At the 2007 Montreal Games Summit, Jonathan Blow, creator of 2006 IGF Design Innovation award winner Braid, addressed the subtle assumptions that underlie the modern game development process.
Many of these assumptions, he asserted, are damaging, founded in the fabric of tradition and consistently reinforced by a lifetime of games. Blow proposed a fresh mindset and the need for a new perspective on game design, with the goal of fostering enhanced creativity and deeper, more meaningful games.
Blow opened by discussing a New York Times op-ed by Daniel Radosh that dealt with Halo 3, finding that the game clove dutifully alongside its formula and added little innovation over previous installments. He highlighted a particular excerpt to introduce his point; from the article:
"If games are to become more than mere entertainment, they will need to use the fundamentals of gameplay ó giving players challenges to work through and choices to make ó in entirely new ways. The formula followed by virtually all games is a steady progression toward victory: you accomplish tasks until you win. Halo 3, for all its flawless polish, does not aspire to anything more. It does not succeed as a work of art because it does not even try."
"I find myself thinking along the same lines," Blow said. "I donít tend to think in terms of film analogies."
He recalled that when he set out to decide to what pursuit he would devote the next three years of his life, he found, "Games that I would have been excited to work on 5 years ago Iím not excited about anymore." So Blow delineated a new goal: "Trying to break away from what I feel is this huge body of assumptions that weíre steeped in."
Viewpoint and Thought Process
Starting at square one, Blow asked, what are games? "Games are trying to achieve a goal, and there are rules governing the actions; there are effects on what you can do in the world and what the worlds can [do] back," he said.
He continued, "Games create a low-stakes subdomain that create a Ďmeaning of lifeí... you know why youíre there, and you know what youíre trying to do." For Blow, this created a shift in his viewpoint. "The meaning of life in this existence is something that I really care about Ė I think Iím not alone in this. This is part of why games are compelling to me."
Before you play a game, he pointed out, you donít know the rules -- the game trains you. You build a mental model of how the game works, and the game communicates back to you. Describing the key Mario behaviors of hitting a question block or climbing into a pipe, Blow pointed out, "These are things that a normal human thatíd never played Super Mario would know."
Therefore, he continued, all games actively teach. This can happen at many different levels -- either specifically, like learning the fact that jumping on the heads of monsters will kill them -- or in broader strategies -- for example, in Mario, you should look before you leap.
What Can Games Provide?
"What can they do for me and why would I play a game?" Blow continued. He noted that while they can provide entertainment, fantasy and escapism, "If this was all that games were Iíd be intensely dissatisfied. Fantasy and escapism isnít enough for me."
What Blow would prefer, he stressed, is meaningful artistic expression: "You express something that you care about communicating and that the audience cares about receiving," he explained, adding that these ideas come from a different angle than other media. For example, there are rhythms and patterns of words particular only to film, and there can be a kind of sadness conveyed in a song that is fundamentally different from conveying it through poetry.
"Our life experience is enriched and is broader by these different media," Blow noted. "We havenít quite developed games to the point where we really exactly know what their contribution is Ė that might take hundreds of years, but weíll get there eventually."
He highlighted two games that he says are clearly art; first, Jon Mak's Everyday Shooter. "Aside from being a shooter, itís also expressing audiovisuals in gameplay. What this game has to tell you can only get from games. Lots of games show you audio visuals, but this gives you a composition," he explained.
"Itís not just the way it is because itís supposed to be challenging and fun, but because the author wanted to express this to you," he stressed.
Second, he picked The Marriage Ė "It expresses things also, but differently. Whereas Everyday Shooter is about sensations, this is about expressing the authorís life to you -- 'hereís what itís like to be in my marriage, with my life, in these different social situations,'" He said.
Exploring the Universe
Blow pointed out that games offer more than one way to explore a universe -- "One for the designers of the game, and another for the players, by being in this space thatís given to them and seeing what itís like to be there and move around in it," he explained.
He continued, "Thereís an interesting aspect of games which is that games are formal systems, software running on a computer. Systems like that are biased toward producing truth or at least consistency."
Further, he clarified, "Think about mathematics Ė start with axions that are defined as true, and eventually you end up with something that makes a statement that must be true that you didnít have when you started. Games are like that, but in a messier more complicated way"
Elements like physics and AI rules, Blow continued, flow that world from timestep to timestep until a result is reached. "It's up to the designer in how much veracity it has," he added.
He used the Japanese board game Go as an illustration Ė "Itís famous for having very minimalistic rules, but itís also very profoundly respected. Despite the simple rules, the situations you can get into are very complex and subtle, you can learn a lot by trying to get good at Go," Blow explained. "People report that after theyíve played this a long time, they learn something about life and the universe."
Games are Going To Be Huge
"A lot of people play games now, but as weíre always happy to see, every year the market continues to grow," Blow said. "Weíre going to have more people playing our stuff than ever before."
Blow feels that games can "heavily impact the patterns of human thought, and help define what it means to be human. It sounds like a weird, risky statement to make, but itís obvious," he said.
"Books are fundamental part of what it means to be human today," he continued. "If they were never there, you never could have learned out of books, you wouldnít be literate, wouldnít be sending email, we would be in a totally different situation."
Film is the same way, Blow added. "Most of us have seen a large number of films and television, and that visual language informs us. The way we visualize things has been changed by that visual history."
"All games teach," Blow stressed again. "But if theyíre going to be one of the foundations of human thought, we need to think about what those games are teaching. Games by definition teach, the only question is Ė what?"
Why Do They Want To Play?
"I have a concern here," continued Blow. "My concern is that games designers of today lack discernment when we think about whether games are good or bad. If players play it and report theyíre having fun, we say, 'hey thatís a good game.' If not, we say, 'they donít understand it.'"
Concluded Blow, "We donít look at why they want to play. We have tools to keep players playing our game, but most fall into one category Ė scheduled rewards."
Some examples of these "scheduled rewards" are collectibles, unlockables, achievements or advancing the story -- the player wants to beat the boss monster so they can see what happens to Joe when he walks through the next door.
"Sometimes we take this really far," Blow noted. "MMOs are notorious for having relatively empty gameplay, but keeping players hooked with constant fake rewards Ė this creates 'the treadmill.' Rewards are a way of lying to the player so they feel good and continue to play the game." He noted some extreme examples of this, such as reported incidents of Chinese or Korean MMO players dying at the computer.
He continued, "As long as players are hooked, it doesnít matter how good the core gameplay is. As long as they want to get the nicer sword, theyíll still play the game, and as long as they play itís all the same to us as designers Ė Iím sure at this point, people think Iím needlessly babbling on about this point. But I want to put forth this question Ė would they still play a game if it took out all the scheduled rewards?"
"Iím not saying that that wouldnít damage a game," added Blow. "It would damage almost any game. But if you strip it and just have the gameplay, does it fall below a certain threshold, is it still something people would want to play? We need to build that kind of discernment about the quality of play."
The WoW Drug
He clarified, "Iím not saying [rewards are] bad, Iím saying you can divide them into two categories Ė some are like foods that are naturally beneficial and can increase your life, but some are like drugs."
Continued Blow, "As game designers, we donít know how to make food, so we resort to drugs all the time. It shows in the discontent at the state of games Ė Radosh wanted food, but Halo 3 was just giving him cheap drugs."
"The game industry is chasing bigger player base, and weíre exploiting them in an unethical way," Blow asserted. "We donít see it as unethical because we refuse to stop and think about the magnitude of what we are doing. You can smoke, have fast food, and play World of Warcraft sometimes Ė when you talk about these things at a societal level, it becomes a societal problem."
"The thing I want to get at is Ė Iím not trying to blame players here Ė what I am saying is, if youíre the CEO of McDonald's, you should not feel good about your job, you should feel ashamed. We donít have that in the games business -- we donít have that sense, because we feel like theyíre 'just entertainment.' We donít feel like we can do things we can be ashamed of yet," he added.
Blow believes that according to WoW, the game's rules are its meaning of life. "The meaning of life in WoW is youíre some schmo that doesnít have anything better to do than sit around pressing a button and killing imaginary monsters," he explained. "It doesnít matter if youíre smart or how adept you are, itís just how much time you sink in. You donít need to do anything exceptional, you just need to run the treadmill like everyone else."
"You donít come away from WoW with that in your head, but that comes through subtly and subconsciously," Blow added. "Itís like advertising and brand identity. People identify with their activities Ė same thing with games, people are products of their origins and their environments. Weíre giving them these environments and helping to determine what theyíre going to be."
"I say this kind of thing, and everybodyís like, 'whatever dude Ė youíre smoking something,'" said Blow. "I want to frame this; itís a matter of scale. What I see as a primary challenge for mankind in this century is to understand and deal with the fact that despite these good enterprises -- human rights, safety, leisure time -- we do these at such a scale that we cannot help but have them affect the world, as with global warming, ozone holes, pollutants Ė we havenít dealt with it yet."
Carrying over the analogy, Blow said, "We donít intend to harm players but we might be harming them. When tens of millions of people buy our game, we are pumping a mental substance into the mental environment Ė itís a public mental health issue Ė itís kind of scary, but itís kind of cool because we have the power to shape humanity."
He continued, "What I see right now is that weíre cultivating this style of gamer that just says 'I want more of that because it tastes delicious, and thatís all I know.'"
Architecting vs. Exploring
So what does it mean to make meaningful gameplay? "Part of the problem is we have assumptions about what it means to design a game that are a little bit incorrect," noted Blow, discussing the architectural presumption of proposing a plan and working from the top down.
But Blow says exploratory concepts may start with a single idea that grows outward. "Through my past couple of projects, Iíve become acutely aware of 'exploring' -- start with an idea and adapt and accept it. Using games as a method of exploring the universe, you can develop a really good game by exploring the ramifications of a concept."
How Architecture Can Fail Us
Blow turned to BioShock as his example of flawed architecture. "What youíre supposed to do is kill the Big Daddy and capture the Little Sister, and decide do you want to kill her or rescue her Ė it's supposed to be a big ethical dilemma. As it turns out it doesnít matter whether you do either Ė the game throttles the rewards either way. The very idea of this save or kill dilemma is an architected idea imposed from the top," he explained.
He continued, "The game rules determine the actual meaning of life in the game, and it says whatever you do to the Little Sisters doesnít matter, no matter how much the game tries to convince you that it does." The "Meta-message," according to Blow, is that "the designers of this game are trying to manipulate your emotions in a clumsy way."
Valve's Portal is a positive example, according to Blow. "It probably did well because it had exploration in design, augmented by architecture. The puzzles are all about showcasing the portal design." He argued that the point in the game that forces the player to incinerate the "weighted companion cube" "worked at least as well as BioShock.
"As a designer I want to see us harness that power to transform," said Blow. "Once, a long time ago, I was a little kid who loved games, and I feel like Iíve grown up, Iím a smarter, wiser and more experienced person. Games are a lot bigger, but they havenít really grown. I have a desire to be transformed, but Iím not getting it -- I get really frustrated by games."
He continued, "Iíll buy ten games for 60 dollars each Ė Iíll go through the stack and play for about half an hour and get everything the game has for me Ė thereís nothing more than any other game hasnít given me. I still love games, but itís frustrating, and I think we can do a lot better as an industry."
Asked Blow, "What is worthwhile, deep and interesting? As designers, as a community, with all of our ideas about whatís worthwhile, we can at least hold the intention to be worthwhile and to respect the playerís potential to live a high quality life."
He concluded, "If we do that, players will feel the difference, weíll broaden the market, and someday weíll be able to see where that next step is."