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GDC: Game Designers Rant On Making Games That Matter
GDC: Game Designers Rant On Making Games That Matter
February 22, 2008 | By Brandon Boyer

February 22, 2008 | By Brandon Boyer
More: Console/PC, GDC

In a special designer-focused rant that showed a surprising amount of thematic overlap, Clint Hocking, Jenova Chen, Jane McGonigal, Jon Mak, and Daniel James 'expressed opinions forcefully' on the state of games, all seeming to agree that the industry is too scared to say anything with real meaning.

First up, and with seemingly the most actual fire, Ubisoft designer Clint Hocking said that though he originally planned to rant on creative stagnation, he eventually concluded it was a "tired generic topic," and "can't get pissed off about it" as he was "not sure that it's there."

Beyond Fetishism

"Pound for pound," he said, "we're actually the most creative fucking industry in the history of the world. Being creative is actually pretty easy -- having the courage to challenge people, that's hard."

Instead of wondering if games can make you cry or if games mean something, he said, accept that it's true and move forward on the assumption.

What if there was a game, he posited, with a virtual spouse, someone you had to develop a relationship with in a systemic way, what if the goal was to comfort the spouse? "Why can't Call of Duty be actually about duty? Why isn't Medal of Honor about honor?" he asked.

"What if you actually packaged the experience of what it means to be honorable -- 95% of people haven't felt that. It would sure suck to have 10 million gamers running around being the most honorable people on earth," he snarked.

Showing screenshots of Passage and The Marriage he said, "Two guys tinkering in their spare time have moved things forward more than the rest of the industry," saying the industry had to start using "proven techniques for building compelling emotional investment in things real human beings give a shit about."

People interact ten times as much with Lord of the Rings than games not because of the potions, and staffs and spells, but because of the human interaction. "The mechanics of trust are not harder to model and simulate than the mechanics of rope," he stressed, saying this object fetishism was abundantly apparent when you consider the most meaningful relationship in a game last year was with a cube.

"What we lack is not creativity, what we lack is the courage... we have to challenge something more than our reflexes... but we lack courage to risk ourselves for our art," he said.

Adding a quote from a programmer friend, he concluded, "we have the pieces of the puzzle in our hands. We have the creativity, the money, the demand is there -- 'dude it's code, we can do anything.'"

Interpretive Rant

Following Hocking was Everyday Shooter creator Jon Mak who chose to make his point metaphorically, and instead of delivering a traditional rant, asked the entire audience to stand and cued a music track.

At that point, Indiecade's Sam Roberts took the stage in his place, gesticulating wildly in a muted faux-rant while Mak and friends ran through the audience distributing balloons, pinwheels, and bits of paper with inspirational message, as the audience kept the balloons in the air for the duration of his allotted time.

Reality Is Broken

Next up was ARG designer Jane McGonigal, who admitted her rant wasn't actually about game designers. "Compared to rest of the world we have it all figured out," she said, "we invented a medium that kicks every other media's ass... We occupy more brain cycles, make more people happy than any other medium in the world. Basically, we've won already."

It's taken the industry three decades to learn how to engineer systems that engage brains, bodies, and hearts, she said, but "the bad news is we rule the virtual world. In truth, reality is too messy, we don't want to fix reality, we want to create alternative realities."

"Reality is broken," she said, and "we are the people that are supposed to fix it, as the smartest people on planet." Game designers know how to engage human beings, and it's imperative that they create systems that make us happy, successful, powerful in real life.

Showing a photo of graffiti she passes every day, a sticker saying 'I'm not good at life', she said she's been spending the last year researching happiness and positive psychology, and shared the four key elements of happiness: having satisfying work to do, the experience of being good at something, time spent with people we like, and having a chance to be part of something bigger.

Games kill boredom, she said, games kill alienation, anxiety, and depression, and said there are easy things games can fix today, in the real world -- running, making a game from the NikePlus iPod pedometer; being on a plane, with Virgin America's on-board chat and game system; playing fetch, with Snifflabs social networking dog collar; commuting, with a game based on the Trackstick GPS.

Can we fix things, she asked the audience, responding Yes. Should we? Hell yes. Will we fix things? I have no idea, she admitted.

An Intermission

Next, Spore's Chris Hecker was brought to the stage to be given a new game rant award for the "most controversial meaningful media grabbing rant" -- the first ever duct tape award, a reference to Hecker's 2007 speech where he famously referred to the Nintendo Wii as two GameCube's duct taped together, causing a blog uproar for which he later apologized.

Hecker shared some of the responses he got from his rant, and said he stood by his apology but still felt he was slightly misrepresented. "After everything I've been, through," he said, "I still believe in the power of ranting" -- or rather, expressing opinions forcefully (and thoughtfully, and politely).

The reason he's still into it he said, is simply that complacency equals death, and while the industry knows in the bottoms of its collective hearts that games could be preeminent art form of the 21st century, "on our current trajectory, not sure we'll get there."

Less Little Pigs, More Little Prince

Fl0w creator Jenova Chen then took the stage admitting shyly that "Clint said most of my points, and Jane made me feel like an idiot," but continued saying that the industry isn't necessarily in the worst of times -- that indie games were moving to consoles with increasing regularity, that new digital distribution methods meant more people had greater access to their games.

Instead, his rant was from a gamer's perspective, someone "growing older every year, and losing interest to try new games" -- finding that while games are more engaging and satisfying, behind the physics games still weren't "that much more complicated than a set of wooden toys."

People never say that people should grow up and out of reading books or watching movies or playing sports, and while each could be seen as more intellectual, emotionally fulfilling, or social, respectively, there's no reasons games can't provide that more mature content.

"We don't need more Three Little Pigs, we need The Little Prince" -- games that make you feel and think about your life, he concluded.

Aren't Video Games Brilliant?

Finally, in a rant inspired by Paul Whitehouse's "brilliant!" Fast Show character, Puzzle Pirates creator Daniel James started by saying "isn't GDC fantastic!"

When he was young, he admitted, from the ages of 6 to 11 he essentially stayed in his room playing with Lego, and now Lego was being made into an MMO, a space where he could do the same socially (brilliant!).

After that he played Elite and at night used to dream that you could play with other people," and now we have EVE Online -- after MUDs came 10 million people playing World of Warcraft (WTF, amazing!).

Psychic implants are coming in the near future, Facebook applications are being used by 20 million people, developers are being funded well (totally awesome!), but as the line between the virtual and the real is very thin, it puts creators in an incredible place.

Again, as the rest of the panel stated, James concluded that the industry needed to take a closer look at what it's saying, and not just creating and then justifying themselves afterward, drawing the session to an emotional close.

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David Lettier
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Just beautiful. Finally it is being said or at least touched upon. Games that mean something other than a "game." The format of a video game is grounds for most anything from mere boredom alleviation to helping with phobias. This is why I develop, to create a reality that others can relate to and walk away from adding it to their own life experience. Not all games but I hope most in the future, with be believable able to make the player, if only for a moment, forget they are actually playing a game. Ready to ride this fledgeling wave of understanding a conceptual attitude, I am very excited to apart of this and add to it. Recently I discovered a group of parents purchased a "Webkinz" for their child only to be engrossed in it more so than the child. These same adults wouldn't even consider playing a game due to either stigma or disinterest but can relate and escape in a reality conducive to do so. Amazing.

Jeremy Alessi
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Full Contact Debate is my way to make something that can be played for fun but also for a real cause. Though it is really the players that get to say something meaningful with the gameplay. All I'm saying with the game is that we can participate in politics by playing and that we shouldn't forget about reality while we're playing.

Robert Zamber
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Allot of these things can be addressed with compelling and "realistic" characters (deep rich character design, not hyper realism): there is one game that comes to mind; "Disgiea"! Never is mentioned, anywhere by anyone. But has some of the deepest character design to date; Its a milestone in character design.

Yes the characters have special powers and magic, and fly 500' in the air doing abstract crazy unrealistic shit. But, at the same time, they embody a sense of realism; that is reflective, and reminds players of the struggles and challenges of the human condition, or their own inner world; the one that matters:)

Designers need to go back and play through this franchise again as a reference point. This game is a true gem when it comes to character design.

There is too much focus on mechanics, and not enough emphasis on substance. Games like Halo, Oblivion, CD, are great games mechanically but fall short of substance, they have little to none if any at all.

Oblivion is corny to the point of irritation: it has not a single character of any substance. Their all grossly flat, and one-dimensional. Yes, they look realistic, but don't "embody" an ounce of realism: In other words, people don't see themselves in them, because the characters and world they inhabit are fucking corny, lame and stiff!

Yes, I've played the game, but cant get into it's escapist-one-dimensional-lame-world. Who gives... a SHIT.. if the NPCs wipe their ass at 12-noon every day! Why does this matter? "Stop...thief" - "Game of the Year". Give me a fucking break!

Create games that reflect the inner world of the human condition, and leave photo-realism to cameras. They can do it much cheaper and much more efficiently.

Juha Kangas
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A game that comes to my mind is Indigo Prophecy (Fahrenheit in america). Even though it does have it's moments of timing button pressing, the fact that it has a meter that keeps track of your stress level and the way that it is affected says a lot.

David Sahlin
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Indigo Prophecy was Indigo Prophecy in America. I thought Fahrenheit was its European title.

Anyway, I would have been so giddy to be present for this panel. I just read Jane's paper on Collective Intelligence the other day, and I found myself deeply enthralled by her work.

These guys are my heroes.

Mark Brendan
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I wish people would stop putting it on designers to stir up the stagnant waters of game development. I'd love to have the opportunity to, but the plain fact is designers_have_no_creative_control. There are exeptions that prove the rule, like the Molyneux and Wrights of this world, and they tend to be the only ones who are spotlighted, therefore leading everyone to the false conclusion that the designer gets to decide how games play and what the content is. Check out this article

Riccitiello's mea culpa is touching, but he shouldn't beat himself up too much about it. In my experience, this is the norm throughout the industry.

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Mr Zamber:

As much as I love it, Disgaea is an awfully odd benchmark for the sort of progress being recommended in this article. It's a (very well done, but) typical JRPG: turn-based fights interrupted by long, static anime-esque cutscenes. As charming as its story might be, it's completely divorced from the nature of the gameplay.

You wrote, "There is too much focus on mechanics, and not enough emphasis on substance. " Actually, there is too much focus on noninteractive content, and not enough on mechanics. What you fail to understand is that gameplay - emergent from mechanics - *is* the substance of video games, and games like Passage and The Marriage are using it in innovative and meaningful ways instead of splicing in neat cutscenes through the same kill-these-guys, solve-these-puzzles gameplay we've seen for decades. There will probably always be a place for static cinematics, but let's not confuse solid scripting with innovative game design.