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Roger Ebert is Right: Games are Not High Art…Yet

Monday, January 19th, 2009

Some of you may have heard about Roger Ebert’s disparaging comments about video games. If not, I will sum it up for you here.

“The nature of the medium [video games] prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship [however elegant or sophisticated] to the stature of art. To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers. For most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.” – Roger Ebert

Later, Ebert updated his opinions that games are art, just not high art.

“A year or so ago, I rashly wrote that video games could not be art. That inspired a firestorm among gamers, who wrote me countless messages explaining why I was wrong, and urging me to play their favorite games. Of course, I was asking for it. Anything can be art. Even a can of Campbell’s soup. What I should have said is that games could not be high art…” – Roger Ebert

This may sound blasphemous, but in a way, I agree with Roger Ebert’s assessment of our industry. Video games are currently not high art and they are an inferior medium to film and literature. I am not saying that video games can never be “high art,” it is that games have not yet reached that point. Video games have many challenges that other mediums do not have. Video games are a relatively young art form, are difficult to create, have to be “fun” and mass-market games have spiraling budgets, which cause a reluctance to experiment. If we are able to move past the video game industry’s self-imposed limitations, games have the potential to be the most powerful and important art form we have. In this article I will define what I believe “high art” is and discuss the challenges that the gaming industry faces to attain this important recognition.

Other gamers may challenge what I am saying by pointing to games such as Shadow of the Colossus, Ico, or Okami as “high art.” I would disagree. Stylized graphics do not make a game high art. High art is a work of importance. Works of importance are pieces of art that have cultural significance that include social commentary. Games as a whole are missing these key ingredients. Where are our games that deal head-on with themes like religious fanaticism, racism or the holocaust? While there are hundreds of films and books dealing with these topics, video games in the pursuit of fun and sales, avoid these touchy subjects at all costs.

Shadow of the Colossus Picture.

Games = Fun
If you look at all the end of the year best of video games lists, what one word determines the placement of these games on those lists? Fun. If you peruse the talk schedule of the Game Developer’s Conference (GDC), it seems every other talk is based on how to make games fun. Being a game designer, the main discussion point in every game mechanic meeting is how to get the section of gameplay to be fun. Maybe all of this focus on fun is a bad thing. That possibility is just what Warren Spector discusses in his article; “Fun” is a Four-Letter Word.

But, the word “fun” has other problems. It kind of locks us into a “games are for kids” mentality. It implies that games are good for just one thing: passing time in an enjoyable manner, for want of a better definition.

And perhaps most damning to me is that all this focus on passing time puts a ceiling, of sorts, above us that separates us from other media, media that are allowed to strive for something other than simple “fun-ness.”

Movies, books, musical compositions and so on are – or can be – fun to watch/read/listen to, but there’s nothing in the definition or judgment of those other media that requires fun. We’re the only medium that says to itself, “This is what you must be and all you will ever be.”
Warren Spector

The mandatory “fun” is what pigeonholes the video game medium into a escapist distraction and puts a self-imposed limitation on video games that prevents it from reaching the high art plateau. I recently watched the movie The Terrorist and asked myself the question, was that movie fun? The film was thought provoking, sad and even disturbing, but can hardly be described as fun. What separates films from games as a medium is film’s willingness to tackle difficult subject matter. In the case of The Terrorist, it chronicles the life of a pregnant female suicide bomber leading up to the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. It is hard to imagine a video game based on the same subject matter. This drives home how mature an art form film is and how much further video games have to go to be considered high art. If we do not limit ourselves to games = fun, we could one day see video games encompass so much more. Perhaps video games could be relabeled as interactive media and we could then see games be on equal footing as films. We could have games that genuinely explore and tackle real cultural and societal issues.

Budgets and Sales: Willingness to Experiment
The reality we live with right now is that fun blockbuster video games receive all the press, accolades and most importantly, sales. Publishers make games to sell and games that tackle societal ills or are not “fun” are unproven. Game budgets are now commonly soaring into and beyond the 20 million dollar range and as games get more expensive, publishers are becoming less and less willing to take chances. It is difficult for game developers to tackle difficult subjects that may alienate or divide their intended audience of Western males age 12 to 35.

Here is an example of a game developer’s willingness to make decisions based off of sales. Seth Schiesel of the New York Times wrote an article questioning the Ubisoft Montreal’s decision to Anglicize the main character of the Prince of Persia.

“What are we to make of a “Prince of Persia” who talks and behaves like a 17-year-old American mall rat? A “Prince of Persia” with blue eyes, fully Anglicized facial features and what looks like a tan he picked up on spring break? Is it taking a video game too seriously to shrink in distaste from such characterizations?”

It was no mistake that the Prince of Persia is Anglicized. This was done to not alienate the developer’s intended Western audience. Yet the game gets a pass for blatantly disregarding reality, simply because it is a game. If we want games to be viewed as high art, we have to look more closely at our games and not take the approach that all that matters is sales.

It is this sales driven mentality and unwillingness to take chances that have placed a ceiling above this industry’s head and stymied the growth and acceptance of games by the mainstream. If we do not occasionally move away from the big-action-summer style of games, we will never reach that pervasive mainstream audience. Games may be expensive to produce, but so are movies and even large budget movies do not shy away from socially important issues.

The first step to having games be accepted as high art is to be willing to take on criticism and be held accountable for our decisions. We can no longer fall back on the excuse, “It is just a game.”

Complexity in Games
One of the major disadvantages of the video games medium is that games are very complex and difficult to produce. In order to create a mass-market game, it can take team sizes in excess of 100+ developers, each specializing in one of these four disciplines: programming, design, animators and artists well over two years. To a certain degree, independent filmmakers are on an even playing field with bigger budget film projects. The differences between a low budget independent film and a big budget film are much less discernable from the audience’s perspective than an independent video game and a big budget blockbuster video game. With film, anybody can pick up a camera and with post-production and editing software readily available, can make a highly polished mass-marketable film. This is not the case with the complexity required to bring a polished video game to market. It is much more difficult for smaller budget and more experimental games to gain acceptance by wide audiences because the production values between these types of games and games with much larger budgets are so wide and easily noticeable to even a casual observer.

Just as technology has made the independent filmmaker more on par with a studio production, I am hopeful that the day comes when technology closes the gap between independent games and big budget games. There are signs that this movement is already in progress with game development suites like Adobe Flash and Microsoft’s XNA studio. When independent gamemakers are able to remove the disparity between their products they will be more able to compete for the consumers’ dollars and it will empower our industry to push and experiment with new social themes and genres.

Video Games are a Young Industry
When film first took form, few would have called it a “high art” form. It took over a hundred years before it gained that distinction. Many parallels can be drawn from when film was in its infancy to video games of today. When film first appeared on the scene it was a spectacle, but frowned on as not comparable to live theater. The same can be said of games in comparison to films today. It heartens me that the video game industry has come so far and so fast on the technology front, but we cannot neglect our responsibility to our audience to move them to think. We cannot simply dismiss Roger Ebert’s criticism, but instead we need to take it as a challenge and use our medium to make our audience more “cultured, civilized and empathetic”. By doing so we elevate video games as a whole into the realm of high art. Games are a young form of media and in the years to come we will be given the opportunity to answer our critics and gain the respect of the mainstream, let us not waste it.

We are at a crossroads and must confront the self-imposed limitations we have placed on ourselves and start viewing video games as something more than mere escapist fare. It as a challenge to our industry as a whole to produce games that tackle difficult themes and strive for more than simple “fun.” Video games have boundless possibilities and are uniquely suited to surpass any other mediums that currently exist because there is a level of connectivity through open-ended and collaborative interactivity that no other media can hope to match. If we are willing to take head-on serious societal themes and not shirk our responsibilities, I believe we will see the day that the video game is looked upon as more than a way to mindlessly pass time, but as deeply important and socially relevant.

I would like to thank Amadeo Plaza for our discussions on this topic.

See my other related articles:
Become a Video Game Designer: Everything You Need to Know Part 1
Top 5 Greatest Moments in Competitive Gaming (eSports)
What Video Games Taught Me About Life
Low Skill Cap and Luck (RNG) in World of Warcraft PVP
Best Games of All Time by Genre Part 1
10 Greatest Video Game Designers Part 1
Call of Duty: World at War Through the Eyes of a Game Designer
What’s Bad About Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare Multiplayer Mode?
Dead Space Through the Eyes of a Game Designer
Gears of War 2 Through the Eyes of a Game Designer
8 of the Most Underrated or Overlooked Video Games of All Time
Best MMA Fights & Genki Sudo: Real Life Video Game Character

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10 Greatest Video Game Designers Part 2

Saturday, November 29th, 2008

These are the ten heroes of video game design. They have been responsible for games that have forever changed the medium and consequently the video game industry as a whole is indebted to them. Also included in this list is a career highlight list for each designer, a bit about how they personally influenced me as a designer and some fun trivia about them. This is part 2 of this list.

To go to Part 1 of this list click here.

5. Sid Meier
Sid Meier picture
The owner of my favorite game design quote:

“Gameplay is defined as a series of interesting choices.”

Every time a new Civilization comes out it ends up ruining any productivity of mine for months on end. They are so good and addictive I actually try to stay away from them because I know I will get nothing done as soon as I start playing them.

Also do you remember those keyboard key guides that you had to lay over on top of your keyboard that to came with F-15 and F-19? Those were complicated games.

Career Highlights
1. F-15 Strike Eagle
2. F-19 Stealth Fighter
3. Railroad Tycoon
4. Sid Meier’s Pirates!
5. Civilization

4. Warren Spector
Warren Spector picture

“Hell no we didn’t achieve what we were striving for on Deus Ex. What you do is you aim for the moon so you end up hitting Hawaii or something. If you aim for Hawaii you end up in Keokuk, Iowa or something, you know?” – Warren Spector

Warren Spector’s rules of game design in his postmortem of Deus Ex laid down the starting bumpers for me as a game designer.

a. Always show the goal. Players should see their next goal (or encounter an intriguing mystery) before they can achieve (or explain) it.

b. Problems not puzzles. It’s an obstacle course, not a jigsaw puzzle. Game situations should make logical sense and solutions should never depend on reading the designer’s mind. And there should always be more than one way to get past a game obstacle. Always.

c. No forced failure. Failure isn’t fun. Getting knocked unconscious and waking up in a strange place or finding yourself standing over dead bodies while holding a smoking gun can be cool story elements, but situations the player has no chance to react to are bad. Used sparingly, to drive a story forward, O.K. Don’t overuse!

d. It’s the people, stupid. Role-playing is about interacting with other people in a variety of ways (not just combat… not just conversation…).

e. Players do; NPCs watch. It’s no fun to watch an NPC do something cool. If it’s a cool thing, let the player do it. If it’s a boring or mundane thing, don’t even let the player think about it — let an NPC do it.

Have you patted your player on the back today? Constant rewards will drive players onward. Make sure you reward players regularly. And make sure the rewards get more impressive as the game goes on.

g. Players get smarter so games get harder. Make sure game difficulty escalates as players become more accustomed to your interface and more familiar with your world. Make sure you reward the player by making him or her more powerful as the game goes on.

h. Think 3D. A 3D map cannot be laid out on graph paper. It has to take into account things over the player’s head and under the player’s feet. If there’s no need to look up and down — constantly — make a 2D game!

i. Are You Connected? Maps in a 3D game world must feature massive interconnectivity. Tunnels that go direct from Point A to Point B are bad; loops (horizontal and vertical) and areas with multiple entrance and exit points are good.

Career Highlights
1. Wing Commander
2. Ultima Underworld I and II
3. Thief: The Dark Project
4. System Shock
5. Deus Ex

3. Peter Molyneux
Peter Molyneux picture
This man made me feel like a god. Peter Molyneux is the father of the god game. To his credit are some of my favorite games of all time. Populous was the quintessential god game, Syndicate was way ahead of its time (see my write up of Syndicate here), and Dungeon Keeper turned video game conventions upside-down by casting the player in the role of the villain.

Beyond being one of the greatest designers in history, he has what few designers have, an uncanny ability to sell. In fact he is so notorious with his tall tales; few take his proclamations without a grain of salt nowadays. Despite being skeptical whenever the man opens his mouth, I end up buying whatever the man is shilling because he has an infectious enthusiasm and a way about his personality and demeanor that convinces you that each and every game of his is going to revolutionize the world. With well-over two decades in this industry, Molyneux still remains relentlessly relevant. This is amazing in and of itself. This is a video of him selling you on the dog in Fable 2.

After watching that how can you not like the guy?

Career Highlights
1. Populous
2. Syndicate
3. Magic Carpet
4. Dungeon Keeper
5. Fable

2. Will Wright
Will Wright picture
In many ways Will Wright is the antithesis of Miyamoto, you can easily imagine Will Wright growing up, staying in doors playing board games, analyzing their systems, and building model airplanes, cars and boats. Where the two are the same are their creative drives to make games that give the user new experiences. Will Wright sums up his own methodology for making games better than I could have:

“Well, one thing I’ve always really enjoyed is making things. Out of whatever. It started with modeling as a kid, building models… I think when I started doing games I really wanted to carry that to the next step, to the player, so that you give the player a tool so that they can create things. And then you give them some context for that creation.”

Will Wright’s speeches are always entertaining as well as inspiring. It’s incredible how his research and thought process for his games come about. As I could not embed the first video, you will have to click on the link in order to watch:
GDC 2008 – An Evening with Will Wright

This is a second shorter video of another speach he made at TED.
Will Wright: Toys That Make Worlds

Some additional reading:
Will Wright fan site

  • The history and hobby tabs were fascinating reads for those with the time and inclination.
  • Fun Fact from the “Game Master” article in the New Yorker: “Wright was a former Robot Wars champion in the Berkeley-based robotics workshop, the Stupid Fun Club. One of Wright’s bots, designed with the help of Wright’s daughter Cassidy, “Kitty Puff Puff”, fought against its opponents by sticking a roll of gauze onto its armature and circling around them, encapsulating them and denying them movement. The technique, “cocooning”, was eventually banned.”
  • Career Highlights
    1. SimCity
    2. Sims
    3. Spore

    1. Shigeru Miyamoto
    Shigeru Miyamoto picture

    “I think I can make an entirely new game experience, and if I can’t do it, some other game designer will.”

    If you read the Will Wright entry, I tipped my hand on the #1 game designer, not that there could be any other choice.

    If there is a face of gaming, it would be Shigeru Miyamoto. I would describe him as the Stan Lee of video games. After Atari’s collapse, everybody thought games were a fad that would go the way of the hula-hoop, but Nintendo made sure video games would have a bright future. Shigeru Miyamoto was at the forefront of the revival.

    As much as anybody, Miyamoto’s creations influenced my childhood. I remember working my ass off doing chores and begging to get an NES so I could play Super Mario Bros. It took two successive Christmases of doing chores everyday and eating my vegetables before my parents finally got the system for me. That Christmas morning is my happiest childhood memory.

    As you can probably tell, Miyamoto’s childhood story is a lot more interesting than mine. His upbringing is worth mentioning because it was so influential in his video game creations.

    According to Miyamotoshrine.com

    “Shigeru Miyamoto was born and raised in a rural community near his current home of Kyoto, Japan. Miyamoto was humbled by the natural world surrounding him. Add to that the lack of a television set growing up, and you have a boy whose sense of adventure and imagination was limited only to what his own mind could produce.

    Miyamoto would often explore his natural surroundings in Sonebe to bide the time. Rice fields, canyons, grassy hills, waterways. the ideal setting for such an adventurous young man. Then one fateful day, Miyamoto made a discovery that would later resonate in his future endeavors, as would many things from his childhood. Shigeru had discovered a hole in the ground. Not just any hole, but a large hole. Upon closer inspection it was obvious that this hole was actually something more. It was in fact, the opening to a cave.

    Young Miyamoto returned several times before building up enough courage to enter. Armed with only a lantern, he ventured deep inside until he came to another hole that led to another section of the cave. This was breathtaking for such a young man. Unforgettable even. And Miyamoto certainly never forgot.”

    This sense of wonderment and exploration of a magical world translates so well in his games. Knowing his past it is easy to see where Legend of Zelda sprang out of Miyamoto’s childhood experiences.

    I will never forget his GDC 2007 speech that I attended that implored aspiring game developers to occasionally put down their video games and to go outside to learn more about and explore the world around them. It was such a breath of fresh air to listen to him.

    Career Highlights
    1. Donkey Kong
    2. Super Mario Brothers
    3. Legend of Zelda
    4. Nintendogs
    5. Wii Fit

    Go to Part 1 of this list.

    See my other related articles also:
    Become a Video Game Designer: Everything You Need to Know Part 1
    Best Games of All Time by Genre Part 1
    Top 5 Greatest Moments in Competitive Gaming (eSports)
    What Video Games Taught Me About Life
    Low Skill Cap and Luck (RNG) in World of Warcraft PVP
    Roger Ebert is Right: Games are Not High Art…Yet
    What’s Bad About Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare Multiplayer Mode?
    Dead Space Through the Eyes of a Game Designer
    Call of Duty: World at War Through the Eyes of a Game Designer
    Gears of War 2 Through the Eyes of a Game Designer
    8 of the Most Underrated or Overlooked Video Games of All Time
    Pimps at Sea err I mean Age of Booty & Gen 13 Cosplay
    My Student Films 2: EverQuest Documentary and Guilty Gear Isuka Trailer
    Best MMA Fights & Genki Sudo: Real Life Video Game Character

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