Of watches and chronometers...

Snipehunter's picture

Watch movement

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I love my job. I know it's something I say a lot which, considering that I can't talk a lot about what I do, might seem a little circumspect, but it's true -- I really do love my job. By trade, I'm a game designer. I design the systems, mechanics, lore, levels, enemies and worlds of the games I work on. This time around, however (much like my time on Auto Assault) my focus is primarily on content. I'm a lore master, at the coarsest end of the granularity scale, but that's not really what I do...

You see, all of that lore, all of those stories, they have to work for the game -- they have to enable or support the game play of the world I'm a part of making. Even little choices, like what each geographical area of a world will look like, is a game play choice -- the concerns of game play supersede any aesthetic concern one might have. In other words, I am not a writer or an artist. Nor am I just a "quest designer" or some sort of glorified implementer. No, the truth is, I'm actually more like a watch maker.

My tools range from the course -- the broad strokes of the words I use to weave a history to bring a world to the fictional point where our game play fits the context -- to the fine: To the tiny gears, springs and levers that make the smallest critter behave believable or the townsfolk of a world comment on their day as they go through it.

This all sounds like an ego trip, I'm sure, and I suppose in a way it is, but I'm mentioning all of this for a reason. Give me a chance to explain, and then you can tell me I'm vain. Smiling

I mention that my tools run from the course to the fine because, lately, I've noticed an alarming trend in the game designers I've discussed the trade with. We seem to be losing our desire to work on fine detail. This probably sounds terribly strange considering how detailed games have become, but take a moment to consider the details you see now a days: Most of it is startlingly non-interactive. Incredible detail in our characters -- in the way they look around a room or move their lips when they speak -- was a hallmark of the new generation of consoles, right? That's an incredibly cool effect, but what does it really gain us? Are we any more connected to that space marine, really? Can we make him do anything beyond move, shoot and click a wall switch?

At the end of the day, the answer is no... And lately, I'm beginning to think the reason is us: The designers of the world who have come to believe that our job is more directorial than creative.

CliffyB is not some game equivalent to a film director and neither am I. Earlier I called myself a watchmaker, and that's an important appellation. You see, a watch maker is an artist, perhaps even an artist of the highest order, but more importantly -- a watch maker is an artist-engineer, someone not only capable of implementing his vision, but driven to do it. Every watch -- every chronometer -- is not just a work of art, but a complex machine. It's a system; a collection of mechanics intricately woven together to achieve an effect, the tracking of time. You probably see where I'm taking this metaphor at this point: Games are like watches, too.

So, what happens when your watchmakers don't want to work with tiny gears anymore? You get simpler watches, right? Or you get large, sweeping, epic watches that are too unwieldy and large to be truly useful. You know what, screw the metaphor: What happens when your designers don't want to implement the details, anymore?

What happens is Space Marines with immaculate glowy armor with dangly bits and shiny bobs... who can still only run, jump, shoot and flip switches despite all the glorious detail you think you see. We need more watchmakers in our industry and fewer directors. Don't get me wrong, we need our directors to be strong - to have a clear vision that they shepherd and tend without corrupting or sacrificing to the altar of convenience - but what we need most is watchmakers. We need those designers who are willing to make the worlds more interactive, the designers who are willing to look at the tiny gears and springs of their watches and work right there at that layer. No matter your directorial and authorial modes, you can't achieve your goals without the watchmakers.

Every year, I see fewer and fewer watchmakers and more and more would-be directors. Correlation and causation is not the same thing, but I can't help but notice that our games are getting simpler and simpler at the same time. I wonder, in the way that someone who suspects he knows the answer already will, if that isn't the reason more and more games seem to "suck" every year.

Let me see if I can put it another way: Everyone was so pumped for Spore, right? Why was that? It was the promise of elegant complexity, wasn't it? It was the promise of a game that started small and simple, and then grew in complexity as we players began to master the simple game that was presented. What did we get instead? 5 very simplified versions of pre-existing games loosely string together. Spore was still fun, but did it live up to the promise it made with us when Will Wright and others lauded its features and abilities? Reluctantly, I say no and I think the way that game turned out is a perfect example of what I'm talking about:

Too course a granularity in your design thinking means your game will be too simple.

I have no idea what-so-ever how spore was made or who worked on it, so don't think I'm being critical of them, but if my experience in the industry is any indication, I bet they had no idea they were doing what they did. Directors talk about the potential or the vision -- the promise of their vision (think Molyneaux) -- but watchmakers talk about precision and the motion of their mechanics -- the realization of the promise. There are likely thousands of my so-called watchmakers out there in our industry, but how many of them are actually free to make watches? How many of them are told that watches are too complex; that people won't understand the motion or all those tiny gears?

There's a caveat to my previous statement about needing strong directors: Those directors have to trust the watchmakers to do their work. They need to remember that the motion and all those little gears are transparent to the end user: All she sees is the elegant motion of two arms as they sweep across the clock face.

So, today I wonder about how to fix it. How we do simultaneously encourage our industry's designers to be more like watchmakers, less like directors, and convince our directors to be strong while giving us a free hand to make the clockworks?

How do you convince people that doing the harder thing is not only the right thing, but the better course for the entire industry?

How do you convince a culture convinced the words simple and elegant are synonyms that they're wrong? How do you remind them that the motion of the watch is necessary to make the arms work? How do you remind them that without the man behind the curtain, there can be no wizard?

For that matter, how can you convince them that, without the wizard, there can be no story, at all?

- Snipehunter

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Ombwah's picture

We're teaching it, it's cultural even

When I went to school for industrial design, I was initially surprised at how technical the first year classes were in regard to process and material properties. I was taken aback by how many disciplines my supposed art studies had suddenly branched across. This was an art school right? I wasn't signing up to be some sort of construction engineer, was I? Why did I have to care what the shear properties of a given metal are? Why was it important that I learn what technologies were available for shaping plastics or what chemical mechanism concrete used to achieve great hardness - that was ephemera, tertiary details that were for the construction crew to deal with, right? Shouldn't I be more concerned about shape and feel?

The reason was of course that the "How to do things" became very clear once you knew how this technology or that material worked, on a fundamental sort of level. This allowed for an "honest" sort of conception when you went to the design board -- a clear idea of what you could do and how it would play out when you did. As a game designer this translates for me into knowing how to actually pull off a given experience within a given engine's basic tools, and into understanding as clearly as I can how the game engine you are working in works behind the front end. It was easier to make cool things happen once I knew how the gears worked. Moreover, it was easier to conceive of cool things to do when I could readily see how to do them.

There is a tendency latent in the industry to equate potential for sloppy script with good reason to simplify and restrict designer tools. Tools to speed up creation are good, but those that limit functionality aren't so cool. Likewise it's great practice to create modular systems so that designers aren't forced to script the same behavior over and over, but it's a net loss to lock them out from the ability to script unique behaviors in the course of that endeavor. This brings to mind the popular 'fallacy of the hack' where "to apply basic script elements to achieve gameplay ends" is described in a derogatory sense that I believe is what causes Snipey to see fewer "watchmakers" and more "directors". Why is it a hack to flip a bit with interpreted language (script) rather than in a code object? The same data is manipulated, in a very similar way, albeit abstracted one layer. When there is no clockwork that designers are allowed to touch, all there is left for us to do is direct.