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Opinion: The Breadth Of Game Design
Opinion: The Breadth Of Game Design
April 27, 2009 | By Jean-Paul LeBreton

April 27, 2009 | By Jean-Paul LeBreton
More: Console/PC

[In this fascinating opinion piece, BioShock 2 lead level designer Jean-Paul LeBreton looks to the past, present and future of gameplay mechanics, and how designers may use them to adequately reflect true human experience.]

As of 2009, the game industry seems to want two fairly contradictory1 things:

- Make games, using proven mechanics from the last 20 years, that sell millions of copies.
- Give people a broad range of experiences that affect them as powerfully as those found in other forms of

Let's link to two visual aids to help with this:

- The Onion: Hot New Video Game Consists Solely Of Shooting People Point-Blank In The Face
- God Of War: Chains Of Olympus in-game video (Ignore the kid yammering over the video, until about 1:10 in, for the quicktime event sequence.2.)

We can debate whether encompassing a broader range of human experience is indeed a goal of importance, but if even a God of War game feels the need to have scenes that evoke strong emotions, you might at least concede that it’s something many developers seem interested in furthering.

To cut right to the heart of the conflict I see here, I don’t think we as developers can continue holding our breath and waiting for games that revolve around shooting, driving, running and jumping to someday make a great leap into expressing all kinds of things they were heretofore incapable of.

The problem is that the better versed you are in game conventions, the easier it is to separate the core mechanics of a game from its fiction and theme, and thus say that a game like BioShock is a meditation on free will, the dangers of ideological extremes, and whatever else… despite the fact that you spend about 90 percent of it shooting people in the face.

The world can see this disparity more clearly, ironically by virtue of being less game-literate. For many among the gaming literate, that sort of insight hits pretty close to home.

For a perspective from the other end, I was struck by this comment on io9, a non-gamer blog, from this post about BioShock 2:

"I can see how a first-person shooter would be interesting and entertaining, but I would have to fall short of “compelling” when you have to spend that much time, er, shooting."

This person wasn’t being an unreasonable jerk, or advocating the censorship of games. Shooting lots of insane people in a dark, weird place probably just isn’t their idea of a good time.

The common response to this from developers has been things like, “We just need to hire better writers”, “We need better technology”, “We need better artists”, “We need to spend more time planning out our stories”. However, we’ve been doing this for more than 10 years.

Whereas if you look at the points where this medium has made the most progress, whenever the expressive capabilities of games have expanded significantly, it’s actually been because new mechanics, or significant developments upon existing ones3, have emerged that enable new aesthetics. Those other things are quite important, but we seem to have them covered.

One problem is that, deep down, many designers view game mechanics more as structure (or “form”, if you prefer) than as content, when in fact they are both. If you treat them exclusively as structure when designing, you get all manner of unintended message and context… in a nutshell, ludonarrative dissonance. Which in 2009 means mashing the circle button to overcome an emotional inner conflict.

Another designer’s analysis accepts this completely at face value, which if anything demonstrates that this issue transcends our usual valuations of craft and art. It’s almost invisible to us, but quite apparent to outsiders.

So as developers, we need to deal more honestly with the disparity between our reach and our grasp - which is to say, what we tell ourselves our games are about, versus what they are actually about. History will see this decade as the period when games struggled with their destiny in this way.

I’m optimistic though, both because of the progress we’ve made in the first three decades or so of our medium, and because the solutions are right under our noses, deep in the fabric of all games. We must search out, and in some cases rediscover, core mechanics that engender new types of experiences - rediscover, because many have already been done at the fringes, promising yet underexplored. Here are some examples I find especially interesting:

holding hands in Ico

AI Companionship: Holding hands in Ico
You reach out to a non-player character and become connected to them. Suddenly you’re no longer a lone entity; you must account and take responsibility for an Other. Sometimes they’re a hindrance, sometimes a help. Whether or not you buy into the designers’ attempts to make you sympathize, you have a real connection to something that’s reinforced by strong kinesthetics. In Ico, there was plenty of platformy adventuring to go along with this, but it seems inevitable that someday a game will make this its primary emphasis.


Victory via Self-Enrichment: Culture in Civilization
Sometimes you can triumph over an adversary simply by being better than them. Rivals come to view your achievements as an example to be followed. Each accomplishment that enriches you internally affords you expansion and encroachment via indirect force. Tend to your own garden and you will become powerful and influential without firing a shot.


Social Reasoning: Diplomacy
The enemy of my enemy is my friend. Many wargames have a diplomacy component, which gets especially interesting when other humans are in the mix. However in a game where direct force isn’t possible, social standing would be its own capital. This is a large part of why character-driven TV shows are popular; humans enjoy exploring the workings and permutation spaces of social networks.

Hopefully this gives an idea of the breadth of directions available to us as designers. It’s equally fruitful to look to the past, at how certain ideas bubbled up from nowhere to expand the expressive range of games.

Circa 1997, before Thief and Metal Gear Solid, Stealth was one of those underexplored mechanics. Suddenly, as it caught on, there were new play sensations we’d never had before - being some combination of sneaky, clever, afraid, transgressive. It transformed players’ perspectives on familiar game environments. It even brought some new people into the medium.

These are basic changes that everyone feels deeply, from a jaded critic to someone completely new to games. They are interactively “true” in ways that a change in setting can only rarely be, no matter how beautifully realized.

As a medium, we’ve proven we can seek out novel settings, themes, art styles, characters and tropes. We have other media to learn from, after all. New mechanics, however, are uniquely difficult.

The only inspiration we can find for them is human experience itself, and then comes the struggle of synthesizing, systematizing and iterating. This is the central challenge of working in this medium, and it’s never been more important that we embrace it.

[1] While some of this could be explained as the disparity between what game publishers want and what developers want, that might be giving too little credit to the former and too much to the latter. If there were more proven game mechanics and styles that enabled new experiences, publishers would probably sell them. Past a certain point, the burden of proof is on us.

[2] I want to make it clear that I’m not disparaging GoW:CoO, or speaking in any sense other than constructive criticism. I haven’t played it; in all likelihood it’s a great action game. I’m simply holding it up as an unwitting example of a much more existential crisis in game design today, much as other designers have held up stuff I’ve worked on in a similar light.

[3] Movement is something that gets re-discovered every so often; Mirror’s Edge being the recent example. Flaws in execution aside, players recognized there was something unique there.

[Jean-Paul LeBreton is lead level designer at BioShock 2 developer 2K Marin. This piece originally appeared on his personal blog, vector poem]

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E. Daniel Arey
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Well said and reasoned, Jean-Paul. I believe every medium eventually explores the possibility or solution space and then finally yearns for something more. We have been pushing and expanding the limits of games for decades, and yet we know in our bones that there is still more to offer ourselves and our customers. We have shown over and over that we can be art, but still we strive to make greater meaning of our play activity -- to be something as lofty as meaningful, insightful, human conditional, thought provoking or profound. And yet the paradox is that in looking for these moments in our medium, we must not force the issue, or we will certainly fail. Like Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. if we try too hard to locate the Art in our work, it will most certainly affect it and cause it to vanish.

So the search continues to find new modes of expression while still preserving the modes we all fell in love with in our first 2600, or Apple II, or NES, Xbox. The bottom line is "Where there's a will, there's a way." We will find new play, new mechanics, new approaches to promote fresh experiences in games, of that I have not doubt. We are a robust and highly creative group of developers. Like any vast ocean with great depth and power, we blow the winds of change and wait to catch a new wave of expression as it breaks on the shore of possibility. Be the wave! The future is now!

Lance Rund
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Games have their own internal language. Art, dialog, animations, etc. are the nouns. Gaming systems and player-actions are the verbs. The gaming industry has done an excellent job in expanding the range of nouns as better tools emerge, more highly-skilled asset creators are trained, and platform capabilities go up. The list of available verbs, though, has not grown nearly as quickly.

Expanding the list of different things you can shoot or smack, and how the shooty/smacky is rendered, is at best evolutionary not revolutionary.

Just how long is the list of verbs that have actually seen success in games anyway? And what is the list that has been tried but failed to gain acceptance? I would guess that the reason that the "short list" is as short as it is has to do with difficulty: how hard is a nonstandard verb to implement? How hard is it to teach to a player, particularly a player who has never encountered a nonstandard-action game? How hard is it to integrate into the game and make it part of an overall fun experience?

david vink
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"how hard is a nonstandard verb to implement? How hard is it to teach to a player, particularly a player who has never encountered a nonstandard-action game? How hard is it to integrate into the game and make it part of an overall fun experience?"

How hard is it to make this financially viable? I don't mean to sound negative, but perhaps it is still too early for video games to succesfully explore new ways of interacting with the emotions of our users? I feel sometimes as if the gamers of the world are by and large not yet ready for/interested in those new ways of interaction. Gamers have certain expectations of the games they buy and a wide range of emotional impact isn't one of them. When the first movies came out the audience certainly didn't expect to go in and be moved to tears, and the earliest classical music also didn't have a very wide range of emotions.

The change will come, though. But like Daniel Arey above said; We can't force the issue.

Andrew Mayer
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While many people in the industry would like storytelling to be the ultimate goal of games, it seems likely to me that our current single player model may be the aberration, and that social interaction and "winning" may yet end up being the true destination of gaming.

A lot of our desire to be more narrative comes from the fact that we've been able to use many of the tools of film to convey character and emotion, and movies make money! But the fundamental disconnect between generating conflict and giving the player control remains as strong today as it did twenty years ago.

That doesn't mean that we can't have emotion, or use storytelling tools to help set players expectations and context, but in terms of gameplay itself the conflict is always personal, no matter how many layers of story we put on top of it. In the end it only truly matters whether or not *I* actually accomplished my goals, regardless of whatever journey it is the avatar may be on.

John Mawhorter
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Emotion in life is mechanical in nature, so why shouldn't it be so in games, which are the most mechanically complicated of mediums. Thanks for recognizing this often undiscussed relationship, which is the source of my tepid response to Bioshock, where the mechanics didn't support the narrative.

An Dang
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In my humble opinion, winning is near-worthless without a good story. I can only play the same game so much before getting bored and never coming back to it. I would move on to the next iteration or improvement in the genre and there would be little point in playing the original again. Whereas a good game with a good story, I can go back to every once (like watching an old movie) despite its age. Sadly, playing an old game over and over doesn't make the publisher or developer any more money (unless, of course, there's a remake).

As for invoking emotions from the gamers, it has been done. 2D games from a decade ago have done it (at least for gamers with good imaginations), and games are still doing it now. Although, in my experience it tends to always be a "cut-scene" of some sort.

One of the most powerful video game scenes for me is from Metal Gear Solid when Meryl is shot by Sniper Wolf and Snake can't leave cover to help her without risking the entire mission. Of course, knowing the rest of the MGS story diminishes the emotion of that scene, but the first time seeing it was definitely a good moment.

M. Smith
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@An Ding

"One of the most powerful video game scenes for me is from Metal Gear Solid when Meryl is shot by Sniper Wolf and Snake can't leave cover to help her without risking the entire mission. Of course, knowing the rest of the MGS story diminishes the emotion of that scene, but the first time seeing it was definitely a good moment."

I am not very familiar with the MGS games a whole or that scene, but I imagine that the feeling you gain from that scene is not far from what you get at the end of Half Life 2.

What I do wonder, though, is why games are so hesitant to place such scenes in more realistic settings. Games are awful hung-up on fantasy/and sci-fi genres and it seems to be determent at times. It's like the reverse of TV and film; fantasy or sci-fi that engages real issues is fairly rare in film, while themes are are easier to identify with like falling love or seeking success in the workplace are extremely common.

@The article

I find it interesting that two of the three examples are linked with better AI. I do think better AI and better use of AI could be extremely useful. It is difficult to care about a character if the AI controlling it acts completely inhuman.

Alan Jack
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I covered this in my blog recently, but numerous others have as well.

Part of the problem is the swift monetarisation of the industry - not that I'm saying thats a bad thing, but in previous years the high entry cost to development and the lack of independent channels has prevented anyone from taking a risk or experimenting (unless they were lucky or really sure of their ideas).

Now those channels are opening up, but we need to change the way we treat games, in the sense that we can't wait for the world to start taking them seriously, we need to start doing it ourselves. A dozen or so personalities delivering talks on game design elements once a year at GDC isn't going to cut it. We need to take what those people give us and start using it to analyse previous works, find what works and what doesn't. I appreciate that, given the aforementioned problems, this can't happen across the industry, but there's a whole independent scene right now that's just pottering around on their own ideas. Its vital we get everyone talking, and talking very very seriously, about games and gaming.

What we need to create in the end will be a structured background of academia, with a strictly defined lexicon of terms. Even if we're not 100% right on those terms at first, maverick indie devs can't push the boundaries of gaming if we don't HAVE boundaries to push. Right now, radical devs who want to take chances are doing so randomly, plucking ideas out the air without anything to fall back on. That needs to change.

Finally - and this is something you bring up brilliantly with your Bioshock example - we need to stop being gamers. We tolerate an incredible amount of - pardon my french, but nothing else will sum it up - shit in our industry. Bioshock is a dull and uninspired shooting game. There. I said it. I love Bioshock, and playing it was one of the best gaming experiences of my life, but when I played the demo I didn't see what the fuss was about. It was just Doom with a pretty new texture set.

The thinking that we can solve our problems by hiring writers or studying film needs to STOP. We need to start thinking for ourselves, being critical, analytical and academic in our treatment of our work and others. If that makes us pretentious and annoying, well, so be it.

Fernando Rivera
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Great piece! I've been meditating over this for some time now and you seem to hit the nail right on the head. The problem, though, does seem to be how can we make this viable. It may require weening the consumers and publishers off of these forms by making more games with mixed elements. Maintaining the familiar/successful more carnal gameplay elements that are established while experimenting with other possible vehicles for a game may be an effective method for exploring what can be effective.

Jean-Paul LeBreton
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Hi folks. Thanks for the thoughtful commentary.

On the question of viability, I think in the past we've been too willing to either wait for our publishers to tell us what's viable and what's not, or to demand a blank check from them to go explore random unproven new directions. It's a quite a catch-22 in big budget development; how do you prove that something that doesn't exist yet will be popular enough to justify its risk?

I wish there were more positive examples of this to learn from than exist today. My guess is that we'll make more progress if we approach it as a joint creative-technical challenge rather than relying on the wild leaps of pure creativity that might work better in other media. The "subtractive design" of Team Ico and the prototype-driven approach used by the Spore team seem to be encouraging models.

It's also possible that as designers we've been guilty of means-end confusion. There was a very illuminating and entertaining flap over the term "innovation" in the indie games scene a year or two back. If you treat innovation - which in game design specifically means new game mechanics or major twists on existing ones - as an end to itself, then you're going to be only secondarily concerned, at best, with the expressive potential of a given innovation.

Whereas if you start with an expressive goal and realize along the way that you must create new things to attain that goal, then that's innovation as a means rather than an end. Defining that goal clearly enough that it's attainable, while difficult given the inherent subjectivity, is the first step towards that. That's why I found the examples I cited useful in thinking about the issue.

David Fried
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It's a lofty goal, but yeah, publishers hold us back. Why innovate when Face Shooter v6.66 will sell millions? Until people grow tired of the same old there's little reason for a publisher to take a risk like that.

The only way to do innovative games is to do them yourself on your own budget (i.e. Jonathon Blow and Braid). If what you're offering is truly innovative and good, you'll succeed. We (meaning developers) just need to gather enough cash and grow the balls to plan out our time so that we can do our own games.

Yes, I dream of a world where publishers are much smaller and are just there to press the discs rather than dictate the design dos and don'ts. A world where the larger game companies are merely providing better and better tools and engines which they sell at greatly reduced prices because there are hundreds of thousands of developers out there pouring their hearts and souls into their own amazing games. Where games cost only 5 dollars and most of them are a fascinating and new 6 hour or less experience that really makes you think about some aspect of life in a new way...

Anyways, I'm going to go back to making whatever my publisher told me to make now because they pay me just enough to get by and nowhere near enough to go out on my own and do something special.

But I'm saving up... ;)