Saturday, December 08, 2007

New Blood, Old Blood

My old commander-in-chief Peter Molyneux was in the press recently making the case for new blood and new graduates in the industry, as well as advocating passion and communication skills over experience (here, via A fine sentiment, but I think he's not seeing the problem.

The problem that new blood has is simply one of obscurity. In any new field there is always the early-mover advantage for new blood, and by necessity the first-movers inevitably make it harder for follow-on groups to emerge. Look at the world of search engines, for example. In the early years there was room for Yahoo, then Google, and a few others to stamp out virgin territory. Nowadays although there are many attempts at redeveloping search semantically, with specialist focus, or whatever, nobody really expects the established players to become unseated.

This applies to people as much as it does to companies. The problem that new blood has is that Molyneux, Miyamato and about 50 other people and companies have already had the early-mover advantage and they eat up virtually all of the press inches with their comments. A late-mover like myself can express a hearty opinion on any subject but whatever my opinion I am unlikely to gain any widespread traction or awareness. It takes either acts of extremity to get noticed, or the stamp of big name legitimacy.

In strict terms, therefore, for new blood to emerge the old blood either has to make way or actually die off, and even then it's not guaranteed. While many game developers look to the movie industry and try to emulate that, the industry's behaviour is often much more closely affiliated to that of the comics industry.

In comics, even 60 years after their initial post-war explosion, it is still very hard to get past Jack Kirby and his long shadow. Comics and games share the common trait of having undying intellectual properties, unlike film or books. Tom Cruise may be huge but he will die, but Mario is immortal. As such, those IPs and their early creators influence and fame can very easily blanket out new blood long after their flesh and blood forms have kicked the bucket. To large companies like Marvel or EA, the IP is the thing and it actually serves their purposes in the long term to retain the legend of the old creator.

So if the old blood are serious about engaging with the new blood, what they need to look at is the idea of patronage. The advantage of having some celebrity is that you can use it to drive others' celebrity. Quentin Tarantino does this quite a lot by fronting movies that aren't his and giving other directors that he likes responsibility. We would not have seen some martial arts movies in the west without his influence, nor would we have heard of Eli Roth (which some say maybe we shouldn't have, but I digress).

Active patronage is something that we do not see a lot of in the games industry. It lies with Peter and a number of high profile developers to actually take action on it though. One example would be to try and do more through the likes of BAFTA, or even develop schemes of sponsorship and funding, like a startup foundation that promotes the people as well as the product or publisher relationship.

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Xbox Live: Release the Hounds

Why are console manufacturers afraid of developers?

It's right at the heart of their whole business model that they place developers at arms' length purposefully, first by producing steep barriers to entry and second by instituting approvals processes that guarantee that developers will shape their games to the needs of the gatekeepers rather than the audience.

I speak specifically here about the online side of the major consoles. I have recently (finally) acquired a 360 and had a chance to really have a look at Xbox Live, and the one impression that I took away from it is that of over-management.

Firstly, it's obvious that the catalogue is entirely managed, like a TV schedule. And just like a TV schedule this means that there aren't many surprises but rather a series of checkboxes being ticked. It reeks of platform-holder side meetings in which they discuss how their catalogue has holes and those holes need to be plugged to gain the upper hand against Eastasia. I mean Nintendo.

Secondly, with such a managed catalogue and antiquated business model based on the retail model as invented by Nintendo, Atari and co, it's obvious that Live is going to run out of steam fairly soon. Once you have settled on a series of catalogue categories and holes-to-be-filled, well where do you go when those holes have all been filled? Where does your audience go, more importantly.

Thirdly, the front page of Live Arcade in particular is very drab and uninteresting, and the browsing mechanism doesn't really do anything to sell games, promote games, or basically work like an enthusiastic retailer should. When compared to Popcap, Big Fish, Amazon and Itunes, Live looks almost embarrassed to be seen selling games. It seems to actively want to downplay games and instead make it all about the multiplayer retail games like Halo 3 and the like, even though the online retail is where Live would make most of its money.

The great fear, and it's the same fear that Nintendo had back in 1988 with the NES, is that opening the floodgates leads to a drop in quality. It does. Opening the floodgates also leads to a rise in innovation, however. The reason why the casual market is so exciting these days is all to do with it being essentially anarchic. No one company can be the gatekeeper of the web, and so no one company's sense of catalogue aesthetics is going to over-run a marketplace. Casual gaming is the games industry's closest example of a free market, and it is where all the life is.

Microsoft, the company that brought you the OS that anyone could develop for and they would not control, is worried sick of letting evolution play its part in the evolution of Live, and this means they are very likely to run into the same issues that Nintendo did when their managed catalogue foundered in the face of competition. Managed catalogues don't really get the job done if you want to be the number one destination.

What they should do, especially with the roll out of the Windows extension to Live, is step back. They should behave like the company they natively are, which means:

  1. Provide the environment, and the tools, all at reasonable prices
  2. Create a standardised contractual model that gives them a slice of game sales that is fair and not punitive to smaller companies in particular
  3. Hire someone talented to redesign Xbox Live Arcade's portal as something attractive
  4. Step the hell back and let nature run its course.
Really all they have to do is set up the playing field and let the developers run with the ball. An avalanche of titles, some brilliant and some shit, will emerge. Not having seen PS3 or Wii networks in action, I'm assuming that the scenario is the same. But I guarantee any reader this:

The first manufacturer that realises the need to get out of the way is the one that will own the online space, and thus drive sales of everything else.

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

The Death of Console Generations

Though I am a supporter of a free and open standard console format, I don't think that it's likely to happen any time soon. First we need to get through the Age of Updates.

What this means is that the next direction for console manufacturers is clearly one of multiple configurations based on a standardised hardware type rather than trying to make a whole new leap again in 3-4 years. They spend all this time and effort developing their baseline, but rather than just let it sit there and grow old (as has been traditional), what they are doing - and should continue to do - is think like Apple.

That means constant revisions of the baseline product. Xbox 360, for example, could easily run and run with more features, better controllers, more hard drive space, HD-DVD drives and the like while keeping the common features of the console fairly static. PS3 can do likewise. Wii is probably less easily amenable and its not certain whether they have an audience that responds to that sort of constant-upgrade strategy.

Gamers clearly have an appetite for machines. Since 2000, including handhelds, there have been over half a dozen major hardware launches from the GBA SP to the PS3, and stores have become a Byzantine hive of formats with dedicated catalogues. For Microsoft and Sony this should be thought of as good news, because it means that they can tap their customers again, and regularly, perhaps as often as every two years.

Via the joys of eBay and second-hand sales in stores, customers can mitigate costs and be encouraged to upgrade to the new 360, the new PS3, with its shiny new stuff all in. They can also be assured that their old joypads and the like will still work, that the console network can update/patch any compatibility issues that arise, and possibly even transfer important data or download it again.

Of course multiple-configuration development would be more difficult for developers, publishers and QA-ing games, but it's probably absorb-able when traded off against the cost of another full generation shift.

So that's the future then. It's not Xbox 720 and PS4, it's Xbox 361 and PS3.1.
And probably Wii2 somewhere down the line.

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Down on the Farm: Barnyard Developers

I'm in the mood for a little Saturday afternoon amusement, so here goes:

I met up with a friend for breakfast this morning and we're both games industry peeps. As such, we invariably got around to the subject of the industry, developers, and all the amusement that that topic generates. In the middle of it all, I coined a phrase to describe a particular type of company, to wit: barnyard developers.

As I said adios and made my way into Kingston to lust over the new iMacs (they are very lustworthy incidentally) I thought to myself that I have encountered various kinds of company in the industry, as well as hearing stories of others. I thought it might make a subject of some humour to caricature them a bit. So here goes:

(shout if you recognise any of these)

Barnyard Developers
A barnyard developer is often a large-ish studio(or multiple studios in some cases) that literally works out of a barn, shed, or other farming-based building. More loosely it might apply to developers that work in big facilities off the beaten track, but the barn image is the nicest. These developers are often led by a charismatic member of the industry's old guard. They are surprisingly common in the UK, with many counties in South-east England having one, or maybe even two. They are usually located in this hap-hazard fashion because the leader was originally born in the area and is not inclined to bring himself to the mountain.

Barnyard developers are usually very introverted, egotistical and political places to work, rather like extended families. They usually have a culture split into what you could call lifers, parole cases and 2-year stretchers. Lifers are the long-timers who've stuck with the company through thick and thin and can regale you with stories of yore. They are usually engineers, long-standing designers and that one QA guy who sort of seemed to hang around until he became company president. Parole cases are the 6-month limited contract types, the ones who are green, new to the industry and full of bright ideas and hope. This is usually drained from them by degrees. 2-year stretchers are the ones who have been around a little longer, figure they know how the industry works and, the mad fools, are actually looking to make a career out of advancing up the corporate ladder among a number of barnyards. This usually does not go so well.

The goals of the companies are uncertain, the engines and tools that they use are often Byzantine. They don't seem to be that commercially successful any more, but rather seem to trundle on from project to project. Every project is deemed worthy mostly in the light of how technically cutting edge it is, but most of the employees, especially the lifers, are generally unsure if the project is actually any good or not. A general air of plus ca change pervades much of what they do. Even when bought, the culture remains largely as-was, though usually with the addition of fancy amenities like running water and non-power spiking electricity supplies.

Every veteran of a barnyard developer has their hilarious stories about working conditions and general conduct of the upper echelons of the company, whether it be that time when the tea and coffee facilities were taken away, to the bumpy carpet on the second floor that eventually caved in one night, to the fist-fight that broke out in reception over whose soft toys got turned upside down, placed in a dishwasher or whatever. These stories prove the subject of much amusement in the local pub, which is used copiously at lunch and other occasions.

Although located out in the middle of the countryside, away from what is generally held to be civilisation or at least the local village, most barnyard developers have about a 50% ratio of employees who can't drive. This is further compounded by a frequent crunch culture, which leads to people sleeping in the office a great deal and trying to find a take-away that will deliver at 1 in the morning when the troops are restless and hungry the night before milestone. Often the company seeks to solve these problems by bringing in a high-powered manager who brutalises the staff and makes them work like dogs until bonus day, whereupon he vanishes "to take on new and exciting challenges".

All in all, barnyard developers are quirky, amusing places in which every industry person worth their salt should spend at least 2 years to see what the good and the bad can be like. If you're a fan of the smell of damp, wall-high mold and occasional flooding, this might be the game development lifestyle for you!

Next: Rubik's developers.

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

The End of Novelty

As is my wont, I shall now wax lyrical on the subject of novelty.

As some readers may be aware, I have in the past taken pains to note that the trend for novelty and innovation is not one that is self-sustaining. What I did not pause to consider when looking at, say, Nintendo last time is how wide the novelty culture goes. Actually, it is of course far far larger than gaming, encompassing user-generated content across several media (such as this one).

Novelty has been a very powerful force in recent years. It is the backbone of Web 2.0 for the most part, having spawned a variety of services that have become household names. Youtube is one. Wii is another. What novelty is exactly is saying to the audience "Bet you never thought of that before". Users love to play with novelties, like magpies,particularly if those novelties are free or reasonably cheap. They get off on the idea of little things that brighten their day as long as they continue to do so in some way.

The problem is that at some point novelty itself must give way to depth. So we can see the novelty of Youtube and all of its short films and trailers etc, but after a little while Youtube becomes damn boring to play with if you're just out for some entertainment. As a sharing tool it's useful in a holiday-video sort of way, but the sheer entertainment of it as a thing for itself is actually very low. Similarly, blogs are the for the most part airbags full of text rantings about nothing in particular. The vast majority of music on Myspace and the like is simply amateurish.

And then games, oh games, where you see ten thousand versions of the same game again, or the company that pioneered the controller to end all controllers then turning around and producing half a dozen more, as though to underscore that their innovation is, y'know, a bit lacking once you get past the joy of swinging your arm in the air.

What we can see here is that the so-called year of "You", the joy of the strange and unbridled creativity is very quickly giving way to the dawning realisation that, actually, "you" isn't very good at most things, and so "you" naturally creates a wall of content that eventually turns people off wholesale. It's the same reason why podcasting has basically failed to find a general audience in the face of radio. Amateur is still amateur, and one man's democratised content is ten men's idiocratised mess that they just have no interest in.

Of all the Web 2.0 content tools that have emerged, the only one that shows examples of depth is Wikipedia. Some people like to lambaste Wikipedia for its inaccuracies, and it sometimes is, but what they are missing is a genuine community devoted to gathering all there is to know about everything. And it proves that vetting matters, editing matters and, ultimately, quality matters. Once the novelty has passed you by, Wikipedia remains useful.

The backlash against user-generated content is gathering pace from all quarters, but what's missing from it is the understanding that it's not the whole thing that's borked, it's the essential lack of editing/vetting that makes it so. Editing is what weeds out novelty with no purpose from novelty that is an actual font for creativity.

Turning to games, what this means is that the content vetting still matters. Casual portals perform this function automatically by ranking on popularity, but the games sites and news arenas are much more important as both seeds of discussion and vetting that which is not. Yet they have the problem of being so wrapped up in the industry's press whorl that they really often become mouthpieces.

As a result, the thing that the industry actually needs is not more indie games or more access for developers or whatever (well it does, but that's a separate gig). What it actually needs is a site/magazine blog that focuses its energies on being the vetting force behind indie. There is more than enough reportage on the activities of the main industry with its boom and bust, its half a thousand cliche's and its endless wranging over meaningless theories of game design. What there isn't is an indie media mag that effectively tunes all this out and spends its entire time finding the cool stuff.

Media needs guardians and gatekeepers, because without them all that happens is that they the public simply turn away. Without some measure or means to define and gauge taste, novelty simply dries up, buzz vanishes and the ladder that helped the very lucky few at the start get established disappears for everyone else. This applies all across the spectrum, and we are no different.

So, who's going to start the magazine revolution?

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Friday, May 11, 2007

93% of new IPs Fail

According to Steve Allison of Midway (says Shacknews).

Which sounds daunting. But wait, there's more (some via N'Gai Croal's Level Up)

"If there were, 'great' games Beyond Good & Evil, Ico, Okami, Psychonauts, Shadow of the Colossus, Freedom Fighters, Prey and Midway's own Psi-Ops would all have been multi-million unit sellers. The aforementioned games are all games that average review scores of nearly 90 percent out of 100, some even higher. The reality is none has sold more than 300,000 units at full price in the U.S. and a couple of these less than 250,000 units lifetime even with bargain pricing."


"To rectify the issue of overlooked games, Allison suggests that developers focus on broadening the appeal of their games beyond hardcore players, crafting an on-screen experience that causes casual gamers to respond "I've got to get that" or "Bad ass!". The executive also noted that timing is key, using the example of moviegoers overlooking an asteroid film if two others recently arrived in theaters before it."

Steve doesn't get it I think.

The problem is not that new ideas have limited appeal. If you examine most media, it is painfully transparent that new ideas always have limited appeal. Even many of the darling franchises that the executive class have come to rely started out with relatively humble roots. Some IPs are immediate break-out hits, but most of them will hit a middle layer.

The first problem is this: "broadening appeal" is not something that you can just stick in and hope it works. A successful IP is more than the sum of its parts, so taking away, say, the aesthetics of Shadow of the Colossus and replacing with Tony Hawk-style graphics (but the same basic gameplay) makes it a worse IP rather than a better one. It makes the IP more likely to fail. There's an occult magic to making a new IP and you fuck with that at your peril.

The second problem is this: In most other disc-based retail media, 300,000 units sold of anything new is actually pretty damned good. Book authors would faint at the idea that they've gained that many sales of their first book. Indie movie makers would be very pleased indeed. Because, when you break that down into numbers, 300,000 sales could be anywhere from 7-15 million dollars worth of revenue at the till.

That's an awesome number. Unless you work in games, and the reason for that is that games cost way too much money to make, and the margins for third parties are less than ideal. Manufacturers have an easier time of it because they make more per copy, have a lot of prestige value riding on being seen to be cutting edge, and can market in ways that third parties can't. This is why manufacturers are increasingly becoming the sponsors and source of successful new IP.

So the overall problem is that making games is too expensive. 93% of IPs don't fail. They don't succeed enough for their paymasters to recoup all the money that they've wasted, to pay all the hands that are out looking for their cut (including the manufacturers) and the industry is too restrictive as a business to allow for middle layer development and publishing.

So the overall overall problem is free market access for small and middle-level players who are better at being efficient, an end to excessive censorious controls, and a way to build the industry into a rounded business that can cater to more levels than just blockbusters or nothing at all. It's the biggest single issue item on the agenda for developers, journalists and executives that should be being pursued because it's killing the future of the industry.

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Monday, April 23, 2007


According to a recent article on Next Gen, the BBFC have published a report that identifies 11 key things about games and gamers. Many of the points are rather obvious and well-repeated, but a few are interesting:

6. People view game playing as a risk-free means of escapism and feel in control of game experiences as opposed to real life.

7. Game playing is active and brings about feelings of achievement as opposed to passive forms of entertainment such as TV and film. Gamers are driven by achievement but are unlikely to become emotionally involved. They care more about progress than elements such as storytelling.

Imagine if similar research was done with regard to readers. Most of the reading done on a day to day basis is probably newspapers, websites, emails and other functional reading. After that, perhaps glossy magazines and tabloid celebrity journalism. Then perhaps cookbooks, gardening manuals and educational textbooks. Based on this, as a global picture, you could be forgiven for thinking that

People view reading as an information gathering exercise that informs them of their world.


Reading is active and brings about feelings of knowledge imparting. Readers are driven by the need to acquire knowledge, and care more about that than storytelling.

A mad conclusion?

Perhaps not, going on the majority use.

Of course it's mad. The reason it's mad is that we can distinguish between different kinds of reading activity. Any study would begin from the point of view that reading poetry, fiction and the sports page are different things. A poem is not a play is not a web page is not a novel is not a technical manual. We understand it because it's convention.

There exists no such convention for games. Where we see different forms of reading, surprisingly few see different forms of playing. They see "games" and they see "gamers". Beyond that they see "hardcore gamer" or "casual gamer" maybe, but that's about it. In terms of game genres they see functional categories (puzzle, shooter, etc) and also aesthetic categories (survival horror, freestyle crime, roleplaying game) all sort of jumbled together as "genres".

What they don't see is forms.

It is my suggestion that there are in fact several forms of what we call game, and what we call gamer, and that by assuming that Minesweeper and Resident Evil are the same means that we will assume a series of majority-based ideas about what all games are.

There is a difference between those who interact to "game" and those who interact to "play", and the difference between gamers and players is one of perspective, much like the difference between factual and fictional readers.

Gamers play because they see a game as a system. Their perception of interactive games is very literal, about understanding the semiotic language of a game and figuring out how it ticks, how far it goes, or a combination of the above. Gamers are not automatons, and they much enjoy the visual or auditory elements in games, but they enjoy them because of their signifier value rather than their cultural content.

Players, on the other hand, see beyond the edges of the game into fantasy. Players see an imagined world in their heads when running down a corridor, flying a spaceship or typing "Go North". A player sees a conversation between himself and the game. They're the ones who think they can see things waving at them in the distance in Another World, and the ones for who adventures and some sense of creative direction tend to matter.

Of course, we are all gamers and players in part. Most of us are habitually more one than the other and most games cannot please both types equally. That's like hoping that the latest cookbook will entertain us both in terms of what it can teach us about boiling a Christmas ham and its lyrical evocation of Greek poetry. Gamers are like factual lovers, whereas players are fictional lovers.

The problem that both types have is that they are messing up each other’s turf. At the moment we have an ongoing debate and/or struggle between gamers and players over what the direction of the videogame should be. There are those who think it should be about the innovation and those that think it should be about the creation, and ne’er the two do meet but to fight. At the moment the gamers are in the ascendancy, but the players are due for a comeback.

There is no such thing as an all encompassing label that can define everything for both players and gamers. That is an anachronistic idea that belongs in the 80s. "Videogame" in that sense is old news. There are "videogames" and there are "videoplays" and they are different.

Some of you are going to think this is nonsense. You're going to say games are games are games. It’s only appeared that way up to now, as the medium is still young and has been finding its feet. Games are games, but they're not plays.

Poetry and cookbooks are both texts written in a common language, but there the similarities end. They are two forms of the same thing: reading. Videogames and videoplays are two forms of the same thing: interaction for entertainment.

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Eight Steps for Good Game Design Documentation

1. Write with active verbs in the present tense and use consistent perspective viewpoints.

2. Use bullet points. Lots and lots of them. And indented ones. Make the document bulleted as much as possible because bullets force you to think in terms of short sharp points. Always use the same bullet point style.

3. Keep your document map consistent. Actually, step back two from that: Learn how to use MS Word Styles properly, learn what a document map IS and then keep your document map consistent.

4. Use diagrams. Lots of them. Visio-style diagrams are fine. Use the diagrams to lead your points and explain the complicated things as simply as possible, and the bullet points to support them.

5. Edit. No, really: EDIT. I honestly think no doc should be released from design until it has had at least 3 passes from first draft to final version. One for content, one for flow and the last one for mistakes. Have an editing loop whereby the original writer makes all the instructed changes. The editing loop is the single best way to make your writers better at their jobs if only to avoid feeling humiliated.

6. Build the GDD/whatever document from a series of consistently formatted and written spec documents. These can be in wiki or in doc form, whatever suits you better. Writing GDDs from scratch is a pointless waste of time. They should be built alongside prototyping. A spec doc is simple to write and revise in the face of reality. A whole GDD is a nightmare.

7. Somebody needs time in their schedule to maintain and loop old documents so that they do not become irrelevant. Somebody else needs time in their schedule to edit those changes and loop them back to the writer.

8. Design documentation should not be either fiction or technical documentation. The job of design documents is to explain, without recourse to vagueness, pretentiousness, game theory or windiness, what the player can see, do and hear in the game, how those things work from the player's perspective, and the supporting game rules (not technical specs) that are needed to do that.

Everything else is guff.

This makes me think I should start some sort of freelance documentation editing/teaching company for game developers. Documentation is as much a problem as it was 5 years ago, and sorting it out is something I'm really good at. What do you think?

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Has GTA Jumped the Shark?

I knew something ineffable had departed from the Grand Theft Auto series when I was playing San Andreas. This is a pattern that happens frequently with me. All the world gets excited over some new TV series, film, game, gadget, whatever, and I often find myself as the voice on the other side of the fence, stroking my chin, looking uncertain and feeling a sense of reality not quite matching up with collective fantasy. Sooner or later the world usually comes around to my view.

How's that for hubris?

I got that uncertain feeling with San Andreas. Whereas I had loved GTA3 to bits and liked Vice City well enough despite it's broken narrative structure, San Andreas felt wrong. It had taken its free-form logic a step and a half too far, including nonsense like beefcaking your character, over-blowing the dress-up game and producing a truly huge world that was just a pain to drive around. It's narrative was initially interesting in the first city, but quickly became a highly rambly mess. It had hip-hop stylings, but it seriously missed a beat with the radio selection. It was, as many franchises become, the extension of the wrong bits while forgetting the right bits.

Liberty City Stories brought some of that back, almost by necessity because of the reduced format of the PSP (and the PS2 port, which is the version I played). There was a sense of fine nostalgia about LCS, driving around the streets of Liberty again, checking out my old haunts, but it was also pretty pedestrian in places and omitted the inclusion of crouching (or if it did I never found out the control to do it) making many of the gun fights really plain rather than tactical.

I saw a trailer for GTA4 a few days back (here), and to be honest I found it pretty underwhelming. It's very lovely physically, a definite step up from before, but it's basically a re-creation of New York with a dash of Koyaanisqatsi. However, I get no sense of imagination. Then today I saw this, and it feels like my suspicions are justified. Removal of features (GTA has always been about features), talking about graphics and animation physics instead (GTA has never been about high polish), and key phrases like "That means there will be no rollerblades, no unicycles, probably no jetpacks and indeed no planes. Rockstar are giving choice and variety which feels right for the character." are all very grand sounding, but they also sound more like "We spent too much time and money on the graphico-techno wizardry, so something's gotta give."

I suspect that with instalment 4, GTA has jumped the shark.

Soul is something highly absent from games today. It seems that as we climb the costs tree and convince ourselves that we must compete even further, we lose something of the joy of why we make games. Like musicians who become addled by the stadium-concert lifestyle games have become parodies of themselves. They include lots of in-built expectation from fans and are built by conservative thinking that views the project as a series of nuts and bolts, innovations and interaction opportunities, and various other crowd-pleasing functions wrapped up in bloom and complex shaders.

It's a mindset that robs a game of reason to be, and so of its ability to entertain the soul rather than just the eyes. Once a game has lost its soul, all the effort put into it is not worth a damn because the game is fundamentally not worth playing. All it's doing is helping you pass the time. Filling in a series of entertainment checkboxes. Unchallenging, uninteresting and ultimately unremembered.

With GTA, I really hope I'm mistaken. Judging a game entirely on the basis on a 20-second video clip and a mag preview is hardly scientific, and it goes without saying that a lot of very hard work has no doubt gone into the project over the last 3-5 years. Looking at it though, I can't help getting the feeling that something is just wrong.

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

What's my job?

I had a conversation with a friend this evening about game design jobs and what they actually mean any more. He came out with a line something along the lines of "Them coders and artists need someone to design for them". Which I pointed out was basically wrong. Many a coder founded the games that built this industry, and many an artist likewise. Hell, isn't Miyamoto an artist by trade? And what about that Will Wright fellow?

So, I asked him, what are we for?

There was (still is a bit) a period when designers were hired by companies largely on the basis of how much they could write, or whether they could wave their arms around a lot and be "passionate". This later devolved into requiring skills to place things, like triggers and objects, and check collision and basically be an implementer. Most of the "designers" that I know are actually implementers.

But going back to high ground for a second, I told him that I didn't think implementation was the be-all and end-all of what we are, and it tends to reflect nothing so much as a lack of street cred in developers and publishers. Nonetheless, I said, we do have a purpose in all this, and that purpose is?

Game designers (not implementers) provide context.
They do?

Simple really. In the old world of highly iterative, visually cheap game development, there was a lot of room to experiment, test and find out what worked and what didn't. Many games consisted of very simple structures played out in interesting scenarios. As projects grew, it became apparent that developers had to concentrate on specific areas of the project. Artists became divided into animators, character artists, landscape artists. We had coders who specialised in tools, rendering, UI and so on. A multiplicity of fields brought about a multiplicity of perspectives.

Seeing this, the gap was made for a designer, someone who would map out a vision or something. The problem was (and still is) that most of those people hired in those jobs had no basic idea how to do that, or what was required. So a lot of bad design happened that spawned a corporate culture that liked big documents and waffle about gameplay experience, but it rested the power of decision in the hands of the producer.

Which is like making an accountant the director of a show on Broadway.

So design's star rose and fell on a wave of incompetence, and today many designers are basically held in the esteem of those who are slightly above QA in the pecking order, or those who are basically in training to be producers. And yet the problems remain.

Look at many modern games that are now coming out. They are over-featured because coders always program features. They are over-visualised, using bloom all over the place and creating cling-film-o-vision or Uncanny Valley simulators. They are tedious, unadventurous and basically dull. Why? Because coders like features, artists like prettiness and producers like visions that can be sold. Nobody is saying "This just doesn't work" with the authority to change it.

That's where I come in to the equation.
What's my job? My job is to say no.

My job is to say "nice idea but it doesn't work". My job is to say "yes I understand that the desired visual effect is not being met, but no, you can't chop the levels into 1/10th their size". My job is to say "there are only 11 mechanics in this game and no more". My job is understand the gameplay of the desired game (whether it be my own or someone else's), define what the game is and what it is not, craft the design constraints of the project and then ram them down the throats of people who just want to exercise their discipline without consideration.

That's why I liken game designer to the role of film director more than anything else. What most people don't realise much of the time is that a film director's job is to say no. We have this image of them as creatively spoilt children, but often as not they are actually ringmasters of the circus. The actors all want to over-deliver lines, the cinematographers all want to make the film as beautiful as a snowflake. The director knows that he's making a simple action movie. His job is to say no.

My job is to say no.
If you intend to be a game designer, so is yours.

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Guns, Germs and Videogames

Greg Costikyan wrote an interesting post on the pitfalls of digital distribution recently, citing a couple of major worries that he and others have over the possibility of console distribution becoming even more closed combined with a potential threat by Microsoft (in the form of Vista) to effectively turn the PC market into a console-like market via Vista's means of managing security of installs and parental controls.

I've recently been reading Guns, Germs and Steel, which offers a deterministic view of man's history, saying that because of prevailing geographical, economic, social and other considerations, certain outcomes of history are entirely predictable. Although the actions of individuals may help to precipitate or delay some historical consequences, they eventually come to pass. Of course the same sort of thinking can be applied to any sort of large scale system, and it's a basic foundation idea of evolution. Conditions change and the ecosystem filters and responds to that change. Back and forth it goes.

In this sense, I think that Greg is perfectly right to highlight his worries. As the interests of the mainstream game industry have tended to gravitate toward the bigger and the broader, the threat to the Long Tail companies becomes apparent. The console industry has been on this Hollywood-isation kick for some time, and it's likely to continue, but losing the PC's ability to be the indie arthouse for games is the more serious threat.

There are some possibilities, such as a move to the Mac, to Linux, or an attempt by a client such as Steam to automate or quietly circumvent Vista's roadblocks. The problem with all of these is that computer users like PCs and they are familiar enough with Windows to stick with it regardless of whether one release is better than another. Most PC consumers are not particularly enlightened consumers, which is why Macs always remain a distant second.
Steam has its fans of course, but the Steam client has had its critics and tends to only serve a particular segment of the games community.

So what's the solution?
You're looking at it.
No, not this blog.

Browser technology is ever expanding, and it has the advantage of not requiring any kind of installation process to use, any kind of platform dependence, or any kind of vetting process. Through a browser, you can (in theory) access and view any information, conduct any kind of data transaction, and basically forget the OS.

The big problem is that, to date, browser technology and games have never really seen eye to eye. This is the fault of game developers for the most part, and here's why: Most people who play PC games are now likely casual players. They don't really give a stuff about performance, or graphical whoosh. They just want to click and play. They play Poker. They play match 3. They play whatever it is that they want to play as long as it is convenient for them. Most game developers are still obsessed with a much more classical idea of gamers and so their priorities diverge from their markets' priorities.

Convenience is the real key here. Where a dinosaur game developer faps over Direct X, shaders, surround sound and more textures to make your eyes bleed even harder, a mammal developer is focussed on small scale convenient fun with a wide reach. Mammal developers want their games to look nice, but more importantly, they want people to be able to play them. Convenience trumps fidelity every time.

Basing games around a browser means a complete inversion of many of the game dev community's basic notions of what it is to make games. Browsers are more suited to strategy games and simple action games. They're unsuited to FPS, and likely will remain so for quite some time. They are probably great for point and click adventures, but likely rubbish for full real world or galaxy simulation jerkathons. They basically oblige the developers to think in terms of focussing on gameplay above oomph, because oomph isn't really their strong suit.

Most of all, they support sustainability. Mammal developers need their games to have long-term availability than short-term pizazz, and browsers offer some of the longest term viability there is. So, they offer a future where Windows may no longer, and that future is independent of any one company. There is a way to go, of course, but there is also a business opportunity here for an entrepreneur to bridge the gap between browser and game developers (possibly via a plug-in a la Shockwave or Flash).

Regardless, browsers are moving forward and determinism says that where there is opportunity, it will be taken. If not by you then someone else. Wanna miss the the boat?

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Monday, February 05, 2007

All Hail the Entrepreneur

Small business is the heart and soul of any market sector, and usually it is the seat of genius. Whether in the public eye of business to customer or behind the scenes, small businesses bring vitality and evolution to marketplaces grown stale or old. This is the primary effect of liberalisation of the marketplace, and one of the goals of free trade. In technology as much as any other industry, small business has its part to play, and so too in games.

This is because entrepreneurship is the spirit of having a go and seeing what happens. Take a risk. See what you can do, what you are made of etc. A novelist attempting to get published is essentially a sole trader looking for a client, every bit as much as an indie film-maker looking for distribution or a database developer looking for corporate customers.

When there is little or no entrepreneurship in an industry it's usually a sign that things have grown old. This is what I fear has happened to the games industry, and largely because of two things. One is ignorance and the other is hesitancy.

By ignorance I mean the amount of hard facts that many people who work in the industry actually know about their industry. It is surprising how many industry workers still believe in a lot of old-school illusions, from the idea that games are taking on movies to the one that Nintendo loves 3rd party developers and wants them on Wii. There's also the one about the guys who think that all they need is a great demo to take around to publishers and they'll seal the deal for sure.

What these beliefs amount to is an inexact picture of the industry as a liberal, expanding marketplace. This really couldn't be further from the truth. There are all manner of restrictions and constraints in the industry, many hoops to jump through and a highly top-down approach. Manufacturers don't want tonnes of indie developers, they want a few choice ones that feather their nest and make them look forward thinking. They know that the real meat and potatoes quality games for their platforms have to be internally made, but that plays badly in the press.

In reality, the console industry is claustrophobic. Publishers are uninterested in the team with the demo unless that team can prove that they can actually finish the game's production (a not unreasonable demand in this day and age) and they want the IP rights to the game because that's where the value is perceived to be. They also know that there are not too many places for teams to take their demo's and ideas, so deals tend to reflect that. They're not in the business of making other people wealthy.

Hesitancy is an even greater problem, because what it means is that many people in the industry have internalised the idea that risk is bad. It is hard not to internalise this idea when all around you the message is so negative on the one hand, and painting a very safe image on the other. Franchises are the very embodiment of this idea, and the game press's enthusiasm for them and their supposed heritage value drives the point home: Risk is bad. The familiar is good. Why fight it?

Except of course this isn't true at all. Many franchises fall in and out of favour, and companies that do take genuine entrepreneurial risks often reap the rewards. Entrepreneurship belongs in every part of the industry, and should be encouraged. From systems which challenge distribution methods to developers pioneering new genres, to tool makers, engine crafters, publications with a different spin than the usual fodder, all entrepreneurship deserves to be promoted, emphasised and accepted as how things should be. With some more presence in the industry's consciousness, we might encourage more people to take the risk themselves.

Do you have a story of entrepreneurial activities in games to share? Comment them here, or email me directly and I'll compile them. Maybe we might even make this a regular outing if enough people are interested.

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

The Greatest Show on Earth

My friend Cliff made an interesting post about large-scale creative projects versus small-scale lone wolf authors.

You're wrong Cliff.

Shakespeare did not work alone, neither did Austen or Tolstoy. All three (and this is true of most writers) had friends, editors, people who would read and comment. Shakespeare even had a theatre company to bounce his ideas off. JK Rowling has the editors at Bloomsbury.

You are also right to say that all movies, plays and so forth are imperfect, but what you're missing there is that they are also emergent, and that can be very powerful. Nobody really knows going into shooting a show like Galactica exactly how it's going to pan out, but that means that they can discover new ideas along the way and incorporate them.

What makes them work is strong direction, someone in the middle who makes consistent decisions from a creative standpoint. What make it difficult is when there is no strong direction, and games have no real tradition of doing that. Games have come from a collaborative sort of culture to where they are today, like a bunch of indie bands, and when looking to scale up, developers looked to software companies and their management techniques rather than entertainment companies, and that cultural choice is what makes modern games weak for the most part.

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007


Just a short note to let the many of you who expressed concern at my last post know that I'm much better. I've started a personal blog (as particleblog is really supposed to be about games) instead by way of a means to talk, express and converse more generally on subjects that aren't just games games games. It's at Thanks again for your support.

Oh by the way, what do people think of this new layout for particleblog? I'm in two minds about it, as I switched it when I upgraded the blog to Blogger in Beta.

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

The Real Me

It's late at night, it's dark outside. I'm tired, depressed, and I have been for a while. I'm angry, in that quiet, bottling way that won't come out except in tirades, rants and bitterness. I watch a hell of a lot of television, seem to spend many of my waking hours trawling the internet for distraction, and I feel lonely. I miss my family, who visited for Christmas, and I miss home. I think my ladyfriend Jayne must wonder that I'm on the edge, or taking life way too seriously, but I don't seem to be able to do anything else any more.

I have ideas, projects, directions and notions, but I find that I have no energy for anything. I sleep fitfully, wake up in a bleak fugue and stare at the ceiling for too long before finally dragging myself to work. My friends all seem to do likewise. Christmas provided some kind of reprieve, but the prevailing forecast is not good. I am sinking.

I spend a lot of time in particular reading motivational literature, self help sites and the like, but nothing seems to help. I buy positive books that stay on the shelf. Control your life, be a new you, up-end yourself, get shit done, set goals, be positive. They make me angry. My mother, who is a counsellor and giver of sage advice in many areas, irritates by always talking about emotions and such. I am in deep rejection mode, I think, but I don't really know how to get out of it.

My life feels vacant much of the time, futile and pathetic. I find myself in an endless cycle of half-completed tasks and meetings with no real purpose beyond getting to the next meeting. I drink too much tea in the day and have stopped eating any kind of fruit.

I hate blogging, forums and posting opinions, though I seem to do it all the time. Nothing is ever said that amounts to a hill of beans and many of the sites that I regularly visit seem to have clocked score, meaning that they're having the same conversations that they always do.

I feel pain, but it's a sort of pain that won't come out. I want to cry to get some release, but the last time I cried was three years ago when I broke up from a long term relationship. Instead, I feel a lump in my throat, a sticky sort of feeling that won't shift no matter what I do. I have no equity, some debt, and a salary in a job of which many readers of this blog would be jealous. I can't drive.

I hate "the industry". I seem to talk about nothing else. Even with family I just babble on and on about "the industry", the latest moves made, the latest trends, shifts and dramas. I sometimes feel motivated to write about a fad or throw a letter to an esteemed publication, but I frequently know that I'm just adding gas to Jupiter. I used to be interested in more than this, but it seems lost to me now, hopefully only temporarily.

I hate games. The only game that I've played with any regularity in the last three months is Orsinal's Winterbells. I don't know why. My high score is in the septillions. I couldn't care less about what console said what to who, and all the HD splash in creation is simply uninteresting to me, and yet I discuss it all the same with the energy of the dead.

I feel that I have made some bad choices in my life and some good ones, but mostly that I have drifted into the industry and all of its mores without any great direction or choice. I don't know what my reason for being here is. I struggle with this question a lot, because I always find myself in the middle somewhere. I can write, I can design, I can even hold a camera and shoot a bit of a film, but nothing is really different after I do those things. Nothing seems to stick in my interests for very long. I miss the times when I used to write lots of bad poetry.

I hate that I whine. I feel like a child for doing so a lot of the time. It is only because I am in the dead of night and contemplating a journey in the morning for which I should have gone to bed hours ago that I am writing. I think to myself "Well maybe THIS will shift something" though I'm pretty sure it's just not that easy. My co-workers would call this being "emo".

And there it is, my latest blog bonanza. This is the real me right now. All I can wonder is whether this will continue and I am going to end up drinking like my Dad. My concerns seem so ridiculous and yet feel so vast that they overwhelm me. All I can do is hide. I see it on the faces of others too. They have the same internal battle. I'm just the one who happens to write about it.

So yeah, games and stuff.

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Monday, January 01, 2007

New Year, New Directions

(Hope you like the new site layout, it's all a part of converting to Blogger 2. Next stop: Labels, links and all that malarky.) (Also, apologies for having not written a thing method-wise for a while. It's been a very busy and somewhat demoralising time, but I hope to rejuvenate soon.)

Anyway. New Year. New ideas. 01-01-07.

I've recently had an idea for a game. It's called Exit Strategy, and the idea is this: A turn-based strategy game played for one to six players in which each player plays a faction within the Iraqi situation. One player plays the US, one plays the Mahdi Army, one plays the UK, one plays Al Qaida in Iraq and so on.

Each faction has a specific advantage and victory condition, and these victories are based broadly on winning the public opinion war. Players play across a series of regions and also suburbs within Baghdad, and they do with a set of pieces with different movement, attack and defence abilities, some special pieces such as journalists that they play against each other, and there is also some card-based event play. (This is all very rough, but you get the idea).

Now, what does that conjure in your mind? I imagine that it conjures a mix between typical video game satire (cartoony characters and old 80's and 90's in-jokes rehashed) or bravado gaming, as is the current vogue with PC action/war games.

Actually, this game is something serious. This isn't some September 12th-style interactive "artistic point", it is serious entertainment. Rather than the escapist fun epitomised by the retro-chic and innovation-happy fads, this is a game that you want to play again and again because of the strategy gameplay. Some may ask whether it's really gaming's place to do that, given the political sensitivity. Of course it is. Games are fundamentally educational, they teach skill, forethought and imagination.

The 80s saw many specialist boardgames like the 18XX train games, Squad Leader, Republic of Rome, Race to Berlin and others that actively explored history, politics and ideas by rendering them into scenarios of win or lose conditions. Often complicated, usually deep, these games bring some understanding to the table, and many of them are bone-faced serious studies of their subject. Some computer games do likewise, such as Shogun: Total War, or the Civilization games (and arguably The Sims).

The aesthetic of escapism divorces content from context to make all games non-threatening, This results in committee imagination, where the content becomes a series of checkboxes that the developers or publishers think will appeal to markets, demographics or whatever. The real use of imaginative fantasy of any stripe is to teach by providing a mirror on this world. Whether a fantasy is as far flung as Star Wars or as near as Trainspotting, all good fiction is a reflection, and gaming should be no different.

This is something that I've blogged about off and on for nearly three years, trying to convey that reflective imagination is more than something nice to stick in a game, it is in fact THE new direction. By taking sets of rules and mechanics and applying them to something larger, we create something larger than an escapist pass time. Such as Exit Strategy.

This is where I'd like to see gaming going. I want to see Exit Strategy made because of what it can teach people and what they can explore by playing it. It doesn't have to be swish, it doesn't have to be particularly pretty. What it has to be is good and serious and above all fair. Every side must have an opportunity to win.

If we ever plan to make gaming anything other than novelties at the carnival then reflection rather than escapism is the all-important next step. Games teach, people learn from them and that is what we give to the world.

Happy New Year,

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.