Puzzled at GDC 2000: A Peek Into Game Design

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Puzzled at GDC 2000: A Peek Into Game
Design

By

Bernd Kreimeier

Gamasutra

April 13, 2000

URL:

http://www.gamasutra.com/features/20000412/kreimeier_01.htm

"Game design" is a broad concept, and there are as many definitions of it out there as there
are game designers. This year's GDC certainly attempted to cover a lot of ground on the
topic. There were round tables and tutorials covering puzzle design, 3D fan
tasy world
design, community design for large
-
scale online worlds, and more. There were numerous
lectures to choose from in the GDC's Game Design track, including ones on
level design
,
character design
, console game design, dramatic writing, online casino game design,
metagames, designing design tools, and more. Added to these were design
-
related sessions
in other tracks
--

like the tutorial on artifical life, and the "Visual Storytelling through
Lighti
ng" presentation in the Visual Arts track. Hal Barwood's primer for aspiring writers
attracted a room full of people interested in virtual storytelling, and half a dozen lectures
featured the word "story" in one form or another.

All in all, this was a good

deal more than a mere mortal could hope to digest, even if fully
dedicated to the task. Having worked as a writer, physicist, and coder (but not as a game
designer), and with my curiosity subject to the harsh realities of GDC parallel class
scheduling, I
decided from the outset to focus on what, to me, seems to be the most
interesting and promising approach to game design: the attempt to remove the notion of
"storytelling" from games, or at least redefine it for this medium. The most vocal people
exploring

alternatives to classic game design included speakers Doug Church, Marc LeBlanc,
Zach Simpson and Warren Spector.

Abdicating Authorship

Doug Church's presentation, "Abdicating Authorship," probably aimed the closest to the
heart of the storytelling issu
e, especially when he stated:

"Our desire to create traditional narrative and exercise authorial control over the gaming
world often inhibits

the player's ability to involve themselves in the game world."

Church is trying to determine what games can acco
mplish through the features presumed to
be unique to this new medium called "interactive gaming". He reviewed examples of old and
new media that clearly distinguish between the author presenting a more
-
or
-
less static
work, and the "out of the loop" recipie
nt that perceives and interprets the author's work.
Church concluded that


"revelation of the [game] designer's intent is not interactivity".

Dismissing multimedia authoring approaches that simply extend text to hypertext, Church
said that he expects thes
e efforts to yield little beyond the rediscovery of multiform
narrative (that is, multiple points of view). In his presentation, he reviewed computer
games by genre, showing one or two games as examples of each genre. He pointed out that
most adventure gam
es and RPGs have, between puzzle solving and player movement,
driven the replay of story elements and rarely empowered the player with true choice.
Action games (e.g. sports and racing games) offer an experience dominated by ability,
which requires an "in
the loop" player. Being entirely driven by player actions and player
skill, it is very difficult provide any kind of dramatic structure in these games.

Church referenced to Marc LeBlanc's

1999 GDC discussion of feedback loops, which said
that designers could "keep the race close" for players by implementing a feedback loop. In
all honesty, I feel this has little to do with traditional dramatic structure,
which is based on
modulating

tension for the audience, not by assuring a constant level of it. As an alternative
to external intervention (where the game is designed to quietly cheat to keep the game
tense for the player, thus invalidating player decisions
), an in
-
game feedback loop is
certainly a good example of implementing the desired dynamics within the game simulation.
For a racing game, this could be some kind of forward
-
pointing device that could be used to
knock racers ahead of the player off the tr
ack (but that would naturally be useless if the
player was leading in the race).

Of course, there are also the deathmatch/FPS action games
--

a la
Quake
. In the past, John
Carmack has described his view of game design as creating a virtual "amusement park
".
(Don Carson's analogy between games and theme parks is similiar in this respect
--

see
Part
1

and
Part 2

of

his environmental storytelling articles here on Gamasutra.) Church admitted
that the shooters have, so far, spearheaded interactivity, but he also observed that little
progress has been made to date beyond bare contests of reflex and resource management,
which allow for little more than killing. He voiced the fear that maybe this is already the
limit of interactivity possible with current technology.

Here, as in many other discussions, it seemed to me that game designers may not have
looked closely enough

at the reasons for the comparative success of shooter games, be it
early shooting gallery movies or state
-
of
-
the
-
art first
-

and third
-
person shooters. The
possibility of conflict and violence being the heart of, and cheapest way to, dramatic action
has be
en made before. But somehow I suspect that a good deal of credit or blame has to be
put on how these games make use of player hardware. The mouse and keyboard are
narrow
-
bandwidth user interfaces, offering as a means of real
-
time expression only 2D
aiming
and button pushing. This inevitably limits the amount of meaningful interaction, at
least for games that focus on player immersion. It remains to be seen whether voice
recognition and voice
-
over
-
network technology will extend the man
-
machine interface
suff
iciently to open new venues, or whether better immersion will require new controllers
and devices. Certainly no fancy hardware is needed for us to question whether today's
emphasis on point
-
and
-
click interaction inhibits metaphors beyond "shoot this". (As
a
sidenote, one presentation on "armed games" tried to make a case for empowering the
player with a virtual (empty) hand, trading the ability to grasp, carry, and place objects for
a weapon glued to our palms.)

The genre Church focused on last was simulati
on and strategy games. Certainly this genre
has the simulation machinery required for interactive experience, and a time scale that
permits the versatile use of mouse and keyboard interfaces. Between
Sim City

and
The
Sims
, this is a large spectrum of games
, reaching all the way to virtual pets. "The Sims" are
certainly closer relatives to "Creatures", or even Tamagotchis, than Darwin's theory of
evolution might suggest. As attendees pointed out, our fascination with
The Sims

might well
be connected to our c
hildhood attraction to toys: dolls onto which children of all ages can
project their own lives, memories, and personalities.

As Doug Church also pointed out, the shortcuts, "done quick" demos and walkthroughs
available on the web are a lesson in humility
for every designer. The ways players exploit
deficiencies in a simulation are themselves metagames, which players often undertake when
they feel subjected to the external control by a game's "author". It is a natural consequence
of game designs that offer
exploration, but not manipulation, of the virtual environment.
Exploring the rules is just a logical extension of game play.

Having been a professional storyteller for many years, I found it amazing that I had fewer
problems abandoning the notion of an "au
thor" in game design than many others. It seems
that many designers are struggling to get rid of the harness that comes with the notion of
narrative game play. The attempts to redefine "narrative" seem unsuccessful. Church
suggested that players involved i
n a deathmatch might create stories by learning the levels,
but I think in this case he's mistaking cognitive mapping for narrative.


To me, statements like "the designer 'authors' the rules, while the player 'authors' the real
story" try to evade a simple

conclusion: interactive games are about control. They are about
control over the input device, the initiation of events, and the state of the environment. The
player battles for control against the game designer (the designer is the opponent by proxy
--

h
e sets the stage and defines the simulation rules). Player and designer are rarely
cooperative partners; rather, they are natural enemies pitted against each other. The game
designer who strives for storytelling and authorship is the "dungeon keeper" for h
is
customers, entertaining perhaps, but still a tyrant. During the discussion of Church's
presentation, someone in the audience suspected as much: the game designer is indeed a
planner and a schemer, who is "plotting" against the player.

Game designers mi
ght want to consider the possibility that there might be little future for
narrative in cyberspace. They are caught between deathmatches as interactivity devoid of
meaning, multi
-
branch storytelling, and aspirations for creating a
Holodeck experience
.
Doug Church himself saw little appeal in the p
ossibility that the voyeurism, inertia and
passivity which made TV a success will also dominate the much more powerful medium of
computer games.

Formal Abstract Design Tools

In the lecture preceding Doug Church's, Marc LeBlanc sought out a different approa
ch to
game design. Under the label of
Formal Abstract Design Tools

(FADT), LeBlanc, Church and
others are trying to establish rules, models, techniques and, most importantly, a
shared
vocabulary to improve the understanding of game design as a craft. The ideal FADT,
according to definition, is "well
-
defined," "abstract" (i.e., applicable across genres), has day
-
to
-
day utility, and works in a well
-
understood application context. D
uring another GDC
discussion, Warren Spector pointed out the unexpected resistance game designers exhibit
when facing the idea that their work and thinking could possibly be described and discussed
in more formal ways, and Marc LeBlanc was quick to pre
-
emp
t concerns by assuring that
FADTs are not meant to be a "Swiss Army Knife" of game design.

His presentation started with the battle cry "down with fun," which he elaborated upon as
he created a taxonomy of "fun" to illustrate both the fuzziness of the conc
ept and its limited
applicability. "Fun" as applied to games covers everything from simple sensual pleasure to
make
-
believe, from drama to the satisfaction of solving intellectual challenges, from social
interaction to submission, from exploration of anoth
er person's invention to self
-
discovery.
It is hard to find precision in such versatility.

Personally, I suspect that a good share of the FADT efforts are trying to reinvent the wheel.
The problems and challenges in finding a common vocabulary for a craft
have been
encountered in other professions, and the recent decade has brought a variety of solutions.
In my limited experience, Christopher Alexander's work on "design patterns" seems the
most promising avenue (more about this in a upcoming Gamasutra artic
le), which uses an
approach that has been successfully applied to fields as diverse as architecture, workflow
management, and software engineering. (You can also see Zach Simpson's collection of
ga
me programming patterns

as an example.)

Marc LeBlanc also looks to other disciplines for inspiration. In his GDC talk last year, he
introduced feedback loops as a design concept. This year he ventured into "complex
systems," which quite naturally contain f
eedback loops: the rules governing the state
change take the current state into account. "Complex systems" (much like "fractals,"
"nonlinear dynamics," or "emergence") has become a popular science buzzword over the
past decade, and the concept has suffered

from this. Marc LeBlanc focused on the
observation that the behavior of a dynamic system often cannot be easily predicted from its
set of rules, even if those rules are deceptively simple. In reverse, mere observation of a
sample system will not allow you

to deduce of those rules.

The example commonly used to illustrate complex systems and their dynamics is that of
cellular automata (for a reference I suggest
Steve Wolfram's book
). The most popular of the
cellular automata is John H. Conway's
Game of Life
, which LeBlanc used to demonstrate
properties "emerging" from a set of rules. He then compared this 2D cellular automaton
with 2D board games like Chess or Go
, where attack and defense tactics and strategy are
only implied by the game's rules. He also pointed to card combos in
Magic: The Gathering

and emergent properties like Trains, Kiting, and Killstealing in
EverQuest (
the latter makes
emergent properties lo
ok more like a problem than an asset).

LeBlanc tried to make a case for emergent complexity as a possible source for "fun." In his
view, such emergence creates larger spaces to explore, offering the player more features to
discover and more challenges to m
eet. He tried to distinguish systems with simple elements
from those in which the constituents are quite complex . The one word he did not use was
"combinatorial"


a good deal of the complexity in cellular automata is due to the fact that,
while the numbe
r of possible states per cell is finite, the number of cells is quite large, and
the resulting state space of the entire system is blown up beyond human comprehension by
combinatorial explosion.

There is little to be learned from cellular automata that cou
ld be applied to game design,
thus his presentation quickly moved on to examples such as sports simulations, which are
well advised to replicate emergent properties of the real world by replicating the underlying
dynamics. (Ted Zuvich's GDC lecture on phys
ically accurate vehicle dynamics for
Need For
Speed

was a case in point). For most games, differential equations will rule the player's
world, not the discrete counting rules of transition that govern cellular automata. On
another level,
The Game of Life

i
s indeed a telling metaphor with respect to game design:
one detail LeBlanc did not elaborate on was that they are fully deterministic systems, ticking
away like clockwork, driven solely by the laws of behavior and the initial conditions as
defined by thei
r design. If game designers ever get serious about abdicating authorship,
these two devices
--

initial conditions and laws of dynamics
--

will be the essence of the
tools left at their disposal. Random initial conditions, as contemplated by LeBlanc, will
d
eprive the designer of even the ability to set the stage, before leaving it for good.

The lecture made the point that complexity is not accomplished by creating lots of rules. In
fact, the common way to implement a game simulation is to write an expert sys
tem
--

a
database of rules of thumb and special cases, patched and hacked to accomodate short
-
term needs during game development. The properties created by rule
-
based simulations
don't always make sense, and might even be contradictory. On the other hand,
properties
emerging from perfectly consistent simulations usually come as an unpleasant surprise. For
instance, once players discovered rocket jumping

in
Quake 2

(whereby players fire the the
rocket launcher at the floor and use the reactive force to prope
l themselves skyward), they
began to use that trick to cut corners in ways the map designers had not anticipated.
Warren Spector gave another example in a recent interview about his game,
Deus Ex
. He
explained that the interplay between the game's AI and t
he sound caused by a single bullet
casing hitting the ground exposed sniping players to such a degree that, in the interest of
preserving the plot, the game simulation was hacked to accommodate this emergent
property. (Caseless ammunition was seemingly not

an option).

Marc LeBlanc pointed out that degenerate player strategies indicate a flaw in the simulation
of resource exchange. He described game dynamics as a process of transportation or
conversion (i.e., a flow defined by sources, sinks, and transducers
), and he described player
exploits as "energy spikes." In my physicist's eyes, this is just a way of saying that game
simulations usually fail to model the conservation of energy correctly (as an example, multi
-
body simulations used in astrophysics perfor
m error correction based on energy
checksums). Degenerate player strategies as LeBlanc describes them are simply perpetual
devices discovered by the player
--

or at least a vast heat reservoir to tap into.

In other words, the solution to many such problems

might be found in modeling the
economy of transactions accurately. This is a hot topic for massively multiplayer games; this
year's GDC offered Zach Simpson's lecture on
In
-
Game Economics in
Ultima Online
. LeBlanc

himself settled for a different solution, namely dampening the system dynamics to prevent
spikes. From a physicist's experience, adding friction can only slow down every process,
without addressing the real problem. His advice that designers should unders
tand and tune
exchange rates is certainly to the point, as is his recommendation to prototype early and
test often games that exhibit emergent behavior. He also pointed out that introducing
feedback loops into the system can have undesirable consequences:
positive feedback
(combined with an infinite energy supply, I would add) creates extremely unstable
situations, while strong negative feedback can make the system too stable. Friction that
overwhelms every other force will bring any system to a grinding ha
lt.

All in all, the discussion of game dynamics in terms of nonlinear dynamics certainly opens
an intriguing area of discussion, but I would advise game designers to proceed cautiously.
The majority of popular science publications on nonlinear dynamics use

the jargon without
comprehending the underlying concept, and even physicists have applied them in sloppy
and reckless ways. Beyond metaphor, there might be little practical use for this.

LeBlanc concluded his presentation by reviewing ways that various
flavors of "fun" might
emerge from toying around with a complex system, and the dreaded issue of "narrative"
came up again. His claim that complexity gives you the proverbial "infinite number of
monkeys" does not convince me, mathematically nor as a profes
sional storyteller. Marc
LeBlanc proposes "embedded (authored) narrative" as a complement, and wants game
designers to restrict themselves to the major story arcs. While I consider "emergent
narrative" a meaningless concept, abdication of authorship alone
will not suffice.

This uneasy marriage of simulation
-
driven and scripted events fell apart when Marc LeBlanc
made a case for "limited non
-
interactive moments." Certainly letter
-
boxing in
-
game
cinematics and cut scenes is a visual cue to the player that he
has entered a "hands off"
sequence, but this technique does not remove the tension between the designer's desire for
authorship and the player's desire for control. Game play is never "largely" emergent
--

good narrative inevitably has long
-
range correlati
ons and convergence points that impose
constraints on the results of interactivity. I visibly annoyed one game designer by pointing
out that interaction that is irrelevant to the chain of events at large is shallow and
meaningless. Many game designers are
painfully aware of this, and the workaround
commonly used is a "Paris and the Golden Apple" hack
--

at the end of the game, the player
gets to choose one of two or three possible outcomes. (Incidentally, this kind of choice does
not have in
-
game consequenc
es.) A good example is
System Shock 2
, and some might be
generous enough to include the cheesy ending of
Half
-
Life

as well.

An example mentioned during the discussion put the conflicting forces between authorship,
emergence and exploitable features in a


"
mini narrative" nutshell: in
System Shock
, the
last bullet in a clip did double damage. It is easy to see how such a simulation patch could
be turned on its head once the player became aware of it.

LeBlanc offered valuable practical advice based on his exp
eriences at Looking Glass: simplify
game elements but use them in conjunction with each other, focus on interaction instead of
element complexity, and settle for a two
-
tiered system architecture with a few solid
foundation systems that are expected to surv
ive the development process unchanged. It is
as difficult for the game designer to predict the outcome of a set of rules as it would be for
the player, since complex systems easily outgrow the human mind's ability to control and
adjust. The slides of Marc
LeBlanc's GDC 1999 and 2000 presentations are available as
Powerpoint files
.

Game Design and Game Culture

The panel on "Game Design and Game Culture," brought together designers like Warren
S
pector, Marc LeBlanc and Richard Garfield, along with guests from academia like Katie
Saling

and Frank Lantz. Greg Costikyan, a game designer and artist, opened the panel by
stating that there
is

no game culture, no shared critical
vocabulary
, no artist's recognition,
and no historical perspective (primarily due to rapid changes in technology that remove
older games from the market).

I see counterexamples to the alleged shortlivedness of games
, in the form of emulators,
open source legacies (such as
DOOM

and
Quake
) and public domain clones. It is today's
rampant notion of intellectual property that incarcerates games (see the
Hasbro lawsuit

and
its implications

as an example).

The panel, from various viewpoints, touched upon the issue of turning games into sports.
This discussion covered the requiremen
ts and changes needed to accommodate spectators
(which could influence a design to the point of interference with the game play), and some
panel members like Greg Costikyan were repulsed by the attempts to "turn shooters into
sport". Citing the example of
Wing Commander 3
, Marc LeBlanc pointed out that spectators
and players are antagonists, and that their different objectives are hard to satisfy
simultaneously. Warren Spector emphasized that early single
-
player gaming was in fact a
social event: people gat
hered about a box, and there were fuzzy lines between spectating
and participating (I remember this well from my days playing
Elite
on the C64). He stated
that this aspect of gaming is sadly missing even from the most massively multiplayer games
today.

Kat
ie Saling, from the University of Austin, pointing to hidden audiences like the Machinima
culture of
Quake

cinema, said we are beginning to build cultures of spectatorship, and yet
we lack a vocabulary of perception and reception.
Quake
, with its minimal b
ut open design,
has by means of recams of
Quake

matches (as well as scripted performances) created a
"culture of production."

Greg Costikyan must have felt deja vu as he listened to everyone revisit the issue of why
games are not yet considered art/might
not be art/should be considered art/should become
art... and any combination thereof. He pointed out (in a different context, on
the effects of
violence
) that these discu
ssions repeat themselves in cycles. Little is to be gained by asking
whether "game is the right word" or by "debunking immersion." (I know that science fiction
writers have used the exact same words as this panel to describe the perceived disinterest
and r
ejection by mainstream media, academia, and the general populace.)

For me, Warren Spector's reassurance that "the real world is paying attention" conjured the
image of a shrink watching us with a guarded expression. Spector stated that an expressive
form i
s most interesting only after its rules have been established; his main interest lies in
reaction
against

the established form, the subversion of it. I suspect the time span between
the pioneering and the "postmodernization" of a medium has been cut down t
remendously
since the early days of motion pictures, so the game industry may not have to wait as long
as the film industry for subversion of the form to outpace invention of the form.

Katie Saling's question "who is the designer, and who isn't?" got to t
he heart of interactive
games. There is hubris in statements like "the designer has to manage player contributions
to ensure quality". "Educating" and "training" the player are concepts with connotations
--

Gabe Newell's recent proposal to apply the lesson
s of behavioral science to game design can
be extended all the way to Pawlow and Skinner. Personally, I much prefer Frank Lantz'
reminder that "we have to acknowledge, we have to celebrate gamer experimentation".

Marc LeBlanc observed that game designers c
onsider themselves authors that have to
deliver entertainment, and pronounced this a mistake. He cautioned the audience that
"deconstruction of a game is part of its creation," and moved on to list concepts overvalued
by designers and gamers alike: challen
ge, narrative, sensational aspects, player as foe,
competitiveness. He pointed out that such tunnel vision is the individual player's right and
privilege, but it's far less acceptable for a designer. In contradiction to his presentation later
at the GDC, L
eBlanc recommended that game designers stop using the language used in
other media, like movies or writing. Moderator Eric Zimmerman called this the "Matt LeBlanc
Manifesto":

games should simply be viewed as vehicles of self
-
expression.

Responding to this
"manifesto," Warren Spector found himself agreeing with its requests
and recommendations, but said he had not yet found a way to implement them. He felt the
expressive tools available to game designers, with the exception of the pure text
adventures, have
been "pathetic" for the past twenty years. Spector described
Deus Ex

as
an attempt to create an RPG with the intricate complexity of the real world, and stated that
he "should have been kicked in the ass" for attempting as much. He described how players
fi
rst confronted with
Deus Ex

perceived and played it as if it was
Quake,

and pointed out
that the hardest challenge is to find ways of communicating to players the differences
between superficially similar first
-
person games. Spector also described his past

work at
Steve Jackson Games and TSR. He cited the contrast between the former's precision and
the way TSR intentionally left gaps in the rules.

LeBlanc put forth that what designers decide to omit is as important as what they include in
their games. Acco
rding to Greg Costykian, players find it quite possible to immerse
themselves in the minimalist ASCII art of Nethack.

No game is exempt from the need for consistency, Richard Garfield said, and he used
Magic: The Gathering
as an example. He pointed out tha
t sharing the design experience
with the player was a natural consequence when small groups met to play, but this process
requires painstaking attention when players network in larger, more organized groups.
Games get "hacked" easily in local meetings and
will be adapted to accomodate short term
needs. I was reminded of the interactive game
-
master feature in Nihilistic's
Vampire: The
Masquerade Redemption
. I can picture cubicle rows full of full
-
time game masters for
massively multiplayer worlds, or the "ar
tifical playwrights" predicted with an echo of 1960
AI research arrogance.

In the end, a conclusion might be just this: if games are about fun, then capturing that
elusive quality seems hard work indeed. Or, as LeBlanc put it: "If we could pluck fun from
t
he trees, we would."

Ethics in Game Design

The difficult topic of "ethics in game design" (not to be confused with ethical considerations
about making games) was addressed by a panel headed by Bernard Yee, Director of "Gamer
Programming" at Sony Online En
tertainment
--

another behaviorist maybe. Yee was joined
on the panel by Bob Bates, Toby Ragaini, Austin Grossman, and Doug Church. Beginning
with a brief introduction to ethics, the discussion moved swiftly but didn't really break new
ground.

Altruistic
decisions require choice and consequence within the game. Yet in
-
game
consequences cannot include rewards, only penalties. As one panelist put it, generosity
points defeat the purpose.

The idea of player decisions not guided by the cruel equations of in
-
ga
me economy seemed
very troublesome to some. Other voices from the audience dismissed the topic outright,
claiming that games without real
-
world consequences could not possibly have an ethical
dimension at all. In my view, such an attitude denies that our t
houghts and reactions have
ethical
--

or other
--

relevance. A truly ethical mind does not stop evaluating just because it
has entered the reality of fantasy or daydreams.

Addressing first audience comment (which, predictably, failed to separate the design
er's
ethic from the ethical implication of the design), the questioner cited an Infocom game that
included the option to torture an NPC. In an ironic twist, it turned out that panelist Bob
Bates had himself suggested adding this element to the game in jest

--

and had resigned
from the project when it was actually added. Entertaining distractions aside, the panel
somewhat sidestepped the "Torture? Y/N" thought experiment. In my opinion, the
resemblance to classical psychology experiments on obedience and eth
ical choice is striking.
Games will be considered a medium of self
-
expression and self
-
exploration only when
players question their actions before and after the fact.

Similarly, there was dissent on the possibility of ethics in single
-
player games. Toby Ra
gaini
claimed that single
-
player games could merely be educational, as ethics requires an affect
on a human being. I oppose this assertion, based on findings on how children explore ethics
by searching out entities on the border between living and dead, be

it insects or (as detailed
in Sherry Turkle's
The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit
) computers. Of course,
a linear single
-
player game which doesn't allow any player choices leaves little room for
ethical decisions (but does not rule out interna
l response to perception). The black
-
and
-
white world of
Half
-
Life
offers "questionable" design, not ethics. Doug Church pointed out
that even
Ultima 4
, "poster child of ethical behavior," offers no other decision but to either
go with the (linear) game
flow, or simply stop playing at all.

For me, one of the most intriguing observations was how the panel and audience quietly
subscribed to Manichaeism in its purest form. From the quip about
DOOM

as a "Christian
shooter" (we are shooting demons, after all)
to a brief exchange about Lionhead's
Black and
White
, it seemed as if games allow only for right or wrong at most. Bob Bates was the only
exception, conjuring an example where there is no "right" decision, just a legitimate conflict
of (NPC) interests. If
the mold of first person games can be described by "If all you have is
a hammer, everything resembles a nail", then the confinement for "ethical" games might be
expressed by "If everything is either reward or punishment, everybody looks like a dog."

It was

quite telling that the panelists had to struggle for a response to the question as to
whether they had ever "played a game that had ethical choice." Most examples (like
cheating on AI players in
Alpha Centauri
) were not convincing. The panel and audience
finally settled for the sacrifice of the sidekick "Floyd the Robot" in Steve Meretzky's Infocom
game,
Planetfall
. Unfortunately, the designer himself pointed out that the sidekick himself
initiates the act that leads to its demise, and that the player does

not know the outcome.
There is seemingly a lot of power in "perceived consequence" as opposed to actual choice
--

powerful enough to make a roomful of game designers blame themselves for something the
game designer had plotted.

Other aspects covered in th
e discussion included whether ethics in games requires the
presence of a (human) audience (and therefore only multiplayer games qualify in that
regard), whether the in
-
game ethical problems that plague online worlds (like player killing
or looting corpses)

should be adressed inside the game or outside, and whether players
actually want to play "bad guys." Yee pointed out that
TIE Fighter

didn't sell as well as
X
-
Wing
, but the audience countered by pointing out the success of Bullfrog's
Dungeon Keeper.

At on
e point, Yee decided to blame the lack of ethics in games on the limited number of
actions available to most players. In his view, WALK, SHOOT, and RUN might not be
sufficient to respond to an ethical dilemma. Saved games and replayability were other
scape
goats.

I did not find the attempts to define ethics as non
-
optimal decisions (with respect to
personal gain) entirely convincing.


Yee's claim that a "hero never reaps reward" falls short
--

it may just be the definition of reward that changes. It is equal
ly possible to say that
ethical decisions optimize with respect to a different cost function (see Kant's "categorical
imperative," or even the examination of apparent altruism in sociobiology).

The analysis of "tit for tat" in game theory is an interestin
g perspective when considering
players that cheat on AI partners in strategy games. Conversely, "stable" strategies as
defined by John Maybard Smith might be a source of inspiration for online games.

In the end, whether outside or inside the game world, th
e economy
--

not ethics
--

guides
most decisions. If game designers expect to put ethical considerations into the heads of
gamers who couldn't care less, their designs will fall apart, with or without online
community.

One other observation suspiciously absent from these discussions on ethics was that ethics
is "no fun." Ethical dilemmas hurt. Witness the sweetness of the classical Hollywood movie
"kiss off" contrasted with the haunting quality of an open, ambiguous endi
ng. All things
considered, the audience was probably right on target in suggesting that the ethical
dimension of a game is brought about by raising questions, not by providing answers.

Let me conclude by making some observations about Yu Suzuki's
Shenmue
k
eynote
presentation. In my blessed ignorance, I experienced the presentation of this accomplished
designer's work as a history lesson on computer games. Having set out to create his first
game decades ago with a team that fit into a single room, Suzuki com
manded 300 internal
and external contributors and a staggering amount of resources for what he calls a
"cinematic RPG." I could not help but compare the skyrocketing costs for "props" in the
game development industry to the plummeting costs for making feat
ure films (
digital
cameras and post
-
production technology

have let people bring independent movies into
theatres for less than $35,000). For
Shenmue
, computer
-
aided modeling wa
s found
insufficient, so life
-
sized head mockups were created, scanned at 50,000 polygons per face,
and then reduced to much less. As Suzuki pointed out with a smile, he was "not making
games for PSX2."

Motion capture is a prime example of how the limitati
ons of movie production affect both
the budget and artistic expression of games. Real
-
world props and actors are needed by
games that rely on motion capture. Worse, the actors have to be taught and trained first
(e.g., fighting games require accomplished m
artial artists for motion captured scenes). Like
movies, games now have to create reality first. These "cinematic" games have given birth to
a new sampling industry, as well as to games defined by a new kind of derivative design
--

one that clones the real

world.

A Sega promotional movie shown during Suzuki's presentation posed the question, Is this
really a game? As my head filled with the lectures and panels of the previous days, I
couldn't help asking myself the same question. This game has 350 character
s and nearly as
many voice actors (in Suzuki's words "too many, too

expensive"). This game goes through
painstaking efforts to fill the gaps of mundane tasks like opening and closing doors, tasks
that movie economy "cuts" out of the experience. What can it

bring us beyond the death of
the garage developer?

To me, all the meticulous effort put into
Shenmue

seemed more appropriate as edutainment
than entertainment. If we wanted to experience other lives in similar detail, it would likely
have to come as a do
cumentary, not a game or movie. Somewhere between the rigid
harness of narrative and the pointless complexity of cellular automata, games have to find a
way to create meaning and relevance outside and beyond the actual interactive experience.

Suzuki has fu
lfilled for himself a dream, one shared by many (if not the majority of) game
designers. He strives to create a new genre by merging the imagery of movies with the
interactivity of games. Only a third of the
Shenmue

team were Sega employees, the others
wer
e recruited from external industries, all of which presumably are at home in the movie
business. Time will tell whether the "movie
-
as
-
game" is our future
-

for now, the console
industry prepares the ground for the return of Siliwood.

Copyright © 2003 CMP M
edia Inc. All rights reserved.