The Sunday Papers

Sundays are for stuffing your face with roast potatoes and other related foods. Before we’re bloated to the point of being unable to move, here’s a roundup of the week best writing about games.

Game developer Katharine Neil writes about how we design games now and why. This is about the concepts of self-conscious vs. unself-conscious design, or design via theory vs. design via making, and about why the industry should do more to establish tools and language to support theory. I do not agree with everything within, and I feel like it does not make its case strongly enough in some places, but it is interesting and about humans and you should read it.

We no longer have wheelwrights and we are no longer making wheels in shapes we don’t understand. This is because design practice (the way designers design) in any discipline — from the creation of wheels, buildings and furniture through to film, music and literature — develops over time. It reaches milestones; it passes through phases. Until around a decade ago videogame design looked as if it was about to begin the evolutionary shift that other design disciplines had made before it. But this did not happen.

At Reddit, Garry Newman posted a diagram showing the lifecycle of a Rust patch and the communities response to it. It is funny, and then there’s a more detailed explanation in the top comment underneath from Garry. Then the rest of the thread is an airing of grievances from community members.

PC Gamer published umpteen articles about Blizzard this past week, including this look at the early days of the company’s culture, in the words of the developers themselves.

We used to go to lunch together, the entire company. All 11 of us would go to lunch together to the same place. We’d pick out where we were going to go, we’d all show up and take 2 or 3 tables. We’d go to Del Taco or Carl’s Jr. or whatever. And then over time we had to start splitting up into two groups because it was just getting to be a little too much. And over time—it’s kind of funny, but I think of it in terms of those lunches. When the lunch crew had to start breaking down into smaller and smaller bits, that’s how I was realizing we were getting bigger.

The second part of Kate Gray journey into game making appeared on Waypoint, in which she releases her first game and feels amazing about it.

It’s a two-player game, played almost entirely without interacting with the game at all. It goes through a set of questions—based somewhat loosely on this idea of there being 36 Questions That Will Make You Fall In Love—and gives you randomly generated tasks to do while answering them, like holding hands or looking into each other’s eyes. Hence the “Awkward” part of the title.

Kate also appeared in The Guardian to write about indie games events and what she learned by attending them in 2016.

The Stugan attendees were from all over the world, but we’d ended up in this tiny corner of Scandinavia, brought together by the one thing we shared: the desire to create and play video games. I turned up three weeks late, and already an outsider as the only journalist, but within a few days I felt like I’d been welcomed as one of the team. There with me were people like Ivan Notaros, an incredibly talented Serbian developer who was ostensibly making a game called House of Flowers based on his experience and knowledge of the war in Yugoslavia in the 90s, but spent much of his time making tiny games, procedurally generated art, and incredible low-res photogrammetry of us as a group.

I loved this article about Victorian groups whose aim was to spread exotic animals all over the world. Great anecdotes within.

Many of these efforts were, predictably, spectacular failures. An early shipment of camels to Australia, to help travelers cross the arid interior, was met with tragedy when bad weather killed all but one (that camel, named Harry, lived a life of celebrity until he accidentally killed his owner, John Horrocks, by headbutting a gun while Horrocks was cleaning it). Ostriches similarly failed to thrive there. The founders of the British Acclimatization Society, who believed that the country’s growing food crisis could be solved by the introduction of exotic fish and big game, threw an enormous banquet every year from 1860 to 1865, featuring tables piled high with German boar, Syrian pig, East African eland, and Australian kangaroo. But they never successfully imported anything more impressive than the North American gray squirrel, which haunts them to this day.

Music this week is some lo-fi hiphop on YouTube. Have I linked nujabes before? I think so, but I don’t care.

26 Comments

  1. Eight Rooks says:

    You can never link Nujabes too many times.

    Also, the Katherine Neil piece is pretty good in theory (the gist of it is fairly sound IMO), but oh, God, that Koster presentation makes me cringe (I read A Theory of Fun for my university dissertation and thought it was one of the worst such books I’d ever come across). Her other sources aren’t much fun either. I’d be a lot more enthusiastic about this clique of embattled maverick designers if so much of what they talk about didn’t seem like the worst kind of willfully obtuse, laughably academic, out-of-touch ludologist nonsense going. Pro-tip: the reason your ideas haven’t caught on is not solely down to the never-ending machinations of evil capitalist robber barons gone mad, much as you might wish it were.

  2. Monggerel says:

    The Katherine Neil article about unselfconscious vs selfconscious design is important, because it’s so off the mark, it’s not even wrong. But the article itself is a useful reminder. A reminder that we need more Le Corbusiers and more Brasílias and more Spec Opses and more Endless Forests to remind all the weird, lonely megalomaniacs, and all the ever-refining, terminally self-referential academics that you can’t design *for* the people; you can only design *around* them.

    It is ironic perhaps (I’m honestly not sure) that in an era where we praise the virtue of Empathy into the highest fucking heavens, those of us most concerned with doing what is right for people have no actual sense about what people want, need, or how they will use things, and they haven’t even the most rudimentary knowledge of human psychology. Sometimes. Not always, though. I mean, good stuff still gets made. It’s just… I find myself dumbfounded ever more often by the contradiction.
    Maybe, it’s just the internet amplifying something that is neither more nor less common or important than it ever was throughout history.

    In any case, I have a simple rule of thumb: “would the commies try to pass this off as a success?”
    If the answer is yes, avoid. If the answer is no, avoid. If there is no way to relate the subject to the commies, approach tentatively.

    • LTK says:

      As I was reading your comment I doubted whether I understood what you were talking about, but once you mentioned commies there was no doubt whatsoever that I didn’t. I would think that ‘there is no way to relate the subject to commies’ so according to you… that’s a good thing? Maybe?

      I’m just not seeing anything but non-sequiturs from what you’re saying. Could you maybe explain a little bit?

      • Monggerel says:

        The point of what I say is mostly in the names of people/things/places I brought up. Grand, idiotic visions of things that nobody needed and collapsed in on themselves as a result. (check Brasília out! it’s a cool bit of history)
        (also check a book called Seeing Like a State! it’s also a cool story, though I don’t quite agree with it)
        My argument was indeed mostly non-sequiturs that only really make sense in my head, fair enough. The bit about the commies was a jab at planned “economies”. (why was the KGB more successful than the CIA? well, the soviets had more experience with subterfuge since the entire USSR was a goddamn hoax)
        Katherine Neil’s article simply reminded me of all these things, thus my less-than-stellar “review” of it.

        • Hedgeclipper says:

          Because the CIA was a bunch of rich kids playing at spy games starting around WWII and the KGB was drawing on the experience of a huge and well resourced police state tradition dating back to Tsarist times.

    • Faults says:

      I thought it was a fantastic bit of writing, even though literally every game I like is generally a hideously overwrought mess in terms of gameplay mechanics. I still think having some kind of formalised system to plan out high-level gameplay mechanics is a really cool idea – interestingly enough though, that seems to be pretty-much what UE4’s Blackboard system is for, albeit pretty agnostic towards any kind of specific methodology.

      I’m guessing her point wasn’t so much to enforce a strictly defined methodology so much as it was an attempt to push for a common lexicon that designers can use to formalise their ideas and take reasonable guesses as to whether they will be feasible or not. This isn’t really too dissimilar to what’s been developed in film, music, art and literature over the years. I’m not sure Neil’s assertion that such a thing trumps rapid iteration holds much water though – and her notion that notation allows composers to write completely independently of musicians is utter fiction. But apart from that there’s some damn good points in there IMHO.

    • onodera says:

      It’s incredibly off the mark. She quotes Alexander, but forgets to mention he concludes that self-conscious design produces shit, not masterpieces, since theories operate on incomplete models and on a limited scale. He insists that design by making is the only way to produce something of value.

      • Faults says:

        It should also be noted that the book she references deals exclusively with the fields of industrial design and architecture, which are far more conducive to functionalist approaches than creative disciplines such as art, music or videogames are.

  3. Blackcompany says:

    Didnt we see that Kate Gray on an episode of Big Bang theory, like…years ago? Penny and Sheldon did the whole “Questions that will make you fall in love” thing. Not trying to be a jerk; maybe she put a twist on it or something, but…I dont think that’s exactly hers…by which, I mean, I dont think its the first time this has been done.

    • jalf says:

      What a curiously dismissive comment. Shooters have been done before too, and yet people keep making them, and showing (well-deserved) pride in their creations.

      Is that how you respond every time someone shows you the first game they’ve ever made? With a “I couldn’t be arsed to try it, but on the surface it looks like something that has been done before”?

      • Blackcompany says:

        At this point, with games…yes. I’m 37 years old, and I find I’ve no patience for an industry that thinks its acceptable to reskin the monopoly board and sell me the same experience time and again.

        That said…not having tried this game, it might well be wortwhile. I didnt mean to insinuate otherwise. But its also highly derivative of something that’s been around a while.

        • Faults says:

          I don’t really think very many peoples’ first videogames are ever not terribly derivative though.
          IMHO the article was focusing more on the enjoyment and buzz one could get out of finishing a project, rather than unveiling some grand masterpiece of ludonarrative brilliance :P

  4. Sargonite says:

    After having read the Neil article and come here, I’m confused as to what exactly people’s problems with the article are (besides, apparently, “communism,” which I didn’t detect in the article unless you’re willing to brand a mention of excessive working hours “communism”). It’s clearly not perfect, but the responses here and elsewhere are painfully vague. I’d like to see more analytical, point-by-point responses, but alas, engaged dialog is not a common feature of internet culture.

    • Landiss says:

      Well, I also have no idea what communism has to do with the subject. Nevertheless, I think the logic in the article has some flaws. Specifically, I completely do not agree that analogy between engineering and art is helpful in the concept of design, at all.

      While I do think that better theory would of course be helpful (for better understanding of game design), I find it hard to believe it would actually affect the design itself that much. I don’t have much knowledge about design theory in arts and so I’m not even sure what exactly the author is talking about. I have to note here, that I didn’t read the whole article carefully, I skimmed through the second half, as it wasn’t that interesting to me. So feel free to ignore my comment due to that.

      I would love to see a comparison from games to other arts, literature, music and perhaps the most – movies, because movies are done very similarly to how games are done, as complex projects engaging big teams of different specialists. That’s completely different then designing wheels. There are some things in there that you can calculate and some statements you could proof to be correct. I think that’s impossible in regards to creating fun experience in games. In the same way you can’t mathematically calculate if using this shade of blue will be better than that shade of green.

      I would also love some practical examples. The whole article avoided talking about anything specific, only mentioning other articles. That’s like someone would talk about theory behind music composition and not even mention any composer. I don’t find it that interesting, to be honest.

      • Twitchity says:

        Well, scriptwriting is hardly a solved art — look at the vast number of films that fall apart due to scripts that were mashed together, picked apart, or just weren’t any good to start with. As a result, there have been dozens of high-profile attempts to turn storytelling into a thematic paint-by-numbers effort (Save the Cat, I’m looking at you).

        As far as experience design in games goes, I’m more partial to the article than others here, if only because of my professional background. In my experience, agile is a great way to structure development but a terrible way to structure experience design. The game industry traditionally has lurched from one problematic structure to another; first, creating complex game documents that deeply specify gameplay and systems without doing basic player research, prototyping and validation (“vertical slices” don’t count!); second, underspecifying key systems and trusting that you can work out complex experiential problems in the next sprint.

        My studio (“my” in the non-equity-holding, hello-fellow-wage-slaves sense) does both commercial digital experiences (what normal people call “apps,” “websites,” and “software”) and, under a separate structure, game dev (with some bleedover for VR/AR work). Our design teams spend months developing experiences using industrial design research and prototyping techniques before we throw any developers at the problem; while we do a lot of upfront technical research, we deliberately remain non-prescriptive regarding implementation. In other words, the what is developed and refined in detail before anyone approaches (at least in detail) the how.

        Although I don’t live in gamedev, my experiences around it — dating back to the 1990s — indicate that the most significant development problems relate to gameplay systems: most generally problems with them not being enjoyable or lacking sufficient depth to engage players for the duration of a game (and thus sent back to be redesigned), or being significantly altered by designers or management (and thus code, design and assets have to be reworked). Due to the way most game development takes place (which itself is the result of the backwards budgeting and funding mechanics of the industry), oftentimes a lot of code has been committed and assets created before these problems become apparent, burning cash and calendar alike.

        Needless to say, this is fucking insane, and if I tried it with a client I’d get raked over the coals, forced to eat a lot of uncompensated costs, possibly end up in a lawsuit, and probably end up out of a job — so we work really hard to find ways to maximize delivery and success while minimizing client cost and studio time. If game development had a more mature and refined model for gameplay systems design, and the tools and practices to support it, I think we’d see more engaging experiences delivered more consistently, albeit probably on the same cost and schedule as we currently see.

  5. Dinger says:

    Here’s my take:
    The article I think makes some fundamental confusions. They are fundamental because they are endemic in the way we think about video games, and mass media culture generally. First, it’s mass media culture, and if you evaluate instantiations of mass media culture, you’ll discover that most of them are formulaic crap. The same is, of course, true for “high art”, but that’s a different story. Second, we want to see aesthetic success (“something fun, something new, something that says something”), and frankly, our that desire is not aligned with those of the purveyors of such stuff, who want to see economic success (“something that makes more money than it costs”).
    So in the article, she posits a model that itself is questionable: that an art form develops by becoming self-reflexive and specifying the principles by which it works. She points to ten years ago, where it seemed that this would happen through the development of an abstract language for games. Then she argues that it didn’t happen, because of the advent of agile development and the advent of the video game employee as a job desired by children, taught to university students, performed by 20-somethings, and inaccessible to anyone over thirty. As a result, rapid iteration and data-driven development have failed the basic need of games for an abstract language and a global theory that will lead to great success, and instead have made the model “throw lots of cheap labor at copying existing mechanics and produce the next iteration of the idea, adapting the product according to player responses.”

    The problem is that we have other mass media art forms with sophisticated (and competing, and contradictory) theories, and we see those theories being used to express what is, in effect, a formula. I hate to make the film comparison here, but there’s a lot of good film theory used, abused, and developed by people in Hollywood, even though Hollywood films are all 15-beat, 3-act-plays, and Hollywood executives notoriously relate to new titles by reference to past films (e.g., “The Martian meets Driving Miss Daisy”).
    The comparison to other artistic practices is off too: I mean, a composer doesn’t need to hear a piece when he writes it, and, sure, Beethoven wrote some amazing stuff as he lost his hearing. But I’m willing to bet that most composers do, at some point in their career, play out a few sequences, and tweak their compositions, maybe even after watching how musicians and audiences react.

    • Landiss says:

      In case of composers I would argue that they simply can imagine how something would sound and that’s not that different from just trying to play it. I also suspect that’s how Beethoven composed his music.

      Another example is Chopin, who we know used a process of first composing something in a kind of creative big bang, only to work on it later for longer time and tweak little things to make it better. See for example here:

      link to omifacsimiles.com

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      FhnuZoag says:

      Hmmm. I think my perspective is that we don’t need to adopt the absolutist view that there needs to be a distinction between self conscious and unconscious design. But I think there are strong elements of truth in what the author argues, that tools and principles for abstract design have been neglected and that they would advance design.

      I think the best example is painting, where understanding core principles of perspective and anatomy and colour theory was a huge advance.

      But I also don’t think game design has been static. For narrative design, I hear that developers have been using twine to map out as a flow chart the stories and story structures of game. Twine is also a prototyping tool, so that would suggest how the line between the two can become blurred.

      • Dinger says:

        I might say that the problem I have with the argument is that, in advocating “tools and principles for abstract game design”, she is too abstract. Perspective you can get applying geometry to rays of light. Color theory took some development (I think the medievals had red and green as analogous colors of some sort), but it can be scientifically expressed.
        What makes something fun, though, requires a whole different set of phenomenological baggage. And “advances in design” is really what the avant garde is there for. Just as, in an army, the avant garde’s job is to find the way (or the enemy) and, if necessary, sacrifice itself for the good of the army as a whole, so your artistic avant garde finds a lot of dead ends and spectacular failures.
        So, I dunno. We’re seeing plenty of advances in design, especially among the avant-garde titles. We’re still seeing GTA V at the top of the sales charts, because it’s (I suppose, not having played it) a well-executed iteration on a proven formula. In the ten years since the death of abstract language, a Zachalike showed the viability of building a world using voxels; a guy who first appeared on the RPS radar as the author of Left4kDead, and thus the iteration-mad gamejammer the likes of which the author laments, took the idea. He then combined it with a simple survival story, and repeatedly iterated the mechanics until everything felt just fun. The game has created its own genre and influenced an entire generation of children. That’s a theoretical advancement in game design, moving from the vanguard to the mainstream, and making billions of bucks to boot.

        So what exactly is this abstract language, and how do you expect it to improve game design?

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          FhnuZoag says:

          Perspective you can get applying geometry to rays of light. Color theory took some development (I think the medievals had red and green as analogous colors of some sort), but it can be scientifically expressed.

          Not really… Perspective isn’t as simple as that. For example, 1 point perspective, isometric perspective, those are just not things that exist in the real world. They are approximations that people have devised that turn out to work well. Colour theory is more applied psychology than anything else.

          Like, fun is complicated, sure. But ‘looks good’ is also complicated, and we can teach ideas about making stuff look good a lot better than making games fun.

          The game has created its own genre and influenced an entire generation of children. That’s a theoretical advancement in game design, moving from the vanguard to the mainstream, and making billions of bucks to boot.

          I think that’s exactly the sort of thing that the author is arguing against, really. Someone does something, it launches a wave of copycats none of which really understand what they are doing, a bunch of them fail. What I take from the article is that we should progress the art of digesting successful games to understand *why* they succeed and thus how to do it again or better or in interesting ways. That’s not to say no one does it, but maybe collectively we don’t do it very well.

          When I talked about work in narrative design, I point at stuff like:

          link to emshort.blog

          • Dinger says:

            Well, the science of perspectiva was classically defined as taking the conclusions of geometry and applying them to a ray. That’s what Giotto was working from. I thought we were talking about the initial application of perspective to painting, not the variegated applications of perspective to painting.

            Now, you’re probably right that the author’s arguing for an approach that gets away from a “brute force” way of developing software, but I’m not sure that “brute force” is a good way of describing what’s going on. It wasn’t that there were a thousand Infiniminer-alikes out there; nobody else was playing with voxels like that. And I’m sure that many Minecraft-buts are technically better in many details, but they came after that market was taken. And the problem this poses for an abstract vocabulary is that any videogame theory is based on past performance and is only as good as its predictive ability. So, sure, she laments that it hasn’t been done yet, but, let’s be honest here, that level of theory requires a lot of data to process before you get there; mystery novels didn’t get their theory until the 1970s, and only someone like Umberto Eco would actually build on it (where the book itself is the murderer. We’re still waiting for a good novel where the reader is the murder victim; mind you, I don’t think I’ll read that one when it comes out).

  6. SuicideKing says:

    “Victorian groups whose aim was to spread exotic animals all over the world”

    I’m sad they all didn’t fail, god knows how many invasive species they introduced (camels in Australia being an excellent example).

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    teije says:

    Interesting article by Katherine Neil, some good points on the changes in game dev driven by cheap dev tools, digital distribution networks, and open alphas (early access). Thought she overstated the impact of dev shops moving from waterfall to agile dev however – from what I can see, most software (gaming or not) is still designed and approached from a more hybrid waterfall approach, very rarely from pure agile.

  8. Faults says:

    Further churning that Katherine Neil article over in my head, I think although I found it enjoyable and pointed, she really does seem to be advocating a very functionalist approach to game design, which I really do not feel is a good fit.

    Her central analogy regarding the wheelwright is a really flawed one because a wheel is an implement that serves a very specific function – to turn, usually to facilitate steering or locomotion of an object. Same with her architecture analogy and the citing of Notes on the Synthesis of Form – buildings have a pretty specific set of criteria that must be met in order to be deemed functional.

    Games and creative media as a whole have much less rigid definitions. One might say a minimum criteria for a videogame is that it has to be ‘playable’, but that in itself is an incredibly slippery term that can change dramatically depending on who you talk to, or even when you ask the question (remember when 20fps was the norm for 3D games?).

    All this is besides the fact that to subject art to functionalist analysis wholly misses the goddamn point. Sure, having the language to discuss works of art, music, film, games, etc in formalized terms is useful for criticism, but using such formalism as the fundaments of creative practice is something I feel will never be terribly helpful or conducive to ‘art’.

  9. bobthebuilder says:

    @Sargonite

    Katharine’s central thesis is that we need more and better design tools to help improve design thinking. That’s pretty uncontroversial. I think the main issue is that she denigrates making extensively to the point of calling it a brute force solution. Which is ironic when creating design artifacts in an abstract tool is as much an iterative and making intensive process.

    The great advantage of the modernization of tools and development processes is that design by working iteratively on the end product or a very close facsimilie is widely possible. That’s amazing because it defeats the main issue with abstraction, that it always loses information and that causes decision making to be less sound.

    There is still a place for abstraction though. Many parts of a game still take much longer to make. Working on those longer loops at a reasonable level of abstraction can give a real head start. Economic balance is a great example of the sort of thing that is done today in a spreadsheet. Prototyping game mechanics that evolve on a larger scale as a board or card game can work reasonably.

    Ultimately Katharine is right, we can make better games, faster if we have access to better tools and more knowledge about what we want to make. Better design tools mean less iterations to get to a quality product. It’s representing this simple point as a antagonistic relationship between craft and ivory tower design that does it a disservice.

  10. mactier says:

    Actually, I think the Medium-article is super-hyper trivial (as in ‘true’). The same as everything of upper or senior grade school and beyond is inconceivably arcane on the internet and will never make its way on it beyond a wall of a smug, blasé, dull-eyed know-it-all attitude and unfathomable, unmotivated and ‘suspicious’ defensiveness… Except for a few convenient, long-established (infinitely ongoing) points and issues. Oh well.