Why some game developers shouldn't like games

Why can’t we gamers accept that someone who doesn’t love games with the fervent passion we do can make them?

I’m proud to say one of my favorite games of all time—Katamari Damacy—comes from the mind of someone who doesn’t like games very much at all, Keita Takahashi. He seems happier designing playgrounds than he did video games. And yet, this is the man who made a game I could play forever.

Or look at Rockstar, a company founded by two gentlemen, Sam and Dan Houser, who wanted to go into the music business, whose inspirations have been more the classic films of Americana, the Spaghetti Westerns and crime films that formed the basis of their groundbreaking work on Grand Theft Auto. In the beginning, though, they didn’t want to make games. They began to make games out of pure necessity, a desire to find more creative freedom.

So, I ask again: should these people not make games?



The Jennifer Hepler drama—where a writer for Bioware came out and said that she didn’t particularly like playing games, and, perhaps more damningly, that she wanted them to be like Harry Potter or Twilight—carries an interesting question buried in the mucky, redundant debate of whether or not it’s alright to not treat someone with differing opinions like a human being. Do we have to like video games to make them? Does someone have to play video games to make a good one? Shouldn’t game developers be people who want to make games not out of an obsessive love for them but rather because they want to make better games?

The decade old jab thrown into the comments section of negative reviews is “This critic doesn’t like this type of games. Who the fuck cares about their opinion?” This is a hilarious fallacy: if you like a certain kind of game, odds are good you will like other examples of that genre. You don’t need reviews except for back-patting. The people who need reviews are the non-fans, the people who don’t define their existence by the ups and downs of specific franchises. Uncharted fans don’t need to know a single word about Uncharted 3 to buy it, but gaming dilettantes need context, analysis, and critical observation to understand whether the game would be enjoyable to them.

What they need is outside perspective. The gaming community is incredibly myopic; communities in general care only about their own interests, rarely thinking about outsiders. Our identities have been formed through our interaction with video games, and we don’t want anything to compromise that. This is why we rage with incredible virility at outsiders like Roger Ebert offering their perspective into our little world, because to us there’s nothing small about video games. Video games are everything! We’re up on its tropes, we follow the 24 hour news and blog cycle, and nothing happens without our notice. We follow twitter controversies about whether or not some non-lead writer at Bioware likes video games, and we spit vitriol about it, because this is our world.

But you don’t repair a house from inside. And maybe games are broken. We don’t have the perspective to know that. We play video games. They are our shelter from the storm. We’re not going to tear anything down, because the second we do the rain’s gonna fall in on us. Yet we see games as unmistakably brilliant as Katamari Damacy that break from the tropes of decades of gaming, and we have to ask ourselves: maybe we’re looking at everything the wrong way. Maybe we’re looking at everything from a profoundly skewed angle. Maybe just because we’ve always done things one way doesn’t mean we’re doing things the right way.

I mean, in the mid-nineties first person shooters didn’t have mouse look. In the late 90’s games didn’t feature twin stick controls. Go back and play Goldeneye and marvel at how you can’t aim wherever you want. Go play Doom and realize there wasn’t the sticky friction of head shots. You pivoted, you shot, and that was how it was. Until The Terminator: Future Shock came out from Bethesda, no one used mouse look. It was a crazy idea! Why would you add it and make video games more complicated, when you could just run around and shoot people in the face? Of course, now if you played a game that controlled like Doom you’d think its developer was bonkers.

It’s the same with conversations. We can skip those. When we can’t skip conversations it’s worth a point’s demerit on a standard ten point scale, almost invariably, more if the reviewer has to replay sections. It’s hard to imagine taking a game where you can’t skip conversations seriously.

So why can’t we skip combat? Why, because that’s the fun part of the game, Hepler haters say! Except just like how Doom‘s control scheme made some players queasy with rage, for some people the combat isn’t the fun part. Just like I’m sure there’s someone out there who can play Doom without getting motion sickness, someone out there wants to enjoy the story of Mass Effect without having to scream at their allies about how to flank a giant mech. Game developers have tried appeasing this demographic by adding in easy difficulty settings, but even those can be a strain on people. Guards kill me in Deus Ex: Human Revolution on easy all the time (warning: worst stealth player ever here). Game developers write complicated treatises on how to make people not quit playing a game instead of looking that answer in the eye: if people want to keep playing, and are being stuck behind barriers, then you give them the option to remove the barriers.

Nintendo’s already done this with its Super Guide feature, and it hasn’t ruined Mario. You can go play New Super Mario Bros Wii right now and completely ignore the fact that the game can play itself. Rayman Origins has exactly the same feature, and no one’s going to damn it because it lets a less skilled player beat a level. What these features, like Mass Effect 3’s “Story” mode, do is they remove barriers. They let people play video games the way they want to while letting you play your game in a way you want to.

And maybe it took a non-gamer to realize this. It takes perspective to realize what you’re doing wrong. Enthusiasm for games is obviously important for their development, but it takes a good collection of people who will say, “I don’t know, I don’t like that,” to make games brilliant. You and I may revel in games. We may love everything about them, and want to suck the marrow out of their bones, but not everyone can be like that. And besides, if different perspectives have given us mouse look and skippable dialog, who’s to say that skippable generic encounters would be a bad thing?

21 Comments

  1. I agree. Healthy dissatisfaction is what drives a lot of people to keep creating games, yes? Also, I would love to see another surreal and fun game like Katamari.

    • Tom Auxier

      I’d say, “Noby Noby Boy!” except I feel like he went off the deep end with Noby Noby Boy. The closest I’ve come is AAAAaaaaaAAAAAaaaaaAAAAA!!!! from Dejobaan Games, who ironically made a Katamari clone before they made that. It’s got the same kind of silly feel and perpetual motion Katamari does.

  2. Peter Hasselström

    Despite being the kind of person who constantly updates his machine with high end hardware, has several monitors and controllers like racing wheels, joystick with rudders etc I don’t really identify with this insular group of gamers you speak of. To me it appears obvious that outside perspectives and questioning every established part of every genre is something that is important to drive forward games not only creatively to the next level but also to possibly widen the appeal.

    Anyone who has ever lost save games and had to replay a game should see the value in being able to skip parts. If I lost my save games near the end of a game because of hardware failure or whatever why should I have to slog through unskippable combat and possibly even unskippable dialogue for 10+ hours just to get to see those last 2 hours I had left? The “solution” to this right now is to either download someone else’s save files or to watch someone play the game on youtube if you’re in this situation.

    I read books, I watch movies, I listen to music and I play an awful lot of games and have all my life as far as I can remember. When someone like Roger Ebert or whatever makes negative statements about games I usually read and ignore them as I don’t see the point of caring and they usually seem ignorant. That said I don’t want to dismiss any outside ideas about how games could become better, more accessible etc as there’s probably plenty of great things nobody is taking seriously or not listening to as they’re “too close” to games. Sometimes you just have to take a step back and rethink your assumptions.

    • Tom Auxier

      This is because you are a reasonable human being, Peter. xD

  3. awa64

    Being able to skip parts of games isn’t a bad thing–it’d be great, really. My only issue with what Hepler said was that it seems to imply that elements like combat and dialog are completely separate things where you can remove one and not have it negatively impact the other. Of course, she said that years ago, and I hope she’s changed her attitude on *that* part since then. (Has she? I have no idea.) You should be able to skip crap parts of a game whether they’re crap due to the narrative or crap due to the gameplay mechanics, but ideally those elements should be inseparable.

    Super Guide hasn’t quite hit the mark, from what I’ve seen. It removes barriers, yes, but it makes it very clear the barriers are being removed in the process. It makes you feel worse for needing them. It can feel patronizing, and can often contribute to the frustration over difficulty in the first place. Many people, not just gamers, are stubborn bastards and don’t like being told they’re not good enough at something so they can just skip it. The “skip” button is a great solution to tedium and disinterest, but a lousy solution to difficulty curves.

    And outside opinions are great, as long as they’re actually willing to keep an open mind and learn the conventions of the genre. The most influential advances in any medium generally come from people challenging established rules and conventions. We aren’t–or at least I’m not–upset about Ebert because he minimizes the value of games, but because of his unwillingness to consider alternate perspectives on the issue or consider the possibility that they could have value, and his rationales for his argument are full of holes as a result. (For example, declaring that games can’t be art because the player influences the experience and an artist has to control the entire experience also disqualifies sculpture from ever being considered art because the artist doesn’t control the perspective the statue is viewed at.) And that’s a real shame, because Ebert’s knowledge of storytelling could bring a lot to games.

    • Tom Auxier

      Definitely agreed on the first part. Ideally, no part of a game would need to be skippable. It’s really just a placeholder mechanic, added because it’s very hard to make a thirty hour game that’s unskippable all the way through. And I agree on the Super Guide, too: it’s an inelegant solution to the problem, though it works okay.

      I don’t think it’s so much people keeping an open mind to the conventions but rather them doing the second thing you mention, being unwilling to consider perspectives on the issues. I want people to look at conventions, give them a hard think, and then say, “This is stupid. You’ve been doing this for ten years? Christ!” I want knowledgeable outsiders who give video games their fair due, as I feel Hepler did with her many, many, many qualifiers on why she doesn’t like games. She seemed like the kind of person who tried a lot of games and realized she had serious issues with them rather than a troll.

  4. Dylan

    I realize this was just an aside in the article, but: what was the issue with Doom’s control scheme? It seems totally standard for games of the time, and I had no idea there was any controversy surrounding (nor that anyone got motion sickness – I only heard that from Descent!).

    • Tom Auxier

      Doom is 100% a personal anecdote, and since I rarely get motion sickness, then I can’t imagine I’m the only one. I am the picture of journalistic integrity. xD

      And, I mean, it definitely controls weirdly to the modern eye, but back in the early nineties I’m sure someone hated the idea of mouse look.

  5. jose

    I enjoy playing basketball. I should totally get a job making balls and baskets.

    • fiks

      bad analogies are useless. I heard game design for something that varies a lot across a market is the same as designing different forms for something that is commonly accepted as having only one real standard!

  6. Noah

    While I completely agree that a large part of the gaming community is indeed myopic when it comes to its precious medium, I don’t think “the people who need reviews are the non-fans” exclusively. While I’m one of those avid gamers who “follow the 24 hour news and blog cycle”, I love reading reviews. Sure, not all of them have something to offer to someone who’s already familiar with the subject, but when they’re insightful and well-written, they offer a critical perspective that has on occasion led me to reconsider a purchase, or wait for a particular game to go down in price. And even when I know I’m getting the game in question no matter what, I’m always curious to discover what the reviewers I trust (even if I don’t always agree with them) have to say about it. Perhaps the mark of a good review is to offer something to all readers, from the inexperienced proud owner of a brand new console looking to purchase his/her first title, to the veteran PC overclocker.

    • Tom Auxier

      Oh yeah. When I say non-fans I don’t mean people who hate a certain type of game, but rather people who aren’t going to obsess about metacritic average scores or trash a reviewers credibility because they say something the reader doesn’t like. I’m talking about average, intelligent people who read about video games but aren’t partisans towards specific games/consoles/studios.

  7. More people are playing games than ever before, though. I’m not sure how that leads to a myopic, insular, declining community. And while it’s good to have non-game designers coming in to make games, that doesn’t alleviate the need for a game designer to understand games. It’s exactly that sort of understanding that makes for compelling, well-designed titles that don’t beat you over the head with difficulty.

    Portal 1 and 2 were made by people who understand games. Civilization was made by people who understand games. Angry Birds and Triple Town were made by people that understand games. All of those have well-made difficulty curves that teach players how to play the game before testing them, which is what we’re really talking about here: games that insufficiently teach what they’re purporting to test. If DE:HR didn’t do that, that’s a flaw with it’s design. It doesn’t mean you should be skipping core mechanics, just that the mechanics were flawed!

    And, unfortunately, I think I’m going to have to be the curmudgeon who stands against the tide on skipping bits. While everybody should be able to skip bits they’ve already seen—having to watch a cutscene over and over again because it’s situated before a difficult test is irritating beyond measure—I don’t think it’s necessarily a good idea. You can’t skip the tram ride at the beginning of Half Life, the countdown at the beginning of Portal, the cube ride at the beginning of Portal 2, or the presidential “last ride” at the beginning of Modern Warfare. You can’t skip those bits for really good reasons: because they provide the motivation and context for the entire experience that follows.

    Ebert’s main point was that there’s no narrative in games, and that therefore they can’t be considered as a legitimate narrative medium. Having players routinely skip past narrative and context just proves his point. And maybe that doesn’t matter, but as someone who’s interested in gaming as a narrative medium and doesn’t skip past cutscenes, I would prefer that that view doesn’t become the norm.

    If it does, it’s gonna be all Angry Birds, all the time.

    • I can see your point on how more people playing doesn’t lead to a declining community (though we might wonder if Tom meant something other than numbers in decline), though “myopic” and “insular” are certainly applicable.

      Otherwise, pretty solid thoughts :)

  8. Pingback: Should Games Be Skippable? « Leveling Criticism

  9. Alan Williamson

    Great post, really enjoyed reading it. To be fair to Doom, I’ve only ever played it with mouse look, so Id saw the error of their ways at some point!

    The only game that has ever given me motion sickness is Marathon on XBLA.

  10. Great work once again, Tom!

  11. I make games for a living and I’m not a gamer!
    I only got into games because I wanted a creative job that would give me enough cash to buy synthesizers.
    You don’t have to be a hard-core gamer to be a good game dev professional.
    If you want to be a good game developer, you have to know how to generate a LOD, run an export pipeline, learn max/maya inside out, subsitute your gaming time for 60-70 hour working weeks (unpaid overtime), know how to calm down when you find out that most of your old uni buddies are outearning you 2:1, despite only having 9-5 jobs, be prepared to watch 2 years hard work disappear when your holding company goes bankrupt or because your game got denied a certificate because it had a reference to mohammed in it, and because you’ve been playing the same game solidly for two years, it helps to learn how to play table tennis, because the last thing you want to do during your lunch hour is play computer games.

    • fiks

      Game design is important to making games. Understanding what makes games enjoyable is key to conscious game design.

  12. fiks

    “The decade old jab thrown into the comments section of negative reviews is “This critic doesn’t like this type of games. Who the fuck cares about their opinion?” This is a hilarious fallacy: if you like a certain kind of game, odds are good you will like other examples of that genre. You don’t need reviews except for back-patting. The people who need reviews are the non-fans, the people who don’t define their existence by the ups and downs of specific franchises. Uncharted fans don’t need to know a single word about Uncharted 3 to buy it, but gaming dilettantes need context, analysis, and critical observation to understand whether the game would be enjoyable to them.”

    The problem with this comes with games that are particularly complex(Strategy games, fighting games, etc) or aren’t the main, accepted and well understood genres, such as platformers and FPSes. The idea that you can have someone who isnt an expert not waste people’s time in a review is laughable at best. Reviewers should know what they’re talking about, and not liking a genre provides a strong bias against bothering to know about it or having values that mesh with it. The mere fact that someone who dislikes a genre is unlikely to be able to appreciate the deep differences between Starcraft 2 and Warcraft 3, between Guilty Gear and Street Fighter 4, between Halo and Tribes II, demonstrates that what they say is going to be mostly vapid, mostly a review of genre rather than a review of a game. They could have picked any game from that genre and said the same junk. I dont know what the differences between the various american football games are, and I have no idea if i’d enjoy them, but I sure as hell wont write a review to be published a site for JOURNALISM unless specifically marketed as “THIS IS WHAT AN OUTSIDERS EXPERIENCE MAY SPECIFICALLY BE LIKE” because otherwise it is dishonest and uninformed. Let me put it another way: Two people are new to something. Either they’re new to a game for the purposes of review, or the new to a game for purposes of competition. In the former, they may learn different things at different speeds, and so their review after different amounts of gameplay would be different. For competitors, their perspective on the game’s balance would vary drastically because they will lack various sorts of skills as they are still beginner/intermediate. Just as high level game balance isnt based on the infinite possibilities on what skills someone could lack, game reviews cant be based on the massive amount of shit you might not understand, or the massive amount of bias you could bring to something. Ugh, shooting is so basic and boring. I’d rather jump.
    While it may be true that reviews are more useful for the uninitiated than those who have the tools for analysis of a genre’s new entries, 1)Reviewers are supposed to be experts and to be informed. Your proposition clashes with this. 2)Being uninformed creates more variation that is eliminated merely by exposure and information. While experts can disagree, they will have facts down and much more reasons to explain what they think. While you may draw different conclusions, you can learn much more from their explanations because there are simply more to them, rather than the raw, flimsy opinion of someone who barely knows how RTSes work.

    Plus, you are presuming that even most of game reviews will provide actual analysis. When it is genres that arent “main genres”(platformers, FPSes) then it seems reviewers often have leeway to shit on a genre simply because they dont like it. The will spout blatant factual errors, make extremely vapid comments on the gameplay, etc, and then justify it with “Oh, i’m an outsider, not my fault your genre sucks.”
    Game reviews already have a massive quality problems; having more people who probably dont know shit about a genre review it is just asking for more braindead nonsense. Let’s go ask a football player to review chess and a chess player to review football in a few hours of exposure, shall we? “Game is too slow.” “Too much emphasis on physical exertion.” Ah, such useful analyses from outsiders!

  13. vvvvvv

    Go back and play GoldenEye and marvel at how you can use 2 analogue joysticks at the same time.
     
    http://goldeneye.wikia.com/wiki/Control_style#Dual_Controller_Styles