Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Imprecision of Why

I have given a lot of thought in the past few weeks as to why I love games so much. I am not the typical video game addict with every next-gen console and complete libraries of games to complement them. Hell, I still play Halo (one and two) on my X-box if bored. Even as a PC fan, I have never subscribed to more than one MMO at a time, and usually only buy new games if highly recommended by close friends.

I am the kind of gamer who buys one starter deck of a random CCG or one blister pack of a random combat-dial miniature game. I have also been known to plunder the discount game bins at big-box stores looking for nothing in particular and often visit the forums of hardcore board and card games. None of this is done in an attempt to gain hours of gameplay, but rather to reverse-engineer their mechanics. As much as I still enjoy a session of World of Darkness or Magblast with a group of friends, I would rather figure out what works and what does not work with Alhambra than play Counter Strike with strangers.

Ever since I played Dungeons and Dragons for the first time at age eleven, I have enjoyed finding out what makes a game tick as much as I have enjoyed playing the game. Sometimes the former is the only enjoyable part with certain games, but I digress…

Even when I ran table-top games, I was never a rule-Nazi, but rather a rule-editor. I never looked at a gaming session as the rules and me vs. the players, but rather considered it my responsibility to make the players have fun, often at the expense of the rules.

This infatuation with the ‘why’ of games is why I began this blog, along with the hope to hear from some like-minded addicts in an attempt to define and contemplate our obsession. Or at least that is why I chose this topic. In actuality this blog began as an assignment and was almost named “The Practically Pragmatic Solution to an Idealistically Obsessed Addict” but the title window in Blogger did not have a spell checker, so “The Intent of Content” was born.

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For the Sake of Argument

Comments are now unlocked.

I mistakenly made them accessible only to people with Google accounts, which was not my intention. Continue reading 'For the Sake of Argument'

Monday, January 28, 2008

Is anyone going to pay the piper?

Now that the Gerstmann/GameSpot saga is over, or at least on the stale side, what have we learned as a gaming community? For those of you not familiar with the Gerstmann/Gamespot issue, here it is in a nutshell. Jeff Gerstmann was the Editorial Director of GameSpot, which meant he was the guy in charge of all the Editorials, or Reviews. Josh Larson, a market tracking guru at GameSpot got promoted to the head of the pack, meanwhile Steven Colvin, a guy who helped start Stuff Magazine, took over the Entertainment and Lifestyles group of GameSpot’s parent company CNET. With two marketing and advertising guys in charge, Gerstmann ended up loosing his job after he gave a bad review to one of GameSpot's major advertisers. Larson and Colvin call it coincidence, but two more longtime GameSpot reviewers left citing the Gerstmann issue and lack of transparency as their reasons. For more details, you can check anywhere on the web, but here is a great synopsis of the debacle by GameSpot rival 1UP.

The reason this is important is not only the corruption of paid-for-reviews, but also the enormous amount of money being spent to advertise a game, much less create one. Amadeo Plaza examines the incestuous relationship between advertisers and reviewers here, which might explain the amount of shiny games with great franchise names that are completely unplayable.

So at what point do game developers, designers and consumers find a way around this money machine? The price of board games, video games, or even a decent collection of any CCG precludes most of us from buying everything in order to give it a shot. The use of demos, micro-transaction free-play models, and subscription services are allowing some video games to be tested out by the consumer, but most video games and all other genres are still buyer-beware. Where does that leave the average consumer, much less the indie game studio?

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Sunday, January 27, 2008

Mass Producing Creativity

As the gaming industry completes its move into corporate adolescence, changes are being made almost as fast as players can adapt. From online computer-run board games to the fact that Wizards of the Coast was able to buy TSR in 1997 after only seven years in business (and four years after the release of Magic the Gathering). Moore’s Law seems as relevant to the gaming world today as it was intended for technology back in 1965.

The ambiguous transactions between what gamers want and what games are offered for our consumption seems to growing, but whether that growth is creating a rift or a bridge is up for debate.

With the same apprehension I feel every time a TGIF opens next to a mom-and-pop restaurant, I wonder what the future holds as games become profit-driven corporate products. I am a pure believer in the free-market, and have no qualms with capitalism compared to the alternatives. I understand that the mom-and-pop restaurant will be driven out of business, not by fraud, but because the majority of Americans like TGIF. The idea of not making Madden 2058 because it is not original and offers nothing new is utopian at best, illogical at worst. I do not oppose the creation of best selling games for profit, what I fear is the rising cost of game creation in all forms will stifle creativity, or perhaps not stifle it as much as alter it.

Changing story lines, adding undeveloped features, adding or removing content at the last minute, all in the name of focus groups and target audiences is a natural process of corporate creativity. The problem is that games are much more vulnerable to these last minute changes than traditional entertainment. A slight change made to a board game to lower the age bracket might mean simplifying the major game mechanic, and render the game all but useless. Or it might catapult that game into history by expanding the audience. What intrigues me is not what is ‘right’, but rather how are developers going to tackle the problem of creativity vs. productivity?

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Saturday, January 26, 2008

Follow me Here...

While to many this might sound like punishment, Daniel Cook's participation in Project Horseshoe sounded like a dream-come-true to me. Catch his experiences here.

I also found this piece by Clive Thompson on his site Collision Detection which has some commonalities with my last post about TPM. Catch Clive's post here. The escape from boredom and just old-fashioned wasting time are similar, but perhaps active inactivity is worth considering.

Slightly Off Topic, as I do not want to get into reviews or critiques of games, I found this guy hilarious. If you need to laugh a bit, plug into the slightly vulgar but unstoppable Yahtzee Croshaw. Continue reading 'Follow me Here...'

Friday, January 25, 2008

Semantics, part four

The Projection Motivation (TPM) – The final motivation (assuming I have not completely omitted, forgot or ignored a few) would be the desire we have to lose ourselves in entertainment. Like TCM and TEM, TPM is universal in all Humans, it just varies in degree.

The temporary suspension of disbelief found in entertainment is nothing new to Humankind. From spoken myths to modern cinema, we have always enjoyed a temporary break from our own reality.

Games offer us not only that escape, but also limited control over the narrative. Who wins? Who loses? How long is the story? How fast does the narrative progress? All of these can finally be under our limited control. Whether it is the perceived increase of control we have in a structured situation compared to our real world, or just an attempt to avoid boredom, the blend of control and projection that games offer us is powerful. The transition from a passive audience member to an interactive participant is what separates most games from other forms of entertainment.

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Semantics, part three

The Evolutionary Motivation (TEM) – TEM is personal achievement, solitary and internal. At first glance TEM might appear as the inverse of TCM, but that is only a small part of what I am trying to define here.

As Humans, we like to learn how to achieve positive feedback when facing a new challenge if we suspect that the challenge has a solution. By creating a structured setting for the challenge, such as a game, we increase our certainty that a solution exists. This positive feedback leads to a conditioning response in us if we can learn the structural framework quickly, and continue to learn what is expected of us to achieve the intended successes.

The reason a toddler enjoys learning to place a square peg into a square hole has the same concept behind it as a teen that completes a model airplane. Translating this biological impulse to learn into why we play games is fairly transparent. Removing the commercial content of games for a second (violence, language, etc.) allows us to rate games into age categories based on the logic and reasoning they demand from their players in order to ‘learn’ their ‘structure’ and thus achieve the intended ‘successes’. Complexity of design and the accumulated wisdom of their players follow a similar upward curve as we climb in intended age. When complexity and accumulated wisdom vary too much, we end up with either frustratingly difficult games, or boring simplicity.

Open-ended video games, complex board games with hundreds of pieces, and convoluted paper-and-pen RPG’s all retain the same internal achievement we all felt as we completed our first jigsaw puzzle. Besides real-world concerns, one reason games were often discarded as previous generations aged was loss of TEM. Once a game relies only on TCM, such as your millionth game of Monopoly, you reduce your chance to learn anything new about the structure and rewards of the game. By revitalizing the TEM in games due to complexity and challenging accumulated wisdom, we are able to appeal to maturing audiences (with little or no TCM in their personalities) in unprecedented numbers.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Semantics, part two

Why do we play games? This is the core of what I want to examine in this blog. To do that, I want to try and nail down some of the fundamental reasons, without creating a list slightly longer than the Yongle Dadian. In order to shorten the list, I am going to make some sweeping generalizations, and lump some things together that might at first glance appear to better off as separate categories. Without further ado, here is #1:

The Competition Motivation (TCM) – While this seems straight forward, I would like to expand the definition a bit. What I mean by TCM is not only the in-your-face football mentality, but also the popularity, reputation and respect one feels when playing a game. This requires an audience, even of just one person, in order to make the player think that they have earned their endorphins. If the respect is not sincere, if the reputation is in reality tarnished, or if the popularity is really notoriety does not matter as long as the player thinks their efforts paid off. As long as the brain can be tricked into releasing that dopamine fix, the player will continue to chase that high despite grueling practices, painful injuries, and the occasional loss.

The important concept behind The Competition Motivation is that it requires more than just one person to work. Either a teammate, rival or audience is needed, but which one is irrelevant. The narcissistic need to squash a rival human, impress a human audience, or gain the respect of a human teammate is what triggers that addictive pleasure.

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Semantics, part one

It has occurred to me that most discussions I have had about games are with people I am familiar with in real life. Our basic knowledge of each other gives us the ability to talk about theories and motives without having to construct any uniform language in which to talk about these concepts. Any point of confusion is usually cleared up with a “Ya know what I mean?”

Taking these discussions to a digital format creates some problems, especially in definitions. With no common definition for “hardcore”, a discussion about ‘hardcore gamers” becomes a debate. What I hope to do is create some common terms that we can tentatively agree upon, so that we can begin to discuss some of more creative concepts without all meaning separate things for the same descriptions.

As with the “hardcore vs. casual” post, I also would like to try and remove the “player” from as many of the definitions as possible. Not because the player is unimportant, but because it removes the personal insult from a rather contested generalization. As with most generalizations, not many of us are going to fall into one category or another, but rather we will identify with parts of them all.

Perhaps once we can agree on some general terms, we can then have more meaningful arguments discussions.

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Saturday, January 19, 2008

Redefining the Conversation

Since the release of Dungeons and Dragons in 1974, and release of the Atari 2600 three years later, there has been one common argument in the gaming industry. “What is the definition of a casual gamer, and what is the definition of a hardcore gamer?”

The question, while personal to some, has implications for the gaming industry as a whole which mean that clear, uniform definitions should be agreed upon. Not in order to segregate the actual players that care so much about which group they belong to, but to help game developers more clearly match their ideas with their audiences. Perhaps we need to ignore the Human elements of this debate, and rethink the classifications as they pertain to the actual products. Perhaps we should think of casual games vs. hardcore games, instead of the minefield that is casual gamers vs. hardcore gamers.

In a product classification, we are simply left with two major considerations: What kind of purchase is necessary to play the game and how much time is needed to play the game. Casual games do not require cutting edge hardware, thousands of dollars of miniatures, or any other major capital expenditure. Time investment does not mean that a casual game can not lead a dedicated player into a session where they lose hours of their lives. It merely means that either through short yet complete endings, easy save points, or definable chapters that a player can devote small sessions to the game without losing any benefits.

Perhaps by moving the definition from the players to the games we can construct more universal definitions of casual and hardcore, and by doing so can begin to consider what PopCap Games and BioShock, and their success in 2007, mean to the future of game development.

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Thursday, January 17, 2008

That Figures

Not everyone is willing to admit that video games are legitimate. They are derided as contributing to the delinquency of a minor, a fad, immature, and definitely not worthy of a college degree or career. But as Elvis, The Beetles, Ed Sullivan, The Simpsons and South Park have done, video games are proving that a new medium may scare the folks, but the kids are embracing it despite the resistance.

Once considered only the pass time of teenage boys with no social life, they now are transcending gender and age lines with no regard to their critics. Software for static and portable game systems earned a record $8.64 billion this year, while the domestic gross from Hollywood earned $9.62 billion this year. While the one billion dollar difference might seem like a lot of money in Hollywood’s favor, we have to consider the fact that video games earned another $9.3 billion in hardware and accessory sales. This was an increase of about 43% in the US alone over 2006 video game sales. Although DVD sales helped the movie studios retain their dominance in gross sales (grossing $16 billion), 2007 was the first year in history that consumers spent less on DVD purchases than the previous year.

With video games, board games, card games, movies, books, television, magazines and blogs, the amount of entertainment the average American has access to is staggering. The question is no longer “Are video games real medium in entertainment?” but rather “How does the emergence of video games change the way that we communicate our stories in entertainment?”

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