Owning Art: Developer’s Control Over Games
Earlier this year, I argued for a very player-centric approach to game design, asking developers to let players break their games. I encouraged developers to make, essentially, sandboxes with rules that were mere suggestions, and let players bend those rules (or ignore them outright) to solve puzzles and overcome obstacles their own way. Though it’s still a design philosophy that I encourage, there is a voice in the back of my mind that doubted those words. The reason? Video games are art, developers are artists and they should have some say in how people experience their creative vision.
The interactive nature of video games has blurred this line, and it seems as if the creative control has swung toward the player. Sometimes these changes are subtle , such as an improved inventory system in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (the result of complaints from fans), and sometimes these changes are drastic (the revised ending to Mass Effect 3). So how does the industry determine how much control developers have over their games, and how much control gamers have?
While doing my best to reconcile this issue, two examples stumbled out into the media that perhaps help demonstrate the issue of developers losing control over their own games, and how developers (and gamers) can respond in a rational, productive way. Two anticipated titles, Halo 5: Guardians and Destiny’s third expansion, The Taken King, both have some extreme changes coming to either an established franchise, or to one of the most polarizing games in recent memory. The reaction from fans helps us see the perils of developers making creative choices for their games, versus the ownership gamers have over them.
Your Campaign Partner Is On Another Couch
When 343 Industries took over the Halo franchise from Bungie, Inc., the task ahead of them was surely an intimidating one – not only were they now responsible for one of the most beloved franchises in the industry, but they had to build an entirely new story that spanned a new trilogy. Their campaign began with Halo 4, which set up a new story and characters. It was clear that 343 Industries struggled internally with making a game that was Halo in spirit, but also featured some of their own, new ideas. In the end, it was a solid addition to the Halo canon because it felt like a Halo game at its core – a healthy mix of open battles and vehicle combat mixed with a dose of linear, corridor shoot-em-up levels that briskly moved players from one set piece to the next. 343 Industries left their mark on the franchise by doing something Bungie never seemed interested in doing – diving deep into the expanded universe and using all of the canon they could to create a new story.
With one successful entry behind them, 343 Industries gained confidence in their ability to morph the Halo franchise to fit their unique vision, and it shows – Halo 5: Guardians looks to be the most intriguing Halo game yet, with a rogue Master Chief (who is missing his trusted AI companion Cortana), and a group of soldiers chasing after him into enemy territory. On paper it sounds amazing – it seems like a radically different take from a developer that now feels confident taking the franchise in a new, ambitious direction.
While most seem to be on board with this new direction, there is one decision 343 Industries announced that has fans angry – the removal of same-screen co-operative gameplay. This mode was introduced in the first Halo game, and has been an integral part of the franchise ever since. In the early 2000s, Halo became the modern version of poker night, as friends would get together and play either the campaign or multiplayer as a way to socialize. Prior to Halo, this type of interaction was reserved for PC LAN parties, which required tremendous amounts of space, planning and disposable income in order to pull off. Halo simplified this, and even long after Xbox Live became the primary destination for multiplayer, friends would still make time to actually play the latest Halo game together, on the same screen.
This begs the question – why remove a feature so important to the identity of the franchise? According to reports, 343 Industries struggled with the decision, and realized they would rather prioritize level design over co-operative functionality. Their artistic vision for this entry demanded large, open spaces to accommodate the intense, jaw-dropping set pieces they planned, and setting aside precious resources to make a co-operative mode work would mean taking resources away from what they truly felt was the centerpiece of the new title. Naturally, the backlash to this announcement was swift, angry and full of vitriol. Many fans were outraged because a core element of Halo was being removed, and the benefits of such a removal were not immediately apparent. In an article posted on Polygon, titled Removing split-screen play from Halo is a crime, author Ben Kuchera noted that 343 Industries hasn’t provided a justifiable reason for the removal of this feature:
“I’m not sure what Halo 5 is going to deliver that’s worth giving up such an important part of the franchise, but it’s hard to look at what’s been done in the past on less powerful systems and understand that split-screen is now impossible with the sort of game 343 is creating, even on the more powerful hardware.”
For Kuchera, his problem is that we’re getting more powerful hardware but losing features – a fair point to make. But as he goes on to explain:
“I’m going to go out on a limb here: It’s not worth it. I’d rather have split-screen with a lower frame rate. I don’t mind if we lose a bit of graphical fidelity. I’m not going to count the pixels and get mad if you have to lower the resolution a bit in split-screen. I don’t particularly care if it would take time away from other aspects of the game.”
Again, while Kuchera makes some great points, his overall tone suggests that 343 Industries’s decision to remove the feature is based purely on graphical fidelity, and that no other factors went into making this decision. With such little information to work off of, it’s unfortunate that he (along with many fans) took such a harsh, negative tone when discussing the news (going so far as to label the removal of a feature a crime). It’s one thing for anonymous internet fans to speak in hyperbole, but to see professional journalists engaging in it demonstrates how important this feature is to the franchise, and how little the gaming public actually knows about the decisions going into the game.
Revising A Destiny
While 343 Industries busies themselves putting out fires and placating fans by releasing the opening cinematic to Halo 5 early, another developer is busy doing the opposite – busying themselves by showing off how great their game is going to be. Which is a bit odd, because the game in question is Destiny, released in September of 2014. So how can Bungie show off their new, great game when it’s already one year old? By making sweeping changes to nearly every aspect of the game.
To say Destiny is divisive is an understatement – people either love it and play it endlessly, they hate it and roll their eyes at every mention of the game, or they hate it and play it endlessly, hoping their complaints will someday be heard and that Bungie can take their frustrating game with promise and turn it into something truly great. Even if it meant turning the game into something drastically different from the vision Bungie initially released.
While being a pretty solid game, Destiny has plenty of flaws as well, and throughout its one-year run, gamers have not been shy in pointing them out. But given the ever-evolving nature of the game, Bungie can easily address concerns as they arise, which is the theme behind their latest expansion, The Taken King. Not only will there be new content, but changes to the structure of the game are also included, and many will be implemented directly into the game, even if fans choose not to buy The Taken King. At first, these changes seem to be exactly what fans have been asking for since day one – elements tied to grinding are being streamlined (for example – rare loot no longer determines level), and it’ll be easier to purchase new gear across multiple vendors, thanks to a restructuring of the currency system. Even simple things, such as how players turn in bounties, has been overhauled (no more going to the Tower, a social hub for players, just to turn them in – they can be done from the pause menu now).
But while addressing these changes (and some of them are very substantial – more on that later), Bungie is also completely replacing the voice work of Destiny’s most infamous character, the player-companion Ghost. Bungie said the switch in voice actors is due to the schedule of the actors in question, but it’s not a stretch to imagine that this choice was also motivated by the overwhelming amount of negativity about the story, dialogue and voice acting.
These changes all have fans of the game excited to jump back in, since they promise to tone down the constant grinding that was once needed to get the best gear (and therefore the highest level). It would seem that these mechanics are falling in line with the first-person shooter mechanics – fluid, smooth, easy to use and satisfying. At the same time, these changes also seem to make Destiny a much more generic game, one that doesn’t boldly stand out as it did when it was released. The changes are not just minor tweaks – the light system (a system in which higher level gear had a light value tied to it, and the higher the light value of all of the player’s equipped gear, the higher their character’s level) is being completely removed, replaced with a tried and true leveling system based on experience points gained by completing missions and defeating enemies.
One of the single most defining elements of Destiny is being removed, yet there is no backlash from fans. Why is this? The changes to Destiny, a game millions have already invested their money into, as well as their time, is changing in a much more radical way than Halo 5, but instead of scorn, Bungie is being met with praise. There are two parts to this answer, and they both highlight the perils of developers taking control of their own games.
Speak Loudly, And Carry A Big PR Budget
It should be the case that, until proven otherwise, developers with an established history of video game development should be given the benefit of the doubt – the changes they make to their games are often for a good reason, and at worst are the result of things out of their control (disappearing budget, publisher goes bankrupt, etc.). However, this doesn’t mean that messaging is something that can be ignored.
The biggest distinction between 343 Industries and Bungie at the present moment is just that – messaging. Halo 5’s story and campaign are being kept secret, and as a result many of the factors that go into the decisions 343 Industries have made are being kept hidden as well. On the other hand, Bungie is taking every opportunity they can to show off The Taken King, and to highlight the changes and also explain them. Instead of gamers having to read vague interviews and fill in the gaps themselves, they can actually see what the changes entail and hear why the developers made them. An actual explanation goes a long way with fans as opposed to the same old say-nothing approach 343 Industries used to talk about their design choices.
Knowing how much information to divulge to fans is a difficult balancing act that could either fail to spark interest in a game, or spoil every surprise and turn gamers away. That said, there is no doubt that if 343 Industries took the time to explain why co-operative play needed to be cut, fans (at least some of them) would understand the decision. Gamers put a lot of time and money into the medium, and they want to make the most informed decisions possible before purchasing a new game. Telling them a long standing, crucial feature is being removed because of “graphics” won’t cut it. Yes, developers should be given the benefit of the doubt (until they lose that privilege by releasing a low-quality game or failing to deliver a highly anticipated one), but for many gamers, seeing is believing. By getting out and controlling the message early on, developers will have an easier time making changes to their own works of art, helping them take back some ownership over them.
The debate over who owns art – the artist or the viewer, is a difficult question to answer, especially when the medium is as young as video games. However, there are still behaviors that gamers exhibit when developers do try to take ownership over their own games, and these can be detrimental to the creative process.
Gamers often ask developers to prioritize features according to available resources – for example, gamers don’t want a watered-down product that ticks all the items off a publisher’s checklist, but does them all poorly. Not every game has to accomplish every single element of game design, such as when BioShock 2 included a multiplayer mode that was played by only a handful of people at its peak. Although I will miss same-screen co-operative play in Halo 5, I applaud 343 Industries for making the tough call and standing by it, making the decisions that will hopefully make their game better.
The development that worries me most is the seeming triumph that is The Taken King, and how Bungie made these changes in response to fan feedback. Although this seems like a victory for gamers, we should be cautious about the results, which in this case meant a developer had to take their vision for their game and reform it to look like countless other games fans have already played. The unique elements of Destiny have been toned down or removed, and since Bungie did a great job messaging these changes, fans of the game feel as if they have won a major victory. But how much of Bungie’s original vision still remains in the game? Did they compromise their goals just to please fans? Is that what great artists do?
Again, I want to be clear that I am not calling for developers to ignore all player feedback – that feedback can be valuable and essential to the development of later pieces of DLC or new games. But the precedent being set with Destiny is a dangerous one – the game will look and play far different than it did last year. How much of an impact did gamers have on these changes, and should they hold that much power?
Breaking An Artist’s Vision
The backlash facing 343 Industries, and the praise being heaped onto Bungie, highlight the outcomes developers face when they publicly claim ownership over their own creations. 343 Industries is met with an intense level of criticism for doing something gamers should trust developers to do – make sound, logical decisions during development that make the game better. Bungie gets praised for essentially bowing to the whims of a fanbase that wanted the game to be something different. It’s important that gamers try to understand the vision the developer had in mind when constructing a game, and it’s important that developers share as much information about that vision as they can before the game releases. A stronger conversation will allow developers to no longer fear taking back ownership of their games, and gamers will ultimately be able to make informed decisions that will help shape the market and define success – the exact type of feedback developers need in the first place. Games should be designed to allow flexibility and creative thinking on the part of the gamer, but the developer’s vision should always remain intact. To ignore that vision is to take the art out of the medium.