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.

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.