ED5863 – Digital Games and Learning: Thinking critically about game design

nintendo-advert-get-n-or-get-out-n64-retro-gaming-14231828880

Nintendo’s infamous N64 slogan, which I adapted to discuss Chris Crawford’s game design concept of topic vs. content.

When it comes to advertising, I have always been strangely fascinated by the aggressive slogans used by game companies to market their products. These catchy phrases are designed to embed themselves into a person’s consciousness, becoming readymade mantras that every loyal follower of Nintendo, Sony, Sega or Microsoft must repeat over and over again. These slogans also communicate the guiding ideologies of these corporations, which often want their consumers to feel like insiders who speak a secret language that the rest of the world doesn’t understand.

Some game designers have embraced this ideology wholesale, viewing game design as a secret and elusive art with its own set of exclusive codes and strategies. Others, however, have been challenging this point of view, viewing game design in a much more critical, holistic, and inclusive light. With that in mind, I’ll be analyzing two game design concepts each from Chris Crawford and Mary Flanagan, contrasting their approaches, and how their concepts apply to Metatopia, the game Matt Bellefleur, Natalie Drumonde, and I made using anna anthropy’s Emotica Online. I’ll also start the discussion of each concept by adapting a slogan from videogame advertising or popular culture.

Chris Crawford — Get Content or Get Out!

In advertising the N64, Nintendo used the slogan “Get N or Get Out” as part of an aggressive campaign intended to communicate that not only had the system arrived (after multiple delays), but to declare that Nintendo customers were part of an exclusive elite, to which other game consumers need not apply. To me, Chris Crawford takes a similar approach when discussing topic vs. content in the “Common Mistakes” chapter of Chris Crawford on game design. For Crawford, content is king, and he shows derision for those who decide to lead with what their game is about rather than the problem they are trying to solve. He writes:

A young game designer once told with obvious pride that he was working on a “King Arthur” game. I wasn’t cruel enough to point out that he had already blundered from the get-go by thinking of it as a “King Arthur” game. But the fact is, the topic of a game has little to do with the core design problems.

For Crawford, a game designer should start with the specific interactions they want the player to have in the game. Only when you have decided if your game will require fast reflexes, trial and error, or intuition, can you decide the topic of the game (e.g. science fiction, first-person, or King Arthur). He doubles down on this point of view, writing: “if the topic really is the initiating concept in your thinking, then you simply don’t understand game design well enough to do a good job.”

I disagree with this completely. Crawford insists throughout the “Common Mistakes” chapter that there is a single way to do game design, and that all other methods are illegitimate. I do not think that leading with the topic first is a bad idea, and in fact, starting with your topic can help you better decide what game design tools you want to use and what interactions you want the game to have. I also don’t see topic vs. content being a real dichotomy, as they are not mutually exclusive and both are needed in designing a game.

In developing Metatopia, Matt, Natalie, and I started with what we wanted it to be about. We were very democratic in our process, ensuing each person’s ideas could be incorporated. Matt wanted the game to be about identity and characters treating you differently depending on how you appeared. Natalie wanted to have an educational and environmentally-conscious game. I wanted a game that was irreverent and focused on exploration and discovery.

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The starting screen of Metatopia.

It was after we thought about these topics and how we would bring them together that we then thought about the specific interactions in the game. Matt wanted randomization and player identity change. Natalie wanted there to be strong environmental and environmental messaging delivered by characters. I wanted to have something that was easy to pick up and play as I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with games that demand significant affective labour.

This is what led us to settle on Emotica Online as our game design tool, and to make a game that had a series of different environments and mini-narratives. We brought the topic and the content together, and I believe made a strong game, even if we lead with our topics before deciding on the game’s interactions.

Chris Crawford — Live In Your World. Edit In Ours.

The big slogan for the Playstation 2 was “Live in your world. Plays in ours.” The idea is that you have a normal, everyday, and possibly less thrilling corporeal existence. However, the world of the Playstation 2 is one of play and possibility. Crawford has a similar philosophy about game design toolsets: tools allows you to create, but they can also constrain you to another designer’s way of thinking. For Crawford, having cost-effective tools is desirable but he also thinks it shortcuts creative thinking. You’ll be editing in someone else’s world rather than your own. He singles out the level editor that ships with some games as his evidence. Level editors have made it easier than ever to make good levels thus people are focusing more on level design to creating more interesting game mechanics. He writes:

A truly fine tool is like a freeway: It gets you there especially quickly. Of course, like a freeway, a fine tool attracts a great many users, all of whom end up going to the same place, and if you take the freeway, you end up at a crowded beach.

His problem with level editors is that they are fine tools that always lead you to the same place. In this way of thinking, you are following the logic of the designers who included the level editor of the game rather than searching out the great peaks of good game design. Once again, I have to disagree. Simple tools are absolutely necessary for creativity.

I am sure Crawford would be contemptuous of Emotica Online as a design toolset, as it is very simple to use and furthermore fuses the level editor with the game itself. In Emotica Online, you are constantly aware of the toolset, and can instantly play around with the gameworld someone has designed. Furthermore, the game’s “programming” is very simple: you drag and drop emoji (the building blocks of the game) and define it as an item (which can be picked up), a player (which can be moved with the arrow keys), or a solid (a block that cannot be moved). We can also program simple transformations and animations. In contrast with what Crawford argues these constraints were good for our creative output and did not hinder it.

emotica-screen

In Emotica Online, the game and the level editor are one and the same. There is no separation while playing.

 Mary Flanagan—With Great Play Comes Great Responsibility

For this slogan, I had to look outside of videogames for a slogan that fit Flanagan’s concept of responsibility in creativity and play. The line “With great power comes great responsibility” is from the Spider-Man comic, arguing that power confers on those who have it (whether they are creative powers or web-slinging) an obligation to use it wisely and responsibly. Flanagan has a similar argument for the creative process:

As game design matures, and as games themselves become more ubiquitous and more meaningful to culture, there is a growing need for designers to approach the creative process with increased awareness and responsibility to be inclusive, fair, and cater to a variety of play styles.

I agree with this completely. Often I find that games and game design are marketed to a select “elite” who are the ones conferred with the power and the ability to create. This is simply not the case. Tools like Twine, Game Maker, and Scratch, have opened up a plethora of creativity. Not only that, they have ensured that people are able to tell stories outside the “mainstream” of current games, focusing on topics like race, poverty, and systemic injustice. As Flanagan writes: “Perhaps even more than these “tools,” these games are simultaneously systems of information, cultural products, and manifestations of cultural practice.”

One reason I like Emotica Online so much is that it simplifies the process of games and game design. Metatopia is very easy to play and edit. Matt, Natalie, and I were also conscious of the messages we embedded in Metatopia. We had the player character start off as the cat emoji as it is gender-neutral and a fairly friendly starting option. I wouldn’t say that Metatopia is completely barrier-free as it requires a computer and access to an Internet connection. However, I do think our game lowers the barrier of entry to play.

Mary Flanagan—Now You’re Playing With Critical Power!

Nintendo used the slogan “Now you’re playing with power” while advertising the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in the late ‘80s. The slogan also lent its name to Nintendo Power magazine. I adapt it here to talk about Flanagan’s Critical Play game design model. This model is supposed to embed specific values and critical play within the game design process. She contrasts this with the traditional model of game design, which sets up systems and rules, and iterates without considering diverse play styles and approaches.

We definitely embedded our particular values in Metatopia, using specific stories and environments as sites of criticism. While on the surface, Toilet Town seems to exist for the purpose of a joke, we created a storyline where Toilet Town is implicated in high consumption and environmental degradation. Most of Metatopia’s resources are being used by Toilet Town and another city called Terminalia. Frog Town also exists to critique the loud, insular male gamers who are distinguished by their misogyny, racism, and continued harassment of feminist game critics and game makers. This group has chosen the frog emoji as its most significant symbol, so we used that in our parody.

I also made a Game Theorist’s Play Area, that pokes fun at the assumptions of certain game theorists about play and pedagogy and to further the critique of self-identified “gamers.” From the standpoint of being made from emoji, Metatopia is mostly fun and irreverent, but we also wanted to encode our values and principles.

Overall, I would say that Flanagan’s methodology of critical play exerted a substantial influence on our game design practice. Using Emotica Online and designing a game that includes our personal values made Metatopia something fun and enjoyable, that is also a substantial exercise in critical making.

toilet-town

Metatopia’s wasteful and much derided Toilet Town.

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Rare replays and hard labours

Rareware

August 4 saw the release of Rare Replay for the Xbox One — a collection of 30 games from Rare, the storied British video game developer. While not a comprehensive collection — due to licensing issues there is no Donkey Kong Country, Diddy Kong Racing, or Goldeneye 007 — it does a fairly good job of covering the studio’s history from its origins as a developer of games for the 8-bit ZX Spectrum computer, to the games it made for the NES, SNES, and N64 while a second-party developer for Nintendo such as Battletoads, Killer Instinct Gold, Banjo-Kazooie, Perfect Dark, and Conker’s Bad Fur Day; and into the Microsoft era with Perfect Dark Zero and Viva Pinata. For gamers who grew up in the ’80s or ’90s, the mere mention of Rare is enough to send them into combined fits of nostalgia and reverence. The games that Rare developed for Nintendo’s early consoles are held in the highest esteem, and before they became part of Microsoft, the Rare name was synonymous with quality entertainment and excellent game design. However, what’s seldom discussed is the work culture that produced their best games.

What is little known — but not exactly a secret — is that the classic games Rare produced in the ’80s and the ’90s were the result of a punishing work ethic: a constant crunch mode that ground down the studio’s game developers as much as it ground out hit games. Typically, such facts are buried within articles that breathlessly tout the studio’s successes but downplay the significance of how Rare was run as a game studio. IGN’s 2008 retrospective “IGN Presents The History Of Rare” is a good example. Discussing Chris and Tim Stamper, the brothers who founded and managed Rare during its heyday, the article says:

“They were renowned for working eighteen hour days, seven days a week, only knocking off between the hours of 2:00-8:00 a.m. Their philosophy was that a part-time employee resulted in a part-time game. By contrast, they committed totally and required their team to do the same as well… the first true crunch mentality in the industry. Nobody was held to that philosophy more stringently than the Stampers themselves. In the three years they slaved to Ultimate [Rare’s predecessor], they only ever took two days off. Both were Christmas mornings.”

“Crunch” is game industry jargon describing the extra time and effort required to put out big budget games. Everyone is expected to crunch, especially when it comes to meeting big release deadlines. The result is 60 to 80 hour work weeks and eventual burnout. As the IGN article goes on to reveal, Rare began experiencing problems with high employee turnover in the late ’90s:

Publicly, Rare was on a roll. Behind the scenes, employee turnover bordered on disastrous.

In the few interviews they granted, Tim and Chris Stamper came across as quiet, unassuming Englishmen, but the pace they maintained and the demands they set could grate at closer range. Their longtime partners at Zippo Games, the Pickfords, left shortly after the Stampers bought them out in the 80’s and deep-sixed a favored wrestling game. By the N64 years, their tiny company had grown from the low teens to several hundred, but the Stampers kept their hands firmly in every project, and that management style didn’t sit well with everyone. The first public defection happened in 1997, when a group of employees marched out en masse to form Eighth Wonder, a studio dedicated to developing for Sony. Well into the three-year production cycle for a successor to GoldenEye 007, [Martin]Hollis and [David] Doak decided they’d had their fill as well, taking much of their production teams with them.”

Hollis and Doak were both responsible for the development of Goldeneye 007, one of Rare’s most praised and commercially successful titles for the N64. By the time Rare was bought by Microsoft for $377 million, their output began to dwindle, and their games were less successful, receiving less positive critical notices. When writers and critics look at the decline of Rare, the onus is often placed on Microsoft for supposed interference and mismanagement of their games for the Xbox 360.

Who Killed Rare?” an article by Simon Parkin speculates about Microsoft’s connection to the reduced quality of Rare’s output. In interviewing ex-Rare employees, including Martin Hollis, there’s a suggestion that Microsoft shifted Rare’s culture leading to worse games. However, there was clearly something wrong Rare’s previous work culture, especially if there were resignations and defections before Microsoft’s acquisition in 2002. To me this means that there is a correlation between the loss of some of Rare’s most talented developers, and the eventual decline in what Rare’s output. The management style of the Stampers seemed to encourage an insane work ethic that most likely caused many to quit in frustration. When Martin Hollis left Rare, his only public statement was that “both of us were asking for more than the other could give.”

Crunch  has never been unique to Rare and has become a widespread problem as video games have become a multi-billion dollar a year industry. Back in 2006, EA settled a lawsuit for $14.9 million with its programmers and engineers, who argued they were owed unpaid overtime. An infamous blog post by the spouse of Leander Hasty, the engineer who brought the lawsuit, circulated on the web, detailing the 9am to 10pm work days and dreadful working conditions. In 2008, former Epic Games president Mike Capps was heavily criticized when he said that 60 hour work weeks are expected of all Epic employees and that someone looking to work 40 hours a week would not fit in with the game studio’s work culture.

In her book, Rise of the Video Game Zinesters, game designer anna anthropy details her brief time at the Guildhall program at Southern Methodist University in Plano Texas, which is deliberately structured to get you used to working in crunch time. She writes:

“You’re at school from nine to five. You stay after and do your work with the teams they’ve assigned you to. Late at night you drag yourself home and do your actual homework. Maybe you get a few hours of sleep. The idea behind that school is that you’re always in what the Big Games Industry calls: ‘crunch time’: unpaid overtime.Your masters want the game done by Christmas, so you don’t leave the office until it’s done. This is why people in the industry aren’t healthy; this is why they burn out and quit games within a few years.”

It’s frightening that crunch time is an expectation rather than exception for meeting tight deadlines for big-budget games; that this is the price that programmers, designers, and artists are forced to pay for doing what they love. This quote from Tom Bissell’s review of The Last Of Us seems more relevant than ever:

“From the little I know about game development, I can all but guarantee that the amount of work required to make The Last of Us is basically unimaginable to anyone outside game development. Games with this amount of detail and polish are possible only when dozens of men and women voluntarily elect to damage themselves and their lives for the entertainment benefit of strangers. To work on something — even a video game — for 12 to 15 hours a day for a year is not enjoyable or fulfilling. I have no doubt that to make this game, hair was grayed, health was ravaged, friendships were tested, and marriages were strained. Before The Last of Us, the same could be said of the Tomb Raider reboot or BioShock Infinite or L.A. Noire or Red Dead Redemption or any number of other ambitious titles. What I’m saying is that these glorious games are, in real and measurable ways, born of human misery. “

I’m happy that Rare Replay exists, even just as an archival project that gives a players a window into the evolution of the studio’s design philosophy and their place in games history, but I think it’s also important to highlight the kind of labour that goes into making the games we love.