Dear Gaming Industry

So, after 22+ years of gaming (give or take 5 for development and growth) I think I get to bitch about the state of the gaming industry. Don’t get me wrong, I am pretty sure that everyone my age and below has written a similar letter; however, being the type to love the sound of my own voice [or the pitter-patter of my keyboard], I felt the need to weigh in. There has been this constant chase for what the next big game will be, what will attract the most people so that we can make the most profit off the game, it’s idea, and its merchandise? Well I’d like to submit to you that the formula for creating a winning game isn’t nearly as complex as one might be lead to believe. I’m going to give you one very simple phrase, and I’m going to stress this for the entirety of this post, so I hope you like it.

The key to a good game is simplicity with the possibility for endless complexity.

For my case study on what a “Good” game is, I’ll be using a few key examples to illustrate that little quote.

  • World of Warcraft by Blizzard
  • Pokemon by Nintendo
  • Minecraft by Mojang

Now, the first most glaringly obvious thing that should stick out to you is that all of these are massive titles within their respective fields. World of Warcraft defined the MMO genre, Pokemon set the Gameboy well on its way, and Minecraft is the epitome of independent game development. So what makes all these games the massive success that they are? Well based on Pokemon and Minecraft, I can assure you the key is not graphics…

Let’s get this out-of-the-way: Graphics do not a good game make

I’m going to proceed to break down each of the 3 games into their envisioned simplicity as well as their actual complexity here in a second, but I want to make something blindingly clear. The people who keep complaining that the key to better games lies in the creation of better graphics are a minority among the gamer population and are slowing the industry down. If I hear someone even begin to bitch about a games graphics, you can pretty much bet that I’ve discounted their opinion on a majority of games. If you honestly believe that graphics are the key to saving the gaming industry, than I suggest you hop right on board and work your damnedest to push some innovation in making graphical composition not take a Pixar sized server farm to render a single character.

Graphics take a painful amount of time to develop and work on, and if you don’t believe me just look at the very shortening game play values of the various games which tout their graphics as the one all, kill all feature. The reason I don’t lump Bungie in on this one is because they actually took the time to create the game even with the ridiculous amount of time required to create the graphics. Most game studios [I’m looking at you Gears of Warm, Crysis, Doom] seem to have this vision that if you make the game shiny enough, it doesn’t really matter what the hell you release, it will all be good in the end.

Now, ultimately my spiel on graphics is based deeply in my personal opinion that Chrono Trigger is still the single best RPG ever made.  OK, well Chrono Trigger isn’t the only game that I hold in a high regard on that one, there are quite a few games that are now seeing their age that even without the nostalgia I will put high above the next Call of Duty clone.

This is not to say that graphics aren’t an important component, quite the opposite, graphics are there to help the user distinguish different aspects of the game, to tell what is what, who is who, etc. They do serve a purpose in a game, and if your game is nothing but gray I’m probably not going to be awarding that many points for originality. But, the graphics aren’t what separates your game from another and they never should be. This would be like a Dungeons and Dragons proclaiming that what makes them different from other games based on 20 sided dice is the idea that they put pictures in their books. It’s an adorable addition, but it doesn’t change the game in any way. It’s simply there to enhance the experience, not define it.

So yes, make your game as shiny as you please, but realize that while you are busy trying to get the water to reflect a person’s reflection in just the perfect light, someone else out there is actually making a game.

World of Warcraft

WoW Logo

My soul...

If you haven’t heard of World of Warcraft at this point, you’ve most likely been hiding under some amazing kind of rock, and quite frankly I’d like to join you. The Game, created by Blizzard Entertainment after they realized that the player created mod of Warcraft 3, DoTA, was doing incredibly well, is an exploration of the world of Azerorth. It sets up and defines many of today’s very basic MMO standards thanks to some help from its predecessors Everquest and Ultima Online. From the use of instances, basic UI design, physics engine elements, Talent trees, etc. all of them have been built around trying to take down the monster that is World of Warcraft.

So what is it that separates the great Satan… I mean WoW… from all of its competitors? The truth of the matter is going to be going right back to that goofy little quote I started this piece off with:

The key to a good game is simplicity with the possibility for endless complexity.

So how in the world does a game involving Orcs, Trolls, Druids, Warriors and the color purple make a good game? The truth of the matter is that WoW can be picked up by anyone of any age. I can sit down with a family of 4; Mother, Father, 16 Year old Daughter, 10 Year old son, hand them all the game and watch as all of them play it with relative ease. The game is incredibly simple [at its core] with 1 through – representing the different abilities that your character can use and anything with a red name being the type of thing you want to click and use those abilities on. It allows players complete freedom in just doing what they want to without any real concern for if they are doing it in the best possible way.

If you want to kill the fire elemental by just stabbing it endlessly, you can do that, and the game is set up to reward you for doing so. If you want to kill it by popping 2 trinkets (I don’t know how, just roll with me) and 1 shotting that fire lord, than you can do that too. The game design is rock solid, simple, and easy for anyone of practically any age to pickup.

Perhaps one of the most important aspects is that the game doesn’t have an inherent gender bias. Now, despite what you may hear from the WoW community, the number of women playing the game is actually pretty large. This is probably because the game offers an aspect that I think a lot of games aimed at females just don’t seem to understand, the social one. Female gamers aren’t all that different from male gamers, but in one respect I will say that a lot of the game industry doesn’t seem to understand that while guys may sit in a basement for hours on end without seeing the light of day, girls like to be social. That is of course not to say that those gender rolls work 100% of the time, but there is some amount of basis for this stereotype.

So, it’s simple and attracts a variety of customers, where is the complexity?

WoW has a ridiculous flip side in that you can wander outside of Goldshire and actually start to get yourself heavily involved with the game as a whole. There is a lot more to the game than running around and spamming the various chat channels, and it provides players who are seeking more with an alternative.

  • PvP at the tournament level
  • UI Modifications / Addon Development
  • PVE min maxing and heroic modes
  • Community Blogs [like the various druid post I make]
  • Achievements
  • Collecting (Anything and Everything)
  • Your very own fashion show
  • Role Playing
  • A sense of community

Above is a highly condensed list of what the game is actually composed of, the various elements that make it more than your stereotypical RPG. But I’d like to pick up on the last one there, because I think it needs to be addressed. Beyond having a game with the possibility for complexity, you also need to be willing to foster the community that it creates. For Blizzard the idea behind this one was simple [and has since been copied ad nauseam in the hope to capture some of that fame], create a message board on their main site for the various users of the game to communicate through. It gave the people who were playing WoW a place where they could go and discuss all of the things that they loved about WoW, and Blizzard has only really upped the ante on this one.

Blizzcon, The Developer Community, the Blogging Community, all of it Blizzard has played a big part in trying to pay attention to. So much so, that items like Phaelia’s Vestments of the Sprouting Seed were placed in the game solely to honor a member of the blogging community. And this kind of thought has always gone into WoW, with things like the memorial to it’s players, or even celebration of the things that brought WoW so much attention [example Leeroy Jenkins]. There is constant work over there at Blizzard to make the community feeling more alive, to promote it, to make it worth while.

But Blizzard isn’t the only company that knows a thing or two about making a good game.

I want to be the very best, like no one ever was, to catch them is my real test, to train them is my cause Pokemon!

PikachuIn answer to your question, yes I did type that from my memory of the song playing as a child. Pokemon is a game released by Nintendo for the gameboy and has done so well that I believe they are planning their release of Pokemon Black and White here in a matter of days. Pokemon has become world-renowned with a variety of TV show spin-offs, games that have made it into other markets [Pokemon Snap] and enough merchandise to kill a small child [quite literally there too].

It is the definition of a successful franchise that just won’t give up without a fight. And unlike other franchises that Nintendo seems to want to milk dry, this one rarely seems to suffer from a  series of “totally out of ideas, remake the last one”. In fact, even when they did just remake one of their versions, they went to painstaking effort to make sure that the game was on a more updated hardware platform, better software, and even bringing the graphical department in to try to make some things clearer.

So what makes Pokemon so complex? What could possibly be complex about a game in which a caterpillar becomes a butterfly? Well… I’ll just let you take a peak at this

Pokemon is a game that is absolutely wrapped in complexity, it’s just that you can make it through the game without ever noticing. Much like World of Warcraft, you can take whatever involvement you choose and still see all of the game’s content. But under that cute Pokemon collecting exterior lies a much more mechanical monster. Pokemon is choked full of ridiculous mathematical algorithms that I don’t even want to begin to explain, but will anyway.

What did your Pickachu kill last?

Did you know that the stats your Pokemon gets when leveling up are determined by the various types of monsters that it killed? Or that in editions like Gold and Silver each Pokemon had a 1-255 (or 8 byte) variable assigned to how happy it was? I’ll go even further to point out that as Pokemon has evolved, so too have the formulas and the ones tracking those formulas for getting the best of the best when it comes to their Pokemon. Just take a peak over here at GameFaqs.

The game was absolutely loaded with the possibility for ridiculous complexity, and why? Because Nintendo knew from the instant that they created the game that they wanted something that would force kids to play together, and to do that they would introduce some form of Player vs Player. To accomplish this they have created 2 versions for every single release of Pokemon, with each version lacking Pokemon that the other version had, and the only way to fulfill that timeless habit of collecting all 150 was to go about finding a friend with a different version of the game. The sinister trick behind this is that they forced a community into Pokemon, they made it so that you would have to communicate with your friends to find out how to get the remaining Pokemon.

Nintendo also went out of it’s way to host events at malls like those tracked here. They allow the players to interact with Nintendo officials and collect some of the rarest and most difficult to find Pokemon (Mew and Celebi). They have also tried to make it easier and easier for players to communicate with each other by taking advantage of the Wi-Fi system present in more modern game boy systems, all in the name of making that community stronger.

Truthfully, it was genius, and it allowed the game to flourish as the definition of a stable franchise. It even went so far as to have its own children’s TV show just in case the game wasn’t addictive enough (In a similar manner, Yu-Gi-Oh took this idea and RAN with it).

I’m thinking about Minecraft

Dirt BlockMinecraft is an independently developed game that could most likely be summed up as a massive Lego block simulator. It allows the player to be plopped down in a quiet little world and be allowed to whatever they want to with it. They could build massive houses, or simply dig a hole in the ground and cower in it, slowly working on a giant golden penis [1]. The point of the matter is that the game has inherent simplicity and complexity built right in. You can punch a tree, or you can build an entire world. And like every other single game on this list, that complexity is more inherent than you might know…

Did you know for instance about the South west rule in minecraft? Much like Pokemon, a lot of Minecraft’s goofy complexity comes from an engine that isn’t perfect, and as such it allows for players to some pretty extreme things in the environment. The player doesn’t feel restricted by the engine, because the engine isn’t actually locked down and perfected enough to counter the player [funny the way that works, but MissingNo is the exact same thing]. There are things like boosters which rely on hiccups in the engine in order to get a minecart to go faster, there are strange properties for water which allow for massively elaborate projects based entirely around quacky water physics.

That’s why I think it took off when it did [namely the alpha]. The simplicity exited with the game’s basic design, and then the complexity existed because the game wasn’t perfected yet. There were so many ways to make these complex patterns to keep the human mind happy and they only existed because the engine wasn’t completely locked down. In fact, if Notch [Creator of the game] were to have his way, the whole booster thing would never have happened. But now it’s become a thing for the game, the schtick of the game if you will.

And of course, like every other game on this list… there’s a community surrounding it. Minecraft does this with the use of its “Survival” and “Creative” multilayer server software. It allows for multiple people to do essentially the same thing that they were doing in single player, but with a chat box.

But I think I’m stressing the same points over and over again at this point

Conclusion

Do you want to make a good game, I have for you a simple formula:

  1. Create a game with inherent simplicity
  2. Add to this game the possibility for ridiculous complexity
  3. BUILD AND PROMOTE THE GAME’S COMMUNITY
  4. Profit

The truth of the matter is that the best games aren’t really all that different from normal games, what happened is the developers go that extra mile to find out what is happening to their game. They make sure they don’t release the game until they are ready, and most importantly they create a game based around a simple concept. It’s all about that first brainstorming session, don’t make a game to simply polish, take a game to polish and innovate. Throw that dart at the and say “We’re making a game based around training small animals” and run with it, let your developers think about all the cool ways in which to catch animals, AND THEN build your game.

To many games are rushed to market trying to imitate real events, and I think that loses why we play games. I don’t want to play a video game as a real life simulator [Save MS Flight Simulator which does surprisingly well], I play it for a dose of escapism, or a way to do things that I wouldn’t be able to do normally. I play games to have fun, but if you want your players to have fun you’re going to have to put a little effort into it.

This has been your weekly rant,

Thanks for Reading – Fullphaser

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