Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Clint Eastwood of Video Games

In this article, Asi Burak, Co-President of Games for Change, argues that we don't need to be rid of war games, but that we should strive for more sophisticated and realistic war games: ones that address the complexity of war and the moral dilemmas that modern soldiers face every day.

Representing Games for Change in interviews and conversations with the media, I am often asked to comment on the subject of “War Games.” It usually goes like this – an indifferent reporter on the other end of the phone line, who is expecting to wrap up her story with the obvious angle. She's almost starting to type the answer for me and expecting me to say: That we should not make war games, that they corrupt our youth, that they represent the worst in human nature and that when this content is packaged in a video game, it is even more dangerous. But no matter how hard she tries, I never give her that quote. I catch her off guard. I am not against war games, or any type of game, I would say.

War games and first person shooters are here to stay. There is an unbreakable link between the mechanics of targeting, shooting, reloading and the media of digital games. And there is no better conflict than A vs. B, where you gain your resources and achievements at the expense of the other side, an enemy. After all, the first ever video game created in 1962 was named Space-war!.

What we really need are different war games. And more sophisticated ones. A useful perspective to take is that of comparative media. It gives video games a serious consideration – arguing that it will one day be a viable media like books, movies or theatre. Not in terms of sale figures or active online users - in that front we’re already massive (and the ESA would love to provide you with the stats) - but rather in our media’s ability to speak to all tastes and ages. Its ability to create meaning, convey high-level messages and provocative concepts.

Diversity and maturity of a medium means that you would need to go beyond the “blockbuster” and the lowest common denominator. When Clint Eastwood created Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, he wanted to represent war in all its complexity, beyond the myth, icons and conventions. To play on that level, game makers would need to keep on pushing the envelope and create experiences that address a wide range of emotions, not only the thrill of action.

Veterans would tell you that war is not anything like what’s depicted in Call of Duty. The action in a real battle could take only a couple of minutes. The rest is anxious waiting, fear, missing your family at home, seeing your friends injured or die in front of your eyes. Some of my favorite war game scenes are those in which you temporarily lose your weapon. Or before you gain one like in the beginning of Half Life 2. These moments, in which you don’t have total control, seem very realistic. And they are more authentic than constantly shooting and killing hordes of AI targets.

Modern warfare is grayer and blurrier than ever. Patrolling through the streets of Gaza or Fallujah confronts you with civilians. Searching through reported targets of militants confronts you with scared women and children huddled in the corner of a room. Moral dilemmas are common and often they involve quick life-and-death decisions. These are tense and powerful moments that involve both inner and external conflicts. They are moments of truth that test soldiers’ nerves and their most fundamental assumptions about the world we live in. The reality of war is full of those moments. So far our video games are not.

Asi Burak is a veteran game-maker, technology executive and social entrepreneur. As Co-President of Games for Change, he leads on the curation, development, and execution of programs to raise the quality and reach of social impact games. He is also the co-founder of Impact Games, the creators of the internationally acclaimed “PeaceMaker” and “Play the News” gaming platforms.

Monday, December 20, 2010

January 2011 Poll

Please vote for the January 2011 topic! As always, feel free to suggest more topics!

You'll see the poll to the right. The choices are:

  • Crafting
  • Sequels
  • Game Accessibility

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Opposite of Grind

In this article, MMO blogger Zach Best wonders if replayable story content will successfully divert player attention away from the endless grind in MMOs.

Timeless MMO topics are worming their way, yet again, around the ‘sphere. Oh, I can definitely take part of the blame since I strongly dislike subscription games, and what I feel they entail. Clearly, I am neither alone, nor am I objectively correct. Julian, KTR lurker in the threshold, threw down an excellent comment, which in part reads:
The question is why are we seemingly unable to, after 10+ years of designing these things, to avoid the grind? It is generally accepted as un-fun. It’s been a major player complaint since forever. Why are we still operating under the design assumption that grind is somehow “needed” or “part of the flavor of the genre”? Why are we unable to come up with something better?
Which made me think, okay, grind equates to gameplay, but we hate it (mostly). So, what else is there?

“Content,” is what one of my little resident voices said. If defined in such a way, content is the opposite of grind. (Random Google’d website Wordhippo tells me the opposite of “grind” is “joy.”) Yet, from another standpoint grind is content. Our blog would have a completely different name if that weren’t the case.

Let’s back up a second. What is “grind”? I view it as an artificial lengthening of the duration of active gameplay. It is completely subjective. Some people love grinding for nickels by killing hundreds of enemies. Others hate all kill ten rats quests. Some people love crafting dozens of items and using it as a social downtime; while others see it as a huge time-wasting hurdle to jump. There is gray everywhere.

For an example, suppose MMO designer Bob wants to create a quest to teach players about the local mobs, Candlehat Rats. The Candlehat Rats are a common line throughout the zone, which culminates in to a wax-making dungeon where the rats get their candle… hats. They have one trick: when they lose 66% of their life, their candle goes out, and they become enraged. So, before the player finds himself in a candle-unlit dark filled with a handful of enraged rats, Bob wants to make sure the player understands this lil’ trick. Go kill ten Candlehat Rats, Bob writes. (Later on Rob, the writer, will turn this in to some prolific quest text…. unread by thousands.)

Is that grind? A smart player will understand the trick within 1-3 Candlehat Rats. A dumb player will likely not learn it after killing 100 Candlehat Rats. A casual player might see the simple quest as substantial content; while, a jaded MMO veteran sees it as poorly designed filler. No one can agree. Still there must be some opposite, and I told myself “think, think, think, think,” while putting honey in my tea.

If grind represents an artificial stalling of advancement, then its opposite must be ever-advancing. Story! Story always advances, even if the plot doesn’t. Story isn’t artificial. Yet, story is barely gameplay in many MMOs. Story can be a loss of control of our character (“my character would never!”). Story is expensive. And, story can be just as boring as grind. Rarely, I think, do many players go for an MMO based on story.

Yet, the two big MMOs on the horizon, Guild Wars 2 and Star Wars: The Old Republic, are touting story as a pillar of the games. In both MMOs, players will be making decisions that will affect their own personal story (and any gameplay stemming from it). ArenaNet and BioWare are making story core gameplay.

Furthermore, they are making the story very replayable. In Star Wars: The Old Republic, not only will each class have its own story, but there will be two wholly different sides of the story depending on whether the character is allied with the Sith or Republic. In Guild Wars 2, each race has their own prologue, and ArenaNet is heavily emphasizing that hard decisions will have to be made.

Is this the antidote for grind? Can we truly avoid grind by emphasizing an MMO so heavily on story? I do not imagine that this will destroy menial tasks, like killing ten rats, which can be considered grind. But, will this focus the developer’s attention away from so much of the combat-oriented gameplay that grind seems to originate from? Those in Star Wars: The Old Republic’s beta might already have the answer; those waiting on Guild Wars 2… are still waiting.

[This article originally appeared on Kill Ten Rats.]
Zach Best writes at the blogomerate Kill Ten Rats under the moniker of Ravious. He has written about MMOs, lesser games, and food analogies at Kill Ten Rats for over a year with Ethic, Zubon, and friends.