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Thursday, September 22, 2005

Matt's Law of Good Gaming

I recently stumbled across this and was hit by a tsunami of nostalgia. The Commodore 64 was pivotal in my young life. It filled my youth with hours of entertainment and gave me my first taste of computer programming (BASIC motherfuckers!). I had a C64 emulator kicking around on a CD, so I installed it and started making my way through some games. Know what I discovered? We're spoiled. Big time. Old games did not have saves, passwords or respawn points. You played the game and you won or lost, that was it. As I made my way through classics like Bruce Lee, Ninja and Archon, I noted the frustration level as I played. My immediate thought was "This is lame. Give up and turn it off!" But I fought past that urge and kept playing. Then I discovered something I had long thought dead and gone. I discovered I hated the computer and I had to beat it. I had found the competitive spirit.

Understand, this was no small revelation. On the contrary, this was HUGE. It suddenly occurred to me that I don't feel that way when I play today’s next-gen games. I certainly get frustrated and turn off the machine when I can't do what I want, but the core impulse is different. With a modern game, I'll have a saved game or a password. There's no impetus to finish the game now, I can always come back and do it later. And, if I do beat the game, there's no real feeling of victory either, it's more like ticking off an item on a grocery list, a mild sense of accomplishment. And if I do turn it off, it's usually more out of ennui than genuine red-faced frustration. Older games were not like that and now I know why.

People say older games were "all about game play". This is certainly true but if pressed to decipher what that actually means the average person will mutter something about graphics or multiplayer or something else old games lacked. They don't know what it means - but I do.

Game play is competition, simple as that. Think about it; the point of a game is not to play but to win. Nobody runs a race just because they really like running. Likewise, nobody plays Starcraft just because they like Sci-fi. That’s part of it, but not IT. We play to win and to win you need an opponent to lose to. In old games, the game itself was your opponent. You played against it, against the code, against the graphics, against the machine itself. You absolutely, positively were not going to lose to some fucking machine! You'd play the same damn level for hours if you had to, even if there was no password or save game, simply because you had to beat it. It was about you and your ego and nothing else.

Games aren't like that now. Now you play with the game. Certainly you have opponents within the context of the game and goals to accomplish and such but it's not a game, it's a movie with interactive cut scenes. You go along for the ride and you get to see cool stuff but it no longer resembles a competitive game.

How did this simple concept get lost? The answer is Game Publishers such as EA, Sony, UbiSoft etc.

You must understand that game publishers are run by “suits”. They don't know games, they don't play games and they don't care. They like money and they think in terms of increments. If 3000 polygons are good, they conclude that 30,000 polygons is 10x as good and will make 10x the money. This is, of course, pure bullshit. A good game is good because it's fun to play, but more than, that it must present a challenge to the player. It must assault the player's ego and force him to consider defeat. Only a hard won victory is a worthwhile one.

So take note, the UbiSofts and Rockstars of the world. Put down that third martini for a moment and pay attention. We like pretty graphics and 5.1 Dolby. We like fluid animation and diverse environments. And we like realistic lighting and flashy special effects, really, it's all good. But we'd like to play some games now. If we wanted to see movies, we'd go to the theatre or Blockbuster but we don't; we want GAMES. To make it easier to remember, I've condensed my theory into a formula. Consider it a new law:

Matt's Law of Good Gaming

When the challenge of the game exceeds the limits of the player's ego, causing them to become obsessive and frustrated, you have a good game or C>E=Gg.

Got that? Now you publishers can run along to marketing and fuck it up for me, I know you can.

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