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16-02-2013, 01:46 PM #1
Lithander's "How Today's Videogames Miss Their Potential"
In interviews on RPS Bethesda's Todd Howard says: "I think people discount graphics. [...] I do feel that graphics and your ability to present something that feels new, real, and believable puts people in that environment where they can really enjoy what they’re playing."
Obsidian's CEO Feargus Urquhart says: "A lot of the other systems in role-playing games, they all work awesome and people love them. They still need to evolve and move forward a little bit, but what should combat be in that next big role-playing game? That’s one of the things we’re trying to zero in on."
We just need better graphics and a little work on some of a genre's sub-systems, and, voila, here's the pinnacle of what video games can aspire too? Really?
In my eyes their stance lacks all ambition! I can only hope that what the game's industry is "zeroing in" on is at best a local maxima.
I'm not a CEO of anything but here's what I have to say regarding the current state and future of video games.
I wanted to create games for the better part of my life. I enjoyed playing video games but what fascinated me was their yet unfulfilled potential. Hardware was growing more powerful at a staggering pace and games where the only kind of consumer oriented software that would motivate people to upgrade their systems every two years. It was this synergy between hardware and video games that allowed both industries to prosper. We were witnessing the birth of a new medium and I wanted to have a part in shaping it.
Moore's law, the prediction made in 1965 that the complexity of integrated circuits would double every two years, remained surprisingly accurate for over half a century. The improved capabilities of electronic devices changed our lives profoundly. When surfing the net with my smartphone, reading a book on my kindle, depending on amazon, google, wikipedia or the navigation assistant to solve most of my day-to-day problems I realize how technology has advanced way beyond what I could have imagined 15 years ago.
Video Games on the other hand turned into a disappointment. Not because my career plans failed - I have studied multimedia engineering and make my living in the games industry. But the product is not what 15-year-old me would have expected videogames to be like in 2013. Not remotely close. That's a thought provoking revelation for someone that devotes most part of his waking hours to games.
I'm not denying that video games have come a long way. But what improved the most are surface values. And along with the audio-visual quality our expectations rose, too. Just try to play a "timeless" classic again and you'll have a hard time to immerse like you used to. We got addicted to a fidelity level that comes with a high price tag attached. Losing the ability to enjoy our favorite games like we used to is the least of it.
Early video games were defined by their hardware platform. By lack of better options the state-of-the-art is always good enough. But it's easy to imagine how a game would be like with more colors, higher resolution, better sound samples, smaller polygons and better textures! Improvements like that are easy to imagine and easy to sell. And last but not least they are optional, too. Only a few developers dare to alienate the majority of potential buyers by requiring the top-end rig to play their game. The sensible approach is to target some baseline spec and add optional eye-candy to keep the system busy. Hardware vendors adapt, designing gaming oriented hardware aimed to maximize audio-visual payoff. Rendering capabilities become the benchmark for gaming hardware and consequently their owners prefer to buy the games that make best use of it; both games and hardware evolve with a strong development and marketing focus on visual quality.
Iterative improvement of what's come before is the modus operandi of any industry. Hit close enough to what player's know and like, just make yours a little better. Iterating on gameplay mechanics is risky but who'd argue with higher fidelity? Unique selling points beyond presentation are entirely optional.
It's a perfectly reasonable approach for the developer to take. For the industry as a whole it leads into a dead end.
The addiction to high fidelity becomes a limiting factor of it's own. All that high quality content is very expensive to make. Development of a AAA title keeps large teams of specialists busy for years. Millions of investments are at stake in a hit-driven business. Smart money looks for franchise potential. An environment like that doesn't promote taking chances.
Worse, for the sake of quality you rely on content that is very inflexible. Static level geometry, baked lighting, hours of canned animations, hand-animated or performed by human actors, thousands of lines of text has to be voice-acted, too. Don't forget the lip syncing! In a fierce competition you can't afford the player to miss out on millions worth of content just 'cause you want to provide some room for meaningful decisions. So the real challenge is to fake the player into believing he's in control, when in truth every turn of events has been carefully planned and scripted to maximise asset-use. Interaction is predetermined or insignificant.
Of course, there's always a balance to maintain between player and authorial control. If movie-like aesthetics is your goal the current approach makes sense but let's not forget that photo realism isn't required to create immersion. Our mind is capable of forming a mental concept of things not actually present. Media is engaging the recipient on a creative and emotional level by guiding his imagination. On the surface books offer only language encoded in little symbols but the story that unfolds is not constrained by that. In comic books the action takes place between the frames. Our mind provides closure to missing elements. We build an internal model of the fictional world based on the input we receive regardless of how abstract it is as long as we can interpret and integrate it effortlessly. We make predictions and the quality of our experience depends on the accuracy of these predictions as the story unfolds. All parts of a piece of fiction have to fall into place or immersion is broken. Of course there's room for surprises but they have to make sense in hindsight. What happens has to accord to the laws of the imaginary, second world. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken, and you're back in the primary world.
In modern video games, the contrast of pseudo-realism and the emptyness behind it's surface makes suspension of disbelief hard to maintain. Welcome to Uncanny Valley!
At the time I made my career choice I expected games to a evolve towards emergent gameplay. To allow that games need to provide systems for players to engage with that are inherently interesting to interact with. They shouldn't have to rely on extrinsic reward mechanisms (like achievements or, yes, the storyline) to hook the player.
Given that games are unique in how they allow us to interact with them instead of presenting their content in a fixed sequence we can only witness unfolding, the potential of video games still seems amazing. But what matters beyond surface values is that the World we're visiting is forming a coherent, predictable system that always plays by the rules. Tetris meats those requirements but humans like to relate to and interact with equals. I hoped that we would find a way for autonomous agents to be more then shooting targets. Given a simulation that can integrate our actions accordingly there would be nothing to stop us from employing our own creativity to solve challenges or develop real feelings towards virtual characters. This is the key to genuine player agency - everything we deal with today is fake and make-believe, a waste of resources on facades.
Video games were already pretty fascinating and immersive in 1990. I just assumed that they would become increasingly more fascinating and immersive at the same rate as hardware grew more powerful. This is where I erred. It's the same fallacy the led AI researchers in the 60s to boldly claim that AI would surpass human intelligence within a generation: The thought that all the constraints are technology-based.
We still have no good understanding of what intelligence and consciousness are let alone how to simulate it. But in 1997 the chess computer Deep Blue won a match against the world champion Garry Kasparov. Deep Blue wasn't intelligent. He won thanks to sheer number crunching power, a huge databases of opening moves, static analysis of thousands of recorded games and a lot of fine tuning. Eventually the hardware power at their disposal sufficed to compensate for the lack of an truly intelligent approach.
Parallels with the game industry are glaringly obvious: There's "Game Theory" but it doesn't help us to understand the human heart and mind. It does explains a lot about rational decision making so it has it's merritt if you want to understand the current state of global economics which is in large part driven by algorithms and financial models. But humans - they are a lot less rational than economics used to believe. So, as far as video games are concerned we rely on limitted interactivity, canned content, storytelling tricks borrowed from other media, of-the-shelf engines and established gameplay-mechanics to produce endless variations of the same proven themes and genres.
The big players in the industry leave it to the Indies to think out of the box. They've mostly given up on finding new solutions to unsolved challenges. But when the big budgets are spent on producing generic clones, can you expect the Indies with their limited resources to compensate for that? They prosper in niches but pushing the limits on topics like AI is well beyond their scope.
It seems like the game industry has lost it's ambition and ability to evolve the medium.
16-02-2013, 01:56 PM #2
16-02-2013, 02:45 PM #3
I agree, I want games like sentient.
It was totally flawed but it attempted something unique, an emergent world you had to discover and solve things yourself. It was made years ago. It is weird no one attempts even close to that sort of thing anymore. Maybe the players dont want it nor can the developers deliver it?
We still have huge flaws in AI and physics, worlds that have no solidity to them. And its not through lack of processing power or programming ability. You could easily do these things, just the focus is on tesselation and pixelshaders(we still havent got decent dynamic shadows). As if they are just the things that make the world real. AI still doesnt interact with the world and is unable to navigate even at the toddler level.
17-02-2013, 12:53 AM #4
Okay, so to distill all of that down to a few salient points, I presume that this is what you were getting at:
Originally Posted by Lithander
I'd argue against the 90s really being the "golden age" that so many people like to make it out to be. Were there more "innovative" games back then? Yes, but gaming was new. Even then some of the industry heavyweights were Doom, Wolfenstein 3D, Quake, and Duke Nukem 3D, all of which are FPS games. Half Life is a tightly scripted FPS and is considered one of the greatest of the 90s. A lot of the other "classics" didn't sell very well or were largely under-appreciated at the time. People are still making excellent games today that aren't manshoots but they're overshadowed by manshoots because manshoots sell well, and always have. Yes, technical improvements have made old games hard to play in some cases, but that's not just because the graphics were primitive in terms of aesthetics, but in terms of gameplay too. XCOM's interface for example is a mess because it has such a low resolution. Real-time rendering is hard, and compromises were made that directly impacts on gameplay, like draw distance. That's different to something like an old movie where you can accept it as part of a limitation of the time and it can be effectively managed. But in games it's frustrating.
I don't agree on the fidelity arguments leading to linearity... or I've missed the point. Yes, there's an expectation of voice acting etc which can lead to obscene amounts of content encouraging devs to cut corners and reduce the scope of the project. But there's nothing wrong with linearity if the game is good. HL2 is entirely linear, it's one of the most scripted games around, but nobody seems to care. With procedural generation the burden might be taken off artists to keep churning out high quality models for all characters but we're still a way off that yet. Voice acting? There's no substitute for a good, human voice actor, and probably won't be for a very long time. Same with AI - it's hard to make something human-like as I'm sure you're aware, the lack of AI development has nothing to do with a push for graphics over everything else.
Emergent gameplay seems to be a catch-cry around here but the problem is that it's hard to actually design for it. Some might argue that if it's really emergent you can't actually design for it. Games like that can come off as unfocused or directionless, and risk doing nothing well at all. We need sandbox games or games that allow freedom, but you seem to imply that they're inherently superior to linear games and we should drop the linear game designs to focus on "emergent" designs. I disagree, there's a place for both of them.
As for "indies will save us"... they won't, because apparently they like to copy each other, target the casual market, or just keep rehashing the 90s and usually in largely ineffectual ways. Remaking the 90s is not innovative and in some cases it's not even iterative. The number of indies actually breaking new ground isn't particularly significant. Not that there's anything wrong with these approaches (most of the AAA devs don't innovate either, Valve's last innovation was the Portal gun after all, everything else is iterative or nothing new) but the indie utopia of originality extends pretty much only to art. The gameplay? We've seen it all before. Taking a look at Kickstarter even with access to crowdfunding indies still want to stick to safe mechanics and gameplay (because it works, it'll probably sell).
17-02-2013, 02:26 AM #5
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There are emergent games available, and good ones. They are all rather limited in one sense or another. This is because emergent games are really flipping hard to make. New tech doesn't help as much as all that. Designers and programmers need bigger brains.
17-02-2013, 02:36 AM #6
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17-02-2013, 03:21 AM #7
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Money mostly only buys people. I don't think you can solve complexity issues by throwing more people at them. More people just gets you more assets, but your design team needs to be small enough to maintain a coherent vision and to keep all the systems and mechanics straight. Too big a design team and you'll have a diluted mess.
I think a lot of the reason DF works is because there is that one chap with a very strong vision, and those 10 years to iterate endlessly. Do you think it would be a better game with 5 people implementing things and trying to get them to behave together? 10 people? 20?
17-02-2013, 04:32 AM #8
The reason that development studios don't make deep games is because the return on investment is fantastically low for them. If 80% of players only see 20% of your content, then all the time and money you spent making the remaining 80% of that content was wasted.
17-02-2013, 07:19 AM #9
Truth is, the kinds of projects being talked about have always been once in a blue moon things. That's partly because people like to stay with the safe, popular alternatives (with manshoots being the current flavour of the century), and also because quite a few of them failed miserably for a multitude of reasons. Money isn't the issue in the age of Kickstarters and where we've become accustomed to lo-fi indie games (which use it as a stylistic choice these days).
Dwarf Fortress is a terrible example, because the issues with DF is a complete lack of useful documentation and in-game help combined with a complete unwillingness to make the interface better to implement proper tileset support. The community picked up the slack. DF's problems could be easily solved with more community involvement, and it'd be free.
The same thing applies here as you sort of point out - you can throw money at a problem as much as you like but all it does is offer the potential to do something. Unless you can actually make use of that money to achieve your goals, it's being pissed into the wind. Things like AI or emergent gameplay aren't held by in actuality by lack of money, because there's more of it around than there has been in the past. It's that they're hard to make or to get right. Case in point: Trespasser. Cost a fortune, had a lot of technical innovations (few of which ever actually worked right), ended up being a shit game. If they'd had more time and perhaps more money would some of those issues been ironed out? Maybe, but probably not - it was too far ahead of its time and the capacity to do what they wanted just didn't exist. Some issues in gaming can't be solved with a big wad of cash.
17-02-2013, 12:46 PM #10
In the sense that you can grossly mismanage a lot of money down the drain, they're absolutely correct. But that assumes that the money will always be mismanaged. The irony of this is, thanks to their insistence on pinching pennies everywhere, they get exactly the management they pay for, and as such the whole practice is a lesson in self-fulfilling prophecies.
The school system in specific and the public sector in general has been hamstrung by a brain drain ever since the Reagan administration started defunding public agencies. We got unfunded mandates, so agencies which were supposed to keep infrastructure maintained or to oversee a sector of the economy gradually became incompetent - primarily because they couldn't afford to keep educated, trained staff at market-rate wages, effectively turning a public-sector job into a monkish vow of poverty - and this in turn fed into the Republican narrative that these agencies can't do anything right and we'd best not throw good money after bad.
Teaching has become by far the lowest monetary return for a Master's degree one could get - to the point where getting a Master's in education has to be heavily subsidized else the prospective teacher will be awash in debt for much of their professional lives - leading any self-respecting post-graduate student to abhor teaching, and lo and behold educational standards have been slipping since the 1980s.
So yeah, you can throw money at the problem. Money is, indeed, the defining issue of the problem. If you want the best and the brightest to come and solve these "intractable" problems, you pay them as if they were the best and the brightest, not the bottom of the bargain bin.
That said, both your national health service and my public school system are public services. Gaming is a private enterprise, and as such I believe the solutions are somewhat different: Specifically, I believe the problem is profit motive. Sure, you get eccentrics who live in exile in Montana for a decade and come up with a complex system after ten years, but they're clearly not doing it for money. Most everybody else doesn't put in effort because the motive is pre-ordained: Make a profit first, and make a good game second.
As I said earlier, making content for a game that most people will not ever even see is wasted time and money and a cut in profits. Further, I'd say, the extra three to five years or so that you'd have to tack on to development for your magnum opus RPG so as to present meaningful choices for all types of characters in a world where you have relatively free agency (ie: a sandbox with the depth of a narrative RPG) would, even if you could afford it, eventually just hurt you anyway as you lose the initiative to any company that's doing anything remotely similar and has a shorter development schedule. Their game may not be as deep, but your game will be seen as old hat by the time it does come out, effectively punishing you for your efforts. It's economic suicide.
What does this mean for gaming? To me, if you really want to see games with the depth suggested, you petition the National Endowment for the Arts to do with game designers as they do with prospective writers and painters: Give 'em a grant to hole up in some liberal arts commune somewhere for five years and make something worthy of their talents. But to even suggest such is to argue that gaming is a national treasure and should be fostered. Do you think yourself capable of making that argument forcefully?
17-02-2013, 05:44 PM #11
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This is so backward I barely know where to begin.
Public education proved they were intent on wasting the money before Conservative - and by those I mean real conservatives, not establishment Republicans - began insisting on cuts. You want to throw money after 6-figure administrative salaries, free pensions and free health care benefits while the private sector employees who pay for your jobs struggle to get by with half what you receive while also donating to your paycheck? Fine. We will defund you. Since you seem intent on wasting 2/3 of the money going to education on the administration and retirement as opposed to spending it on students and, well, education, you deserve the cuts.
Republicans are perfectly happy funding public schools. They are also perfectly happy providing those same support dollars to the STUDENT and allowing the student to decide where to go to school. As opposed to, you know, having the government make the choice for the student. Which was never their right to begin with. Intelligent Conservatives see government-run, unionized education for what it is: a propaganda machine intent on destroying any opposing view points and harnessing the power of mass indoctrination in order to create a nation of dependents.
Of course this all assumes (wrongly) that public education deserves any funding AT ALL. Which it does not. Tax payer funded education not only gives government a complete monopoly on "the message" (as if Hitler didn't teach us enough about why THAT is a bad idea) it also places a larger burden on those who themselves place a SMALLER burden on society. I have no children; yet I pay more in taxes than people who do. In exchange for placing a smaller burden on society I get to pay for the burdens of others. While they get a rebate.
And part of that funding goes to educate their children. Why? So we can better our collective society by the sweat of our own brows? No thank you. Public schools spend 12 years preparing kids for 4 more years of education. Twelve years. To prepare for four years. To in turn prepare for a job that will then need to train someone AGAIN in order to begin a career. That my friend is the text book definition of Inefficiency. And this all takes place while education throws six figures at principals, offers free retirement, free and nearly free health care benefits, and the most generous vacation time in the history of the working world.
And you're claiming the answer to is throw more money at this sinkhole? No, thanks.
17-02-2013, 05:13 PM #12
Yeah, I'm one of those who believes great work is not achieved by committee.
and game publishers would LOVE to make deep games, which as I understand it are hamster wheels with a hook that will keep gamers spinning in place happily spending money on the same wheel for decades. Examples: D&D, WoW, Pokemon, Final Fantasy. What publisher wouldn't want to own this digital crack empire?
The reason there aren't a lot of "deep games":
a) the hook is pretty tough to think up and put in place, I mean the thought that went into the systems that make up Pokemon and WoW game designs is a masterpiece in itself even if the games are just blatant exploitation. Publishers have no way of knowing whether an untested hook will catch the fish (gamers) or not
b) games like these take time to build momentum through word of mouth, sometimes never reaching critical mass e.g. Warhahmmer board games. When the stakes are so high, publishers are not willing to invest in something that will be cheered on by a couple of pasty faced game bloggers while being ignored by all the teens out there.
Honestly I couldn't care less if a designer couldn't get his/her recycled ARPG game concept funded. We need to move forward and think up new ways of engrossing gamers, not the same rehashed ideas from 1994!
It's fine to complain about FPS games crushing everything else, but the answer can't be yet another "deep roguelike ARPG set in Diablo's Large Intestine!!! LOLOL"
and while people keep trying to recycle old ieas from the '90s, people back then went out of their way to try new things:
It's pitiful that all we get from fans and developers is a push to "recreating childhood memories". When those time were about being new and creative.
These two keynotes encapsulate my sentiments towards the subject:
Last edited by mashakos; 17-02-2013 at 05:19 PM.
17-02-2013, 08:35 PM #13
There's nothing wrong with trying to iterate on old ideas. The PC-only genres of the late 90s died out, not because they had naturally run their course, but because big publishers chose to shift their resources to big console-friendly titles. There is still plenty of territory there for today's developers to mine without just totally copying the old games.
18-02-2013, 11:11 PM #14
A great example of creativity and innovation is Shadow of the Colossus. It took age old gaming mechanics from third person action / puzzle genres and combined them into a unique experience.
The team at Valve did a great reimagining of Gauntlet with Left 4 Dead for example. Show a young gamer a screenshot from both games and it would be tough for them to make out the similarities. Can you say the same for Diablo 3 or Starcraft 2?
Sure, Diablo 3 is a well thought out game with a nice art style, but it suffers from the same problems plaguing the Zelda franchise: stuck in it's ways and unapproachable to newcomers.
17-02-2013, 08:57 PM #15
I liked the game's narration and skill system. But that was only iteration done right.
Btw: nice keynotes!
17-02-2013, 03:23 AM #16
I agree with Todd Howard. A couple of days ago I spent a couple of minutes throwing various objects in Skyrim's water.
I get the impression that when a developer says "graphics" people only think about the look of a game, not the interactivity better graphics can lead to. Visual fidelity is not all graphics are about. I like games where the environment reacts realistically to my input. There are a million abstract games out there. I'm getting tired of these empty shells, and I'm also getting tired of the "imagination is enough" rhetoric.
Would you rather imagine a tank shell destroying a wall in Battlefield? Would you imagine water ripples and caustic lighting in Crysis 3, or would you rather take advantage of them to track cloaked enemies? You think FEAR would be so highly regarded if it had Quake 2 graphics instead of the utter chaos in each battle? Physics don't matter in Company of Heroes? Would Prototype be the same without its on-the-fly transformation, hundreds of NPCs and destructible objects and free-flow parkour? You can turn the new XCOM into a boardgame if you have enough time to waste, but you can't recreate Silent Storm's physics based combat. Look at the progress from Total Annihilation, a great concept limited by the technology of its time, and Supreme Commander. Hell, I think TA actually had a couple of scale upgrades over the years as PCs improved. Minecraft looks shitty but its success is a direct consequence of what its graphics engine allows players to do.
By the way, mentioning the uncanny valley instantly destroys any argument.
17-02-2013, 03:37 AM #17
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18-02-2013, 09:05 PM #18
You can read more here.
Furthermore, even if the uncanny valley would exist, it would be irrelevant. The initial post says:
In modern video games, the contrast of pseudo-realism and the emptyness behind it's surface makes suspension of disbelief hard to maintain. Welcome to Uncanny Valley!
So fucking what?
You want to go back to the Unreal 2 days?
You demand a two decades leap in rendering technology?
You want to pay 180 dollars for a game with a John Carter sized budget in an attempt to leap past the uncanny valley as defined above?
The uncanny valley is a red herring when used in any argument. It's bullshit, it's irrelevant and even if it would exist it would be fixed by the natural progression of technology. As long as its critics stop demanding developers to abandon the quest for realism, at least.
I also hate how the concept of uncanny valley was hijacked by armchair CGI critics.
17-02-2013, 04:14 AM #19
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- Feb 2013
Going off on a slight tangent when you compare videogames to other mediums, video games don't come off that bad at first: the biggest seller of books in recent years is a bondage fan fiction, most major movies are possibly even more stupid explosion fests and outside HBO searching for good tv is a ballache. And just like videogaming other mediums have out of the box ideas outside of the mainstream.
On the otherhand, is there a videogaming equivalent of "1984"? I don't just mean copying the themes of it, but a videogame making an impact that 1984 has on society. Or even just having a videogame with half decent social commentary.
I think sandboxes are the future in a sense, as no other medium other than videogames can do what sandbox games do. But we also need writing in games that bring new ideas to the table, not just ideas borrowed from other mediums.
17-02-2013, 09:17 AM #20
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- Apr 2012
- Kiev, Ukraine
Urquhart quote made me think about the fact that compared to table-top RPGs cRPGs are stuck in 90s. In 00s there were a big push towards narrative and theme-based systems, but cRPGs are mostly about simulating all aspects of a game world with a big set of stats. Which is fine for more open world games, but theme-focused games can benefit form more specialized stats. Actually, we do have such stats, but they are mostly limited to morality and relationship (and survival) meters with a few exceptions like Mask of the Betrayer's hunger mechanic and ME3's Total Military Strength (which doesn't work so well).
But what if, for example, Mass Effect had a meters showing Shepard's stance on non-human races or Council loyalty? It would add more weight to the game's thematic conflict while avoiding "I want everybody to love me" pitfall of relationship mechanics. Or a stat for Normandy's crew resolve in the face of Reapers's invasion or human crew members' xenophobia.
Or it may be a system based on character's psychological state or beliefs and so on. A lot of possibilities to explore.
Another TT RPGs' trend is giving players some narrative control beyond their characters, but at the first glance I don't think that it would work for cRPGs.