Sunday, 6 November 2011

Holy Batman

There is an obsession with games and stories. In general I think that gamers don't give a hoot about story but they do crave a context and consequence to their actions in the game. Lots of games struggle to give their actions a reason or a wider meaning and the player feels like they are going through the motions, rather than achieving. In a new game the world and it's rules have to be established and at the same time it has to show the player what hey can do in the world. While all this is happening the game has to keep the player entertained. Drop any one of these balls as you juggle them and the player will get dissatisfied and abandon the game for a new distraction.

One of the smartest things a game could do is start with a known quantity. Start with an established world and an established character with well understood abilities. The player would then be able to focus on how to play.

So this is what Rocksteady did. A very clever move. But their Batman games could easily have been like so many licensed games, using the protagonist as a crutch to prop up a game that they already knew how to make. I think what they did was something quite remarkable.

The Rocksteady guys know Batman. What they chose to do was to bring the Batman that they knew to the game. And the people who play the game and know the Batman will know this is the character that has been established for over 70 years. (As a side note, there will be a Batman long after people have forgotten Marcus Fenix, Master Chief or Nathan Drake). There must have been greenlight meetings and discussions with marketing where Rocksteady spoke about vague but powerful concepts such as 'feeling' like the Batman, about the Batmans motivation and his responses to a situation, about being authentic to the spirit of Batman. These kinds of vague concepts scare the tar out of business people, but let me tell you, this is the very stuff that makes the Arkham games stand out. So I should also thank Warner Brothers for having enough faith in Rocksteady to trust them with making a Batman game the way it should have always been made.

The first and most important feature is Detective Vision. If you or I walked into a room and it was full of thugs, we'd last about a half minute. The Batman eats that sort of situation for breakfast. The questio is how can the player feel like Batman but not have the fight choreographed or played as an interactive cut-scene. This needs a design solution and so we come to detective vision. It allows the player to see through walls, to identify oppponents and how they are armed. The player can plan an attack in an approximation of the choices the Batman would make in that situation. Combined with the Batmans grapple and some scenery to allow Batman to disappear and suddenly each encounter is a playground for the player to be Batman. It is very satisfying to pick off the opponents one by one and it feels like the Batman going to work just like he does in the movies, comics and books.

But this freedom would make a poor game. If the Batman could always skip away and recover his health the game loses it's challenge. So the game uses an intelligent mechanic that recognises when you start a combat. For the duration of the fight your energy bar is finite, when the fight is complete the game replenishes it. Each fight becomes a moment to moment battle, but the game is not reduced to a series of guerilla skirmishes. It's the sort of solution that you almost ignore, and thats because it works so well.

The game is full of stuff like this. Take the grappling hook and Batmans gliding. It's an incredibly powerful manouver yet it takes some practice. The game doesn't artificially stop you using it, instead it is built to cope with the player doing what they want. And the freedeom encourages you to experiment and push the limits of what Batman can do.

There's so much attention to detail it's impossible not to be impressed. The Catwoman costume is taken from the Ed Brubaker and Darwyn Cooke run of the Catwoman comic. The Penguin has had a fantastic original makeover that seems to be in the spirit of Azzarello and Bermejo's Joker graphic novel. Gotham itself is a patchwork of some of the most famous landmarks from that city. Some of the incredible architectural design work that was done by Anto Furst for the Tim Burton Batman movies (and then incorporated back into the comics) seems to be the inspiration for the Wonder city segment of Gotham. Then there are some great but underused characters like Deadshot, Hugo Strange, Azrael and Ras A Guhl. I got a thrill just seeing them in the game. And the little touches that showed a knowledge of the Batman books kept coming. The ninja bodyguards of Talia had costumes that are based on Lady Shiva one of the greatest and deadliest martial artists in the DC Universe. It's a touch that most people won't appreciate but I got a real kick out of. It's an attention to detail that shouts quality. I think this sort of quality shines through, so anyone that plays the game will feel the quality even if they don't appreciate the subtleties.

And it's not a perfect game. For example I think the characters with jamming devices that ruin Batmans Detective vision is too gamey. It makes sense as part of the game but it doesn't entirely make sense of Batmans abilities. I hat that you can't fly down to ground level from the top of the Wonder tower. I can see things that will be improved as the series progresses.

But more importantly I have hopes that Rocksteady expands in the future. The DC Universe is vast and ripe for  more games made with this same care and attention. Even in gotham there are loads of options, The Demon - Etrigan (and his host Jason Blood) live in Gotham, The Huntress, Nightwing, Red Robin. It's not a huge jump to imagine a Green Arrow game, or harnessing some of the racing studio talent in the UK and making a Flash game. That doesn't even take into account the things you can do with Batman that follow recent comics. Grant Morrison established an international network of Batmen in Batman Incorporated. It's an idea that would allow Rockstar to expand beyond the confines of Arkham and create more diversity in a Batman title. It's very hard to contain my excitement now someone has made a credible comic book game.

I hope very much that Warner Brothers understands the potential that Rocksteady have created. I hope they choose to invest and expand and make more of their properties. And I hope they appreciate that by giving their characters to people who show respect and have the skill to make a game that stays true to the concept they are building a very strong future.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Hard work - making bad games?

Crunch is the inevitable conclusion to a games project. The argument is that a well planned project shouldn't need overtime or late nights. I think that crunch is impossible to avoid because it's human nature. The deadline to submit the game is exactly the same as the first night of a show, or the final exam or packing your case for a long holiday. The truth is if the 'test' is something you care about you want to do the best you can and because we believe in hard work we like to keep working as late as possible hoping that the extra effort will make the final result more favourable.
The games industry is generously decorated with stories about features being dumped into games at the last minute. Invariably the features are essential or pivotal or what made the game so successful. I'm sure you'll find the stories about Links spin attack in the Zelda games and the radar in Elite if you're not sure what I'm talking about. I'm sure that these stories are true, but lets be realistic here. Developers are hardly going to tell you stories of the games that were messed up by changes made at the last minute. Even if they did, would you believe them? Wouldn't you just think 'idiot', wasn't it obvious this was wrong. Still the last minute miracle is a fond and powerful belief in game development.
I also believe that hard work, putting in the hours feels good. Like when you work out at the gym or order a salad instead of pie and chips. There's a protestant work ethic, a masochistic pleasure in working through tough times. I think this works on several levels. First of all there's a team spirit feel, pitching in against the odds (even if the odds were stacked against you by yourself). Secondly the crunch is a time in a project when you all have piles of work to do and you can make progress. Everyday you have a full set of tasks and by the end of the day you've made significant contributions to finishing the project. That feels good. Another factor is bonus. Often a team has some cash incentive tied to finishing the game on time. Earning cash is always worth a bit of hard work.
Lets just recap a minute. I'm saying people like working hard when they feel they are making significant contribution, when they can be given a clear set of tasks that they can achieve, when they are working for a valued reward and when they are part of a team.
Games are entertainment and much to the annoyance of the business guys who supply the cash, it's not a predictable result. When you start making a game you assume that some things are going to 'work' but they don't always and then you have to 'fix' them. this takes time. Time you didn't plan to spend. If you don't keep your eye on the ball, if you didn't start with a strong idea about what your game is about at the start then these nasty surprises are bound to happen. They will define your game and you'll spend more time returning to them to work on them. The problem with this is that the time spent here is spent shoring up the game, rather than pushing it forward. It's a matter of bringing up the worst parts up to standard.
The danger here is that the hard work is spent making something that's just 'alright'. The hard work can cover up flaws in design and planning.
Here's the danger. A project can pass into crunch period and the team can work hard, possibly even feeling good about doing the work but the result of the extra hours may just be making a bad design or plan - less bad. Quite frankly that isn't good enough. There's nothing I dispise more than waste. wasted talent, wasted energy, wasted work. At the moment the only solutions I can see, have to be made when the foundations of the game are laid. That means the team can be signed up to make a game bound to fail. All their best efforts will just make up for poor design and planning.
We really need to throw the responsibility for this situation back on the people who agree to make a game. Those unknown executives in the grrenlight meetings approving funding for game X,Y and Z. Why aren't those people held responsible for the decisions that they make. Why don't they try harder to understand what makes a game successful and how they can spot that potential earlier on. Instead they throw money around (or withhold it) without any consequence.
Where are our equivalents to the X-factor judges? Were are our talent scouts who can see the 14yr old footballers that will become the next Rooney or Beckham? Where are the sackings for those managers who consistently back losers or push mediocre games forwards, while great games go unmade?

Monday, 19 September 2011

Design or excuse?

I've worked on developing games on various platforms and very often something crops up that makes my tiny brain explode. It's one of those things that feels like it's come out of Catch 22 or some other distopian nightmare.
Some very cleverpeople go away and in their fevered black magic covens, they create a new bit of hardware. Then they show it off and announce it and then they give it to the game designers. Sounds fine doesn't it? I mean they want games for their new hardware so they should hand it over to a designer when that little job needs doing, and they can then go back into their chambers and work on the next machine for about five years time.
But recently the trend is to make strange things.
These are things you didn't ask for and your not sure what they are for. I don't want to pin a blame tail on a particular donkey here because each of the big donkeys has their own version of this, but how about I give you some examples?
Well there was the controller without a 'rumble' feature but with tilt recognition. The handheld with a camera facing in and out. How about a webcam that can track your movements as long as you're standing up. Or a device that you can control by touching a part of it that you can't see.
At some point someone in the corporate chain thought that these are excellent features and we should not hold them back from the public any longer. And hey presto new hardware is created with a headline grabbing novelty feature! Then the journalists who like new hardware stories and want big new headlines ask about the new novelty feature. What is it for? Will it usher in a new golden age of gaming. And in response the big corporation feeds them the idea that they wrote on the back of a fag packet when they put the feature in.... Oh it can be used for X but we're excited to see what our brilliant game designers come up with.
The thing is, if it takes a genius to come up with a great and novel use for new hardware feature X it's really not much of a feature. If however you can think of 50 great ways to use the feature it's a real winner and is likely to be used in different and remarkable ways by everyone who wants to make games on your new hardware. It's really that simple. If it's hard to tink of 3 ways to use it, it's a pretty rubbish feature and you are going to be disappointed, in fact the feature will vanish and probably never return in future hardware iterations.
So is it just that designers are lazy and not doing thier job? Well I like to think of it more as a really unfunny, expensive version of 80's panel show - 'Whose Line is it Anyway'. Where the hardware boffins are like Clive Anderson throwing out random crap to their panelists (the designers) and asking them to create comedy gold. Yes sometimes it works, but mainly it's just OK, or forgettable or downright embarassing.
Real world examples?
Again let me stress I'm not out to make scapegoats here but:
Lair - a terrible game from a company that made pretty good games in this genre until they were asked to support a feature. And feature support was more important than creating a great game.
Joyride - see above
In fact i'm already bored of this.
What people want is great games. They don't really care about the new hardware features unless they improve their experience. And lets face it, if, when you're building the game, you use the traditional controls on a day to day basis and only switch to the new hardware features as a last resort, it means the new bits aren't great.
Please stop foisting 'features' on designers and then chaining them to the albatross as it's lifeless corpse drags them to the ocean depths.
We want cool new stuff don't we? Designers love shiney new hardware features to test to the limits. So what needs to happen is that designers are involved right from the get go - designing new hardware features. If your tame designers can't think of dozens of new ways to make their games better with the new hardware feature then the chances are it's a oven ready Dodo.
At present the headlines grabbed by the new features are a short-term gimic. They soon get found out to be shallow and pointless, but you have to keep building them in to the hardware for years to come. Save the silicon and do the work up front. Find out if it's a gimic or a genuine improvement by involving the people who are going to have to use it from the get go.
We are designers, people. We are not here to build the excuses for your technical folly!

Monday, 1 August 2011


Last time I wrote I was talking about some people that inspired me. It was about the creative people that make me want to make. Importantly those people didn't really include anyone from the games industry because I'm not sure of the virtues of canabalism.
This time I'd like to talk about my working life. I didn't leave school and start making games. I've had a couple of decent jobs before I got into the game industry and I think my experiences in those careers taught me something pretty valuable. Once again i'd say that bringing a varied experience to games is a benefit. New perspectives and ways of working help open up the future of making games and challenge our thinking.
When I left school I went away to train to be a teacher. Teaching is about getting information across to your pupils and ideally making it entertaining enough so that it sticks. In addition a teacher establishes the rules of their classroom so that the pupils feel secure and everyone has equal opportunity to learn. A teacher designs experiences for his class tailoring them to the needs of the set of individuals that happen to be in that group at that time.
I learned at Exeter University and one of the most important elements of the course was the 'reflective teacher'. What this meant was that instead of rushing headlong from day to day wondering why things weren't going as planned you'd sit down and look at some things to improve. Try them out the next day. Take a step forward, take a step back. Keep trying and keep pushing to improve. I really think that it's something that is built into me. Some people say that I think too much. The important thing is to think constructively, stop just reacting, make a plan, test it out. I am still amazed that a game takes anything between 9 months and a year to produce and yet there is so much that is decided on the spur of the moment. Planning is almost always a few days before you plunge in, and the biggest culprits are the guys with the most to lose. I'm sure they'd say it was reactine to the fast pace of the industry but it feels more like an excuse to dither and defer important decisions until the last minute. theadvantage here is that you can look descisive and dynamic where the truth is you wouldn't need to be if you'd made a robust plan and stuck to it. (Whoops, started ranting).
After teaching I worked for Toyota, on the factory line spraying cars. Toyota was a good experience for me. What can't be underestimated was that it was physical work and I worked shifts. I soon appreciated what a days work could be like. A car passed down the line every 185 seconds and even though the work was repetitive I was never short of anything to do. When I started work testing games I sat down all day and was genuinely terrified that someone would see me just playing and breaking games, then sack me. Took me over a year to stop looking over my shoulder. I learned to fill my time, and I learned to be frustrated when hard work didn't solve all the problems.
Toyota believed in a process of tiny improvements. They asked for these improvements from the people doing the job. The tiny improvements helped the people who worked on the line, they were cheap and were trialed before they were implemented. (Trialing new ideas to see if they work before you commit seems smart when the same mistake repeated every 185 seconds will give you almost 300 errors per shift per day). The improvements allowed the people working to be invested in their job and they benefitted from their interest. Seems there's something to be learned there.
Toyota was a factory making quality cars repeatedly. Because I could do my work automatically I could spend a decent portion of my shift thinking about games. After four years I was ready for a new challenge and at the time Toyota was full of very able staff. At this point I decided to apply for jobs that I'd like to do. A few months later Rare took me on as a tester.
Testing was a good base for a designer. As a tester you try to break games. There is a creative element to test to really try to do things wrong to cause problems. the important bit is that you get to see how those problems are fixed and often they are design choices. You can learn quite a lot about the way games are actually built and the thought processes behind them.
To be honest there isn't really a time when you can't learn. And it is important to learn how not to do things as well as the right way to do them.
Many young people who want to work in games apply for university courses. I'm not convinced that this is the best way to be what they want to be. It's more important to get a broader experience of life and bring that experience to bear on games. This will expand games. It will bring successful work practice from industry into the creative games industry. And all the time you can build games - games out of paper and dice, games with free software or modifications of games. It's really important to understand why games work, what mechanics are used to keep the playwrs interest and what appeals to a player. Also value your failures - there are lessons to be learned in failure if you can stand to look back and identify the mistakes.
These things are swirled through me like a slice of marble cake. They inform my design decisions and I hope they give my most ridiculous ideas a connection to practical considerations. It's nothing to imagine something fantastic, the real task is making it work.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011


Making games should be easy. Everyone knows how to have fum, you just need to put that stuff into a game and wait for the cash to roll in. It's the same for comedians too, everyone knows how to laugh so a comedians job should be simple. I mean the streets are clogged with great comedians, can't catch a bus without hearing a hilarious one liner.
But things aren't quite so simple, damn it.
Designing is about a ideas, a vision, an understanding of how to pin those two things down and some luck. I'm pretty sure that applies to all design not just games design.
So lots of you have played games and know what you like, and currently what you'd like is some more of the games that you enjoy the most. So maybe games design is as simple as grabbing the best games dismantling them and then rebuilding them 'better'. It's an analysts job.
The truth is that if you canabalise games and never reach beyond that, you just dig yourself into a hole. You'll keep the most hardcore of your fans but they will decrease over time as they realise that they are just buying the same thing time after time.
That said it's hard to ignore the way games are put together, and the way that they solve problems. A designer would be a fool to ignore well thought out solutions to common issues. It'd be like inventing a cart and deciding on square wheels because all the other vehicles have round wheels. Although I admit it's not always easy to see whether something is a timeless classic or a incredibly fashionable fad, without a few years of hindsight.
So where should games designers get their inspiration from? To be honest it doesn't matter but I'd strongly suggest other games shouldn't be the first port of call. As an example consider the phenomenom of Guitar Hero. The genesis of that game was a love of music and a desire to let the player feel as if they were playing their favourite rock songs. The designers identified the joy in the experience of playing a guitar and translated it into something that could be played and enjoyed by a wider audience.
Since i started making games for a living i can't stop looking at what people enjoy, try to prise it apart to find out what aspects of it makes it enjoyable and then see if I can impose a set of rules that might make the good experience into a compelling game idea.
On top of this unnatural habit of trying to pick 'fun' apart there are some people who inspire. These people are creative to the point where they change their chosen field forever, and more importantly cause ripples in the wider culture beyond their field.
My first is Alan Moore.
If you don't know who Alan Moore is I'd recommend you go look him up on wikipedia.
He is an inspiration to me because his work is always the highest quality. His work is important beyond the realm of comics where he is one of the legendary creators. He continues to work pushing the boundaries of comics as well and shunning the commercial side of his work in favour of trying something new. He recalls the comics from his childhood but he brought something more. He wasn't content to re-create what he loved, he pushed it further had the vision to see there was more to comics refused to believe that comics had stopped evolving. His work is powerful, it has integrity and it is still popular with a wide audience. This is a rare and incredible thing and I feel lucky to be around at the same time as Mr Moore, seeing what he will create next, as, it, happens.
My second is the Beatles.
Possibly the most successful band of all time. Obviously their music captured the hearts and minds of several generations. But that success could be a lucky break, or a set a of freak conditions that may never happen again. What makes the Beatles special for me is that they made brilliant records all through their career. What they didn't do was stand still. they didn't make the same records over and over again, they revelled in a huge variety of musical styles and they were given space to experiment and develop. They kept bringing new sounds to the public and the public went on a whirlwind ride of waves of new music for 9 years. It's something that wouldn't be allowed these days. Such a big commercial concern is controlled by the people who fund the business. they don't want risks they want to invest and guarantee a return (even in human entertainment, which is as unpredictable and fickle as a feather in a hurricane). The Beatles has touched western culture and has survived the test of time. their songs are as powerful a symbol of human endeavor as the Great Pyramids.
Went a long way from games there but I think my point is:
If we believe that all that games have to offer already exists then we may as well finish now and find something else to keep us amused. If however we are at the beginning of games as culture then lets find our Alan Moores and Beatles and give them what they need to create something significant and enduring.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Size is important.

I am old enough to remember the first telephone being installed at my home. There was a day when the first colour TV arrived, the Christmas when a shiny new VCR arrived. We had piles of books, piles of VHSs tapes and piles of records. I owned piles of tapes; some with music, lots with games. I collect comic books and have a whole shed dedicated to their storage.
Stories and music and games and movies are valuable to me.
Digital media has happened. My tapes changed into CD's, my CD's became mp3's. My stereo shrunk to an i-pod on a dock. The VHS tapes have become recordings on a hard drive running under my TV. All those VHS movies changed into DVD's, some have morphed into Blu-rays. I'm pretty sure that soon they will vanish and the hard-drive will contain all the things I'll ever want to watch. Last birthday the Kindle appeared at our house and now I can foresee the bookshelves gradually emptying.
I've had games on casette tapes, games on discs, games on CD's, games on DVD's, games on Blu-Ray, games I've downloaded. You'll notice that the media for games has changed more than it has for other media. The games industry thrives on technology, it's hungry for the next thing to play with. Just like a spoilt child with a pile of chocolate it'll gobble down the latest tech and be ready for more.
Given that all my music is on one portable device, all my movies can be on the same device, all my books can be on my kindle I'm guessing that people want convenience and power. they want devices that fit into their lives, not that they have to build their lives around. Games ride the front of the technology wave but no-one in games can see that what we want is the same for our games?
Imagine one device that fits in your pocket, holds all the games you've ever bought. Can be hooked up to the TV for the big-screen experience. Imagine being able to buy a game once and being able to play it on any device that you own that can run it. Would be great huh? No more physical media just a hard drive full of all your games and their saves and you can play with anyone in the world at any time where-ever you are.
The big boys are all talking about cloud service and suddenly some of this could be just around the corner.
The thing is I have seen something even better. A way to make your handheld device a social experience. The equivalent of plopping the ipod ina dock and having all your friends dance to the music. Watch the clip.
Imagine being able to project your game onto a wall and you and friends play together in the open air. I know it's a way off but I think this is the future of consoles. Devices you can take and play anywhere. When I watched that clip the first time it was like a mini-revelation. When there is no barrier to when and where we play games, they will become an even more important part of our lives.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Gaming weakness.

I believe in variety in most entertainment. I don't just watch movie thrillers or romantic comedies, I like to choose a movie depending on my mood or the company I'm with. Music is the same, a spot of classical on a Sunday morning while I cook some breakfast, a bit of Prodigy as I put on a good shirt before I go out.
Full priced console games usually require more of a commitment, you start playing and keep re-visiting (like reading pages in a book). I often have several games on the go and choose depending on my mood. I like the variety and I'll play almost anything with one exception. Driving games.
It's almost definitely something in me that struggles with a racing game. I understand how a racing game works and I know how a game can appeal but it just leaves me cold. A long time ago I stopped playing games because they were worthy or critically acclaimed and instead chose to play games because I enjoy them. Simple as.
One of the reasons I might not enjoy racing is that I'm not great at driving myself. I'm safe but that's as far as it goes. So maybe this is one of the reasons I don't enjoy the thrill of virtual driving. But driving games don't really simulate the sensations of driving anyway. Cornering in a car you feel the vehicle lean feel the forces on your body. A game played in the comfort of your own room can't give you that.
A flying simulation doesn't feel like flying a plane, but I probably can never be a pilot so the experience is good enough to give me something I wouldn't normally get a chance to do.
But if you love cars and a game lets you drive the kind of cars you can only dream about then that's a good reason to play. But I was about fifteen when I stopped keeping an interest in the latest cars and their performance statistics. Once again, more of a flaw with me than of the great racing game makers.
A race is a very simple concept. Cover the distance as quickly as you can, do it quicker than your competitors or beat the clock. You win or lose, simple. But if that was all there was to racing games they wouldn't be so popular. I think the truth is that there is joy in mastering the control of something. In a race game that control is of the car you have. Like learning to play an instrument you play and practice and refine your skills controlling a car. When you race you pit your skill against the skill of your opponents.
The race begins and you use your control skill to drive the car as fast as you can but you don't know the course and the first tight bend and you skid off.
So not only do you need to master the control of the car but you must also spend time on the course learning the best lines and clipping the corners to get a fast time.
Now you have excellent control of your vehicle and you've prectised the course so you know it inside out, but when the race begins the other cars on the track bump you and knock you out. In fact even when you try to avoid hitting the other cars you can't help nudging a barrier and that's the end of your race.
Let's recap, to win you have to master control of your car, you need to know the course well enough to make the most of it, you need to have good judgement or pure luck to beat your opponents and you need to have the patience to re-try if any one of these things goes wrong. It's a pretty hardcore experience, and while most genres of games have softened race games are still this brutal.
And those are the main reasons that a new racing game announcement doesn't fill me with joy.
But I have played racing games and even bought some. the Mario Kart series always appeals. the ridiculous weapons to even up the skill levels of the opponents. I spent a long time playing Midtown Madness some time ago, the point to point races were a refreshing change from all those circuits. Most recently the brilliant Burnout Paradise, which gives you another option. You can master your car and know the course or you can drive your opponents into the walls. The driving area is a huge playground, open world and full of stuff to do so you can just enjoy zipping around and you don't need to beat ridiculously tough race after ridiculously tough race to progress.
So I guess I was lying. I will play racing games but they need to make me feel good rather than punishing me for every wrong twitch of the wheel. They need to be full of fun, not just be fun when you win against terrible odds. I guess there's hope for me yet.

Friday, 20 May 2011

Emotional support.

A recent family bereavement has left me feeling very low. I'm more than usually apathetic. nothing really keeps my attention and I just can't be bothered. Watching T.V. is dull, when I try to do something constructive I just can't see the point. I know it's part of my grief and things will improve but at the moment everything is too much trouble. It's not really my nature to nothing so I feel restless. The feeling is like when you catch a cold and all your food tastes bland. It supresses your appetite because nothing really tastes as it should.
What i have found is that I can play games. I can sit on the sofa and load in a game and play. I'm not especially engaged with the game it's a bit like music on the radio. I can play and appear to be doing something. It keeps be 'busy' but it's like listening to music on the radio, it's just running in the background.
I'm very grateful that games provide this experience for me. The games are alleviatying some of the symptoms and in this awful state I at least am able to feel kind of productive and more settled. Thanks gaming for your comfort.
When I realised that playing was the only thing I could do I was kind of suprised. At first I was genuinely happy that games could fill this function and that maybe this meant that they had more meaning to some people. But my brain wouldn't just stop there. Why was gaming OK and watching a movie not OK?
A part of the solution is the interactivity. Games make me move in response. Make me join in to progress, so if my brain wanders onto something else then the game stops moving and I'm pulled back into the interaction. But the same could be said for shelling peas or some other minor physical activity.
Maybe its the games ability to occupy me with a carefully crafted story. Maybe the virtual lives on screen are so interesting they literally transport me from my current situation into a fantasy world. But in actual fact I think that the opposite was happening. I could progress without full concentration and the game was just a wallpaper to my mental state.
There are some powerful film and TV experiences. They shake you to your core, you have to digest and come to terms with them. Take Schindlers List for example. I'm pretty sure that film would be unwatchable for me in my current state. It's such a powerful emotional experience that I'd really struggle to watch that. Then I tried to think of a game that was (currently) taboo to me for the same reason. There wasn't one.
It could be that because I make games and play games and have been around games since the early '80's that they have no mystery to me. Let's hope that is the case, because if not then we haven't made a single game with enough emotional power to upset a recently bereaved human.
When games become emotionally relevant we are a step closer to some more well accepted forms of media. Even the most basic of soap opera's attempts to stir the emotions of it's audience and not just with shallow thrills.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Goes without saying...

Portal 2 is a wonderful game.
At it's heart the game is a set of logic puzzles. The player has a limited interaction with the world. They can move around the world in first person (including jumping and ducking) and they can shoot the portal gun which allows the play to move between the blue and orange portals. Using this limited interaction you are dropped into a series of challenges and you need to 'get out of that'. Limiting the players interaction is ideal for a puzzle game because you know the puzzle is possible and you have full power over the limited controls you have, so the solution is down to your ability to think laterally. And let me tell you, when you defeat a level you feel like some kind of genius, which is a neat trick to play on a player. Feeling good will always be compelling.
The biggest problem with logic puzzles is that they are a dry subject. Not only that but they are so contrived they seem faintly ridiculous. Consider those math puzzles where the man is running a leaky bath and the water is dripping out at one rate and the taps pour in at another rate. The whole notion is farcical. Valve understands this. The humour in the game is a great way to explain the foolish situations you find yourself in. Laughing at the situations you find yourself in softens the harsh brain twists you're about to solve.
Another thing that strikes me about the humour in the game is the nature of jokes. Many jokes are puns or twists on meaning. Interestingly that kind of flipping of perception is exactly the kind of thought process that you need to solve the puzzles in the game. So maybe the humour helps put you in the right frame of mind to solve the puzzles?
So here are a series of puzzles and although the first person view is fairly novel you have to wonder what this kind of game can offer a modern gamer. Well because the puzzles and the humour work on one level there s plenty of room to have a story layered on top. You could play this game with the sound turned down and it would be rewarding, but the story is just another attraction thrown in for the same price. The story provides greater meaning, it makes the whole experience richer. Like pepper sauce on an exquisitely cooked steak.
When you break the portal function down, it's a transportation device. The new uses of the portal tend to be things that project. Light bridges, tractor beams, and jets of fluid all appear. They have some unique features but most importantly you use them in the same way, projecting them into the portal and out in the place you want.
I also couldn't help noticing that the game really helps you with the puzzles. Your choices are reduced, you can't just use the portal gun anywhere. You can only put the portals where they are needed. And once again the game flatters you by concealing this. The story tells you that the portal labs are broken down and in dis-repair. The portal tolerant panels are hanging off the walls and it looks naturally ruined, but of course the layout is perfectly designed for the puzzle.
So portal is expertly put together and a great gaming experience. A successful formula is like a honey trap but no-one seemes to have cloned Portals success. Why?
Well it's not easy to copy. Apart from a set of crazy lab tests what other context would fit those logic puzzles. Thats a tough one before you really dig in. Would Portal work without the humour, would it work without the portal gun itself? Portal is complex and beautifully balanced, but more importantly it's risky. Valve could keep on making shooters and selling them year in year out. They aren't just interested in money, they use their success to push forward and try new things. This is vital for the industry at a time when studios are shrinking, and the number of game genres seems to be stagnating. If you are successful you shouldn't sit on your profit and wait to grow old, you should use it to push forward, break new ground and make games a better industry to be a part of.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

It is NOT a movie.

New media has to find some legitimacy. It has to prove it is part of the culture, it has to be an accepted part of society. The easiest way of doing that is to prove it's a good business. Almost anything is alright in a capitalist society, no matter how silly, or flimsy if you can prove that the people involved are making stacks of cash off it. Business is important, it allows talented people to be payed to do what they are good at, but there has to be more or you may as well be packing sardines for a living. Hey its a profitable business.
Games quickly hooked onto the movie industry as it's role model and competitor. Why movies? Well movies are creative forms of entertainment, they are created in studios. Games have spectacle like a blockbuster movie and.... well that's about it really.
What makes the comparison so appealing? Well movies are glamorous, the actors become superstars recognised globally. Movie profits are vast (when a movie is successful).
The truth is games and movies are very different beasts. A movie shoots in a few months and normally is completed in much less than 12 months. Games take much longer. You can make a game in a shorter time but if you compare a big blockbuster movie to an equivalent game the game takes much much longer. Gran Turismo 5 took five years! Duke Nukem Forever, well that's exceptional.
A movie is seen by tens or hundreds of millions of people. A best selling console game sells about 8 million copies. The difference here is the price of admission. A movie ticket is pretty cheap - approximately £5 compared to £35 for a game. This is why the game industry appears to make movie amounts of money.
The movie industry has a chain of outlets for it's product. Starting at the cinema, then DVD and BluRay sales, download, movie rental, satelite and terrestrial TV rights not to mention movie merchandise and licensing. It's no wonder so many people see movies, the movies reach out to them and play wherever they fit in a persons life. To play games you have to buy a console and sit in your room. It's a much more limited experience. Recent games on Facebook have shown that if games reach out to the audience the audience will respond. And the numbers of people playing those games is much closer to the movie experience, even if the content is not the epic content we expect from a blockbuster. As for games secondary market, it's a disaster. The problem with games is the hardware. The best we can do is sell the old games at a cheaper price with altered packaging. Even worse the retailers have started a secondhand trade that canabalise the market.
Movies are mainstream. There are few people in the world who haven't seen a movie. There are millions of people who have never played a videogame, and have no wish to do so.
Classic movies are still a vital part of human culture. An old movie isn't disposable like a game is, Citizen Kane is still hailed as the greatest movie of all time but it was made with old technology many years ago. This year Star Wars will be released again on Blu-Ray. People still care about it enough to consider buying it again. Can you name a game that's 35+ years old and is still relevant?
I think this list of differences could get pretty huge. The point is that games and movies are very different and so the way we do business needs to be very different. So I started thinking about other industries that Gaming is like and what their business models are.
My first comparison was to Whiskey production. I'm partial to a single malt, Scotch or Irish. Whiskey makers make a batch and sit on it for 5, 8, 10, 12, 18 or 25 years. They know that the time it takes to make a malt is X years so they line up batches and sit on them and as they mature they start the next btach and wait and eventually after the first (and longest) wait they can produce a malt every year. Could we create games like this? Well the time given to the process is important and games do benefit from time spent building, playing, re-building. So this is similar. But Whiskey gets laid down for most of it's maturing period. Labour is negligible whereas games require a team of people all the way through. But staggering game production is great if you can afford it because you get extra time to develop but you maintain shelf space as each game is produced on a regular cycle.
Then I thought about another showbiz example. Theatre productions often involve a committed team of talented people, working to create something incredible. The team often strats work at normal hours but as they get closer to the start of the show they work longer and longer perfecting their show. This is similar to a games development where the team enters crunch to get the huge amount of work done for release. But that's when things change. the theatre team then stay with the show and run it day after day for years. They have time to keep working on the show and honing it to keep the audience coming, even getting them to return and see the show again. A game gets released and the team move onto a new project. Lets have another go.
Architecture is a lot like games. The architect plans a building and then works closely with a specialised team of constructors and builders to get the work done. The construction may take years and the architect must stay with the project as unforseen consequences have an impact on the building. The architect may need to alter the design and priorities may change as the situation develops. This process does sound very similar to the game development process. But there is a fundemental difference. The building project begins with someone comissioning the building. The person who commisions it knows what they want the building to do, and when you create a new building the requirements are factual. For example 'this building must be the tallest in the world', or 'this building must be a home to 5000 people'. The requirements are not vague like they are in the world of entertainment 'people have to love the main character', or 'this has to be the coolest game in the genre'. When the builkding is complete it has a purpose and the design will serve the purpose. There is no chance that the building will fail because the person that comissioned it, did so knowing what they required from the building before they started. Games can be built to specifications but may not be successful for reasons other than the design and quality of the work. That's not specific to games - all entertainment is the same. There are very few sure-fire hits.
So maybe funding games is closest to horse racing. The people funding development just back a horse, and pay for feed and training and when it's ready they let it race and go home rich or sell it for glue.
It doesn't need to be like this.
This is our industry and it looks pretty bleak at the moment. For an industry that rides new techology like a surfer why can't we look ahead and choose how we want to run things? Sure we can chase dollars without looking forward and eventually we'll grab that last dollar and look up to see the paths led us to a cliff edge. Or we can choose to make our industry better than that.
Gaming is still a young industry. It has every chance to find new ways of doing business. It can nurture new talent and make money but we have to be bold enough to realise that we haven't got all the answers here, now. We need to decide what we want and have the courage to chase it.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

I've been playing Dragon Age 2. It's a game that i find myself playing and I kind of disconnect my brain. You know the setting, it's fantasy so theres some orc things and dragons and demons to fight. There are towns and wilderness and lots of helpless people that need you to fetch things.
There are main quests and sub-quests but they are nearly all completed by wandering around and hacking stuff into bloody lumps. I find Fable suffers from the same condition. Combat is the root of the game but the combat is kind of dull. The rich fantasy worlds created in Dragon age and fable are rife with politics and intrigue, but as the player you basically behave like a human lawn mower.
When the game does provide a situation that can be resolved through talking, it doesn't feel like I'm taking control of the situation and using my intelligence and reason. Instead it feels as if I'm looking for the right combination. Get it wrong and I return to the default chopping up gameplay.
Fantasy novels have never been as bland as fantasy games. They are (like good science fiction) an insight into the human condition. Fantasy games are combat games with walking about and occasional puzzles interrupting the fights.
Fantasy games have explored the nature of good and evil, how your actions impact a world but they limit my interactions to such an extent that it doesn't feel like my story. I'm the worlds butler, 'fixing' problems by killing them.
Games like Assassins Creed embrace this. You are an assassin so it seems fair that you'll mainly be killing people but still the game drives you to playing the game the way the game wants you to play. As an example - my character has been sent to a camp of bandits and I have to kill them. The game wants me to walk through the gates and fight, and fight and fight till I reach the boss then fight him. If that were me I'd want to sneak up the river and pour poison into the water. As the bandits drink they fall sick then die. Even better although I've solved the bandit problem, I've tainted the water supply that runs down to the village I was protecting. I need to race to warn them or they will suffer worse than letting the bandits continue stealing.
I also must confess that I'm a completist, I want all the sub quests, I hate thinking that I've missed out on something. But when i played the first Dragon Age I promised myself that I wouldn't play in that way. I'd just play by the seat of my pants, stick by my decisions and play through 'naturally'. It's a liberating experience. I'm playing the sequel the same way. I still spend time mopping up the sub-quests as I go but I will live by my decisions. I think the addictive part of a role playing game is the character development. People love to feel like they are getting better. Wouldn't it be nice if they could do that in any other way than just hacking living things to bits?
So to sum up. I'll complete Dargon Age 2 and mainly I'll have enjoyed it, but I want so much more. More sophistication, more choices and I really don't want to play as a butcher just because that is the only choice the game gives me. Brilliant people make games, they are passionate and imaginative but they set their sights too low. I'd just like to say that when they brak the genre open (and it will happen) I'll be hanging around to scoop that up and shout it from the rooftops.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Did I ever mention the future?

Where is the most exciting place on the planet?
The future.
I'm almost tedious in my belief in the future. Anyone who has spoken to me about the future has recieved the tidal wave of opinions and ideas and my general enthusiasm. The thing is the future is up for grabs, it hasn't happened yet and as time passes it can solidify your ambitions.
I'm lucky enough to work in the video-game industry. I've been playing games at home since the mid eighties. Things have changed and not in a predictable way. Every a new generation of machines pops up the game changes. I love that, I welcome the changes and I embrace the future. I can imagine the things that havn't happened yet and let me tell you 'games' are going to be massive. Not just selling millions or having millions of players but actually have cultural significance. The important thing is that we are still at the start of gaming. Its an on-going story and the future isn't set.
If you buy games, play games or make games you have a chance to shape the future and experience things beyond your imagination.
Technology drives our industry. If you give us more power, or better graphics, motion control, improved sound, rumble, plastic guitars or cloud storage we can use them. We build, we innovate and we push forward. We do this because gaming isn't all it can be yet. So while it seems like the best games are made and the story is all sewn up, that is so very far from the truth. More will come and it won't be the way you think.
Not very secretly I'd like to pushing for the future. I want our industry to be more than it is. I want games to be important to everyone, just as music or movies are. (By the way, games ARE NOT movies or music, so really we shouldn't treat them the same way). The future sends electricity up my spine. It gives me energy and I want to channel that back in and make something amazing.

Monday, 14 March 2011

I was very lucky to see David Cage talking about his latest game -Heavy Rain. If you don't know this game it was made exclusively for the PS3 and you should really stop reading this and go and find out a little more about it.

David Cage is on a mission, he is attempting (one game at a time) to prove that games can be a meaningful and powerful way to tell stories. He spoke with passion and conviction and after Heavy Rains critical and commercial success he really has earned that right. As a game designer he took a vision of how he wanted games to be and he has attempted to build it. I'm sure that he would say that his exploration isn't yet complete and his next game will merge game and story even further. That kind of vision and dedication is what games design should be about.

One part of the session Mr Cage talked about starting a game with a story. He said that instead of finding the story late in game development you should begin with the story you want to tell. From that point on you try to involve the player as much as possible in every aspect of the game. This led onto him saying 'mechanics are evil'. Can a game exist without mechanics? Interestingly this isn't really what he was saying. His point was that you should involve the player by allowing them to 'play' as much as possible. In the case of Heavy Rain the game gave the player the chance to 'play' the mundane. Lay a table, brush your teeth, doesn't sound much like a game you'd want to play? Heavy Rain decides which actions you should participate in and creates an action that can be described with a control pad.

The interesting side effect of being so involved with the characters lives that you grow more attached. These are normal people that do normal things just like you. Just like a good story, the game draws you in by connecting you with the characters and gaining your trust and sympathy.

Heavy Rain has a very intense realistic graphic style. It wants you to believe that the action on screen is real, and you are involved with a real story. The connection with the player must be as easy as possible and any other approach to the graphics would take some acclimatisation. So the realistic graphics are an important part of the design.

The interesting thing is the choice of story. A murder mystery is interesting but of all they story types it is most game-like. As you progress through the story you cannot help guessing who dunnit. The best who dunnits spend most of the time disguising the culprit but leaving the clues necessary for uncovering the plot later in the story. Heavy Rain goes one step further by getting you to play the killer. Because Heavy Rain is a game the disguise is even more deceptive. The game connects you to the characters that you are playing and even allows you to behave 'out of character'. In a story the characters behave as the author allows, in a game the player can impose their behaviour on the characters they control and fool themselves into disguising the clues that are important to the story.

A good story has a beginning, middle and an end. To tell a traditional story the author normally has a hero that experiences events and survives until the final act. The hero can then unravel the whole of the mystery. Heavy rain's story is controlled by the player and because it is a game they can fail as well as succeed. How can the story be revealed in a satisfying way if the hero dies before the tale is told. Heavy Rain fixes this by telling a number of inter-twined stories. No matter what happens one of the selection of characters will survive, not least of which you play the killer. Every possible outcome of the story is covered.

David Cage talked about an 'elastic story'. To explain this bluntly it's like a choose your own adventure book (where the player turns to a new page when they have made a decision). The scenes in Heavy Rain were cut into many smaller scenes and between each scene the game allows the player to intervene and choose the course of action. No matter what the player chooses to do the story can progress (you can see why multiple characters are so important to this 'elastic storytelling'). So David Cage gets to tell his story but he allows a player to play inside, and to do this there is a meticulous plot. Every scene is played out and many outcomes are woven in. The player has a much broader sense of freedom in the game, and the cost of this is building huge quantities of content that may never be seen. It is a brilliant effect but it is a brute force approach.

I don't want to complain about Heavy Rain, I find it a fascinating game, pushing at the boundaries of what games can achieve. What bothers me is that the freedom is still limited. You cannot do any more in Heavy Rain than you can in any other game. The advantage of Heavy Rain is that it has built more of the alternatives. But the player is still experiencing the things that David Cage planned out for them, their only choices are the ones that were put into the game.

Interestingly there are several scenes in the game that require the player to react quickly and perform some more conventional game like actions. These events are normally big ones and can result in the characters death, if the player dosen't succeed. In a game these kinds of things are common place. But in a traditional game the consequences are normally inconsequential. the player can re-attempt and the death is just a short term obstacle. In a story the impact of a characters death is of huge significance. Here Mr Cage supports the story over the player convenience. It's bold and confirms the importance of story in this game. The player can always re-play if they want to explore other paths in the story. The only thing that jars for me here is that so many of the choices made in Heavy Rain were brilliant for introducing games to a new audience. The lack of 'mechanics', the strong plot to drive players through the game, the main-stream plot. The parts of the game that require gamer reflexes seem to be out of place - although they do fit into the context of the story.

Heavy Rain is a marvelous experiment. It works on so many levels but there is still room for more development. I'm sure Mr Cage will continue to push and explore the role of story in game. Anyone interested in the future of games should experience Heavy Rain and let it simmer in their brain for a while. While it may not be the future, it is a powerful attempt to move games out of the chase for the latest hit genres.