Wednesday 12 May 2010

The Quad: Showing Our World is not Flat

Photo of a boat tipping off of the edge of a flat World.

We all have an interest in understanding why we like or dislike a game. Armed with this knowledge, we'll spend less money on games that we won't like, and spend more of our precious time with the ones that we will.

In my last post I introduced the four elements of The Quad:

Psychology, Decision, Randomness, and Physiology.

Together, they constitute a complete model for describing a videogame. Breaking a game down into its component parts, and categorising them within this model, allows us to build up a dictionary of positive and negative terms to look for in other games.

“I like games where Decision has more influence on whether I win than Randomness.”

“I like games that efficiently lay out the rules governing Decision, Randomness and Physiology, so that I can quickly start playing.”

“I don't like games that force me to consume their Psychology. I prefer to be able to skip this aspect.”

As long as we're given enough information, we should be able to determine whether we will enjoy a game simply from its description.

Unfortunately, the information provided by those selling videogames tends to be incomplete. The focus is on showcasing a game's unique theme or story, its Psychology, rather than highlighting innovation in gameplay. Blinkered sales pitches are due, in part, to the lack of an established vocabulary to describe the portion of a game rooted in Decision, Randomness, and Physiology. Advertisers are limited to communicating with the terms found in the public's lexicon.

Vocabulary begets understanding, understanding begets discourse, and discourse begets progress. If developing a complete vocabulary is a key step towards the betterment of games, and our relationship with them, then why hasn't one already been created? We have a huge global community of people playing videogames, who've had over 40 years to agree on how to describe them. I think that the failure to progress has resulted from the commercial environment in which videogames are sold.

The videogames industry is relatively new when compared to film or television, and positively newborn when compared to print. These mature media already shared a well established advertising model when videogames joined them: they interleave adverts with content on the same distribution network. It's not surprising that these traditional channels were adopted by videogames publishers when they first started publicising their games. By using television, film and print, you could reach a large, pre-existing audience, well trained to absorb advertising in these forms. Additionally, the cost per impression was far lower on these channels than delivering videogames advertising on physical media alongside content. However, mixing media types between advertising and content created dissonance.

Television, film and print only tell linear stories, so their content can be classified as pure Psychology. The vocabulary that's evolved around these industries only extends to describe this one aspect of The Quad. When videogames initially employed these channels for advertising, only a game's Psychology could be showcased using their narrow parlance. It's the equivalent of describing the world as a flat disc, when in reality there's a whole other dimension to it. Before a suitable way of detailing the other features of a game emerged, the limited scope of what could be communicated had impacted the content of games. The environment fostered videogames that could be sold successfully on the merit of their Psychology alone. The resultant prevalence of mainstream titles that rely on compelling Psychology, wrapped around tried and tested gameplay mechanics, is still with us today.

However, I believe that we're on the cusp of traditional advertising having a declining influence on game design. The proliferation of the Internet has provided a unified advertising and distribution channel for videogames. As a result, it's no longer necessary to publicise a game with non-game content. The Internet has also facilitated the rise in influence of word of mouth. Now, my primary sources of information when making buying decisions are game demos, and the opinions of my peers.

Traditional advertising is a one-way broadcast. It provides a sponsored appraisal of a product that you can either accept or discard. This is of limited value when compared to social networking, where two-way discussion is possible, and a trusted consensus is reached by the group. There are no restrictions on the content of your discussions, and the more we talk about games critically, the more the missing vocabulary to describe gameplay is evolving. The dictionary is being written organically by the community, who have the impetus to communicate in broader terms than are being used in advertising.

We're seeing the initial influence of contemporary publicity in indie design. Indie developers have a minimal reliance on traditional advertising due to its cost, and lean heavily on public demos and word of mouth. The unconstrained vocabulary of these channels makes it possible fully describe a game, and generate buzz around innovative gameplay. This is critical, as indie games don't have the budget to compete with the money spent on creating bespoke Psychology for mainstream titles. Open communication is one of the key pillars that supports the strong indie scene that we have today.

The opinions we form through social networking are much more valuable to us than the ones we're fed in adverts. As the forums we use to reach consensus are becoming ubiquitous, the trend is to disregard traditional advertising. Publishers will eventually shift to using the same forms of communication that are already influencing indie design. It's only a matter of time before a broader vocabulary for describing games impacts the mainstream.

The formation of this vocabulary is in its infancy, but you have to start somewhere. Bringing The Quad to your attention is my contribution to seeing gameplay take its rightful position on the throne of game design.

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