Sunday, November 12, 2006

A Method ... part two: Understanding the Paradigm

In this, the second of my articles on a method of game design, I talk about understanding the most basic structure of video games, that being the playing paradigm. You can read the first article here if you like before proceeding.

The reason for starting with talk of paradigms in what I billed as a results-oriented method is that it helps to frame the conversation. You may think that many of the basic ideas of game design are well understood and agreed-upon by all, but you would be mistaken. Actually, even in the basics there is a great deal of disagreement, a confusing number of terms and counter-terms. Even trying to gain a simple shared understanding of a term like game-play, which everyone uses, is almost impossible.

So that means I have to start at the start, if you like.

Starting with the basics
A fashion designer cannot design effective fashion without knowing the basics of fabric and its uses, and also how the user relates to fabric. What might be described as the paradigm of the fashion literally means understanding the basic units of clothing and also how the wearers relate to clothing. Do they see clothing as primarily functional, or as a statement, do they perceive the need for clothing to cover certain parts of the body, is their experience of clothing transformational or simply stuff they wear? How does gender play into that?

Know the paradigm and you know where the useful limits of a creative subject lie, and how to work with those limits. A fashion designer, knowing the ins and outs of clothes, knows that there is likely no point trying to design a suit that builds a narrative because that is beyond the useful limits of clothing. Clothing defines an image, not a narrative, and so the best effort is likely put into creating different images and looks. Fashion is like painting, it is a presentation with impact and subtlety that encapsulates one instant.

Video games have a paradigm just like anything else. As the paradigm of watching a film rules out substantive audience interaction, so the paradigm of video games rules out certain kinds of relationships. Video games have limits just like anything else. They are physically limited, their basic mode of operation is limited and their audience relationship to it is also limiting. These are the physical basics to be grasped:

Video games consist of two physical aspects: Input and output. The input device can vary from as little as a single button to a complicated multi-joystick affair, a motion sensor controller or a dance mat.

There are only so many buttons, and therefore only so many kinds of distinct action (either through one button press or a compound of multiple buttons held at once) which the player can perform. The input device always forms the basis of the physical constraints of the game.

Likewise, players can only really use some of their body parts for playing at any one time. A theoretical game that uses the player's full body and is also strategic and engaging all at once is a nice fantasy, but in all likelihood is simply over-complicated. Even in modern games, there are those which are very complicated in terms of input, and player fatigue is a problem in those games.

The output device is usually a screen of some kind, along with sound capability and, in some instances, controller feedback. Output devices vary in size from the screens of a DS to a 60-inch HDTV, but their function remains the same. They pass information back to the eyes and ears of the player, which in turn informs his next action using the input device.

The screen also frames the action of the game. All video games have a limited area in which to operate, a conceptual distance that separates the player from the game, and that is defined by the screen. What happens in the game must occur on the screen because that is where the player's attention lies.

As a result, all video games work in loops. Player takes action, player receives information that alters the context of his next action, player takes next action. A loop can be of any length, from fractions of a second for an action game to days or weeks for a turn-based strategy game, and the length of the loop is very important in determining whether game is strategic or tactical. A greater distance between loops creates more opportunity for a player to think.

The physical component of the paradigm also creates a strong need in games for visible cause and effect. This is the principle whereby if I take an action, it should produce a visible result. If it yields no visible reaction in the output device, then it's breaking the paradigm. Paradigm breaks are usually indicative of poor design.

Some games have experimented with the idea of invisible cause and effect, but they often flounder in the territory of players feeling frustrated, or that their actions seem to be pointless. While experimentation and discovery are desirable in a game, players have a very low tolerance for experimentation with interfaces. They like learning a beat 'em up move, provided they know that the face buttons on a joypad each do something predictable.

What they dislike is a game where an obscure interface makes it hard for them to know that their actions are actually doing anything at all. Cause and effect must be apparent in any game, and it must be consistent. Because the video game is constrained with a loop of pushing buttons and interpreting results, the player has to be able to filter information in a logical fashion. Consistent behaviour is therefore a huge part of the game because it re-enforces the player's ability to filter information. Another term for cause is 'game mechanic' and another term for effect is 'game rule'. My method separates mechanics and rules and regards them as distinct.

The video game needs to be controllable in terms of predictable contact points. A contact point is the element of the game with which the player can do something, and through which things can be done to them. The contact point is the player's presence inside the game. It may be consistent, such as a game character, or it may shift, such as the next active block in Tetris, but the principle of it is that this is the point in the contact through which game mechanic and rule are interpreted for the player.

The above physical elements serve to frame all games in terms of a logically consistent universe with which the player can interact in specified, logical patterns that allow them to perceive action and information efficiently and play with a loop. This is what we call a game world. The contact point is what we often call the character or the bat or whatever and signifies the player's presence in the game. The upshot of these elements is that the player needs to have a consistent perspective on the game, whether that be first person perspective or high isometric. Shifting perspective is generally bad design

The result of all these elements is to establish a psychological relationship between the player and the game which is fairly consistent throughout games, and that relationship is as follows:

Video games frame a player's attention and transport it, via contact points, into a game world. Because it requires efficient transmission of information to overcome the physical input and output limits of the game, all game worlds must be composed of consistent perspectives, mechanics, rules, internal logic, loop structures and respect that the player can only handle so many controls at any one time. Within these limits, the player's psychological mode places them in the game world, so we can say that the player gets into the game, and their contact point is a conduit between the two.

Players play themselves inside a video game, they do not play characters, and they are playing inside worlds, not stories.

I can't emphasise this point enough.

It is important to distinguish between the paradigm of games and context, genres and so on. The genre of a game is not a part of the paradigm of games. Game genres work within the constraints of the paradigm, but they don't define it. The paradigm is a consistent set of ground rules under which all games operate under, whereas genre is a set of stylistic conventions that limit the game along even further lines. Game genres shift, but the paradigm is consistent.

What does shift is the context of a paradigm. For example, there are several key differences between the paradigms of film and television. Both are similar, but film operates in a mostly single-serving theatrical setting, whereas television is episodic. And film is also usually paid-for entertainment whereas television is perceived as free, but with advertising breaks. These subtle differences constrain the writing and direction of both in different ways. I assume that the advent of Youtube is creating yet another new paradigm distinct from both the cinema and the TV, and we'll grow to know what that is in time.

By the same token, it is entirely possible that other paradigms will arise out of the video game paradigm. At the moment there is really only one, but some of the more interesting work in the field involves really trying to redefine the paradigm in other terms. I'm thinking of Habbo Hotel and Second Life here, which really ditch the 'game' aspect of the framed interaction of the game, and therefore may be able to ditch cause and effect for other paradigm rules.

These innovations will lead to other forms of entertainment in time. As we understand film and television to be different things, I think we will eventually stop trying to shoehorn everything into the one "video game" box, and instead accept that different paradigms can develop here. Maybe we'll call them "Video toys" instead.

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Friday, October 27, 2006

A Method of Game Design, part one

I've decided to write up a method of creating games from the ground up for a few reasons. One is that while debate is all well and good, translating it into action is the step almost never taken. Over the last three or so years I've talked about all manner of ideas, from removing the document from the design process to naming issues, breaking down the story barrier, the language barrier, the importance of the creator figure and other areas. These are all, in their way, fine talk, but they do not constitute anything coherent.

My second reason is that there are a lot of people out there, working in the field of game design and level design, for whom the whole debate over games has grown so vague and abstract that it disconnects from an actual method. As a result, a whole host of ad hoc methods have been adopted across the industry (especially in the West) that have no business being anywhere near the creative and innovative processes and are actively destructive.

Lastly, because I fundamentally disagree with many of the official methods that have received the stamp and seal of approval. It annoys me greatly to see a tome of supposed game wisdom talk in-depth about a method which actually doesn't work, because the stamp of officialdom in print is such that those methods become accepted practise without any real evaluation. Many design books sit on many shelves, lending the air of wisdom and finality to many a designer or producer, but in practise they are usually very far off the beaten track.

Central to this method are four simple tenets:

  1. Fiction is important
  2. Constraints are important
  3. Elegance is important
  4. Results are what matter

Fiction is an important part of the game design process because without fiction, all you have is abstract elements. Abstract elements alone do not usually make for an interesting game because we have all played Tetris etc, the most abstract game of them all, and so all abstract games inevitably have the same overriding feel of Tetris etc. Once you have played a few purely abstract physical simulations, you have played them all. Aside from all the basic abstractions and their deceptively purist character, all games need a fiction.

Fiction breaks down into two constituent components: inner fiction and outer fiction. Inner fiction is basically the root defining idea of the game. Outer fiction is the mythology, characters, names, dates and background of the game. While almost all games need an inner fiction, an outer fiction is optional. I'll explain their relationship to the method more fully in a later post.

The most common problem that I have seen in game design over the years is a lack of appreciation of the need for constraints. Many well-intentioned designers have traveled down the road of writing lots of idea documentation and creating large levels in 3D tools, only to find that these ideas and levels actually don't work in-game. What these designers are failing to do is to fully consider the constraints of their project. There are five general kinds of constraint:
  1. Physical constraints
  2. Situational constraints
  3. Client constraints
  4. Fictional constraints
  5. Adopted constraints
Constraints are often perceived as limits to the designer's imagination. They are that, but the ability to work within limits is what distinguishes a designer from someone who just has a vibrant imagination. Constraints are hard limits on what can be done, but in so doing they are also enablers. The reason why so many great games come from the past of gaming is the same reason why so many great books come from cultures of poverty, and so much great music comes from the streets. Those environments naturally constrain those artists, and the same is true of constraints within the game workplace.

Another common problem that many designers (and others) regularly fumble is the problem of special-case thinking. Special-case thinking is the practice of thinking "Wouldn't it be cool if" without considering the ramifications. Bad design is usually full of special-case ideas that don't sit well together and don't produce either cohesion or progression. A special-case idea is easily identifiable as one which the game design then has to prevent from being abused by artificial means.

General-case thinking, on the other hand, is a sign of good game design. Most special-case ideas are in fact able to be replicated in a general context, provided the constraints and fiction permit them, and the ramifications do not produce any artificial restrictions. A game design should be based on enough general-case ideas to produce results that engender cohesion and progression. General-case ideas form the basis of game mechanics and rules, and general-case thinking is elegant.

Elegance is extremely important in any project. Players relate to elegance because it means that they do not have to spend a lot of time understanding how to play the game and instead can focus on how to play the game well. Elegance is also a key factor in determining how much effort is actually involved in the project as it makes the permutations of the project easy to comprehend. Lastly, elegance helps convey the core reason to play the game and highlights its strong selling points. Most videogames are not at all elegant, and they suffer greatly for it.

Lastly, you'll see me talking a lot about results-oriented design. The problem with theory is that it is all theoretical, meaning that everything sounds good in theory until you bring it into the real world. A game design document as a large repository of knowledge about the project sounds like a good idea in theory until you come up against the reality that most people do not read game design documents.

A designer must have results in mind at all times. They typically have intended results in mind but intention and actual result are two very different things. Having a results-oriented disposition means that you have the ability not only to see what an idea or constraint is intended to achieve but also how it specifically works in the game, what it will take to get it to work, and what the drawbacks of not getting it to work actually mean.

Intention, on the other hand, gets you nowhere because everyone reads intentions in different ways. A competent designer knows full well that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Follow-through and the ability to think in terms of results, plan for them and execute them is what counts.

Next week: Understanding the paradigm.

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Game Development is not Software Development

Many developers believe that games do not need a central creator figure and that customer focus and willingness to adapt are what matters. I basically disagree with this idea on the basis that games are not software applications which can be definitively made better according to an objective standard. They are entertainment, which relies largely on subjective perspectives of what works, regardless of whether they are so-called interactive or passive entertainment.

Quite a few of the myths of game development derive from ignorance. Game development is a very narrow, insular field in many ways, and is not a culture remarkable for its ability to embrace and learn from outside itself. As a result, many of its myths are legacy ideas that have developed happenstance over a number of years and clogged up its arteries with all sorts of guff. The software-analogy is perhaps the largest of them all.

What this myth concerns is the idea that the techniques of software development can translate over into game development. At the level of the lone gunman, like my friend Cliff Harris, a developer can work in whatever way he or she chooses. When working on a larger scale, such as on 'The Movies', however, things become very different.

Most games are primarily made of content, not software. In any given game
development team there are far more man hours devoted to what goes into the game and how it works as a piece of entertainment rather than the engineering of it. As a result, iteration-led development always has to keep an eye on the fact that while changes in a regular software development environment usually don't cause too much trouble if managed correctly, significant changes in a game development environment can (and do) throw an awful lot of content work away.

A simple example is a change made by code in the middle of a project which streamlines the way that a scripting system works. In software development this may have some knock-on effects in terms of user interface and documentation, but that's not too heavy as the content to code ratio of software is low. In a game development environment, such a change can throw out months of work.

Content-code issues aside, the more significant difference between the two, philosophically, is that most software development is focused on making an objectively better product through better features, better implementation of features, or both. Game development is focused on making better gameplay, which usually results from less features, a deliberate impediment to those features, or both. Software applications are built to drive productivity. Games are built to challenge and surprise.

Software applications become objectively better.
Games become subjectively better.

As a result, adopting the mindset of software development into game development is pretty much the same as adopting the techniques of telecommunications engineering as a means to becoming a better sculptor. Software and games make look similar when you're staring at the code, but they are actually worlds apart. To make a better application you need an engineer's mindset driving the process. To make a better game, you need the mind of an artist.

Creation vs Innovation

What's at the root of the software analogy myth is an inherent distrust of the creative. This largely reactionary viewpoint stems from a rejection of outsiders coming into game development. The culture has a long history of its own, and many developers instinctively feel that those people who foisted FMV and long boring talks about interactive storytelling and whatever else just don't get it. Writers, painters, musicians, what the hell do they know about games, right?

Maybe not much. But what they do know a lot about is creativity, and creativity is something that isn't just on a low par in games, it's downright absent. Instead, we plumb for talking about "innovation".

Innovation is a funny concept to apply to entertainment. Innovation is the stuff of building better products, better software, that which is more efficient and effective. You innovate features for an MP3 player, a way of building a house or kind of cola. But do we innovate in entertainment?

Well entertainment certainly goes through stages. Camera techniques in television shows, for example, change all the time. They are often highly fashion-led, however. This week's shaky cam is last week's news. Techniques are always on the move, but they are only the side show of the implementation. What matters in television shows is whether the content is surprising or not. The innovative takes a back seat to the creative.

The same is usually true of games. Most games, even many of the most successful games, are not innovative. Starcraft is the same game as Warcraft 2. GTA3 is a straight-up-and-down drive and shoot game. Bioware's rpgs have been doing the same thing since, like, forever. Max Payne does not do anything not done before. While it is true that some games have exploded onto the scene in a hail of innovation, the reality is that most of them have not, and most of the most fondly remembered games are so remembered for their creative elements. The stuff that made us laugh, swear, jump out of our seats in fright and so on is the creative parts in games.

As we go forward, the innovation angle is becoming less and less relevant because innovation is limited. Yes, the Wii is going to shake up how things are controlled for a little while, but you and I both know that in 18 months from its release the platform will play host to a variety of "look what I can do with a wavey controller" cloneware, but the really interesting games will be the creative ones.

Innovation is a way to solve a problem or explore a feature, and developers love that. Creation, however, is what makes games memorable and gives them depth. That's what them writers and artists and all the rest of them can bring to the table. We've seen it before in roleplaying games and the old graphical adventures, and we can see it again. But only if we can learn to change and accept the creative.

Otherwise it's orcs and elves, this time with 3D positional controllers, until we all get utterly bored to death.

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Sunday, September 17, 2006


As a few of you may know, I have something of an interest in Buddhism. Not as a full-on robe wearing Hare Rama type, more in the techniques and philosophies that it espouses.

The 25-words-or-less version of Buddhism is basically this:

"Desire is a bad thing, stay the hell away from it and you'll become conscious."

Actually, they take this mean desire in the broad sense, including those aspects of love that seem to make us act against our will. Obviously it also includes material desires beyond that which is functional (i.e. hunger isn't desire, it's hunger) as well as more ephemeral desires like career ambitions.

This means to actually be permanently self aware, a state that Buddhists refer to as enlightenment. The idea is that most of us are unconscious most of the time, and although we sometimes have moments of clarity that show us what we are really like and who we really are, 99.9% of the time we're not really self aware.

So why is desire a bad thing?
This is all to do with where you awareness is at. In simple simple terms, the real reason that desire is a big no-no is that it focusses your attention on the past or the future. Desire focussed on the past is otherwise known as regret and/or guilt, while desire focussed on the future is either hopes, aspirations or dreams.

The point is that the mind is focussed on that which does not exist, because the past and the future do not exist. Only the present exists, and in the present we have no mind. While this may initially sound anti-rational, what it means is that since our minds have the habit of keeping us unconscious because becoming conscious and self-aware is terrifying. I mean have any of us really looked at ourselves? So by having our minds wander up and down along a timeline which is non-existent, we propagate misery in ourselves.

This doesn't clash with the idea of having goals, such as working to become a doctor, but rather with the idea of desiring to be a future image of yourself, if that makes any sense. See meditation below.

So how to become conscious?
Meditation. Not just of the sitting around variety, but in fact to do the work that you were meant to do. For instance, if you feel that you were meant to write, then the act of writing as opposed to thinking about becoming a writer (desire) is the way to go. Activity that you are meant to do in the present is meditation. Whether as a doctor, an businessman, an astronaut, a parent, whatever, the point is that if it is what you are meant to be doing, then this is the thing that keeps you in the present.

Just some random Sunday thoughts.

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

A Permanent Revolution: Does the Games Market Need Reform?

I'm curious about something to do with the DS Lite, and it is this: It is an incredibly sexy piece of hardware, offers beautiful performance, battery life, fits in your pocket, innovative game design opportunities, the whole bit. In many ways, the DSL is the most significant games platform of the last five years, and the mark of a real generational change rather than this fake "HD" generation (which isn't a generation shift at all, just the same one with ever so slightly more for a very much larger price tag). So since the DSL is such an amazing piece of kit that also fulfils the 'sexy' tick box, why hasn't it caught on ipod-style?.

It's popular in gaming circles, of that there is no question, but it hasn't really passed into the public consciousness, and this is puzzling. You see the latest Motorola phone being bandied about and the latest ipods get flashed around. Why not the DSL? I can understand the original DS not catching on because it is one ugly thing. I can't understand why I'm not seeing the DSL everywhere because it is such an "everywhere" product.

And the answer hits me that maybe it's because of the cost. An ipod costs 200 pounds on average. A DSL costs only a hundred at most if you haven't gotten it on a deal. But an ipod's content, the music, costs 79p per song (at most), free for podcasts. DS Lite games cost 30 pounds in many cases, 20 pounds for Brain Training etc. Sure, Nintendo makes a profit off of this model, the same model that they have used since the mid-80s and the NES (and which the rest of the industry has followed).

Higher priced games tied to media in retail outlets means that fewer games are sold per console. This is known as an attach rate, and I've heard that over the course of the time period which a manufacturer keeps its "generation" sits at somewhere around 5 for the home consoles and 2 for the handhelds. Which is why the GBA, having eventually sold millions of units was still a graveyard for many developers and conspicuously hasn't made Nintendo a hundred billion dollar corporation.

So we can see that higher priced games makes for fewer games sold. So the DSL may be a super sexy piece of kit, but it's no ipod because the content is so expensive. It's the same story with the consoles. 100 million PS2s sold, but not nearly as many PS2 games sold per PS2 as DVDs per DVD player. Same story with the Xbox, the Revolution, the 360 and so on. With a regular turn-around of hardware and new media types, perpetuation of a hardware-focused media cycle and continuing loss-leading hardware pricing, a state of permanent revolution has developed.

The problem with permanent revolution is that it isn't really free, and this brings me back to the ipod example once again. One of the key reasons that the ipod is so successful is that it is free to use. The stability of the Itunes structure, the ability of people to create their own mp3s and sell them from wherever, the liberal attitude to podcasting and so on serve to propel the platform forward, and its imitators also. It is a healthy, free market.

DVD is also a healthy market, and one that even the HD-DVD/Blu-Ray attempt is unlikely to unseat. It is easy to use, easy to publish for and with a licensing fee attached to the product that makes it all but free. DVD is a healthy, free market.

By contrast, games are a command economy. The permanent revolution breeds a devastatingly wasteful silicon war, with two sides spending each other into the grave and games really considered only in the context of platform defining titles (and increasingly internalised) or shelf-bulkers that might do well (but which end up going through "concept approvals" and all sorts of other economic hoops to get to market) and preferential business arrangements wherein the companies that pay the most or whose titles are most important to the strategy of the platform are the ones that get fast-tracked for production. And this even applies to the likes of Live Arcade, which theoretically shouldn't even need such a restriction as chip and disc printing is really not an issue.

Now, call me an amateur economist (which, let's face it, I am) but in other industries where a few key competitors basically create a permanent revolution setup between them is generally called an oligopoly, and oligopolies are generally considered bad for capitalism. As I understand it, this is because they really only compete against each other, while at the same time creating market scenarios in which the possibility of true competition from below effectively dies. The supermarket sector in Britain is an oligopoly, for example.

Oligopolies have a tendency to persist unless one of two things happen. The first is a fundamental shift in the market which pulls the rug out from under the whole industry. For example, the effect of the internet on the RIAA music publishers. The other condition is when governments intervene and take steps to correct the market, such as the British government's push for a fully digital platform which has created space for hundreds of digital channels and which is currently forcing the original terrestrial channels to branch out and change their staid old way of doing things.

Some oligopolies are likely unavoidable for physical reasons - like train companies - but many are not and the games industry is certainly not one of them. It is an oligopoly because of industrial reasons, i.e. it perpetuates because the main competitors have too much to lose if they try and change things. What is needed is outside reform, yet this is not a question that many governments are addressing. The British government, to look at them again, quite happily take many measures to liberalise the television industry, to try and prevent print media from becoming oligopolistic, and a raft of other measures, but they do nothing about the games industry. Maybe they haven't realised that there may be a problem.

Permanent revolution always descends into intractable dictatorship. Either the oligopoly lives on, or it eventually descends into duopoly or monopoly. In the process, competition at the lower end is killed, market innovation dries up, customer service eventually drops, as do jobs, growth and all the rest of it. Is this what's happening in the games market? Clearly I think it is, but what do you think?

If it is, then we need reform and we need the governments (particularly the US government) to do it. It is bad economics to allow the industry to persist on its current course. It will stall at the very least if it is allowed to do that, and that's not healthy for the economy as a whole, and the sector most especially. As a command economy, the industry can continue in this vein, but it is unhealthy for it to do so. Market liberalisation must go on the agenda, including such possible steps as outlawing concept approvals, forcibly reducing the manufacturers' percentages, creating a real market for development kit (not a pretend one like the recently announced Live venture), liberalising the manufacturing process for media to allow anyone to print their own disks and boxes etc.

It's not unheard of for companies to do this by themselves, I might add. Nintendo maintain that they are all about disruptive business practises these days, so maybe it is possible that their conversion to the Apple mentality is about to appear with the Wii, fully fledged and raring to go. Maybe no government intervention is needed after all. Looking at the DS aisle, however, I have to say that there's no real evidence of such a shift yet.

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Manifesto Goes Live

See Here.

Hope it goes well for you Greg!

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Long Live the New Gods

A little late to the party perhaps, but this caught my attention yesterday. The summarised version is this: MTV are holding some sort of interviews with some high profile game developers ("Gods", apparently). It also reminded me of this piece on that asked why was it that we were still talking about the same people at the head of the industry (Carmack, Miyamoto, etc). And it made me realise something. The old Gods are actually dead, but the media haven't clocked this yet. The New Gods are coming.

Are you ready?

Anatomy of a God
Going all Greek for a moment, what is a God?

In many ways, Gods back then were the equivalent of brands today. Aside from the idea that someone might be abasing themselves before a poster of John Romero, or seeking out Warren Spector's old shoes as relics, what this means is that a God, like a brand, came to mean a symbol of something. The nature of a God was larger than life, the physical embodiment of an idea, and the faith in that idea. This is what brands are at their best, and those who disagree may be referred to the cults of Nintendo and Apple respectively. Gods inspire faith.

Theologically speaking, there are traditionally two kinds of God. One is the insubstantial force, the monolith representing a concept. Companies occupy this particular sort of position in modern times, with people ascribing traits to Coca Cola, McDonalds, Microsoft and Sega, for example, which stand above and beyond the sum total of the people who actually work in those companies. The Mystery cults of Roman times are alive and well in this new form.

The other kind of God is the avatar God. These are the Gods that have faces and bodies, as it were, and who embody a philosophy and a creative aspect. Avatar Gods represent the unchanging truths in our grander nature (Jung's archetypes, in many ways) in that they are not full and rounded people in our understanding of it. To be mortal is to change, to be immortal is to be encapsulated in time.

Our society is awash with these kinds of Gods. The faces of the famous and the worshipped, the stalked and the saluted are literally all around us. The pantheon is literally heaving with all sorts.

So to gaming. While we gamers and game developers might fancy ourselves as aloof and rational beings, rejecting the theology of the masses, the truth is of course that we are just as prone to deification as anyone else. We have out inanimate deities with ever changing personnel like Nintendo and Sony, and we have our individuals who have become Gods. Will Wright is a figure of awe to many people, for example. Will Wright is a God. (There's a quote you won't get from me very often)

Gods are upheld by faith more than anything else. A company which has lost the faith of its consumers goes bankrupt either sharply or in slow decline. A musician whose albums turn to drek finds himself outcast from the body politic. When the Greeks ceased to be a major force in the Mediterranean, their Gods were adapted by the Romans and died after a fashion, eventually supplanted entirely by Christ.

So for gaming, the question that has to be asked is whether the existing Gods are really all that relevant, or whether many or all of them are living in yesteryear? I suspect that the answers to these questions are both "Only in so far as industry journalists keep them alive".

The Meeja
And this is where things get really interesting.

Every God needs its priests. The Mystery Cult needed its cultists to propagate the myths, just as the Catholic Church has a huge hard-on for evangelists and missionaries going to spread The Word. Like it or not, many of the games industry's publications both on the web and in print serve to carry The Word. They are the ones that bring the knowledge of the deity to us and, since all writers create false narratives no matter how hard they may try to be factual, this means that it is writers who craft the myth. All writers are essentially priests or magicians. They bring the Word or they create the Word.

So surely the question for the industry's writers is whether the Word that they bring is actually the truth, or whether they are propagating the myths long past their sell by date. While it is nice to remember the days of yore and the achievements of old, it does seem that a lot of the Gods of gaming are cooling their heels these past five years. Who really spearheaded the great games of the last few years. Are they Gods? If so, why are we not reading about them all the time instead of the usual suspects?

Who among the independent circuit is coming forward with the startling or the truly innovative, and why are we not reading about them all the time instead of yet another FPS engine refinement from Carmack or yet another negative rant about the industry from Spector? What does continued faith in the old Gods get us?

It seems to me that the answer is "Not Much" and industry journalists are being far too complacent. In Hollywood they have an expression that "you're only as good as your last picture" but in games we hold on to the old pantheon even when it seems clear that they've gone off the boil. A lack of attention for the new generation results in starvation among them, because the industry money follows the hype more than the hype following the money. Publishers will only invest in someone already familiar or someone "hot".

The New Gods are out there folks. Do you really want to write another quirky unfunny article about how Miyamoto got the ideas for Zelda from playing in caves as a child, or do you think that maybe there are new stories to tell? I know it's difficult and I know that the inanimate forces who hold onto the purse-strings are both pushing out their old God brands and less than keen for new faces to appear, but really. Is that any excuse?

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Stories Etc. Redux

I was quite happy to note that the story articles that myself and Danc came out with over the last few weeks generated quite a bit of interest, and I've enjoyed replying and refining the points with various people in forums and so on. In particular, however, I want to spend a bit of time replying in depth to Brian Green (he of Psychochild fame), as he's taken a long look at the topic.

Brian essentially makes a stab at countering my assertion (which quite a few have objected to) that all stories are structure). For example (I'm going to be doing a lot of quoting here):

I think that for most storytelling-based entertainment, the assertion is mostly correct: the best stories are fragile and complicated beasts. I really enjoy digging into the complex political stories of George R. R. Martin's wonderful series, A Song of Fire and Ice and think the stories would be diminished if they were simplified. However, I don't think the stories are necessarily that fragile. [Warning: minor spoilers in the rest of this paragraph.] You could change a few of the details and still have a powerful story. In fact, this is what I love most about the stories: you think you know the "rules" and suddenly a main character dies, or some dead character is back, or some other detail changes the direction of the story. Yet, the change fits within the book: this is a world of deep political intrigue and magic, so it makes sense that "important" people would end up dead during a war or that someone might come back from the grave. So, I will argue that stories are more resilient than the original assertion gives credit.

What I feel Brian is missing out on here is how much effort is required to make a convincing change.

Can a story be changed? It surely can. It just cannot be changed easily. How easily it can be changed is directly connected to how complicated the structure of the story has become. A great political thriller, for example, is a carefully woven mesh of pace, character discoveries, motivations, back-stabbing and so on, and these elements have to be put together in a "just so" sort of arrangement or else things stand out (like obvious clues, clangers of bad plotting and so on). The author can change the story around, but to re-weave it together so that it makes a new kind of sense can take months if not years. Story structures are brittle.

I also think that Brian's point confuses departing from the established rules with a departure from structure. In the case of good storytelling, you know that your audience expects the story to go a certain way, so when you pull the rug out from under them this is often good. This is not departing from structure, however. For a sudden shift like this to work well, the story requires even more tightly structured storytelling than if you were following genre convention. The shift has to be believable, and that is entirely dependent on the structure. It's no good suddenly dropping the mask randomly and expecting your audience not to feel like you've cheated.

Brian also gets into the subject of what he calls 'universal stories' and 'personal stories'. The broad distinction between the two is that the universal story is one that can be enjoyed by anyone (a movie, a book, etc) whereas the personal story is a private one, like a recounting of the day's events to our wife. So, for example, two roleplayers telling about the feats that their characters did, boring the pants off each other but really getting off on their own tale is 'personal stories' in action, and

In both these cases each person has a story they care about. This more than a "fiction" as Tadhg Kelly refers to it; it becomes a story when you tell it at the very least. Just because most people find the story boring does not invalidate it: it is very meaningful to me and probably to the other people that participate in the game. Unfortunately, most people share Tadhg's perception that universal stories are the important ones, and tend to overlook the personal stories.

This discussion may seem familiar to those that read online RPG developer blogs. It is, because this is exactly what many online RPG developers argue about players. Raph Koster and Dave Rickey are probably the most vocal in claiming that each individual's story is important to them. (Of course, that leads them to the conclusion that user-based content is the way to go; they're wrong, but that's a whole other post.)

So, while Tadhg is correct that playing a computer game (or a paper RPG) isn't going to create the next Schindler's List, it can create stories that resonate with the individual or group. And, I think this is still valuable to us as game developers as long as we keep this distinction in mind.

My simple answer (to the bit I've emboldened) is no, that is not correct. What Brian is actually talking about is the stories that we derive from experience, but what he's missing (in my opinion) is that these stories just derive out of the random events of life. For every interesting thing that happens with a roleplayer's 20th level paladin, there are 45 hours of trudging around killing orcs. For every day that I come home from the office with something interesting to tell, there are four where the day was just dull.

In neither case is the game nor my office creating a story that resonates with me. It's just stuff that happens. For every exciting game of football there are ten that are pretty average. The thing that made it exciting on the day was that interesting stuff happened. This kind of emotional excitement derives through happenstance. It is not created by the game of football.

In all three cases, with an office, a game of football, a roleplaying game, all you really have is the potential for interesting things to happen. The environments are not creating stories of their own accord. It is the people who create the stories, and that is outside of the control of the game designer, the office manager and the Football Association. You can lead a horse to water....

What can be done is to try and create environments that generate interesting potential, i.e. good games. A good game is one that is balanced, where the rules are easy to understand and where the fiction of the game is such that it provides an interesting context. Whatever dramatic situations and re-tellings that arises out of this are totally outside the control of the game's creator. World of Warcraft does not create the Leeroy video, it is just something that happens within the environment because the rules and mechanics of the game are such that it can happen. It does not mean that it will happen, however. And it does not happen all of the time, or even most of the time.

Brian also talks about my point of games and elegance:

I'm also going to disagree with Tadhg when he says:

* But in order for them to become more robust, they must become simpler

I absolutely disagree with this. The recent fashion has been to simplify games in order to achieve "mainstream" appeal and better sales. Obviously overly complicated rules can hamper a game, but simplifying too much can hurt the game just as much. Tic-Tac-Toe is a very simple game with easy-to-follow rules. Yet, I think few serious game developers would go on record as trying to defend it as the most robust game, and therefore the best game. Yes, this is an absurd simplification, but it demonstrates the point. I think, as with most things, the truth lies in the middle: a great game is an elegant mix of simplicity and complexity. The old saw about "easy to learn, hard to master" applies here. And, while a good game is fun and people assume fun is easy, trying to create a great game that follows that old saw is anything but simple. And, before anyone tries to argue sales figures, don't confuse popularity with quality.

So, even if we accept that stories have to have a complicated structure, I don't think this means games are incompatible. It means that games have to adopt the structure of stories, or we need to adapt stories to the structure of games.

And again, no.

Brian is right in that games are all about balance. Tic Tac Toe is simple, but it is not balanced. Therein lies its flaw and the reason why it doesn't have much potential. There is one winning tactic, and therefore all games of Tic Tac Toe are variations on the same game. Chess and Go, on the other hand, are also pretty simple. But they are balanced, and so there is not one winning tactic. As a result, all games are not the same by any means, and so the room for potential is large. Football is also pretty balanced, going into the arena of sports, although there are some discussions going on in football over the over-powering strength of defenders in the modern game, which is a situation that is slowly pushing football into one-winning-tactic territory. The people in football recognise that balance is key to a long lasting game full of potential.

At the heart of balancing a game is the ability to see what is going on and see how the elements interact with each other. So the vogue for simplifying games is not really about marketing, it's about elegance and balancing and, therefore, potential. Complicated rules make a game much harder to balance, and that's no good. At all times, simplicity is the key. You can only simplify to a particular point before things make no sense any more (which I'll be talking about in greater detail in my next article), but the overall goal of good game design is to simplify to that point.

This is entirely at odds with stories. The whole skill of writing good stories boils down to the ability to build an intricate matchstick house of elements. It's nice to suggest in abstraction that this complexity can be somewhat adapted to become more robust, but in practise what we're really talking about here are two entirely different things. As I said in one of my many replies, it's like redefining the wheels and bricks as 'part of a greater set of objects, some of which may be rounded, some of which may be angular' and then going on to theorise that there must therefore exist some kind of brickwheel because the logic dictates it from the set.

Only it clearly aint so.

Brian later addresses God of War, which is interesting because I think God of War is one of the best examples of fiction in action that I've seen in about three years. If I may summarise, Brian faults God of War in these areas:
  • Inflexibility: What if I don't want to be an anti-social tattooed freak with a soft spot for women
  • Linearity: What if I want to avoid this very blatant trap?
  • Destiny: What if I feel that it's more appropriate for the "hero" to slip into Hades and suffer eternal punishment for his sins?
So, yes, you see Tadhg's complaint right here: the rigid story conflicts with the more fluid nature of an interactive game. One has to win out, and it's the rigid story structure. Unfortunately, this means that some of your actions are immutable, something that is antithetical to a truly interactive game. But, this does not mean it's the only possible outcome when you focus on story...

...I think the developers did a great job establishing the characters and making the whole thing very entertaining. But, the game was limited by the story and did not allow players to do things that would harm the story.

So you see the thing is this:
God of War is not a story. It's a game.

It has rules, it has mechanics (which were doled out throughout the course of the game). It has a setting, all historical and spiky Greek stuff, and it consists of a series of threaded challenges based on those rules and mechanics. The setting, which is part of the fiction, changes throughout the course of playing the game. This informs new challenges, provides a context for opening out new mechanics and in most cases that results in new developments in the gameplay for you to grok, new excitement in the context and so on. It is a game.

How can it not be a story? Simple. It has no structure. It has a series of pockets of potential and mildly expanding rules (which expand on very methodical lines, that keep the game fairly simple). It also has, as Danc pointed out in his article, small rewards in the form of the backstory that act as pauses to the main gameplay, but they are the equivalent of the half time show at the SuperBowl. They're nice, enlightening, even enjoyable. But they're not really relevant to the playing experience. Yes, you find out how Kratos is such a bad man and a couple of questions are answered along the way, and the overall multimedia experience of the game would be lessened without them a little because the odd reflective pause is nice.

But that's basically it. Primarily, they serve their function as little bits of rewards, or enablers of new missions, things that change the fiction inside a context, and that's it. It's the same in Vice City, Max Payne 2, Grim Fandango, Zelda, Halo, Ico and whatever else we drag up. The half time show is nice, but it's not the main event, and the moment that it starts to impinge upon the main event and get in the way is the moment that players lose interest. Nobody likes the epic cut-scenes in Metal Gear Solid 2 except for their unintentional comedy.

As I said, I'll be trying to map the reasons for this in my next article, but my essential point is that God of War gets it almost exactly right and that's why it's such a great game. Inflexibility, linearity and destiny are pretty much beside the point.

Lastly, I broadly agree with Brian's points about the need for a better understanding of technique. Regardless of whether you look at it in terms of fiction or story or whatever your term of choice is, there's always room for improvement in the manner in which information is delivered. Even if it is just a better choice of camera angle, a fade-out effect or a particular piece of paper that your character discovers on the ground, there are almost always ways to do things better.

The question is more what the goal of this is in the first place and understanding the reasons for doing them.

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Monday, July 31, 2006

The Busted Flush

I'm now going to make a prediction, so get your laugh hats on.

If you've worked in the trenches of game development in the UK and elsewhere, you know that the last few years have been a case of feast or famine when it came to employment. For a period between 5 and 3 years ago, it was jobs galore in the industry. That's where any old chancer could wander in fresh from the world of amateur roleplaying game design and call themselves a game designer (like my good self, for instance). Then, 3 years ago, the party ended with a bang and closures became the order of the day. For the following year and a half leading on from that, it was hell for leather trying to get reliable work in the industry. Lots of companies died, publishers hunkered down, it was a bad time.

Then, eighteen months ago, the ice started to melt. At first it was publishers setting up campus studios that hoovered up a lot of excess people. Then came the star studio buyouts, the expansion packs of studios opening in different locations (like Rockstar London etc), even new studios started organising deals and hiring plans (such as Ninja Theory) and suddenly everything became ok again. Apparently right now it is a good time to be looking for work again, across all disciplines. Let the good times roll.

Only they won't roll for very long.
My prediction is simply that it's all going to go south. Here's why.

It's all to do with lessons not being learned and attitudes not really changing. The basic reason why contractions and collapses happen to game developers is a lack of flexibility.

Stuck With the Bill
When a game starts being developed in pre-production etc, it has only a few people working on it over time. This few slowly grows as more people are needed to take on ever growing numbers of tasks and, because the industry is pretty hit based, in most cases this then leads to a ramp-up of people. This team of people needs management, organisation and so the team grows ever larger. Add QA requirements, add full production costs and the small team can become quite large, almost anywhere from 40-100 people on modern projects.

The problem occurs when, at the end of the project, the company has a gap in its schedule. It has up to 100 excess staff, and so it either needs to have some other projects already well on the go to move those people into, or it can eat the cost of them while a new project does emerge, or it can let them go. Which option they take usually depends on the volume of work that's available, and that volume of work shifts a lot, often in relation to the console cycle. So the reason that companies are taking in a lot of staff lately is because they're all trying to get their big next gen game going.

What invariably happens after the honeymoon period of the next gen scramble is of course that quite a lot of these next gen games do not perform amazingly at the box office. This leads to the companies acquiring a less than stellar reputation, no real demand for a sequel to their game (if it made it to release even) and also a general downturn as the market for the consoles becomes split between new releases and re-releases (platinum editions etc). So far so capitalist.

The Wiseguys
What happens next is that studios close, get bought, shrink, whatever, and the employment situation changes. Big names in development like Jez San find themselves out on their ear or leave before the ship sinks or whatever. And they start up again, find new funding and they're off.

From the perspective of these made guys, that's just the way things go. They made their games, they try to make their new ones, and they did pretty well out of it. Who couldn't fault them for wanting another go on the merry go round. It's also great CV material. As for the great unwashed, well that's too bad for a bit, but they figure something out, go out of the industry, find another job eventually, whatever.

Like all cycles, however, this one isn't eternal. The ground can and does indeed change, and that's where things are going to Antarctica. Because the breaking point in all this is the amount of money that it takes to set up.

Every made guy has probably done quite well out of the industry so that they can fund their new studio up to the point of a couple of attractive demos. That is, after all, how the industry works. You put the demo together, you sell it around at the right time, incorporating the latest technology, the latest graphics, yada yada yada and you get a deal. That's how the business works if you're a made guy.

This means that the cost of demos keeps rising. Since publishers expect a full fledged demo before they'll commit serious coin, serious money has to be spent on securing these deals. So 5 years ago you were looking at a personal investment of a quarter of a million for a high caliber demo. Now, you could be looking at a mil easily. Five years from now, you could be talking 3-4 mil. For a demo. The industry's development costs have a habit of going geometric like that.

Temporary Solutions
So the solutions to date that have been settled upon are temporary contracts, outsourcing and middleware. Temporary contracts because that means you don't have to pay a lot of severance once the project ends, outsourcers because India, China and the Czech Republic are cheaper than here and middleware is a solution to the problem of ramping up technology. None of these solutions work well.

Temporary contractors (as distinct from consultants or freelancers) are tied into employment contracts that essentially are regular jobs with regular taxes and so on, and every single one of the people on those contracts are looking in reality for a permanent position. This makes them fairly disloyal if the company is not offering permanency. The reason that they want a permanent deal is because of locations.

Outsourcing, on the other hand, is a fast growing industry that is absolutely full of companies of low morals who are expert at blagging other peoples' money in exchange for the promise of something great, but who then under-deliver. This is because outsourcers, like web design agencies, always operate from a position of having too much work on and do just enough to retain contracts but not actually get the job done. A few outsourcers are professional, but guess what? They tend to be the expensive ones. As a result, a lot of out-sourced artwork has to be re-done.

Middleware is also fraught with all sorts of problems because as any good coder knows, it never does the best job for the project, it always does an adequate job. Middleware needs to be generalist to be applicable to a wide variety of problems, whereas game engines often need to be specialist to handle the unique requirements of their games. Coders always end up re-writing a bunch of middleware, which causes delays (the same applies to re-used code) and so the cost saving after the license fee has been paid is often small to non-existent.

The Real Deal
The real problem here is none of these things. The real problem is rent.

To build a studio requires a location where potentially hundreds of desks can be accommodated, where considerable infrastructure needs to be put in place. Office space costs a lot of money in some locations, and so studios operating on the made guy model tend to eschew these locations at all costs. This is why the industry is located in every ass end of the country, rather than centralised around a hub. That and a healthy quantity of 'roots put down' syndrome where a lot of the long-in-the-tooth successful types aren't really keen on moving any more because they have other commitments.

So rent keeps studios apart, and that keeps contract workers on the hunt for a better gig. It keeps the studio stuck out in the hinterlands, which makes it difficult for it to drum up fresh or passing business. Very few developers are in a position to make advergames, for instance, because they have no presence in Soho. Rent also, perversely, keeps studios big, because it turns out that firing 100 people is a hell of a lot easier than it is to hire 100 people when it comes time to ramp up production again. Ask Ninja Theory. They have had job ads running solidly in just about every industry medium for forever trying to get Heavenly Sword done. That's what happens when you locate yourself in the ass end of Cambridge, requiring anyone you hire to move house and life. For a contract on a limited term project.

Add this to the problem of finding funding in the first place from a skeptical business community - and it is pretty skeptical - for 2 mil for a demo, and the made guys' problems increase. A lack of fluidity in operations and an insistence on locating the studio in Dundee, where nobody wants to work, means that at some point the cycle breaks. Endless articles from "luminaries" on gamasutra bemoan the lack of funding, and the made guys try their hand at consulting and on-line poker and a lot of industries that they don't really understand, losing a lot of money in the process.

Campus Issues
It would seem then that the publishers would take up the slack. One of the advantages of being big, after all, is the ability to move people around. EA Vancouver, all 2000+ people of it, surely has the might and magic to retain people in large numbers and put them to good use. Well no, not really.

They can move people around, but the problems of operating at such a vast level are that the politics does not make for a conducive environment for creative people. So people don't do their best work and a lot more money is spent on what should be semi-decent titles. As with any industry, the more regimented the creative methods become, the less effective they become and the more has to be spent producing projects of internecine wars between departments and awful quality like The Godfather. It's a method that makes money for now (just) but as with all behemoths it shows the true meaning of the phrase lumbering giant, and giants stumble.

Ready, Set Go
A very few companies have the capability or management nous to think beyond this. Nintendo, for example, have managed to retain a creative culture, much as Apple have done, and on the smaller end a company like 3D Realms has also managed to stay ahead of the game by a lot of very clever business deals giving them considerable room for manouver. Most companies, even companies with "luminaries" in charge, do not have such a luxury. They have to meet their milestones like everyone else.

While the virtue of "Done when it's done" is appealing to many, in practise it is impractical for any other than those who really know what they're doing in the business (like Scott Miller seems to), have an extremely loyal pre-prepared fanbase, as Nintendo do, or are so small that they can afford long operating costs, like a few indies seem able to do. Everybody else is on the clock.

The only real solution in the long term is for the industry to re-organise itself and centralise in a big city.

In reality, none of the development companies of today would need to be anywhere near as big as they are if they were able to reliably hire freelance staff on a month to month basis. They might not even need to give them office space. They would be able to hire service companies if those companies could provide their services cheaply and reliably (such as QA) and within shouting distance rather than half way around the world.

The only realistic way to achieve this is if the made guys either stop repeating their cycle, or if we wait for them to retire or leave. The development company of old is an outmoded institutional sort of place with silo mentalities that have propagated as long as they have because they were good businesses, but this has become less and less the case. Publishers still very much need external creative minds doing their thinking for them, but those minds have no means to do that because all the made guys are still making little kingdoms and wondering why they crumble.

Centralisation is the key. By centralising, companies are essentially sharing a local staff pool. If the UK industry decamps to London (for example) then that means that dozens or hundreds of studios are all using the same group of people. They live a Tube ride away, so short term work is far less ugly a prospect. It is much easier to do deals both inside and outside the industry (those advergames etc) and so prospects become healthier.

Centralisation translates to flexibility. That's the central point, and flexibility sees us through the bad times and the good. With the industry's penchant for not learning lessons except by complete accident, this does not mean that it is about change just because I snap my fingers. It's going to be a slow ground-swell sort of thing. I don't fundamentally believe that any of the made guys are capable of serious change any more, and so they are on the slow path to crumbling and working for publishers eventually. This is sad for some, but in reality it is necessary. All industries need a bit of creative destruction every once in a while to make space for new shoots to grow, and we are way past time in that regard.

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Naked War!

Just a short pimping. The very excellent John and Ste Pickford have released their play-by-email strategy game Naked War. Initial reports are going from the stellar to the galactic. Get in!

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Saturday, July 22, 2006


I was down in my local supermarket doing the week's grocery shopping today, and I happened across a DVD bin. Lots of DVD's on sale in a 2-for-5 pounds kind of deal. Most of them were pretty rubbish, but a few were quite the curios, like Flatliners, Bilouxi Blues and a couple of others. And I thought, isn't it great that you can still get movies from 30 or 40 years ago on sale. The makers or owners of those films still getting paid for their work, even if it is only micropayments, that's a good thing, right? I had a similar thought about books and music. And then I thought of us and, yep, you guessed it, my thoughts turned to wondering whether it's not impossible to do the same.

The single format debate has been around for a little while, firstly as a response from developers to the rising cost of game development across multiple sku's, and lately also in murmuring from publishers. The economics of the games industry all support some kind of single format as a smart move, and yet nobody takes it because there is too much at stake in several camps for them to entertain the idea of collaboration rather than competition. (Yet. Give it time).

Format divisions are also at the heart of games expiring. You see, unlike the other media, a game format change happens very 3-4 years in one market or the other, and converting over game releases is impractical in that marketplace. Flatliners is available now, and will be available for another 30 years to come on different formats as long as it is cheap to manufacture. The sales will be low, but they will be consistent. It's the Long Tail in action.

Even taking a modest game, such as Wipeout 2097 for the PS1, and transferring it over to work on another system is a bit of an effort. To do it commercially is questionable economics at best because while there is undoubtedly a market for it, that market is low and consistent rather than short term. With 3-4 year format turnarounds, low and consistent means it's a loser. On the other hand, this is why franchises exist.

The publishers figure that if they can't re-hash their old property directly, they can at least make a new one. A new one will garner new press attention, will delight old consumers and new ones alight, will look nicer, and therefore will likely have legs. It is therefore a better business decision to make a whole new version of the same game rather than just port the old game.

Since the hardware manufacturers aren't ready to budge on this, and since they're focusing their backwards compatibility strictly along their own product catalogs and to their own agendas, the question that must next be asked is whether a single format can be established in all but name. This is where the .game idea comes from.

The idea is to create some sort of software wrapper or common format that future-proofs games. A set of specs that make it a hell of a lot easier for future generations of hardware to accommodate today's releases (and yesterday's if anyone wants to retrofit them), and for today's releases to be ported among different machines.

It certainly looks as though there is so much power in each of the modern consoles that would have the ability to create some kind of wrapper functionality for a lot of games. While the requirements for each next-gen release are high, we are now at the point where the extra graphics effort has become essentially indistinguishable to the average consumer (and quite a few developers too) so what is all that extra oomph being used for?

I don't know, but maybe this is a valid use.

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Stories, Structure, Abstraction and Games

I've come to a conclusion on the subject of videogames-as-interactive-stories, and that conclusion is that to call a videogame an interactive story, or to call interactive stoytelling the future of the medium, is nonsense. So that's that settled. Fantastic. We can all go home now.

Well no, of course, there's a little more to it than that.

This latest line of thinking came from an interview that I read with Chris Crawford a few weeks ago, and a debate that followed on a private industry-only forum.

Crawford, one of the industry's many indefatigable self-publicists, came out with the extraordinary contention that videogames of the last ten years (I think) were all rubbish because they hadn't progressed. Crawford has been working on an interactive storytelling engine for a million years, which he considers to be a real innovation and that has resulted in a grand total of no actual progress. (I mean there's no doubt been lots of progress in the engine itself, but there's been no progress in interactive stories). Why not?

Well there's several reasons.

What Stories Are
The basic reason is that an interactive story is actually a paradoxical concept. This is a fact that is not popular in pro-interactive story circles, but it's true.

The short version of a very long argument that I had about this is that the key tenet under which the interactive story model is supposed to work is the idea that stories, being structures, can be systematised. So if you get a clever enough piece of software running on a decent enough hardware spec, the computer is able to judge which part of a story you are at and come up with a decent following piece.

That particular piece of rationalisation is George Lucas and Mark Rein*Hagen's fault. Lucas, of Star Wars fame, is the most direct antecedent for modern geek culture's belief in the story as a series of objects (though I doubt that was his intention). Lucas passionately believes (or believed at the time, I don't know now) in the theories of Joseph Campbell. Campbell wrote a series of texts, such as the 'Hero with a Thousand Faces' and others wherein he broke down and analysed thousands of stories and came up with a model for interpreting stories, understanding story structure and so on.

Various writing teachers have adopted these theories in one form or another (screenwriting tutors are particularly fond of them) to develop schema to teach story structure. The ideas have also passed into popular culture in general, with the idea of the plot twist, the love scene, the payoff scene and the setup all being understood by quite a few people in principle.

The problem with this understanding is that it is largely veneer. Quite often the movie producer (or latterly the game producer), the hack writer (or designer) and others will spout these ideas off as a means of either justifying poor material (especially when they invoke "The Audience" as a part of that defense) or covering tracks. It's also fuel for the fire for many an internet and journalistic debate over television series. A great example of this is the current run of Doctor Who in Britain which is wonderfully produced yet unspeakably bad television, yet written and justified by the many in terms of audiences, the basic terminology of hero's quest related material and so on.

What's missing here in the gulf of understanding is that Campbell (and Lucas's) ideas are a framework, and many people have confused the framework with the content. Including the interactive story community.

One of the better story teachers is Robert McKee, who is an advocate that stories are indeed structures, partly in agreement with what Campbell suggests. McKee asserts that "All Stories are Structure", but they are structures far beyond the basic three act setup-joke-setup-joke-setup-dramatic sort of pace. Stories are interdependent structures, in McKee's thinking, in that rather that all conforming to one model, all stories start with a rough framework in mind (such as Campbell) but that they then become more and more delicately structured on their own.

For example, sub-plotting and character arcs are part of a story's structure. Symbolic development is part of a story's structure. Scene construction and pacing are part of a story's structure. The more carefully structured a story becomes, the more individuated from the basic framework it becomes. The more that happens, the more it departs from any sort of specific rules of story construction, and the more that that happens, the better the story becomes.

All stories are indeed structures.
What the interactive storytelling community have failed to appreciate is that all the best stories are brittle structures.

What does that mean?

Simply put, the more delicately structured and better a story becomes, the harder it becomes to make wholesale changes. The rhythm of a story is affected by changes in pace, in the way that characters behave and operate, and in the way that the plot, sub-plots and other elements develop. It is relatively simple to change a basic fairy tale (which is why fairy tales are often used as examples by the interactive storytelling community) and preserve the general gist of it. However it is extraordinarily complicated to change Casablanca without destroying it.

The reason that changes become such a problem is that complicated stories are only conforming to the Campbell structure in a very general way. Campbell's structure is not a system, it's a guidebook. Good stories actually function according to their own internal logic. All stories are structure, but those structures are not transposable between each other willy nilly. That's why it takes more than a year of determined effort by a team of writers to write a mere 15 hours of entertainment for a Battlestar Galactica series.

So the problem that the interactive storytelling crowd face is that they are trying to create some sort of system that tries to model a system which they believe exists (if they only had the right tools) but which in fact does not exist. All stories are structures, sure, but they are all special case structures. Through rationalising on the basis of a hazy framework, they've tried to convince themselves that they only need to be smart enough and they'll figure it out.

And Mark Rein*Hagen is largely responsible for the perpetuation of the idea that games and stories are converging.

Mark Rein*Who? Again, an unintentional yet symbolic figure on the road to here, Rein*Hagen is the name most closely associated with the Storyteller school of tabletop roleplaying games. Rein*Hagen invented Vampire: The Masquerade and a bunch of other games at White Wolf, and while he certainly was not the first game designer to conceive of the idea of games as storytelling experiences, he is the one who most directly adopted the language of storytelling.

For instance, in games of D+D, the players engage in adventures to defeat dungeons, roleplay their characters and level up. A series of adventures became a campaign. This is moderated by a Games Master using a system of dice and arbitrary judgment, and the whole experience is called a roleplaying game. Rein*Hagen and White Wolf ditched this terminology. They called their adventures "stories", they called the campaign a "chronicle". The GM became a "Storyteller", and the game was to use themes and psychological concepts to describe characters rather than the old alignment systems. Vampire, Ars Magica and other similar games from the early 90s essentially changed the language (and therefore concepts) underpinning roleplaying games (they have since reverted somewhat), spawning a generation of gamers who were more into story experiences, live roleplaying, the whole bit.

This whole chain of events also put legs under the idea of interactive storytelling in video games through the supreme feat of language conjunction. Eh? The idea that if the same word is used to describe two different things, then those different things must be related, if not in fact the same. So, "story", "game". If story means movie and game means Chess, then there's no connection. If "story" is redefined to mean "storytelling experience" and "game" is redefined to mean "conceptualised playing area" then the ideas seem closer. If you then make the leap to "storytelling game" in the sense of one kind of game and one kind of seeming story experience (as in Rein*Hagen's games) then through conjunction you can apply the reasoning through to all sorts of other forms.

So you get:

* Movies and games must be coming closer together because games have storytelling in them, and therefore characters and arcs
* The story of Chess exists because games and stories are linked. Since Chess has no audience, the story of Chess must therefore be a story that the players are telling to themselves
* And since stories are structures it therefore follows that since Chess is also a structure, and since games and stories are connected, that some kind of interactive storytelling engine is possible.
* So I can play storytelling games without the need for a Storyteller

And so on. Completely missing the basis on which the conjunction was originally formed, i.e. a re-branding of the roleplaying game to differentiate a product in a marketplace. And also missing out on one more thing. Rein*Hagen's games were never really "storytelling" games in the first place.

They are roleplaying games, just as D+D, Call of Cthulhu and Paranoia. Tabletop roleplaying games are not storytelling experiences, they are shared fantasies with a fluid and robust structure which share a fiction but not a story. All stories are structure, remember. The more structure the better. The more structure, the more brittle, the less easy to change. Roleplaying games have moments and bits where they appear to be like stories while you're playing them, but they also have many boring bits. They are games, and like all games they are robust.

What Games Are
You want to know what a game is?

A game (of any stripe) is an abstract space with robust rules in which one or more participants is able to take any kind of action subject to the constraints of that space toward a pre-determined goal. That's what a game is at a basic level. And furthermore:

* As game rules become more robust, the better they become
* But in order for them to become more robust, they must become simpler
* So a kind of elegance in game design forms, where the designer tries to use as few rules as possible to achieve the most streamlined outcome that enables players to play within the constraints of the space toward the goal. An unconstrained space is not a game. (An non-goal driven space is not a game either. It is a toy.)

And that's why Chess and Go remain as enduringly popular as they are, and why soccer is the most popular game on earth. Robustness and elegance are the key driving forces here, and they are in direct opposition to the brittleness and complexity, the defining traits of story.

Through robustness and elegance, playing a game is a real interactive experience. Because a game of football is so darned simple, players can play in whatever way they choose, and so games are never predictable. Within the confines of the game there can be titanic struggles, players sent off, dominance from one side or the other, the whole gamut of emotion. In a very real way this is an interactive experience (both for player and viewer) which sometimes provides real drama. Sometimes. Sometimes it doesn't.

In a tabletop roleplaying game, when the quest is on and the players are trying to figure out a way to storm the Castle Perilous, the rules may appear complicated, but the Games Master is on hand to short-cut all of the tedious bits, make arbitrary decisions that move the pace on a bit and otherwise get the game going where it needs to go. The Games Master acts as a counter-weight for elegance and robustness. Sometimes this provides moments of real drama. Sometimes it doesn't.

And so too in videogames. Deathmatch games of Counterstrike are no different to games of football, quest games like God of War are no different either. You have the space, the challenge and the abstraction that makes it possible to play within well-understood boundaries. To call this 'story' is utterly ludicrous.

What Fiction Is
So games are not stories and they never were. What games have, on the other hand, is fictions.

Fiction is a shorthand term that says "the imaginative character of the spaces in which games are played". All game spaces have character of some shape or description. Chess and football have a symbolic character, Tetris likewise. That is the sum total of their fictions.

Many games have more complicated fictions than this. Vampire: The Masquerade's setting, the World of Darkness, is a very long and involved fiction. Final Fantasy VII's is likewise. Most games fall somewhere in the middle in terms of complexity. The best games are those that mirror fiction and gameplay together to create a robust, elegant game that the players can functionally play with relative ease and symbolically/imaginatively enjoy likewise. Football would not be football with the crowd chants, it would be anemic. Paranoia would not be Paranoia without the whole "Glory Glory the Computer" songs and Resident Evil would not be Resident Evil without the zombiefied villagers.

The big difference between recognising the qualities of a fiction and misinterpreting it as am interactive story experience is in seeing that the system underpinning the fiction is robust (i.e. it's an abstract game) and therefore the best fictions are always the ones that are driven at the player's behest. Chess would simply be irritating if after every five moves a neutral judge read out lines of poetry, and many videogames are irritating because of their long ponderous cut-scenes that serve no purpose in advancing the gameplay or exploring the fiction. Great fiction always works at the behest of the player in a manner that furthers their exploration and advancement of their gameplay. (There is room for great writing in games, as a matter of interest, as long as it works within these precepts. The current vogue in trying to adopt movie storytelling wholesale into games is fundamentally broken for other reasons.)

Interactive storytelling, on the other hand, tries to square the circle, regarding players as actors, games as sets of stories, and lots of other misguided notions that derive from linguistic tricks, misunderstandings of the principles of both games and stories, and a healthy invocation of the Technology God as a lodestone of possibility.

Mostly, however, the notion continues to propagate because it keeps a variety of people in the news and mentioned in magazines. Like many other sources of self-propagating publicity (of which the industry has too many), it should be actively debunked. But that's a subject for another article.

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Sunday, June 04, 2006

HL2: It's Not You, It's Me.

I've just completed Half Life 2, and it is another game which has left me pretty cold. Read on to find out why:

I have a personal sort of tradition, or unconscious habit, in that I am frequently the last to arrive at the ball. While everybody else is off sunning themselves in new consoles and graphics cards, latest releases and so on, I plod along behind somewhere, just sort of pootling along, playing games in particular as and when I get around to them. So, to Half Life 2, a mere 18 months after its release. My excuse? I didn't have reliable broadband for a long time and I think my then-PC would have fainted at the prospect.

Anyway, something that I find interesting about playing games after the hype cloud has passed is that I often come away from the playing experience with a pretty different take on events than the zeitgeist had frothed about back then. This works both ways, in that sometimes I find I like a game a lot more than the powers that be decreed, and sometimes I find that it's the opposite.

Half Life 2 is very definitely a case of the latter, and I feel ugly for saying it. Lush, good gameplay scenarios, lots of colour and thought, very few bugs. And I just couldn't get down with it at all. In fact, it reminds me in this of my reaction to Resident Evil 4. I found both games very very impressive as technical achievements, but could not connect with them on an emotional level whatsoever. There's just something.. missing for me.

What is it that's missing?
Fiction in a word. Both games fall down on the fiction front.

As I've noted before, one of the bad trends in game writing and fiction in general is that of excessive appeals to the heroic nature of the player. The general theory goes that the player, being as he is the main character in the story, occupies the role of hero. This is usually taken to mean hero as in narrative hero, and so much of the Hero's Journey style thinking goes into the writing. As I've noted before, this is an incorrect context from which to operate because the player is always an unreliable hero at best. Video game narrative is at its best when it doesn't try to emotionalise direct to the player.

Emotionalise? What I'm basically talking about here are the parts when characters like Alyx talk to you, confide their feelings in you, say Go Gordon Go, and Thank You So Much and so on. This is the equivalent of exposition in screenwriting, and exposition is a terrible sin. Exposition is when two characters have a conversation that is clearly designed to tell the audience the plot. Or worse, straight-to-camera talking that is direct about the plot and nothing of the character. Videogame emotionalising really really hacks me off, because it is so obviously fake that the moment it is uttered I am blown right out of a scene.

And I hate that about single-player games. HL2 and Resi 4 fall firmly into the Type 2 game, the adventure that the player plays through because he is interested in seeing what happens next. Narrative thread is very important in Type 2 games, and part of the genre contract of these games is that the spell should not be broken. Ok, of course it can't be bent a bit - especially for games where an in-joke is appropriate, but only so far. The contract of the Type 2 game is one where the player gets to open the magic door.

Emotionalising breaks the contract because it robs the player of their power. Like watching bad comedy and being told when to clap, the purpose of playing the game becomes null and void when other characters start trying to make you feel things. It feels falsetto.

So, looking at the title of this piece, the point is that HL2 breaks the fiction of its own world by far too much emotionalising, mistaking the fact that Gordon Freeman is not some hero, some person on screen full of derring do. Gordon Freeman is not some objective You. Gordon Freeman is Me.

The emotionalising just becomes irritating, and you know that something is wrong in a game when in its penultimate scenes you find yourself wishing you could get out of the trap you're in to punch Alyx in the face, or you wish there was some 'Drop that Girl Down a Well' option in Resi 4 so you could go and kill everything that needs to be killed and then, you know, rescue her or something.

So what does work?

God of War works. It saves the heroic talk for segments between large areas of game play, and when it does go into the character of Kratos, the way it does it is, as the writers would say, mostly Show rather than Tell. Grim Fandango works, because in the moments when we are reflecting on Mannie's problems in life they are done so in an understated, wise-cracking sort of way. Max Payne 2 works very well because it deflects most of its exposition and emotionalising behind a very stylised mode of telling, and an almost self-effacing voice (such as the part where you discover the tape of yourself calling call girls - genius). Ico works by telling you almost nothing at all. Deus Ex works. None of these game turns to you the player with a signpost that says "Feel Bad Now".

Aesthetically, both HL2 and Resi 4 are very very strong. I really liked a lot of the touches like the organic helicopter things in Half Life 2, and some of the levels were inspired. The villages and villagers in Resi 4 are really creepy and deserve some sort of award. The gameplay in both games is varied, interesting and well paced (well, the vehicle control isn't great, to be fair, but it does ok).

And yet because the fiction breaks down, the whole premise of the games break down. I just don't CARE between levels what the overall tone of my actions will entail. I have no sense of discovery in either game because between the emotionalising and the structure, I know that it'll all tediously play out in one way or another. There is no sense of emotive surpise, of discovery on a gut level, and so the ultimate question is What's The Point?

The point, in all Type 2 games, is discovery. The essence of adventure is not being able to predict what comes next, not seeing the plot turns and not realising until you figure it out for yourself that something more is going on. Discovery is a hard act to keep going and is best done subtly rather than openly. Don't have an NPC tell me everything that's going on and handing me my mission objectives like a laundry list. Leave things for the player to find, to draw their own opinions so that when the laundry list does come, it feel believable.

A sense of game writing is what's missing here, as opposed to applying the principles of screenwriting to games. It's an evolving artform, to be sure, but there are pitfalls, and emotionalising is a big one. Let us banish it from our presence, never to be seen again!

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

A question for those who work in publishing

There's something I don't understand about software publishers at the moment, and it is this:

* It's clear as glass that the business is becoming increasingly difficult in publishing because of costs. Even EA are spending a massive amount (slightly less than a billion) in development next year, and there's no end in sight.

* It is clear that this is caused by the generational leap. Said leap being brought about by three hardware companies changing the rules on the publishers. The so-called generation cycle is primarily driven by oligopolistic competition between the main players, and this means that their priorities effectively dictate the business of everybody else, and also take the lion's share of the profits.

* This places the manufacturers in the increasingly envious position of being the only ones who can afford to spend money on new and interesting projects, as they make the most profit from their release per copy (not having to pay a license fee to themselves) and can afford to pay for them from everyone else's hard work.

* In short, meaning that the 3rd party publishers are slowly getting boned by being unable to compete.

Here's what I don't understand. Why aren't the likes of EA and Activision actually doing something about this, either through some sort of collective pressure, through the spectre of legal action, through anything that would establish a market and lessen the oligopoly's hold? I don't understand their inaction.

In the film industry the content owners have commonly exert their influence in the market to bring about such things as the DVD Forum because they realise the value of collective behaviour on issues that affect them all. Why aren't the non-manufacturer gaming publishers doing the same?

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Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The Expectations Trap: Halo 2 and PS3

I know that it's bad form among the gaming cognoscenti, but I really like that Halo 3 trailer. I know it's a trailer, I know it's video and not the real game, I know I know. But oh my what wonderful music, what swells of epicness and portentous quotes of "This is the way the world ends." I also know full well that the trailer is pretty standard stuff, what with the flickering Cortana intimating that there's elements of the Master Chief's past involved, every trilogy ends at its beginning and so on and so forth.

But the thing is.... Well, I have a confession to make.
I loved Halo 2. But it's a lesson in what happens when the expectation machine goes awry. As is the PS3.

I truly loved Halo 2. In some circles, that's enough to end a conversation right there, with a volley of "How could you not see its shortcomings, the failure to meet expectations, the cheese, the blah blah blah". I loved it. I loved the levels, I loved the visuals, I loved the two-weapon thing. I loved the Arbiter sections. I wasn't so sure on one or two of the mechanics of the game, and I thought the ending was a bit "Time Gentlemen Please!"

But overall, I loved it. It was my favourite game of 2004 by a considerable margin because, warts and all, the fact is that it was the game that I wanted to play when I got home from work, the pub, whatever. I simply loved it. I should add here that I'm mostly talking about the single-player game, not the multi-player which I only had marginal contact with as I don't have Xbox Live.

Reactions to Halo 2 really confused and angered me at first, because they varied so wildly. Some people seemed to dig it like I did, but there was a lot of negative reaction out there. Some people talked as though the game had been a complete horror of Driv3r proportions, that it was such a disappointment, a let-down, whatever. I felt bad for the guys over at Bungie. I mean here was a game that had been whooped and hollered at the year before at E3 with that gameplay video,
with all of that stuff included, and the reaction of the gamer community was totally overblown in the negative as though the game were a crime.

Driv3r WAS a crime, not least against journalist's review standards, but Halo 2's crime was simply this. It was an excellent game, but it did not meet up to some gamers' expectations. It must surely rank as one of the greatest cases of inflated hype meeting reality in modern gaming, and it shows how dangerous playing the expectation game really is.

And the reason for this is simple. Expectations are a fantasy. Sony are currently experiencing the brunt of gamer wrath in much the same way, now that it has become apparent that the PS3 may well be an empty shirt after all. Some of us knew (or strongly suspected) of course that the purported games of last year's E3, most especially Killzone 2, were likely to be nothing more than animation videos, but the bomb that they set off was enormous. And now the backlash is coming thick and fast.

My overall point in this ramble is that we gamers (and we game developers too) have a tendency to fantasise, and a common trajectory of that fantasy is that the final product never lives up anywhere close to our expectations. It's as I wrote a long while back in my essay 'The Gamer's Dream', we are very prone to an idealistic take on the world of video games, always reaching for the belief in the perfect game.

In the real world, nothing can ever hope to reach that. Try as a company, developer or artist might, playing the expectation game can never successful. Especially not when you put out the key features of your new product a long time before release. Microsoft's big mistake with Halo 2 was that they released their footage so far in advance of the release that it built up to messianic proportions. Sure, they sold 6 million or so copies in the process.

Now they'll find that they have a harder sell with Halo 3. Now we are "post-expectation" when the expectation has become one of failure in some peoples' minds. Unlike the idealistic expectation, the failure expectation is one that is always achieved. That is the expectation of looking for the bugs and the cracks. I loved it, I love that trailer with its wonderful music etc, but I already know that the cat-calls will start. Halo 3 is destined to be an argument.

As for PS3, the news seems worse if anything. Reactions to the Sony conference have ranged (from what I've read) from muted apathy to staggering disbelief at the price, the gimmicks, the two versions, the joypad, the marketplace, and the lack of decent gameplay footage a mere six months before launch. And no sign of Killzone 2. Sony have committed the grevious error, like Microsoft did before, of shooting their load way too soon and, unlike Microsoft, appearing to not have the goods to back their original hype up after all. In the course of one 48 hour period they've gone from hero to zero.

Now the expectation is that they'll be on the back foot from here on out, relying on their 'brand' according to some journalists. Well brands change and shift in the public consciousness all the time, and that comes chiefly from reputation. They've handed a massive fall in expectations to the magazines, the gamers, the podcasters, the bloggers, everyone. For the next six months the story about Sony is going to be how can they compete against either Microsoft or Nintendo where it counts, why would anyone want and PS3 now that GTA4 is multi-format with Live exclusive content, and the expectation becomes 'waiting for the inevitable'.

These are not mountains that are easily climbed.

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