January 14, 2005

Curse the Mountain, Not the Climbers

by Andrew Stern · , 6:17 pm

I’m settling into Portland, Oregon now, after moving here a couple of weeks ago from Boston. Between the move and switching to working full-time on finishing Facade for the next two months, I haven’t had much time to blog, but I’ll toss out a quick post here, grinding that familiar axe… (and finally busting Nick’s 10-in-a-row postravagnza! ;)

For all the bemoaning that goes on about the lack of variety of interactive entertainment, and even more so about the slow progress in increasing the amount of agency in such games — criticisms I’ve made many times, and regularly hear others making — I want to suggest that the root cause of it all may be less blameworthy, and at the same time more troublesome, than some believe.

I think some believe that if only game industry executives would put some money behind a fresh new idea, just take some risks, avoid creating yet another sequel and shrug off their technoholism, that new genres of interactive entertainment would be born, with deeper interactivity than ever.

For example, one well-spoken developer, critic and thinker, Mark Barrett, who has written several excellent essays on interactivity over the years (although who I feel recently made a misstep), sees the industry moving increasingly in the wrong direction, making unhealthy, money-oriented decisions. He’s leaving the industry because of it.

…the one thing the interactive industry has really gotten right is convincing the user that a button click has determined an outcome, when in fact it is only revealing an outcome that has been pre-designed. … [T]he promise of interactivity – where each user would be able to make free determinative choices in a given environment – has waned. And serious commercial attempts to move past the current limitations seem to have waned as well.

There’s a lot of truth to this, of course, as I too have argued. Although the best new games, such as Half-Life 2, have increased some forms of local agency, such as real-time physics, it seems the status quo of global agency (such as interactive narrative) has barely budged, or at best is getting ever more refined.

But could it be that the low-hanging fruit in interactive entertainment has already been picked, that the easy slopes have been conquered, and now we’re facing an exponentially steeper rock-face to climb? That is, higher peaks are within sight, but it will take much more exertion, time and patience to get there, both technically and design-wise?

In my experience, I’m afraid the answer is yes. For all the short-term, risk-averse, money-oriented, stupid decisions that game companies are known to make, the even more daunting problems are the technical and design obstactles towards making higher-agency, emotion-laden interactive entertainment. I’m talking about the need to work towards (not solve, but work towards) procedural animation, generative language, knowledge representation, generative behavior and generative narrative structure. In the mountain-climbing analogy, this means identifying a few solid footholds to start on, focusing on a scraggly ledge a few feet upwards to struggle for, and slowly, painfully straining your way up there.

I think this is the stage we’re all in now. Maybe once we climb this way for a few years (decade or more?), there may be a whole new set of low-hanging fruit to pick once we reach a higher plateau. But for now, because what we currently face are difficult problems that will require experimentation, products may need to become smaller in scope — moving away from epic 50-hour $50 experiences, to shorter but more generative ones. New business models, and a recalibrated set of expectations from players, are needed. Is this possible?

I respect Barrett’s decision to leave (or least take a break) from working on interactive entertainment — it has echoes of Jordan Mechner making films after the progress he made with his underappreciated The Last Express, or Robyn Miller after Myst. But I’m hoping instead that the obstacles ahead will spur an independent game movement, focused on primarily on innovation and secondarily on profit, as well as an increase in game R&D — rather than discouraging talented folks like Barrett and resulting in them leaving the industry.