Posted by: seanmalstrom | July 2, 2010

Spector interview and Game Worlds

Warren Spector has a great new interview. I laughed at this part:

There’s a point in every project where I beat my head on my desk and say “why I do I always do things the hard way? Why don’t I just make a shooter?” With this game it was like, “Wow, why am I making a thirdperson game in which the player can determine where the walls and floors go? Oh my God!”

Listen to this quote:

One of the great challenges for videogames is that we have to stop building movie sets and start building worlds. Back in the old days, Origin’s motto was ‘We create worlds’. Somewhere along the line we lost that, and started building movie sets. And so for years I’ve been looking for an excuse to build a world that’s more dynamic. But it would have been a radically different game without Mickey as its beating creative heart.

One of the reasons why I think video games are seeing serious decline is that there is no interest or talent focused on creating content, or the ‘continuum’ or ‘world’ the game exists in. Content creation skills are very different than game making skills.

For example, a broadcaster needs the skills of broadcasting (doing that in a fun and entertaining way) but the broadcaster also needs the skills of content. In other words, the broadcaster must do show prep. Many broadcasters cannot do this so they rely on guests.

Many video games take their content or ‘world’ from other areas. EA did not invent football. Take Two did not invent the ‘wild west’ for Red Dead Redemption. The ‘wild west’ already existed and is already portrayed in other mediums.

This is why games like Super Mario Brothers or Ultima are very special. Their ‘world’ wasn’t taken from anywhere else. It was unique to the game. The only way to get to the Mushroom Kingdom was by playing Super Mario Brothers.

What does Mario, Metroid, and Zelda have in common? They are all unique worlds. I remember when the games came out. People were not fascinated by the characters of Mario, Samus, and Link, they were really fascinated by the worlds and wanted to remain in that world.

Fantasy and science-fiction authors have no problem creating ‘accessible writing’. The big, big problem is the world creation, ultimately the content of the book. They agonizingly spend years creating the fictional world. Much of this fictional world won’t even appear in the book! And much of the fictional world somehow ‘appears’ in the middle of the writing process!

As Spector noted, video games are not interested in making worlds. This ‘world’ is the biggest reason why people go off and buy the sequel. They want to return to that world! People will buy Starcraft 2, for example, to see what happens in that game world. “No,” says the reader. “They will buy it for the multiplayer gameplay.” But Blizzard, themselves, say that half of their customers do not even play multiplayer. When Blizzard designs units for their RTS games, they go with what unit has the most interesting story, the one that best fleshes out this ‘continuum’ or ‘world’ they are in.

I remember how shockingly awesome World of warcraft was when it released because it felt incredible to explore the world of Azeroth in such a way. Blizzard was busy building up the ‘Warcraft’ continuum bit by bit since the original Warcraft came out. (The biggest complaint against World of Warcraft is that Blizzard has put in so many strange things that the Warcraft continuum no longer makes sense.)

Gameplay is not enough. You must create an interesting game world to go with it. The best way to create an interesting game world is to STEAL IT from another medium or from real life. Sports games are great at this since the world of sports is time tested and exists outside of gaming. Licensed games also do this. Early video game makers would put in cliches of their favorite books and TV shows. Contra has something like a cross between Rambo and Aliens in it.

When Mario Mania was around, it wasn’t so much about the character of Mario but the fantastical Mushroom Land that everyone wanted to be in. Mario was around in Donkey Kong. Mario even had his own game in Mario Brothers. But the difference is that Mushroom Land did not exist yet.

During the NES Era, the gaming population increased when the game worlds increased. And now that game worlds are becoming less and less, and every game world seems like a copy from another game world, is it any surprise the gaming population decreases?

In order to illustrate the game world, I must separate it from the gameplay. How do we do this? Well, people have already done it. Things like cartoons and all would revel in the game world even though there was no gameplay. Take how people were perceiving the Mushroom Land over Mario 1&2 / Mario 3 / Super Mario World:

You can see the fantastical lands. Even the real life actors illustrated how people perceived Mario to be a real-life plumber from Brooklyn who somehow went down the wrong pipe and ended up being in Mushroom Land.

Mario 3 expanded the Mushroom Kingdom (in the previews of Mario 3 in Nintendo Power, the much younger Shigeru Miyamoto said that Mario 3 was a ‘further exploration’ of the eight worlds of the Mushroom Kingdom). Mario 3 added the Koopa Kids, the doomships, and really fleshed out and diversified the worlds. Instead of World 4, it was Giant World!

The Mario Universe was clearly expanding with Yoshi and Dinosaur Land. However, I am not sure if this is what Mario fans, who were enamored with Mushroom Land, really wanted was Dinosaur Land. Mario Mania began to die down after Super Mario World which created holes for competitors like Sonic to jump in.

And in Mario 64, there was Peach’s Castle that expanded the Mario Universe. However, this is nothing compared to what the 2d Marios pioneered.

My point is that Mario Mania existed only when the Game World was expanding and fleshing out. Since then, Nintendo has refused to expand this world. The Mario Universe has been in a stasis for decades as it keeps being re-used and re-used for various sports games, racing games, RPG games, or whatever game Mario appears in. In Mario 5, there was no real expansion of the game world (however, this probably didn’t matter since people hadn’t seen a console 2d Mario in 18 years). In Mario Sunshine, well, that game took place in a very different place than Mushroom Land. In the Mario Galaxies, Mushroom Land existed only through a blender. The worlds were in pieces and nothing had any cohesion. In the Galaxies, it was as if the Game World was sacrificed on the altar of gameplay.

Look at the Zelda fan. They love to talk about the timeline of Zelda games. They do this because they enjoy the Game World that is Zelda. The drive for Zelda fans to purchase the new Zelda game clearly goes beyond gameplay to include seeing how the Zelda Game World has expanded. Games like Spirit Tracks not only failed to truly expand the Game World, they destablized the ‘continuum’ by putting in elements that didn’t make any sense in the Zelda world (i.e. trains). One of the biggest complaints about Twilight Princess was that it felt like it was Ocarina of Time. This complain was both gameplay based (on the formula) and on the game world itself (do we really need to keep seeing Kariko Village and the same exact Link To The Past map?).

People love their Game Worlds. This is why maps are extremely popular in video games whether they appear as a stage selection technique in Super Mario Brothers 3 and Super Mario World or if they are a cloth map for a RPG.


Above: Awesome map is awesome.

Did you know that maps are extremely popular in the book medium? It’s true! Crack open your Lord of the Rings books, and you will find maps. Tolkien didn’t so much as create a story, he crafted a very detailed world. Why do you think Dune became popular? It wasn’t because it was the best written book. It is because it had a very fleshed out world. The very popular Star Wars and Star Trek also have very fleshed out universes.

But it is very important to note that fictional universes, of whatever medium, must operate by the laws of that universe. If it does not, the audience will feel cheated and the universe will collapse in on itself. If you set up as a rule in your fictional universe that magic use will deplete mana, the novel becomes a sort of game with the reader wondering how is the character going to get out of this situation since he used up all his mana! But if the author makes the character use magic even though the mana is depleted, the reader will be furious and the universe will likely collapse if the reader doesn’t close the book in frustration.

Movies and television shows also must obey the rules of their fictional universe. Later Star Trek shows began breaking their own universe rules which caused fans to turn away in disgust (the driving reason for Trekkies to keep watching Trek was to see how the new episodes would ‘flesh out’ the universe even more). The Battlestar Galactica remake caused a big backlash when the writers made a deus-ex-machina of angels appearing to solve the problems of the plot.

There are some examples of video games having this issue. Spirit Tracks is the one that readily comes to mind. Sure, the game tried to ‘explain’ the trains, but no one bought that it was an organic growth of the Zelda universe. This is why the Game World must be the master, not the gameplay. Gameplay is limited to what is in the Game World. You do not re-design the Universe just because you like train gameplay. Fans will reject it.

When gamers play a World War 2 game, they expect World War 2 game mechanics. If you have sci-fi game mechanics in a World War 2 game, the players will be unable to accept this Game Universe and will turn away from the game.

Creating and properly expanding a Fictional Universe is far harder than creating new gameplay. Look at how rarely it is successfully done.

Do not confuse this with I.P. I.P., which stands for Intellectual Property, is a legal fiction. The ‘world’ is the beef of the game. If it isn’t enticing, people won’t care about the gameplay. Much of gaming’s history shows great consumer interest in increases in graphics and sound and computer technology to allow the larger creation of game worlds. How many people actually played GTA 3 the way the developers intended? I bet many people played GTA 3 just to experience the rich and detailed game world.

The Generation Zero developers could create New Worlds because they did not grow up on video games (since they didn’t exist). They grew up on board games, on books like Lord of the Rings, on movies, and on television. So the first games used many concepts found in books and television and movies.All these other mediums provided rich soil for Game World plants to be seeded and to sprout and grow.

Today, game developers grew up on video games. Many of them do not even bother reading books, wondering about Nature, or other things outside of video games. The soil is no longer rich. All they know is to copy what came before. Games today feel like a photocopy of a photocopy. No game world is fresh. It feels like a copy from another game world.

No wonder video games have become boring!

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