[NetBehaviour] Sometimes There Is a Free Lunch

marc marc.garrett at furtherfield.org
Sat Feb 4 14:06:53 CET 2006

Sometimes There Is a Free Lunch (Wired).

Commentary by  Clive Thompson.

Has gameplay innovation ground to a halt? Surf the aisles of your local 
game store, and you'd suspect that game publishers kinda given up. It's 
always the same tired play mechanics, over and over. Shoot the bad guys 
while avoiding flying lead. Level up your character in an online world. 
Drive like hell in a souped-up rig. Match the pretty colors in a puzzle.

Obviously, part of this endless looping is that success works: Like 
backgammon or baseball, these tropes appear to stand the test of time. 
But it's also the curse of genre. With games costing millions to develop 
these days, few publishers are willing to risk serious bling on some 
weird new style of play that might fail.

If you really want to see innovation, there's only one place to go: Off 
the grid. You have to find game designers who actively opt out of the 
market -- by producing indie games they give away for free online. These 
days, this subculture is happily thriving, fed by game-school grads and 
underemployed programmers who, like indie musicians, crave to break out 
of old boxes and want to get as huge an audience as possible.

Want proof? Here's a short -- and totally idiosyncratic -- list of some 
of my favorite free games, each of which innovate one thing cool and new:

Strange Attractors: Are you sick of games that create faux complexity by 
forcing you to learn hundreds of button combinations? The designers of 
Strange Attractors went in the radically opposite direction: They use 
one single button -- the space bar -- to control the action. Your goal 
is to maneuver a little craft through free-floating space by using the 
button to activate and de-activate "gravity", drawing yourself towards 
larger objects. It's like navigating a NASA probe by slingshotting it 
around celestial objects. The lesson here? Super-simple control schemes 
strip twitch gameplay down to its pure essence: Raw, gorgeous physics. 
If you like this conceit, there's a world of other free "one switch" 
games out there waiting for you.


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