Thursday, October 28, 2004

Remember me?

...and then it begins again.

I've recently had a lot of time, and in between considering my navel, planning the nanowrimo and pining for Halo 2, have been working away on a few article ideas. More about some of those later as they emerge. But first things first: I've been working on something a little odd that is taking shape at the moment. It is extraordinarily early days yet, not to mention a wee bit fitful, and I've had more than one comment come back to me to tell me that it's pretty pretentious. I'll let you be the judge.

It's called Sendestra.
I may slightly explain it in a little while if it just seems too obscure/boring for people to get into. At the moment, though, I'm content to leave it bare-boned and open for examination because through I'm trying something. But I won't say what that something is just yet.

Lastly, a question:

We all know that there are new consoles on the horizon. Quite aside from the two handheld machines squaring up for battle (both of which I have grave doubts about), we have the hardware manufacturers getting their gloves on for another round. Punditry has it that Nintendo will shrink even further, and Microsoft and Sony will be the ones to duke it out. Games will get more expensive to develop, developers will probably cease to exist completely save maybe six or seven worldwide, and a new generation shall be upon us.

My question is simply whether the whole industry is going to collapse around our ears when this happens?

I'm beginning to suspect that this is a very real possibility. With halved product lines, loss-leading hardware, software that requires several million unit sales to see back its investment costs, and not to mention the costs of research and so on, aren't we reaching that point where the linear curve meets the geometric one (as Greg Costikyan puts it)? Has the new consumer interest in new hardware really been established with any credibility?

And, assuming that this is the case and that the industry does, in its arrogance, run off the short pier, what will the post-2005/6 industry look like?

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Saturday, July 10, 2004

The Gamer's Dream

"We are all wired into a survival trip now... no solace for refugees, no point in looking back. The question, as always, is now ...?"

(Hunter S Thompson, "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas".

Many years ago in what seems like a supercharged hallucination of creative outpouring and social gathering, I discovered roleplaying games in Ireland. Soonafter, I discovered the circles of gaming friends that we all have, and in some way I encountered my own creativity. A mysterious conjunction or planetary alignment brought me to Trinity College, then to the Irish Games Association, Vampire Larps and suddenly I was at the pinnacle of game design in Ireland. Sort of.

I created the first proper Larp in my country. I helped many others do likewise, and there was a culture of creativity, creating and running whole new forms of games that we had never heard of before. It was an impoverished, but exciting time. In a word, youth.

Somewhere in the middle of that period, I and several of my friends encountered the Gamer's Dream. I call it that now, but at the time there wasn't really any name for it beyond a striving to make games better. In 1993, I was content writing 35 character convention Larps. By 2000, I was trying to write multi-episodic affairs with cardgame, boardgame and theatrical convention elements set against huge backgrounds that no-one really understood (including me at times). I crashed out eventually in disgust.

Then I moved into the videogames industry. I had worked in Game and such for years before that, but I mean properly moved. I was a designer again, this time in a small company trying to make licensed platformers, and the Gamer's Dream arose again. It comes and goes in pulses, wave after wave, sometimes overriding everything that I want to do, sometimes fading into the world of practicality.

What is it?

In essence, perfection.

A late vogue in 1980's and early 90's roleplaying that illustrates the Gamer's Dream well. It was White Wolf and Vampire, the "storytelling" end of gaming's genesis. It was the idea that games could be more than "mere games". It was the idea that through a combination of larping, or roleplaying, that the game and the gamer could somehow transcend the table and the rules, and achieve a sort of ecstatic experience where it all became theatre. That was the promise of roleplaying, in its way.

It was the highest of highs and it found commercial expression. The people bought into those products for a time. But of course it all went sour. While a few of the gamers bought into it, and a few of them ran games that soared above the common much of dice and paper, the majority did not. Magic and D+D asserted their place on the food chain most successfully, and the majority bought into those instead. They had moved on.

Then further, into computer gaming, I encountered the Dream again. The designer who wants to create a completely perfect world in which players will spend their entire lives, the designer who wants to make something so vast and impossible that it will create a mythology all of its own. The Gamer's Dream.

The Gamer's Dream resonates through many of the blogs that I have read over the last few months. It resonates in much of the 'game design' writings that I've encountered, such as the idea of creating the ultimate AI game-thespian, or the MMORPG that will completely encompass life. It is the function of reaching for the impossible, not because of the technical hurdles, but because it is fundamentally beyond what gamers and games are all about.

It's a function of the idealist times of games, which were many years ago. Games, like Romantic poetry and the 60s acid culture, have long passed their fearless period of genesis, and moved into their "accepted influences" phase. The people that searched for consciousness expansion and experimented with drugs are not the people that now listen to and enjoy Dylan. Those people have a category in their minds to which that music belongs.

And if the sixties were all about enlightenment, then the eighties gamers were all about Peter Pan, questing for a sort of eternal youth that can never come, frothing at the mouth of recreation, hoping once again to see a light in the end of a tunnel that will snake on forever. They wanted the newfound wondrousness of Star Wars and Elite forever.

The Gamer's Dream is really a dream of the idyllic, a fairy tale existence in which everything retains its perfection. It is to want to live in an imagination. Not entirely unlike the acid culture. We gamer-dreamers of the 80s and early 90s come from a time when gaming was the new art. We hate the gaming of today, in its computer form, or its analog form, because we know that it never made it out of the gate. Computer games never penetrated to the population, roleplaying games never achieved anything artistic. Acid culture died.

The problem with the Gamer's Dream, like with any over-arching idealism, is that it consumes you. Most of the people that I knew from that time carry a certain depression over them, and you feel that they will for all of their lives. The feeling that those larps and those things that they did back then were the apex of their existence. Several of us left the country. One got into politics, and another stayed behind and convinced himself that he was content to keep doing the same thing.

We tell ourselves that the problem was the gamers, how they never 'got' it. Or maybe it was the politics of the company, the situation, the people, the technology, the systems, the retail, people, our own lack of effort. We tell ourselves that the problem is the up-and-coming generation and their failure to appreciate enough to take over the reins. But we all know that it's over.

Now in videogaming, it is the same. There is a slowly dawning realisation that the dream of the academia will never happen, that the ideas that underpin this revolution are ultimately unattainable, and in some way this is always going to be the way. Gaming hit an upper limit, now that the idealistic times have passed, and it moved on. Watch a coder from way back when go nuts over the poor standards of gameplay in modern games, or a Nintendophile secretly pine for the days of the SNES.

The Gamer's Dream is the dream of the Lost.

You deal with it one way or another, move on, move out, convince yourself that it wasn't what you thought it was, that it wasn't the purpose of your existence that you thought it was. But secretly you can't help but think that maybe that your place in that time and that setting with those people was in fact the greatest that you will ever be. That from here on out you will no longer know the feeling of true innocent joy. You tell yourself that you will find it again, or find something else.

Yet you know that what you really want is your time again. You want to seize the day once more, but this time do it right. You're dreaming again. No solace for refugees, no point in looking back. The question, as always, is now?.

Thanks Hunter.
(And with that, particleblog is ended)

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Sunday, May 23, 2004

Jason Rubin Can't Get No 'Spect

This article on Gamasutra inspired me to write a short piece on why game developers are doomed to remain in the shadows. But maybe insyn developers are not.

Jason Rubin's interview here is, in a nutshell, all about why the games industry's developers have none of the exposure of the industry's publicity unless they bodily go out and get it via agents, and about how he thinks that those developers should get namechecked respect. Game directors in particular, he thinks, and also some of the key staff, should be credited more fully, just like in the movie industry. The games industry, as he noted, is in the same as the movie industry was in the 50s, and as such it is riven by corporate contracts that bind talent in such a way as to keep their name away from the serious limelight, and keep the product up there first.

I sympathise with Jason, I really do, but I believe that he's chasing after something that will bear no fruit. And the big reason that I think that is that there is one huge difference between the games industry and the movie industry, and that is that the IP of the movie industry are humans, who therefore have negotiating power (in the form of actors) whereas in the game industry, the IP are characters and brands that have nothing to say.

When the actors' liberation from the studio system happened in the 50s, it was fully 20 years before directors began to receive the same sort of credit in the public eye, and that was because the audience for film had matured to a point that it cared about such things as who was the author of the piece. But even with that in place, most named directors are still anonymous in the public eye, to say nothing of the script writers, editors, directors of photography, and dozens of other people whose names appears in the credits, but who are still 100% anonymous, and often subject to equally poor conditions that their games industry counterparts deal with.

But they get paid more.
What they get paid, though, is absolutely nothing to do with their celebrity status, and everything to do with their heavily unionised status. A film editor commands a large salary on each project, because those are his union-negotiated rates. A scriptwriter is entitled to certain minimum union-defined wages that leave him quite comfortable. Directors do likewise. It has little or nothing to do with whether they are famous, and everything to do with the fact that if they don't get paid, the unions can and do drag Hollywood to a halt.

If game developers want to get paid more, they'll have to unionise.

The game industry is also beset by the problem that their audience does not care who made what. That is the problem with working in such a young market, and publishers clearly realise it. Take away the half-dozen PR generating rockstar designers that the industry supports (Will Wright. Miyamoto etc), whose function is to get the hardcore fans wet, the greater majority public does not know NOR CARE which developer made which project. This is because they are a young public buying tailored brands.

In this respect, the game industry is a lot more like the comic industry than the film industry, and it is becoming more so all the time. The comic industry is a clear example of a medium in which the fan culture so completely dominates the business that the business itself is dependent entirely upon them, and therefore can only innovate within a small, set space. There are superhero comics, Vertigo 'mature' comics, sex comics and then the few self-published indies. Author
or artist recognition now exists after a very long fight, but still the buying public DON'T CARE who writes and draws Spider Man.

It is a vicious cycle, and the root of it is that it is profitable for such fan-driven industries to work that way. Bottom line: The reliance on fans is ultimately the problem, and that is why the game industry is doomed to repeat itself. Even the game industry journalists perpetuate this cycle while bemoaning the lack of innovation that they help create.

This is yet another reason why an insyn break must be made: To get away from the fan-obsessions and back to the creators. In time, it is my hope that there will be many famous insyn designers, making their work for an adult audience that don't get hung up on stupid loyalties to hardware formats or companies, nor fall victim so easily to advertising. And who aren't focused on re-living their youth again and again through rehashes of Metroid.

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Expanding Insyn

A series of E3 crunch-induced late nights have prevented me from posting until now. However, the time in-between has also given me a chance to fully think through and expand my initial ideas into a more full-formed (and debate-capable) set of ideas surrounding my insyn concept/proposition.

This post basically elaborates on a few key topics.

I already wrote that the key difference between insyns and videogames is one of reflection versus escapism. Which brings me into the area of themes.

English literary types often refer to the idea of 'Theme'. A theme is a central idea or motif that recurs through a piece, and essentially reflects what the work is really about. Themes can be as varied as loss and loneliness, or politics, or the nature of Nature, or the decline of western society. Themes equally apply to all forms of art. They are the glue that holds everything together, the real subject of the art. They pull together its symbols, explorations and intellect.

However, it is important not to confuse a theme with a message. There is a clear-cut distinction between art and propaganda, between themes and messages, and that is that art invites the intellect to explore, where propaganda tells us what to think. There is nothing reflective in propaganda. It is simply escapism cloaked in politics. Some games like the Hizbullah-inspired Counterstrike mod and US Army are prime examples of propaganda, along with a variety of recent war games.

Reflective themes invite us to draw our own conclusions on an observation. Take it or leave it, it's your choice. And it is out of that thinking that the insyn sense of reflection is born. In defining insyn against game, the key difference is that insyns have themes, and themes reflect. Games have no themes.

I feel I should write a little about insyn's place in the grand scheme of things.

One of the basic questions that I keep getting asked: Is insyn a genre? Is it a subset? The answer to both of the above is emphatically NO. To place insyn within a category called 'game' is to assume that there are many common-ground values between the two, which is not true. Rather, both insyn and videogames are sets in and of themselves with a crossover area of insynic games. Imagine it as two circles intersecting, like in a Venn diagram.

Games and insyns are themselves part of a larger set of interactive software. As movies and film are part of 'cinema', and fiction and literature are part of 'books', it is necessary to also name the over-arching set of both games and insyns. It is easy to say 'but they're all just games', but that is exactly the problem. They're not all just games, and to use the word 'game' in an over-category sense is to once again unconsciously establish an order of precedence that does not exist.

I have called the broader area 'playware'. Much though I am wary of becoming overly academic in my definitions, I have found it necessary to establish this basic distinction.

Do the general definitions presented here imply that for playware to be considered insyn, it must have some sort of artistic intent behind it to make it so?

That is one of the trickier questions that art theorists and historians have to deal with, with no satisfactory answer as yet. In most cases, we can say with sureness that the artist involved created his work with intent. Intent does not mean 'because I had something to say' in this instance, but rather 'because I had something to explore' (see propaganda vs art above). The artist sets out to paint his painting with an intention other than to entertain his viewers. The musician does likewise.

Yet we cannot ignore accidental art. That is, a work whose themes have come to resonate with its audience, of which the creator was not actually aware. There are many examples of this kind of effect in our cultural output. Although it is interesting to note that the creators of said work are then often incapable of reproducing their artistic success (thought they may do commercially well), perhaps because they don't fully understand what it is they created.

Therefore, in answer to the insyn-intent issue, the answer is that insyn does not necessarily have artistic intent behind it, but it probably does.

A key difference between the reflective and escapist varieties of any medium is the power relationship with the audience. In entertainment, the concerns of the audience are paramount. Entertainment is the world of tailoring any work so that it entertains the viewer, listener or player. This is self-evident. As such, it may be said that the entertainer places the audience at the top of his power list. The entertainer's job is to please the audience. The world needs laughter (especially lately).

However, in the reflective media (the Arts), that relationship does not apply. Where the entertainer is subservient to the audience, the audience is subservient to the artist. Well, in theory anyway.

Many artists have found that they need to be able to open the door for an audience to understand their work. Many other artists have sacrificed themselves on the pyre of being too obscure and never understood. Nonetheless, it is of primary importance for the artist to not give a damn what the audience thinks, and most especially about what they expect. A novelist may need to use the English language to explore his subject, but he does not have to make it sound nice.

Escapism is a comfort-zone that we seek. That is why we have expectations of our blockbuster movies, our bonkbuster novels, or our episodes of Friends. To escape into a fantasy world requires us to already understand what that fantasy world will be, as fantasy is essentially an unchallenging activity for the mind. A pure videogame might be challenging from the point of view of its strategy and skill requirements, for example, but they do not fundamentally challenge our minds.

Reflection, on the other hand, is an uncomfort-zone. Reflective material sets us on edge, makes us both think and emote. It explores a subject, it occasionally shocks us. Ultimately, it should surprise us.

You cannot surprise people if you pander to their expectations. Even if you take their expectations and twist them a little, you're still pandering.

Reflective work is challenging.

Where then, does all of this lead to in terms, of play. Wherefore gameplay?

In his book 'On Game Design' Chris Crawford tells us that "Play Must Be Safe". The general thrust of his point is that the game must allow the player to feel safe while appearing thrillingly unsafe (he uses an excellent example of a roller coaster for this). In videogames, much of the effort of honing gameplay is to try and achieve the duality of safe feelings versus unsafe appearances. It shatters the experience if the game does not appear risky, but equally it shatters the experience if the game is actually risky.

If you successfully balance between the two, you then achieve a thrill-based sweet spot. Videogames are all about the sweet spot, and it is in that spot that they achieve their fullest entertainment. Games, we draw from Crawford's point, should be safe.

Insyns are not safe.

'Gameplay' is not the goal of an insyn designer. Thrills are escapist entertainment, the stuff or roller coasters. Insyns don't always need thrills because they're not always reaching for the sweet spot. There is a whole range of other spots to aim for.

The rules and requirements of gameplay do not apply. In saying that, we must remember that insyns are 'interactive syntheses', with heavy emphasis on the 'interactive' part here. A website with a interactive puzzle mechanic exploring child abuse might be considered an insyn, but a hypertext-translation of a book about child abuse is not. The book is simply using the hypertext links as a means to turn a page, but is fundamentally not interactive.

Games wrap up their interactivity in the 'game' part of a game, reaching for the sweet spot. Insyns are broader than that. Some may use game elements, or toy elements, and some may use wholly non-gameplay-oriented interactivity. Insyns might include interactivity designed to engender frustration. They might include interactivity designed to anger. They might include interactivity designed to break rational thought patterns, induce depression or realisation. They might make players not want to play. All of these are valid avenues that an insyn can explore.

This is analogous to other forms of media art. There have been films that caused riots, books that inspired parliamentary debates, and these are a world away from the popcorn of the movies or the beach-and-margarita image that accompanies Bridget Jones reading. What I'm aiming for with insyns is playware that gets under the skin, that is more than just fun, or maybe not fun at all. If we, as enlightened free-speech and free-expression junkies, can stand to see TV documentaries about the darkest ends of humanity, then what stops us from constructing interactive experiences that bring the reality of those dark ends home. If we can write poetry that celebrates the beauty of nature as reflected in the soul of man or God (or Gods), then what is stopping us from creating whole worlds and adventures that do likewise?

So you see, insyns are not just 'games with arty bits'.

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Sunday, March 21, 2004

Introducing insyn

Regular readers of this blog will be aware that I talk a lot about the artistic side of gaming, and not so much about the raw business side. This is with good reason. Business doesn't interest me nearly as much as art, and there are plenty of blogs and sites that talk about the business in great depth.

Yet the game/art front is generally less well served. There is much ado about nothing to be found in the likes of gamasutra all about the why's and wherefore's of applying philosophy to game design, or very long-winded and stale discussions of ludology and such to be found in all the ends of the web. But, at the heart of it, I always feel that these articles are always a combination of wishful thinking and wannabe academia. Which of course, particleblog has contributed to, in its own way.

Yet I like to think that particleblog represents a different point of view. I've said it several times, I don't believe that gameplay is really the be-all and end-all of games and gaming. I don't believe that the majority of game designers really know what they're talking about. I don't believe that what we call videogames really belong in the same headspace as boardgames, or sports. I don't believe that the primary entertainment in gaming comes from convoluted game mechanics, and I don't believe that most of the creative teams in the games industry really know where to turn any more.

Graphics, writing, controls, sound schemes, physics systems, voices, mechanics, music. All these are powerful tools, many of which we are still fully learning how to use. But all of them are worthless unless they are put to good use. There is no point, as I see it, in including any of the above unless the thing that you are creating serves the purpose that all the best games have managed:

What all the best games do is provide an interactive synthetic space for reflection.

Reflection (as in the quote "Art holds a mirror up to society") is what makes something special. At its most basic level, when you see, read, listen to or play something that reflects a thought, feeling or idea that you identify with, that is reflection. Reflection is what separates art from entertainment, for me, because when I see something of myself, something of the world around me, something that triggers something in my psyche, then that book, film, album or game has managed to access that special space called 'meaning'. It's the point where you feel that a painting is looking back at you, an actor is speaking directly to you, a song is all about your feelings, and a game is entrancing you. It's spooky.

There is no law under the sun that says reflection can't be entertaining as well.

At first, many articles ago, I thought that games were really best served described as depictive entertainment, but lately I've come to realise that depiction does not fully encompass what I mean when I say games can be art. Depiction is a useful term, but in the end of the day it can simply mean getting all the details of any old world right. The difference between GTA3 and Zelda is little in these terms. They both are wholly excellent depictions. But do they hold up a mirror?

I have also said before that I think part of the problem with games these days are issues of identity and confidence. It is inconceivable that games can be perceived as art, even by many of their contributors and creators, because everyone thinks of them as 'games'. Games are silly. For the kids. I said in a previous article that I thought that the root of that problem was located in the name "Videogame", because it was very possessed by other forms already.

'Videogame' is a slave name. Indeed, the modern videogames as seen in the charts are usually exactly that. Games of videos. Licenses of James Bond. Or, if not actually licenses, then games made "in the spirit of", stock genres and all the rest. 'Videogame' does not, on the whole, represent self-creative endeavour. And it precludes wholly the idea of reflecting anything by self-consciously robbing the form of its own voice. 'Computer game' is not much better.

The future of the 'videogame' is clearly written in stone. It is a future as mechanical as the games themselves, just as cynical as the people who make them, and always doomed to be the third string. Cinema/TV are the second string and books are the first string. Ideas mostly come from books, which then become 'a film of'. Which later become 'a game of'. So games are doomed to work with third-hand ideas, either literally or by association.

Personally, I don't feel this is such a happy future. It's a creative fate somewhere between blockbuster movie makers and the bad end of comics, perhaps only marginally more entertaining than designing toys. Maybe what I should do is cut my losses, get out while I still can, and go write novels for a living. I'm not joking. It touches a raw nerve whenever I get to talking about it. Especially if I'm drunk. I have to laugh to in self-horror when I realise at these times that I'm in danger of becoming the cynical old hack who wishes that things were better. I think that maybe I should simply get out completely, but that also leaves a bad taste. It's where I'm from, after all, and nobody likes a break-up.

And professionally, I don't think that many of the people that I work with are loving it too much either. But I'm not ready to give it all up just yet.

Instead, I'm going to try something new: A name change.


Insyn is derived from 'interactive synthesis' as a name. It means something wholly different. An insyn (plural: insyns) is an interactive electronic synthetic form of entertaining art (or artistic entertainment) that can be found on all your major consoles, handhelds and PCs today. You may have already played with many insyn over the years, although their insyn-qualities are still in the early stages of creation. There are so many tools (graphics, sound, physics etc listed above) that are still being brought to bear and understood that the capacity for insyn to reflect is still small. But the potential is huge.

Insyn might be born of the videogame business. It might come from an independent sector. It might live in a mod. It might succeed financially, or it might fail drastically. Origins are unimportant. What is important is the essential quality. The key difference between insyn and videogame is this: One reflects, where the other provides mere escapism.

It is my intention to turn particleblog into the 'insyn blog', as it were, in that this blog is going to talk exclusively about insyns, review releases based on the insynic view as opposed to the standard, discuss what makes an insyn interesting, and so forth. Change has to start somewhere, even if it comes from the scurvy end of the web.

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Friday, March 12, 2004

Welcome to Indietown

Independent games.

You hear the name bubbling up here and there across the internet. It's a concept that has even managed to get the likes of the IGDA to sponsor awards to honour. Reports from GDC are ever more interested in what the independent developers are up to.

And this is perhaps unsurprising in a risk-averse commercial climate. Many development and publishing staff will tell you that they privately wish for better times, when perhaps some measure of originality can be relied on to break through.

I mean, come on, we all got into gaming because it was very different, and well stayed there because it was consistently so for a long time. Games don't just divertingly amuse us (the good ones). They enthrall us. Or at least, they used to. No doubt a very few still do, from time to time, but the business is quite full up to the gills with commercial concerns and wags telling us that the bottom line is everything in game development. Forget originality. We want Def Jam Vendetta 5: Bikini Tour XXX2. Or something.

And that's where the indie idea takes root of course. Developers, ever keen to ape all the language of the cinema era, take a look at 'independent cinema', and appropriate wildly. The film people manage to have an indie sector, so why not us? Much fledgling effort is being expended to make it so, but indiegaming has several mountains to climb.

The games industry is not like the film industry. It is more like the film industry of 50 years ago. Two main points for this article are:

1. Games are now dominated by large companies peddling character/brand franchising. The film studios of 50 years ago had a similar system with actors on long-term contracts as matinee idols, making endless blah blah films to carry on their franchise.

2. Games are very expensive to make, and the technology to make them is largely controlled and over-priced. Hollywood studios of 50 years ago were in a similar position because film equipment was so expensive that they had de facto control. Ditto in both cases for distribution.

The combined effect of both climates is/was to create an averse culture. The prime difference between film of the 50s and the present day is that the whole film industry has gone through several cycles of crash and boom which have altered its climate drastically. One the one hand, the idea of star retainers has vanished, and everyone's a freelancer now. On the other hand, the access bar to get into the film has lowered hugely, to the point that independent film has become a reality. And thirdly, that independent movement has something of a market in that people who don't like Hollywood crap can find something worthwhile to watch. So both mainstream and indepedent fields exist.

In games, things are still in the 50s.

The games industry works in a retainer-driven culture. It has controlled formats that do not permit a whole host of titles to ever see the light of day. It is focussed on the mainstream market only, and is quite happy to cut customers adrift if they don't like the output. And there are no 'ins'.

The lack of in-roads is the thing that really stalls any supposed independent gaming movement. None of the console manufacturers wants to sponsor an independent label. None of the retailers believe that independent games will sell because they will look cheaper than 'proper' games. Among publishers, only Take Two operates anything like an independent label in the form of Rockstar, and calling that 'independent' is generous at best. Everybody thinks independence is bad for business.

What I would love to see is big publishers forming an 'indie' arm, like Miramax to Disney. The one thing that keeps a consumer like me coming back to the cinema is good films. I know that those films have probably been half funded by Home Alone 9, but that doesn't bother me, though. I'm quite happy to let the kids watch XMen 7 if it keeps them happy, just as long as I get to see 21 Grams.

Similarly, in games I would be as happy as Leisure Suit Larry if the games industry carried on making whatever license tosh it likes to make, on the proviso that there was a smaller side to it that produced innovative games. EA, for example, makes several trailer-trucks of money a minute. What do they plan to do with all that cash? Reinforce their franchises. Create new franchises. And what else?

Nothing, that's what else.

For a viable independent sector to exist, it needs to have a means of professional-level production and a means to market. Independent games have neither. The PC is not a viable platform because it is territorial and the standard of graphics etc push the price waaaaay up. The consoles are not a viable platform because they are closed. Handhelds are likewise. There is no retailer in the land that is interested in hosting an independent gaming section in its store, when space is at a premium and the stores are so directed toward kids anyway. The internet is proven time and again to be an uncertain means to market at best, rife with nothing so much as piracy.

There are no 'ins'.

And so independent gaming is doomed for the time being to a pipe-dream of mods and lonely awards that few even among the development community are even aware of. Is it a bad thing? Well do you want to play Def Jam Vendetta 5? Do you want to make it?

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Thursday, February 12, 2004


Every blog, at one stage or another, gets around to wild attempts to predict the future, and this one shall be no exception. I've kept my predictions limited to the future of the professional industry as opposed to where game design, development or technology are going. There are plenty of other predictions about those subjects available already.

Phased Projects
It has been the fashion in the industry for the last twenty years to iteratively develop a game. Inotherwords, to run the project development through a cycle of organic growth, development and builds. Iterative development is generally loosely structured at best, and so it works best for small-scale (less than twenty people) projects. A variety of methods and coding practises have built up around iterative production, so much so that it is seen as the norm.

No longer. The problem for today's studios is that there are too many people involved. Too many artists, animators and designers now rely on things like a game engine being built and ready for content to be put in. Yet in the large majority of cases, this is simply not done. Developers of today are still too used to thinking iteratively all the way to the end of production. Smart developers and publishers are beginning to realise that large scale iteration costs a lot of money and time, and so they are thinking in terms of phases of production.

The three most common categories thought up are pre-production, production and post-production, after the film industry. Actually, this perception of the film model is wrong. There is a fourth phase: Writing. In game industry terms, the four-phase production model will become the norm. The phases will basically be Design (Writing), Coding and Concept Development (Pre-Production), Assets (Production) and Editing/Fixing (Post-Production).

The primary motivator for this way of working will be money. When overall numbers of people involved in projects exceeds 100 (and it will), you just can't be iterative any more.

Freelance All The Time
Phased production will inevitably strengthen the freelance employment culture. It is likely that the whole of the development industry will go freelance within the next 3-5 years. The very idea of a continuous large stable of people working in a developer will seem ludicrous. Rather, all the talent will be pulled together directly for each game, with everybody hired on fixed term contracts. Development companies will either reduce to tiny single-office pitching affairs, or vanish altogether.

The only probable area where this will be different will be online subscription games that work on subscription basis. Then, like television, the contracts will extend indefinitely until the project is cancelled.

A constant freelance culture will mean that people will constantly be roving from one project to the next, of course, and they can therefore expect periods of high and low volumes of work. They will perhaps remain unemployed for three months of each year or more while new projects get set up, others end or get canned, or a mix of the two.

Publishers will be the one major area of permanent employment, for business people, producers, and possibly small design staff trying to develop their next killer intellectual property, in a manner not dissimilar to writers and studios in Hollywood today.

The constant need to be on the lookout for work will naturally lead to talent agents.

In the current climate, recruitment agencies are often acting as the go-between for companies and their employees, but this method of recruitment is unsatisfactory for either employer or employee in a freelance culture. The principal reason is that recruitment agencies are paid by the companies, not the people that they represent, so they are not nearly aggressive enough on an employee's behalf.

Talent agents, on the other hand, are 100% aggressive, because their paycheck is your paycheck, as it were. While it is unlikely that 100% of all development staff will want an agent (some just don't want to lose that 10% in fees), it is likely that the number who do will be significant. Agents will seek work for them, take the pain away of all that endless CV crawling and, most importantly, they will negotiate much better pay rates. You pay them, so they will want to get paid.

Agents will also serve companies much better, as they will develop more personal relationships with them rather than simply sending them rafts of CVs as is the current recruiter-led practise.

It is not unlikely that developer's unions will emerge. This already happens in most other media, and other skilled industries, where the staff band together. They form professional associations, guilds or unions (different terminology for the same thing) that provides one overriding function: They negotiate pay rates.

My guess is that these (or this) organisations will mimic the various Writers Guilds (expensive to join, but well represented). They may be led through a group like the IGDA, or independently derived.

They will also suffer great teething pains as all unions do. Expect (illegal) contracts from employers specifying conditions like 'no union membership' and the like for a while, but it will ultimately become a fact of life, as it has in every other media. Talent in every mainstream creative medium eventually realises its own worth, and demands to be paid. It is usually listened to after a general strike or two.

Pay Rates
And pay rates will therefore inevitably rise. Probably not for those just in on the ground. It is likely that any serious union organisation will be moderately discerning about who may join, requiring a certified number of years or titles before one is considered. And once that has been achieved, the pay scale will likely become quite respectable for staff at that level.

On the other hand, the lowly conditions of testers and junior coders and artists will likely remain, for there is always an endless supply of newbies waiting to fill those sorts of positions.

Indeed the games industry has become like the film industry in that there are lots of naive youngsters out there whose dream job is now to make games for a living. This will make actually getting into the games industry a lot harder. Productions will become more massive, but there are more than enough professionals currently going around to fill those gaps for many years. The games industry has not yet reached a point where there is significant retirement. The same people who were working there twenty years ago are still there today, and the people out of work today will still be there in twenty years time. Only then will retirement take people out.

All this means that newbies are going to get treated more and more like dirt. They already are in most cases, but it will get even worse, especially as the number of titles produced falls.

Less Games
Economic conditions being what they are, it is certain that the number of games produced each year will fall, as their budgets continue to rise. Retail pressure is the significant factor in this. As consumer tastes increasingly centralise and the number of publishers grows less, the natural outcome will be less titles, just as in the film industry. The film industry used to produce over 2,000 films a year for cinemas in the 50s. It now manages 240. The reason is that the sheer budgets and amount of effort in each new film make for less films overall.

The games industry is already feeling the bite of increased budgets, and it increases with each generation. That means there simply won't be as much money around to fund as many titles in the next round, nor any significant retailer pressure to do so.

We will probably see the serious evolution of B-games, a la straight-to-video movies of today. At the moment, there are a variety of budget games around the periphery, but their existence as a mainstream income avneue is almost a certainty. These games will be developed for a song using entirely existing engines and game designs and probably a lot of 'clip' art assets as well. Major publishers might sponsor these games to fill out their line, developing them on the ultra cheap. Alternatively, B-games might be published by smaller publishers under heavy license from original content owners. Or a mix of the two.

Single Format
Less numbers of A-titles mean less reason for there to be multiple formats, especially multiple console formats. I think that the next generation of consoles will probably be the last major generation of brand differences, and that the console industry particularly will settle for one format or another. After all, even today, the current generation versions are just three types of device that all do the same thing with only marginal differences in quality. If they can do it with DVDs, then the standard console format is only a matter of time. (And not before time either)

There comes a point in all media markets where it is unprofitable to have excessive manufacturer control. Multiple formats actually hinder growth above a certain ceiling. Imagine if today we had 4 different types of dvd player, for example. All doing the same thing, but each one owned by a different manufacturer, sold at a loss and charging 9 dollars licensing on each disk. Does anyone think the film industry would be doing nearly so well?

That realisation will come to the console publishers sooner or later. Rather than limit themselves under the hardware-dominated yoke, the economic pressure from both sides of the retail spectrum for less A-titles will force a common-ground arrangement (I like to call it the Console Consortium). The days of manufacturer dominance like Sony and Nintendo will therefore be numbered, altering the power spectrum some what. I expect that the primary force behind the move will come from EA, as they are now large enough to dictate terms to hardware manufacturers and can say with some sureness that they can make or break a console.

Either that or EA will commit suicide by releasing a console of their own.

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Sunday, February 01, 2004

The Boys in the Bubble

A recent Michael Moorcock quote in the Guardian jogged my memory on an issue that I've been meaning to write about for a while. The quote goes thusly "In New Worlds (1964) Ballard said that speculative fiction would never achieve maturity until it possessed the moral authority of a literature won from experience."

'Maturity' is a dangerous word in game design circles, not to mention 'morals'. To talk about the idea that a game can be used for something more than entertainment and learning is considered heresy in some very well-meaning circles. I don't fully understand why this is the case, after all they are a creative endeavor just like any other so why not have a moral dimension. But my main theory for the lack of substantially mature work is that many of the people working in the industry are emotionally immature, who have grown up in a time where morals are a dirty word. And working in a producer-driven industry. With dodgy employment prospects. And a very license centric attitude. And too many 'On Game Design' books. And so on.

When it boils down to it, what is the point of working creatively if you don't have something to say?

Time for another quote (one of my favourites) "Art is moral passion married to entertainment. Moral passion without entertainment is propaganda, and entertainment without moral passion is television. (Rita Mae Brown)' For the purposes of this post, substitute 'television' for 'videogames'.

What these two and many other people are essentially driving at is that without some sort of moral energy driving a piece, and it doesn't matter what form that piece takes, all the creators of said piece are doing is helping other people waste time. It's the stuff of Pop Idol, the National Lottery, superhero blockbuster movies, tabloid newspapers, Saturday morning cartoons, bonkbuster novels, hardcore porn and most videogames. What all these things have in common is that they are made-for-profit creations, tailored to a market, and usually bought up by the naive. I.e. Children and young men.

Or to put it another way, they are immature. Why so? Because there's no substance to the sauce. They might be very entertaining (and we all need our entertainment), but they're also forgettable.

One of the chief reasons that videogames do not impact on regular culture in any way other than as brands to sell Lucozade is that they are forgettable. I can think of very few games that have even attempted to present anything other than base entertainment, although Final Fantasy VII is one very notable exception. Teenage and broad-stroke as it may be, many players remember Aeris to this day, and many also remember the simple-yet-passionate pro-naturish story that drove it. Similar things could be said about Deus Ex and its collapsed-society background replete with details of a plague and lots of sick people to talk to. These are small steps, of course, but there is a vague moral authority underpinning the ideas of both.

But as I said, 'moral' is a dangerous word. Morals, specifically morality, has acquired the reputation of preaching. Morality is what the fundamentalists that want to trap us all back in God-fearing sackcloth and the like preach. We live in a permissive society. It seems many people have interpreted that to mean it's a bad thing to advocate or depict a point of view any more. If I say to a game developer that I want to make a game with moral authority because I believe in something, I guarantee 8 out of 10 of them will instantly think I mean some quasi-Christian fps where you play Jesus converting devils or some such.

I don't.

Here's an example: I suggested an idea for a game to a friend of mine recently, with a simple premise. I told him that I would like to make a stealth-style first- or third-person perspective game in which the player is a small child. The world around him looks all very big and over-impressive as a result. In levels of the game, I suggested, you would have a variety of goals to achieve. Such as trying to steal all ten of Daddy's cigarettes from around the room where he slept. If you made too much noise, the old man would get out of his chair and beat you, which would involve a lot of shaking camera movements, loud noises and the like to really create the impression of being there.

Now, in terms of gameplay, my simple concept is in no way different from the kind of action that you get in Splinter Cell, Thief or Deus Ex. My friend, a regular lover of all three of the above, was stunned. It wasn't that he thought the idea was in great or bad taste. It wasn't that he thought it was genius or madness. It wasn't that he thought it might be fun or boring. His stunnedness can be surmised in something he kept saying to me; "You can't do that!"

He didn't really mean it in terms of whether it would sell either. He just thought that such a thing was unthinkable. That such a thing cannot be done. Perhaps because the powers of on-high have decreed it? No. I think it's because it is simply what we are used to. The gamer generation seems uncomfortable with non-rational challenge. They are comfortable with rational challenge, and this is why they play games, but they seem to fear the idea of things that affect their feelings.

In otherwords, we're too fond of living in a bubble, and it keeps us very safe.

The only problem with that is that it keeps us marginalised. As a designer, developer or even a gamer, don't you hate the way that society treats you like a little kid? Don't you hate the fact that all they seem to know is Lara Croft? Doesn't it make you quietly angry to see the games industry eaten up more and more by licensing? Doesn't it drive you quietly barmy to watch token celebs give out token awards for games they don't understand? Doesn't it wreck your head that the public (such as your extended family) don't get it? Don't you hate going through the cycle of being more or less jaded?

Read most gaming forums and you'll see that these sorts of opinions are present, and sometimes prevalent. Edge magazine has likewise acquired quite the reputation for being an angry publication that complains more than it revels.

We are the downtrodden intelligent children who never grow up. The boys in the bubble. Peter Pan and the Lost Boys.

Except that we're not just that, are we? Actually, we have much to say. We have views on the world. We have feelings. What we don't have is the maturity to trust in those feelings, nor the sense of moral authority to actually express ourselves. Fear, and market-driven concerns (aka fear again), is what keeps us in the bubble. We don't like to step outside.

The morality/maturity issue is becoming the crucial argument, not the ludology/narratology one. That argument is done and dusted, and then dusted some more. It is only by virtue of really looking at what we could achieve in the creative sphere, and not just the technical sphere, that the games industry will ever survive and prosper, both financially and creatively.

The industry stands at a precipice at the moment.

On the one hand, it can go like the toy industry. In the mainstream toy market, everything is repetition. Even the boardgames are repetition. Go into any Toys R Us and you will find the same 20 games again and again. Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit, The Game of Life, Star Wars Monopoly and so on. The natural result of sequences, licenses and the like is that there will one day only be 20 games, endlessly re-issued.

On the other hand, the industry could be vital once again. It could make great new games. It could be as vital an artform and entertainment form as book publishing, or the cinema. And nobody's saying that they'd have to drop an ounce of interactivity to do it. But to manage this requires for designers to have some sort of philosophy to their work. To actually care about what they are saying, not just how it's built. To think about things in a soulful light and let their emotions pinprick their way out of the bubble and be recognised.

You have things to say. Say them.

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Monday, January 26, 2004

Autocracy for All

As I wrote in a previous post, I am of the belief that too much effort is expended by the creative folks in the games industry on trying to reinvent that which does not need reinvention (gameplay) while summarily ignoring that which does (depictive aesthetics).

It occurred to me, when writing that piece, that the best way to focus away from current obsessions would be to look at the way that other media do it. In game development there are development methods that are applied to projects to get them done. But there is rarely any focus on concept development and the stages that ideas must go through to achieve the same level of polish as the rest of the game. Many games have been produced over the years which look great and play great, but with very little consistency. Almost no games have any abiding vision that guides them.

There are many ways that ideas can be developed, of course. Yet in most forms, there is usually at least one person that is the origin, and guardian of the soul of the project. The writer, for example, and his books. The director and his play. The songwriter. These are the people that point the direction, develop the idea and essentially put everyone else involved through the ringer in search of the vision.

Now some of you might say that this is what a game designer does. Actually, you'd be wrong.

Wrong in a sense, anyway. There are some designers that have amassed a personal reputation that permits them some power to do what they want, but in actuality the formal description of a designer's powers in the game development world are usually on a par with all the other creative staff. Regular non-Meiers and non-Ancels like me don't have a controlling voice in the games that we create. We are not usually trodden on completely (although this is not unknown), but we are usually accorded the same level of influence as everyone else. Though a designer may in fact know all the ins and outs of the game far more than anyone else, he has no power to actually MAKE people do what he wants, unless he's American McGee.

Is this a bad thing? Videogames have traditionally had a sort of group development environment anyway, right? And who are these airy fairy nitwits with their boring documents and no sense of how things are made? What do they know?

Yes, it's a bad thing.

It's bad because it inevitably leads to fragmented decisions. A designer may be at odds with a producer over a crucial aspect of his game design because an artist has chosen to make a world all gothic, when the intent of the world is supposed to be brightly futuristic. Is a producer going to listen to a designer and make the artist do all the work again? If he's a very very good producer, yes he is. Mostly, however, he won't. Even in the case of the producer who does, the next time there's a fracas between the designer and someone else, say a programmer, then another neutral-decision will be made, maybe this time against the designer's vision. This may sound like good team management (it probably is), but it can also be the sort of decision that weakens a game.

Every decision impacts gameplay, but it also impacts aesthetics and the overall impact of the game. Aesthetic decisions can have seemingly inconsequential effects to the mechanics of a game, but they can create the greatest turn-offs for the players. For example, Warhammer: Fire Warrior was recently released. It is based on the WH40K universe, which is the ultimate in gothic future fantasy. Fire Warrior is a first person shooter, which should fit well into the Warhammer ideal. But only if the game captures the mythic sense. It does a mostly good job with the backgrounds. But two things detract massively from the aesthetic impact. The first is the bright blue Halo-copied UI, which doesn't fit. (Why are all FPS's suddenly using bright blue interfaces?) The second is the US military-style language that you get to point you to objectives and so on. Again, this is a poor decision, also inspired by Halo, which undermines the sense of the game, and which wouldn't have happened if someone on the project was faithful to the idea of the game, with the power to enforce that faith.

This may sound like this is an argument for allowing designers and their petulant ego's to cry havoc over the game industry. It is. Ego can be a major pain to deal with (look at film directors, theatre directors, stories of petulant authors and bands), but there is another side to ego that is very important. Ego and passion go hand in hand. Ego and belief go hand in hand also. As does confidence. And power. And vision. And, ultimately, successful creativity in a financial and artistic sense. It's all about power. If there is one lesson that the other entertainment media have to teach, a lesson that needs to badly be learned by the games industry, it is: Creative endeavours only work best when they are autocratic, not democratic. Such autocracies can be benign or otherwise, but the lesson is that creation needs a central creator who lays down the law, however painful it may sound.

It's amazing how this idea of a central creator is taken for granted in the reputable ends of other entertainment formats. The rights of the book author, for example, and the author/editor relationship. The film director mostly rules his films on set, though he may have to answer to money men off-set. The chief writer in US television drama is an important person not to be messed with. The musician likewise. Or the comic writer. Yet in the disreputable end of each of the above, none of this applies and only one person is left in charge: The producer.

Producers are important people, and I don't mean by virtue of their assigned rank. I mean by virtue of what they do. A producer friend of mine once described producing to be a dark art, whose function was to mysteriously keep everything together. They are vital. Producers are the people on any creative team (in any medium) who are the skilled negotiators. The best producers are experts in managing time, diffusing staff conflicts, providing feedback, negotiating with upper management, and essentially compromising. Autocratic director-types, on the other hand, are often quite poor in this regard.

It is through the dynamic between a great diplomatic producer and a great autocratic director that some of the twentieth century's greatest films have been born. Likewise, the relationship between an author and an editor (the equivalent of a producer for books) has borne some of the greatest books.

Yet what happens when a producer is put in complete dominance is mush.

Producers are, by virtue of their compromising deal-making nature, not used to the kind of obsessive thinking that great creativity requires. They are not used to thinking in terms of the vision alone, and the necessary autocratic thinking that it requires. They don't do demands. Whenever films or books or music are producer-derived (or executive producer-derived), the results are usually entirely bland and compromising affairs. I'm not saying that producers lack passion. They don't. But they have to deal with the real world too often to bring a creative passion out. Creative passion is essential for great games, but all too often the producer-driven model that the industry has adopted denies creative passion any outlet. The power dynamic is all wrong. What we need are Game Directors.

There have been one or two people called game directors already. Hideo Kojima is probably the most famous example. But I think that these people have been named as such as more of a marketing exercise than anything else. It is useful for Konami to have a face that they can stick in front of the magazines and go 'look at our in-house genius!'. This is the sort of thing that impresses journalists. In actual fact, most of the industry's major celebrities (and I use that term loosely) are of the same stock. Miyamoto, Molyneuax, McGee and Meier (all the Ms) are all hailed as directors/auteurs or some other label, but in most of these cases these are PR labels attached to them to sell more games and wow more fans.

Within the industry, the role of what a director actually is and what they do is not well-defined at all.

Taking theatre as an analogy, a theatre director is essentially responsible for taking a play and putting it on in a venue. He or she is in charge. Directors have or develop a vision, and they know what they want. So they direct the sound people. They direct the actors. They direct the lighting. They direct the stage management. And the reason that all these people are responsible to this one person (and his assistants if the show is large enough) is that the whole operation is working to a vision that he has. Without that central figure, you get anarchy and confusion. Even if that figure is not strong as a person, you get ego anarchy and strife. Directors must lead. They are Caesar. They do not have to know how everything is put together, such as what kind of lights and wiring are necessary. They just need to make the lighting guy give them what they want.

Back to games. A game director should be in the same position. They are essentially responsible for taking the game design material (see all about the Y model etc below) and translating it into the screen. Game directors should have a vision. They should direct everyone. INCLUDING the coders. Once again, the whole point of having a central Caesar is control in a firm direction. They do not have to know how a game engine does what it does. They simply have to make the code guy give them what they want.

Most importantly, game directors must have the power. The producer works with them, not above them. The producer handles administration, does the diplomatic representation for the project, and all the rest of the dark art's requirements, but they do not make creative decisions. Producers support directors to the hilt. That's simply how it works, and how it must work in the future if the videogame is to ever have a reputable end. It is the industry's current method of working that keeps it producing producer-driven content, which is slowly marginalising the possibility of ever appealing to anyone other than children.

Time for change, methinks.

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Sunday, January 11, 2004

New Year Sentiments

Let’s talk about narrative. Better yet, let’s talk about ludology and aspects of interactivity. Let’s ditch that and talk about the role of the player and character identification on screen. Let’s theorise about design documents and schema for design. Let’s disagree wildly on the subject of whether to include genres in our game designs. Let’s redefine gameplay in ever increasing circles to amuse ourselves. Let’s write great tomes all about the subject of game design, and outline in detail why only the most dedicated and multi-faceted individuals should even attempt such a feat. Let’s talk about art, about entertainment, about why games can never be one or the other. Let’s talk about psychology, about trying to apply systemic design techniques to game design. Let’s classify everything. Let’s try and paint up a past for videogames that makes us look like serious people. Let’s bitch. Let’s bitch about the state of the industry and the finer points of all that jazz. Let’s console ourselves that they simply do not understand. Let’s argue over the meaning of a true designer. Let’s forget all about level design and quietly ignore that it is 80% of all meaningful design work. Let’s construct fortresses of solitude. Let’s wait for the new tech. Let’s talk about markets and marketing, and let’s pretend that we know what we’re talking about when we speak on those subjects. Let’s be arch to everyone that is not a game designer and sage to everyone that is. Let’s dance badly. Let’s despair about Christmas. Let’s tell ourselves once again that using a scriptwriter for dialogue is useless unless we integrate it properly into the process. Let’s all fantasise about the Hollywood of gaming. Let’s perpetuate the joke about the games industry being bigger than the film industry. Let’s remain anonymous. Let’s remain unfulfilled. Let’s tell everyone what a hard job we do.

A belated Happy New Year then.

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.