Game Over?

I don’t play a lot of video-games. If I had to come up with a single reason why, I would have to say that it’s because most of the time video-games fail to compel me. If I have some time to myself, video-games are up against some fierce competition: I almost always have writing I could be doing, or that article I’ve been meaning to read, or some errands that I should be running. Failing those, there’s always TV shows I’ve been saving, whatever book I’m reading currently, and practicing the piano. And, of course, the ever popular staring off into the distance, lost in thought.

But why don’t games compel me? It’s not as if I actively avoid them for any reason. They’re fun, after all, just like a book or a movie, but, you know, all interactive like. You get to live the story. Of course, that doesn’t alone doesn’t mean they’re better. Movies weren’t necessarily superior to books because they had pictures and sound and music. Nor are video-games better because they add interactivity to all of the above.

The gaming industry is suffering from the same malaise that’s affecting film studios. The power in both industries is solidified in the hands of a few. Witness the recent convergence of companies in both the video game and movie spheres: Sony bought MGM; Paramount bought DreamWorks; Electronic Arts bought 20% of UbiSoft. With the glut of consolidation, both industries have begun to focus on glitz, eye-candy and the bottom line when they should be making something that compels. Instead, we get retreads, sequels, and merchandising tie-ins to the latest hot properties. Today, the video-game industry is by and large driven by an arms race in graphics and hardware, the same race that the personal computer industry was being driven by in the 80s and 90s, before people started to realize that it wasn’t how fast your computer could go, but what you could do with that speed—to paraphrase James Carville, it’s the software, stupid.

To overly simplify a complex issue, I would argue that the two major factors that can make a single-player game compelling are story and mechanics. The former has to do with the same goal that most entertainment is shooting for: immersion and escapism. This is where companies like Sony and Microsoft are trying to wedge graphics, arguing that by providing better graphics they will create a more immersive experience. Given that I still see people entranced by Pac-Man and the original Legend of Zelda, I’m going to ahead and say that that theory is complete bollocks. Yes, you don’t want your game to look like crap, but how many times have you heard someone complain that Mario’s cartoon visage really took them out of the gaming experience?

Story is important, though. A recent gaming panel included, as representatives from the film industry, Gladiator screenwriter David Franzoni and Warner Bros. executive (and Doom producer) Lorenzo di Bonaventura. Franzoni took the opportunity to comment that “Games need writers from the start.” (I suppose I’ll just have to imagine the delicious irony of a startled-faced di Bonaventura thinking “My god. Are we supposed to have writers?”). Some film execs have gone so far as to admit that they need to produce better films if they want to reverse the decline in summer blockbuster box offices. Story is an industry wide problem in games too; there are certainly those companies that focus on creating good stories (the recently betrothed BioWare springs to mind), but honestly, if you’re a company out to make immersive games, well, let’s just say there’s room for improvement.

Games have intrigued and compelled people long before video-games discovered that they could incorporate narrative into their brilliant premise of a pellet-eating yellow guy chased by spooks. The key component to games before the video-era was not narrative, but interaction. Games were predominantly played with other people. A firestorm erupted last week in gaming circles when Sony Online Entertainment Chief Creative Officer Raph Koster, speaking at a panel, proclaimed that not only were single-player games dying, but the trend itself was an aberration. In a blog entry on his site, he elaborated on the theory (emphasis is his):

Single-player gaming is doomed, because already today, the large crowd playing Solitaire is doing it online, whilst chatting in a chat room, because they can; because the RPG player is doing it whilst chatting with friends about the plot in a chat room, because they can; because fundamentally, the vast majority of humans want human contact even if only fleeting. We want to know where we stand compared to everyone else, whether what we like matches what the world likes, and whether or not others care that we are there.

While I think that Raph is right about people craving social contact, gaming being a predominantly social activity, and single-player video games being the exception to the rule, there is still a place for solo games. Raph acknowledges their existence in the vein of solitaire, crossword puzzles, and even sudoku (though I have seen all of those played cooperatively). But all of these are of games of a cognitive, brain teaser variety; they focus more on mechanics than on story-driven immersion. What do you call an immersive, story-driven single-player non-video-game?

You call it a book.

No, a book isn’t really a game. The closest I can think of in those terms are the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books. In analog terms, it’s an impractical, unwieldy format—but it thrives in the video-game market.

Until now.

The success of massively multiplayer online role-playing games or MMORPGs—by the way, when even your acronym is a mouthful, you have a problem—like World of Warcraft and the development of networked communities for consoles (i.e. Xbox Live) have ushered in an era of social gaming in a sphere that was predominantly a solitary, or at most, a party-type social scene. I think there’s something valid in the theory that single-player computer games are an exception in gaming history—a sort of placeholder in the years that the technology for multiplayer games wasn’t really up to snuff. That doesn’t mean that successes didn’t come along in that format, but I do think that with the advent of these connected technologies, social gaming will become the norm. Even now, a hue and cry is raised when games don’t involve some sort of multiplayer component, especially for genres in which it’s a mainstay, like the first person shooter. I would argue that the replay value of a multiplayer game is much higher than most single-player games. The ESRB’s own disclaimer on online games says it all: “Game experience may change during online play.” Given that all of the next-generation consoles will have some sort of network connectivity, and that I can’t see it not being incorporated into any handheld consoles post-PlayStation Portable and Nintendo DS, I believe games featuring only single-player options will fall by the wayside.

For my part, gaming has almost always been a social activity. And that’s why oftentimes the games fail to compel me. When I go to play games, it’s because I’m looking for the social experience. The game isn’t unimportant, but it’s certainly less important than the social aspect. Granted, the games you look to play in a social context are usually different than the ones you play by yourself (though I’ve certainly watched people play single-player games). Social games are usually fairly light on story, since the point of social gaming is interacting, not watching, and are usually pretty unoriginal mechanically, though, again, that’s not really the point of social gaming.

In Raph’s piece, he makes an argument that even what are ostensibly single-player games in today’s parlance are still social experiences. The existence of forums dedicated to certain games, as well as sites that feature laboriously-compiled walkthroughs and strategy guides are, to Raph, an example of solo games being played communally, but in parallel. He goes on to equate this to the social experience of enjoying books:

But books are also enjoyed as social activities today — they are traded in book clubs, they are read in classrooms, they are recommended on television and argued about in newspapers. Few books are truly enjoyed as solitary experiences except on a truly momentary level.

While I’m not sure that this really turns single-player games into multi-player games, or books into a multi-reader experience, I do think that he’s hit upon a point here—he’s just a little too zoomed in.

We are, as a society, more connected to each other today than we have ever been. And that social connectivity is only becoming simpler and more pervasive. The last couple of years have seen an explosion of social networking tools (think Friendster, Del.ico.us, and Flickr). To take a page from another piece of current events, twenty years ago, who would have thought that a cartoon in a tiny Danish newspaper would have caused a riot-inducing uproar in the Middle East? My inclination is to say that the sharing and openness of information is ultimately for the good of society, but good or bad, it is above all inexorable. As to the death of single-player games, I remain unconvinced, but if the upcoming multi-player Tetris title for the Nintendo DS, well, if you have the option of playing with a friend versus playing by yourself, the choice is clear.

Isn’t it?

The Most Exciting Problem in Information Design

The Yucca Mountain Repository is a proposed site for nuclear waste disposal in the desert land of Nevada. The material to be disposed at this site will remain dangerously radioactive for 10,000 years, which raises a very serious question: How do you put up a warning sign that will remain readable thousands of generations into the future?

Personally, I think this is the most challenging question that any contemporary designer could possibly take on (within the bounds of potential relevance, at least). I have always wondered if the answer might be a horrific series of statues depicting different creatures, with statues closer to the site showing these creatures being horribly and painfully melted—but in the movies, of course, warnings of this kind tend to be intended to deter adventurers from finding buried treasure. Perhaps images of intense sadness would be preferable to images intended to intimidate? Or maybe something even more literal would be appropriate—an image of someone defecating, with the defecation taking on some dangerous quality? I have a hard time picturing what the “danger poop” sign would look like, but perhaps we can somehow communicate the idea of “hazardous waste” and not just “stay the hell away.”

One designer, at least, thought it best to go with a message that would imply power and command deference: A giant, erect phallus. I feel this is an unwise choice, as plenty of ancient art contains such imagery, often in a lighthearted context. Some people just wouldn’t be scared to peek under a giant phallus, I’m thinking. I suppose, at least, I know I’m not the only one excited by this design conundrum.

Chip in a Bottle

Overflowing With Awesome

Bono is awesome. This is his homily at the National Prayer Breakfast.

This video is awesome. It features artwork inspired by lowbrow artist Jeff Soto.

This picture is awesome. It is my desktop picture in my office. (I felt I needed a third link to round out this post.)

UPDATE: Man, I totally forgot. Dr. McNinja is awesome.

UPDATE—THE SEQUEL: I don’t think I can write a post about awesome things without mentioning this. Chuck Norris is awesome. Awesomely deadly.

The Daily Doom: Crazy Japanese Edition

I hereby resurrect the increasingly infrequent “Daily Doom” segment for a few quick links on this Thursday afternoon.

  • Japan deploys giant robots to help save motorists whose cars have been disabled by snow. Can Gundam be far off?
  • This map accompanies the Sega Saturn RPG Tengai Makyou: Daishi no Mokushiroku (The 4th Apocalypse), and depicts (a post-apocalyptic?) America. “This map is basically what would happen if you got a bunch of Japanese guys in a room, got them drunk and then asked them to draw what they could remember about America on a bar napkin.” Strangely accurate (via Kotaku).
  • For the hat-trick, think of all the places you can watch porn on your PSP. Okay, but skydiving?