In track with freedom of play

Continuing my last post discussion, I want to bring now some topics regarding the so important "freedom of play" stuff. We're still combining subjects, and soon we will have some interesting conclusions.

That’s the part II of the original blog post I did on another gamedev website, continuing the discussion (updated as well). There’s the last part soon, and then we will keep moving on other subjects.

Much is being said about how games evolved over time, and the jewels released last year. I will say some obvious names: GTA 4, LBP, Spore, and Wii Fit. These are undoubtedly great and generation-defining games, but it is so because of one common thing binding them all: freedom of play, and not in the (false) way the MMOGs use to promote themselves.

I will explain this using Wii Fit as an example. It’s a “game” in which all you must do is turn on your console, choose a game, exercise (play) it for some time, the way you want, and that’s it.

That’s why some people use quotes to say this is a game. In GTA 4, for example, you have all the tasks determined by the game; but the greatness of the game is the fact you can play it anyway you want, exploring even so many “games” inside the original GTA game experience.

That’s a freedom of choice in a remarkable level we probably never seen before, and the game told us that it’s possible to do; in other words, people now expect more games that offer this level of richness and interactivity, or more – especially considering the game’s price and development costs we have today. Now we may say that’s the “proposal” behind PS3, different than the proposal Wii offered us (if Sony really got one).

If you take a closer look at the games industry’s history, there were two main veins that made all of that make sense: innovation and sense of freedom. Innovation, because people like to entertain themselves with different stuff in order to not get bored with the same experiences; and sense of freedom, because the apex of fun and leisure (in our media, at least) is to do what you want and see it happen, see what will happen, and how – and only an interactive media, like games, could offer that.

The game’s media is seen as the big opportunity, for the masses, to “live” their dreams: the opportunity to see happen, for example, how different could be the story end of a movie, as it gets a game version with this level of freedom.

The opportunity of realize all that dream games and dream stories we all thought should be the “best game ever”. No other media available today can offer this to the public, and they are aware of that.

In the old days of gaming, we saw Wolf3D editors to change the game graphics, in order to offer some degree of freedom, then level editors. Even if almost only programmers and engineers could use it, it was a beginning. Years later, Nascar Racing for MS-DOS came with a external built-in editor, in which gamers could paint their cars and give it a personal look.

Poor offering? Obvious? Again, it was a beginning. Not only the most users didn’t have the knowledge to fully edit a game, but even the industry was not aware of that offering would be nice to players (if so, the editors surely would be much better developed than they were). If you don’t want (or can’t) edit the game, it was not a problem, as it was an option to the enthusiastic player; this was not part of the game’s experience.

In 1996, EA Sports released FIFA 96, in which you could create teams, players and even championships in-game. That was a new (and huge) step on how far this “freedom talking” could go. As far as it was in-game, it was so simple to use that you were invited to create something, even if it’s not part of the main (mandatory) game experience. The most important thing here is that it was not an enthusiastic-only feature anymore (as it was in-game, with user-friendly interface). 

Then we got the first GTA, showing a new, fresh way of defining what is a “freedom of play” (masking its own limitations, as they do perfectly until today). I know there are other examples, doing more things before those cited here, but that’s enough for what I’m explaining now.

So now we are on the Wi-X360-PS3 days, where we’re seeing some new definitions on gaming: there is the “casual” gaming (with quotes to denote I do not agree with this term), the massive gaming, the indie games, and the free-to-play games (to mention a few). They all have in common what most of the games listed in the beginning of this subject has: a lot of players creating, playing and sharing games and content together. 

To me, Spore failed in this goal because they looked to this subject from top-down view, hoping that with a remarkable scale-changing game they will create this feeling of “freedom greatness”; and then we got LBP, so acclaimed by everybody, which done the opposite: they looked down-top, offering little things to change, which will result on big things together – well, a Little Big Planet as the name says.

Spore is not a bad game, but there is an “it is missing something” feeling that is never a good thing. Much of this, however, is because of the hype in this game – or, as I said before, they promised something players don’t get as they were anxious to get – a “lie”, as they understand it. If LBP was never released, then, maybe Spore was not all the “failure” it is (as maybe would be perceived the apex of freedom of play and game changing).

As I stress here, the “offerings” the games do reflects directly on how people will see them – and that’s something basic that so many games is doing wrong today. Of course, my talking is about two different things: freedom of play and freedom to change the game.

GTA4 is an example of the apex of freedom of play: you don’t change the game itself, but you have an immense array of things you can do apart of the main story and objectives; this gives you the feeling of realism, of a “living game”. LBP is the apex of the game changing, as you can change the game’s structure and make completely different stuff. I said before that that’s small changes, but they lead us to really different experiences (football games, race games, etc.)

Combining them into one simple game should lead the industry to the real thing everyone wants in any game: do what we want, the way we want, and see what will happen – or, at least, feel like this. These are the main veins in the freedom of play, that every player around wants, regardless of preferences (casual, hardcore, student players). 

So we get Wii and PS3 carrying one of these main veins of game design each, innovation and freedom of play (respectively). Xbox 360 is carrying other stuff, but will not be discussed here now.  We should see similar “freedom” on other PS3-like games everywhere as Gears of War 2, Fracture, Far Cry 2… games in which players can interact with the levels in a way we never thought before (as the Far Cry 2 accidental scene burn case).

It seems reasonable to say that the next step of game design is to bind these two veins together, but not only doing this. When we ideally do this binding, we will face an interesting situation that LBP innocently showed us, and that’s our next subject: what about game design?

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