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The Future of Game Design

"I had no special training at all; I am completely self taught. I don't fit the mold of a visual arts designer or a graphic designer. I just had a strong concept about what a game designer is. Someone who designs projects to make people happy. That's a game designer's purpose."
~Toru Iwatani (Designer of Pac-Man)

This trilogy of game design articles comes out of my view on game design as it exists in 2001. Likely it'll appear weak when compared to my writings on game design in the coming years. But here let me make some prophetic predictions.

My primary prediction is that game design will eventually shift from the commercial large scale factory-output style to the independent style. As the tastes of video game players alter, less generic games and less clone games will be made, and more original and varied games will be made. One way to look at it is that game design had a renniesance in the NES era, and there has been by and large a decline through the SNES / Genesis era, the Playstation / Nintendo 64 era, and now the latest era of '128-bit' systems. Game design is now reduced to a tyranny of the publisher, and many game designers feel that they can't make their games as good as they want to make them, and can't make the types of games that they want to make, because the publishers only want to see games which are predicted to sell well. This is just a part of the large-scale 'industrialization' of entertainment. Many writers study the market to see what is selling, and write with that in mind. Movie producers and music producers do exactly the same thing. They take polls, they look at what is popular, and they cater to some vague picture they have of what 'the masses' want. Innovation is rare, risk even rarer.

But as the tools of game design become easier to use, anyone who has the talent to design games will be able to do so. Anyone with the time and the desire will be able to compete with the commercial games without a large budget. Game design is not something that you need to be rich to do, nor do you need a job in the game industry to do it. The Ohrrpgce is currently one of the best of these tools. Lucidity (an engine Neo is in the process of creating) will be another.

This will not only happen in the video game field, but will happen through many fields. We are already seeing indications of this in the book field, where publishers are beginning to be less restrictive of what they publish, and self-publishing and e-text publishing is increasing. The music field has always had a strong self-publishing arena, and this too is getting stronger. Movies will perhaps be the last to fall, since they will require large sums of money to create for much of the forseeable future.

I leave you with an excerpt from my livejournal discussing another aspect of where I feel that game design is going, and where we should strive toward.

I was reading the 5th Covenant book. There is a scene I want to write about, as I, while reading the scene, suddenly realized how it would work in a game, as what I call a volitional story-event.

Scene backround information. Covenant, main character one, is currently incapacitated into a mind-blank state where all he can say is 'don't touch me'. Linden, main character two, is the viewpoint character for this scene, and kind of an indecisive and powerless feeling character. The Giants are a noble race about 10 feet tall, fond of long stories, laughter, seafaring, wine, and the like. The important giants for this scene are: 1) the First, who is the leader of the group and the typical 'female who learned swordfighting and was rose to a position of power despite male ridicule' archtype; 2) Pitchwife, who despite the name 'wife' is the husband of the First, possessing a cripped small (for a giant) and weak body, and is the ship's stone-repair man; 3) Honninscrave, who is the captain of the ship; and 4) Seadreamer, who is Honninscrave's brother, mute, and possessing of a strange sixth-sense like sight. There are perhaps 120 or so miscellaneous Giant sailors. There are four Haruchai on the ship. The Haruchai are and ascetic, almost monk-like, people which are basically human, but with the distinguishments of being extremely integrated and principle driven, never confused about what to do, very strong minded and heroic, never doing much wrong, never really making a mistake, neither in big things nor in small things. They are very military. Think of them as each being Howard Roarks or Mr. Spocks of the discipline of fighting and other physical feats. Their only flaws are that they are too loyal to orders, and that they lack of individuality... everyone of their people basically thinks and acts alike, with only the most minor of differences. In this scene, these characters are on a ship, and evil-possessed eels are attacking the ship while it is inclined and sinking, due to a storm. It is night, without stars or moon, and with very few lanterns. The storm that had knocked the ship over was still going on, and there were many powerful winds, although no rain. The eels glow red, and explode when hit, causing nerve damage and incapacitation. There are maybe a thousand eels or so.

At the beginning of the scene, the eels begin to climb the ship. Pitchwife was nearest to the eels (he was singing the song there to increase morale while the sailors pumped water out of the sinking ship), and so he was the first to attack them. They exploded when hit, and he fell down. A Haruchai went after him, jumping to save him from sliding off into the water. He attacked some eels that were near the fallen giant, and went into nerve convulsions, but was still able to hold on to something, preventing himself and the giant from falling into the water. The First then approached a different section of the eels, and slashed at them w/ her sword. The sword was engulfed in an explosion, and she lost it, and fell down wounded. A second Haruchai had had the foresight to tie a rope to himself, and he threw the end of the rope to one of the miscellaneous Giant sailors, at the same time jumping after the First to stop her fall into the water or death by the eels. He was able to catch her, and both of them were pulled up partially and stabilized by the Giant sailor. Seadreamer at this point perceptively realized that all the eels were heading toward the blank-minded Covenant, and being mute and unable to tell others of this, grabbed Covenant and started running with him to a different part of the ship, to draw the eels away from all the people and from the wounded Giants and Haruchai. One of the Haruchai chased after him, thinking that the Giant had gone mad (Covenant is in the care of the Haruchai and they won't tolerate any perceived danger to him). The Haruchai and the others saw that the eels had diverted their path and were now heading toward Seadreamer and Covenant and the Haruchai who had followed them. The Giants then began to use ropes as whips to hit the eels, causing them to explode from afar, but destroying the rope in the process. Seadreamer, the Haruchai, and Covenant were now on the roof of a small structure, and had nowhere to flee to. Linden at this point had the notion that it might be effective to throw an oil lamp at them... she did so, and the oil in the lamp caught fire, killing a half dozen or so eels. Honninscrave saw this, and ordered his men to bring up some oil, and the last Haruchai and two giants went belowdecks to get the oil. Concurrently, the Haruchai and Seadreamer were only barely holding their post by cutting some rope (there is apparantely a lot of rope on a ship) and using that to attack the eels which were climbing the structure on which they stood. The Haruchai, being the fastest, returned with the first of the oil, and sent a stream of it toward the defended structure, clearing many eels with its fire, but only reaching the ones nearest to he himself, not reaching the ones nearest to the people on top. He then started heading toward the structure on a cable that was attached to it. More Giants arrived with oil, more eels were killed. When a certain number of them had been killed, the evil force left them (it could only control them while a certain number lived, apparantly) and they became normal non-dangerous eels, just in time to prevent them from killing their target.

Now, I was thinking of how this could be done inside of a game with the player participating.

The gameplay would be arranged to match the scene. All the eels would appear and being to progress steadily toward Covenant. There will be various allies (the Haruchai, the First, Seadreamer, the Captain, various giant sailors) which would act on their own. You'd be a certain character, and have a choice of what to do. It could be set up so that after throwing the Lamp at the eels, your allies would see the use of this and go for the oil belowdecks. It could be set up so that you would have the option of going to get oil, or the option of cutting ropes for those throwing the ropes, or the option of throwing ropes at the eels yourself, or the option of heading directly toward the eels (and your demise if you touched them), or various other options. Perhaps you could go to the wounded and heal them, with the result that they are able to fight again. Each of your actions would change the battle slightly but importantly, each action would cause slight but important other actions by your allies, or changes of their actions. Perhaps if you kept indiscriminantly throwing lamps, everything would go dark and the aims of you and your allies would be diminished.

The main determinant of whether you survive or fail the battle, ie the conditions of goal-success, would be whether you are able to kill enough eels in time to save Covenant. There aren't really that many other options. If you don't kill enough of them in time, there is no way for him to flee, they'll just keep progressing toward him. If you do kill enough of them in time, you win. All actions you take in that story-event are related to those the goal-condition. There is a limited amount of oil, a limited amount of Giants, a limited amount of rope, a limited amount of eels, etc., and each factor is connected to eachother gameplay-wise. In addition, just to make the event more gameplay-like, you should have specific allies that you can tell to do different tasks, according to your knowledge of their abilities.

I do not know if such an event has been done to this extent in any game yet. Yes there are story-events which are gameplay-like... for example there is that 'protecting the esper from kefka's guards' event in ff6... you split up your team in three groups, place them, make them walk around, and manually try to prevent the guards from reaching bannon (and the esper). However... that had no where near the freedom of this percieved story-event. It has the same basic idea, protecting something from steadily advancing enemies, but it isn't very complex at all. You can basically just place all your characters right in front of Bannon and let the enemy come to you and defeat them as they arrive. In this Covenant defending, you can't do that... for ONE because you start the event far away from what you are protecting, and for TWO because you can't fight the eels directly, you have to hit them indirectly, and for THREE that you have a lot of 'npc' allies which are not under your control directly, but are only influenced by your actions indirectly. And FOUR you have a lot of options as to what to do. You can order someone to go heal the wounded and order someone else to try to reach Covenant (if you order him to go alone and he's too weak, he might die, if you order everyone to go reach him, they will eventually be outnumbered or run out of oil or something like that). Obviously the more complex situation would be a lot more fun to play in.

Now, imagine a story-driven game composed of soley these types of dramatic events, each where your actions are free and complex, where you can win the 'battle', or meet the goal, in a variety of ways, where tactics, strategy, quickness of decision, and integrated thinking matter more than leveling-up and trial and error. Imagine a RPG without repetetive battles and dungeons and town explorations. Imagine a game where you have allies which you don't control directly but which actually do things to help you reach your goals instead of stupidly walking into walls or standing around and letting you do all the work. Imagine being told to do something by your 'leader', but seeing a better way to do that thing and doing it that way instead. Imagine a betrayal in the heart of a story-event battle where you are almost sure of victory.

Now, I'm not going to claim originality for this type of thing. There are some complex story-events in such games as Wing Commander which also involve such choices on the part of the player (although most of the missions in that game are as simple-brained as 'go meet ship blahblahblah and bring him here' or 'go patrol this sector' or 'protect our base from attack', there are also well-designed dramatic missions in that game as well). I have yet to play the more recent Wing Commander games, and as well, there are some events in American PC RPGs like Baldur's Gate which are also about making decisions and coordinating your allies and managing resources. But no game that I know of does this as well as I imagine it can be done, or makes these events as exciting, dramatic, or as balanced as I would like to make them. Usually the games with the most complex battles are strategy games... Tactics Ogre and Final Fantasy Tactics, or Panzer General, or Warcraft II. But those 'missions' don't really progress the story per se, they are merely -obstacles- which you must pass in order to see more of the story... and also in those games the story is very very secondary to the gameplay. I have yet to see a game that merges story events and gameplay to the extent that I can see they can be merged... the closest to this that I have seen are, as I said, certain rare parts of Wing Commander and Baldur's Gate (and the other games using that engine by that compnay), and a very few of the battles in Parasite Eve II and the Resident Evil series. I see soft touches of what I know is possible in parts of Mega Man Legends 1 and 2... and in that game The Horde... and in Kagero's Deception... and in the large-scale battles of Suikoden... but all of them fall short of my vision.

Imagine Final Fantasy 4 if it had used what I am thinking of for the battle of Fabul. To refresh your memory, Cecil defends Fabul from Golbez and his attack, fights Kain, and fails to protect the crystal he was guarding. Now imagine that part of the game as it should have been. Fabul soldiers moving about, engaging the enemy. You deciding where to send your team members, what tasks they will do, each task relating to how long you are able to hold out against the enemy. Setting up ambushes and traps to surprise the monsters. Rydia standing on a tower and hurling lightning spells at the flying airships dropping monsters. Sneaky monsters disguised as soldiers unlocking doors, and you discovering them. Various spatical paths to the crystal, each needing to be guarded. Kain with his group of monsters charging in, and challenging you when he sees you, and you losing. Now Rosa rushes toward you, and Golbez then captures her, the story plays out as normal, but altered slightly.depending on how many guards and monsters are left, and on what room you are in, and on other things... the battle might determine also how much damage the castle recieves, giving a further touch of reality. Perhaps, depending on how well you did, there are less monsters to fight your party in the tower of Zot. Let's say those three sisters were part of the attack. If you manage to kill them in Fabul, you wouldn't have to fight them in Zot, but if they live through this attack, they appear there. This is just one example of how you can connect your actions in this battle to later happenings in the game, I could think of 
more if I gave it the time.

Now compare that complex event and the various things you imagine might happen, and compare that to the structured linearity of what actually happens in the game... the same basic story events happen in each, but there is a lot of difference gameplay-wise. Of course, no matter how well you play, you'll still have to lose the crystal of fire and Rosa, but there is a world of difference in being directed through those events without so much as the freedom to walk where you want to walk, and this new alternative I described. I predict that in the future, as the art of video games matures, games will become more and more like how I picture them. You won't -watch- the story, you'll -play- the story.

Of course, I'm cheating on that prediction, because what I describe here is going to be seen in Ergintandal 1/5.

Yesterday, I read again the Chris Crawford game design book, written in the early 1980s, it is the first, and still in my mind the best, book on game design, although I'm currently working on a better one. Crawford was amazingly prescient of what would happen after games became mass-marketized... he predicted that they would become formulaic, each copying from eachother The battle against 'the art industry' (by which I mean the book 'industry', the movie/television 'industry', the visual art 'industry', the music 'industry', and the game 'industry', and to lesser extents things which are not often thought of as being mass-market, like the poetry 'industry' and the architecture 'industry') is one of my main battles in this world, and I will devote a large section of the heroic manifesto to that subject. Later. Now, I wish to point out Crawford's understanding of theme in game. He did not exactly understand the idea of theme as well as I do (for how I define it, see issue#5 of ohrrpgce monthly's game design article), he saw theme as a general 'point' of a game, and it's educational value (he saw games, correctly, as being necessary in education) where as I see theme as the 'worldview, or model of the world, which the player gains from the playing of it', the 'change in thought do to the experience of playing the game'. They almost amount to the same thing, however, and I'm sure if he had given it more thought he would have arrived at my understanding of it.

To give an example, take the game Railroad Tycoon. This is a game where you operate a railroad, and compete with other railroads. It's particularly interesting if you play the game in conjunction with the novel Atlas Shrugged... both involve railroads, and how they are important to a civilization... moving goods from place to place, transportation of people... transportation is the bloodstream of the world, and most things are transported by railroad. Both Atlas Shrugged and Railroad Tycoon show you this, although in different ways. In the game, you get to control an actual railroad, compete with others, build rails, and in general make many of the decisions Dagny makes in Atlas. There are mines, there are steel mills, there are food products, there are cities... and connecting them all are your trains. Cities grow if they are given the conditions of growth, you use money to buy new trains, you try to build a transcontinental railroad... etc., etc... after you play the game for awhile, you begin to actually feel it, the railroad-as-bloodstream model of the world. Not only that, you begin to be able to recognize actual types of classic trains that were made in that era by sight. Another side benefit is that you learn geography, learn where cities lie in relation to other cities. The game is of course contains direct facts about railroads, but it is more than facts, it's about managing resources, and about decision making, as all games ideally are. Should you use this money to buy a new train, to repair track, to build a bridge and new track, to upgrade one of your train stations, or to buy company stock? What type of train should you buy? What type of bridge? Should you build track in steep areas or go around them? You also learn how goods go from crude to refined... oil and coal are necessary for the working of a steel mill, so unless you bring them to a city with a steel mill, it won't produce steel. Of course, it isn't as complicated as real life, in real life there are multitudes of considerations, more than the game shows. For example, there are no copper mines, no salt mines, no gem mines, no gold mines, only coal mines. The most important parts are in the game, and the less important things had to be left out to save space (it is an old game) and programming time. If I were to remake the game today, I'd put a lot more into it, and include more information about railroads, biographies of famous railroad tycoons, bits about how the railroad was invented, about how coal engines work... I wouldn't just include them as side-facts, either, but integrate them into the gameplay. I'd include a part where you have to find, hire, and assign various people and put them in charge of operations of various train stations. There is a lot that I, or Sid Meier (the author of that game) could do to make the game more complete as a game about railroads. But there is no question that it when it is finished, I had a stronger understanding of (I'm getting tired of typing this word, but I can think of no ready synonym) railroads, a particular viewpoint on them, shared by the author, and transmitted from him to me, through the thing called a video game.

Now. Is it more fun to learn about railroads from playing Railroad Tycoon and reading Atlas Shrugged, or from a textbook-based class about the history of railroads?

Will an integration of non-interactive and interactive art replace the education system? Will 'school' become an archaic institution? All signs that I see that I see point to yes.

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