Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Communication, Play, and Socially Pervasive Games – The Essence of Global Game Design?

For a good half of video games’ relatively short history as mass consumer products, the mere ability to create some degree of interactive experience between the player and monitor served as a selling point in and of itself. The fact that something on the screen moved in complex, yet predictable, player-controlled patterns was, and still is, fascinating. As a result, games have now existed for generations in a manner which pulled the player from her routine, beckoning her to the game, an invitation promising excitement, entertainment and leisure in the form of a micro-adventure that was always on offer. Many games still make fine use of this framework, and many of them are brilliant, enjoyable, and rewarding.

Yet we seem to have reached a point where the “wow” factor is diminishing, being replaced instead with a sense of “burden” as the barrier for unaccustomed, yet passively interested players continues to grow thicker, denser and taller than ever in the “traditional” retail game space. At the same time, players with gaming in their blood may possess a drive to game as strong as ever, but the degree of commitment which must be made in order to dedicate time and energy to a mechanically deep and/or heavily story-driven narrative may be too much of a sacrifice when life’s other demands are ever-present. And for those unaccustomed to gaming as form of entertainment or leisure, the density of game-specific terminology, hardware and interactive grammar that has been developed by those with long gaming histories is intimidating – most people don’t have the time to learn another language, particularly if they cannot immediately perceive the utility and applicability as part of their daily lives.

We as an industry have spent such a great deal of time trying to convince the public that there is a fascinating world waiting for them outside of the one that they already know, asking for them to embark on the journeys that we offer in lieu of their already standardized engagements – the adventures that they experience every single day.

If this is truly the case, maybe instead of asking people to make sacrifices for our unique entertainment offering, could we instead create games that will take that fascination and implant itself into the world that people already know?

The knee-jerk response may be, “We’re already well down that path – we have SNS and we’re currently in the midst of a social game revolution!” Clearly, this is the case. There is still a great deal to be learned and exploited within this space, and with major players like Disney talking about pulling financing from “core” game development in order to invest more in the social arena, and Google recently announcing the app store service via Google Chrome, we are clearly still only at our fledgling stages of exploration within this new media.

However while dollars may be piling up for major corporations and new startups alike in this arena, keep in mind that we’ve only recently started from zero in the social games space. At present, the only direction to go is up. While financial opportunity may seem endless and tempting at the moment, there surely exists a ceiling in this space as well, so setting sites solely on social games (in their current definition) is still short-sighted at best. Even with open platforms like the iPhone, different platforms and channels will likely continue to thrive and struggle differently in different regions, much in the same way that dedicated game hardware does. A successful Facebook application doesn’t necessarily equate with a global Facebook application. The exploration of this space and its potential is absolutely vital for continued growth, however the current social gaming tools alone shouldn’t be seen as the be-all-end-all of potential for the expansion of gaming. There likely exists something more fundamental.

Besides, for all those who are investing time and money in social games, there are likely just as many people (likely more) who are not spending much time in this space, or no time at all. And on top of that, they may not be turning on a console very often these days either, irrespective of the fact that he or she may be highly interested in spending time gaming and exploring the medium’s latest offerings.

So where does that leave these players? What are we as an industry failing to tap into?
While SNS and associated gaming outlets are unquestionably massive, the reality still exists that, much like having to purchase a dedicated game console (or multiple consoles) in order to have a particular experience that is on offer, people must make an effort to integrate these sites and/or their games into their daily life patterns. Taking part in these experiences requires that one to redirect his or her attention from the people around them toward a separated and dedicated space. Maybe the solution lies not in asking people to step away from their surroundings in order to game, but in introducing games into the world that we are already playing in, and we may not be quite as far off as we might think.

Capcom’s Monster Hunter was not a smash hit right out the gate. It wasn’t until after several iterations across multiple platforms that the game blossomed into its current state of dominance. And so I mean this in the most complimentary sense possible: Monster Hunter’s success wasn’t predominantly due to elements of its technical prowess, and its gradual spread in popularity likely wasn’t the result of “word of mouth” in the traditional sense.

The conversation surrounding Monster Hunter that transformed it into the phenomenon that it has become was, in fact, most likely the conversation born out of playing the game. It offered a game experience that could be easily communicated to the potential user-base, including all of the trappings of a “game” (winning, losing, collecting, character development, etc.), but most importantly, the narrative of the game was one which the player created for himself/herself as part of the experience. “Yoko” didn’t slay a monster, “Yoko” slew the monster together with “Tom” and “David” over dinner after going to a concert together. This is arguably the most natural and compelling narrative a game can offer, one that is part of the players’ other experiences, not isolated from them.

MTV Games and Electronic Arts’ Rock Band series, as well as the Guitar Hero series from Activision have seen massive success over the past several years. These games are, at a fundamental level, very “hardcore”, requiring quick reaction times, continued repetition and practice, not to mention a good deal of expensive, dedicated hardware and peripherals. By all accounts and traditional market analysis, these games should have presented too high a barrier for many of the more “casual” players that really took to the experiences that they offered. But what these games demonstrated was a way of enhancing lifestyle habits already deeply established. In the U.S.A., where young people regularly gather at one-another’s homes and turn up the music as a fundamental act of social behavior, these games not only slipped naturally into these environments with little to no resistance, but the conversation and activities surrounding the cooperative game experience served as both the games’ narrative and the social narrative of the human experience.

Yet despite both of these games’ stellar sales numbers, they somewhat struggled in the markets outside of their region of origin. These games were clearly designed with both fundamental concepts of “play” as well as the social structures of their local cultures in mind, and the results have been astounding. The question remains then, “Can these principles push a game into a state of borderless recognition?”

Let’s examine Level 5’s Professor Layton series, games which have quietly managed to post remarkable numbers not only in Japan, but in the U.S. and U.K. as well. While not necessarily designed as a “multiplayer” game, when you examine the core of their design, they are inherently multiplayer. The types of puzzles woven into the game’s narrative devices represent examples of cross-cultural forms of play, and a key part of this play – puzzle solving – is both easy to communicate and communicative at the same time, and can be both competitive or cooperative. The player dictates the play style, and in doing so, can play quite seamlessly as part of her daily life as opposed to in addition to her daily life.

The reality is that communication and play are clearly globally human activities, and regardless as to how large the financial numbers we throw around are, video games themselves, whatever incarnation you may find them in, are still not. In my position I am tasked with adapting content for the international marketplace – localization. A great deal of money is spent transforming a game into another language, with alterations to art assets, audio, and a game’s thematic elements only causing those related bills to further pile up. While these alterations and adaptations will endlessly continue to be a necessity to a certain degree, maybe the point best kept in mind in the early stages of development, whether in Japan or the West, is that a game’s most compelling narrative is the one that the player creates form him or herself, with the game’s built-in narrative being secondary, supporting that experience, the one that supports the player in her pursuit to play and in the sharing of that experience with others.

This is neither a call for the removal of “classic games”, nor a fierce strike against the state of burgeoning “social games”. Should either of these cease to exist there would be millions of disappointed game players and the industry would be at a loss, as there still exists infinite potential for research and exploration in both of these framework. For me, a world without a new Legend of Zelda or Monkey Island, Persona or Halo, would be a rather sad one.

Denying players the opportunity to engage in competitive exchanges while chatting with friends on Facebook would certainly feel like a loss, as well. But as a gamer who: 1) wants to be able to enjoy more games, and 2) wants to see the industry grow so that more people can experience what it is that “games” have to offer, a need for the industry to deeply consider what it is that makes games so inherently interesting and engaging is unavoidable, and in doing so, take into consideration what it is that makes the act of play interesting. The technical achievements and complex systems that we’re now able to create are commendable and worthy of celebration, but we must not forget that we are social beings, and as part of that, we cannot help but seek out opportunities to play together.