Shallow (05)

I’ve played most of the Pokemon games. It’s not something I’m particularly proud of, but they are part of the gaming cultural front and I like to dip my toes into every pool, occasionally jumping waist-deep into ones that I probably shouldn’t. Pokemon: Black is one of those pools.

The main gameplay loop isn’t interesting. The story is dreadful. The dialogue is worse than dreadful. At least in Black, they attempt some sort of allegory but mostly fail miserably because at its heart Pokemon is a series about dogfighting. Aside: If anyone makes a ROM hack of Pokemon to replace all the Pokemon with dog breeds, I’d vote for them in whatever contest they entered.

And so I should have quit after about an hour, which is usually the latitude I give for games that I know just aren’t any deeper than what I see in the first hour, but I trudge on for some reason. There’s another badge to get. Maybe I’ll see a Pokemon based off of an ice cream cone or a trash bag or the collected works of Borges that will make me smile (at least two of those are real). But in the back of my mind I realize I’ve paid $25 for what is essentially a non time-gated Mafia Wars.

So I’m a bit of a hypocrite, yes. I still wade into social games hoping that one will give me something more than the shallowest of decisions or a story beyond the thinnest veneer of narrative. But then I actually buy games that give me neither.

That’s okay for millions of players because that’s all they know or are satisfied with. Take this article being passed around the Intertron about why the status quo in games is okay. Here are smart guys making the same arguments. This particular article actually collates (by accident, it seems) almost all the anti-Bogostian themes on why social games are the bee’s knees:

1. “It’s all a matter of taste, man. Millions enjoy it.”

Millions paid to see Transformers. Is that the pinnacle of what we can achieve in filmmaking? Should we be satisfied and applaud that? Should we copy Transformers as the business model of the future as every single social game company copies Zynga’s methods? If Michael Bay literally scammed people to trick them to buy tickets, would we applaud his success?

2. “It’s okay that they are shallow, because most games are.”

Why aim for more? Sure some games have meaning and interesting choices, but that’s hard and I’m lazy. So let’s just be happy with what we got. Right? Bull squeeze.

3. “Actually, scratch that. All games are shallow because you just move around and press buttons. Fighters, shooters. All shallow.”

Well, no. The structure of the game world can create interesting decisions. If you think that no decision can be more interesting than where-do-I-place-my-cow, play Civilization V. Or Sleep is Death. Or Drop 7. Or maybe you believe that shallow gameplay cannot lead to deep discourse? Then try Cow Clicker or Passage.

4. “Jocks like console games now, so there’s no hope. I can’t like them.”

What the fuck? Are we in high school? Clique warfare? Really?

5. “You just feel threatened/resentful/jealous that Zynga is successful/that the industry is passing you by/that what you like isn’t popular.”

These arguments generally break down into ad hominem at some point. Even responding to this point makes me feel slimy. Before I took my teaching job, I applied all over the place. Some of these jobs were at places that make social games. Some of these jobs got to the interview stage. Some of these interviews were with Big Social Developers. In these interviews, we talked about process. In at least two of these interviews, a lead designer or creative director told me that they weren’t interested in making interesting or fun games, that they were just trying to pump up user numbers and ARPU because that’s all their boards/presidents/CEOs wanted. You could tell that even under the corporate facade they were contract-bound to keep, they were miserable. That they wanted to do more.

I don’t want that fate for us. That’s what I’m truly threatened by.

Of course, there are dozens of social developers that drink the Kool-Aid and think that their stuff is hotcakes. Good for them. Hopefully, they won’t just repeat the status quo like hundreds of console game makers do when they make Generic Shooter of Duty XVII. Bryan Reynolds thinks he is helping, bless his heart. And he is, just a tiny bit maybe.

You know who is generally a positive-seeming guy? Frank Lantz. I met him at GDC a few years back and had great discussions with him about games and the craft of making them. His company, area/code, made two of the social games that I think are actually worthwhile. One is Parking Wars. The other is Power Planets. He’s one of my favorite designers.

He sold his company to Zynga to become Zynga New York.

God help us.

If anybody will push the industry to do more, hopefully it will be Frank. He doesn’t seem content in the status quo and Xerox culture.

6. “People like Zack Hiwiller are just elitist snobs. Whatever you like is what you like. Millions like clicking on cows. Zynga swims in a Scrooge McDuck money vault every night before closing at 2am.”

That’s just the taste argument again. If you give up on making games interesting in favor of making games profitable, then I pity you. You are lazy and holding the form back. We may not always succeed – I haven’t. I’ve made some dreck. But I still hold out that something better can be made.

If we hold *ville on a pedestal we say: “this is the best we can do right now”. If that is true, then we’ve regressed to making themed Skinner Boxes and can define success by metrics. We should just stop at Saturday morning cartoons, Dancing with the C-list Celebrities and Stephanie Meyer because popular=nutritious. If that isn’t true, if we can do better, then why hold them on a pedestal at all? Why are they sacred cows?

You can attack me all you want and paint me as elitist and out-of-touch. Maybe I am. Or maybe I just want more.

7. “You just admitted to playing Pokemon, so what gives you the right to criticize Farmville? I like clicking cows, you like shooting space marines.”

Theme is irrelevant and is used to obfuscate mechanic discussions based on stereotypes about classes of players.

I love discussion and argument. Any day of the week I will gladly put up a game I play against Farmville. Even a game as vapid as Pokemon: Black.

5 thoughts on “Shallow (05)

  1. Bah, Pokemon’s story is for the tiny kids (and man Black is absolutely horrible even by Pokemon standards; your right about the failed allegory to slavery. It’s also got a downright bloody creepy antagonist!).

    But the gameplay, the fighting mechanics (and if you don’t overlevel, some tactical challenge), the variety, the multiplayer, that’s where it shines. The exploration and battles make me come back for more every. damn. time. A real weakness, but a cheap one at least compared to, say, buying every Madden or Fifa game! Also means I have something to play to and from work. 🙂

    I agree; I’d hold Pokemon up against Farmville too 😉

  2. I’m not a supporter of the “Well, it’s for kids, therefore it’s throwaway” line of reasoning. Look at all the stories that have meaningful themes and entertain both young and old: Neverending Story, Princess Bride, Monsters Inc.

    I could tell you why I think the gameplay is trite but I don’t really want to ruin Pokemon for you.

  3. You said “bull squeeze”, so you can’t be all bad.

    >What the fuck? Are we in high school? Clique warfare? Really?


    >If Michael Bay literally scammed people to trick them to buy tickets, would we applaud his success?

    If Michael Bay had you insert your finger into a machine that turns fingers into lollipops, and then said “SURPRISE! That’s actually a CREDIT CARD READER! And your finger is actually your CREDIT CARD!” then i think someone should consider contacting the local authorities. You have to go through a lot of conscious steps to “convert” to being a paid user, including entering a 16-digit number from a plastic card, entering your complete home mailing address, punching in a date, and entering a 3-digit security code on the back of that card. If you’re not WELL AWARE by that point that you’re about to spend real-world credit on non-existent Smurfberries, then … i dunno. Perhaps you’re nuts?

    i actually mentioned Pokemon in my shanghai mini-rant at GDC. You wanna talk core games and gambling?

    Please don’t mistake me: i’m not saying that Farmville is the best social game ever. It’s all very nascent. “Social game” wasn’t even in our lexicon last year.

    i WILL say this: the video games industry is a business. Were you shocked to discover that the people interviewing you were beholden to the company’s shareholders to generate as much profit as possible. You know who else has that goal? EVERY COMPANY EVER … video games notwithstanding.

    i get weary of people treating video games like they’re this precious, lovingly hand-crafted woodworked baby cradle with ornate scrollwork at the edges, slavishly constructed by a master craftsman. You get an impressive title every couple of years. The rest? The rest is popcorn to pass a Sunday afternoon. You wanna go read the dialog in Chrono Trigger and touch your nipples a little? Be my guest. But even Chrono Trigger had to turn a profit.

  4. The idea that profitability and innovation/depth/nutrition is an XOR, that you can have one but not both is precisely why the industry is in such bad shape.

    Maybe we _should_ treat game developers as master craftsmen instead of cogs in a scrapple grinder. I don’t know why having some self-respect is so abhorrent to some people.

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