My Life,  The Lazy Designer

Responding to Change – pitfalls

This is a continuation of the previous post – Harnessing Change.

The Cautionary Tale: Where Things Are Not Heading

Twenty years ago PC Gaming was declared dead. And it is declared dead every few years. And while it is a smaller market than consoles it is far from dead but people will continue saying it is dead, forever and expect designers to make decisions accordingly. Balance this with reality. That however is not the cautionary tale I want to talk about right now, though I may explore it further in a later post. There’s another similar falsehood I have heard far too often.

No one reads anymore.

This has been said by everyone from the newest quality assurance member in the company to the upper echelons of management. And it was (and I’m sure still is) being said to this day and in most every gaming company in the world that is trying to balance gameplay with narrative.

Why? Partly because of their own experiences — movies are exciting, books are too cerebral. Partly through observing the types of games that (generally) sell well. Sometimes expense — having a staff of writers at a gaming company is expensive.

But the idea that reading is dead is laughably wrong but what people observed was a symptom of another kind of change. In a general world view sense with the emergence of text-messaging, Facebook, Twitter and others, it is clear that people are okay with reading text. And the book industry, despite their many proclamations to the contrary, is far from collapsing anytime soon. But a change has been happening and has been happening for decades since television emerged as the primary conduit of information and entertainment to everyone. People do spend enormous amounts of time watching content, with networks broadcasting what they want. Information flowing one way, from these broadcasters, into the everyone’s home.

Watching moving pictures is visually engaging and worse, the way our brain works, makes it addicting and difficult to walk away from (Al Gore’s book ‘The Assault on Reason’ has a nice section on the science behind this). And if television were to remain the staple of how we consume media I think we would be in great trouble, as a society.

But luckily the Internet is here to save us :)

The act of reading text has never went away though and despite people saying it would one day be completely replaced with audio and video, that has never happened. And will never. Audio and Video work great when someone is transmitting a message to a group of people. And in a one-on-one situation a technology like skype works, and maybe it even scales up to half a dozen people. But once you start adding too many people to the conversation it becomes noise and chaos.

Books and newspapers were originally a way to communicate ideas across vast distances and different cultures. When television replaced the printed word as the primary information conduit, I feel we took a hard left turn towards becoming controlled by the broadcasters — no longer communication, something more akin to manipulation. But now the Internet, with online videos and presentation supplementing social networks, has the potential to encourage more communication.

Text has an advantage over other forms of communication and this is seen most clearly in Twitter where users are engaging in multiple conversations at the same time, huge chains of text spreading sometimes across days. And Twitter is quite primitive, the generation of engagements tools that comes after it are going to be able to harness this further. People like communicating and aside from multiprocessor telepathy, it appears to be the most effective.

But it is still a different kind of consumer out there, than of a hundred years ago. I won’t pretend to be able to predict the end outcome but what I see is a society that wants to consume content in small quantities but not superficial sound bytes… this emerging, truly connected society wants content with their connections.

Okay enough blah blah blah. How does this relate specifically to gaming?

The Caution part

If BioWare had listened to the whole ‘no-reading/short attention span’ argument, and it was a very strong argument at certain points in the company’s history, games like Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire, Mass Effect and Dragon Age would not have been what they ended up being.

The people in the company understood the value of narrative and kept to that but they also realized that they couldn’t make a game identical to Baldur’s Gate 2 (with over a million words of text) — the audience had grown and these new players wanted a more manageable experience. Bioware’s games have changed. Improved, in most people’s opinion. But they still retain at their core what makes BioWare a very strong game developer — stories, well told.

So my advice is simply not to jump on this or that bandwagon. Make the games you want to and that you are good at while doing your research. Incorporate what makes sense to incorporate but don’t jump when someone tells you ‘this is the way it is’. They are probably wrong. We all are.

There’s no right or wrong ways of being a game designer but I find that it is useful to think about the reasoning going on when other people make major proclamations like ‘text is dead’. I argued when I heard this that people did still enjoy reading but I never would have predicted the attraction of Twitter. So I was right but not for the reasons I had thought.

What Brent thinks going forward

Social networks are exciting and some very smart designers are going to figure out ways to incorporate that excitement into their games. It won’t make sense for all games. Don’t make it make sense — you know the whole circle-square-peg thing.

Anyways this post is far too long and I could ramble about this indefinitely. I suspect a lot of people have already wandered away to go check on their twitter followers.

That’s okay.

In the final version of the Lazy Designer (once you know, I get a publisher) I have some ideas on how to balance summaries with the real meat of topics. People who skim will still get some of my insights but those who delve into the text will (hopefully) come out with more.

That’s okay too.

I’m shutting up now. Except for the link section, next.

Relevant Links

Philip Zimbardo on “The Secret Powers of Time”
The Assault on Reason/
In Defense of Distraction

Some Random Links

Accelerating Future
Sentient Developments
Velcro City Tourist Board

Former lead designer at BioWare (Dragon Age: Origins, Neverwinter Nights). Creator of Raiders of the Serpent Sea.

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