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.