Two Dimensional Characters in Three Dimensional Games

FoFP, PAX East 2011

Left to right: Graham Stark (front), Susan Arendt, Tracey John, Kathleen DeVere, Trina Schwimmer, and AJ Glasser

On Saturday, we managed to get into the “Females on Female Characters” panel, which was packed and for good reason. Before you read my take on it you may want to hop over to The Escapist and read the notes Greg Tito took during the panel— he didn’t catch everything but he gives a pretty good feel of what happened and how it went– next year we are taking something with which to record. We found it interesting and not surprising that half the crowd was female while only a small portion of the population of PAX East was female. There was quite a bit of good back and forth about sexy being okay as long as the characters weren’t there for that reason alone and whether certain characters were good female characters and it suited the game but what the discussion really boiled down to was that female gamers want to have the option of playing well rounded, interesting, witty  female characters in games and good character design is key for both male and female characters.  The real question is what IS good character design and what needs to change to make that happen?  Making characters solid people that make sense not just a reason for something to happen.     I have plenty to say about the other issues that came up (just like everybody else and a lot of it has already been said)  but for the moment I want to focus on the character design issue. I think the biggest problem with the “good character design” question is that games aren’t written by writers. Yes, they hire writers– especially big game companies, but they hire writers who write games.  They aren’t out there hiring “real” writers, they are hiring people who love games and have set out to write for games.  First off it is true, these people tend to be male, because gaming is still male dominated.  As an aside, I think a lot of that is that gamers have shot themselves in the foot by poopooing the games girls often prefer, but that is a whole other topic and not what I want to address right now.  For now I want to focus on the problem of two dimensional characters in three dimensional gaming and my theory as to why the problem is so prevalent.

There is a huge disconnect between  writers, artists, and game designers.  Yes, there is a small group of people who love gaming and go into the field because they love gaming.  Meanwhile, in general it looks more like this:

Note: I specified programmers but gamers works just as well– in fact I would say that the programmers should be an even smaller percentage of each than gamers– significantly smaller– so my ven diagram sucks but I spent way too long making it to begin with and refuse to go back and change it. Even writers who game is a very small percentage, which as Shamus pointed out in a recent conversation, is not surprising given the poor writing and story telling in games. I find this especially  interesting as I have many writer friends– partly because I am married to a writer, partly because I read obsessively and find it to my benefit to be friends with the people who write the type of books I love to read,  and partly because of my experience as an artist and book cover designer.  The point is I know a slew of writers who write well and very few of those game let alone program.  Meanwhile all of these writers are trying to get published, either traditionally or independently. Because these writers are not gamers it doesn’t occur to them to send their writing out to game publishers or try to get hired by a game developer.  In fact, when I mentioned this to a writer friend she said, “I know I wouldn’t have a clue where to start in seeking storying opportunities in gaming.”  However why aren’t game developers approaching these writers?  Here is a huge pool of amazing writers who are working hard to polish their art and attempting to become the best writers they can be and they are completely overlooked by a field that NEEDS good writers. It surprises me that game designers have not even attempted to tap this fount of good writing.  When someone recommends a book to me quite often the comment is, “This book was so good it should be made into a movie.”  No one ever says, “This book was so good it should be made into a game,” which saddens me because I often think that.  Tons of the books I have read would make interesting games, with well developed characters and plenty to do and explore.  For example Patricia C. Wrede‘s “Enchanted Forest” series would make fun games with a great female lead as would Patrick Carman‘s two recent series (granted the most recent would be a male lead but both have fascinating worlds to explore with well developed, interesting characters.)  The best games I have played lately (i.e. Professor Layton and the Unwound Future) felt like they started with a good story and worked the game mechanics around that whereas most games seem to work backwards– starting with a game idea then finding writers to write the story around it.  Movies and other story based media don’t work that way so why do games? Aside from that particular “getting things backwards” issue, there is the whole pool of writers issue.  Instead of pulling writers from the crowd of writers trying to shove  their way into the publishing industry, game designers (and publishers) tend to draw from the much smaller pool of  gamers clamoring to get into the gaming industry. It goes something like this:

  • Young man spends his spare time gaming and and immerses himself in game culture(not down on this, this describes some of my favorite people. :))
  • Gamer decides that the best way to find work he loves is to get into the gaming industry.
  • Gamer looks at pile of fan fiction (or fan art) based on favorite games and decides THIS is his key into the gaming industry.

*This is obviously oversimplified and stereotypical and  leaves out all those who get in because a friend is designing a game and needs a writer/artist but I am trying to make  a point.

The problem is that like the majority of writers trying to get published, they are so-so writers.  A publisher friend suggested that 99% of the writers attempting to get published are mediocre so what percentage of the much smaller group of writers focused on the gaming field are average at best?  They are missing the editing, understanding of character and world development, and just plain old experience and polish that those who have been working in the writing field have developed.  In fact, I would guess that compared to the writers going the traditional write, send out, get rejected cycle, writers in the gamer circuit tend to have much less experience or understanding of writing as an art and trade than their published (or actively attempting to get published) counterparts. Compared to the other writers in their particular pool they are excellent, but compared to the ocean of writers out there they are guppies. This means that they tend to suffer from the same mistakes that so many of their unpublished writer counterparts suffer from.  They just plain don’t know how to tell a good story.  They don’t have the experience and have not learned how to develop story arch and well rounded characters and it doesn’t occur to them to try and learn. Writing good stories and characterizations, and doing it well, is just not a priority for them.  They already know that their story is going to be published because it is an integral part of the game, so why work at being a better writer? And what does all this have to do with the Females on Female Characters Panel at PAX East?   The reason we don’t have a lot more well developed female characters is we don’t have good writers who can write female characters (and for that matter artists who know the difference between male and female aside from hips and breasts).  Games don’t start with good stories, they start with a game idea and then the story is built around that idea.  So we end up with stereotypical characters in a regurgitated plot line instead of interesting, three dimensional characters in a new and interesting story.  And because so many of the gamer writers are male and have less experience with females outside of the games they play the female characters they create tend to be caricatures even in a game where the males are not.

34 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Mari
    Mar 16, 2011 @ 15:10:44

    I think experienced male novelists can attest to how difficult it is for them to write compelling female characters. Stephen King pops to mind. One of his earliest novels (possibly his first, I don’t recall off-hand) was “Carrie.” It was a fascinating story but anyone who has actually read the book (as opposed to seeing the movie) can tell you that Carrie wasn’t convincing. Oh, the plot was good but the characters (all female) were like paper dolls in a seven-year-old’s bedroom playing out the action on the floor. It probably wasn’t the best choice ever for a novice author to write something so far outside his knowledge-base (girls, not occult phenomenon). He got away with it because honestly the premise itself was entertaining enough that a lot of people got past the 2-D characters. But aspiring game writers: ask yourselves, if Stephen King couldn’t write a teenaged girl to save his life what makes you think you’ll do any better?

    I have to admit, I never think to myself, “That was so good they should make it into a movie” because I’m a reader by nature and honestly I have yet to find a movie based on the novel that was nearly as good. But you brought up a good point about a book being so good it should be made into a game. It got me thinking about what books I’ve read lately that should be made into games. Since I tend to read “authors” rather than “books” the first thing that leaped to mind was anything by Shannon Hale. Unsurprisingly, Hale writes wonderfully strong female characters. As an added bonus she has a real talent for creating vivid settings (I would assume an asset for game writing) and interesting character ensembles. Would I play a Final Fantasy-esque game penned by Shannon Hale? You bet! I would also line up to play a MMORPG based upon any given setting by Mercedes Lackey. Again the author’s strengths include powerful 3-D characters and awe-inspiring setting with the added bonus of very inventive “world building.” And I would kill for a morality system in a game penned by Stephen Donaldson. Peter Molyneux could learn a thing or two about realistic morality from Donaldson. So why are none of these people writing games?


    • Heather
      Mar 16, 2011 @ 15:29:47

      Oh absolutely. In fact, what made me think of it originally is that Starship Titanic which was written by Douglas Adams with Terry Jones. The story was so brilliant we really did play through despite the crazy bugs. And I would play anything based on a Terry Pratchet book. Mercedes Lackey would be good along with Barbara Hambly and a slew of other writers I can think of off the top of my head. And they do it regularly with children’s books– Max and Ruby are wonderful children’s characters and quickly made their way to screens (both television and computer).

      And I agree with you about the movie/book thing. My oldest gets mad that I insist that she read the book first because she hates not being able to enjoy the movie because the book was so much better. However, when it comes to games, there are many worlds I would love to be able to explore as a character– especially those that are well written and full.

      I am not really surprised that authors aren’t writing games. I don’t think it has occurred to them really– in fact I know it has never occurred to the authors in the speculative fiction group to which I belong, and I have no idea how I would even advise them as far as getting into game writing. I think it is the whole going about things backwards problem. Game developers should be approaching writers, real writers. They should be infiltrating writing groups and talking to publishers looking for good stories instead of expecting writers to design around their mechanics/plot design.


      • Mari
        Mar 16, 2011 @ 17:40:48

        What’s to stop a group of frustrated writers from just approaching some of those folks EA’s been laying off like last week’s tamales and starting up a new studio? That’s how some of the greatest revolutions in entertainment have happened. Somebody with a different idea gathers up other people who are willing to give it a shot, they work together and make something amazing. Sure sometimes one or two of them get old, massacre their previous work, resell it, lose their minds and ruin everything they ever made with endless nonsensical sequels, but sometimes it works out.

        I’m in favor of it. In fact, if you’re looking for frustrated writers I’ll sign up.

      • Heather
        Mar 16, 2011 @ 17:50:40

        Ooo, brilliant! Know lots of writers and several artists, now to find the programmers. 🙂 Oh wait, one needs MONEY to start a studio. Sigh.

      • Mari
        Mar 16, 2011 @ 17:59:14

        That’s where your husband comes in. I’ve noticed in his comments that apparently some of his readers are industry insiders.

      • Mari
        Mar 16, 2011 @ 18:01:33

        And don’t worry about the money. Well, worry, but don’t let it discourage you. I’ve found that if you think about it in a lump sum it feels overwhelming but if you start small and grow on a cash flow basis you can get a surprising amount done. At least farming has proved to be that way and believe me, when we started that people were universally telling us about the millions in startup investment you needed.

      • Heather
        Mar 16, 2011 @ 18:05:11

        Hmmm. Must think on this. I am sure Shamus would love me approaching him with, “Hello Love, it seems we have decided to stage a hostile takeover of the gaming industry and we plan to use your blog to do it. :)”

      • Mari
        Mar 16, 2011 @ 19:16:32

        You have the same knack as your husband. I’ll be reading through and then suddenly I’m spitting my beverage of choice all over my monitor over something you’ve said. The mental image of you skipping (I have no idea why you would skip indoors) over to your husband and delivering that line in your sweetest voice then bending over and kissing him on the cheek and skipping out is cracking me up.

      • krellen
        Mar 18, 2011 @ 21:09:40

        I am sure Shamus would love me approaching him with, “Hello Love, it seems we have decided to stage a hostile takeover of the gaming industry and we plan to use your blog to do it. 🙂 ”

        I’m sure most of his readers would love it too. Now you must do this.

        Help us, Young Family Games, you’re our only hope! 🙂

      • Heather
        Mar 18, 2011 @ 23:14:57

        Hah! He is being very patient with me (I always get super enthusiastic about projects and know to ride it out till I see if it is a “real” project, but it IS awfully tempting. :))

  2. Jacob J
    Mar 16, 2011 @ 15:53:34

    This is something that I have noticed in the past. It’s why I have never been able to find myself interested in games like “Halo” or “Call of Duty”, yet I am completely hooked on “Batman: Arkham Asylum”. The first two games feel like they were made by coders and artists who have no idea how to introduce plot into their creations. On the other hand, “Arkham Asylum” has a plot that was written by some of the same people who write the Batman comics.


  3. Winter Peck
    Mar 16, 2011 @ 16:20:10

    Oddly enough, I had never considered this. Never! At one time–long long ago in a far away world–I had considered writing for comics, cause half the time I hated the storylines of some of the characters and could do better. But most writers for comics need an art background–cause they write the actual words–or they used to, been out of the loop for a long time now.

    This is something gamers should look at, and wanna-be authors too. Sometimes your story might not fight into the publishing world, but could fit a game. Ironically a lot of the craft books out there for authors can go two-ways, some of them actually take acting techniques to help us develop our characters. And it helps.

    I typically write a better male POV–point of view–better than I write a female. And I’m a girl.


    • Heather
      Mar 16, 2011 @ 16:25:47

      I agree, Winter. Having proof read a lot of books I suspect it is more personality that tells what sort of character one writes better. The more NT friends I have tend to write males better and often the more sentimental males tend to write females better. In fact, I recently proofed a book written by a very masculine male where the most compelling and realistic character was the young girl. In that case his males were trying too hard to be masculine and he only let his guard down with the female. So a lot of it depends on the writer.

      I honestly think it would behoove book publishers and game publishers to get to know each other and hand off the authors that would suit the other better. Of course, because they live such separate lives and hang out in very different places it is unlikely to occur.


  4. Bogan
    Mar 17, 2011 @ 00:36:36

    Oh I suppose I could pop by so say a word or two here. I have a reason as to why publishers don’t want to approach writers to make them a good story. No one honestly seems to care, or at least the majority of gamers. Here’s a little tidbit I picked up from Wikipedia. Let’s take the last Harry Potter movie, Deathly Hallows. I’m sure we can agree Rowling is a good author, the movie is arguable. Now Call of Duty: Black Ops made twice as much as that movie in its opening release, and it had a garbage story line. There is not enough reason when the core audience is nothing but a juvenile men who only about fragging a friend then taking part in an interesting tale. I could be wrong, but that’s just my take. Why change what is apparently working for them.

    Now as to females in video games well I got a take on that too. Guys want their male hero’s to be what a man should be, big and muscular. That’s what the average guy considers the ideal by social norms. Now most women also have this image of blond bimbo being what to strive for. So it would almost make sense that as a writer you’d want to make a character that personifies what one wants hence muscle bond Kratos and sexy butt kicking Bayonetta (some may think sexy). Go figure the typical female gamer generally doesn’t fit that “I want to be a cheerleader in high school because that’s what I’m supposed to do to be attractive” mold. Developers probably just don’t understand typical thought process of a female. Actually that fits with the whole writing thing now that I think about it. Men are from Mars and women are from Venus, and all that stuff. Most video game writers like the rest of the industry are male and honestly we just don’t know where to even start to understand women.


    • Heather
      Mar 17, 2011 @ 11:04:40

      Bogan, I realize you are right on both points here– at least in part. For the first part, it depends on the type of game and it depends on whether they even bothered with story to begin with. As Shamus and I were just discussing, the real problem of bad writing is in games that are based on their story. Sure there are plenty of games out there that just need to be playable and fun, but there are whole genres that NEED story to make them interesting and move forward– i.e. the Final Fantasy series. If you are expecting good story, for instance if they have bothered hiring voice actors and act like they are telling a story, then they should bother hiring writers that CAN write. Also, using Harry Potter doesn’t really work as an example. When they translate a game from a movie (which they did in the Harry Potter series) it falls apart. Essentially it is a 3rd generation story– by the time they adjust the story from the book to the movie and then the movie to the game everything has fallen to bits. Keep in mind that game stories require writing and, often, scripts so translating a book to a game is fairly natural. When translating a movie to a game the focus is on translating the look of the movie, not just the text. It is hard enough as an illustrator to translate the author’s written characters into an illustration in a way that makes the author happy and shows the reader what the author intended without having to use someone else’s interpretation as an extra filter. I would like to see them take a good book and translate it directly into a game, without the movie messing with the way it should look. LotR Online actually did a decent job interpreting Tolkien’s world and making it playable (despite Shamus cutting it to bits for his Lulzy series. :)) They certainly didn’t try to make it perfectly fit Peter Jackson’s interpretation of it. On the other hand the Harry Potter games obviously did try to interpret the movie, same goes for the Spiderman games (especially the cut scenes, which are literally play by play through the movies– despite the game itself having great web slinging/swinging mechanics).

      And of course the “does it need a good story” fell right back into the “juvenile men” question. Now I haven’t played Call of Duty but you may recall quite a bit of Unreal Tournament playing. I have no problem grabbing the sniper rifle, going for headshots, and essentially just trying to not die as much as possible (nie impossible with Shamus and Pat playing) but there is a time and place for that. And if Unreal Tournament had attempted to tell a story (as I seem to recall later versions did, which sucked) it would have been a complete turn off.

      As far as stereotypes in games, I agree. I think that is a huge part of it but I honestly don’t think they are putting blond bimbos in the games for our sakes. Most women don’t actually WANT to look like Barbie, really. Sure they are out there but that usually happens because they have been told by those around them that that is what people want (I am thinking of L.A. where the longer a woman the lighter her hair gets.) There is a reason there is such a huge variety of hair dyes available at the store, and most of them aren’t blond. 🙂 But really, I suspect for the most part, they are putting the blond bimbos in to make the juvenile male happy. 🙂

      As far as knowing where to start to understand women, some women suggest that having more women in the field would solve that. I don’t know. I think that a lot of women who are attracted to games tend to not understand women as a whole (as you may have noted I tend to hang out with a group of 20-something male gamers– when was the last time you were over and saw a female friend over as well???) I do, however think that introducing writers to the field who know how to write people, and introducing artists to the field who know how to draw people would make a huge difference. I remember the first avatars we built in Truspace. Shamus attempted to do it on his own and after many attempts ended up with a male with huge breasts and hips– because people always assume that male and female start from the same skeletal structure. We don’t. Male and female structure are very different from pelvic placement and spine shape right down to the structure of the face. This means that everything you build on top of that structure is going to look different. This is why you end up with so many female characters in games that look like someone just lopped off an adams apple, added huge hips and breasts, threw a wig on and called George Georgette. Having artists that know the difference would mean that you could get away with smaller breasts and hips on an avatar for it still to look female (we are seeing more of that recently, which is nice though I wish Marvel would figure it out– their character creator SUCKED.)


    • Mari
      Mar 17, 2011 @ 13:25:42

      I dunno. Maybe it was the masculine face or maybe it was the exaggerated art style but Bayonetta came off as a man in drag for me. The chest and waist proportions were ok, much less sexualized than normal for video games, but I just didn’t find her all that appealing.

      Personally, though, I hold “Sudeki” up as a character-design ideal for video games. Not the anime art style, necessarily, but the characters, while sexualized, were within “normal” human proportions. The Alish character was a very typical voluptuous female form. Buki was a perfected athletic female form. Even the male characters struck me as “these people could walk off the screen, become human, and not collapse under physics.” Tal was a highly fit and and muscular masculine ideal without being “body builder” form. Elko was a pretty standard fit, compact male body without the muscle definition that comes from working out with a focus on definition.

      Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy sexy (and even exaggerated) character design. I’ve been known to adjust camera angles to enjoy the view in games. But very few games do I look at and say “That’s what I should look like” or “that’s what a potential mate of mine should look like.” Then again, I’ve never thought I should look like Barbie nor do I know any females that believe so. I think a lot of that “ideal image” stuff is bunk. I took a random survey of my male friends and none of them identified Kratos as an ideal male form. The closest any of them came was one who described Kratos as “a caricature of the most exaggerated ideal of the hyper-testosterone gun-toting body-builder male type like from ‘Predator’.” And that was from a guy who strongly identifies with the Kratos character.


      • Heather
        Mar 17, 2011 @ 14:20:50

        I totally agree about Bayonetta. I only saw a little of the game play but she did not “feel” female. In fact I remember Shamus and I having the wholoe guys don’t know how to draw/model women discussion again– the one where we both state it over and over again and agree with each other. 🙂

        Have never seen Sudeki (had to look it up :)) but wow, I can see what you mean. Definitely a much better design overall. I really think that, unless you are deliberately making a stylistic point, the structure/shape of the characters should not constantly be pulling the player out of the game– its like having someone poking you in the back while you play shouting “It’s just a game! It’s just a game!” It totally ruins the immersion for me if the character design is extremely flawed (in fact, that was one of the reasons Shamus didn’t play Bayonetta– the in your face over the top design just was too distracting.) One of our favorites to make fun of is Lulu from FFX– how on earth she stayed in that costume without showing anything I will never know (Shamus says, “It’s magic!”)

        I am with you about the “ideal body” thing. The closest I have ever come to wanting to look like a character in a game or movie is being tempted to dye my hair like Aoi Sakuraba in Ai Yori Aoshi when I already had that cut. 🙂 Otherwise, um, no? I have no urge to be like any game characters though I really have no problem with sexy or over the top character design. In fact it can be very interesting, stylistically (though I do laugh when the physics just wouldn’t work– um, boobs bounce when they are that big and they WILL fall out of that battle armor. ) And sure it is cool to play a character that looks interesting (love April Ryan from Longest Journey and I have several character designs that I nearly always use when I can create my own character) but do I want to look like them? Um, no.

      • krellen
        Mar 18, 2011 @ 21:18:57

        though I do laugh when the physics just wouldn’t work– um, boobs bounce when they are that big and they WILL fall out of that battle armor.

        One thing that always bugged me in WoW is how my female paladin would suddenly have bouncy boobs if she put on a tabard over her plate armour. I never really figured out what magic made that work.

      • Heather
        Mar 18, 2011 @ 23:16:58

        Hah, that is always amazing when a sudden addition turns the physics upside down. If my brain were not half asleep I could think of several– I can picture the situations but can’t remember the game titles right now.

  5. Trackback: Little Girls on Female Characters: Rachel’s Take « Game-Story-Art
  6. Bogan
    Mar 17, 2011 @ 13:39:44

    Yeah the Harry Potter example isn’t the best. It was more a interesting little Wikipedia tidbit. There is a time for games like Call of Duty and Unreal Tournament, but the thing is those types of games are what fill most of any top ten so they are what publishers will want. You could also take pretty much any Bioware game too. They are pretty much the standard of rpgs these days, and the storytelling is terrible. Of course I blame it more on trying to tell a story in their “open end” worlds is very difficult. They sell very well even with the bad story though.

    You are right with the female characters. As long as young men are the core sexy girls will be on covers.


    • Heather
      Mar 17, 2011 @ 14:27:04

      It is true that publishers want to make what sells, which is probably why we saw the insane quantity of first person shooters at PAX. It is much easier to sell an FPS than it is to get a good story out there. I figure the reason Bioware sells so well is their marketing and the fact that they do have such quality aside from their actual story. However, I think if they had better story they would sell better, or at least have more replay value. And the big open worlds is a selling point, especially since off the top of my head I can’t think of anyone else really doing what they are doing. If someone came in and did what they do with a great story and the same quality everything else they would blow them out of the water.


      • Mari
        Mar 17, 2011 @ 15:22:13

        And I don’t necessarily think “more of the same” is what sells. I seriously doubt a lot of people were out there thinking “What the gaming industry needs is a new game that looks like an 8-bit Lego world.” There’s very little of the standard industry thinking in Minecraft but it’s sold like hotcakes. I hate the notion of locking in “what’s selling right now” as “the only thing that WILL sell.”

        The same goes for story. Sure, what’s out there now does sell but does that mean that a game with genuine, immersive writing won’t? I seriously doubt it. That’s lowest common denominator thinking. I think it’s healthy (but not necessarily “normal”) for an industry or even a single company within it to strive for excellence rather than settling for mediocrity.

      • Bogan
        Mar 17, 2011 @ 16:08:02

        That’s actually kind of my problem with Bioware. Open worlds are their selling point, but every single game all the way back to Baldur’s Gate follows a cookie cutter format. It feels like they literal just lift the story out of one setting and place it in another while changing a few names. They all basically are the exact same story. The openess is also why I don’t think you can make a good story for it. Bioware games are on the one spectrum where you eventually get to go to wherever whenever you want. The problem is that they end up being a pick your own adventure book, good in their own right, but you won’t be getting a Lord of the Rings epic anytime soon. On the other side you have Japanese rpgs, or at least the more Playstation old school ones that leave you on this very set path with a wide world you don’t get to explore in your own order, but they story is always going to be the same and those generally proved to have very good stories.

        To Mari, it’s unfortunate, but at least in the video game industry “more of the same” is the standard. The CEO of a certain publisher announced once before that they do not want anything they can’t turn into a franchise. Basically, they just want a game that can be re released with minor changes every year, because it sells and we the consumer just accept it. As much as I hate it I really think the problem ultimately lies with the gaming audience. People claim they want a good story with their game, but they continue to purchase garbage because it has a title like Halo or Call of Duty.

      • Heather
        Mar 17, 2011 @ 16:31:42

        I don’t expect to see more Minecraft style games (though Essie is pushing for a Minecraft/Harvest Moon mashup– her idea of “the perfect” game.) Though she recognizes it as a pipe dream, her description would make for an awesome game world. I don’t think open worlds are necessarily a problem– I would say the Harvest Moon franchise is a good example. Each one is very different though they all have the same basic premise: interact with neighbors, build your farm, get married, have child plus a story layer, some of which are sillier than others but mostly they are silly because they follow Japanese mythology and culture instead of ours which we recognize.

        I think maybe the open world problem is that with an open world you need an epic story in the background and then smaller stories in the foreground where the players are interacting directly with it. I suspect this is the reason that WoW has worked as well as it did. Yes, the stories are silly, but they are much more interesting than say, the Champions online stories, plus you can get cool stuff and feel like you are part of something bigger. Bioware has the habit of trying to make you part of the big story without bothering to make sure the big story is interesting and well written. I think that the big developers have decided that it is the job of the smaller indie developers (and Valve) to come up with new and improved interesting stuff. And they have been for the most part (Minecraft, Braid, Portal, Chime are just the ones that are off the top of my head but I know there have a ton of smaller games that we loved, but I long for decent rpgs to play and miss the tongue in cheek humor of older games. We still get out the Space Quest trilogy (don’t forget your fish!) and the funny Leisure Suit Larry games (not the others– those one swere dumb.)

        I still think that having a group of writers and artists pull their resources and work with a developer would be a great way to get something new and interesting out there– the problem is finding people with the skills and vision to get it done. My biggest concern is that indie developers are deliberately focusing on the new toys out there (iPad, iPhone, Android etc.) where they can develop a quick little game cheaply and have it available quickly (I know– my brother tried to convince Shamus that that was what he should do with this spare time– even offered to buy him the development kits.) This means that there are less indie developers focused on bringing new and amazing ideas to the pc or consoles.

  7. Mari
    Mar 17, 2011 @ 17:44:19

    I guess my point is that we keep being told that the market won’t support innovation in games but innovation IS happening and it IS being supported. Minecraft, Portal, Chime, World of Goo, Braid, even The Path are proving that creative games are making money. Even Farm Town was innovative when it was developed. The fact that there are currently a bazillion clones out there sucking up the money doesn’t change the fact that there WAS innovation and it WAS supported by customers.

    To me, the bottom line is that what won’t support innovation is the big development houses. Period. They don’t support innovation because they don’t want to be bothered. It’s a choice they make. Yes, customers are buying their games but almost as many are buying indie games that think outside the box. But every time one of us parrots the “developers make schlock because that’s what people buy” we’re reinforcing that mindset by lazy developers.


    • Heather
      Mar 17, 2011 @ 17:48:22

      Aah, got it. And I absolutely agree. And I think they don’t want to be bothered because it would mean putting their neck out when they know they can make money while staying safe and happy.


  8. Bogan
    Mar 17, 2011 @ 20:09:47

    I see. I see. You are right with that. I suppose I’m just bitter because of just how awesome Minecraft could be with a multimillion dollar budget. I say we go with that idea of finding some authors and do it ourselves!


  9. Christy
    Mar 18, 2011 @ 23:09:22

    I posted on the first entry before I’d read this one, so my proclamation of love for the choose your own adventureness of Baldur’s Gate wasn’t meant as comment on Bogan’s entry. But while we’re dreaming, why don’t we dream big? Games with a single good storyline would be great, but game with muliple good storylines (a truly interactive experience that the orginal CYOA books only hinted at) would be amazing. And while I’m fantasizing, why not get the really cool AI folks involved too? (I’m thinking of a story I read in the Atlantic about the folks competing for the Loebner Prize by putting their software through the Turing Test.) Sure there software can’t yet fool (many) folks for a full 5 minutes, but what could it add to an NPC character when designed with the help of a great writer?

    This would give you a chance to be in your own movie as opposed to making your own movie. (Not that making your own movie can’t be cool, but unless you are particularly talented it will probably be kind of lame, and it is unlikely to surprise you in the way being an interactive part of a really well written story could.)

    Alas, I agree that the industry isn’t likely to jump on board as long as they are cashing in on their chunks of change, but if I’m remembering my history right, the industry didn’t think anyone would ever have their own personal computer once upon a time. 🙂


    • Heather
      Mar 18, 2011 @ 23:43:56

      Ooo, Turing Tests– we were just talking about Neil Stephenson. I don’t think the industry would jump on board until it was proven to work (I mean really — Xerox totally missed the microcomputer boat). I also don’t think the industry realizes how many intelligent females play games. 🙂 Shamus is big on AI and we often discuss the possibilities. Great writer + great AI could = awesome game.


  10. Christy
    Mar 18, 2011 @ 23:12:08


    a game–not game and
    their software–not there

    I’ve been reading too many student papers 😦


  11. Christy
    Mar 19, 2011 @ 00:39:29

    Speaking of Stephenson, have you read Anathem? It took me a little while to get into it, but it was interesting and very different. I enjoyed it and felt smarter after I finished it.

    As for “the industry,” I also don’t think they realize how many couples play games. (Another good friend from college and her husband also game pretty regularly. Not that three makes a trend, but…) That sounds like another interesting niche. Not that there aren’t already games that couples can play together, but it might be interesting to play something specifically designed to engage that dynamic. Sort of like the sport of wife carrying–but fun, less ridiculous and more balanced. (Trying to picture wife carrying as a more balanced sport has now caused me to picture you–glasses askew and wearing a beret–carrying an upside down Shamus through an obstacle course–I probably shouldn’t have ideas this late at night :))

    One side effect of teaching is that I feel like I am constantly being watched by the grammar police. If I write a fragment or use the wrong spelling, I think someone is going to come take my license away or something. It doesn’t help that I have some weird crumb that keeps moving around beneath my “a” and “s” keys, causing them to stick in unpredictable ways.

    Very good question about hanging out. I’m limited to weekends since I am still the worst driver in the world (hope that will get better this summer) and can only comfortably navigate to three places. Tomorrow we have to take 2 cats to the vet, and I have a writing group meeting. Sunday I have to grade papers. Next Saturday is the department’s “professional development” day (which isn’t as bad as it sounds because they give us bagels.) Would next Sunday work for you? I’d have to check with Pat, too, before I could confirm. Any thoughts?


    • Heather
      Mar 19, 2011 @ 11:40:03

      i believe I had that one out but didn’t finish it. Last winter I had a ton of trouble with my eyes and couldn’t read so I think it was one of the audio books I got out. Very different from his earlier stuff (hadn’t read any thing of his since Cryptonomicon though I read all of his earlier stuff and was just recommending Snowcrash and Diamond Age to our geek buddies last night.)

      And I agree– I would say that more couples game than females alone. I would say that nearly all of the females at PAX (at least 2/3 if not more) were there with a significant other. Yes they were gamers and wanted to be there but I only heard one girl say she was there alone while every other I spoke to or saw was obviously there with someone else. It makes sense that older gamer girls tend to be in a couple and it would do well for publishers to realize that couple play would be a good addition. (In fact the guys and I were talking about it last night– all the girl gamers I know are taken and very much so–guy geeks know not to let go of a good thing :).) I know much of the time when Shamus and I were dating was spent playing games together, which is why we loved problem solving story games like Leisure Suit Larry, Space Quest, and Longest Journey– we could play together with one of us at the controls and enjoy the story together. Playing through Longest Journey again makes me long for the lack of cutscenes/cutscenes deliberately integrated into the story so that it doesn’t feel like a cut scene. I hadn’t realized how much that changed until the kids didn’t realize that a cut scene had finished and they should play again– they didn’t even know what visual clues to look for.

      Yes, you shouldn’t have ideas late at night– it could be dangerous, in this case to my back– I can’t even lift the guy, though I think you have the imagery pretty accurate. 🙂

      I get the same way about grammar when I have been proofing/editing. Then I start commenting and it all goes to ….

      Really wanted to head to Pittsburgh tomorrow (children’s museum is having a free day and the kids have been begging to go again.) Otherwise I have no idea when– as long as I have cash for gas I don’t mind driving (I actually chose to do the whole 10 hours on the way home– I adore driving and Shamus hates it.) Will have to message you my phone and we can work it out that way.


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