It happens every year. Some big video game release is hyped out the wazoo, and i get really excited about it, and i start recommending it to my friends, and blogging about it, and poring over every little blurry screenshot as media assets trickle out to the press, and then i end up dressing as one of the game’s main characters – not for Hallowe’en, even, but just to scratch an obsessive itch – and then i’m cancelling plans with friends and finding ways to get out of seeing my kids graduate or attending dearly departed family members’ funerals so that i can be at the midnight game launch at K-Mart, and i shank some poor fool in line and clamour over his crumpled body to claw my way to the cashier, game gripped sweatily in my clawed hand, and i hijack someone’s mini-van and drive it home manically on the wrong side of the street at twice the speed limit (triple in school and hospital zones), crashing it in a twisted heap on my front lawn as i birth myself through the steaming, open passenger side window and limp into my house to my teevee set where finally, FINALLY i put the game in the console drive and play it. And the game completely sucks.
This year, that game was Princess Debut.
i crushed HARD on this game
For others of you, it may have been the user-created-content-O-fest Spore which, thanks to many negative reviews, i am now granting the Peter Molyneaux “Resting on Your Laurels” award to creator Will Wright. To be fair, i haven’t played the game, so from this point on (and as you’ll find in most of my posts), i’m talking directly out of my ass. In fact, i’m sitting on the keyboard right now.
The reviews are saying that the game’s creature creation tools are phenomenal, but the game that you play with those creatures is phenomenally dull. This became the worry in the back of my brain before the game was released, as i hungrily watched video after video of gameplay footage. There seemed to be no justifiable reason for why you would want to build one particular creature over another, because the game would play out broadly and generically regardless. Sure, there are differences depending on the various claws and beaks you add to your creatures, but they would just enable you to defeat other randomly-designed creatures that also had claws and beaks, and you’re back to square one.
Help Me, Little Big Planet – You’re My Only Hope
The only game remaining on my Christmas Ultimatum wish list is Little Big Planet which, like Spore, promised this unparalleled world of content creation. Little Big Planet is a physics-based platformer game exclusive to the Playstation 3 home video game system, and has struck me as the only decent reason to actually buy the system for quite some time. But recently, videos have been surfacing showing what people have done with the game, and they’re shaking my confidence in Little Big Planet’s ability to deliver on its promise.
In essence, these videos make the game look dull. The promo videos produced by the game designers were fun and exciting, and got me wound up like a red-headed kid in a dog-punching factory. And that, friends, is where i choose to make my Interesting Point.
Leave Game Design to the Pros
i admit that i’ve grown increasingly nervous as more and more game creation tools have surfaced, surrendering my industry to the hands of “any idiot”. When i was growing up, the video game industry was nigh-impossible to break into, particularly for a kid living in suburban Ontario, Canada. i fought tooth and nail to get in, and now the flood gates are opened and everyone’s a game designer. It’s like if you went through fifteen years of schooling and training to become a doctor, and then somebody invented the Surgery-O-Matic, and people were suddenly all performing triple bypass surgeries on themselves. You’d get your back up a bit too, i think.
But if these Little Big Planet videos reveal anything to me, it’s that putting game creation tools in the hands of the masses will lead to a lot of botched surgeries. If you build tools to be so easy that “any idiot” can create a game, that’s who you’re going to get creating games. The example above where someone re-created (badly) World 1-1 from Super Mario Bros. shows that there’s more to level design than meets the eye. The differences between Mario’s fast vertical jump and Sackboy’s floaty leaping have to be accounted for if designers are going to craft a fun game experience.
Little Big Planet takes pains to enable good content to float to the top, where people with a knack for this sort of thing will get noticed, and people building oddly malfunctioning curiosities like the Shadow of the Colossus or Super Mario Bros. levels will sink to an also-ran rating. i’m hoping that the bad taste i have in my mouth is due to the fact that the game isn’t released yet, and it’s only when the flood gates open that the wheat will be sifted from the chaff and we’ll see some evidence of true inspiration and game design capability.