Monday, 19 September 2011

Design or excuse?

I've worked on developing games on various platforms and very often something crops up that makes my tiny brain explode. It's one of those things that feels like it's come out of Catch 22 or some other distopian nightmare.
Some very cleverpeople go away and in their fevered black magic covens, they create a new bit of hardware. Then they show it off and announce it and then they give it to the game designers. Sounds fine doesn't it? I mean they want games for their new hardware so they should hand it over to a designer when that little job needs doing, and they can then go back into their chambers and work on the next machine for about five years time.
But recently the trend is to make strange things.
These are things you didn't ask for and your not sure what they are for. I don't want to pin a blame tail on a particular donkey here because each of the big donkeys has their own version of this, but how about I give you some examples?
Well there was the controller without a 'rumble' feature but with tilt recognition. The handheld with a camera facing in and out. How about a webcam that can track your movements as long as you're standing up. Or a device that you can control by touching a part of it that you can't see.
At some point someone in the corporate chain thought that these are excellent features and we should not hold them back from the public any longer. And hey presto new hardware is created with a headline grabbing novelty feature! Then the journalists who like new hardware stories and want big new headlines ask about the new novelty feature. What is it for? Will it usher in a new golden age of gaming. And in response the big corporation feeds them the idea that they wrote on the back of a fag packet when they put the feature in.... Oh it can be used for X but we're excited to see what our brilliant game designers come up with.
The thing is, if it takes a genius to come up with a great and novel use for new hardware feature X it's really not much of a feature. If however you can think of 50 great ways to use the feature it's a real winner and is likely to be used in different and remarkable ways by everyone who wants to make games on your new hardware. It's really that simple. If it's hard to tink of 3 ways to use it, it's a pretty rubbish feature and you are going to be disappointed, in fact the feature will vanish and probably never return in future hardware iterations.
So is it just that designers are lazy and not doing thier job? Well I like to think of it more as a really unfunny, expensive version of 80's panel show - 'Whose Line is it Anyway'. Where the hardware boffins are like Clive Anderson throwing out random crap to their panelists (the designers) and asking them to create comedy gold. Yes sometimes it works, but mainly it's just OK, or forgettable or downright embarassing.
Real world examples?
Again let me stress I'm not out to make scapegoats here but:
Lair - a terrible game from a company that made pretty good games in this genre until they were asked to support a feature. And feature support was more important than creating a great game.
Joyride - see above
In fact i'm already bored of this.
What people want is great games. They don't really care about the new hardware features unless they improve their experience. And lets face it, if, when you're building the game, you use the traditional controls on a day to day basis and only switch to the new hardware features as a last resort, it means the new bits aren't great.
Please stop foisting 'features' on designers and then chaining them to the albatross as it's lifeless corpse drags them to the ocean depths.
We want cool new stuff don't we? Designers love shiney new hardware features to test to the limits. So what needs to happen is that designers are involved right from the get go - designing new hardware features. If your tame designers can't think of dozens of new ways to make their games better with the new hardware feature then the chances are it's a oven ready Dodo.
At present the headlines grabbed by the new features are a short-term gimic. They soon get found out to be shallow and pointless, but you have to keep building them in to the hardware for years to come. Save the silicon and do the work up front. Find out if it's a gimic or a genuine improvement by involving the people who are going to have to use it from the get go.
We are designers, people. We are not here to build the excuses for your technical folly!