Post-Mortem: SPOMENIK-1

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Spomenik-1 is the first game I’ve actually produced for public consumption, and perhaps more significantly, the first game I’ve made with the intent of it being a complete, packaged product. In the course of making it I learned a lot of things I found useful and interesting, so I wanted to write a bit about the process. Some of this is technical, but most of it is more related to the process of game development in general. Feel free to skip ahead if there’s a section you don’t care about.

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Why Do People Like Metal Gear Solid?

I’ve written before about my ongoing struggles to comprehend why people like Metal Gear Solid. Inspired by the release of Metal Gear Solid V, I’ve started a critical playthrough of Metal Gear Solid 2. The plan is to sit down with friends who like and/or know the series better than me, play through the game, talk about it, make dumb jokes, occasionally trade off the actual controller, and record and upload it for anyone who’s interested. This is predominately something I’m doing for my own intellectual curiosity, but I think other people might enjoy it as well. If this goes well enough I’ll move on to other games in the series.

The first part is up on YouTube now, where you can watch me fight with the controls, take forever getting into the tanker, and occasionally do my terrible David Hayter impersonation:

I Fought The Law, And The Law Won: Driving Lawfully And Meaningful Choice In Grand Theft Auto

Rockstar and Take-Two like to market the GTA series as offering huge freedom of choice within a large urban simulation. But that premise breaks down almost immediately if you try to exercise that freedom by playing outside of GTA V’s expectations, which it turns out are actually quite narrow.

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To illustrate this, I started playing GTA V using a very simple personal rule that I’ve experimented with before: I just chose to drive lawfully. Now, I don’t actually drive in real-life, so if I’m honest, my understanding of “driving lawfully” in the real world is pretty basic. And GTA V’s environment doesn’t actually have all the necessary signage to indicate things like speed limits, special turns and so on, or any way for the player to indicate before turning, so there’s only so far you could go to “drive lawfully” in any case. So to make this simple, for the purposes of this exercise, and this post, “driving lawfully” means three things: obeying traffic lights, sticking to marked lanes, and not hitting other vehicles, pedestrians or objects.

What immediately becomes obvious when you try to drive lawfully is that GTA V’s city simulation just does not have a functioning traffic system. Lane markings are difficult to read, and AI drivers tend to treat them only as suggestions in any case. Traffic lights, though, are the major problem. Traffic lights change far too slowly for the pace of the rest of the simulation. AI drivers ignore traffic signals often. When they follow the signals, they do so in ways that are awkward or imprecise. And if you’re trying to follow the signals, the AI drivers will bump up against you, or yell at you if you try to wait for a green light. The actual missions are even worse about accounting for traffic: NPCs will yell at you to keep moving while you’re waiting for a light to change, and you’ll just straight-up fail many missions if you wait for the lights. In the mission where Franklin first meets Michael, while repossessing an SUV, the player has no clear reason not to wait for lights to change. But if you do wait for the lights, you’ll always end up taking too long and failing the mission.

The end result is that GTA V excludes lawful driving from its possibility space, for most practical gameplay purposes. Narrowing the possibility space in this way undercuts the reputation the GTA series has for allowing player freedom.

In fact, shrinking the possibility space to exclude lawful play makes the player’s unlawful play meaningless. The best way I can explain this is by first giving you an explanation I use in my classes that illustrates how possibility spaces impact on player choice.

See, one of Rockstar’s other games, Red Dead Redemption, lets you shoot horses. But the thing about games is, they have significant variation in what they’ll let you do, even within a genre with established conventions. So generally the way players work out what they can do in a given game is, they try things. Some games might not let you shoot horses, for example. And until you shoot a horse in Red Dead Redemption, you don’t know for sure that you can do so in that game. Now, here’s where this gets interesting: to make any meaningful choice, the player needs to know what options are available. A choice with only one known option is no choice at all. What this means, in the case of Red Dead Redemption, is that because the player must shoot a horse to know that shooting horses is an option, the choice not to shoot horses can only be meaningful after the player first shoots a horse. It’s only once the player knows they can shoot horses that they can make any kind of meaningful choice about whether or not to do so. This leads to the delightful zen koan-like paradox that one must shoot the horse to not shoot the horse.

To bring this back to GTA V, what this means is that because driving lawfully isn’t really a practical or functional option, the player has no real, meaningful choice but to drive unlawfully. Rockstar and Take-Two market the GTA series on the freedom to choose to break rules like traffic laws, but GTA V has no functional way of not doing this, and so this choice becomes no choice at all.

The truth is, while the marketing of the GTA series can lead players to think they’re breaking the rules by driving unlawfully, in fact they’re simply playing by a different but still rigid and confining set of rules. Breaking the laws of the real world is, paradoxically, obediently following the laws of GTA V. In GTA V, the freedom to break the rules is no freedom at all. You have a choice, but only if you choose to do exactly what Rockstar expects you to do.

Kanye, One Direction, garage bands and art kids: the contemporary video games industry for students

If you’re a student studying games, statistically, you started your course envisioning a career in AAA game development. If you’re a semester or two in, hopefully by now you’ve realised that’s not necessarily where you’re headed. But you might not really fully understand the other options available to you. This post is for you. I wrote this initially as a huge post in the “beyond school” Slack channels for my final project teams, but I figured it might be useful or interesting to others, so here it is. This is all “as I see it”, and of course, I might be entirely wrong!

I talk to my students a lot about how AAA is one thing, and indie is another, and how AAA is largely not great, in terms of opportunities and conditions, and how indie is less stable/reliable/etc. but at least allows you more control over your own destiny.

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The problem is that simply talking about AAA and indie excludes a vast, VAST range of ground in-between. And I’ll admit I’ve struggled to really make it clear for them what that ground is. Rather than simply distinguishing between AAA and indie, I think it’s more useful to talk about industry and indie. Industry is working on something to make money, generally for the company rather than yourself, because you’re an employee. Indie is working with a small team on things you’re passionate about, but still hope will sell well enough to make a living, at least eventually.

This broader ground of “industry” is where most game dev companies live right now.

The music industry is a great analogy for this.

There’s the recurring megastars, they’re AAA. Assassin’s Creed and Halo are like Beyonce, Kanye, whoever else. High production values, high concept, big names, big money. They put out a new hit game/album every year or two, and you know it will be good, even if it’s more of the same.

There’s the flavour-of-the-month popstars, what (because I’m a horrible pop music snob) I like to call “extruded musical product” like One Direction, they’re Candy Crush, Clash of Clans, whatever else is on top of the App Store list of Top Grossing games. They make fat bank, but usually not for the actual performers or the people doing the grunt work, just the people with a financial investment, management. And they’re gone in an eye-blink to make way for the next batch.

On the other end, there’s groups of people in garages or bedrooms laden with instruments and equipment and whatnot, forming a band or starting an indie studio. They might just stay in the garage, they might play a few shows, maybe put out an EP. Maybe they hit it big, who knows? But most garage bands never do, of course. More likely they collapse, and everybody goes out and gets a real job. But maybe they stick around, work out what works for them, change members, put out a string of well-received but not mega-selling albums and tour occasionally.

And there’s the art kids, the people making weird stuff for them or their friends or a niche community that’s never, ever going to be commercially viable, and they subsist on arts grants and patrons, selling the occasional album or track online to their community for peanuts, and working part-time jobs trying to eat and pay rent while they make their thing. That’s what, right now, is being called “altgames”, but that same thing kind of used to be called “indie games”, funnily enough.

Here’s the thing: the vast, VAST majority of professional musicians actually live in that middle space, between the big hit artists and the small-timers. They work, essentially, in an industrial manner. They make music for ads, or TV shows, or play regular gigs at local venues, tour smaller festivals, work as backing musicians, and so on. Maybe they teach in music/game courses. And maybe they also try to do their own personal projects on the side, or work their personality into their commercial output. That’s where the actual jobs are in video games right now. That’s the space where most of those not-AAA but not-quite-indie game developers live.

Here’s the other thing: any or all of these paths is a perfectly valid way to be involved with music, and the same is true of video games. What you need to decide, before you leave school, is where you want to go.

If you haven’t already, start thinking about that now.

And start talking about it now, with your teachers, with your fellow students, and with those in the cohorts below you, and with friends, and with, honestly, anybody else with any interest in games, your career, or the games industry. This is something we need to talk about more.

How The Video Games Press Sold Out Everyone

I’ve been meaning to resurrect this blog, and this is something that’s been bugging me for a while, so it’s as good a topic as any.

The thing that GamerGate most spectacularly misunderstands is that the video game press has betrayed them and it has lied to them. Just not in the way they think.

The video game press has done more to propagate the myth of the “gamer” than any other group. The myth is the idea that the most important people in video games are “gamers”, a demographic that is overwhelmingly straight, cis, white, male, middle-class, and aged about 16-35. They’ve fed “gamers” this line for decades, because it sold magazines and ad space.

More than that, they’ve done it while telling these same “gamers” that they’re getting the whole story, the real truth. The press constantly tells “gamers” they’re getting Exclusive VIP Behind The Scenes Access, and then feeds them PR junk. “Gamers” have been fed shit and told it’s ambrosia. Marketing does this too, but the difference is that the video games press has always done it behind the double blind of presenting gamers with the unvarnished truth, and claiming to have “gamers’” interests at heart. If marketing is a frontal assault, press has been the trusted friend who stabs you in the back so stealthily you don’t even know you’ve been stabbed, even as you bleed out.

The truth is, the games press has spectacularly failed to equip “gamers” with any real knowledge of who plays games, how they’re made, how the business works, etc. I deal every day with classes predominately full of young men who fit that core “gamer” demographic perfectly, who are so passionate about video games that they want to go to school to learn how to make them. I can tell you that almost none of them have any clue how games are made, or how the industry works. In my introductory classes it’s incredibly rare for any of them to have any idea about, say, the difference between a developer and a publisher. This is one of the most fundamental distinctions in the entire commercial games industry, and despite being immersed in “gamer” culture, these guys generally have no clue. It’s like being so immersed in film you end up going to film school but somehow you have no idea what a director is. Similarly, it blows their minds to hear that the majority of people who play games are women, or that one of the best-selling franchises of the past decade is The Sims, a series very much not aimed at the “gamer” market. The video games press should be helping its audience understand the medium and the industry, but they’ve given most “gamers” absolutely no understanding at all.

It shouldn’t be terribly surprising to those in the games press that when the truth starts to emerge, the “gamers” get angry. And with no knowledge of this reality, they have no way to explain what they’re seeing. So they cast around for scapegoats, come up with conspiracy theories, and lash out wildly and violently.

If anybody needs to take responsibility for creating the conditions that produced GamerGate, I think the finger has to be pointed squarely at the video game press. I want to make it clear that I’m talking about the video games press as a whole here, as an institution. Individual journalists are generally good people with good intentions, but they’re part of a broader structure of video games journalism that influences the whole business in innumerable small ways, to a much larger effect. Few can entirely escape complicity, and some are more complicit than others. And yes, many in the games press are now are taking steps to clean up the mess, but we shouldn’t forget that the press was ultimately responsible for creating it in the first place. Sure, the marketing of games has played to this, but it was the press that really nurtured and reinforced the whole concept of the “gamer” identity. It’s no great exaggeration to say that the games press has sold out an entire generation of people who play video games, nullifying a diverse population of players in favour of an easily monetisable demographic of “gamers”.

The video games press has basically betrayed everybody who plays video games, and they did it for the ad money.

200 Games, 200 Words: 9 – Skyrim

I played the usual 150+ hour playthrough of Skyrim on release, but I’ve never really gone back to it. It just never grabbed me the way Morrowind and Fallout 3 did. Both of those games have atypical settings, what with Morrowind’s weird giant mushroom and crab-shell cities, and Fallout 3’s retrofuture post-apocalypse. This probably explains why I’ve spent hundreds of hours on both those games, over multiple playthroughs.

Have you seen Skyrim? It's generic fantasy, but the helmets have curved horns. Curved. Horns.

Have you seen Skyrim? It’s generic fantasy, but the helmets have curved horns. Curved. Horns.

But recently I went back to Skyrim, this time on PC. Bethesda’s games on PC have an entirely different life than their console equivalents, thanks to the huge array of mods available. Graphics overhauls and other mods for 2002’s Morrowind are still being updated today, long after the console version is forgotten and lost to the succession of console generations. There are mods for just about every aspect of Skyrim, of varying degrees of imagination and functionality, generally in inverse proportion to each other. Continue reading