The Revolutionaries

The Revolutionaries
Gaming at the Margins, Part 3

Warren Spector | 4 Apr 2006 12:02
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With attitudes like that driving decisions at the top our only realistic funding and distribution options, is it any wonder that, from a content standpoint, games just haven't made much progress in the last decade? With rare exceptions, it's still all-combat (or all-sports), all the time.

Alternatively, we can acknowledge that (though I'm saddened that I still have to say this, literally, 10 years after I first spoke those words at a conference at MIT), games remain an infant medium. We can resolve to grow up, at least a little. When I first started thinking about games as developmentally challenged, back in the '90s, I thought we'd be so much further along by now than we are - I figured we'd at least grow up to be whiny adolescents.

The plus side of the realization that we're stuck in a content and gameplay rut is that there's plenty of room for innovation! I mean, where are our love stories and soap operas? Where are our comedies and musicals? Where are our suspense dramas and political satires? And where are the Carmack equivalents willing to tackle problems like non-combat AI, virtual actors, conversation systems, collaborative storytelling questions? The technical challenges associated with these necessary elements of more mature content are at least as challenging and fun to tackle as the graphics, sound and physics stuff we usually go after. Surely, there are people out there champing at the bit to tackle them.

The Outcome
Sticking with the tried and true might result in financial success, for a time. But stagnation was never the friend of any medium and filling the retail channel with tons of me-too games all aimed at the same audience is obviously short sighted.

At a time when seemingly every other medium is moving into narrow-casting mode - finding ways to reach specialized audiences with an insane variety of content - gaming is stuck in mass media theory of the 20th century.

So, the easy answer is to say: Let's start varying things up, people. Let's tackle the design and technical risks associated with trying to solve really hard problems... let's try making games that are funny and sad, try to find ways for players to interact in non-competitive but interesting ways.

I wish it were that easy. But there's real risk here - far more than in, say, reaching out to women developers or giving players more interesting choices than pulling this trigger or that. I'm not proposing we jettison the old content but, rather, that we find ways to make experimentation possible, that we find ways to do some R&D that doesn't involve renderers or the purely technical aspects of game development.

Next Time
With all of these problems ahead of us, all these big choices we have to make, is there any hope? That's what we'll talk about in the fourth, and final, installment of this series.

Warren Spector is the founder of Junction Point Studios. He worked previously with Origin Systems, Looking Glass Studios, TSR and Steve Jackson Games.

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