Vs Mode Final Round -- Off The Rails And Going Into Crash Mode ('World Of Burnout' Considered)

burnoutparadiseN'Gai Croal and I have been trying to discuss "Burnout: Paradise" all week in this very special can't-stay-on-topic edition of Vs. Mode.

In Round One we did talk about the game: why I went from like to dislike to like for the game, and why N'Gai knew since the day he was born that "BP" would be awesome.

In Round Two we didn't talk about the game as much. I wound up explaining why I think "Paradise" is a better "Animal Crossing" than "Animal Crossing" and soon stopped talking about the game. But then N'Gai got us even further afield. He even proposed that this game points to some sort of nutty One Game Future.

Except that he didn't call it nutty. He left it for me to decide if it was, which I do at the top of today's concluding installment, Round Three. After my letter comes more Mr. Croal, who writes about the possibilities of a "World of Burnout" and a "Little Big Burnout."

Read on for the final letters. And soak in what may be the final drips of sanity we're going to ever pour into a Vs. Mode, given the direction these things are going in...

(These exchanges are mirrored on N’Gai’s “Level Up” bog.)

To: N'Gai Croal

Fr: Stephen Totilo

Date: January 31, 2008

Re: It All Comes Together…

N'Gai,

A "One Game Future," huh? The "Everlasting Gobstopper of Interactive Entertainment." You think that "Burnout: Paradise" puts us on track for that? Because if people enjoy a playground kind of game in which players make the rules of how they want to play… then suddenly one game can be many games in one?

I see where you're going. Who needs "Mario Tennis," "Mario Golf," and "Mario Kart," as separate games when you could just have them in one grand "Super Mario World"? (Nuts, that name is taken … how about "Super Mario Playground"? No? "Super Mario Kingdom"? Like that?). We've all been playing as Mario in so many different games already. Why not just unify his experiences into one persistent experience, sold piecemeal, if need be, but all connected to a grand quilt of a game. Or maybe theme park is a better metaphor. Nintendo's Mii characters, which can appear in multiple games, seem to support this concept. There's also a whiff of it emanating from Sony's "Home."

But when I put it like I just did above, I kind of hate it.

You did acknowledge that you were contorting my original theory. I'd like to re-iterate it, so that we can build off it or contort it again. My big idea, which you've never agreed with before, is that the only games to cross-over to a mainstream audience and become cultural phenomenon are the ones that were made to be played -- or could be played -- in satisfying short periods of time. You could knock through a game of "Pac-Man" or get a thrill causing mayhem in "GTA 3" in five minutes flat. You can feel like you've actually experienced the essence of "Tetris," "Wii Sports" and "Guitar Hero" in just as short a span -- which isn't to say you won't get hooked for much longer. But that's why I don't think "Final Fantasy," as popular as it is, has ever crossed over to the point where it gets mentioned on CNN when a new one comes out. It's why I think, while "Zelda" games are beloved, they do not matter to the world the way "Mario" games do. Almost all of Mario's adventures can be fun and satisfying in short bursts, which gives them a crossover appeal that can attract the attention of people who only play games in that casual way.

What you've praised about the game-like aspects of Facebook and that we've both enjoyed in "Burnout: Paradise" is that they are two types of virtual worlds in which bursts of interesting things can and often do happen. They are not, in and of themselves, casual games. In fact, they are quite expansive things. But little bursts of fun pop up in them frequently. Some of them bubble up from the system, placed in my path for me to stumble on. Some are triggered by other people using the platform. And some are instigated by ourselves. The bursts of enjoyment are there, occurring in discrete, definable moments (a new "Burnout" Showtime run I decide to take down 9th Street in order to break someone else's record; a super-poke I get on Facebook that needs retribution; etc). But the overall experience for me in Facebook and in "Burnout," is, like I said in my last letter, one of just hanging out, for the most part enjoying the serendipity of fun happening rather than either chasing it down or being funneled down a particular defined path of fun. I imagine this is how some people experience "World of Warcraft."

So what if more games were stitched together like this? What if all things driving could exist in Paradise City, so that realistic driving sims and arcade racers and "Twisted Metal" variations and "Pursuit Force" sequels and all sorts of other road-bound gameplay could all be played on those streets, depending on what a player going into Paradise City felt like doing?

I'm torn. On the one hand it seems fun. On the other, it seems like it's antithetical to artful game creation. It could be cool for a game console to be a single holo-deck of fun, one that blurred distinctions between starting one game and then going to the other. But I can't see "Geometry Wars" and "Portal" sharing that same theme park in any way that improves their current status as two separate games. Would we really want all driving games to be mods of a single driving engine? All first-person shooters to be a transformation of the same tool set to suit the experience you want to have at the flick of a game-changing, scenery-transforming button? (Is this where Unreal Engine 4 would bring us?)

You propose an intriguing future I'd like to sample but I'm not sure I would enjoy as the new status quo. Still, it seems like it could happen. Odds are slim. But it could happen. All games together as one…. Interesting. For now, I'm voting "no."

But ask me again when "Little Big Planet" comes out.

-Stephen

P.S. Was I supposed to be writing about "Burnout: Paradise" more? Sorry. I'm still reeling from the scores the Criterion guys are now posting on the leaderboard. I can't keep up! I'm definitely going to enjoy just being a Sunday driver in this one. Leave the fierce competition to the pros.

***

burnoutparadiseTo: Stephen Totilo

Fr: N'Gai Croal

Date: February 1, 2008

Re: "Little Big Burnout"? Or "World of Burnout"?

Stephen,

With the Super Bowl just around the corner, it's somewhat fitting that you fell for my Statue of Liberty play. There were actually two separate ideas that I threw into the teeth of your defense as time was expiring--the One Game Future and the Everlasting Gobstopper of Interactive Entertainment. You chose to tackle the frivolous one rather than the one that was more profound, giving me a clear path to the goal line and another Vs. Mode victory. Consider this post the literary equivalent of me high-stepping my way to the end zone.

The One Console Future is a deceptively logical but wildly improbably idea that, like a siren's song, seduces otherwise savvy people—Silicon Knights' Denis Dyack, Electronic Arts' Gerhard Florin and Eat Sleep Play's David Jaffe among them—into throwing themselves against the jagged rocks of reality. This, even though they know, or ought to, that the two best examples of what a One Console Future would look like are the 3DO (which flopped) and Windows PCs (which is seeing several of its biggest franchises sell orders of magnitude more units on consoles).

As for Jaffe's assertion that publishers might lead the charge for this, I'll set aside the cat-herding nightmarishness of that theoretical consortium and point out the following. First, the folks I've spoken with at EA have always said that their biggest fear is that there would be only one console, because the last manufacturer standing would be free to jack up the royalties. Second, as long as the successful of a console is predicated on charging publishers' royalties to offset the cost of R&D hardware subsidies, someone is going to have to put their skin in the game and take on that risk, and I guarantee you that third party publishers have no interest in doing so. So consider my One Game Future suggestion a modest proposal satirizing this One Console Future that simply refuses to die.

The Everlasting Gobstopper of Interactive Entertainment, however, is the logical outgrowth of the dialogue we've been having in this Vs. Mode exchange. The idea isn't that "Burnout Paradise" morphs into "Gran Turismo" or "MotorStorm," but rather that it maintains and expands its support for multiple styles of play without ever losing the essence of what makes it "Burnout." A number of gamers, including myself, are sad that Criterion didn't include circuit races and Aftertouch. Some might also miss the police cars from previous editions. All of this is stuff that Criterion could bring back as downloadable content, overlaid on the existing world of Paradise City.

You wrote a post earlier today about "Halo 3" and its content expanding features like Forge and Arcade scoring. What if Criterion and EA not only released a downloadable file establishing circuit races, but also let you create your own circuit races simply by driving through the city, automatically blocking off the surrounding streets, as if two "Tron" lightcycles were tearing through Paradise City? What if Aftertouch and Pursuit were one of many modes that you could turn or off, like the game-modifying skulls in "Halo 3"? What if Criterion added a car customization mode, letting you swap out not only Boost Types, but also paint jobs and decals—or design them yourself, as in "Rock Band"? What if they—gasp—brought back classic Crash Mode? That's what I mean by the Everlasting Gobstopper approach to game design.

What's interesting about this is that even as it's the logical extension of the open world approach Alex Ward and Criterion have created, it directly contravenes their precise, deliberate reinvention of the game, which I praised earlier and still love. They chose to leave some things out and replace certain beloved elements with others in the on-disc game, and that was the right decision. But just as Alex has asked us to open our minds about what "Burnout" can be, we have the right to ask him to open his mind about going back to the future and enabling Paradise City to evolve, via downloadable content, into everything that "Burnout" has previously been. Because today's high-end consoles make this possible. The bean counters I mentioned in Round 1 will be happy as well, because they can a) make more money via incremental sales, and b) dissuade people from selling the game back to GameStop because there's nearly infinite pleasure that can be derived from the core game and its add-ons.

Taken one step further, perhaps my One Game Future idea isn't simply satirical. It's not that Burnout becomes "Gran Turismo" or "Need For Speed," but instead that it evolves into "Little Big Burnout," or "World of Burnout." Each disc following Paradise would contain a single, brand-new city, several new cars and Criterion's trademark reinventiveness (yeah, I made that word up) to provide several new race types and modes. But the new city would also support all of the different elements from previous "Burnouts." So if you love "Burnout 1," you would effectively be able to play "Burnout 1" race types on "Burnout 6"'s streets.

In my vision, the disc serves as a vehicle for content that can be played the way Criterion wants us to play it, but we can subsequently transform it into the "Burnout" we want it to be. Eventually, we fans would have multiple "Burnout" cities—ideally, we'd be able to store them on our console of choice's hard drive—multiple race types, event types, vehicles and more to choose from for an evening's entertainment. Talk about gameplay per square inch; if this were to get any denser, we'd be talking about the Black Hole of Interactivity, swallowing up every spare second of our time.

There is a risk here that in supporting all of this customization, the "Burnout" community will devolve into a collection of hyper-niches, like people who only like to drag race along Angus Wharf in Hunter Mesquite vehicles at dusk. But I think that a lot of the biggest AAA franchises will be headed in this direction, and "Burnout Paradise" is an important step along the way.

Thanks for the conversation; apologies for the end zone celebration, and I'm looking forward to next month's debate, which should be pata-pata-particularly interesting.

Cheers,

N'Gai