What Is a Game? More Than We Usually Think It Can Be
“I find this terribly hilarious – you talked about game companies… who are going to create the next generation of new ideas, they’re all about fun etc. And they’re working on a Puzzles and Dragons rip-off, except they’re going to change one of the colors to blue. I mean, wait a minute. Are you in this because you want to create something or does it look like the easiest way to make money is to take one of the top-ten games and tweak it?
“One of the reasons we’re seeing a lot of stuff that looks alike and plays alike is because that’s how a lot of stuff gets born. It gets funded that way,… I think we’re going to start seeing a lot more differentiation as people get bored of seeing the same apps in the top 200. They’re going to come at it and realize that if you don’t make a fundamentally different product then it’s very difficult to replace something that’s up there with your own original design.”
Those words come from recently retired/ousted EA CEO John Riccitiello, speaking with GamesIndustry, which is possibly amusing if you’re one of those people who helped earn EA that “worst company in history” title.
And, yes, he’s talking about mobile games there, but the sentiment applies to the core/home platform space as well, as AAA profits have been trending downward. But how do you truly differentiate your game experience from the ones your rival publishers are building? The first step is to understand that stuff like Tomb Raider 2013 and BioShock Infinite and The Last of Us are examples of how not to do this, because those games are merely riffs on tried-and-true design with unique elements in their presentation. They are not “different.”
Every once in a while a developer will build a game that ends up serving as a design template – think of the impact Grand Theft Auto III had on the industry. That makes sense, as studios seem to either want to make new games that are like games they enjoy, or are pushed to make games that are like games that made money, or both. Subsequently, devs tend to work within said templates, perhaps also throwing in a few of their own twists that aren’t so unique that they cause whatever the project is to transcend its influences.
But think about what games – and video games – actually are. At least according to The Oxford English Dictionary, a game is just “an activity that one engages in for amusement,” and a video game is nothing more than “a game played by electronically manipulating images produced by a computer program on a monitor or other display.” Those parameters are infinitely more broad than just “physically harm people and animals, solve puzzles, jump on things and play sports.” Remember that forever.
Riccitiello said developers will have to make “a fundamentally different product” in order to have a real shot at breaking out in the current marketplace, and considering his EA tenure involved a lot of Call of Duty-chasing without ever really getting close, he might be someone to listen to on this topic. Speaking of which, look at Call of Duty 4. That game completely turned the FPS genre on its head and ushered in a shooter clusterfuck that is still ongoing; it also turned every new CoD game into billion-dollar earners for Activision. It has had tremendous cultural impact beyond the gaming community, attracting many players who are not regular gamers.
But most games are not billion dollar earners, no matter how successful, and that’s never so true as it is with successful clones of industry-changing titles. If a developer or publisher is seeking to achieve CoD-like success, the formula for pulling such a thing off does not involve emulating Call of Duty (See: the financial results for every non-CoD shooter released since 2007). No, there’s no guarantee a game made out of a unique vision will move 30 million copies, but the likelihood of a game hitting a milestone like that is much better with a legitimately innovative product than if you make, say, a cover-based Tomb Raider that doesn’t have puzzles.
BioShock creator Ken Levine has a relevant quote from earlier this year that explains how mimicry, and the insistence on using violence as a primary mechanic, is more than just the product of corporate money-grubbers.
“I like challenge. I like having a skill component of it. And so what is that skill component? It is weird in some ways that all of a sudden you bust out a gun and start shooting…. It’s a limitation of the medium. I can sit down and write a scene about just about anything. It’s really tough to make a game about any particular topic.”
Correction, Ken: it’s a perceived limitation of the medium. A game can be pretty much anything. It does not have to test your reflexes, and it can be more than a series of esoteric riddles.
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So how do we do this?
I believe one possible starting point in trying to make something unique is to abandon gaming’s traditional pass/fail structure. There is nothing wrong with “winning” being the goal in a story game, but it certainly does not need to be the only outcome. Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 tried this out with spectacular results. Yes, being shot to death in a regular mission prompted a reload at the last checkpoint, but the game allowed you to progress without completing your mission objectives for any number of reasons. That led to a plot that played out in unpredictable ways.
Implementing that kind of nuance into an existing game archetype worked really well, and yet such a fundamental difference between Black Ops 2 and its Call of Duty predecessors really didn’t make big waves, because it was still a Call of Duty game and most people aren’t ever going to see past the brand, and it’s never cool to applaud Goliath for doing something awesome. That said, the way the narrative was structured and branched in Black Ops 2 doesn’t have a lot of precedents, and it’s important to appreciate that.
So why not take chances on something we haven’t heard of before? With that thought in mind, here are some free game ideas.
Looking back on Mass Effect 3, that game feels pretty weird. You are the Greatest Soldier Who Ever Lived, but you’re also a diplomat negotiating a great alliance of races to save the galaxy. That’s pretty awesome, but it’s yet another video game power fantasy in which you can do everything your own damn self, thank me very much. Total control is fine in moderation, but we don’t need it in every game.
What I propose is a true diplomacy simulator. Imagine a version of Mass Effect 3 in which you do not fight in combat, and getting what you want politically is not a foregone conclusion. Having such a game be story driven and highly curated would guarantee drama. Let it play out like a movie in which you choose what the main character says. A video game version of, say, Thirteen Days (which is about JFK and his cabinet trying to figure out what to do about the Cuban Missile Crisis) could be quite compelling.
Of course battles will have to take place. The catch is that you do not participate in them in any way. You don’t make a plan, you don’t advise on the fly or participate in strategizing, and you never pick up a gun. All of that is on the soldiers, and an element of statistics dictated by how the overall scenario is going, the soldiers and squads involved, etc. along with an element of chance will determine how the fight goes, kind of like if you’re playing Football Manager and couldn’t make substitutions.
How would a game like this play? Telltale’s The Walking Dead is a good place to start, because we’re talking here about a game driven almost entirely by dialogue, and also because that’s a rare example of a game operating under the pretense that every comment you makes matters. Yes, I know most or all instances of “Clementine will remember that” didn’t end up amount to anything, but that’s not how our game will play out. There will be actual consequences.
A game about relationships — and being a spy
Have you ever seen the Robert De Niro-directed film The Good Shepherd? That was nominally about Matt Damon being a spy in the CIA in the early days of the agency, but the real drama was in how Damon’s character handled his home life. He spent years abroad chasing after Nazi, and later Soviet spies, and when he was at home he still devoted most of his time to fighting the Cold War. This led to totally legit marriage strain (and quite a lot of cheating).
That in itself is an excellent idea for a game. Forget about playing the typical shooty shooty video game kind of spy who’s equal parts James Bond and Solid Snake. Instead, you’ll be the real world kind of spook, a paper pusher analyzing facts and rumors, not cool gadgets, who must deal with the emotional strain brought on by balancing dedication to dangerous secret things with the demands of your familial and private life.
Gameplay would be a lot of conversation along with some non- or minimally violent intelligence-gathering activities thrown in. Emotional stress (a system!) will impact in some way how well you perform and also your attitude when you’re at home. What that means, for example, is that your current circumstances will dictate which dialogue options you would have when you talk with your spouse, not unlike how a negative mental state will prevent you from choosing some of the more upbeat options in Depression Quest, and if you’re particularly messed up you will have a good chance of sucking at your job.
This is not an ultimatum
The point of all this is not to say that nobody should make games of a type that already exists and is popular. My life would be a little less bright if, say, Rise of the Triad 2013 hadn’t been made. But video games can be more than we think they are. History demonstrates that is the pioneers in game development, not the copycats, who usually make the Next Big Things. Thus, there are real reasons for the people with the money to put some of it into taking risks.
We saw how well not taking risks worked out for Yoichi Wada. Video gaming would be better served if observers like Riccitiello kept that in mind when trying to diagnose their industry’s woes.