Posted by: seanmalstrom | October 16, 2010

Email: Curse of the idle Game Designer

Hi Sean,

It’s interesting how game designers’ auteur tendencies have been on the rise as the effort (and team size) to make a game has been increasing. Back in the early days of gaming the game designer was one of the grunt workers, directly implementing what he is designing. To add story he’d have to go through all the work of implementing the systems for telling it himself. To make it 3D he’d have to program 3D in there. For indie developers that still is a concern but someone like Sakamoto probably didn’t touch one tool that’s not part of MS Office in the process of making Other M. Of course adding story to a design document is very easy and when your mind is idle because you have no implementation details to think about you tend to think up stories that grow dear to you. When you aren’t really dealing with details of course you get bored of making sure the gameplay fundamentals are solid, you start making up crazy stuff like first person pixel hunts, wolf transformations, trains, gravity tricks, etc. To the game designers these are just words. To programmers they aren’t but especially in Japan the programmers don’t decide, they do what the designer tells them and don’t second-guess him (in the west teams talk together and decide together, in the east the leader commands and the team follows). Maybe if they let the programmers and artists and so on tell the game designer that he’s asking for something stupid they could avoid the stupid gimmick mania that is spreading throughout Nintendo.

As for Sakamoto, I guess Iwata thought he had enough experience to handle making a game without executive interference. Didn’t work out, Sakamoto will probably stay on a leash so tight he chokes.

You make an interesting point about how the producer, who is busy “producing” and not doing hands on work, has his “thinking” that creates tons of stuff that doesn’t even belong in the game.

The idea of ‘video game producer’ is something alien to me. All a video game needs to be made is a programmer and an artist. And of course, the business side needs to be dealt with the lawyers and all. What exactly does a producer ‘add’ to anything?

I am opposed to the idea of ‘middle managers’ in business. There should be one rule: everyone works. No one is standing (or rather sitting) around “managing”. Perhaps these producers feel guilty they are not doing the ‘grunt work’ and desire to contribute so they come up with their junk?

However, I think the source of the ‘gimmick galore’ is Iwata’s mandate of ‘surprise’ in video games. “All entertainment has surprise… You cannot do the same thing…” is the saying. The problem with this is that Iwata doesn’t say where the surprise is coming from. Who generates the surprise? Human nature being what it is, the designer thinks of himself. “I shall generate a surprise. Let there be trains in Zelda. Let maternal instincts rule Metroid. Let Mario fly through space like super man.”

The only true source of surprise comes from the gamer, not the designer. A video game is nothing but a disc until a gamer appears. Only then, does that disc become a video game. Without the gamer, all you have is a jumble of art assets and code. It is the gamer that brings life to the video game, not the designer. In the same way, it is the reader that brings life to the novel, the movie watcher to the movie, and the concert goer to the concert.

In Super Mario Brothers, I could enter a pipe and discover a secret room! While I did not know who Miyamoto was, I did not give credit to Miyamoto for this ‘surprise’. I gave myself the credit! After all, it was I who ‘pushed down’ on all the little green pipes and when I went in one, I declared, “I am the awesome!” I was rewarded for my curiosity. Now, had I not been curious I would miss the secret room. The trigger to the surprise is from the player, not the designer. In this day and age, we cannot have anyone miss that secret room. So there would be giant signs with arrows pointing to the secret room. This would ruin the surprise and make the gamer not feel ‘awesome’ for finding it.

The purpose of video games is to make the player feel awesome. It is not for the designer to feel awesome. The player is the star of the video game. Everything revolves around the player. All the eccentricities of Human nature, of the players, become the ‘laws of fact’ game makers must work around (like how a bridge maker works around gravity).

With Other M, it feels as if when the game was being made that they forgot about the player. The long monologues and cinematic cut scenes are all fine and good… until a player steps into the picture. The player gets bored because what can he or she do but just sit there passively? Sakamoto’s definition of a video game does not include the player. The player doesn’t “play” but is supposed to marvel about what the designers did. And this is not how good entertainment works in any medium.

Remember the Matrix movies? Why was the first one very successful and the other two were not as well received? When looking at the reactions of the audience, in the first movie the audience (many young men of course) actually saw themselves as ‘Neo’. They didn’t see Neo. They saw themselves. But in the sequels, they didn’t see themselves in Neo. And the movies didn’t become like a ‘personal odyssey’ as the first one did.

Look at books. Orson Scott Card came to fame and fortune with the book Ender’s Game. Nothing he has written since, including the sequels, has matched the popularity of that book. Wondering why, he became surprised that readers did not see Ender as a ‘character’ but as themselves.

The reason why the love of Shakespeare keeps being renewed each generation is because people see themselves in the characters. They don’t see Hamlet, they see themselves. I’ve always been amazed how after reading ‘As You Like It’, every male imagines Rosalina to be their ‘first love’ and every female imagines Rosalina to be themselves.

Who are the Mario Brothers? They are us. They are the best that are in us. This fluff feature on a fluff TV show (Inside Edition) at the height of the NES craze explains more about the magic of video games than video game courses do.

Games are about characterization. But they are only about one character: the player. I love games because they are a mirror of the person. A cheater cheats, a competitive person plays competitively, someone who gives up easily will give up easily, someone who is cautious will be cautious, etc etc.

Who is Samus Aran? She is us. To his astonishment, Sakamoto does not get to define Samus Aran. The player does.

One way you can forecast what will become a great video game from a flop is how much individuality does the game allow the player? I should be able to determine a player’s real life personality and tendencies just by watching how they play the game. (This is done in real life sports as well. Even done in card games like poker.)

There seems to be a cycle where a hit game comes from developers who see themselves more as gamers than developers. Due to their hit game, they become assimilated by the Industry. Then, they cease to be gamers and think of themselves more as ‘developers’. They cease to be gamers. Even when playing a game, they aren’t really playing it but ‘analyzing it’ and all. They forget what it was to be the customer.

If there is any way to describe Sakamoto, it would be ‘out of touch’. One of the reasons for Blizzard’s consistent success is that everyone there is forced to see themselves as ‘gamers’. When you look at Sakamoto, does he come across to you as a gamer?

Video games have always been made by young people until now. Now, the once young video game developers are now old farts. So the question is, is it possible that decades of being “developer” have removed all perspective and sense of how customer thinks? It is like a writer who, as he gets older, focuses more and more on intricate sentence structures without realizing the audience just wants  a story.

Nintendo is one of the oldest video game makers but, more importantly, the most financially stable. I always get the sense that the Nintendo decision makers are way too comfortable and do not realize how good they have it. There are literally starving programmers out there trying to eke out something. And then you have people like Aonuma and Sakamoto, in charge of well loved series like Zelda and Metroid, doing stunning horrific things like putting in trains or putting in maternal instincts.

I agree with what you are saying about idleness. But I wonder if the strong business arms of Nintendo have sheltered developers there to become ‘out of touch’ with the gamer.


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