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Opinion: Develop & How You Start The Revolution

Opinion: Develop & How You Start The Revolution Exclusive

July 24, 2009 | By Lewis Denby

July 24, 2009 | By Lewis Denby
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

[After attending the recent Develop Conference in Brighton, England, UK writer Lewis Denby uses his travelogue as a backdrop to consider story vs. gameplay and the issue of what's really important about video games.]

Like many game developers, design students and press-folk, I spent a sizable portion of last week being forcibly thrust into Brighton's Metropole Hotel by what I'm sure were some of the most powerful seafront winds known to mankind. It's probably a good job, though, since I had a ticket to the Develop Conference, and that's where it was taking place.

On the first night, at the Icebreaker Drinks that break approximately no ice, I'm approached by a developer. He's spotted my press badge, and asks me what my angle is. I'm stumped. This is a reasonably new gig for me, and I'm probably still wide-eyed enough to think I don't need an angle.

I find myself regurgitating something I've used for a while: I look at the experiential side of playing video games. The things development isn't really concerned with. The stuff beyond the game. Understandably, the conversation moves swiftly on to drinking and beach parties.

The first day of the conference proper. Jammed into the most unreasonably small press office in existence, I type from the floor about thatgamecompany's Jenova Chen's eye-opening presentation of Flower's development. A glance at my Twitter feed shows an obscene amount of people doing the same thing. The headlines of each story are markedly different. They all have an angle. What's mine?

Evening rolls around, and I find myself enjoying a slightly gloopy Chinese meal with Gamasutra writer Mathew Kumar, everywhere-in-the-world writer Kieron Gillen, and a game design student whom I only remember by his internet tag, Larington. Conversation turns to Larington's ideas for the future. He wants to create the next big thing in large-scale, online shooting. It's an ambitious project, and Kumar asks him for a more concise pitch. "PlanetSide, but better," he says.

We muse over it and decide it's probably not the strongest vision. But it's an angle. Everyone has an angle, except for poor little me.

Too quickly, the final day of the conference is here. By this point, even walking there and before everyone's badges are on, you can tell who's who. The designers look casually-smart, with their suit jackets flowing over untucked shirts and jeans. Those involved in hard-development notch it up, tucking their tops in and masking their eyes with shades. The students appear eager, on the prowl for industry veterans with whom to vigorously network. The journalists just look hungover.

Predictably, I end up sitting in a lecture entitled 'Video Games as the Eighth Art'. On the podium is Denis Dyack, designer of Eternal Darkness and, more recently, Too Human. He's talking about the ways in which video game designers and developers can push their craft as an art form through careful methodology, rather than aspiring to what he considers the all-too-common "rock star lifestyle".

He starts talking about film theory. The term "Eighth Art" is extrapolated from an early film theorist's description of that medium as the seventh art, so it's an obvious comparison to make, even if it's one that's rapidly ageing. Dyack thinks the way forward is to speak the language of film. He also thinks that the way forward 'isn't in gameplay.'

I'm unsure what to think. Firstly, though examining games from a filmic perspective certainly yields interesting results, it seems odd to neglect approaches intrinsic to this medium. Secondly, the way forward "isn't in gameplay"? What does that even mean?

And then I realize. In amongst all the talk of digital distribution and whether the market's declining and what the industry's next big angles are, the big topic of the conference has essentially boiled down to story versus gameplay. Story's a tangible thing - it is, in essence, what happens. But this "gameplay" lark that's been bandied around so heavily is far too abstract to be useful.

I think back to other talks I've been to, and, yes, I'm definitely right. It's all been "story this, gameplay that." We're being taken over by an obscene buzz word that's completely undermining what should be convincing, thorough, nuanced arguments.

It needs to stop. So, finally, I have my angle.

Each year, Develop hosts something called the Opinion Jam. It's an informal session at the end of the conference, where all the attendees file into a room, grab a complementary beer, and have the opportunity to deliver a two-minute rant to the masses. I had my angle; I needed a platform. This was it.

I deliver my rant. It bombs. The Opinion Jam is judged by audience vote. I get a few in my favour, but the majority of the room disagrees. Perhaps it's just that people find "gameplay" to be an adequately specific term. Perhaps it's that I nervously and hungoverly ramble for far too long before running out of time and quickly blabbing my point. I suspect it may be the latter, so here's what I was trying to say.

Across the two days of Develop, I met an abundance of people with a lot to say. Many work in highly specific areas of game design and development, the areas we probably don't even consider when we judge the final product. If we do consider them, it's only within the realms of a much broader section of the experience. The section we call "gameplay".

Our unquestioning acceptance of the term leads to a diminished understanding in how games actually work. Dyack was right when he said the most affecting games are often developed with a keen eye for meticulous detail and methodology, and it's this detail to which we need to pay attention.

Doing so will make some big steps into our comprehension of how these streams of code and reams of assets flow from our television screens and computer monitors, and make something happen in our minds that engrosses us, invigorates us, even moves us.

But we can only pay this much attention if we know how to describe what we're talking about. And while ever we're content with scoring the gameplay a seven out of ten, or even saying "the gameplay was brutal" or other such vagueisms, we're only placing obstacles in front of ourselves.

The Opinion Jam ends. IGDA founder Ernest Adams deservedly wins with an excellent speech on the low quality of writing and acting in video games. As we file into the bar to drink away our headaches, a man approaches me. The man I met at the Icebreaker Drinks.

"So you think we need to adopt a new vernacular in order to understand our hobby more?" he asks.

I say yeah. I guess I do.

"There's your angle," he says. "Start the revolution."

[Lewis Denby is general editor of Resolution Magazine and general freelance busybody for anyone that'll have him. Wander over to his website for more information and contact details.]

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