Let's talk a little about game design. As a researcher and teacher, I sometimes find it difficult to express in words exactly what it is that game design is, or what I hope to teach to outsiders--even to gamers themselves sometimes. Capturing exactly what the difference is between design decisions and development process is difficult, since "good" design often fades into the background because it just works. As a player, one rarely notices all the individual rules and decisions that have been made, the experience occupies the conscious mind.
Discussing game design is difficult because it is a second-order task. A designer constructs the rules, environment, etc. but always in hopes that the player will experience something that is greater than the sum of those parts. When set in motion, the player(s), rules, environment and fiction all combine and create something that is not obviously discernible from a list of the game's rules. Further, since it is the player whom we as designers are trying to affect somehow, their perception and personal interpretation of what is happening is more important than what the game design document says should be the result. (Not that players can't be wrong or ignorant, but we still have to deal with their perception of our work.)
Finally, discussing the design of the kinds of games I like is very difficult, because there is very little opportunity for experimentation to verify any hypotheses about the way the game works. That is, I'm not often able to change one rule and see how it plays out. The games are sealed and finished, I can't tamper with them myself very often. Even in franchise games such as Assassin's Creed or Mass Effect, which are largely similar, many changes have been made between iterations, so it becomes difficult to nail down exactly what cause has led to which effect.
Lately I’ve noticed a slew of products I can buy, which will subsequently force me to buy ‘refills’ of some description, in order to keep using them. On top of this, I have noticed an increase in the number of household products which determine how and when the consumable is used, to better schedule the re-purchases. Here are a couple examples:
- Dettol hand wash – dumps a precise amount of soap into your hand through the magic of infra-red sensors. Of course you can’t fill it up with any old soap…
- Auto-bug and freshener sprays – two different ways to fill your house with a fine mist of chemical sprays, set to a timer to empty the can right on schedule.
- Lots of cleaning supplies and body cleansers have transformed from bottles into wipes, which you run out of at a pretty steady rate. You can’t really use just ‘a little bit’ of a wet, soapy wipe the way you can use just a little bit of soap. Those cages you hang in the toilet to freshen it up operate on a similarly automatic principle, as do air or water filters.
The ‘Gillette model’ is a method of selling consumer products where the initial buy-in is very low-cost, but relies on the purchase of a complementary product which is relatively more expensive, and certainly a higher profit for the manufacturer. The most famous example is the source of its name, Gillette razor blades: you can buy the handle for your razor (with one or two blades) very cheaply. But the new blades are extremely expensive by comparison. But you must buy them, or the handle is useless, right? This isn’t all smoke and mirrors—obviously many products like disposable razors, ink-jet printer cartridges, and air fresheners need to be replaced, they are consumable. It’s the pricing model that’s important to note.
What it achieves is a more predictable, steady flow of revenue for the particular manufacturer. Since you have to buy new razor blades occasionally, if you already own a Gillette razor handle, you’re more likely to buy Gillette refills. The schedule mentioned above simply regulates this a bit. Dettol want you to buy their soap regularly, so they make sure you use a certain amount of it every time you wash your hands. The automatic freshener sprays promise to fill the air with a pleasant scent to mask odours before you even notice they are there—also they use up a can of spray like clockwork.
What the hell does potpourri spray, soap and shaving have to do with videogames??
Everyone has been playing this game, from my parents to the most dedicated videogame critic I know—Draw Something. Though it may in the end turn out to be a flash in the pan, Zynga see some potential there, and have bought out the developer, OMGPOP. The thing that stands out to me about Draw Something, though, is just how un-Zynga-like it is at the moment. In fact, this is probably the least “gamified” casual, super-popular iPhone type game I’ve played.
OK, least gamified game is a pretty horrible turn of phrase, I realise this. But I’m talking about all the additional stuff that frames the gameplay loop in games like FarmVille or TinyTower: the gathering of currency, the limited number of moves or actions you can perform in a set time, the dozens of ways you can display your accomplishments to your friends, and the social pressure that comes with all that. With Draw Something, the only Facebook integration is the handy method for finding people to play the game with. That’s it. There’s no badges to earn, there’s nothing to buy with real cash, none of that. All the game wants you to do is draw and guess.
I've been having some conversations with my PhD supervisor about the finer points of one of my chapters as I near completion, and some interesting angles for further writing have come up. In some ways my thesis is setting myself up for a whole lot of more specific research questions later, which I guess is a good thing. This topic is one of them.
I'm becoming more and more interested in Mass Effect as time goes on. I haven't even managed to play the third one yet, but its now on its way to me from everyone's favorite importer, OzGameShop. I've already wandered into the territory I'm going to discuss here, though, before the whole fiasco with the ending to Mass Effect 3 transpired (and continues to). My thesis, generally, doesn't deal with people at large, but more with individual players as much as possible. Yet, increasingly, it is becoming apparent that to work out some of my interesting problems, I'll have to bring in "people at large" in a pretty big way. In trying to erect a useful framework for analyzing games, both in their ludological interactivity and dramatic narrativism, I've gotten into interpretations of canon.