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MIGS 2011: Redefining Challenge In Games Can Push Artistic Boundaries, Says Rohrer
MIGS 2011: Redefining Challenge In Games Can Push Artistic Boundaries, Says Rohrer
November 2, 2011 | By Kris Graft

November 2, 2011 | By Kris Graft
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The success of the Call of Duty franchise gave the games industry a reason to celebrate, said Jason Rohrer, the indie developer behind such experimental games like Between, speaking at the Gamasutra-attended Montreal International Games Summit.

With tens of millions of units sold and billions of dollars generated, Call of Duty has led game advocates to point out just how big and mainstream interactive entertainment has become.

But when you compare unit sales of even the biggest games to a recent hit film like Avatar, games still pale in comparison. And when population and monetary inflation is taken into account, games look even worse -- Rohrer did his own number crunching and determined Gone with the Wind had about 1 billion viewers when the world population was only 2 billion people.

He wasn't trying to take the wind out of the games industry's sails, but he was just pointing out that "We can't celebrate our conquest of the mainstream quite yet."

Rohrer referred to writer Tom Bissell, author of the book Extra Lives, as well as works that don't have to do with video games. After expressing admiration for the writer, he pointed out that Bissell recently said he would no longer play video games.

But it's not just Bissell. "It's gotten so bad that outside of my friends in the industry, nobody that I know plays video games anymore," Rohrer said. The medium is losing its best, most thoughtful players.

Why is that? Rohrer repeated his oft-stated case that games have yet to cross that "cultural line in the sand." On one side of that line are works like Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita and Picasso's Guernica. Even rock and roll has crawled above that line, with works like The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

But even the games that are viewed as the best that the games industry has to offer -Shadow of the Colossus, the original Legend of Zelda, Metal Gear Solid 2 -- don't come close to comparing to some of the masterpieces above the line, Rohrer said.

Game advocates, Rohrer said, might say that games are so different, that they can't, and shouldn't, be compared to non-interactive media. But Rohrer doesn't agree with that argument - novels, movies, photography and music, for example, are all different, unique forms of media, but they are all truly mainstream, and all expressive in their own, very unique ways. And all above that cultural line.

"We do need to figure out how to cross this line," Rohrer said.

Just how can games cross that line? Perhaps the games industry needs more art games that explore expressiveness in an interactive way. Interactivity, after all is gaming's unique hook. "Art games" like Rohrer's own Between and Sleep is Death, or maybe Tale of Tales' The Graveyard can perhaps push the boundaries.

But despite his own renowned efforts in the art games space, Rohrer took a dig at himself and at the movement. "It seems that this whole 'art game' thing is dead, if not dying," he said. "It's a polite conclusion - these games are boring. A lot of people have been telling me this over the last two years," he laughed.

So, he said, this got him thinking about the nature of boredom. He determined that "Interactivity is not enough.... [It's] not enough to make a work that is not boring."

Plot, he said, was one way to overcome boredom, and make a medium engaging. One can sit and watch a movie for hours, engaged through the ears and eyes. Add plot to music, as in Alice's Restaurant, and an 18-minute song becomes surprisingly bearable even for the relatively long running time.

But even plot is not enough. For Rohrer, the magic ingredient that can overcome boredom, and perhaps get games to cross that cultural line in the sand, is challenge.

It's a bit of a paradox, he admitted. The current leading theory is that games need to be more accessible, i.e. easy. But he said the brain yearns for challenge. With no challenge, gaming is busy work, and "Nobody likes busy work," he said.

Game designers need to embrace challenge, said Rohrer. "We as game designers, we've been fighting against the necessity of challenge in games, but it might be like the avante garde filmmakers who resisted plot."

Now, he said, these filmmakers have embraced plot, and realized that there are many ways that they can play with plot, and be experimental and expressive. It's the same way with games and challenge.

There's a "limited spectrum of game challenge," said Rohrer. "We need to be inventing new challenges that complement what we're trying to express. Then it won't feel like a gimmick, but a potent expressive tool."

He used a few personal examples. He played Kane & Lynch 2 on the hardest mode, and died repeatedly, respawning at the beginning of a stage, going through the same motions, talking to the same characters and dying at the same spot after 10 minutes, over and over again. He turned it down to medium after about 10 times.

"It's not challenge necessarily that's driving normal people from games, but this broken way we handle challenge in game design," he said.

Rohrer played BioShock after talking to a game designer friend who told him that the game's Vita Chambers (points where players respawn after death) remove challenge from the game. When a player dies, they spawn there over and over - but the game's state does not change, so enemies that lost health are still at the same health level after a player returns from a Vita Chamber to finish them off.

He tried playing BioShock using a wrench only - no plasmid power-ups, no fancy weaponry. He made it through the entire first section of the game, even to the boss, and beat him. He had to make a lot of visits to the Vita Chambers, but he still made it through.

While he enjoyed the game the first time he played it as intended, "All of a sudden it came boring to me. ... The game might seem engaging, but it's falsely engaging, kind of tricking you into thinking it's engaging," he said.

But there are games that do handle challenge appropriately, he said. Games like Far Cry 2, Demon's Souls and Minecraft use what he called the "freedom of approach method." Players work their way through complicated subsystems of a game, working towards a goal. How they get there is up to them.

And there are what he called the "microchallenge" games like Super Meat Boy, VVVVVV and Flywrench. "These games break their challenges up into extremely small chunks," said Rohrer. There's no limit to lives, and there are checkpoint respawns. "That allows you to have this tight, rhythmic loop," he said. "...As a result you become so good at controlling these games."

What these games do is present challenge, but they don't feel repetitious. And these challenging games, Rohrer said thoughtfully, "feel strangely expressive ... They seem to be expressive about the nature of challenge."

He added, "Exploring challenge in games [is] a pretty valid thing to be doing with games artistically. ... We can't be pushing artistic boundaries by pandering to a game illiterate mainstream."


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Comments


E McNeill
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Awesome stuff. Insightful as usual.



I wonder: what about Flower? I felt no sense of challenge in that game (I'm wasn't even sure if I could lose), but I was engaged from start to finish. Challenge certainly works for the common fiero-driven design, but are there other approaches that could work as well?

Carlo Delallana
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I can only speak for my personal experience but Flower's challenge for me was self-imposed. Trying to find every petal to collect and create the longest trail possible. It was intrinsic.

E McNeill
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@Carlo: I wonder how prevalent this experience is. For me, I took my time in the levels and only grabbed the optional petals when they were along my path.



Then again, I suppose that after the first few levels (when I was treating the game as a toy), I started playing carefully, trying to steer my petals carefully around the obstacles. I suppose that's a self-imposed challenge, after all.

Carlo Delallana
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The six-axis was indeed part of the challenge :D

Glenn Storm
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There's an interesting point to the comparison between FC2 "freedom of approach" and more linear difficulty management. We often think of difficulty ramping in terms of a curve, a linear form; which may make sense when evaluating overall player experience, or when using a story curve to give broad strokes to an experience. But, in a non-linear medium (us), it seems to make much more sense to abandon this linear form when designing difficulty, and embrace a multi-faceted, if not topological, form that speaks to the choices of approach to a challenge. In other words, it seems like a red flag in interactive difficulty design if there's only one approach to choose from; something to consider identifying early and accounting for as variety in ramping grade over relative time, or character customization, story exploration, etc.



Ex.: the player _can_ learn the intricate timing of the most successful combo moves to beat the boss, (but that's only one approach) ... or you can use the lesser moves over a longer time, ... or a combination of environmental affordances with the lesser moves, etc. And perhaps this kind of design may not be helped by counting something like the 'vita chamber cheat' mentioned above, but that can depend on the games' mythology.

Dan Edward
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It's an interesting and thought provoking article. I have one quibble though:



'While he enjoyed the game the first time he played it as intended, "All of a sudden it came boring to me. Ö The game might seem engaging, but it's falsely engaging, kind of tricking you into thinking it's engaging," he said.'



What kind of strange double-speak is this? Is it even possible to think you are engaged with a game, but not be in reality? Engagement is a quality of the player, not the game, and if the player is engaged then necessarily the game is engaging. I'm not sure exactly what this is an argument against, other than maybe allowing your player to play in ways that draw undue attention to formal game-like elements that can undermine suspension of disbelief.

Jeff Stolt
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I agree with you on the phrasing, but I took it to mean that "falsely engaging" is simple interaction.



Cow Clicker may be "engaging" on some level, but it's more "interactive" than engaging. And I could define interaction as "falsely engaging."

Michael Joseph
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I think he's talking about a sort of awakening moment where he realizes the emperor has no clothes. When this happens I think it not only makes the current game feel boring, but all subsequent games that are like it and not substantially novel.

Carlo Delallana
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Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. Keys to creating motivation and an intrinsically rewarding experience.



I see lots of attempts at the autonomy part of this equation. From Little Big Planet to Farmville. Players are encouraged to be autonomous (within constraints of the game) with the way they approach the experience of the game. Mastery and Purpose is where most games fail players.



To know that you are developing a skill makes an activity more engaging. You can have every psychological trick in the book to prevent extinction through extrinsic rewards but designing a game that gives players a sense of mastery over the rules, the game space, etc will wonderfully compliment any extrinsic reward systems you have in place.



Then we come to purpose which is a very nebulous thing to tackle because it is one of the most personal of motivators. This is where niche games that target specific players could find more success than games that try to be everything to everyone.

Chris Rock
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Old news.



Did it seriously take you this long to realize games are crap, Rohrer? I remember all those suckers saying games shouldn't be like film. Games are a new medium! A new form of storytelling! So much for that bull. Games would be lucky to achieve what film did even before sound was invented. People trying to innovate storytelling when they don't even appreciate the basics.



If this is new to you, you haven't been paying attention.

Chuan Lim
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> Render.PlayerExpression 1





FORM





Perhaps this whole emphasis on comparing different forms is just a cultural thing.

Film / art / games / books and even oral traditions are pretty much the same thing but just time -displaced with the medium 'becoming' the message, but only when we have nothing to say. Once you've exhausted all your seven stories, as in the construction of Hollywood films these days what you get then is this kind of emptying out of the form so completely that all that's left are the devices and their effects: 'becoming' an assemblage of taut triggers and drivers. Mind you, I'm still perversely keen to see stuff like the Wachowski's "Speed Racer" but only because I think it might just be pure art in taking this approach to a kind of breaking point.



Curiously, game design operates from this other direction which begins with very limited movements and mechanics, and aspires to evoke something meaningful or humanistic in it's artifice. Whether that's from smearing gameplay with film -like affectations such as a musical score or cut scenes, or character animations that match up with our own expectations from outside of the form. While effective, I can't help but feel that it's just imitative of what the other arts have already mapped out over decades if not centuries on a cognitive level. You must realise too that it took 15 - 20 years from the invention of the kinetoscope with it's whirring images and monkey shine before DW Griffiths, and then FW Murnau developed the idea that you could create a contiguous impression of space -time beyond the frame of the filmed image. That stuff is golden, and super interesting to watch especially seen through the lens of our visual sophistication.



-





BEGETS





To keep going down the "Corridor of Duty" is a complete dead -end creatively and utilises the computing power that we have available these days for facile means. Arguably, Disneyland's "Haunted Mansion" ride is the perfect embodiment of this kind of experience and cannot be bettered with it's augmented thrills and total immersion. With a constant barrage of distraction as is the signature of these rides, they also conflate the space necessary for any self -reflection, empathetic or critical that's required to really take something into one's own belief system. To their credit the 'not-games' are looking at this vital part of why we actually engage and Rohrer should not be dismay'd by the accusations of boredom. How wonderful, in a literal sense to have an open -ended experience, and why should we privilege certain emotions over others?



While I can understand it from a commercial aspect in that we're still able to generate genuine wonderment through a sense of technological awe and disbelief there will come a point in the not too distant future where this doesn't mean anything at all. Just looking at the 60FPS footage of "Uncharted 3" I think we might have already reached this bottom -less uncanny valley where games have this effect of looking like inert wall-papered worlds. That we finally have the fidelity to see that the emperor without his clothes was just a shop dummy after all, and that actually makes me feel almost a sense of revulsion and sadness. For the time spent in situ when I could have been alive with possibility.







-





MEANING





By it's very nature, something truly 'transgressive' is difficult recognise or slippery to grasp the first time around and we can only couch things in the familiar. A new experience might not fit into our existing expectations just as with the myth of Columbus and the Indians. From reading above, you get a sense that Rohrer sees difficulty as a means to expand player intensity from sea to sky -- however 'challenge' is just one craft that guides us to the shore. The real triumph of Hidetaka Miyazaki's game design for both "Demon's Souls" & "Dark Souls" for me is the rich & meticulous possibility -space that doesn't try to overtly dictate what's going on in players' headspace nor channel you into some emotional outcome like some puppy -dog developers.



It's a subtle but significant difference, that's more attuned with the act of 'play' and I'm reminded of contemporary Japanese architecture [ re: Sou Fujimoto ] where a given space can have many different purposes and sometimes even the distinction between different areas is not altogether apparent. There's a kind of faith at work that people themselves will bring a sense of completion to this kind of 'passive' design. As with "Minecraft" and earlier games from the late 70s / 80s there was an inherent understanding that the technological limitations would mean that the 'game' existed somewhere in between player and screen.



The design of the game encourages a sense of projection, and that combined with the care and attention to detail in the moment to moment gameplay allows a lot of expressivity and a rich feedback loop as opposed to just making a very hard 2D platformer. If that was the case, then the ultimate artistic statement in that regard has already been made in the form of "Takeshi's Challenge". The way the animations in "Dark Souls" are innately tied to the weapons and their gameplay has so much care & nuance to it that overcoming the 'challenge' always feels good and appeals to the 'sensing' part of our brain which is hard -wired to anticipate movement. I guess it's the kind of philosophy behind games like "Virtua Fighter 2" where there is surface [ 3 buttons ] but also unfathomable depths if you want to go there with the SPOD and 1-frame moves like Akira's knee. Again more to do with depth and providing a really wide bandwidth for interaction than pure difficulty.



Nowadays being always -connected, that experience also invariably spills over into wider community and forum discussion. I think as humans we're nourished by this kind of companionship or story -telling as we're doing here, and the bonfires are kind of symbolic of that desire to bask in the glow of shared experience. As designers there's so much to explore in this regard though it may be completely out of your control -- the real heart & soul of story in games.







Beat Takeshi "Takeshi no Chōsenjō" [ NES 1986 ]

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Takeshi_no_Chōsenjō







K+G ~,





-- Chuan

warren blyth
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Kept thinking about the "educational gaming" conundrum while reading this.

Lots of people think they are making "games" that "teach," but often they are making repetitive exercises that train or brainwash. (both "game" and "learn" are so vague that everyone seems to be happy using their own definition of them.) ("fun" and "challenging" seem similarly broad, and abused).



Several people at the recent Serious Play Conference pointed out that real learning is usually slightly painful. You have to go through this process of banging your head against a wall until your eureka moment. They were concerned that it might not be the sort of process you could, or should, sugar coat.



Rohrer's thoughts (< edit!) on the weird way some challenges become boring, or feel forced, seems wrapped up in similar problems. (makes me assume the rewarding feeling you get from conquering a true challenge is wrapped up in the human psychological satisfaction of learning).

...

I guess Rohrer is just saying games aren't as edgy and challenging as revered works of art - but I feel like games are closer to learning/practice than the art world (and I'd rather dissect that approach to challenge)

Kris Graft
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@Warren: Just to clarify, these are Jason's thoughts as reported by me! :)

Ramon Carroll
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I just can't say honestly say that Farcry 2 got its "difficulty" right. Was the game difficult at a lot of parts, yes. However, the AI was unrealistically challenging. Most of the dudes wore tanktops, yet trying to kill them was like trying to kill a juggernaut in MW2. Also, the stealth system was broken, for as soon as you shot a guy with a silenced weapon, or just walked up and stabbed him, every character from a mile away knew you were there, and had perfect aim, regardless of how far away they were. The game felt so undertested it was sickening. Very sad, because the game had ENORMOUS potential.

Shay Pierce
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How odd. For the most part I've always seen challenge as being at the core of what games are. It's hard to find an example of a game without it, and the ones that do totally lack it feel like fundamentally different things. Even Farmville has an element of challenge and skill, mostly around the decisions you make on when to login and how to schedule your own time around the game's scheduling systems.



I always appreciated Rohrer's art games as being something that broke from this mold - their goal was not necessarily to create a fun gameplay experience, his goal was to evoke other emotions, and I figured that was the only reason they lacked challenge. This makes it sound more like it's an option that he wasn't aware of.



The games he cited at the end (Flywrench, Super Meat Boy, VVVVV) are, to me, the ideal example of what challenge-based games can be. Being "expressive" with challenge-based mechanics is something that still eludes me, though I like to think there's some personal expression of various types in the gameplay of my own puzzle game Connectrode - though I think the expression there is in such an abstract form that it's hard to describe and probably even harder for people to take seriously if I tried.

David Serrano
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"It's hard to find an example of a game without it, and the ones that do totally lack it feel like fundamentally different things."



Exactly. This the cultural line Rohrer referred to. Although I don't think he understands this. Because I don't think core designers and developers are prepared to accept that in order to cross the line into true mainstream acceptance, games will have no choice but to fundamentally change into different things. The games that finally do cross over probably won't be called games anymore because they won't include core gaming rules,dynamics, devices or mechanics. They'll likely have more in-common with something like Second Life than with core games in their current form.


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