The Designer's Notebook: I Can't Keep Up!

With the advent of electronic distribution, game genres could become as niche as cable television channels are today. With that in mind, Ernest has decided that he's not going to worry about keeping up with pop culture -- games that target the least common denominator are doomed anyway.

I have a confession to make.

I haven't seen The Matrix.

I haven't seen Existenz.

Hell, I haven't even seen the new Star Wars movie.

It gets worse. I haven't seen most of the recent Star Trek movies, either.

I did see Jurassic Park, when the whole company went together, but I wasn't impressed. Nice dinosaurs, Steven, but your movie has about as much character development as an episode of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? Grumpy yet hunky scientist learns kids aren't so bad after all - yeah, that's deep. The rest was exciting action (nicely done), one lawyer joke, one dinosaur snot joke, one fat bad guy. (It used to be that bad guys wore black hats, but black hats are cool now, so that won't do. Being fat will never be cool, though, so that's the newest way to tell who the bad guys are.) Oh, yes, and one unintentional Unix joke. I didn't bother with The Lost World.

I don't watch The X-Files. Nor Party of Five, nor Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. When they were on, I didn't watch Beverly Hills 90210 or Seinfeld.

Books? I haven't read The Shipping News. I haven't read The Bridges of Madison County. I don't know if I'll get the time to read Hannibal.

I have, I'm proud to say, devoured all three of the Harry Potter books in about six evenings flat, staying up 'til three in the morning on several occasions. If I were Harry's age, I would have been reading them under the covers with a flashlight. They're great.

In the eyes of some people, I'm sure my failure to immerse myself in current popular culture should disqualify me from being a game designer. Several years ago the marketing manager for a game I was involved with informed me proudly that our company was going to put out a line of pogs. Naïvely, I asked him what pogs were. He looked at me with some disgust and informed me that pogs were all the rage.

I suppose nowadays pogs are as dead as hula hoops.

(If you, too, don't know what a pog is - and I'm sure many of my international readers won't - it's a small disk of heavy paperboard, printed with a logo or other design. The original pog was the seal which went under the bottlecap of a drink sold in Hawaii. They're also called "milkcaps." People collect them, or used to. I have no idea why.)

The fact is, I can't keep up. The media machine turns out entertainment at such a staggering pace that for me to try to keep on top of it all would take all my time and a lot of money besides. When I had cable TV I didn't subscribe to any of the premium channels and I still had about sixty to choose from.

And I doubt if I'll ever catch up even if I make a concerted effort, because: I've also never read the Histories of Herodotus. I've never read King Lear.

I've never read The Sun Also Rises.

I've never seen From Here to Eternity or It's A Wonderful Life.

Now, you might say, "Yeah, but that stuff is all old. It doesn't have anything to do with computer games and never will. You need to keep up with current popular culture so you know what your customers are reading and watching."

Well… maybe. Which customers are we talking about?

It used to be that the Big Three American TV networks controlled the limited number of broadcast frequencies available. ABC, CBS, and NBC tried to be all things to all viewers by dumbing down their content to the least common denominator. But when cable TV came along, it fragmented the television entertainment market and in the process did the consumer an enormous service. Suddenly, the networks faced competition from dozens of highly-focused cable channels that could provide exactly what their viewers wanted.

Once I got cable TV I quit watching the broadcast networks. Being a history buff, my TV was usually tuned to either the Discovery Channel, the History Channel, A&E, CNN, or PBS. I did watch Law & Order on NBC, and I started watching Homicide, but the camerawork gave me motion sickness. That's about it.

A similar thing happened when the printing press was invented. Before the printing press, there were only a few hundred titles available. They were mostly works on religion, science, or medicine, and each copy had to be laboriously written out by hand. After the printing press the book market exploded and fragmented, and there were titles on all kinds of things - agriculture and housewifery, poetry and metallurgy.

In the next few years, the same thing is going to happen again to the game industry. Just as three networks can control the broadcast spectrum, a few publishers can control the retail shelf space… but electronic software distribution is going to break that wide open. It will be the "cable TV" of computer gaming, providing something for everyone. On the Internet, shelf space is unlimited.

The big publishers will still have an advantage, don't get me wrong. Like the TV networks, they'll still make most of the money, and they'll be able to fund the big projects, run the big ad campaigns, and sign the hot licenses. The difference is that the little guys will suddenly find breathing room. They won't have to compete for shelf space. The playing field will level out a bit.

The fragmentation that occurred in television audiences will also happen among game customers. We already think of our customers as "kids," "girls," "hardcore gamers," "solitaire players," and so on, but it's going to break up a lot more than that. Who knows, it's possible that we might even get a video game equivalent of Black Entertainment Television - a line of games that actually feature nonwhite protagonists. That would be a novelty: except in sports games and the occasional fighting game, most interactive heroes are white. You can pretend to be Bruce Willis, but you can't pretend to be Wesley Snipes.

So what's a game developer to do? In terms of "keeping up," the coming explosion of computer game titles is only going to worsen the problem. It's bad enough as it is - the game industry turns out far more games than Hollywood does movies, and they cost six or seven times as much to buy. If you really wanted to "keep up," you'd go broke. So it comes down to a question of what you choose to spend your money on.

One of my favorite quotations is a passage in Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:


What's new?" is an interesting and broadening eternal question, but one which, if pursued exclusively, results only in an endless parade of trivia and fashion, the silt of tomorrow. I would like, instead, to be concerned with the question "What is best?," a question which cuts deeply rather than broadly, a question whose answers tend to move the silt downstream.

If anything can be said to look like an endless parade of trivia and fashion, it's the contents of TV Guide. If anything is the silt of tomorrow, it's what's on the game store shelves today.

I can't keep up with the latest games. What I try to do instead is to keep up with the best games. I don't play "dumbed-down" games any more than I watch "dumbed-down" TV. I don't try to keep up with popular culture generally - pogs and Party of Five - unless I'm convinced those things can either provide inspiration for my game or tell me something about the people whom I want to buy it. I didn't watch pro football on TV until I designed John Madden Football for the 3DO; but once I started to, I learned a lot. (One of the most useful exercises I ever did was to have someone transcribe the broadcast commentary of an entire football game from beginning to end, then analyze it sentence by sentence for the exact content.)

Now it's true that I'd like my games to be purchased by as many people as possible; but there's a balance to be found between making the game accessible to the largest number of people and remaining true to the game's vision. Games (and TV shows, and books, and movies, and politicians) which compromise their basic principles for the sake of potential sales or votes tend to end up pleasing nobody. You're not going to make Quake sell to sports game customers by grafting a sports game onto it - the result would be ridiculous.

Returning to the question of The X-Files versus Herodotus, it depends on whether I'm entertaining myself or doing research. If I want entertainment I'll watch or read whatever I feel like without any regard for its relevance to my work. If I'm doing research, I look at the material that matters most to my current product. For the game I'm working on at the moment, Herodotus is actually the more valuable resource. But I don't feel an obligation to "keep up" in a general way by spending my precious leisure time on something that doesn't interest me. When somebody asks me to do a game about the social lives of spoiled rich kids, then I'll watch Beverly Hills 90210. Possibly.

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