In the second keynote at the Montreal Game Summit, games designer Jonathan Blow dissected modern game design and offered up thoughts on the future of the games medium – warning that "designers lack discernment" and are in danger of offering up experiences only akin to a McDonald’s meal.
"All we care about is whether a lot of people want to play our game. We don’t care why they want to play, and we don’t show care for their quality of life," he said.
In-game ‘scheduled rewards’ were playing a major part in this he said, saying that collectibles, achievements, story progress and unlockables were poor substitute for genuine enjoyment in modern video games.
"MMOs have empty gameplay but keep players hooked with constant fake rewards," he offered as an example. "Would players still play our games if we removed these scheduled rewards?"
He added that "rewards can be like food, nutritionally beneficial, or like drugs, artificial," saying that all the games industry does is ‘push drugs’; "We overuse drugs because we don’t understand food."
This is damaging to the medium, Blow added, because as the industry grows the quality of its content does not.
Said Blow: "In pursuing ever more players the games industry exploits them in an unethical way. We don’t see it as unethical, though, because we refuse to stop and think about what we are doing
"We don’t have a sense to be ashamed."
He pointed out how the tobacco industry and McDonalds have faced such criticisms from commentators and said that World of Warcraft’s method of teaching players about routine was similar and "akin to advertising".
He said: "We don’t intent to harm players by we might do so."
This was important as the games industry grows he said, predicting that "games are going to be huge" and in time grow to shape culture.
"Games are going to become closer to the centre of our culture and influence human thought. In the past year we’ve already seen some extra growth due to unique software and hardware. Games will soon grow to influence the human condition," he added.
"It sounds risky to say but all other mediums have done this too."
In relation to his point about the ‘McDonald’s-like’ quality of game experiences, he added: "All games teach, and if games are going to be a foundation of human thought the question we have to ask is what they will teach the audience."
Developers can have positive impact sooner than latter, he added, saying that tiny tweaks to gameplay can have big effects on growing audiences: "When millions of people buy our games, think of the multiplier that acts on any small increment we make."
Blow also examined 2K’s recent BioShock to help prove his point, concluding that although widely praised the game ‘sucks’ and that "the designers of this game are trying to manipulate your emotions in a clumsy way".
Said Blow: "BioShock claims to be about altruism and humanity but what it really teaches you is how to headshot someone from as far away as possible. The game screws up in so many ways," he said, looking at how it is a pure FPS which also claims to offer a series of moral choices which are ultimately redundant.
"It’s a very weird game that we couldn’t proffer as an example to normal humans," he said, saying the game was just one example of squandered potential, something that, if the industry is to become as culturally powerful as he supposed, developers should seek to avoid.