Stugan Update 4: Dangerous Games

I feel like I’m having more fun seeing what features I can implement in code than seeing what kind of gameplay systems I can design. Can I change the message display into a dedicated computer terminal? Yes I can!

Coming soon: L337 H@X0RZ

Coming soon: L337 H@X0RZ

Can I make a little virtual computer GUI that interacts with objects in the world? Yes, it turns out I can:

I'm surprised there aren't more virtual smart homes to play with.

I’m surprised there aren’t more virtual smart homes to play with.

Can I create cameras whose feeds you can hack into and watch? Yes, I can do that too!

Smile for the camera.

Smile for the endless array of cameras.

A lot of this happened because of the boost of inspiration and confidence I’ve received from mentors and fellow indie devs at Stugan. I’ve received great usability feedback and advice on how to market the game. I’ve been given suggestions on how to make the game popular and fun. I’ve never felt more capable, supported, and able to put a great game on the market.

Insert record scratch sound here.

Wait a second, wasn’t Sunshine supposed to be a weird freeware art game that is purposefully obtuse? Yeah, it was. What happened? Did I get whisked away by marketing advice into the Land of Sellouts? Did I lose sight of my goals amidst the glitz and glamor of a Swedish indie retreat?

Well, no. Not at all. Everything I’ve learned here will be useful for my free games, for my commercial games, and even for administrating the game company I plan to found. The conflict here is not one of art versus consumerism, but a failure of language. While some of that language shortcoming can be attributed to a consumerist-driven games culture, I’m not happy with that answer. It feels too easy. There isn’t a mindless cabal of capitalist suits whose only goal is to suck every last bit of artistic courage out of us. (No, not even at EA.) There is simply an existing system, a lot of enthusiastic people with varying degrees of acceptance of that system, and us. Colliding with this history in realtime in every conversation we have.

This conflict isn’t uniquely a games problem. When I started writing about transgender issues five years ago, I had a major problem with a lot of the standard language and attitudes within the trans community at the time. I saw unrecognized (or barely recognized) problems and I wanted to communicate them clearly, in order to work toward a solution that was ultimately better for everyone. For example, I wrote about the language of “passing” and why its base assumptions are flawed. Many thought my critique of the language meant I didn’t believe anti-trans discrimination was a problem. That misunderstanding, too, was a failure of the system. When people are pitted against each other for survival, it’s easy to react to a gentle poke as though it is a sledgehammer. I see the same misunderstanding happen in videogames, except the stakes are comically lower, and the ones misunderstanding are the ones in power.

We have this thing called playtesting. Its goal is to make playing a videogame as frictionless as possible, in order to ensure people have fun and buy more games. During playtesting, you find the places where people get stuck, figure out why they get stuck, and change it so they don’t get stuck. If a level is too easy and people get bored, you make it more exciting. If a level is too difficult and makes people quit, you make it a little easier or add hints. If your goal is to minimize friction, this kind of playtesting makes sense. You are making a product that people purchase with a specific expectation of value. There is nothing inherently wrong with this process. Given market expectations built up over decades of history, and a need to make money to keep studios afloat, this is a perfectly rational process.

On the other hand, it’s the same process designers use to refine stereo systems and toothbrushes. We would scoff at the idea of a stereo system being a difficult work of art with a layered message and a certain degree of social responsibility while delivering that message. The very idea is absurd. Videogames, however, are not stereo systems. Or rather, videogames are not just stereo systems. Many articles have been written that compare videogames to fine art, or that compare videogames to film, or to books, or to consumer products. Like stereo systems. These are interesting angles (debatably), but only a part of the story.

A videogame is a bizarre Frankenstein’s monster assembled from various media and technologies, then given a miraculous but tragic life. A videogame is a stereo system duct taped to an oil painting, whose instruction manual is a library of black-and-white French films. It is a precision-engineered chunk of metal that reaches 60 miles an hour with blistering speed while telling you a heartbreaking anecdote about the one time it contemplated suicide, and you have to understand the anecdote to keep the thing on the road. We’ve tuned the stereo system, perfected the oil painting, reinvented cinematography, maximized engine torque, and told a good story. What we haven’t done is made the process any more comprehensible than a Rube Goldberg machine.

"It's a revolutionary open-world game with next-gen graphics, microtransactions, and a powerful message about war."

“It’s a revolutionary open-world game with next-gen graphics, microtransactions, and a powerful message about war.”

We pretend we have videogames down to a science, and in some ways we do. For example, playtesting. Remember the bit about playtesting? It creates a smooth, sleek exterior that impresses shareholders and restores our faith in the medium. It all makes sense now! The player is always right! Minimize confusion! Maximize fun! Hit all the beats for our template Epic Story! User acquisition! Conversion rates! We know how this machine works. The problem is, we’ve whittled down the Rube Goldberg machine into this:

It's so simple and easy to use.

It’s so simple and easy to use. (source video)

On the plus side, it’s sleek, focused, and attractive. On the downside, not everyone wants to go in circles. This is a videogame, damn it! Not a stereo system! Or a laptop. Mixed metaphors.

Maybe we need something sleek, focused, attractive, and a bit dangerous? You know, maybe something a little, well…

Go ahead, touch that wheel. We dare you.

Go ahead, touch that wheel. We dare you.

It’s pretty, we know what it is, but also… There’s spikes? What? It’s weird, but it’s no Rube Goldberg contraption.

So what do I mean when I say games can be “dangerous”? I don’t mean the kind of knee-jerk edginess that already saturates mainstream games. You know the drill: Suggest a nipple, drop a few f-bombs, decapitate some folks, and call it a day! That’s not dangerous. If those games have any spikes, they aren’t real. They’re virtual barbs tucked away in an oil painting. No, games need to be a little bit dangerous for the player.

On the surface, this seems to fly in the face of standard industry practice. Because it seems directly in opposition to industry standards of polish, a lot of outsider art games completely drop playtesting and dive headfirst into unapologetic inaccessibility. The artist has a vision, man, and the player just gets in the way. Or isn’t relevant, because many of these games aren’t really made for an audience. And that’s ok! There’s nothing wrong with making games to express yourself, full stop, no concessions made for a potential target audience. But perhaps we’ve ended the conversation there when, in reality, it’s just begun.

Maybe we should formalize—or at the very least, hold an open dialog about—a testing process that focuses on creating friction with the player, honing friction, making sure players are confused and angered, but in the way we want them to be. A process that demands friction outside the game, in the player’s mind. A process that sees a polished game and says, “Hey! What kind of videogame is this?! There aren’t even any spikes!” Maybe we need UNusability testing.

Part of this process is convincing the existing audience that spikes are a good thing. Not all of them will believe us, or care, and that’s fine. But at least there will be a seed in their head, something that says, “All these slick games are cool but not every game has to be slick.” Even if they hate the spikes, they’ll very loudly shout “What’s up with these spikey games?!” and in doing so, inspire people on the periphery to find out if they like spikey games. Then we can reel them in.

“Dangerous games are cool, man. We’ve got motorcycles and leather jackets over here. All those kids whinging about their favorite games only getting a nine-out-of-ten review score? They’re total squares, bro. They’re the establishment. Come to the dark side.”

Oh no, that’s a marketing pitch, isn’t it?

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