Game Design Rant 2006:

"There's not enough innovation in games!"




On March 23, 2006, at the Game Developers Conference, I gave a 6-minute rant as part of Eric Zimmerman's panel.  The rant is about the role of innovation in game design, and how to make games important to people.

The text of the rant is below.  Here is a link to the slides (.ppt format).



"There's not enough innovation in games!"

[Slide 1]

I just put up that slide to make Mr. Zimmerman nervous.  When he invited me to speak, he told me to make sure the rant was interesting, and not to speak about anything cliché, that everyone's heard a million times -- like the way mainstream games are bad because designers don't innovate enough.  By "innovation" I mean gameplay innovation, not experimentation with story, characters or aesthetic styles.

 So, this is the real title of my rant:

 [Slide 2]

I added quotation marks, because I'm talking about people saying, and believing, that there's not enough innovation in games.

Listening to such people -- I have often been one -- it sounds like they think that without innovation, new games are pointless.

[Slide 3]

Here's a thought for you: what if, like fossil fuels, innovation is a finite resource?  A steady flow indefinitely into the future is unsustainable.  When it drops to a trickle -- when we're down to diminishing returns -- what are we going to do?  Just say, "well there's no more innovation to put in games, so they all suck now.  Sorry, everyone!"  I hope not.

So, why do we feel like games need innovation to be good?

 [Slide 4]

Innovation acts as a shiny thing to distract us from the fact that our games are not compelling, once you get used to them.  If you're young and are new to games, they're great... but after a while, we see that what we are doing as players is not particularly meaningful. 

[Slide 5]

I mean, how important is it really that you shoot 20 pretend Nazis and get the blue card key?  It's not, but if the game gives you a wacky gun that lets you stake guys to a wall, you tend not to notice that the rest is uninteresting.  Because hey, cool gun. 

[Slide 6]

As with exploiting the oil sands, there will be technological achievements that open up bursts of new innovation -- like the Nintendo Revolution controller, holographic display, a direct neural interface, or NPCs that can pathfind without getting stuck on corners or standing in your way.  But each burst will exhaust itself in time.

So before we run out of new shiny things, we need to build a better model of what a game should be.  A sustainable model.


Stories don't need this kind of innovation to resonate with the audience; neither do paintings, or songs. 

And the holy books of the world's religions have been read by many, many more people than any Michael Crichton bestseller.  People think about them all the time.  It's because those books are important to peoples' lives.

If we are going to reach our potential when innovation dries up, we need to be important.  We need to speak to the human condition. 

We need to make games that people care about so much, they can't not play them.


One other thing about innovation is it's hard, and risky.  But we can make big progress without it.  I believe we can make games important, right now, by copying existing games.  The problem is -- nobody is really trying. 

I could rant for hours about older games left by the wayside.  But I'll pick one, designed by this year's Lifetime Achievement Award winner, Richard Garriott.

[Slide 7]

I played tons of Ultima IV when I was in high school.  It had all the trappings of other role-playing games -- hit points, experience points, weapons that you upgrade.  But you couldn't complete the game with just these things.  To win, you needed to build up 8 moral attributes that measured your general behavior.

This game had such an effect on me that now, 20 years after playing it, I can still name those attributes from memory:

[Slides 8-15]: Honesty, Compassion, Valor, Justice, Honor, Sacrifice, Spirituality, Humility. 

At the end, instead of a boss monster, you meet an entity that asks you questions about this moral system.

[Slide 16]

Back in the 1980s, I played this game on a Commodore 64 home computer, which had about 48k of useful RAM, and it ran at 1MHz.

[Slide 17]

A typical modern computer has 2 gigabytes of RAM and runs at 3GHz.

That's 42000x RAM and 3000x clock speed.  Computers today kick ass, relatively speaking.

If you made a game today that just cloned Ultima IV's virtues system, it would be very hard *not* to make the game even deeper and more interesting.  You wouldn't be resource-constrained at all.  A modern computer is a huge mountain of opportunity.

Yet, despite the fact that Ultima IV was an immensely popular game, and everyone remembers it -- nobody has done this.  The closest modern examples are Peter Molyneux's games Fable and Black & White.

[Slide 18]

But Black & White is too true to its name.  Instead of an 8-variable representation of morality, you get just one variable -- a simple slider between "Good" and "Evil".

I do not consider this an improvement.


I'm not saying that all games should be about morality -- it's just one example.

But why haven't we done better?  Why haven't we made games that address the human condition, even though we could start so easily?

Maybe we designers just don't have it in us.  Maybe we've had our chance, and now we just need to die off and become fossil fuels, so a new generation can take over.


[Slide 19]

Yesterday at the Experimental Gameplay Sessions, we had two presentations of games where the primary purpose was just to express feelings.  The feelings came from gameplay, what the player is actually doing, and not from cut-scenes.  One of these games was Cloud, presented by Jenova Chen and Kellee Santiago.  The other was Everyday Shooter, by Jonathan Mak.

It's not fair to the Cloud team, but I am going to talk about Jonathan's presentation.  He spoke about the design rationale of his game, and it was all of this nature:

[Slide 20]

"I got this one feeling from playing Every Extend, and wanted to re-express that here, in the context of my game design;"

[Slide 21]

"and Warning Forever, I wanted to express that here." 

[Slide 22]

And Porco Rosso -- which is one of Miyazaki's anime films.

His game didn't physically look like any of these things, the rules of gameplay were very different, but the feelings were there.

But the most striking thing about his presentation was his sincerity.  Everyone in the audience could tell that he cared deeply about what he was expressing -- far, far more than most designers at this conference.  And he started by putting together feelings from other games.  Which is one of the most basic things you can do, even if you are cloning another game design outright.

Cloud and Everyday Shooter are two examples of games that are really about feelings.  And if games are ever going to speak to the human condition in a deep way, I think that's a good place to start.


Thank you.


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