Deadgames and Alivegames
Here’s a prediction for 2030: The game industry will continue to experience a massive extinction of game design talent, via talent leaving for other industries or small studios, or generational loss due to companies’ shifted priorities and inability to train. Studios of sizes around 1-4 will continue to create the bulk of important and interesting games (… in my eyes, hehe.) The game industry will largely exist as it does today, but the gap between these small studios and massive blockbuster games will widen, as games bifurcate into two entirely different evolutionary paths: those of the Deadgame and Alivegame (more on this soon).
It is a popular view for game designers of 2021 to see game design as ‘combining marketable parts’ (Juicy Combat! Combat System! Choices Matter! Tags!), and to only research canonized or popular games (Mario, etc) for reference. By only referencing the canon, and largely viewing games as a mass of ‘marketable parts’, designers limit themselves to an ahistorical view, unable to put a ‘canonized’ game in conversation with history. Something like Zelda may well have popped out of nowhere, its design decisions taken as law rather than a mix of pros and cons. A game building on Zelda might be ignored entirely.
Further troubling, visual inspiration is often approached on an embarrassing, elementary level. Rather than conceptualizing games as digital space, instead visual design is often done via ‘moodboard’ or ‘inspiring images’, before any design or narrative theme is conceptualized. Sometimes this is done for pitch decks and finding funding. While there is nothing wrong with being inspired by images, and it’s a necessary step at some point in the game development process, this image-driven development is partially what has led to the prevalence of concept-art-driven, open world design, where game designers are tasked with making an unrealistic image “come to life”. For example, any given vista in Genshin Impact is traditionally ‘beautiful’ (in the Hallmark card sense), but once you begin to explore the landscape, the illusion breaks down as the level design collapses into a bunch of walking and repetitive climbing. “See that mountain? You can go to it” is the failphrase of the 2010s in game design that encapsulates the problem entirely.
An interesting development in Japanese illustrations are wide field-of-view landscape paintings with open world quest UI overlaid. I think this is the symbol image-drive game design strangling the creativity of the entire industry. The image gestures at boundless imagination, but in reality it proposes an extremely narrow view of the possibility of games, and this narrow view is controlling many designers. Sometimes these artists do get jobs in the game industry (this artist is working on NieR Reincarnation), which shows that there is a phenomenon happening between viewers, illustrators, and game companies.Image here
What little influence from history, sociology, film, literature, etc, there are in games, tends to be steamrolled by whatever marketable parts the game needs in order to achieve profitability.
Thus, with ahistorical, amateurish, games-focused view - game designers tend to create poor copies of recent games that are themselves poor copies! The game designer of 2030 may find themselves in a delusion of ‘creating a dream game’, when in fact they are creating an entertainment product with mental effects similar to cigarettes that delivers the content of 10 pages of a novel over a 60 hour gaming experience. Of course, it's not like these games are miserable to play or devoid of ideas: they're often fun and have something neat about them. But often these games feel padded out, or perhaps, slightly watered down, in trying to be too many things.
The Demons That Designers Live With
The Deadgame is a non-existent ideal that opposes the Alivegame (which is also non-existent). In between these two poles exist every game.
A game is “Dead” when it has no human designers. What I mean by this is that the game is, largely, ‘designed’ by non-human forces of desire for profit, and desire for scale. In a Deadgame, the human game designer a proxy for capitalism’s demons to accumulate money. These are demons all game designers must fight and reckon with, but some of us are more possessed than others! While making a Deadgame, it is possible to feel in control of your life, fulfilled, satisfied, and in pursuit of “fun” while being entirely steered by these higher powers. I'm not claiming that anyone making a Deadgame is miserable, just that whether they like it or not, their talents are being used towards particular ends.
These desires for profit and scale have always been with the game industry. It’s possible to argue that we needed these demons for something like Unity to exist. But shareware games and accessible software has been around for a long time! While it is true that Anodyne 2 might not exist had 3D not become accessible, who’s to say we wouldn’t have made some other meaningful game with a Game Maker or something? There are infinite other timelines we could be on in a world where home consoles or 3D engines never became a thing.
On the other side, an Alivegame is a game where all of its creators are truly creatively engaged in the project and contribute as equals. It is a game that is created only out of the shared interests of its creators, free from any desire to be marketable or trendy. An Alivegame is a game whose purpose is something to enrich the lives and humanity of those who play it. It can be as simple as a 1-hour game made for a friend's birthday. It is a game that respects the complex layered history of humanity and refuses to create characters or narratives that boil them down into easily-digestable (and figurine/merch-izable) build-your-own-trauma-chipotle-bowls where a character’s complexity neatly and mathematically maps from whatever unfortunate events happened to them.
Again, the Alivegame does not exist in a pure form: all games exist somewhere between Alivegame and Deadgame. Small-indie (3 or less people or under $100k budget), “alt”, “trashgames”, “microgames”, etc, all tend to be Alivegames. Anyone can make something that's mostly a “Deadgame”, though it is considerably harder to do so the smaller you are (as the natural quirks of a single creator are likely to show). It’s also not the case that a 99% Alivegame is ‘better’ than a 90% Alivegame, I’m mainly creating these two poles of Alivegame/Deadgame in order to give a spectrum for comparison.
Imagine a novel written by 10, 100, or 1,000 people. It would be bad. Novels aren’t written by 10+ people, and they would never benefit from being written so! Why did videogames end up being viewed as something many people need to make? Why has it become common knowledge for game studios to scale? I could fill out multiple bingo cards from the mountain of well-intentioned responses to my studio, Analgesic Productions, being only 2 people. I’ve been talked down to by venture-funded flour sacks who couldn’t design their way out of a box. Scaling is something that happened due to market pressure and the difficulty of working on older hardware, but it’s not something you need today. Many 'professionals' take scaling as a given and to me it just feels like a collective delusion.
One thing many game players may not know is that in the process of a game studio reaching even 4 or 5 people, one person must be tasked with managing funding, financials, and the business side. Therefore with each person that joins, there is added pressure towards profitability as you have others’ lives on the line. It gets harder to be a creative director and harder to take risks.
We should learn from the partially necrotic industry of film. Blockbuster Hollywood movies and anime are built on the backs of thousands, pretend to be important, but offer almost nothing beyond 90 minutes of packaged, focus-tested entertainment. Compare that to smaller, more humanistic films (like those showing on Mubi. Some are expensive to make, of course, but nowhere near the extent of a Marvel movie).
When questioning scale it’s good to remember we have always had amazing games being made and envisioned by smaller teams. Everyone had many games they grew up with that were memorable and made by a few people (flash games, indie games, etc…), it’s just that as time passes, society has only decided upon a few ‘canon’ games that should be treated as important. Viewing games as having a canon serves no one: it does not serve our humanity, it only serves the profits of whatever companies own the intellectual properties.
Scaling as Necrotizing
In games, “Scaling” a company’s size should be called “necrotizing”. This is because as a company and studio scales - even from say, 4 to 8 people - the games the company produces will generally tend to be more “Dead”, because a bigger studio means more people to pay, which means you need to have wider appeal with the game and think about ways to maximize money. (Again, sure, a game made like this can be 'fun' and 'addicting' but also, cigarettes are addicting and kind of fun.) Sure, even the biggest AAA games always have interesting ideas, but at the same time you’re trading say, 500 interesting games by 2 people, for 1 sort of huge slightly interesting game by 1000 people. Marina mentions similar ideas in last year’s post on Divesting from the Games Industry: Link
The directors of the largest studios are driven by the delusion that their $10m+ budget game is more meaningful than something made alone or with a friend. They inherently look down on small games, and it is obvious if you look at who wins game awards or what games large directors cite on their Games of the Year. Many Awards Shows are judged by people who LITERALLY only play a few games that happened to be popular. Directors of large studios are willing to make others do whatever they want for years, sometimes under overtime, so that they can achieve their goal of making money or giving people ‘fun’. It's fun to watch a leaf drift down a river. It's fun to swing a stick, and it's fun to kick a ball. Why does fun need to be expensive and time-consuming? When the director of the game is controlled by profit and scale, the workers underneath them are likewise controlled, even if they do have some level of creative flexibility in how they implement the 100th physics puzzle mini-dungeon or the modeling of a treasure box.
There is a reason why some of the Japanese game industry’s biggest talents have left big studios and formed smaller ones (I do not mean Kojima), such as Fumito Ueda, Igarashi, Kazutaka Kodaka. Certainly those names fall into the ‘big indie’ category (and face problems from scale), but it’s still illustrative of the fact that the bigger games get, there is something different about them that causes creative leaders to want to flee. While I do not particularly love those designers’ games, I do think they are unique and have visions that I appreciate existing and have learned from. I do think they could make more meaningful work if they weren’t managing like 20 people and under immense financial pressure. What would a 2-person indie game by Ueda look like? That’s interesting to me!
All Designers Are (at least a little) Dead
Now, let me keep in mind that this Dead/Alive binary is not something even a solo indie is free of! As I mentioned, no game is 100% dead or alive. Even Genshin Impact, an addicting, fairly average, and very large scale gacha game, has humanity woven into it, even if it what it expresses is not particularly meaningful compared to other works of media. Artists and level designers made beautiful mountains, even if they’re terrible to experience because the gacha design required there to be a poorly-designed stamina meter.
And likewise, even a small game I release on my own time was partially designed with wanting to be appealing and build some level of my own ‘reputation’.
I don’t want to dictate how “Alive” a game should be (although I do think that having no more mostly Dead games would be a net good for the world), but I want to bring to light that pressure to sell well or pressure to make a ‘big’ game has noticeable effects on the final game as well as collective effects for the entire culture of games.
The point I want to make is that games coming out recently are more of the ‘dead’ type than the ‘alive’ type. The Gacha Games Black Hole is the prime example of this. Dead, empty husks of games, designed by rabid, money-hungry executives who convince themselves every day that making players run on an anxiety-inducing treadmill is “fun” and making the world “a better place”. There are literally people who went and got an MBA, and now get 1000+ people to churn out content that ultimately boils down to shallow anime plots and repetitive grinding!
Being a human should literally not about experiencing these games day in and day out! We can learn a lot about ourselves when we seek out and find the kinds of work that give us joy, not just pick the game that 100 other people are talking about, or that a games buyer's guide told us to buy.
As I see it, history is diverging into two paths. On one hand, we have games - re-imagined as smaller, as something that can and should be 'novel-scaled'. Made by small teams, over a week, or maybe a few years, they contain the flaws and facets of a few people. Creators freely share knowledge, not paranoid of having work stolen. Games are open sourced, assets shared. Everyone knows that sharing ideas makes work stronger. People recognize that their work fits into an overall stream of history, and it’s encouraged to have many other hobbies or interests outside of games or making games. Perhaps they may not become hits, but a little money can be made here or there. Not everyone wants or needs to be a full-time developer. Those fortunate enough to make more money help support others.
On the other path of history, we have the endless, dead, self-consuming Deadgame Industry, exhausting the creative lives of millions on producing these empty games that might be ‘fun’ but are, mostly, just there for us to whittle away the time and leave ourselves unchanged. People churn out assets day after day, their names not even acknowledged (e.g. Gacha games rarely credit developers). Developers are nothing but a replaceable part to churn out the next event or DLC update for a game that is only slightly different from others in their genre. People anxiously consume and play these games, even though their love can never be reciprocated by the cold corporations which make them. The stories are designed for mass appeal and rarely capture the depth and complexity of a human located in a particular social or historical context. Indie devs waste their lives pursuing an unattainable delusion of the 'perfect game', causing themselves anxiety and mental stress, finding themselves 10 years later unable to drop a project due to sunk costs.
I'm too old to spend more time playing Deadgames and I'm too old to want to make and sell a Deadgame.
Forgetting How To Design
There is no need for most new big games - Indie, AA, AAA. Endless games promise a “new take on Souls!” or “Zelda, again, finally!”. The recent Game Awards' grey sludge slide of trailers is perhaps the funniest example of this, but even video collections specializing in new indie games have a 'similar feel' to everything. If you want a new adventure game to play you can just look one up from the past 40 years and that will last you your entire life.
This is because most new games are created as a grab bag of marketable materials, an ‘elevator pitch’. It’s very common in some indie game circles to prepare a pitch deck for a game by literally trawling through the last year of popular steam games, and basing your genre on that. As players we are usually not playing a game that was made by a few people who were thinking of interesting design components and executing on how they relate to each other - but instead, we are playing a disjointed mess of marketability, even if it’s been polished to be playable and pretty. Perhaps, the most striking point of proof is the player survey that Genshin Impact gives first players.
In it, the components of a game are broken down into small, 1 or 2 word terms. The game itself feels like it was designed by trying to fulfill all the terms on a spreadsheet. While the game does everything on this list 'correctly', overall the game does not have much identity nor much to say: it's merely a fun playground with which to pass time.
Recent games, from their narrative to visual to gameplay elements - are duct-taped blobs of various components of games that made a bunch of money. This is because at a larger scale, you need a formula that guarantees good sales. There’s not as much time to design or try out something new, because money needs to be made. This is why games are tending towards Deadgames, and so many games feel like slight innovations or iterations on existing games.
Here is a tweet thread that asks why “game designers are wrong 80% of the time”. The thread boils down to that games have longer iteration times compared to drawing a picture or something. This is partially true (I do believe that developers should at least do internal feedback and a little playtesting), but it also misses how game design isn't starting with the proper fundamentals of 'why am I even making a game?'Tweet Thread (12/31/2020)
- I lay a lot of blame on the much larger gap between authoring a thing, experiencing the thing and revising. - Many types of media (like drawing or painting) allow for real-time 'self-playtesting' with the author as the playtester. - Game design does not.
- Contrast [the fast iteration of painting/writing] with games. :) Some issues where the create-experience-revise loop breaks down. 1. Much longer iteration times. If I'm lucky it takes minutes to make localized changes and test them out. More typically it takes longer.
A game should be born from some fervent interest, a question, a topic to explore. But a lot of the time games are born from “Oh aren’t roguelikes popular? Oh aren’t dating sims popular? Oh aren’t trauma-salad character designs popular?” Many game developers, ultimately, aren’t designing games anymore, they’re just figuring out ways to turn some new McDonalds combo of marketable concepts into a playable Happy Meal Toy and sell it.
Prison of Dreams
If you, like me, are a resident of the comfy, well-off part of the world, we really need to reconsider how games are functioning. The disturbing undertone I feel in many games is that they are here to help those us wealthy enough to own computers ride out the world’s decline. Why else is 'addicting' and 'endless' and 'realistic simulation' such popular terms?
Games often conjure some far off fantasy. While in a short game we can enter that fantasy and come out changed, often times I feel an inner desire to permanently escape and remove all responsibility I have towards myself, the world, others. Passing time with padded out games makes me feel sick and terrible. I want to play games and experience humanity, not an addictive product.
Alpha Beta Gamer, Freegameplanet, Indiepocalypse, Weird Fucking Games, etc… these are great sites that are constantly posting games by small teams or solo developers.
Patch notes are symbolic of the two-way control that designers and players have on each other. Players are controlled by the addiction and promised fantasy of a game (and patch notes represent that they were ‘heard’, moreover, patch notes tend to be employed in games-as-a-service that never stop running). And, designers are controlled by the need to appease to players who will spend a lot due to their gambling addictions (and lack of other meaningful sources to spend on.) - patch notes represent that designers are, in a way, subservient to some players.