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How one bad egg can destroy a studio

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Stuff | Posted on 25-04-2011

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Note to Dave: I wrote this before we announced Project Zomboid. Such things are possible with computers – so don’t panic.

So in previous posts I may have come across a little mean about designers. Evidently there are some amazing designers out there or else there wouldn’t be any good commercial games. But the trouble is, the designer holds the key to the quality of the game (and the studio) regardless of how good or bad the art and code team is, or they themselves are.

When you’re under pressure, you’ve got a huge amount of work in front of you and, let’s be honest, most of it is going to be a bit of a chore, what you really need is somebody to be passionate, enthusiastic, and brimming with confidence about the game. The best person to fit this role is the person who wrote the design in the first place.

When you have a great designer, everyone gets motivated.

On the other hand, someone writes a design and it sucks. Various parts of it can be fixed by the coders if they just ignore the design and implement what a good design would have suggested in the first place. But will they? They have task lists derived from that sucky design to get through, they can’t just veer off on a tangent on a whim. So you have a meeting where it transpires that the person who wrote the document really couldn’t give a rat’s arse about the game or if they do, they’re hiding it extremely well by pretending to fiddle with a pencil and ignore you. Or stubbornly refuse to budge on issues which anyone who’s ever played a game will immediately see are stupid – hey let’s implement a control system for a platform game that only a fully-trained helicopter pilot will be able to handle! That sort of thing.

So the team gets irritated and productivity drops making everything turn out a bit worse than it would have done before. So another meeting is held, and productivity drops again. Before long, literally nobody cares about the project and the whole things turns out as predicted like a rubbish self-fulfilling prophecy.

There’s a surge of motivation when the next project arrives but it’s short-lived before the same process happens again, and before long you’re looking at a succession of games spiralling into the bargain bin. When this happens you can kiss your chances goodbye of ever signing a decent project, and so you’re doomed.

So here’s the thing. Obviously it makes a whopping difference to the quality of the game depending on how good the designer is at actually designing. But it also makes a surprising difference depending on how likeable and enthusiastic they are. If you’re shit but, heck, you’re trying and everyone’s in your corner because you love this stupid game and you want everyone else to love it too, you’ll get a higher quality product than if you’re a better designer but a mopey sod who doesn’t care and everybody (except possibly other designers) hates.

Lack of designer enthusiasm kills projects. If the designer isn’t motivated then in the end, no-one else will be and it won’t matter a jot whether or not that initial document was a work of art or a wet fart on a hanky – the game will be bollocks either way. At which point, you will probably blame the coders and artists for doing it wrong which will make them hate you even more.

However, if you’re likeable but shit then presumably you’re going to improve over time. Each game will be a smidge better than the last so the studio’s profile will slowly rise, the key staff will stick around and not have nervous breakdowns and divorces, and instead of a descending spiral of despair, you’ve got a gentle incline of awesome.

So for the love of God, be nice or everything will go wrong and it will be all your fault.

Why indie games development trumps commercial development

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Stuff | Posted on 15-04-2011

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I left the commercial games industry in February 2009 after, in all honesty, probably the most miserable period of my life. I didn’t leave voluntarily because, in all honesty, even getting paid for something you’ve grown to despise trumps not getting paid at all so I had no intentions of jumping ship. I wasn’t exactly pushed per se, but the fact that I wasn’t kept on to be part of the company that sprang up immediately after the company I worked for exploded, meant that I had effectively been fired. But fired in a manner which meant I got to claim statutory redundancy.

So that was nice. Not terribly surprising, though – I was hardly a model employee during those last few months of my stay. There’s a certain trouble you see, a rather delicate dance you have to perform if you want to be successful at the sort of place that, while it doesn’t make anything particularly amazing, is chock full of people who would be perfectly capable of amazingness given the right circumstance but constrained by a small number of utterly useless, yet bafflingly well-regarded people.

The trick is, to be vocal and passionate… but only a bit. Definitely not too much, and especially not if your passion is focussed on what isn’t working, because no-one that matters will care about the why unless the why is to do with somebody disposable. They might enquire earnestly the first time but the second time, after they’ve failed to address it, they’ll care less. And certainly five years later when the same problems are popping up they’ll really not want to hear them and will probably tell you to change the record or just yawn off your arguments as “that thing you do”.

So despite the fact that in between these moments of heated outrage you are, you know, actually rather good at what you do and (if you’ll forgive the blowing of one’s own trumpet) certainly beneficial to the project, when the opportunity arises you’ll be quietly let go. A bit like that bit in Titanic – morning dawns and there’s an empty space where Leonard Di Cappuccino used to be. Except in this circumstance, nobody is crying in the audience.

So, that was that. Forced into the indie business way sooner than I had intended. Fortunately for me, Lemmy had found himself in a similar position – indie games were always something we intended to do at some point, so it was either now or try and get a job somewhere else.

Had we had gone for the second option, perhaps I would have found myself at a great developer, one which would have immediately quashed all my frustrations. There are plenty of commercial games I love, and plenty of industry figureheads I hugely respect. Maybe working for them would be different. I have to rather hold on to that hope or it would utterly crush whatever remains of my love of the industry.

But in the indie scene I find myself and now I’m here, I discover that the gulf between ‘commercial’ and ‘indie’ is not as wide as I had expected. There are indie games out-selling commercial games, and suddenly you realise that gamers aren’t just some hypothetical statistic but actual real people who don’t really give a damn who made a game, providing that the game is completely brilliant. It sounds daft to say that, but in the commercial industry as an artist or programmer (even if you’re senior or a lead), you really are massively divorced from the people who actually play the thing you make. At least in my experience, anyway.

And so you find yourself able to actually have a dialogue with the people that may buy, or have bought, your game without having to send off your responses for approval or find someone else responding on your behalf with a slightly warped version of what it was you said. And then you start to wonder why in the commercial industry there tends to be so little communication with gamers because, you know, they’ve got quite a lot of stuff to say.

For example, there is a thread on our forums concerning the way our game was going to handle the player’s mental health. Me, Lemmy, and Nick have our own ideas about this, of course, but as it transpired some of our posters were qualified in this very area. Who better to discuss this with, if not 1) people who know one hell of a lot more about the intricacies than you possibly could with just your own game-based ideas and access to Google and 2) people who like the sound of your game?

When I remember games that I used to play on my C64, I typically remember them with fabulous graphics. It’s usually a massive disappointment to see them later and discover all that atmosphere was just a smudgy blob scrolling around making unconvincingly loud footsteps sounds. But your mind filled in the gaps. There’s something to be said for really simplistic graphics – the more you leave up to the player, the richer their experience. Games like Dwarf Fortress or Minecraft demonstrate that unequivocally. So really, what do you gain from having Hollywood stars doing your voices, or actors mo-capping animations? You get wonderful-looking visuals and exciting cutscenes, of course, but we’re not in the business of making films, we’re making games – an industry born as much (or more) from table-top adventurers than table-tennis players. The cross-over between games and films is not a new phenomenon but rather than being an inevitable evolution feels more like species divergence. In the future there’ll be a term for each (and not a rubbish term, like ‘interactive movie’).

When that happens, one of those types will be a game and one will be something else. Something probably cool and exciting, but not a game. When it comes down to it, a game is just a set of rules and a playfield. You can dress it up with swanky graphics, but the more you force the direction, the more complicated the rules or constrained the playfield, the less gamey it becomes. And eventually, no matter how exciting you make your presentation, everyone will just want to play Pacman.

Project Zomboid gets new interface!

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Project Zomboid | Posted on 14-04-2011

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These last couple of days we’ve been doing a fair bit of work replacing the placeholder UI we’ve had since the start (that we all hated), with something swankier and easier to use.

It’s work-in-progress, so there’s a few things not in the correct place or unlabelled – there’s no scroll buttons for the inventory or any indication of capacity for a start, but we thought you’d all like to see it anyway.

So here it is:

We’ve dropped the concept of literal left and right hands in favour of the more general main and secondary hand slots because otherwise things get a little confusing depending on whether you’re left or right handed.

The inventory panel swishes in from the left-hand side which means that there’s much less screen-space obstructed when running in lower resolutions. We’ve also tidied up the mechanic of actually transferring items between containers and your inventory so that there’s less clicking and dragging required.

You can also see the crafting panel here (currently without a title in its title bar). This is only on-screen during the actual crafting process, but we kept it as small as we could without it becoming cumbersome.

In a game where you need to scavenge for supplies pretty often, having a nice tactile and easy to use interface is of primary importance, so it was definitely something to improve before we go live with the demo taster version.

Please continue to discuss this (or anything else) in our forums, just as long as you don’t hate the new interface 😉

Project Zomboid words Will be dead good

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Project Zomboid | Posted on 08-04-2011

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Oh my, there’s at least two puns in that blog post title. That is why I should not have lead writing responsibilities on Project Zomboid. That is why we’re more than happy to hand all that over to the extremely amazing The Will Porter.

Yep, The Will Porter – of editor of PC Zone fame, various commercial games words fame, and some of the words from smashing Channel 4 series Skins fame.

”Swoon

You can follow him on Twitter @Batsphinx.

Plodding along…

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Project Zomboid | Posted on 07-04-2011

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Whoops, well we’ve not posted any updates for a few days now. There’s some structural stuff happening which, while essential and hugely beneficial to the game does not, alas, yield much in the way of exciting screenshots.

Some of this is engine-related – the game runs significantly faster now, uses less memory, and is generally about 400% more funkeriffic. Some of this is to do with character moods and mental states which, although it needs doing, will probably not feature in the demo unfortunately. Unless it does, of course. But it probably won’t.

Nickenstein’s also been beavering away with his fire code making it generally nicer, and slotting some updated graphics in. I could post a screenshot of that, but at the moment it looks pretty much the same as the last screenshot when in a static image 😉

Also, it’s his birthday today.

So anyhoo, I just wanted to say something about what’s going on. Hopefully there’ll be a new screenshot or two later on this week.

In the meantime, the splendid mmmicrophone – one of our active forum posters – has set up a Wiki for the game. There’s not much to see at the moment, but with any luck it will build into an awesome companion to Project Zomboid.

www.pzwiki.net

And finally, as always, please drop by our forums to get involved in the development.