Entering the post-gameplay era…

The games medium is on the treshold of maturity. Maturity, for me, is defined by variety: variety in experiences, variety in the audience. When there’s a game out there for every single person on the planet looking to be entertained, the medium will be mature. I believe that the major thing standing in the way of this happening is what many consider to be the core of the medium: the high priority put on gameplay and fun. And I think we are about to abandon it.

The reason why I think so is because of the growing discrepancy between the narratives that games deal with and the things that their gameplay expresses. In the past, stories in games were simplistic. There were only so many pixels to paint a picture and children were the prime target audience. The gameplay was equally simplistic, so the whole thing felt together. This is why Mario and Zelda continue to convince.

How different are these really?

In the past years, however, we have seen an enormous growth in the kinds of stories games try to deal with. Gameplay, on the other hand, has not evolved (or it may have achieved its absolutely perfection and there is no room to evolve further). In fact, I would argue that in essence, the gameplay of virtually all AAA titles is the same, even though their stories are vastly diffferent. Tomb Raider plays the same as Bioshock plays the same as God of War plays the same as Gears of War plays the same as Assassin’s Creed. Gameplay has become a standardized formal layer on top of narrative worlds that vary greatly.
This is probably one of the reasons why the true hardcore gamers have turned away from commercial games in favour of independent games, where stories and gameplay often still form a consistent whole. One could definitely argue that, in terms of pure game design, independent games are often superior.

But pure gameplay holds very little appeal to the majority people. People don’t play Halo because it allows them to shoot things and score points. You can do this in any game. I believe that it is only a matter of time for game designers to understand that what their gameplay is expressing has nothing to do with what they are really trying to talk about. And then they will be forced to take the next logical step: to rid themselves from the archaic concept of gameplay and step into the broader realm of interactive entertainment. When this happens, the doors to the medium’s maturity will be wide open.

18 thoughts on “Entering the post-gameplay era…”

  1. I think it’s how you define gameplay.
    If we define gameplay by the AAA (honestly, why do we call them AAA? It makes them sound like a battery) titles, then yeah, we should get rid of it.

    I think what you mean to say is that most games give you the same type of feeling and emotions, the same experience. I’d say we should enter the post games-as-they-are era. The post same-experience-as-the-last-game era.

  2. its not the feeling and emotions thats the same exactly. really its the mechanics. shooting, sword fighting, etc. (basically always about destruction.) and then the story becomes a slave of that, even when it shouldn’t need to. and that’s the pity.

  3. Auriea, I feel that the feeling that most video games give is mostly the same as any other video game- that needs to change and is largely connected to gameplay (and therefore story).

    But there’s nothing wrong with the concept of gameplay. There just needs to be new mechanics, that don’t have to do with destruction. (And I’m doing such with my game).

    To sum up: It’s not (the concept of) gameplay itself but the current forms of gameplay that are the problem.

  4. right, exactly, so long as it only means chopping off heads or collecting coins, i’d say there is a problem with gameplay. i think the post is just pointing out that this IS what the gameplay IS in the vast majority of games and that it’d be nice if people recognized that fact and stopped saying “oh theres nothing wrong with gameplay”.
    Show me.
    It would be nice to play big budget games that don’t have points, scores, chopping off heads, that aren’t meant for children (“edutainment”) or strict simulations. games that tell stories cinematically and have interesting narratives without being bogged down by these old tired mechanics. there are few, if any. why is that? because everyone knows there is more to gameplay than that, everyone knows it is possible to do more, say more, with interactivity. right?

  5. While I personally don’t like the way games deal with violence much, my feeling that gameplay is starting to loose its importance in the medium does not pertain to violence, really. What I meant was the typical linear cycle of challenge and reward that is the basis of most games, culminating in some sort of victory condition. It seems to me that many high profile game developers are getting much more ambitious with the content and themes they want to deal with. But the aforementioned gameplay mechanics cannot really express this newfound wealth. If the developers continue to be this serious about their stories, they will have no other choice but to do develop new forms of interaction. Right now, outdated gameplay conventions are holding back the blossoming of the medium.

  6. But, to look at it another way.
    Theres this Top 10 Game Design Innovations of 2007 list on Next-Gen. I like how the author is looking beyond the surface to appreciate nuances of flOw even when he’s not sure he’s having fun, or the appreciation of the deep dialog trees in Mass Effect, or the fact that there’s more videos of Line Rider on youtube than of Gears of War. And his number 1 is Portal which is a great example of designing outside the box.
    So, looking beyond the surface is necessary to getting to the post-gameplay experience šŸ˜‰

  7. I don’t agree that Portal is designed outside the box. Where it exells is in matching up the story with the gameplay (by essentially having a simple story). In this sense it is similar to the best indie and even some casual games. I’m glad to see that such a game can become so popular with hardcore gamers.

  8. No.
    I was only really referring to the high profile socalled triple A titles like the ones shown in the picture. Titles with ambitious narratives.

    But even all the games that you mention do have certain things in common. They are all about being challenged, being rewarded and being victorious in one way or another, one more so than the other. And I personally think that this structure will not be useful for much longer as the medium matures.

    That being said, you probably are aware of the fact that half of the games in your list are exceptions to the rule: unique games that do not represent the medium.

  9. I see your point, but I think it was overstated.

    Look at the Wikipedia list of the top 5 video game franchises of all time. Not only are the Sims and Tetris there, but none of those top 5 are like one another in terms of game mechanics.

    Triple-A (as far as I understand it) only means “big budget”, and all of those games are from major publishers with major funding thrown at them.

    This means that my list is at least somewhat representative of “Triple-A” titles and that they have some pretty varied gameplay.

    But I would agree that Tomb Raider, Prince of Persia, Heavenly Sword, God of War and Assassin’s Creed are all quite similar in terms of gameplay, and all of them are telling heroic adventure stories. Likewise for Halo/ Bioshock/ Gears of War, or Warcraft/ Starcraft/ Age of Empires/ Company of Heroes.

    But in the end I think you are wrong about challenge and victory — game-ness, if you will — going away as the medium matures. What makes the medium unique is interactivity, and the user needs some kind of motivation in order to be compelled to interact with the systems we’ve designed. Games are their own kind of motivation. Socializing can be another motivating factor, and this is what drives “games” like Second Life and Habbo Hotel. But without something to strive for, a reason to interact with your software, then it’s like a book that never gets read. Maybe it has philosophoical value in itself, but it has failed in its basic goal because communication requires a listener.

  10. Maybe you’re right. Maybe I am. Maybe neither of us. The future will tell. I am not prepared to decide on the fate of this medium based on what we know about it now. It’s too early for me.

    I disagree with your analysis of the necessity of challenge. I believe that there are many ways to be motivated to play a game. You yourself point out two. There are many more. And future games will cater to these other motivations more and more.

    In fact, this evolution has already begun. I believe it is a mistake to think that most people play computer games for the purpose of overcoming challenges. I think that is only the motivation of a small core group (which includes most developers themselves, hence the misunderstanding).

    If this medium is as powerful as many believe it to be, surely it should be capable of more than Mario and Pokemon!

  11. The idea that games no longer ‘feel togther’ is an interesting one, but the reasons for this phenomenon, I suspect, go deeper than those explored in this article. I am currently working on a theory of games-as-art which involves the concept of ‘interactive density’ (distinct form the concept of the same name applied to user-interfaces) that essentially would formulate the problem you describe in the following way:

    Super Mario Bros. sketched a world that seemed to offer ‘x’ possible interactions, and offered the player roughly ‘x’ ways in which to interact with the space. It’s ‘interactive density’ was therefore close to ‘1’.

    However, games like Elder Scrolls: Oblivion seem to offer ‘y’ possible interactions, but only allow the player to interact with the space in ‘z’ ways, where ‘z’ is fewer than ‘y’. It’s ‘interactive density’ is much lower than 1.

    Now, although ‘z’ is much greater than ‘x’, still Oblivion ‘feels less togeher’ than Mario, because of its lower interactive density.

  12. So what you’re saying is that contemporary games are creating a desire in players that the designers cannot satisfy yet? Will they ever be able to satisfy it? Or is it simply a matter of not creating these expectations?

  13. Yes to your first question, although designers are getting better at it.

    As for the second part, I would say both – don’t hint at possible interactions that you can’t then provide, and work to expand the sort of interactions you can offer.

    Of course, there is the whole separate question ofthe significance of you interactions: there’s little point offering thousands of interactions if they have no meaning.

  14. I like looking at digital speedpaintings of imagined worlds on deviantART. They have an interactive density of approximately zero. The enjoyment they provide for me is entirely virtual – at an even further level of remove from embodied reality than games are – but what they offer to my imagination is often more satisfying than what any game has provided me.

    I don’t believe that an interaction density of one, or higher, is necessarily the best. If you can manage imagination adeptly, it can be better than simply allowing players to completely explore the set of interactions suggested by the game. I do agree that it is usually done poorly however.

    To comment on the actual blog post, I think that what you are saying is very important. It may not be completely true, as the discussion in the comments here have suggested, but the core of the idea is very insightful. I can definitely see how similar the gameplay is between the titles you mentioned, even as their stories and settings are increasingly diverse.

    And the whole challenge-reward cycle – seen in pure form in games such as N – is something that has very little power to compel me. Both as a game player looking for games that can motivate me through other means, and as a game maker, I am eager to explore new and different ways to structure motivation and interaction. And I guess that’s why I’m reading this blog. :)

  15. I think axxho brings up an interesting point: imagination versus interaction. The viewer’s imagination has alway been a major “tool” for artists, a canvas almost upon which the artwork can create a fully personalized version of itself. Or even more: a place where a new artwork can be created beyod the intention of the artist. In that sense, imagination is similar to interaction -interaction in some way being the factual manifestation of imagination. In this like, it seems light a good idea to have both work together, as Seretar’s suggestion seems to point towards. Perhaps by using interaction to stimulate imagination (rather than spelling everything out for the user).

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