parting experiment, I'd like to direct readers to the game Gravitation.  Created by Jason Rohrer, it's a very compact game that will take only a few moments of anyone's time.  I'm not going to examine it here in detail, but suffice is to say, I think that playing it will reveal much about why games are appealing, but also where they can fall short.

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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Mirror's Edge, and balancing subversion with substance

Truth be told, this one's been on the backburner for a little while, mostly because of the fact that while I've wanted to talk about Mirror's Edge, I've had trouble figuring out how to do so without my discussion sounding like a game review.  I've made mention of it earlier as a game whose sales Electronic Arts found disappointing, and I think that the reason for that is, essentially, a conflict between gameplay and aesthetics. Beyond this, however, Mirror's Edge is a delightfully confused game which attempts to be something bold and refreshing; while it is definitely an important game, it never ends up feeling as important as it thinks it is.

Even when looking at the game on a surface level, Mirror's Edge is interesting because of the climate that it was released during.  The year 2008 was filled to the brim with grey and brown shooters, and rather than go along with the common theme of "manly American guys running around shooting aliens/Arabs/Nazis in the head", it featured a female protagonist, Faith, who, at least according to the game's plot, only used violence as a last resort.  In addition, it featured a serene, ambient electronic soundtrack, as well as an art design focusing heavily on stylised, geometric shapes and simple, recognisable colours and patterns.  To say it was the odd one out would be a bit of an understatement; even two years later, which is when I actually managed played the game, it still stands out.

Faith is not your typical game protagonist, but why is that the case?

Digging a little deeper, it becomes clear that Mirror's Edge is not the traditional first-person game.  As said, you play as Faith, who is a runner, a rooftop-hopping carrier pigeon of sorts.  The runners are a loose collective of individuals who defy the authoritarian order of the city's oppressive government, which is ostensibly Orwellian - one gets the sense that the streets stay so clean only because there's nobody around to muck them up.  Faith isn't remarkable so much for what she does as for what she is: female, not conventionally attractive, capable, and not white.  Her goal in the game isn't to kill legions of enemy soldiers, but rather to uncover a murder mystery that has seen her sister been wrongly accused of a crime she didn't commit.  This isn't anything particularly original for other forms of media, but for gaming, it represents a refreshing promise beyond mere violence, something which generally isn't seen inside of the action genre.

The problem I have with Mirror's Edge, beyond game design issues that make for some extremely frustrating gameplay, is that it always feels half-baked.  In an industry littered with games which make attempts to offer some sort of "deeper meaning" or symbolism, often as a pithy attempt to justify their excess, it's important that we get titles that try to raise the bar, even if just a little.  Unfortunately, Mirror's Edge, for all its aesthetic choices, and its allusions to more accomplished works, doesn't really get too far beyond any of the basic ideas seen in every other games.  It's not that the game is bankrupt of intrigue, mind you - rather, it feels as if the designers of the game simply got complacent, figuring that mere subversion of genre expectations would be enough to deliver something with artistic merit.

This problem has two main aspects.  The first is Faith, who I've mentioned above.  Faith is effectively the character she is not because of the things she does, or says, but because of her race and gender.  This isn't, of course, to undermine the importance of those fundamentals in a person's life, but one doesn't get the sense that her character was developed too far beyond these facets.  It's as if the creators of the game were looking for a hook, an angle, that they could use to be different, and decided to pick the two easiest things they could find.  There's nothing wrong with having a character of a particular race and gender, and positive portrayals are absolutely appreciated, but Faith, beyond being the protagonist, also seems like she could have been included simply because she was a visible minority.  It doesn't help that there's no real character arc for Faith - sure, there are dramatic moments in the story, but there's never an occasion where I felt like she had changed and I had changed along with her, nor did I get any unique insights into her life in a way that was distinct from any other characters in the game, except that she was a parkour expert.  Qualities like gender and race are pushed to the fore with the box art, and then promptly forgotten as soon as the game starts.

 Wait, colour?!  What?  This game must be intellectually stimulating.

The second issue revolves around the game's theme of oppressive government, corporation, and the fall of individual power to that of overbearing social and governmental forces.  This is important stuff to have in a game, no doubt, and ripe for discussion, but the problem is that we've seen it played a thousand times before, in plenty of other forms of media.  Games, from Half-Life 2 to Deus Ex, have already explored these topics to death, and in more detail than Mirror's Edge even hopes to.  Little snippets of advertisements and news stories littered around the world do a good job of fleshing things out, but it seems like the game's creators decided it was enough to simply include those themes without ever giving them any weight or substance.  There's no discourse here, only allusion, and when you have nothing to contribute to a discourse, your value is limited.

Again, that's not to say Mirror's Edge gets it all wrong.  For all I've accused the designers of not discussing gender and race enough, I'm pleased with the way Faith comes across.  She's capable, intelligent, and determined, but at the same time the designers didn't get so lazy as to effectively render Faith a man with boobs.  Rather, she has an emotional side that comes through as genuine and important to her personality, and, refreshingly, these emotions aren't shown to be burdensome, but actually the driving force for the things she does.  The problem of gender in games can't be solved with mere inclusion, and I'm happy to see the designers of Mirror's Edge realised that Faith didn't need to be a stock stereotype to be compelling.  But they don't go far enough, unfortunately, and Faith never seems different enough from the standard game character, despite her exotic appearance.  She has her history, her motivations, et cetera, but there's no emotional hurdle she has to overcome, no internal conflict she has to resolve; everything about her is dry and predictable, even if it is positive.

That's ultimately the problem with Mirror's Edge - it thinks it's being edgy and different by its mere inclusion of difference, and never, ever tries to find a way to capitalise on it to be provocative or engaging.  I'm glad that Mirror's Edge was made.  I think it's an effective argument for games as more than murder simulators.  For games as art, however, it falls short of even the basic standards of most other forms of media, and even other games.  Going against the grain is all well and good, but only of it is ludologically consistent with your game.  "Pretentious" is the word I'd use to sum up Mirror's Edge, and the game carries all things good and bad that come with that word.

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Friday, July 2, 2010

Let's talk economics!

We all know that games are an expensive business.  I've already posted at length about how hobbyist development has largely dried up as an effective model for generating money, and has mostly been replaced with big-budget products which rely on mass appeal in order to sell.  As a result, the prices of games have climbed through the roof while gamers have generally expected things to say the same.

The ongoing Steam summer sale has caused me to think a little bit about what sorts of business models are effective for gaming.  The thing that initially hit me about it is just how cheap these games are going for.  When I can buy Gothic 2 and Gothic 3, together, for $2, and many other games for similarly low prices, well, that's practically giving them away.  In fact, it's hard to believe that anyone's making any money from this sort of practice.  The obvious refutation, of course, is that they wouldn't do it if it wasn't worthwhile, and, slightly less obviously, that most of the games that are on sale for little money are older, and thus likely aren't generating much revenue in the first place; put simply, a 75% drop in price can exponentially increase sales.  So why is it that these sorts of sales are limited to Steam?

Ah, summer, the longest Christmas holiday of the year.

Part of it is, of course, that Steam is digital distribution, and has no physical cost to getting the games to customers beyond the game content servers (which Valve provides, and are likely paid for by the 15% or whatever Valve takes from each sale).  In fact, players actually pick up the slack as part of their own Internet bill, since in an abstract way, they are paying for the shipping.  The only downside to this method for the publishers of games is that they might run out of CD keys, which has happened in the case of older games that have gone on sale, most notably with Prey, but also with other games like Fuel and FlatOut: Ultimate Carnage.  In the case of something like Prey, it may be impossible to get new CD keys because the original developer or key generation software no longer exists, but this can be easily avoided with a little forethought and, as we move towards an increasingly online distribution model, publishers will no longer have to think about the costs of supply vs. demand.

Another aspect, undoubtedly, is that the huge sales Valve holds inspire competition or at least a "keep up with the Joneses" reaction.  If EA, Ubisoft and THQ all have games on sale, well, does Take-Two want to look like the odd one out?  No, of course not!  This becomes even more apparent when one notices that prices are even adjusted during the sale periods themselves, some due to errors but some also likely due to the fact that publishers don't want to charge "too little" or "too much" in relation to their competitors.  Giant sales don't happen in retail stores unless it's time for clearance, which in the case of games is pretty much never, so this isn't a concern under traditional business models.  Can you imagine if Best Buy suddenly said "all games 66% off, two weeks only"?  It could happen, but they'd be sold out of everything in a day and ultimately wouldn't be worth the money lost by charging so little

However, what's to stop the industry from adopting lower prices as the standard?  For years we have been bombarded with the argument that higher production costs mean higher prices and more failures at retail, but do we really need to solve this problem by charging increasing amounts of money?  Some gamers will bite, sure.  If your game is big enough, enough people will be willing to pay whatever you charge for it that it won't matter that you've lost a few sales.  However, it's unreasonable expect every game to be the next Modern Warfare 2, even if publishers do exactly this.  Why do games that don't have the same demand, the same legions of loyal fanboys, the same mainstream appeal, need to have the same price?

According to several polls I've seen recently, the biggest problem gamers have is, wait for it, affording all the games that are coming out.  The games industry is getting so large that there is scarely a drought anymore, and publishers have gotten better at spacing their releases strategically to take advantage of holiday seasons and periods in between where the market is less competitive.  This means that there is a constant stream of games hitting shelves, and gamers, especially during a recession, don't have the money to keep up with all of them.  It's easy to excuse this by saying "they don't have to buy them", but when your entire business model revolves around selling millions of copies at high retail prices, by way of creating as much demand for those games as possible, well, you have to expect that it's going to lead to market saturation and even cannibalisation.

In addition to being more affordable for gamers, however, publishers also stand to sell more copies.  Gamers have relatively fixed budgets, and often do whatever they can to save money, unless a game is one of those rare "must-have" titles.  Web sites like CheapAssGamer demonstrate that gamers are mindful of their money and what they spend it on.  The logical question that extends from this is, why sell one game at $60 when you can sell two games at $40 each?  If gamers are conscious of their budgets, and publishers are going to keep churning out games, it makes sense to charge less for them to ultimately sell more copies.  This means that avid gamers will buy more games that they want, and it'll even reign in gamers who wouldn't normally buy something for brand-new prices.

This leads to the third advantage cheap games have: they cut like a hot knife into the used games market.  EA's well-known Project Ten Dollar and other anti-used games initiatives have sparked a lot of controversy, and the reason for this is because value-minded gamers want to maximise the games they are able to play.  Campaigns like forced online activations and withholding content to those who buy new copies are perceived as hostile, and while nobody yet has the numbers of such efforts except for the publishers themselves, my assumption is that they aren't so effective as to be worthwhile, especially considering the amount of effort (and money) it takes marketing to educate customers about the advantages of new games.  Even then, it's pretentious to assume gamers care that much about a couple of in-game weapons, and if you push too hard (cut off half the game from used players for example), gamers will push back.  The only reason people buy used games is because of the lower price, and by making new games cheaper, used games become far less profitable for retailers like GameStop to sell.  If you can get a used copy for $10 less, that's a big deal, but what about $2 less?  When your game is retailing for $30 brand new, a dollar or two isn't nearly as enticing a savings.

The first refutation of this that comes to mind is simply "it won't work".  I'm not an economist, and I certainly don't have raw facts and figures to back up my claims in the same way a games publisher like EA might.  For all I know, I'm totally wrong, and it really isn't profitable to charge less money for games.  To this, I'd submit that nobody's really tried it outside of certain budget games and downloadable titles, and you'll never know until you release Medal of Honor for half the price of Call of Duty (though as I mentioned above, these names might be so popular that it doesn't matter what you charge for them).

 Dead Space 2 is now one of my more anticipated games,
and only because I was able to get the original for such a great price. 

Slightly more convincing is the argument that projects cost too much money to take the risk on charging less.  When you're pouring millions and millions into getting your hot new game on the shelves, selling double the copies at half the regular price might not be worthwhile, especially if it's safer to stick with what people are used to.  To this I'd respond that not all games need to be the same price.  EA was injured a couple of years ago when its new games Dead Space and Mirror's Edge performed far below expectations.  I didn't buy them at $60 in part because I wasn't sure about taking the risk on a new franchise, and I'm sure more mainstream gamers are even more reluctant than I am; however, I did buy them on sale recently for about $15 total, and they were worth every penny I paid.  By selling cheap, EA has made me much more likely to buy follow-up games, and at a higher price to boot.

The major upside beyond the economics, however, is that this encourages creativity in the industry.  Let's face it, people like new games with new ideas, but they aren't willing to part with their money.  Gamers constantly complain about a lack of "innovation" even as they shell out their money for sequel after sequel of tired game franchises.  If there is one way to encourage gamers to accept new things, it's by charging them less money.  In cases where gamers might feel ripped off by a bad purchase, they won't feel the sting nearly as much for $30 as they will for $60.  New things are a risk, both to publishers and gamers, but gamers are far less concerned about that risk when they aren't worried about wasting their money.

Anyone who reads this blog knows that I'm the type to be concerned about where the industry is headed.  I love games and want to see them continue to flourish.  A healthy industry is one that is constantly coming up with new ideas to sell to customers.  The videogame crash of the 1980s showed that even a hugely successful entertainment industry is prone to failure, and I don't think games are beyond the same thing happening again, nor are they beyond the same sort of entropy that has affected the print industry since the appearance of television.  If we are going to continue creating games that challenge us as gamers, as intellectuals, and as socially-conscious people, then we also need a business model that can sustain itself for years to come.  Cheaper games isn't a permanent solution, but it's a stepping-stone that will lead to better things, and may well give us better games in the meantime.

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