Saturday, August 13, 2011

Eager Apathy

Or: How Learning How To Design Games has Ruined My Interest in Playing Them

I’ve been trying to come up with a new blog post for some time.  Many people write analyses of specific games or current events.  That’s not so easy for me, seeing as I often know frightfully little about games.  In my frustration, I lost the will to try making a point and began rambling about my nostalgic experiences of games past.  It led me to an interesting question: why do I need to write about my past experiences in gaming?  Why don’t I have anything interesting to say about new releases?

The answer: because I don’t know anything about games.  You see, I’m in rather a strange situation.  It’s actually a bit difficult to describe.

I do have a particular fondness and respect for video games.  I do enjoy playing certain games.  However, generally speaking, the world of games has trouble securing my attention.  For someone who’s trying to gain a foothold in the industry, this situation is far from ideal.  I have a certain duty and responsibility to remain educated and up-to-date on the latest big titles, and I find it strangely difficult to find the motivation to do that.  It’s a duty to myself as a designer, the industry as a whole as a sign of respect, and to people like you who take the time to read what I have to say about games.  If I have no opinions on the world of games, I have nothing to work with.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy video games.  In fact, that’s exactly what makes my predicament so difficult to describe.  I love to design games.  I love the challenge of sculpting player experiences and tying together all of a game’s various pieces.  Likewise, I look back fondly on the video games I’ve played in the past, the emotions connected with beating them, and the social experiences related to their play.  There was a time, probably about five years ago, when these experiences were at their zenith.  Back then, I was still, primarily, a game player more than a game maker.

These days, however, I consider myself a game creator.  I often feel as though my duty to create an experience is greater than my duty to actually experience that experience.  My game experiences aren’t so much new as they are fan-based quests for nostalgia.  Again, it’s difficult to describe, but a good example would be the fact that the great majority of games I’ve purchased in the past 8 to 10 years have been sequels or new installments in franchises I already own.  I can list off all of the games I’ve purchased (or received) in that time period which are my first foray into an IP (dates represent my purchase, not releases):

Super Smash Bros. Melee (2002)
Metroid Prime (2002)
Timesplitters 2 (2003)
SSX 3 (2003)
Resident Evil Zero (Unknown)
Wii Sports (2006)
Rayman Raving Rabbids (2006)
The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (2006)
Excite Truck (2006)
Portal (2007)
Zack & Wiki (2007)
WarioWare: Smooth Moves (2007)
Wii Fit (2008)

In a way, these are the only new games I’ve bought in the last ten years.  Yes, I own more than what’s on this list, but these are the only games that weren’t bought for the sake of name recognition.  I don’t include games based on movie franchises or sports games in this list as they represent recognized names or formats.  Likewise, I don’t include the small number of indie games I’ve played in stints of less than ten minutes.  Thirteen games.  The bottom line is that games just don’t seem to catch my interest very easily.

Oddly, this apathy seems to stem from fandom itself.  No…that’s not entirely true.  The original basis for my “eager apathy” likely stems from two opposing forces I’ve been exposed to – fandom and fanboyishness.  When I say “fandom”, I refer to my general interest in the game industry and in the idea of games themselves.  When I say “fanboyishness”, I refer mainly to my devotion to a specific company: Nintendo.

Fandom is the driving force behind a desire to create games.  Whether you play a great number of games or not, you take to them with enough interest to develop an understanding of what they are and what they’re capable of being.  Fandom is what brings you back to a game a second time.  Fandom is what draws you to learn more – to discover what this fascinating thing is and what it’s all about.  Fandom comes out of positive experiences and openness…

The first video game I ever beat was on my Nintendo 64.  And no, despite Super Mario 64 being the first title I owned for the system, that victory came later.  My first victory presented itself in Starfox 64.  Oh, I remember that day.  How troubling and irritating that final battle against Andross was.  Little did I know at the time, but I wasn’t even fighting the true, “difficult” final battle.  Still, ignorance being bliss, after several unrecognized hours, I rose from my seat, dripping with sweat, to cry out “YES!” for the first time.  I don’t remember for sure, but I think I may have been weeping with joy.

“Fanboyishness” (or “fangirlishness”, I believe I’ve also heard) is, essentially, another way of saying “stubbornness”.  Though it derives from fandom, it lies on the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of its motivations and inspirations.  Fanboyishness isn’t an interest that leads to a desire for more knowledge, but a blind sense of devotion.  It’s a sense of superiority and protectiveness.  It’s a sense of defensiveness against perceived threats.  Fanboyishness results from negative experiences and isolation…

My fandom truly rose to prominence in the transitional era between the first and second 3D console generations.  To serve as the most obvious transition from a Nintendo 64, my next console of choice would be the Gamecube.  Given the rather poor reaction it went on to receive, particularly in a high school like mine, I expended a great deal of effort working to validate that choice in the face of the opposition.  Rather than studying all the industry had to offer, I dug in my heels, defending the Gamecube from those who would deride it.  In efforts to balance what I saw as a rather unbalanced media portrayal of Nintendo, I eventually took to ignoring the competition altogether.

Though that era has passed and I’ve been introduced to more intelligent and level-headed gamers, a part of me has had trouble letting go of the stubbornness.  My mind still filters out information on games I can’t play (by virtue of not owning the necessary hardware).  As a result, I’ve missed out, partly by choice, on a great number of the most popular games of the past ten years.

On that note, there’s another important list I’d like to mention.  These are very, very popular games I know almost nothing about, have never played, or in some cases, have vehemently resisted playing for no real reason.  Now comes the time when you attempt to slap me in the face through the computer for even thinking of calling myself a game designer.

Games I haven’t played and/or know very little about:

The Halo franchise
The Call of Duty franchise
The Gears of War franchise
The God of War franchise
The Elder Scrolls franchise
Any Grand Theft Auto (other than GTA3)
World of Warcraft
Any MMORPG (except a brief stint on The Matrix Online)
Most of the Final Fantasy series
Half-Life 1 & 2
Red Dead Redemption
The Sims franchise
Any Zelda other than Twilight Princess
Super Mario Bros. 3…

The list goes on, but this should at least give you some idea of why I have trouble talking to people about games.  Name your favorite game, and chances are good I’ve never played it.

This ongoing dichotomy of fandom and fanboyishness is just one part of the puzzle, however.  It helped to lay the groundwork for a way of thinking that has inspired further isolation and restriction.  The real key to my apathy lies in an additional result of my fandom.  As a fan, I began to develop a personal connection with the games I played.  No…more than that, I developed a sense of personal responsibility for those games.  In a way, that personal responsibility has turned on itself, changing the way I see my relationship with games forever.

Beating Starfox 64, in retrospect, may have been the experience that really turned me back on to video games after having missed the 16-bit era.  Prior to that point, video games had always been a primarily social experience – something I would bring my friends over for.  But when I beat Starfox 64, I had, for the first time, done it entirely by myself.  Video games were no longer a party piece or a casual pastime, but instead, they represented challenges that could be overcome.  My video games became about me, not just those around me.  Naturally, I wasn’t thinking along these lines at the time, but I get the sense that this could easily be true. 

That sense of personal ownership culminated five years later in Metroid Prime, a game I was drawn to for no specific reason, experienced alone, and beat in a way that became a truly individualized and personal experience.  My resulting fandom is what would eventually lead to my choosing to enter the game design field.  I wanted to know more about what this and other games were, and that quest for knowledge led to my learning how to make video games of my own.

Through fandom, I had made games something personal to me.  They became things that I took responsibility for tracking down, obtaining, experiencing, and completing by myself.  I had taken responsibility for developing my own play experience and the idea of what the game meant to me – the entire concept surrounding a game.  I suppose from there, taking responsibility for actually creating the game was the next logical step. 

So that’s exactly what I did.

Through a seemingly random series of events, I soon found myself drifting into a game design degree program.  I would spend the next four years learning about generating flow, creating assets, working out a crude functionality, and managing the elements that make a game an enjoyable experience for the player.

What I’m now left with is the desire (and for the sake of my portfolio, the need) to conceive and develop new game ideas.  The challenge no longer lies in seeking out the perfect game through research and sampling, but in creating a game of my own.  That sense of wonderment and awe is gone; everything has become concrete and simplified.  I’m no longer able to see games as adventures to be lived or as new worlds to enter, but instead, as collections of elements.  I can admire a game for its presentation and cohesiveness, the cleverness of its mechanics, or the cleanliness of its functionality, but only when I’m able to ignore these elements do I truly enjoy a game.  In looking at games more analytically, I can still admire them, but I can’t really enjoy them.

Before I started making games, I thought more along the lines of “Which game would I most enjoy playing?”  It was a highly personal analysis that resulted in a much wider breadth of knowledge being gleaned from the experience.  “I like this about this game, but I also like this other thing about another game.  Which one would I most enjoy playing?”  Since I hail from a bloodline terrible at making decisions, there could be only one rational solution: “I’ll have to play both!”  Ultimately, the decision was about me, and either way, I’d derive significant enjoyment from the experience.

These days, my conundrums aren’t based upon my personal enjoyment.  I don’t debate over which game I’d enjoy designing more, which I well shouldn’t.  You don’t design games for yourself.  That said, my debate also isn’t based upon which design “the audience” would enjoy more.  As I look back on the designs I’ve conceived over the past few years, the actual question I ask seems to be far colder and, frankly, a bit disturbing.  In the end, I seem to ask myself, “Which design would allow me to most effectively display my utter brilliance?”

I ask it in much the same way that the CEO of a major Wall Street firm might ask, “Would I get a bigger bonus than the other CEOs if I laid off the entire city of Detroit?”

Okay, I don’t find myself literally asking which designs make me look good.  However, as I run words like “innovation” and “immersion” through my head, there always seem to be lingering thoughts of “This would look GREAT on my portfolio,” or “If I can pull this off, I’d look like a crazy genius.”  I find myself with desires to do something insane and seemingly impossible.  They’re delusions of grandeur, mostly, but the point being that I interpret designing games as a personal duty.

There was something personal when it came to choosing and playing the right games.  “I did this.  Me.”  Now that I’ve started designing, that personal connection has been translated to the development process.  It’s a desire for quality and making great games, sure, but it comes from that selfish wish to witness myself doing something utterly brilliant.  “I DID this.  Tiny little Wheatley DID this!”  As a result, I’m often disappointed when I find myself NOT doing something utterly brilliant.

The real issue, though, is that the desire to make games has come to outweigh the desire to play games.  “There’s a new game coming out?  Bah.  I don’t care.  I’m too busy trying to make this one work.”  In other words, I’m wrapped up in my work.  (Mentally speaking, at least.  I have difficulty actually translating my design concerns into results.)  The thing is, I don’t want to be in a situation of isolation.  I want to be able to introduce myself to new games and truly enjoy them again.  Yet somehow, I can’t seem to get over the mental block that tells me I don’t have time to play.  The ghost of fanboyishness comes in and tells me that there are games I shouldn’t enjoy, shouldn’t RISK enjoying, and therefore shouldn’t play.  In the end, it works into a pattern in which I only end up playing three or four new games every year.

I’m not entirely sure why I don’t enjoy games anymore, but I’ve attempted to lay out my best guesses here.  I’ll say it again – it’s not that I don’t still love the world of games.  I love designing, I love the development process, I love the culture, and I love the idea and potential of video games.  What I miss is that spark – that desire to know more.  I miss the need to absorb all that the world of games has to offer.

If you’ve managed to bear with me this long, well done.  You clearly possess a great tolerance for boring personal stories.  Or maybe you’re a kindred spirit.  Either way, I hope you’ve been able to get something out of this.  It’s all I can really think of talking about right now.  As I always wish upon my colleagues, good luck out there, and keep having fun.

That is all.