April 1, 2013

“I Wanna Be the Guy, But Not That Guy” - derived from a talk given during the Lost Levels unconference at GDC 2013

When I was young I was a very avid user of game making tools. I tried them all - ZZT, Megazeux, RDS GM, OHRRPGCE, ACK, Verge, TADS, etc. In most I never finished anything. In part this was because I had very little to say via game design yet. But even if I was just making a clone of a game I knew with “one little change,” there were brick walls that suddenly appeared at certain points.

To get certain kinds of features, I had to know how to code, and most of these systems didn’t expose coding at all, or they exposed it at too low a level for my pre-teen self. I had been able to learn enough to make some small things in BASIC. But there was a huge gap in my understanding towards making anything more substantial than “guess the number” or maybe “match this calculation.” And so I used game-making tools, but those tools mostly weren’t capable of adding original behaviors to a game or writing an elaborate cut-scene. (ZZT was one of the more notable exceptions here, so I used it often - and later, Megazeux, when it became an option.)

Similarly, there was another brick wall with art assets. To make something beautiful meant learning art fundamentals that I simply weren’t aware of yet. And to make something ugly was still time consuming, enough so that I would usually call off the project after making a handful of assets. This problem was exaggerated by tools that shipped with a tiny number of demo assets, and then left it to the user to fill in everything else. Again, ZZT was a savior for me since it forced the aesthetic in a certain direction that required little skill to do well.

Of course, I was relatively successful with physical prototyping, and made some board and card games. But video games still seemed closed off to someone of my age and interest level, even though I had about as much access as one could hope for, given the era. You had to at least be deeply motivated to learn programming, and I didn’t, at that moment.

During my teenage years, I had already witnessed barriers starting to come down. I wasn’t conscious of it, but there was a clear trend. The costs were becoming considerably smaller over time - between 2000 and 2010 I saw an enormous improvement in the quality of resources, tools, advice, and references. Between that and generally having more experience, it was well within reach for me to do some things solo by the latter part of the decade.

However, I still saw the brick walls. If I was trying to push the limits, it remained a hard and expensive(in time or money) task. This was a very disquieting thought to me. “Why can’t anyone make this? Why is it just those big studios?” I thought. I managed to avoid pondering it further for many years, but I’m pretty sure now that it led me to sabotage my own work and bury the expressive parts under technical nonsense, where I could at least feel good that I was doing something complicated and challenging.

But more recently, I began thinking about what cost actually meant for gaming. And it became obvious that it was controlling almost everything. The whole dynamic of the industry is based around it being too expensive, in time or money, to just go out and make what you want to make in a few hours of spare time, so you have to think about making a profit. So you start a business. Then you work with other people who are business-focused, and start to discuss things in terms of what might be a hit. Somewhere along the way, your conversations become all work, no play.

And it is what I see as the root of the vast majority of problems in gaming; it restricts creators into making games about boring, easily marketed, easily monetized subjects. It produces an endless war to secure funding for the next project. It reinforces a privileged monoculture, by filtering out people who can’t bear severe costs or network “appropriately.” If you are looking for the poison of this industry, cost is definitely it. (And it goes for any other creative field too.)

And in that case, I don’t want to sell games anymore. I have no bone to pick with people willing to continue with that cause, but I’d rather devote myself towards bringing down the barriers of this field further. There are lots of paths towards this goal: Improving education, creating new or better tools, improving the funding mechanisms, increasing awareness of authors, preserving and curating the history… there are so many options beyond “sell my games as products” that it seems silly to continue restricting my focus in that way.

Copyright James W. Hofmann 2010-2012.