“If game design as expression is so cool and useful, why don’t people do it more often?”
In short, there are three major problems that get in the way of Expressive Game Design Utopia.
There are very few approachable tutorials out there.
There are very few tools for easily building games.
There are very few methods for easily sharing games.
It’s a bit of a desert out there, huh? Which is weird, considering how big of a gaming boom we live in. But: consider the ubiquity of games, vs the ubiquity of writing little poems, scribbling a frustrated blob in the corner of a notebook, taking a picture on your phone to capture a sunrise that made you tear up for unknown reasons… we do little expressive gestures with most mediums all the time.
Just not games.
And, in fact, it’s downright silly for most people to imagine assembling a game with any ease that taking a picture or writing a poem has. A few awesome coders are talented enough to toss together some assets and make a cool thing, but that’s more of an exception than norm.
The reason I’m dedicating an entire blog post to complaining is that, if we want game expression to be more common, we have to actually know the details behind the blocked rivers. So here we go!
1. There are very few approachable tutorials out there.
Do you know what a positive feedback loop is? Do you know how to design a level cadence that properly applies an escher-style skillset principal? Do you know how to make use of a Mordin’s Paradox to modify indeterminacy?
If you said yes to all of them, you’re lying because I made up Mordin’s Paradox. But it’s seriously difficult to find normal information on building games, particularly because all existing tutorials focus on programming, making games under the assumption that you’re going to sell it, or focusing on kind of broad concepts without clear applicable takeaways.
2. There are very few tools for easily building games.
Yes, there’s Unity, I guess. And yes, there’s playing cards and dice you can get from Walmart. And YES there’s RPGmaker. There are tools for building some kind of game, but almost all existing methods suffer from either being ridiculously narrow (there’s only so many dice games out there you could make) or requiring a moderate buy-in. I’m literally part of a game company and I still don’t really program. In short, game design tools are either so simple that it’s not obviously clear how you could use it to express yourself, or are so complicated that the act of expression gets bogged down in the systems that were clearly designed for something way more polished than what you intended. Furthermore, game engines tend to be heavily biased towards creating certain genres - so even if you learn RPGmaker, a game involving 3d physics simulations may not work so well.
One of the tools that I found is actually somewhat useful for games is Twine. This tool lets you just kind of get typing, and only requires some basic coding-adjacent vocabulary to express certain things in any number of ways. But I’ve been writing essays and short stories since I was in kindergarten, so while it’s great for me, I can’t pretend it’s accessible for everyone. Plus it’s a bit closer to interactive literature than it is to ‘game’ a lot of the time.
3. There are very few methods for easily sharing games.
This is, in my opinion, the biggest problem. But also the one that’s perhaps the easiest to solve to make a positive feedback loop. Consider this: there are zero ways ‘in-house’ to share a game on the top social media platforms. On Facebook/Tumblr/Instagram/Twitter/etc you can share videos, text, images, sometimes audio (albeit embedded in video)… but there’s no way to easily share a game you’ve made. You pretty much always need to find a third party that’ll host your files like github, dropbox or philome.
That extra step, in my opinion, is a big issue in the way of sharing interactive expression. Imagine if on Facebook you could quickly toss together some kind of interactive expression like, right on your wall? It obviously wouldn’t be that complex, or anything resembling a full game, but I bet if it was easier to share simple games with people, without it being a big production every time, people would be way more inclined to do it.
This is also a cultural issue - games are generally expected to be worth the time, and are expected to be polished. Making a little expressive thing just doesn’t happen. If you were to share a game now, it could easily be misinterpreted as your attempt to sell something instead of just a way to describe your feelings or ideas. Hmph.
So what can we do? Well, I’ll get to that in the next blog post! Which I believe will be the last or second last in the series… let’s end with a recap of everything I’ve talked about so far.
You can express yourself by designing games.
Some people don’t have an outlet for properly exploring their self-identity, expressing their feelings, or otherwise producing art. Making games might be the right outlet for those people.
You can express yourself by conceptualizing your problems into the metaphorical field of a procedural framework. In other words, you can make the character in a game experience the same things that you are in terms of 'game mechanic’ - what is hard to do in this game? what is easy? what is the solution? what is the problem?
Game design as expression isn’t currently much of a thing because there’s pretty much no information on how to make expressive games, all the systems for game design require a lot of practice and buy-in to get going, and it’s very hard to actually share what you’ve made without being dramatic with third-party sites, big downloads, etc.
Hang tight, we’re almost done! Next week we’ll look at some solutions or alternatives, things that work for you right now to mess around with, as well as some ideas as to how entrepreneurs could shift the landscape of interaction design. Until then I think I have a workaround that will admittedly sound uncool but just might be the trick…