Online games and technology advances

Raph Koster's talk at the IBM Games on Demand webcast conference: Moore's Wall: Technology Advances and Online Game Design (thanks Regine!). The author works at Sony Online Entertainment and his talk offers some great insights about how game designers deal/cope with technology advances. Some excerpts I found pertinent:

a little bit of perspective on how game designers approach the advance of technology and frankly all the headaches it gives us. (...) The point is that we've seen a tremendous advance in the processing power, and we're going to continue to see increases in computing power even if these do not come on single processors. We're seeing a move to multi-core processors, we're seeing a move to distributed computing, and we're certainly seeing vast increases in storage space, in media, in network connectivity and broadband bandwidth, and so on. (...) Nathan Myhrvold's Law, which is that software is a gas that expands to fill its container. What this means is that if you give a programmer a really nice computer, he's going to find a way to suck it dry and use up every bit of capability that that computer has. This is particularly common in the game industry, where for various reasons -- we're an entertainment medium -- people want whatever's exciting, whatever's sexy, the eye-candy, the visuals, the speed… the result is that we're constantly pushing the boundaries of computers, and we're constantly developing games that force people to buy new machines, buy new computers. (...) So, what does this do to the games themselves? (...) The next generation of console titles is going to be looking at budgets significantly higher than the $12m. (...) In twelve years, budgets have gone up by a factor of 22. (...) The first thing to realize is that game play elements have not really become more complex. (...) The thing about technology is that it has enabled a lot of really cool stuff, a lot of really cool visuals, in theory a lot of cool AI, and stuff, but the biggest effect it has had is to make game development more complicated and more significantly, more expensive. And that’s because the technology is primarily focused on presentation. (...)

Then the author does a case study about first person shooters to show that a lot of what game designers has done is improving "the immersion factor and improve the standard ways in which we portray the environment rather than improve the fundamental game play".

And at this point the author came up with this really good statement:

Creativity is enhanced by limitations. Creativity, innovation, is largely about finding solutions within a known problem space. When the problem space starts growing too large, you can pretty much start throwing anything at the wall, and it’ll stick. And in a situation where we don’t have a particular problem to solve, it’s just human nature to fall back on known solutions. It’s just human nature to do what we have done before, only to try to do it nicer. And that fundamentally is the limitation of advances in technology as regards game design.

This reminds me what Fabien wrote about designing with constraints. Actually his blogposts does not reflect what he thinks about it but the point is that having constraints is great for design because it sets boundaries and influences.

Another great part in the talk deals with how can we cope with this situation:

The question becomes, if all this cool technology is coming along, how do we leverage it in a way that’s innovative from a game design point of view? (...) it can offer us roads towards procedural content. Already, if you play a contemporary game, odds are very good that the trees you see in that game are not all modeled by hand. Odds are they were generated by a computer using an algorithm, using middleware, products such as NatFX and SpeedTree, for example.

The next thing that can help is sandbox design. This is something such as The Sims, games where users can make use of tools provided within the game itself in order to provide new kinds of game play experiences. This is a very algorithmic approach. It’s something that computers do very well.

Lastly, technology can help with user-created content. As technology marches on, the content load becomes more difficult to create, but technology can help in tools as well as in setting the bar higher.(...) The entire genre of the first person shooter these days is propped up to a very large degree by user-created content. We should remember that 90% of the online game players out there are playing a game that was not developed by a professional: they’re playing Counterstrike, which was user-created.

Why do I blog this? Raph Koster's talk is strikingly relevant to some questions we have both at the lab and with people I work with. Great food for thoughts!