Craft Service

by Eric-Jon Rössel Tairne

Over the years, game design has calcified. If I were to pick a turning point, I might point at the SNES — a system of broadly appealing games that delivered exactly what people expected of a videogame, challenged few perceptions, and established the status quo for 2D console-style game design. Since then it’s been hard to get past the old standards — the prettied-up enhancements of Super Mario 3, The Legend of Zelda, and Metroid that added little new in terms of expression or design language, yet that refined the hell out of some proven favorites.

You could say that the SNES was the epitome of Miyamoto-styled design (even in games by other developers), and you’d have a reason for saying that. Namely, it was the Miyamoto Box: Nintendo’s reward to Miyamoto for the broad appeal of his NES catalog. Meanwhile Miyamoto’s opposing force, in Gunpei Yokoi, was rewarded for his invention of the Game Boy by having his studio removed from mainstream console development to support his brainchild. The message was clear: Miyamoto’s way was the successful one, so he would be in charge of everything important from here on.

The thing is, Miyamoto is just one voice. He had a few brilliant ideas in the mid-1980s, all born out of a particular context and in response to particular problems. And then by the turn of the ’90s he was pretty much dry. All that was left was to codify his ideas, turn them into a near law of proper design — regardless of context — and then sit back to admire his work, while new generations carefully followed his example as if manufacturing chairs or earthenware pots. A videogame was a videogame, much as a chair was a chair. It was a thing, an object, with particular qualities and laws.

Thing is, videogames aren’t things; they’re ideas.

( Continue reading at DIYGamer )

Crowded Field, Modest Diversity Slowly Implodes Industry

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

Originally published in, I believe, the August issue of Play Magazine, split into a few blurbs across a two-page spread. I thought it rather worked in that format.

While everyone is freaking out about the economy, some trends are older and more reliable. Over the last decade, as the game industry has become big business and budgets have skyrocketed, yet everyone has continued to produce more less the same material, more and more groups and individuals have had to compromise. Continue reading “Crowded Field, Modest Diversity Slowly Implodes Industry”

The New Generation – Part Two: Masterminds

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

Originally published by Next Generation.

Something is happening to game design. It’s been creeping up for a decade, yet only now is it striding into the mainstream, riding on the coattails of new infrastructure, emboldened by the rhetoric of the trendy. A new generation of design has begun to emerge – a generation raised on the language of videogames, eager to use that fluency to describe what previously could not be described.

First, though, it must build up its vocabulary. To build it, this generation looks to the past – to the fundamental ideas that make up the current architecture of videogames – and deconstructs it for its raw theoretical materials, such that it may be recontextualized: rebuilt better, stronger, more elegantly, more deliberately.

In the earlier part of this series, we discussed several games that exemplify this approach; we then tossed around a few more that give it a healthy nod. Some boil down and refocus a well-known design (Pac-Man CE, New Super Mario Bros.); some put a new perspective on genre (Ikaruga, Braid); some just want to break down game design itself (Rez, Dead Rising). In this chapter, we will highlight a few of the key voices guiding the change. Some are more persuasive than others. Some have been been making their point for longer. All are on the cusp of redefining what a videogame can be. Continue reading “The New Generation – Part Two: Masterminds”

The New Generation – Part One: Design

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

Originally published by Next Generation.

An idea is healthy only so long as people question it. All too often, what an idea seems to communicate – especially years and iterations down the line – was not its original intention. Context shifts; nuance is lost. To hear adherents espouse an idea, measureless years and Spackle later, is to understand less about the idea itself than about the people who profess it, and the cultural context in which they do so.

In 1985, an obscure Japanese illustrator slotted together a bunch of ideas that made sense to him that morning, and inadvertently steered the whole videogame industry out of the darkest pit in its history. Since that man’s ideas also seemed to solve everyone else’s problems, they became lasting, universal truths that it was eventually ridiculous – even heresy – to question.

So for twenty years, skilled artisans kept building on this foundation, not really curious what it meant; that it worked was enough. They were simply exercising their proven craft, in a successful industry. Result: even as technology allowed those designers to express more and more complex ideas, those ideas became no more eloquent. The resulting videogames became more and more entrenched in their gestures, and eventually spoke to few aside from the faithful – and not even them so well. Nobody new was playing, and the existing audience was finding better uses for its time. A term was coined: “gamer drift”. Continue reading “The New Generation – Part One: Design”

Touch Generations

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

Originally published by Next Generation, under the title “FEATURE: A Short History of Touch”.

A few years ago, Nintendo launched the DS with a vaguely unsettling catch phrase: “Touching is Good”. Their PR team sent disembodied plastic hands to everyone on their mailing list, in the process creeping out Penny Arcade. As creepy and forward as the campaign was, it had a point. Touching historically has been good, for the game industry.

On a whole, videogames are an awfully lonely set of affairs. They paint an alluring well, then give the player rocks to throw, to see what ripples. From Spacewar! to Pong, you’re always shooting or batting or throwing some kind of projectile, to prod the environment. Even in some of the most exploration-heavy games, like Metroid, the only way to progress is to shoot every surface in sight, with multiple weapons. Little wonder art games like Rez are based on the shooter template: it’s about as basic a videogame as you can get. See things, shoot things, you win. If things touch you, you lose. Except for food or possessions, generally you can only touch by proxy; toss coins into the well; ping things, to see how they respond. To see if they break. Continue reading “Touch Generations”