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But Seriously Folks: Austin Game Developers Panel


March 13, 2006
 

Three game designers and a studio head walk into an arcade bar, and decide Roger Ebert should probably stick to writing about movies. As for “Games: the bastard children of popular media,” the topic for the latest Austin Game Developers meeting, set up at the Dave & Buster's in northwest Austin on a Friday night, panelists mostly avoided the “beaten to death” subject of whether games are art but nonetheless kept coming back to the notion to support the greater issue – if games are important at all.

That wasn't the only accepted uncertainty. Last-minute changes in the panel lineup left Mike McShaffry, head of the Austin studio for Breakaway Games, with only three panelists to moderate: Damion Schubert, lead designer for an unannounced project at Wolfpack Studios; Allen Varney, freelance writer for several gaming publications including The Escapist and game designing on contract for Warren Spector's Junction Point Studios; and Scott Jennings, aka Lum the Mad, recently of Mythic Entertainment, having started his senior designer job at NCSoft Austin one week before the meeting.

The jumping-off point for all conversations were Ebert's comments to a user who questioned his earlier thoughts about video games not measuring up, for the sake of overall society, to other forms of entertainment. McShaffry said his favorite clause of Ebert's was the last: “video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.” (At no point was it pointed out that the comment was written and published in November, four months earlier, but at least one audience member indicated he wasn't aware of it.) Pointing out that IMDB has a long list of movies that don't rise beyond a waste of time, McShaffry then asked the panel if gaming has it's own “Schindler's List,” and if not, should anyone care?



The Panel

“Does that mean you want to put concentration camps in a game?” Jennings cracked before replying seriously that he does care about how games he works on are regarded, and even if he ends up working on “the game equivalent of Barb Wire,” that it be relevant to someone. Schindler's List, Schubert pointed out, is a “very heavy film” to begin with, but more importantly is a non-interactive story. Games, being interactive, are meant to tell stories in a different way, by giving their audiences a participatory experience. Instead of watching a movie about the horrors of war, a gamer can play Civilization and see what happens to an area of the world. He quoted Wil Wright, who has said that his creation The Sims is an indictment of materialism, that eventually the in-game characters can buy more items than they can stand to keep. Varney added that Wright's earlier game, SimCity, teaches the fallacy of traffic control by adding more roads. Varney then suggested that mass-market games generally have a narrower set of values to explore, given that their target audience is usually teen-aged boys. Maybe more games should explore a broader set of values, he said.



Roger Ebert's infamous comment

McShaffry then asked the panel to consider whether Ebert was picking on youth culture in general, and assuming technology wasn't an issue, whether popular games like Grand Theft Auto would be played 500 years from now, like the works of Shakespeare are enjoyed today? Jennings didn't want to speculate that far into the future, but he admitted to still playing and liking the Final Fantasy games released for the Super Nintendo. “Now, Final Fantasy V isn't going to be considered an epic of the medium, but I still play it.” He also cited the 1988 political simulator Hidden Agenda as an example of how games can teach, in this case, the machinations of Third World governments. (Later in the talk, Varney plugged the more modern and generic shareware simulator Democracy for its teaching ability.)

Schubert said what made Shakespeare's stories special was the ability to reach a wide audience, from the educated few who could appreciate depth and nuance, to the commoners in the cheap seats looking for jokes. Game makers are good at reaching the cheap seats, he said, though achievements in richer game stories often stand out, though are not always recognized at the time. Jennings put Planescape: Torment at the top of his list of great story games, but pointed out that it sold poorly and that it was an example of a well-produced but unsuccessful story game that became the hallmark of Black Isle Studios and perhaps led to its eventual closure, even though the games remain favorites. As for Grand Theft Auto, none of the panelists would admit to liking it much.



McShaffry present Ultima IV as one of his favorite games.

McShaffry presented a slide on one of his own favorite games, Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar. Calling it a rare example of a role-playing game that “forces the player to be the good guy,” it not only inspired McShaffry to a career in games (that included a stint at Ultima-makers Origin Systems) it also inspired him to give blood, as the Avatar does in-game. He recalled one encounter in an Ultima IV dungeon that featured what appeared to be many children in cages. With some searching, the Avatar can free them, but the children attack, and the player is forced to choose what to do next, including running away or killing the children.

Schubert agreed that the moral quest in Ultima IV set the series apart from other RPGs, but pointed out that in Ultima Online, preserving the moral boundaries that made Ultima special proved difficult in a multiplayer world. Though in multiplayer games, Jennings added, the interactions between players can be far more valuable than the experience of sitting together in a darkened movie theater. But, Varney said, it all depends on the context of that experience, and recognizing a game's potential to create social change will be difficult, but the potential is there. He cited an article he wrote around the same time as Ebert's comments, envisioning a world economy based on in-game behavior and reputation, and further blurring of the line between currency used in and out of games. Companies are likely to see games' power to sell ideas, Varney said, and someday Wal-Mart and Target might have their own massively multiplayer games tied to promotional efforts.

Jennings countered that he liked games best as a way to escape reality, not build onto it. “I don't want to work on Starbucks Online.” But he and Schubert both noted the increase in “serious games” meant as promotional or educational tools – but Schubert said they're often about as much fun as a training video. McShaffry said he sometimes hears interest from big-name companies to make high-gloss games for promotion, but the interest usually fades once the multi-million-dollar budget comes up.

While that might make games more important culturally, it wouldn't make them more profound, the panelists agreed. As for what to do about Ebert's comments, head-on argument didn't seem worthwhile to the panelists, but any change in the example of mainstream games wouldn't happen right away. Jennings offered two approaches to the problem: one, to improve the range of cultural relevance in future games, dangerous because those games would also have to sell; and two, for game professionals to become more aggressive in justifying their craft. That's also dangerous, Jennings said, given the current attitude about games some in political power have. “It'd be like standing up for drug abuse.”

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