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A Way to Better Games: Establishing Functional Theory
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A Way to Better Games: Establishing Functional Theory

June 19, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

Current Thinking

The night What Makes a Game was published, I attended the lovely NYU Game Center for a talk given by well-known blogger and game designer Anna Anthropy (also known as Auntie Pixelante -- if you haven't read any of her work, you should certainly check out her article To the Right, Hold on Tight, which is one of her most useful and thoughtful articles, detailing the brilliant level design of Super Mario Brothers).

Her talk was essentially about how what the world of games needs is for more and more people from outside our world to come in and bring their new, fresh ideas to the table (which is also the primary topic of her new book).

According to her, our problem is that there's too much "inbreeding", too much of us talking to ourselves; we need the infusion of as many new creative minds as possible to help take us into the future.

While this is primarily a positive message, I have one problem with it. In my view, this equates to a "spray-and-pray" solution; a "do what we're already doing, but more!" solution. If five thousand more people began making video games tomorrow, but they were still all tower defense, puzzle platformers, and FarmVille clones, wouldn't that only be a bad thing?

Of course, just based on the fact that there would be such large numbers of people participating, it would be reasonable to expect that at least a few of those new games would be innovative, but it's probable that only a few would, and even those who did might not fully even understand why they were so great.

The NYU Game Center

The problem is that we don't have guidance, and Anna was not coupling her call to arms with any sort of direction; in fact, her message was almost "just make things without concern for quality or completion or what it is you're even making". This may have tremendously positive effects for individuals, and I, too, encourage everyone to make anything they feel like making. But for the state of game design in general, I think it's pointing us further in the wrong direction.

New individuals will bring new ideas and a few of those new ideas will be great ones. But actually, our problem isn't a lack of good ideas. Our problem is a lack of understanding, of theory. We don't really need another fish as much as we need to learn to fish.

I've long been of the view that we don't need more games, we need better games. If anything, we also may do well to produce fewer games. Games are, by their nature, not disposable commodities that we consume and are done with inside a month. A single game can be an activity that is a part of our life, for our entire lifetime: it can be an art form, like learning to paint or learning to play the piano. A great game should be a lifetime hobby, not a hype-fueled six month romp that ends in regret. Creating a game that is meant to be discarded inside a month is like creating a musical instrument that is meant to be discarded inside a month.

Yet there's an increasing trend of "creating more disposable games", partially due to the increased ease with which games are made due to better tools, and partially due to things like game jams and Seven Day Roguelikes and such. These things can be great for the creators themselves, in that they are great practice at the skill of "game development", but they are not generally helpful for the rest of us. Even Chris Hecker, co-founder of the Indie Game Jam, says this regarding the game jams:

"We need more depth and understanding. We don't need more wacky ideas and shallow games shipped on time."

I am concerned with the path to making better games, and saturating the market with more undirected noise will only take us further in the direction we're already going. If one wants to see what this future might look like, take a gander at the iOS App Store (or almost any other "app store", for that matter). This is what pure, raw, unbridled and undirected creation looks like. Or the 2012 IGF Pirate Kart, which was much-celebrated by Ms. Anthropy: is there even a single title out of those three hundred games that you could see yourself playing even a month from now?


It bothered me that during the talk, there was so much discussion of simply "more", without really any discussion of "how", or "for what purpose". So during the Q&A section, I asked, "don't you think that calling things like The Path and Street Fighter both 'games' makes it more difficult for us to develop any guidelines for designing such things?"

"Why would you want to develop guidelines?", she responded. "So that we can make better games?" I said. She dismissed the question entirely after that. I couldn't help but feel that there was an implication there that I had felt many times before; that my idea of "developing guidelines for better game design" was patently absurd.

To me, this is an anti-scientific, anti-intellectual, anti-progress idea. No aspect of human society could have advanced to where it has come to today without first acknowledging the idea that we may be able to develop guidelines, or principles, that will help us do things better.

Music theory is my favorite parallel. In college, I was a composition major, and so I know very well how much functional music theory can help a musician create and understand music. Knowing how harmony actually works, being able to identify chord progressions, being able to write down a melody and know what it means to "develop" it, even understanding time signatures -- these are all fundamentals of music that are of tremendous help to anyone wanting to compose music.

Knowing music theory does not mean that a person will make nothing but great things. Obviously, music (like game design) is an art form, and so the best we can do is to establish guidelines and principles, not rules.

Nonetheless, we simply could not have our John Williamses, our Paul McCartneys, our Freddie Mercurys, or our Yoko Kannos without having established music theory first. Modern music is built on hundreds of years of development of the science of music.

This is what we have to do with game design, but it cannot happen until we organize our interactive systems in a way that makes sense.

Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

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