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How Games Are Made09:18 PM -- Mon February 7, 2005

I had an epiphany over mac & cheese a little while ago. It's a little convoluted as usual, but let's work it out together, except with you sitting there quietly and me doing all the work. Here's the thing: imagine if someone wanted to make a movie, and this was their initial plan: "Wouldn't it be cool if like, this helicopter exploded, and the guy jumped out just in time, riding on a missile, and crashed it into the enemy base?!"... That would be a stupid movie. Not just because that's a stupid scene, but because you can't make a movie based on "wouldn't it be cool if..." - a good movie takes a very interesting story, and does a very good job of showing the audience that story. A good novel is the same - takes a very interesting story, and gets it across to the reader in a very well-written fashion. Don't worry, I'm not going where you think I'm going.

Games are not made that way. But games aren't supposed to tell stories, so they shouldn't be made that way. If you have a very interesting story, don't put it in a game, because you're undermining both sides - the linear nature of storytelling precludes good gameplay, and the requirement of interactivity precludes good storytelling. The problem is, games are made based on "wouldn't it be cool if..." theory. And it's just as bad of an idea in games as it is in movies. But the tricky thing is, what is the right way to make a game? What is a game? Movies and novels are ways of telling a story, but a game isn't. A game is, I think (this one I'm not positive on), an implementation of an experience. The game designer has an idea of what he wants the player to feel like, what he's simulating (though it may not be a simulation by any means - Pac Man only simulates wandering a maze eating dots, but still, there is some more 'true' notion of a dot-filled maze that Pac Man's creator had in mind, and the end result was the closest he could come).

So that's why games are made so haphazardly and poorly right now, and with such random success, and why our industry is so immature. Movies did that same thing - originally they had no plots, they were just messing around with different shots and ways of showing things. We're still in that "wouldn't it be cool if" phase. Where we need to be is the place the film industry is. Just as a movie says "I will take your story that sounds so intriguing, and film it in this fashion so that it is very engrossing," a game needs to say "I know the experience I want the player to have, the overall feeling of what they should be doing, now I will implement it in just such a way as to make that experience come across very clearly." You see what I mean? It's the difference between "Man, it'd rock if you had a sniper rifle and could like pop guy's heads off from across the map!" and "This game lets the player feel what it's like to be the ultimate ninja assassin - we'll need to provide a variety of lethal stealthy moves to enhance that feeling, along with suitably dumb opponents so you feel like you're much better at fighting than them." ... or whatever. Point is, tossing things in willy nilly is not an art, or a science, it's just screwing around. Coming up with a goal, with a thing (story for a movie, experience for a game), that you want to communicate to the audience, and then implementing it well, that's an art. I don't mean that your game needs to be a good simulation of something. I've never been a fan of realism! It's not about simulating something real accurately, it's about accurately portraying the experience, the sensation and feelings, that are in your head. Your vision!

There, that's what I think the future of game design is. That's where 'formal' game design is supposed to go. To the concept of designing experiences (something Disney workers have been doing for decades, mind you), and making all the rules, graphics, physics, and sounds serve that experience. Just as a movie cuts scenes that don't help tell the story, a game needs to cut elements that don't help the player feel the experience.

But forget that! I like tossing things in at random and seeing what happens. I'm the Jackson Pollack of video game design. Splatter it on!
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