Thursday, April 2, 2009

Is There Now a Language of Game Design?

In "Analysis: The 5 Major Trends of GDC 2009," Gamasutra editor Chris Remo mentions a particular exchange between veteran game creators Will Wright and Warren Spector:

Warren Spector and Will Wright observed that indie developers are exploring design avenues that are nearly impossible for older designers to have conceived, because younger indies are building on a lifelong fluency.

"It’s like we developed this language we had to learn as non-native speakers," said Wright of his generation of designers. "They grew up with that language."

"They're almost like commentary on the games that have come before," Spector offered.
As I read it, this is the notion that today's game designers are inheriting (and fluently speaking as natives) an immediately usable language of gameplay mechanics that until now has had to be invented on the fly.

That's a wonderfully provocative comment. (Actually, I suspect it explains not only a good deal about the success of W.W. and W.S., but also why it's great to have them on conference panels!)

Some random reflections:

1. The "language" W.W. mentions seems to be more at the level of design patterns than the atomic-level game grammar that Raph Koster, among others, has been exploring. That's not to undercut the potential value of being able to reduce gameplay to low-level factors; it's more a recognition that the working language of a designer may usually be at the higher chunking level of patterns.

2. In terms of expressive capability and maturity, how does this game design language compare to the language of film direction? After a hundred years of movie-making, film directors today have a rich, specific, and broadly-understood vocabulary of verbs and nouns to work with -- how near or distant to that standard is today's language of game design?

3. How dependent on the computing, networking, and presentation technologies is the language of game design? Do non-computer games (such as tabletop RPGs) have useful "words" that today's computer game designers might not be aware of? Or is most of the utility of computer game design patterns driven by what the technology allows, in which case, what happens to a language of game design when the technology changes radically (as OnLive may do, which W.S. noted)?

4. As the flip side of the previous question, do some words in the language of game design ever die? That is, are there some game design patterns that are permanently abandoned? If so, why and how does that happen?

5. What's left to invent? Considered solely on its own merits, how complete is the current language of game design? Are there any obvious gaps; are there useful intentions and directions that are currently hard to communicate even between experienced designers?

6. Can new words in the functional language of game design simply be made up through conversation or general writing? Or must each new word prove its utility by being implemented in a game or games? Does the popularity of a game have anything to do with whether a new game design word is perceived to have enough value to enter the lexicon? Should it?

7. To put the above question in a different context, who invents new words in the language of game design? Game designers? Or non-designing game players?

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