Sunday, 16 March 2014

An Interview with Tadhg Kelly of `What Games Are'

One of the key goals of this blog is to learn from and draw context by examining the design idioms of the video game industry, its right up there on the blog banner. I firmly believe that my tabletop roleplaying game design and writing has improved as a result of this and I hope that it is useful for you too.

I have quoted Tadhg Kelly in previous posts and referred to his excellent blog What Games Are. If you are unfamiliar with his blog and you are interested in game design you are in for a treat. I especially encourage you to read through the Glossary. I recently posted some questions to Tadhg and he has replied. 

QTE: In your  What Games Are posts you frequently refer to the Fun Boson and the futility of the hunt to capture it. Is this hunt purely a tool for securing investment or do you believe that there is more to it than that?

Tadhg: No it’s actually mostly genuine. Personally I think the urge to think this way is more to do with general attitudes toward risk and fear of failure. It is also a great story for investors (because they tend to be risk averse by nature) and so they line up. But if it were just about that then you would see most of the companies who preach the method then ignore it, which they don’t.
One of the ways in which games are unique as a medium is that they can be measured. Another is that there are a lot of people both in and around the medium who fundamentally believe that game design is an undiscovered science, a problem to be solved. And once it is solved, they think, it can be replicated. We see this idea manifest repeatedly in many gaming markets, from social through to mobile, and a considerable amount of cloning is similarly driven by trying unlock the boson. And it fails over and over because - like any entertainment medium - the audience’s tastes are always informed by what it saw before and therefore what is considered fun, cool, delightful or entertaining in context.

QTE: A frequent theme in your writing is critical or at least quizzical towards constant industry trends to measure and metricize player experience. If there is no value in solving player experience as an input to iterative design, do you think that by doing so a designer is unintentionally limiting their ability to reach their audience?

Tadhg: Absolutely. A friend of mine likens it baking a cake. When you’re in the middle of baking a cake the dough tastes like a mush of egg and flour, not at all nice (well maybe for a few people). It’s in a protoplasmic state that needs to be brought up to a certain standard of production (baked) before the intended audience can see what it is. Once baked the whole of the mixture has transformed and become something else, something that the individual ingredients would not have predicted.

It’s the same with games. You go into metric and measure and assessment too early and all that happens is you get a lot of people who tell you they don’t like dough mixture. You get a lot of people who complain that it isn’t fun, and also a lot of people who want to tell you how to fix it (often in the cheapest way possible) to get to their idea of what a fun game should be. This fundamentally leads to a fatalist kind of design that ends up simply replicating what seemed to work before because it’s impossible to let yourself think beyond the numbers.

I’ve experienced the result of that kind of thinking far too often in my career to find anything but fault with it. People literally spook themselves out of being creative by not letting themselves just get on with the baking, with iterating for themselves and using their own expert eye to assess what is and isn’t working. Then they lose their nerve and become cloners just like everyone else.

QTE: This final question is more of a Devils Advocate. Imagine that someone, however briefly, captured the Fun Boson and intentionally and deliberately used this knowledge to design an absolutely fantastic game. There was no coincidence or lucky intersection of emergent market trends. How did they do it?

Tadhg: Oh probably through a combination of trial, error, inspiration and contemplation. But there isn’t a boson so it’s a rather redundant hypothesis. 

There’s a reason why most game designers actually only have one or two successes in their entire career. The best games never come about because of a formula, they tend to emerge over time according to rules that we can’t quite decode. To give you an example, I recently played quite a lot of Cards Against Humanity. This is a game that I wish I had conceived of myself because when you look at it it’s just so darned simple, but at the same time has a rhyme and reason to it that belie real game design smarts. You look at Flappy Bird even and it’s the same. 

QTE (*Bonus Question!*): The Story Vs Game debate is heating up again. I find it fascinating because I can't think of any other creative medium that seriously doubts that it can meld or at least reconcile both. Is Story Vs Game an Identity Crisis for video games or is there more to it than that? 

Tadhg: It’s more a battle of perspectives. In an article I wrote a couple of years ago (The Four Lenses of Game Making) I argued that dualities are easy to digest but rarely have any real truth to them, and really games are better analyzed through a quadrant graph structure of frame/fantasy and emergence/experience. Sure, mechanically driven games are a part of that as are narrative-driven games. But so too are simulations (which are neither) or behavioral games (likewise). Thought of in those terms the variations of what kind of game is popular in the moment tend to make more sense and be more easily mapped.

Does it say a lot about the legitimacy of the form? Yes. I personally believe that one of the hard truths of the video game form is that it is very poor at telling narrated stories (as in the manner of a movie or book) because player agency is part of the package, and players are unreliable. Take that away and you have simply linear media with dressed-up page turning, or a kind of interactive artifice which the player doesn’t really affect. Yet many of us still cleave to the idea that games are supposed to somehow be better than movies.

I believe games are an art form, up and down the line, but I also believe that that art form is about state and place and urgency and moment and dynamism and the sense of story rather than the telling of a story. I think game makers from all quadrants essentially sense that too, that the art of games lies somewhere in the middle of these polar opposites, and that the unique capacity of games to pull us in and make us believe in their space is connected to that. 

I think that the legitimacy issues come more from being looked down upon by the outside world, and so sometimes we try to mould ourselves to look at sound more like what the outside world considers “art” (such as co-opting the language of drama, say) but really it’s a problem to be solved internally. Games are an art as they are and we should use language of our own derivation to describe them, and to hell with what the rest of the world thinks.