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The State Of Church: Doug Church on the Death of PC Gaming and the Future of Defining Gameplay

November 23, 2004
 

Doug Church has been designing PC games for over a decade, including participation in classic early 3D first-person title Ultima Underworld, for which he was project lead, as well as contributions to System Shock and Thief at seminal developer Looking Glass. Over the last few years he has been doing technical and creative design on a range of products for Eidos Interactive. He's a self-styled industry philosopher, playing games, designing games and imagining where the future for this medium lies in between improvisation and expression.

But mirroring the momentum of the market, Church is now working primarily on console-bound titles - among other things, he's credited for 'Synth and Related Playstation 2 Voodoo' on Harmonix/Sony's PlayStation 2 music game Frequency. Yet, informed by his history in PC game development, Church has some insights on the increasing shift away from the PC platform.

Church remarks on this shift: "In North America it's become a self-fulfilling prophecy: consoles are where people spend the money on marketing, and therefore that's where the market goes. Frankly the console has advantages in terms of accessibility, in terms of ease-of-install, and as such; that trend is not going away any time soon unless the PC becomes a different piece of hardware. PC gaming in the sense of 'I'm gonna go play this new racing game on the PC' is likely to be gone for a while. The controls aren't as good, it's just a different experience. You might as well crank it on your home stereo, have the big screen and have your cars screaming around the corner. It just works really well-- in a way that it doesn't on a monitor with a mouse."


Doug Church, musing
on game design*

A Space for Small Design

But the PC still has an important place in the game design ecology. These last few years Church has been a participant and sometime-organizer with the Indie Game Jam, an effort to seed more independent game design efforts. He speaks of the importance of the PC as a platform for experimental games: "The PC has always been a better place for experiments and smaller projects, and I think we're just seeing the beginning of what would almost be called the real 'indiespace' in games. It's just incredibly basic, and I don't mean that in a bad way; Tetris is incredibly basic, but needless to say it's a rather impressive game and product. I think you're seeing the downloadables, the PopCaps, the Zone.com, the zillion little Macromedia Flash things all over the place. Plenty of people are playing games on PCs, but they're playing a lot of free stuff, shareware/trial-ware kind of stuff, or other little projects. Like 'oh we did this crazy little blend of this and this' or 'for $15 bucks you can get this wacky experience'... and it's not a big cinematic experience, but they are playful and fun, often addictive, and even the simplest ones may not be a full game, but you can play around and get a feel. And maybe in 4, 5 years, as the tech basis gets better, that space will have kept growing, and there will be a larger range of things in it."

"And that seems likely to remain a PC space. You're not gonna take your Xbox or Xbox 2 home and start developing software for it, in the way that you can hack together a little Java app. I don't think any of the console people are pushing in that direction. Sony tried briefly with NET Yaroze, and then Linux for PS2. While they're valiant efforts, I assume that no one at Sony considers them huge successes. It's cool that they tried it, and maybe someone will try it again, in another round."

He continues: "I think the PC remains valid in many ways. It's true that if someone tells you 'Here's a movie property. Go develop an action shooter or a racing game' the PC is not really where you go. Because of console penetration -- I mean PS2s are what, 60-something million at this point? And then you'll get things like Game Boy and stuff -- hey, there's 90 million more. You've got a lot of market there you can reach. And why not reach it? It ties into more marketing. It's a more stable platform. It doesn't change every week. It doesn't have driver issues. There's a lot of upside there."

Entertainment Versus Play

However, it's hard to talk to Church for any length of time without receiving a gentle earful on innovation. While Church is emphatically unbiased in his approach to the industry, a few preferences leak out: his hope that players will have higher stakes to play with in their video games, and his feeling that higher stakes come not from higher production values, but from choices, from agency, within gameplay.

In particular, Church is concerned that momentum towards console game development could mean an increasing emphasis on passive entertainment, to the detriment of active play in game design. "At the most fundamental level you play a console game on a TV, which is an entertainment medium about linear sequences of highly non-interactive, highly driven-at-the-consumer, somewhat passive experiences. On the other hand, the computer is about typing and doing and moving your mouse. Even when you're doing word processing, you're much more active. The console always had both less reach and more reach. There are fewer consoles than there are PCs, but they're all clearly for games. So I think that did allow the marketing side to commit more as those numbers went up. And it just sort of fits together: you see characters walking around on your TV screen and you kind of expect a certain sort of experience to happen. There's a different mental space between 'Let's go sit on the couch and be entertained' and 'Let's go to the PC and do some stuff.'"

"That is the low-hanging fruit when you want to advertise more, when you want to communicate to more people and get them involved -- entertainment is the easy hook. Humans have had a long period of learning how to sell two sentence high concepts and a lot of little cut scenes: an explosion and someone running, the girl going "aaaaah!", and the guy riding off into the sunset, or whatever. We know how to advertise that and we do it a lot, whereas talking more deeply about the play experience isn't something we seem to know how to do very much of at all. You start trying to figure out how we get to a bigger space of non-enthusiasts: people less steeped in the culture and the language. Which is fair enough, the more people that get to play stuff, the better. I'm certainly not against that. But until we can communicate more clearly what experience they're getting I think the entertainment angle is going to continue to dominate, because it's the thing that's easier to explain in two sentences."

The risk is that entertainment might crowd out play, Church argued, and he explores this balance: "Certainly personally, as a designer and as a player, I enjoy having more entertainment in the things I play with, but I care more about the play. I'd rather find a game with great new play stuff than great new entertainment stuff. And certainly I think the focus on entertainment, the way it is now, means it's probably crowding out some things. But you know, 10 years ago on the PC little hex-based war games were probably crowding out more exploratory stuff with characters, and no one was writing about 'the death of gaming.'"

Play Vocabulary

Amidst this talk of shifting focus in the game industry, Church warms to the topic of developing a vocabulary to define play: "So it's certainly hard to think of this as all bad or anything or some unique moment where we've killed something off. I do think if we continue to find it impossible to explain play, and continue to rely on movie notions of entertainment in particular and fail to develop any identity or vocabulary of our own, then we miss the chance to be what we probably should be. Because as the interactive media, not the passive media, if the only way we can talk about ourselves is borrowing the language of a non-interactive media, that strikes me as a bad sign."

"We have a similar amount of development of random little arcade game concepts that we always have; much of it's in Java and on the web as opposed to in games that you pay for, bring home and put in your console. I do wonder if being so entertainment-focused means we miss out. If gaming becomes synonymous with characters and action such that it means it's high entertainment, then we lose out on figuring out how to do that in a more interactive, player-oriented way. Because then play is relegated to little clever experiments, and all the big stuff becomes all sort of movie-focused. I think that would be unfortunate. I can see that happening, but I don't think that we're at the point where that's happened yet."

"I would just say that it feels like we're safer putting entertainment into the play than play into the entertainment. However, it's probably easier, right now, to explain putting play into the entertainment. And that's the only real risk I see, that if we don't learn to do it in both directions, it could get a little sad. We might start thinking and doing only in the one direction, and lose some of the things that make us unique, and end up missing a lot of opportunities to find new play."

Communicating play is as much a marketing task as it is a design task. Church elaborates: "We need to give someone more of a sense of what they're going to be getting: 'I want this product because it would be so cool to have...' If a big part of play is expressing yourself and learning and improvising and exploring, it seems we need a way to talk about what we're going to let you improvise with. Or what sort of roles you're going to be able to take on. Fable did a good job of presenting this. Peter Molyneux has done that in a bunch of his games that he's presented recently: you don't really know what the minute-to-minute play is going to be like but you get the sense of 'I'm going to make some choices about who I am.' You look at something like Fable: there's clearly some great ideas there, there's clearly some ideas which kind of work; it's also shallow in a lot of ways. Fable's developers clearly tried to go after some big goals and even in the little bit it worked, to the degree that it is pretty shallow and first steps, you see how much response it's gotten -- people love it, people talk about it, people talk about 'Oh, it so cool because you can do this or this, and I can do it my way.' They managed to message that pretty well, so the consumer thinks 'Oh, I want that because it's about me.' But I don't think there are many examples you can point to where you can look at a game's marketing and understand its play particularly well."

Beyond Genre

The game industry typically turns to genre as a shorthand for describing play. Church discusses how genres are valuable until the point when we start developing games that mix styles of play. "Here's an example; I'll say 'you have two swords and you beat people up.' If I told you it was a role playing game you'd assume you had a bunch of stats, and you'd pick strategies and you'd watch it happening. If I told you it was a real-time strategy game, that might be the cool animation that your guys run, but you actually have nothing to do with it because all you're doing is grabbing twenty guys on-screen and moving them left. Whereas if I told you it was Soul Calibur III, you'd assume you'd have to master a set of crazy combos."


Church's early first-person pioneer, Ultima Underworld


"Sometimes I think that genre is our shorthand to talk about play, and that's about as specific as we'd get, because when I show you imagery of a lot of games and the communication message, you know 'you're a powerful wizard', or 'you're going to defeat terrorists' or 'you're going to pilot planes', it doesn't really tell you anything about what you're going to actually do. Like: What are the verbs you have? What are the buttons you're going to use? What sort of mental action do you get? Why are you even there? Why isn't it just a movie?"


"And so genre becomes sort of our word for play. When I tell you 'oh, it's an arcade flying game,' you go 'oh, that means I'm not going to actually have to use my instruments and the guys are gonna fly right at me and try to try to get themselves killed, and I'm going to blow lots of stuff up and it's exciting.' Whereas if I tell you it's a simulation flying game you go 'Oh, OK, I'm going to have 5 million instruments.' I mean, that's the only thing you really 'get it' from. And I think that as we build more games that blend genres and that cut across them, then we can begin to talk more about the play experience as opposed to just the genre."

Agency

Church talks about co-evolutionary literacy; designers, marketers and players each learning to better speak about games. If we can understand play in our games, we can have a better sense of ourselves as players. One of Church's most significant interests involves agency; how games give control over the user: "Agency is a big part of what play is. If you're going to make the player part of the experience you need agency and the need to be able to act and see reaction. If the world doesn't react to the player, then why are they there? If all they're doing is fulfilling a sort of pre-scripted thing, it could be fun, and it could be more involving than just reading a book, but it's still sort of a 'why is the player there?' experience."

"We'll certainly continue to have a large section of games that aren't necessarily about agency, and that's fine. I think when you talk about play you talk about improvisation and exploring, and drive action yourself. Like when two kids sit down in front of a TV to watch the new episode of The Simpsons, they're waiting to have things happen to amuse them. Whereas, if two kids go outside to play cowboys and indians, they're using loose structure, and they're gonna go see what happens. Something will evolve and they'll start improvising and exploring."

"Agency is more important for playfulness than entertainment. We remain very good at enabling and growing the amount of agency in the small, what you can do, 'oh, I have better button clicks here, and I've got better physics here.' This is great, and it's definitely a great toolset. But as we strive to infuse more entertainment into the product, and to drive more cinematic moments, more big, recognizable, driving, emotionally hitting things, most of our agency is not involved with emotion inside the story, it's almost exclusively in the realm of controls and the cameras. So as we build more elaborate mechanics to provide more agency of the small, while telling these sort of bigger entertainment stories, we end of taking away a lot of the player's agency at the top."

Scale of Risk

"If you're playing a Medal of Honor game you have a lot of agency at the small. Like 'which of these six guys to I shoot up first? Or do I go to cover? Or which button do I use? What do I do?' You essentially have almost no agency beyond that. The actual play is almost all at the micro level. That micro-play is spiced up with variants (i.e. 'Oh, you have a turret' and 'Oh, you're on a boat.') and it is certainly compelling and quite fun. All that micro-agency makes it involving in a way that reading or watching it wouldn't be, so once again, I don't think it's necessarily bad. But there must be larger scale or a more meaningful agency that could still be compelling, and wouldn’t have to be so moderated and constrained, so rote. But we have not yet developed solid tools for doing agency, or even marginally accepted or understood tools for building agency into the bigger picture. But we still want to develop those more emotionally compelling elements, or have more of the surprises and the unexpected -- like 'oh my god, that's really tense, what do I do?' So I think for now we end up taking away agency at that higher level in order to get the compelling bits, because to make sure that stuff works we rely on lessons from the non-interactive medias, as opposed to really learning how our media could best do it."

"It's natural that design improvement often comes bottom-up, but here in particular jumpstarting it from the other direction, i.e. on the bigger picture, of player agency on a larger scale, would be a huge help. Even if they don't work spectacularly, these experiments would still be a big win because they would give us all a better understanding of how it might work, and what there is to gain, as opposed to sort of bubbling around down there and seeing where we end up. And I think a few titles that have tried to go that direction, allowing agency in player task focus, character definition (not just "what weapon do i kill with" in the stats based RPG way, but a bit more character oriented), that sort of thing, and these have resonated with a lot of players."

But giving over more agency involves taking bigger risks; a difficult bet at a time when budgets are growing and established entertainment models seem more immediately profitable than experimental play innovation (games like Katamari Damacy notwithstanding). "In most console, mass-market entertainment products at the moment, I think there is some interest in providing more agency in the small and providing more control for the player in how they go about doing things, but there's not a lot of time and risk available to go after the bigger agency. As I say, a few games have gone after some of it and succeeded well, but we aren't to the point where it is easy to explain why that risk is worth taking compared to other things you could spend time on."

Church describes some of his game ethic: "I like putting players in a situation where they have to respond dynamically as opposed to pre-built in a bottle. If you look at something like Tony Hawk, what's nice is when you're on some rail and you're like 'what am I doing to do, the rail's about to end?' I like the improvisation and expression. I think we need more games where people can try things and be like 'oops, that went wrong.' Then we're not just gonna reload, because there's this specific thing to do, it's more like 'this thing got thrown in in my way so now I have to act dynamically and sort of surprise myself how I'd react.'"

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Comments


Isaak KvE
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Concerning the vocabulary on game design, I'll suggest reading Man, Play and Games by Roger Caillois.

By far the greatest book on the subject of play I've ever read.



As for (ironically) injecting play into today's triple A experiences: maybe we shouldn't bow to the market's whim so much but just create games. Nothing more, nothing less.


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