Electric Dreams, Part 4: The Lost Art Of Dreaming

Electric Dreams is a five-part series about AI, academic research and video games, and how together they’re shaping the industry. Part one on the lost future of AI is here.

The more we play games, the more we forget how much time it took us to learn the mysterious toolbox of language and skills that they require. Mostly we think of this toolbox as being full of things that enable us to do new things, like circle-strafing or that sixth sense that tells you to stuff ladders and paperclips into your pants in an adventure game, but in truth a lot of it actually controls what we think and do. If you’ve ever sat down to watch someone less familiar with games play something, you’ve probably witnessed something along these lines. They’ll do things that you instinctively know aren’t possible – trying to open doors that we know are part of the scenery, or repeating an action in an adventure game when we know it’s always going to have the same outcome. Sometimes when I play with someone new to games, they’ll ask me ‘How did you know that was the solution?’ and the answer is simply because I’ve been here before. On the surface it looks like skill, but in reality it’s a sign that we’ve learned to be obedient. A lifetime of playing games has taught us to be followers, and it is now a major factor in slowing down innovation and experimentation in games.

So far in Electric Dreams we’ve discussed how innovation and artificial intelligence in particular has stalled somewhat, but now it’s time to look to the future, and talk about how to start it up again. In this article I want to turn the spotlight on you, RPS readers, and talk about a culture shift I’d like to see happen to games. A shift from knowing that things aren’t possible, to wondering if they could be. A chance to start dreaming again, to ask big questions so that people have a reason to go and find answers. I think we can do it, but you might need to forget everything you’ve ever learned about games to make it happen.

Why can’t I combine any items I want to solve an adventure game puzzle? Why don’t my companions in Dragon Age actually show their feelings for each other? Why do my choices in Telltale games always end up in the same place no matter what? There’s a lot about games that we’ve just come to accept over the years. Often when we talk about games in this way we throw around words like ‘impossible’ with a depressing amount of fatalism, as if the brief fifty years we’ve spent working on this medium has told us everything we need to know about what can and can’t be achieved. Videogames are done. We can simulate individual strands of hair on Lara’s head, that’s new, but everywhere else it’s just a bunch of technological roadblocks. We’ve been taught that this is The Way Things Are and that we should be grateful for our 120FPS bulletfests. You can open doors yourself in the latest Call Of Duty! If that isn’t progress I don’t know what is.

These technological barriers that we’ve come to accept as part of games aren’t even that difficult to break, in a lot of cases. Researchers in Copenhagen and New York have both looked at building point-and-click adventures with replayable puzzles that redesign themselves each time you play, for instance. Others have looked at giving RPG characters emotions that affect how they behave in battle, protecting their loved ones, becoming distraught if they see close friends die. There’s a huge community of researchers looking at how to build better, more interesting and more complex interactive narratives (there’s even research into why some choices feel more meaningful than others). A lot of this kind of research is early work, and much of it never finds its ways into the hands of the right developers, but these are not outlandish, unreasonable questions. They’re not even close to unreasonable. Compared to the kinds of innovation we regularly celebrate in games, though, they sound impossibly futuristic.

Back in early 2014, Polygon ran a piece about ‘2014’s Most Innovative Games‘. It’s now a fascinating piece to read, as developers attempt to explain why their games are innovative, and most of them fail completely. Over a year later, many of these games have flopped on release while others have descriptions that seem anything but innovative. The Elder Scrolls: Online boasts about having ‘200 players on the screen’ even on low-end machines. Destiny’s developers reel off a series of existing game ideas that they’ve just decided to cram into a single game. Telltale’s description of Game Of Thrones could just as easily be applied to any game they’ve made in the last three years. Why do we seem to gravitate towards certain kinds of innovation, even when they amount to incremental nudges forward?

The article continues on page two.


  1. Blackcompany says:

    A lot of what’s mentioned here are reasons I am drifting away from video games as a hobby or even as a passing interest. Sure, games look different now than they did ten years ago. But they rarely play any differently now than they did then. This is especially true for larger, AAA games, of course, but it remains a problem throughout the medium. You play one shooter or ARPG, and you’ve almost literally played them all.

    In response to this, some might claim that this is untrue because each iteration of the shooter or the ARPG or even the Tale Tell Choice-em-Up introduces a different story. New characters, settings and choices abound, they will claim, and so, this is a different game. Except…its not. Not really. Despite these eye candy changes you’re using the same mechanics to perform the same actions and largely receiving the same (type) of results as in previous titles from the genre. This is not, mechanically, a new game; imagine what would happen if the makers of board and card games did this. And yet in the realm of video games we accept it as perfectly normal to recycle mechanics for literally decades with barely a thought toward innovation.

    And its slowly killing the medium for me. I’ve books and shows lined up on wish lists that will require years to consume. And I still wont get round to all of those wonderful, creative, unique worlds I want to explore even so. To say nothing of the wonderful, innovative board and card game spaces flourishing underneath our noses these days.

    And yet, here we have video games. Largely doing what they’ve been doing for the past two decades. Doing it prettier and shinier perhaps. And certainly larger. And possibly even better, than before. But still doing “it.” “It” being, of course, largely the same thing they’ve been doing for the past ten or more years. All the while trying to convince us that innovation abounds, that each drab corridor we walk down, each trigger we pull and each level we gain are part of a wholly and completely new game experience when, mechanically, they’ve all begun to blur together in the minds of all but the most well conditioned consumers.

    Sorry. I have other, more imaginative means by which to be entertained. I have games in the physical space of board and card games whose makers care enough to innovate from one title to the next. Movies and books and television shows whose writers care about the stories they tell enough to put some real soul into them – and whose stories are not constantly at odds with the methods I use to consume them. To put it bluntly, as I grow older and my free time declines, I am discovering that I have far better things to do with said time than spend it wading through the mostly stagnant swamp water of a waning medium whose creators constantly play to its biggest weakness in the mostly vain hopes of finding that truly innovative title.

    So yeah…video games are wearing thin for me. I think the real reason Neo had to die was because in the end, you find out its not really much fun being able to see the lines of code that mark boundaries of the world you live in, as opposed to the beauty of that world. And that’s where I’ve got to with video games – i just see the game play now, not the story or the world or the character.

    And game play. Game play never changes.

    • pmcp says:

      I couldn’t disagree more. Yes some AAA games are formulaic, but there is so much exciting stuff going on at smaller scales. It’s like in music the charts are full of the most boring unlistenable shite but it has never been easier to find exciting innovative music. Unlike music though, I think it’s possible for some of the interesting indie stuff to cross over and for innovations emerging in alt games to be carried into bigger titles.

      • Blackcompany says:

        I dont disagree with your statement, either. I am very much aware that there are games and developers who are exceptions to the general rule that is a lack of creativity or innovation. I just bought Ironcast last night because it departs so much from mainstream Match 3 type games, in fact. The medium is not without hope.

        Or is it?

        Indies can do a good deal for video games. But the big publishing houses – the ones with the money to move proverbial mountains in this industry, to really innovate if they chose – seem determined to stagnate instead. And perhaps its the fate of AAA gaming to repeat the endless cycle of rising from the ashes of past stagnation only to burn out once more. Perhaps it is; but it does not have to be, and I find that…depressing. Knowing they could avoid that fate and are simply unwilling to risk a little in order to avoid long term demise. Its so very…human…of them, that desperate need to avoid risk. A stark reminder of how human this sometimes otherworldly hobby really is at heart.

        But I digress. You are correct in your assertion. There’s still lots of hope, flicking light gas light in the shadowed spaces where the AAA light wont shine. And some of that – permadeath, invasions – is making its way into larger, big budget titles. Its a slow filtering of innovation upward from small to large, but its hope. Small hope, but its better than nothing. Time will tell.

        So yeah…not completely without hope. But the industry is also a far cry from the entertainment juggernaut it could be, if only it would embrace the fact that these are not movies but games and focus first and foremost on making a good game, as opposed to shoehorning a mediocre game into a bad movie.

        • Arren says:

          On the contrary, the industry continues to solidify itself as an “entertainment juggernaut” — and the profiteering mindset that goes along with its ever-escalating share of the biz exerts a perniciously limiting influence on innovation.

          In this, games become more similar to other forms of big-money media: the precise opposite of your claim. Dreck is shoveled out incessantly in blockbuster movies, supermarket fiction, and Autotuned jingles dispensed from the hitmaking image-factory.

          Yes, AAA games are dominated by risk-averse iterations on prior successes — but no more so than effects-laden spectacle films, or other commercially elite content. When big money’s involved, the bean-counters call the shots, and as a rule their dictates are diametrically opposed to innovation.

          • Blackcompany says:

            Well said. Very well indeed.

            Because of the smaller indie studios its an industry in which innovation both does exist in spades and is far too rare a thing at the same time. Smaller studios will innovate, though usually only until they find that formula that sells. And occasionally innovation from the small studios creeps into larger games. Survival games and invasions a la Dark Souls come to mind.

            Still though, mainstream is indeed opposed to innovation and the risks inherent with it. So while some small hope for innovation does remain in the Indie space I dont have a whole lot myself for the big boys on the block.

    • Mike says:

      Thanks for taking the time to write such a long and thoughtful comment! I think I agree with some of what you say, but also I’d count boardgames as one of the spaces in games that are pushing innovative ideas and testing out new ideas. I think there’s a lot of overlap between video- and physical games (I think I often conflate the two mentally when I talk about games). So if you’re enjoying board and card games that’s great – hopefully we can see more ideas exchange between the two areas in the future!

      I’m incredibly optimistic about the future of games. V21 writes on their blog (link to v21.io) “Which future of games is correct? All of them. No platform/genre/style/whatever ever really goes away, it just gets more niche.” – there will always be great things that you like to celebrate in videogames, even if you have to look harder. I think we can make the medium better than it is today though!

    • AskForBarry says:

      We’re telling the same stories today as we did 1000 years ago. The only thing that has changed is the package they come in.
      So following your logic, stories in general should become more and more uninteresting.

    • MikhailG says:

      Well, I’d agree with all your points if you wouldn’t have used books and shows (I presume TV shows) as a counter argument. The thing is all of these mediums have kind of the same issue that’s rooted in capitalism: the big selling well known titles outshine everything else. Who innovates and brings fresh new interesting things to the table? Not the big names. You won’t find innovation at EA or Ubisoft, but with some indie titles (again excluding a bunch of copycats who want to ride a specific bandwagon of success) are doing things and bringing back the good feeling of exploring a new system/gameplay/story. Is it sadly rare? Yes, but I can say the exact same thing about shows, movies and books and music and anything.

      If anything, I feel the exact same way as you do about TV shows, it starts blending into the same story arcs and characters I’ve seen over and over. Just thinking of for example the comedy genre, when I start listing good shows of recent its like: Friends, Community, uuh thats it? I understand you feel the same about games but I feel this is a more personal preference of yours than anything to do with actual development of the industry.

      That said, triple A is doing their best to stagnate the medium as much as possible it seems these days.

    • Jimsoon says:

      Blackcompany and Mike – some very interesting thoughts from you both to mull on. Just wanted to comment on some things you mentioned, see whether you differed or we’re in the same groove.

      In terms of board games, while I must admit I don’t have an enormous amount of experience, it seems like an industry that has a place for both styles – the dominant, potentially repetitive “re-brands” (e.g. Snakes and Ladders or Monopoly, which hasn’t been changed for about 100 years and the biggest innovation was using it to hide stuff inside during World War 2) and more innovative games (I’m afraid I cannot be sure of a good example here, showing that I am more in the Candy Crush pool of board gaming – perhaps Pandemic?) which present more interesting and maybe more sophisticated options. However, the broader criticism could still be leveled at that medium – which ones ask “Why do we need to do this on a board? And if we don’t use a board, how far away from it do we go before we stop being a ‘board game’?” You’re starting to get into an area where you’ve stepped away from the medium and are looking at what you actually are after when you sit down to play a game.

      A further tangent (and apologies to Mike for going further away from his original post), but you have games like football which does change, but in minor jumps – for example changing the number of points for a win from 2 to 3, which is more like a balance patch, or adding goal line technology, perhaps more akin to patching out an exploit. The underlying game does not change drastically; what changes are peoples’ approaches, their tactics, the personnel, the financial clout of a club. Perhaps here what we’re after is the human interest, the tribal confrontation, the pleasure of seeing exceptional skill, akin to esports like CS. Yet even these minor changes face a lot of resistance from the establishment – when you have a stake in whatever it is people are trying to change (society, sport, an industry) you are inevitably going to resist changing what safely benefits you in favour of taking a risk on something else, as you, Arren and Mikhail mention. If the search for stability is something systemic, if you are seeking change, if you are dreaming for the impossible in order to see how far towards it you can go, you have to break down that system and replace it, or else ignore it. The things in place that you have all mentioned: individuals working outside of mainstream studios in their spare time, or in independent studios, or coming over from other industries, these all exist and have allowed a great deal of “different”, or “innovative” games to arrive in the more mainstream – I don’t know if they seem innovative now, but Portal was a massively different game to anything I had played before. We will inevitably have games that tend towards the football experience – I love doing some things over and over and trying to get better at them – but we also will, and do, have games that do random crazy stuff, both brilliantly and awfully, and some of that will, and does, spread into the mainstream.

    • graspee says:

      The biggest problem with games today for me is that publishers, developers and even hardware manufacturers are striving for ever greater realism; you mentioned individual hairs on Lara’s head. That’s the kind of thing.

      There’s a disconnect between the level of the graphics and the gameplay. A survival game will look stunning with dust motes, bumpy bark on trees, sun shafts and individual blades of grass waving in the breeze, and yet when you “harvest a tree” you’re lucky first of all if you even see it falling down rather than just having a chunk of the tree disappear, leaving the tree floating, but then you instantly have a little bundle of logs tied up in your inventory, and visiting a workbench will enable you in 5 seconds with progress bar to make a chair. It simply isn’t realistic.

      The graphics are at a super high level of next next next gen. but the gameplay is still stuck in “you have 3 of itemtype log. You can craft a chair.” or “you have item knife, you can use action key to skin corpse”.

  2. cybernomad says:

    Reminds me a lot of the punk games article on offworld in asking for more than comfortably incremental innovation. And I would like to see a lot more radical and experimental stuff. But in my opinion what you ask for can only be of interest for an open minded minority used to getting out of their comfort zones. In my experience people mostly want to relax and escape using videogames or any other medium. The same millions of people who watch blockbuster movies with established visual language and next to no story again and again play games with established mechanics and next to no story again and again. And that’s what they want because it helps them to sedate themselves and to forget their stressful daily grind for a short time. And that’s totally fine (even if I die a little bit every time somebody tells me how awesome the newest Transformers movie/abomination is).

    Our best hope for more innovation in my opinion is more diversity in general in fans and creators which should lead to a much broader mainstream which in turn should lead to more fringes with more experiments and more radical ideas. As long as the majority of the creators and fans are of a very homogeneous social background the ideas circulating will be very homogenous too.

    So I don’t think asking the current community (especially the already above-average open minded RPS one) to get more innovative is gaining much. Instead we should ask others who are currently not involved to participate in our favourite pastime. We should be recruiting and welcoming as much people as we can. At every chance we should talk about how gaming can be so much more than fancy shooting gallerys and grinding simulators. When we get the same diversity of people currently interested in the medium of film interested in the medium of games then we get the same level of diversity of ideas. Even if the mainstream demands blockbuster after blockbuster there are more than enough fans and creators willing to experiment with new ideas.

    • Premium User Badge

      garfieldsam says:

      That’s actually a really good analogy.

      Given that we live in a world where Hollywood blockbusters have iterated themselves to the point of banality, how has really radical and innovative film been able to develop? That could provide some insight as to how to develop more space for innovative gaming.

    • Mike says:

      I strongly agree, and I’m very excited about the punk, alt and other communities. I love them and I think diversity in audience, creator and critic is super important. Everything I’ve seen in research so far tells me that more things and people and ideas overlapping is always better, always.

      Also I don’t want to come across as being negative about comfort zones. We all need comfort zones, blockbusters, we want more of the same to relax to and enjoy. I am replaying RPGs from my childhood right now, and there’s nothing new to be had there. I hope we can find new things in the future as well, though, to make sure we don’t get too bogged down in reliving the past (which is increasingly easy with Kickstarter these days).

  3. Premium User Badge

    garfieldsam says:

    Another awesome post, Michael.

    One question:

    You seem to imply that one of the main avenues by which we can ask for real innovation is through processes like Early Access, where the community of gamers gives feedback to developers as the game develops. But, being familiar with how software development works myself, the broad spec and feature backlog of a project are probably already fleshed out at that point, and (for good reason) if the project is managed well, the team won’t be able to commit to anything radically outside that without compromising budget or time.

    Are there any mechanisms by which the community can demand real innovation at the stage where projects are imagined, ideated, and specced? That seems like the place where the biggest impact could be had.

    • Mike says:


      One of the things I mentioned in my Videobrains talk is interacting with developers who are chatty about what they do. Hashtags for jam games and #screenshotsaturday show games that are in development right now, and developers love it when people get enthused about their work! I’m not suggesting you go out there and constantly make demands over their shoulders while they work, of course, but I think getting to know developers who are very open about their development is a really great thing to do.

      Of course, just being enthusiastic about new things is also great – spend an hour a week scouring itch.io, TIGSource forums or Twitter and finding out new and experimental ideas for games. Champion them, tell people about them, show support for people who are pushing boundaries. Here’s a freebie: Lenna’s Inception by Tom Coxon and now Chucklefish, is a procedurally generated Zeldalike game with generated puzzles, overworld maps, and more: link to lennasinception.com I think it’s great, and more people should know about it!

      Thanks for reading :)

      • Premium User Badge

        garfieldsam says:

        Ooh good resources. I am bookmarking itch.io and TIGSource now!

  4. BrickedKeyboard says:

    Before you can successfully construct a game that explores another part of the solution space, you need to answer and thoroughly understand two basic limitations :

    1. Content for games is and always will be expensive. Whether we are talking about artwork, sounds, storyline, scripting, etc, it’s going to be one of the biggest costs. Making the content to a shitty level of quality so you can have more of it, the approach certain indie games have tried, doesn’t work so well – it just makes the whole game shit.

    So, all these game designs that have stood the test of the marketplace generally have to be constructed to make efficient use of a limited set of content.
    This is why FPS games have all those locked doors.
    This is why games with a storyline try to limit the permutations and have a “critical path” where nearly all of the game’s content will be shown to all players who finish the game.
    This is the reason many games force non-interactive scenes. This is so the player cannot choose to turn their viewpoint away, walk past an NPC who is talking, etc. Giving the player that option means they will miss some of that hyper-expensive content.

    Want to design a new game? It better be extremely efficient with the content – especially if you’re designing an indie game.

    2. Players play games for a variety of reasons, but certain reasons are more satisfying gameplay than others.
    1. Surviving in a truly hostile world
    2. Shooting your enemies
    3. Being able to construct something creative to solve a problem
    4. In general, feeling powerful. The more powerful a game makes the player feel, the better.

    A lot of experimental indie games have been tried, but they frequently fail #1 or #2.

    If you notice, though, there ARE several games that have become smash successes despite being hugely different than anything before them. The open world first person shooter/survivor with perma-death (dayZ and clones), and Minecraft.

    If you want a successful game that does new things, I think this is the solution space to search. 7 days to die happens to simply combine the 2, but there are a large number of radically different games that are possible within this vast solution space. You need an open world, you need procedural generation (to solve the content problem with #1), you need a game environment that is difficult to survive in, you need players to have the power to build things, you need lethal FPS action.

    • Premium User Badge

      garfieldsam says:


    • Arren says:

      4. In general, feeling powerful. The more powerful a game makes the player feel, the better.

      Not that you’re wrong about the lion’s share of successful games to date, but enshrining the empowerment fantasy as a precept is limiting in the worst way. Amnesia and Alien: Isolation — to name two exceptions — defied this maxim to great effect (and commercial success, to boot).

      Personally, I think power-tripping in games is analogous to magic in fantasy fiction (or herbs in cooking, for that matter): distinctive and delicious in moderation, but tiresomely overbearing in excess. The ceaseless barrage of loot-piñatas of ARPGs, the preposterous endgame treadmills of MMOs, and the glut of unlockables in recent FPSes all speak, to me, to the empowerment fantasy run amok.

      YMMV, of course.

      • BrickedKeyboard says:

        The player needs to have actual power, not just perceived power.

        “perceived” power – player can cast spells or use guns that use nuclear warheads or big flashy spell effects, but in actuality they have no effect on the environment and many enemies can tank multiple hits.

        Actual power – the world itself can be edited.

        This is one reason why Minecraft, poorly written indie game that it is, is so popular. In Minecraft, the player may be a poorly drawn guy who can only swing a pick, but he has absolute power over the world from bedrock to the top of the sky.

    • Quirk says:

      There is something else I feel is worth saying related to the expensiveness of content, and players being used to expensive content.

      The simpler and more abstract the representation, the more work the player does to build the story. I’d argue that this is how much “emergent” gameplay arises: the details are left somewhat vague, and the player can construct a tale round a few basic facts.

      To consider a simple scenario: A blob we control meets another blob. The second blob takes something from our blob. Our blob feels sad. (Perhaps we represent this with an abstracted facial expression: a downward curve beneath two dots).

      Transfer this into the world of expensive content. Dialogue is necessary. Dialogue needs nuance and skill to write well, and even well-written dialogue can suffer if acted poorly. Facial expressions jump from the level of the emoticon to mimicking the complex interplay of muscles under the human face. Writing a cutscene in which a character is robbed without veering into cliche or breaking player immersion is very difficult; trying to fit it into the free form flow of a game can be much harder.

      Procedural generation cannot solve these high fidelity problems. AI, similarly, benefits from the shelter of cruder content, where it will be forgiven for its clumsiness.

      If we are going to be more demanding about the range of things our games can portray for us, we are going to have to let up some on the quality of the content.

    • Mike says:


      Thanks for replying. I think I disagree with almost everything you say, but you put it very nicely :) Let me try and explain why:

      1. I think you’re wrong about content. You’re right that content is expensive, but procedural solutions can work, and do. Part of my argument in Electric Dreams so far is that problems always seem impossible until we solve them. The idea of having thousands of unique, perfectly placed trees would have seemed incredible once upon a time, now it’s a middleware solution used by just about everyone (SpeedTree – link to speedtree.com).

      I know why FPS games have locked doors – my point is that we obediently accept that this is the only way it could possibly work. We don’t think about more intelligent solutions – better procedural content generators, systems which can design rooms intelligently and autonomously. SpeedRoom. SpeedCastle. SpeedWhatever. Instead of dreaming of a world in which this is possible, we sit back and accept that this is the only way things could possibly be. But I don’t think that’s the case at all! (I even gave some examples of people solving some of the problems you mention)

      So I can see where you’re coming from, but my point is let’s change our mentality. Instead of being defeatist let’s shoot for the moon and dream of solutions to these problems, then see if they’re feasible.

      2. I think this is highly personal to you (and probably a lot of people who play games) but not universal by any means. You can play a game for just about any reason you can think of. The question is whether games exist that allow you to have that feeling/reason fulfilled. Most of the time that’s not true. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. There are no games for group X -> group X don’t buy games -> no-one makes games for group X. This is a cycle we desperately need to break.

      • Quirk says:

        Procedural content is of necessity extremely limited when it comes to the bits that actually matter. It’s great for terrain, realistic water, trees – but only when it’s background, window dressing, unimportant to the impact the game is trying to have.

        Mostly this is simply because design is complicated, and what human beings find interesting and artistic is not reducible into trivial algorithms. If we take a field of AI we understand really very well – chess – and got a computer to generate chess problems over and over again, mates in 2 and 3, we’d find most of these chess problems were from a human point of view extremely dull and obvious. We’re moving from a very tractable computer problem – searching a statespace – to a much less tractable one – knowing what human chessplayers find easy and what they find hard.

        Similarly, while you can generate plenty of terrain in a procedural way, understanding what makes a point in that terrain interesting to a human is a lot more difficult. Humans are amazing at pattern-matching, and computers are not. The computer risks being dully repetitive from the human’s point of view, enumerating on fairly obvious themes.

        Generating an interesting location in a game is harder than generating an interesting chess problem, for the chess problem is at least tightly bounded. It’s harder because the space of interesting solutions is both more and less constrained than an algorithm can deliver. More constrained, because e.g. having a tree growing inside an inhabited house confounds player expectations and leaves them seeking explanation; less constrained, because a human designer may use extensive knowledge of the real world to add appropriate items on a one-off basis that an algorithm cannot reasonably know about.

        • Jimsoon says:

          But making a larger, realistic world is not really that innovative is it? The innovation there is in how you get there with current limitations (budget, computing power), but fundamentally if you’re just making an infinite level of Doom you’re just repeating the past – and isn’t that the issue raised by this article? We’re accepting that we want to play Doom, just in a bigger space, with “200 players on screen even on a low spec PC”, when actually, I haven’t wanted to play Doom in years.

          • Quirk says:

            If we did just want to play Doom with 200 players on infinitely large levels, procedural generation would be there for us. That’s one thing it does well. Where it falls down is creating a level people want to play deathmatch on; the traditionally tight crafting of iD deathmatch levels would be replaced by design which was literally (yes, literally) formulaic.

            However, if we want to take off in another direction – perhaps to expose some kind of narrative, or to experiment with new mechanics – procedural generation often cannot help very much. Its locations are haphazardly put together, and weaken any narrative that attempts to depend on them; mechanics may founder for a while in environments which either offer no room to employ them or which necessitate their over-use to the point of ludicrousness, depending on how the random seeding has bunched things up.

            It fares reasonably in the world of the survival simulation, where a little uncertainty and hostility toward the player can make the game exciting, in the way gambling is exciting, and by preventing the discovery of any sequence of perfect actions that could make the game repeatable and dull. Simulation in general profits from some level of procedural randomness to lend it life. However, the higher fidelity your demands for representation are, the more likely procedural randomness is to fall short: if it’s hard to deliberately make an NPC which can hold a conversation with you, it’s next to impossible to generate a large variety of such NPCs randomly.

          • zipdrive says:

            Reply to Quirk:
            You’re saying that procedural generation (PG) has some limitation in appealing to human sensibilities and therefore content cannot be made procedurally?
            Why can’t the pattern of corridors in an FPS be created largely with PG with a few set-pieces done by hand? Why can’t PG create all the rooms in an office building (which largely look alike anyway), thus avoiding the locked door syndrome?
            Why can’t Dwarf-Fortress like PG generate sensible-yet-uninspiring conversations in RPGs for every generic NPC you meet in the street?
            These are all tasks which aren’t scrutinized deeply or have to be exquisitely detailed.
            In addition, your comments do not jive with the success of PG game levels such as those in Spelunky or Frozen Cortex, or the accidental beauty you can get in Minecraft. The fact that Firaxis chose to forgo PG for XCOM levels doesn’t mean it’s impossible to get right – just that we’re not there yet.

  5. necurbanapauperem says:

    So you guys have already covered much of what I wanted to say, largely before I’d fully thought it through but as I created this account just to comment on the excellent article above I will make the one point about board and cards games innovating ahead of video games,
    As the article mentioned needing new communities who play, I’ve found so many more people are willing to play board games like Battlestar Galactica and Dead of Winter because of the co-op and traitor mechanics. Caverna/Agricola or Alhambra create all sorts of strange inter-player alliances and reactions to the gameplay. Few video games combine possibilities for the full range between cooperative or antagonistic play. It’s all either work together vs the computer or full out PVP. Maybe its a function of how we play, sat at our computers at different ends of the earth.
    Then again i’m also not so disenchanted with what I do play on said computer. Starbound, Dwarf Fortress and Chariot occupy between them so much of my time at the moment.

    • Mike says:

      I’ve been really captivated by board games the last few years, although I almost never get to play them. I read a lot about their design and I’m always willing to sit down and listen to someone describe a play session – the design inventiveness is really impressive. I think there’s a lot that could be transferred to videogames, and they’re also more accessible, as you point out. The social aspects, the group of friends, and the lowered setup complexity (in technical terms – obviously lots of games are awful to set up!)

  6. Thirith says:

    “Why do my choices in Telltale games always end up in the same place no matter what?” While I understand why some, even many, might feel like that, it’s not how I experience the choices in these games at all. As cool as it is in The Witcher 2 to make choices that lead to big differences in the story, I find such choices and the resulting consequences rather… mechanical, for want of a better word. They make me more aware of the author’s control over the game I’m playing, because I don’t feel I own the consequences, for want of a better word. They feel like the branching storylines in a Choose Your Own Adventure book, already written and waiting for me on p. 273 instead of p. 144.

    While the choices in a Telltale game don’t change the plot in any major way, they change how I relate to the other characters in the game, how I feel about them, and how I feel about my own actions. I may end up in the same place, but I see that place with different eyes depending on how I’ve treated the people around me. These choices feel meaningful because they’re choices about who I want to be (or who I want to enact in the game). They feel internal to my character, whereas to me the choices in The Witcher feel external to the character. I make them based much more on a meta level: “I want to see that side of the story now, rather than this side.”

    I’m sure that others have very different reactions, and I don’t have any issues with that, but it’s where I put the emphasis: the more the choices in a game are about the character I enact and how they relate to those closest to them, the more meaningful those choices feel to me. They change how I see what happens much more than the big, story-changing choices, and as a result they feel more real to me. I use gaming as self-expression, I guess. It’s more about *acting* out parts than about becoming the *author* (of sorts) in playing the game.

    P.S.: I should read that article about what choices feel meaningful when I find a moment; for all I know, it discusses exactly this sort of thing.

    • Arren says:

      The ability to remain silent in so many Telltale conversations saves their entire form from unenjoyability for me*. Such a seemingly trifling detail, but without the game’s capacity to recognize None Of The Above as a valid choice, I could never have persisted past the QTEs and on-rails narrative.

      Yet once I did, I found — against my long-standing genre prejudice* and initial impression that this isn’t even a game — a gaming experience both enjoyable and distinct from those that I usually prefer.

      (That ol’ devil that’s said to be in the details must keep my neuroses company, at least.)

      * I never got on with the capricious puzzle-gated game-mechanics that have traditionally defined the adventure genre, though there have been significant exceptions (Loom and the first Gabriel Knight, to name two). (NB this is not to deny the adventure genre’s towering influence on the birth and evolution of narrative in games.)

    • Mike says:

      You make an important statement here I think, and I agree with you – I get the same pleasure from Telltale’s games and I think they’re very good at providing shallow choice that lets you express your own personality.

      However I also think it’s an example, and there are lots in games, where we’ve hit a technical barrier and then found workarounds that led to new genres. CRPGs are another example – a lot of what made D&D interesting was lost in the transition to CRPG, but combat emphasis produced newer and deeper combat games to make up for the loss of actual roleplaying.

      I hope that we can return to the original problems and discover new types of game, so that we can have your Telltale experience, but also have truly interesting, vast and branching narrative games with meaningful activities and personalised stories.

      • Thirith says:

        I think one reason why I’m not as interested in games that offer vast, branching storylines is that I like discussing art of all kinds with friends, where the work of art is the same for each of us but our experiences and interpretations of it are vastly different. In the end, I get more excited about discussions of, say, Gone Home and how it affected us differently than of discussions of Skyrim where two people can have almost entirely different experiences. I see the appeal and I share it to some extent, but it’s not what appeals most to me. As a player I want the *feeling* of agency more than I want to feel (co-)authorship.

  7. SuicideKing says:

    I just went through all 4 articles, and they’ve been good reads.

    Regarding demanding more: I think a lot of us have been, but often get shouted down by other players perhaps more emotionally invested in the game/developer, and those gamers often end up being over-protective about devs. “Oh no, that’s not possible” or “They won’t have the time”, etc.

    Gives capable devs the excuse to simply say “oh we know it’s not well done but tough luck we don’t have enough resources”. It may well be true for a lot of devs (and for a lot of extravagant demands), but I feel often it’s just neglect.

    I think Arma 3’s AI is a great example: It’s bad at path-finding, terrible at close combat and seeking cover but can see through grass (it seems) and has almost perfect accuracy and vision at medium to long ranges. Will BIS ever fix anything major despite complaints? Who knows?

    On the flip-side, Colossal Order have provided a really cool demonstration of AI systems with Cities: Skylines.

    Past games whose AI has stood out for me:
    Halo, FreeSpace 2, Roller Coaster/Zoo Tycoon, XCOM, Hitman Blood Money.

    • SuicideKing says:

      One thing I think some of the old RTS games (Age of Empires, Rise of Nations) failed at was following the same rule-sets: The computer could always make more decisions and control more units than you ever could; meaning that above say “normal” difficulty you had to simply be able to click faster. I think it’s for this reason I’m now starting to lean towards turn-based strategy games, allows much more time for thought.

      This rule-set consistency was brought up in an RPS article about Dark Souls, I think, and it’s quite true…they AI may be good but if it’s not following the same rules or limitations, it just seems overpowered or flawed to the side of being too perfect.

      I once coded a single player pong game as a secondary school computer science project, the AI was exceedingly simple but still very tricky to get right: we’d either make it too perfect or too slow; it was tough to make it “look” smart. It was following a different rule set: it always knew how much to move to intercept the ball.

    • Quirk says:

      This is where communication between developers and users breaks down. As a developer, it makes perfect sense to me that ARMA has trouble with these things.

      link to xkcd.com

  8. notcurry says:

    Very well put.

    I don’t think we should be that worried about innovation in games, though. Of course, the most conspicuous part of the industry is comprised of the big studios, which are naturally driven by the desire (or should I say need) to maximize their profits. The results of this situation are already well described in the article and in other comments. Others have also already commented on the appearance of indie studios and individual developers, which can make the most risky bets and who can now easily reach a large number of people.

    However, I’d like to point out something else. As I stated at the beginning of this comment, I don’t think that innovation should be our sole concern. I’ll always celebrate great steps forward in terms of mechanics and groundbreaking ideas, but I’m also glad to consume something that’s just done right, even if it does not shatter my preconceptions. Right now I’m playing Mass Effect 2, for instance. I don’t feel like it’s revolutionary (although perhaps it was back when it was relesased, I don’t know). It basically amounts to the go-places-talk-to-people-shoot-baddies-upgrade-your-stuff that I’ve played so many times, but it just feels good. The environments look great, the gunplay is okay and when a mission requires me to visit some new hub I feel excited about the exploration.

    My point is that I don’t really need big innovative leaps in order to enjoy things. I just want games that feel like they’re the loving work of a talented, dedicated team, unconditioned by arbitrary marketing requirements. An example that might help me to illustrate this idea comes to mind. In a recent interview, Sean Murray was asked about the lack of NPCs in No Man’s Sky, and his answer was “I feel like games just don’t do NPCs very well. […] I don’t think it gains that much to just have this cold dead eyed guy. “Welcome to my shop. Do you want to buy some weapons?” And just a few loops, bits of vocal as well.” For me, the fact the lead designer is sensitive to that is a good enough reason to be excited about this game. People seem to value too much the fact that there are 2 to the power of 64 planets, or express “worry” about the fact that you might not be able to upgrade your ship. I don’t really care about those quantifiable specifics. The fact that the team seems to be perceptive of such subtleties is enough for me to think that they’ll make an enjoyable experience out of whichever mechanics they choose to implement. And that, aside from the stagnation in the design of new gameplay elements, is where the big studios fail the most, in my humble opinion.

    That’s part of the reason why I’m optimistic about the direction of the industry. I think that in five years time there will be a fair amount of studios whose work appeals to a wide enough audience so that they don’t lack the resources to polish their games, but that remain small enough to have their projects driven by the passion of one person or a small, strongly connected bunch of people with a vision. Even if the choice of mechanics is important and their correct implementation requires experience and technical skill, I think that the most important thing for a project to end up becoming an enjoyable game is that the efforts be lead by someone who is perceptive of the ineffable nuances of a compelling gaming experience. And even though the big companies will continue to make their shiny pieces of sameold for the hordes of mediocre consumers, I’m convinced that we will have our yearly handful of enjoyable, sensitive games and the occasional groundbreaking idea. And I’m more than happy with that.

    P.S. I’m aware that ME2 was made by a big studio, but I also think that sometimes these do succeed in making things right!

  9. Josh W says:

    Not sure if there is a problem in my case, I like weird generative games, or games that expand on choice in new ways, I buy them and play them.

    If there is a problem with me and these games, it’s this; when I see a game like NOWHERE, Clockwork Empires, No Man’s Sky, or previously Subversion, I am excited, but I don’t buy it until it’s finished, because I like buying games when I’m ready to play them, not when they come out, or even before they come out.

    There’s obviously a cashflow/timing problem there, because the games I most want to see are games that need loads of R&D time, development and experimentation to kick off.

    I suppose I could probably play games that start off early access, and then keep playing them as they develop, but there’s a strange thought process that can happen in playing an early access game, where that same kind of “oh well this is just games” thinking applies, but instead focused on “well it’s not finished yet”.

    You can avoid this with a world that is interactively complete; actually playable horizon to horizon, with no representative elements that imply affordances that do not exist (eg painted on doors), with each new expansion expanding the world within the domain that already exists. And it has to also be fun within those limits. Then I think it’s feasible to start asking for impossible things, because of the way they get folded into that initial experience; there’s no promises that haven’t been delivered upon yet, and there’s just tweaking of the rules that exist, or adding new elements in development branches and then folding them over when their interactions have been worked through etc.

    It’s a fairly onerous requirement really, as it tends towards abstraction, and excludes even increasing the world by adding new areas, which is no bad thing; “Now we’ve added a new island district to the city containing _____” or even having a game that is designed to repeat a specific section of time and adding new episodes. This is fine really, (if someone told me they’d made a good simple game but were going to keep making free sequels based on how many people bought it, I’d be very pleased!), but the difference is whether when playing a game you’re expectations for the future are about getting a better game (deeper gameplay, more potential for expression and changing things, more complex reactions, new details or quirks of interaction etc.) or about getting more of the game.

    • BrickedKeyboard says:

      Software doesn’t work like that. If you weren’t planning on a major, significant feature before the first line of code was written, you’re going to be in for a heck of a time. It’s not always impossible to add new features, it’s just immensely difficult in many cases and the solution may always be buggy.

      • Josh W says:

        I didn’t mention it, but what I described was the minecraft development cycle; the world is complete horizon to horizon, with an abstracted world, and new forms of interaction are filled into the world over time, by adding the materials and their interactions, or adjusting the world gen algorithms to create dungeons etc. So it’s an onerous set of requirements, but it has been met in the past.

        More generally, what I’m talking about there is agile development processes, or at least things like it; add features, run automated test suites, tidy the code up, run test suites. I think that’s a way that people can make games in an agile-like way without relying on a sense of hopeful incompleteness. If they can’t do that, then there’s always having a really long preproduction and prototyping phase, although that is the bit that’s tricky cashflow wise.

        • BrickedKeyboard says:

          Minecraft is probably the worst game ever written relative to the number of sales it has. It just barely runs at all. The architecture is total garbage, and was never intended for the features it has, so it’s crammed full of buggy special cases. The fact it’s written on java causes catastrophic performance loss because it is not very efficient to multithread world generation among other things. The render thread is tied to the world generation thread, causing framerate loss on computers with adequate GPUs. It has eternally long load times because it does JIT compilation without much caching, and requires loading the highest detail form of every asset, giving it unnecessarily long load times.

          In short, it’s shit. It just happens to offer features that no other game has.

          7 Days to Die is a good example of a reasonably competently written minecraft clone – it’s built on a professionally written graphics engine, so it doesn’t look like ass and it runs smoothly, load times to menu are about 5 seconds, and joining a network server is only another 5 seconds or so. The frame rate remains stable throughout on a machine with reasonably adequate hardware.

          7 Days to Die has problems (some glitchy UI elements, and I don’t find it as fun as the original MC), but it’s an example showing what a reasonably competent implementation looks like.

  10. Tom Raft says:

    I believe most people who are critical of game development have no real experience in making a game, even a relatively simplistic game within a time and budget constraints. I code a fair bit and the type of things people suggest to me which seem trivial to do are either insanely complex to code, or would require a massive amount of time and resources.

    There are numerous things every developer would love to do but it comes down to resources. How much time do you want to spend on coding each part and that correlates directly to how much money you want to spend coding it, how much of the budget for cgi or voice acting, etc you are prepared to allocate to give games more depth and creativity. If it is unlikely to result in increased sales these things end up on the ideas cutting room floor.

    Everything comes down to money and for a AAA title they are massively expensive beasts and the AAA is risk averse. Most of the risk taking comes from small studios and indie developers where taking a risk and producing something great can see a significant amount of success. AAA studios already have the market share, all they are concerned with is holding on to customers so reproduce similar products over and over. Outside of a handful of studios, most have come from nowhere and most got there by taking risks and pushing the boundary. Larger studios that take too many risks and fail end up dead, or are bought out by EA, which is pretty much the same thing.

    It is a lot simpler when your budget is yourself or a small group of people who are taking a lot of personal risk, but not a massive financial risk. When the risk is a few hundred million then you are going to be inundated with bean counters who are counting every penny and weighing up the risk vs reward, when you tell them you want to make multiple cutscene choices for depth and it is adding millions of dollars to the bill and low probability of creating more sales it is going to end up on the budget cut list. It is just the reality of bigger businesses. They can’t afford to make the mistakes smaller businesses or individuals make.

    It is why a lot of developers feel the desire to leave prominent studios and create their own games where they have the freedom to create what they want. However, they take a lot of risks to follow their dream and most of them fail to achieve what they dream about. Reality is a lot more brutal than dreams.

  11. moms says:

    “Sometimes when I play with someone new to games, they’ll ask me ‘How did you know that was the solution?’ and the answer is simply because I’ve been here before. On the surface it looks like skill, but in reality it’s a sign that we’ve learned to be obedient.”

    Yet, when we resist, we come off as stupid over thinkers, or perpetual noobs. We are made to feel dim, and, ‘not with it.’ But, I see now that this is not the case, this is not necessarily true. We aren’t necessarily dim. We are kept dim, yes. Expected to be dim, for sure. But, it is because, we want to think. And if we want to think, then they must hear what we think.
    That is why I ask every thinking player to stand up, and go to your windows.. go to your windows, right now.. throw them open and yell, as loud as you can. I AM NOT OBTUSE, I AM DISOBEDIENT. We aren’t the stupid ones, we are the smart ones, and that is why each and every thinking player must go to their windows and yell. And keep yelling.
    And you must do this, without falling out.