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Has Kojima Lost It?

January 24, 2009

From an article at 1up:

Kojima also points out that the hi-definition era has changed the rules of game design itself. “Game design up to now has been about making rules,” he notes. “It was like a card game; there were lots of things that weren’t possible and had to be cut. With hi-def, the more real it gets, the less instruction you need to give, so preoccupying yourself with making rules seems silly. Western developers have realized this, but Japanese ones are still preoccupied with making these rules.”

I, for one, don’t think Kojima has lost it. He just did not explain himself very well. You need to read all of what he is saying to understand where he is coming from.

Kojima mentions that in Japan, games cater to either the casual crowd or the hardcore crowd; there’s no in between. What separates these two out are the rules of the games, not necessarily the mechanics.  What I believe Kojima was getting at was that we live in an era of infinite technological possibilities. On the Atari, you could only play one beep at a time. Now you can have full orchestral scores and prerecorded dialogue for every character. Characters in games used to be dots or 3/4 of a pie, and could only be 1-3 colors. Now they are made up of millions of polygons with dozens of different textures built up into intricate shading networks. The technology has improved tenfold. So why hasn’t the design?

What I took away from this article is the same message we’ve been learning about in Design Patterns. Designers – especially in Japan according to Kojima – cling onto the old ways, the old rules, even though the technology exists to create games that are much more open in scope. Invisible walls no longer need to exist, yet they do. Doors could potentially be more than just textures on the side of a wall – they could lead to hundreds of unique areas in the game for the player to explore through. There are still these rules in place that limit the possibilities of games. They may be arbitrary like invisible walls, or they may be unexpected like doors that never open. Whatever form they take, they are still rules that do not need to exist.

Kojima is not saying to take away game rules entirely. If you’ve read my “Mechanics vs. Rules” post, you’ll see that it’s difficult to make a game that has no rules whatsoever. These rules can even be in the programming, such as limiting the rate of fire on a gun so it doesn’t spray rockets at an ungodly rate. I do not believe Kojima is arguing to get rid of these kinds of rules. These are rules that define gameplay, that work hand in hand with mechanics to help create immersive experiences. But I do, in fact, agree with what he is saying. It’s time for the arbitrary rules – the ones on which developers always get called out – to go. The kinds that are put in because the developers are clinging to old technological expectations, or just for the developers to laugh at the players. We’ve seen level streaming at work as early as Soul Reaver and as recent as Gears of War. We know for a fact that it is possible to create persistant worlds where arbitrary rules like Invisible Walls do not need to exist.

World of Warcraft has demonstrated that by removing these rules, there is the potential for gamers to make the game their own and play it either hardcore, casual, or somewhere in between. Kojima seems to believe that Japanese developers have not moved into this territory of design yet and are still clinging to linear, predefined sets of rules that shoehorn games into being either casual or hardcore. Whether or not it’s true, I’m inclined to agree. We now have the technology to make sure players have the choice of what to make of the games they’ve paid for and not be stuck at the whim of the designer, so dammit let’s use it.

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