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The Tyranny of the Game Engine

A look at how game engines are stifling creativity and manipulating the games industry.

Declan Kolakowski, Blogger

February 6, 2014

7 Min Read

This article was cross-posted on my personal blog.

Ask almost any game developer (who isn’t a tools programmer) what they think of modern game engines and the response will be overwhelmingly positive.

Developers will enthusiastically say things like:

“Game engines are democratizing development!”

“Game engines make complex tasks easier and quicker!”

“With a game engine I can make anything I want!”

Etc. etc.

While this may be true to an extent, there is a big problem with game engines that our development community seems set on ignoring:

Game engines force you to think about creating games in a particular way.

Game engines are specialised to solve a particular set of problems in the creation of games. The nature of these problems are overwhelmingly influenced by the AAA standard of representation in games. In essence all game engines are trying to solve two very limited problems:

  1. Representing a 3D space using a first or third person avatar.

  2. Representing 2D space with an animated sprite.

There are a great number of games (as we have seen) that can be created through a grounding in these two forms, however, the huge foundational assumptions game engines force creators to make about the mode of representation and the form of design in games is forcing the development commmunity into particular ways of thinking. As soon as you load up any game engine these choices have already been made for you. You are immediately presented with a base representation of your game world which is geared towards emulating the “standard mode” of game creation.

In Rules of Play Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman note that almost all conceptualisations of games start from the point of view of an avatar moving in some form of space. This singular and limited understanding of the representative power of our medium has lead to a homogenisation of how we conceptualize games, which, in my opinion, is incredibly harmful to the creativity of our industry.

To make it clear, I do not think that it is impossible to create original games using game engines that depart from the tropes of 3D/2D representational space, but at some level, even if you can escape the tyranny of the game engine interface, you are forced to understand the process of your creation in terms of its basic functionality. The basis for your creation with a game engine will always be from these specialised modes of limited representational space and everything you try to do to escape from it will have to be conceptualised as a deviation from that. A subversion of what is made easy by the engine. A struggle to realise a vision that is opposed to the engine’s intent and design.

Humans naturally try and gravitate to the easiest way of accomplishing their goals. When everything you try to do to realise your imaginative vision of a game space is set in opposition to the interface that mediates your work, you are being manipulated into thinking more and more in terms of the dominant modes of game representation.

All of this leads to a damaging feedback loop between consumer and creator that cements these assumptions about game design ever more deeply. Consumers (including developers) buy and play the huge amount of games that use the 3D/2D representational norms thus solidifying expectations about what a game is and is not. This in turn leads to developers making more games that fit these preconceptions and cater to their perceptions of the market, thus reinforcing the consumers expectations again and feeding back into the design process once more.

How did this situation arise? One way to understand it is to look at the music industry – an even more homogenised creative sector than games or film – where this process of conceptual domination has strong parallels. Theodor Adorno theorised that if people are constantly played the music they like and never exposed to things they might not enjoy because they are unknown then the creation of sound will slowly become homogenised as all extraneous and challenging influences are removed from the creative process in a inward spiralling feedback loop designed to capitalise on marketing music to the lowest common denominator of consumer. As we can see from the state of the music industry today, he was not far wrong. One need only look at the development of software like Logic and Pro Tools to see how specialised these interfaces have become in fostering the imperialistic propagation of the 3-5 minute pop song complete with top ended vocal line, electric rhythm section and bass boosted drum beats, forcing musicians to think in terms of these culturally dominant forms.

The reason I say that the music industry is even more homogenised than games or film is because indie/alternative music from self-confessed pop hating bands is still incredibly close to the pop music formula. These musicians generally still use the standard band set up (guitar and drum heavy), the standard forms of song structure (verse/chorus), the standard harmonic progressions (I-IV-V-I) and standard subject matter (sex and relationships). What do the pop music industry and the independent music industry share at the most intimate level?  Both use same software interfaces to create their music. It is not a big stretch of the imagination to intimate that these assumptions from huge corporations about creativity are passed on to the independents through the musical interfaces they fund and control.

Returning to the games industry; we can see how the development of the game engine may be fostering a similar form of creative dominance. Over time, like genetic organisms, game engines have adapted and specialised themselves to cater to this wildly uncreative subset of game creators – a form that has been mainly fostered by the AAA industry and its control over so much of the industry’s mind-share. Each iteration of these game engines has been focused on honing the capabilities to produce a specific “correct” result while making any other forms of development increasingly tangential and difficult to access in their interfaces. This developmental homogenisation leads to game creators being unable to distinguish between “developing games” and “developing a subset of possible games” because of the tools they use reinforcing a particular understanding of how we create in our medium. This understanding has even more alarming cultural currency among the average consumer who has a very specific way of understanding what game development is and what it is not.

As the younger generation begins to make games, more and more we will find developers who have only ever used these streamlined interfaces and if we are not vigilant in reminding them of the conceptual limitations of these tools the imaginative possibilities of our medium might be abandoned in the future.

Part of the reason game engines have become so important to our development culture is that they allow creators to begin making games without having to first front load their development process by worrying about “trivial” things like how they will render their characters on screen, or how they will display menus but instead jump straight in to making the content for their game. This is certainly a big advantage if you want to actually make games rather than just end up being a very good tools programmer. I am not saying that we should cease to use game engines but we should definitely have an awareness of the assumptions that engines are instilling in our industry. Like many forms of psychological and cognitive dissonance, simple awareness can be enough to over come them.

As a prototyping tool game engines are unmatched, however, if you are trying to look and think outside the realms standard game representation I would recommend you try coding from scratch or at least thinking your framework from the bottom up and tweaking (even in a game engine) the most fundamental aspects of your game before rushing into content creation. You will be amazed how many unexpected and exciting things emerge from revolting against the tyranny of the game engine.

If you have other solutions, ideas or a completely different view I’d love to hear it in the comments.


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