Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Video Games, Choice, Japan

[Jill Duffy, who you should totally remember from her Twin Peaks blogs, is back with a look at video games.]

Sid Meier, best known for the Civilization series of games, is almost as well known for saying: "a [good] game is a series of interesting choices" (Game Architecture and Design, Rollings & Morris, eds., 2000).

Among video game designers and developers, "choice" is a consummate word. “Choice” is the thing that defines a good game. What the user can choose to do at any particular moment, and how those choices are presented, is the most crucial question that game designers ask themselves as they design and iterate their creations.

Generally speaking, developers agree that the more open the game environment — that is, the more "choice" the player has — the closer the game gets to realizing the ultimate vision of what an interactive world can be. This is especially true of virtual worlds and other games that strive to be immersive.

But there is more than one kind of "choice," and not all players want choice the way that developers assume they do.

Some of us believe in constraints. Back in 2004 Philip Rosedale, CEO of Linden Lab, gave me a demo of Second Life about a year after the game first debuted. This was before Second Life really found its footing as a true virtual business world, before online universities were holding classes there, before organizations were using it to connect employees who lived far apart. At the time, users (and Rosedale himself) saw it more as a game.

He launched us into Second Life. We flew around for a while. We checked out a virtual rave. And I thought, “But what am I supposed to DO?”

The so-called freedom that comes with sandbox play isn’t for everyone. Even as a child, I sought out board games and organized outdoor play, like tag and kickball, where clearly defined rules protected me from the whims and exploitations of older kids, especially my sister, who could otherwise manipulate the unspoken rules of play.

A game of Grand Theft Auto, where there is “something to do,” a series of tasks to complete, but always the open “choice” to do something else instead, is too much freedom for me. I will always want to complete the tasks as efficiently as possible.

A recent New York Times article about the 2010 Tokyo Game Show got me thinking about this, especially because only a few days earlier I had listened to Sheena Iyengar's TED talk on the art of choosing.

The Times article reflects about Japan's place in the world of video game development, and to an extend consumption. Jake Kazdal, a game developer with a history at both Sega and Electronic Arts, was interviewed for the article:
"Part of Japan’s problem, Mr. Kazdal said, is a growing gap in tastes between players there and overseas. The most popular games in Japan are linear, with little leeway for players to wander off a defined path. In the United States, he said, video games have become more open, virtual experiences."

In light of Iyengar's talk, and other ruminations about choice and false choice (including Malcolm Gladwell's "spaghetti sauce" TED talk), Kazdal's point makes a lot of sense. But I don't think it’s a matter of "taste" so much as culture. The Japanese are not "lagging behind," as Keiji Inafune of Capcom tells the Times reporter. It's that their whole ideology doesn't embrace "choice" the same way that Western cultures do, but they're being asked to both produce and consume games in a global marketplace.


neilshyminsky said...

No idea whether this came from the same Show, but i recall hearing a lot recently about the divergence of Japanese and Euro-American tastes with respect to plotlines, too. Namely, that the Euro-American market is turned-off by the 'i was born a commoner but was always destined for cosmic greatness/i was raised by normal humans but am actually the child of great people' plot that is ubiquitous in Japanese games. (As i recall, the split has been exacerbated by the latest Metroid game, where Samus has been given exactly this backstory.)

This complaint can probably join the same conversation, right? Destined for greatness vs. the self-made anti-hero that is popular in American games... seems to express a similar kind of disconnect.

hcduvall said...

I love the idea of choice in games, but in actual experience, I get paralyzed by it. I feel like I spend more time coming up with names than playing sometimes. Plus, certain games can be so long that even if I get going, I'm unlikely to replay and feel like I'm missing out on chunks of content. While the choice difference is an old topic regarding my favorite genre (rpgs), I wondering if the expanded marketplace is removing that distinction, despite Mr. Kazdal's complaints. For one, the monolith of Pokemon rules all continents, and the top games that are different, at least on the American side, are primarily FPS games, not-choice driven. They're appeal is largely in multiplayer, in basically firmly bounded games like tag. Well, tag with killing.

Sega produces the Yakuza series, popular in Japan but rarely released in the US, and it looks remarkably like the GTA series in gameplay. Maybe I'm not giving the argument enough credit, Sega being one of the most outside looking of Japanese game companies, but even Rock Star has moved toward a more narrative-first experience, the sandbox being mostly distraction. After all, if people want worlds to cause mayhem with, how can any of these games compare to mmos?

Hurmn, I had a longer ramblier spiel about rpgs and choice integrated in narratives better now (in western ones) and Japanese ones needing more choice but always having more coherent (if silly) storylines because you don't decide on the character, you just play one, and then I remembered Farmville and the Sims--Harvest Moon looks more or less like Farmville to me, but with a short story tacked on, say--and I now think I'm entirely wrong about everything. Maybe the sandbox does rule the roost.

re:storylines: heh, I've always read the difference in storylines between these two cultures as the stories being caught between two different spots of adolescence. The hero fantasies of 14-year-olds vs. 17-year-olds.