This article was originally written immediately upon my returning fromE3 in May of 1997. This seems to be a fairly popular topics for designer/developersto "whine" about, yet it's also far and away the most popular/responded-tocolumn of mine (as originally printed in InsideMac Games. Going to the show was on the one hand uplifting: I picked up a copy of the latest Next Generation which had a very inspirationalinterview with Sid Meier in it, as well as a copy of Game Developer whichcontained a nifty Chris Crawford column, both of which covered similarground to this column. On the other hand, the show was hideouslydepressing as I wandered the fabulously-expensive booths (I heard thatSony's show expenses were $4 million) and looked at the awful, license-driven,derivative, poorly-conceived games that were everywhere. Of course,wandering around E3 looking for innovative, break-through games is likegoing to the multi-plex in the middle of summer and wondering where allthe good movies are. I'm just ever-so-slightly less cynical now thanI was then, but I think the concerns voiced in this column are still worthworrying about. We're still just...
Playing for the Fanboys
My recent trip to the Electronic Entertainment Expo (often known simplyas E3) in Atlanta did nothing to assuage my fears about the state of computergaming today, and the dangerous path we as an industry are currently headeddown. To avoid confusion, I'm not talking about Macintosh gaminghere, but gaming in general. In fact, the phenomena I'm intent ondiscussing happens probably slightly less on the Mac, but its effects canbe seen nonetheless. This column is going to discuss a topic a lotof you probably don't want to hear, a theory which may be something you'drather dismiss as just so many paranoid delusions. But, dag nabbit, itneeds to be said. And said again and again, until people realizethe dangerous path we tread, which may lead to profitability in the shortterm, but will lead to industry recession - and an overall stifling ofcreativity and diversity - in the long term. I call the phenomenon"Playing for the Fanboys."
Portrait of the Fanboy as a Young Man
What's a fanboy, you ask? In all likelihood, you, noble reader,are a fanboy. I personally am a fanboy. Being a fanboy is nothingto be ashamed of. A fanboy is someone who is a fan of a particularentertainment medium to almost the point of obsession. In my case,I'm a fanboy of four artistic media: movies, heavy metal music, comicbooks, and, that's right, computer games. Fanboys spend a lot oftime following their artistic medium of choice, and often their appreciationof what has already come and gone in their favorite genre leads them toexpect something, usually in no small degree self-referential, about futurereleases.
And there's nothing inherently wrong with the games that fanboys like. The problem comes when a given industry - be it in the business of makingfilms, music, sequential art, or interactive entertainment - devotes allits time to making games for these fanboys, all but ignoring any sort ofa broader, society-wide audience. It's then that I start worrying.
What's so Comical about a Comic Book?
One need only look so far as the comic book industry - a sort of distant,illegitimate, five times removed cousin to ours - to see the disastrousresults of making entertainment only for the fanboys. That industry,which in America first found profitability in the 1930s through tellingstories about spandex clad super-heroes, decided that the easiest way tomake more money in the short term was to exploit the super-hero genre forall it was worth. Today the comic book industry - after running thewhole super-hero idea through endless hoops for the last sixty years -is stuck in a financial slump where many of its readers have abandonedit, having seen the only options the major publishers offer are super-herobooks on top of other super-hero books. Again, there's nothing wrongwith super-heroes, but there's something very wrong when that's all you'vegot.
So people walk into comic book stores and they see super-hero books,and unless they're the fanboys to whom super-heroes appeal, they walk outimmediately. Do they walk out because comic books are an inherentlylimited medium? Hardly. Belgium is proud to sight as its primaryexport Hergé's brilliant TinTin comics, something even my "I hatecomics" mother likes and encouraged me to read as a child. In Japanyou're as likely to see adults on the subway reading a comic book as aprose book. Even here in the States, we get break-out titles likeArt Spiegelman's Maus or Edward Gorey's work (collected in the wonderfulAmphigorey series), but elitists spend all their time denying these arecomic books (just as our own elitists say Myst-a-like #107 is "not justa game!"), and the comic industry continues to deceive itself into thinkingthe way out of the financial slump is to make more super-hero tales.
Poor Joe Computer Owner
What happens when most non-fanboys approach a computer game? Muchthe same thing. Joe Computer Owner walks in and sees the optionsranging from "abstract puzzle game" to "kill everything that moves" andsays "Oh, that's too bad," leaving the store straight away. Is themedium limited? Hardly. It's the message we're delivering thatwill keep our art form on the fringes of the entertainment world, possiblyforever if we're not careful.
But this isn't the only way we keep people away. When storieshappen to actually be included with the games, what sort of story are mostcomputer games set in? Well, let's see, we've got science fiction. Hm. And fantasy, definitely got fantasy. And then there's... Aside from some exceptions which prove the rule (such as Prince of Persia,Civilization, ultra-complex war games, ultra-complex flight simulators,and sports games) we are stuck with genres which appeal to mainly, well,fanboys. Not to say that either of these mediums is inherently bador inferior, but they're just not subject matter which appeal to Joe Consumer. Take a look at the New York Times Bestseller list, or even the top tenmovies, where the closest thing to fantasy or science fiction you'll findis the SF-lite found in Independence Day or Jurassic Park. And thesefilms aren't even as hard SF as Duke Nukem; Independence Day and JurassicPark star Jeff Goldblum, in both cases a mostly believable character fromtoday's world, and the stories those movies tell use the SF as more a backdropthan as a raison d'être.
To be fair, as a side bar, there is a whole bunch of games which doappeal to Joe Computer Owner: sports games and flight simulators,though often the latter of these two is too complex for someone who hasn'talready played ten other flight simulators to really "get into." But neither of these are story-telling computer games but rather "pure"simulations, and hence have been omitted from my argument. Sportsgames appeal to a more mainstream audience, and are to be commended forwhat they've accomplished. I know a lot of people who play sportsgames and only sports games, usually people who are, you guessed it, sportsfanboys. Still, if story-telling games took the time to appeal toa broad-section of the population the way sports games have, I'd be a happycamper.
How Many Keys Must a Man Press?
How else do game designers play for the fanboys? Another troublingway is by making our games so complex and self-referential that they'reall but unplayable by novice players. Remember those reality-basedwar games I mentioned previously? If you're not really really intoit - as fanboys are - just try figuring out one of those things (with thepossible happy exception of Panzer General and its offspring). Similarly,what happens when someone is presented with a complex game like Quake forthe first time? When they haven't played Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, orany of the other games that the id Software all but assumes you've playedalready? Can a novice really be expected to figure out the thirtyor so keys one needs to know to play Quake?
Of course novices do "figure out" games like Quake, but I would arguemost of these novices are young kids eager to figure out what their oldersibling is playing. I'm more concerned about adults, such as my 49year old brother. He's intrigued by computer games, and so I gavehim Bungie's Pathways into Darkness for Christmas some years ago. Initially, he was interested in what the game offered, but found himselfunable to master the controls and quickly game up. He still enjoyschess simulations, but may never see what else computer games have to offer.
And the industry's obsession with sequels, far worse than the US filmindustry's, is another way we play to the fanboys. Indeed, at an"Ask the Publishers" developer conference I attended at E3, we were toldby three of the largest publishers that one of the primary aspects theylook for in game proposals they see is whether, if successful, the product'sprofitability can be continued via sequels. As the publishers allpointed out, whereas in the film business sequels are usually a 25% dropoff in profitability from their predecessors, video games usually see a25% increase in profitability. Some might point out that such a 25%increase must correlate to a 25% expansion of the market, but I'd arguethat, to the contrary, the extra 25% are still fanboys, just ones who hadheard their friends ranting about the coolness of the first game, and hencewere compelled to buy the "new and improved" sequel. I'd furtherargue that non-fanboys are even less likely to purchase sequels to computergames than they are to buy original ones, fearing a sequel would leavethem in the dark, just as someone who never saw The Godfather Part I wouldreally be confused by the goings-on in Part II.
But this is all so much 3D shooter calling the fighting game violent(or pot calling the kettle black, for any non-fanboys who may be reading): my most recent game, Damage Incorporated, is pretty much the extreme ofa fanboy product. Despite my attempts to put a somewhat compelling,non-SF storyline in the game, and even though I made a level where you'renot supposed to kill the enemies you encounter, still the game ends upbeing, for all intents and purposes, a death-permeated, blood-soaked, kill-em-all. The sad thing is that if I'd told the right marketing people that, at itscore, D.I. was a "Death-Permeated, Blood-Soaked, Kill-Em-All!!!" they'dhave been more than happy to use that fact to promote the game, a surefire way to get fanboys to buy it. D.I. is further guilty of featuringa huge set of keys to remember, bigger than Quake's by at least 15, furthermaking the game obtuse and all but unplayable by non-fanboys.
In Damage Incorporated I made a game that I, as a fanboy, enjoy verymuch, and the fan letters I've received show that a lot of other peopleseem to like it a whole bunch as well. But now, in retrospect, Irealize that someone who hasn't played many computer games would reallybe somewhat lost trying Damage Incorporated, between the ridiculously violent(and in turn somewhat mindless) content, and the virtual assumption thatthe user has played one of the Marathon games already. That's theonly way players have a chance of understanding that not only does everyweapon have multiple triggers, but it also has multiple ammunition types. Indeed, I have gotten nary a fan letter saying "Damage Incorporated isthe first game I ever got and I just love it to pieces!" Nay, instead,nearly every letter I get says "This is the best Death Permeated, Blood-Soaked,Kill-Em-All since Let God Sort 'Em Out Part VIII!" Again the faulthere is in my game, not in the audience it appeals to; it falls squarelyon my shoulders to, in the future, create something with a wider potentialappeal.
In my defense, however, a small developer just starting out in the world,such as myself, can't fiscally afford to take chances on games which mayappeal to a wider audience, or, due to their uniqueness and experimentalnature, may flop hideously. More established developers, however,with strong selling titles to their credit already, really owe it to thelong term health of the gaming community to try something new and differentout, games which have at least a chance of appealing to someone other thatthe already established fanboy market. And I don't just mean an experimentaltechnology. I mean an experimental idiom, to make an experimentalgame.
Again, there's nothing wrong with making games fanboys like, but theproblem with our industry right now is that's all that's being made. I would certainly be the last to argue that "good" art (whatever that means)must necessarily appeal to a large number of people. But on the otherhand, to draw another analogy to the film world, without a world marketplacethat enjoys films as a storytelling medium, would deeply personal filmssuch as Krzysztof Kieslowski's Blue, White, and Red ever get made at all?Such films certainly won't appeal to everyone but can prove slightly profitableif the right people, who are open to the idea that a film can be just asgood as a book, are made aware of its existence. Sadly, I certainlydon't see Red's artistic or spiritual equivalent being created in our current,constricted, fanboy-driven computer game world. But I certainly haven'tgiven up hope for the future.
This column was originally printed in InsideMac Games.