I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the art of game development. Both in the actual games and in the development of them. And what that means to me. It’s a topic that’s difficult for me to articulate clearly, but I will do it anyway. :)
Last week I was able to visit the Wilhelm Busch museum in Hannover, Germany. Something struck me as I walked around and admired the work. It was a catalyst for clarifying some of the ideas I’ve had floating around in my head for quite some time. As Andy (@greenfaery) will attest to, after that moment no one could shut me up about my thoughts on the matter. And now I will subject you to them as well. Somewhat haphazardly to be sure. I’m not trying to convince you. Nor myself. Just trying to get my thoughts down.
Form follows meaning
It may surprise some to find that artistically I don’t subscribe to the idea that “form follows function.” I believe That both form and function follow meaning. This means that foremost, games should have something to say. They should be expressing a belief or idea or feeling (or something else.) This is specifically very different from trying to *elicit* a feeling from the player in some purposeful way. Games, as any great art, should stop the player emotionally or personally and they have to discover how they feel. If we are just trying to get everyone to feel the same way, that’s still function and not meaning. The question to ask is: “What are you trying to say?”
Reflect what you believe in everything you do
Game development itself is the same way. For example (for me), I want an engine to reflect a fundamental optimism and hope about the world and development. I want it to reflect a true belief in the medium of games. This drives my choices on a very practical level. In order to know which techical choices are better, I must know what I believe are the most important elements in a game, and in *our* games in particular. As opposed to games in general, or movies, or other possible uses. That belief should also be reflected in the UI and UX of the tools. Is it hopeful? Does it reflect games as a medium in itself? i.e. How can it be more like a game?
And even in my job as Core Director, it’s the same. What am I trying to say with my work? Everything I do must reflect those beliefs. That I believe in games as a medium. That I fundamentally believe that change is both necessary and good. That I believe that each individual can make a difference. That I believe that the most important thing you can do is help others grow. That I believe in asking myself and others way too many questions. :)
Over-emphasizing the form
I believe that we concern ourselves with the form of games way too much. When we compare games, we discuss genre stereotypes and technical bullet points. When we talk about it as developers, we dicuss game mechanics or code techniques. All have their place. And are certainly valid discussions. But we don’t discuss meaning, or purpose, nearly enough. And worse yet, when we *only* concern ourselves with the form, the result is often empty and superficial.
Games, or our work in general, should invade a private space in the player. It should reach in and grab them and help them learn something about themselves. Tools are ultimately no different in this regard, either. Helping the users of our tools discover not just a better form (more details, polishing up the graphics on Level 3, whatever) but something about themselves in the process is important. The former serves the latter. Those that truly believe that form follows function will find this particular point very difficult to swallow of course.
Meaning requires understanding
In large part our work is not about finding a solution. That is dwarfed by the effort required to truly define the problem. Even in very technical implementations (or perhaps especially so), many reasonable solutions exist and can be applied to some degree. But it’s defining the problem specifically to our needs that changes all the constraints and guides the possible results. As a simple example, if you take our conferences (like GDC, for instance) – in large part we discuss ‘solutions’ meaning that we share a (hopefully) working answer to some problem we encountered. But have you ever noticed just how often those solutions are not applicable to your situation? Because the problem (for you) is different. But we de-emphasize that. In general, our presentations and results share the wrong thing. It’s the journey to finding that solution that was much more important. It’s the discovery of the *actual* problem that needed to be solved that is much more interesting.
Too often we look at problems superfically and try to apply fixed solutions to them. Jamming them in without much thought. In those cases we are not doing the work justice. Interestingly (at least for me), this is at the heart of what we’re calling data-oriented programming. More than anything, it’s about truly understanding what you’re working with and for. @grumpygamer recently shared their memories of defining a “puzzle dependency chart” format for the old LucasArts games. Which seems to share a lot of similarities to how I view data design. I suspect that’s not a coincidence.
As background on this topic, I suggest reading The Viewpoints Book by Anne Bogart and Tina Landuau.
I believe that we can extend these viewpoints to speak for the medium of games. Using space and time and voice to reflect our meaning in much the same way as theatre or dance. But in a way that’s uniquely ours. In games space and time and voice are much more flexible. They can be dynamic. Architecture, for example, does not need to be a fixed function as it does in life – we can change it dynamically, in real time. Something which can not truly be done in the same way in any other form. As well, the choices of the player should *change* space and time and voice in a way that’s impossible anywhere else. In the broadest terms, we often try to be too much like other media, film in particular, and forget the awesome potential of games. Thus doing them a great disservice.
While I leave most of these thoughts here undeveloped, and I’m wanting to rewrite and rework this post entirely, I think it’s in the spirit of this itself for me not to over-concern myself with the form too much and just get this sketch out there. Plenty of time for revision in the future. Especially because this post is already two days late. ;)
I invite your thoughts and sure, criticisms too.