March 27, 2008

A Theory of Un-fun

I might be willing to accept that all good media are entertaining, if we define "entertaining" to mean that the audience stays interested. But games have historically gathered around the more specific feeling of "fun". Fun implies something distinctly flighty and feel-good. And I think that games' focus on fun has become a limitation.

Warren Spector wrote a fantastic Escapist article about moving beyond fun. He gives a few good examples of other media objects that are distinctly not fun. My examples would be the movie American History X and the YTMND presentation "The Unfunny Truth about Scientology". They're tough to watch, but you don't want to look away.

Games are starting to get there. Bioshock's climactic moment, in which the main character finally confronts Andrew Ryan, is entertaining, but not fun. To give a more interactive example, Mass Effect includes some truly wrenching choices. They're no fun to make, but they're moving.

If games are art, they ought to be able to move beyond fun, and while we're starting to get small examples of this, no game has really embraced it. Mass Effect is still primarily an awesome action RPG. Bioshock is a badass shooter first, Objectivist critique second. I'm waiting for a AAA game that will be unabashedly un-fun. Maybe then the medium can grow up.

March 25, 2008

The Line Between Toy and Game

I've written before about the difference between games and puzzles, and I'd like to make comments on another of Greg Costikyan's distinctions. A game has a goal, while a toy does not. Toys rapidly get boring until you eventually invent a game. SimCity is a toy, but it's easy to add a goal and make a game of it (e.g. build the biggest metropolis).

Video games justify themselves as games by giving the player an explicit goal. Kill all the bad guys. Capture the flag. Get the most points. Put the ball in the goal.

But it seems to me like there's no way to enforce these goals. "Winning" is ultimately decided by the consensus of the players. If the players all decide that the winner is whoever has the biggest negative score, who's to stop them? When playing Super Smash Bros. on stock mode, the game proclaims that whoever survives to the end is the winner, but my friends and I often decide that the winner is whoever had the most kills.

So are all games toys? If I come up with a definitive answer, I'll post again.

March 20, 2008

Squadron, Fleet Command, and Asp

I feel a bit bad about not posting frequently enough, but I figure I can justify it since I've been spending my time making a game. This is my first game project of the year, but it's mostly building on older ideas.

I like "high strategy", whatever that means. Micromanagement is icky. So I found myself fascinated by indirect control. Since I'm a fan of space combat (see my older game, M.E.H.), I experimented with squadrons of spaceships (think "Red 2, reporting in!").

I put together a little demo during summer 2006 in which a somewhat chaotic group of ships would follow the mouse cursor and shoot any targets in their line of sight. You could only control the ships by giving them a direction; they all did their own individual things. I called the demo Squadron, shared it with the community, and forgot about it.

Squadron was still pretty micromanagement-heavy, so when it was reincarnated in 2007. it was paired with an idea for deterministic battles: you'd give the army its orders, then just watch the battle play out. If you lost, you could issue new orders. This concept was named Fleet Command, and I did a lot of ambitious design before I actually started programming.

The realities of programming and playing changed the game a lot. The orders (in the form of waypoints that your squadrons would follow) were open to editing every 10 seconds. This way, you were still architecting neat maneuvers while continuing to interact with the evolving battle.

Fleet Command was pretty good (as judged by the number of people playing it during CS class), but it was extremely ugly under the hood, and finishing it would be a pain. When I finally decided to finish the project about a month ago, I resolved to start over entirely with good design and a totally unrelated but cool new name: Asp.

Asp has already progressed past Fleet Command, and it looks better graphically and in the code. Adding proper menus and structure shouldn't be a problem. I originally envisioned Fleet Command as having a fleet-purchasing customization element, 4 wholly unique factions (each with a full campaign story), and a bunch of other features. That's been reduced to one playable faction, one enemy faction, and one campaign. If I'm sufficiently intrigued, I might go back and add the other features later, but for now I'm just focused on getting a release candidate together.

Expect Asp in the next few weeks.

March 15, 2008

The Decline of the PC

I'm a PC gamer. I insist that this is true despite owning and using a Wii, Xbox 360, and Nintendo DS.

I'm mostly a PC gamer because I grew up on PC games. I never owned a NES, my Genesis broke fairly quickly, and I skipped the PS1/N64 generation. Meanwhile, my mom (a teacher) bought me plenty of educational games while my brother smuggled me the good stuff (Command and Conquer, Starcraft, Civilization 2). I was absolutely at home with installing, configuring, tweaking, and playing on the PC.

And for a long time there were legitimately good reasons to focus one's energies on the PC. Multiplayer gaming, modding, better graphics, and mouse control were enough to convince me that the PC was where it was at.

But despite my history with the PC and ensuing fondness for the platform, I've got to acknowledge that consoles have caught up. PCs might offer more customizability, but they break much more often. Mods and multiplayer are available on the console, and in a more centralized and easy-to-use format. PCs can still offer better graphics, but only at an exorbitant price.

Penny Arcade recently wrote about this. It's getting very difficult for us PC gamers to maintain that our platform really is the objective best, and gamers who care about playing good games above all else are going to end up buying and playing consoles.

Aside from the upsetting experience of being on the losing side of a fanboy war, I don't think that the loss of the PC's supremacy is an especially bad thing. The only danger comes from the possibility of losing good games in the transition. RTS games are more suited to a mouse-based control scheme. C&C3 tried to break from this, but could Supreme Commander switch in the same way? And if not, does that mean that nobody will be willing to make games that deviate from established console control schemes? And if future console generations take the Wii route and don't much upgrade the hardware, will game technology stall?

I accept that consoles are going to continue to encroach on the PC's old territory, but as long as it's still financially viable, and as long as developers continue to release AAA games on the PC, I'll stick with the old platform, if only so that I can use a mouse and justify my SLI rig.