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Game Design

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Every few weeks, I find myself in a position where I'm lurking around on GameDev, and my "regular" forums aren't updating. Usually these are the times when I rediscover forums like Software Engineering and Game Design, which never fail to have some really interesting stuff (despite moving very slowly). These discussions usually get me thinking about all manner of things, which can be good or bad, depending on whether or not I'm supposed to be getting something done at the time. Anyways, I finally got off my lazy butt and started making use of the "my favorite forums" feature, so maybe I'll show up there a little more often. (Oh, quit your screaming. I'm not that bad!)

Today (or more correctly, over the last couple of days) I've seen some really great stuff in there. As I remarked in my last entry, I decided to shift my article-writing (stop chuckling!) over towards the issue of delivering fun, compelling, and motivating gameplay in sandbox-style games. Today, the Issue of Choice is depth of game content.

Now I'm not talking about depth in terms of feature richness here. I mean like the good old-fashioned, philosophical, "turn your brain back on" sort of depth. Admittedly my list of gaming exploits isn't nearly as long as some of the more hardcore players out there, but even still, I can't think of too many games that had truly deep content. Even games like Halo and Deus Ex that are routinely praised for having great stories still manage to barely scratch the surface of what is possible; they're fun games, but they're not deep in the sense of really getting one thinking about things larger than the game itself. RPGs seem (in my experience) to come the closest of all genres here, but usually the content is so watered down and teen-oriented that the opportunity to explore truly deep issues is lost. It seems that, as time goes on, games are becoming more and more mainstream-palatable and less willing to venture into truly thought-provoking issues.

There seems to be a backlash against this. It's still a very young and developing backlash; not nearly as potent as the backlash against cookie-cutter shooters and other such tripe that floods the market. (As a side note, I predict that said backlash will reach its peak in the next three years, and we'll see a radical shift away from war shooters and other recycled crap as the market finally gets tired of it on a large scale and quits funneling cash into dumb rehash games. The "games are too shallow" backlash is looking at at least a decade of brewing before I think it will really start to have a noticeable effect.) The "gamer generations" are starting to grow up. Soon we'll start seeing the first generation of retiree gamers who grew up on games, had to give them up for "Real Life" for a while, and are finally getting back the time and spare cash to play. A little while after that, the average gamer age is going to skew wildly towards the older end of the scale, and I think we'll see a lot stronger desire on the part of gamers for stuff with actual content.

I enjoy reading fiction, and watching movies. I tend towards science fiction and philosophically-heavy books, because I like the depth of content. I like independent, "brain movies" and don't really enjoy pure-action summer teen bilge. I like the content. I like being encouraged to think. I like having my opinions and assumptions challenged - nay, not merely challenged, but outright shredded. I like my entertainment to require me to be in Brain On mode.

Which, I think, is why I've started drifting away from playing games. It's not that I genuinely don't have time (at least, not usually; during the X3 crunch was a different matter, but I'm largely free these days). I just don't care. Every now and then, I'll get some nice brainless joy out of BF2 or Halo 2 or whatever. When I have the energy I'll play on the FF series or the X series. But I'm increasingly finding myself just totally bored with games; they can't stimulate my mind the way other media can.

I hadn't really recognized that until today, reading through the Game Design forum. The specific thread is here, and I'd recommend it as a good read for anyone who can identify with my statements above. It seems that there are two reasons that people are drifting out of gaming: time, and interest. Time I can't do much about (except recommend polyphasic sleep schedules) but I think the game industry as a whole needs to answer for the proliferation of utterly banal games. (Yes, I realize this is largely because the dominant publishers are money-grubbing selfish bastards an economic issue.)

I think there's really starting to become an opening, in the gaming market, for games that can really appeal to people like myself who want their minds stimulated. I hear all kinds of raving about how "we have to do more to capture the casual market" but I think that emphasizes time too much and forgets the other opportunities. We're missing a lot of potential out there, and if someone can start really delivering good, thought-provoking, content in games, I think they'd find themselves in extremely high demand among the "older" gaming crowd (read: people who aren't in high school).

I've had a game concept for a while now, which I think I've mentioned here before. It's still not nearly developed enough to share, but the basic idea is that the entire game is built around exploring some very dark and deep issues of morality and reality. Sure, we've got the usual "violence excused because it's For A Good Cause" and "the Good Guy gets haunted by his evil deeds forever" cliches; those are so overdone (in all media) that they've totally lost their message and are just annoying now. I'm looking at something that reframes some core human issues in a way that is so dark, so twisted, and so utterly alien to most people that it forces a lot of introspection among anyone remotely intellectually honest with themselves.

Of course, it'd be great if such a game could start to explore the casual side of gaming more deeply as well. I'm really feeling a void in the market for RPG-style games that don't require ridiculous amounts of time investment; something big that I can get lost in, and immerse myself in, but can still quit in time to make dinner. It's a challenge, to be sure, but the industry is full of a lot of really smart people - I'm sure that we can manage it.

In short, I'm feeling some inspiration here. I want to take this game and really make it into a powerful example of how content can truly be delivered in interactive media. I fully believe that it's possible - even easy to convey some really deep and provocative stuff through games, and I think it's high time the industry started taking advantage of that possibility.

Maybe then I could start being a hardcore gamer again.
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I agree completely with all that you say and found myself nodding mentally in agreement a few times but being that I am at war with you, I must decree this post to be nothing more than the fitful blitherings of a mad man.

Actually one thing. I do not think the curve will skew towards an older age but will broaden or more likely, become more of a Normal Distribution.

P.S. I await the release of these tutorials by example. They seem complicated to make but wonderful to read and see. Hmm.. sounds farmiliar. Good Luck! [grin]

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