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On Indie Game Development

It seems that with every day which passes, we read more and more “horror” stories – Kickstarter projects which fail, abandoned Early Access games – and it’s becoming increasingly common to read user comment reactions along the lines of, “this is why I no longer support...

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What the hell is a videogame anyway?

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Games, Rants | Posted on 16-01-2016

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Whenever a game hits the internet which pushes the limit of what many would consider an actual videogame, it’s not uncommon for that to be met with a certain amount of hostility. Sometimes it’s because the themes are not felt to be appropriate, it’s political, has an overt agenda, is dogmatic, is linear to the point of having barely any interaction, or any number of other reasons. This is not ideal, to put it mildly.

I’m all for videogames exploring these sorts of ideas – that’s not to say that those types of games would necessarily appeal to me – but that doesn’t mean I object to them existing.

The trouble is, that depending on how you define these things, it can rather stretch the definition of a “game”. Are these things really games? Do we really have a concrete definition of what it actually is to be a videogame? Wikipedia (bear with me) defines a videogame as, “an electronic game that involves human interaction with a user interface to generate visual feedback on a video device such as a TV screen or computer monitor”. I can agree with that, although the word “game” would need defining in order to really nail that down. A game, they say, is a, “structured form of play, usually undertaken for enjoyment and sometimes used as an educational tool”. So, combining those to remove terms which also need defining yields a videogame as, “an electronic structured form of play, usually undertaken for enjoyment and sometimes used as an educational tool, that involves human interaction with a user interface to generate visual feedback on a video device such as a TV screen or computer monitor”. That sounds perfectly reasonable to me, if a little verbose.

So it seems to me, that the structural and recreational aspects of “play” are really rather fundamental to what a videogame is. So really, is something which is not recreational – in other words, something which you do not engage in for fun and pleasure, something that’s entire raison d’etre is to make you feel uncomfortable, for example – is this really a videogame? If not, what is it? Do we even have terminology for these kinds of things?

Back in the early CD-ROM days, we had games which branded themselves as “interactive movies” and that was an excellent description of what they were. The trouble with that term was most of them were flupping awful so I’m not entirely convinced that were I to make one, I’d particularly want it associated with that name. But surely we can come up with good terminology for this stuff? It’s not like your endeavour is suddenly less interesting or exciting if it wasn’t called a videogame any more. Are visual novels “games”? To me… no, not really. They’re visual novels, and that’s a perfect description for them. Some are fantastic, some are shite – same as everything else. They’re not good or bad because they’re a visual novel any more than a narrative is good or bad because it’s explored as a documentary film.

Steam has “Games”, “Software”, “Hardware”, “Videos”. What if there was another section called “Interactive Movies” (I’m using that term for lack of anything better). Would there be so many raging arguments on forums if that’s where those things were filed? There were a few arguments when films started appearing on Steam, but they were all filed under “Videos” so, once people got used to the idea, arguments decreased. While there’s a million reasons in play as to why there’s often so much hostility towards certain games, does this not in part revolve around people’s differing ideas of what games should or should not be? Surely this, at least, is a solvable problem?

Perhaps this is all just the result of the number of videogames which aren’t necessarily technically videogames representing only a tiny fraction of the whole. That to take those games and file them somewhere else would seem like relegating them to the back corner of the shop where no-one will see them. But on the flip side, maybe there’s a whole bunch of people out there who’d say they’re not interested in videogames but would actually be really interested in this stuff, and that putting all these things together – away from the shoot-people-in-the-face games that they’re not in the least bit interested in – could actually draw attention to them , particularly from mainstream press outlets who would not normally cover videogames as part of their Arts coverage.

I don’t know, ultimately. I just feel like these ludicrously broad terms – the likes of “videogame”, “indie”, “gamer” – need concrete and specific definitions if we’re going to have useful conversations about them. Otherwise we’ll just have arguments which, fundamentally, are fueled by us all having different interpretations of what these terms actually mean. As it stands, all we can really say about videogames is that they’re electronic things, indie is just a vibe, genre or the lack of publisher ownership (how does that make a game better or worse? Oooh I LOVE videogames which aren’t owned by a Publisher because… uhh… yeah, sometimes they’re shite too actually), and a gamer is anything from pretty much everybody who’s ever used a phone, to a tremendously specific subset depending on which article you read. None of this is tremendously helpful.

On Slagging Off Other Videogames

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Games, Rants | Posted on 14-01-2016

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Should we do this? In all honesty, I’m horribly conflicted. At the end of the day, other games aren’t really “competitors” in any meaningful sense – so there’s definitely no reason to criticise another game just to inflate your own. On the other hand, just because another studio is within the same games industry bubble as yourself doesn’t mean you should have to gush about it for no other reason than to appear nice. Game developers are also gamers, it’s totally okay to have opinions – to like some games, hate others, love to bits a few more, and find another utterly shit. Isn’t it?

I mean, I do think about this a lot (well, perhaps not a lot – but definitely a bit). I see people talking passionately about one game or another which, when I look at it, “meh” is about the most enthusiasm I can drum up. I do wonder whether the gushing praise is genuine or whether it’s more, “if I say nice things about other games, maybe those people will say nice things about mine – win, win!” It’s obviously not inconceivable that other developers will like things which I don’t, though 😉

I’m also not particularly affected by whether or not there’s some deep and meaningful message or point to a game. I like my games to be fun – crazy, eh? I don’t particularly want to play a game which is going to make me feel worse about myself or life in general than I did before I started playing, and I don’t particularly see why games like this should neccessarily be more interesting than a game with ducks shooting laser beams out of their eyes because… well, just because. What’s so wrong with videogames just being fun? If a game is fun and it makes my cold stoney heart beat once, well that’s nice. But it’s not a requirement and it doesn’t make that game automatically more important or interesting than the duck / laser-beam game.

So the thing is, there’s not really that many games which I like – not in the context of the gazillion games which are made every year. There are particular genres which appeal to me (which tend to be open-world sandboxes, RPGs, and/or simulations) and the rest… don’t, really. I’m not going to pretend that they do just because I’m a game developer and therefore, “WOO! VIDEOGAMES! YEAH!” But that also doesn’t mean I should slag off the stuff I hate – I could just as easily quietly ignore it.

But small indie developers struggle, right? Should I at least not trumpet from the rooftops that I think small indie game A is a bit crap, really? I mean, that wouldn’t be a very nice thing to do really. Except the AAA games are made by humans too, and saying you think Skyrim is shit still affects people. But Bethesda’s bottom-line is unlikely to be affected by that – the small indie developer could be affected hugely. Particularly if you have a decent Twitter following. But that’s to say that small developers get a pass which larger developers don’t when often the price being charged isn’t dissimilar. So who are you being unfair to, then?

Maybe just say nothing. But if I never said anything bad about games I didn’t like, that wouldn’t stop me from shouting from the rooftops about games I love. So wouldn’t the problem then be that any game which I don’t actively promote is one which I am implicitly criticising?

I dunno. It’s a mess. Luckily, I only have 3,500 Twitter followers so I suppose, “who gives a shit?” is a fairly appropriate answer to all this.

Mad Max could yield the Greatest Ever post-apoc Survival Game

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Games | Posted on 02-01-2016

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Mad Max, from the Just Cause gamedevs Avalanche Studios, is to me 2015’s most bafflingly reviewed game. While I’ve only played it on PC and, therefore, some of the extraordinarily low scores it garnered for the console versions (5.5/10 from Polygon, 4/10 from Jim Sterling) could be partially explained if the visuals and performance are much much much lower on those platforms I suspect not considering the excellent PC performance even on fairly low spec rigs.

It’s true that the game does not have a particularly stellar storyline, quests are basic, and the optional tasks repetitive – so you’d think a low score would be fair. But I don’t. You see, to me an open world game is as much about the feeling of existing in a world as it is about a story and emotional quests – if not more. The world is a character – in many ways, the most important character. And Mad Max’s world is staggering. Considering it’s set entirely in a post apocalyptic desert, the variety of landscape – all of it feeling real and natural – is breath-taking. A ruined suspension bridge spanning a dried river bed feels enormous – you know, like real bridges are.

MadMax03

“It’s not ugly” – Jim Sterling

It reminds me why, despite some great environmental design, in Fallout 4 the shrunken down microcosm of Boston never really gave me a sense of awe. Yet one ruined bridge in Mad Max did. Some people may find Mad Max’s world empty, but to me it was beautifully vast – the lower density of settlements and structures adding to the post-apocalypse vibe.

MadMax02

“Nothing to remember it for” – Polygon

Mad Max’s trump cards are its world, its lighting, its weather effects (when a storm blows in it’s an event. I thought the radioactive lightning storms in Fallout 4 were nice but, to paraphrase Crocodile Dundee, “lol that’s not a storm, that’s a storm”) and it’s for these reasons you play the game. The story and tasks are just things to occupy your time and give you a feeling of progression and if you’ve reviewed the game primarily in these terms you’ve rather missed the point (and, I suspect, you have no soul). The combat – both on-foot and in-car – are solid enough. But again, the game isn’t about this stuff in isolation. It’s about this stuff at the moment the game warns you there’s a storm approaching. It’s sensational.

Oh, and the FUCKING sandstorms. How this made it to the final game will never be satisfactorily explained. At entirely random points the game declares, “Get inside, a storm’s coming!” and you have to stop whatever you’re doing and find somewhere to shelter for literally ten goddamned minutes while it blows over… It offers nothing to the game, other than to interrupt whatever you were presently doing with a pointless period of no fun. It’s bewilderingly stupid.

John Walker, RPS review

I think we live on different planets.

So, Avalanche Studios, what I would like next please, is a “World of Mad Max” sequel. Except not that name because it’s rubbish. I don’t want to play as Mad Max – I want him to be a character in the world, a legend, spoken of but never seen (except possibly in the climax). Let me create my own character, male or female, give me the world’s worst car to begin with, drop me into the world and say “go”. Take the water mechanic in the existing game, but make it deplete over time so that water becomes required for survival (while you’re out of water, your health slowly drops). Keep the car upgrading, it’s cool, but ditch the auto-repairing and make that the equivalent of resting (find a safe location, repair, time progresses). Make the whole game about slowly building up a reputation so that, ultimately, you come to the attention of Mad Max (for good or ill, depending).

The world of Mad Max is so perfectly suited to an open-world survival game that it would be a travesty if it never happens. Sod the story, sod playing as Max himself – just give me the world, a bunch of psychopathic weirdos, and a true survival mechanic.

Mad Max, Avalanche Studios: Awarded Binky’s Brillopops Award for sensational world design 2015.

MadMaxAward

On Indie Game Development

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Games, Rants, Useless Advice | Posted on 13-11-2015

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It seems that with every day which passes, we read more and more “horror” stories – Kickstarter projects which fail, abandoned Early Access games – and it’s becoming increasingly common to read user comment reactions along the lines of, “this is why I no longer support Alpha-Funded / Early Access / Kickstarters / etc. games”. It’s a real shame because, as should be remembered, these funding models enable games to be created which simply could not have existed otherwise. Of course, as a consumer, it is absolutely sensible to approach with caution before putting your money down for a promise – but at the same time, closing yourself off entirely… well, if everybody did that then we’d be back to the only viable funding model being a traditional publisher-developer relationship. And let’s not forget that it was dissatisfaction with the kinds of games which that relationship typically yields which led us to this in the first place.

It’s a sad truth that with any model – be it E.A., alpha-funding, Kickstarter, free-to-play – there will be some games which use the model perfectly, some which balls the whole thing up horribly, and everything in-between. Some people, just with luck of the dice rolls, will find themselves only backing turkeys. But a few bad experiences does not mean that the system, as a whole, is broken or fundamentally flawed.

This kind of funding model is fantastic, utterly fantastic. If you want a games industry which maximises creativity, maximises variety, makes niche titles viable, this is how you get it – there is simply no better model. We need to protect it, and that places a duty of protection on every single developer using it – no matter whether you’re a larger independent company, or a single hobbiest – whether you want it or not.

Know your limitations

 
When I got my first job in the industry, back when I was twenty, I was full of arrogance – the sort of arrogance which you only really recognise with hindsight. I went through school top of my class in art and computer studies, I got a first-class B.Sc. (hons) in Computer Visualisation and Animation. Frankly, I thought I was the bees-knees. But, of course, you’re only being judged in terms of people in your class or year not the World as a whole. When people treat you like you’re amazing, you begin to think you’re objectively amazing. Then you get a job in the Games Industry.

Blimey, that was an eye-opener. Suddenly, I was comparatively shit. In the grand scheme of things I knew nothing. The arrogance still takes time to evaporate (evaporation, to this day, still not entirely complete) but you do at least start to recognise it as arrogance. Despite not having made many games I was particularly proud of during those ten or so years in the commercial industry, it was still the best thing I could possibly have done. I dread to think what I would’ve been like, had I skipped it and simply started making indie games when I was twenty. Actually, I pretty much know – I would have wanted to change the world (of games). I’d have wanted to show the games industry where they were going wrong. All my “amazing” ideas – why has no-one made these games? Pfft. Noobs.

Those ten years taught me that all those ideas which I thought were so amazing? Not only have they occurred to literally everyone, but also that ninety-nine times out of a hundred, that they are not applied is either because they’re “good in theory, not so much in practice”, because they’re utterly nonviable, or because actually they’re shit.

“Indie” has become a PR term, but there is a reason why I’ll insist on making a distinction between “indies” and “independents”. Indies should not be trying to compete with the AAA (or even AA) games. Yeah, we have Unreal Engine 4 at our disposal now, but that we’ve got AAA tools and tech does not mean we can start making AAA games. Just prettier indie games. If, in general, indie games were synonymous with “looking a bit shit” well, that’s fine isn’t it? No, not fine, better. Because if “great game, but graphically a bit shite” was what people thought of when they thought about indie games, then the word wouldn’t be quite so great for PR and maybe the larger independent studios wouldn’t insist on calling themselves indie and muddying up the whole thing.

It’s okay to use Unreal Engine 4 but fill the entire game with cheap crappy stock assets. It’s okay to have both awesome Unreal lighting and assets made out of cubes. It’s okay not to use Unreal at all and make the whole thing in Game Maker or RPG Studio. Style is cheap, HD models aren’t. If you’re wondering why it is that the commercial industry has never produced [insert awesome-sounding ambitious project here] it’s not because you’ve got better ideas than them. It’s because, unlike you, they know how much it costs to make a videogame of that scope.

Ultimately, pretty graphics mean bollocks all if the game is shit or canned. Yeah, you’re probably not going to out-sell Call of Duty. But if you’ve planned for your limitations, kept your team small, kept the design realistic in scope… you won’t need to. You can be ambitious – heck, definitely be ambitious. But be ambitious in moderation. If you shoot for the moon, there is a minuscule chance you’ll land. If you’re lucky, you may end up in a stable orbit around Earth. Most likely, you’ll plummet back down to Earth and explode.

EGX 2015

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Games, Rants | Posted on 28-09-2015

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Short post this, because I didn’t actually get to see much (at all) of the show given that we had a booth there ourselves in the Rezzed section and having that sort of occupies all of your time. I did, however, want to mention one or two disappointments. For more in-depth disappointment, I’d recommend Rob Fearon’s piece.

Also forgive me for focusing on the bad stuff – obviously there were lots of highlights, showing people our game, chatting about it, cool people all round, love you all etc. I just wanted to get this out of my system.

Now I know that EGX (as opposed to its sister show, Rezzed) is all about the AAA stuff and that the Rezzed section is really just a way for us small games to get in the faces of that more mainstream crowd, but I kind of feel that if you’re going to integrate things at all, you should go all-in. But there were devs there who’d paid for four screens but were allotted only three exhibitor passes – which can make things awkward if someone is ill or injured (staffing these booths is way more taxing than you might think, and someone there is bound to be contagious with something), and having the computers directly underneath the monitors in a locked cabinet isn’t terribly friendly to either the extremely tall, or physically disabled:

wchair

It just all felt a little tucked away at the periphery – most of the section was walled off in a, “WARNING: THESE ARE NOT AAA GAMES” way.

At Rezzed proper, Rezzed sessions are queued for and in nice big separate rooms with comfy seats and prominent announcements. They’re a highlight. A feature. Now I appreciate that at EGX these sessions were new and, possibly, even fairly last-minute additions, but rather than be in a separate area they were instead just a little area set aside on the show floor with a hand-written sign with the lineup written on it right next to some extremely loud AAA booths blaring out bollocks such that you were buggered to hear anything which was said despite the best efforts of the chap in charge of the sound (shout-out to him, flupping hard job he had there). It’s the sort of space that people wander past, idly glance at, and wander off. No-one is queuing for this because it just doesn’t look like the sort of thing you’re expected to queue for. Many people treated it like a space to wander into to sit and eat a sandwich and chat.

I don’t like having a go at this because I’m almost certain that everyone involved in the Rezzed section did absolutely the best they could under the circumstances. The Rezzed sessions themselves were terrific to watch and a pleasure to be involved with. But I was left with the suspicion that it was all a little ultimately pointless. These sessions weren’t filmed, for example – I mean why would you want poxy Rezzed sessions cluttering up the EGX youtube account? No-one’s here to see rubbishy indie stuff, right? It’s all about the AAA and the main EGX stuff. So why bother having it at all? Maybe in the future we should just stick to Rezzed proper, where we belong.

Steam User Reviews and a segue into Metal Gear Solid

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Games, Rants | Posted on 16-09-2015

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I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen someone scoffing that a Steam user has written a thumbs down user review which reads, “160 hours played”, or some other similarly large number. I find this a bizarre argument – hinging entirely on, “but… but… you got your money’s worth! Price / Hours Played = Crazy Cheap!”. And yet we demand professional journalists play a game through to completion (or at least put in a whopping number of hours) before writing their reviews lest they suffer the wrath of the internet dismissing the lot as ill-informed twaddle. So professional games reviewers need to play the lot before determining a game is shit, but the layman can (and should) make a snap-judgement after only a couple of hours? When both those reviews serve the same function for customers? Bonkers.

Take Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. Ask me if I like it. Go on. Ask. I’ll assume you have. The answer is, I have no idea yet. I really really liked the opening until it started going on waaaaay too long. For someone who clearly loves film-making, Hideo Kojima really needs to learn about editing. Trim out a quarter or so of the fluff (not one chase sequence, but two! Three! On and on it goes!) and it would have been spectacular – instead, all that excitement and interest started slipping and I began willing it to be over. Maybe some people like this kind of guff but to me, it was just bloated self-indulgence.

Once that was over and I started getting into the meat of the game itself, I started liking it again (once I was over the initial frustration of not knowing what I was doing, who characters were, and what the Hell was going on – I still don’t to be honest, I just stopped caring so much). The mission stories started becoming interesting – the surprising moments of darkness and gritty elements began to hook me. But it’s the kind of hook that’s snagged incredibly precariously – at any moment a spike of pretentious nonsense could rip it free and send me plummeting into… this analogy is wearing thin – it could make me start hating it at any moment, is the gist.

So the over-arching story makes no sense to me – as someone who’s only experience of Metal Gear games is playing the NES version when I was nine or so (I remember bollocks all about the story, I almost certainly didn’t actually read any of it), and Metal Gear Solid on the PS1 of which I remember that Revolver Ocelot was a Boss who I killed and Psycho Mantis made my controller vibrate. So basically, I’m playing MGS:V without any context to the story what-so-ever. It’s confusing, and it doesn’t give a shit that you’re confused – in fact it seems to revel in that fact as if that somehow makes it better (it doesn’t).

It’s a game which is sometimes silly, sometimes dark, sometimes easy, sometimes punishingly difficult, and loves not giving you information that you really could have done with knowing before you started the mission. It tells you, for example, in opening credit sequences for every mission – a credit sequence which credits NPCs as if they were actors in a film – that this mission features a guest mecha “Mechatron 5000” (or whatever) and a heavily armed gunship immediately after you’ve selected your loadout. Thanks for that, game. Either tell me that before I choose my weapons, or don’t tell me at all – don’t tell me just so you can laugh at my expense about how horribly ill-prepared I am for the mission.

It’s a game with no difficulty options apart from wearing (quite literally) a “chicken hat” which some may find funny (probably mostly those who don’t need to wear it) and some may find horribly insulting.

It’s also a game which I cannot actually fathom why it’s open world (ish). It dispenses that oh-so-unrealistic vision cone on the mini-map (which no longer exists) which always felt fine – it’s a game mechanic, innit – and instead places enemies in a realistic context with equally unrealistic vision. Hiding in a cardboard box in a warehouse made some degree of sense in the PS1 game (even if daft). Lying prone in a blade of grass with a sniper rifle poking four feet into the air while a guard nonchalantly wanders by just feels crap. It’s not so much my amazing stealth skills as horribly incompetent henchmen. Context is everything and an open world landscape with Metal Gear Solid limited vision enemies just feels like totally the wrong context.

But when it works, by God it works – it does what it does so well, executed so competently by a team clearly at the pinnacle of games development that, in those moments, all the frustrations, irritations, frequent moments of confusion, those all melt away and you’re left thinking, “yes! I see it! I see why so many love these games!”. And providing that the game-wide story arc has some level of resolve (I’ve given up on having the series-wide story arc explained to me by this game), then I think I’ll be happy. Thumbs up user review. If not, thumbs down. I won’t know until I finish it – and if I end up unhappy, you can piss off if you think that when it says “100 hours played”, that changes anything about how I felt about it.

On the social and cultural significance of videogames

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Games, Rants | Posted on 15-08-2015

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AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH! *runs screaming for the hills*

I’m back now. So, in the last couple of days we’ve had two semi-related articles to read. The first, by Paul “[month] the [day] be with you” Kilduff-Taylor of Mode7 (“The Itch to Make and Nothing to Say” Creative Significance and Games) and the second, by Keith Stuart from Eurogamer (Why I will never call video games a hobby).

Both these articles seem, to me, to be perfectly fine personal interpretations and thought experiments but I struggle to relate to either of them. The trouble is, videogames aren’t really anything at all. They can pretty much be anything and everything. Trying to talk about them in a big-picture way is essentially impossible and pointless. Some games are pretentious twaddle. Some are ‘shoot the people in the face for a bit’. You can’t even talk generally about games from the business angle because although videogames, as a commercial industry, make a tremendous amount of money – many games are free, and these are just as much a part of the whole as any Call of Duty game.

It’s hard enough talking about just specifically indie games given the ridiculously wide set of games that covers. Add in big commercial AAA games, whatever the hell that alt-games thing is all about, and absolutely everything else that involves booting up some sort of interactive (or vaguely interactive) electronic thing and you’ve got this giant wibbly mess that absolutely cannot, in any capacity, be talked about as if they share en-masse anything other than the most superficial relationship to each other.

How can you talk about success without stamping your own interpretation on what constitutes “success” all over it? Do you mean financial success, creative success, both, or neither? Games should neither be meaningful or vacuous – screw you with the “should”. The former isn’t magically more important just *because* it tries to be deep and clever. It can still be shit. And some vacuous twitch-shooter game which makes no claim on making some sort of statement about life, the Universe, and Everything and sells three copies on Steam can still be totally awesome and important.

All you can really do is talk about the narrow slice of videogames which contains the bit you’re interested in, and talk about that slice to people who are also interested in that slice. Attempting to draw broad conclusions from this is, frankly, flupping pointless. Games are no more or less important, socially, culturally, anything-else-ally than any other creative medium. No artsy game, no matter how ground-breaking and immersive, can do what an incredibly well-written book or well-made film can’t do. But they can let you shoot people in the face.

“Just make a good game!”

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Rants, Useless Advice | Posted on 23-07-2015

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Okay, so I’ve just watched an excellent YouTube video from Simon Roth, the chap behind Maia, about how to build a sustainable microstudio (a re-creation of his Develop talk). I’ll include it below because I really recommend giving it a watch:

But one thing stood out to me, very very early on, in the video which is where he’s critical of “useless” advice for indie devs – one of these nuggets of useless advice was, “just make a good game”.

Oh my God. That’s me, I do that all the time, it’s pretty much the only piece of advice I ever give! I’m going to defend it.

Now, I appreciate that it’s fairly useless in the sense that “good” doesn’t really mean anything concrete. Good how? Mechanically robust? Following established conventions of game design? Being in a popular genre? It certainly poses more questions than it answers, and it actually answers very little. But when I give that piece of advice to people, I’m not giving them advice which is a surefire way to success (nobody can do that) – instead I’m recommending a mindset.

As Simon points out (paraphrasing here), “Lots of crap games sell loads, lots of good games fail miserably – so how ‘good’ something is does not necessarily correlate to how well something sells”. This is perfectly true but from my point of view, I would not want to be a developer who writes crap games which sell such that I am now running a “successful” games studio. I want to be a developer of great games. If sales did not follow, then I would be a hobbiest developer of great games – if they did, I would be running a “successful” games studio who makes great games. I’m not interested in the “successful” bit unless that was just something which happened on account of the games I made being well regarded.

The games come first.

If you’re starting out and compiling advice about how to become successful and at no point is the top bullet point of your list of “do’s” a big bold, underlined, “come up with a great game idea, then try to execute it competently” – if success is more important to you than the game – then what the Hell are you doing in the games industry? Frankly, you can piss off 😉

Note in case it isn’t clear: I very much like Simon Roth, his hair, and Maia. This isn’t intended to be critical of him or his talk. I just disagree with that one little nugget of that one slide.

Do you *need* to be a gamer to write videogames?

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Games, Rants | Posted on 22-07-2015

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I didn’t go to Develop this year so didn’t get to watch any of the sessions live. I did see tweets about what was being talked about though, and I raised my eyebrows just as much as anyone else did when I saw this:

The first question that popped into my brain was, “Who are ‘we’, exactly? ‘We’ as in, ‘we at Vlambeer’? ‘We’ as in, ‘we game developers’?”. I don’t know, I can’t tell from the slide. Nor can I tell exactly how much emphasis is on the word “can” in the accompanying quote. Nor can I tell whether the, “and it’s okay to admit this” implies that this is some basic truth that we (as in all game developers) think, but don’t say. This is the problem with tweeting a picture of a slide on social media bereft of context.

It’s also the problem with producing such slides – which don’t require a Rocket Scientist to realise could maybe look a little bit contentious when taken in isolation. Maybe courting controversy was part of the point, maybe it was never seen as contentious, maybe someone with 90K Twitter followers didn’t think photos from their talk would get tweeted, maybe a million other possibilities including that maybe I’m being a total arse for over-analysing it. But that’s all besides the point. The point is, can you be an effective game developer who isn’t a gamer?

What actually constitutes a “gamer”?

This is the very cause of the problem. We throw this word around but we very rarely actually define what we mean by it. In that sense, it sits nicely alongside “indie” as being a generally useless term. At its simplest a “gamer” is just anyone who plays videogames but, of course, if that were the case then there’d be absolutely no possible counter-argument to saying that “Gamers are Over” is an utterly ridiculous thing to say. But there was a counter-argument offered (albeit somewhat implicitly) and that counter-argument was that, “we don’t mean literally anyone who plays videogames, we mean this specific set of people who play videogames that we don’t like very much”.

To me, the term “gamer” applies to anyone who plays videogames who is sufficiently interested in videogames to read gaming websites, follow developers on Twitter, spend time thinking about videogames, discussing them etc. In other words, someone who’s interest in videogames is such that playing them is pretty much their primary hobby.

By this definition, there is not an indie developer on the planet who doesn’t need to listen and respond to gamers. These gamers – the ones who read gaming news, watch Twitch streams, all that jazz – these are the active people. The people who will spread information about your game, post about it on forums, request Let’s Plays of your game from popular YouTubers. The more passive games players who would not identify with the “gamer” moniker, well they might buy your game, they may even tell one or two friends about it – but that’s pretty much it. They’re important people to reach, but you reach them via the gamers – unless you want to spend a fortune on a PR campaign outside of gaming websites.

So, do you need to be a gamer to write videogames?

No, obviously not. You don’t need to be a film buff to make a film – you don’t need to read a lot of books to be an author. It probably helps though, since you can learn rather a lot about designing videogames by playing them. Standing on the shoulders of giants, and all that. Of course, playing a lot of videogames for research purposes doesn’t require that you actually like any of them. Your entire motivation to make games could be precisely because of this – and this was part of Rami’s point in his talk. I’m not entirely sure I would particularly want to work in a field where I didn’t like almost all of my peers’ current and past output though, but that’s just me. Orson Welles made Citizen Kane despite not being tremendously fond of cinema. But then Orson Welles was a genius and I am not, and nor are most other people on the planet.

The rest of us mortals learn game design by playing shit loads of games, discovering what we like and replicating it, and discovering what we hate and avoiding it. With any luck, you’ll get to do a little bit of innovation along the way. The more you enjoy games (the more that you are a gamer, in other words), the more games you are likely to play. The more games you play, the larger palette you have to work from. The larger the palette you have to work from, the more likely you are to see trends – things which tend to work well, or things which tend to work badly – and the better your own games will tend to be.

But, of course, this all hinges on what people mean by “gamer”. So let’s decide, eh? Or we’ll be running around in circles forever.

Watch the Develop sessions on Youtube here.

On Curators, Quotes, and Steam Store Pages

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Games, Rants | Posted on 18-07-2015

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Okay, yesterday a few inevitable things happened. The Framerate Police curator group – a group specifically intended only to inform (in an opt-in way) whether a game is locked to 30fps – led to a developer getting a little bit of grief. The ruckus occurred because the developer decided that “30fps lock.” is not the most useful quote to have displayed prominently on their store page and opted to remove the curator from the set displayed (they subsequently put it back).

First (and most important) point:

Removing a curator from your store page DOES NOT AFFECT ITS VISIBILITY to those who follow the curator

In other words, if games running at 30fps offend your eyes you are likely following this group and therefore this does not affect you in any way, shape, or form (YOU will still see the curator on any game the list flags). If you are not following this group, then “30fps lock.” is a completely irrelevant thing to see on the store page – a more meaningful recommendation is infinitely more useful.

The end. Well, it should be – but there seems to be a bit of confusion as to what the Steam Store Page actually is, how it should be used, and what constitutes censorship.

What are curators?

Curators are designed as recommendations. In this instance, the function of a curator has been mangled for the purposes of providing consumer information given the lack (within Steam) of a more appropriate alternative. I’m fine with this personally, but you must understand that this is an incorrect usage. It would not at all surprise me if, at some point, Valve decide that they must enforce the ‘correct’ use of curators and prohibit their misuse in the same way that they have prohibited the use of tags which lie outside of their intended purpose.

But for the time being, you’ve got the curator – be happy about that. The information you want displayed is now displayed for you.

So. Given that curators, in theory, are all positive recommendations for your game, a developer having control over which curators are displayed and which are not is absolutely no different from selecting from a list of press quotes which ones to plop on the box. You would not expect to ever see this:

Brink

Nobody would complain that the quote used to advertise the game has not been selected democratically.

Is it censorship to hide a curator from those who don’t follow it?

No. Because, again, curators are all supposed to be positive – so you’re just selecting which positive things you wish displayed. That one or two curators abuse the principle (regardless of how well-meaning they are, or their usefulness given the lack of alternative) does not entitle them to suddenly be the most prominent quote just because there’s a lot of people following it – any more than a super popular negative user review should suddenly start appearing on the advertising posters.

As a customer, you already have the ability to make your feelings heard. It’s via the reviews. You can have an affect on that user score and, believe me, that user score counts a hell of a lot more towards the visibility of a game on Steam than any curator does. Power to the people, and all that.