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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 😉

What the hell is a videogame anyway?

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

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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

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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.

On Indie Game Development

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Games, Rants, Useless Advice | Posted on 13-11-2015

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It seems that with every day which passes, we read more and more “horror” stories – Kickstarter projects which fail, abandoned Early Access games – and it’s becoming increasingly common to read user comment reactions along the lines of, “this is why I no longer support Alpha-Funded / Early Access / Kickstarters / etc. games”. It’s a real shame because, as should be remembered, these funding models enable games to be created which simply could not have existed otherwise. Of course, as a consumer, it is absolutely sensible to approach with caution before putting your money down for a promise – but at the same time, closing yourself off entirely… well, if everybody did that then we’d be back to the only viable funding model being a traditional publisher-developer relationship. And let’s not forget that it was dissatisfaction with the kinds of games which that relationship typically yields which led us to this in the first place.

It’s a sad truth that with any model – be it E.A., alpha-funding, Kickstarter, free-to-play – there will be some games which use the model perfectly, some which balls the whole thing up horribly, and everything in-between. Some people, just with luck of the dice rolls, will find themselves only backing turkeys. But a few bad experiences does not mean that the system, as a whole, is broken or fundamentally flawed.

This kind of funding model is fantastic, utterly fantastic. If you want a games industry which maximises creativity, maximises variety, makes niche titles viable, this is how you get it – there is simply no better model. We need to protect it, and that places a duty of protection on every single developer using it – no matter whether you’re a larger independent company, or a single hobbiest – whether you want it or not.

Know your limitations

 
When I got my first job in the industry, back when I was twenty, I was full of arrogance – the sort of arrogance which you only really recognise with hindsight. I went through school top of my class in art and computer studies, I got a first-class B.Sc. (hons) in Computer Visualisation and Animation. Frankly, I thought I was the bees-knees. But, of course, you’re only being judged in terms of people in your class or year not the World as a whole. When people treat you like you’re amazing, you begin to think you’re objectively amazing. Then you get a job in the Games Industry.

Blimey, that was an eye-opener. Suddenly, I was comparatively shit. In the grand scheme of things I knew nothing. The arrogance still takes time to evaporate (evaporation, to this day, still not entirely complete) but you do at least start to recognise it as arrogance. Despite not having made many games I was particularly proud of during those ten or so years in the commercial industry, it was still the best thing I could possibly have done. I dread to think what I would’ve been like, had I skipped it and simply started making indie games when I was twenty. Actually, I pretty much know – I would have wanted to change the world (of games). I’d have wanted to show the games industry where they were going wrong. All my “amazing” ideas – why has no-one made these games? Pfft. Noobs.

Those ten years taught me that all those ideas which I thought were so amazing? Not only have they occurred to literally everyone, but also that ninety-nine times out of a hundred, that they are not applied is either because they’re “good in theory, not so much in practice”, because they’re utterly nonviable, or because actually they’re shit.

“Indie” has become a PR term, but there is a reason why I’ll insist on making a distinction between “indies” and “independents”. Indies should not be trying to compete with the AAA (or even AA) games. Yeah, we have Unreal Engine 4 at our disposal now, but that we’ve got AAA tools and tech does not mean we can start making AAA games. Just prettier indie games. If, in general, indie games were synonymous with “looking a bit shit” well, that’s fine isn’t it? No, not fine, better. Because if “great game, but graphically a bit shite” was what people thought of when they thought about indie games, then the word wouldn’t be quite so great for PR and maybe the larger independent studios wouldn’t insist on calling themselves indie and muddying up the whole thing.

It’s okay to use Unreal Engine 4 but fill the entire game with cheap crappy stock assets. It’s okay to have both awesome Unreal lighting and assets made out of cubes. It’s okay not to use Unreal at all and make the whole thing in Game Maker or RPG Studio. Style is cheap, HD models aren’t. If you’re wondering why it is that the commercial industry has never produced [insert awesome-sounding ambitious project here] it’s not because you’ve got better ideas than them. It’s because, unlike you, they know how much it costs to make a videogame of that scope.

Ultimately, pretty graphics mean bollocks all if the game is shit or canned. Yeah, you’re probably not going to out-sell Call of Duty. But if you’ve planned for your limitations, kept your team small, kept the design realistic in scope… you won’t need to. You can be ambitious – heck, definitely be ambitious. But be ambitious in moderation. If you shoot for the moon, there is a minuscule chance you’ll land. If you’re lucky, you may end up in a stable orbit around Earth. Most likely, you’ll plummet back down to Earth and explode.

EGX 2015

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Games, Rants | Posted on 28-09-2015

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Short post this, because I didn’t actually get to see much (at all) of the show given that we had a booth there ourselves in the Rezzed section and having that sort of occupies all of your time. I did, however, want to mention one or two disappointments. For more in-depth disappointment, I’d recommend Rob Fearon’s piece.

Also forgive me for focusing on the bad stuff – obviously there were lots of highlights, showing people our game, chatting about it, cool people all round, love you all etc. I just wanted to get this out of my system.

Now I know that EGX (as opposed to its sister show, Rezzed) is all about the AAA stuff and that the Rezzed section is really just a way for us small games to get in the faces of that more mainstream crowd, but I kind of feel that if you’re going to integrate things at all, you should go all-in. But there were devs there who’d paid for four screens but were allotted only three exhibitor passes – which can make things awkward if someone is ill or injured (staffing these booths is way more taxing than you might think, and someone there is bound to be contagious with something), and having the computers directly underneath the monitors in a locked cabinet isn’t terribly friendly to either the extremely tall, or physically disabled:

wchair

It just all felt a little tucked away at the periphery – most of the section was walled off in a, “WARNING: THESE ARE NOT AAA GAMES” way.

At Rezzed proper, Rezzed sessions are queued for and in nice big separate rooms with comfy seats and prominent announcements. They’re a highlight. A feature. Now I appreciate that at EGX these sessions were new and, possibly, even fairly last-minute additions, but rather than be in a separate area they were instead just a little area set aside on the show floor with a hand-written sign with the lineup written on it right next to some extremely loud AAA booths blaring out bollocks such that you were buggered to hear anything which was said despite the best efforts of the chap in charge of the sound (shout-out to him, flupping hard job he had there). It’s the sort of space that people wander past, idly glance at, and wander off. No-one is queuing for this because it just doesn’t look like the sort of thing you’re expected to queue for. Many people treated it like a space to wander into to sit and eat a sandwich and chat.

I don’t like having a go at this because I’m almost certain that everyone involved in the Rezzed section did absolutely the best they could under the circumstances. The Rezzed sessions themselves were terrific to watch and a pleasure to be involved with. But I was left with the suspicion that it was all a little ultimately pointless. These sessions weren’t filmed, for example – I mean why would you want poxy Rezzed sessions cluttering up the EGX youtube account? No-one’s here to see rubbishy indie stuff, right? It’s all about the AAA and the main EGX stuff. So why bother having it at all? Maybe in the future we should just stick to Rezzed proper, where we belong.

Steam User Reviews and a segue into Metal Gear Solid

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Games, Rants | Posted on 16-09-2015

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I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen someone scoffing that a Steam user has written a thumbs down user review which reads, “160 hours played”, or some other similarly large number. I find this a bizarre argument – hinging entirely on, “but… but… you got your money’s worth! Price / Hours Played = Crazy Cheap!”. And yet we demand professional journalists play a game through to completion (or at least put in a whopping number of hours) before writing their reviews lest they suffer the wrath of the internet dismissing the lot as ill-informed twaddle. So professional games reviewers need to play the lot before determining a game is shit, but the layman can (and should) make a snap-judgement after only a couple of hours? When both those reviews serve the same function for customers? Bonkers.

Take Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. Ask me if I like it. Go on. Ask. I’ll assume you have. The answer is, I have no idea yet. I really really liked the opening until it started going on waaaaay too long. For someone who clearly loves film-making, Hideo Kojima really needs to learn about editing. Trim out a quarter or so of the fluff (not one chase sequence, but two! Three! On and on it goes!) and it would have been spectacular – instead, all that excitement and interest started slipping and I began willing it to be over. Maybe some people like this kind of guff but to me, it was just bloated self-indulgence.

Once that was over and I started getting into the meat of the game itself, I started liking it again (once I was over the initial frustration of not knowing what I was doing, who characters were, and what the Hell was going on – I still don’t to be honest, I just stopped caring so much). The mission stories started becoming interesting – the surprising moments of darkness and gritty elements began to hook me. But it’s the kind of hook that’s snagged incredibly precariously – at any moment a spike of pretentious nonsense could rip it free and send me plummeting into… this analogy is wearing thin – it could make me start hating it at any moment, is the gist.

So the over-arching story makes no sense to me – as someone who’s only experience of Metal Gear games is playing the NES version when I was nine or so (I remember bollocks all about the story, I almost certainly didn’t actually read any of it), and Metal Gear Solid on the PS1 of which I remember that Revolver Ocelot was a Boss who I killed and Psycho Mantis made my controller vibrate. So basically, I’m playing MGS:V without any context to the story what-so-ever. It’s confusing, and it doesn’t give a shit that you’re confused – in fact it seems to revel in that fact as if that somehow makes it better (it doesn’t).

It’s a game which is sometimes silly, sometimes dark, sometimes easy, sometimes punishingly difficult, and loves not giving you information that you really could have done with knowing before you started the mission. It tells you, for example, in opening credit sequences for every mission – a credit sequence which credits NPCs as if they were actors in a film – that this mission features a guest mecha “Mechatron 5000” (or whatever) and a heavily armed gunship immediately after you’ve selected your loadout. Thanks for that, game. Either tell me that before I choose my weapons, or don’t tell me at all – don’t tell me just so you can laugh at my expense about how horribly ill-prepared I am for the mission.

It’s a game with no difficulty options apart from wearing (quite literally) a “chicken hat” which some may find funny (probably mostly those who don’t need to wear it) and some may find horribly insulting.

It’s also a game which I cannot actually fathom why it’s open world (ish). It dispenses that oh-so-unrealistic vision cone on the mini-map (which no longer exists) which always felt fine – it’s a game mechanic, innit – and instead places enemies in a realistic context with equally unrealistic vision. Hiding in a cardboard box in a warehouse made some degree of sense in the PS1 game (even if daft). Lying prone in a blade of grass with a sniper rifle poking four feet into the air while a guard nonchalantly wanders by just feels crap. It’s not so much my amazing stealth skills as horribly incompetent henchmen. Context is everything and an open world landscape with Metal Gear Solid limited vision enemies just feels like totally the wrong context.

But when it works, by God it works – it does what it does so well, executed so competently by a team clearly at the pinnacle of games development that, in those moments, all the frustrations, irritations, frequent moments of confusion, those all melt away and you’re left thinking, “yes! I see it! I see why so many love these games!”. And providing that the game-wide story arc has some level of resolve (I’ve given up on having the series-wide story arc explained to me by this game), then I think I’ll be happy. Thumbs up user review. If not, thumbs down. I won’t know until I finish it – and if I end up unhappy, you can piss off if you think that when it says “100 hours played”, that changes anything about how I felt about it.

On the social and cultural significance of videogames

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Games, Rants | Posted on 15-08-2015

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AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH! *runs screaming for the hills*

I’m back now. So, in the last couple of days we’ve had two semi-related articles to read. The first, by Paul “[month] the [day] be with you” Kilduff-Taylor of Mode7 (“The Itch to Make and Nothing to Say” Creative Significance and Games) and the second, by Keith Stuart from Eurogamer (Why I will never call video games a hobby).

Both these articles seem, to me, to be perfectly fine personal interpretations and thought experiments but I struggle to relate to either of them. The trouble is, videogames aren’t really anything at all. They can pretty much be anything and everything. Trying to talk about them in a big-picture way is essentially impossible and pointless. Some games are pretentious twaddle. Some are ‘shoot the people in the face for a bit’. You can’t even talk generally about games from the business angle because although videogames, as a commercial industry, make a tremendous amount of money – many games are free, and these are just as much a part of the whole as any Call of Duty game.

It’s hard enough talking about just specifically indie games given the ridiculously wide set of games that covers. Add in big commercial AAA games, whatever the hell that alt-games thing is all about, and absolutely everything else that involves booting up some sort of interactive (or vaguely interactive) electronic thing and you’ve got this giant wibbly mess that absolutely cannot, in any capacity, be talked about as if they share en-masse anything other than the most superficial relationship to each other.

How can you talk about success without stamping your own interpretation on what constitutes “success” all over it? Do you mean financial success, creative success, both, or neither? Games should neither be meaningful or vacuous – screw you with the “should”. The former isn’t magically more important just *because* it tries to be deep and clever. It can still be shit. And some vacuous twitch-shooter game which makes no claim on making some sort of statement about life, the Universe, and Everything and sells three copies on Steam can still be totally awesome and important.

All you can really do is talk about the narrow slice of videogames which contains the bit you’re interested in, and talk about that slice to people who are also interested in that slice. Attempting to draw broad conclusions from this is, frankly, flupping pointless. Games are no more or less important, socially, culturally, anything-else-ally than any other creative medium. No artsy game, no matter how ground-breaking and immersive, can do what an incredibly well-written book or well-made film can’t do. But they can let you shoot people in the face.

“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.