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Friday, 2 November 2012

A Machine for Pigs: Halloween Updates



Anybody wondering about my relative inactivity over the last month - this has been why - it's been a huge push to get this media release together for the whole team, but seeing the overwhelmingly positive responses that it has received certainly makes it worth all the effort.

The new trailer shows a short section of gameplay footage - is this representative of the game as a whole? I couldn't possibly say, nor would I want to quell the very interesting discussions and theories coming from the community (most notably Frictional's own forum members).

Additionally, we're appealing to one and all to send us your fear - we're after recordings of you screaming, groaning, crying and being generally horrified, and we'll mix the best ones into a background track for the game. 

Simply send your recordings as WAV, OGG or MP3 files to us at piggies@thechineseroom.co.uk and we'll have probably too much fun listening to them than we rightfully ought to.

We're well on the way to getting our final testing process underway - it's the home stretch, and I think we have something really rather special bubbling away, if I do say so myself...

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Indie, Retro, WiiU and the Odd Surprise: Eurogamer 2012

I found the 2011 Eurogamer show-floor surprisingly disappointing, so, to be fair this year didn't have to do too much to beat my expectations. Pleasantly though, there were a number of little gems hidden around Earls Court One that reminded me why I'm in this industry in the first place. So, in no particular order, let's go...


WiiU

Now, I refuse to actually play anything that I already know I want - it spoils the excitement of unwrapping the cellophane and getting it going for the first time when I eventually get it home. This was the case with the WiiU, but I couldn't turn down the opportunity to at least go and have a good old nosey. Thankfully, Nintendo opted for a much more open display area this year than they have had previously, and this was an excellent decision, judging by the number of people gathered around the outside. The queue to get the chance to play some games was pretty lengthy too, so no shortage of interest.

My main area of intrigue was ZombieU, as I wanted to see just how much of a jump the U's graphical prowess had made. Certainly not disappointing, that's for sure, holding its own quite happily alongside the nearby Dust514, and looking substantially smoother than current 360 or PS3 titles. Admittedly, the screens being used can't have been more than 22-inches, so whether they upscale as nicely is something I couldn't comment on.

What did impress me was the ease with which new players were able to pick up the new GamePad and start playing, with only the simplest of instructions from the Expo staff running the display. Getting the hang of moving the GamePad around to view the environment on the smaller screen seemed to be the only area of difficulty for some, but as with all new types of interaction, that is to be expected. The console itself is perfectly serviceable in terms of aesthetics, although I'd certainly opt for the black option.

All in all, the only thing I'm gutted about is the lack of a new Zelda in the release line-up. 

 

Indie Arcade

The Indie Arcade was very strong this year, with some really innovative and downright fun games on show.

Sokobond provides minimalist, but taxing, puzzle gameplay in swathes.
First on my list of ones to give your support to is Sokobond, an ingenious puzzle game in which players must manoeuvre atoms around a grid-based area to form different molecules. In their own words, it is "Logical, minimalist and crafted with love and science". Just like all good things in life.

I found myself engrossed in this game for a good fifteen minutes or so without even realising - a clever and satisfying little title with added value of teaching you a bit of chemistry. What's not to love there?


Kairo is an intriguing experience, and I do like intrigue.
Next up is Kairo, a surreal title that exudes a certain quality that is difficult to pin down. Watching it, it definitely touched on some of the same qualities that Dear Esther did in terms of oddness and ethereal-ness, but with added puzzle elements to boot. Indeed, the developers highlight environmental storytelling and music as being key features of the game - could this perhaps take the formula that Esther used and make some successful adjustments to it?

Graphically minimal, but with some robust lighting choices throughout, it has an immediately recognisable style. I also give the developers Kudos for crafting this in Unity - but only because that engine hates me for some reason... I'm not entirely sure this will be to everyone's taste, but if like me you don't mind some obscurity and weirdness in your games, this is one to keep a beady eye on for sure.

Support this game on Steam Greenlight here: http://steamcommunity.com/sharedfiles/filedetails/?id=92938414

Gear Up is surprisingly good fun, if a little rough around the edges.
Lastly then on my shortlist is Gear Up; a multiplayer focused, vehicular warfare title with some beautifully stylish vehicle design and speedy, hectic gameplay.

The game allows players to construct their weapon of choice, with a wide range of chassis types, armour, weapon types and propulsion types. Dropping in to battles of up to 32 players (or 3 to 4, in the case of Eurogamer, but even that was fun), the game feels a lot like Robot Wars - you know, when it was still good. 

Unfortunately, the game does suffer slightly from some balancing issues that I noticed (hovering tanks can outmatch a caterpillar-based vehicle easily), and the inability to flip over a vehicle if you roll it onto its roof is just daft (unless I missed that button somewhere). With some further fine-tuning though, this a great little time-waster that could waste a lot more than you might expect.


Unexpected Surprises

I usually pay very little attention to the majority of triple-A titles at Eurogamer, as they rarely pique my interest. There were a few this year though that I did bother with, and I'm glad that I did.

The new Tomb Raider I felt deserved a play, to see if it could match up to my love affair with Uncharted. Happily, it played really very nicely indeed, with a few nods to Uncharted to boot. The mechanic that requires players to hammer a button to get Lara to regain her grip on a ledge is moderately tedious - it's a QT event in the middle of a perfectly good platforming section after all - but, as a whole package, I was impressed. Probably will be a purchase for me.

Dishonoured  isn't really an 'unexpected' surprise, but nonetheless should be mentioned. An interesting graphical style, somewhere between Borderlands and Deus Ex provides a gritty edge to the game which works well with the satisfying combat. 

Assassin's Creed III was a spectacle to behold and no mistake. The trailer shown off at E3 involving some very impressive ship-to-ship combat amidst a raging tempest came to beautiful real-time life, and if anything, is even more impressive. Of course, one does have to question the decision to show something so fundamentally different to the usual Assassin's Creed gameplay - let's hope this isn't the most impressive bit of the game, because that would be a real shame.

Far Cry 3 is a joy - having only been playing Far Cry 2 just recently and being incredibly bored by the monotony of the desert landscape, and repetitive enemy encounters, the little segment of 3 that I played reminded me why I enjoyed the first game in the series so much. Lush environments, lots of routes to choose from, clever enemies (more so than in 2 for sure) and very satisfying weaponry. This is going to be good I think, unless they do something daft...

The Unfinished Swan once again is not unexpected, but is possibly not so well known, so should be mentioned also. A game in which the entire world is invisible until you start throwing balls of ink at it is wonderfully surreal, and should make for some very interesting play experiences. If this doesn't do well, it will be a real travesty.

Retro

Despite all the games present on the show-floor, even in a year which admittedly had some pretty great stuff to see, it does say something about the state of the current market when the Retro section of the Expo was so packed out. I personally indulged in some Duck Hunt, some Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a little bit of coffee-table Galaga and Bubble Bobble and a bunch of other things. 

What was most impressive, and I think every publisher in the world should be forced to watch, was the number of people crowding round the living-room-esque sofa setup surrounding 4 televisions, with people playing 4-player titles such as Mario Kart 64, Goldeneye, Micro Machines and the like. The coffee-table arcade machines again were drawing people together, complete strangers sitting down to have a quick blast of Pacman, for example.

If ever there was an argument for games being a social medium (by which I mean real socialising, not socialising via a microphone), then this display was it. It was made even more wonderfully poetic when you consider that these people were happy to sit down and play games that were 5, 10, even 15 or more years old, because they were having fun playing with others. Oh, if only today's publishers would stop for a moment. Stop pumping endless money into your online modes, and just let us play local multiplayer. The 360 and the PS3 support up to 4 controllers for a reason. Use them, it's clearly something that players still want to experience!

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Why have I been paying Microsoft?

No, I haven't suddenly decided that piracy is the way forward for my gaming habit. I've instead been slapped around the face by a recent, very lovely offer from Sony on their PlayStation Plus service. 

Having only owned my PS3 for a couple of years, and having had my Xbox for a couple of years longer than that, I had grown rather used to paying my £40 per year for an Xbox Gold account. This year though, when I got the email reminding me my automatic renewal was due, I stopped for a moment and actually asked, why on earth do I pay this?

The primary reason for a Gold account is to play online. I'm not very social, especially not when I play games, so that can't be why I pay for an account...

But, it gives me access to lots of exclusive offers - which recently, have been for games and add-ons for titles I will never, ever play. I think in the last year, I have purchased only 3 or 4 specially discounted titles. Hardly enough to warrant the cost of the Gold account. So that's not the reason either...

What about all of the streaming and media services that are Gold membership reliant? Um, no I have a computer, a PS3, a Wii, a laptop and a phone for those. Which don't cost extra to use. 

This leaves me with only one possible reason that I have kept paying. The little, shiny number on my profile that says how many years I have been a Gold member for. Damn.



With that realisation, and the convenient timing of a 25% discount on PlayStation Plus memberships, I investigated the benefits.

Not only do Sony provide online play as standard (a topic that has been much argued over the years, so let's move on), but as a service, PlayStation Plus is considerably more comprehensive, and caters for a much wider audience with its selection of freebies. For my £30, I have, until my membership expires, access to a plethora of titles that I would have been happy paying £30 for alone. Borderlands, LittleBigPlanet 2, Motorstorm Apocalypse, Just Cause 2, and more. For a single payment. That's more bang for my buck than I've probably got from 4 years worth of Xbox Gold. Couple this with access to exclusive content, early Beta releases and demos, exclusive discounts on other PlayStation Store items, cloud backup for my save games, and the ability to have my PS3 automatically download game patches and updates overnight, and it's a mighty fine service indeed.

Now, I'm fully aware that the battle between these two services is one fought fiercely by fans on each side, and this is by no means intended as a put down for Microsoft - I'm still going to use my Xbox, it has some great titles on it after all. But if you're looking for a premium service that offers a huge amount, and like me, you don't really care about online play that much, you can't really go wrong with PlayStation Plus in my opinion. I just wish I'd found that out a bit earlier.



Thursday, 13 September 2012

Still Alive...

Well now, it's been a rather hectic month and no mistake. I thought I'd write a short post to just confirm I'm still in existence. While there are many, many half-written posts sitting in my Drafts folder, I simply haven't had the time to write any of them to completion yet.

So, what's occurring?

Well, it's that time of year again - all the lovely students are rolling their way back to Portsmouth, and suddenly I've remembered I have responsibilities. Sitting around working from home for nearly 4 months does cause one to become a little apathetic, even if those 4 months have been spent feverishly working away on AAMFP. This year though, not only do I have my usual selection of classes to teach, I have the pleasure of running Mr. Pinchbeck's Games Research unit myself too. No small undertaking, that's for certain. And because I apparently think I don't do enough, I've taken yet another teaching job at a local college as well. Some may call me insane. Some, indeed, already have. But if you could spend your days developing, teaching, and discussing the medium that you love, with the added bonus of being paid for the pleasure, wouldn't you do it as much as possible too?

Add to my already full schedule a wedding to plan for the end of December, and the small matter of some looming, important build deadlines for AAMFP, and you can start to see perhaps why my blog has been less than buzzing recently. I shall, of course, be quick to update as soon as we have some more news to share. I wonder when that might be. Hmm.

Oh, lastly, I will be at the Eurogamer Expo in London on Thursday 27th of September. Anyone that fancies a bit of a natter, track me down. I'll likely be hovering around anything with a Nintendo logo nearby (I'm not a fanboy ¬_¬) sporting one of our lovely Dev Team tees.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Can Innovation Ever Truly Coexist with the Triple-A Model?

Quite possibly one of my more controversial post titles, but I'm going to run with it. 

I've just finished the first phase of game play testing on Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs and, along with a wealth of massively interesting data for my PhD that I now have the job of writing up into meaningful prose, some very intriguing conversations were spawned from a range of different players. 

In terms of the general data gathered, there was a very clear, almost entirely polarised divide between the positive and negative responses to various aspects of the game (none of which I am going to specifically mention, of course, so if you're looking for tidbits of information here you're out of luck I'm afraid). The divide was between those players with a lot of experience either with horror games in general, or specifically with Frictional Games' past work, and those coming to the franchise for the first time. What one group of players liked, the other almost always detested, and vice-versa. Now, that is to be expected in some cases, as the Amnesia franchise's style of play is not for everyone - as is the case with every type of game, after all. But the extent to which this division existed was very surprising, even extending to things which were on the list of intended changes because they didn't seem to be working.

So, this, coupled with some conversations over alcohol later on, got me thinking, can truly different, innovative or uniquely challenging gameplay ever comfortably co-exist with the established Triple-A model of development? Don't get me wrong of course - I enjoy games where I don't need to think too much - I do enough of that in my job, I often want to switch off when I'm playing a game, and BulletShoot XVI and its brethren fill this need very well. But, why does it have to be up to the independent sector to step away from the established, to step away from the expected, and to do something - anything - different. The independent sector is often viewed by its detractors as providing experimental, academically intriguing, but ultimately less than amazing games - which of course, is a ridiculous and outdated point of view. However, two words do still ring true there; experimental, and intriguing.

I can't remember the last 'big' game that genuinely intrigued me. Thrilled me? Yes, perhaps. Satisfied my rampant blood lust? Of course. Made me sit back in awe of its overall spectacle? Occasionally. But actually intrigued me to such an extent that I was left itching to know more of what was going on in the designer's or writer's heads? That is rare. But it shouldn't be. These are the people, the developers, with the power, resources and know-how to deliver experiences like this in abundance. 

I love this cover picture from Indie Game: The Movie,
and it fits quite well here too.

The argument that there isn't a big enough market for it to be a profitable way of doing business is flawed. Of course it is profitable. Perhaps it is profitable over a longer period of time, but it is certainly profitable. There are more demographics within gamer culture than 'those that play Call of Duty' and 'those that play anything else'. 'Those that play anything else' is such a richly varied demographic with multiple facets within it, each one as potentially lucrative as the CoD audience. After all, only so many big developers are required to satiate that group of players. Why is there no rush to be the first big developer to tap into one of the underestimated demographics hidden elsewhere in the industry? 

I'm going to be very confrontational here - but, it does appear to me that the big players in the industry are scared. All business, big or small, has risk associated with it, and rewards attached to that risk for those willing to take the plunge. Are you all quite happy to sit back, guard your ever decreasing portion of the demographic pie, and wait until the independent sector comes along with a whole new, far tastier pie? Or are you going to do your bit to drive the industry forward, to drive the medium forward, and to create different types of gaming experience and gaming challenge for all of the eager players? 

That which indie games are often very successful in achieving in terms of fresh experiences or types of play can be brought to so many more players if the industry as a whole sees risk not as an incentive to hide under a hat made of sequels, but rather as an incentive to start making lots of new hats for itself. Yes my metaphors are strange today. Shut up.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Incest, Bestiality & Infanticide: Why is Horror Afraid of Taboos?

The purpose of horror is to unsettle people, to make them feel afraid, disgusted or dirty, to make them stare in the face of the very worst aspects of the human psyche, all within an ultimately safe and controllable environment. The screen, or the page, is the barrier between unspeakable terror and relative safety. It is a barrier, through which we should be able to experience things that we would be unable to face in the real world for any number of reasons.

However, even within the realms of darkness that is the horror genre of games (and to some extent also, of films and literature) there remain certain subjects, certain taboo content that is forced to remain under the surface, slowly circling in the depths. Everybody knows that they're down there, but very, very few choose to acknowledge them. As the title suggests, two candidates for these lurking topics are child killing, or infanticide, and bestiality, but there are many others. Just about any perverse or depraved sexual or necrotic act one could imagine is likely to be on the very list that horror is almost too scared to show you.

But you can imagine it. We all know that these awful things happen in the real world - in that regard, what we hear on the evening news is infinitely more horrific than any horror game, film or book. Murder, rape, imprisonment and torture are all frequently discussed on prime time evening broadcasting, yet are shunned by the very media that is supposed to portray that content in a way that is safe and more readily approachable.

In games, we all know that many of the well known horror franchises are betraying their roots, moving further and further into action and shooter territory than traditional slower-paced horror. However, even those games that have resisted the urge to follow this path rely on very much a core set of subjects from which they derive their horror. Moreover, even of those titles, there is still a fundamental misunderstanding of how horror is actually portrayed. True horror, real fear of something, does not come from enemies jumping out of dark corners, nor does it come from exaggerated violence or from excessive amounts of blood and gore cascading over the screen. The most effective horror is that which co-opts some of the most base of human fears, and some of the most base of human psychological processes. The Freudian approach to psychosexual emotions and associated neuroses may well seem outdated, even comical to some, but fears that revolve around sex, relationships and parental responsibility are common to just about all.

So, why then does horror, and specifically game horror, seem so reluctant to broach any topic considered even mildly taboo? Is it because of the way, perhaps, that games are created by large development teams and overseen by an often primarily financially driven publisher? Or maybe it is because of the current position of games and the industry as a convenient scapegoat when it comes to matters of violence or depravity amongst the younger generations? Maybe it is simply the case that games serve a different purpose to film or literature - they are active, rather than passive. Does the passivity of other media allow more time to dwell on the disturbing images conjured up than games do? Is it perhaps impossible in the current climate and current market, to produce horror within the medium of games that is able to tackle some of the more delicate subjects that literature and film is more able to? Are players unwilling to accept a certain level of passivity in their games in order to heighten the horror factor?

I don't think that is true.

Certainly, there are those that will argue a case that games cannot possibly offer enough narrative depth to convey the subtlety and detail required for good horror. There are those that may approach such topics with all the sensitivity of a ravenous Necromorph, which of course, do not help the case for the deeper horror game. However, given the correct framing and context, and given a high quality of engaging, approachable and understanding writing, games are every bit as capable of addressing such taboo subjects as mentioned at the start of this article. As was the case however with slasher horror or exploitation cinema, it is the smaller, independent side of the games industry that is making the biggest strides. The Binding of Isaac is an excellent example, focused entirely around the torture and killing of a child, and including imagery that, if dwelled upon, is actually very disturbing despite the game's 16-bit graphical style. Limbo once again portrays a child as the main character, lost in a horrific, dark and lonely world with traps that can kill and dismember him in a variety of gruesome ways.

While children are frequently portrayed in filmic horror,
they are significantly less common in game horror.

This is very different in its portrayal of children suffering than one may find in larger triple-A releases, such as Dead Space 2. Yes, this game also features child enemies, but they have been mutated so much by the Necromorph infection that they are, essentially, just slightly smaller and significantly more explosive zombies. This is something we see even when children are portrayed in horror films, which is far more common. They are almost always stripped of the innocent image that would otherwise make their demise much more uncomfortable. In films such as The Exorcist, or The Grudge, or The Ring, the children in question have all been wronged or subjected to evil forces, making them far enough removed from the 'innocent child' image that they become comfortable, or at least, comfortable enough viewing.

What the independent games succeed in doing is portraying children as just that. Children. That is why, even though you may first and foremost see a game to be played, there is significantly more underlying discomfort coming from the likes of Limbo or Isaac. If games that approach taboo subjects such as this can exist and succeed, is this not reason enough for larger budget titles to make some progress towards also tackling them? Perhaps as a medium, games remains still that little bit too young and not widely enough accepted to be able to get away with it on as wide a scale? 

But then, horror is not for everyone. It takes a particularly broken mind to imagine some of the more disgusting concepts and an equally broken one to consume them. I for example, physically couldn't watch The Human Centipede all the way through, but as a piece of horror, I appreciated just how incredibly effective it was - I can still see certain scenes of that film in my head, they've been burned into my brain forever because they were just that utterly disturbing. That is a sign of a truly effective piece of horror, and I don't think any game has ever been able to replicate that for me.

Perhaps it is because a game, even a small independent title, is often being developed by a reasonably sized team, often with more than one person having some sort of design influence. Now, it is unlikely that, for example, you will find a situation where two individuals as fundamentally twisted as each other are working together, so more often than not, the original horrific vision of the Lead Designer may have to be distilled, or balanced out by some other parts of the development team. In literature, of course, the work is that of one lone individual. In film, whilst not a steadfast rule, it is far far more likely to find an auteur-like director who takes full responsibility for the film, even though the production of it may include a large team. There are a very small handful of games that perhaps have some of the trappings of 'Auteurship', such as those coming from developer Grasshopper Manufacture. In development currently, Among the Sleep from Krillbite Studios is looking particularly interesting, and has the potential to do some of the very things this article discusses, by placing the player in the role of a baby in a fully 3D environment, surrounded by monsters, shadows and otherworldly happenings. How this very different type of protagonist is portrayed will be vital in determining whether this game is an intriguing curio, or whether it can stand tall as something truly terrifyingly rule-breaking and taboo quashing.

Whatever the reason may be for the lack of advancement in games in terms of tackling these types of subject matter, I hope that independent games are able to change the trend for what passes as 'horror' within the genre at the moment, as there is so much more room, so much more scope and so much more potential in taking some more risks and tackling some more taboos. With this, perhaps those with the bigger budgets will sit up and take a little bit more notice. Perhaps we will eventually reach a turning point where the horror and revulsion of the likes of The Human Centipede, or the depravity of DeadGirl, can combine with the gameplay of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, the subtle beauty of The Path, and the budgets of Dead Space or Resident Evil.

A man can dream, no?

Well actually, they're usually more nightmares than dreams.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Make Something Less Real: Where Should We Be Looking for Innovation in the Next Generation?

I'm a little late writing this article, I'll admit - other commitments kept popping up and sapping time and energy like a monstrous black hole. However, the following comes off of the back of the recent unveiling of Unreal Engine 4 screenshots, and the accompanying propaganda surrounding their release.


Being a huge fan of Epic Games I was, of course, excited to see the advances in their engine technology. Excellent as it is, and capable of making very shiny and polished things, the attitude towards the advancement of gaming that it supports is not necessarily one that is beneficial in the longer term. One particular quote I think sums it up rather nicely;
"There is a huge responsibility on the shoulders of our engine team and our studio to drag this industry into the next generation" - Cliff Bleszinski, Design Director at Epic
 Well yes and no.

Whilst console generations have typically been defined in terms of hardware upgrades and increases in raw horsepower, there is only so much further things can advance before we start to hit a couple of problems...

The Uncanny Valley and The Ultimate Aim of Games Graphics

The Uncanny Valley concept is something I most likely need not explain to anybody that is reading this blog. In a nutshell however, it is the hypothesis that when human replicas behave in a way very close to, but not perfectly the same as, human behaviour, it elicits a response of revulsion in human observers. The 'Uncanny Valley', being a dip in the proposed graph that shows the positivity of responses to human replicas, as shown below.

Graph highlighting the Uncanny Valley hypothesis.

This phenomenon is well documented and certainly needs no further discussion, however, what I think does need further discussion is the implicit ultimate aim that comes along with every new graphics technology iteration, every new advancement in processing power and, apparently, every new console cycle. This is the implied aim of 'true-to-life' computer generated graphics.

Logically, it is the only end goal that there can be - why else would we constantly strive for improvement if we were not aiming for eventual replication of the real world? However, with such replication would come a whole range of other, potentially very serious issues - for example, if games were capable of replicating real life, it would mean that presumably they were also capable of causing real life ailments, such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Is this really a goal that is worth obtaining? Surely it is safer to maintain that level of abstraction from games and stay firmly on this side of the Uncanny Valley?

Forgetting the Games

This, really, is the heart of the matter for me. The quote at the start of this article really hits this point home by saying that it is the job of the engine creators to "drag the industry into the next generation". The games industry should first and foremost be about the games themselves. Yes, we all like our games to look good, we all like our games to perform well... but there are only so many particle effects, dynamic lights and procedurally generated game elements that can be pumped into a product before it starts to become a little pointless.

I'm very sorry Epic, and Crytek and just about every other engine manufacturer out there, but the fact is that while it may be your job to move the technology portion of the industry forward, it is certainly not on your shoulders alone. You are not a collective Atlas bearing the weight of the entire games industry on your back. The real innovation - the individuals and companies that will be moving the games industry into the next generation are the designers, the people that use your new technology to make games for people to play. Engine technology alone a games industry does not make.

This is an argument that can be supported even within the current generation - we have the evidence readily available with franchises like Call of Duty, like Battlefield... Each iteration brings slightly shinier graphics, slightly more explosions - but when the substance of the game is not improved upon very drastically interest begins to wane rapidly.

Forgetting the Developers

If there is one thing that engine developers should be thinking about it is the usability of the tools that developers will need to use to actually make games with their new technology. It's all very well if the new cycle of engine technology is of all-powerful demigod standing - if the underlying tools and interface still contain archaic elements and require lengthy pipelines to get things working, it is all for nothing.

This is something that is improving, yes, but the only place I think I can recall seeing this kind of information plastered all over the promotional material for an engine is over at Unity. This is the sort of information that really should be selling your technology, but of course it doesn't look nearly as impressive as a few canned screenshots do. Even I have succumbed and plonked one of those screenshots at the top of this article, because it's a good way to grab attention... 

In Closing

That may seem like an attack on the companies that produce engine technology, which it certainly isn't intended as. What it is a argument against is the attitude that seems to permeate a not insignificant portion of players that technology and graphics is the be all and end all of games and the games industry. If those within the industry itself reinforce that view, where does that leave us? It is the innovators that create new, original game experiences and formulate clever new ways of utilising the underlying technology that are what the industry is based on. Without them we would be looking at a very stagnated and unattractive industry indeed.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Lie to Me: Why Telling the Truth Sometimes Misses the Point

Games are very good at selling themselves. They're visceral, exciting, engaging, thought-provoking - they delve deep into the minds of many, many people, in many different ways. For all games, but especially for the big, blockbuster triple-A releases, the marketing and promotion aspects of the release are vital components in increasing the number of sales they enjoy upon release. Now, if we ignore the fact that trailers seem to be moving further and further away from showing any actual gameplay (another discussion entirely), promotional material usually serves the purpose (amongst others) of showing potential players what they will be getting from their new game - what they will be experiencing that is new or unique, or, perhaps, snippets of story or plot teasers to get players talking amongst themselves.

Let me move away from triple-A budgets for a moment though and look at how marketing works on a much smaller scale. Indie studios often have to advertise their products on a shoestring budget, or - more often than not - on no budget whatsoever (you know, because you spent your last dime on paying your character modeller so that your main character has all of his major body parts - a scenario that doesn't always end well - just ask Rayman). So, marketing, if you can still call it that, essentially comes down to viral methods, word of mouth, and any site that is willing to host an advert or press release for a pint. However, this has some significant advantages, even more so for particular types of games. It means, having stripped away all of the corporate polish, laminated posters and scantily clad ladies in assorted semi-relevant cosplay, developers are free to be a bit sneaky. They're free to lie directly to the player's face.

Don't worry I haven't gone utterly mental and decided I don't, actually, wish to remain a credible individual. I don't mean simply tell players they'll be getting one product and then deliver something completely different - I'm looking at you, BrĂ¼tal Legend - not at all. Instead, we can actually begin to shape the eventual player experience before they even get their hands on a game at all. By manipulating expectation on a more specific level, down at the level of individual game mechanics, we can set certain triggers in the minds of players that, when they come to play the game, may influence the way they play or the decisions they make. 

This isn't some shady subliminal messaging technique, all it requires is a little bit of creative thinking in terms of the intended player experience, and how that experience could be enhanced depending on what players know, or, more importanty, think they know going into a game. This is something which works both ways of course - for example, playing Final Fantasy VII for the first time, I already knew that Aeris died, which directly effected my experience - I didn't bother to level her up as a character, which meant that I felt a significantly less intense sense of personal loss after her death. So how could we apply this in a way that instead improves the play experience? Well, let us take horror, which as a genre lets us be pretty sneaky already. If we were to produce numerous press releases highlighting all of the features of our shiny new artifical intelligence system, capable of responding to a huge range of stimuli with varying different behaviours, and explaining how this would create a game in which players would never, ever be out of reach of the enemy agents, we could do a pretty good job of training players to associate the game with a particular approach to play. Those following that thread of information would be much more likely to take it into account when playing and behave accordingly, frightened to death that their every movement was being noted by the advanced AI. What happens if we then, simply fake the creatures in the game world entirely; if we make clever use of audio, visuals and effects, alongside a number of far simpler enemy agents to simulate, to some extent, apparent artificial intelligence? The player is still getting a frightening experience - potentially, even more so, because much of the scary elements of the game are being formed within their own head, which is as we all know, where all of the most frightening things occur...

There is huge potential in this line of enquiry I think - yes it is potentially risky if it is misjudged, as you are misrepresenting, to a greater or lesser extent. However, as long as you are not misrepresenting something that you are clearly highlighting as making up cost that the consumer directly pays for, I think it is a risk worth investigating at the very least. The above example is still quite extreme - it could be something as simple as showing 5 seconds of gameplay during a promotional trailer that never actually occurs in the final game. If it is set up cleverly, players will notice it and remember it, and expect it during gameplay. This opens up a range of ways this expectation can then be manipulated - either by subverting it slightly, or by completely turning it on its head and doing the polar opposite.

The imagination and minds of people are fantastic at doing design work without you, as a designer, having to lift a finger. Gamers, especially, will fill in blanks a lot of the time, as they're used to suspending disbelief during gameplay. Play with their heads a little bit more, make them play parts of the game that don't even technically exist within their own minds. Honesty is not always the best policy when it comes to making great gaming experiences...

Friday, 13 April 2012

Beauty and the Geek?

In one of my very first articles in June last year, I discussed what I consider to be an archaic and unhealthy division between those that society proposes 'should' and 'should not' play games; to be precise, the blokes that should, and the girls that should not.

Now, the traditional image of the bespectacled teenage boy in a darkened room surrounded by Cheeto crumbs and an intriguing odour is strongly embedded in our culture. However, it is now so utterly outdated with the explosion of games into mainstream entertainment that if anything, more games are played either socially over the internet, or out in the big wide world on mobile devices, tablets and other gadgets. The traditional stereotype may still apply in some cases, but for the most part, games have moved on, and the people that play games have become far more varied in a variety of respects. 

This applies in no small part to the gender of gamers today. I would stress of course, that there have always been 'girl gamers', or simply, gamers that happen to be female, since the dawn of the medium. However, there has been a notable increase in numbers of female players, especially in this current console cycle. So, why do we insist on still segregating out these players? It is damaging in a number of ways; it makes the industry itself appear archaic, stuck in stereotypes spawned in the 80's; it makes the male gaming populace look like social morons, so incapable of associating comfortably with the opposite sex that they have to refer to the 'girl gamer' like some sort of mythical creature, or alien being; and it encourages ridiculous, cheap and tawdry attachments to our beloved medium such as Maxim's Gamer Girl competition.


This is, in effect, simply a popularity contest and a beauty pageant that happens to have the words 'Gamer Girl' emblazoned on it. The kicker however, is that the winner of this competition will be employed by Virgin Gaming as a sort of spokeswoman - a public-facing industry representative, for all intents and purposes. Now, stop me if I'm wrong, but this seems like hiring someone for an industry role based entirely on their perceived beauty, and, presumably, appeal to this outdated concept of the stereotypical gaming geek. 

This strikes me as also being somewhat insulting for those women trying to break into the industry (or that are indeed already in it) that got there, not on their looks or ability to pose in swimwear, but for their passion for games and their ability to design, develop or produce them - you know, the things that matter in a professional context? When we think of notable male figures in the industry - Miyamoto, Kojima, Molyneux, Chen, or just about anybody for that matter, we recognise them for their achievements, not for how much sex appeal they have (sorry chaps, no offense intended!) so why should we treat industry females any differently?

Now some people will argue that we shouldn't take it so seriously - it's a competition being run by a classic 'Lad's Mag', intended as a marketing campaign and a way to appease their core readership. However, the fact remains that it is reinforcing a damaging view of the industry, and of the people that have or are looking for careers in it. The media does a fantastic job of suggesting to girls all the way through their upbringing that they can and indeed, should use their looks to get ahead in life - and all this type of marketing does is continue that on into the professional world. With all of the work being done across the industry to encourage more women to take up positions in development roles, it feels like Maxim is actively undermining that in order to further its own agenda and bring in more readers.

Do us a favour, and keep the smut masquerading as a beauty contest out of the games industry, it is nothing but damaging in the long run.


Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Level Up: PhD Transfer Review

Today was the day of my MPhil to PhD transfer review - and also the first 'graded' presentation I've done in about two years - why do they never get any easier?

Anyways, I'm pleased to say that I passed! Some really useful discussion came out of the review session too, and I have a couple of important considerations to take in mind as I continue on the next phase of the research. Primarily, the most controversial aspect of the research stemmed from its development-led, very much 'non-standard' (in terms of academic research) approach. 

It was always going to be challenging to argue a strong academic basis for a research project so heavily invested and geared towards the development and commercial side of the games industry. The credibility of the approach comes from the very fact that it is being applied in a scenario that is as guided, and in some cases restricted, by the same limitations and considerations as any other development project would be. Working within those limitations gives the data coming out of the study that much more viability in terms of commercial use, and in terms of making meaningful strides in commercial game design.

Development-led research in games is very much an untrodden path. There are a handful of other practitioners also working with similar methodologies, but it is very much a book being partially written as it is discovered. This is the biggest challenge in terms of the PhD, but also the biggest potential reward. 


This strip from www.phdcomics.com made me think of one of my supervisors...

Ok, he's not quite that mean.

Yet.

The other main issue that arose out of the review was my use of Schema Theory as a framing tool for the study. Whilst it was agreed that using schema theory as a lens to look upon player expectation with was a viable standpoint, it was a less comfortable fit in terms of the actual process of subverting, or otherwise altering, those player expectations in some way. This is fair criticism I feel - indeed, there have been plenty of discussions between me and my supervisors over the appropriate working title of the PhD - at one point we almost gave up and settled with "Doing Interesting Things With Games", but figured that probably wasn't particularly academic enough. The same argument goes for my suggestion of "Fucking with Players' Heads"... but I digress...

Both of these issues are certainly important to keep in mind, but I think having them highlighted now will make solving the attached challenges much easier from now on in. Here's to the next two years of my life magically disappearing into a nice big black hole! 

As long as the black hole has a coffee machine, I'll be fine.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Rumour Mill: PlayStation 4 to Block Used Games?

I'm not usually the sort to be posting rumours on my blog, but this one just seemed too good to not contemplate - if only for a moment at the very least.

According to 'reliable sources' speaking to gaming news site Kotaku, the new PlayStation 4 - or Orbis, as it is possibly going to be named is possibly going to be due for release in the 2013 Christmas season. Aside from the intriguing name (which, when put in conjunction with Vita, forms the Latin phrase Orbis Vita, or Vitae to be precise, meaning Circle of Life), there are two rumoured 'features' that are really rather concerning, at least how I see them.

First on the list is the supposed out-of-the-box incompatibility with PS3 software. Now I know, I know, the PS3 swiftly eliminated backwards compatibility with PS2 software, and the world kept on turning. However, I am getting increasingly unable to see my television set amidst the wealth of cables, transformers, adapters, and indeed hardware itself that surrounds it. I physically have no room to keep other consoles in the living room. For me, my Wii's backwards compatibility with my Gamecube software is brilliant, I can store the Gamecube itself away in the loft somewhere for posterity, but I just have one little console sat under my television.

This is the most reliable photo I could find for the potential new console....
There are bound to be plenty of sensible and well-reasoned arguments for leaving out backwards compatibility - a cheaper to produce and thus cheaper to buy piece of kit being the obvious one. However, cynical as I am, I can't help but think that there isn't somewhere, tucked away in the mother-ship that is Sony HQ, a little spark of 'genius' that says this just gives us a good reason to re-release PS3 games with slightly updated visuals a little way down the line and sap more money from consumers the easy way, as opposed to investing in innovation or creative, new ideas. As I said, I'm a cynical old git - and probably, most people won't care one iota about not being able to play their PS3 games on their shiny new Orbis or whatever it will eventually be named. We'll have to wait and see.

The second 'feature' - and I use this term, oh so loosely, is the rumour that the console will actually block users from playing used titles - if not completely, then very noticeably. The most likely application of this is that used software sold in stores will only be able to run in a 'trial', or 'demo' mode on any machine other than that to which it was originally registered. Users would have to then pay to unlock the full game.

In principle, this isn't a bad idea, let's be honest. This saves publishers having to implement and maintain their own 'Online Pass' systems, it means that developers get money from used game sales, and thus the industry itself makes more money all round - all fine and dandy surely? What is not such a spectacular product of this feature is that the rumour also suggests the Orbis will insist on an internet connection in order to play games - as, much like Steam, they will need to periodically check for the registration state of the software.

Oh dear.

It does appear that Sony may have single-handedly removed one of the greatest bits of ammunition in the Console vs. PC debate - copy protection. The point of a console - at least in my mind - is to be able to plug in and play games immediately - no faff, no installation, no online checks, and no internet connection unless I want to play multiplayer. The Xbox dashboard and enforced PS3 installations are bad enough - if I am going to be forced to keep my console connected to the aether at all times, I surely might as well just invest in a new gaming PC and retire back to the small office I crawled out of around the N64 era when consoles stole my interest. I'm already beginning to spend more and more time on Steam than I ever have done - if this rumour were to be fact, it would certainly give me a major kick further into Valve's realm.

Personally, I think this concept is a thousand times more awesome...
I am in complete agreement that developers should get some return from used game sales, no question - especially when stores push preowned over new so freely. However, I think the hardware-level is the wrong place for this. It needs to come from the retail level. A percentage of sales should go directly back to the relevant developers and publishers. It's not a difficult bit of mathematics really. A console-wide lockdown on used game sales will put off a huge number of potential buyers. I for example, have bought preowned games at knock-down prices only to discover hidden gems that I otherwise would never have played. I'm much more likely to then buy further titles either in the franchise, or from the same developer. I'm sure I can't be alone in that purchasing pattern. What will happen to that market if buyers know they may potentially be buying something that they won't even be able to rinse for trophies, at the very least, if they find they can't stand it. 

How much will used games even sell for under this new scheme? £1? £5? How much would they be to unlock? Paying the full original retail price would be stupid, as you might as well just buy new. How will a value be placed on an unlock code?

What happens if Microsoft's new console doesn't have a similar system? Why would people buy an Orbis if they could buy the new Xbox, safe in the knowledge that they can still buy preowned?

It's a very interesting situation to consider, and could drastically change the face of games retail and consumer buying. I know it would have a huge impact on my own personal buying habits that's for sure.

However, this is obviously still rumour. We don't even know that Orbis is the definite name, let alone any of these other potential sticky issues, so I won't throw my toys out the pram just yet. We'll wait and see how it all goes down in the end...


Monday, 5 March 2012

Ghosts, Gulls & Goats: Analysing Reactions to Dear Esther

For me, experiencing Dear Esther was like a balmy summer's day. I didn't really mind the meandering paths, the dead-ends and the ambiguous (at least at first) story because it all came together to form a comforting blanket - a warming glow that suggested that so much more was still capable of coming from my favourite entertainment medium. Walking around the deserted island for the best part of an hour and half, I felt more relaxed, more calm, more utterly serene than I have for a while - in the real or virtual world. The heart-wrenching story that unfolds across such a short (in game terms) narrative time line only helps solidify the feelings not only of solitude, but of a form of self-discovery. You have no real clue exactly who you are playing as, but nevertheless, you feel for them; you appreciate every line of masterfully delivered prose almost as if they were coming from your own mouth. 

Subsequent playthroughs offer surprising levels of continued depth, and I found myself stumbling upon new sights and small changes to the game world, as well as slowly forming my own interpretation of the game's plot to more and more refined levels of detail. This is not a one-playthrough-wonder; there is so much more here for the eye that pays attention to the finer details. Even if one takes a step away from the immersive experience itself and looks upon it as a piece of technology, it is impossible to not occasionally stop and simply stare in awe at the visual and auditory depth on show. If ever a screenshot key was a good addition to a game, this was it.

Emerging into the night...
As is to be expected of course when anything pushes the boundaries of a medium, Dear Esther has wildly split the opinions of critics and consumers alike. It is an undoubtedly Marmite-esque experience; I have yet to see a 'mediocre' score afforded to it. Some of the reasoning behind the scores however opens up some very interesting avenues of enquiry into players, gameplay, perceived value and the future of the industry on a broader scale. For a game with such an apparently plain face, it has truly sunk its Hebridean mitts into the heart of gaming and given it a mighty good jiggle.

I'm going to start with money. Everything, after all, revolves around it whether we like to admit it or not. Starting out as it did as a free-to-download mod for Half-Life 2, Dear Esther had the benefit of being able to be experimental without offending the wallets of those who did not find its unique brand of entertainment agreeable. However, when the lovingly re-crafted commercial release asked for the relatively miserly sum of $10 (or £6.99 for those who drive on the right side of the road and eat pies), suddenly there was collective rage from a significant portion of consumers. It was as if charging such a fee for 90 minutes of thoughtful, artistic and narratological expression was some sort of personal attack upon them. Yet I'm sure these very same people will pay upwards of such prices to see a film of similar length (and, most likely, significantly less artistic expression) at their local cinema. Or invest in a DVD or Blu-Ray. The first of these is a one-time experience, and films on disc have similarly minimal replay value. In my opinion at least, if I was going to pay that price to experience a story alone, I would pick Esther; the added beauty of the world it presents is merely an additional bonus.

This apparent unwillingness to put money forward for a game (I say 'game' purely for simplicity; to define Esther as such is somewhat misleading as I will elaborate on) such as this is indicative of a bizarre attitude that consumers seem to have developed. It is almost as if, for a large portion of gamers, that games are designed, developed and published on a budget of nothing. Ergo, their perceived value is incredibly low. Is it possible that the rise of gaming on iPhones and Androids, with titles from prices as low as £0.69, has biased the way that the average consumer views their game purchases? I can entirely understand why - if I can buy titles like Angry Birds for under £5 (with many hours of gameplay attached to it), why would I spend more on a title with a mere 90 minutes of play time? But, here is where the real crux of the matter is in my opinion - expectation, and classification.

The Armada by candlelight...
Dear Esther was developed using the Source engine. This is gaming technology, used to make games. It was released, firstly, as a mod to an existing (and, whilst very good, nevertheless very formulaic) first-person-shooter, the connotations of which would have carried over in at least some small part to anything associated with it. The commercial release, whilst stand-alone, was still developed on a game engine. It's release on Steam, a platform for the digital distribution of games, served only to reinforce game-based expectation and subsequently, game-oriented appraisal.

One forum member stated that "the game is classified on Steam as 'Indie', 'Casual' and 'Adventure', which is very misleading". Well, if we ignore 'Indie' (no arguments about its Indie status surely?), I agree with this statement. Classifying Esther as Casual puts it semantically in the same league as the aforementioned Angry Birds, or Peggle, or Bejeweled, or just about anything by Zynga. I think Steam is in need of a new classification category, as clearly Esther does not comfortably fit the existing pre-approved genres in the medium.

~

This is where this article gets particularly awkward. It is very difficult, in fact near enough impossible, to defend the ground upon which Esther takes up refuge without sounding like some unbearable gaming 'elitist'. Whatever you say, you infer a gaming hierarchy, with yourself squarely on top, and the great unwashed, uneducated gaming masses beneath your princely feet. 

I am certainly not of the opinion that the people that didn't like Esther are moronic, narrow-minded and brain-dead, incapable of using the squishy substance between their ears to interpret ambiguity; an argument that is notably rampant on many forums. These are merely people that prefer their game-based entertainment to have other qualities. Nothing wrong with that at all.

The people who certainly are narrow-minded, and damaging to the potential future of the medium as one for eliciting genuine emotional response and for storytelling, are those that insist that "the developers chose the wrong medium". Those that insist story such as this should be relegated to the background behind the elements that "make a game a game, such as interactivity". What makes this much worse is that a lot of those individuals that I have noticed pushing forward this point of view are games critics; professional journalists who would be first out of the traps to slate a game for being 'generic' or not 'pushing the medium forward'. It is the very blending of rich, detailed and thought-provoking story with the flexibility of game technology that paints such a bright and varied future for gaming. It is titles such as Dear Esther that show just how far the medium has evolved from the days of alien-blasting, Goomba-stomping simplicity, and indeed, just how much more untapped potential there actually is. Should Dear Esther have been more interactive? Should it have contained more 'gamey' elements like puzzles? Maybe, but then, it wouldn't have been the same experience. It would have become an uncomfortable blend of narrative experimentation and shoe-horned puzzle elements. Guess who would be first in the queue to complain then?

So, should it be judged as a game? Should it be judged as a short story? Perhaps a graphic novel, or an interactive work of art? Maybe all of these things combined? It certainly can't be placed against the same benchmark as the majority of games. 

Some would say it shouldn't even be on the same bench.

I'm sure this will have wriled a few people - or at least got the discursive juices flowing. All comments welcomed...

Monday, 20 February 2012

A Societal Microcosm: Frictional Games' ARG

I've been glued to my computer over the past 4 days or so - nothing new there - but in the background of my usual daily meanderings I've been observing something that I personally find absolutely fascinating.

The Alternate-Reality Game stemming initially from a single blurred image on www.nextfrictionalgame.com is that which has caught my attention. It started with a few inquisitive types suggesting theories on what this next game could be, and ended with a hundreds-strong group, split across forums, dedicated wiki pages, IRC rooms and even out and about in the field working in shifts over the weekend in order to solve the various clues that developer Frictional Games was leaving hidden around the site for them.

The now un-blurred image that sparked the whirlwind of interest.
The utter, single-minded frenzy of these clearly dedicated fans of the developer's past titles astonished me, especially when taking into consideration the fact that there was never any guarantee of finding anything significant.

I think the one thing that was most notable though, was the showing of some of the hidden talents and sheer resourcefulness and ingenuity of some individuals. There were HTML/CSS experts, Commodore 64 veterans, programmers, cryptographers, and people with some seriously amazing talents for anagrams. There was more effort exerted on this 'project' than most people would probably do in a week of work.

From a games research perspective, nothing shows more clearly how games - even one that as far as we know doesn't even exist yet - can bring people together. A genuine community appeared overnight around this ARG. Leaders emerged, were overthrown and replaced with new ones. Factions split from the main group, forming their own 'teams'. Negotiators appeared to try and remind everyone that they were all working towards a common goal. People even learned a bit of history about a small island in the Hebrides. Many of the occurrences over this single weekend replicate those which happen on a far greater scale every day. Communities evolve and grow and adapt like this over much longer periods in the real world; in the compressed, hyper-speed world of the internet, such a community can be born, live out its life and die over a single weekend.

Games seem to be capable more than any other kind of modern media to instigate this type of behaviour. Whatever people may think of games and what they do or do not stand for, it is impossible to argue their impact on society and how society can be understood. There is so much potential in these short-lived communities (and, of course, in the far longer-lived ones) for understanding human interactions, societal norms and boundaries, leadership, team work, group dynamics; the list is endless. What could be gleaned from this that could be applied to real-world situations?

As for the resultant information obtained from the ARG? A vague release date of Fall 2012 for a game entitled Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs. All very intriguing. sosnofrsroileopwllaleblaerc.

Friday, 27 January 2012

POCOS Conference, Cardiff, Day 2: Preserving Communities


As I touched on yesterday, preserving software - the disc, cartridge or what have you that the game is stored on - is only one piece of the problem. The opening keynote for day 2 was delivered by Richard Bartle, and discussed the importance of both preserving games with an audience in mind, and also preserving the contextual and ethnographical data surrounding the games.

He used the example of MMORPGs to illustrate how the software alone is relatively useless - it is the virtual world, and the virtual world's inhabitants that make the game what it is. However, I would argue beyond this; it is not only multiplayer or online games such as this that have an important community aspect. A huge number of games have dedicated fan websites or groups, and these communities often bring completely new meaning to their chosen games. Whether this is running tournaments that use rules not actually built in to the game, but mutually agreed upon prior to play, or whether it is producing swathes of fan-art and fan-fiction, it all contributes to that games cultural 'footprint'. One need only consider the Final Fantasy series to see this; websites dedicated to documenting tirelessly every conceivable component of every game in the series, discussing different interpretations of storyline and many other things.

Bartle discussed the possible different ways that in future, different people may 'read' a game. Historians, for example, will be interested in very different aspects of preserved data than say, ethnographers, psychologists or even other games designers. Making the data we preserve useful and accessible to these different demographics is almost as important as the act of preserving itself.

But then of course, how do we even contemplate preserving all of this data, all of this culture? We can't possibly cater to every possible future use of it. We need instead a compromise, and a decision of what is more, or less, important to preserve for future generations.

A combined and coordinated effort is required, from all parts of game culture; from developers, to publishers, to webmasters and writers, journalists and researchers... Not to archive everything of course, that would be an impossible task. However, identifying key influential games - those that had a significant and lasting societal impact - and preserving as much about them as possible, that will be what the historians and researchers of tomorrow will require. By providing a detailed archive of the key turning points and eureka moments from throughout the evolution of games, the groundwork for understanding the broader culture of today will be in place.

In my opinion, that is the only workable and realistic solution. Firstly however as I began by saying yesterday, we need to get our industry understood and appreciated by the masses. We need to shout from the rooftops, let as many people know as we can; games are important, games are cultural objects, and games are worth preserving. Only then can we begin to make real progress in the actual act of doing so.

All comments welcomed below!

Thursday, 26 January 2012

POCOS Conference, Cardiff, Day 1: Preserving Games as Cultural Objects


The preservation and archiving of games is not something I would usually immediately class myself as being interested in. Let's be honest, words such as 'archive', 'library' and 'preservation' don't conjure up mental images of grandure and glamour; more of dark rooms and dusty tomes. However, I do very much agree, and this has been more and more noticeable to me as I have moved more heavily into research, that some sort of formal, structured method of keeping games accessible beyond their 'shelf-life' is a neccessary and important consideration. Too often have I gone off in search of a title from the birth of the industry (and in many cases not even as far back as that), only to find it not only unavailable to play, but almost entirely unavailable to obtain any information on whatsoever. How can our medium, our industry, evolve, if its roots are slowly disappearing further and further into the ground?

Dan Pinchbeck's opening keynote talk discussed the fact that, regardless of what we as gamers may think, the wider populous often doesn't consider games as objects in need of preservation. What possible cultural, or any other type of value, could possibly be placed upon tools for the dismemberment of aliens (for example)? Like it or not however, games themselves are a natural progression of narrative - from literature came film, from film we move on to interaction. Yes, we may place a layer of gibs and green blood over it, but games at their core often explicitly or implicitly discuss quite deep and probing questions, or provide a reference point for players to go away and seek out other texts. To use one of Dan's examples, S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl, on its surface a first-person shooter with mutated creatures to shoot, but simultaneously drawing upon Strugatsky's Roadside Picnic. Playing this game, whether you like it or not, gives you a crash course in this otherwise relatively obscure russian short story. The experience broadens your horizons, not just of games, but of literature also.

Even the most stubborn of individuals who still do not accept the worth of games after the above line of argument cannot deny the fact that games are an enormous social, cultural and developmental influence. The society of today is influenced in so many ways through games and the surrounding communities. The economy surrounding the games industry is again something that cannot be ignored as it continues to grow day by day. What happens in 50, 100 or 1000 years time when researchers and historians of the time want to know what life was like right now? Without the objects that helped to shape our culture, or without at least a record of them, there is no way of determining that. 

The problem of course now comes from how such massive amounts of digital content is preserved, and also organised in such a way as to be retrievable. Not only the digital content is needed of course; in many cases, such as arcade cabinets, the hardware itself is integral to the experience the player has and thus the impact the entire entity has.
 
This, I will save for a second posting tomorrow. I've typed enough for one day...


Friday, 20 January 2012

The Importance of Being Cross-Disciplined

If there is one thing that gets me riled up (there's plenty to be honest, but today we'll focus on this one), it is the phrase "I'm an <insert skill here>, so I don't need to understand or have any knowledge of <insert all other possible skills here>". The number of students I hear this from is incredible. Some may be being less serious than others, but in any case, having this mindset is a recipe for disaster when it comes to working on live projects.

Now I'm not going to lie; I probably had the same mindset when I first came to University. I wanted to be a 3D Artist and I had minimal interest in programming. In the five years since then however, what roles have I had?

3D Artist (obviously), but also 2D Artist, Project Manager, Programmer, Game Designer, Level Designer, Event Scripter, Sound Editor, Voice Artist, Script Writer, heck even Producer in a partial sense for one project. I've worked with at least five different game engines, across three or four platforms, including stereoscopic virtual reality work. All of this from a student who started with the same narrow mindset as above.

The thing is, through doing all of these various things, I've actually found that I have more of a penchant for Level Design, Scripting and Project Management. Obviously I still enjoy the art side of things, and my portfolio reflects this too, but it is no longer the be all and end all when it comes to job applications. I am no longer restricted to filtering search results to 'Junior 3D Artist', meaning not only do I have more scope in looking for work within the games industry, but I have more scope in looking outside of the games industry for work too.

This is not to say that specialism is a bad thing; far from it in fact. Most of the time, a 'jack-of-all-trades' is not an attractive prospect for an employer. You need to have a very strong ability in your chosen area. I guess what I am really saying is that specialism need not be at the forefront of your mind if you are a fresh-faced and eager new student. Allow the University experience to expose you to the full range of roles and skills that your industry has to offer. Try and absorb as much information as you can, and try to push yourself as far as possible in a new skill - you may well find you have a natural ability where you least expect it!

And even if you still end up right back where you initially started, finding that the role you originally wanted to work towards is, in fact, the correct calling for you, you will have importantly gained a good understanding of other areas. Understanding, for example, programming, even if you are an artist is vital, and vice versa. It enables a much better understanding of the limitations and constraints of each role.

Ultimately, understanding leads to better communication, better team-working ability and greater employability.   In the current job market, any advantage is not to be sniffed at. The earlier this is understood, the better.