As part of ACMI’s Game Masters exhibition, a series of forums were held on the first two days exploring video games and their place in our culture, featuring various local and international guests. New Game Plus were in attendance and I am happy to present you my coverage of the first of the panels: State of Play.
ACMI kicked off their forums with ‘State of Play’, a discussion on where games exist in society right now – their creative processes, popularity and how they are innovating. They began with a Skype conversation with Daniel Cook of Spry Fox, who animatedly discussed games as inventions. He brought up some valid points that fit into the wider popularity of indie games at the moment – smaller dev teams who have to create a different product to gain or create their market share do this through inventing not only new characters, but new methods of play. The biggest question coming from this for me was thus: how do you define invention? Is ‘innovation’ a better word? Technically, all the tools used to create games already exist, thus nothing truly ‘new’ has been invented, but just the tools used in an innovative fashion. Perhaps it’s just me; when I hear ‘invention’, I think of something brand new that has never been done before, using novel methods of creation. I guess also that the word ‘invention’ has more pizazz, more drama attached to it than ‘innovation’, so as a buzz word of design it works better to stir discussion and creation.
The discussion continued with a presentation over Skype by Nathan Vella of Capybara, who exalted indie games and their positive presence on the game development scene. According to Nathan, one of the biggest influences indie games have had is the normification of the “weird”; games that sat on the fringe of indie games, once considered “weird as shit”, are now normal. This then pushes the boundaries of weird even further, and theoretically can then encourage a wider variety of story and game play types that would not have been considered before. I have to agree somewhat, but I think we’re forgetting that weird has always been associated with video games, as Donkey Kong can attest. Games have never been ‘real’ or ‘normal’, and arguably their attraction is their difference. But an argument can be made that more recently a trend of ‘standard’ gaming practices has become apparent: the constant production of FPS war games, around 15 Final Fantasy iterations and the Angry Birds phenomenon has seen gaming mechanics being recycled again and again with little difference. This also fits into the media theory of cultural assimilation, where everything fringe is eventually merged into mainstream culture and made somewhat ‘acceptable’. Thus, the idea of these new games that are reshaping and questioning what is weird (considering we’ve accepted Mario and his world as normal) can be a positive step towards keeping the medium out of stagnation.
The last part of this session was a panel discussion on audience questions, with Rob Murray from Firemint, Laura Parker from Game Spot AU, Anthony Reed from GDAA and Steve Faulkner of Infinite. One of the main topics was innovation, which sparked an interesting debate about who is actually driving innovation – the consumer or the developers? Laura argued that the popularity of indie games meant the audience was driving it, but Rob pointed out the difficulty in building a creative process around the consumer, so it has to be a collective process in the culture of gaming itself. It can be argued that with the ease of access consumers now have to tools to build their own games and release them, the line between developer and audience is increasingly blurred and thus a distinction between who is pushing innovation is void or at the least a waste of time. Steve then made one of the more interesting statements of the day: consumers want innovation, but only slight improvement on the previous product, on what they already like. This can relate to our own human instincts of comfort in the familiar; the switch for Sonic from 2D to 3D can be seen as an example of where innovation (brought on by technology and perhaps the success of Super Mario 64) hasn’t worked. Personally, I just couldn’t recognise this new Sonic (and the controls were just impossible) in his new environment, but the progression in his old 2D environments (which were ‘slight improvements on the previous product’) were acceptable. It’s a dangerous line to toe, and there’s no measure to make sure it is done ‘correctly’ (if there’s even such a measure).
The last of the points I found particularly interesting was Rob’s mention of TV as the next big area of development for games. TVs are becoming increasingly intelligent, and the ability to create games solely to play on TVs without the need for consoles has intense potential when you consider the connectivity that modern TVs come with (internet access, TiVo recording devices) and the ability for most mobile devices to connect with a TV to stream content. I guess ‘watch this space’ is the best reaction to this, as is a note that Sony could be best positioned to look into this avenue.
Overall, the panel presented some incredibly interesting points about the state of games in society, and where they are heading. The one aspect I felt missing from this (and this was a consistent feeling over most of the forums) was the point of view from a big developer, because while indie games and their developers have great ideas that lack commercial constraints, it’s this exact constraint that provides the balance between lofty ideals of utopic games and dollar-based reality of the 90th instalment of the next popular FPS.