So somewhere after the early ‘90s game design became affected, vertical, content to build on established concepts for their own sake and so distort them out of all the representative or practical value they might have had. This became exacerbated after the industry’s multimedia and “virtual reality” phases, and the eventual rush for polygonal majesty. Early polygonal games were expensive to make, and only so many polygons would fit on the screen. Contemporary hardware could hold only so-large an environment in memory. It took developers about seven years to figure out what that extra Z-axis meant for controls, a sense of space, and all the assumptions about design that had built up since the mid-’80s.
In the short term, developers relied on the novelties of real-time animation and 3D space. They built modest, often jury-rigged, playpens where the dodgy collision, imprecise movements, weird cameras, and minimal detail would be less likely to stand out. Either that or they went hard in the other direction and used 3D animation to glam up familiar 2D twitch-based design. Those games were, of course, struck with the same technical limitations as their free-roaming cousins.
The Dog and Pony Show
So a couple of new conventions appeared to make the most of this paper-thin, wobbly, and empty new space. One of them, I like to call completion-compulsive design. This trope has its basis in the tile-smashing of Breakout and the dot-munching of Pac-Man: to succeed, you do everything there is to do. Fair enough, in a self-contained example like Space Invaders: the entire premise is built around destroying the aliens before they reach Earth. But what about all those platformers that followed in the wake of Mario 64, that asked you to roam around and find five thousand otherwise-useless widgets?
You could call the collection aspect a reward for mastering the game’s controls and expressing a sense of curiosity. That’s a bit disingenuous, though; the widgets rarely do much more than increase a counter in the corner of the screen, or open the next area. There’s no tangible reward here, and any ineffable reward is connected only tenuously to the play mechanics. At best the widgets, if you found enough of them, would unlock a special item or ability or game feature. Either way, mainstream game design took a sudden dive for the inane.
If a designer chose to reject the Z-axis meandering of the main flock, what you would often see was a hardcore performance-compulsive design. Games like NiGHTS took the high score tables and social competition aspects of early arcade games and exaggerated them to a ridiculous degree by assigning (often bizarre) letter grades and often limiting progress until the player had shown sufficient technical mastery.
One major difference is that scores are a relative, rather than an absolute, measure of prowess. The other difference is that with traditional score tables the only way you’re being graded is against your peers. They’re also a descriptive record, that tends to more reflect than affect the way the game itself plays. By comparison, receiving a letter grade suggests that unless you’re playing perfectly, you’re not playing properly. This mentality whiffs of an uncomfortable sense of elitism and exclusion, much as how the completion compulsion makes you feel like you’re not really dedicated unless you waste your life fiddling with minutiae.
Dopamine, Sweet Dope of Mine
Both tropes originate in a desperation to find something interesting for players to do when developers have scant resources at their command and scant command over their resources. Each is a way to milk more “play value” out of limited material by telling players that unless they waste all of their time, they’re just wasting their time. Unless they’re scouring the material over and over again, pouring in vast amounts of personal resources for a very small reward, they’re not doing it right. They’re not getting everything there is to get out of the game — whereas maybe if they invest that last arbitrary bit of effort and unlock everything there is to unlock, they will discover a cool secret that justifies some small portion of the expenditure. Usually not.
This mentality is ancient, as videogames go. It harks back at least as far as the smoke-filled dens built to milk Space Invaders players of their last yen. Yet it also is a perversion of those mechanisms. Unlike the dots and tiles and score tables of the early ‘80s, these tropes are not an organic side effect of the give-and-take causal relationship that forms a videogame. They are a caricature of the least healthy aspects of traditional reward structure, taken to an affected extreme and detached from context. It’s like distilling crack from cocaine, with many of the same consequences.
No form of obsessive-compulsive behavior is healthy, and any encouragement is harmful. It’s around here that videogames become toys of cheap manipulation, and that their warped psychology starts to have questionable health effects both on players and on the medium as a whole. In their hard-line failure to meaningfully reflect the causal relationship between the player and the gameworld, these tropes both undermine the medium’s expressive potential and severely limit the appeal of the medium outside the hardcore and the deranged. Thus the slow onset of the phenomenon that Satoru Iwata dubs “gamer drift”.
Although the mainstream industry is still recovering from this OCD fit, I have noticed that indie games often seem less affected by these attitudes. I guess it’s not too surprising. The tropes only arose in a significant way in response to endemic confusion and conservatism over a changing technical paradigm. Indie games aren’t exactly post-technology, but their budget and their scope tend to be low enough that any design problems are more a case of implementation and clarity of concept. If they have a price, the games are selling mostly on the basis of their ideas — which makes content for content’s sake a fairly low concern.
And frankly, indie designers are in no place to take their audience for granted. The indie game culture is more or less a meritocracy, so every player who a game bores is one less mouth to spread the word. The games that I have seen deal with an obsessive-compulsive premise, such as I Wanna Be the Guy or biggt’s Uin, generally do so with an ironic or deconstructionist understanding that glories in the inanity of these presumptions about the player’s time and interest.
Of course, it could be the boring stuff just all flies under my radar.