The Pathology of Game Design

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

Originally published by Next Generation.

As I entered adolescence, my mother decided in her wisdom that I was destined to be an actor. That I showed no particular enthusiasm or indeed talent did not dampen this enterprise for years to follow. One summer, between calls for music videos and hypothetical summer blockbusters, I chanced into a tryout for a hypothetical Blockbuster ad. To the best I can recollect, the company was adding Genesis and Super Nintendo games to its rental library, and to demonstrate the premise was sending out a net for the archetypal game-playing teenager.

Thus I found myself lost across a desk from a pockmarked man with a mustache. When the man asked me to show him my “videogame” acting, I hunched over and concentrated at a spot a few yards ahead of me, miming my button presses with an imagined precision. I knotted my brow, maybe gritted my teeth or moved my lips as if to mutter. You can imagine where the scene goes from here. The director keeps asking for “more”, growing frustrated in proportion to my unease. He wants me to thrash in my chair, slam the buttons like a jackhammer, contort my face, and show him my best Beverly Hills orgasm. I am amazed; he patronizes me; I get to go home. Later I met the man they cast as the teenager; he was in his late twenties and had a habit of performing rude gestures to passers-by.

Fifteen years later, despite what seem obvious advances in technology and design, people don’t really see videogames any differently. Continue reading “The Pathology of Game Design”

Setting the Standard

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

Part thirteen of my ongoing culture column; originally published by Next Generation, under the title “The Road to a Universal Platform”. Now, despite my wittering most of these title and spin changes have a minor effect on the article. This one was… regrettable, though, as the article sort of makes the opposite point: though a universal format may be our inevitable destination, the notion is terribly premature. And yet because of the title and the spin, most people jerked their knees in response without actually reading the article. Oh well. Here it all is, as originally framed.

David Jaffe recently came under some criticism for a few statements to consumer website 1UP about his future visions of the game industry. The big headline, repeated across the Internet for a day or two, was “Ten years from now there will be one console”. It was an unguarded comment, following his own nostalgia for the days of rampant console exclusivity. Jaffe expressed annoyance at the current standard of cross-platform development, and wondered if it was coming to the point where the only distinguishing factor from one console to the next would be its first-party software. From there he made the leap that this small distinction might not be enough justification for multiple consoles – therefore, he figured, perhaps we’re on a road to a single universal platform.

There was much tittering in the aisles; a few people made comparisons to Trip Hawkins’ dreams for the 3D0 – a console standard that, much like a VCR or other piece of home electronics, would be licensed out to any manufacturer with the initiative. In fact, that comparison is pretty appropriate in that both Trip and Mr. Jaffe have the same reasonable – and actually rather clever – idea, with the same understandable flaw. Continue reading “Setting the Standard”

A Slime for All Seasons: Videogames and Classism

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

Part twelve of my ongoing culture column; originally published by Next Generation, under the title “OPINION: Yuji Horii was Right to Opt for DS”.

You’ve probably heard this Dragon Quest business; in a move surprising to professional analysts everywhere, producer Yuji Horii has decided to go with the most popular piece of dedicated gaming hardware in generations for the next installment of the most important videogame franchise in Japan. If people are bewildered, it’s not due to the apparent rejection of Sony (whose hardware was home to the previous two chapters). After the mediocre performance of the PSP and the bad press regarding the PS3 launch, Sony has become a bit of a punching bag for the industry’s frustrations. Fair or not, losing one more series – however important – hardly seems like news anymore.

So no, what’s confounding isn’t that Horii has changed faction; it’s that he appears to have changed class, abandoning home consoles – in particular, the sure and sanctified ground of the no-longer-next generation systems – for a handheld, commonly seen as the lowest caste of dedicated game hardware. Continue reading “A Slime for All Seasons: Videogames and Classism”

Lifestyles of the Rich and Stupid

I don’t consider myself a gamer. Then again, I suppose I don’t “game” so much as I… play videogames, sometimes.

If my distance sounds disingenuous… well, sometimes it is, a little. There is, however, a difference between having something in your life and building your life around that thing. Videogames fascinate me, and I spend a good deal of time thinking about them on an abstract level. I’ve thought enough about them to make some money based on those thoughts. Sometimes I play them, a little, when I’ve nothing better to do. I don’t feel it’s got much, if anything, to do with my personal identity, though. It’s just something that’s there, in my life.

And I think that’s an important distinction. Most videogames currently cater to “gamers” — a label that suggests that they use videogames to give themselves identity on some level. And, well, that just explains everything, doesn’t it. Aversion to change, in particular.

A person doesn’t need to have that ego attachment to enjoy a videogame any more than I need to tattoo Trent Reznor’s name on my thigh to enjoy Nine Inch Nails. Or even to analyze his music on a deeper level, sometimes. Likewise, I don’t need to spend my life in the cinema to enjoy Orson Welles and appreciate the significance of his work.

That is, to an extent, what Nintendo’s going after now: trying to make videogames accessible to people who don’t necessarily want to base their lives around them — which, at present, videogames really aren’t much. The “casual game” sector, and the success of cell phone games, proves that there’s some headway to be made here. I think that whole subsection of the industry is a little misdirected (and frankly a little patronizing), though.

I’m reminded of a recent post by Matt McIrvin about the Wikipedia science community, in particular advanced physics — about how the people editing don’t know how to write at all and keep skewing articles toward the most inclusive, precise, elaborate definitions possible. McIrvin keeps trying to smooth out the language, to make more accessible analogies, and to winnow out the superfluous material so as to make the pages readable and the information comprehensible to someone with, at best, only a slight existing understanding of the material. And even then he often gets complaints from casual readers that the articles are impenetrable.

Addressing this doesn’t necessarily mean dumbing down the material; it just means stepping back and detaching yourself from it enough to understand the context and what’s actually useful. There is a place for insider science writing, and that’s in academic science journals. There is a place for “gamer games”, and the Wii completely supports them. Just as important, though, is making the information available on a certain practical level to anyone who might express an interest.

How often have you handed a controller to, say, a parent who expressed some interest in what you were doing, only for him to hand it back in frustration when he couldn’t make sense of what he was doing; couldn’t coordinate his hands, was overwhelmed with all of the buttons and their seemingly random effects? I recall my mother once being curious about my NeoGeo Pocket Color; I handed it to her with Sonic Pocket Adventure, and even after explanation she couldn’t figure out how to make Sonic both run and jump at the same time.

The interest is there; anyone can be interested in anything. The problem is addressing that interest and drawing it into full-fledged involvement, for the time spent with a videogame — rather than simply assuming an existing level of exposure and a certain set of preconceptions.

Though I have that exposure, I don’t really feel I go into videogames from the perspective of someone looking for a videogame to play; I’m looking for something on a more human level, to maybe contribute something to my life for the time I spend playing. That might be an abstract intellectual observation, as in the game systems of a Treasure game, or it might be emotionally-based, as in Silent Hill. I don’t play videogames simply because they’re videogames, though. I don’t at all care about videogames for their own sake; I’m only interested in what they can do for me. I mostly stick around because I see the potential bubbling away, for them to tell me something really interesting that I didn’t know before.

I think that’s pretty close to the definition of a non-gamer. And I think it’s pretty close to the stance of your housemom or random schmoe. Which is why I think, should videogames come closer to achieving that goal, they will find a much wider audience than they currently do.

P.S.: Internet

Aderack: This is a Doctor Who fan.

Except more polite.
Smiley: Wow, not a single “how dare you”.
Aderack: He must be new.
Smiley: Well, look at it this way, in 30 years we’ll be posting to this forum asking that they not bury the 2D version of Eccleston so far deep in the menu options.
Smiley: And how that’s NOT what Lady Cassandra would’ve smelled like, hello.
Aderack: More like the version that includes all of the original mpeg distortion.
Smiley: Well, okay.
Smiley: More realistically, the pre-HDTV version.
Aderack: Yeah, the low-res, low-bitrate version.
Aderack: I want the experience of zooming in to remove the black bars!