The Road to E3: Industry Insights

We count down to the 2011 Electronic Entertainment Expo with a series of features about the issues affecting the future of the games industry.

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In our first Road to E3 feature we looked at the future of multiplayer gaming and its impact on the development scene, and in the second feature we examined the rise of mobile gaming and its influence on the wider gaming industry. Our final Road to E3 feature focuses on four burning issues currently affecting the global game development industry: the importance of player agency; the need for more complex human emotions in games; the reason digital distribution models are the future; and finally, the need to accept that games cannot yet be compared to high art.

Guiding us through these four topics are some of the biggest names in game development, whose presentations at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco earlier this year helped drive discussion around these four topics. Former Ubisoft creative director Clint Hocking used examples from Splinter Cell games as well as games like Far Cry 2 in his presentation to illustrate the need for developers to give up authorship and find new ways to let players feel in control. He argued that giving players more agency in games will push the boundaries of game development and take the industry in new directions.

Similarly, the founder and co-owner of French game development studio Quantic Dream and the creator of last year's Heavy Rain, David Cage, argued for the need to build more immersive game experiences that challenge the current standards of characterization. From Cage's point of view, the industry can move forward only once developers learn how to re-create more complex human emotions in games and successfully transform these into better-quality titles.

Design director at Epic Games and industry rockstar Cliff Bleszinski talked about a more practical issue: the need to embrace digital distribution. Bleszinski used examples from his own career to show that what consumers want now is a more seamless game experience that embraces social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and the iPhone.

Finally, former LucasArts developer and game design lecturer Brian Moriarty presented a panel on the games-as-art debate, comparing current video games to kitsch art (that is, popular, mainstream art as opposed to high art) and declaring that currently, games do not, and cannot, display the same artistic value as works of high art.

So, while game design models still rely heavily on sets of predetermined rules and outcomes, the gaming industry has begun to question whether it can do more. The idea that gaming experiences can diversify to the point where there is no longer a "standard" is a seductive one, driving innovation and creativity further and further ahead of the demands of fiscal success. Grappling with new ways of distribution and an increasingly growing audience, the video game industry is at a critical turning point. The question is, just how will it use this momentum?

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Clint Hocking embraced player agency in Far Cry 2.

Why Player Agency Counts: Clint Hocking

The question of how video games can be used to create meaning is a popular discussion topic at the Game Developers Conference. Eight months ago, Clint Hocking, creative director at LucasArts and former creative director at Ubisoft for titles including Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory and Far Cry 2, began writing a series of articles for his blog that focused on the idea that games could reach across platforms and genres and build a relationship with the audiences via gameplay that borrowed elements from core, casual, social, and mobile gaming.

"For the past six months, I have been writing about ways to build connections between different games, and by extension, their audiences," Hocking said on his blog. "How could developers--constantly understaffed and struggling to make every deadline--ever find the time to build a Facebook or iPhone game that would meaningfully link casual players to their 50-million-dollar Christmas release if they couldn't find the time to make their beta? I've imagined fashion design games for portable platforms that feed clothing designs to open-world games where avatar clothing customization matters. I've imagined social world-building games whose player-authored environments become playable levels used in action adventure games. I've imagined players of organization management games popping on to their mobile devices intermittently throughout the day to allocate resources and assign missions that are then subscribed to by real players playing action games."

Doing this, Hocking argues, would give players more of that which imbibes games with meaning: agency. In other words, letting players have control in a game is the essence of games themselves; it is what ties players to the gameworld and thus gives meaning to the game as a cultural artifact. Interconnecting game genres and platforms would create new ways for players to feel in control, allowing them to take the same set of skills and emotions from one type of game to another. This, Hocking believes, is what the games industry should be striving for.

At GDC 2011, Hocking presented a panel on the importance of agency and how it can be used to shape meaning in games. Like a film's meaning can be crafted through the process of editing, a game's meaning can be crafted through its dynamics--the run-time behaviour of the gameplay system. When designing a game, developers are faced with two choices: one, heavily author the game by placing meaning in the game's mechanics; or two, abdicate authorship completely and let each player create his or her meaning through the act of playing. It's not hard to guess which Hocking favours. When working on the first Splinter Cell game for Ubisoft, Hocking heavily authored the gaming experience by forcing players to make only the decisions that he planned for them. In his mind, the game was about three things--sensitivity, proximity, and fragility--and he wanted all players to extract the same three things from playing the game as he did. As the so-called author of the game, Hocking forced a set of dynamics onto players.

This was not the case with Far Cry 2, in which he completely relinquished authorship to let players create their own meaning in the way they played. In his original pitch for Far Cry 2, Hocking told his team it was about the idea of human social savagery being more disturbing than simple teeth and claw savagery.

"This message was embedded within the dynamics of the game: shooting people in cold blood, euthanizing allies, and so on," Hocking said during his GDC 2011 panel.

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Developers can either heavily author the game by placing meaning in the game's mechanics or abdicate authorship completely and let each player create his or her meaning.

So, while two different players might play the original Splinter Cell and get exactly the same meaning out of it, Far Cry 2 was designed to give individual players the freedom to extract their own meaning out of the experience, as opposed to a predetermined one. For example, one player may come to the realisation that although Far Cry 2 rewards murderous actions, it never celebrates them, thus reminding players that they may be no better than the people they kill, while another player may stay out of trouble and protect his life inside the game as much as possible, thus coming to the conclusion that the game is actually rather dull.

Narrative also affects how meaning is constructed in a game. During his discussion, Hocking asked the audience to imagine playing a game of Tetris in their heads. He then asked the audience to imagine the same thing again and this time to pretend that the game is taking place in a field outside a Warsaw ghetto during Nazi Germany and that the player's job is to pack as many Jewish people into a train as possible--anyone left behind will be immediately shipped to a concentration camp. While the rules and mechanics of Tetris have not changed, the layer of narrative now means players think about playing the game in an entirely new way.

"By changing the fictional skin, the game has new potential meanings that the game didn't have before; these meanings come from the player-imposed narrative. So, narrative might not touch mechanics at all, but it does impact meaning and can lead to changes in how the game is played."

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Building Better Human Emotions: David Cage

David Cage is the kind of man who can divide an industry. Undeterred by skeptics, Cage is an outspoken attention seeker, the founder and co-owner of French studio Quantic Dream, and the lead designer, writer, and director of Indigo Prophecy and Heavy Rain. After 30 years of game development, Cage believes the industry has reached a stage where every avenue has been explored. Levels, bosses, points, platforms, cutscenes, ammo, and inventories all have to be forgotten: a new language must be invented to let developers explore new avenues and push the industry forward. We cannot, Cage argues, let ourselves become the only medium that is "empty." The solution? Give writers, not programmers, the power to control the direction of a game.

"We can make games about love, fear, homosexuality, handicapped people, politics, and more," Cage said during his GDC 2011 panel. "We need to create more meaningful experiences; that's where the value will come from."

Cage illustrated his point with Heavy Rain. While the game certainly garnered critical acclaim, its creator believes it was an important step in the direction the industry should be taking. For one, Heavy Rain was a game for adults--its mechanics were guided by a series of subtle, complex emotions that Cage believes to be missing from most big titles.

"It [Heavy Rain] was not based on violence or physical action; it was not based on repetitive mechanics; and it was not based on the same paradigms that have been recycled throughout the industry for the past 30 years. The story of Heavy Rain is really about child abduction. That's not an easy sell. But we wanted to say something meaningful, and we wanted the audience to remember this game for a long time."

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Heavy Rain sought to use narrative rather than predefined actions to drive gameplay.

The way the game did this, according to Cage, was to steer clear of the 10 basic actions that almost all video game characters tend to resort to, such as running, jumping, and shooting. By "freeing" the characters in Heavy Rain from this set of predefined actions and a general interface, the game sought to use narrative to drive gameplay. It also sought to give players the freedom to drive and create their own individual experiences based on a set of in-game actions; like Clint Hocking, Cage believes giving players more autonomy is where all games should be headed.

In his panel talk, Cage also defended Heavy Rain's portrayal of everyday mundane human actions, such as brushing teeth and drinking juice.

The move was deliberate: without these mundane actions, it would have been impossible for players to really attach themselves to the game's protagonists. This also points to the larger problem of characterization in games--Cage believes most of the time characters are simply empty shells because game designers are under the false impression that players want to project themselves onto the characters they play. However, a medium like film is successful in creating complex characters that find themselves in realistic, normal, and everyday situations, thus allowing the audience to relate directly to them and become emotionally invested in the story. In the case of video games, what should matter more, the journey or the challenge?

"In Heavy Rain, we tried to move the challenge from the controller to the mind of the player. I don't care how fast you can move your thumbs. If you fail in Heavy Rain, you need to reconsider how you deal with the situation, as opposed to most games, where if you die, you have to go back and do it all over again until you are fast enough to move on. In the context of a story-driven experience, this makes no sense. Why would you want to go back?"

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Digital Distribution, Rockstar's Donkey Lady, and In-Game Twitter Feeds: Cliff Bleszinski

Cliff Bleszinski, design director at Epic Games and part of the creative team behind the Unreal series and the Gears of War series, describes himself as a "power creative." According to Bleszinski, the games industry needs a few more developers who are visible, who call the shots, and who understand the value of PR and marketing. Having a thick skin is also important--it's fair to say Bleszinski has had his share of critics, and it's not hard to see why.

Most developers have been taught to let someone else call the shots when it comes to creating a particular brand image or building hype around a particular title, a model that most publishers prefer. However, Bleszinski feels that developers need to know who their fans are; they need to learn how to market both themselves and the products they are developing and bond with other developers in the industry. (Bleszinski's Twitter bio reads: "Design Director, Epic Games. Might be the Tony Stark of videogames.")

Looking ahead, Bleszinski believes that while AAA gaming is nowhere near dead or dying, the future of the industry lies in the direction of snack-sized gaming, freemium and digital distribution models, and the integration of social platforms in game environments.

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"To survive in AAA you need to have players marry your game, not just date it."--Cliff Bleszinski

"We also need to understand the shifting audience," Bleszinski said during his GDC panel discussion. "We have a multitasking mind; we want to interact. Our mind is not happy doing only one thing at a time. We need IP that is friendly and open to this. We need to be using all platforms, and we need to be across all these devices. That way, the game will always be with [the player]."

"And hey, what's all this talk about AAA games dying? Just because a new market opens up, it doesn't mean the previous part vanishes. Film and TV did not kill theatre. To survive in AAA you need to have players marry your game, not just date it. You need deep multiplayer experiences, and you need to learn from genres like social gaming."

As Bleszinski puts it, the "middle class" of gaming is dead--what consumers want now is a new way of gaming that can compete with Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and the iPhone. The easiest, and fastest, way to do this is to embrace digital distribution and find a way to incorporate platforms like Twitter into the way games operate. Bleszinski wants developers to start thinking creatively when coming up with new IP--what could be used in a viral video? What could become an Internet meme? What could someone get tattooed on their forearm?

"People love things like viral videos, and we need to tap into that! Was Rockstar's Donkey Lady [from Red Dead Redemption] really a bug, or was it a marketing thing? The best IP features a cool gameplay idea, which reinforces the fiction and shows off the tech/engine. We have to take something that is old and reintroduce it as new. Great things can happen, but industry has to take risks."

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Games As Kitsch Art: Brian Moriarty

In 2005, Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert declared that video games could never be art. Games, he said, require player choices. Films and literature, on the other hand, require authorial control.

"I am prepared to believe that video games can be elegant, subtle, sophisticated, challenging, and visually wonderful. But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art."

Whether or not Ebert has a point remains the subject of heated debate, both within the industry and outside of it. However, it's worth noting that the games industry seems to be moving further and further away from what Ebert believes is the prerequisite for art (that is, authorial control). As demonstrated by developers like Clint Hocking and David Cage, the push toward more player autonomy and less authorial control is now a major driving force in games development. So, if one were to accept Ebert's terms for what makes art art, then one must also concede that games do not meet that criterion.

At GDC 2011, LucasArts veteran developer Brian Moriarty, the creative mind behind Loom and game design lecturer at Worcester Polytech in Massachusetts, gave a lecture titled "An Apology for Roget Ebert," coming to the defence of the acclaimed film critic and conceding that indeed, games can never hope to achieve the same status given to high-art objects (what Moriarty calls "sublime art").

The point Moriarty was trying to make was that Ebert was correct in saying that while video games may one day be recognised as art, no one can currently cite a game worthy of comparison "with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers." Unlike Ebert, Moriarty has played a lot of video games in his time, having been part of the industry for nearly 30 years. So why is he taking Ebert's side?

"As much as I admire games like M.U.L.E., Balance of Power, SimCity, and Civilization, it would never even occur to me to compare them to the treasures of world literature, painting, or music. And I'm pretty sure the authors of these particular games wouldn't presume to, either. Why are some people in this industry so anxious to wrap themselves in the mantle of great art?"

While it's possible to admire the nature of games themselves, the intricate systems they are based on, and the elegance of their patterns, Moriarty believes this does not make them equal to art. In fact, art and games have always been categorically different. We then arrive at the crux of the argument: Who says what art is? As Moriarty elegantly puts it, describing Marcel Duchamp's Fountain: "If a piss pot can be great art, why can't a video game?"

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Moriarty believes video games are great examples of kitsch art: highly charged with stock emotions and full of instantly recognisable themes and ideas.

But while it's hard for anyone, including art historians, to agree on what makes something art, there are certain things that a lot of people simply agree on. Call it great art or fine art or sublime art, these works, in Moriarty's and Ebert's words, "deeply reward a lifetime of contemplation" and "make us more cultured, civilized, and empathetic."

This led to the central point of Moriarty's talk: video games are not high art; they are, in fact, kitsch art. The similarities are instantly recognisable: kitsch art is characterized by themes highly charged with stock emotions (love, hate, jealousy, revenge, and so on) and instantly recognisable themes and ideas; the ideas expressed in kitsch art are easily identifiable (that is, you do not have to search for long to find meaning); and finally, kitsch art does not strive to be challenging, ambiguous, ironic, or innovative (a point which echoes David Cage's previous musings on why not enough video games deal with complex human emotions).

In his talk, Moriarty pointed to the mass-market success of Call of Duty: Black Ops. The game, he argued, made its money not through innovating, but through depicting instantly recognisable themes charged with stock emotions; it succeeded because it was designed that way, designed to be popular and designed to be enjoyed by almost everyone. This isn't a bad thing, Moriarty argues. Kitsch art is not bad art; it's simply commercial art. But there is a big difference between the kind of art that "lives or dies in the details" and art that exists for mass-market popularity.

While Moriarty's advice for the games industry is to keep striving to create art, he acknowledges that video games have come a long way in a short period of time, and they achieved this not by being great art, but simply by being fun.

"But this warning should not be taken as an excuse never to try," Moriarty closed. "Many embarrassing failures would be worth the effort if they culminated in a single authentic work of art. Painters, sculptors, writers, musicians, filmmakers, and architects all require tools, instruction, and years and years of hard actual practice. We game developers are no different."

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