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.

8 Responses to “Curse the Mountain, Not the Climbers”

  1. Ian Wilson Says:

    Looking at the growth of the motion picture I see parallels with the growth of game development (if my history is out this is more of an analogy). We are at the first stage where the stages are:

    1. Pictures of motion, trains moving, cars crashing, people walking, things falling down and blowing up.
    2. First expressions, stories with simple plots, characters with basic exaggerated facial and body gestures. Static text prompts.
    3. “Talkies”, verbal interaction allows for much greater plot subtlety and a much expanded range of stories, higher film resolution allows for greater gesture subtlety. Emphasis can shift from motion and action to character and interaction.
    4. Color, higher sense of immersion.
    5. The Terminator in High Definition, back to square 1 ;)

    So we are, as yet, immature and there is definately no quick fix to this problem but I still think there is low hanging fruit, it is just that this low hanging fruit is not especially “tasty”. Half Life 2 picked that low hanging fruit and many people will say “we should have that too”. Further, some producers / publishers may look at the potential of HL2 and say “Our new Game X should be like HL2 but with MORE of those cute talking characters and more character interaction”. Incrementally pushing us forward.

    An issue here with the game development process in general is that with current development cycles for AAA titles now stretching beyond 4 years these incremental improvements may take quite some time to surface. This reinforces the point about scaling back and looking at simpler experiences, as opposed to the AAA title. Ian Bogost at Water Cooler Games often has some very interesting news about political / advergames which tend to be much simpler but have a very different appeal and audience. While not particularly suggesting this as “the” way forward it shows that there are many alternative and viable avenues and formats in which to create experiences.

    So perhaps looking for the low hanging fruit is the wrong analogy, for now, we should instead be looking for a different orchard.


  2. Kenneth Stein Says:

    But how do we get to the next level? The fruit’s too high up in the tree. We’ve tried shooting at the fruit, blowing up the tree, killing the gardener (I think his name was Chauncey), stealing the tractor, and even managing the orchard (when will we see SimOrchard). Still we can’t get that fruit.

    We seek a ‘technoconceptual’ transition. The development of new technology that enables whole new types of video gaming. The transition from 2D to 2D environments was a technoconceptual transition. But unlike the transition we currently face, visual dimensionality is external and objectively perceivable.

    Wolfenstein 3D, Mario64 and Doom signify the transition from 2d to 3d environments. There were other games that attempted to leverage the affordances (fruit) that they could see in the 3D tree growing just beyond the reach of the then known 2d environments, but games like ZAXXON and Crystal Castles (isometric 3D or 2 1/2D) didn’t deliver an intuitive 3D gaming expereince such as those mentioned above. Why? Because they failed to accurately portray one’s position in space. Remember what a bitch it was to fly over the walls in ZAXXON?

    Now, we look to the transition from 2D stories and characters to 3D representations of such. The challenge lies in the fact that this transition doesn’t occur solely in the visual field. Rather, this transition will take place across fields. Attempts that fail to present genuine and authentic story and character will, like the isometric 3d of yesteryear, fail to bring about the next technoconceptual transition.

    What then will it take? Ingenuity. Genius. Genuineness.

    Who wants to play?

  3. nick Says:

    Glad to see you’re getting set up in Portland, Andrew, and thanks for keeping me company on the blog.

    I think you’re the right one of us to be thinking about “new business models”; I don’t have any experience with the commercial world of new media creation. But a lot of interesting innovations have been made without business models at all: Spacewar (the first modern video game), Adventure (the first IF and the first adventure game of any sort), Rogue (first character or tile-based RPG), Maze (first first-person shooter). Even commercial games often don’t result from a business model in any ordinary way. I don’t know the whole story of SimCity, but I would guess if Will Wright started on it in 1985 and finally released it in 1989 that programming the game was more of a gamble (or, probably, a labor of love) than the result of a business plan. Alexey Pajitnov made no money from at least the first $800 million in U.S. sales of his Tetris, so you it seems hard to attribute the creation of that super-successful commercial game to the marketplace. The origins of the Ultima series also don’t follow the “business plan first, program later” sort of model. Plenty of other innovative home computer games (such as Karateka and Mystery House) were produced by what were basically mom-and-pop businesses.

    Maybe this was all irrelevant through the 1990s and will continue to be irrelevant in the 2000s, but these examples do span more than 20 years of video game development, and they cover a lot of innovations. Big commercial projects certainly account for some more recent innovations, such as music/rhythm games, the abstract shooter, and the survival horror genre. The most recent attempt at an abstract shooter, though, was a one-man development project, hardly typical of commercial development practice today.

    Anyway, I’m not arguing that all commercial game developers should quit their jobs and start creating games just for the love of it. I simply don’t think we should imagine that a business model is required for innovation in computer gaming. What seems to be more or less required is successful collaboration and organization of resources. (There are cases of individual programmers innovating, but it seems unlikely that major advances will be made by lone programmers today; if they are, those programmers will probably be building pretty directly on previous work.) For instance: Will Crowther and Don Woods managed to collaborate, back in the mid-1970s, without ever meeting or working on Adventure together, by developing in series rather than in parallel. Spacewar and Maze were collaborations fostered by the hacker culture of MIT. Karateka and Mystery House were both projects that involved two people, both of whom were credited, although only the latter game is jointly authored overall.

    I’ll suggest that some successful collaborations will be non-commercially motivated (Façade will be one of these – I say with certainty, having played the almost-completed version) and others will be facilitated by a business plan, funding, and the hope of future revenue. If our goal is primarily to produce innovative computer games, and not primarily to make money, we should consider how to collaborate effectively first, and how to make money second – or in some cases not at all.

  4. andrew Says:

    It’s reasonable to draw parallels to the early days of filmmaking. But I think the technical hurdles we face now are more difficult and time-consuming to surmount than they were for film, and so I’m not sure how perfectly parallel the two development paths really are anymore. Half Life 2’s innovations weren’t exactly low-hanging fruit; the project almost killed the team.

    I’m sure there are other fruitful orchards to discover, so to speak, as we’ve recently witnessed. But for me, a primary interest is making progress towards higher agency, generative experiences, and not solely about discovering new genres that have no more agency than existing interactive experiences. (Although arguably Facade is exactly that, an experience of a new genre with not enough agency — hence a certain amount of dissatisfaction with it, and the motivation to keep working ;)

    How do we get to the next level? Pick a part of the rock-face, focus on it, study up on existing approaches and technologies. Design the smallest interesting experience that would require reaching that higher ledge, and build it, in an iterative development process. Leverage existing technologies, don’t unnecessarily reinvent the wheel. Take risks, expect failures, learn from the failures, move on… Collaborate with others, since multiple minds will tend to be more effective, but keep your team small, to keep a shared vision.

    The Zaxxon analogy is great! I loved Zaxxon

    I heartily agree that business models aren’t always necessary, and I avoid them when I can, preferring to work in an unpaid artist mode, for the freedom it offers. Self-publishing one’s work on the internet makes this a much more appealing than ever. But, I’m worried that few people can make this scheme work for themselves, for several reasons — primarily financial, but also maintaining work discipline when there’s too much freedom or lack of deadlines.

  5. Marie-Laure Says:

    If developing narratively satisfying interactive entertainment is like climbing a mountain, ths mountain must be shaped like Mt Hood (increasing slope) rather than like Mt Rainier (decreasing slope).

  6. andrew Says:

    Yes, and you’d have to climb past the Timberline Lodge on the way up Mt. Hood, where they filmed The Shining… (bends little index finger back and forth, speaks in creaky voice) “AMARD… AMARD…”

    btw, what’s #1 on IGN’s latest list of “Things we’d love to see in the next generation of games“? Better, emotional AI.

  7. Michael Says:

    Andrew keeps on torturing me with all these Portland-area references. I lived in Portland for 7 years and still miss it very much…

    I don’t understand the strange disconnect between what the industry keeps on saying it wants and its design and technology practices. Every year there are multiple calls within the industry (at places like GDC, at SIGGRAPH panels, in various game industry pubs) for “more emotion”, “deep characters”, “truly interactive storylines”, sometimes accompanied with the now standard boast “I’m going to make a game that makes you cry”. And every year, the industry persists in manually scripting character interactions, using simple-minded FSM approaches (there are alternatives), and throwing ever larger production teams at the problem, thinking, I suppose, that if we just produce enough instantial assets, we will magically achieve these goals. Now, we all know that only process intensive approaches will ever give us high-interactivity solutions to these problems, yet no one departs from traditional development approaches. So I must say that these yearly call to arms are starting to ring hollow. If people really wanted this stuff, they’d actually try to do something about it.

  8. Websafe Says:

    Ian: I usually cite “La Strada” as an example of consummate film artistry from category 3. It contains no car crashes, explosions or special effects, and relies on emotion, gesture and originality for its magnetism.

    Michael: More emotion? Deep characters? A game that makes you cry? Sounds like you’re talking about serious art. Good.

    Andrew: When you mention higher-agency interaction, as opposed to button clicking, it reminded me of my long and ultimately disappointing involvement with interactive digital whiteboards. The technology is there, but, finding no truly serious user community, my enthusiasm died out. I tried to mesh a whiteboard with a Pandorabot, but my lack of technical understanding shelved that as well. The germ of the idea: Users draw in the whiteboard space and the bot (at least) recognizes colors and shapes, and can comment on them.

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