Games Need Depth: An Ongoing Research
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Games with depth. This game lacks depth. Actually playing this game feels a waste of time.
I really don't want my indie game to lack depth. Nor I want to generate post coital tristesse: do you?
So when I had the very original idea of making a managerial game on football (soccer), I started both working on a prototype for the gameplay and on the background narrative - a way to gain depth. Because, what can be more absurd than beginning the monumental task of developing a game without anything to say with it?
Wait, what is game depth?
Depth: found somewhere defined as "The amount of knowledge, intelligence, wisdom, insight, feeling... evident either in some product of the mind, as a learned paper, argument, work of art, etc.". Ok, cool.
And what is "game depth"? Nobody actually knows, and this is why this term is so useful. Seems some game designers identify it with combinatorial complexity of the game mechanics. Let's say that here that for me whatever it means, surely is not that. Not combinatorial complexity.
I propose depth to be articulated along several dimensions, each of which determines an interpretation. You can have depth in game feel, depth in animations, illustrations, even mechanics, and... in your story. Where by story for games as should be obvious by now I do not mean a linearly explicitly narrated story through written words in sequence. I mean the emergent story.
Every indie game needs depth along some dimension(s)
"By March 1998, we had 300 pages of documentation and thought we knew everything we’d needed to know to make a game. Were we ever wrong. In the time between March 1998 and our Alpha 1 deadline of April 1999, that 300-page document mushroomed into more than 500 pages, much of it radically different from what we thought of and wrote initially."
Warren Spector, Deus Ex Post Mortem, From https://ia601003.us.archive.org/29/items/GDM_November_2000/GDM_November_2000.pdf" target="_blank">GDM November 2000.
Not having depth of contents can be as bad for your game as shallow mechanics, illustration or audio: but as long as it's a conscious choice, it may be ok - as long as it's not the silly "games don't need stories". For indie productions, not having depth along the narrative dimension could be a lost chance, because this seems to me way more feasible than say creating a good quality VR experience (assuming this will ever exist :D).
In A Game Design Vocabulary the authors talk about the ".. new generation of game creators for whom video games interface fully with all the complex machinery of contemporary culture." You belong to this generation; modern audiences are sophisticated - your game will need depth along several dimensions and one possibility is narrative.
Depth in your game narrative
You need depth on the story, the meaning, the characters, generally, narrative depth. It's probably often less than 1% of the effort needed to build the game, but it is an essential 1%.
And for depth along the narrative you just need... an intellectual. These are available as demand is way lower than the offer, so often at a discount. An intellectual can write, can research a theme, can come with different underlying models of the reference universe (real of fictitious).
So narrative depth can be particularly accessible depending on your team composition: is there an intellectual in the group? In the overall development effort, writing the narrative depending on the game genre can span from nice to have to essential; and with the progressive refinement of the market, it is getting more and more important.
But who is an intellectual?
And I seriously believe that he has talked nonsense so much that he has half bewildered his own mind and doesn't know the difference between sanity and insanity.
G. K. Chesterton, Napoleon of Notting Hill.
I am unable to give a definition, say as "someone who has a degree or PHD in humanities". The problem with academics in my experience is frequent lack of a humble attitude, and in considering how hard and delicate is approaching the gaming media with new ideas, not being humble may lead to disasters. Let's say you need a humble intellectual - and good luck :-) Yes, I didn't give you a definition.
Consider also that AAA producers with their structural censorship (which may be any time repainted as political correctness) and risk aversion may be at a disadvantage with respect to your intello nerd proposals.
I also believe that that the worse thing you can do is cheat: have a story in game, but do not curate its narrative and background depth and consistency. Say by improvising yourself as writer. Or say by copying someone else story. Consider that anyone who did learn to write is deeply ashamed of his first attempts (even Stephen King - see his On Writing), so think before trying.
Depth in a story about football???
So with the above principles in mind I started studying the world of football about two years ago, and haven't stopped since. And by world of football I mean not just teams and players, but also politics, origins, society, supporters, economics, everything that keeps the championships running.
This for a game on football currently called Football Voodoom that should chant the poetry and drama of the beautiful game. That makes you, the old weary coach, give the references, the rhythm that makes your broken squad a team and gives a destiny to the round sphere.
Generating a story as you play requires a complete, rich world to be hinted at. That motivates my research on the world of football, its folly and the passion that survives corporate choking.
Sources of depth
A gameography of games with depth would end up being a borgesian map identical to the landscape of games that people play. Some games inspire(d) me for Football Voodoom, for personal, obscure and irrational reasons: Sunless Sea, 80 Days, Motorsport Manager, BioShock Infinite, and countably more. Everyone has her own map of games where depth is felt.
Here is a Trello board where I collected a (small subset of) my initial references.
Modus Operandi: Hunting for Gems and Darkness
Here are some of the books I read:
Eduardo Galeano, Soccer in Sun and Shadow.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, David Lagercrantz, Ruth Urbom, I Am Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Gabriel Kuhn, Soccer vs. the State: Tackling Football and Radical Politics.
Walter Otton, Stuck On You - a year in the life of a Chelsea supporter.
Massimo Lucchesi, Attacking Soccer: A Tactical Analysis.
Carlo Pizzigoni and Federico Buffa, Storie Mondiali: Un secolo di calcio in 10 avventure.
Various authors, Soccer and Philosophy: Beautiful Thoughts on the Beautiful Game.
Martí Perarnau, Pep Confidential: Inside Pep Guardiola's First Season at Bayern Munich.
Chris Roberts, Football Voodoo : Magic, superstition and religion in the beautiful game.
Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski, Soccernomics.
Gabriel Kuhn, Playing As If the World Mattered: An Illustrated History of Activism in Sports.
Mark Perryman, Hooligan Wars: Causes and Effects of Football Violence.
Roy Keane, The Second Half.
These are the books, but on top of these, many YouTube videos and blog posts. Even entire movies, like the wonderful Italo-Argentinian production Il Mundial dimenticato, fake documentary on the 1942 lost world cup - another good and inspiring example of a playful construction that is made with love and art i.e. depth :-)
Bye and references
This research is ongoing - news on football and game on my Twitter stream. A first draft teaser for the game (which I see lacks depth on the narrative part :D) is here. I thank Daniele Giardini @demigiant for so many discussions on game design and depth that inspire this research.
Some references given as misleading examples :D
What is Depth in Games?
Anna Anthropy and Naomi Clark, A Game Design Vocabulary: Exploring the Foundational Principles Behind Good Game Design.
Depth vs Complexity - Why More Features Don't Make a Better Game - Extra Credits
Evaluating Game Mechanics For Depth