I came across this news story on NextGen
today, which is actually a summary of this news story from develop magazine
. I’ve never heard of Jonathan Blow or his thoughts on game design, so in an effort to educate myself I went to his site
where I found a video of a lecture
(aren’t these things called talks?) he gave at a conference in Australia. Most of the lecture was on prototyping which was actually pretty interesting; however, my interest was in his controversial thoughts on design and how they mesh with various ideas on design I’ve been trying to formulate (the first of which being atmosphere, which I wrote about a while back).
One of the first topics touched on in the news articles and the lecture video is the idea that game developers are concerned more with how to get people to play their games and not why people want to play their games.
“All we care about is whether a lot of people want to play our game. We don’t care why they want to play, and we don’t show care for their quality of life,” he said.
From what I’ve read from developers in the amature, independendent, and non-independent crowds, this analysis seems incorrect or at best a half-truth. From what I can tell, most developers strive to make a game that they themselves enjoy playing and then try to expose and attract others to play their game. So, yes, developers do want a lot of people to play their games, but it’s not necessarily all that’s cared about. I can’t disagree with the argument that most developers don’t care why gamers want to play, but it’s likely that developers view gamers as others with their mindset and the elements that attract them to the game will inherently be what attracts gamers. (I’ll gloss over the quality of life issue, as he elaborates on what he means further on).
Next is something he mentions in passing in the video lecture, where he talks about games being taken seriously as art,
Art comes from the motivation, from the strong why…
The “are games art?” question always pops up every now and then. I’m not going to attempt to answer the question, but I do question the idea that art is derived (or at least derived solely) from the motivation behind the work. From my perspective, the viewer, reader, player, etc. is important as well and so is their understanding of the work and how it speaks to them. I reject the idea that someone is artistic or a work has artistic value based on the motivation of the person behind it; this just seems like an egotistical metric of attributing value.
In both the lecture and news articles, his views on scheduled rewards is noted,
In-game ‘scheduled rewards’ were playing a major part in this [not caring why players want to play or about their quality of life] he said, saying that collectibles, achievements, story progress and unlockables were poor substitute for genuine enjoyment in modern video games.
“MMOs have empty gameplay but keep players hooked with constant fake rewards,” he offered as an example. “Would players still play our games if we removed these scheduled rewards?”
His analysis is that scheduled rewards should be replaced with genuine, enjoyable, core gameplay. I can’t say I have a strong opinion of scheduled rewards one way or the other, however, I do believe if a game is able to capture the player in a compelling atmosphere, gamers would still play even with a lack of rewards. I’m not a fan of eliminating scheduled rewards in favor of focusing on a singular aspect of (enjoyable) gameplay. Most games have multiple aspects of gameplay which function together in synergy. If there is only a singular aspect of gameplay, you seem to need the scheduled rewards to keep players interested for any substantial amount of time. The game inherently becomes boring. Flow
is a good example. I played the flash version and although it was cool for a while, I really didn’t feel compelled to play after about a half-an-hour. Like others (from what I read on blogs and message boards), the only reason that compelled me to play even this long, was that I was eager to see my creature evolve (in essence, a scheduled reward), and my tolerance seemed far below average (from my perspective the game seemed to be essentially a pretty version of Snake
). Also, in Jonathan Blow’s game, Braid, you collect puzzle pieces, again, this essentially boils down to a scheduled reward – it’s your reward for manipulating the spatial and temporal elements of your world.
Said Blow: “In pursuing ever more players the games industry exploits them in an unethical way. We don’t see it as unethical, though, because we refuse to stop and think about what we are doing
“We don’t have a sense to be ashamed.”
He pointed out how the tobacco industry and McDonalds have faced such criticisms from commentators and said that World of Warcraft’s method of teaching players about routine was similar and “akin to advertising”.
This seems a bit out there. World of Warcraft’s developers want players to keep playing and to attract new players, so they institute routines by which scheduled rewards are granted. Viewing this as unethical implies that the players are ignorant of their own desires and the developer is solely focused on the acquisition of profit, neither of which I believe are true. At what point does the personal responsibility of the player come into focus? The same question goes to the comparisons with McDonalds, in large quantities fast food is bad for you, but do we completely ignore the responsibility of the individual to control their dietary intake? (I won’t get into the tobacco industry b/c that’s distinct here, as tobacco yields a physical addiction).
This was important as the games industry grows he said, predicting that “games are going to be huge” and in time grow to shape culture.
From my perspective, games already have the potential to shape culture, they simply don’t have the accessibility (expensive consoles, complex PC requirements, complicated controls, etc.) or social acceptability (like animation, games are seen as primarily for kids – although I think this may be rapidly changing) as other mediums. Jonathan Blow’s argument seems to be that games must first be changed to fit within a certain social norm or cultural context in order to be seen by the mainstream as a means to shape culture.
All games teach, and if games are going to be a foundation of human thought the question we have to ask is what they will teach the audience.
Technically, we learn from everything (or we can potentially learn from everything), so in essence everything teaches. I’m lost as to what the criteria is for consideration into the foundation of human thought. As for games, should the primary focus be to teach or to entertain? There’s a lot of value in both, but games have captivated people b/c they’re fun, they have entertainment value, forgoing that in an attempt to create something that primarily focuses on teaching, your likely abandoning what makes a game a game.