Saturday, March 22, 2014

All aboard the VR train!

Some of you may know I'm doing a "I'm going to move abroad and create some solo projects" kick right now.  (Previous 2 blog posts are on this topic)

As I'm finding out, an interesting thing happens when you ask yourself “where would I move to if I could live anywhere in the world?”  It’s an awesome opportunity, but I hadn’t quite weighed just how daunting that question would be.  There are SO many choices to consider.  The only obvious way to answer the question is to truly nail down what is important to you.  Warmer winters?  Nearby travel?  Culture?  Beachy hammock town?  Affordability?  Walkable downtown?  Food?  You have to narrow it down and focus.

An interesting thing also happens when you ask yourself “what games would I create if I could make anything I wanted?”  Again, an awesome opportunity, but just as daunting of a question.  There are SO many choices to consider.  The only obvious way to answer the question is to truly nail down what area you’re looking to participate in.  Quirky retro PC games?  Downloadable console titles?  Casual mobile?  Tablet games?  Adventure games?  You have to narrow it down and focus.

Like any designer should, I have decades of compelling game concepts that I’m dying to prototype and dive into, but at this last week’s GDC (Game Developers Conference) I landed some much needed clarity with regards to a starting point.  I have to thank the Oculus VR team, and the Eve: Valkyrie demo for that clarity.

(Background info just in case - Oculus is a company that has been making a run at creating a truly effective virtual reality goggle setup… a dream initiated in the 90’s and basically abandoned until more recently where technology is finally catching up to the dream of really immersive virtual reality headsets)


The Eve: Valkyrie demo put you in the seat of a classic sci-fi space fighter cockpit.  I have the earlier version of the Oculus at home, but the new version on display at GDC was the first time my suspension of disbelief was so completely entrenched.

(This is what many gamers have wanted for so very long.  In high school I even flew to Chicago once to try out the very first generation of the Virtual Worlds Battletech cockpits.  They fully enclose you, have a couple monitors, etc… but they don’t even scratch the surface of how far this has come.)

When I first put on the new headset they were pimping at the show, I was instantly transported to the pilot seat of every kid’s dream who wanted to be Luke Skywalker blowing up the Death Star from his X-wing.  I looked down and saw this pilot’s body exactly where mine was in my chair.  The chest was exactly where mine was in space, the legs were right… it just felt utterly *spot on*.  The audio was well done, with filtered breathing in a tight chamber, you could practically smell the dashboard floating in front of you.

When the launch button is hit you’re blasted out of the fighter bay down this long launch tube, and again visions of Vipers from Battlestar Galactica flood to mind.  Whooom!  Then you’re in space, and it feels exactly like it should!  As I turn my head around a missile tracking reticule is in the center of my vision, like a cursor.  An enemy fighter streaks by and I turn my head instinctively to track it as it passes over me.  I’m literally looking backwards over my left shoulder while banking around when I acquire lock on and fire off a shot.  I think I broke my face grinning so hard, and it wasn’t some mechanic that needed so much as a tutorial to implement.  It just felt natural.

Nearby there are huge capital ships that we are weaving around.  That’s a great thing about VR over any other format, scale suddenly REALLY matters.  I’ve got a missile tailing me at one point and I fly under the capital ship and start pulling up in a long loop around the giant ship… the whole time I’m staring straight up and seeing the detail of the ship passing over my head, meters from the cockpit glass.  I complete the loop and renew the order for the stupid grin I must surely be wearing.  I throw in a quick spinning roll for the hell of it, and my stomach goes “HHHURRRRRRR” for a second.  The dizziness isn’t because the hardware is somehow to blame in this case, but because my brain totally believes I just did a freaking barrel roll at some ungodly speed.

I’ll shut up about the specific experience now, but suffice to say it delivered in spades on the promise of the premise.


If there’s anything certain about the games industry, it’s that things evolve quickly, and it’s only getting faster with each year.  I often talk about trends as “trains leaving a station”.  I have close friends who had tickets on the “small mobile games” train, friends on the “Facebook casual games” train, and generally I think Gears of War was on the “next generation console gaming” train as it pulled away in all it’s normal mapped glory.

VR feels to me like a train about to leave the station.  There’s enough major players throwing chips on the board that I don’t think that’s an unfounded opinion.  At GDC Sony unveiled their VR headset for the Playstation 4.  Several other companies are in heavy R&D in the market… it’s exciting.

Even better, VR is exciting for several reasons.  It’s a movement that’s passionately about giving the player a more in-depth visceral experience, realizing an authentic geeky holy grail.  It’s not a movement that focuses on business models and methods of turning game designers into marketing analysts.  It’s a movement with loads of room to grow in quality and execution still, with loads of interesting issues to work through.

Counter intuitively, one of the most fascinating things about VR is something often stated by naysayers as a mark against it, “loads of the most popular current games don’t work particularly well with it”.  YES!  Exactly!  You mean we’ll have to shake shit up?  We can’t just slap a standard first person military shooter on it and start leveling up our MP5s with ACOG sights and extended clips?  How ever will we cope with having design challenges and interesting parameters to consider?  What horrors await when designers have to rethink what will be accessible on such devices?

There’s room for so many new design solutions and innovative concepts.  Long neglected genres like flight sims might become areas for designers to revisit and continue evolving.  We’ll probably see a rash of early games focusing exclusively on very 'known' actions that feel fresh again based on the device; but right out of the gate there are aggressively creative designers and indie developers who have long been discouraged with the current status of the industry, and they’re going to be pushing envelopes.


No, it’s not a “sure thing”, but, what is?  We’re an industry full of skeptics, gifted at looking back and explaining why things turned out how they did, yet fairly poor at predicting future results and placing interesting bets.

Naysayers have loudly proclaimed issues with VR headsets since Oculus first started gaining traction.  They say:

“You look like a dork with that thing on”.  News flash, you look like a dork sitting at your PC and playing WoW as well, but several millions do it.

“It isolates you from your real environment”, aaaand?  That’s the point.  It’s escapism dialed all the way up.  Exactly how worried are you that someone is breaking into your home while you’re plugged in?  Again I’ll throw the image back of rows of gamers with headphones on in front of their PCs.

“It’ll never be mainstream”, there’s different definitions of mainstream I believe.  Will every kid who plays Minecraft have a $350 VR helmet?  Probably not, but holy hell I’d love to play Minecraft with a state of the art VR headset!  Maybe it’s the “not mainstream enough” argument that will see indies support such devices?  Personally I think that’s one of the problems mitigated as hardware becomes higher quality and cheaper.

“It makes people feel woozy after a while”.  Yes, but this is also a factor of quality and experience.  These side effects are a large chunk of research at the companies working on the devices, and the developers who are establishing best practices for games running on them.  We’re on pre-launch hardware currently, and we’re already seeing major strides towards less unwanted side effects of extended use.  Have some faith ;)

“VR is limited in the types of games it can support”.  I have to call bullshit; in fact I have to double down and call classic overly conservative naysayer developer bullshit.  I have to assume these people didn’t see the “Couch Knights” tech demo a friend at Epic put together.

We don’t KNOW what these devices have to offer yet; at least we don’t know any more than we predicted the designs and success of Flappy Bird, Clash of Clans, Candy Crush, Puzzles and Dragons, Angry Birds, Infinity Blade, or the whole F2P and microtrans boom back when Apple said “hey, we’re gonna make a phone with a touchscreen y’all!”.

Hell, prior to GDC, I saw some merit to the general sentiment that you couldn’t make a real “gamer game” with VR because you can’t make a player look around quickly or interact with fast moving objects.  The EVE: Valkyrie demo had loads of quick elements and fast reaction situations, and it was holding up really well.  While the relaxed pace of something like Dear Esther or Gone Home might be a positive on a VR device, I definitely no longer see that as a ‘requirement’ for design in that area; it’s merely one consideration to balance.

I know there's potential snags still, but nobody wins from crapping on the potential of an entire array of future devices.


Long story short, I experienced this demo and in two minutes knew instinctively that I needed to dedicate my solo indie career to supporting these devices.

As gamers and devs, we win when there are new frontiers to explore.  We win when there’s competition between players like Sony and Oculus to drive those advances and offer different options for distribution.  We win every single time a “train leaves the station”.  I’m excited to see one is boarding right now… ticket for one please!

Now I just have to find a place to live...

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Update on crazy solo project progress

Hey all!  So, it's been two weeks since announcing that I was learning to code, going the route of some solo projects, and that Gab and I are moving the family abroad.  So, here's quick bulletpoint updates for those who care:

We leave Thursday for France and Spain

No, not for a permanent move yet.  We're still trying to lock down the region we want to move to.  We're about to spend two weeks driving in southern France, and four days in Barcelona to see if anything in those regions captivate us enough to move there.  Fingers crossed, I'd love to get the move underway.  If not though, at least we will have gorged on amazing food and seen some stunning visuals.

I'm learning to code in JavaScript (UnityScript) with Unity

After loads of research and suggestions from knowledgable friends, I picked JavaScript (UnityScript, potato potatoe, the buttons say JS for a reason) and Unity as my jumping off point into coding.  I found a fantastic series of video tutorials that are laid out like a college course with sample projects to create, and I dove in.  It's kind of staggering the amount of educational material out there for people who want to learn this stuff... it continues to come down to a person's motivation to learn this stuff.  It's pretty much all free if you have an even halfway decent computer.

Here's the series I've been going through.  If you want to learn game creation, this is as fine a leaping off point as I could suggest.  The Walker brothers used to teach at SMU Guildhall and posted this massive chunk of tutorials.  They're excellent for someone with a bit of background in art or production who wants to learn the coding side:

Nope, haven't started a specific game yet

Despite nearly busting at the seams with enthusiasm and inspiration for different prototypes, I am not starting a specific game just yet.  I know I could start creating artwork for a game now and be off and running, but I want to do this right, methodically.  I want to get a more broad exposure to coding first, and complete the series of tutorials and test projects before allowing myself to leave "tutorial mode".  If I sat down over the next month and created a ton of art assets, it would be a crutch, the 'safe' stuff I already know how to do, and at the end I'd be no closer to being a self sufficient game creator.

I'll be at GDC

A matter of days after returning from Europe, I will be heading to San Fran for GDC (the Game Developer's Conference).  Not working in an office around friends means it's always going to be a challenge to feel connected to the industry.  Damnit, I couldn't skip my favorite event this year, even though I'm only heading out for Wed-Fri instead of the whole week.

Work space is set up

I've got my office set up and purring along again in the original BitMonster offices... otherwise known as my basement.  I won't lie, I'm basically high on having the flexibility of home life and being productive on my own schedule.  As many clever managers could tell you, if you remove the mandatory structures to people's work, often they're much more productive by holding themselves to their own yardstick.  I want to be down there more than I know is healthy... it'll take a while to learn balance and how to live life focusing on work when I'm working, and not working when I'm not.  But, that's a must.

Oculus Rift

I'm all aboard the VR train.  I've got a snazzy Oculus Rift VR setup going, and I'm loving it.  I have pretty poor vision in my right eye, and perhaps that is somehow beneficial because I'm experiencing none of the nausea or discomfort some people have claimed they feel in a full VR goggle rig like that.  I absolutely love the technology and immersion this technical direction offers, and plan on supporting the hell out of it with my future projects.  I don't think I'd make something yet that *requires* VR goggles, but I'm damn sure willing to bias towards projects that can take advantage of them incredibly well.

I think the companies that are creating all this VR potential are doing a huge part to stoke gamer's and dev's imagination in a time where it's easy to be depressed about various aspects of the gaming industry.  I absolutely want to be part of this stage of gaming.  Yeah, it's not perfect... yet.  I'm not one to wait for all the lights to turn green before moving forward though.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Life changes in 3... 2... 1...

Hey all!  I'd like to use my blog this once to post a bit about what's going on with my career and family rather than random game design thoughts.  (if you have no knowledge or interest in game "stuff" and only want the family info, feel free to skip to the 2nd half)

Over the last 20 years (good lord) at some point I've professionally done damn near everything technically related to developing games.  Modeling, animation, texturing, level / track design, audio work, UI design, campaign event scripting, writing, lead roles in most of those… pretty much everything *but* actually programming a game.  As many designers can attest, that last component (actual coding) can often feel like what separates 'making games' from 'desperately wanting other people to make your games'.

(Much of my work on Gears 1-3 as Gameplay Designer was creating the playable prototypes for most of the weapons, creatures, game systems, lots of campaign sequences, etc... but often those were essentially 'playable design pitches' and seldom were final shippable features.)

No matter how far I can take prototypes and assets, at some point I feel that I'm ultimately a peddler of ideas spending more time pitching and discussing than implementing.  Without writing code, as a designer, every concept I'm excited about is tempered with the inevitable concern of, "would I be able to find people who would build that with me?"

Often it fundamentally comes down to 'find someone willing to give you a team to create it, or learn to do it yourself'.  That's a key aspect of the indie games movement, people realizing there's that second viable option.

I have an ache to truly become self sufficient as a game creator and break my reliance on others to fulfill my creative intuitions.  It's clear we're living in the golden age of making that happen with available resources and tools online.  So that's my path.  I'm going to take a good long time (if needed) and dedicate myself full-time to learning anything I need in order to truly author my own game projects.  I can't say I won't collaborate with others or try alternative methods to bring projects to life along the way, but my goal is to not depend on those options.  At bare minimum I need to be able to participate in game jams like Ludum Dare 48! :)

If you've ever shipped a solo project, or dove into coding recently, I'd love to hear about your experiences.  I've had the great fortune of working with some of the most talented people in the industry, and have gotten some great advice so far (and found some role models in the process).  My friend Kent Hudson was among the first to get my head leaning in this direction, with his successful release of The Novelist on Steam (while learning to code along the way).  His passion for that project shows through every time he speaks about the game, and his courage is truly inspiring.


The second aspect of this decision is... geographic.

With an enthusiastic family, savings to run on, and an internet connection we could live pretty much anywhere.  We plan on taking advantage of that.  Big time.

Last year at GDC there was a pretty drool enducing presentation from Colin and Sarah Northway (two respected indie devs who travel the world while each making their own solo games).  When I saw this stunning slideshow of this adventurous married couple in 1000 random amazing settings, I had to wonder why we don't live somewhere with a hammock full time.  We are fixing that ASAP.  We're moving abroad!

Where specifically?  It's being narrowed down.  So far we've visited swathes of ('House Hunter International' favs) Costa Rica, Belize, and Merida Mexico as potential move locations.  In march we're spending two weeks driving from Lyon south along the French coast, over to Toulouse, then down to Barcelona, Spain (although our interests are primarily the towns in between).  Gab and I have been doing steady French lessons for a bit over a year now, so, it'd be fantastic to use those skills.  We may hit Panama after that if we haven't decided by then.

Yep, we're taking the kiddo of course, and no, we don't think it's an education issue.  We're of the opinion that exposing a 12 year old to the WORLD, is a great thing.  If we move somewhere with a good international school, awesome.  If not, there's great online school options now that would make amazingly memorable trips even more simple logistically.

If you're afraid we'll be kidnapped and murdered the moment we step off a plane outside the US, we don't really need to hear your opinion on the topic ;)  I was actually told by someone we shouldn't visit France right now because "all the stuff going on there".  When asked what they meant, they said "you know, Syria".  Sigh.  Yes, Syria, which is apparently just west of Paris before you reach the North Korean drug cartels.  Sigh.

So yes, Gab and I are crazy excited about the prospect of an international move and dramatic lifestyle change.  If you have visited some mind bogglingly cool town anywhere in the world, with a warm/mild climate that we should consider, I'd love to hear about that as well!  We're extremely grateful for what our success in North Carolina with Epic and BitMonster is allowing us to do, but we're a pretty nomadic couple craving a heavy dose of new experiences.

It's a terrifying leap into a void, but, such is life!

(Naturally I plan on posting significantly more about my projects and the learning process here as well.  There may be fewer real articles and more "WOAH, CHECK THIS OUT!" moments... hope that's cool!)

Thanks so much as always for reading, and especially for all the support!

Monday, November 18, 2013

Sometimes millions of people like something… because it's really good.

Back in '99 I was working at ION Storm in Dallas.  I saw a trailer for The Matrix and came back to the office raving about this movie to coworkers; it looked insanely good.  Of course when the movie came out everyone lost their minds and everyone saw it at least 3 times in the theater.

Months later some Matrix discussion came up and one of my close friends kind of pulls a face and tells us he hasn't seen it and doesn't want to.  He made a comment about, "there's no way THIS many people like something and it's actually good".  It was kind of a joke comment, but it was also his case for not wanting to see it.

When the DVD came out, we basically dragged his ass into the nutty expensive THX equipped theater that ION Storm Dallas housed.  He absolutely loved it.  After being forced to watch it, he watched it again several more times over the next couple days, and went so far as to start making low poly models of the Matrix characters on Polycount in his free time.  Now he too could join the rest of us in, well, seeing the series crash and burn after that.  I digress!

In the 14 years since, I've accrued many nearly identical stories about a broad array of games, books, and movies.  Oh man, Call of Duty multiplayer is actually a blast!  Who knew?  Wow, ALL my friends weren't wrong about Minecraft!  It really is awesome!  Why did I wait so long to try a GTA game?!  Woah!  Everyone who wouldn't shut up about Game of Thrones knew what the hell they were talking about?!

Here's one for you… hey, guess what?  Candy Crush Saga is actually pretty stinking fun!

I know, we all imagine we have super refined tastes, particularly as we're neck deep in the age of frowning on AAA and cheering on indie games with artistic merit.  When Twitter is lit up with praise for "Papers Please", who wants to be the guy saying "Holy crap, the new Assassin's Creed game is freaking mind blowing"?  We want to be seen as the person who introduces friends to great new stuff and build up our credibility as a 'true connoisseur' of rare subject matter X.  It's part of striving for validity, and a huge factor in social media.  Surely our tastes are too refined for the likes of a game enjoyed by 15 million other people!?

Welcome to "Green Eggs and Ham" territory.  If you tried Animal Crossing and for the life of you can't understand WTF people see in it… cool.  No harm done!  But you tried it.  Even in the indie world, if you didn't care for Dear Esther, so be it.  But try it, and form your opinions based on experience instead of ultimately petty social pressures.

As a developer, you're doing yourself a huge disservice by actively blocking out games that you view as "too mainstream".  Surely the biggest current MMO has at least one cutting edge mechanic that could influence and improve your current project, even if it's seems unrelated?  With so much to learn, you can't afford to arbitrarily limit yourself like that.

Saying "a billion people can't be wrong" might sound like I'm saying "get out there and make a bunch of mass market bullshit! Weeee!"  I'm not.  I'm saying it's ludicrously unlikely that anything with critical success has done so with no actual merit behind it.  It might not be obvious, but something had to work incredibly well even if you believe they just "fool" millions of players.  You can really improve yourself by trying to understand those successes.

Far too many people take pride in their willful ignorance on various topics.  I'll resist the urge to make political or religious jokes to follow up that point.

As always, thanks for reading!

Monday, November 11, 2013

What I value about 'writing' and 'story' in games

I always feel a disconnect when I hear discussions about 'game writing' and 'story' (and often random people use the terms interchangeably).

For the most part, there are very few games I have continued playing to 'find out what happens'.  With most games, once I am no longer feeling invested in a game's mechanics (or I've just 'got it' and it's feeling repetitive) I stop playing and move on to another game.  For an actual plot to grab me and give me the motivation to finish a game... it's rare stuff.  It's also my metric for a 'good story' in a game.

Last of us, Heavy Rain, Catherine, Breakdown, Shadow of the Colossus, Kings Quest 3... these are rare examples of games "worth playing to see what happens", and they used massively different techniques and styles to achieve that result.

Looking at reviews though, those games get praised for the stereotypically broad definition of 'writing'.  Is it petty to take solace in how many major reviews of films simplify to that degree?  Regardless, it's refreshing to be at GDC and see discussions about specific aspects of narrative, setting, background, etc.


Personally though, I have three strong opinions on the topic of "story" as it pertains to games.

1) Despite the excellent examples of plot driven games I listed above, what I truly value in game writing is simply dialogue.  At the end of the day I really just need the actual words coming out of a character's mouth to be even vaguely relatable.  I barely even care if it's 'interesting' as long as it sounds like something you might actually hear from a random person in the real world.  If you've got relatable dialogue you've got a lot of credit towards the general perception of a game with "great writing" IMO.  You don't get paid per syllable, and it's not an intelligence contest; just talk like people talk and don't over think it.  To a good degree the desire for relatable characters plays into my second strong story opinion...

2) I really don't give a shit about 'saving the world' in a game.  I'm sure you can read into that cynicism about solving modern political issues, but really, who relates to that as a goal?  Stop it.  We as humans have so many common experiences already, it's a waste not to use those shared experiences and craft a story around relationships and events we actually deal with in our lives.  Do I care about stopping the international terror organization from breaking the super virus vial, or do I care about saving a loved one?  My list earlier of 'games I play to see what happens' involves very little 'saving the world'.  With rare exception you already know what happens when a world needs saving, *gasp* the world gets saved!  (Yeah yeah, hush, astute reader!  No spoilers in comments!)

3) Don't Techno-MacGuffin me.  Regardless of the overall plot arc, I *completely* zone out the moment someone starts squawking at me to "isolate the permashield reactor before the rezosphere updates!".  Again, just keep it simple and don't overthink it.  Use concepts that can translate to actual words.  Anyway, nine times out of ten I only need to shut down the 'Pleseopod Device' because it'll let me save the world. (We already know I'm apparently fine with a total global reset ;-)


I hate to paint with such a broad brush, but these three issues are part of why I have such a hard time completing many FPS campaigns, and many (*not ALL*) JRPGs?  Hell, I had what I can only describe as 'violent bodily rejection' to watching the FF7 Advent Children movie.

I also know I am beating the "relatable" drum pretty hard.

The moment where you sneak off to the bathroom to check your cell phone in Catherine, the moment the wizard Manannan leaves you alone in the house to work your mischief around your chores in Kings Quest 3, the time you're fearing for your safety as a woman in her apartment with intruders in Heavy Rain... those moments are lifelong gaming hall of fame magical moments.  I think back on them years later and grin out loud.


I dabble with writing based on necessity for making games with only a couple people (and zero outsourcing).  After Epic I wrote most of our adventure game Lili.  There's a crime of a "techno MacGuffin" at one point, but it was due to an unforeseen production change.  There's also a big bad guy to defeat, but that's more of a hook for gameplay reasons.  It also needed more editing, but overall I was very proud of the results (and Lili's writing had some acclaim from people whose professional opinion I really value).

Aside from trying to be funny and writing with the same casual nature as one would use on FaceBook with friends, we tried really hard to give Lili a story we could all relate to.  We went with Lili having conflicts about her career after school.  There's pressure from Lili's father to follow in his path, she's interested in doing something for herself, and it's chock full of paraphrased conversations I've had with real people like my wife.

Bottom line, I don't consider myself a "writer" any more than any other developer who takes it on themselves to write their own games... but I found that the three things I felt strongly about when playing games was also a great guide for the first time I had to write something.

Thanks for reading!

Monday, August 5, 2013

One reason we see so many clones? Communication.

Why do game companies make clones of other games?  Misplaced financial envy?  Trying to ride a trend in the market?  Hoping to capitalize on an existing fanbase?  Yeah.  But those aren't really reasons why a designer would want to lean heavily on another title for "inspiration".  Surely designers want to make unique original games?

Let's zoom in a second.

Ask a random person what they imagine the most challenging aspect of designing a game is and you'll hear a few familiar guesses.  "Coming up with ideas?" No.  God no.  "Balancing the game?" Sure, tough, but just another task. "Making the game feel good?"  important, but not it.  It goes on...

In my opinion, without doubt, nothing comes close to the hellish task of trying to pull a vision from your head and propagate it out to a team of developers.  I'm talking about communication.  Idea transfer.  Debate.  Salesmanship.  Mustering an army, unrolling your battle plans, and doing what we can to convince the generals that the plan makes sense.  The longer you work with teams, the more you realize that's the bulk of what we do (assuming you're working with others).

There are countless tools for this of course; detailed design documents, prototypes, art reference folders, animatics, presentations, PowerPoints, 4 hour design meetings, shells, Lego dioramas, whatever, you name it.  ALL of these exist purely to overcome our inability to directly wire your brain to mine.  Just 30 seconds of co-op mindlink and we can have one symbiotic shared imagining of what this proposed amazing game could be like.  People could 'get it', experience the game in a common moment, and march off with enthusiasm and shared purpose.  Hell yeah!  Thanks, Mindlink 2000!

Sadly, there's no wetwire technology yet, so we have pitches, greenlight processes, milestones, and other bureaucracy.  At many companies, a dedicated designer's only job is this communication loop, the 'brain dump'.

The closest thing we have to a human 'brain dump' is our shared experiences.  It's why I can say to you in an elevator "CoD meets MechWarrior"... three fucking words... and you can picture TitanFall in pretty vivid detail.

I drop a 50 page document on your desk for a bad ass viking game with clans, ship upgrades, encounter types, plot points, and mechanics?  If you're like everyone else on the planet you're not going to read that, who would want to?  But I say "FTL with Vikings!" and again, Mindlink 2000, we are 90% on the same page!  We have our starting point and you can start making assets now!

From a developer's point of view, existing games are a fundamental communication tool.  Games themselves are our language.

(I certainly applaud developers who are creating games that defy comparison in such a way.  It's a very frustrating reality when your game pitch doesn't easily fit existing molds; you're depending more on everyone around you to drop preconceived notions and really try to like what you're saying.  It can be especially hard for another developer to hear out someone else's game vision with an open mind.)


This communication issue scales up with larger organizations, logically.  You've got 10 layers of management and marketing and external studios working on various aspects of the game; it's more important than ever to have the common crutch of a shared past experience.

Similarly, why do we see 5 sequels of every major game?  Because that's 4 projects staffed by people who basically knew what was expected of them on day one of the project (5 if the original was a clone!).

With this in mind I'm frankly astonished when a larger organization creates something that isn't easily summed up with "X meets X", it's something of a miracle.


When it comes to pure 'clones'?  Hell, we're looking at a fully realized "design document" that everyone has thoroughly digested!  What could be better?!  (That is sarcasm, dear internet)

Obviously the issue is when people execute an existing vision and stop, without bringing anything new to the table.  I've actually really enjoyed two fairly obvious clones since iOS hit.  Veggie Samurai (sorry Luke, I love the double slash!  Forgive me!) and Harbor Master (think Flight Control with traffic coming and going.  Later Imangi made Temple Run!).  Both of those games brought some new elements and slick execution.

I dislike when critics or users (or devs!) quickly dismiss games for having obvious common elements.  As an observer, you're not clever by being able to point out "that game is just blah with blah".  Of course it is!  And?  Rarely is it a negative to make those associations.  Games are like brownies, there's only so many common ingredients involved;  it's all about the ratios of those components in the recipe and how it's all executed.  The best games out there are the ones that borrow heavily from existing games, but execute it so well that players feel like they're experiencing something new and unique.

IMO, developers just starting out should absolutely try to learn from what's out there.  I fully support the idea that a team (indie or AAA) can have a common goal of being "like" something else as a starting point.  That momentum can propel them through very difficult production phases and discussions.

But, above all, devs have to treat it like a 'jumping off point' and continue their progress with added innovation.  Once the project is shaping up and standing on its own merits, you'll have your own game itself as your Mindlink 2000; then you can cast off the crutches of needing to reference everything else as much.

PS- If you're someone blatantly *duplicating* a game, and selling it, I'm not defending that... it's scummy, no doubt.  May you have months of indigestion.  >:-/

Thanks as always for reading.

Friday, June 21, 2013

You should have the choice to buy a used game, but you should also choose not to.

(This is the longer version of the post ran on Edge Online.  It's a bit wordier, but makes some more specific points worth covering)

I wrote a series of tweets earlier with some thoughts on used games, but as anyone can tell you who has tried to say anything meaningful on Twitter, it’s a recipe for misconstrued points and a format devoid of subtlety.  People get immediately heated about the topic of used games, and motive fallacies and heated accusations flare.  It’s only slightly less touchy than telling someone the FBI is coming to seize their guns.

Regardless, I’m a developer asking you (not telling you) to hear me out and make an informed decision on the issue.

First, as is my habit, a couple disclaimers to frame my points and focus the discussion.

1) This isn’t ‘about’ Xbox One, or Sony, or anyone specifically - these are points about used games in general, formed loooong before the new console wars began.

2) I’m an outright enemy of “always on”.  If Blizzard (with all the experience from being the leading massively MP online developer) botched the launch of Diablo III, and EA (with countless online titles, their own competitor to Steam) catastrophically fumbled the Sim City launch... surely it’s understandable why people would be nervous at best at the idea of an entire console being hamstrung with the same limitations.  “Always on” and “used games” are not the same discussion.

3) I believe AAA games are too expensive.  I don’t care about history adjusted for inflation arguments... the bottom line is $60 is not an impulse buy for nearly anyone, solid income or not.  I don’t often by a AAA game unless it’s recommended by a couple trusted opinions.  So, I completely get why people want to buy a used copy of a game for a couple bucks cheaper.

4) There’s few ‘right answers’ and no ‘good guys and bad guys’ with this issue.  Despite the hyperbole from many sides of the issue, it’s all part of one very large and complicated equation.  Used games, piracy, DRM, DLC, microtransactions, etc are not 100% responsible for anything, they’re all just factors... players on the field of how people stay in business or fire everyone and go home.


Buying new or used is a personal choice.  That said, here’s a pretty unavoidable truth for consumers.  When someone buys a used game, that specific transaction does not support the artists, designers, programmers, musicians, etc... the people who created that game.  100% of the money they hand over the counter for a used game goes to the people they just handed their money to.

When someone purchases a new game the funds are divided equitably between the studio that made the game, the publishers that created and marketed the product, the distributors who put it into your hands, the creator of the console gets a portion, and of course with the store for selling you the new game.  Everyone gets their agreed upon cut for playing their part.  The gamer just voted with their dollars to support what a group of people created.

Contrary to what you may be thinking, nobody is calling anyone a jerk for purchasing a used game.  It makes a lot of sense on the consumer end.  But used purchasers do need to be aware that they’re completely cutting out the developers who created that game, and consider if that’s what they really intended.

An online comment... “But don't the developers get paid to do the work? and only certain devs even get a cut of the retail money, so I've heard”.

Generally AAA developers get paid salaries while they are creating a game in the form of a loan from a publisher, it’s an advance on future sales.  When those sales numbers aren’t recouped, when income from a game’s sales aren’t reaching the studio that employs people, those studios fail.  There’s nothing victimless about it in terms of the individual artist and developer.  It matters to them.  They’re not free and clear while ‘evil businessmen’ absorb the sales hit... it’s usually the opposite.


Often in these discussions there are these dark undertones of gamers distrusting developers.  Never is that more apparent than the argument of “make better games and we wouldn’t trade them in”.  When I read those comments, I just want to crumple at my desk.  Look at a rack of used games and ask yourself if those are all ‘bad’ games’.

For starters, I know there are bad games... oh God I know.  It is ‘buyer beware’ out there.  We’ve all dropped $50 on a game and excitedly ripped into it only to decide instantly we thought it was horrible.  But that mistrust is about as productive as guys assuming all women are going to rip your heart out because of a previous bad relationship.

The issue with “make better games” is simply that it’s not true, and it’s actually shaping the games available to you in a very distinguishable way.  Most games have ‘an ending’, even fantastically polished 10/10 games.  The Last of Us, by nearly all accounts is a stunning game... but it has an ending, and millions of happy users will sell it back.  Constantly we see articles about wanting games with great characters and stories and interesting narratives... but in nearly any case that means a game that you experience once and ‘complete’.

If “we only trade them because they’re too short” was true, there wouldn’t be a used copy of Skyrim to be found.  Regardless of campaign length, often when people are done with a game, they’re simply done with it.  The average consumer isn’t deciding if they should trade it in based on the game being “good” or not, it’s based on them being “done” or not.

“So, make games that don’t end”.  I have sat in many meetings at several companies and witnessed firsthand the destructive power rentals and used games have on AAA creative decisions.  If you don’t gamble a large portion of your budget on multiplayer, your game won’t be considered by nearly any publisher out there.  It’s also a catch 22 that will sink most projects.  You’re spreading your team out to add features that don’t actually fit the project theme (Ico, Journey, Heavy Rain), and at the end you’re left with a game that people are comparing unfavorably to projects like Battlefield or Halo with 100+ developers on the multiplayer aspects alone.

Making ‘better games that don’t end’ is counter to the cries of making games with lower budgets, not charging as much, looking next gen, and being more creative.

The alternate methods of making games not end are equally disdained by consumers, the dreaded DLC and expansions debate.  For ~7 years I’ve heard the term among developers of keeping “disk in tray” (a term that predates mobile and freemium games more than 4 years, it’s a response to used games) as a method of drying up the used game supply and making “games that people won’t sell when they’re done”... but honestly everything that comes out of those discussions are the features currently lamented by gamers.

Here’s what developers are up against:  Every game design, every concept, and every execution can’t fit under the umbrella of “make games that don’t end”.  It’s disappointing as a developer to be forced into that predicament, and it’s a factor in why gamers get a lot of “same-old” experiences.


“What about used cars, and movies?  Why are they ok?” is a time honored argument in this discussion.

Movies make at least half of their money in the narrow window when they launch.  Why do game studios ‘selfishly’ demand to be treated differently?  For movies, that opening window is protected by the fact that it’s exclusively in theaters.  On day one, you can’t swing by Best Buy, grab the new Superman movie, watch it, and sell it back.  It’s not freely sold in private form for a couple months.
With games initial sales is even more important.  Most of the units move in the first month or two, and stores decide if they want to reorder stocks of a game based on those sales.  Honestly, if games were protected from being rented or sold for 2 months after launch, game studios and publishers would almost certainly call it even and go home happy.

Comparing games to cars is a pointless metaphor game.  Cars depreciate, data doesn’t.  When you buy a new car it’s because it’s quantifiably better and less ‘used’ than the one with 50K miles on it.  Cars eventually fail, and people must be buying new ones.  Cars always need replacement parts and service from the dealers (think DLC and microtrans).  If cars were as timeless as data, this would be a good analogy, but it’s not.


“But I trade in games to buy new ones” is a common point, and it’s not without merit.  However, if you completed a game, especially if you enjoyed a game, know that what you’re trading in goes on a shelf and then serves to undercut the future purchase of the game you enjoyed.  It’s all part of the same economy.

Personally, I’m in the habit of finishing a game and never going back to it.  I eject it... it’s done.  I actually give most of my games to neighbors who are way more casual about gaming than me.  These are generally people who would not have bought the games I loaned them, but I’ve made them fans of genres and done what I could to turn them into “gamer gamers”.  I love that people especially kids loan and trade games organically and expose people to what they think is cool.

You can say I’m a hypocrite, but here’s one big distinction.  When a person goes into a store and carries a new game up to the counter, they have the intent of purchasing that game.  It’s at that point when a salesperson intercepts the sale and says something like “that’s $5 cheaper if you buy used”, that they’re actively interfering with the process.  Everything that made that person walk into the store... word of mouth, ads, reviews, demos, E3 shows, box art, the creation of the game itself... the expensive and risky ballet that led up to that purchase decision goes unrewarded and becomes rerouted to the guy at the final step of the chain.

It’s destructive and parasitic by nearly any measure, and it baffles me to this day when I hear ‘developers’ are perceived as being selfish in this equation.


In closing, again... it’s not wrong, but it’s certainly not right either.

All I’m asking for consumers is to give the decision at the counter the same amount of consideration they would if they were at a restaurant.  If you spent the $50 price of a used game at a restaurant you would tip the waiter at least the difference between a new and used game; consider giving the equivalent of a tip towards the writers, artists, AI coders, network guy, animators, etc...  The studios that make these games deserve that consideration, even if you’re not legally “obligated” to them for that disc.

(If you’re the type who doesn’t tip because “the waiter gets paid a little hourly”... well... so be it, I’m not in that camp)

We don’t really need creative analogies and metaphors about waiters and cars and movies though.  There’s only one reality to any situation.

Consumers, ask yourself if you’re buying the disc, or the game... and decide consciously if you choose to support the people who created what you’re buying.  If you consider yourself a fan of game developers and if you want to support the people who create what you’re playing... splurge the extra $4, do what supports the people creating your hobby.

If you honestly don’t care if the developers are rewarded for their work, well, you’re still not ‘the bad guy’ here.  I would say though, you have no ground to stand on when interacting with those developers, complaining about something in their game, or lamenting that they offer DLC.  You’re not really “their” customer and fan... you’re just fans of the used game store.

Thanks for reading.