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Chen: Designers Of Online Games 'Often Do Lazy Work'
Chen: Designers Of Online Games 'Often Do Lazy Work'
January 12, 2011 | By Simon Parkin

January 12, 2011 | By Simon Parkin
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Jenova Chen, co-founder of thatgamecompany (Flower) and co-designer of the company's forthcoming Journey has criticized designers of some online games for "lazy work", saying they just add online features to old single player mechanics.

In an interview with the U.S. PlayStation Blog Chen said: "Itís important [to challenge preconceived notions about what makes a multiplayer game] because your brain can be stimulated intellectually, emotionally, and socially."

"When people design online games, they often do lazy work," he said. "They bring an existing single-player game ó an RPG, an RTS, a fighting game, a shooter ó and duct tape on some online technology. They say: 'okay, thereís multiple players, now do something cool. Here, play a kidís game like Capture the Flag.' Thatís the level of design."

With Journey, Chen wanted to think more deeply about the design aims of the multiplayer experience. "If you really wanted to stimulate a social activity, you need to re-think it from the ground up," he said.

"What is the skill [the player is] supposed to acquire? Accuracy? Or is it the ability to convince others? If the skill is social, itíll be very relevant and useful. People still play poker. Why? Because the skill of deception is useful for real life."

"Look at online games. How many skills are based on social elements? Most games are based on grinding, accuracy, physical dexterity. They are not social games. Theyíre just old games with online features."

Chen was quick to point out that he enjoys first person shooters such as Call of Duty, but laid down a challenge to developers to pay more attention to making multiplayer experiences relevant to people's lives.

"People still play chess because strategic thinking is useful," he said. "Brain training games, fitness gamesÖthese have relevance. People donít have much time to waste, so they want relevance. Whether itís emotional relevance, like experiencing joy or sadness, or intellectual relevance, or social relevance."


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Comments


Dolgion Chuluunbaatar
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Agreed. And that is why I look forward to Journey!

Chuan Lim
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A few points:





I feel systems design needs to shift emphasis from roots in D&D dice-rolls -> and realise that design is fundamentally about psychology and human interactions. Yes its about maths, but even mathematics is just a way to describe the world. The game designs that we're all familiar with are just a subset of a larger picture of HCI and motivation, and we just aren't that good [ or very creative ] at engineering something that leads to those kinds of fuzzy emotional, resonant experiences beyond "leveling up" a bunch of arbitrary numbers. Insert juicy feedback + gold coin sound effect here. I am hopeful though that this kind of game design will eventually die off and that players will want more interesting experiences.



Catching up on the recent Yu Suzuki interview at 1UP was a revelation. "Super Hang-On" was all about giving the player a special experience beyond what was happening on screen and I still love this Sega AM2 / AM3 approach to design by first principles. It's about having a vision or original idea that comes from life and creating the software, hardware [!] and game systems to best express it, rather than the other way around.



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The other issue with most commercial game designs, is that they're primarily about staking out chunks of the players time -- and often without much sensitivity to what's actually happening in the player loop. The almighty intensity graph is something borrowed from film and television production, totally linear media without player input or choice and only maps boredom / against stress in creating the roller-coaster effect. How the fuck is that going to represent love or despair? Furthermore, there's a fine line between something like "Uncharted 2" which uses classic gating and pacing & less finessed efforts like "Enslaved" where you can smell the 'gaminess' of it all and the spell is broken. Old lady turns back into hag. It is not enough, especially as gaming literacy increases.



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Finally the audience also needs to be able to 'own' their experience if not spoonfed with affirmations; possibly through creativity as with "Minecraft" or other ways to ascribe value to play. I suppose Keita Takahashi's "Noby Noby Boy" tried to escape didactic game rules & goals in this way but many players felt lost. The collaborative effort in making Girl reach the planets kind of held things together in that respect. It will be interesting to see "Journey" and other approaches to this problem of value.





-- Chuan

Preet Kukreti
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I liked this better than the article

Scott Galloway
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I second that notion... I actually feel smarter having read and understood this in place of the original article and its rather blatant sentiment.

Joe McGinn
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Excellent post. Does a better job of the article in making the point.

Eric Geer
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Probably my most memorable experiences with multiplayer happend to be in Monster Hunter games...particularly when you are just starting--lower level armor/weapons etc or if you are fighting the big guys. When you play the game in this state there seems to be a sense of worry, but a sense of trying to be one unit. You share a common number of lives--3 faints cumulatively and the quest is over--so you are ever worried about the status/health of your counterparts--healing them if necessary--if you have the right items. And if not, you can/need to share your supplies. There is a unique flow of combat/fighting a monster--where everyone needs to focus on on thing--breaking the head, wings, cutting the tail etc--and in the end killing the monster--or have one person set a trap while the others prepare to traquilize it.



And if you are fighting a particularly tough monster all of these things adds a sense of camaraderie--which can--depending on the situation almost and sometimes does become an emotional experience. And when you fail a quest--it can actually have a stronger impact on this camaraderie and make you work as a tighter unit and team. I don't think I have played any other game that I was cheering at the end of only one mission.



MH really offers something that most online games don't do particularly well--a coop game where you actually care about your counterparts--yes--it could be improved---but the formula is there and it creates something unique.

Leo Gura
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I like the sentiment here, but let's get real. "People donít have much time to waste"? I see people having more time to waste than ever before -- that's why games are popular. Don't get all high-brow about why people play games. 95% of the time it's for mindless fun. We're talking about Entertainment with a capital E.

Eric Geer
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I think what he meant to say was that there are so many avenues to waste your time, that people don't have time to waste on irrelevant wasting time, so you need to make your time wasting avenue of the upmost importance to the user-or else the user will waste their time on something else.

Thomas Lo
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People don't want smart games. Look at the Wii's smash success. Dumb and Dumber, the story of the present and future of the game industry.

Scott Hansen
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So true... I like to add little tidbits of information in my games, mostly one or two lines on the EOL screen. I can't tell you how many times I got the two extremes in feedback left by players... Love the fun facts! and If I wanted to learn, I'd buy a textbook! The smarter the mechanic, the more I hear "I don't want to think like that!"

Tim Carter
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Here here.

brandon sheffield
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Tim - a personal pet peeve - it's "hear hear." Just so you know!

http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=hear

Tim Carter
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Hear hear.

Benjamin Quintero
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Big talk.. Let's hope Journey backs it up.

Christopher Braithwaite
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Agreed.

Scott Hansen
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Don't you know? Every game is a hit... until it ships.

Bart Stewart
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I agree with the sentiments, but they raise big challenges:



1. What new kinds of gameplay features support "rethinking social gameplay from the ground up?"

2. How hard is it to effectively implement such new kinds of active social content?

3. How will existing online gamers respond to social gameplay that doesn't conform to their expectations of what social gameplay is "supposed to be?"



With unknowns like those, I think I might be more cautious in my promises (explicit or implicit) about an upcoming game.

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Tim Carter
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Cynical response.



I think the problem isn't cut scenes. It's that game developers don't know basic narrative structure. The cut scenes or other storytelling devices (which can include in-game scenes) are ponderously slow, or wooden. So beat up the designers, not the medium.

Matthew Mouras
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Agree with Tim here. I've yet to play a game with the pacing or narrative depth of even some B movies.

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This user violated Gamasutraís Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Scott Hansen
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I learned a big lesson when writing Luxor. Originally, the story was going to be supported with cut scenes, but time and deadline forced those to be nixed. The only story element was the titles of the stages... almost like reading only the chapter titles of a book. Player and site reviews praised the story... why? Because, based on the chapter titles, the player was able to fill in the details with their own imaginations, making the experience much richer than if I'd forced the details on them.

Joe McGinn
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I think maybe a bit off the mark there Bob. His point was not that it's about emotions like drama is, I think Chen would agree with you it's about experiencing cool and fun things ... his point is that to simply take the cool things from 1-player designs and add networking to them and call it done is lazy ... and I kind of agree with that.



Love the example above a few posts that mentions Minecraft making creativity a cool, fun social thing. I've seen that working, was on a Mincecraft site played by game artists ... it was incredible! There were pyramids and all sorts of amazing terrain and architecture. "Collaborative creativity" is the cool and fun thing there, something fundamentally different that was possible in a 1-player game.

sean lindskog
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Online != Social



There are online games that are social in nature. There are online games which are not social in nature. Both are fine.



This comment is not aimed at Jenova Chen, since I haven't read all his comments in context. But it strangely common for game developers with a "new" design idea to categorically criticize all current game design. I don't understand this. To me, it comes across as self-centered (my idea is so much cooler than everyone elses!) or simply an attention grabber.



@Chuan: I like games which are based on D&D dice rolls! Although I agree there's lots of room to explore different types of design.

Aaron Truehitt
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A lot of Online games are nothing but lazy work really. Alot of them just amount to elaborate versions of Farmville, where it's about constant prizes and level ups for new stuff.



Ultima Online I always thought had a great aspect to online. You could steal anyone's stuff. This created an element we don't see much in online games anymore. Where you are scared of losing something you worked for in the blink of an eye. It facilitated banding together with others. If people were chasing you, you hide from them with your hiding skill. Get your buddies together, level up carpentry, and build some nice furniture for your home and decorate it with each other.



We don't see much banding together anymore other than for the sake of THE kill or Level gain.

R G
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The truth hurts.

Chris Proctor
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It's interesting how many developers say "Everyone else is doing it wrong, _I'm_ going to do it right", and then don't deliver on it.



I hope he does though :)

David Lindsay
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Truly interesting. Thank you, Chen. Basing your game design on social interactions, but with such massive restrictions on how you can interact. It's bold, to say the least.



I just can't answer this question: If the griefer doesn't get to broadcast "Hey Noob, I'n gunna kill ya!" will he play it? If the completionist doesn't have a progress bar to fill will the gameplay validate his experience? How will the game deliver the relevant experience you speak of to these gamers?



Are my customer archetypes too outdated, or simply don't apply in your game? Or will people still choose their "red meat diet" over the new innovative experience that Journey offers?



Why do designers make games that borrow heavily and reproduce old game mechanics from successful genres (lazy work)? Target market. It exists. You can make a player profile and cater for those folk specifically, delivering a meaningful experience. Telling a fine story, writing a compelling soundtrack or having a new graphical effect are types of innovation that are perfectly valid.



Social games often try to produce something that "everybody can play". That is the holy grail, right there. But how many gamer needs must be overlooked to reach this?



I want our customers to change, to love the art of games as we do. I hope this game makes millions, and will rejoice if you can say "I told you so!" to people like me.


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