Scratchware Auteurs

I sat down in a room in the San Jose Convention center and basked in the greatest gathering of artistic intelligence I’d experienced in my entire life. The day before, the Experimental Gameplay Sessions had taken place in that same room. I managed to grab one of the presenters, Cloud designer Jenova Chen, minutes before the “Scratchware Auteurs” roundtable was scheduled to begin. By sheer serendipity, Tom Long, a web game designer and straight-up Indie, happened to tag along. Waiting for us were Chris Bateman, a veteran designer operating out of International Hobo Inc. and Greg Costikyan, board, computer and mobile game designer turned firebrand. Late-comer, Santiago Siri, an advergame designer and the mind behind Utopia, a one-man assault on politically weighted, socially simulated interactive storytelling, also joined in.

Patrick Dugan: We’re gathered here on the premise that being a Scratchware Auteur is the best thing you can be as a designer. Or at least it’s a vital role that more people need to fill lately. Scratchware means, basically, software that’s developed for scratch, we’re talking paper thin budgets.

AAA Batteries
PD: Psychonauts, pegged as an “art-house” favorite for 2005, definitely fits as an auteur-produced game (by Tim Schafer, the Jack Black of game design). The story people don’t like to mention about that game is that it didn’t make enough profit for its publisher, Majesco Games, who ended up replacing their president or something. The question is: Is the AAA production process suited towards the “art game”?

Chris Bateman: Well, no. (Laughs) Clearly, it’s not. The AAA process is an excellent mechanism for refining already established gameplay concepts. GTA: San Andreas is an example of how a large budget lets you refine things that have already been put in motion and let them appeal to a very large audience, admittedly a gender-narrow audience. But its still very large, $16 million is the figure that’s been bandied about. However, it’s a terrible way to go about experimenting with new ideas.

Jenova Chen: It’s also really hard to define what is an “art game,” you know? When something different comes out, not many people know about it, and they’ll say, “It’s revolutionary, it’s art!” Then, the next one comes out and does pretty well, and people say, “Well, it’s kinda like that other game.” By the time the third one comes out its pretty solid and sells out, but by then everyone says, “Oh, it’s just a sequel mill, why aren’t there any original games!”

Santiago Siri: I hate to speak in these terms, but the success of niche games really has to do with the market. When you speak of hardcore gamers who buy AAA games for the consoles, it’s a very mature market. The average gamer age is 29 years old, they’ve been consumers for 10 years and have very crisp ideas about what kinds of play they want, but it is still a young consumer market. And another thing, speaking about art games, all games are art. Art isn’t [inherently] a good thing, it’s not [always] a positive thing, there is a lot of crappy art and very few true gems in the history of all art. Lets not make “art” a pretentious thing.

Greg Costikyan: I would say there’s “art” and there’s “innovation.” Blizzard makes good art – it’s very polished and refined and well crafted – but they haven’t innovated in a long time. Rembrandt was a very good craftsman, but a terrible innovator. He tended to paint what he was good at. Budgets reflect this; you don’t get a whole lot of innovation in the Hollywood system because the budgets are huge and everyone is trying to cover their ass, and everyone has a say in what the final product looks like. It’s possible to get highly innovative games through these systems, but it’s extremely difficult. You have to be Will Wright or Stanley Kubrick or the equivalent. One of the problems with the industry is that conventional publishers have tried, as much as they can, to deny recognition of creators, and so there are very few people with the clout to get innovative titles published.

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Plays You Can Play
PD: At the rant today, Seamus Blackley, who was arguing about this from a pro-business standpoint, put out an interesting phrase: “Brokeback Mountain.” Where is the “Brokeback Mountain” of games? Why isn’t there a game that makes conservative people feel uncomfortable about riding horses with each other? (Laughter) And that ties into the question of storytelling; most of the storytelling in games these days is just tacked on. It might add something to the experience, but it doesn’t really affect the way the player makes decisions – what we tend to call “gameplay.” What do you all see as the prospects for “drama games” or “interactive storytelling”? Or whatever you want to call it. How could that be implemented?

JC: I have some experience with writing for film and television, and I also design games, and I feel they are very different beasts. Story is the spine of an entire film, it’s what it’s about, and then you add on the visual execution. Videogames don’t need to have a story; Tetris proved that. I’ve been trying to find what the spine is for videogames. I think games have more to do with experience; this could be something very simple, like a child bouncing a ball. Story in games is a tool that helps to serve the desired experience.

PD: Well I’m thinking more of a fusion, where the player is a co-author.

JC: Sure, there have been lots of people who tried to do that, often a designer’s goal is to make the player feel like the director or the writer. It’s very hard, but many have tried.

SS: Creation and play are concepts that I think belong together, in Spanish, the terms are closely related.

CB: What words in Spanish?

SS: I can’t really express in English the language concept I have in mind. But “interactive storytelling” or “drama games,” thinking beyond that, I think we want games to be meaningful to people’s lives. We want people to recognize that games have something to say and aren’t just superficial entertainment. It doesn’t have to be precisely an interactive drama. It can be, for instance, Katamari Damacy. I once read on Ron Gilbert’s blog how he defined Katamari as a metaphor for Japanese consumerism, where you just keep collecting more things.

CB: I swear Takahashi had no such intention when making Katamari.

JC: Actually, last year I was at his session. Takahashi was describing what he thought were the intangibles of games. He kept joking with us, but by the end he said it was a feeling, like if you watch little kids rolling the ball, you can feel the love, this kind of childish, silly excitement. He was also talking about this at the Game Design Challenge today.

SS: He said we could save the world if there were enough gaming romantics. It’s this idea that you can put a romantic feeling in a game without betraying the game. He made a game, he didn’t try to make a film or a novel. A lot of games try to be films, like Metal Gear Solid – you get huge cinematics that last for three hours. MGS is the only game I’ll play with popcorn. (Laughter from group) I’ll think, “OK, time to see a movie.” But Katamari is pure to the medium. He wanted to make a great game and he wanted to say something through a ludic metaphor or whatever you want to call it. I don’t know how to describe it exactly. It’s very poetic.

GC: I can’t resist addressing the story vs. game issue. You have to think of games as being akin to music in this fashion. There are musical forms that are tightly connected to storytelling, such as opera, the musical, the rock and roll ballad; then there are forms where story is irrelevant.

PD: Like pop.

GC: Or symphonic music. There is a narrative in the sense that there is change over time, but it’s not “story” per se. There are many games that integrate story very effectively; there are many games where story is irrelevant. To me, the search for the interactive narrative game is one of those things that people have bashed their head against the wall about since the beginning of computer games – and if you want to bash your head against that wall, that’s great. Sooner or later someone will break through the wall, but me, I’ll go do something else.

CB: Keita Takahashi has been just an enormous influence for me, and that other guy from the same publisher, his name escapes me, Tuori Iwatani, the Pac-Man guy, his talk was fantastic. I didn’t fully take on board what he was saying until some time afterwards. He spent ages talking about escalators, and I was like, “Why is this Japanese game designer talking about escalators?” But the point he was getting across is: When someone comes to an escalator, they know what to do with it. There is no learning barrier in using an escalator. It’s a fluid experience.

SS: Shiguero Miyamoto said the same thing about a Rubik’s Cube. From a designer’s perspective, you get a cube in your hands and you know you want to line up the squares. It’s self-explanatory. That’s the philosophy behind a lot of Japanese games and they know how to do that stuff, so …

JC: I’ve got something that might help you guys: One I night I had dream with a very unique, dramatic story about four vampires. (Group laughter) It was like a movie, there was a lot of depth that actually reflects on the society. I wanted to share this with my friends, so I woke up and sat down to write something. The first thing that came to mind was screenplay format – that was obvious. Then I think, “I’m a game designer, can I communicate this in a game better than in a film?” I tried to figure out how to enhance the story in a way that film can’t, but I couldn’t figure it out. You can do a story so easily with just a pen and some paper, or with a book or a film, but when you come to games, you get stuck. Most designers just tell a story like a film and have gameplay in between.

GC: Actually, I would recommend you look at what are called “Narrativist” paper RPGs. There are a number that are designed to create experiences that shape into a story for people. The way they do that is constrain the narrative arc so the shape of the story remains the same, but they allow people enormous freedom of action within that. It’s kind of the opposite of a traditional tabletop RPG, where players can go off in any direction but moment to moment they have to roll a die to see if they can do what they do. Instead, they can do whatever they want, moment to moment, but the narrative arc is pushing you. It’s weird, bizarre. … I don’t know how you would do it in a digital environment.

CB: Maybe in a moderated massively multiplayer context. It you look at the strengths of tabletop roleplaying, a lot of the strengths seem to come from allowing one person to take control on the understanding that their role of being in control is a cooperative one with the entire group. MMOGs don’t really tap into that potential successfully.

PD: I think, with massively multiplayer, you have all these unpredictable people and the complexity goes up rather than down, though I’d like to see someone approach the problem from that angle.

CB: One of the problems most tabletop RPGs have in that regard is the amount of reading expected from the players in order to absorb the background. Because if that’s needed to play, that’s a real barrier. [That’s] one of the great things about the Star Wars RPG … The advantage there is the player is coming to that already knowing the background. I think it was a really elegant piece of RPG design because the core mechanics were well suited to the style of narrative the Star Wars name supports – to the extent that I never bought the rulebook. I have the two-page handout, and that was sufficient to play the game. The concept was so tight that you only needed a basic framework to get it going, because players already knew the mythology. I think that some of the most successful tabletop roleplaying games piggyback on backgrounds the player’s already have.

More than One Way to Play
PD: Let’s talk about different types of play. Chris wrote a book called 21st Century Game Design

CB: I’m actually only a co-author.

PD: Right, right, and when we talk about different kinds of autuerism, I’ll mention your humility. (Group laughs) You were building off of Nicole Lazzaro’s different kinds of play types. There’s “Hard Fun,” the adrenaline rush Santiago mentioned, and this is where the industry has been focused primarily; there’s “Easy Fun,” which is like Katamari and Fireball and Cloud; “Serious Fun,” like DDR and management simulations; and then there’s “People Fun,” which she cited primarily as being in social aspects of MMOGs. I’m thinking this wraps back around as a way of looking at social challenge and interactive storytelling.

CB: Um, no.

PD: Alright, whatchya got?

GC: Interactive storytelling, drama games; what you’re doing is interacting with artificial people. I can get involved in the actions of a character in a novel and I may be able to get involved in other characters in a drama game, but that’s not the same thing as interacting with a real person and will never replace it … up until we have true AI and the machine is legitimately a person.

JC: I come from China, and originally worked at a MMOG company. I spent a lot of time designing MMOG social structures, and when I think about it I was trying to come up with a new genre of MMOG – though I don’t want to get in detail – but the more I look into it, the more I see that an MMOG actually reflects what a real social structure actually is. It’s a max: How do you create a social structure that meets everybody’s needs and makes them all happy?

GC: Nobody wants to be a peasant.

JC: Yeah, as the game becomes bigger, it becomes closer in structure to what the real world is. Maybe we can eventually find out how to solve real social problems through [MMOGs].

CB: I think academics are very interested in the massively multiplayer area for that reason. They’re toy environments for exploring social issues that you don’t have the capacity to explore in the real world. Because how do you get 100,000 people and put them in a new country and measure what they do?

GC: Testing politics is probably going to be difficult, testing economics is the most difficult. I used to play A Tale in the Desert … and this is a game where some of the tasks really require dozens or hundreds of people. If you want to do some of the cooler stuff in the game, you have to join one of the mega-guilds, which are designed so the people who join new are treated as slaves and given tasks like baking a thousand bricks. People do it willingly because they want to be a part of the effort. There is some opportunity for experimental social structures in games.

Scratchware Auteurs
PD: I want to talk about autuerism. Do you think having individuals who are empowered as the name brand of the game, like, “This is a Howard Hawkes game.” Do you think this has creative value, or at least marketing value?

GC: It’s absolutely beneficial from a marketing standpoint. It’s a two-edged sword if you’re a publisher; because if this guy’s name has recognition with the audience, that’s another lever we can use to sell this game, but it also means he’s going to ask for more money and more control in the future. There is a danger in having individuals recognized for their work in that sometimes those aren’t really the people who did the work. I’m thinking of Alpha Centauri, which Sid Meier didn’t really design.

PD: Right, Bryan Reynolds.

GC: Yeah, and we also need a more sophisticated appreciation for who are the key talents on game. In film, we know it’s the director, we know it’s the producer, we know it’s the screenwriter and the major actors. It isn’t clear who the major actors are in developing a game, but it’s more than one person.

PD: One thing I really enjoyed about working with Mr. Bateman here is he made his personality a very transparent interface to the project. It reminds me of something Mark Healy told me – he’s another scratchware auteur, the guy behind Rag Doll Kung Fu – and he told me he didn’t see himself as working for Peter Molynuex when they made Dungeon Keeper and Black and White, more like he was working with Peter. He said they all were their own ingredients and Peter would just stir the pot. The question is: Is it better to be a “rockstar” game designer or a “humble” game designer, or is there synergy between those?

CB: Wow, what a question. I know what I set out to do with Fireball, and what I hope to do further down the line, is to create a core game design that is solid enough that other people can come to it and find their own creativity. So there are multiple levels of play before it gets to an audience. What I did with Fireball was I put out an open call and said, “Does anyone want to contribute to this?” and I got people like you and Maurizio. There was an enjoyment that you guys got out of playing with those tools and creating stuff with it. When the audience finally comes to it, they’re going to experience these little individual art pieces that you all made for it. And that’s fantastic. That’s what I’m really exploring now – creating a core game design that allows other people to explore different kinds of play experiences and provide that to an audience.

PD: You give credit to the people who make the content. It’s like auteur franchising.

CB: Yeah, that’s one way of looking at it. That’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to create a framework of design that would allow another group of people to come in and express themselves. I’m not trying to control the whole experience. I’m trying to facilitate something else happening..

PD: And on the other hand, we have Santiago who is trying to solve drama, maybe not from such a high level approach as Crawford. It’s geared towards a specific context, and you’re doing it all on your own. You’re doing the art, the programming and the design. Do you see yourself as becoming like, “Hey, this is a Santiago Siri game,” and you going on talk shows and stuff? What are your delusions of grandeur?

SS: Uh, I do have delusions of grandeur. I’m a human being. I do tend to think of myself winning an Oscar or something like that. I agree that a game designer is not writing a story where every detail is controlled, he’s creating the rules for a player. The boundaries of authorship in games are really very mysterious due to the nature of interactivity. Interactivity enables people to modify what you give to them. It’s sort of like the DJs; they remix the music and suddenly, because the technology gets ripe, the DJs become very famous and recognized as artists. The nature of interactivity puts into questions the nature of authorship, but I’m trying to create tools that enable authorship in the sense of community creation. Like Wikipedia – it was created by a million users worldwide. Interactivity empowers the creativity of individuals. But, I read a lot of biographies, I admire people that do something different. In games there are, of course, Will Wright and Ron Gilbert and so on. We need to look up to these people and we need to be those people who make a difference, because individuality also has its good side.

PD: Jenova, your game, Cloud, was your vision, and you came up with the basic play mechanic, but you made it happen with, I think it was six other people?

JC: It’s really hard. Before we made Cloud, we made another game called Dyadin. We were here last year at the EGW with that. That game was made by everyone. Everyone on the team started talking about the game, contributing to it and debating about ideas, and finally we got an idea that was mediocre to everybody. OK, so everybody is happy to make it, but I feel that the more people that get into the design, the more the final product suffers. If you have more then seven people involved, it’s going to be very hard.

PD: Is seven the magic number, before you stop being a scratchware team and start becoming AAA?

JC: Yeah. But you can’t have a magic space that everybody will like. You need somebody to lead it. That’s why, in Cloud, because I started the project, people would say, “You are the lead and you get to make this decision.” So, I became the choice-maker for the team. It’s kind of like being the president: You can’t really do anything without your team. You can pass out ideas, but they have to agree if it’s going to happen.

CB: That situation definitely gets worse when you have a big team. The barrier to doing anything interesting is that you have to satisfy everyone on the team.

SS: This is a very interesting debate because it has a lot to do with the philosophy you bring to the particular game you’re making. American games very much focus on the business model. The creative process becomes highly collective and systematized. I like a lot of Hayao Miyazaki’s movies. He’s a brilliant artist, and I once read a quote of his: “When people work with me, I don’t give them time for discussion, you’ll do it my way or you don’t do it at all.” His movies are quite personal.

JC: I learned about this the hard way with Cloud, we’d go through about five iterations based on player feedback, so as a designer, I can’t make a game for myself, I have to make it for the player.

TL: That’s the same thing as anything, even making a website. People make the websites not for themselves but for a company, and it sucks. But when your make a website for a client, that’s when it succeeds.

JC: What happened was one player would tell me to do this and it would be more intuitive. It’s all about control. So, I’d listen to them and change it and then two other players would say, “This sucks.” (Group laughs) I’d change it back or find somewhere in-between – a compromise – and then, another guy would stand up and say, “Hey, you should do it the old way.” You never really solve it for everybody. A friend of mine, who is an art major, said, “Why do you listen to anyone? You’re making art and you make it for yourself.” It’s very conflicting. On one hand, you want a design that is a system you’d love to play yourself, and on the other hand, if you want to sell your game you have to compromise for others.

TL: I just want to say there are no statues of committees.

PD: On that note, Tom, you work on games with your wife. Evidently, this whole male/female duo thing is popping up on the indie scene. I don’t know if any of y’all played Mount and Blade, it’s a very high-quality indie game. I recommend everyone play the demo. It’s being made by a Turkish couple; he does the programming and she does the graphics. Maybe that’s the best sort of team mechanic you can have.

CB: I’ve got to know how that works in practice.

TL: Yeah that’s funny. I didn’t think we were the Partridge Family of videogames, but thanks for pointing that out to me. Both my wife and I are extremely opinionated and it’s like two dictators running the same ship. There’s a lot of yelling and screaming and crying – and then she talks. (Group laughs) But, uh, no, we both agree after the cussing and discussing [that] it’s a much better product in everything that we do for our clients. Together, it might be the best teamwork. As a spouse, you come together because the other has strengths that facilitate your weaknesses, and vice versa. I think in a project that might be our ultimate strength.

To read the article in its unedited entirety, visit The Lounge this Friday.

Patrick Dugan is the next Patrick Dugan. He’s currently working on a tightly constrained, extremely stylized drama game for the Nintendo DS, and beginning to mess around with Storytron. Follow his scratchware autuership at King Lud IC.

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