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    Monday, April 11, 2011
     An Arkane Manifesto - Dan - 9:20:43 AM EST

This editorial was original published in Gamesauce Magazine.

Letting Go
On Designing Games with Dynamic, Non-linear Gameplay
by Harvey Smith & Raphael Colantonio of Arkane Studios

   Around 16 years ago, the two of us were drawn into the industry by a love of games that were part first-person-shooter and part role-playing game (for lack of a better descriptor). Games like Ultima Underworld, in other words. Such immersive games are marked by a combination of values and player-experiences: visceral first-person action, exploration, role-playing, player-driven pacing, environmental coherency, physical interaction, non-combat interactions, and AI behavioral simulation.
   These shibboleths join us to a subset of game developers who've made games that are sometimes hard to categorize. In 1980, Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord featured a crude first-person view for dungeon encounters, and seven years later FTL created Dungeon Master, which came closer to being real-time and enhanced the visual fidelity of the world, thus taking a strong step toward putting the player more fully into the world of an RPG. The Ultima games made by Richard Garriot and Origin always had an extra layer of depth due to the fidelity of the world, the way items could be consumed or alchemically combined, and the way the characters in the world seemed to exist, living according to the intricate schedules that allowed the player to infer additional meaning in each situation. While not presented from a first-person perspective, the Ultimas (and the original Fallout series) were hugely influential on this family of games.
   But this hard-to-categorize genre of games wasn't fully realized until Doug Church and Looking Glass Technologies made Underworld, System Shock, Terra Nova, and Thief, an unprecedented run in terms of cutting-edge technology and singular creative vision. Arkane's first release, Arx Fatalis, was a direct homage to Underworld itself. In other corners of the industry, over time, the Deus Ex games, STALKER, Arkane's Dark Messiah, the Bioshock game, and a few others trace their lineage directly from Underworld. Games like Morrowind, Oblivion, Fallout 3, and Far Cry 2 all feel like cousins, sharing some of the same core values.
   We love these sorts of games. And we believe the industry could learn a lot from them.

A Proliferation of Genres

   In today's game "industry" there are many types of games being designed and executed, especially once you take into account the variation that exists within the mod scene, the indie movement, and all the experimentation found in academic programs. There are developers now who focus on serious games for professional training, military recruitment, education, social causes, or artistic expression. Increasingly, people are being paid to make advertisement games which support fashion or fast food. Mobile and social games are ubiquitous, having leapt into existence seemingly out of nowhere. Party music and exercise games have flourished over the last few years. This proliferation is great. Some subset of these games will be ground-breaking or inspiring, providing more fuel for the creative fires.
   Among expensive commercial projects aimed at core gamers, there are strategy games, side-scrollers, creativity toys like Little Big Planet, and evolved adventure games like Heavy Rain, with its focus on traditional storytelling segregated from the game-play. Fast-paced, first-person shooters are still super popular, as evidenced by Modern Warfare, Halo and Half-life. Then there are the open world games like Crackdown, Just Cause or Red Dead Redemption. And there are numerous third-person action games with an emphasis on character animations or sticky cover systems. Driving or racing games and flight sims are perennials. MMOs are everywhere, from the mega-WoW to the stunningly community-driven EVE Online. This list is not all-inclusive, of course, but it demonstrates that we're working within a plural medium.
   Some of these games rely on simple timing or control input, requiring the player to jump or turn a vehicle at the right time. Many of them involve traveling along a fairly narrow or linear path, killing an enemy, collecting some resources, and moving to the next mission marker. Some put more emphasis on selling the fantasy than letting the player engage in expression. Others are so expansive that they trade off depth for breadth, allowing the players to explore a land mass, but only at shallow level.

In Search of Mystery and Exploration

   Among all of these games and genres, periodically there are interactive works that provide players with the sense that they have influence over just enough dynamics to exceed their ability to hold it all in mind at once; or enough dynamics to create some sort of unified aesthetic effect; or dynamics that in some way provide a sense of mystery - like something large enough, complex enough, or happening fast enough to feel just beyond comprehension. That sense of mystery and exploration, created through interaction with very analog systems, is somehow vital to games. To use very old examples; Lunar Lander crated that sense through small physics impulses versus gravity, applied at just the right second, and Dragon's Lair by contrast didn't really have it, except as a really coarse sense of exploration in the form of finding out where the next cinematic scene might lead. Lunar Lander, like a good board game, could be played over and over; in contrast, Dragon's Lair- while an entertaining experience - was over once you'd seen all the scenes. Recently, games like Red Dead Redemption provided interesting dynamics like this as the player guided his horse, herded cattle, or attempted to lasso another horse; all of these systems, even when manipulated via clunky interface, feel analog enough to create some sense of play that is absent in many games. When you think about backing up and moving forward in time in Braid - manipulating your avatar's position, the music and the enemy locations - maybe you can remember a sense of fascination with the interplay of all the elements and your influence over them. That sensation is worth chasing at the expense of many other forms of time and effort that routinely go into games.
   In ideal circumstances, the two of us want to make games with some of those qualities, games that allow players to experiment with systems, to make decisions about how to solve problems, and to find their own way - games that involve dynamic, non-linear play between the player and the environment. We don't always succeed, but when we get our way and things come together just right, our games should be presenting the player with worlds where there are clear, interesting consequences for each action.

Defying the Trend Toward Static Games

   The problem is that as games have embraced polish and opened up to wider audiences, they've also become more static. In order to preclude unsightly physics interactions, the tendency is to lock down all the objects in the world. It's as if you put players in a little cocoon of non-interactivity to protect them from breaking the game. There are counter-examples, as we've said: A game like Red Dead Redemption - thank the stars - favors open movement, player-driven pacing, some simulational wackiness and (often) casual secondary goals made up by the player, despite a few wonky moments and bugs. RDR feels like a game that favors interactivity over the cinematic experience.
   The proliferation of photo realism has also led to more static (albeit prettier) games. If you render the most realistic environment you can, the temptation is to minimize the number of dynamic elements in order to make the game run at an acceptable framerate, but in doing so you rob the game of its most valuable element: dynamism. Again, it's the exceptions that are most interesting. Bioshock will be in our minds for many years, not just because of the impressive setting, art direction and characters, but more poignantly because our own memories of the game are built on decisions we made: times we backtracked to a room because we remembers a specific resource remained there; moments we executed a convoluted plan and defeated enemies in a clever way; or instances in which the environment felt like it belonged more to us than to the enemy because of decisions and investments we'd made earlier.
   As games have embraced the Hollywood fantasy, they've become more static as well. Taking cover and firing over a wall might look like a scene from last year's action movie, but these macro actions feel more like pressing a button and triggering an animation than playing a game. Getting stuck on cover points while trying to smoothly move around in the environment never feels right.

No Perfect Formulas

   Everyone has different tastes of course. For our part, we're chasing something immersive, atmospheric, and expressive - built from lots of atomic actions and player decision that matter. We don't always get a chance to work on games like this, but it's always the goal.
   Too often, the people managing or funding AAA games seem to lack confidence in interactivity or innovation as selling points. This diffidence comes across in the series of expensive me-too games that come and go. Teams are encouraged to use last year's characters and settings and to pound off all the risky, rough edges. As a result, there are about five games a year that are interesting. To be fair, there are multiple ways to succeed; some games are great because they're super polished, while others are great because they enable the player to experience something wondrous, often at the expense of accessibility or smoothness.
   Hollywood figured out a while ago that there's no formula for success - that no one can predict which creative projects are going to be successful. There are just too many variables. So the Hollywood approach is to encourage constraint where possible, but to respect creatives (while trying to get them locked down under contract). Then the five percent of projects that are successful fund all of the others. Which five percent will be successful no one can predict; even the people who invest their money in games haven't figured that out yet.
   Game development is not easy. Especially if you've got a set of aesthetic goals on top of all the other goals related to satisfying players, making the tech work, building tools for your team, hitting the platform specs, meeting the needs of business, et cetera, et cetera. Success relies on a dizzying number of factors, some of which are intangible or simply come down to chemistry.
   We believe that named values and distinct creative targets - shooting or a specific player - experience that allows players to express themselves, make meaningful decisions and explore the environment according to their own whims and strategies - is the best way to make games that inspire people and stay in the minds for many years.

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