Designing Platform-First (Revised)

For my Frontier of Freedom assignment, I worked on a digital game with another student. Our game Climate Change is targeted specifically at the iPhone 6S, as it makes extensive use of 3D Touch (pressure sensitivity). This definitely limits the potential audience for our game—a clear negative, so I thought I'd write today's blog post about some of the benefits of choosing a unique platform. I'll then examine some of the drawbacks and provide some closing thoughts about tailoring your game to a platform.

Gameplay in Unity Editor (slider simulates touch pressure)

Gameplay on iPhone 6S (no sound)

I. Benefits of Platform-First Design

For a task with total freedom—as was the case with the aforementioned assignment—I find it's important to constrain yourself in some dimension as soon as possible. True freedom can be paralyzing, especially for those with perfectionist tendencies. Personally, I feel pressure to live up to some Platonic ideal of game design—to make the best game I could possibly make—if I don't have constraints. In selecting constraints, I have a few go-to strategies. Two that I frequently return to are emotional target and platform. I've used the former for long time, as it's what I tend to focus on. However, BVW brought the latter to my attention as a particularly effective tool for focusing projects with tight deadlines.

So one benefit of choosing a unique platform is that by constraining you, it frees you from the burden of total freedom. Now, what are some other benefits? I can think of several.

1. Unique input methods create an initial sense of delight for the player. I've found that a novel input method can all but guarantee an initial degree of interest from the player. This is especially true for platforms with input that feels more natural than a controller or a keyboard and mouse (VR, motion control, and so on). While this won't fix a game that isn't fun long-term, it can provide a hook that's ever more useful in an era of decreasing attention spans. And in a public setting, seeing someone else performing interesting interactions might make me want to try the experience as well.

2. Unique input methods lead you to unique game mechanics. Different control schemes are better suited to different genres of games. It's no wonder that the mouse and keyboard brought us the FPS or that the smartphone brought us the endless runner. If you focus your brainstorming around your unique platform and try to come up with ideas that flow naturally from its capabilities, you're more likely to come up with something that's both new and good than if you stick to well-worn territory, where many of the still unexplored areas are unexplored for a reason.

3. Building a toy becomes straightforward and fruitful. To facilitate brainstorming while exploring 3D Touch, I built a toy—a simple app that draws a colored circle under each finger of the player, with a radius that grows based on the finger's pressure. This proved quite fun to play around with and was a useful tool to come back to over the course of our brainstorming process. When using a novel input method, the most basic and natural implementation of that method is often compelling enough to serve as a toy; it's still new and exciting. This contrasts something like keyboard and mouse, where the most natural implementation—maybe a word processor?—would not be particularly fun or useful as a basis for game design.

Toy app used as the basis for Climate Change

 

These are just a few benefits of choosing a novel platform. For our game in the context of this assignment, our platform-first strategy was successful. But I also envision a number of negatives when taking a platform-first approach, which we'll now examine.

 

II. Drawbacks of Platform-First Design

1. Novelty can mask your game design. As mentioned above, the player often experiences an initial sense of delight upon encountering a novel input method. This can work in your favor as far as attracting an audience is concerned. But it has downsides as well. For example, it makes playtesting more difficult. A player might be thoroughly engaged with your game due to its novelty and not hone in on issues with your game design as readily as they would if it were using a more traditional interface. While testing our game for this assignment, many players were hooked by the pressure mechanic and mostly discussed its novelty before we prompted them to give feedback on design details.

2. A unique platform could lead to shoehorned features. When designing for a platform, it's imperative not to lose sight of where its design strengths lie—of where it provides opportunities for creating compelling mechanics that contribute to a cohesive product. Otherwise, you run the risk of just trying to cram every feature of the platform into a Frankenstein's monster-esque arrangement of functionality. When the Nintendo DS came out, one gimmick of the console was that it featured a microphone. Many developers shoehorned rather uninteresting blow-controlled mechanics into their games simply to use this feature of the console. It's important to design a cohesive game concept tailored to a platform rather than treat the platform features as a checklist to be satisfied by disparate game components.

Blow control in Crash of the Titans

 

3. A novel platform can limit your audience. As much as we don't like to think about it, financial realities can make a game targeting a niche platform unsustainable in the marketplace. For this assignment, targeting just the iPhone 6S was a fine approach, but doing so in the market means locking out not just most smart phone owners (who use Android) but most iPhone owners (who do not own a 6S). When possible, a solution to this problem might be providing alternative input methods (for instance, using touch radius instead of pressure on non-6S iPhones). But sometimes a great idea is simply incompatible with the harsh realities of the present market.

 

III. Closing Thoughts

So coming from a place of total freedom, designing platform-first can work well—provided you make every effort to design your game around the platform and don't rely on the platform's novelty to hide a half-baked game design. It's a great solution to the problem of paralytic freedom. However, in the real world, how often are we actually free?

It's rare that you'll be told to just make "a game." Rather, you'll often be given some specification. And even the most vague restrictions ("Make a game about raindrops") provide some guidelines that should be taken into consideration before choosing your platform. Furthermore, the market will render many platform choices unfeasible. And often you'll even be given platforms as part of your specification ("make this for PS4 and Xbox One"), in which case you'll have to create an experience tailored to platforms you did not choose. And hopefully, those platforms are suited to the game you're tasked with making or you're in for a struggle*.

So in many ways the burden of total freedom is more an ETC-centric luxury than an actual problem. Nevertheless, observations made earlier about platform-first design should still prove useful when designing a game for a platform. Because every game has a platform, whether you choose it yourself early in development, choose it later on, or have it thrust upon you by an uncaring universe.

*Though technically, you can still do whatever you want (source: existentialcomics.com)

Presenting Your Work

Softs were this week, and as we near the end of the semester, I thought I'd write about a few lessons I've learned about presenting our team's work. Over the semester, we've struggled quite a bit to communicate exactly what it is we're doing as a team. And though reception to our game as a work of art has been strong, reception to it as a deliverable that satisfies our client's requirements has been less positive. Our team is still in the process of developing a better communication strategy, but below are a few considerations I feel are important:

1. Make sure your team is all on the same page - It's good for all team members to give a slightly different take on the same project... emphasis on "same project." You can't give contradictory explanations of project goals or the techniques used to accomplish them. Your project shouldn't appear to be the unplanned result of people working together toward diverging goals.

2. Assume your audience is smart, but still provide explanation - Your project might not be easy to understand. That said, do NOT do any of the following: (1) Simplify your explanations so they're easy-to-understand but inaccurate (2) Apologize for the complexity of your explanations or indicate that you don't expect the audience to understand them (this is condescending!) (3) Give up trying to explain and let the audience figure it out themselves (this is a copout and makes it seem like you don't know what you're doing). Basically, you should provide concise and accurate explanations. Don't leave anything important out, but don't repeat yourself and talk down to your audience. This is a balancing act that requires careful refinement, and it might be impossible to satisfy everyone (the same explanation could be considered pretentious by one person and interesting by another--and neither person is "right").

3. Audiences like what they're already familiar with - If you know who you're presenting to, then it's valuable to give them a taste of your project in an informal setting so that they've already digested it a bit when you present to them in a more formal, time-pressured setting. They'll also give you more actionable feedback, as they already understand the project and can thus hone in on particular details in their critique.

4. Don't hype your own thinking - It's good to be enthusiastic, but don't hype your product at a theoretical level (we're revolutionizing XYZ through conceptual technique ABC). Even if your project was equal parts concept and execution--or even if your project was mostly concept and the execution is merely proof-of-concept--people rightly are suspicious of presentations that are "all talk." Even if your client is mostly interested in process, you should tailor your presentation to a general audience.

5. Project confidence in your own work - I'm particularly guilty of violating this advice, because I tend to focus on details that still need refinement--stuff the audience is unlikely to notice during a fifteen minute presentation. If you like your project in its broad strokes--even if you're also sick of it at this point--then *that* is what should come through in your presentation. And self-deprecation as a "chaser" during a complex part of the presentation is... probably not as good an idea as one might think.

Metaphor in VideoGames - Some Do's and Don'ts

For our project this semester, we're exploring metaphor as a communicative device in games. This has required the development of certain strategies for navigating this space. In this blog post, I'll give a high level overview of a few do's and don'ts for incorporating metaphor into games.

1. Don't be too on-the-nose: Going into our project, one of our biggest concerns was ensuring we do not telegraph the meaning of our metaphors to our audience--whether through obviousness or explicit explanation. There were to main motivations behind this concern: First, obvious metaphor leads to artistic failure. Good art can contain both obviousness and metaphor, but it rarely contains obvious metaphor (think bad poetry). We don't want our game to be cringe worthy. Second, obvious metaphor is less communicative than metaphor that requires audience engagement. While this might seem counterintuitive at first (Isn't an obvious metaphor the most communicative?), the truth of this claim lies in the game's longterm impact. And obvious or overtly explained metaphor will go in one ear and out the other, while a metaphor with which the audience must grapple and engage until they reach a "eureka" moment will stick with them longer due to the sense of ownership and discovery involved.

2. Do provide some reference point: While we don't want our metaphors to be obvious, we also don't want them to be obscure to the point of total unintelligibility. Thus, there should be some familiar element in the game around which players can orient themselves and through which you can "prime" them before their encounter with your metaphor. In our game, media player-like controls serve as this reference point. While they don't behave like those of a typical media player (after all, it's a game), they would not appear to behave totally randomly to someone well-versed with such controls. For instance, in one scene, pause causes a city to lose its power and all cars to disappear off the street. This functionality should make sense on some level to anyone familiar with the normal function of a pause button. Another technique we use to provide a reference point is intercutting short montage segments between our gameplay segments. These serve to "prime" the player, essentially controlling their head space indirectly.

3. Don't allow the mechanics to overshadow the metaphor: A major risk when attempting to use metaphor to communicate within a game is that the addictive nature of the game mechanics could prevent the metaphor from getting through to the player. Much like repeating a word can reduce it to a meaningless sound, the metaphorical meaning of your game falls away as the player falls deep into the comforting arms of addiction--focusing purely on the game mechanics. In our game, we avoided this pitfall by focusing on montage and juxtaposition of interactive "clips"--with some thematically consistent "packaging" (the media player buttons) around the variously designed mechanics contained within each clip. We do not have a single core mechanics that develops along a refined difficulty curve, as we feel that such a design could undermine the communicative power of our game.

4. Do make the player care: While avoiding addicting mechanics is important, equally important is ensuring that the game will hook the player emotionally. Imagine someone plays your game and says "I can see there's a lot of meaning here, but I don't care enough about it to investigate any further." This is a scenario we wish to avoid. In our case, we're doing so by selecting striking imagery for our game. If the player thinks anything could happen next, then we have their attention. Even if at first they're only sticking around because the game is "so weird," they're still ultimately tuned in and listening as the game's meaning develops. And hopefully, their view will become more nuanced as the game unfold.

I observe that (1) and (2) are extremes on a spectrum ranging from obviousness to total obscurity. And (3) and (4) are extremes on a different spectrum ranging from addictive entertainment to non-entertainment. Navigating these axes has constituted much of the design focus of our project. And keeping these considerations in mind will become ever more important as the semester reaches its end and we continue to tweak, refine, and polish our metaphors.

The Imagination Gap (revised)

This post jumps off a point made in Jesse's lecture on January 19th, namely the idea that our imaginations need only a few details of a story in order to conjure up an entire world. We fill in gaps and love doing so. Such "imagination gaps" and the role they play in entertainment media are the subject examined in the following discussion. Specifically, I argue that we should make efforts to preserve such gaps in videogames in order to produce more satisfying experiences. I then explore a number of potential methods for doing so.

Before examining the imagination gap as it relates to game, I examine a case where it's more commonly discussed: books versus movie adaptations. We often hear complaints that movies don't do justice to their source material. While this is in part due to their condensed nature, it's also because movies are more concrete. While reading books, we picture worlds in our heads. These worlds fill in gaps left out of the text and are potentially more elaborate than anything that could be explicitly stated in words or shown on screen. When we proceed to see a movie based on a book we've read, we find the movie makers have filled in the same gaps we've filled but have done so differently, in a manner less "perfect" for us and perhaps less ambitious as well; after all, the movie maker's ideas don't have the luxury of residing solely in the imagination. Perhaps unfairly to the movie makers, we're disappointed that their movie does not depict our own imagined world based on our own reading of the source material.

I often observe a similar disappointment in gamers among longtime fans of various series. When the next installment of a series is released on superior hardware—filling in more details of the series's game world—we often hear cries of "this isn't my [insert series name here]." Take Pokémon, for instance. Many longtime fans of this series cite its initial 8-bit installments as the best in the series. However, Pokémon is not a series that has taken major risks in its mainline games. The series progresses evolutionarily rather than revolutionarily, with each installment improving on the mechanics of the previous in subtle ways. So how could the first two installments be "best?" Well, the answer lies in the gradual narrowing of the imagination gap with each installment of the series. The first games had primitive graphics and minimal story, allowing players to imagine a wondrous world of their own. Newer entries in the series have far more elaborate stories and far less ambiguous environment graphics. The first games fueled the imagination with hints and allusions. The newer game simply "state" the game world to the player.

In the evolution from this:

Pokémon Silver (1999)

Pokémon Silver (1999)

to this:

Pokémon Alpha Sapphire (2014)

Pokémon Alpha Sapphire (2014)

we lost something deeply satisfying to our imaginations.

This phenomenon is not limited to Pokémon. Another example that sticks out to me is that of the Final Fantasy series. Final Fantasy VI for the Super Nintendo was a game that—through its primitive sprites and boxart—alluded to a world far grander than could be rendered adequately on the SNES hardware. The technically crude game functioned as a doorway to a headspace in which a fully realized, satisfying experience occurred—an experience fueled in equal parts by Squaresoft's game and the player's imagination. More recent games in the series have not left such an imagination gap open, instead filling it with graphical achievements that—while impressive—pale in comparison to the mental worlds elicited by earlier entries.

Our imaginations latched onto this:

Final Fantasy VI box artwork (1994)

Final Fantasy VI box artwork (1994)

Final Fantasy VI (1994)

Final Fantasy VI (1994)

but not so much this:

Final Fantasy XIII (2009)

Final Fantasy XIII (2009)

I see countless other examples similar to the above. How might we address our modern thirst for "imagination gaps" in games? Should we stick to primitive hardware? I'd like to think we shouldn't, but if not, how can we create state-of-the-art games that still exercise our imaginations?

I can think of a few possible strategies:

Allude to a wider world: Even the most concrete and realistic game could provide fuel for the player's imagination by alluding to far off lands not accessible in-game. Actually, this technique may work even better in games where the explorable locations are heavily detailed rather than vague and ambiguous: If players experience a rich and detailed world and are told of other far off worlds, then they imagine these to be as richly detailed as the game's locales and are thus enticed even further by their mention. Star Wars is great at this; it details a few worlds but shows glimpses of many others, through aliens at the Cantina for instance.

Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (1977)

Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (1977)

Leave things open to interpretation: A game with unambiguous visuals and actions—where what's happening moment-to-moment leaves little to the imagination—can still capture the imagination if the meaning of what's happening is unclear. I'm currently playing The Witness, a puzzle/exploration game where you solve sequences of puzzles on computer terminals scattered around an island. There's a lot to see, and—apart from the cryptic puzzles—it's generally pretty clear what you're seeing, but why you're seeing it is a mystery. I find myself constantly interpreting and re-interpreting what I've seen, piecing together broader themes as I progress through the game. Hopefully, the game will never reveal its meaning unambiguously to me, and I will continue this process long after finishing it. Mystery is a motivating force for the imagination. That's why audiences reacted so negatively when Star Wars: Episode I provided a concrete explanation of The Force, for instance

The Witness (2016)

The Witness (2016)

Create temporal gaps: Even games with the tightest, most detailed narratives imaginable could provide fuel for the imagination by referring to events that occur outside the time periods they cover. Again referring to Star Wars, the original trilogy did this very well—alluding not only to pivotal events prior to any of the movies but providing temporal gaps between the major releases to be filled in by fans and countless releases in the expanded universe.

Create compelling characters: Technologically advanced as they might be, games still cannot easily lay bare the psychological makeups of complex characters. As the popularity of reading and writing fanfiction will tell you, characters' psyches can themselves act as mysterious landscapes for us to discover, ponder, and extrapolate in various directions. Key to this phenomenon are avoiding cliché, providing an element of relatability for the audience, and striking an appropriate balance between sufficient characterization and mystery. When handled correctly, characters are a powerful tool for capturing the player's imagination.

Render the world from subjective perspective(s): One final technique I personally haven't seen used much in games, though I suspect it could be powerful, is Expressionism. That is, a game might show its world from one or more subjective perspectives, rather than a single "true" perspective. This leaves it to the player's imagination to develop an "objective" picture of the world. Just as 8-bit graphics did for Pokémon, subjectivity creates ambiguity in even the the most technologically sophisticated game. This in turn creates room in which our imaginations can run wild.

As these techniques have shown, it's possible to create imagination gaps using techniques that exist independently or perhaps even as positive functions of technological advancements in the games industry. And I'm sure these techniques are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to methods for encouraging players to exercise their imaginations. As developers, I think it would be wise for us to keep some of these considerations in mind as we strive to create absorbing, immersive experiences.

Music in Games

Sound design is an aspect of videogames that's often overlooked but incredibly important to player experience. At least for me, I find that sound—and particularly music, the focus of this article—can make or break a game.

Music making a game better

Music making a game worse

Growing up, my family didn't really listen to popular music much. My Dad was heavily into classical music, and though I listened to some of that, it didn't satisfy my need for hooky melodies and emotional directness. For those, I turned to videogame soundtracks, sometimes leaving games running just to listen to the music. Eventually, I found game composers that I liked and began listening to soundtracks of games I didn't even own. Yasunori Mitsuda was and still is my favorite videogame composer, and I've never even played Chrono Cross—the game to which he contributed what's possibly his best soundtrack.

As I began listening to game soundtracks independent of the games for which they were composed, I found myself gravitating toward soundtracks that have more discrete "tracks" and "themes." Nobuo Uematsu is a master of this type of soundtrack—having frequently outfitted older Final Fantasy games with recurring themes or "leitmotifs" for all major characters. These were effective both in the Final Fantasy games I played most extensively (IV, V, VI) and those I only listened to (VIII, X). I developed strong preferences for soundtracks that could stand alone in addition to complementing a game. A couple other strong composers working in this style are David Wise and Koji Kondo, and there are many others.

Squeezing a lot out of the SNES soundchip, this track from Radical Dreamers is perhaps my favorite of Mitsuda's.

A leitmotif by Nobuo Uematsu, from a game I played a lot

Recent work by David Wise from Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze

Music by Koji Kondo from The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening

But now that I've had years to reflect on this preference, I've developed a (hopefully) more nuanced taste. I find that certain games aren't suited to soundtracks full of Uematsu-esque melodies. In the wrong context, such soundtracks could easily become overbearing—a notion that never crossed my mind while listening to soundtracks without playing the associated games. Some games that would buckle under the weight of Uematsu's melodies are enhanced by more ambient, diffuse music. And I'm currently playing The Witness—a game with no music whatsoever whose subtle environmental sound design somehow matches it perfectly. It feels like nothing is missing.

Electronic ambience enhances Metroid Prime's sense of isolation.

The Witness has no music and is all the better for it.

What types of games can support more direct, thematic music? Where is ambiance or silence more appropriate? And thinking more broadly, how might we tailor game mechanics to support our desired aural landscape in addition to tailoring sound to support our game mechanics? These are all questions I'd be interested in investigating.

The Importance of Filler

I've never been a fan of Contra—not just because it's a hyper-masculine power fantasy, but also because I can't breathe when I play it. I literally hold my breath until I die (in-game). I spend my whole playtime waiting for a break, instinctively desiring a moment possibly to strategize, to equip myself in some way to better dictate the moment-to-moment rhythm of the combat, or even to just take in the scenery. But the game never lets up. It's a game of chaos and—ultimately—memorization. Every moment in the game is a key moment; you could die at any time. And something about that just doesn't appeal to me. The question is, what?

An accurate advertisement

An accurate advertisement

Why do I desire moments of safety in a game about combat? They would, of course, make the game easier—but I like hard games. However, upon closer examination, I find my preference for "breathing room" in games extends beyond those revolving around twitch-based combat. In fact, most of my favorite games have significant amounts of breathing room or—less charitably—filler. From sailing in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker to eventless school days in Persona 4 to most of Animal Crossing and Proteus, there's something satisfying about doing "nothing" in a game world, and its absence can make a game feel lacking.

The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (2002)

The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (2002)

Persona 4 (2008)

Persona 4 (2008)

Animal Crossing (2002)

Animal Crossing (2002)

Proteus (2013)

Proteus (2013)

At the moment, I can identify two reasons why this is the case, both relating to immersion. The first is that filler provides the player with a sense of everyday life in the game world. In order for extraordinary events within a game's world to feel extraordinary, the game must establish an ordinary state from which these events diverge. Persona 4 is very effective in this regard. It contextualizes its murder mystery story within an everyday, rural town. Many in-game days are full of "normal" stuff, like going to school or going shopping. Thus, events intended to be pivotal are perceived by the player as such, because they contrast the established everyday routine. On the other hand, I have no idea what everyday life is like in the Contra universe. The game is a barrage of bullets and explosions in a vacuum—all spectacle, no meaning.

The second reason why filler is important is that it provides opportunities for realistic fictional alignment that help to make characters more believable. That is, it creates situations where the feelings evoked by the experience of playing the game align with the feelings of the fictional character under the player's control. Non-filler situations do this as well, but filler gives the player experience with a broader palette of fictional emotions and thus makes the game character more believable. For example, the feeling of the sailing mechanic in Windwaker is a mixture of anticipation, boredom, and wonder at the beauty of the environment. This feeling aligns with that of real sailing, allowing the player to feel Link's emotions beyond those experienced in battle—rendering him a more realistic, empathetic character. In Contra on the other hand, we never feel the main character's emotions beyond those evoked by twitch-based combat—a nervous trigger-happiness. The character the player controls in Contra is little more than a walking gun, and much of that has to do with the wall-to-wall-combat nature of the game.

It's clear by now that I think games need room to breathe in order for their worlds and characters to become more than mere vessels for game mechanics. But this provides us with more questions than answers: How can we provide breathing room without creating boredom? How should we balance filler with more directly game-advancing content? These are questions worth examining.

The Imagination Gap

This post jumps off a point made in Jesse's lecture on Tuesday, namely the idea that our imaginations need only a few details of a story in order to conjure up an entire world. We fill in gaps and love doing so. Such "imagination gaps" and the role they play in entertainment media are the subject examined in the following brief discussion. Specifically, I argue that we should make efforts to preserve such gaps in videogames in order to produce more satisfying experiences.

Before examining the imagination gap as it relates to game, I examine a case where it's more commonly discussed: books versus movie adaptations. We often hear complaints that movies don't do justice to their source material. While this is in part due to their condensed nature, it's also because movies are more concrete. While reading books, we picture worlds in our heads. These worlds fill in gaps left out of the text and are potentially more elaborate than anything that could be explicitly stated in words or shown on screen. When we proceed to see a movie based on a book we've read, we find the movie makers have filled in the same gaps we've filled but have done so differently, in a manner less "perfect" for us and perhaps less ambitious as well; after all, the movie maker's ideas don't have the luxury of residing solely in the imagination. Perhaps unfairly to the movie makers, we're disappointed that their movie does not depict our own imagined world based on our own reading of the source material.

I often observe a similar disappointment in gamers among longtime fans of various series. When the next installment of a series is released on superior hardware--filling in more details of the series's game world--we often hear cries of "this isn't my [insert series name here]." Take Pokémon, for instance. Many longtime fans of this series cite its initial 8-bit installments as the best in the series. However, Pokémon is not a series that has taken major risks in its mainline games. The series progresses evolutionarily rather than revolutionarily, with each installment improving on the mechanics of the previous in subtle ways. So how could the first two installments be "best?" Well, the answer lies in the gradual narrowing of the imagination gap with each installment of the series. The first games had primitive graphics and minimal story, allowing players to imagine a wondrous world of their own. Newer entries in the series have far more elaborate stories and far less ambiguous environment graphics. The first games fueled the imagination with hints and allusions. The newer game simply "state" the game world to the player.

In the evolution from this:

Pokémon Silver (1999)

Pokémon Silver (1999)

to this:

Pokémon Alpha Sapphire (2014)

Pokémon Alpha Sapphire (2014)

we lost something deeply satisfying to our imaginations.

This phenomenon is not limited to Pokémon. Another example that sticks out to me is that of the Final Fantasy series. Final Fantasy VI for the Super Nintendo was a game that--through its primitive sprites and boxart--alluded to a world far grander than could be rendered adequately on the SNES hardware. The technically crude game functioned as a doorway to a headspace in which a fully realized, satisfying experience occurred--an experience fueled in equal parts by Squaresoft's game and the player's imagination. More recent games in the series have not left such an imagination gap open, instead filling it with graphical achievements that--while impressive--pale in comparison to the mental worlds elicited by earlier entries.

Our imaginations latched onto this:

Final Fantasy VI box artwork (1994)

Final Fantasy VI box artwork (1994)

Final Fantasy VI (1994)

Final Fantasy VI (1994)

but not so much this:

Final Fantasy XIII (2009)

Final Fantasy XIII (2009)

I see countless other examples similar to the above. If you agree, then how might we address our modern thirst for "imagination gaps" in games? Should we stick to primitive hardware? I'd like to think we shouldn't, but if not, how can we create state-of-the-art games that still exercise our imaginations?