Well, not really. Obviously the process of actually making a real game is laboriously difficult and beset with more problems than you could ever presuppose (which is sort of the point), so difficult that any project of any size will find it hard to ever estimate how long their game will take to make. If we are talking man hours to actual end content making games is ludicrously difficult.
So maybe we can say finishing a game is hard, but actually making one? As in, getting out a tech demo/general proof of concept and letting it evolve? Now that, well that isn’t that hard. Getting the basic skeleton out of a game – if we are talking about indie games (and right now I’d like to) then we are probably looking at a clever variation on an old gaming trope. “Mario-but-with…” is the standard, and everyone knows how to make Mario. Actually getting your Mario+Variation to be a fun, challenging game (or a game that elicits an emotional response or -gasp! both) is trickier but experience has shown us its a manageable task. Hundreds of these things come out every year, all of varying quality, but with a little application any small team can release their own Mario-with-a-quirk game. Maybe we’ll never know the blood, sweat and tears that went into making all these little gems, but we can observe that right now the indie scene is damn good at producing them.
Mario is a paradigm we all understand, controls and rules we are familiar with, so where ever the game wants to pull off its quirk (Time Travel! You can draw on to the map! You can reverse gravity! You can invert the world! and so on) we’ll be able to appreciate it and have fun with the new mechanic. Is Braid to blame for this? I mean, Braid is very, very good, it was a masterpiece of Mario-with-a-twist (Jonathan Blow purposefully filled Braid with Mario references) its undountable many indie titles have taken inspiration for Braid’s successes. It seems so tantalizing – just stick one good concept to Mario and you have an enthralling game. It’s tempting to make the Punk-Rock analogy – is Mario the three-chord rock of gaming? It all fits in with indie’s DIY vibe, anyone can pick up a PC and thrash out their own little bit of gaming history.
But that’s the thing. It’s easy, isn’t it? Aren’t we limiting ourself by going time and time again to this touchstone, to Mario? I know a lot of Indie developers (or wannabes like myself) are itching to get the boring part out the way and get straight to their bit of art/innovation/whatever you want to call it, but aren’t we being hampered by taking the easy way out? Do we still need to be controlling a little man running left and right and jumping on things?
My premier theory for Why All Games Are Shit ™ (Alternatively: Why Gaming Isn’t An Art-form ™ or Why All Mainstream Games Are The Same ™) is that to ever get to the position in any studio that gets its works published you’d already have to A. Be a fan of games as they are enough to dedicate your life to them and B. Already be damn good at making games exactly how they’ve been for the last 20 years. Just like the film industry (and many other artistic “industries” no doubt) the entire system is geared towards a conservative bias. And this is even before we introduce publishers, who, if a rogue designer who had been hiding a revolutionary idea up his sleeve til he was in the position to make it (let’s be honest we all have at least one idea like this), the publishers can simply decline the concept as it’s too much of a risk. Everyone knows that problem- blaming the creative dearth on the big faceless publishers is easy, but we should admit too that once you’ve gotten into one of these big design roles in a developer, chances are you don’t actually mind exactly how mainstream games have been all this time that much anyway.
Of course this is ridiculous and pretentious of me – assuming that games being anything other than toys (and I mean great toys for all ages) is a preferable thing. To most it probably isn’t, and that’s fine. Games can be hollywood blockbusters and timesink toys forever, -perhaps they should. But no-one is really arguing that’s all they should be, in the mainstream and out of it, right?
Which leads me back to the indies. Its my conviction that “we” are just as guilty as the mainstream -sticking to the easy genres of games set out by Nintendo and others in the 80s and early 90s and too scared to deviate. Again, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, these games are still inventive and fun, but isn’t the whole point of the indie scene its variety? Look at the indiest of indies, the great “art games”. Games like Braid, or Gravitation. I deeply admire the work of Jonathan Blow and Jason Rohrer (I see Rohrer as a sort of gaming Syd Barrett, a distant genius, a true example of an extreme, who makes our little fanboy hearts beat fast), – you could call them part of the games as art vanguard. But even these two express their ideas through Mario. Blow at least makes no apologies for this, though I suspect Rohrer would deeply love his games to be freer from gaming’s heritage than they are (his pixel art is so simple out of necessity). This in no way undermines their worth as games or as art, both designers are deeply aware of the connotations their control schemes have and both play upon this to make their points, but what is this really leaving us with, if we were to make some literary comparison? Alice in Wonderland. A work of genius no doubt, stories enjoyable by all through the medium of a children’s tale, and valuable reading for all english speaking mankind (at least). But isn’t that all we can really achieve while we still cling to Mario, to Metroid, to Monkey Island and to Zelda? Keep making new Alice in Wonderlands, but lets never assume thats all we can do.
Every game that you can’t understand in terms of a classic gaming genre should be seen as a triumph (from a design standpoint). Forget about breaking Miyamoto’s rules, let’s make some new rules, let others break them. As Rohrer enthuses us, let the meaning of the game be your guide, make mechanics that support that. If no-one understands it and can’t connect because it’s not Mario, shrug and try again. Theres nothing lost, right?
After all, designing games is hard, making games is easy.