This interview with Jonathan Blow – creator of what I felt was the truly innovative Braid -has been the first thing (of whats to be many, I am sure) that I have read in my new quest to game design that has taught me something new.  Prior to this I had been revisiting gaming mechanics I already knew (but are not terrible to be reminded of) – different types of points (experience, skills, and reputation; given for time spent, tasks completed, and others), metagames, etc.  It was nice to be able to start being inspired.

Adventure Games still Need a Lot of Renovation

Looking Outside the Captain's Quarters

What happened here? Who was the captain and why did s/he leave all this behind?

I was glad to hear a game designer speak on the flaws of adventure games.  As a kid, I played perhaps a half dozen of these, and really wanted to like them.  The concept is beautiful – giving the player a lot of freedom to explore a world and make choices that will affect the future, to solve puzzles without guidelines and NPCs hopping in essentially telling you what to do.  I played Myst for hours (and I admit, needed a little guidance), just to immerse myself in the world; I would revisit that old ship level just to explore hear the sounds and watch the graphics and invent stories in my head of what happened.  Myst did what Russell Davies talks about in his article, Playful, better than most games I had seen before: it gave me a platform to play pretend.  Too many Adventure Games, I felt, either held my hand too much (putting an aura around things I should pick up, or telling me what to use in each situation) or gave me too little to work with.  I’d find myself wandering out, clicking on everything, and then figuring out what to do with it just through process of elimination.  It wasn’t fun, it was a chore.  But I always felt they could be done right, and hearing that other people see the same flaws I do makes me want to do it myself.

Social Games Need Innovation

Dragons of Atlantis

Dragons of Atlantis by Kabam - playing synchronously with people you don't know, and making new friends.

Well, Jonathan didn’t seem to think this specifically – he seems to think they are just plain evil, and not at all social.  I can’t tell you how long the latter has been a thorn in my side.  My first conference was on the creation of the Facebook Platform and where it would go, so trust me when I tell you I have ridden by this beast from the very start.  I do not hate “social games” as Jonathan seems to – I play a handful of them, and understand the audience they target – but I do recognize they are still in their infancy, and have a lot of growth to do.  In the same way that I and many others say that console games need to learn from social games, I think social games need to learn from board games and MMOs.  Jonathan summed it up better than I ever could: “it’s about the game exploiting your friends list that you already made, so it’s not really about meeting people. And it’s not really about doing things with them because you’re never playing at the same time. It’s about using your friends as resources to progress in the game, which is the opposite of actual sociality or friendship.”  I will definitely be using that line in the future.  But I don’t think this is reason for “good” game designers to give up on social games; I think it’s just an area for improvement.  Before reading this article, I thought “No way in hell am I working in social games;” now I feel like that could be a duty, especially since Jonathan mentioned:

The Ethics of Game Design
Here is where this article really started to teach me.  What first drew me to game design was the power designers have over people.  There are so many simple behaviors we as humans still hold from our animal nature; the desire to compete with our neighbors, the drive to collect more than them, the necessity to show it off.  In game design, we become more conscious of the activities that trigger these and make use of them.   Initially, when I thought of apply to ethics to game design, I figured it meant working on things like Jane McGonigal is – gaming for good, to teach kids how to read, or identify bombs.  This left me feeling guilty that I wanted to get into platform or mobile gaming rather than use my skills to change the world.  However, this limited thinking on game design ethics also leaves room for many designers to blow it off: “well, social service isn’t the goal of my game, so it doesnt apply to me.”  But Jonathan brings it down to an even more basic level that resonated with me, and I hope all gamers: “[I ask designers,] Are you trying to take advantage of your players and exploit them? Or are you trying to give them something?…To me it doesn’t matter if people feel like they’re having fun or feel like they want to play the game, because the designers know what they’re doing.”

I may not feel as driven (yet) to create games that change the world, that help impoverished nations or teach children life skills.  But I do want to create games that add – rather than take – from our overall value of life.  I want to work on games that are not just “fun” but that get the player to approach the problem from a new perspective, to experience a different sort of reality, and to perhaps apply some of those lessons to the problems they encounter in their own lives.  I never want to look at a game I have worked on and only measure the money it is earning (which is still an important metrics).  I want to know that it is empowering the user and helping them feel truly accomplished.