These are my notes and comments about “The Art of Computer Game Design: Reflections of a Master Game Designer” by Chris Crawford. These notes are both for my own thoughts, and for my contribution to the #VGT6 discussion as (due to time zones) I may be asleep still when the discussion of it occurs.
As it was published in 1984 the book at times shows its age, but in general I find that it still gets a lot more correct than wrong. It stands out as the first book (at least as far as I am aware) to be published that looked at games as an artistic form. Thanks again to Andrew for telling me about the book.
1: What Games Are And Why People Play Them
I like that it starts with defining what a Game is, because that helps explain her viewpoint and perspectives through the rest of the book. That said, I don’t entirely agree with how everything is organized.
(But it would be interesting to see #VGT6 work on it’s own definition of what a game is, the traits of a game, and how we would categorize games. Might be a longer term discussion we go back and forth over.)
One point I disagree with is that I think Crawford’s four categories of games (p.2.) is missing a category in the form of Social / Party games.
These are games any of us may have played in social groups and are often very informal. Games like “I Spy” or “Charades” or “Impressions” or “Punch Buggy”. Games that are informal, social (requiring many players to work well), and that do not necessarily have a victory condition. What they share in common is that they only work via social interaction. This is important, imho, because these are where I think the impetus for ‘Casual’ or ‘Social’ or Facebook-style cow-click video games came from.
I think the definition of a game being a “closed, formal system that subjectively represents a subset of reality” (p.4.) is interesting, partly because it is less an description of the actual games that exist in the world, but serves more as an explication of the author’s “ideal game” theory.
The “closed” part becomes interesting to me because it makes it more obvious where some games, especially movie tie-in ones, fail. Those are often games that just aren’t good games, they exist and are complete only in combination with their tie-in media.
(This is arguably why tie-in movies fail too, they are often incomplete stories that only work well with some understanding of the source material.)
The discussion of representation (p.5) is an interesting issue because it brings up the question of what are modern sports games? Crawford doesn’t expect the Sports category of games to persist (p.25), and history has proven that wrong. But it does bring up the question of what is the difference between “Mario Soccer” vs “FIFA Soccer 2015”. They both depict soccer, but one is clearly entirely in the realm of being a game but is the other a game or a simulation? Taken another step, the “Soccer Manager” franchise calls itself a simulation of soccer club management, but is it still a game?
On “Games vs Puzzles” (p.7) I wonder if this is a matter of player perception vs the reality of the design. I am not actually sure if Games vs Puzzles is a meaningful point to debate, at some level I think many games become puzzles when gameplay has moved beyond the original design to community meta-game goals.
Conversely, it seems that a Puzzle becomes a Game the moment you have two copies of the puzzle and have people compete to see who can assemble them first. At that point even a pair of jig-saw puzzle becomes game.
PAC-MAN, in my opinionated example, is a game only until you realize the ghosts move in pre-set patterns decided by the chipset of the arcade console, and that once you know which chipset it is you can play eternally just by performing a pre-memorized pattern of moves. The game, as designed, fades into the background and success then is based not upon strategy or skill-action performance, but about whether the player is capable of repeating a learned pattern of actions. PAC-MAN becomes a dance recital for the hands.
On “Games Versus Stories” (p.7) I find that I disagree rather strongly. A ‘story’ can be an instance of a playthrough of a game. A well-designed game can easily tell a story well, but it is a trade-off in terms of design priorities. “King of Dragon Pass” or “Fallen London” are non-linear games that also tell a good story but are very simple graphically. Some RPGs (i.e. FF games..) fall into a one-way railway design where it may tell a story but feels very restricted and the game turns into a series of cut-scenes that you are forced into dull combat to move between. (Versus ChronoTrigger where you had the freedom to feel that your actions affected the story end.) Conversely, a lot of games (particularly first-person shooters) are great to play, but the story exists entirely in terms of meta-game.
( Story design as an aspect of game design is something I am deeply interested in, something I want to study a lot more.)
In terms of “Why People Play Games”(p.13), I am wondering where the rise of the Achievement score falls. Is it ‘Need for Acknowledgement’ or ‘Proving Oneself’ or something that didn’t exist in gaming when Crawford wrote the book. A completionist / OCD drive to “gotta catch them all” that came about with both Pokemon and the rise of Collectible Card Games at about the same time.
2: A Taxonomy of Computer Games
I think one of the big things that happened in gaming that Crawford didn’t predict is the rise of a third category (p.19) of games being the Cow-Click / Skinner-Box style of gaming.
Farmville epitomizes this. There is no strategy involved, no skill-action component, but progress is based upon attendance / participation / how-often-you-click. This genre of game arose with social media, and are all about “Social Lubrication” and “Need For Acknowledgement” in that they often spam your accomplishments across social media to advertise activity, draw in new players, and inspire a sense of “Keeping Up With The (Virtual) Joneses” on the Facebook wall next door.
Not all social media games are solely Skinner-Box games, though even the more Skill-Action based ones (Marvel: Combat of Champions or the Injustice:Gods Among Us mobile game) use the sense of “KUWT(V)J” to monetize their games.
One type of Skill-Action game that exists now, but was under Miscellaneous Games (p.29) then was what we call the Platformer now. I’d say that Donkey Kong was one of the first platformers.
The Interpersonal Games (p.38) genre has never picked up really in the US. The closest we have to a franchise of them may be the Leisure Suit Larry games, but in Asia the “dating sim” style of game is pretty wide-spread.
(Interesting cultural divide there. Games from the US seem to have a much higher number of First-Person-Shooter style games, games from Asia (Japan) have a lot more dating sim / visual novel style of games. Be interesting to do a historical analysis there, of where the development branched so widely, and what does it say about the different cultures.)
3: The Computer As A Game Technology
Unrelated to video games, I would say that the description of board games (p.42) is a bit dated, the industry has exploded with great variety of games and game designs in the last twenty years into a few broad categories. Euro card games (i.e. Dominion, Nightfall), German strategy games (i.e. Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne), and Ameri-trash games (i.e. Monopoly, or other games where a random element means more than strategy to success).
It is interesting to me that even as video games have exploded and expanded across the marketplace, board games have made a resurgence in recent years in terms of quality and variety. The step backwards in technology from consoles and PCs to wood tokens and cardboard makes me wonder if there is a “need” that video games lack but that board games fulfill. The most obvious would be the social interaction of the people around the table talking to one another, the direct human interaction that video games still lack (because, lets face it, video game inter-personal interaction is still on the level of a phone call at best, often a very distracted phone call if you are playing a game that demands attention).
One thing I would point out that computer games do is not just real-time play (p.43), but better coordinated asynchronous play. Civilization has a PitBoss component that coordinates multiplayer non-real-time games of Civilization. Words With Friends allows you to play an asynchronous version of Scrabble with hundreds of opponents at once. This isn’t anything new, however. People have been playing board games by post (going back to playing Chess by mail or telegram, at a pace of a move a week or per day) but computers automate the process for simplicities sake.
As to the Precepts, I like the idea of the inverse of them as badges of shame to award games that break them with. (Like the port of the Wii U zombie launch title to the PS4… Once an interesting game using the quirks of the Wii U controller, now just another mediocre zombie game.)
4: The Game Design Sequence
I am not entirely sure this chapter is an accurate model anymore. While I don’t necessarily disagree with any of it, the plan is the old “Nothing is complete until it is done” model versus the newer model (which might be named Waterfall, I am three pints of cider and a glass of red wine down as I write this so that might be wrong).
5: Design Techniques and Ideals
What I find most interesting here is how little it has changed. All of this is still valid, still in use. Pretty sure Extra Credit has don’t videos on YouTube about asymmetry and the like pretty recently.
6: Development of Excalibur
Not sure on the takeaway from this chapter, aside from examples not to be followed.
7: The Future of Computer Games
We’ve seen a fair bit of game related scandal (p.104) with things like the “Hot Coffee” GTA bit or such. But games are a little too much of a fixture for simple bad press to have much of an impact at this point (plus, we don’t have much press left…).
As to his two hypothetical futures (p.105), I’d say it has been a bit of a mixed bag. A lot of my time recently has been spent playing end-of-lifecycle PS3 game releases (Atelier franchise, etc.) that eschew fancy graphics for deeper gameplay. I am a bit frustrated with a lot of game releases that have beautiful cut-scenes, but little decent gameplay or story to them outside of the movie bits.
Game mechanics don’t feel like their has been much evolution for a while, just a lot of variations on a theme and refinement of existing mechanics and designs.
I think the most improvement, the best advances, have been coming out of Indie titles as no one wants to risk a AAA game budget on something innovative and new, we get a lot of stale clones of other games. (i.e. post-Gears of War the glut of other dirt-palette shooters that largely failed, etc.)