19 June, 2011
Yeah, I know. Three posts in rapid succession previously, then nothing for a few weeks. Had some family issues to deal with and the “day job” has been heating up… in a good way. Expect to hear more about what I’m working on within the next few months.
This time around, let’s take a look at three seemingly related topics that actually have a lot of subtlety: Criticism, criticizing, and complaining. Specifically, let’s see how these relate to game development.
Let’s start with the thorny one first. Note that this is the one that is capitalized, meaning it’s something a bit more special. This issue was brought to the forefront by Dan “Danc” Cook on his wondeful blog Lost Garden, where he lamented the state of what he calls “game criticism”. He was particularly hard on “shallow” criticism which he mostly wrote off as largely “fluffy gamer opinion” for the most part. His solution was that critics should become better versed, even experienced, in the ways of game design and development to have a deeper appreciation. He felt the best writing that was most useful to him was the content written by fellow game developers.
The problem is that he didn’t quite appreciate what Criticism is. He calls for more “Game Analysis” and lists a bunch of articles that he considers to be great example of criticism; however, the bulk of these articles are actually informative or instructive articles on game development.
As I wrote in a comment, “The best critique, however, is one that touches on the meaning and influence of a work.” This distinction is important for all the reasons I’ve covered when discussing the legitimacy of the game industry on this blog and other venues. Once people start to appreciate the meaning and influence of a work, then people start taking the medium more seriously than as a pastime intended for children. (And, given the fact that the average age of a gamer is 37, it’s becoming a more important issue for more people.)
So, the question become: what qualifies a critic to write Criticism? To be useful, it needs to be something more than someone with an opinion and a means to publish that opinion. But, I hesitate to say that all critics need to be well-versed in game development. Ultimately, it’s a question of quality, and an insightful critic writing great Criticism is great no matter what the background they come from. Someone posting their uninformed opinion or attempting to play armchair game designer in a public forum isn’t necessarily useful.
Unfortunately, the word “criticizing” has a negative connotation. When I talk about criticizing, I mean it in the context like “constructive criticism”. Something between grand Criticism and mere complaining.
Another word for this might be punditry, which Eric at Elder Game has said eventually wears on the pundit. As a pundit, at some point you tend to recognize that you’re posting variations of the same few topics again and again, and still nobody able to change things is listening to you. Even if you have an extensive background in game development. Of course, as Eric points out there’s enough “common sense” or “conventional wisdom” that everyone thinks that they understand things better than they probably do. Why bother with one person’s brilliant ideas when, obviously, you’re just as smart and capable of evaluating the industry and can explain why WoW either succeeded or failed no matter what happened to it.
Just as Danc complained with Criticism, there is certainly no shortage of bad punditry. When everyone is a pundit, then nobody really knows anything. It’s also easy to write off some pundits, even if they are providing insight. After all, what big games has Eric worked on that he’s solely responsible for the success of? This attitude for MMOs conveniently ignoring the fact that these games are built by (usually large) teams, and many moving parts means that a single person’s contributions are unlikely to really determine the success or failure of a game. And ignores the effort that even a “small” game requires. I can just as easily point that finger back at myself, of course; if I’m so smart, why have I only worked on Meridian 59? Well, I have worked on several other projects, but the nature of the industry is that the really interesting projects are often the most tenuous when it comes to financial backing, and therefore the most likely to end unsuccessfully. But, is that a legitimate reason, or more trying to explain things away? Uh oh, see how far down this rabbit hole goes?
Still, I think constructive criticism is useful. Sometimes people aren’t in a position to jump in and work on things they’d like to. For developers, it’s that old conflict between art and commerce again. For fans and enthusiasts, it’s not having the experience to implement their crazy ideas. So, sometimes talking about something is simply a good way to plant a seed to get others thinking about it, too. Or, a way to get the voices in your head that constantly chatter about some brilliant idea to subside for a bit. ;)
At any rate, I look forward to Eric posting more about his own work. Although I do still wish Sandra would post more!
We now come to the final part of the list: complaining! Think I’m going to pick on players? Not this time! Time to point out a developer.
An ArenaNet developer posted an article Why You Shouldn’t Be Making an MMO, with the subtitle of “Get some unsolicited advice from a guy working on a real MMORPG.” Note the term “real MMORPG”. This is an article simply complaining about the uninformed amateur game developers who want to try to make an MMORPG for one of their first projects.
He goes on to give a litany of reasons why an amateur game developer shouldn’t even attempt an MMO. MMORPGs are complex beasts that a simpleton like you can’t possible understand! MMOs require a hundred or more developers, it says so right in the credits of your favorite MMO! If you’re a programmer, you need to know about northbridges and southbridges and stuff or your technology is gonna suck. Just give up!
But, the real problem here is defining a “real MMO”. Not every MMO needs to be just like WoW (or Guild Wars 2), obviously. Here’s an MMO written by one person. Here’s the beginnings of another by the same person. Sure, neither game will compete directly with Guild Wars 2 anytime soon, but that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? Indies cannot and should not try to do the same thing the big companies are doing. So, instead of coming across as a bit of a self-important jerk, the author of the article could have told people to really think about what they’re trying to accomplish and attempt a more modest game. Yes, most people are still going to fail, but let them fail and hopefully learn from the experience. I know that Dave has learned a lot from working on his own projects, and has certainly grown as a developer. As I’ve pointed out to him, his first project was a crazy one. But, he did it and he stands out from the crowd, even if I’m pretty sure he’s never had to know what a northbridge or a southbridge is (and neither have I).
What’s it all mean?
So, what do you think? Do you agree there’s not enough Criticism? Do you think we need less punditry? Is complaining out of hand? Or is there some other subtlety here?
(Special thanks to Sara Pickell for discussing this topic and inspiring this post.)