Well, the mystery talk by Phaedrus was Will Wright. I figured it’d be a luminary; who else would set him/herself up as Socrates’ conversational foil?
I had penciled in Design Philosophies for Single Player, Multiplayer and MMO Games, by Ernest Adams. Ernest has been around a long time, and no doubt has a wealth of excellent experiences. He’s written a textbook on game design, teaches, consults, etc. The lecture didn’t have a lot of concrete takeaways for me and social games projects I’m working on, but there were enough useful bits I want to include in my own class on game design.
Ernest made it clear that he was a fan of the single player experience; his comments there were the most cogent, though far less focused than the more formal abstract design talks given by past GDC speakers Doug Church, Mark Leblanc, Harvey Smith, Clint Hocking. I have always been a member of the Looking Glass school of thought when it came to design, probably because I have some amount of programming background in my dim past. Ernest comes at it from a different, less well defined and more didactic approach.
Where he really began to fumble was when he started to talk about MMOGs and free to play games. His own biases, he admitted, prevented him from talking about players, rather than the player; he prefers single player games. He started talking about getting up to speed on MMOG design by reading Raph Koster’s laws, and proceeded to recite them. They were laws like “your game GMs will be hated despite their most noble and diligent efforts”, and Ernest drew the conclusion that none of these ‘laws’ made him want to build an MMOG. I went to Raph’s site and while I found some of these ‘negative effect’ laws, like ‘Hate is Good’ they were full of interesting, prosocial ideas too, like virtual social bonds evolve towards real social bonds. Hmm.
But Ernest really got me pissed off when he started in on the data-driven, constantly eye towards the monetization metric game design that ‘Freemium’ games provide. Let me preface this by paraphrasing Adams: when he was making games for the metered online services like GEnie, those were the most honest of his games – you had to keep the player happy every second, or they’d just log off. In other words, players were playing and paying moment to moment, and there was a constant pressure to keep the meter running.
Ernest thinks that the freemium model, where game design requires the designer to think of monetization drivers, is – I believe he thinks this – detestable. How is this less mercenary than making games for the metered model? He warned that he might sound like a cranky old man – I’ll add another adjective: out of touch. In the freemium model, 90% of players NEVER pay anything. They enjoy content for free. They resist the siren call of the monetization mechanic; their experience is presumably underwritten and subsidized by those who do pay. This means that plenty of people – like moms who like farms – are playing games now, more sophisticated games than Solitaire on Windows.
Ernest then went on a rant about Chinese free to play MMOGs, which are built around clans – hierarchies where the rich clan leaders derive loyalty by giving equipment to clan members, who rally their clans against other clans. He called this tribalism and gangsterism, then said that perhaps it’s the fantasy of those living under a centralized totalitarian regime to live in a decentralized totalitarian regime. “I don’t want to make a game that utilizes hatred as a game system!” he thundered. The audience cheered.
Meanwhile, Will’s in the next room talking about creating schema through play and testing world models out as games. I know this because Nicole Lazzaro is sending out updates on the talk through Facebook.
Isn’t play the magic circle where players can experiment with actions with limited, simulated consequence? Isn’t a child who plays cops and robbers playing a game of dress-up? I don’t believe that in-game activity is without real world consequence, but Ernest spoke of in-game clans and real world crime in the same breath. It became clear to me that the less he understood (and respected) the genre, the more he was willing to impose real world models into the play space. When a child plays with a gun, they don’t see it in the same, literal way as adults do. Gerard Jones (of Green Lantern fame) wrote about it extensively here; I really enjoyed his book.
Where does Ernest get off drawing grand conclusions about Chinese gamers? I’ve spent some time there, and while I’m quite suspicious of the Chinese government and general business ethics for IP-based businesses like games, you don’t suppose that the Chinese players might be looking for a cathartic, my team vs. your team play experience, do you? Perhaps the hat gives him the authority to expound on subjects he has little understanding of; if so, someone, please relieve him of his hat (and perhaps replace it with Daniel James pirate hamentashen). I don’t think that the business model of free to play is without some potential negative repercussion on the evolution of games. But Ernest’s arguments seem full of his bias, and subtlety jingoistic and culturally imperialistic.
Sports are games of ritualized violence; football can be seen as a metaphor for colonial land acquisition. But it’s ritualized; maybe it is an outlet for tribalism and violence. It’s cathartic (except for UK football matches, post-game, perhaps). Ernest is an old school, Avalon Hill-playing geek who probably never participated in organized sports. Maybe he doesn’t like sports. If so – his loss as a person, perhaps.
His refusal to understand that play pattern (and his claim – as I understood it, anyway – that this sort of gameplay fosters evil) is a loss for him as a game designer, for sure.