Gamasutra: The Art & Business of Making Gamesspacer
View All     RSS
October 19, 2018
arrowPress Releases
  • Editor-In-Chief:
    Kris Graft
  • Editor:
    Alex Wawro
  • Contributors:
    Chris Kerr
    Alissa McAloon
    Emma Kidwell
    Bryant Francis
    Katherine Cross
  • Advertising:
    Libby Kruse






If you enjoy reading this site, you might also want to check out these UBM Tech sites:


MIGS 2007: Jonathan Blow On The ' WoW  Drug',  Meaningful Games

MIGS 2007: Jonathan Blow On The 'WoW Drug', Meaningful Games

November 28, 2007 | By Brandon Boyer, Leigh Alexander

November 28, 2007 | By Brandon Boyer, Leigh Alexander
Comments
    2 comments
More: Console/PC



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 giving players challenges to work through and choices to make 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 dont 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 Im 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 were 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 meaning of life... you know why youre there, and you know what youre 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 I think Im not alone in this. This is part of why games are compelling to me."

Before you play a game, he pointed out, you dont 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 thatd 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 Id be intensely dissatisfied. Fantasy and escapism isnt 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 havent quite developed games to the point where we really exactly know what their contribution is that might take hundreds of years, but well get there eventually."

He highlighted two games that he says are clearly art; first, Jon Mak's Everyday Shooter. "Aside from being a shooter, its 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.

"Its not just the way it is because its supposed to be challenging and fun, but because the author wanted to express this to you," he stressed.

Second, he picked The Marriage "It expresses things also, but differently. Whereas Everyday Shooter is about sensations, this is about expressing the authors life to you -- 'heres what its 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 thats given to them and seeing what its like to be there and move around in it," he explained.

He continued, "Theres 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 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 didnt 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 "Its famous for having very minimalistic rules, but its 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 theyve 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 were always happy to see, every year the market continues to grow," Blow said. "Were 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 its 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 wouldnt be literate, wouldnt 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 theyre 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 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 theyre having fun, we say, 'hey thats a good game.' If not, we say, 'they dont understand it.'"

Concluded Blow, "We dont look at why they want to play. We have tools to keep players playing our game, but most fall into one category 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 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 doesnt matter how good the core gameplay is. As long as they want to get the nicer sword, theyll still play the game, and as long as they play its all the same to us as designers Im sure at this point, people think Im needlessly babbling on about this point. But I want to put forth this question would they still play a game if it took out all the scheduled rewards?"

"Im not saying that that wouldnt 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, "Im not saying [rewards are] bad, Im saying you can divide them into two categories some are like foods that are naturally beneficial and can increase your life, but some are like drugs."

Continued Blow, "As game designers, we dont know how to make food, so we resort to drugs all the time. It shows in the discontent at the state of games Radosh wanted food, but Halo 3 was just giving him cheap drugs."

"The game industry is chasing bigger player base, and were exploiting them in an unethical way," Blow asserted. "We dont 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 when you talk about these things at a societal level, it becomes a societal problem."

"The thing I want to get at is Im not trying to blame players here what I am saying is, if youre the CEO of McDonald's, you should not feel good about your job, you should feel ashamed. We dont have that in the games business -- we dont have that sense, because we feel like theyre 'just entertainment.' We dont 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 youre some schmo that doesnt have anything better to do than sit around pressing a button and killing imaginary monsters," he explained. "It doesnt matter if youre smart or how adept you are, its just how much time you sink in. You dont need to do anything exceptional, you just need to run the treadmill like everyone else."

"You dont come away from WoW with that in your head, but that comes through subtly and subconsciously," Blow added. "Its like advertising and brand identity. People identify with their activities same thing with games, people are products of their origins and their environments. Were giving them these environments and helping to determine what theyre going to be."

Natural Rewards

"I say this kind of thing, and everybodys like, 'whatever dude youre smoking something,'" said Blow. "I want to frame this; its 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 we havent dealt with it yet."

Carrying over the analogy, Blow said, "We dont 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 its a public mental health issue its kind of scary, but its kind of cool because we have the power to shape humanity."

He continued, "What I see right now is that were cultivating this style of gamer that just says 'I want more of that because it tastes delicious, and thats 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, Ive 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 youre supposed to do is kill the Big Daddy and capture the Little Sister, and decide do you want to kill her or rescue her it's supposed to be a big ethical dilemma. As it turns out it doesnt matter whether you do either 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 doesnt 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.

Conclusion

"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 Ive grown up, Im a smarter, wiser and more experienced person. Games are a lot bigger, but they havent really grown. I have a desire to be transformed, but Im not getting it -- I get really frustrated by games."

He continued, "Ill buy ten games for 60 dollars each Ill go through the stack and play for about half an hour and get everything the game has for me theres nothing more than any other game hasnt given me. I still love games, but its 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 whats worthwhile, we can at least hold the intention to be worthwhile and to respect the players potential to live a high quality life."

He concluded, "If we do that, players will feel the difference, well broaden the market, and someday well be able to see where that next step is."


Related Jobs

Cold Iron Studios
Cold Iron Studios — San Jose, California, United States
[10.18.18]

Console Gameplay Engineer
Cold Iron Studios
Cold Iron Studios — San Jose, California, United States
[10.18.18]

Site Reliability Engineer
Cold Iron Studios
Cold Iron Studios — San Jose, California, United States
[10.18.18]

Infrastructure Engineer
Deep Silver Volition
Deep Silver Volition — Champaign, Illinois, United States
[10.18.18]

Mid/Senior Multiplayer Programmer









Loading Comments

loader image