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 New Era

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PostSubject: New Era   Tue Apr 05, 2011 11:08 pm

I've been thinking about games a lot recently. It's exciting to live in a time when a new art form is really coming into its own. The last time this happened was our grandparents' time, and the time before that was thousands of years ago.

One thing I've noticed is that expectations have shifted somewhat. This may be a reflection on the different circles I'm paying attention to now, but I don't think it is, for reasons I'll get to in a bit. The shift itself is the shift from one era of gaming to another.

To be clear, by "one era" I do not mean something like a shift in platforms--there's no fundamental difference between the SNES and the 360. Don't get me wrong, there are major differences. There's a reason one is obsolete and the other considered state of the art. However, those differences are nonessential--the platform itself is still simply a means of translating binary into an audio/visual form of entertainment. Nor is it a reflection of the new technology that's coming out. Motion control is merely another control scheme; there are advantages and disadvantages, but on the whole it's equivalent to switching from one controler to another.

No, the change is much more fundamental.

A videogame is composed of a number of elements: the plot and theme triad of more traditional artforms such as books and movies, the visuals, the control scheme, and so on. Each genra has its own elements as well: a leveling system for RPGs, the HUD common in almost all FPSs, the rock/paper/scissors issues in RTS games, etc. These aspects are FUNDAMENTAL--meaning it's impossible to have these aspects and still have a game. It doesn't matter what sort of videogame you want to produce, you simply cannot build one (and in fact I doubt you can concieve of one) without visuals. Nor can you make a game without a control scheme (the game on Kongregate which plays an RPG for you does not count as a game, in any real sense). When I say a fundamental shift in gaming, I mean a shift in these types of issues.

Up to this point the major push of gaming has been visuals. The shift from text-based adventures (Zork) to semi-text based (Leisuresuite Larry) and then to non-text-based (Myst). The shift from 8 bit (FF1) to 16 (Chrono Trigger) to 64 (Super Mario 64) to not counting (Halo). It's common to hear a game described as "visually stunning". It's gotten to the point where they're discussing issues of lighting that are barely detectable, such as how light bounces off surfaces and makes the shadow side of things standing in shadows visible.

The issue is, we're too good at it now. We've reached a point where there's deminishing returns--while the effort required to great better graphics has increased dramatically, both in terms of hardware and of programing hours, the results simply aren't that spectacular. Brown FPSs are a cliche joke. And while graphics demonstrably ARE getting better, the pace has declined dramatically. A person playing Halo, then Halo 2, then Halo 3 sees an improvement. A person playing Zork, then Leisuresuite Lary, then Final Fantasy was thrown into a whole new world each time (and when they threw 3d environments in....).

The problem is that for a long time we simply, as an art (meaning both producers and consumers), haven't really focused on other fundamental aspects of gameplay. When was the last time you really considered how a control scheme affected your game? I mean REALLY considered, looked at how you played the game, looked at why you avoided certain things and specialized in others and how it relates to how your fingers move. I first really noticed it when switching from Morrowind (where magic was I think Y) to Oblivion (where magic is the right bumper). Magic went from something that was just awekward enough to not use to something that I started using without thinking about it.

When was the last time you really thought of characterization? As an art we don't even have a definition for the term. Right now it consists of, roughly, two parts: a player-controlled leveling system and cutscene plot development. There's some marginal characterization in other areas--some games let you get married, buy homes, etc (my current Fable 2 playthrough is more abuot economics than killing hobbs), but these never affect the story in truly meaningful ways. Getting married never makes the Big Bad take your wife hostage. Owning entire villages doesn't give you the option to send troups into battle for you. Yes, I can see why--it'd take a massive amount of programing for some of this--but to some extent it's simply because we don't know what else to do.

Gaems such as Minecraft, and the nostalgia our generation has for the past, show that there's a growing desire for more out of games than just visual specticals. We want an experience, we want integration--and we're willing to sacrifice visuals to get it! Think about that for a second: a game is basically printing money for its designer and it went BACKWARDS in what many consider to be the most important aspect of the artform. This is akin to sculpturs going back to the Egyptian rigid ratios (I was going to put something in about painters, but that art form has gone back as far as it can...). Yet the game is a major leap forward, because it brings to the fore other aspects of gaming.

Another example of proof that we're switching as an art from focus on visuals to focus on other aspects is the whole "Lego ____" thing. Again, visually this is a step backwards. FAR back--it's not even a cartoon. Yet the games are fun, and people are playing them.

As for games that rely on visuals, they're going to get more and more specialized. There's a video on YouTube of an engineer trying to play Portal that demonstrates the problems visual-heavy games will have. People who have played games for a long time get the concepts, we understand the jargon of symbols inherent in games. Outsiders? Not so much. And as visuals become increasingly more complex this is going to be a real stumbling block. We're rapidly getting to the point where the learning curve is too steep to be climbed successfully by a single game, and therefore new gamers won't play the new games.

The switch in era that I'm referring to specifically is the switch away from focus on the visual aspect of games. I'm not sure what the next focus will be on. Best case scenareo? it's on integrated games, where the player simply doesn't notice all those aspects. Think of a great movie--you can't point to a scene and say "This was there for characterization, this was there for plot advancement" because each sceen does both, and more. However, I don't have high hopes. I think what we'll get is games focused on other aspects. In fact, it's already happening. Casual gaming and Indie gaming are frequently just that: experimentations on how different aspects affect games. What will arise is a new king of the fundamental aspects (or a small number of barrons), and most games will focus on that. Not that this is bad, just that it'll run into the same problem as visual-focused gaming will. Ever play NetHack? If so, you know the plight of gamers when the learning curve is steep.

Still, it's interesting to watch as an industry, and an art form, struggle to handle the early stages of a massive shift, and it will be exciting to see what comes of it.
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PostSubject: Re: New Era   Wed Apr 06, 2011 12:04 am

Very nicely thought-out OP. I don't know if you've read it already, but the latest Experienced Points discusses how Crysis 2 focuses more on the artistic aspects of visuals rather than on simply seeing how hyper-realistic they could make it.

I'm not sure that visuals will ever stop being a main focus for videogames. Gaming is a visual medium, and we are primarily visual creatures. Even when other aspects of gaming become more prominent I think visuals will continue to be one of the biggest focal points. You can have the best gameplay in the world but if the images are incomprehensible then no one will know. Minecraft may have simple visuals, but those visuals create a certain style that is part of the game's charm. In a way the blockyness of the game world help to reinforce the idea that everything you see can be taken apart, rearranged, and put back together--just like toy blocks.

As for control schemes, there are two arguments to be made against using them to influence gameplay: first, PC gamers need the ability to re-map keys for various reasons. Second, not everyone is going to have the same ease/difficulty of hitting the same buttons. You might want a specific button to be somewhat difficult to use in order to make the gamer use that element sparingly, but if the player has no trouble reaching it then you lose that aspect of the game. If you want certain elements to be used sparingly then you need to make that happen in a way you have full control of (say by adding some kind of cool-down timer, or limiting the areas where it can be used).

I do agree with the idea that games need to move toward a more integrated approach, where all the separate elements are brought together cohesively. It'll be a difficult thing to achieve, but well worth it.
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