Smartbomb

02 May

Advice for Game Design Students

Following a suggestion from my former tutor, I thought it might be worth writing down some advice for any students who are interested in making games for a living. Some of these will be applicable to university life in general, but I’m going to try and keep it bent towards game-related subjects/careers.

For what they are worth, here are my credentials for giving advice on the subject: I have spent five years of my life at university. I have a BA in Economics and an MA in Digital Games Theory And Design. I’ve spent a few years making games outside of the games industry, and a few months making games on the inside. I was unemployed for over a year, immediately after graduating. I’ve studied and worked abroad. I was once president of my university’s film society. I still remember how to feed myself on £5/week.

~ Before You Apply To University ~

1. Don’t Go To University

Ha!

Okay, to be a bit clearer, I would absolutely recommend taking at least one year out after high school, to get a job of some kind before you start your degree. You’ll need the money, you’ll benefit from the experience when you go looking for work later, and you might find your future plans change somewhat once you’ve spent some time outside of school and gained a little perspective on grown-up life. And if you’re worried about being a year or two older than everyone else on your course, I assure you that the first week of classes will dispel these fears.

As a side note: In all seriousness, you might even be better off not bothering with university at all. It’s not something I would recommend, but I’ve read a lot of advice from industry elders who say that three years of working in the field and learning on the job can be much more attractive to employers than a degree with no practical experience, and from a financial perspective you’d certainly be better off collecting paycheques than paying course fees. For more on this, check out Breaking Into the Games Industry by Brenda Brathwaite and Ian Schreiber. In fact, you may as well read that book anyway – it’s a lot more in-depth than anything I could tell you.

2. Study Any Subject You Are Interested In

Your parents might hate me for saying this, but you should not pick your degree based on what career you want in later life. You should study a subject – any subject – that you are genuinely interested (and at least reasonably capable) in. The idea of an 18-year-old looking into the future and deciding what they want to be doing aged 30, let alone anything beyond that, sounds ridiculous to me. Also, that’s just not how the job market works these days! My dad worked for the same company, at the same factory, doing more or less the same job, for pretty much his entire working life. I’m 27, and I’ve already worked in two or three completely different careers, in four different locations. This trend will most likely continue, making the lives of future graduates even more chaotic.

This isn’t to say that thinking about jobs is a complete waste of time. If you are really interested in tending to injured animals, then certainly it makes sense to study vetinary science, and a career as a vet seems likely to follow. Similarly, if you love programming, then by all means go and study computer science and get a job as a programmer. The point I’m trying to make is that you should choose your degree based on your interests, and let your career develop out from there; don’t just think of your degree as a barrier you have to pass in order to live the cool future life you imagine for yourself.

In my experience, unless you’re going into a highly specialised career like medicine or engineering, few employers really care what subject your degree is in. Mostly they are interested in either your raw grades (in the case of things like graduate programs) or the specific work you produced (ie. your portfolio). Since we’re here to talk about the games industry, you will probably find it is the latter! Good grades are a bonus, but most games industry recruiters really want to see for themselves what you can do; more specifically what you have done. Your portfolio is everything. And in case you’re eyeing up a course in game design purely because of the title, bear in mind that a specialist course like computer science, architecture or fine art would give you a more rigourous training in your chosen discipline.

Also, if you really feel your passion lies in game design, but not in programming or art or things like that… take it from me, you can study anything. I have a degree in economics, and the stuff I learned about game theory and strategic logic was the most pure and fundamental form of strategy game design imaginable; I would venture that it gave me a better understanding of multiplayer game balancing than a graduate from a game design course would have. You could study biology and learn about evolutionary logic and complex ecosystems – useful subjects for a sandbox game. You could study music and create any number of interesting music-based games. You could study history and learn about the  links between classical politics and the familial relationships between different monarchies – it might sound really niche and useless, until you apply for a job at The Creative Assembly.

Here is the important lesson: Videogames based on other videogames are really boring. The most interesting and original games come from people who have ventured out into other areas of life and come back with interesting discoveries. Of course, the disadvantage of doing this is that you’ll have to work on your game making skills/portfolio in your own time, but it can be very rewarding if you see it through. If you’re feeling really adventurous, you can try to weave game design back into your chosen subject – I wrote my BA dissertation on player behaviour in WoW’s virtual economy, and it scored one of my best grades out of the whole degree.

Oh, and once you decide on a subject, I would suggest that you do some research into which universities have the best facilities/reputation for that field, and pay attention to that. If you apply to a university way below your own academic standard just so you can stay close to your best friend, or because there’s a good surfing spot nearby… well, I’m not going to tell you how to live your life, but I think it would be worth reconsidering that decision.

~ While At University ~

3. Learn To Program

If you want to make a videogame, it’s no use just having a load of good gameplay ideas or interesting character art. Sooner or later, someone has to sit down and make it. You might not want to be a programmer; you might even hate programming; but it would be HUGELY advantageous for you to learn some kind of practical game-making skill. It doesn’t have to be serious programming languages like C++ or Actionscript (although these would be massively advantageous); it could just be an easy-to-use suite like Game Maker or Multimedia Fusion, or even something like Knytt Stories, or learning to mod a certain game. The point is, if you can produce some kind of game single-handedly then you will never be unable to make games. That is a big deal.

If you want to become an independent game developer – and right now that career path is looking brighter than ever – then you should consider how much easier it would be to just sit down and do things for yourself, instead of having to recruit a team who will work to produce your game for (probably) no money. You might get lucky and meet just the right kind of people you want to collaborate with, but it is always sensible to have a broad range of rudimentary skills of your own to fall back on, if neccessary.

If you’re completely clueless as to where to begin finding tools to make games with, don’t panic! Everybody was a beginner once, and (as if often the case) the indie community is eager to help.

3a. Learn To Do Everything Else

I singled out programming because it’s the biggest hurdle when it comes to making videogames, but for all of the same reasons it’s worth picking up at least a basic understanding in character design, writing, UI design, audio design, all kinds of art and environment design, and everything else required to make a game (the precise list depends on what kind of games you want to make, of course). The more of this stuff you can do on your own, the cooler you are. The only warning here is that you should still be trying to master one particular skill if you plan to get a job – nobody needs a Jack-of-all-trades.

You want more? Marketing, production, competitor analysis, people management. Web design. Foreign languages. If you’re lucky, you might even need a crash-course in accountancy!

4. Don’t Be Afraid To Change Your Course

It can be expensive, especially if you can’t transfer credits over from your old course, but if you get six months into your course and decide it’s not for you, it’s probably better to cut your losses. Having the experience of being at university and seeing what your friends’ courses are like will probably allow you to make a more informed response anyway.

Although also, if you want to change your course more than two or three times, or if you get the sudden urge to change during the last six months of your degree, you should consider whether you have deeper underlying issues that need to be addressed!

5. Appreciate That You Don’t Have To Work Hard; Work Hard Anyway

This one goes two ways. Firstly, be aware that – regardless of what you are studying – your career in this field will probably be even more difficult and time-consuming. The games industry in particular is famous for its crunch time, and if you want to work there then you need to be prepared for things like doing 30 hours a week of unpaid overtime (and then being laid off because the project is complete and they don’t need you anymore). I don’t want to trivialise what you’re doing, but you should be glad that your biggest challenge is to read a few books and write an essay every few weeks. Try to make use of your free time. Have fun! Join some societies and sports clubs, dabble in student politics a bit, all that stuff. Appreciate the fact that you (probably) have multiple groups of friends living within a few minutes’ walk of your dorm, and an inordinate amount of free time to spend with them. You will probably never have this opportunity again.

But also… get into the habit of doing your own research and getting stuff done in your own time. Try scheduling some time each week to reading books that aren’t on your reading list – perhaps even things that aren’t related to your course at all, just to broaden your horizons - and working on your portfolio and stuff. Even just spending an hour a week browsing through other people’s portfolios online could be beneficial, and it doesn’t sound like a bad way to spend your first few waking hours on a Sunday. This is pretty dull advice, but you are (probably) paying a small fortune for your degree, and your degree of self-motivation will determine how much you’ll actually benefit from it.

6. Make Stuff

Make a portfolio, make a portfolio, make a portfolio – when it comes to landing your first job, this is probably more important than your grades. And be prepared: You will probably come into contact with potential employers before you graduate (hint: you should be actively seeking them out), and you should have something ready to show them. Bear in mind that the games you make (or the art you create, or the code you write) in your first year will probably look weird and embarrassing by the time you graduate, so remember that the whole thing is a balancing act. (Life tip: Everything is a balancing act, get used to it.)

I would say you should have a portfolio already put together before your final semester, and then you have all of Spring and Summer to shop your portfolio around employers and recruitment fairs before you graduate and the real pressure starts. The more specialised your portfolio is regarding the position/company you are applying for, the better! But remember that different people could be looking for very different things. It helps to have a large pool of work in your files, from which you can pull together a focused portfolio that relates to the kind of games the company has made in the past. It never hurts to have more work behind you.

Take part in the Global Game Jam and Ludum Dare. You could even together with some of your coursemates and enter Dare To Be Digital. Events like these offer short, scheduled periods in which to produce stuff for your portfolio, and provide a community of peers who can offer feedback and advice on your work. Which brings us neatly to my next point…

~ Once You Graduate ~

7. NETWORK!

If you’re not on Twitter already, sign up now. Seriously. Go do it now.

Done? Okay. At the risk of sounding like an awful new-media weirdo, Twitter is one of the most useful things in my world right now. It’s a public forum where you can advertise yourself and your games to an audience of millions, it’s a window into the conversations taking place between your peers, and it’s a direct line of communication with people who can teach you things and/or give you a job. Considering how difficult it can be to contact games industry professionals through ‘conventional’ means, Twitter makes for an incredible alternative. Learn how to use it, and don’t be a dick. You can start by finding the Twitter IDs of whatever hip designers you personally like (I can be found here) then following them and just keeping an eye on your feed for interesting retweets from people they follow. Follow those people too. Keep doing this forever. Your feed will eventually become a endless spring of interesting ideas and current news, including job opportunities. Until some new social network comes along and Twitter goes out of business, of course.

With Twitter out of the way, I’d still like to stress that networking is hugely important. Knowing the right people in the right places gives you all sorts of advantages when you’re looking for work (or if you’re looking to put together an indie dev team, or market a game!) There’s a LOT more to be said about the subject, but Darius Kazemi has already written everything I would think to say and more on his own website. So go read that.

(nb. I first became aware of Darius and his work through Twitter; months later we were both at GDC and arranged to meet up via Twitter; he is a cool dude and he tweeted about our encounter and a load of industry people started following me on Twitter. The moral of this story: Twitter!)

8. Expect Rejection; Keep Trying

One of the fun stats I learned from the Livingstone-Hope review was that the UK produces something like 1,500 games development graduates each year, and the UK games industry hires about 150 of them. Also, that first figure doesn’t include all the sly foxes who studied ‘other’ subjects, like computer science. The precise numbers vary from year to year – I think I remember a peak of 300 graduate hires in a year - but you should bear these numbers in mind: The annual hiring rate of games graduates can be less than 10%. Competition is fierce.

Personally, my advice would be that you should expect to be rejected from every job you apply for. You should apply to all sorts of things, and you should take some care to tailor your application to each post – do a little research, write a personalised cover letter, maybe even adjust your CV a little to emphasise the things they would be interested in – but you should always expect to receive… well, nothing, usually. Many games companies won’t even bother to tell you that you’ve been rejected, and the ones that do will send you an awful, generic thing about how there were lots of applicants and unfortunately you were unsuccessful this time and they wish you all the best in the future. It is worth getting back to them and asking for more personal feedback if you’re interested in knowing what you did wrong exactly, but again you shouldn’t hold your breath waiting for an answer.

This whole process can be brutal and soul-crushing, but you need to try not to get too emotional about it. Keep trying. Apply to lots of different companies, and don’t worry about waiting for results – they’ll probably reject you anyway, and if the worst-case scenario is that you accept Job A only to be offered a preferable Job B, it wouldn’t be the end of the world if you quit and moved after your first month. Keep trying. If you release your first indie game and nobody buys it, learn from the mistakes and make another one. Keep trying!

9. Interview Tips

CLOTHES: I feel weird about going to job interviews wearing anything other than a suit, but I have heard unofficial feedback on the grapevine (see point 7) that it has freaked my interviewers out on occasion. Most people working the games industry come to work wearing jeans and t-shirts, and this kind of casual culture permeates the whole operation. My advice would be to wear something smart, but not too formal – I find smart jeans and a nice jumper are ambiguous enough to cover this grey area.

PREPARATION: Read about the company, read about the history of the company, read any recent articles about them on Google News, play their last three games (or at least watch gameplay videos on YouTube), read about their competitors, see what you can find out about their current projects, think of some relevant questions to ask about the future, search for your interviewers’ names on LinkedIn and read their CVs, print off a map of directions to the office, write down some contact numbers in case you end up running late… basically, do your homework. Arrive half an hour early to make sure you find the office, hang around outside for a while if you want to check the place out, then go in and see what additional information you can pick up from snooping around their waiting lounge. If you are late, for whatever reason, it’s fine! Just be sure to call them (as soon as you can, within reason) and let them know.

WORDS: I’m not a great person to give advice on what to say in interviews. I think the typical advice is a combination of ‘be honest’ and ‘tell them what they want to hear’ – in my experience, it’s rare (and wonderful) for these two circles to completely overlap. Don’t claim to have skills that you clearly don’t have. Do try to find some nice things to say about their games. Do feel free to criticise their games a little, but try not to be too scathing and make SURE you back it up with a good arguments – people will appreciate that you’re capable of intelligently analysing their work, and that you’re not just some grovelling sycophant. Don’t tell them their questions are stupid, even if they are. Even if you decide during the interview that you no longer want the job, there’s a time and a place to act on that impulse and it is not then and there!

GENERAL: Interviewers are human beings, and rarely will ’conducting interviews’ be one of their primary skills. The quality and behaviour of your interviewers will vary greatly! Don’t be put off by bad experiences – I’ve been asked some incredibly stupid questions in job interviews, and when they come from your potential future boss, that should be a sign that perhaps this job isn’t for you. Also, be aware that recruitment agents and people in Human Resources probably won’t understand all the specialist technical patter that you’ve been rehearsing. They really just want a bulleted list of skills and experience that they can tick off against their requirements list, and to screen out people with obvious personality defects – save your nerd talk for when you’re speaking to the lead designer/programmer/artist.

10. Work Your Way Up?

One of the things you’re likely to hear people say is that you can always get a job in games testing and work your way up to a more glamourous position. I find this argument highly dubious. Considering the following: The are thousands of testers working in the games industry, and I would expect that most of them hope to move up the ladder and get more interesting jobs in the future. Obviously the industry is not large enough to accommodate all of their dreams. You could say that the natural counterbalance to that is the job’s high turnover rate, with hundreds of testers burning out or being laid off and replaced with eager new graduates every year, but… urarghghh! If your idea of a career plan is to take a (generally) horrible and underpaid job and simply outlast your coworkers until you are the only person left to promote, then I suspect you could do better for yourself. The shiny carrot of promised promotions is often used to lure people into these thankless, expendable positions.

The flipside to this is that a lot of people do get promoted out of testing; all I can say is that they represent a small percentage of testers. The traditional (and in my opinion outdated) wisdom within the industry seems to be that skills like game design can only be learned within the industry, and working in testing is a way of getting exposure to this knowledge without having to shoulder much responsibility. A form of medieval apprenticeship, if you like. If you want to work in game design, you may find it easier to break in via testing than to get an entry-level design job straight out of university. If you don’t believe me, try looking for an entry-level design job in the first place! What I’d say about this is that testing is only one of many careers that you could use to get your foot in the door. If you can get a job in scripting, level design, art or programming, the odds will be stacked much more in your favour.

(Side note: Testing is a fine and noble career with its own skillsets and challenges. If you go into games testing because you absolutely love testing and want to work your way up the testing ladder, then I would consider you a hero. Especially in light of how much more money you could be earning outside the games industry.)

11. Go To GDC

This is probably the least essential piece of advice I’m going to give you, but also the most exciting and fun. Going to GDC can be quite expensive (rough prices for a basic package: £550 for return flights from Heathrow, £200 for a hostel for a week, £350 for an Indie Games Conference pass, plus whatever you eat and drink) but there are ways to bring the costs down. You can volunteer to be a CA and work your way to a free conference pass, and if you have any friends in the Bay Area (again, see point 7) then you could probably rustle up a couch to sleep on. If you want to bring the travel costs down you could even try going to GDC Europe, but since I’ve never been I can’t really comment.

Why should you go? Firstly: NETWORKING! Even if you’re already hanging around on forums like TIGSource, or taking an active role in the Ludum Dare community, it’s totally awesome to walk into a room and be surrounded by your peers. GDC is one of the few opportunities I get to have to sit in a bar and talk about nerdy game design stuff with people who both understand and care about the subject. Also, pretty much everyone who is anyone can be found there, somewhere. If you happen to have struck up a casual friendship with a game developer via Twitter, this is your chance to casually bump into them between sessions and say hello.

Also, the conference itself is both interesting and relevant to your work. Even outside of the sessions, there’s a good chance you’ll pick up crazy inspiration from the playable games in the expo hall, or from talking to their designers over lunch. Also there is a huge international career fair which is aimed quite squarely at hiring young graduates like yourself, in all disciplines, in all corners of the world. It’s basically everything a young graduate eager to break into games could want… the only downside is that it’s (probably) on the other side of the world.

One other thing I seem to keep having to tell people: GDC is not E3. This is a week of sitting in large halls and listening to 40-minute lectures (and partying), not queuing in dark booths to spend five minutes at a time demoing interesting games before they get cancelled (and partying).

12. Don’t Go Into The Games Industry

Ha!

Look: The whole idea that getting into the games industry is the best way to secure a future in making games is an urban myth. You don’t have to be a professional game designer to make games. You don’t even have to be a professional game designer to be known for making games. And you don’t have to be a professional game designer to make money from making games. Before I got my current job I spent two years working as a nondescript hardware tester for a company that made electronic whiteboards; I got paid way more money than a games tester, and I never had to work a single hour of overtime. I used this free time to make games, and probably made a lot more games – and had a lot more fun – than I would have if I had been working in the industry. Even now, it’s lovely to be a professional designer, but I rarely have time to think about working on my own projects outside of the office, and even if I did they would probably become the intellectual property of my employers. I enjoy my job, but will I still be interested in this career five years from now? I really can’t say for sure.

Becoming an indie developer is rad. It’s also hard as nails to keep your bank balance afloat, certainly when you’re first starting out. If this is the path you wish to go down, it would seem prudent to get a nice day job to help pay the bills; ideally something that relates to your specialism, so you can refer to it as relevant experience later. I know an awful lot of indie devs who moonlight as web developers, as a simple way to turn code into cash. If you do good work as an indie developer, you stand to make a lot more money than you would as just another small cog in the industry! But until that day comes, you’ll be living on a minimal budget – you will probably find your most useful skill during this time lies in persuading people to help you for free.

You want to be really cool? Don’t even bother making money from your games at all. Just get a nice, normal job, make games as a means to express yourself, and give them away for free. If you’re really passionate about game design for its own sake, then I think the most rational approach is to completely divorce yourself from any kind of commercial influence. Your games will be beautiful and amazing, and you’ll never have to care about crunch time, monetisation, market positioning, or what people think about your work. People will still love and appreciate you, even if they’re not giving you money.

15 Mar

Indie and India

Happy new year! I’m sorry that this post is so late, but my life has undergone some major changes recently. Chief among them is that I’ve landed my first professional job as a game designer… in India! I moved out here with my PS3 and a suitcase full of clothes on New Years Eve and I’ve been learning the ropes at work while navigating the tangled web of immigration bureaucracy ever since. It’s taken this long just to have the time to write. With that said, my new job means there’s a whole load of red tape surrounding what I can and can’t say now – I’m not even sure if I can name my employers without landing myself in hot water. Having a job I really care about takes some getting used to!

Moving on, I’d like to post a quick update about the rise and fall (and rise) of the DarkZero podcast. Anyone who cares about DZ will probably have heard at least one version of the story by now. As far as my experience goes… I joined the show at the start of 2011 because I wanted to get involved and do something with all the knowledge swilling around in my head. Predictably my INTJ tendancies drove me to research other podcasts and tinker with the show format, whether that meant teaching listeners how to cook a nice soup or experimenting with pre-written show scripts. By the time the summer came round, we were pretty happy with our methods and approach. The widely-reported Team Meat interview was a sort of prototype of where we saw the show heading – a podcast that talked about videogames in a way that nobody else did. Instead of jostling for attention among all the other independent podcasts out there, we would simply create a show that our rivals could not compete with, separating ourselves from the pack.

The problem was, outside of the podcast, DZ was going in a different direction. The owner of the site wanted it to be more family-friendly and was kinda embarrassed about the podcast, and there were some huge differences in attitude and approach within the small team of writers. The main reason why the written content became so slow at times last year was because there were too few editors around to proof-read and publish articles, and our relationship with PR departments waxed and waned according to how many times Andi went out drinking each month. New staff were brought onboard, which was good, but the reviews they started turning in were some of the worst I’d ever read, and their comments in the private staff forum seemed heavily slanted towards selling out their integrity in order to improve their relationship with PR reps. We didn’t feel comfortable about continuing the podcast in that kind of environment, so we decided to leave the site at the end of the year and start our own little site: Midnight Resistance.

So, where is it? That’s a good question! We’ve been dealing with a chain of setbacks for about six months now, but I think the site is almost ready! We’ve started posting content up within its little test area, but there’s still some work to be done on the web design before we can open it to the public. My new job also means my contributions to the site will also have to change. I don’t feel comfortable writing reviews when I work in game development myself – there’s too much of a conflict of interest – so I’m going to restrict myself to writing occasional features. I’m hoping to write some instructional articles about how to make games and the experience of entering the industry and stuff, although as with my blog I need to stay away from talking about things directly related to work. I may even have to leave the podcast, potentially! But we’ve had a lot of new content ideas over the last seven months, and I’m sure it’ll keep me busy even if I’m taking a back seat. This is an exciting time for all of mankind!

That aside, let’s talk about games in 2011. I spent most of the year playing Monster Hunter Tri, which is a totally excellent game. My hunting group seems to have collapsed without me, but I don’t think I can really commit to playing while I’m living here – and it was already difficult enough to get everyone online before there was a 5.5 hour time difference to take into account. I finally gave up on Persona 3, and bravely struggled through about 40 hours of Final Fantasy XII before I got sick of nothing ever happening and called it quits. I completed Bully and Metal Gear Solid 4 and wrote about my experiences, played far too much Magnetic Billiards during a frantic summer high score battle with DarkZero podcast co-host Sean Bell. I reviewed Portal 2, D&D Daggerdale, The Binding of Isaac, From Dust, Mega Mall Story and Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine for DZ. Also I wrote a few features (my favourites are the e-sports coverage of  the UK Pokémon Championship and Insomnia 43), and co-authored a series of witty and insightful articles dissecting Pokémon Red/Blue with my bubblepipe-smoking canine chum Noel Oxford over at Demon Pigeon, but I’ll spare you the details for now since we’re planning to finish the game together in the next month or two. AND DID SOMEBODY MENTION TRAINS?!

Also, I went to GDC! I was crazy busy all week and gained a huge amount of inspiration from talking to other designers. I kinda felt like a fraud surrounded by so much talent, but I came away buzzing with inspiration, and with a whole load of new friends. It’s disappointing that I never got round to working on my Winnitron projects, but I haven’t forgotten them. Aside from the half-dozen Klik of the Month Klub games I made this year, most of my development time has gone into my still-unfinished Dog Game (hopefully I’ll finish it off sometime in the next few months). I also poked around with my even-less-finished Witch Game and submitted Generic Turn-Based Video Tennis Game into the 2011 IGF Pirate Kart.

Looking ahead to 2012, I forecast a lot of PC and old console games over the coming months (since my laptop is pretty much my only available gaming platform right now), the terrifying launch of Midnight Resistance, and a string of wildly popular professional games and heart-rending personal projects. Sometime in the second half of the year I will fulfil my wager to complete the Mass Effect trilogy in under 24 hours, and I can already tell you that this year’s Metal Gear Solid Christmas spectacular will be focused on Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty.

I AM EXCITED! ARE YOU EXCITED?!

21 Dec

Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots

It’s Christmas! I’m back living with my parents for a few weeks over the holidays, so I decided to follow up last year’s life-changing playthrough of Metal Gear Solid 3 with a very solemn game of Metal Gear Solid 4. I had been waiting all year for this and it was everything I could have hoped for, and more! Coming in the middle of my NO ALARMS, NO RATIONS, (ALMOST) NO KILLS playthrough of Metal Gear Solid and just a few days after the reveal of Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, I’m really Metal Geared up to my eyeballs right now.

MGS4 is a story split into five acts. Here is a brief overview of the plot: While struggling with the effects of a government-developed biological weapon that has left him with less a year to live, grizzled superspy Solid Snake travels the world in a last-ditch attempt to foil the ambitions of his evil – and dead – clone brother, who has re-emerged from the genetic memories locked within his severed arm after it was transplanted onto one of his former henchmen and plans to utilise a stolen supercomputer to hijack the international network of Artificial Intelligences that monitor and control every private military contractor and their equipment on every battlefield around the world. If you think that sounds ridiculous, I don’t think I want to know you.

Even if it’s not the last game in the series, MGS4 is very much the conclusion of the main Metal Gear story. I’d say it’s really not worth playing unless you’ve at least played Metal Gear Solid and Metal Gear Solid 2, and you may as well add Metal Gear Solid 3 to your list anyway since it’s the best in the series. I’m sure the likes of MGS: Portable Ops and Peace Walker are great in their own right, and the old Metal Gear games would help give some context to the relationship between Solid Snake and Big Boss, but for now I’d file them under ‘Further Reading’. If you’re not already up to speed with the series, think very carefully before reading the rest of this review, because I’m going to discuss the four main games with reckless abandon.

Coming out of the Cold War setting of MGS3, adjusting to the battlefield of the near-future felt pretty weird! The nine virtual years since the events of MGS alone seem to have witnessed huge social and technological change. Gene therapy has been supplemented by nanomachines and interpersonal networking, popular media makes light entertainment of the rolling wars being fought by private military companies in the third world, and Snake has started carrying an iPod in his kitbag. It’s a far cry from the way he smuggled cigarettes in his stomach in the original game – a weird blend of warfare and consumerism.

That’s really the main theme of the game – war as a commercial exercise; as an industry. Much is said about the “war economy” during the first half of the game, as the PMCs and their proxy wars fuel not just the military-industrial complex, but much of the western world’s economy. As Snake notes in his opening monologue, war has become routine. Speaking as someone who’s been pretty disgusted with Western society’s real-world military endeavours in the last ten years, who’s followed the stories of companies like Blackwater and mercenaries like Simon Mann, it’s a message that really resonates with me. The fictional TV channels shown at the start of the game (a game show and an interview with voice-of-Snake David Hayter, amongst other things) do a lot to show how the endless conflict has been repackaged by the media, permeating all levels of life. (Now that I think I think about it, we’ve seen that before…)

As you would expect, it carries over into the gameplay. Halfway through the first act you bump into an arms dealer who delivers to the battlefield; from that point on you can buy weapons, ammo and other equipment at any time, from the comfort of your Pause menu. Considering that MGS3 was so realistic that you had to hunt and eat jungle wildlife to stave off hunger, this is intensely weird. I actually hated my first visit to the shop menu, until I realised it was all part of the business of war. Of course I can shop online for ammo! Of course I can accessorise my weapons with different grips and scopes! Of course I can trade unwanted guns for store credit! The arms trade is a market like any other, and Snake is just another consumer.

I think my problem with this, as a player, is that there’s a huge range of guns and ammo and accessories on offer, but only two tranquilising weapons: the Mk.2 pistol and the Mosin-Nagant rifle, neither of which have any available accessories. Speaking as someone who plays these games as a militant pacifist, this doesn’t give me a lot to work with. It’s not that I’m jealous – the Mk.2 is a silenced weapon, which is really the only special feature I ever need – but it means I never really needed to engage with the shopping system. I think I bought a job lot of silencers for my M4 rifle during the Raging Raven fight, only to discover that my life was easier if I ignored her drones altogether. Aside from the Mosin-Nagant, my only really big purchase was to fill my pockets with enough tranquiliser ammo to last the whole game.

Similarly, the value of weapons bought and sold fluctuates depending on the current ‘war price’, which sounds like it’s supposed to change depending on how much havoc you cause on the battlefield – how much demand you create for guns and ammo. But again, since I ghosted through with minimal fuss, I never noticed any of this coming into play. Possibly it’s not really as involving as it sounds, and I didn’t miss out on anything? That’s not the point. I really liked the idea of a changing market for violence, but it seems to go against the grain of encouraging stealth and mercy. On the flipside, one of the side-effects of replacing soldiers with synthetic weapon platforms (the Gekkos and Scarabs that become commonplace in acts four and five) is that you can whip out the lethal weapons you’ve been stockpiling and blow them to pieces without ‘killing’ anyone. With serendipitous timing I read an article about the ethics of using robots in war just last week, but as far as this game is concerned I was quite glad for the chance to test out some new guns.

One other thing that I think was really underexplored in the game was Snake’s use of the nanomachine-suppressing syringe. Provided by Naomi during the second act, the syringe becomes an essential tool during the later stages of the game, but since I never had much call for it in-game (I think it restores your Psyche bar, but I managed to keep Snake quite happy without it). As with the consumerist theme, it’s an idea that seem to work much more effectively if the player is crashing about like a bull in a china shop – if I had more of a reason to use the syringe during the game, I wouldn’t have been so blindsided when I had to start using it to solve certain puzzles.

Generally speaking, it seems like a much easier game than MGS3. The fact you don’t have to scavenge for food or items certainly makes life more comfortable, although the urban warzones are so full of discarded equipment that you could probably cope just fine even without hitting the shop. Your Octocamo (a skin-tight suit that automatically adopts the colours and textures of your surroundings) streamlines the tedious process of going in and out of menus to change your appearance, but also means you never experience the joy of finding  a new camouflage – or the pleasurable tension of sneaking into a new area without an appropriate outfit.

There’s a huge quantity of stray bullets and bombs clattering over your head as you crawl around, but once you realise it’s all just atmospheric scripting you stop worrying about it. Because each act lasts only a few hours, there’s no need to eat. Your growling stomach will never give your position away, although instead Snake must content with back pains if he spends too much time hunched over.

In fact, I think Old Snake’s stresses and strains are probably the best new features introduced to the series. The Psyche bar and the stress gauge really bring a new dimension to the action, as you have to monitor Snake’s mood and try to keep his spirits up as he slithers into live fire. There’s something really touching about bunkering down to smoke a cigarette and thumb through an issue of Playboy when times get tough! I can see the logic in presenting a tough-guy action hero like Snake as someone who is perfectly at home with being shot at, but introducing this layer of psychological vulnerability – a reality that soldiers and their commanders must deal with – makes him much more human, much more relatable.

Personally, I felt much more secure here than I did in Tselinoyarsk. I think this is my biggest critcism of the game – it felt too easy. The Beauty & Beast Corps were interesting opponents, but for all their references to boss fights from the previous games they come across as being much less dangerous. Laughing Octopus’s attacks can be nullified by hiding under a bed, Raging Raven and Crying Wolf can’t even see you if you camouflage yourself correctly, and Screaming Mantis represents more of a puzzle than a fight.

The other big thing going on in this game is that all of the ongoing storylines from the series come to an end. Well… most of them, anyway. Really I’d say that this whole game is more about giving fans of the series a satisfying conclusion than anything else, hence my earlier warning that it’s not worth playing without playing the earlier games. Meryl and Johnny get married (I loved the proposal scene), Raiden reclaims control of his life, Snake and Liquid finish their fight, and even Big Boss shows up to offer some paternal wisdom. I’m still a little confused by the way Ocelot seemed to have sacrificed his identity to create his Liquid persona (as Big Boss explains, that ‘hiding within the genetic memory of his arm’ story is too crazy to be true), but it mirrors the way The Boss – his mother – sacrificed herself by defecting to the Soviets as a double agent during the Cold War.

And then there’s the return to Shadow Moses! The whole of act four is spent revisiting the nuclear weapons base where the original MGS was set. I mentioned earlier than I’m halfway through playing the game right now, so its script and structure are very fresh in my mind right now. Without prompting, I did find myself going out of my way to retrace my old footsteps – such as crawling into the tank hangar through the first floor air duct instead of through the now-open front door – and I was rewarded with more cutscenes and flashbacks from Snake’s fading memories.

The base is derelict and falling apart. The old technologies you were once comfortable with – the lifts, PAN keys, and even the nuclear weapons and genome soldiers you were sent in to defeat – have either broken down or been removed, replaced with unnatural, AI-controlled cyborg horrors. A detachment of Scarabs are deployed into the crumbling base to bring it back up to spec for the modern world, much like the way Snake  must be injected with Drebin’s nanomachines in order to use PMC equipment. Two old foes patched up for one last battle, but inescapably obsolete.

I loved the plot of Snake growing old and losing his touch. It reminded me of Unforgiven, in which Clint Eastwood plays a former outlaw who comes out of his quiet retirement to seek the bounty on two violent criminals. There’s one really memorable scene in which Clint and his pals confront one of their targets in a shootout. He shoots the guy repeatedly, but his aim has become so poor over the years that he can’t make a clean kill, so instead he inflicts a really slow and painful death… but old age hasn’t just weakened his sight, but also softened his heart. Once his victim is mortally wounded, Clint calls an end to the fight and instructs the other bandits to take him a drink of water and ease the pain of his final moments. If this show of mercy is lost in the analogy, it’s only because Metal Gear Solid players have been rewarded for minimising their kill count for years now.

To take a step back and look at Metal Gear Solid 4 in its own right, I’m not sure I’d rate it very highly. There’s a lot of excellent rule systems at play, but I think most of the game’s plot would go right over players’ heads if they weren’t Metal Gear veterans. The thing is, if you are a fan of the series – and I am – the second half the game spends hours revisiting all of your favourite memories and giving closure to the interwoven stories of this sprawling series. It is wonderful and I haven’t felt so simultaneously happy and sad since… well, since finishing Metal Gear Solid 3 last year, if we rule out normal human experiences shared with other people.

All that remains to be said is that this doesn’t mean I’m ruling out future games such as Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. In fact I’ve become even more excited about it – never mind the electrifying relaunch trailer, I’m more interested in seeing Raiden balance his work against his new family. I’m buzzing with anticipation for the return of the kind of relationship small-talk that drove players insane during Metal Gear Solid 2; hopefully Platinum Games won’t let me down.

Lastly, if anyone tries to tell you that Metal Gear Rising looks silly and over-to-top compared to the ‘serious’ Metal Gear Solid games, please show them this cut-scene from the end of act two, in which Raiden performs exactly the same level of cyborg ninja nonsense:

20 Nov

The 2012 IGF Pirate Kart

Murder Dog IV: Trial Of The Murder Dog

Back when I first started putting effort into social media stuff, a combination of vanity and curiosity prompted me to set up some Google Alerts based on my various names. I figured that if people were going to be talking about me and my work – whatever form that might take – I’d be interested to know about it. Two years and nine months later I was finally sent an alert that was about me instead of ABC’s rural reporter for Southern Australia. What made it even more exciting for me was that the article in question was written by Darius Kazemi, whose website I’ve been learning a lot from since bumping into him and almost saying hello at GDC earlier this year (lesson one: I probably should have said hello).

The article was in Paste magazine and concerns the 2012 IGF Pirate Kart. The pirate kart – available here – is an oddball entry into this year’s IGF contest, a compilation of over 300 games by over 100 different authors. As you may have guessed, I was one of the contributors! I saw the call to arms going out around the Glorious Trainwrecks community on Twitter – the deadline for entries was 48 hours away, which sounded reasonable for us Klik of the Month Klub veterans. I began an explosion of work on my dog game, but became increasingly unhappy at all the little details and flourishes I would have to cut in order to make the deadline. It’s supposed to be a game that subtly recreates some of the pleasures of walking around in a real park, so of course you want things like rustling tree branches and flocks of birds flying around – you need that kind of atmosphere, or else the player will never get beyond the fact that they’re sitting at a desk and watching things move around on a screen.

I submitted Generic Turn-Based Video Tennis Game instead, so I could at least make some kind of practical contribution to the pirate kart instead of just talking about what a great idea it was. I made that game almost a year ago, but I’ve never gone out of my way to promote it. It doesn’t really feel much like my own work, like the majority of the game is someone else’s idea and has been a proven success for almost 40 years now, so it seems silly to claim much authorship over it. I suppose, for that same reason, it’s not such a bad choice for the kart – my personal contribution was always going to be greatly diluted by everyone else’s work anyway. But no, judging from the responses I’ve read about the game (it’s been singled out a few times, and people in Twitter have been writing reviews using the #igfreviews hashtag), people seem to really enjoy the one small twist I made to Pong. I mean, it seems that everyone understands that it’s just Pong at heart, but they evaluate Generic Turn-Based Video Game as a modification more than a standalone game in itself. I think that’s an appropriate way to look at it. And I’m very relieved to hear that people like it!

A lot of things have been said about the pirate kart since it was submitted to the contest, often quite conflicting. I think the hardest thing for games journalists to explain to their readers is what the kart represents, or why it was submitted to the IGF. There is no one single reason why it came about! With over 100 contributors there are obvious many different motivations behind its creation, but since this is my blog I’d like to share my thoughts on the matter – I wouldn’t presume to speak for anyone else.

The reason why I support the pirate kart is because it embodies a design and development philosophy that I think is often wrongly discouraged by the games industry. The games are short and (frequently) silly and unpolished, but they are also intelligent, inventive and (in most cases) took very little time and minimal resources to make. Many of the authors aren’t conventional game designers at all, but just creatively-minded people who have been introduced to tools such as Ren’Py or Game Maker. It’s an example of what I wrote about in my recent posts about the democratisation of game development – the idea that anyone can make a game, about anything that seems relevant to them.

That’s not to say that I have a problem with more conventional games, just that I think we should be broadening our acceptance of games to include all of these things and more. Personally I’m not convinced that the pirate kart should be accepted into the IGF contest considering it’s a compilation, but I think as a gesture – as a statement – its entry has already received enough attention to be considered a success. And who knows? With a little luck, I might be leaving GDC with a tiny shard of broken IGF trophy next year!

23 Oct

Bully

You’ve been waiting all year, but it’s finally time for another outdated game review! Aside from my brief holiday in the jungles of Tselinoyarsk last Christmas, the only PS2 games I’ve played since God of War were Persona 3 and Final Fantasy XII. They both rumbled on for months and I only got about halfway through them both before getting sick of them and wanting my life back – I kept notes on a kind of time and motion study for FF12, including TWO HOURS spent running through a linear sewer system and fighting no more than three different types of enemy, which I might post at some point as a sort of ‘review’.

Recently I decided to draw a line under all these tedious JRPGs and play something a bit more uptempo. I had another go with God Hand but was rudely beaten down again, with none of my friends offering any kind of useful advice on where I was going wrong – apparently I’m just supposed to endure being bored with frustration until eventually it will just click and suddenly become really good*. I went back to my pile of unplayed games hoping for a more populist, unchallenging experience with Bully, and boy did it deliver!

Bully – officially known in the UK as Canis Canem Edit, although that’s the last time you’ll hear me use that title – is a GTA-style sandboxy misadventure set in a private school. You play as young Jimmy Hopkins, a troubled child who has apparently been expelled from seven different schools already, and who has now been enrolled at Bullworth Academy by his emotionally distant mother who is running off on a twelve-month round-the-world honeymoon cruise with her old and wealthy new husband. None of that backstory really matters though, other than to explain why the school never summon your parents in to discuss your behaviour.

This basically sums up everything that is wrong with Bully. The writing is TERRIBLE. Every single character in the game is a grotesque, shallow stereotype – with the possible exception of your dorm buddy Petey, who rarely escapes portrayal as a milquetoast hanger-on. The Nerds are D&D-obsessed astronomy club members who wear thick-rimmed glasses and struggle with incontinence and impotent rage. The Jocks are steroid-pumping morons who enjoy nothing more than discussing their bodies and sporting activities in inadvertently homoerotic detail. The privileged Preppies, the 50′s throwback Greasers, the ape-like Bullies and the Townie kids who are too unruly to attend the school all fall within their own tight stereotypes.

Even the students who aren’t affiliated with a particular clique come across as monsters, like the fat, dopey girl who the writers use as comic relief, or the younger kids who keep asking you to break into lockers for them (but will dob you in when they see you breaking school rules at other times). The only notable exception are the two ‘unaffiliated’ cheerleaders – sexually submissive Angie and big-boobed uberbabe Christy, who seem to avoid criticism by providing ever-available lips to kiss and bums to pinch (but because they have no position with the story, are completely excluded from the more serious relationships you can form). Among the teaching staff there is a drunk, a bully, a hypocrite, a letch, and a MILF. Your mother is implied to be some kind of gold digger who only takes the time to dump you into a new school each year because your father has long since disappeared. Even Jimmy comes across as a complete asshole for most of the game, often putting everyone down during mission briefing cutscenes only to have a last-minute change of heart and agree to help them out for no particular reason whatsoever!

In fact many of the characters exhibit this bizarre behavioural inconsistency. The game is broken up into five chapters, each of which focuses on a particular school clique. You have relationship stats that reflect your standing with each group – not unlike the gang relationships in GTA2 – but these only seem to change as a result of missions. The outcome is that each chapter seems to start with a cut-scene that shifts your relationships around in the most unlikely fashions, purely to set the scene for the next part of the story. It’s unclear what this relationship even represents. Most of Jimmy’s missions involve helping out people who have been wronged in some way, standing up for the underdog, but each chapter ends with him publicly beating down a clique leader. Jimmy’s rise to power ultimately seems modeled on Ray Winstone’s performance in Scum, his plan being to fight his way to the top of the pile and rule the school through fear and violence. Why, then, does he keep performing ‘Good Samaritan’ acts like recovering the Nerds’ stolen D&D character sheets?! It no sense at all – the same problem as many GTA games suffer from, when they want you to emotionally invest in the protagonist while also trying to justify their violent, amoral behaviour.

The reason I feel moved to write about this game is that, once you get over the bad writing (which means skipping cutscenes and trying not to think too hard about the context of your missions), Bully is actually a really, really great game. I had far more fun pottering around the school and nearby town than I did playing any of the GTA IV games. The system of having classes that you should attend, but can skip, but at the cost of drawing attention from patrolling prefects or policemen, feels like a perfect balance of obligation and choice. The level of granular detail in the game world – like being able to pick a banana out of a fruit bowl, eat it to restore health, then drop the peel in a corridor and watch another student slip on it as they walk between classes – sets a whole new standard for Rockstar, who already impress me in that regard.

Combat is often quite easy – especially if you put some time into learning new moves in gym class, or from the hobo behind the school – but feels really satisfying. I think the game suffers a little as it introduces more ‘gun’ style weapons (the catapult is a given, but I’m not sure about the bottle rocket launcher or the potato cannon), but its barefist brawling system is a lot better than many other games. Possibly I’m just saying that because of all the grappling options but that still counts! Fighting without weapons – and I don’t just mean GTA‘s selection of guns, but also things like God of War‘s intangible blades of wide-area slashing – might not make so much sense outside of the context of playground scuffles, but it feels very tactile and personal, and Bully backs it up with a satisfyingly broad range of throws and strikes. The granular detail I mentioned earlier comes into play in the way you can use all kinds of makeshift weapons and perform ‘environmental’ special moves. For example, you can grab another student, drag them into a toilet cubicle and flush their head in the bowl – certainly a gameplay option that would draw controversy, but undeniably fine attention to detail. The only thing that really breaks the combat is the targeting system, which sometimes makes life hard against one opponent, but often screws you over when fighting in a crowd.

The skateboard, obtained near the start of the game, is an absolute masterstroke. You can summon it out of thin air at any time – assisted by the fact it has its own unique shortcut command (pressing the ‘next item’ and ‘previous item’ buttons at the same time) – and it functions as an alternative movement ‘mode’, allowing you to travel a lot faster over solid surfaces like tarmac. For one thing, this means that you always have the option of running away from an unwanted encounter, if you don’t want to get tied down in a fight. In another sense, I think it creates a really wonderful sense of environmental awareness when you’re trying to get around quickly! I found myself switching back and forth between skateboarding and running, as my network of shortcuts developed (running is faster uphill or on mud, skateboards can go down flights of stairs but can only jump up them if they are below a certain height, etc). You can also ride bikes, which are generally faster than running of skateboarding across all surfaces and situations, but these function more like the cars in GTA – you must find them first, and when you stop riding them you must leave them behind. The skateboard is an inherent part of Jimmy, an alternative form he can take at any time, like a Transformer turning into an ice-cream van.

As a general rule, I would say that the ‘sandbox’ side of Bully is equally as brilliant as the scripted side is awful. This makes it a strange game to sum up, overall. If – like me – you don’t mind skipping cutscenes and sweeping aside the sexist, inconsistent and relentlessly negative characters, there’s a lot to love about the physical and social mechanics of Jimmy’s day-to-day life! It’s just a shame that you have to endure all those missions and dumb plot twists to gain access to all those toys and tools. I hope they make a sequel, and I hope Dan Houser makes an effort to ensure the script is less tediously cynical.

——

*So that we’re clear, I’ve no doubt God Hand is a good game at heart, I just think it does a terrible job of explaining itself to new players. If you’re going to design a deliberately unfriendly user experience, you have nobody to blame when nobody buys your game.

17 Sep

Journlolism Update

I’ve been pretty busy lately! Although none of it here.

Over on DarkZero – aside from co-hosting our recent LISTENER-GUEST SPECIAL PODCAST – I’ve written reviews of Space Marine and From Dust and I went to i43 and interviewed a bunch of pro gamers but that hasn’t been posted yet. I also made some notes about my experiences of the event, which I’ll try and write up sometime this week.

Next: My favourite bubblepipe smoking dog Dog of Flame and I have been playing through Pokémon Red and Blue and writing adorable letters to each other about our experiences – read the (frequently not work-safe) prologue, parts one, two and three over in the desolate remains of the former metal review site Demon Pigeon. It’s all kinds of jokes rolled up into one, but also happens to be emerging as a genuinely excellent analysis of why those first games were so excellent.

Also I made a game for Klik of the Month Klub 50 and worked on a game for Ludum Dare 21, but didn’t finish it. I kept a development diary over that weekend, which will hopefully be posted later today!

Somewhere in all this I’m going to find the time to go to the Eurogamer Expo next weekend and record at least one more podcast and do an absolute ton of other stuff. I am a machine.

04 Sep

How I Became A Magnetic Billiards Champion

Since hearing my honourable battle-brother Sean Bell talking up the Pickford brothers’ Magnetic Billiards on his *other* podcast, I decided to give it a pop. It’s a free download with 20 levels included. If you like it, you have the option of paying £2.50 to unlock another 20 levels and some alternative game modes; if you don’t, you can delete it, also for free.

For a few weeks, Sean and I became embroiled in a high score battle. This is harder than it sounds when your iDevice doesn’t support Game Centre, but helpfully Magnetic Billiards displays your aggregate score on the level select screen. For the benefit of those of you willing to try out the free levels, my final top score (before I moved on to the premium tables) was 219,790.

Considering what a breakthrough 100,000 felt like, I was quite proud of doubling my score! I’m pretty sure I ploughed Sean’s best efforts deep into the ground too, which was a nice bonus. Without having access to Game Centre’s global rankings, I decided to take my case straight to the top.

 

(I continued to play and improve my score for a few more days, obviously)

I only really wanted to gauge my success compared to the rest of the world, but then this happened!

I emailed my address and we had a little chat about scoring strategies (I had just started using my spare lives to set up massive Buzz combo bonuses on my final shots) and a few days later I came home from work to find a jiffy bag on my doormat. And that is how I came to be in possession of an ultra-rare set of real-life cluster shape flipcards!

EXCLUSIVE INFO: The cards include one cluster shape I’d never seen before, called a ‘jam doughnut’ – a ring of one colour with a single ball of another colour ‘trapped’ in the centre. It was worth one full star in each bonus category (which makes it about twice as good as any other cluster) but after painstakingly recreating one in the game I can confirm that they do not actually exist – I just got a regular old ‘ring’ bonus instead.

Ste also mentioned that the top scores including the premium tables came to around 2,000,000, which sounded completely insane. Now that I’ve managed to score 150,000 on one premium table alone, I am starting to understand how it might happen!

03 Sep

BREAKDOWN! Part 3: Indie Games and Creativity

I don’t think there’s a lack of creativity in the games industry – in the UK, or anywhere else. Games like Rhythm Tengoku, Shadow of the Colossus, Dead Rising… oh wait, those are all Japanese… okay, let’s say games like Little Big Planet, Viva Piñata and Black & White still manage to bring interesting new experiences to the market and capitalise on them. Even the fact that someone can take a game as colourful and charming as Sonic the Hedgehog and turn it into something as awful as Shadow the Hedgehog suggests a kind of creativity, albeit creativity in the vein of the Marquis de Sade.

The games industry is full of creative people with all kinds of weird and wonderful ideas about how and why games should be made, but all too rarely do these reach the finished games they produce. These aren’t drippy art graduates with half-baked ideas like “Let’s make Call of Duty but with flowers instead of guns!”; these are current industry professionals who prove every day that they have the skills required to make games. But even without factoring in office politics (I have heard matching stories from different sources about one of the UK’s top studios, where designers routinely splice new rules and systems in their AAA games without telling anyone because “it’s easier to persuade the project leads to leave them in rather than put them in”) the overriding fact is that games have to make a profit, particularly when hundreds of people have spent the last three years working on it, and studios simply can’t afford to gamble on experimental new ideas.

That’s fine though! I think it’s a crazy way to run a business – especially if you’re not one of the top dogs actually profiting out of it – but in the long run everything will be okay. All those studios that have closed down in the last few years (such as Midway Newcastle, Black Rock, and Bizarre Creations) have splintered down and reformed as smaller, more agile companies (in these cases Atomhawk Design, CCP Newcastle, Roundcube Entertainment, ShortRound Games, Boss Alien, Lucid Games, Hogrocket, and others).

These startups will produce smaller games at a faster rate, with less capital exposure to put them off new innovation. In fact they have an incentive to innovate, in the sense that it’s one area where they can realistically hope to outperform their larger rivals – good design is cheap! Certainly there’s the unpleasant business of the studio collapsing to go through first, but in the long run? Things turn out okay.

“The Indie Scene Will Save The Day!”


You know who has no money and huge stack of crazy game ideas? Indie developers.

Actually I think that’s a dumb stereotype. Many indie games – perhaps most, if you’re factoring in hobbyist and student projects – aren’t really all that original in my opinion, but the purely derivative ones get ignored completely so they don’t usually register in people’s minds. Similarly the image of a penniless indie developer is common, but of course in the real world indie devs can’t survive without at least some modest degree of success – or else they go out and get a second job!

I digress.

The thing that’s been on my mind since GDC – looking at the success of indie games like Minecraft and Super Meat Boy, both of which have attracted a lot of praise and interest from the mainstream industry – is that there’s no good reason why these games couldn’t have emerged from inside the games industry. Sure, there are reasons, but I think these are mostly to do with the kind of crazy business structure and counterproductive cultural practices that I’ve been ranting about in this article.

To give one simple example, I think games companies should allow their employees to work on personal projects and enter game jams on the side. If I was in charge, I would do everything I could to encourage it! It’s pretty standard practice for contracts to state that anything developed during the period of employment is the property of the company. I would guess it’s to prevent employees claiming ownership of things they’ve made during the course of their normal duties, but having a blanket policy like this can be really stifling – I personally know some talented people who have quit jobs over the fact they weren’t allowed to take part in game jams, and many others who routinely break their contract on the assumption that their employer won’t find out.

It actually infuriates me a little to hear Peter Molyneux talk about how much he likes Minecraft!

If this is the kind of game he likes, why do Lionhead continue to exclusively develop big-budget flagship games like Fable? There’s even a precedent in Lionhead’s case: after some employees got together and made Ragdoll Kung-Fu, they left the company to form Media Molecule and create the rather popular Little Big Planet series. And if you think there’s some kind of lesson in there about Media Molecule slipping through Microsoft’s grip, you should bear in mind that it happened in the months before the Microsoft acquisition – if the same thing happened again, Microsoft would be in a great position to sign the new studio up before anyone else knew what they were working on.

Then again, a few months after Molyneux starting showering Minecraft with public praise, Microsoft came out and announced that they would be publishing an exclusive console port for the Xbox 360. Honest praise for a game he liked, or buttering up a future business partner in his role as Creative Director of MGS Europe? If I wasn’t such a hugely bias fan I might not give him the benefit of the doubt.

Minecraft

Notch

That said, I think using Minecraft as an example of anything is a bit spurious – I like the game, sure, but it seems to have very much benefited from being in the right place at the right time, its popularity driven forward by underground internet powerhouses like the Something Awful forums as they screwed around with its emergent mechanics and had fun sharing the results. (There are lessons here in the value of putting toys in your games, and the marketing power of social networks, but this isn’t the time to discuss that either) It’s not even all that innovative really, being heavily inspired by the relatively-unknown Infiniminer and a game called Dungeon Keeper developed by a certain Peter Molyneux.

Minecraft’s incredible success really seems to have sent shockwaves through the games industry. One guy working in his spare time can turn out a simple Java-based PC game that sells millions of copies without any marketing budget! It’s a solid punch in the gut for conventional industry business models – there must be a lot of third- and fourth-string studio bosses out there wondering why they bother with development kits and employees when they could have been making millions like this. If you ask me, they’re right to! If the lesson here is to create personal games with a tight design instead of just making a Grand Theft Auto clone and trying to capture sales between rival releases, then I hope they all learn from it.

Is it worth mentioning that Notch also regularly takes part in game jams? Jus’ sayin’.

Adding to the madness is the recent news that the company Notch founded – Mojang Specification – have rejected a lucrative contract with EA and are instead getting into the publishing business! I have a lot of faith in their design sensibilities, but the idea of them cherry-picking indie games to put on the world stage sounds equally heroic and insane. I suppose my hope is that they’ll make a lot of money from that as well, and perhaps then the industry will pay closer attention to indie developments and maybe even use their initiative to recruit promising indie talent? I can think of a couple of companies that do this already, but I guess most companies just aren’t interested in emulating wacky little artgame startups like Valve or Blizzard.

You’re Doing It Wrong

I should add that there are evidently some mainstream companies keeping an eye on the indie scene for promising new IP! Unfortunately, more often than not they are looking for good ideas to rip off wholesale, as in the case of Gamenauts’ Extreme Fishing vs. Vlambeer’s Radical Fishing.

Of course I think it’s really crass and horrible for Gamenauts to clone Vlambeer’s game like that, but again I pretty much expect that kind of behaviour from faceless, profit-driven corporate entities. Besides, one of the lessons drilled into us during the ‘business’ side of my games degree was that you can’t copyright gameplay – Rockstar can do no more to prevent copycat studios from making their own Grand Theft Auto knock-offs than Vlambeer can prevent Gamenauts from making their own version of Radical Fishing.

To be honest, I like it like that. If games companies could copyright concepts such as ‘power ups’ or ‘experience points’ then I think it would be hugely damaging for game design – these things are like components of grammar in the language of game mechanics, and I think designers need to be able to experiment with them without stressing about lawsuits.

But really, isn’t there a business case for studios like Gamenauts to just hire designers like Vlambeer and get the same design ideas direct from the source? Despite what some people seem to think, a lot of indie designers might not want to work for a big studio. That’s okay too, but to me it  seems like good sense all round for studios to at least make some kind of offer – the studio’s resources would improve the game’s polish and marketing power, while directly involving the designer(s) would at best enable some exciting new ideas they couldn’t explore on their own, and at worst prevent the game from becoming a soulless, empty experience.

I don’t buy into the cult-like belief that indie games are the future, but from somewhere between all these trends – larger studios breaking down into smaller teams, project budgets falling, indie developers enjoying more success – I am confident that a bright future will emerge. As the divisions between the traditional indie development and mainstream studios break down, I think the combination of indie spirit and mainstream resources will lead to a golden age of awesome non-AAA games. You might say this is what’s happening already, in the mobile and social markets; it’s even creeping into the mainstream industry, if you look at the way Double Fine transitioned from Brutal Legend into Stacking, Costume Quest, Trenched and whatever other funky downloadable games they have up their sleeves.

My Favourite Part

The whole issue of graduates not having the required technical skills to work in the industry sounds like a real problem. Here’s the thing: I disagree.

Twenty years ago (!) SNES games were programmed in Assembly. Ten years ago, PS2 games were programmed in C++. Today, most Xbox 360 games have their gameplay defined in scripting languages, while whole mobile phone apps can be developed using the drag-and-drop interface of App Inventor. While hardware has become more complex, the trend in game development has been to move to higher-level programming languages – formats that read more like human speech, that are easier to work with and require less hardcore technical skills.

Okay, okay… obviously that’s not entirely true. Studios still need some serious programmers to create a bridge between these high-level scripting languages and the deep functions of the hardware, and obviously you can’t click together a quest using a drag-and-drop interface unless you have someone around who can program the drag-and-drop software. But in terms of setting rules and defining gameplay, we are always developing bigger and better tools to abstract the technology out and make things easier. If you doubt this at all, you’ve obviously never used Bioware’s Neverwinter Nights toolset… developed 10 years ago! Better yet, just ask Team Meat:

“There weren’t many tools used with Super Meat Boy. The in-game level editor was invaluable because it provided Edmund the ability to make levels with a “what you see is what you get” mindset.” – Tommy Refenes

Democratisation


There is a lineage of easy-to-use game creation software stretching back to when I was a child. I personally have experience of Klik ‘N Play, Multimedia Fusion, Game Maker, Kodu Game Lab, App Inventor and – as of last weekend – Stencyl, and there are many more alternatives out there. What’s really great is that many of these tools are cheap, if not completely free!

This is really one of the best and most exciting things happening in games right now! It’s true that a lot of the games being made with these tools are crappy clones, but the important thing is that people are able to make their own crappy clones now. These tools democratise game development, opening it up to people who don’t have serious technical skills, allowing them to easily experiment with different game rules and learning how they affect the play experience. And even if a particular program goes a bit off the rails, there are an increasing number of alternatives coming up to fill the gap.

This is excellent news for game education because it allows untrained people to get to grips with real game design problems – not ‘how many guns can we fit on the disc?’ but issues like pacing, balance and difficulty. I really think that giving people access to creative tools leads to a huge boost in their understanding how to use them! Just as technology like mobile phone cameras, Flickr and YouTube are changing our relationship with pictures and video, I really think it’s only a matter of time before tools like Stencyl and Kongregate change our perception of video games – not as commercial products promoting adolescent male fantasies, but as systems of interaction that express our experiences of the world.

BREAKDOWN! 123

03 Sep

BREAKDOWN! Part 2: Livingstone-Hope and Games Education

Heroes Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone

Recently I was treated to a livetweeted report from the Edinburgh Interactive Festival by the fragrant Cara Ellison. Among the sessions was one by Ian Livingstone, who as far as I could tell was rehashing the conclusions of the Livingstone-Hope review. In a nutshell, the report claims firstly that the UK games industry is facing a skills shortage, so the government need to do more to encourage kids to study subjects like computer science and maths, and secondly that there are a lot of degrees in game-related subjects that don’t teach the skills that the industry requires.

The issue I have with the Livingstone-Hope report is that it leans too heavily on the idea that universities should train people for their future careers. In some industries/subjects this sounds obvious – I wouldn’t feel very comfortable being operated on by a self-taught surgeon – but in the case of games I think there are a few reasons why it shouldn’t be so focused.

For one thing, according to the report’s figures (page 49), the UK produces around 1,500 ‘games graduates’ every year, while the UK games industry only hires a couple of hundred new graduates across all degree subjects. This means the vast majority of games graduates (over 90% in 2009) do not get jobs in the industry! Even if all of their courses suddenly started teaching industry-appropriate skills overnight, there’s no way the industry could cope with that kind of surge. And if 90% of their students aren’t going to get jobs in the games industry, don’t universities have a responsibility to teach them skills that are more transferable? An education that can be applied not just to games, but to other areas of life as well. Otherwise they’re just raising the stakes as the students gamble tens of thousands of pounds of borrowed money on a three-year vocational course that’s unlikely to lead to a job.

I think there’s also some confusion over the value and purpose of game studies, as opposed to game development. Judging from the report, it sounds like game studies – as in studying theory, as with film or literary studies – are not valued highly by the industry, who would prefer graduates to have technical skills in programming and the use of editing tools. You might call this the difference between ‘training’ and ‘education’. I have an education in economics, but I wasn’t trained to be an economist; if I’d been studying on an ‘industry-led’ accountancy course (which is where I saw my life heading as I left high school), I wouldn’t have had the freedom to write about player behaviour in virtual economies, or the nous to transfer these abstract theories into the field of game design.

The very fact that game studies exists as a degree subject is a mark of the increasing cultural relevancy of games. And while game studios will always need strong technical capabilities, surely it makes sense to invest in a mixed basket of skills, including theory and philosophy? I could also make the argument that design theory remains relevant to development over a much longer period of time than training with a particular tool, but considering most graduate jobs in the games industry only seem to last about 12 months, that’s probably not going to interest anyone.

I think the problem is that the review’s findings are based on the requirements of the industry as it currently operates – the kind of graduate hires required to enable a culture of low pay, temporary contracts, crunch time, and frequent burn-out. Their requirements are biased towards maintaining this business model, rather than improving it. The most immediate example is that graduates need industry-grade practical skills because studios want to minimise training costs – if you think this is unavoidable, consider how many graduate schemes in other sectors ask for a 2:1 degree in any subject and do all their training on the job. Even if industry recruiters restricted their search to relevant degrees, I don’t think training should be considered unreasonable.

I’d like to add that I don’t disagree with everything in the report! Certainly I’d like to see a more advanced level of Computer Science taught in school – as I’ve said in some of my older posts, I first became interested in programming when I was 13, but had no formal learning opportunities until the very last year of high school. Also, although I’ve been through an excellent postgrad course in design theory, I bypassed the kind of undergrad courses examined by the report, so it’s quite possible that a lot of them are just plain inadequate – as ever, my internet soapbox opinions should be taken with a pinch of salt. The undergrad courses I am familiar with include those my friends studied at Abertay and Teesside, both of which are widely accepted as excellent places to study game design and development; I might add that half of these friends have burned-out and quit the games industry within their first 3-4 years.

An Alternative View

Flashback (Amiga version)

If the industry wants more children to study computer science, digital art, and other game development skills, I think they could start by making games that inspire them to do so. I’m reluctant to draw up a big argument based on my memories of playing games 20 years ago, but when I was young I played games like Populous and Flashback, and judging from the current sales charts it looks like kids today are playing games like Just Dance and Lego Harry Potter. I’m sure Just Dance is a lot of fun, but I don’t believe for a second that it will open anyone’s eyes to the magical potential of games the way Flashback can; at best, it might open the players’ eyes to the magical possibilities of dance.

Speaking from my own experience, the reason I became interested in making games was because I loved exploring these strange new worlds, and I wanted to experiment with making my own. I used to play a lot of Games Workshop games when I was young (a company founded by Messrs Jackson and Livingstone, pictured above), and they taught me a lot – to this day I credit Warhammer as the main reason why I have such a good grasp of probability and optimisation, as well as teaching me a lot about strategy and player psychology. The thing you need to understand here is that Warhammer, and particularly Warhammer 40,000, has a pretty dull setting! But Games Workshop have also produced a whole load of weird spin-off games – Blood Bowl, Necromunda, and Space Hulk to name a few – that looked at these generic fantasy and sci-fi worlds from spellbinding new perspectives.

Unplanned Games Workshop Digression


The microcosmic detail of a game like Necromunda carries a great deal of weight when players understand its position within the Warhammer 40,000 universe. The whole game takes place in the dystopian slums of Hive City, in which gangs of impoverished thugs battle for control of toxic waste dumps and jury-rigged power generators. Hive City is situated at the base of the towering arcology of Hive Primus, and serves as a proxy battleground for the political conflicts of its affluent, elite society – most gangs are patronised by one of the hive’s six ‘noble houses’, who confer particular tolls and boons on their chosen bands of goons. But Hive Primus is just one of many such arcologies on the planet called Necromunda, and Necromunda is just one remote planet within the galaxy of war and strife portrayed in Warhammer 40,000.

For anyone who has played Warhammer 40,000, especially if they’ve taken part in the big narrative campaigns that Games Workshop often run over the summer holidays, a gang fight between two dozen juveniles in the Underhive sounds totally insignificant! When you’re used to thinking on a scale of planetary invasions, of feuding ancient gods that can destroy whole civilisations in the blink of an eye, of the rich cultures and histories of all those alien races, it can be hard to see why anyone would care about which gang controls an old slag heap in a forgotten slum somewhere. I think that’s the beauty of Necromunda’s setting – it puts a fine grain on the Warhammer 40,000 universe by giving players an insight into the day to day lives of ‘normal’ people, away from the military campaigns of hulking space marines. But it also ignites players’ imaginations with the lofty notion that your gang might one day hustle their way out of Hive City, up through the Spire, and into the stars beyond – not just a vague endgame concept, but a sprawling, living universe that hobbyists are familiar with.

An Alternative View, Continued


In my opinion, few modern, mainstream video games possess that kind of magic. Instead, we’ve become channelled by market research towards a handful of specific genres – gritty shoot-em-ups, annually-iterated sports franchises, needlessly long fantasy RPGs, and free-roaming action games where you cruise around a city beating up inconsequential mooks. Childhood favourites like Sonic the Hedgehog have somehow evolved into games like Shadow the Hedgehog, in which Sonic’s brooding, angsty, morally-ambiguous clone runs around a city while shooting things with guns. What the hell, guys?!

It’s sad when studios appear to design new games by rehashing the popular innovations of industry leaders like Valve, Rockstar and Blizzard, but what really infuriates me is the way the industry’s marketing wing, by way of the specialist press, promote this uninspired tat as the cutting edge of game design. All those professional interviews and copy-pasted press release news stories, that focus on trivia about the number of guns or levels in the game, help to push this agenda – they teach readers that these are the questions that matter, that these are the terms by which game design should be judged. Here is an entirely unstaged example of what happens when a games journalist asks their fans for interview questions ahead of a trade show:

If the games industry is suffering from a creative drought, could this not be part of the problem? Not only because it encourage young gamers to think about game design with boneheaded simplicity, but because it signals to kids with natural creative flair that videogames can only be about a restricted list of subjects like guns, cars and kidnapped princesses – lacking the scope for self-expression found in film, literature, art or music. When the industry puts shallow design on a pedestal it sends out the message that games are shallow by nature!

And why does this happen? I would say it’s because production and marketing costs have grown to the point where publishers (and hence also developers) cannot afford ‘risk’. If you are in charge of a project that will cost tens of millions of dollars and three years to produce, you can’t afford to gamble on whether the audience will appreciate wild new gameplay ideas. Given the choice between developing an experimental new feature or duplicating an idea from last year’s Christmas best-seller, it makes sense to copy that which has proven successful… doesn’t it?

Not Such An Alternative View

Here is a good little quote from the Livingstone-Hope review that I will provide out of context:

“70 per cent of course assessors report a poor or unrealistic understanding [among students] of what working in the video games or visual effects industries actually involves.” – Livingstone-Hope Review, page 30

From both my time job-hunting and trying to arrange things for DarkZero, I have a lot of experience when it comes to being ignored by industry representatives. I sympathise with the students who think working in the industry is a lot like working on personal projects at home, but I can also see the wisdom in games companies keeping secrets – I work for a tech company and we certainly don’t go around talking about our methodology, or projects that are still in development.

But obviously the only people who can talk about the workings of the industry with certainty are people inside the industry – something to bear in mind while you read this article! If the industry need students to have a better understanding of what these careers involve, they have no other option but to take responsibility for that themselves. I thought this might be another wry observation that the report overlooks, but it turns they’ve already got it covered:

“The industries need to be more strategic in the way they engage with schools, providing better resources for teachers and career advisers, giving young people exposure to industry role models and developing a new national schools competition.” – Livingstone-Hope Review, page 6

Good mans.

The only thing I would add to that is that is that they shouldn’t only focus on schools and students, but also just be more open about the practicalities of making games in the wider media. Let it soak into public awareness! Not just to inspire kids, but to show to their parents that making games is challenging, responsible and rewarding – a good, honest career for their children to pursue.

If game developers want the general public to have a better understanding of how games are made, they should really start packaging special features like ‘behind the scenes’ features, commentary and development blogs in with their games as standard – not tucked away on a forgettable bonus disk as part of an overpriced limited edition release. In case any games industry execs reading this think that’s a dangerously novel proposal, don’t worry: DVDs have been proving that stuff is popular for over a decade now.

BREAKDOWN! 123

25 Aug

BREAKDOWN! Part 1: Games Journalism and the Media-Industrial Complex

Note: The following three articles were originally collected up as a single massive rant sparked off by various events over the summer, but I wasn’t really happy with the way they transitioned between topics so I’ve split them up into three separate, more focused articles. They cover a family of related issues though, and if you’re interested in one then you should probably read the other two!

Last month I co-hosted an interview with Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes for the DarkZero podcast – the first time we’ve had any serious guest presence on the show since Michael Pachter’s surprise appearance, long before I joined the team.

The interview came about after another one of our rambling off-air conversations about the direction of the show, and where we stand within the crowded landscape of games podcasts. I find a lot of podcasts – including most professional shows – come across as groups of young gamers discussing their experiences of games from a strictly consumer perspective. They might mention theory and design concepts they’ve read about in a magazine somewhere, but they don’t often seem to really understand what these things mean. That’s okay too; it doesn’t make their experiences any less valid, and it’s the kind of conversation that most listeners can relate to (this is my excuse as to why they are all more popular than us). But personally I’d like to get more in-depth, talk about game design and why developers make particular decisions. Perhaps this is just self-interest on my part, but I think of it as ‘product differentiation’ – creating a show that doesn’t compete on the same terms as other podcasts.

We brainstormed ideas about how to run the interview, and we developed a general framework that would separate it from the cookie-cutter puff-pieces you read in mainstream news outlets. One of the key principles is that, whenever possible, we avoid talking about recent or current projects. To my mind, this is the primary function of mainstream interview coverage – the developer makes a game, the publisher’s PR department arranges a round of interviews, and the press talk to them about it. Everything is focused on the product: will there be new characters, how long will the story mode last, how many multiplayer maps will be ready at launch, that kind of thing. I guess that’s the kind of thing that the average player is interested in, but I find it pretty dull! Anyone could find all that information out from reading press releases, or playing the game for five minutes. If the creative minds behind a new game are going to take the time to talk about their work, I would expect them to have more interesting things to say than how many guns are in the game.

I first got in touch with Edmund back in February, while preparing for GDC. I had hoped he would agree to be part of a series of game design interviews/restaurant reviews I had planned to write for DarkZero (another idea for putting a fresh spin on interviews – it’s a bit ridiculous, and in hindsight I guess it might sound insulting to the guest, but I remain convinced that the results would be fun) but for various reasons – which may become clear if you listen to the podcast interview – it didn’t happen. When it came to deciding who to invite onto the podcast, he and Tommy seemed like a natural fit. We like their games, and we share many of the same interests outside of games – it’s the kind of chemistry that made the toilet discussion flow so well. To our great fortune, they agreed to appear on the show .

I’m satisfied with how the interview went (NB. outside my world of sky-high INTJ expectations, this means it was pretty great). I think there are some things we – as hosts – could have done better, but you can only really learn these things from experience. We talked about games, we had some fun, and we gave our listeners something they would never get from the mainstream media. Then, against all expectation, the media took notice.

Meatgate

VG247.com

During a conversation about digital distribution, Ed and Tommy remarked that they didn’t give a fuck about piracy. It seemed pretty clear to me that they were referring to the kind of piracy that they’ve experienced – you know, the kind of actual piracy that takes place in the real world. Obviously some percentage of Super Meat Boy’s playerbase have downloaded the game illegally, but this hasn’t really eaten into the number of players who have paid for the game – my fellow DarkZero hosts and I have bought it five times, just between the three of us. My understanding (based mostly on unsubstantiated internet comments) is that they’ve sold around half a million copies, and for a small indie studio that will pay for a lot of pizza and Red Bull.

Still, I guess in the eyes of the mainstream press this seems like an incredible new perspective – generally speaking, the industry line is that piracy is a terrible crime that hurts everyone. Team Meat seem to think that a certain level of piracy is unavoidable, and can be advantageous in a viral advertising kind of way – people who pirate the game and enjoy it will enthuse about it on blogs and forums, which will encourage other people to buy the game at least. Lots of news sites started quoting our interview (sadly not the anecdote about working in Blockbuster) and linking back to our little podcast. Overnight, our listener figures jumped up by a factor of 10; admittedly, that still wasn’t saying much.

This really hadn’t been the plan at all – otherwise we would have put the podcast on a more stable server, to handle the sudden traffic bloom – but in hindsight I suppose we should have been more prepared. The whole point of the exercise was to make a show that was new and interesting, and to succeed at this would naturally bring more listeners in, so we should have seen it coming. I remember at one point during the editing process we discussed whether to contact news sites and leak some of the more controversial lines, but decided that seemed kinda shallow and could misrepresent our guests. We didn’t realise that the other reporters would pick the show apart and do just that anyway!

And Then This Happened

IGN.com

A week or two after the podcast went out, IGN posted their own interview with Team Meat about piracy and the not-giving-a-fuck thereof. They asked a series of very direct questions about the same subjects they had already discussed on our podcast, and wrote it all up without mentioning DarkZero or any of the other sites who had covered the ‘story’. Later they even wrote a follow-up piece about how their exclusive interview had inspired some pirates to buy legit copies of the game by way of apology.

Some of our journalist friends thought this was bad manners on IGN’s part. Some of our listeners were absolutely livid, barracking their editors over Twitter. Personally, it doesn’t bother me much! I pretty much expect monolithic corporate entities like IGN to stomp on tiny operations like DarkZero without a second thought – the fact that every other news site had given us a link and a name-check had genuinely surprised me. In the same way that public recognition on larger sites is a great honour for us, I guess those same sites could find our ‘scoop’ embarrassing – I can appreciate that they might want to break that link to save face, and since they took the time to do their own extended interview on the subject then personally I consider it fair play.

More importantly – for me, at least – the whole style of their article is exactly the kind of thing we wanted to get away from. It focuses on the single issue that the publication wants to cover instead of giving the guests the freedom to say what they want – which is how this whole story came out in the first place! Maybe if IGN had a more sincere, open-minded approach to their interviews then they wouldn’t need to take story leads from scruffy graduates recording Skype conversations for no money? I’m not kidding myself that anybody else would care about this argument, but it does help me go to bed with a nice smug glow (…and no money).

The Bigger Picture

The difference between professional and amateur games journalism isn’t money; it’s access. You might also say it’s about experience and talent, but that’s missing the point – those are personal qualities that don’t just fall into your lap the instant you get hired. One of the reasons why we approached Team Meat was because they’re a small indie studio – you can email the guys and reasonably expect a normal, human response. By comparison, every professional game developer we have approached – admittedly, not many yet – has either ignored us completely or bounced us towards their PR representatives, who have ignored us in their stead.

DarkZero is a tiny fish in a HUGE pond, and the games industry does not seem interested in talking to us. What brief negotiations we do have seem to focus around our download figures, or our position in the iTunes podcast chart (which is, in itself, bullshit – while walking around the show floor at GDC, half a dozen different PR companies gave me cards offering iTunes reviews and subscriptions designed to artificially boost my product’s ranking, whatever that product was). As a general rule, PR reps are only willing to allow access to the creatives they represent if we can guarantee a large audience, otherwise it’s just not considered worth their time – and I’m pretty sure they would baulk at the idea of talking for two hours without promoting the latest product.

Astral Dreadnoughts May Look Strangely Familiar to Doom Players

I can’t be the only person who finds that a little sad, right? I’ve played games my whole life, and I’ve always been interested in hearing more from the people who make them. Speaking as a game designer, I know that it’s often the hobbies and interests outside of gaming that provide the biggest inspiration and influence on a person’s work – Pikmin, Nintendogs, Wii Fit and Wii Music all came from Miyamoto’s home life, The Legend of Zelda and Pokémon were inspired by rural childhood exploits and insect collections, Doom and Final Fantasy ripped half of their monster designs out of the Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual – and yet the only designers who seem to be routinely asked about their personal interests are leftfield pseuds like Will Wright and Keita Takahashi.

Obviously, well-known developers simply don’t have time to talk to every Tom, Dick and Harry who asks for an interview. We bear this in mind when deciding who to contact – we try to focus on people who have done interesting work but don’t get the attention we think they deserve. But even so, it upsets me that more established journalists don’t seem to be asking these questions – the whole point of our interview series is that it will help us carve out a unique position, but this position we’re taking shouldn’t be unique at all. Why aren’t we seeing this stuff weekly on sites like IGN or Gamespot? I think it boils down to the relationship between publishers and the specialist press.

The Media-Industrial Complex

Publishers are profit-driven organisations. For argument’s sake, let’s assume that this is ethical. Put simply, publishers fund game development in exchange for controlling rights over the distribution, marketing and sale of the finished product. Within their promotional role it is in their interest to secure positive press coverage, to try and maximise the return on their investment. It is therefore in their interest to ‘encourage’ positive media coverage from journalists, by giving them access to exclusive information and indulging them with promotional gifts and trips; or by threatening to deny them these same perks, or in some cases withdraw the advertising revenue that many specialist gaming publications depend upon. In this manner, publishers routinely attempt to align the interests of the press with their own. They often succeed, to at least some degree.

Usually these arguments arise in relation to corrupt review scores, but we’ll put that aside for today; my point is that publishers always have a new product to sell, and it’s in their interest to keep their customers – by way of journalists – focused on that. The reason why developer interviews often sound like advertisements for forthcoming games is because that is precisely the function they are intended to serve. Talking about other games, asking a game designer about their favourite movies, or introducing ‘negative’ questions like “What’s the worst game you’ve played so far this year?” can pull the conversation dangerously off-message. Despite occasional disagreements with retailers, developers, the press and sometimes even their own PR teams, publishers generally succeed in keeping the different branches of the industry running smoothly as a single machine, intent on keeping consumers focused on the next new product instead of appreciating what we have already.

I imagine some PR departments would consider our interview a bit of a trainwreck – it’s purile and silly and doesn’t promote anything. But in practice it turned out to be minor coup! Besides the obvious publicity, the good will gained from the gaming community purely on the strength of them coming out and expressing some honest opinions in a human manner actually led to some unexpected sales! Considering how much money the industry spends on anti-piracy tools such as DRM, it’s pretty incredible to learn that some people will pay money for a game they’ve already stolen if you just talk to them honestly.

I think it’s due to the human touch. Publishers are faceless corporate entities – or worse, corporate entities with ‘faces’ like Bobby Kotick and John Riccitello. Pirates often rationalise their behaviour by saying these organisations are too big to care about one lost sale, and I think when Ed and Tommy came out and explicitly stated that they don’t care, it kinda reminded people that they were normal human beings with rent to pay and food to buy. Their attitude to piracy is irrelevant – the pirates identify with them as human beings, much more than the media conglomerates forcing the patronising “PIRACY IS THEFT” message down their throats (NB. Piracy isn’t cool, but to call it theft is an oversimplification).

In many respects, the way the games industry goes about its business – cultural practices that have developed during 20 years of very rapid market evolution – seems counterproductive. Perhaps it’s a question of old media clashing with new? Or new media clashing with even newer media and looking strangely out of touch. It may all make sense from a traditional business perspective, but, as discussed in the Team Meat interview, some of these modes of thinking just seem outdated.

A Recent Example

A couple of weeks ago Eurogamer reported a tip-off they’d been sent that Borderlands 2 was in development and could be released as soon as 2012. Gearbox CEO Randy Pitchford responded with a tweet to dismiss this as “shoddy journalism”. The very next day an official announcement was made that Borderlands 2 was indeed in development, and that Game Insider would have an exclusive first-look at the game in the next issue. Eurogamer’s “shoddy journalism” was, in fact, 100% accurate.

By all accounts, the problem here was that the publisher had signed an exclusivity deal with Game Informer, and for that to carry weight other outlets are required to keep their mouths shut. My understanding is that this is quite common practice – journalists don’t want to break their NDAs and news embargoes because they could be blacklisted by publishers, hampering their careers. But how many people can a publisher silence? Turns out, it’s surprisingly common for smaller news outlets to unwittingly break embargoes, simply because the information is out there and they’re not considered important enough to be told that it’s a secret. I am reminded of DarkZero’s stunningly accurate prediction of the Wii U’s key features in the run-up to E3! Is it possible that other journalists knew what was coming, but knew better than to talk about it?

While you’re thinking about that, think about this: Game Informer is owned by Gamestop, who happen to be one of the biggest specialist game retailers in the world. The way I see it, this makes Game Informer one of the few magazines with real economic muscle to hold against game publishers!

So what?

To put my complaint as simply as possible, I hate the way the games industry is always pushing new products because it forces smaller and older games out of the public eye. I’d like society at large to develop a greater understanding of games and appreciate their role as cultural artefacts, but this is difficult when the industry’s PR wing continues to promote the idea that fancy graphics, tasteless gameplay or greater stats make for a better game. That stuff has the opposite effect, promoting the idea that games are shallow diversion for idle teens.

In some ways this is an area in which the industry is improving, when you consider all the remakes and downloadable emulator games that are available these days, but I think there’s still a lot of improvements to make – I’d love to see more companies follow the lead of studios like id and Rockstar, who have released some of their most famous classic games for free instead of packaging them up in an overpriced anniversary bundle. I’d also like to see a higher level of analytical discourse about games! Again, this is something that does exist, but mostly just in indie publications and unread blogs such as my own. I’d like to see more games designers come out and talk about their inspirations, and explain the nuts and bolts of how they developed their ideas to fit within the context of their game. In short, I’d like to see more honesty – but that’s pretty much true of life in general, not just within the games industry.

BREAKDOWN! 123

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