Lately there have been some design debates going on at Gamasutra, and it's been really interesting. This hasn't been intentional, in the sense that as the features director, I didn't set out to liven up the design section of on the site by specifically commissioning deep or controversial pieces; on the contrary, the conversation naturally grew out of the articles we've been publishing, and in particular the Gamasutra comments section, where a lot of things are being hashed out.
Today's feature by Ara Shirinian grew out of his comments on a December piece on player death by Dan Andrei Carp. The idea behind the piece was that removing death from games could streamline the player experience. Carp looked at how a handful of games, such as Braid and Borderlands, had handled death.
Ara's comment takes the premise of the entire article to task. "Is your premise that breaking the continuity of experience when the player makes a mistake is an inherently undesirable (or even jarring) outcome? If so, I disagree with this premise in general," he wrote, before going on to share his own ideas.
I read his comment and then emailed him immediately, saying that I thought he could take his thoughts and run with them as a feature. It may have taken almost eight months to get there (he's busy working on Epic Mickey for 3DS, after all) but he did.
I think what's interesting here -- in terms of how we got where we are -- is to consider how the catalyst doesn’t exactly reflect the result by the time we get there. Ara's final piece isn't about player death, but more about the concept of repetition vs. novelty in games, and how THAT affects players -- but if you know what we started with, you can understand how we got where we are today.
Of course, there have been even bigger debates going on in our features section when it comes to design articles, and those have really snowballed. Keith Burgun made waves with his feature What Makes a Game?, which was published this past March. That feature generated 127 comments, and a lot of interesting debate -- in no small part because Keith saw some video games as not "games" at all.
This naturally grew into a second feature where he got even more specific about how he wants to see the conversation around games occur. Keith is definitely a formalist, and a trained musician -- he wants a way of looking at games that is like music theory, with rules that can be applied so design can move forward. Of course, a lot of people don't necessarily see the value in being so strict -- including Anna Anthropy, who Keith spoke to in person about this issue and quotes in his piece. Debate once more got heated.
This caused Neils Clark to, I think, get frustrated, and strike back with a piece that argues the best way to define games is to make them, not make manifestos. And he also pointed out that maybe some of the people arguing should do some reading of what’s already been written before they jump into the fray, too.
Now here's where it gets really interesting, I think, and shows the vibrancy of the debates that happen. Speaking of “what’s already been written”, Raph Koster wrote a blog post (which we reprinted with his permission) which discusses Keith's comments on Neils' feature. The three minds' ideas at this point are swirling around each other; each adds to the debate about the best way to move forward -- Keith proposing the creation of a new system for game design, Neils arguing against the terms of the debate, and Raph defining the culture that gives rise to it.
What excites me here is that these articles are all growing organically out of the thoughts and conversations of the audience, and they feed back into each other, they evolve, and people arrive at new perspectives and new understandings of the medium and how it fundamentally works.
Gamasutra can serve many purposes for its readers, but if one of them is that it is a forum to hash out the ways in which the medium can grow and engage in debate both in comments and articles, then we’re getting somewhere.