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On Steam Workshop and ‘Premium’ Mods

I’m really not entirely sure how I feel about this – I have conflicting opinions so until the dust settles and we all see what happens, posts like this will just be full of vague thoughts based on what we know right now. On the one hand, I would hate to see terrific mod communities fragment...

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Even more (!) musing on Alpha-Funding

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Games, Project Zomboid, Useless Advice | Posted on 21-03-2016

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* Narrow-slice view of the industry incoming. I do not claim to speak for all (or most/many/any other/whatever) indie developers.

Before Minecraft invented/popularised alpha-funding as a viable way to make videogames, here is how you’d make an ambitious large-in-scope indie game:

  1. Make a small indie game in your spare time
  2. Repeat 1 until the pittance you earn from all these small indie games affords you some capital to invest in a larger project
  3. Make a slightly bigger indie game, pay someone to make the graphics swanky, spend some money on marketting
  4. Repeat 3 until you’ve got a pretty hefty chunk of profit or return to 1 if it was a commercial failure
  5. Gamble horribly, quit your job, pump all that money and a truck-load of time into your magnum opus, hope that Valve let you have it on Steam
  6. Profit, hopefully

You’d have to be pretty bonkers, really, to even go down the road of step 5. You’d be much better off just pumping out a tonne of smaller games and having the cumulative sales they generate sustain you and hopefully give you a reasonable standard of living.

But Alpha-Funding / Kickstarter (and then Early Access) changed that. It meant that step 1 could be the large-in-scope magnum opus. If you can get people interested in your project in its infancy, you can be sustained all through the game’s development. That almighty step 5 risk is hugely reduced (at the cost of putting a comparatively tiny amount of risk on a lot of individuals who support your game). It is simultaneously the most liberating and the most dangerous method of making videogames. It comes with costs far beyond the paltry sum that you are usually asked for to buy the thing early in development – costs which affect customers and developers alike.

Costs exclusively concerning customers

  1. The ambitious-sounding project may just end up being too ambitious. Game never gets finished, your £1 / £5 / £10 is effectively wasted
  2. The project may have been perfectly realistic in scope, but due to simply never managing to attract sufficient interest it is never finished, your £1 / £5 / £10 is effectively wasted
  3. The game may not end up being what you expected it to be, you consider your £1 / £5 / £10 to be wasted
  4. It places an impossible burden of responsibility onto the customer. While publishers have the experience to recognise a game design horribly out of touch with what is practical, or a tech-demo with terrible foundations, your average customer does not – yet they’re the ones who, when upset when things do not turn out as they expected, are shrugged off with the, “well you should have done better research” argument
  5. If you were expecting the game to get better in good faith, and it didn’t, you’ve probably already blown your chance of getting a refund (this applies less if you bought it on GOG, of course)

Costs which affect both customers and developers

  1. The game will eventually cease to have support / updates. There will be a large number of people who will be unhappy – regardless of how complete the developer considers the game to be at that point
  2. To excite people into giving you money at the point you’ve barely started is… difficult. Your project needs to stand out. There is huge danger here in inflating your game’s scope beyond ‘ambitious but do-able’ to ‘ambitious to the point of insanity’ in order to be noticed
  3. You need not demonstrate any ability to finish a game in order to attract the money to start one – unlike every single other way of getting funding. While there is no ethical problem with simply releasing a crap game, having it review terribly, and having those that buy it refund it within an hour – those ethics become questionable when you’re taking money for a project you cannot know that you can complete. A horribly misguided sense of ability can be endearing if you merely output awful games no-one buys, but there’s nothing endearing about misleading people into buying in to those delusions, intentionally or otherwise
  4. The skills required to pitch a concept fall far below the skills required to successfully create that concept. This development method enables those who both lack the skills to complete what they’ve pitched and also those skills required to recognise that they can’t complete what they’ve pitched. From a consumer perspective, these pitches are often indistinguishable from realistic pitches.

Costs exclusively concerning developers

  1. You’re potentially throwing away the chance to build-up your skills and experience slowly if your project ends as a high-profile disaster

 

Conclusion

 

I’m not suggesting, then, that no-one should make an alpha-funded game, or that our own game is some sort of shining beacon of this method. Alpha-funding, to us, was a necessity – and we considered our chances of finishing what we started to be pretty damn certain. But, of course, everyone who isn’t actually trying to pull-off deception would say that, but it doesn’t mean that we or they would ultimately be correct. I do think that, in general, those indie developers who create many smaller projects are the smart ones – all our eggs are currently in one basket and, while we’ve been successful with Zomboid in terms of sales, we were pretty lucky that the DayZ mod appeared shortly after we released our first build and ignited interest in the survival genre. Thanks Dean!

I also think critics can serve tremendous good in this context. We can’t expect an average gamer to be necessarily able to recognise the difference between those concepts likely to succeed and those likely to fail. Critics, however, are more familiar with games development and can distinguish between the two and spot-light the former. Kickstarter pitches often overlook including a “risks and challenges” section and sometimes when it is included exists in a sort of, “my greatest weakness is sometimes I care too much” way. I’d like to see more prominence of those articles which really look into early game builds / pitches in-depth.

More Thoughts on Game Criticism

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Games, Rants | Posted on 20-03-2016

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No game should be immune from criticism – let’s just get that point out there first so there’s no misunderstanding.

But this whole mess with Digital Homicide and Jim Sterling about which Mr Biffo has written a couple of excellent opinion pieces here and here got me thinking, especially the latter post. I’m not going to go into this particular debacle here, but rather the principle and to do that we need to travel back in time…

*wibbly post-production effect*

I started programming and pixel art (actually, let’s not call it ‘art’ – it was just ‘pixel’s) on the Commodore 64 which was, obviously, way pre-Internet. No-one really saw anything of what I produced except sometimes my parents (because I had to use my dad’s camera to take photos of the telly as you couldn’t save your work with the Koala Pad art software unless you had a disk-drive) and my brother. My earliest game attempts were terrible but, hey, I was only seven or eight. By the time I was in my mid-teens I regarded myself as pretty good in the old programming and graphics departments but still everything I made was shared only with people who were as good or worse than me at making it. School chums, etc. Obviously they’re gonna think the stuff you make is pretty neat – especially if they have no idea how on Earth you achieved it.

My very first exposure to actual real criticism was from a chap who came to my school to give a talk on the games industry. He was a professional pixel artist, having worked on actual real videogames – including the then newly-released Cybermorph on the Atari Jaguar – and his talk was incredibly inspirational. We got chatting and he invited me round his house to talk in more depth – it was an opportunity to see his work in more detail and to learn about how he produced it, and also an opportunity for me to show him my work.

I showed him a few bits and bobs, he really liked one or two pieces I’d made – my God that felt awesome – but then… oh dear… this one particular sprite animation…

“yeah, that’s complete shit”

I was crushed. I tried not to show it – I pretended to agree and possibly to pretend that actually I hadn’t spent very long on it. But he continued to talk and point out all the reasons why it was shit, and how lazy I had been in comparison to the other work I’d showed. He was right. It was lazy. It stung horribly at the time, but twenty two years later I still remember that moment vividly. It was probably the most critical moment in my games career. I needed to hear that – before I went to University, before I did any freelance work, before I got my first job in the games industry. And it needed to come from a man who I had considerable respect and admiration for.

Back to the present…

*wibbly post-production effect*

Now I acknowledge that I don’t exactly have a flawless track-record in handling internet abuse but that’s a slightly different issue. In terms of criticism, I’m fairly okay at handling that – and I’m convinced I’m a million times better at it than I would have been had I not met Ian Harling (for that was his name) as a youngster. How would I have reacted, though, if instead of the criticism coming from a guy in private who I looked up to as an example of what I wanted to do, who I wanted to be – if instead that criticism was public, scathing, relentless, and backed up with the fury of tens of thousands of their fans? It probably would’ve finished me, right there and then – before I’d even really got started.

The trouble with this kind of scathing and public criticism is, as Mr Biffo points out, that you don’t actually know who your target is. When terrible singers audition for X-Factor, we all laugh at their expense – but if they’re really young, we react differently. We tend to blame the parents for encouraging their kids into embarrassing themselves publicly. With Steam and the openness of Greenlight, any of these games which we’d regard as really rather awful could be the work of a young kid just starting out. I would definitely have put my early work on Steam had it been an option and, frankly, thank Christ it wasn’t.

A year or two back, pre-refund systems, it’s a slightly different story. It’s important for critics to serve gamers, steer them away from awful and over-priced games. But even then, there’s no real need to actually rip the thing to shreds for shits and giggles. You can be critical without being a merciless brute. But now? With refunds it’s not so big a deal. The targets now would be games which abuse the two-hour window, making the opening fantastic and then not giving a shit once that mark is hit. Spot-lighting those games serves gamers – spot-lighting games people would otherwise not have encountered and which, if they do, show themselves to be awful after a few minutes of gameplay does not.

Words like “scam” get bandied around an awful lot. But it’s not a scam to simply over-value your own work – everybody does that, especially those who are fairly new to games development. It’s extremely difficult to objectively gauge the value of your own work when you can’t separate your pride in your accomplishment (I made a game! OMG!) and the time, energy, and expense from that result. You get better at that as you gain more experience, but very few people are going to get it right first-time. That’s not a scam, it’s just inexperience. I wouldn’t expect an average game player with, perhaps, no real knowledge on videogame development to be tremendously good at making that distinction, of course. But I’d expect a professional critic to be able to or, if not, to at least criticise the quality in terms of the price rather than the skill of the developer. Even E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial on the Atari is worth at least 1p – no game, no matter how badly it plays, is utterly valueless.

Some Twaddle about VR

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Games, Rants | Posted on 16-03-2016

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I don’t want to get all pretentious and cite the vast array of literature I read so that I come across as some kind of intellectual, because to be honest I don’t read that sort of stuff and I’m not clever enough to fake it. Most of what I read is non-fiction sciencey stuff and the fiction is almost exclusively limited to Terry Pratchett, Isaac Asimov, and Douglas Adams on loop (with the occasional stop-gap of some Philip K. Dick). All those classics? Can’t be arsed, if I’m honest.

BUT, here’s the thing. Despite being a million miles away from the sort of arty pretentious arsehole who would shake their head at TV and computer games while spouting the virtues of literature, they do kinda have a point. Pretty much everyone who’s seen a screen adaptation of a favourite book regards the film version as worse. One of my all-time favourite films, John Carpenter’s The Thing is, if I’m completely honest with myself, not as good as John Campbell’s novella Who Goes There? despite the film having Kurt Russell in it. The best I can come up with as an exception to this is… hmmm… bear with me… uhhh… maaaaaybe Apocalypse Now! versus Conrad’s Heart of Darkness? I’ve never read Mario Puzo’s The Godfather but that seems like a good candidate too. But anyway, the point is that they’re few and far between and where they exist it’s probably because the book is very short, very old (with somewhat impenetrable language), the film is staggeringly well-made or adapts the source so far as to be almost unrecognisable. Outliers or cheats, in other words 😉

So, my point is, with all these advances in cinema – colour, widescreen, surround-sound, 3D, IMAX, etc. – the written word (such archaic technology!) continues to have the upper-hand. We often get more spectacle, whizz, and bang with films now but we still accept that there’s a distinction between Captain America and Moon and don’t pretend that the former is the better film because explosions.

This is why the current trend of VR slightly baffles me. I get the spectacle aspect, I get the fact that it could open up new gameplay possibilities, the immersion. But despite there being some terrific advances in visuals, sound, writing, and design in modern videogames none of them have had the sort of effect on me that reading Alistair MacLean’s H.M.S. Ulysses did. I recently completed Remember Me which, all in all, I thought was rather good. The gameplay was simplistic but the world design was fabulous and, despite the whole story revolving around an incident which I didn’t find to be enough to justify the events, I really liked that the story was ultimately very personal – the wider implications pushed into the background kind of like a small independent film. It could have made for a great short story in a science-fiction magasine. I was fairly immersed in that world, despite not having 3D beamed into my eye sockets because immersion has, ultimately, absolutely nothing to do with the way something is presented to you or is interacted with – it’s entirely to do with selling your brain a believable world containing believable characters who you can empathise with and root for. There are extremely few videogames that I could say that about, so popping a headset on seems to me like trying to solve that delicate problem with a hammer. If we can’t immerse you through story and events then, here, pop this headset on and we’ll fix it with technology instead. Meanwhile, books continue to solve that with nothing more than some ink and paper. They must think we’re right idiots.

None of this means that I regard myself as immune to the spectacle, of course. Give me a 3D headset and I’ll be as wowed as the next person. But I have real trouble imagining myself using a headset as the primary way to play a videogame – to me, it’s a staggeringly expensive theme-park ride, something you hugely enjoy only very occasionally. But for £500+ I would expect more than that. But if we haven’t yet nailed immersion using conventional displays with any sort of consistency, why would we expect it to be any better in 3D? And those rare outlier developers who can pull it off, why would we expect them to be the ones to pioneer VR games when they already have the skills to accomplish it? Did anyone expect Quentin Tarantino to jump at the chance to make a film in 3D?

edit: I realise that games are not films (except an awful lot of them try to be), but my point is why not have a peruse of the various lineups of VR games and ask yourself, “how many of these games are offering experiences which would be impossible without VR, and how many of them are using VR as “free” immersion?”. Surely if VR were the game-changer it’s talked about as, should we not reasonably expect the emphasis to be on the former?

TLDR; It’s not the quality of games, the technical innovation, or the quality of experience I doubt or take issue with – it’s the hyperbole 😉