Thursday, December 07, 2006

Gaming By Proxy

I think this subject has the potential to turn into a longer more thought-provoking post, but I want to start small and work towards something deeper when I have more time.

Also -- fair warning: As is my habit I make some sweeping generalizations here. If you feel attacked by this post then quite simply it doesn't apply to you. ;)

I wonder how many of the 'woes' of today's game development industry are caused by the following simple trend: the longer one works in the game industry (more experienced, more influential, etc) the less time one has to actually play games (married, kids, demanding workload, etc).

On average, I would bet that if you took a representative sample of developers working on a game and measured their 'casual play time' (that is, time they spend playing a game other then the one they are developing) that number would be less then one might think. Perhaps even less then the average playtime of a random sampling of 13-25 year old males (in North America, Europe, Japan, etc).

So my theory? Game developers don't game -- they game by proxy.

Gaming by Proxy means we read the reviews, we see the screenshots and movies and we speak with friends or colleagues who might have tried it out. In short we do everything possible to learn about the game in question other then to actually play it ourselves. On the surface we seem well versed on the game in question. I've lost count the number of times I had interesting discussions about games I only played by proxy. People rarely question whether or not I've actually played the game in question, but if the conversation gets deep regarding mechanics or a specific encounter, my ignorance becomes evident. I know I am not alone.

Now this isn't really a fact that I can critisize. No one has time to play all the games that come out, and the gaming industry is certainly not the only one that sees the consumption of media by proxy. Instead this is meant simply to point out this unfortunate reality of life: we loves games, so we decide to get closer to them by getting involved in their creation. In doing so, we run the risk of becoming distanced from the very things that led us to this industry in the first place.

I don't know a single game developer who would say they have the time to play all the games they'd like.

Some areas I'd like to explore further in the future:

- Does this trend apply to the 'casual' space as well? Depending on your definition of casual games it could be argued that a casual game can be played digested and appreciated through much shorter play times. Does this mean that developers of casual games are able to stay much more in tune with the state of their niche of the market as a whole? Debatable given the sheer quantity of games that could be called 'casual', but worth thinking about.

- Does this have anything to do with the often-cited lack of innovation in the 'AAA' space? Are there people leaning towards the familiar (or iterative improvements) because some inspiring innovations in competitors' games aren't making it past their filters?

6 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

A couple things occur to me, in no particular order:

- Game developers are fortunate that they get to proxy-game ('prame?'). We at least have an oppportunity to keep our fingers in the pie....or at least to stick them IN the pie as we walk by in pursuit of our missing assets, then lick them for the rest of the day. Did I mention I like pie? NO? Hmmnn....pity.

- I don't think we can fairly blame reduced gaming time as causing the industry any particular woe. I think our woes are still tied to factors outside of the control of individual devs; aggressive deadlines and no risk-taking with creative content, both coming from publishers, are still the Scylla and Charybdis of the game development world, IMO. We don't have a lot of time to game, but I don't think that fact contributes to the malaise of the industry. In defence of this, I would argue that most development houses ensure that they get hands on time with most of the titles in the genre of game they are making. The individual devs working on First Person Shooter Nine Thousand may wish they could hack around in Link's village looking for fish, but you know they're probably already tired of Gears and Resistance.

- I think what underlies all my thoughts on the issue is this: this is not a factor of amount of time for casual gaming, but rather a question of getting older. As I've gotten older, my time to game has gone down as my life responsibilities have increased. This would be the case as a game dev, a paralegal, or a roustabout. The people who have even CLOSE to the amount of time to play that they would *like* to have tend to be younger people....students and people working in a job that they don't consider a career (your point is well-made: "a random sampling of 13-25 year old males (in North America, Europe, Japan, etc).").

I think I agree with an implied point here, though, although maybe this is just me putting words in your mouth. Given what we do, maybe we feel we're somehow entitled to MORE gaming time than everyone else. I think this is perfectly reasonable. In fact, I like the drift of this whole thing: that if we don't get to play more games, the industry will suffer for it.

I'll stand up and wave that banner.

...

As long as there's also pie.

9:06 PM  
Blogger Ben Mattes said...

Anonymous,

Great great comment. This line: "Given what we do, maybe we feel we're somehow entitled to MORE gaming time than everyone else. " is beautifully articulated. Great summary.

Too bad I don't know who you are. :) I'd buy you some pie.

10:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If we select the pie cautiously (something easily flattened, like a Tarte au sucre, or possibly a pecan....though neither of those are my favourite), then I'm sure a courier could manage it.

Shit, I got no problem with flattened pie. I'd even eat it if you somehow convinced it to hitchhike to where I'm at ;)

3:23 PM  
Blogger kim said...

A couple comments:

1) Flaw in your argument: You start out by saying "the longer one works in the game industry... the less time one has to actually play games (married, kids, demanding workload, etc)" - then later say "we loves games, so we decide to get closer to them...In doing so, we run the risk of becoming distanced from the very things that led us to this industry"

So which is it? Is it the time constraint or the fact that we gravitated to THIS industry. If it were teh time constraint, then it would apply equally to those outside the industry as well. Chartered accountants, cab drivers, etc. I think it's true that most of those people game less later in life, but htere's something special about the *jaded* element, which is specific to those in the industry.

2) Is there a certain element of this that is unavoidable in any industry? Do the people at Harley Davidson think 'they sure don't build em like they used to'? Do those at a record label pine for the days of early punk, or woodstock, or whatever?

3) In casual space, there's a lot more iteration, but the Quality/Innovative vs Me-Too/non-innovative ratio is about the same. I see a lot of games. A LOT! I play or view about 10 a week. I find some in there that I like; like maybe 1 a week if I'm lucky. And of those, maybe 1/4 offer something unique and innovative. The rest are just quality implementations of tried and true mechanics.

4) I think to some extent, innovation is overrated. Sometimes people WANT a known mechanic, theme, or interface - OR ALL THREE! I liked Gears of War, and it had some innovative stuff, but some of the other elements were exactly what I wanted. I went to see James Bond. I basically knew the story walking in, and went to see it regardless.

3:38 AM  
Blogger kim said...

Oh, and Anon must be in quebec, because I can't get a decent tarte au sucre to save my life here in the US of A.

And I need me some tarte au sucre, dang it!

3:40 AM  
Blogger Ben Mattes said...

Kim,

Some responses to your comments:

re: "Flaw in your argument"

I think I need to rewrite this piece because I'm not sure I did the concept justice in my initial post.

Thinking about it now, a modification to my thesis would read something like: "When one's career is in an industry that is also their passionate hobby, they run the risk of losing time for their hobby as they age and (hopefully) advance in their field. With a hobby like videogames where most people are initially attracted to the medium when they have the luxury of time that only youth can bring, the distance that increses with age can be particularily troubling".

Re: "Is there a certain element of this that is unavoidable in any industry?"

See above -- I think the answer is yes, but I think it is probably worse in games then most other industries. I don't know many people who start tinkering with harleys as children.

re: "to some extent, innovation is overrated."

Overrated is a harsh word, imo, but I would certainly agree it isn't the only thing that matters. The latest bond movie entertained the masses -- that is worth a great deal and should be lauded and rewarded, even if it did not innovate on the formula.

I'm not trying to imply that the realities that govern the lives of the people who make up our industry are wrong. I am simply wishing out loud that I could sometimes be a 'Lost Boy' from peter pan -- benefitting from the experience and 'wisdom' that age and time in this industry have brought, and combining that with the luxury to regularly appreciate all that drew me to this world in the first place.

7:33 PM  

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