Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Game Developers Shouldn't Listen To Us

The gaming arena is surrounded by many interesting and long lasting debates. Most of them have the gamers and game developers in one corner and everyone else in the other. Unfortunately, the gamers seem to still be the underdog (not because of lack of viable arguments and facts, but because of lack of understanding from everyone else). No, I am not talking about what probably is the biggest debate in the gaming industry (or so every non-gamer seems to think anyway), whether gaming makes you more violent or not. I am talking about whether games can be considered a work of art or not. No matter what your or my personal stand point is in this matter, there is no denying that this isn't a purely philosophical debate - the outcome actually has many practical implications (for instance, if games were considered "culture" in Sweden, we'd pay 27% less tax for them).

First of all, it's difficult to define "art"
. The all-knowing ever-truth of Wikipedia says that "Generally, art is made with the intention of stimulating thoughts and emotions." But my question is; for what purpose? Because it really makes all the difference. Thing is, there is an important difference between "I made this for the heck of it" kind of art, and "I made this so I could make money out of it" kind of art. The first is probably what is more generally considered art, and the second is probably more generally considered any commercial product. But it's not really that simple of course. Beethoven might be considered art and Justin Bieber definitely isn't considered art, but why not? They're both musicians (excuse me for using the term to describe Bieber) and they both did/do music mainly to earn money or make a living. In fact, it is quite impossible to know why one person decides to create what he creates, you and me can never know for sure if the creator has "for the heck of it"-reasons or "want to make money of it"-reasons. And if we don't know, does it matter? Yes, of course it matters. Otherwise we wouldn't even try to distinguish between "true" art (whatever that is) and commercial crap design. I'd like to argue that the big difference is that commercial designs are made with a certain target audience in mind, and specially designed to appeal to these kind of people, while "true" art doesn't care about anyones ideas but the creator´s. It is "this is what I wanted to do" versus "this is what I'll do because you wanted me to". I'm not trying to say that I personally think that the one is better than the other - I really believe that both forms exist because they're needed and there are excellent creations in both areas. It can even annoy me that "true" art is considered the better of the two, so that only obscure, deadly boring authors win the Nobel Prize instead of the commercial ones. And of course, just because you happen to end up as a commercial product doesn't mean that that is what you wanted to create. Just because people like what you do doesn't mean you're trying to cater their tastes at the expense of your original idea (although it often ends up that way). The point is rather that which form you choose to create in does change the end result, this goes for any type of creation - literature, movies, painting and games to mention a few.

I'm not naïve enough to think that there used to be a time where game developers didn't care about what the general public wanted or money and just went their own way  (although of course there are plenty of good games created that way). Game development has always been a costly undertaking and most creators tried to develop something that would sell, of course. But I do think that in the early years of gaming, most game developers didn't even know what people wanted. They created games they thought they would like - "this is what I want to play" - because that was really the only idea they had of what would make a good game. Fast forward to today and games are even more expensive to develop, the competition even more murderous. Game developers can no longer afford to think "what would I like?" but have to look at the market and think "what do people want?". The commercial ideas sell and there is nothing wrong with that, but where do we end up if we keep that course? What will happen if the safe choice is the only choice and when indulging the consumer is the only factor that determines game design? David Wong asks us exactly this in his article "6 Most Ominous Trends in Video Games" over at

"For instance, each of the Big Three game console makers took the stage at E3 to show off their biggest games of the upcoming year. Microsoft led off with the aforementioned Modern Warfare 3, which is really Call of Duty 8 (game makers like to switch up the sequel titles so the digits don't get ridiculous). Next was Tomb Raider 10 (rebooted as Tomb Raider). Then we had Mass Effect 3, and Ghost Recon 11 (titled Ghost Recon: Future Soldier). This was followed by Gears of War 3, Forza 4 and Fable 4 (called Fable: The Journey)."

Sequels and remakes don't have to be a bad thing. And it kind of goes without saying that the longer something exists, the likelier it is that it will be remade. In the early years of gaming we had a lot of new games simply because there were no old games to make sequels of. But it also seems to make game developers comfy and cowardly - they prefer going for a sequel that they know will sell for a certain amount, rather than trying to invent something new that might not (and who can blame them really?). And yet, people who create games because "I would like to play this" still can make loads of money. Just look at Minecraft.

Sequels and remakes is just one part of the problem. The other is the simplification of every concept. Making games more accessible generally means making them both easier to understand and play, but also rewarding continously smaller achievements. I see the point in this in games that are designed to be played only a couple of minutes at the time, like Angry Birds. But this kind of thinking and game design is sneaking its way into other games as well - because this too is what people want (and therefore ultimately where the money is).

"(...) the most profitable game company right now isn't Activision/Blizzard or Nintendo or EA, it's Zynga, the makers of Farmville.

But do we really want this in every game? Just because it's a working concept in one game really mean that it will be a good idea in another? I don't think so. We're making the mistake of thinking that all games can be treated alike.

"(...)what we're now calling video games will cease to be a thing, and will break up into several different art forms, each with their own medium. We'll have true "games" where we perform simple tasks to kill a few minutes or get a high score (Angry Birds, etc) that will cost a dollar or two. We'll have interactive stories that are less about "winning" and "losing" and more about relating to characters and following drama (...)"

We could discuss the gamers responsibility in this. With big costs come big fees, and few people are interested in paying a lot of money for something they don't know will be good. I'll pay for the next Pokémon, because I am quite sure I'll like it. But I might be more reluctant to pay for some new title. Game developers are comfy and cowardly because the market is comfy and cowardly. But it doesn't really matter who's to blame, point is there might be a problem which we need to acknowledge. The core of the issue is that gamers think they know what they want so game developers feed them what they think we want. But I'd like to argue that we don't actually know what we want. I sometimes get the feeling that the gaming industry treats us like a parent would treat a 5 year old who could decide for themselves what kind of food they want and whether they have to go to school or not. I know what 5 year old me would've chosen, and 26 year old me is glad my parents lovingly forced me to grow up - not by removing the easy and appealing choices, but by making me understand why I should try something else. Instead of giving us CoD 4 for 50 euro, they could give us Minecraft for 10 euro, making both choices about equally appealing.

So what does this have to do with WoW?

I like to think that when WoW first was released, it actually brought something new to the gaming arena. It was definitely not the first mmorpg, but it sure did something first to become so big as it did, basically making mmorpg to not only a viable gaming genre, but perhaps setting a new standard for how games must look at all in the future to make players interested. I don't think the Blizzard crew sat down one day and said "ah screw it, let's put millions into this project just to see where it will take us". I think they really did believe it would become a hit - but they didn't know. Nothing like it had really been done before, Blizzard just had to have that gut feeling that this is what the gaming market was ready for, without being able to look at a competitor and say - hey look, they made it, let's copy that concept. They must've thought "this could work, because we think it would". Gamers didn't say "we want mmorpgs", Blizzard said "we would want mmorpgs, and we think you will too". There will always be some mmorpg veteran who'll say "WoW didn't invent anything new", but again - they did something revolutionary to the genre.

Putting on my rose tinted goggles I'm going to say that WoW initially started out as a vision, an idea, which might or might not work. But since then it has been treated less and less like an idea and more and more like a product. Blizzard is doing a tremendous job, almost unlike anything else in the gaming world before, keeping in touch with their consumers and trying to find out what we want. Almost too good a job if you ask me. There is nothing more important for a game developer that being able to steer firmly between the idea of the product and what the consumers want. There is no doubt that there should be some work done to improve the game towards what the gamer wants, but you also have to be able to sit down and think - is this really a good idea? We all want immediate satisfaction, we all want to win. When given the choice, it is damn difficult not to cheat or get something the easy way. If Blizzard asks us what we want, we'll probably yell "TO PWN!" (and this goes especially for the whiners on the forums), but when given the IWIN button we quickly realize that it didn't actually make the game as fun as we thought it would, or at least not for a very long time. Syl over at Raging Monkeys makes a similar case regarding the removal of the key ring and attunement quests in WoW;

"Maybe they get us straight to where we want or at least, to where we think we want to be. (...) Maybe "timesinks" are where life really happens."

But "takes a lot of time to complete" is not the same thing as "timesink". There is a huge difference between having to travel 5 minutes to vendor something while questing and having to spend 7 hours on an attunement quest. The first is inconvenient and in my view a waste of time, the second is part of the game design and part of the idea of the game. Blizzard have to be able to point at something else and say "this is probably a better idea" and not force us to like it, but design it to be equally appealing as the easy choice. We bust our asses in heroic modes not only because of the greater feeling of accomplishment, but because our characters get even cooler gear. We spend hours with archaeology, not because we all secretly hope to become the next Indiana Jones, but because some of the rarest (and in some cases best) gear can be found that way. We will struggle if the reward is good enough. Instead Blizzard tends to remove the struggle more and more, and also minimizing the reward more and more. Back in Vanilla, blue was the epic - epic was TRULY epic. Nowadays we sigh when we group up with someone who, god forbid, has a green item equipped. Most achievements and novelty items, such as mounts and pets, aren't that difficult to get either. Having Val'anyr wasn't as cool as having Thunderfury. Heck, having Shadowmourne isn't as cool as having Lok'delar/Rok'delar (not to the individual anyway). Soon, having a legendary will be standard while not having one will have people sigh at you (if you're the appropriate class).

Making the game more accessible isn't automatically a bad thing, but it mustn't be taken too far. At some point, Blizzard have to tell us that they won't change what they think is the core concept of the game, just because we feel it is the best thing to do for the moment. We're not paid to know everything about game development, they are. We must trust that they ultimately know better than us what this game needs, and they must trust that too. Yes Blizzard, we think we want it easy, we think we want fast epics and easy gear - but we probably don't. Don't listen to us.


  1. Hmm....
    How would you characterize the RealID case under this lens then?

    Also WoW didn't invent the genre, nor brought anything new to the table really. WoW took what was already out there and perfected it. They are the masters of not invention, but of making an overall very balanced game. Part of their success was making the already established genre more accessible and friendly to newcomers. This is at least the story I've been told.

    I'm also confused about the progression of your post, you touched upon art, going further to discuss the future of game design, a Cracked post I've read myself, it's a pretty grim picture... and after all that, you conclude they shouldn't listen to us?

    ps. Is being a singer and songwriter not being a musician?

  2. The concept of art in a game is actually something I have nto thought of before. The effort, time and thought that goes into it alone makes it more than just the graphics on the screen.

    I think that debate is open ended and one that will never be able to be answered.

    As for WoW and how they became what they have, you would have to look at what had come before.

    For me the first MMO graphic that I will actually put into this category (and other folks may have other choices), would be Meridien 59. It was actually a MUD with graphics basically, but it was teh first pay to play graphic MMO I can remember.

    I played Ultima Online, which I personaly really think was the first major foray into the genre. Than of course we goto EQ. Blessed Evercrack as it was called. This game in my mind is the foundation from which todays current MMO's are built upon.

    It was/is harder than WoW ever thought of being. They held the major share of players in its day as WoW does now, though not near as many. It was HARDER. You lost freakin XP when you died, and you did NOT level quickly. I made level 60 three times the same night..on the same about infuriating. When you died you ran back to your corpse naked. And I mean you freakin ran. No graveyards spread around...but this could go on.

    The gist is that WoW made it easier from teh day they started. Newer game, better graphics. Based on a well known RTS, and also thier company name spread around due to Diablo and Starcraft. The winning formula.

    To stop being a heel and hyjacking your thread and get back to your point at teh end, yes WoW is making it incrementally easier as time goes on, but its ALWAYS been easier. That was how so one of the reasons so many people jumped ship.

    Some may say its not true, but compared to its predecessors so to speak, it was MADE to be played by anyone at anytime. Raiding is the only part of the game that cannot be done alone. Besides for that Any class can solo up to 85 and thats with much easier effort and way less time than other games.

    I am not sure of EQ now, as I like some of you have been playing WoW for multiple years now.

    The problem with game developers is that they work for the company, and the company is profit driven. We as players cannot escape this fact. They develop for the masses, as that is where the money is.

    When it is played out and forgotten, only to be played by the few remaining hold outs, its bones will be cast aside, and it will only be remembered as some of the ones I have mentioned above that no longer are what the masses want.


  3. On "is games art" I recently found this. An interesting article/speech which goes through the arguments for and against in a fairly basic way.

    These are my thoughts that comes from reading that speech. As you say, it depends on how you define art and if art is defined as "sublime art", as in transcendental art, then most almost nothing is art. Not even most art. Games can contain pieces that by themselves can be considered art but games as a whole might not make all the criteria to become "sublime art" ever, because of how it is defined and because of how "games" are defined.
    As the speaker says, there is art that is meant to be sold and made to trigger specific known responses from its viewers, and that type of art is called kitsch. Two mediums and/or art forms that I myself often view/read/use is games and manga. Both are probably kitsch. Because they are meant to be sold and made to trigger known responses. Manga in particular shows these tendencies clearly but the same things can mostly be seen in games too. We expect things from games and if they don't fulfil our expectations we are disappointed. The game in itself might be great non the less but if it don't do what we thought it would it would still be a let down. (Games can go the other way too of course, fulfilling our expectations and more.)

    I had only read half your post when writing the above and read crackers article after. I think its mostly the same line of reasoning behind them. We (think we)know what kinds of input we respond to and then go out to find that kind of input so that we can have the kinds of responses that we want. Kitsch.
    I do agree though that games should challenge themselves more. It really is a shame that more interesting games are so... un... unprofitable. Ah well. At least we kind of get the kicks we want for the time being.

  4. @Ironyca
    Sorry if my ramblings are confusing, that doesn't surprise me at all. The thread I'm trying to make is that if we consider some games a sort of art, the developers should try to keep some sort of artistical integrity and not "sell out" their idea as soon as the public think they want something else. We're digging our own grave by telling Blizzard that we know what we want when we don't, and them by giving us what we think we know we want.

    It's a circle of quick satisfaction which might lead the game in the wrong direction, and ultimately paint itself into a corner it can't get out from. We're seeing this in every area of game development and design.

    The difference between art and a commercial product is this integrity, and regardless of which we prefer it will change how games are developed. As gamers we don't necessarily know what's best for us, I think, and Blizzard (and other game developers) should trust themselves enough to sometimes put their foot down and say "no, we won't do this" (and sometimes they are).

    So in short: Games have artistical values and by listening to the consumers too much, the game developers turn games more and more into solely commercial products. This is bad because the developers might lose focus of what they're creating, only trying to satisfy our current needs, and in the end we lose interest. Game developers (and us) have to dare to not be as shortsighted as we are today.

    Not sure if that made anything more clear...

  5. Ah okay I get it more now.
    I think you are conflating art and game design though. I also believe games are art, the end product. But the craft, code and mechanics behind the game, I don't consider art.

    I see your message, but I guess I don't like seeing game designers/developers as ultimately knowing better. It's like saying politicians shouldn't listen to the citizens, cause politicians are smarter and more knowledgable.
    And I mean... so many games have gone down because of bad design. People in power, people with definition-rights (and that's what developers are in the game industry) are far from flawless, just look at the economic crisis right now.

    Also, WoW is exactly the game that does give the players what they want, based on its history as the easier and more casual of the MMO's and with changes such as LFD and more vertical progression.
    So I guess I'm reacting as I see your conclusion as ill fitting for WoW in particular.

  6. @Ironyca
    "I think you are conflating art and game design though. I also believe games are art, the end product. But the craft, code and mechanics behind the game, I don't consider art."

    Unfortunately my english isn't good enough to answer this. I hadn't even heard the word "conflating" before, so I had to look it up :P I suppose it depends on what you mean by "design", and clearly my definition isn't the same as yours.

    "It's like saying politicians shouldn't listen to the citizens, cause politicians are smarter and more knowledgable."

    Yepp, that's exactly what I am saying! There wouldn't be a point in having politicians if they couldn't take any decisions without us. That is why we vote for people we think will take care of things the way we want to, otherwise a country would be run by constant votes, and no country is. For a reason. They're not smarter, but they are more knowledgeable, or at least I hope so, otherwise they shouldn't be politicians. It is their work, it is what they get paid to do.

    Game developers should behave in the same way, and not forego all of their better knowledge (which I do think they possess in most cases, and in any case far more than most players) to make a quick buck. That quick buck could turn out to ruin the game. I don't want game developing to be black or white. I don't want game developers to not listen to us at all. But in the same way I don't want them to only listen to us. There must be a good inbetween.

  7. "I don't want game developers to not listen to us at all. But in the same way I don't want them to only listen to us. There must be a good inbetween."

    Amen! :)