Interview with Chris Bateman

Tale of Tales interviews
Chris Bateman

Chris Bateman and Richard Boon's "21st Century Game Design" reads as a message of peace on the one hand and understated mockery on the other. On the one hand, Mr. Bateman attempt to diffuse the petty wars between game fans about the superiority of this game or that by pointing out that different players enjoy different things. And on the other, he mocks the highly specialized nature of game designs that the industry itself considers conventional and even mainstream. It's popular among gamers and developers to assume that one day everyone will play videogames, that it's just a matter of time until every person on this planet will be converted to the new medium. But Chris Bateman's research shows that this is simply impossible without seriously altering the nature of videogames, and broadening the diversity in the offer.

The players of games

Tale of Tales (ToT): Your analysis of games and society in "21st Century Game Design" seems to suggest that according to their psychological profile, the majority of people on this planet have no interest in most titles being produced by the videogames industry. Yet this industry is hardly doing any efforts to target this audience. Is this correct? Can you explain a bit? Do you see any changes on the horizon?

Chris Bateman (CB): It is substantially the case that most videogames that get made have appeal for only a very small number of players, comparatively speaking. But the flipside to that is that we're talking about a group of players - a few million, more or less - who buy and play many different games in a year. So even though it's a comparatively small audience, they're very significant in terms of turnover to the games industry. Of course, there's an element of self-fulfilling prophecy there.

The widest possible market for videogames is interested in kinds of play which most gamers scoff at.

The flipside is that the widest possible market for videogames is interested in kinds of play which most gamers scoff at. When Wii Sports came out, many gamers dismissed it as being more like a toy than a game. But this is a product which targets a wider audience very successfully - Nintendo knew what they were doing when they put this together. And just this month it became the biggest selling videogame of all time.

So I think it would be fairer to say that the videogames industry suffers from a terribly schizophrenic split in the market, between dedicated gamers (a minority, except in terms of the money they spend) and a wider market (the majority, but not interested in most games). Between these polar extremes must be a wealth of other niche markets which we have only barely begun to explore.

ToT: Do you know why the few games that succeed in appealing to a larger and more diverse audience (The Sims and Grand Theft Auto), have not started a revolution in the industry? Why are developers and publishers still content with selling a few million copies of their first person alien shooter when they could be selling several more millions with a more sophisticated, inclusive design?

CB: The Sims should have been a watershed moment for the videogames industry, selling 10 million offering a style of play with obvious appeal that had never been explored before. But publishers for years said of The Sims that it was a special case, and they assumed they couldn't do anything similar - so they didn't try.

Grand Theft Auto, on the other hand, has achieved it's appeal through a very special set of circumstances - publishers have tried to copy it, but they have been unable to get anything quite as effective together. I think in this case the GTA franchise has combined two of the most popular elements of the current games market - cars and guns - into some impressive virtual worlds. It's expensive to compete with that directly, but publishers can't think how they might achieve similar goals by other methods, so they get stuck.

Honestly, one of the many problems that the games industry suffers from is that anyone who has enjoyed a videogame thinks they know everything about games. So Wii Sports is just a toy, and The Sims was just a one-off, a fluke that couldn't be repeated. Most of the people employed by publishers know what games they enjoyed, and use that very limited knowledge to guide their future business decisions - hence first person shooters are easy games to sign, because there's no shortage of people employed by publishers who enjoy FPS games. But it makes it hard for anything new to be tried.

And to be fair, most attempts to try something new are not as successful as The Sims or Wii Sports. Most videogames - whether original or derivative - are commercial failures.

Innovation

ToT: Is this a fact? And if so, do publishers know about this? And if they know, why don't they publish more original games? Since the risk of failure is just as great.

CB: Yes, publishers know that most videogames fail. In fact, about 2.5% of games are responsible for about a quarter of turnover, and about 10% of games are responsible for about half of the turnover. It's reasonable to ask, given this scattershot sales pattern, why more original games aren't made and the answer to this is complicated.

The thing with a familiar game idea is that people know what to expect - a publisher can sign an FPS because they know what one is, and can compare it to other successful games in the same genre. But if you take them something original they are quite rightly concerned that it might not have an audience - because most original game content is too complex or abstract to hit a large audience.

If I'm honest, most game designers are not good at innovating with respect to the mass market. They're great at coming up with new ideas for games they might enjoy, but that doesn't equate into new ideas for games that a wider audience can enjoy. I'm not suprised that publishers don't explore some of the ideas that come from the game designers.

Commercial conservatism is the primary reason most original games don't make it to market. But it must be said, many of the original games that are fielded don't have much in the way of a commercial prospects, and some have a strong idea that doesn't implement well in practice. Although I have seen many games with genuine potential get shut down too.

My complaint against companies such as EA, to be frank, isn't that they focus on making sequels to already successful titles - that's always going to be a sound commercial strategy - it's that they don't explore the market for new possibilities with the spare capital that they have. EA's policy is to let other companies take the risk inherent in innovation, and then copy any genre that turns out to be successful. That's a low-risk business strategy, I'm sure, but that doesn't mean I respect this lazy, negligent approach to innovation. Compare to Nintendo, who are really pushing the envelope in terms of finding new ways to entertain a very diverse audience -and are making a fortune doing so.

The true innovators get "first mover" advantage and can found titanic franchises - like the Mario platform games, or Tetris, or even The Sims (which against all odds EA did fund). You can't get that advantage if you aren't willing to take a chance on new ideas.

21stcenturygamedesign
Or how something that reads like friendly advice can be as provocative as a manifesto.

ToT: Your book was written before the Wii and the DS took off. Has their success altered your ideas about the industry? Is Nintendo doing a good job of appealing to all the people who were previously left out? Or is there still work that remains to be done?

CB: I feel with both the DS and the Wii, Nintendo have validated a lot of the things I've been saying about videogames for years - for instance, that the control devices were too complicated - too intimidating - for most non-gamers. Both the DS and the Wii addressed this problem head on, and it's paid off for Nintendo in spades. They have games that have been in the charts for more than a year, and which continue to enjoy excellent sales week after week. All this has been achieved by targeting a mass market that no other company had seriously thought could be reached.

But when the other publishers try to copy Nintendo, they fail - they fail because they don't know what they're doing, but also because they're essentially copying Nintendo and the mass market don't need another game that does the same thing as one they already have. So it's a golden age for Nintendo, but it's hard for anyone else to gain the benefit.

I still think there is plenty of work to be done in terms of courting new audiences for games, though. There must be a whole host of niche markets out there which could be pursued, but have yet to be even identified. It's not going to be easy to find them, but having the Wii and DS as alternative platforms to the more gamer-friendly devices made by Sony and Microsoft can only make it easier to explore new options.

ToT: How is that? It's not like Nintendo is openly inviting artists to experiment on their platform! In fact, if there's one console that does a little bit of that, it would be Playstation 3 (Network).

CB: All the console license holders are trying to invite third parties to get involved. Sony have Playstation Network, Microsoft have the XNA community, and Nintendo have their Wiiware, and a new DS with downloadable content. But Nintendo are not good at reaching out to third party developers, even though they'd like to have them, I think in part because they're an old Japanese company (they're more than a hundred years old) and very traditional in their internal organisation.

Game design

ToT: You seem to advocate optimizing game designs in such a way that many different kinds of people can enjoy the games. But how feasible is this? I mean from a creative/artistic point of view. Doesn't the risk exist that you weaken your product by including too many attempts at pleasing the masses?

CB: Yes, it's true that if you try and please all of the people all of the time, you'll make a game that will appeal to no-one. But Richard Boon (my co-author on '21st Century Game Design') and I are not suggesting that game developers should try and make games that appeal to everyone. We are suggesting that it's important to understand that not everyone plays the same way, and making games that narrow down the focus of the play in particular ways could be throwing money away.

Often, games appeal to different kinds of players, and you have a choice in how to focus the design. Publishers often want to narrow the game towards tough challenges - games that appeal to what we have termed "Conquerors". And this kind of player is an important part of the core market for videogames, make no mistake. But you don't have to make many changes to a game design to support both this kind of play, and other kinds of play, and that's key to what we're suggesting: making sure that if you're making a game that is expensive to develop, you design it to include the widest possible audience that a game of that style might reach.

If you look at both The Sims and GTA, part of the appeal is that they provide a set of toys for players to mess around with in their own ways. I think it's still not been recognised that a lot of people played and enjoyed GTA who didn't come close to completing the main challenges in the game (or even to wanting to try to do so!) These games allowed the player to find their own way of playing - it is supporting this kind of flexible design that we are advocating in the book.

But then, you can also flip this around - for cheaper games, having narrower focus makes more sense. This is something that perhaps wasn't adequately addressed in '21st Century Game Design' simply because the Casual market hadn't sufficiently matured. But now it's clear that instead of making one expensive game, you can also make a selection of cheaper, more focussed games - and the potential returns can be commensurate to what could be achieved with the larger project, at least on paper. It's a different way of getting at the same idea, actually - appealing to different players with a more diverse collection of smaller games.

ToT: I couldn't help but feel a kind of hidden agenda underneath the surface of your sane business advice. At times it reads as an attempt to justify innovation and experimentation with economic arguments. Or am I reading too much of my own wishful thinking into it?

Despite claiming to praise innovation, the videogames industry can be remarkably scared of it.

CB: You're probably right - I want us to be creative and inventive, and so I imagine I am occasionally providing economic justifications for this kind of experimentation. But then, that doesn't mean that these economic arguments aren't valid! Despite claiming to praise innovation, the videogames industry can be remarkably scared of it, I suppose because people don't know how to quantify the unknown and the cost of development can often squelch any hope of trying something new. But in all creative industries, new and original content generates fresh revenue - without this, people lose interest and drift away.

Even as I write this, the marketing department of a publisher which shall have to remain nameless is trying to make one of my game projects less interesting, less innovative, and more predictable. They want to do this because they see only the risks in trying new things, and not the benefits. It's a short sighted way to go about running a creative medium, especially when you can see just how enormous the benefits of stumbling upon something new and effective can be in the form of titles like The Sims that came from left-field.

ToT: In your book, you portray the game designer as a person who works in the service of a project that is largely defined by other people. This may be the most common situation in the reality of the business. But where does that leave authorship? If games are an expressive medium, who is doing the talking, if not the designer?

CB: The danger of making the designer into the author of a game is that game design requires a particular set of skills which mean, pragmatically, the vast majority of game designers fall into a similar psychological space. And that space doesn't reflect the wider audience (it did once upon a time, but that time is long past). So I question the merits of making the game designer the de facto vision holder for a project, although that doesn't mean the game designer can't be the person supplying the creative vision.

But that doesn't mean a project *can't* have a vision holder - look at what Keita Takehashi was able to do with Katamari Damacy. He was a mad Japanese artist given charge of a developer in order to make something new and interesting: the team (including some game designers) helped him fulfill his vision. The resulting game didn't set sales records, but it got a lot of attention, made back far more than its development costs, and has become a successful franchise brand. I wish more publishers would take a chance and try this sort of approach to making games!

There have been many interesting games made where the game designer has provided the vision, and even a few which have arrived at a unique vision democratically (although democracy in game development tends to end up opposed to this sort of creativity), but I think we might want to recognise the limits of the game designer's mentality if we want to get out of the trap of making games solely for gamers. Nintendo managed it - now perhaps everyone else needs to find a way to follow.

Beyond game design

ToT: What's your new book about? How does it go "beyond game design"? Does it also go beyond "21st Century Game Design"?

CB: The new book is a collaborative work with a lot of great games industry people like Nicole Lazzaro, Katherine Isbister, Richard Bartle, Sheri Graner Ray and Noah Falstein. The name "Beyond Game Design" came out of discussions with marketing, but it actually does make sense for the book - it goes beyond game design in one direction by considering the psychology of play (which is foundational to game design, but often ignored) and it goes beyond game design in another direction by considering the question of inclusiveness - how many different kinds of people have been excluded from playing videogames and why?

If '21st Century Game Design' is a manual for teaching people about some of the methods for game design (and perhaps more importantly, for showing that there isn't just one way to make a game), then 'Beyond Game Design' attempts to provide a complementary perspective to this: it won't teach you *how* to make a game, but it will explain *why* people play games, and that's the gateway to a wholly different perspective on game design.

What's important isn't what qualifies as a "game", it's what's interesting, what's entertaining, what's moving, what's striking, what's affecting, what's involving.

ToT: Looking forward to reading it! Thank you for the interview. It's been most enlightening and we hope your ideas resonate throughout the games industry. One more, final question: What would you say to people who say that the things we make at Tale of Tales are not games?

CB: I would say "I wish more people would make non-games as entertaining and interesting as those that come from Tale of Tales!"

Honestly, we let ourselves get distracted with this boundary work of determining what is or isn't "a game", and it's all nonsense when you dig into the issue. The philosopher Wittgenstein uses "game" as his example of a family resemblance category precisely because you *cannot* provide a solid single definition of game that includes everything that everyone would call a game.

What's important isn't what qualifies as a "game" (whatever you decide that means), it's what's interesting, what's entertaining, what's moving, what's striking, what's affecting, what's involving. If you make software that is any of these things, what does it matter that some people don't consider it a game?


Interview conducted by Michaël Samyn via email in January-February 2009.
  1. Yegwa 12 February 2009, 3:27 pm

    Very interesting interview. I completely agree with everything said here, and although I am definitely a lot more ‘traditional’ in the games I enjoy than you guys here at ToT, I do respect what it is you are doing with your company and in fact think we need more people trying ideas from way out of the box of the current gaming landscape. The Graveyard was quite atmospheric and I am really looking forward to The Path.

    I do think you guys could be a bit kinder towards us traditional gamers though. ;-)

  2. Michaël Samyn 12 February 2009, 4:06 pm

    We LOVE traditional gamers! ;)

  3. Yegwa 12 February 2009, 11:43 pm

    Well, I will have to take your word on that :-). Thanks for stopping by my blog as well!

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    [...] Cuando se juntan uno de los diseñadores (Ghost Master) y estudiosos (21th Century Game Design, Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames) del videojuego más importantes de los últimos tiempos y uno de los estudios experimentales más relevantes (The Path, The Endless Forest) salen entrevistas tan interesantes como esta. [...]

  6. Kamil Wota 13 June 2009, 6:04 am

    I must say that I was very intrigued by this interview. It really helped me see the video games industry a lot better. It is interesting because I used to enjoy traditional games a lot, but now I am starting to move away from that path. Perhaps, it is that I have grown tired of them since there has been little innovation. Also, I have begin to love fine arts and how people can create something that goes beyond what is realistic and takes meaning to a whole new level.

    My dream is to also have my own indie game studio and to create my own games, which will be focused on other things rather than on guns and cars or violence for that matter. While violence may be contained in some of my games, it will only be an option. Non-violent gameplay has so much potential because there are so many fields that have yet to be explored and I want this for my games.

    Thank you, Audriea Harvey and Michael Sayn for making games that really encourage innovation and a new kind of audience of gamers. I have been inspired by The Endless Forest and The Graveyard as well as by The Path (still have yet to play it) and hopefully that will help me create some very compelling experiences for games that go beyond the mainstream media, in general.

  7. Michaël Samyn 13 June 2009, 8:01 am

    Glad the interview helped.
    And happy that our work encourages you. More people need to do this research! There’s so much potential!

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Tale of Tales is a game development company founded by Auriea Harvey & Michaël Samyn. We make interactive projects that often take place in virtual spaces. Our motivation is mostly artistic. We want to discover and exploit the enormous expressive potential of realtime technology. more... This web log was begun in February of 2007. Contact us.

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