hc2: Tony Manninen, “Between a rock and a hard place”

“Between a rock and a hard place”

by Tony Manninen

I am a gamer. I enjoy immensely play and games. The thrilling atmosphere of a LAN party is something to look forward to, playing with other people provides endless sources of enjoyment. My heart pounds when designing a new game, and when seeing it enjoyed by others. Games are interesting, entertaining, challenging, frustrating and everything else imaginable. There is no escape. Games have been, games are, and they will be strong part of my life – in both a hobbyist and a professional context.

Still, I am not too convinced that the line of profession I have chosen is actually the best one. Naturally, doing something which is perhaps too much fun certainly boosts-up the levels of motivation, aspiration, and enthusiasm. However, some dilemmas and issues have also risen. For example, limiting the scope of the research when everything is way too interesting, and turning motivationally-guided research activities into fruitful achievements are part of my daily struggles.

The difference between an action and an achievement can be vague, even when approaching games from the field of highly pragmatic applied research. The question that still haunts me most is the ubiquitous, and notoriously utilitarian, phrase “How do we benefit from all this?” My engineering background should give me some pointers here, but the final answer remains hidden. Naturally, it is important for a researcher to make an impact. It is more or less a necessity to acquire research funding. Sometimes it is even critical to justify one’s work to oneself.

While the experimental approach to game development can easily be bridged with the needs of the industry, the research of game design is mainly an unexplored territory yielding few instant commercial paybacks. There seem to be several shortcuts, which, in the long run, will not offer much insight to the field. Sales people, for example, have several rules of thumb about the most successful game concepts. Game researchers are then expected to outline the ontology of “guaranteed selling points” for the industry to apply. The technological field is not that much different. Just solve the integration issues, telecommunication protocols and interface problems of wearable location-based game concept and, voila, game research has made an impact!

That impact, while certainly useful, will not carry far in terms of game studies, game literacy and game culture. The piecemeal solutions, such as imitating existing concepts and striving towards photo-realism, with their instant applications may well keep the wheels of game design turning. However, to progress on to a new level requires deeper insight into the field as whole, with long-term studies and a solid scientific base.

The games industry has no time to experiment with crazy or idealistic concepts. The business is not mature enough to sustain truly diverse products, and game consumers may eventually have hunger for greater variety. How, then, are we going to solve these problems? Who are the providers? Are there gaps to be filled by game researchers?

Our research at LudoCraft is intent on answering the questions that we regard as core to contemporary games studies by focusing on the art of creating play and games. Essentially, it is not about technology. Also, ludology and narratology sound too theoretical. Researching and conducting the design and development of games, and reflecting on these, enhance the purely analytical approach. Mastering the empirical side of game studies provides medium for inspiration, concrete examples of research results and new innovations for future games.

Researching game design is not just production of art assets, functional code, or visually engaging representations. There is more to a game design than pure replication of best practices and industry standard production processes. Game design deserves an analytical approach with the possible fruits to be harvested – not necessarily instantly – but eventually.

What is core to contemporary game studies, from my point of view, consists of three main areas that interconnect to form a coherent whole:

• Game design is about mastering the design and production of 3D multiplayer games based on the extensive empirical research of crafting games. • Game playing is a versatile phenomenon consisting of personal game experiences and multiplayer game communities. These are observed by organising and participating in game sessions, experiments, demonstrations and exhibitions. • Game analysis has its focus on function, narration and structure of games. The analytical studies reveal the phenomena below the surface and offer reflective feedback for the design.

The difficulty of maintaining the balance between practical field of game studies and critical analysis can be countered with several methods. First, because experimental game research is time consuming and expensive, introducing more researchers from outside the core group can bring in the necessary objectivity and resources. The design team can then focus more intently on the problems and practicalities of design while others gather the data.

Second, the practical design and development solutions should find their way into the text books to be used by the industry, hobbyist game designers and game students alike. Multidisciplinary approach to data acquisition, analysis and reporting guarantees the relevant level of detail and depth of critical thinking.

Third, it is important to develop games discourse even further. In addition to verbal discourse, audiovisual ‘texts’, such as, imagery, videos, and game session demonstrations should be widely used to convey the ideas of researchers. Illustrating the concrete research results with, for example, a game demo, makes it easier for people to understand the phenomenon even when they have different backgrounds.

Despite all the successful methods, the experimental research approach involving practical game design and development projects remains an expensive and resource-hungry way of studying games. Nevertheless, it is through empirical experiences and experimental installations that we acquire the most fruitful knowledge of game design methods, novel game structures and design implications. Learning from existing games is important, but going one step further will bring the contributions alive. No matter how long it takes to acquire the resources, we must be patient. By combining the understanding of games and inspiring new experiments, games research will change the game world – forever!

Author note

Tony Manninen has been playing and designing computer and video games for more than 20 years. Currently he is a professor at the Department of Information Processing Science at the University of Oulu. He is the director of LudoCraft Game Design and Research Unit where he studies games and innovates new game concepts as a producer and lead designer. His recent productions include eScape and AirBuccaneers.

tmannine [at] tols16.oulu.fi

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