We’ve all heard it, right? “Those who can’t play, coach” or more generically, “those who can’t do, teach”. I could wax long and winded about the applications of such in education (I still haven’t ranted about Investigations Math around here), but I wanted to explore a different tangent today:
Those who can’t play games, study and design them.
There’s a corollary as well:
Those who play games wish they could design them.
This sort of mentality spans a range of mentalities all the way from the loathed “armchair designer” to the bright guys over at Elder Game, professional game devs whose tagline is “Creating and running MMO’s is the real Elder Game!”. Even professionals take time from the “real” dev work to theorize and postulate about game design, since more often than not, the game design that actually pays the bills is formulaic, executive-driven AAA-rated (but B-list quality) cookie cutter game design by the numbers. Raph Koster, Lum the Mad (Scott Jennings), and the like maintain blogs wherein they write, sometimes at length, about game design.
Brian “Psychochild” Green has written about “legitimacy” for the game industry. I tend to think that one aspect of the quest for legitimacy is that interest that people have, the drive to make games better, and the fact that many people work hard to do so, even when they aren’t getting a paycheck for it. The advent of the XNA development language and the explosion of Flash gaming seen at places like Kongregate and the upcoming Metaplace has democratized the game industry, and I’m looking forward to more movement in that direction.
Armchair designers may all too often just be complaining without providing solutions, but some of the best games and brightest ideas may well come from an armchair. I’ll call that the Remy corollary. (Ratatouille reference, for those who don’t catch it from the name… perhaps it’s telling that I have a Remy figure sitting on my computer.) Giving game development tools to those who would pour their labor of love into spectacular products might wind up generating a lot of chaff, but the gems in the field will be more than worth opening the floodgates. (And yes, that means lowering the price on legacy versions of Max and Maya, Photoshop and Flash, or allowing/encouraging secondhand sales of the same. Blender, Wings, GIMP and the like have their place, but there are reasons that they aren’t the industry standard.)
Going down another tangent, the one that sparked this article, actually, I find that as my life gets busier with family and career, I don’t have time to actually play games all that much. (The game I’ve played the most over the last six months is FFTA2, a handheld game that I can play in five minute spurts.) Even so, I am still interested in them as storytelling vehicles and as purely fun diversions. I think, read and write a fair bit about game design. As it happens, I work as a technical artist in the game industry, and I have dabbled in design here and there (most notably in Alpha Hex), so I’m not completely alien to the field, but I do still see a lot of things that I’d like to do with the medium. I can think about game design anywhere and at any time, but I can only play when I have time and the console/PC to do so.
As such, at least half of the time, I find game playing to be almost an extension of my job, rather than something I do for fun. My recent excursion into Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life is one good example. I had to make myself play that game to get past the initial impression of “this is just chores”, and I’m still not really convinced that I’d play it for fun if I had all the time in the world. From that, I derive game design tenets that I will apply to any designs that I have a finger in. At the same time, my FFTA2 experience produces a completely different effect, since I do still find myself playing it for fun, even with 100+ hours logged. (At least half of those in the late night, waiting for my toddler to go to sleep. Before FFTA2, it was Puzzle Quest, and soon, it will be PQ: Galactrix.)
I often find myself more excited about the potential that a game has than actually playing it. I’ll call that my Battletech corollary. This is obviously named for the game where I spent more time poring over technical manuals and fine tuning ‘Mechs than actually playing. I’ve even spent time building mechs for the tabletop game after finding the rules for such… when I don’t even have the game to play or anyone to play with. The game design and the potential for fun interest me that much, but since I don’t really have time to play the thing, I derive my fun from thinking about how the game could be played. Perhaps obviously, I’m a “Johnny” in MTG parlance, content to think of interesting ways that the cards could synergize, but rather disinterested in spending oodles of money and time making those dreams into reality.
Specifically with MMOs, I would fit right in with the nerdiest of theorycrafters, given the chance, and I’d love every minute. As it is, I don’t even have time for that, so I just rely on my quick reading ability to prowl through blogs and official documentation, thinking about the optimal WoW Druid or Hunter build, or the EVE skill training regimen that I’d adopt. I analyze the crafting mechanics and economy of a game, plotting here and there how I might take best advantage of it. For a few months a year or so ago, I worked the Puzzle Pirates economy as a laborer, earning more ‘eights (in-game currency) than I ever did just sailing the high seas, fighting brigands.
Just this last weekend, I was cleaning bookmarks in Firefox, and happened upon some old WoW articles that I’d marked for later, trying to suss out what I wanted to do to optimize my Hunter. I felt a renewed jolt of interest in the game systems, and wished once again that I had the time and money to play.
Bottom line, I do not regret my decisions that have led to a different set of priorities than the WoW basement dweller addict that I could easily have become. I love spending time thinking about games and trying to figure out ways to make them better. Some of the most interesting people I’ve worked with in the industry are genuinely passionate about making great games, and I feel a bit of that in myself.
The limiting factor is not one of passion or even knowledge, despite the perpetual denigration of “armchair design”, the limiter is simply a different set of priorities, primarily putting God and family first.
I’m obviously biased, but perhaps the desire for legitimacy for the game industry might be sated by a similar shift in priorities. This is not necessarily for the industry as a whole, but rather, the industry should welcome and embrace those people who have their life so balanced. It’s been my experience that those developers who put their God (Buddha, Allah, their ancestors, whatever, so long as it’s spiritual, not the god of money or something mortal) and their family first address game design decisions very differently than the college grad with no life who is willing to work overtime for pizza and Pepsi.
Those who can’t, or more importantly won’t, sacrifice their priorities that way, just like an armchair game designer stuck in middle management in the textiles industry, may well be the key to legitimacy as an industry, and more importantly, better games. There’s only so much that Mario, Kratos and Arthas can do, after all. The industry needs to grow up, in more ways than one, and I believe that in large part, it will be because of those who can’t abide the teenage male cesspool that the industry is content to wallow in.
This is why I keep prowling Kongregate, and champion indie developers and great little non-mainstream games like Sonny and Auditorium. It’s why I’m working on Alpha Hex. It’s why I’m excited for the microtransaction revolution, and the further democratization of the game industry.
It’s why I write anything on my blog, and why I read other blogs. There’s a lot of chaff out there, make no mistake, and critical reading skills are still valuable, but the mainstream of game development is no refuge from poor quality, and I’ve found more than a few gems by sifting around the fringes of the industry, and more than a few brilliant ideas by reading the works of armchair designers. The different perspectives, as is so often true in any pursuit, are often extraordinarily valuable for properly framing decisions.
Those who can’t, for whatever reason, are often those who would or even should, given other circumstances. Since life isn’t a meritocracy, it’s incumbent on those who wish for the best to seek out the hidden gems and not be content with what merely is.