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Professionalism and Indies v2.0

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Games, Stuff | Posted on 08-01-2013

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Please don’t read the other one. It’s out of date. I was hoping that it would have slipped off the first page by now (I wrote it over a year ago) but, unfortunately, my blog post output is not nearly high enough. I could have deleted it I suppose, but then that seemed a bit disrespectful to the people who commented. So instead I’d like to update it with some things I’ve learned:

  1. Don’t write a blog post while whatever it is that fuelled the post is still incredibly raw
  2. Always start an argument by defining your terms

This second point I learned after listening to the Cynical Brit Mailbox episode where I got utterly berated. What he does in his argument, is start off by defining what he means by the term “professional” and then metaphorically punching me in the face with it. But to the best of my understanding, we almost entirely agree – it’s just we differ in terms of what we mean when we say “professional”.

So. This is what I should have said over a year ago:

For me, acting professionally, has nothing to do with business practises – ways of handling money, methods of work, all the stuff connected with actually developing the game. All those things are a given – you’d have to be utterly insane to suggest that it is not important to back up your data off-site, for example. When I say that it’s okay for indies to act unprofessionally, I am not in any way suggesting that it’s okay for them to take your money, then throw their half-finished game in the bin and run off to Spain.

What I mean is, that it’s okay for an indie to act like a human. To me, acting professionally is to stand there smiling while somebody tells you to your face that they hate you, your work, and they hope you die in a horrible accident. Professionals have to act like this because they have a boss, or shareholders – they are not personally in a position to determine the way that the company interacts with their customers – either the nice ones, or the ones who’d turn up at the door to spit in their face.

You’d have a point that so far as “official” responses go, things should be nice and polite regardless. If you sent an angry email to info@indiedeveloper.com and then got a reply back calling you a twat, you’d have a pretty rock-solid argument. But Twitter is different – it’s an ‘always on’ environment and one in which there is no ‘leaving work at 5pm’. To say that somebody must always act a certain way on their personal Twitter accounts is to suggest that unlike almost all other people on the planet, certain people are never permitted to leave work – or, at the very least, must maintain a private account and be extremely cautious about who they allow access. Which would not only suck, but pretty much defeats the whole point of Twitter.

Consider the way Bioware’s Aaryn Flynn responded on Twitter to the horrific abuse thrown at writer Jennifer Hepler:

Source

Unprofessional behaviour? Sure. Understandable behaviour? Yeah, I’m kind of with Aaryn on this (apart from his use of the term ‘Flynnsanity’ – ghastly) – I have no idea what happened afterwards, whether he was reprimanded or secretly applauded but I rather suspect that it didn’t go down entirely well with those which held the coin purses.

But this sort of thing is all that I personally mean when I talk of professionalism. You’re entitled to think that while maybe understandable, Aaryn Flynn’s response was shocking and appalling and I can’t argue with that at all. You might be right. But to me, he acted in a very human way and my respect for him shot up considerably. I like it when people act like people instead of machines and this is why I like the indie games scene so much – because developers are all vocal about the things they believe without having to worry about what their boss or their publisher might think.

I’m in no way comparing the events of what happened with us with the vile abuse towards Hepler, by the way. I will say that some of the comments which sparked the whole thing off were a lot worse than you’d probably think, though. The trouble with these sorts of things is, much like that image of Flynn’s Twitter timeline above, people only tend to capture the reaction and not comments which triggered the reactions – which makes it awfully difficult to decide with certainty whether the response was justified or not.

We all disagree on stuff, we all draw our own lines in the sand – have our own boundaries. It’s up to you to decide which developers (if any) you like and/or respect and which you don’t. I regret most of what happened with us and the damage done to good will. But I stand by the principle that it should not be a requirement that small indie developers should just stand there and smile while somebody smears faeces over their face.

Yeesh. Believe it or not, I was intending for this blog post to be relatively up-beat. I’ll end with a joke.

A man with a long face walks into a bar. The barman asks, “why the horse?”. Shit. That’s not right. A spirit drifts into a bar and the barman says, “we don’t serve ghosts here”. Ah forget it.

Are Games Art?

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Utterly Pointless Questions | Posted on 07-01-2013

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Short Answer: Who cares?

Longer Answer: Actually, the short answer pretty much covers it.

This question has been discussed an obscene number of times and will probably continue to be forever. A noteable person in some vaguely related field will exclaim that games can never be art for some half-baked reasons which only really make any sense if your only exposure to games is some vague sense that you can lop people’s heads off and steal cars in them. Then the internet will burst with fiery indignation before everyone forgets about it for another couple of months again.

For a fabulous example of the ridiculousness of the debate have a read of Sophie Houlden’s humourously written rebuttal.

Art is defined as, “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture” and “works produced by such skill and imagination”. Well, that pretty much leaves it open for anything to be art, and ‘art’ as a term therefore is even more useless than ‘indie’ (good grief, I’m going crazy with these hyperlinks). ‘Skill’ and ‘imagination’ are pretty whoppingly hazy things to rest the entire debate on, though, since… well… this:

_55420126_bricksArt, apparently

Skill? It’s certainly uniform – all the bricks appear to be correctly placed. Imagination? Er… well… it’s imaginatively lame, I guess. Place this particular piece of art out in the street and it instantly becomes a pavement and therefore without any artistic merit what-so-ever. The fun in stuff like this is reading the bizarre way it’s justified as somehow being much more thought-provoking than it actually is. Behold:

“The sensation of these pieces was that they come above your ankles, as if you were wading in bricks”, Andre has commented. “It was like stepping from water of one depth to water of another depth.” (from the display caption)

Yeah, whatever you say. They’re bricks. This, is why games are not considered art. It’s because developers don’t come up with a bunch of bollocks to explain their games (apart from maybe Catherine – yeesh). And more to the point, nobody has the authority to decide one way or the other anyway. You think those bricks are art? Good for you. You think your five year old’s finger painting is art? Knock yourself out. It’s subjective, isn’t that the whole bloody point?

Oh dear. I’ve potentially just opened a can of worms there with objective vs subjective art. Well tough. You’d be hard-pressed to find anything which can really be said to be objectively true let alone whether something is art. Is that statement objectively true? Ask a philosopher. The point is, you can say that a drawing of a mouse is bad art if it’s got too many legs and wonky ears if you like, but it’s not necessarily objectively so. The artist may have produced the mouse to make us question the nature of mousiness. You can only claim something is bad if it falls short of the intent. Lowry’s matchstick men are incorrectly proportioned – if we were to assume that he was actually attempting photorealism then his paintings would be laughable.

Step away from the visual side of things and everything gets even more fun. Is gameplay art? A boardgame? Chess? Say we unanimously decided right now that all of these things are indeed art, what happens? What difference does it make?

Short Answer: None. This is a pointless discussion – I’ve just wasted my time and yours.

The Problem I Have With Touch Controls

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Stuff | Posted on 03-01-2013

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Few things irritate me more than failing to follow standard interface conventions. There are tremendously good reasons for these standards existing – I should be able to grab the mouse and immediately get to work without weird things happening, forcing me to trawl through the help pages.

Consider something like 3D Studio Max. It’s a 3D program – functionally it could not be further away from a Word Processing application and yet consider how the mouse actions work:

Left Click: Select an object for interaction as you would place the insertion point for interaction

Left Click & Drag: Select objects as you would select words

Right Click: Context-sensitive menu as in everything

Mouse Wheel Scroll: Zoom in and out, as you would scroll the document up and down

Middle Mouse Click & Drag: Pan the viewport as you would scroll the window

In the same way, there are certain conventions used with gamepads – ‘A’ should ‘accept’ and ‘B’ should be ‘back’ and while obviously all controls should be customisable (you may have physical reasons why using your index finger for accelerate is not ideal), that out of the box similar driving games should use similar controls is sensible.

There is, of course, room to move – not every game has the same requirements. But you’d be mad to decide that, really, the camera should be operated using the left thumb stick with movement handled on the right for… well, no real reason really – just the designer happens to prefer it that way round.

Gamepads are designed with these conventions in mind. Some buttons are nice springy analogue triggers because these are the buttons located in the sensible place for actions which require sensitive analogue control. Attempting to use a button designed for digital use (like the face A, B, X, Y type buttons) for sensitive acceleration is almost always completely awful.

So, it’s taken many console generations. But we have finally arrived at something approaching a sensible generic controller design which it is possible to assign sensible control standards to.

HOORAY! LET’S THROW IT ALL AWAY! WOOOOO!

It seems that the controller is perceived as a barrier to the sort of mass-market person essential to get if you want to take gaming to the masses. No, we must instead develop a more intuitive control system like pointing a wand or waving our arms around like lunatics. But none of these control systems are particularly intuitive either – you still need to learn how to interact with them but the point is, having learned for one game then intuition can take over for every other game.

But now that control schemes with controllers are reasonably standardised, the same applies to conventionally controlled games too. Hand my mum one FPS game, and after being thrilled blowing the heads off civilians she can move onto blowing the heads of slightly different civilians in another game without many barriers. At least in theory. Assuming sensible control decisions were made.

So. Touch controls.

If I pick up my phone right now, and attempt to interact with an e-mail application – it’s pretty obvious how it will work. Flick up and down to scroll the messages. Click and swipe to the side to pan between the various windows. There are guidelines for all these sorts of things in tremendous depth because it’s important that applications on a phone behave consistently.

What about a game? How should that be controlled? Should you draw some buttons on the screen and have me press them? Should I click and drag the main character around directly while simultaneously obscuring it with my finger? Should I swipe gestures to get it to do stuff? Bollocksed if I know – there’s no good standard because there’s a bazillion ways to make a game for a touch screen, and only a touch screen to control them with.

You can argue that it is this very freedom which makes developing games for phones so exciting. I’d argue that it’s not tremendously “free” when you’re basically attempting to design the least awful way of interacting on a device that’s clearly not designed to do these sorts of games. It’s kind of like playing Gianna Sisters using a joystick as opposed to playing Mario on a SNES controller. You can certainly argue that Gianna Sisters was brilliant (it was), but you’d be mad to say that playing Mario on a SNES pad wasn’t better.

I once made a pinball game for the Palm III. It worked pretty well since pinball only requires two buttons (plus one for tilt) which need to be on the left and right. That’s great, but you still need to tell the user that they need to press “Calendar” for the left flipper and “Memo” for the right. It’s stupid, but that’s what happens when you take a personal organiser and whack a game on it.

The closer your game matches the purpose the device was designed for, the better. Make a game for a touch device which is menu driven – like some sort of management game – and those highly developed and tuned standards come out to play in force and you end up with something that anyone can pick up and immediately feels right.

There is, however, almost bound to be an unexpected genre that’s the perfect fit for touch controls – nobody designed the keyboard and mouse with the idea of developing something which 30 years or more later would turn out to be brilliant for shooting civilians in the face, after all.