The most interesting session I attended at GDC was a game design roundtable on resolving conflict without combat. A room meant to accommodate twenty-five people was packed with at least three times that many lining the walls and seated on every inch of floor space. And these weren't merely pacifist onlooker academics like me. Dozens of western development companies (including the three biggest) were represented in that room.
Gordon Walton (co-studio director at Bioware with 30+ years of experience making games) hosted the session and began by lamenting that gameplay in most narrative action games contains very little nuance. Most titles rely on combat as their primary conflict resolution mechanism. In his view, providing alternative ways of resolving conflict may attract more diverse audiences to games.
Walton is a designer, but he's also a businessman. He wants to sell more games by increasing his audience, and why shouldn't he? The fact is most games exclude far more than they include. For many people, killing everything that moves on a screen is not wish fulfillment. This may have to do with moral objections or a repulsion to violence, or an inability to cope with a complex set of controls.
I share some of those concerns, but for many of us long-time gamers the resistance may be even more simple. Shooters have simply become old hat. We've played them since Doom, and now we're ready for something else. Yes, I know I can play Peggle or Warcraft or Mario or Burnout. It's not a question of variety among video games. It's a question of how to make non-RPG narrative games less, well, simpleminded.
At first glance, it would seem such games are growing more mature. Adult content, darker themes, and conflicted characters have found their way into games like Call of Duty 4, Prey, and Bioshock. As these and other games have shown, story, character, and genre can be manipulated or redefined in all sorts of interesting ways...so long as they can be squeezed into a familiar shooter mechanic. Within the core gameplay itself, the limits of variety are starkly defined: more weapons, better weapons, improved ways of aiming, deploying or shooting weapons, and survival. As thematically ambitious as Bioshock is—and I truly admire it for all the ways it brilliantly succeeds—it's core gameplay differs very little from Doom's.
Relative to the gaming audience worldwide, the hardcore shooter audience is small (some would say stagnant), yet a startlingly high percentage of the resources in game development, design, and hardware engineering is devoted to creating games for this small group. If you're a talented western designer working your way up the ranks, when you finally each the top (whatever that means or looks like) there's a very good chance you'll be working on a big AAA shooter. The old rock star designers made strategy games, sims, and RPGs. The new rock stars make shooters.
Game designers have become experts at virtual genocide – destroying mass numbers of people, creatures and objects with no mercy. What I felt and heard from the designers in that room was a powerful sense of restlessness - a tangible yearning to challenge themselves, stretch the medium, and break through self-imposed limitations that, in the view of some, retard the development of the medium. No one wants to abolish the FPS, and plenty of us are genuinely excited to see what a game like Far Cry 2 adds to the FPS mix. We're simply hungry for a core gameplay experience built on a more interesting set of mechanics, or at least one that provides viable and entertaining options for dealing with conflict besides killing.
So how would such a game look and play, and what design elements would it include? Stealth? Negotiation? Flight? I'll report on some suggestions offered at the roundtable and toss in a few of my own tomorrow.