Part Two: The Emperor's New Clothes
Imagine for a moment an alternate reality where racing games suck. Here, racing games only exist on portable devices. And they don't ever let you actually race. You have a couple dozen car models, and a few different engines. You can swap out tires and spoilers, choose from a few different fender, grill and lighting packages, change paint jobs, and decorate with a handful of decal designs before sharing your cars with friends. In the best of these games your car can race against a friends car, but remember - no driving. The cars do an automated lap around a plain oval, and a winner is declared.
What I'm describing is not an alternate reality racing game, but rather the actual current state of fashion design games, using racing games in substitution, to illustrate that fashion games are firmly ensconced in a pink ghetto of lifestyle brainwashing gadgets for girls. Meanwhile, racing games are among the most important genres in gaming, leading the charge into the future along a number of important technological axes including rendering, physics, online capability and user customization. Why?
Aside from the industry's utterly shameful lack of diversity, the reason why fashion games suck is that the design problems inherent to a good fashion game are harder to solve than those of a racing game.
I believe there are two big challenges to making a great fashion game. The first is the creativity problem. Similar to our bizarro racing game, most fashion games let users mix and match their designs from predefined sets of fabrics, colours and cuts. The game then evaluates 'success' based on proximity to some hidden value set. If the game is looking for [pink], [cotton], [sundress], then a pink silk sundress will be more successful than a pink wool sweater.
The problem is that this is not design in any meaningful sense. It is avatar customization at best, which is hardly enough to support an entire game - never mind a genre. Unfortunately, designing a freeform editor usable by casual gamers that can generate near infinite variety - and then designing supporting systems that evaluate the impact of the user design on other game systems is an impressively difficult challenge.
Spore solved it though, so now we have existence proof that it can be done. Next?
Next is the context problem. Assembling outfits from a library and sharing them with friends is not fashion design. Fashion needs more than designers. It needs people to wear it, to be influenced by it, to look good - and bad - in it. The context of the interplay of people expressing themselves through their choice of clothes is what fashion is, the same way the context of pushing a car to the limits to complete a lap faster than the other guy is what racing is.
So even if we could theoretically make a Spore-like editor for designing clothes that would run on iPhone or DS, how would we provide the necessary context? I believe everything exists to do this today, and I think the game to do it would best be called GTA: Garment District.
GTA:GD would not only allow you to create any article of clothing you can imagine, it would also allow you - optionally - to design a boutique and to publish that boutique to the cloud. From there, players of GTA could subscribe to user created boutiques to replace the default clothing chains in their game world. These clothes would not only be made available to 10 million Niko Bellics, but would seep out into 10 million Liberty Cities. The fashion designs of all those designers touching the lives of millions of AI driven Libertarians.
The popularity of given brands (defined by subscriptions) and given individual styles (defined by aggregated data on what all the Niko's wear) would seed a simple simulation of the cultural evolution of tastes that would determine the outfit of each civilian as he is spawned into the world. Style in any given instance of GTA would evolve and change.
Even better, GTA:GD players would receive meaningful feedback on their designs. It would give players for whom being a fashion designer is a valuable fantasy a sense of what it really feels like to design fashion, the same way racing games allow us to get a sense of what it feels like to drive a race car.
More importantly, intra-media gaming like this builds connections between people by giving them something they can share across wildly different games. It can dispel a daughters resentment for a lack of paternal attention, or a fathers frustration at the cost of buying her what he knows is a crappy game. It can give them a new way to engage with, and to understand one another, and in doing so create a new and much needed context where gaming welcomes and encourages girl gamers instead of cynically exploiting them.