Create, share, play: the new era of expressive games

Games like Minecraft have turned players into more creative, social beings – as singleplayer games become less important, connected multiplayer experiences are showing us the potential future of play.

Back in 2006, the Far Cry 2 team went to Paris to present the game concept to Ubisoft management for approval. One of the biggest hurdles we needed to overcome was to prove that we could deliver the ambitious goals of the project under the time and budget constraints we were given. We were pitching the idea that we could deliver a 50km2 open-world firstperson shooter with about 100 hours of gameplay, built by a team smaller than the one that had delivered the 12-hour linear experience of Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory.

A huge part of our pitch was a video that showed a 60:1 time-lapse screen capture of eight hours of work from a single level designer and a single artist working together to build 1km2  of our game world, delivering both visuals and gameplay to a shippable (for pre-alpha) quality, starting completely from scratch.

The artist started by using noise patterns and filters in Photoshop to generate a grayscale image that would become the height field for the environment. He then painted in textures and foliage, set a water level, painted in a road and river, created a foliage system, and generated a jungle and a savannah. He threw a few structures in a clearing, adjusted the entire environment to look good in different lighting and weather scenarios, and handed it off to a designer.

The designer moved the buildings around, added some AI, and threw in some patrol paths and guard points. He added some mounted weapon emplacements, cover, vehicles and animals, and set up some burnable areas (this was before fire propagation was a fully systemic feature). He tweaked and tuned the gameplay by diving into and out of the game repeatedly (the game could be compiled and launched from the editor in an instant, even at this early stage) to make sure everything was working and fun. The eight-minute video and the playable output that it produced was instrumental in convincing Ubisoft we would be able to materially deliver on the promise of the game.

Player creativity was one of Far Cry 2′s central tenets and that idea has become one of the prevailing trends in game design since, with the arrival of games like LittleBigPlanet and Minecraft.

Despite how amazing the technology was at the time, I did not appreciate its importance until recently. The tools we used to build the game went on to become the backbone for the in-game level editor, and thousands of players made and published levels. The YouTube trailer for the Far Cry 2 editor pitched the core idea behind the editor in three bold words on a black screen in the middle of the video: “Create. Share. Play.”

In retrospect, these ideas and the technology that enabled them were amazingly prescient – although admittedly we were kind of stumbling through utilitarian necessity into a future that other developers were actively trying to build. The pillars of LittleBigPlanet, which launched around the same time as Far Cry 2, were ‘Play, Create, Share’, so the idea that the act of playing games was itself a constructive, creative act that supported the growth and development of healthy communities was already beginning to flourish.

Even as Ben Abraham was sharing his Far Cry 2 permadeath experience by chronicling his playthrough of the game, and millions of LittleBigPlanet levels were flooding PlayStation 3 hard drives worldwide, Notch was hard at work on a game that would forever cement these ideas in the popular consciousness. Today, more than 13 million people have bought Minecraft. There are tens, if not hundreds of thousands of Minecraft videos on YouTube, with billions of views.

Every day people sign on to watch SpyParty matches. Thousands of people broadcast their run at the Spelunky Daily Challenge or CS:GO matches. More people tuned in to watch the finals of last year’s International than have ever played Far Cry 2. The value generated by games being played will likely soon exceed the value generated by the games as products themselves.

Spelunky’s Daily Challenge has inspired an army of players to share their experiences on YouTube.

Games are entering a new era, one where every game that goes in front of executive review will need to demonstrate that it holds the potential for expressive play, so that any given player can potentially draw in an audience of millions. Games that require every player to execute the same rote steps to proceed from one thrilling cinematic setpiece to the next will not sustain the engagement of audiences. Games with dynamic, unpredictable systems that require and reward skill and cunning and creativity from players will be increasingly able to draw audiences – and consequently to draw publisher financing.

None of this should come as a surprise. When we consider games in their broader historical context – when we look at the history of chess or football or poker – we can see that for most of human history, games of all types have been valuable not just for what they represent as a set of rules and game pieces in a box, but for how they engage us collectively, socially, while being executed at runtime.

Games never were objects, and the financial importance placed over the past couple of decades on the singleplayer computer game, consumed alone, unwitnessed, in a darkened room is a bizarre anomaly that is – thankfully, I think – about to meet its end.

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