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When game development goes right

Okay, so that game I mentioned before that sold about three copies in Germany? That was a bit of an understatement. Truth be told, I have absolutely no idea how well it did overall except to say that you’d be hard-pushed to find any real information about it on the Internet. If you can recognise...

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“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.

The Framerate Police

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Games, Rants | Posted on 16-07-2015

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I’m taking this rant to my blog because I don’t want to clog up my entire Twitter feed with this. As I’m sure you’re all aware, the Steam Curator “The Framerate Police” now exists – courtesy of The Cynical Brit aka TotalBiscuit. The group highlights those games frame-capped to 30fps, providing snippets of how to unlock that cap if possible for each game.

There has been backlash to this, let me remind you, opt-in curator. In other words, a curator that you never need know exist unless you particularly wanted to follow it. I know, right? What’s the problem?

The problems, that I have seen to date, basically boil down to one or more of the following:

1) I don’t like TotalBiscuit, so pretty much any opportunity to criticise him is an opportunity I’m going to take

[insert ‘rolleyes’ emoticon]

2) A Steam Curator is not the right place for this

This argument has legs. Steam Curation is really about providing recommendations rather than be a list of things to avoid. Using curation in this way is rather like giving a sarcastic “thumbs up” user review. It might be funny but, at the end of the day, you are contributing to the positive user score of the game which defeats the whole point of the system.

That said, the problem with Steam is there isn’t really a better alternative for flagging games for things like frame-rate caps. A tag seems a better solution but, as has been reported, certain tags (such as 30fps, or FOV-lock related tags) are prohibited so it’s not an option. Valve want tags used for a particular function – genre information etc – and that’s their prerogative.

Others have suggested reviews or guides – but using guides is only really applicable if there is a fix, a guide simply saying “this game is locked to 30fps and there’s nothing you can do about it” is hardly a “guide” to anything. It’s as much an abuse of the concept as plopping it into a tag or curator group. It would be useful information to provide in a review, but unless that review becomes the most popular review for the game, it’s not likely to get much visibility and therefore its usefulness in informing potential customers is essentially zero.

So, within Steam, all of these available options are bad fits. But a curation group is the least bad fit and the simplest to manage given that you’re going to need to be flagging a significant number of games.

3) Who gives a shit that games (particularly old ones or little 2D indie games) are locked to 30fps? Jesus. Come on, there’s LOADS of reasons why they might be locked

Yeah, there are loads of reasons why a game might be locked to 30fps. Here are some examples: Time constraints, manpower, budget, technology at that time. It’s not laziness in almost all cases. But those reasons are utterly irrelevant if you, personally, find that low frame rates make you nauseous, hurt your eyes, or are simply aesthetically distracting. That the game came out in 1992 makes no difference to you – you can understand why it’s the case, but that isn’t going to help your eyes stop bleeding.

If this is the situation you are in, then a group highlighting this information for you is tremendously useful – and while you could take this information to a Wiki, having pertinent information live actually inside the store client is the single most convenient place for it to be for you.

4) It’s implying that 30fps is BAD, sets a precedent or something, potentially harms developers.

No it doesn’t. This is a particular aspect of the group that I think TotalBiscuit has done really well. The games are presented without comment or opinion. It’s simply stated that the game is frame locked, and a work-around provided if possible. It’s just facts, intended for those who are bothered by this stuff. It’s not presented in a “name and shame” manner at all.

The only possible argument along these lines is with the use of the name, “The Framerate Police”, which if you’re going to massively over-analyze three words could be argued implies (by the nature of policing) that there is something “wrong” about those games flagged. Maybe a title a little more neutral would have been a better choice but it’s hardly something to hinge an entire argument on.

5) It would be better to highlight 60fps than 30fps. Take a positive approach, rather than negative

There’s something like 8000+ games on Steam. I don’t know how many of those are frame-rate limited and how many have variable settings or a 60fps lock. In my mind, whichever circumstance is the exception rather than the rule – that’s the set to flag, if for no other reason than making it a more manageable task and making the list somewhat perusable. If there are 7000 frame unlimited games and 1000 30fps games, I’d rather see the list of the latter.

Now I definitely haven’t tried to count, but given that TotalBiscuit is the one who has given himself this task I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt that he’s picked a method which is manageable.

6) It does not require pointing out that the original Tomb Raider (for example) which was released in 1997 is locked to 30fps

Er, yes it does – because of a “flaw” in Steam:

TombRaider

Steam often shows the “release date” in terms of the date it was released on Steam, not the date it was originally released. You may not have been born in 1997, and some ignorance in terms of what technology was like then, what frame rate was normal, exactly what year the game came out would be expected. Yes, those of us who have been involved in the videogame industry, or consumers of videogames since the 80s obviously know. Some kid born post 2000? How on Earth is he or she supposed to know? Perhaps their first introduction to the series was the reboot. They would have missed all those Lucozade commercials, after all.

7) I used to play [game name] on an [old spec PC] back in [date] and didn’t give [n] shits about frame rate

How nice. And?

Conclusion

Nobody on the planet would question why it’s important to have configurable controls. Perhaps squeezing the trigger for acceleration is difficult for you because you have a slightly arthritic index finger, or no index finger, or no right hand at all. Some games, for whatever reason, don’t have configurable control schemes or are configurable in a limited way which is insufficient for you. It would be quite nice to have a list pointing out such games with methods to tweak the controls manually if possible, right?

Right. Because we can all easily imagine what circumstances would make configurable controls important – circumstances ranging all the way from physical disabilities to merely having slightly too big or small hands, or being left-handed. Change that, though, to an issue with the human eye – a subtle difference which makes low frame rates a little unpleasant for you? It’s a laughable problem, deal with it, idiot. It’s utterly lacking empathy because, personally, you just can’t imagine well enough that it might conceivably be a problem for some people. Maybe some of the 30fps haters are just whiny haters. Maybe most of them are. But maybe there’s a bunch of genuine issues in there, even if they’re hard issues to imagine. How about we give people the benefit of the doubt, yeah?