Posted by: seanmalstrom | January 23, 2010

Email: How exactly do you define content?

Hello man!

Through reading yous posts I came up with a doubt: how do you exactly define “content” in games?

Your position is that gaming are in the “content business”, and that Nintendo must input fresher content on its games, not just keep relying on Mario. But, at the same time, you fight against the “movie-like hardcore games”. In my point of view, those kind of games offer a lot of content due to all the creation involved in them: characters, plot (no matter if good or bad), music, CGs, environments…

The HD consoles have been offering a lot of these features on their titles. So, are they having success on the mission about giving content to consumer? Isn´t this the reason why the hardcore players LOVE hardcore games: they offer too much content? Or the context of those contents is just not correctly offered to the average gamers (due to extensive movies and all the complications)?

If games are in the “content business”, the hardcore games should be the most-selling ones, not Nintendo´s gameplay-oriented games.

This is a great question. I am suspecting now that the reason why the Core Market is having so many problems, aside from its out of control budget for games (and even that may be a symptom of this cause) is that there is no fresh content in the Core Market. All the games are the same. Each new generation is the same exact content with new coats of paint. Gamers are no longer surprised.

Computer animation is only entertaining if you are an adolescent or young adult. This is why, I suspect, gaming, which started out with a broad range of ages and both genders, has ended up becoming confined to young males and even middle aged males. Movies, also, have got stuck into that group ever since they relied more and more on computer animation (i.e. special effects).

Star Wars had great content. It had substance AND style. However, the Star Wars prequels, while having very good computer animation, lacked the substance the original Star Wars films had. Children love the new Star Wars films because computer animation is only really entertaining to the young.

The ‘hardcore’ are still enchanted by computer animation. I am not. Older people are not. In a recent Final Fantasy game, when a spell was being cast the camera would swirl around and there would be all this animation. I just said, “I am done,” to put down the controller and walk away. Computer animation is not entertaining to the masses.

People wonder how Mario 5 outsold Super Mario Galaxy so fast. These people think Super Mario Galaxy is “clearly the superior game”. Well, why is it superior? What makes Galaxy superior to Mario 5? Computer animation. Young people are still enchanted with computer animation. People like me lost interest in computer animation since Buck Rogers. The ‘awe’ they felt was nothing but ‘computer animation’. These gamers will age and will wonder why games they once loved has aged so poorly. It is because the games’ “fun” relied on computer animation. A game relying on ‘computer animation’ for its fun will result in the game aging like milk. Think of all those early 3d games.

Gameplay and “Graphics” are performing the same job

For ages, we have heard the debate: gameplay versus graphics. I am here to say this debate is absurd because gameplay and graphics are performing the same exact job.

What is the job of a game’s “graphics”? It is to attract and immerse the player into the game. It is to hold the player into an addiction of seeing what new monster or area will be coming up.

What is the job of a game’s “gameplay”? It is to attract and immerse the player into the game. It is to hold the player into an addiction in seeing what new monster or area will be coming up.

I’ve noticed using analogies of other entertainment mediums seems to express the point the clearest. Books have graphics. A book does have its cover, it may have pictures in the book. Fantasy books often have maps inside the book. All of this is to grab the reader and place them into the book’s world.

A book’s writing style would be the equivalent of a game’s gameplay. Like gameplay, a book’s writing style should be ACCESSIBLE, ADDICTING, and FAST PACED. A good writing style is that the person doesn’t want to put down the book. The reader wants to turn the page. A good gameplay has the person not want to stop playing. The gamer wants to get to the next level, to the next dungeon, or whatever.

Let us throw theater into this. “Graphics” to theater would be the props. It would be the stage set. It would be the costumes. All of this is to immerse the audience into the play.

The “gameplay” or “writing style” to the theater would be the ‘acting’ and the wit from the script. All of this is necessary for a good show.

Content is what the hell the show is about. It is the WHY. Not the HOW.

To the theater, how the lights are on to the acting style to the props are the HOW. Not the WHY. Why should people watch a play? They don’t know. Theater people are only obsessed with the how, not the why. The result is that theater has collapsed as an entertainment medium. Half of all plays put on in America are Shakespeare’s plays which shows you how bad it is.

To the books, the writing style to the book cover and pictures are all the HOW. Not the WHY. Why should people read a book? They don’t know. Publishers are only obsessed with the how, not the why. The result is that the books have collapsed as an entertainment medium. The only reason why people read books today is because they have to due to school. The books that ‘sell’ are books sold to schools or textbooks (which you pay a pretty penny for if you are in University).

To video games, gameplay and graphics are both centered about HOW. Not the WHY. Why should people play a video game? This should be the dominant question. Video game pioneers had to address this question during the 70s and 80s. With the NES, Nintendo had to answer why people should play a video game with their new console.

Since then, everyone has taken gaming’s purpose for granted. Why should anyone buy a video game? “Because it is fun.” Why is it fun? “Shooting things is fun.” Every other game is shooting things. How is your game any different? “It has zombies.” Meh.

Especially on their Expanded Market, Nintendo appears to be answering why people should play a video game.

Why should I play a video game? “Because,” soothes Nintendo, “you can get fit and lose weight.” BAM! Wii Fit then becomes a massive best seller.

Why should I play a video game? “Because,” says Nintendo, “you can get smarter and fire up your brain.” BAM! Brain Age becomes a big seller.

Why should I play a video game? “Because,” says Nintendo, “you can do things in it that you cannot do in real life. Like own puppies. Like play baseball.” BAM! Nintendogs becomes a best seller. Wii Sports becomes a best seller.

Wii Sports is special also since a big reason why someone plays it is to engage in the social experience with other people.

Very much, what I mean by content is value of the product. However, I am being a laser on content because that is the reason why the ‘imagination’ games are not doing so hot. I mean the Core Games.

Why should I buy your new Core Game?

“Because it has better computer animation than the last game.”

WRONG ANSWER.

Why should I buy your new Core Game?

“Because it has new gameplay mechanics. Oh, and there is the Meta-Game. And achievements!”

WRONG ANSWER.

When games were being born, gaming was exploring all sorts of different content experiences. How about a video game about you being a railroad tycoon and you can make tracks and buy new trains? Sounds like fun!

How about a game where you are a caveman going through caves, dodging another caveman, dodging cliffs and monsters?

How about a game where you explore the galaxy in a space ship, meet crazy aliens, and be an experience like Star Trek?

How about a game where you are the hero with companions in a fantasy world similar to Lord of the Rings?

How about exploring a rich wonderland like Alice in Wonderland?

Pretend the year was 1989, and you asked a child, “Why do you play Super Mario Brothers?” the child would enthusiastically respond, “To save the princess!”

But lo, a modern game developer would appear and say, “Child, that is not why you play Super Mario Brothers. You play the game because of a Pavlovian reward system that has been systematically metered out throughout the game.”

The child would look at the game developer like he was an idiot. Then the child would say, “Sometimes I do play just to find out what is in the next level! I also enjoy trying to go down pipes and see what secrets I can find in each level!”

The modern game developer would argue with the child. “Yes, but it is not the areas or secrets you want. It is only the process of finding them. It is only the feeling and sensation of it, not the actual result. You desire only the process, not the substance.”

The child would look at the modern developer as if he turned into the HorseHead boss from Zelda II. “That is like telling me that I eat only because I enjoy the process of chewing and swallowing. I eat because I am hungry. I do not play games because I enjoy the process of frustration and mechanics. Just as I eat because I am hungry, I play games because I am bored.”

Gaming is food for the soul. The appetite for gaming already exists in the Nature of Man. Everyone wants to play.

And let us say Miyamoto materialized out of nowhere. He would say, “Super Mario Brothers was never made in imitation of Alice in Wonderland. It was designed to have water, to have sky, to have underground areas all in a fantastical arena.”

And the child would respond, “But it IS wonderland. I play Mario because I love being in Wonderland.”

The child’s definition is the correct one. The child is trying to plainly express that he/she is playing the game for the content. The old fuddy duddies are trying to say the HOW the game works is more important than the WHY. But the child will disagree.

The magic of gaming can be seen in the reflection of that child.

The Content of Gaming

Like books, games can take many forms. I suspect you are not interested in knowing the content of expanded market games like Wii Fit or Wii Sports. (Yet, observe how easy it is to spot the content in those games.) I think you are interested in the imagination games.

Gaming re-writes the theater equilibrium and makes the audience the central actor. In gaming, the gamer is not a passive audience. No. In gaming, the gamer is the player.

Holodeck analogies seem appropriate here. Imagine a holodeck program where you do nothing but sit and watch what goes on. What a worthless program! It wouldn’t rightfully be called a ‘game’ if the player is mostly passive, right?

The content of the program grows depending on how much the player can interact with the program and the program reacting to the player. Can friends join the player in the experience of the program? If so, the program has more value. Its content increases.

How about a holodeck program about paying bills? That would be a crappy program. That would also be a crappy video game. How about, instead, a program about doing your exercise by fighting monsters? Sounds like fun!

Sid Meir once said that a game is a sum of interesting choices. This would imply the opposite, that life is a sum of uninteresting choices. How many interesting choices do you have in life?

Children have no interesting choices. This is why they play games. They are bored. In games, they are free to make decisions.

Adults do not have interesting choices. This is why they play games too. They have boring lives from going to work, sitting in traffic all day, to watching TV. Yawn. This is why they would rather slay a dragon in a fantasy digital land. I suppose this is why the Japanese really latched hard to the RPG games such as Dragon Quest. Clearly, the game was offering an experience more entertaining than their dull routine.

Why do people keep buying Zelda? It is because of expectations of new content. They want to explore the Zelda universe more. They discuss time lines and alternate time lines and then place all the Zelda games into crazy charts. They are clearly buying it for the content.

I remember buying Super Mario Brothers 3 and Super Mario World excited to know what new lands and creatures await for me. I bought Super Mario Brothers 5 for the same reason.

But with Zelda, you spend more time in the game hunting pieces of heart then you do slaying a dragon. I would much rather slay a dragon. Zelda games are in decline because of the content. Slaying a dragon is far more entertaining and interesting than going bug hunting or finding pieces of heart.

No one went to the theater to watch the routine. So why does anyone expect people to buy a video game to play a routine? If Sid Meir is correct, then the choices in games need to be interesting. Deciding which bug to collect is not interesting. Deciding which weapon I am going to kill that monster with IS interesting. This is perhaps a big reason why a game like Monster Hunter completely wipes the floor with a game like Zelda. Zelda has become a snore fest. And while Monster Hunter is a ‘love it’ or ‘hate it’ type game, the reason why people love it is (according to them) all the different types of interesting choices they get to make.

So the content of a game is not just choices. It is INTERESTING choices.

When games imitate movies, they are removing choices. This is why gamers complain.

Unlike theater or movies, the stage set is very important to games. The stage set, alone, can help provide the interesting part. Super Mario Brothers made it big while Mario Brothers didn’t, despite similar mechanics, was because of the Mushroom Kingdom and the setting of Wonderland. The game became INTERESTING because of that. But aside from that, there needs to be choices presented to the player in order for “play” to exist. Does the player jump on the koopa troopa or avoid it? If the player jumps on the koopa trooper, does the player pick up the shell? If so, where does the player launch the koopa shell? A big reason why 2d Mario is way more successful than 3d Mario is because when Mario went to 3d the range of choices available to the player shrank. The player has to get the star a certain way. The player must go this direction or that direction. The player has to kill that monster. In 2d Mario, the player is free to choose his or her own way and his or her own style of play.

The greater the range of interesting play, the greater the content. In Wii Sports Resort Cycling, it would be more interesting if you could shake your Wii-mote to punch the Mii next to you off his bicycle. And people wonder why Road Rash made a big splash when it came out.

A game like Civilization is very boring mechanically and from a gameplay sense. However, Civilization has a gazillion different type of choices available for the player. The choices begin small but grow over time. And the choices are interesting.

When the game becomes repetitive is when the choices become uninteresting. Deciding where a settler is going to irrigate is only interesting when you have a couple cities. When you have fifty cities, it is a pain.

Should that level in Zelda have a cave? The answer is only if there is something interesting inside that cave. If there is nothing interesting in that cave, it is better for the choice to be cut off. Games are nothing but a sum of interesting choices.

And this is why the “Game God” with his ‘vision’ is dead. It is the customer’s vision that is what matters. It is the player who is at the center of the game. The video game revolves and rotates entirely based on the player. The dilemma for game developers is to allow many choices and make them all interesting.

Again, I insist that gameplay and graphics are one of the same. They are both parts of the stage. The gamer is the player. The interesting choices the player engages in (which exist in the player’s mind, not the developer’s mind) is the content of the game.

So content complaints come in two flavors: either the choice is not ‘interesting’ or that there is no choice at all.

If the game is a corridor game where I am constantly led around, people will complain it has no game content despite the voice acting and art assets. Likewise, if a game is where I am doing errands and collecting things, people will complain it has no game content despite all the “rich gameplay”. People want interesting choices, not boring choices!

Tetris is a game stunningly rich with interesting choices. Do you place the block here or there? Rotate it this way or that way? Do you go for a Tetris or not? How do you solve that hole you made? Tetris is consistent with interesting choices from beginning of the game to the end of it.

RTS games are rich with interesting choices. Do you rush? Do you tech? Do you build this unit or that unit? How do you respond to the enemy?

FPS games are rich with interesting choices. Do you attack with this weapon or that weapon? Do you use this angle or that angle? Do you stay on the high ground or sneak around on the low ground? Do you jump around like a bunny or do you snipe from the tower?

A good game has a constant rhythm of interesting choices.  One of the problems with Role Playing Games is that the constant growth or item based gameplay ends up with less interesting choices at the end of the game. In a RTS game, you run low on resources which raises the stakes on your interesting choices. So the end of a RTS game ends up being the climax of the game (if properly done). Unfortunately, RPG games can get more boring as they go on.

Play a game and ask yourself, “What are the interesting choices that I have?” And there is the content of the player experience.


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