Thursday, July 06, 2006

Games with a "message"

These days, there's a lot of games that send a "message". You can't really call them "serious games", because that's been co-opted to mean "training games". Instead, we can call them "bad games".

I'm all for messages. For example, Third World Farmer sends a message. That message is "it's hard being a farmer in Africa".

That's fine, but to show you how unfair it is on these people, they make the game extremely irritating. Every five or six turns, you get to lose everything! Oh joy! Playing the game is pointless, because there is no useful choice you can make.

You can look in the forums - people have posted "best choices". The truth is that no choices matter: nearly any method works as well as any other method. Sure, some will reap more profit, but profit doesn't matter, because it is taken away every few years. Moreover, the better you do, the more of a bastard the game is.

Yeah, maybe it's "realistic". It's certainly "telling a message". But it makes the game "suck horribly". Other than a primitive slot-machine draw, there's absolutely nothing interesting after the first ten minutes of this game.

I totally and in every way disagree with the fundamental assumption these "games with a message" designers are making. That assumption isn't their message. That assumption is that it's okay to make a bad game if it tells their message.

A bad game is a bad game. Whether its intentions are pure and noble or not, there's no gripping power to a bad game.

Sure, today I'm thinking about African farmers. But tomorrow? I'll be thinking about space stations and that new "attaching metal rods directly to bones" technique that promises to radically reinvent the idea of a prosthetic.

Wouldn't a better game design draw players back over days or weeks? How about making it a multiplayer persistant world? After all, Africa is. Imagine thousands of players coming back every week, often every day, to manage their African scenario.

Sure, it's a more expensive game. But each step is relatively inexpensive. Imagine that every turn took twelve hours - so you pressed the button, and have to come back at least twelve hours later to make your next turn. It sends an email reminding you and giving you a readout.

Imagine multiplayer - you can talk with other players about migrating disasters and prepare for them, or beg money off your friends when any of the irritatingly common total disasters hit. Imagine that players could work together to mitigate some of the effects. Is this "diluting the message"? Not as much as letting me forget your game even exists. This is also not an expensive upgrade.

Do you have a message you desperately want to tell?

Tell it in a good game. Don't sacrifice your game design to the message, because I'll forget it exists by tomorrow. A slightly weaker message which makes a long-term impact is better than a stronger message which vanishes into smoke.

I wouldn't mention it if I had seen even one "game with a message" that was worth more than an hour of play. But I've never seen one. They are universally BAD.


Mory said...

What do you think of propaganda games, where the message isn't "This is unbearable." but "This is great!"?

Craig Perko said...

Is the game any good?

Patrick Dugan said...

If games are to a large extend about optimization processes then maybe a game can illustrate, with a carefully balanced opposition of constraints, different factors that, while challenging, can be overcome. The McVideogame succeeded in this regard, and got me playing for a few hours or more. Some things, like rampart deforestation or animal flour use, are actually not in the companies best interests, while GMOs and hormones are pretty much nessecary to be efficient. Then, once you've labored and caught a ride on a feedback loop, you stop and say "hey, I'm raping the world and its fun, now I know how McDonald's executives feel."