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Monday, 28 November 2011

Are The Undead On Their Last Legs?

You have to laugh. You really do.

I have spent just over four years in a University environment now, and watched numerous pitches for different types of games from many, many people. The best ones, without fail, are the fresh-faced and enthusiastic new students; untainted by the often harsh realities of the games industry (heck, even of higher education) and of marketplace and customer requirements, they tend to arrive with some particularly innovative (if completely unfeasible) game ideas.

Of course, there are always one or two each year who inevitably pitch a game revolving around the idea of 'Zombie attack in (insert local landmark here)'. And, every year they inevitably get shot down for being so incredibly unoriginal. This isn't horrible or unfair - zombie games have generally been done to death, and any originality is going to be minimal at best; pitching a game like this is hardly the best way to get the true creative design juices flowing.

At least, that is how it has been in past years. This year however, I am very much looking forward to how these pitches are going to go. The inevitable zombie games will resurface once more I am sure - but this time, when they are pulled up on their highly derivative design, the students will be able to use a really quite unbreakable defence; Call of Duty did it. Red Dead Redemption did it. And they made money.

Yes, of course these games are massively successful on their own, and the zombie add-ons are only to extend the gameplay for the more dedicated players. Still, it is an interesting situation in which some of the world's most prolific developers are releasing games that only one or two years ago would have been deemed a poor use of one's imagination coming from a group of students. Oh how this industry turns on a sixpence.

Zombies on the Moon - if it was pitched by a student designer, they would be politely shown the door...
That is the lighter side of the 'Every Game Should Have A Zombie Mode!' fad that is sweeping the industry. However I would postulate another more probing question: if every game and its Dad has a Zombie mode, will players become densensitised to the zombie as the iconic horror entity that it actually is? Will hours of running and gunning the undead hordes make the threat of the zombie in its original survival horror home wane? Does it even matter? Maybe this is actually a very good thing for the industry. By flooding the marketplace now with a legion of undead games and game add-ons, will developers inadvertently bring about a time when consumers have had enough? 

Could what appears on the surface to be developers being highly unoriginal actually lead to them being forced to think up more original ideas? Will the undead eventually, and rather poetically, die?

Is the zombie simply too firmly ingrained in gaming to ever disappear? Or is there a critical mass, beyond which the undead become uninteresting? Comments below!

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Meta-Warfare and Why The Industry Should Listen to Players

I can't really go through this week and ignore the myriad outbreaks of flaming, biased reviews and articles and general utterly ridiculous pandemonium that the release of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 has so delightfully imparted into our lives.

The tipping point for me at which I could not ignore the goings on any longer was this article in The Metro that attacks users of the aggregation website Metacritic for 'sabotaging' the score of the game, bringing the overall user score as low as 1.7/10 for the PC release. However, as far as a piece of journalism goes, the article doesn't even attempt to offer a balanced standpoint, throwing around some really quite obvious and predominantly childish assertions.

The Metacritic page for the PS3 version of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
3.
Is this huge difference really entirely down to baseless 'fanboy' flaming?
Is this what our beloved industry has come down to?

Yes, there always have, and there always will be, 'fanboys' (and girls). The same goes for the ability of big publishers to encourage positive reviews of their games from different reviewers. It's corrupt, yes, but it will never stop.

If we just take a moment though and take out of consideration the most heavily biased opinions (those that are giving the game 0, 1 or 2 out of 10, and those giving it a perfect 10, or near perfect 9), what exactly are we left with? It is an overwhelming attitude of indifference, and this, I think is the most accurate response to both this game and its direct opposition, Battlefield 3.

The article in The Metro, and other similar sources can bleat all they want about 'biased' users giving the game unfair scores based on nothing in particular; the truth is, that almost all of the reviews giving the game less than 5/10 (and even many of those giving the game favourable scores) highlight one key, obvious issue with the game. It is just the same game with some slightly different maps. Moreover, it is a technological showcase of the Frostbite 2 engine (EDIT: IW Engine - I am clearly so indifferent towards both Call of Duty and Battlefield that I get their engines mixed up) and its technological prowess more than it is a brand new game. For some players this isn't a problem; many gamers genuinely do want more of the same, there's nothing wrong with that. What has irked those players though is being charged an insane premium (up to £50, an almost unheard of retail price nowadays) for the privilege.

This article in The Guardian offers an interesting point for consideration that I was actually considering writing about myself - that of the critical criteria we use to place value on a game. Should we (as reviewers, researchers and players) place more value on innovation and invention than we currently do? After all, when we consider the level of technological progress we are currently at, it seems rather frivolous placing the same value on 'good graphics' as on 'compelling narrative' or 'innovative game systems'. It is I think something that urgently needs to be discussed. As is often said of many things - looks aren't everything.

I think that Activision ought to take this backlash of negative review scores as a warning. Consumers - players - are not stupid. They recognise when they are being stripped of the contents of their wallets and purses for no noticeable return. They recognise protocols such as Elite for what they are - ways of extracting more money from already faithful fans. Surely this is not the way to reward fans; surely creating genuinely new and innovative products for them is the way to do that?

Whether Activision does heed the warning or not remains to be seen - I don't hold out much hope but I may be proven wrong. This franchise-heavy, innovation-averse stage of the industry is not sustainable indefinitely. Something has to give, and I think this reaction is the first sign of cracks appearing...

All comments welcomed - what is your take on this situation? Please - no fanboys ;)

Monday, 24 October 2011

Deadly Premonition, Context, and the Suspension of Disbelief

One of the problems that I am wrestling with in the early stages of my PhD is, how does one study games in a such a way as to end up with meaningful and useful data at the end of it? After all, what works for one genre doesn't work for another; likewise what works for one game, heck even for one player, doesn't work for others. This, to be fair, is one of the primary reasons that I wanted to follow the meandering path of the games researcher; too often have I seen sources both from media and from academia that assumes a black or white approach to the medium of video games. Where a line can be drawn between 'good' and 'bad' game design. That just isn't ever going to work, and is never going to be a practical approach to studying something so fundamentally diverse that people are able to respond to in a multitude of different ways.

As a case in point I would like to focus on a game that I have just finished playing through for the first time - Deadly Premonition, by Rising Star Games. This game manages to single-handedly show an enormous range of responses - and indeed justification for these responses - that people can have to a single product. Reviews have rated this game at both extremes of the scale - from a paltry 2/10, right up to a perfect 10/10. But what is it that makes some players 'miss the point'? How can one game divide opinion so much?

Well the initial issue is that of production values. This is a term I have a problem with, because those players that have referred to the game's poor production values inevitably focus on its PS2-era graphics and clunky control system. This criticism of visuals has become so utterly mundane in this generation that in my opinion, it is hardly worth listening to. These players ignore the fact that production values extend far beyond mere graphical fidelity, stretching into the realms of narrative, camera work and characterisation, and these are areas where Deadly Premonition works its magic.

Agent Francis Morgan is both insane and brilliant all at once.
Not only does the game lovingly reference a multitude of classics, from Twin Peaks and Psycho, to Silent Hill and The Shining, but it does so in such a way that, even if you can see the stark similarity, it never feels out of place. The game's story is like a wonderful montage of past classics, reworked and wound around a genuinely intriguing murder investigation.

My other main gripe with the majority of the negative reviews is that they again tend to single out the fact that many of the game's components seem to be in a constant discord with each other; many serious or gruesome cutscenes are accompanied with amusingly light-hearted jazz tracks, for example. Playing as the main protagonist, you will often find yourself fighting hordes of shadow creatures mere feet from where other NPCs are standing oblivious to your plight; you, apparently, being the only one capable of seeing the monstrosities.

This is where my argument for context and the suspension of disbelief come in. When compared to a more 'standard' horror title (although that terminology in itself is flawed, but that is a whole other debate) this game seems to break down on every conceivable level. If however we consider the world that the game is presenting us with, and we base our interpretation of events in that particular frame of understanding, things start to become much more aesthetically pleasing and everything begins to slot into place. The main character is wonderfully eccentric and ever so slightly crazy. The majority of the town's inhabitants are similarly odd, with a plethora of bizarre personalities and quirks. The town itself is full of strange locations, none of which seems entirely out of place, but merely awkward. The technical problems in terms of art, animation and sound actually become instrumental in the creation of this world.

Shots like this convey the overall style and mood of the game perfectly.
The thing is, odd, bizarre and awkward perfectly explain everything that this game is trying to be in my opinion. Nothing quite fits together, but that is why it is so effective. Not to mention that eventually, the story does a reasonably good job of explaining just about everything that occurs in this strange world. Even the most ludicrous of plot elements makes way for some impressive twists that even someone as cynical as I usually am didn't see coming. All the game really asks is that you suspend your disbelief and throw out all of your preconceived ideas of what a game ought to be for the duration of your journey through the township of Greenvale. As a reward, you will be treated to one of the most genuinely impressive pieces of narrative design and world design that I have ever played through.

Friday, 23 September 2011

IMHO: OnLive and Cloud Gaming

I am not a fan of this apparent need to make the world digital. I like having, well... stuff. I like having something physical, be that a book, a DVD, a game... and indeed I like having all of the extra things that come with them, like the manuals, pull-outs, posters, heck even the warranty booklets. It makes the product feel like something I have received in return for money.

This is the first reason I cannot get behind the concept of Cloud Gaming. If my entire collection of software exists somewhere off in the aether, what am I going to take such great pride in displaying on my gaming shelves? What am I going to take pleasure from keeping organised, keeping track of which games I have and haven't finished to 100%? I quite enjoy my filing system; I can't get that somewhat OCD-like joy from a list of titles on my TV screen.

What about special editions, collector's editions? My copy of Gears of War came in a metal case, with an additional 'Making Of' DVD. I can't stream a metal box from the Cloud.

The OnLive 'console' and Controller
The second reason is that I do not want my gaming to be essentially held to ransom every time my ISP decides it's going to have a bit of unscheduled downtime. My gaming time is somewhat sacred, and importantly, something I know I can always fall back on if other technology fails me. No internet? No problem, I'll just get a bit of Xbox time in until it decides to fix itself. Additionally, whilst I understand that the actual processing of the game is carried out off in the Cloud and then the resultant output streamed to your TV, if you play for considerable lengths of time each day or each week, at what rate will you eat through your data limit imposed by most ISPs? Those households that currently pay a cheap internet tariff for, say, a 10GB data cap could find themselves hitting that rather rapidly. Not a problem for that family when using their traditional consoles.

The other issue attached to the fact that the processing is being carried out remotely is that, as is being noted by some early users of the system, there is a noticeable lag between controller input and on-screen response to that input. I'm sorry, but that is totally unacceptable in this generation of gaming. The most fundamental requirement for a good gameplay experience is that your commands are translated seamlessly to the game. How can Cloud Gaming ever expect to be adopted by core players (specifically, those players that indulge in a lot of online, fast-paced multiplayer gaming, such as any FPS I could mention, or titles like Forza) if they will be at an immediate disadvantage over players using a standard console? Also, in order to stream at a useable speed, the images being pumped back to the user will be compressed to a lower resolution, making your game which you just paid retail price for look worse than if you'd gone and paid the exact same price for a physical copy. That smells just a little of a rip-off?

However, whilst this technology seems flawed, I can see how it could, in future (assuming all of the various technical issues are dealt with - the lag, most importantly) be a successful, additional gaming service.

PC gaming is expensive, the upgrade costs can spiral if you want to maintain your machine at the bleeding edge of graphical and processing power. Buying games for your machine however can be very affordable, especially through services such as Steam.

Now, I for one am not going to pay OnLive £39.99 for a digital copy of, for example, Deus Ex: Human Revolution. I can pay that in a bricks and mortar shop and get actual physical media in that price too. I would on the other hand, be very willing to pay the prices offered by Steam for a large number of their hosted titles for the ability to play those games (especially PC-exclusives) on my TV without the need to worry about hardware. I think this is the market for Cloud Gaming; smaller, mid-priced titles, or at most, full retail games at a notably reduced price to account for the lack of physical product. All the time there is physical media at the same price, I'm sure most people would choose that option; especially as they know they will have consistent access to their purchase and that it will be free of any nasty technical issues.

So given that, if Cloud Gaming could bring me PC-exclusives to my living room at a significantly more attractive price, then I may consider it. Even then though, it would be an addition to, not a replacement for, my other 3 current-gen machines.

All comments welcomed - is this a gaming revolution, or simply some interesting but ultimately disposable technology?

Monday, 12 September 2011

DiGRA Conference, Hilversum, Netherlands

I'll be off to the DiGRA conference in Hilversum in a little under 36 hours. This is going to be my first attempt at giving an interesting presentation to a relatively large (hopefully) audience, so fingers crossed it all goes to plan!

There looks to be a decent number of other potentially very interesting sessions from other speakers too, and I will give a brief a rundown of the highlights that I catch when I return (or possibly whilst sat in the hotel, if I'm bored...) to point people in the direction of papers in the proceedings.

Hosted at the Utrecht School of the Arts
UPDATE, 19th September 2011

Back in the office; and I don't think I have ever had such a nerve-wracking experience in my life! However, similarly I don't think I have had such an enlightening or useful one either.

As scary as it was attempting to be intellectual in front of a room of seasoned researchers, designers and developers, the feedback from the audience was extremely useful (and suitably harsh, just as it should be). Likewise, spending two days surrounded by such a huge number of like-minded, passionate people is an experience without equal so far as inspiring me to work even harder is concerned.

So highlights; well apart from my obviously wonderful talk, I particularly enjoyed the keynotes from Mary Flanagan, Eric Zimmerman and the wonderfully entertaining and thought-provoking Antanas Mockus Šivickas. The panels on 'Research, Practice & Social Context', and on 'Building a GameLab 2.0' were also full of really interesting discussion.

I unfortunately couldn't find the time to see half of what I would have liked, but I would recommend to those interested browsing through the proceedings once they are made available at http://www.digra.org/dl . For anyone that wants to have a read of the paper I presented (and let's be honest who wouldn't, it is after all a cracking read) it is available at my website, or through this direct link .

Lastly, I have learned that lecturers and researchers could drink most students under the table. Go figure.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Real-World Consistency in Virtual Worlds

I've recently been playing through the first part of the Penumbra series, Penumbra: Overture. After approximately an hour of play I am faced with the task of removing a cave-in so that I may continue onwards; not a particularly challenging prospect - I am a seasoned gamer, I've blown apart many an inconvenient rock formation.

Checking a nearby map, I see an area marked "Explosives"; dutifully I carry a big ol' barrel of TNT over and wedge it into the rocks. The game informs me it is missing a fuse; not a problem, I've already walked past a container that the game informed me contained "assorted pieces of string". This is where my frustration starts.

Returning to the container, the game refuses to let me pick up the string. Hmm, that's strange, maybe I was mistaken. Further searching turns up a stick of dynamite. Aha! Surely I need to light this, then throw it in with the TNT barrel and take cover... Nope, I merely get a disappointingly small explosion, with the oddly resilient TNT remaining unscathed. It is another 45 minutes until I realise that I need to go and find a specific book in a certain box that tells me how to make a fuse. Now I can pick up the string, and Bob's your uncle!

This TNT barrel is completely invulnerable to dynamite explosions...
This is an example of something that has bugged me many times over my years of gaming - I knew immediately that the string was the solution. The character in the game however, apparently not being quite so au fait with the concept of flammable materials, required a book to tell him how to construct a basic fuse. 

Now I can understand that, particularly using Penumbra as an example, some games expect you to do things in a certain order. However, when the game is asking the player to solve a puzzle based firmly in real-world logic, using real-world laws, is it really too much to ask for the game to cater for the player being a bit smarter than the player-character? Similarly, if a game that uses real-world logic offers other possible solutions that would be successful using that same logic (such as detonating the TNT barrel with dynamite) then these should be equally viable in the game. 

If a game is attempting to engage and immerse the player in a believable and consistent world, but then stops halfway to say to the player "actually, you're not solving that puzzle the way that I intended you to", any impression of reality is broken. 

This could just be me being particularly fussy - and of course it would be impossible for every possible solution to a puzzle to be programmed; but I wonder what other people's views on this are?

All comments welcomed - have you ever been annoyed by a similar situation in a game?

Monday, 15 August 2011

Why Handheld Devices Should Keep Gaming Separate

I purchased a lovely shiny Nintendo 3DS about a month ago now. I purchased it knowing full well that it had a limited list of quality titles available, but also knowing full well the myriad other titles that would be coming along very soon. I purchased it for this very reason - the quality and range of deep and immersive titles that would  keep me in handheld-gaming Nirvana for many months to come.

Around the same time, my sister-in-law to be also purchased a shiny new iPhone. She purchased it for its supreme range of apps on the App Store, alongside its many other useful mobile features. She is now addicted to Angry Birds.

The slow uptake of the 3DS by the consumer population has sparked a deluge of articles, authored by people ranging from gaming commentators to industry veterans, stating that this is a clear death knell for the dedicated, one-function handheld gaming device. I simply, utterly fail to see the logic in this statement - it once again seems to assume that the market is dominated by the 'Casual' gamer; a term which, in itself, is fundamentally flawed.

The PS Vita and Nintendo 3DS - handheld gaming as it should be.
Why is it flawed? Well, applied to games it works absolutely fine - a casual game is one that you can pick up, play for five minutes on the bus and then leave. Just about every game available on the App Store would fit this category. However, I take exception to the use of the term 'Casual Gamer'. Too often it is simply thrown around in conjunction with 'Casual' games; those that play casual titles must themselves be casual gamers. I play casual titles regularly, but if you branded me a casual gamer I would likely turn my exploding-bird-catapult squarely in your direction.

Similarly this confusion leads many to view handheld gaming as the reserve of, exclusively, the misconstrued casual gamer. However in actuality, there is a huge number of gamers that spend many, many hours playing on handheld devices, and playing games that are definitely not definable as casual. Enormous, 100-hour RPGs with long gaps between save points are not casual titles. In-depth, statistic-heavy strategy games are not casual titles. However, the gamers that enjoy these titles want to be able to play them away from the television set. They want something to keep them occupied on long-haul flights, or on the family summer holiday when it inevitably rains for two weeks straight (I'm English, it happens). These games could not work on a multifunction device inevitably set up primarily for phone and internet browsing functionality.

The baffling argument posited by numerous writers that people only want to carry around one piece of technology is simply bizarre. Even when I was at school, it was commonplace for me and my friends to carry our mobiles, our MP3 players, our Game Boy Advances (Ahh those were the days!) and numerous other pieces of tech. If people wanted to only carry one piece of technology with them, everyone would carry a netbook or tablet with Skype on it. All the functionality you could ever need. And even they offer a better gaming platform than the majority of mobile devices thanks to their much larger screens.

My opinion is that, whilst devices such as iPhones and Androids are excellent multifunction devices, they will never replace the dedicated gaming handheld. The N-Gauge was early evidence that trying to combine a 'true' gaming platform with phone functionality is disastrous. When you did just want to take your phone out with you, you were stuck with this whacking great brick. Give me my slimline Blackberry any day. If I know I don't want to play, I won't take my console out with me, its common sense really. If we keep pushing towards these ultimate all-in-one devices that do everything including making us a pot of tea, we will end up with similarly N-Gauge-esque behemoths. Albeit shiny, Apple-branded behemoths.

The 3DS suffered for numerous reasons indeed, and the PS Vita in my opinion will need a significantly lower price point to succeed - but for this to be the last generation of the dedicated gaming handheld? Not in a million years. The day that people would rather play a full-length J-RPG on their mobile phone, using a qwerty keyboard with keys the size of a tic-tac is the day I declare gaming officially dead.

All comments welcomed - please vent your views below!

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

The (Non-Existent) Divide

I don't know whether us gamers are just programmed to enjoy a good argument - or flame war - but it seems to me that for a social group that essentially all love the same form of entertainment we have a daft amount of internalised divisions.

Console vs PC. 'Core' vs 'Casual'. Single-Player vs Multiplayer. Inverted Y Axis vs Non-Inverted Y Axis...

The particular division that has been discussed multiple times in the space of a few days recently is that of gender. This is not a new debate within games, and this is the fact that makes this particularly odd, because in modern society there are few things where an obvious division between masculinity and femininity would be tolerated. Yet within the games industry there is a trend for making a mountain out of a molehill over the fact that sometimes, the fairer sex also indulge in this entertainment medium.

On the one hand, we have the recent column in Edge magazine by Clint Hocking who says that studios need to encourage more women to join their development staff. As Quinn Dunki rightly points out, making an issue of the fact that there are minimal female staff is part of the problem - any women wanting to break into the industry immediately feel singled out.

RPG Cinderella Life - looks more like a dress-up game from here...
On top of this sort of attitude, there is another assumption bubbling under the surface that all female gamers can be tarred with the same brush - the one that drips with Nintendogs, Cooking Mama, and the entire Imagine series. The image to the right is from a recently announced game from the developers of the Professor Layton games entitled, rather worryingly Cinderella Life. CEO of developer Level-5, Akihiro Hino, also stated that the majority of the development team were female.

This smacks of an incredible level of patronisation. Not only is the subtext here stating that female gamers want an abundance of pink and the ability to dress up their avatars in the same way they may have dressed up a Barbie when they were little, it also suggests that even when these girls grow up and become professional game developers, that all they are then capable of doing is producing more of such games. I'm not female, and even I feel offended on behalf of the numerous female gamers I know that like nothing better than to shotgun soldiers' faces off...

It is as though the industry is saying that 'boy games' - i.e those that contain war, fighting, blood, guns, most sports and generally not much pink - are all far too hard or far too scary for the feminine mind which requires pretty colours, nice clothes, and not a lot else. It is misogonystic to medieval proportions.

The likely reason that there aren't so many female gamers is precisely because they are prevented at every turning from liking games - because after all, girls don't play games. It is a never ending cycle. It is an entertainment medium like any other, those that like it, like it, those that don't, don't. Stop making an issue out of a non-existent divide and that'll be that.

Monday, 11 July 2011

The Morality of the Story

The Rapture that I wandered through does not harbor a single discarded Little Sister - each one of them dutifully saved by my righteous hand. Well, you couldn't possibly murder an innocent little girl for your own gain, could you?

Obviously, in the real world that decision is void - at least I would hope so. But how do we play games that offer up such moral decision making? Do we play "as we would in real life", or do we take the opportunity to take the opposite path - the darker path? Is the presence of morality in games the selling point, or is the presence of the ability to not abide by any morality at all that is the actual allure?

Which is it to be - ADAM, or the feeling of a being a 'good person'?
This is an interesting question, because surely if it was the ability to be evil that was attractive we would see a far greater abundance of games focused explicitly on this - Dungeon Keeper for example, or Overlord are two that spring to mind. Instead there are a seemingly ever increasing number of games that offer what are more often than not relatively extreme forms of morale decision making. Do you save the man from the burning wreckage of the crashed car, or chuck a few vodka bottles in there to help him on his way? These sorts of 'decisions' cannot really even be classed as such - they are clearly framed scenarios that allow you to be frivolously evil, or obviously good. Many of these situations are so clearly polarised that they lose any sense of a situation one might encounter in real life, thus making the above question irrelevant.

I would argue that this is where the dividing line is - consequence. By definition, morality can only exist in a world where there is tangible consequence for one's actions. Without consequences, the notion of 'right' or 'wrong' simply becomes 'A' or 'B'. A game that actually makes being evil harder than being good - as it (usually) is in the real world - I think would have added depth and added believability. Yes you could still quicken the burning man's departure from this world, but your doing so will have very bad results for you down the line. Obviously, as we are talking games, there has to be some incentive for players to be evil - but that's fine, that's how games operate. Offer additional achievements, trophies, unlockables or other rewards for taking the path of most resistance, by all means; ultimately, players will still be able to choose to be evil. Except they will then have to live with the consequences their actions bring about.

No doubt if games were actually to implement something along these lines, they would be immediately shunned by most players - if they commit a single evil act and are disadvantaged for the rest of the game this would no doubt be seen as 'unfair'. But that is how real life works. And if what players really want is a true representation of meaningful morally based choice-making then the resultant impact of those choices needs to be as close to reality as possible too.

Hell - here's to more games that see the player executed and their save games wiped when they get caught for killing that random NPC...

What? Why is everyone glaring at me...?


All comments welcomed - please vent your views below!

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Passion with a Problem

You don't get far in anything in life if you don't have a passion - a fire in your belly that makes you want to do it. Few careers highlight this more than games development. You need to eat, sleep and breathe games and games development; you need to want to do it in your spare time - heck you need to want to do it when you don't have spare time. It's clear by looking at job requirements as they become available, each one indicating a need for the above albeit in slightly more professional and less emotional wording.

Team Bondi: Makers of LA Noire


The problem is that when people are this dedicated and this willing to partake in the development process, they become very easy to take advantage of. The recent whistleblowing regarding Team Bondi, Rockstar and the LA Noire development process are a case in point although they are most certainly not the only guilty party. A catastrophic mismanagement of the staff, based on punishing crunch periods over a seven year development cycle. The general consensus - or threat, to give it its correct name - is that if someone isn't willing to put in inhuman numbers of hours then they clearly aren't dedicated to the industry; and it's very easy to replace them with one of the thousands of others eager to get a break into the field. This generates a feeling of oppression and entrapment, which is bad for the individual, bad for the studio and ultimately bad for the game being developed.

The concerning thing is that, very quickly, that all important passion is stifled as the development team burn out; and this isn't just an industry problem, I have seen it happen at University level as well - I've even been on both sides of the scenario - both as programmer and as project manager.

This is why I think the best teams (and therefore the most successful companies) are formed, not by a passionate team of developers alone, but a passionate team lead by a passionate leader. Even better, a leader that has worked their way up through the lower developmental ranks. My institute offers both a Games Development, and Games Enterprise course, but they have a significant amount of crossover. The would-be entrepeneurs still learn the key parts of actually making a game. This produces more empathic, well-rounded producers, directors and managers that have witnessed first-hand the development passion in action, and (hopefully) understand its need to be nurtured and not trampled.

There will always be managers with unreasonable expectations - even those that could be described as bullies. However if enough graduates enter the industry over the next few years with this more empathic attitude, I think we will slowly begin to see a much-needed shift in the way the industry operates.


All comments and views welcome - add yours below! 

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Are Developers Purposely Stifling Local Split-Screen Play?

It used to be a simple activity, going round to your mate's house, sitting down in front of your (then) rather small television set and playing some four-way split-screen Mario Kart. For example. Now it appears that developers are going to the effort of actively discouraging this simple pleasure - sometimes in the most utterly ridiculous of ways.

Killzone 3 utilises a horrible staggered split-screen layout.
Two recent games have brought this to my attention; namely Killzone 3, and F.E.A.R 3. Both of these games are big, Triple-A titles from established development studios. Both lend themselves perfectly to cooperative, tactical game play. Yet both have decided to adopt what has got to be the ugliest split-screen solution I have ever seen. The screenshot taken from Killzone 3 shows the bizarre misuse of screen real-estate in action.

The reasoning purported for this design is that it was found in play testing that a more traditional horizontally split-screen made it harder for players to see above and below them. Other reasons, such as being less processor intensive have also been suggested. Surely however, what has worked for many many years on previous consoles is just as acceptable in today's games; heck, it worked absolutely fine in Gears of War - and that is a 3rd person game, with even less freedom of camera movement.

Now the cynic in me would suggest that by making the process of playing locally with a friend so aesthetically and functionally displeasing developers are aiming to shift more copies of games as players take to playing over the Internet. The optimist in me hopes that these titles are simply anomalies, and the play testers that thought that this method of split-screen was better have been put out to the proverbial pasture.

I know there are plenty of people who don't care either way about this, but equally a quick browse around the interweb shows I am certainly not the only one who does care; and I wonder, like me, how many of those have decided to put off purchasing games because of problems with the local multiplayer design?

Of course, I could just be annoyed that my investment in a big HD television seems somewhat void as I squint at a tiny box of game play in the corner of it...


Do you agree? Or could I not be more wrong? Leave your comments below! 

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Welcome to the Fantasy Zone. Get Ready!

Ok, so perhaps Fantasy Zone is pushing it a little bit. However, it is my aim to make this blog an interesting, thought provoking space within which any and all things Game can be discussed. I seem to spend much of my life arguing; or critically analysing, to be more professional, many aspects of games, game design and the direction of the industry. I have intended for many years now to open a blog to record such things in a more public domain and finally, I have found the time and motivation to do so.

So for those of you who do not know me (which at the time of writing, it is likely to be most people!), I am a Ph.D candidate from the University of Portsmouth in the United Kingdom. Having completed a B.Sc degree in Computer Games Technology, I am now researching into player expectation and game play schema in Horror games. I will also be working on upcoming game development projects in conjunction with the University, which I will be blogging about as and when I am allowed to disclose information.

As a newcomer to the research community, I hope that this blog, along with my personal website at www.flux-digital.co.uk will help to make me a more recognisable face in the crowd. Of course, I would also love it to become a discussion space for the wider gaming community - but we will see how it goes!