What if everyone could make videogames?
Recently I’ve been playing some very interesting games from some very interesting places. First was an Iranian game, where I tried to rescue Iranian nuclear scientists from American forces. Second was a Kenyan game where I searched the countryside for ancient African artifacts, while avoiding hostile tribesmen. And just a few days ago I played a Lebanese game where I was an officer trying to prevent Israeli forces from crossing the border into Lebanon.
None of these games have hit the shelves in the U.S., nor should you expect them to, unfortunately. But each of them taught me things about the people who made them, the cultures in which those people live and the concerns people have there. That wasn’t necessarily these games’ intent, but it was an interesting side effect.
People in the game industry have been arguing for years: Are videogames art? We each have our own belief on that. But less arguable is that videogames are media. Games express messages and have the unique ability to inform and educate people in an interactive, engaging and entertaining way. How can we make their development and distribution simpler for everyone so that expression can come from more diverse sources?
When I was young, my brother and I made up games to play with our plastic army men. Later, we moved on to electronic games with more rigid rules, like Electronic Quarterback, Quiz Wiz and Dark Tower. Eventually, we both discovered computers and fell in love with creating our own games. I remember spending many evenings in the back room at the elementary school, typing in long listings from Compute! magazine in order to compile my own games. Then, saving the programs to tape, I would come back the next day and tweak the program to try to “change the rules” so I could win or find out why I couldn’t get past a certain challenge in the game. These games framed my childhood, and as I grew older my dabbling with computer games grew, and so did the game industry itself.
What has changed is the complexity of our games. As computing power has grown and the videogame industry has matured, we’ve moved from simple videogames of “Eat all the pellets” and “Destroy all the aliens” to games that tell detailed stories, that immerse the player in a complex world and ask them to make challenging moral and ethical decisions, decisions that impact the story.
The messages these games offer vary broadly. Games like Brain Age and Jam Sessions encourage us to challenge ourselves, learn skills and exercise our brains. Games like Full Spectrum Warrior and Call of Duty focus on good vs. evil, but the focus is more on the action and less on the back-story. An increasing number of games have deliberate messages, like Starbucks’ Planet Green game, which is an environmental statement, or Veggie Games’ Steer Madness, which encourages veganism. Games like Food Force, The Howard Dean for Iowa Game, Darfur is Dying and September 12th all have very deliberate messages.
Why are videogames so effective at conveying a message? At their core, games enforce a ruleset. Mastering the ruleset is the player’s goal. The games slowly teach the player how to follow the rules and do it in an interactive, engaging, entertaining way. It makes traditional media seem like simply observing the world through a porthole rather than being immersed in an experience. What is more engaging: Looking at the ocean habitat through the tiny window of a Disneyland submarine, or exploring the world as it surrounds and reacts to you?
That makes videogame development sound like it would be pretty complicated, doesn’t it? And, compared to making music or recording a video, creating even a simple game is a complex task. In music and video production there are both novice and professional tools to use, so you are free to learn on the easy stuff and slowly advance to more complex, feature-rich tools.
When it comes to games, however, most of our tools are designed only for professionals. And the actual creation process is somewhat a black box; how does a novice create a game? When I was young, the barrier to entry was more dependent on how much code I wanted to copy than it was trying to figure out the process, but these days development is much more challenging. There are a handful of efforts to simplify the development tools and process, but even the simplest game development tools at this point are complicated.
But what would happen if we could make game development simpler? What if everyone could make videogames?
On the internet, the concept of Web 2.0 is hot. Sharing is king. People are sharing their thoughts on blogs, sharing their pictures on flickr, sharing their videos on YouTube, sharing their music on MySpace and sharing their friends on Facebook. A lot of what you find being shared is not amazing quality, but that’s not the point – individual people are able to share their experiences and their perspectives. It’s the democratization of the media experience. With so many people creating content and sharing their lives, more people with divergent interests can find like-minded people and find more diamonds in the rough.
Unfortunately, regarding videogames, the situation is quite different. Making a game is difficult enough. But sharing it with your friends? The game industry today is reminiscent of television before cable: There’s three channels, and if you don’t like them, too bad! Nowadays, you get 500 channels, most of which you may not care about. But with so many options, you’re bound to find something you like. And when there are more channels, there’s more creativity, more risk-taking. Would we have ever gotten The Daily Show from ABC? Without cable, would we have ever seen Al Gore’s CurrentTV? Link TV? The Sopranos?
The good news is things are slowly starting to broaden in videogames. Nintendo’s success with the Wii and DS has opened gaming to new people. Casual games on both the PC and console networks are continuing to grow in popularity, providing new avenues of exploration for developers. And the independent game development scene, bolstered by students and hobbyists, grows larger each year. But to really break open videogames as a new medium, available to all, we have to crack the tough nut: making game development easier.
There have been many efforts over the years to lower the barrier to entry. The mod scene, which grew around id Software, created a generation of game developers who broke into the industry by making small games on the back of an existing game engine. And games like The Sims have enabled people to create movies and varied gameplay experiences without an intimate knowledge of game development. But to make a small, standalone game you can share with your friends, there are few options.
Let’s say you want to make a game today. Where would you start? Assuming you want to share the game with your friends, the consoles and handhelds are virtually off-limits due to their strict distribution rules. Microsoft’s XNA Creators Club for the Xbox 360 is about as flexible as you get, and even after buying into the service, you can only share your games with other members of the club. The PC and cell phone aren’t a bad way to go, but conquering the installation process on systems with such varied hardware is hard, even for a professional. Your best bet is probably the web, which leaves Adobe’s Flash, which is installed on 95 percent of today’s PCs. But even Flash is fairly complex, and the development environment is expensive. Really, it’s very difficult for a novice to strike out on his own.
Luckily, the industry is beginning to take notice of the problem, and Flash developers are leading the way. Newgrounds.com allows users to share their Flash games and review others’, and provides tutorials on creating games using Flash. Kongregate.com similarly allows users to share their Flash games, but it’s far more community-centric, and the development community is a great resource for first-time developers.
Videogames are a powerful way to communicate, educate and express yourself. However, to reach their full potential, we need to make them easier to create and distribute. Otherwise, we’ll be a Hollywood with no Ed Wood, a TV empire with three channels. And nowadays, that’s just not good enough.
Mark DeLoura is the creator of the Game Programming Gems series of technical books. He has had past lives as the technology director for Ubisoft San Francisco, manager of developer relations for Sony Computer Entertainment America, editor-in-chief of Game Developer magazine, and lead engineer at Nintendo of America. These days he is doing consulting work in game development technology and production, and focusing his attention on the use of videogames for communication and education. Mark maintains a blog at www.satori.org.