Saturday, August 01, 2009

Advances in Game Design

I got in a short argument with someone on Twitter. He takes the position most people seem to take: that games have advanced technologically but not in terms of gameplay.

This sets my teeth on edge.

First, the two are inextricable to a surprising degree. We couldn't have a 3D shooter without the technology that allows it. We can't have Boomblox without decent physics simulation. We can't have Mario Galaxy without an overpowered level design system to keep developers from going insane. We can't have MMORPGs without the internet.

But more than that, game design has advanced tremendous amounts. It's just easy to ignore. Let's look at a few MAJOR, VERY COMMON titles.

Mario Galaxy. Would you dare to say it's just a platformer? That the design hasn't "advanced much" since Super Mario Brothers?

Prototype. I don't like the game, but the 'minor' technical upgrades allow it to have a smooth and flowing play experience. Is anyone willing to pretend it's not significantly different from Moon Patrol?

Dead Rising, with it's brick-wall learning curve, has an impressive design that not only unfolds a spiral of avatar upgrades but also allows you to use/destroy almost everything in the mall.

Even Gears of War is significant design change from early shooters. You can pretend that it and Halo are not significantly different from their predecessors, but only if you're willing to pretend that a car is not significantly different than a horse-drawn cart.

Shall I start talking about less popular games? I don't think I'll even bother.

I think the reason so many people think that game design hasn't advanced much is because it's possible to trace modern games contiguously into the past. When you can see the change tiny increment by tiny increment, it's easy to not even see the progress.

But the progress is there. We've made tremendous progress.

Not to say we're perfect, or that we're even very good. But don't pretend we're still standing on the sand thinking about going in: we're already wading up to our knees.


Maria V. said...

...and then we have games like civ where some folks are pissed that it evolved beyond DOS. people are silly.

Ellipsis said...

But someone might reasonably say that the progress in technology is outpacing progress in design, and this is evidenced just by the way their prioritized and marketed. A game like Crysis sells itself on technology - there were clearly design decisions involved in making, and even a couple interesting ones, but they obviously are taking a back seat to pushing the number and kind of simultaneous physics events the game can handle.

So the argument you mention is a clear exaggeration, but it point to a real source of discontent. What I would complain about more directly is just the order of priority - it's not that we're not advancing, but that having great design doesn't seem to be very high on the list of priorities for many of the AAA games that are coming out, whereas being "cutting edge" in art and programming are assumed.

Ellipsis said...

This is also largely a question of exposure - the kinds of games that tend to experiment most in gameplay tend not be marketed as heavily, and are considered more niche, because quality of new gameplay is harder to judge than the quality of the game's other aspects. Many players don't actually get the chance to try a very large range of games, which is kind of necessary to see the ideas being tried out.

Craig Perko said...

I certainly agree technology is moving faster, although I have to point out technology has 100x more people advancing it. I'd say that it's keeping us fairly busy just trying to keep up.

But we talk about design as if it needs to leap forward in an instant. Have movies? How about books?

The ONLY thing moving forward like computer technology is computer technology. So saying we're slow because we're not moving as fast as computer technology is rather like calling a mouse slow because it's not a 747.

Ellipsis said...

True, and it's also not really as obvious what "progress" means in the case of design. I mean, Go is a very well designed game - I don't think anyone has had to rebalance in the last couple thousand years, but it's also very simple. So we're not talking about design perfection, how about complexity? By itself we don't seem to be wanting complexity either - or else why doesn't everyone obsessively play Axis-and-Allies all the time, or an even better example I can't think up right now? So are we just looking at "new ideas"? I mean, some of those ideas are really bad, and I hesitate to call them progress.

We have a couple good measures of what it means for game technology to be advancing, but with design it seems (to me at least) harder to measure. If you create a whole new genre that comes into its own, it's safe to say that design has significantly progressed, but do give a couple examples, but by and large you're pointing out difference, which isn't necessarily the same thing as progress.

Craig Perko said...

That's true: different doesn't mean better. But neither does "advancing" mean "improving", as anyone who's waged war on Russia can tell you.

I consider the best games of today to be better designed than the best games of yesterday, with the obvious exception of games that have been polished for a thousand years.

Ellipsis said...

Hmm, I think it's hard for me to evaluate that. At the very least I'd need to be able to tell which games are the best, but it's possible that I disagree with you (though I'm not sure).

It is definitely true that today's games get the benefit of learning from yesterday's mistakes, but when it comes to execution, or the total experience created by design decision, it doesn't seem obvious to me that today's best games are better designed.

Craig Perko said...

Well, I suppose the best way to show me as wrong would be to advance design so far that it makes our advances to date look stagnant. :D

Ellipsis said...

Now that's a method of argument I can get behind!

TickledBlue said...

Speaking as a UX Designer (mainly corporate web, print & mobile - so no games) I'd have to agree with Craig.

Design is an odd combination of known principles and black art. There is also the constant tug of war between design, technological limitations and business/marketing decisions. I often find my designs hamstrung by decisions made above my pay grade. I'm certain its similar for games. Not to mention that games (even simple ones) are hugely complex systems with lots of moving parts. No longer can the lone coder easily pull together a game or move from the demo scene into gamedev.

Have you tried going back and playing any of those games that first got you hooked? Anything for a computer keyboard seems to delight with making sure every key on the keyboard is used for something. The console games seem to focus on ramping up difficulties until only the savants can play to completion. Lots of them expected you to read 50+ page manuals in order to play as the interface is effectively impenetrable otherwise.

Then I look at games like coming out today like Portal, Plants vs Zombies, Wii Sports or Left 4 Dead. Valve has hired a psychoanalyst to help their design (try playing through the game with the design notes turned on and listen to the lengths they go to to get a game just so). To my mind game design is coming on strong - but as with most design you have to wait for what you are designing for to become established, to learn what works and what doesn't. Sure there are basic design principles that can always be employed, but to truly wring the best out of a tech system you need to have spent time with it and gone through some iterations.

Craig Perko said...

Actually, Valve also has an extremely good data mining system that allows them to analyze player actions instant-by-instant. It's invaluable for analyzing and polishing games, speaking from experience on a similar system.

A lot of people don't consider polishing to be design, but I do. In fact, the idea that games CAN be polished is probably the biggest design leap in twenty years. :D

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