Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Deluge: More Game Than You Know What To Do With

Just to warn you, this one's a bit long. I've been mulling this over for a while.

I believe we are reaching a new epoch in gaming development and consumption: I am calling it "The Deluge." Let me lay out the evidence for this shift. Exhibit A.: my desktop. I have legally purchased and been granted access to more games than I can conceivably play and "complete" within the free time available to me. I have a long list of more I am waiting to purchase when they go on sale. As a result, my desktop is piling up with shortcuts I have yet to touch, and my Steam games list is much the same.

I am a gamer, I play games. Why is the current state of my queue unusual? Well, when I was growing up, I could justify the hefty price of a single game (around 40$ or 50$) only about every one or two months. Games like Descent, Red Alert, Diablo II -- high polish titles from well-established developers. I would play these games over the course of a few months and "finish" them, then move on to the next purchase. It was regulated, scheduled, and sensible. The cost of investment was consistent, and felt roughly matched to the return I was getting in time spent.

Today, that same wad of cash will purchase forty games on your phone, probably around eight on the PC if you time it right with an online sale. And these are not just mini-games. If you are choosing with any discrimination, I can ensure you that a few of them will be gems, games like Minecraft or Braid, that offer relatively polished, and very enjoyable content, often in my experience of a higher quality than the big budget titles currently crowding out the shelves at Wal-Mart.

Things have changed. There has been a massive increase in the availability of good games. So what happened?

Part 1: The Pricing Revolution

Games are getting cheaper. Distribution has been streamlined; digital delivery is becoming the norm, and with it all the expense of production, delivery, and packaging has been distilled into a simple file transfer. I would give most of the credit for this change to Valvle and Steam for bringing it to the mainstream, but they are not the only avenue of online availability now: Impulse, XBox Live, even independent websites -- developers have more tools and more avenues for digital release than ever, very few of which require backing by a major publishing group. Word of mouth has become powerful enough to turn a game like Minecraft, a small independent project, into a financial success very quickly, one that founded a new development studio, with their next game already in development. There are other success stories as well: games like Audiosurf, which started on Steam, turned the game's creator into an established entity.

With smaller teams or even individuals creating and publishing games, the margin for profit is much greater. When there are fewer mouths to feed, you can afford to have a more flexible pricing scheme. Audiosurf's "price" is 9.99$, but it has appeared at anywhere from 2.50$ to 4.99$ to every percentage of discount you can name over the course of its existence. Every week on Steam a few games like it will go on sale at a large discount -- drawing attention to the title on the front page, and at the same time encouraging the growing mass of patrons to check back often for the next deal. Staying aware of the deals on Steam, by necessity, makes you more likely to make purchases on Steam: you are exposed to more content, ergo you will discover more games that interest you.

It's is a simple reality overlooked by major gaming publishers that the human brain likes to feel like it's getting a deal. How the main movers in the industry failed to recognize this fact until now is beyond me, but I suspect it has more to do with the distribution outlets than anything else. I can remember walking into a game store and finding that, although there was a "bargain bin," they were usually picked clean and full of refuse titles. Nothing on the shelves was ever "on sale" -- instead, the prices would slowly atrophy over the course of months, from 50$, to 40$, to 30$, until the game fell into the dreaded 20$ range, off the shelves, and into the rejects pile.

Not only does the price decline fail to grab anyone's attention, it's downright insulting to the product. Instead of achieving "classic" status at retail, games went from "current" to "trash bin." I'm not sure if it was over-development (driven by rapidly shifting hardware power) or just plain ignorance. In either case, Steam has taught us that this is not an ideal model. When you want to grab your audience's attention and chop 50% off of a title released just a few months ago for the next two days only, online distribution gives you the platform to do so.

As a result of the newly adopted distribution models, good games draw more attention and can be more cheaply distributed. That certainly means there will be more games in the market, as the opportunity cost of creating them has fallen. But what about the quality? Without a studio full of experts working horrific hours to produce mountains of hand-crafted content, how are the smaller games appearing in the spotlight going to stand up to public scrutiny? That brings me to the other part of the equation: the shifting source of content.

Part 2: The Content Revolution

Games are getting longer. This is happening slowly but surely, as the technology capable of generating and appropriating content is catching up with the technology for rendering it, and as we expand our conception of what constitutes a game, from start to finish. Evidence for this can be seen in the success of games like the two mentioned above, which either generate or outsource large portions of their content: each incorporates what I would describe as "meta-content."

To understand what I mean by this, I want you to think for a moment of games not as delivery systems for an experience (such as "shooting guys," "saving the world," or "driving a car") but as a system for interpreting content. In other words, I want you to mentally split the primary programming framework of what makes the game operate (the conceptual interaction of the player and reaction by the system) from all of the assets the game displays to give that system credibility. From this perspective, all of that data is secondary to the game's main goal of running a system the player can interact with. All that art, texture, architecture and sound is essential, of course, to making a game "convincing," "immersive," choose your buzzword -- but exactly where the content comes from makes a huge difference in the development cost for the game. And while every game needs that general framework to function, not every game need draw its content from the same sources.

To illustrate with real world examples, I want to compare two games: Bulletstorm, a first person shooter, and the aforementioned Minecraft, a sandbox/exploration game.

Bulletstorm is a high-budget title with rendered cutscenes, a cast of characters and accompanying narrative (voiced by industry talent such as Steve Blum), high powered weaponry, and an innovative kill-score system that encourages the player to destroy opponents in creative ways.

Minecraft is a game about placing and destroying blocks, avoiding environmental hazards, and crafting items from harvested resources.

Both games utilize an array of content to engage the player, drawn from various sources.

In Bulletstorm, I would roughly arrange the content data into these groups:
  • Hand-created plot content (dialogue/cutscenes/scripted events)
  • Hand-created world content (3D terrain & structures)
  • Hand-created entity content (enemies, animations, items)
  • Hand-created art content (sounds, textures, and pre-rendered visuals)
  • Procedurally generated combat content (dynamic enemy AI behavior in response to player actions)

In Minecraft, the source data could be laid out as:
  • Hand-created entity content (enemies, animations, items)
  • Hand-created art content (sounds, textures, and pre-rendered visuals)
  • Procedurally generated world content (dynamically generated world based off a random seed, of near infinite size)
  • Procedurally generated combat content (dynamic enemy AI behavior in response to player actions)

(When I say "hand-created," what I mean is that a human being thought about the context for a given asset as it would be directly presented to the player, and designed accordingly. When I say "procedurally generated," I am thinking of the human designer in a more hands-off role, designing a system to make content presentation decisions.)

Notice two things: first, Minecraft has no hand crafted terrain. All terrain in the game is procedurally generated. Thus, the only development time spent on level design was the time spent tweaking the terrain generation engine. The game can generate an infinite amount of "world" to play with.

Secondly, Minecraft has no plot content. This is where some would argue that Minecraft is not actually a "game," because it does not deliver an overt narrative -- it does not have a beginning, middle, and end. The author himself states that there are indeed plans to add a "non-intrusive narrative" to the game at some point in the future, so clearly it is something he believes would add value. So perhaps asking whether Minecraft is a "game" under the traditional definition is a legitimate question. How do you win? What are the goals? You place blocks, you avoid a grisly death at the hands of zombies (or more often, very high cliffs). Are those qualifications significant? Based on generally accepted norms, games typically challenges the player to achieve some state of completion. Few games are isolated systems that simply respond to input with an appropriate output -- they are designed to entertain the player by directing them towards something.

Here is the other half of the trend: not only are the games changing in how they handle content, but the player's conception of what falls within the boundaries of the game is also changing. Minecraft is only the front-runner of a general trend. It works as a game because, amongst the current generation of gamers, there is a large group that sees meta-gaming, or the pursuit of goals outside of those imagined and defined by the developer vision, as an entirely legitimized part of the gaming experience. Players are more willing to take control away from the developer, to play outside of the game's central direction, and to see games that merely facilitate this form of play as entirely valid forms of entertainment. Meta-gaming and meta-content go hand in hand because of the focus on a player-driven experience.

Consider a more wide-spread trend in a similar vein: the achievement systems which have become so prolific in games today (yes, even in Minecraft). A set of achievements is an easy way for a developer to tack on goals not part of the original game, and entice the player to spend an evening, for instance, ferrying a small garden gnome through territory held by hostile aliens.

Even Bulletstorm, which I contrasted with Minecraft, courts meta-gaming logic in its rewarding of "creative kills" with points you can use for the purchase of ammunition and upgrades, encouraging you to customize your experience and generate your own narrative. It's is a subtle shift, as you can hardly say such achievements or kill-rewards are "meta" when it is the selfsame developer who created them, but it still shows that gamers today ask for the ability to experience play on a multitude of levels. In Bulletstorm, they can be "the guy who saws every mutant in half at the hip" rather than some other type of murderous bastard, and see that brutality rewarded, in a general sense, with currency.

It does bear noting that despite the additional depth this feature adds to the game, the cost of developing Bulletstorm meant that even at its hefty price tag, its sales were not quite enough for it to be considered a success. Compared to something like Minecraft, a game which cost very little to develop, yet which leverages procedural content to give it a depth beyond what could be hand-crafted by any team of developers, the approach of AAA-titles seems out of date -- a high risk, low reward investment.

This brings us back to the original train of thought, which is how all this affects the availability of gaming content. Because developers are increasingly embracing new ways to expand content on the cheap, with things like achievement systems and meta-content, the average game's expected lifespan is becoming longer. When you can eliminate the need to filter additional content through a team of well-paid specialists in level design, 3D rendering, and voice acting, the sky's the limit. And although this may not be accurate for every small independent title -- certainly a game like Braid is full of hand-crafted, linear content, and still manages to efficiently produce a great depth of experience -- the overall trend toward meta-content is an example of how both large and small development teams are creatively using the tools available to them to supply more play time in fewer man-hours.

Which means that I am never going to be able to "finish" and delete all of these shortcuts unless I quit my job and lock myself indoors. For two months. And disconnect my internet.

Part 3: Finally, where does this leave us?

There are more games than ever, they are getting cheaper, to purchase, distribute, and develop, and they are getting longer. Where does this leave us? In a god-damn paradise, actually. Why am I complaining? This is the best time to be a gamer in the history of interactive entertainment. Sure, maybe there are some weak points -- not every smaller project is a hit, and Metacritic is having real trouble keeping up with The Deluge -- but in all, there is more content available to us than ever, and more of us can afford it. Games are more creative and original because that's what it takes to stand out when you're relying on the buzz of conversation rather than the buzz of a marketing engine. And more developers are learning that they can go it alone, come up with a successful independent project, and avoid working conditions like these.

In other words, everybody wins.