Design is problem solving.. if there is no problem to solve, then what?
“Creative constraint offers developers the opportunity to save the industry from the dominance of ‘boring’ games.”
-Ed Fries, former vice president of Microsoft Game Studios.
Ed Fries started with this line in his opening keynote at the MIGS 2010. What he was referring to was that progress and art don’t necessarily go hand in hand. There are a lot of big budget games that push money into the visuals of a game with very little content. Although this can be true, there are also developers that use technical restraints to their advantage whilst adapting their workflow to achieve their designs. Splash Damages upcoming title Brink (2010) pushed technical limitations by starting simple and prototyping early to work more efficiently. Whilst developing Brink they said that close collaboration was essential in order to get their game to the quality they needed because the Splash Damage development team was so small. Brink is a large open ended multiplayer game with customisation. With customisation comes lots of possible outcomes in terms of developing the assets. Splash Damage knew that in order to work to the level of quality they wanted they had to be smart about what and how they were developing. The initial idea for the game and the main mechanic was to have 3 different body structures; small, medium and heavy which would be distinctly different with whatever customisation the player wanted. This forced the team to come up with a technique that used hundreds of blend shapes that could be automatically skinned to each of the frame sizes, they also added brightness and hue settings into their materials so that when they were creating the distinct UV’s for each character they painted them all blue. This would then tell the engine which specific parts to alter for customisation allowing the team to come up with multiple different clothes, hair and accessories whilst still keeping the same meshes. In this instance, technical limitations forced the small team into a situation where they had to think smartly and efficiently to achieve the outcome they wanted. Whether technical limitations aided the design can only be theorised, however, considering the huge amount of publicity they have received from Brink I think that it was only through these limitations that they created something unique and individual in a competitive market. Lead character artist Tim Appleby and Senior concept artist Laurel Austin, agreed at the BAF 2010 by saying that without these limitations the game may have become a clone of titles such as Gears of War (2006) and therefore may not have been as successful. The downside to this statement is that they also weren’t able to achieve everything they wanted within the limitations, for example there are no female characters in Brink. This is something that Tim and Laurel wanted to explore however with consideration to the limitations, wouldn’t have been achievable. This is because it would have meant setting up 3 entirely new body types as a female character should react different to a male character and therefore the quality would not have been up to standard if they decided to add this element. With Brink, technical limitations pushed the boundaries of what Splash Damage thought was possible, and what they created when they worked with the limitations was something that has a highly finished quality with a distinct uniqueness. This was achieved through a clever work flow and in this instance it aided the design to create a better game and although some things were not achievable, the positives well outweighed the negatives.
Indie Development (Behavioural Design)
At the BAF 2010 on the 9th November 2010, Indie games developer David Hayward said he liked to build interesting prototypes from the early 90’s style arcade games with one or two of the mechanics. This is an instance where technical limitations do not come into consideration when designing a game. The Indie games he develops use so little memory that it is not an issue. David’s focus is more on the core design in games and thinks that 3D is not always the best option when prototyping a game idea. He says that
“instead of making physical prototypes people go straight to 3D, rules or how people play through these rules are all around us.”
Indie games are where the heart of the game culture still lays, but we can also look to board games for great game design. Board games do not have to adhere to any technical limitations such as frame rates and streaming issues, of course there are the product design and packaging limitations to consider, but sticking to a purely game design aspect, there are none. In a perfect world, indie games would rule over all others for David because they are the most exciting and stripped down cores of game design for him, however he says that major publishers won’t touch indie games because they feel there is not a market for them. So if great indie games are being developed using little technical limitation but are not reaching a mass audience, does that mean that overall not using limitations has hindered the design anyway? I do not think David Hayward is correct in stating this as there are great examples of how indie games have thrived and succeeded in a competitive AAA market place. Take Minecraft (2009) for example.
“Minecraft, a kooky indie game for over-grown Lego fans with OCD that makes money through crazy YouTube videos”
-Margaret Robertson, development director of Hide&Seek
Going back to Ed Fries opening keynote at the MIGS 2010 he then goes on to talk about the ‘snowballing success’ of Minecraft and how he thinks it’s more down to the ‘easy access’ of the game rather than luck which has allowed it to succeed. This goes to show that if you create a game that is genuinely good to play with solid game design, people will buy it. So what limitations did Minecraft face in order to define the game and make it accessible to a large market? Minecraft’s success is partly down to the tools used. Minecraft is a Java based game which is basically a huge world made up of one-meter blocks of different materials, like wood, dirt, stone or water. You can pick up these blocks and use them to craft items or build houses with. There are also monsters to fight, treasures to find and mine carts to ride. Without Java, Minecraft would not have been possible to make. C++ was considered but wouldn’t have been accessible through browser-friendly applets which is a large part of Minecraft’s success. Minecraft thrives on the ‘jagged aesthetics’ of the 16 and 32-bit era. When David Hayward was talking about indie games not appealing to a mass market, Minecraft is a game that proves this theory wrong. The flexible pallet allows users to break any otherwise confined boundaries to create something unique such as the levels from Miyamoto’s Mario games. This game wasn’t built on a set of limitations that the developer had to work around but it took a good game designer building on an “extremely mature and finely-tooled piece of design”
to create something unique and marketable. While Minecraft proved that you didn’t need the latest technology to design something for a mass audience, constraints are still a good thing to bear in mind when going forward. It is a way to stop games being boring. Without imploring constraints, Ed Fries says, “there is always a little too much going on” relating “Halo: Reach to the Greek vases of 400 BC, the over-ambitious creativity of artists trying to better the simpler forms of earlier pottery.”
So if technical limitations do not play a part in some of the most fundamental basic, but successful game designs, and also play a huge part in the success of a AAA blockbuster title, where do you draw the line on where limitations help or hinder? Is it purely down to a game-by-game basis, the developer, or simply the money being pumped into the title from publishers? Would unlimited resources keep pushing the designers further and further to create designs with it only being because of monetary issues that the ‘indie guys’ can’t afford the technology that they use and therefore aim for lower limitations? What would happen if the Indie developers pushed their designs to technical limitation? Do boundaries in fact breed creation? Do they breed good game design? Are boundaries beneficial for creativity? And what is it that promotes the creativity of design?
Continue to Part 4