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Moore's Wall

wall.jpgRaph Koster is something of a controversial figure in the world of online games. Having worked on such games as Ultima Online and Star Wars: Galaxies, Koster wrote a book entitled A Theory of Fun for Game Design -- a book which some critics claimed described game concepts that few would actually call fun. But even his critics concede that Koster often has profound insights, and remains one of the most thought-provoking figures in the world of game design.

Koster spoke recently to an IBM conference about the co-evolution of games and technology, and he chose to address a seemingly odd topic: why Moore's Law has been bad for games. He calls it Moore's Wall.

The first thing to realize is that game play elements have not really become more complex. And by that I mean, the game play that was involved in the games in the early 90s, and the game play that’s involved today, midway through the following decade – they bear substantial similarities to one another. If you look at many of the top-selling genres, you can literally take a game from ten years ago, and set it down in front of someone, and they won’t need to read the manual. You can take one of the latest first-person shooters, send it back in time, and the players of those days would probably be able to understand what to do, even though their computers probably wouldn’t be able to run the game.
The thing about technology is that it has enabled a lot of really cool stuff, a lot of really cool visuals, in theory a lot of cool AI, and stuff, but the biggest effect it has had is to make game development more complicated and more significantly, more expensive.

In short, the acceleration of computer capabilities has had the counter-intuitive result of stagnation in game design, and it's not just because of the emphasis given to image over content. Each successive generation of computing capability makes adding good content more difficult -- it's harder to meet player expectations, it's harder to create content that matches the presentation, and it's harder to make worlds that feel both immersive and complete. Moreover, the incredible capabilities of the hardware have the perverse result of making it more difficult for designers to get innovative: it's easier, safer and probably less expensive to make yet another first-person shooter or online game with elves and wizards than to do something risky and exciting.

The solutions, as Koster sees it, will come from improving the ability of players to make compelling content. Right now, the tools for user creativity are complex, and it's hard for casual players to make even bad content. Koster wants to see the tools be as simple as writing -- easy to learn, easy to do poorly, but possible to do very well with time and practice.

There's a lot to Koster's talk, and I encourage you to read it, even if you don't care much about computer games. Koster's insights, abstracted, can readily be applied to non-game technology realms. Arguably, the same kind of "Moore's Wall" problem afflicts developers of other kinds of software. Innovation is less common when it's so much easier to give current applications more buttons and "features," confident that the rapid increase in CPU power will make up for whatever bloat or poor coding exist in the software.

Moreover, the same principle can be abstracted further. In this view, in any environment where tools are improving quickly, doing more of the same (but faster) is always easier than doing something new. Innovation is the result of challenges and limitations, not expanse of opportunity.

If there's a silver lining to the climate disruption cloud (and you had to know I'd fit the environment in here somehow), it's precisely this: the challenges and limitations global warming and its results place upon our civilization will be powerful catalysts for new ideas, experimentation, and innovation.

In the end, this is why I'm not willing to accept that we're doomed: we have not yet begun to fight.

Comments (12)


What a load of tripe. Gameplay has gotten alot more complex over the years. Elitist snobbery is all this sludge is. Todays first person shooter is more complex gameplay wise then many rpgs were 10-15 years ago.

Yes graphics have eaten up alot of energy but thats not why many games are simple gameplay wise. Just as a shaker chair is simple on purpose some games are simple by design.

The Inmates Are Running the Asylum: Why High Tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How To Restore The Sanity is an excellent book to read about this trend in software, and what to do about it (as a software developer that is).

Thinking something new takes creativity. Creativity takes going against our own thinking, or to the side, or to a whole new area. Wait, there are tools for that, and they can be applied systematically. Only, of course, these tools don't themselves provide the motivation, or the muscle.

Prog Grrl:

With all respect to Wintermane, I have to agree with Koster and Cascio here. Game modes/goals really have not changed much since I first looked at Pac Man in the arcade.

I was watching a demo of the King Kong game on an Xbox 360 stationed in a local movie theater over the holidays - and could not believe how incredibly boring the game looked.

The most interesting thing coming from the gaming world is the virtual economies being created worldwide - using REAL money. And that, of course, was user created.


Wintermane, my point was not about complexity, it was about innovation. The two are not the same thing at all.


I agree. Games have definitely been stagnating in terms of innovation--and there hasn't been much movement in sheer complexity either. Almost every game on the market looks like something I've played before, just with a slightly different plot, better graphics, and a few other differences. But the sytle of play is almost always the same.

There are few, if any, unique games out there right now--really, all you can do is see how well the game's creators worked within their genre. Playing a 'good' FPS is like watching a 'good' action movie. Satisfying, but you know exactly how it will go... move, shoot, get item, repeat. Same goes for RTS's... collect resources, build, attack, repeat.

Anything to add more variety would be appreciated!

I agree with Koster.

I've read a number of similar editorials on the gaming (And software gaming.) press sites for the past few years now. Kostikyan springs to mind.

Software game innovation, which really has nothing to do with computing power, has slowed enormously over the last decade. Remember the splash that Katamari Demachi made are year or so back? That game was hardly a processor killer, but at least it had some surprising new ideas.

I don't think this is really an issue about computing power. I think it's about mining out the idea space of games--only every once and a while do you get a stunning innovation like chess or go or tetris or ADVENT or nethack.

I've got a friend who collects zillions of very obscure boardgames. Nearly all of these games would be very simple to implement in software but at least they'd show some damn novelty! Given the nature of the current market, almost none of these games would ever be a big seller as a software game. Many of them are turn based--an huge strike against them. All of them work in these highly abstract toy universes where it's all about simulation and imagination, not polygon count or twitch rate.

Can we imagine mancala or Settlers of Catan as million sellers on game consoles? Well maybe yes. If the software gaming market would stop obssessing on a certain demographic, maybe it could pull itself out of this doldrum. I know lots of non-young-male folks would'd never touch the latest iteration of the FPS hit parade but would be happy to play something like Settlers, or something else simple yet surprising (The word "elegant" springs to mind.) in software.

I also agree that limitations drive innovation. Movies are an example of this. Pi and Primer weren't about huge budgets, high priced actors, CG or FX but they were very cool science fiction movies.

Innovation in science seems to thrive on understanding limits, discovering new limits or surpassing old limits. Engineering seems to thrive on surpassing limitations. Barriers and puzzles force us to be clever. Sparseness allows for the universal.


Ah innovation... the word one uses when one is old and have run through the general stream of entertainment and are waiting on the "new".

The main reason entertainment is as it is is it entertains new generations and thus redoing everything over again every so many years for the new players.

You cant realy expect much innovation after all far fewer people create games then say write books or even write articles for mags or heck do what we are doing here right now.

But little changes do happen. You just ignore them as they dont interest you.

The fact is the same games make people happy for the same reason you want people to conserve and cut back. They have found what is enough.

The concept of enough is a big one I would expect worldchangers to understand all too well. But I guess in this one facet of consumerism you rumpet to call for more more more.


You're missing the point.

True inovation is not about details, it's about core components. They're saying that there haven't been any (virtual) world changing events recently.

It's about changing the format of the plot, not the costumes or time period or setting. (ex. a movie like Memento was a paradigm shift.)

If you are satisfied with the same 'ol same 'ol, keep reading your Tom Clancy and Jane Austin.

I would like a better mousetrap.



1. Frankly I'm both a veteran computer programmer and a long-time computer gamer. Anybody who thinks Ralph Koster has anything valuable to add to any discussion on computer gaming is a fool.

No offense intended to anyone here.

Frankly I've played a number of "Ralph Koster Krazy Karmic Kreations" and they've universally sucked. He's personally credited with making Ultima Online a royal rat-bag. He's also personally credited with designing the more stupid and worthless elements of Star Wars: Galaxies.

IMHO I personally never ever play a game where Ralph Koster has a credit. It's simply not worth the aggravation to deal with ill thought-out and poorly implemented designs.

2. There are VAST differences between gaming today and gaming 15+ years ago. The principal change has been the implementation of multiplayer. This element of gameplay has been expanding ever since and will continue to do so until it fully dominates gameplay. 15 years ago multiplay was included as an afterthought. Now many games are designed for multiplayer as their primary game design with singleplayer added for learning, training and offline usages only.


The biggest problem with increasing the rate of innovation is it greatly increases the environmental footprint of that industry.

Innovation requires alot of failures and alot of waste.

Also innovative games often times suck. Same with innovative furniture innovative cars innovative tvs and so on.

Why do you think the car industry went suv/sut crazy? It was an innovation that worked. Same with online play.. how much energy do you think all those myriad servers running 24/7 use?

Think of it from the player's perspective. Game playing is a skill... or rather each of the various different types of game is a skill of itself.

Would a top-level chess player choose to become a beginner-level Go player?

Totally unskilled newcomers are now only a small part of the market.


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