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!
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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!
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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.

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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 ;-)

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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.

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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.)


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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.

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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.


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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.


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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.


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“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.


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“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.


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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.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Why Space Hulk is the best damn boardgame ever.

And now, an exciting episode of hyperbole theatre!  Take your seats and enjoy the show!


I love boardgames, and a broad variety thereof.  Settlers, Lost Cities, Battletech, Balderdash, Robo Rally, Pandemic... masterpieces all.  I'm just as happy to play Apples to Apples (or Cards Against Humanity) as I am to play the awesomely complex 'Up Front'.

I hosted a weekly boardgame night while at Epic for most of a decade.  Sometimes 10 people showed up, sometimes 4.  But every once in a while, a conflict would arise and we'd find ourselves with only 2 or 3 players.  That moment of cancelled plans and frustration would then turn into the brightest silver lining a geek could hope for.  Where you might expect a pouty frown, an evil grin would spread instead... because that night, those who showed up were in for a round of the greatest damn boardgame on the face of the planet.




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Space Hulk is a boardgame (with three fairly different editions) from Games Workshop, creators of Warhammer and all manner of material you expect to see when you walk into a hardcore game shop and see "odd people apparently tape measuring model train terrain" in the back of a store.  I'll go on the heretic record and admit I don't actually think their hardcore tabletop miniature warfare games are... well... fun.  They're a hell of a hobby and an amazing creative outlet, but frankly, I would rather spend an evening scratch building Warhammer terrain models than actually playing the game.

It's the association with other Games Workshop titles that has turned off several people from wanting to even try Space Hulk for fear of it being too fiddly or complicated.  If Games Workshop and Warhammer and tabletop gaming is just 'not your bag'... cool, I get it, but Space Hulk is an entirely different stand-alone beast.

In all my years of playing it, I have yet to introduce it to someone who didn't quickly grasp the rules, and after their first game rave about the game and demand later matches.  Barring rules introduction disasters, nobody walks away from Space Hulk and says "yeah, I guess that was OK".

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At it's heart, Space Hulk is the classic conflict between "Aliens and Space Marines" taking place in highly cramped space ship corridors and rooms.  Combat is highly asymmetrical.  The Marines (called Terminators) are humans in powered armor the size of an industrial refrigerator, and generally able to blow the head off anything and everything that moves.  The Aliens (called Genestealers) are horrible flesh and claw abominations, vast in number and capable of tearing open a can of Marine ass and pulling their victim's lips over their head in a grotesque face wedgie if they are lucky enough to get close.

In good hands, a single Terminator can chalk up dozens of Genestealer kills as long as he can avoid ever having to get face to face with one.  The bad news for the Space Marine player is that, well, he's expected to.  In most cases the Genestealers just keep coming and piling up.

Here's the crux of what I love about Space Hulk gameplay:

You. Are. Screwed.

The pressure on a Space Marine player up against a good Genestealer player is palpable, the atmosphere is downright thick with tension.  You're powerful, but every single troop you lose is like a stab to the chest.  In most mission setups you have a goal with a time limit (and in some editions actually dealing with real world hourglasses) and every turn more Genestealers are flowing onto the board and upping the ante.  You want nothing more than to sit at the end of a long corridor and dump clip after clip into the horrible beasts flinging their corpses at you like so many garbage bags.  But rest assured, you will eventually die.  You will not outpace the rate that enemies are being reinforced.  Moving is extremely dangerous and every corner can spell death, but move you must if you're to accomplish your objectives and survive. 

Every enemy is a peon, easily killed... right up until you misjudge something and get ripped in half.  Dig in, get surrounded and you're trash eventually.


Cramped combat with a walking appliance.


For the 'alien' player, the game is just as excruciating, just in a different flavor.  You toss dozens of your single-minded beasts at a group of Terminators and see them cut down mercilessly.  Every step closer means that Marine bastard is rolling dice, and the odds are pretty good that every roll means yet another of your Genestealers gets sprayed across the hallway in chunks and mist.

But dice are cruel mistresses.

At some point while you sit there, demoralized, flinging meat down the hallway like a wood-chipper, enduring the giggles and laughs of the Marine player as he removes Genestealer figure after figure from the board (sometimes two with a single shot!), taunting you and grinning and making little machine gun noises...  at some point... one heroic little Genestealer peon endures the fire and survives roll after roll after roll and manages to walk right up to that poor son of a bitch, tear into his armor, and pulp his head like an overripe peach.  On some occasions the Marine rolls very badly and his weapon jams, leaving the avenue clear for your minions to pile in and exact some hellacious revenge.  When defenses collapse, they collapse hard... and it's glorious.

There is, in my opinion, no game to match Space Hulk for the intensity of watching a series of simple die rolls; each roll making some major impact on the game.  Shouts, howls of pure angst, and passionate middle fingers are utterly common.  Space Hulk is some of the most dramatic gaming on any medium you could ask for.

While Space Marines can play it careful or aggressive, Genestealers have one more trick up their sleeve.  They're tricky.  When Genestealers move around the board, they often do so in the form of a "blip", a flat face-down counter that represents a secret number of the aliens.  When a Marine sees a blip moving towards him, it could be a pack of up to six enemies, and depending on the edition... it could actually be a bluff and represent 0 aliens.  This adds immensely to the sense of atmosphere in the game, and makes being the Genestealers a much more entertaining role.  Play the bluffs right and a single blip can hold down a major area of the map with implied troop strength.

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There's something else golden about the way Space Hulk plays out for the Space Marine side.  Even though you're controlling one or two squads, each with five different miniatures on the board, it doesn't quite feel that way.  Guys who run off on their own get isolated and torn apart, so it doesn't feel as if you're moving around 10 individuals.  Right off the bat you get the sense that a squad of five actually controls more like one single unit, like you're controlling individual limbs of a greater being.  I've often said it feels almost like you're moving an amoeba through the tight halls, with your ranks contracting and expanding to fill areas in different ways.

Better hold that hallway, Brother Jammius!


When a path branches, the guy at the front of a group steps into one branch, and sets up a defense in the corridor.  Meanwhile the others train through behind him, and when they're safe he'll take up his position at the end of the line, sometimes facing backwards so every route to reach your squad is protected.  Even though the rules for moving each unit around is very simple and accessible, you add lots of those simple moves together and feel like it's one complex tactical whole.

Efficiency at moving around and never missing an opportunity to save an action point is a critical skill in the game.  It's enjoyable when you feel more and more skilled at a game as you play, and not like you're advancing a number in a stat and simulating improvement.

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At a higher philosophical gameplay level, what Space Hulk generally gets right is that it strives to avoid ambiguity.  You're not breaking out a tape measure, debating if one guy can see another, or pointing out that someone nudged their troop an extra inch on the board.  Even the layout of the board is crystal clear.  Hallways are one unit wide, meaning a troop literally fills it from wall to wall.  You're not arguing about hit locations, or tracking hit points or damage modifiers for your units.

You know what things do... These guys shoot things... these guys bite things.  You're 100% alive and blowing shit to pieces, or you're 100% dead and removed from the board.

As a game developer, at some point you learn to appreciate the meat of your design not getting too watered down with exceptions and modifiers.  That's a hard task to pull off.  A great side effect is that it helps create a game that is easier to teach to new players.

I'm a bit of a purist and think extra expansions and modules for games rarely actually make the game more FUN, too often they simply add complexity and blur those lines of "this is what the game is about".  Depending on what edition of Space Hulk you've seen, that can apply here too.

There were aliens suddenly wielding pistols, and getting psychic ranged abilities, and several Space Marines that excelled at close quarters combat (ok, even though they LOOKED unbelievably cool).

Lightning Claws, baby.  Complicating game roles, stylishly.


My advice is avoid the add-ons and simply play the pure out-of-box experiences.

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There's luck in the game, no doubt.

Often, when things go badly, you blame choices you made in how you moved through the world and where you set up attacks.  Other times of course, the dice utterly betray you... but it's not without amusement when that happens.

I've seen a single Marine (completely out of ammunition and heroically holding a corridor so his squad could escape) against all odds beat down six Genestealers in a row with bare hands.  I was the unlucky one in that scenario but recall it to this day, years later as an amazing moment around the table.  It's often those dice rolls that leave you reading all kinds of personality into otherwise lifeless little plastic avatars.  "Best watch your ass against Brother Snipus over there, he doesn't miss!" etc...

I've known gamers who insist anything with dice rolling is a flaw, and they automatically hate the game.  I believe that element of uncertainty is a prime component to the tension in a game like this.

Ask any professional poker player if there's no skill involved in a game where luck plays into it.


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Intermission!

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Welcome Back!

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There have been two digital official Space Hulk games, both from EA, and both were pretty decent for an existing fan at least.  Both try to balance playing first person as a marine, while also ordering your squad around in some sort of time pressure management mode.

The 2nd version "Space Hulk: Vengeance of the Blood Angels" did something I have never seen another digital game do, and it blew my mind at the time.  When you start off, you are simply a single peon in a squad.  You don't get typical "video game objectives" like fetching a thing or hunting someone down... rather they're incredibly specific and frequent orders.

"Go stand here"
"Clear this room"
"Wait here until told otherwise"
"Flame this space"
"Follow this guy"

You get the sense that an AI player is actually playing the game, and you're merely a piece on his board.  Actually, that's exactly what's happening.  With each mission of the game you get more control, and eventually you're in the map blasting stuff, and at the same time commanding your squadmates.  It's a testament to multi-tasking.  You swap to an overhead map and tell some guys to move somewhere, clear a room, wait there, flame that space, follow that guy... etc, and every time there's a verbal order that is just like the ones you were hearing when you were a lowly peon.  It's oddly powerful when you realize that a game was truly "playing you" for once, in a genuinely dynamic unscripted way.


I get little tingles...


There is a 3rd digital Space Hulk iOS version coming soon actually (screenshot above).  I know very little about it other than having seen a teaser and this one screen somewhere.  At a glance it appears to be a very 1-to-1 adaptation of the boardgame.  I hope it's brilliant and I hope they read my first blog post about "best advice I can give, related to good feedback", and find they do that aspect justice.

I have to be honest, as much as I love boardgames, and as much as I love video games... often completely 1-to-1 digital adaptations fall short of capturing what a table session pulls off in a more social way. Notable exceptions being Settlers on XBLA, Ticket to Ride on iOS, and Small World on iOS.  Waiting for your opponent to take a turn can be torturous, I play Ticket to Ride games with a group of 5 people and our games take about a month.  Regardless though, all my fingers are crossed on this one.  So far the production quality looks top notch, and the devs behind it have done a solid run of other turn based tactical games.




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I would be remiss if I didn't bring up the excellent Space Hulk stand alone cardgame "Space Hulk: Death Angel", which is available all over the place including Barnes and Nobles and such.


Great co-op 2 player OR solo!


This adaptation was actually done by Corey Konieczka, who also did the unbelievably good Battlestar Galactica boardgame,  and I had the great fortune of working with Corey as the main contact for the Gears of War boardgame.  He's good people!

I can't judge what his adaptation is like for someone who is unfamiliar with actually playing Space Hulk, but for those who are fans, I think he really delivered on the "Space Hulk in your pocket" concept pretty well.  He really abstracted down a couple key components of the game into different forms and kept the flavor there.

Also of note, you can play single player, in a sort of high end geekery solitaire... and it is DAMN challenging in a very fun way.  It definitely delivers on the "You. Are. Screwed." nature of the boardgame.  Those I know that have played it solo, all have admitted cheating... just a little.

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As we approach the last act of this raging love fest... I leave you with a tragedy.

Space Hulk is a complete bitch to find.

First edition, basically impossible to find.  Although several would kill me for saying so, it's not my favorite edition anyway, and the components have really not aged well.  But yes, it started it all, and there are more along the lines of expansions for this, if that's your thing.

Second edition, not impossible, but expensive and challenging no doubt.  Counter to many who are even more hardcore than I, the second edition is actually my favorite (and the one I introduced many to the game with).  They upped the ante on the quality of the figures, rules were simplified in some great ways IMO, 0 blips and bluffing gameplay, and above all they kept the 'clarity' of gameplay very high.  I ended up buying a very expensive version with no miniatures and had to replace the minis with the counterparts for Warhammer, haha.

Third edition is the most recent limited run to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the first game, and they certainly did it justice.  The third edition is... for lack of a classier way to put it... fucking balls to the wall STUNNING with regards to its components.  The miniatures included are, IMO some of the most incredibly well sculpted and detailed models I've ever seen for any purpose, and the other board components are absurdly comically high quality.  They merged in some of the fiddlier roles, but they're just so incredibly cool it's hard to complain.  The 3rd edition is fairly simple to find on eBay... BUT... it's also stupid expensive at around $300.


My personal paint job, thanks...


Note that the miniatures included in the game are NOT painted.  Many people, me included, really enjoy painting minis.  What I don't enjoy is the idea of painting 1500 troops for a little army, getting carpal tunnel and murdering everyone in my 3rd year of working on completing the task.  Space Hulk though, unlike Warhammer to me, is a manageable and enjoyable task.  There are about 12 drop dead amazing Terminator marines, and about 25 alien Genestealers which typically get a very simple process driven paint sequence on them.  Regardless though, if you're never going to paint them, and it's a deal breaker for you to play with unpainted minis... you're out of luck, or you need to outsource getting them painted, haha.


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Yes, Space Hulk has a dose of "meathead" to it... you might scoff at it as less intellectual than something like Dvonn or Puerto Rico.

I've often said that Gears of War had a major coating of meathead to it.  You're chainsawing people in half and giggling and limbs are flying and dudes are high fiving... but you can't make a successful game out of pure meathead.  Under the hood there has to be substance and mechanics that offer decisions worth making.  Strip away the meat from Gears and you had a damn fine tactical game about cover and timing and flanking and serious quick decision making.  Space Hulk fits right in that slot as well.  Under the violent veneer is one of the most unique and inspired games you could ask for.


It's unfortunate that there's a barrier to entry, and that every session can't include a knowledgable teacher to go over the rules in a couple minutes  (hmmmm... maybe I'll youtube a "how to play" quick guide at some point), but regardless, I hope you get a chance to give it a shot sometime and avoid filing it under "bleh, another souless violent shooty shooty blah blah game".

I've had some of the highest high points of gaming playing Space Hulk with close friends like my buddy Josh Jay, super senior artist over at Bethesda now.  This was our lunchtime jam for many years, and it never grew old.

So yes, you may have your favs and counter arguments... but for my money, the game I most itch to play time and again at the drop of a hat... Space Hulk is my go-to.


Thanks for reading this, a completely gratuitous and frivolous bit of bloggery!  Be glad it's not ten times as long :)


Monday, June 3, 2013

Where is the perfect indie platform?

(Disclaimer:  This is a post littered with personal opinions and almost certainly a couple factual errors as the landscape changes frequently.  Many of these points are based on my perceptions, and I truly welcome both corrections, and thoughtful advice from those with their own working experiences.)


Not long ago, someone let the genie out of the bottle.  Some say it was Apple, some say Steam, some might say XBLA, but it became clear after more than a decade of large publishers and soaring budgets that it was possible once again to do the unthinkable... to simply make your own damn game.

For years now, as small titles repeatedly made huge splashes with gamers everywhere, I've assumed that there wasn't a power in the 'verse that could put that cork back in that bottle.  Small empowered developers were here to stay.  They tasted success and legitimacy and clearly they were a force for innovation and change.  Surely the decision makers behind the platforms could see that?

I'm not sure anymore.  Though there's an unprecedented array of opportunities out there, it seems every avenue for indies is critically flawed in at least one dramatic way.  It's almost comically so.

I often ask other small developers what platforms they're considering for future projects.  I assume there must be some obvious 'promised land' destination for small teams.  Sadly what I hear is, no, right now there's no clear platform to target as a small dev.  There is no 'easy' call.

One baffling aspect is that there's a huge group of players up for grabs.  I've heard a couple high profile visionaries say that whoever grabs the indie crowd wins the next platform wars, others often bring up 'Minecraft Factor' as a deciding factor for platforms, and I can see some truth in that.

Sony, Microsoft, Valve, Apple, Nintendo, Android... any one of those could emerge as the de-facto homeland for the next wave of great indie games , but all have some work to do.

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These are some of the random debate points I hear when a discussion arises about platforms:


Steam - Valve... the visionaries that made PC gaming viable again... they're so close to being our big green pasture.  People actually pay for games on Steam, like, up front!  The race for the bottom hasn't spread there.  From interviews we hear they're in the process of revamping the Greenlight process.  I pray that's true.  Imagine what it's like as a couple developers to sit in a room and decide on a platform for a future project.  Imagine them saying "lets make a game for Steam, it'll be awesome... but we're going to have to roll the dice when we're done and hope our game makes the cut and actually gets launched".  There are some quality games not making it through the filters, some due to being more niche or eccentric, which it could be argued is the goal.  Devs with livelihoods at stake can't take that risk lightly, there's so much curated 'black box' uncertainly to deal with.  I look forward to the future of the platform, but it's not a defacto "go-to" indie target right now for everyone... but it could be.


Apple - They ignited a generation of mobile developers!  They threw yet another hammer through the giant TV screen and all kinds of amazing hell broke loose.  By all objective standards they deserve so much credit for the indie movement and sidestepping publishers.  Right now though (and it's hard to fault them for trends) the lure of the charts means it's more and more improbable to be truly successful unless you're backed by someone burning a couple Ferraris a day on user acquisition.  The big screen is reestablishing itself quickly.  Concrete suggestions for improving the app store are common, but our biggest hopes rest with rumors of the store getting overhauled with the new OS... some have theorized perhaps we'll have a new store area to encourage more premium games so we don't all have to feel like hucksters.  Right now though, as a small developer, it's frustrating to stare at the top charts and know the amount of manipulation and raw resources that goes into being visible.  It's eerily like the unhealthy console market where only the top 10 games are viable financially, the result of which was loads of people leaving console development.  If they can find a way to allow games to be visible that aren't simply paying for it, they too could be the motherland.


Android - They have their advocates and those advocates love their statistics.  I see respected developers saying they make as much or more off Android than iOS... for F2P games.  Many small studios don't buy into F2P though, they want to make games like Sword and Sworcery or FTL and premium gaming is off the table on Android.  When we hear anecdotal piracy figures in the 9-to-1 ballparks, it's terrifying.  Not only that, it reduces any pitches for games that depend heavily on servers and backends, small shops can't push pricey data to 9 pirates for every legit user.  Factor in the challenges with splintered hardware (although being handled admirably by some middleware) and it's more clear why there aren't many Android exclusives.  Success stories abound in Asian android markets, assuming you have a publisher in your behalf and don't mind managing a dozen different store fronts.  There's a billion amazing Android devices out there, but they're sadly relegated to a porting option for many.


Sony - Perhaps the toughest to criticize, although I'm ignorant of what it's like to work with them.  There's a lot to love with their seeming commitment to artistic games, self published or not.  I was seriously miffed after the PS4 reveal.  I was hoping for some huge announcements related to indie gaming and store restructuring.  But, it seems to have clicked for them in the following weeks.  Submissions no longer have a concept approval filtering stage, and they recently rolled out an Indie Games category on the Playstation Store.  Working on the games are supposedly much like working with a PC.  Right now though, the unfortunate issue for developers pivots around being at the end of a console life cycle, and the inevitable challenges of embracing a new generation soon.  New tech, dev kits, smaller initial install base, so much to learn...  I know they're working on it, but there's not a broader perception of the PS3 being "the" place to take an indie game quite yet.  Kudos for at least having Jonathon Blow on stage at the reveal though.  I sincerely hope they maintain their trajectory, they genuinely seem to care.  Maybe they'll give us our amazing promised land?


Microsoft - To many, XBLA was an earthshaking step forward.  It was revolutionary to sit on a couch, with a bigscreen, and play a game like Geometry Wars with a real controller.  So many developers started thinking 'dangerous thoughts' then.  But XBLA has always had its challenges.  There's walled garden syndrome, lack of developer control for much of anything, widely publicized rants from high profile indies (not just Phil Fish) about $40K developer costs for updates, quarterly payouts, a dogged determination to make sure we all have a proper publisher taking their additional ~30 percent, etc.  For the XBox One, hearing from developers on various forums and social outlets... man.  It's been a rough couple weeks.  Talk of removing the 'indie' area of XBLA is harsh, but losing Arcade entirely is the end of an era.  Lumping everything together into one online store, Braid beside Madden, Fez buried under CoD?  They say we should all just chill and await news of silver linings though... so, I await E3 eagerly to see if they roll out an indie promised land.


Wii U - I'll admit I don't own a Wii U and have only played with it at a couple conferences.  My perceptions are that it has a very specific target market and your game needs to fit those players if you want to succeed.  The console needs to become widespread and well supported with 3rd party games to be worth targeting for many.  The degree to which their controls are unique means games that truly utilize the hardware are harder to be multiplatform.  I frequently hear negative comments about the quality of the "tablet" portion of the hardware so it's not a slam dunk multi-platform pair with other mobile tablets.  Again though, I admit ignorance in many ways with this option, although I don't see people flocking to the Wii U as a haven for experimental awesome indie-ness.  Bottom line is I'm hard pressed to see myself staking a company or larger project on succeeding there.  Personal perceptions disclaimer applies.

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Regardless, two things are undeniably true:

1) Games are evolving unbelievably quickly.  In the time we made a single sequel to a game like Gears of War, an entire industry evolved into a different beast.  Think about life just THREE years ago.  Doodle Jump was a novelty, Free to Play was basically nonexistent, the number one games earned a ridiculously tiny fraction of current earnings, mobile games were all going for one-button simplicity.  We're comparing fish to primates within a span of time typically used to make one iteration of a game.

2) Small developers without publishers are willing to quickly adapt.  If you give us THE place to bring you amazing games, we will flock there overnight!  We're all motivated and willing to.


Right now the solution for many is to release on as many platforms as possible.  Unfortunately that also means dealing with as many platform eccentricities as possible... often simultaneously.  Even if you're up for that, there still isn't a golden "primary" sku to aim for with many game concepts.

Maybe it's unrealistic to expect a single platform to offer so much when 'games' cover such a broad range of definitions and players.  I remain naive and optimistic about that possibility though, considering a couple of these are so close to that achievement already.  Yes, some limitations are due to practical hardware issues or usage patterns (people might not ever want large console games on a phone sized device), but often these limitations seem to revolve around conscious decisions.  I believe someone can get it near enough to 100% right that they attract the majority of indie devs, and can attract a large cross section of gamers as a result.


In closing, I fear this could all come off as whining and criticizing.  I apologize if so.  I give all of the platforms I mentioned major props for their immense contributions to what we have right now.  In truth all I really want is to give a little constructive perspective from someone who regularly has to look at all the options out there.  If you're not an indie dev already, put yourself in the position of a couple indies and ask yourself which platform you would consider your "primary" target.  It's far more of a quandary than it should be.


As always, thanks so much for reading.




Friday, May 10, 2013

There's good in you yet, F2P games, I can sense it!

Discussing F2P (Free To Play) gaming in many circles goes over aaaalmost as well as talking about STDs.  "I, um, have this friend... yeah... a friend who is working on a F2P game..."

To start with, some blatant wishy washy disclaimer.  Don't get me wrong, although I'm about to defend some F2P practices, I understand many of the counter arguments and share much of the loathing about F2P tactics that feel slimy and predatory.  I don't care for how designers have to be biz guys, I don't want to take advantage of playe... bah, I don't really feel like listing the negative aspects of F2P.  They're "known" by now.

But, you know that old saying about not throwing the baby out with the bathwater?  I'm about to wear that metaphor down to a nub.  There's a surprising amount of babies noodling around in the F2P bathtub, and frankly, there's some I think virtually all developers should at least consider adopting (regardless of their game's pricing model).

So, yes... in this post I ask of you to clear your mind for a few minutes, wipe away preconceptions about motives and skeezy companies, and lets pluck out a couple of these babies... I mean, facets of F2P gaming... and analyze them specifically for their own merits.  Grab a couple of those latex gloves over there if you'd like.



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F2P devs constantly shift and react, they kind of have to.  As a jumping off point I ask broadly, "is there any other segment of games that watches so closely what their players are doing every single day in their game?"  I suppose some could argue classic MMOs maybe, or highly competitive multiplayer games... but even then I'm not sure I agree.  When I talk to F2P developers they are constantly A/B testing, digging through metrics, methodically optimizing their game based on data from just a couple days of observation.  It's pretty obsessive.

Now I ask "is that a bad thing?".  Not inherently IMO.  Again, set aside the negativity for a second about their assumed motives.  You can say they're greedily trying to extract nickels from people, but the truth is *also* that they're trying to keep people playing and experiencing their game.  They're evolving their already shipped games.

Contrast this F2P landscape with development techniques of a couple years ago.  We made a game, shipped it, and unless something was seriously jacked up... we moved on to another project.  Fire and forget.  No take backs.  In so many cases through the industry that process resulted in years of huge team's work literally amounting to nothing because of some bad calls that could quickly be changed with a few variables online.

I think it's pretty awesome that we're at a point where we create games as "living documents" and adjust based on findings.  As a designer that's a powerful tool, and F2P devs are on the forefront of this in many ways.

Let's grab that particular baby from the tub...

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F2P games track player retention ruthlessly.  Sounds pretty evil to some... but, is it?  They track what makes people stop playing their games and what keeps them interested?  I wish far more developers cared to explore what specifically turned people off about their game.

Here's a harsh related truth that I learned the hard way many times, developers often can't judge what they're creating effectively, because they know their intent.  A creator has what is dubbed "the curse of knowledge" in the excellent book 'Made to Stick' (Great read, about how some ideas stick with us while others can't).  The curse is illustrated in one great example.  Think of a simple song like Jingle Bells, and try to get someone to guess what song you're thinking of ONLY by clapping.  It seems simple, but they rarely get what you're trying to communicate, even when you think you're doing an amazing job.  In your head you're humming the song and hearing it; you're 'cursed' with the knowledge of the song and consequently you're a pretty crappy judge of the difficulty of the task.

In Gears of War 2 I plead guilty to prototyping and scripting the 'Leviathan' bossfight.  Many of us played early builds, saw it evolve, and thought it was extremely easy.  Some of us could do it without running, literally casually walking through it and acing it on nightmare difficulty.  But oh man, the playtest data was a very different story.  We adjusted the sequence about 4 times, making it dramatically easier each time... to us anyway.  But post launch, it was still a huge issue for many players... a definite design snag I regret.

Wether it's a moment when loads of players quit your game, or simply data that shows "hey, 70% of players aren't making it to level 2"... it's not the worst thing in the world for designers to think about player retention.   Do me a favor, grab that baby too while we're at it.

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F2P devs care a great deal about Menus and User Interface and the complexities thereof.  I don't have to tell most devs that, on average, UI is a bastard stepchild of many projects.  First draft layouts are very often 'good enough'.  But F2P devs go to extreme lengths to create UI layouts that people can easily navigate.  Complexity is often inherent in their systems, but they have to keep the user flowing through the game as smoothly as possible.  Often they run groups of testers through entirely different versions of UI to find issues.

They care about being able to "pound through a flow" by making sure the buttons that advance you to gameplay are always in the same ballpark locations, they care about button size and accessibility, they care about discoverability and clarity... it's important stuff.

This might not be a huge aspect of your game (I'm beginning to think the single attribute of a smart designer is the ability to make a game not need UI), but in many dev's cases, we could learn from the their findings and techniques.  Quick, grab that baby and towel him off!

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They care about games being social.  Now in many cases the definition of 'social' is a comically loose one, and often it's more about advertising and viral user acquisition... but let's keep those pesky motive fallacies in check for just a bit longer.  Perhaps we can take this baby and salvage it.

It's been a basic truth for many developers that things like online multiplayer or co-op were factors to keep your games from being mere rentals.  But as the age of rentals closes out, its important to also look at the other basic truth, games often really are more fun when your friends are involved.

Is it beneficial for word of mouth if your game has some cool social features?  Damn straight.  Is that inherently unscrupulous?  Certainly not to me.  One advantage of the industry right now is that advertising isn't a gating factor anymore... your game can be very successful with zero advertising, if you play your cards right.  This is an important card for a reason.

I know, some games are meant to be a very personal voyage through an experience, but being social is still a very useful tool.  Hand me that baby for a sec will ya?  Awww... he's a big fella.

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They're trying to throttle how fast their games are 'consumed'.  Nefarious?  This is a tricky point that touches game economies, productive realities, and player interest.

The heart of this point is that bottlenecking the player in your game has been the right thing to do since long before F2P emerged.  In the original Gran Turismo circa 1999 you earned licenses, unlocked classes, saved up cash to buy cars, competed in side events to unlock tracks and new modes and paint jobs and new parts and... it goes on and on.  It was amazing, it was the game's framework, it blew everyone's heads clean off their shoulders and redefined racing games.  Those same techniques today, if GT were on mobile, would be raged against as money grabs and shifty eyed greedy designers.

It's hard to think of a genre that doesn't involve some sort of gating to keep their game's longevity up and make sure players "stop to smell the roses" (AKA, see the world you've built).  If you put in a traditional game disc and just flipped through all the content under the guise of entitlement because you bought the game, you would likely burn out your interest very quickly.  Even sports games don't often operate this way anymore.

It's critical to value your game's economy and how fast you allow players to access everything you have to offer.  Honestly, I think the reality is that you simply can't throw this baby out even if you wanted to.  Just stop sneering at it, this baby's bloodline has been around for many generations.

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They want a low or non-existent barrier of entry.  I can respect this.  For so long now I've heard many developers lament the $60 price point of AAA games.  It kept games from being an impulse purchase.  It drove us to the situation consoles are now in IMO, where the top couple games are the only ones making money.  Average consumers only buy a couple games each year, and they pick safe bets.  When a $60 game turns out to be crap, it's a bitter pill, and it throws off the taste to buy a game that tries something unknown.

Maybe the pendulum didn't need to swing all the way to the free side, maybe the $15-$20 Steam market is the sweet spot... but the general concept of removing the barrier of entry so more people try your game doesn't sound crazy to me.

They simply want more people from all walks of life to try their games.  I know even that motive is not one that more eccentric developers strive for, exposure I mean, and I have respect for that approach... but I admit it's not me.  I want to make games that are fun, I want a lot of people to discover them, I want them to see the work and effort that goes into them, I want my work to be experienced.  Of that I'm absolutely guilty.

Baby, thanks.  Careful...

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They're constantly updating their content... for free!  Sure, they do it to keep their user base interested and on "the hook", but really, it's still pretty awesome that they're always engaged in their community with content updates.

The closest thing to this behavior we used to see would be if a game like Unreal Tournament released some free maps online.  But now, it's entirely common for players to get new features dropped into their game at any random week.  When it's not free, this practice is called "paid DLC" and people certainly have issues with that.

I spoke to a developer of a stupidly successful mobile game not long ago.  They mentioned that monthly updates, even small ones, were critical.  They skipped an update one month and it nearly sank their IP... it was that important to their community.  As a developer, yeah, it's daunting that people are now expecting regular free content and improvements, but IMO it's awesome when any game has established a sense of community with their players through frequent content drops.

This is a heavy baby to carry, he's a lot of work to take care of.  I'll leave it up to you if you want to leave him in the tub, I won't tell anyone... ;)

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They constantly try to quantify things.  This can be frustrating.  It's often a poke in the eye to a designer when a spreadsheet monkey challenges your artistic vision.

We don't like people trying to quantify what we consider art.  Understandable.

I've maintained a pragmatic stance on metrics for a while though, and have frequently said, "You are going to get raw statistical data on any game you make.  It will just be in the form of sales figures, reviews, and comments online.  I would prefer to get as much of that information before I ship, when I could still react."

If you play the artistic card of not caring about data, own that and consistently don't care about it.  Don't say metrics are evil and should be ignored, but then rage about poor sales figures or review scores after your release, they're two sides of the same coin.  Care, or don't.

Personally, I found it intensely interesting when I was first exposed to metrics and usability reports from talented test groups.  It fit nicely into the theory of "trust yourself, but verify", I never started designing to that data, but it's great information as to where you should can look for some solutions and issues.  It's an interesting challenge to use metrics and yet not be controlled by them... often you kind of lose your design wiggle room.  It forces you to confront slop.

There we go... one more lovely baby for us.

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In general...

As long as your goal is still to make a great game, and not to simply apply these techniques to shovel-ware garbage in the hopes of winning the mobile gaming lottery, I encourage developers to look at these concepts and pick at least a couple to embrace.  Get out there and use these forces for good.

So there you go.  Grab the other side of this tub and help me carry it outside... we all know there's an assload of seriously nasty residue in the F2P tub that needs to be thrown out.


Thanks for hanging in there, I know that was a long post!

Monday, April 29, 2013

The truth about how AAA developers view indies.

I'd like to contribute something very specific on the topic of "AAA vs Indie" developers.



First, allow me a brief paragraph to establish something.

I know a lot of developers.  While I'm currently independent, I feel qualified to speak about the 'average' AAA game developer.  I've worked on published games of various sizes for 20 years.  I've worked for six companies (both successful and not) in different cities.  I've been fortunate to work at a couple companies that have acted as incubators for talent that later spread to pretty much every major project you can name.  At Epic I routinely traveled to work with licensee companies around the world.  I've worked in nearly every discipline, or intimately with the departments of code, design, art, audio, marketing groups, all of it.  I'm active in quite a few developer forums.  I speak publicly when I can with other creatives.  I know a lot of devs.

I don't say all that to be self promotional.  Hell, I'm not even an outgoing 'people person'.  The industry is always in motion and anyone who has stuck around for 20 years knows about a billion people, or they're extremely introverted and only know a few hundred thousand.  I say all of that to qualify my sample size for the one very clear statement I want to make with this post:


AAA developers respect the hell out of indie developers.


I can recall nobody in my career... none, zip, ZERO developers at AAA companies that offhandedly disregard the indie community or their outlets.  In a surprising amount of cases AAA devs envy indie freedom and current distribution options.  Many hope to cluster into small teams and make a run at it themselves.  Sure, many AAA devs are very happy with their careers, but looking down on indies?  No.  Don't believe it.

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Why?

Here's one truth about any developer you might think of as an old-timer (and again I feel very at-ease making this generalization).  We value people taking initiative, and above all completing projects as demonstrations of their commitment to developing games.

'Back in my day' (yes, I said it) starting off in the early-mid 90's, there were no official routes to becoming a game developer.  There were basically no degrees, only one or two specialty schools focused on games, and they where honestly a novelty to most.  In the past, if you wanted to get into games you did so by making mods, making shareware, making WADs, making BBS games, making total conversions.  Hell, you even did so by making text adventures.  You got into games by doing your own projects on your own time, with your own initiative.

More and more we started seeing people applying for positions who were coming from fledgling formalized programs.  They would bring in their new diplomas, wielded like a permission slip for job offers, but in a surprising number of cases they had no actual material to show, no free time passion projects, no collaborations with mod teams, no... proof of drive.

To this day (even more frequently in fact) I get letters from parents asking if we have internships available for their college aged sons or daughters.  "My son goes to X college and wants to tighten up some graphics on level 3".  No.  No, no no freakin' no!  If a person does not have the initiative to write their own introduction email... I'll stop that rant right there.  Slow exhale... I digress.

My point is that jobs inevitably went to the people who had passion and 'game'.  The applicant with a functional mod, a playable demo, character models they created on busted hacked software at 4 in the morning based on some design pitch they have... those were who we hired, those are who we ARE.  We hired people who -had- to make games because it was part of their being, and passed on those for which it was just an intriguing occupational option.

To think that random AAA developers suddenly no longer respect motivated, self driven, creative, innovative indies who ship games and push the wider art form of gaming?  It's more than wrong, it displays an ignorance of the actual individuals who make up the industry.

Quality developers have always, always, came from the same fabric that indie developers are cut from today.

Indie ladies and gents, you might not know them personally (yet), but you simply could not ask for a bigger group of people cheering on your efforts than random developers working at places like BioWare, Epic, Bungie, 343.  They're eager to see what amazing things you come up with, what trends you initiate, and who takes off and launches a great IP.  Even huge companies like EA and Ubi, wait for it... are loaded with passionate developers a lot like yourself (EA was a stepping stone of several indie heavy hitters).

(Quick side note: I'm not discouraging modern colleges.  There are truly excellent gaming programs out there now, the above is speaking of the past landscape.   My advice remains though, personal initiative is still critical!)

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If you're new to the industry or simply have never worked in AAA, please, revise any assumptions you have that AAA devs are widget makers who were hired after their parents wrote their cover letters.

Aren't they all just cogs in a machine?  No.  Random AAA developer X might really just love rigging models (crazy, right!?  I know several), or love designing race tracks, or love facial animation, or lighting levels, or mo-cap, or UI design, or any other number of personally rewarding specialized tasks.  The fact that they work as a smaller component on a larger team that allows them to perfect their specific craft does not put them at odds with you creating an entire game by yourself.  They're just doing what they love, but they still follow and adore your work.  They still evangelize your bad ass rogue-likes and platformers to countless others.

When someone claims those specialized developers are not furthering the industry, that they're not contributing to the advancement of our art form, that they're "in the way"... simply because they value something other than, say, narrative specifically.  It's a cancerous, judgmental sentiment in my opinion.

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Often there is an undercurrent of standing up to 'the man' with any intrinsically artistic scene.  It's easy for someone new to game development to hold up EA or Activision as such an 'authority'.  But they hold no sway over you and your ability to design whatever you want as an indie.  I ask you to refrain from holding up 'AAA' as the same oppressive force as 'market forces'.  The only 'man' out there limiting your ability to create the game you want to make, is the situation where not enough people buy your game, know about your game, support what you're doing, or validate your work.  I know firsthand (all AAA devs do) those are harsh mistresses.

Making games is tough, often disheartening work.  At times it feels like there are unseen forces working against you.  There's platform issues, unwelcome influences, business trends, roadblocks and complications every single day, and it doesn't stop.  I set out personally to create 'my own' games 20 years ago, but I can't honestly say I have made a game that is "mine" yet due to the broad array of factors involved in simply finishing a game and putting it out there.

But know this.  While it may feel like there is some powerful force waiting for you to fall on your face, while it feels like your ability to create what you want is being actively oppressed sometimes... hear what I'm saying as someone who lived on the other side of that fence for most of his life... it is not coming from your AAA brothers and sisters.

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It feels as if we are being bombarded by people trying to pit developers against each other; don't fall for it.  Don't get sucked into the negativity.  Don't assume we have high school class systems among developers.  Don't assume any of us, indie or AAA, fit the stereotypes that make for dramatic stories about cultural battle lines.  Don't let others shape your opinions; reach out to all kinds of devs online or at gatherings and see how easy it is to find a supportive comrade (spoiler: it's not hard).

Lastly, especially if you're a games journalist, please, don't propagate or encourage these divisive personal stereotypes; there is nothing constructive or genuine about it.

Thanks for reading.