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On difficulty in Videogames

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Games, Rants | Posted on 03-10-2017



Okay, here’s an argument which pops up all the time which I completely reject:

Do we have some arbitrary test in the middle of a movie which locks you out from seeing the end if you don’t pass? No. So why should these barriers exist in videogames?

Replace “movie” with “book”, “album”, whatever other medium you wish. I reject this almost entirely though – almost because I can, at least, appreciate the sentiment behind it – because, fundamentally, videogames are utterly unlike any of those things. You may as well replace the word “movie” with “brick”. Yes, there are many similarities too – videogames share commonality with movies often in terms of narrative, storytelling, etc. But your framework is entirely out of whack when you’re comparing passive experiences with active ones. It’d be more appropriate (but also far from perfect) to compare videogames to sports activities – would we criticise playing football in terms of not everyone getting the same out of the activity? Some people score more goals than others, many people regularly lose. Okay okay, football is a team game and many games are single-player, but almost all games share with sports the principles of having a playfield, a set of rules, and a goal to accomplish. Not so with movies, books, or going to a concert and this alone separates videogames from those by a mighty canyon. For heaven’s sake, that difference is fundamental to what makes videogames so unique, interesting, and varied.

The problem, to me, really just comes down to the progress made technically with videogames. Because it’s now possible to deliver high-fidelity visuals, oftentimes employing actors who also work in film, we’ve confused the two media. Games look a lot like films now, so they must act a lot like films too. No. No – no – no. They can, but they should do no such thing.

The only thing a game should do, is be effective in providing the experience intended regardless of what that experience is. You might find a game good or bad accordingly – to your taste or otherwise. It’s no more wrong to design your game to be challenging as it is to design your game to be easy. One may appeal to you and the other may not. But just because the game has a story does not mean that the game is designed for people to be able to simply passively enjoy it – that the story is just some oil in the water of gameplay that we can extract and allow to be enjoyed in isolation. That those things aren’t fundamentally and inexorably interwoven. If they aren’t, you’re probably looking at a badly designed videogame.

If you do want to design your game to be like that, I won’t criticise that either. You do what you want, whatever you think best. I’ll support your right to navigate your way through the ocean of design possibilities in whichever way you choose. Some ways may be more profitable than others, appeal to a more mainstream audience. Whatever. Make your decision based on whatever criteria you choose – who am I to tell you you’re wrong?

Retrospective: Sleeping Dogs

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Games | Posted on 08-06-2017


Sleeping Dogs is a flupping excellent game but also a frustrating one – not because any of the gameplay mechanics are frustrating but because of what it almost is. It’s tantalisingly close to being an interactive and authentic Hong Kong martial arts movie. Instead, it comes across like a Hollywood attempt at a martial arts movie – an incredibly good attempt but still a facsimile rather than the real-deal.

The first alarm bell in this regard is the English-only audio. Yeah there’s a token gesture of Cantonese in there – a few characters switch into Cantonese for the odd word or phrase and a couple of characters speak exclusively in Cantonese, but it very much feels the wrong way around. To be fair I’m fairly ignorant about Hong Kong culture and, depending on the exact year in which the game is set, it’s possible that English was more routinely spoken than I think – particularly amongst the police force. But even were that to be the case it still feels to me that Cantonese would’ve been the more appropriate language for the setting to make it feel authentic for those of us who don’t live in Hong Kong and have only seen the movies on which it draws.

The combat feels good – focusing almost exclusively on hand-to-hand feels right, and some of the moves evoke that feeling of playing a martial arts movie. But it’s sporadic – mostly it feels like brawling. Perhaps that’s more realistic, but it doesn’t feel like anything Bruce Lee would have done – and when you have his jumpsuit from Game of Death in there, I feel that you have to do more to earn its presence than just pressing the ‘counter’ button at the right time or doing the occasional roundhouse kick.

This is highlighted by the way that you unlock martial arts skills, each unlocked by collecting one of the twelve jade statues representing the Chinese zodiac and then returning them to your old master. The setting evokes something like Fist of Fury. You practise the particular move you’ve unlocked against one of his students, but then it culminates with a now-beat-the-shit-out-of-all-the-students sequence where the whole thing descends into brawling again. It is not this, basically. To me, the combat should’ve been a bit more controlled and refined even if that breaks from realism – more of a dance than a fight – and a lot more use of environment props than simply slamming someone’s face into a circuit breaker or tossing them into a dustbin. Again, don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that it’s not satisfying and solid combat – it is – it’s just a frustratingly watered-down version of Hong Kong martial arts. Yes I know that linking and comparing to a Bruce Lee movie is a ridiculously high benchmark but there you go 😉

I should mention that there are ways to play the game which are a bit more martial artsy. There’s a lock on mechanic using which you can then press the directional keys to attack those to your side and behind – creating something like those moments where our protagonist fends off four people at once. Bruce Lee would’ve sometimes done it using nunchuks or whatever you call what is, essentially, a long wooden stick of course. But it sort of works except, ultimately, just pressing the counter button at the appropriate time remained the most effective fighting strategy. Picking up a weapon such as a knife just grants brutally chop up the enemies moves rather than anything with any finesse. Consider how Yakuza 0 deals with weapons – each has what is essentially a finishing move executed with style, brutality and, often, humour. Or the range of moves available to Goro with a baseball bat (an entire fighting style is dedicated to it) and a lot of his attacks parody playing actual baseball. One of the moves you can unlock in Sleeping Dogs “makes your opponents wince”. Pretty much all of the moves in Yakuza 0 made me wince – a consequence of the presentation not a pre-defined effect of the move.

If I judge it purely as a Western take on Hong Kong martial arts I’d have to say that it’s magnificent – it was, after all, developed by a Canadian company. But I’m reminded so very much of the Yakuza series and how much more authentic that feels despite sporadic levels of whackiness of a level such that it’s somewhat baffling how it can possibly work as a cohesive whole (which it does). A lot of this is achieved by an absolutely outstanding cast of voice actors and characters – I don’t speak Japanese so I can’t judge the quality of acting but it sounds flupping fantastic to my ignorant ears. Yakuza 0 does a glorious job of introducing a fairly wide array of main villains and giving them each a distinctive personality such that you can’t help but like a few of them despite them being hell-bent on murdering you in unimaginably horrible ways.

Sleeping Dogs, on the other hand, has a protagonist who’s delivery of lines you’d describe at best to be… fine? He’s essentially Generic McGangster outside of fights – aside from a few repeats of previous dialogue in what is supposed to indicate him being haunted by his actions. An examination into what happens when an undercover cop gets too undercover, this is not. Nor are any of the characters particularly sympathetic. There’s no Al Pacino and Johnny Depp in Donnie Brasco dynamic, just a plot line where within the first five seconds you know that at some point that British police chief guy is clearly going to be the Big Bad Corrupt.

Perhaps you could argue that the game isn’t trying to be a martial arts movie – Bruce Lee never shot out the wheels of another vehicle during a high-speed car-chase, after all, or leaped from one speeding car onto the roof of another for that matter. So maybe it’s really an action undercover-cop movie which just borrows some themes here and there given its setting. And perhaps that’s the correct way to look at it. That’s not the impression the game left me with though, rightly or wrongly.

Really, it’s horribly unfair of me to be this critical of the game – judging it for what I feel it isn’t as opposed to what it is. After all, the Yukuza series has had six games to refine its formula and Sleeping Dogs just the one. I would’ve loved to have seen where it would have gone from here – the game proves I’m very much in the market for an open world Hong Kong martial arts game complete with Triads, corrupt police, and all of that jazz. Alas United Front Games doesn’t exist any more so we’ll never know what the series might have become. It’s such a shame. And when all is said and done, regardless of my issues with the game, what it is remains a tremendous addition to the open-world genre, justifiably meriting existing alongside GTA, Yakuza, and Saints Row.

Sleeping Dogs: Definitive Edition is available on Steam for £19.99 and well worth that, in my opinion.

Prey is the best game I’ve played this year

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Games | Posted on 09-05-2017


…and I’ve played Persona 5 and Yakuza 0 (loved them both, obv)

But gosh do I love me a good sci-fi story. I don’t need some massive, sprawling epic. What I like in my sci-fi stories is a central idea which makes you go, “woo!”. This is why I favour collections of short stories over multi-book epics – they don’t have time to get bogged down – they present their premise, run with it, and it’s over leaving you to ponder it for months to come. There are exceptions – I loved the entire of Asimov’s Foundation series including the bits which don’t have the name “Foundation” written on them. In fact, it’s those bits which are my favourites. But beyond the first book, I found Dune to basically run horribly off the rails and turn into a bit of a mess and Altered Carbon should’ve just been a single book, no sequels. Don’t hate me.

And this is Prey in a nutshell. It’s like one of these tremendous short-stories made into a videogame that, as icing on the cake, also happens to have some really compelling gameplay, visuals, and level design. I won’t spoil the events because I strongly recommend the game if you’re even vaguely into good sci-fi and prefer the more thoughtful slower FPS than the run-in-guns-ablazing type. It’s basically System Shock, mixed with Bioshock, mixed with a little bit of Alien Isolation with a teaspoon of Portal for good measure. So, in a sense, it’s quite formulaic – nothing about the gameplay is terribly novel or unique, but it’s all implemented perfectly. There are genuinely multiple approaches to the game – but they’re much more freeform than picking route A or B.

My strategy of choice was plonking down a turret and hiding, letting it do its thing, picking it up before it got too hurt, running away and hiding, before rinsing and repeating (gotta save those repair items – no sense letting a turret get needlessly damaged). I finished the game with over 1000 rounds of ammo each for two guns of which I never fired a single shot – one was a stun gun, the other the closest the game gets to a super-gun. Didn’t need them – I had turrets 😀

I adore the design of the station itself, and the way everything feels believably connected. You’re still going through loading screens – each of these areas is, essentially, a level like any other game. But the way its designed, it doesn’t feel like that. It feels like one big solid thing, where all these areas are genuinely connected to one another. It’s solid, it becomes familiar, it feels like it genuinely could exist and that when you see it from the exterior, all those levels and rooms within them are actually there. There are no PUZZLE SEQUENCES, there’s just puzzles interwoven neatly into the level design. I can’t get through that door, but maybe I can get around it, or find another way through it, or think about who is most likely to have access to it. Or just ignore it. Whatever, it’s your choice – the game’s entire purpose is in letting you play it how you want to.

Also the sound design is flupping marvellous (apart from the – I assume – bug where voice recordings would play too quietly so I had to pay attention to the subtitles). On that note, yeah, there were a few bugs. A few bodies fell through the floor and I’m pretty sure my inability to complete one minor sidequest was bug-related. Nothing game-breaking for me, though, so nothing beyond forgivable little blemishes on an otherwise flawlessly executed concept…

Because, above all else, the way the story has been designed and woven into the fabric of the game is, I would argue, approaching genius. Everything makes sense within the context of the game – and I mean everything. Perfectly. I’ll explain fully after you’ve played it (although I won’t have to at that point).

I may have built this up too much now but, crikey, it was good. It could have all been horribly cliché – and this is what impresses me so much about the game and Arkane Studios. Take a basic idea that, in someone else’s hands, could easily be b-movie schlock and elevate it. And then elevate it some more. And some more. And now it’s my Game of the Year.

If you want another opinion I recommend John Walker’s piece over at RPS of which I agree with most except, especially, the bit about hating the ending which I can’t wrap my head around at all 😀

Additional: My thoughts on the ending (so HUUUUUGE spoilers – absolutely do not click that link if you’re yet to complete it, not joking)

Wot I Would Do With Steam Post-Greenlight

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Games | Posted on 14-02-2017


Firstly, I think Steam is terrific. It’s flupping awesome that we’ve got our game on there at all, so really, as far as I’m concerned Valve can do whatever the hell they want with their own store. However, since everyone is giving opinions on this, I’m gonna chime in too.

Valve clearly have no intention to ever return to a more curated approach. This means that the only guaranteed way of solving the problem of waste-of-space games (not games which you, personally, consider crap but those which aren’t even attempting to make something decent) is off the table. If the reason Valve don’t want to curate is  because of the huge expense in doing so, then I suggest raising their cut by 1% and using the vast income that would generate to fund it.

In terms of Steam Direct – a “please provide some paperwork to prove you’re legit, and also please provide a recuperable amount of money up-front” system –  I would suggest a sliding-scale as opposed to a flat fee. The current Greenlight fee is $100 which you don’t get back. My sliding-scale, for simplicity, I would describe as this:

Take the amount you intend to charge for your game, and pop two zeroes on the end of it.

So if you want to sell the game for $1, the fee is $100. If you sell the game for $10, it’s a $1000 fee. If you’re taking the piss and selling your game for $100, it’s $10,000 – suck it (maybe this’ll help people reconsider their high-tier “alpha access” Kickstarter rewards, eh?). Remembering that this is recuperable. So the less you charge, the less you have to do to make your money back.

I’m not suggesting those figures literally – I actually think $500 is a bit pricey for a $5 game – what I’m proposing is a linear scale of fees but it was simpler to explain that with the two-zeroes approach than having to draw a graph.

On top of that, I would add in an automated system which can reduce that amount. Have games on Steam already? Take the number of positively reviewed games, subtract the number of negatively reviewed games, if the result is greater than zero halve the fee. Boom. Done.

Will this solve the problem? Nope. Only human eyes on the game can do that (see paragraph 2).


edit: Gonna put a bit at the end here, because so much about what I read about Steam is negative – pulling at all the things it does badly from various perspectives. Now, if you’re a customer – sure, complain about whatever you like. After all, the purpose of a store is to serve its customers, primarily, since they want to sell stuff to you as effectively as possible. From a developer’s perspective, though, Steam really is terrific. Like, properly this-totally-justifies-the-cut-they-take-and-then-some terrific. They don’t get enough support from devs for this, in my most humblest of opinions. Sure, sometimes there’s a wobble or two – Greenlight may not have worked perfectly as intended, but let’s not forget that prior to Greenlight we almost certainly would not have had our games on Steam at all. Yeah sure, indie games blah blah blah important. But indie games, on average, make bollocks all money. Take away the outliers and we’re talking about an entirely irrelevant set of games from a financial point of view from Valve’s perspective. They could have entirely ignored indie games and the effect on their profits would’ve been minute. But they didn’t, they gave us Greenlight, they’re giving us Steam Direct, they’ve given us curators and Discovery and more chances than our financial success deserves to get visibility within that ocean of games available. Flupping well thankyou, Valve, from the very bottom of my heart – please take your cut from our sales with our deepest gratitude.

Stupidly Simple World Lighting

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Games | Posted on 30-04-2016



Whenever I write little side 3D projects, at some point I have to decide how the hell I’m going to write my world lighting. For daft little side projects, I generally can’t be arsed to write some proper lightmap solution because that complicates your object instancing since you require each object to have a unique set of texture co-ordinates into your computed lightmap and, moreover, you have to actually compute the lightmap. Doing all your lighting in the shader by passing a big array of light positions in works, but is hardly the most efficient of solutions – particularly if most of the lights never move or change colour. And if you want to have a lot of light in your scene, you have to start worrying about quadtrees or some other way of organising the data so you don’t have to pass in and calculate lighting for all the lights which don’t actually contribute anything to the object you’re drawing. Ugh. It’s one thing after another slowing your progress of “I just want to play around with [whatever the thing you want to play around with is]”.

So I came up with a solution which, if I dare say so myself, produces fairly nice lighting (along with some other benefits) in the world’s most ridiculously simple way imaginable. I don’t claim to have invented this because I’d imagine that back before graphics cards were bonkersly powerful, solutions similar to this were possibly fairly common. I don’t know – all I know is that if it’s been done before it’s coincidence and because the results are cheap and effective. But I wanted to write this post to make the point that nice lighting doesn’t have to mean using Unreal – nice (if simple) results can be achieved using cheap and easy effects which are both fun and interesting to write, and potentially result in a distinctive and interesting look for your game.

Before I get into how I did it, here’s an image of the results so you can judge for yourself how it looks:


The little coloured cubes represent the lights

A couple of things to note:

  1. There’s a kind of ambient occlusion effect going on where the walls hit the ground, and where there’s a corner of a wall
  2. Light bleeds in through the window and door frames
  3. All the objects (every wall segment etc) are literal instances – they have no unique parameters beyond their world matrix
  4. The lighting isn’t actually correct – but it doesn’t (at least to me) look obviously incorrect
  5. This is designed for tile/grid-based games
  6. There are further things I would do to hide the way it works that I haven’t applied here because that’s a) extra homework on your part and b) I wanted this to be a fair test – can you predict the method with all the clues on show above?

Because I know how I wrote this, to me it’s flupping obvious how this works simply by looking at the screenshot above. However in a sample of one programmer, they were not able to guess the technique since they were deceived by the what-appears-to-be-something-like-ambient-occlusion and the light bleeding into presuming it was more complicated than it is.

So, anyway, this is what I’m doing.

Firstly, this is actually a lightmap. It’s just a ludicrously simple lightmap. Here is what it looks like:


Yep, that’s it. It’s one pixel per tile, and it generates that by simply rattling through the list of scene lights and adding the amount that light contributes to the pixel. The lights have a radius, so if the light’s radius is 5 tiles, you only need to update an 11×11 set of pixels for that light which is hardly the slowest thing on the planet. This can all be done on level load in a fraction of a second until you need to animate a light or two – in which case you just need to subtract the light values from that 11×11 (for example) region and then add the light values to a different region. If I really wanted, I could do this on the graphics card by stamping tiny light blob textures down on a render target – but when the lightmap is this small, it didn’t seem necessary. The final pass is stamping over the lightmap a precomputed image where all exterior tiles are white, and wall tiles are a semi-transparent black.

The level is, obviously, 3D – so a 2D lightmap like this would work perfectly well for the floor tiles but the walls would simply inherit the light from the floor tiles and look… a bit shit. This is where the tile drawing shader comes in, which looks like this:


Most of that vertex shader is perfectly ordinary put the vertices into the correct place in perspective stuff along with some lines I don’t actually need (I don’t need the actual normal as an output, for example – its inclusion is a relic which can be removed entirely). The only addition is the line:

output.TexCoordLM = ((world + mul(input.Normal, World) * 0.5).xz + float2(0.5, 0.5)) / LightMapSize;

Which generates the texture co-ordinate of the vertex into the lightmap. Take the world position, add on a half-length world oriented normal (the object may be rotated), discard the y component because the lightmap is 2D, add on half a pixel, then divide the result by the dimensions of the lightmap to give me 0..1 values. Done. The pixel shader then simply reads that pixel value from the lightmap texture and multiplies the lighting value onto the colour of the object’s texture. Simple.

So why does it work? Adding on a bit of the vertex’s normal means that a wall, for example, instead of getting its light value from the tile it’s sitting on, gets it instead from a tile a bit in front of where it’s sitting. This gives me something which horribly approximates a proper lighting calculation without any of the actual accuracy (or complexity) of a lighting calculation, but doesn’t appear to be obviously horribly incorrect. The ambient occlusion effect happens for free purely as a result of interpolation – if you set the texture lookup to be nearest as opposed to linear it’d disappear.

So there we go. Embarassingly simple, but not too shabby.

Even more (!) musing on Alpha-Funding

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


* 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




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


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


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 😉

What the hell is a videogame anyway?

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


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


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.