Sunday, February 3, 2008

"Wouldn't it be cool if..."

That phrase drives me absolutely batshit crazy. Why? Isn't that what you think, when you're trying to come up with an interesting idea? Wouldn't it be cool if you could build your own city? Wouldn't it be cool if you had a sword made of light? Wouldn't it be cool if you could fly, or run super-fast, or be invisible?


So, I guess the phrase itself doesn't drive me nuts. What drives me absolutely crazy is how many people I've known that seemed to think that a game designer's job starts and stops with that phrase. Some of those people are themselves game designers, but the vast majority are executives and managers who don't really understand what it is a game designer brings to the table.

Designing a game isn't terribly different than the process of cooking, so let's try that analogy. The designer is basically a chef - they need to figure out what they want to make, and in general, how ot make it. Now, you can run a perfectly passable eating establishment without a chef - you can have line cooks who work from a plan, or you can have an untrained person come up with a general menu, and noodle around until they get something that's tasty. But the chef will make sure the ingredients are use to their fullest.

They'll be used in dishes that are designed to accentuate their flavor. They'll be used at the right time of year. Leftovers will be reused in ways that extend the ingredients' value. They'll adapt to the changing palates of their clientele. While it's *possible* to run an eating establishment without a chef, doing so means you miss out on a tremendous amount of efficiency, quality, and direction.

The designer's job is relatively similar. A good designer has a deep understanding of the field - they know the full spectrum of ingredients, as it were, and how to use them. They're always on the lookout for something new, and how those things can be used in interesting ways. They understand the conventions of their medium, and are constantly looking for new ways to push the boundaries. Sometimes, they'll even invent something completely new and different.

It's not simply, "Wouldn't it be cool if..." The thing is, while people push the notion that games are art, they're not just art. The're also science. Basic psychology plays a huge role in whether a game is successful or not. Games need to be subtle in how they direct the player. They need to use the conventions of the genre appropriately, and they need to have a keen awareness of difficulty, frustration, and how to balance those aspects with rewards that entice the player to keep playing.

Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adria are artists - but they're also scientists. They experiment and analyze their food to discover new and interesting ways to manipulate it. The basic mechanics of food are science. Blumenthal says you should cook asparagus in oil, not water, because some of asparagus' critical flavor compounds are water-soluble. When you cook asparagus in oil, you retain those flavors, making the asparagus taste more like itself. This is more than just "art," it's a combination of art with a deep understanding of *why* these things work.

I'm no Heston Blumenthal. While I try to understand why a mechanic should be a certain way, and devise things that bend (and sometimes break) genre conventions, I don't have a genuinely deep understanding of the psychology of how this all makes people feel. But I can apply basic knowledge of art, music theory, interactivity, film, writing, years of game playing, and an understanding of the design process to create something far more interesting than a simple rumination of, "Wouldn't it be cool if..."

Still... it's a semantic niggle. A pet peeve I can't let go of, because it viscerally pisses me off. It's not a bad starting point, but finding something that's superficially cool is barely even scratching the surface. Genuinely good ideas are a hell of a lot more than cool.


hapacheese said...

Man, wouldn't it be cool if you had a game where you could go anywhere and shoot anything and be like all-powerful and the chicks are hot and you can drive anything like a motorcycle or a tractor and even cars can ride up walls and you have this cool dog that's super-intelligent and he's also a cyborg but it turns out he's actually your arch-nemesis in disguise and then when you're not looking he steals your woman and you're all like, "Nooooo!" and he's all like, "Haha! I've got your woman!" and you have to get on a spaceship and go to his moon base where you fight him but he transforms into this giant 3-story monster and you have to summon this dragon that comes out of the sun and he's on fire and shoots lightning and destroys half the moon and kills the bad guy, but now you're all sad because he was your dog and you remember how much fun you had riding cars up walls and even though the moon fragments are flying toward Earth and about to kill everyone, you can't get yourself to save the world because you're all depressed, but suddenly your girlfriend totally gives you this life-saving kiss and you're all like, "Yeah!" and you fly into space and destroy all the moon fragments...

And of course, Chuck Norris would be the main character.

Seppo said...

Best. Game. Ever.