Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Some Assembly Required: Technical Challenges to the Art of Video Game Design

This is the first draft of a paper I wrote for my pop-culture writing class. It's also the first of a series of papers I'm planning to write on video game theory.


In spite of several decades of rapid development in the quality and content of video games, the development community struggles to be considered seriously as an art form. The constant technological evolution of the video game industry has both helped and hindered the artistic maturation of game development. Advancements in graphics rendering, computer processing, and memory storage capacity have increased the artistic potential of the medium by providing designers with ever more powerful tools with which to create virtual environments. However, the rate at which new technologies are integrated into the design process effectively prevents the creation of recognizable masterpieces within the collection of published video games. Without canonical standards against which to judge the final works of designers it is difficult to establish a method for the consistent measure of artistic value within the medium. 

The progression from the monochromatic, two-dimensional interactions of early games to the robust three-dimensional environments of modern games didn’t occur over night; however, when compared to the more lengthy history of better established art forms, the artistry of video game design is very much in its infancy. This is largely perceived as a lack of depth in the craft (or a lack of craft all together) when compared against concretely defined mediums. The relative youth of video game design and its capacity for imitating the functions of other media contributes to the somewhat tepid cultural reaction to the idea that video games can be art. Games often perform in a storytelling capacity similar to literature or film. However, because a video game is neither film nor literature its attempts to perform the same functions in an environment largely limited by technical capabilities rather than artistic vision seem profoundly lacking when compared to the canonical references of these other mediums. In spite of its vast quantity of text and deep story elements (when measured against other examples in the medium) the 2007 science fiction action-RPG Mass Effect pales in comparison to the literary incarnation of Frank Herbert’s Dune.  Both works are noted within their mediums for their relative length and depth, but when the question of their quality arises, Mass Effect is not seen in the same light as the more familiar incarnation of the science fiction epic. The developer Bioware considers itself the best video game writing company in the business, but when its writing stacks up against the flagship medium for the written form: the novel, its attempts at recreating the depth of a novelized fictional environment through the written word come off as unwieldy.  Popular video game critic Ben Croshaw highlights this in his December 2007 review, “Mass Effect is like an incontinent who just drank six bottles of Mountain Dew, so full to bursting with dialog that it leaks out at every turn” (Crowshaw). Setting aside Croshaw’s snide phrasing, he makes a nod to a much deeper flaw in the current incarnation of video games: the inability of developers to replicate through imitation the successes of other mediums. In this case, Mass Effect achieves immense quantities of text through dialogs and world-fleshing information, but the execution comes off as encyclopedic and forced when compared to the lengthy dalliances of more matured mediums. The inability of Mass Effect to compete with similar genre examples in other mediums can be seen as a failure of the developers as artists, but it is more likely that the relative failure is inherent to the medium. Due to the newness of the technology, there are far fewer cultural examples of successful video game science fiction epics than there are literary ones; therefore, the developers of Mass Effect had a much weaker catalog of experience regarding what is and is not effective within the art form when compared to their book-bound counterparts. 

Game designers thrive in a technologically stagnant environment. That is to say, software can only be developed if there is sufficient hardware capability to run the program. As a result, software development lags behind hardware development. The struggle of software designers to keep up with improvements in hardware capabilities is best evidenced in the game console market where the computing capacity only changes every five to seven years. During the life of a video game console, the quality of games increases as programmers come closer to reaching the maximum potential of the system. Historically speaking, the best examples of a console’s capabilities are generally seen at the end of its life cycle. The striking difference between Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Bros. 3 is a result of game designers finding better and more efficient ways of pushing the Nintendo Entertainment System to its hardware limits. Over time, game programmers are able to identify and overcome problems, allowing them to refine both the technical and aesthetic conventions of console-based game design. In his essay Abstraction in the Video Game, video game theorist Mark J.P. Wolf describes an example of creative design used to circumnavigate restrictions imposed by early gaming hardware, “Memory and programming tricks helped game developers overcome limitations; for example, only four color-lum registers were available, meaning that a game character could only be one color. Some games, like Superman(1979) and E.T: The Extraterrestrial(1982) got around this by changing the color luminosity values on a line-by-line basis, which allowed characters to be multiple colors, although any given horizontal line of pixels had to be the same color; a stylistic limitation due to the way the monitor scans the image on the screen. Graphics complexity, then, was often a sign of programming prowess and graphics evolved as programmers tried to outdo each other”(Wolf, 56). This anecdotal account of software innovation demonstrates how the human element of design can achieve a level of artistry not inherently made obvious by the stated capabilities of the gaming platform. Video game consoles are important to the game industry because they provide a brief period of hardware stagnation which allows for artistic stability; the resourcefulness of designers trying to surpass the artistic boundaries set by hardware limitations promotes programming efficiency and imagination in the design process. 

The availability of gaming hardware can also limit the level of artistic expression in the medium. If video games were limited to personal computers the design market would likely be much more volatile given the disparity between the processing powers of machines available to potential players on the market. A chief complaint amongst prospective purchasers of computer games is the variation of system requirements. A company designing a video game for the computer is compelled to make the best possible game with available technology; unfortunately, the technology available to a video game developer is typically more advanced than the technology available to the average gamer. Tim Holman, a senior producer for Relic Entertainment, defined the obvious problems with designing software for a non-existent hardware community in an interview with the online magazine Edge. “If you make a game with such high-end requirements that only people with a $6,000 PC can play it at a decent framerate, of course your sales are going to drop” (Graft). The effect of audience accessibility can create artificial limitations in the design process resulting in a product which is artistically inferior to what the designer is capable of producing. In this regard, traditional video game consoles perform another important function: ensuring technological compatibility between those producing video games and those playing them. The negative to guaranteed hardware and software compatibility is that more powerful software cannot be introduced until the end of a console life cycle. So the industry is often forced to choose between security of product compatibility and technological innovation when choosing a platform on which to release a game. Additionally, the added time of adapting a game to multiple platforms can cause delays which, when anticipated decrease the amount of time devoted to content generation, and when unanticipated, can cause a game release to be postponed. Essentially, the adage about the tree falling in the woods is very relevant to the video game industry, since a game cannot be successful within the medium if there are no players capable or willing to play it and thus able to appreciate its artistry. In this regard, the designer’s choice of specific hardware or software can have a direct impact on how the game is received critically and by the general public, or whether it is received at all.

The combination of rapid technological advancement and the limitations imposed by existing hardware capabilities compounds the difficulties of creating art within the virtual environment of the video game. Whether it is a lack of effective design conventions to respond to technical limitations or to meaningfully communicate the artistic vision of the designer, the video game as a medium is not devoid of artistic potential. Two unaffiliated game designers provide remarkably similar answers to the question of whether video games can be considered art. Montgomery Markland, a professional video game designer with Obsidian Entertainment, responded: “The fact that developers can choose to ignore the artistic possibilities of the medium does not impute an impossibility of artistry to the video game any more than the fact that a painter can choose to paint a house rather than a canvas. Video games are art when designed to be art, as is true of any other form of human expression” (Markland). The debate over whether the artistic elements of a video game are a response to a utilitarian need for entertainment or an artistic expression by virtue of the fact that artistic decisions are made in their production is further explored by Jonathan Blow, an independent game designer; in an interview with Game Informer Magazine he likened the creative decisions made during the process of designing a laptop to the creative process of designing a game marketed solely for its ability to respond to functional exigencies (Blow). In both cases, the implication is that the burden of proving the artfulness of a particular game resides in the intentions and capabilities of its creators. Likewise, neither designer discounts the production of games within the medium which do not constitute artful expression.  This speaks to flexibility of the medium in so far that it is understood that the advancement of technology provides tools capable of accomplishing a variety of goals for a multitude of designers with differing philosophies and agendas.  It is therefore necessary to acknowledge genre within the landscape of game design so as to recognize the impetus for the use of technology in the creation of specific digital environments.

With the acceptance that video game design is new relative to other forms of art and the strong influence wielded by a developer’s intentions towards the nature of the final product; one is left to consider the actual nuts and bolts of game design and how these factor into the realization of an artistic vision in an accelerated technological arena. As previously stated, the life of a successful video game console is a fairly brief window of time, and the life of relevant personal computer hardware can be even more fleeting. As a result, game developers are forced to complete their works inside of a short timeframe, mastering skills and applying whatever conventions they have at their disposal towards a final product release. The act of fully realizing a digital world piece by piece is no small task, and as the computing elements surrounding that task grow to accommodate greater amounts of environmental nuance more development time is required to generate the aesthetic elements. Even in many of the most communally lauded games this results in a shifting of design focus towards the production of more polished surface elements in order to maintain the veneer of technical relevance. While increased emphasis on visual art assets does not preclude a game from becoming art; the purpose of those artistic decisions can easily slide from the creative to the utilitarian and can also have detrimental effects on other elements of design as more time and resources are devoted to them. One of the quirks of video game design is that increasing the scope of any one aspect of design can seem simple while exponentially compound the workload associated with another aspect. Within the video game design community this is commonly referred to as “feature creep”; as more ideas and assets are integrated into the game, the focus of the project shifts from accomplishing the original stated goals to accommodating technical or artistic additions. “Feature creep is partly a result of the somewhat evolutionary process of videogame development, and partly a result of the constructivist nature of the product, in which technological features and content can be easily added during the course of development” (Tschang, 123). The expansion of a virtual environment immediately demands that the environment be populated with visual art assets, scripted events, and in many cases non-player character driven dialog. A developer can approach the consistent population of this expanded space within the timeframe of the project in one of two ways: either by reassigning time and resources devoted to the deepening of existing assets, or by increasing the size of the development team to handle the additional workload. Both options have the end result of diminishing the potential artistic depth of a game through diffusion of development resources or the delegation of carrying out an artistic vision to a greater number of people. As technological expectations swell in the video game industry, the paradigm of the auteur developer withers for the sake of a more practical and democratic design philosophy.

Due to technical advancements some design conventions become obsolete, either as a result of changing capabilities or changing user and industry expectations. The shifting morphology of design challenges the formation of assumptions about how games should be made. “In spite of the complexity of game artifacts and player experience, much of the design activity at game companies has traditionally been conducted as an intuitive process” (Knez, Niedenthal). Without a widely held understanding or presumption of how games should be made, the realization and establishment of useful canonical references within the medium becomes difficult. An art community existing in a canonical vacuum suffers from a lack of reference points around which to form sound design philosophies and critical opinions. This can encourage innovation by eliminating dogmatic approaches to design issues; it can also stifle innovation by forcing developers to imitate financial success in lieu of advancing or pioneering potentially superior, but unproven techniques. Until such a point that video game technology plateaus, the architecture of video game design will remain in flux and at the mercy of technical considerations. Artistry, in many cases, will remain a secondary consideration in the design process. The medium of video games is not broken per se, but some additional assembly may be required before it is culturally embraced as an avenue of artistic expression. 

Works Cited

Croshaw, Ben, Zero Punctuation: Mass Effect The Escapist, Web. 19 Dec. 2007, 10 Nov. 2008."  .

Wolf, Mark J.P., and Perron, Bernard, eds. The Video Game Theory Reader Florington, KY.: Routledge, 2003

Graft, Kris, PC Devs “Shoot Themselves In the Foot” Edge, Web. 6 Nov. 2008, 10 Nov. 2008..

Markland, Montgomery. “Re: Video Games as Art Statement” E-mail to the author. 27 Oct. 2008.

Blow, Jonathon, “The Vanguard” Game Informer Nov. 2008: 42-44

Tschang, F. Ted “Videogames as Interactive Experiential Products and Their Manner of Development” International Journal of Innovation Management 9.1 (2005)

Knez, Igor, and Niedenthal, Simon, “Lighting in Digital Game Worlds: Effects on Affect and Play Performance” CyberPsychology and Behavior 11.2 (2008)