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.

epic quest

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.

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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: 11 – Dead Island

I got Dead Island in a bundle. I’ve bought so many game bundles, I can’t remember which one it was in. But in most game bundles there are three kinds of games: the ones you’re buying the bundle for, the ones you might play since you’re getting them in the bundle, and the ones you know you’ll never touch. When I got Dead Island, I thought I’d at least give it a shot some time, but now I kind of wish I hadn’t.

Hit zombies. Repeat until bored.

Hit zombies. Repeat until bored.

Dead Island would’ve disappeared into the bargain bins without a glance if it hadn’t been for its infamously misleading trailer, which turned out to have nothing to do with the actual game. This shouldn’t have surprised anybody, but somehow it meant that Dead Island got a lot more attention on release than it deserved, so it was an effective marketing strategy. If you think games journalists would know better by now, you don’t know anything about games journalism. Continue reading

200 Games, 200 Words: 10 – Teleglitch

Teleglitch is a retro pixelated roguelike survival top-down shooter with zombies*. In other words, it’s a perfect storm of indie game clichés. But it proves that it’s lack of imagination, or flawed execution, that makes a bad game out of those clichés.

teleglitch_2013-05-03_11-24-59-79

I can’t explain exactly why, but Teleglitch perfectly captures the feeling I remember of playing DooM for the first time as a kid in the mid-90s. That is to say, it’s absolutely nothing like the DooM I actually played, and everything like the DooM I remember. To me, that’s the absolute best kind of retro. Continue reading

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

The Steam Platform: Promises And Challenges — An Alternative PC Gaming OS

I wrote this piece for Gameranx, on some of the challenges facing Valve’s new SteamOS, and what it might mean for PC gaming, I’m really keen to see where Valve are going with the Steam Platform, and there’s a lot to be excited about in last week’s announcements, but also a lot of potential pitfalls.

People Can Do The Work, So That Machines Have Time To Think: Procedural Criticism And System-First Design

Over the last couple of days, I’ve been working on a Twitter bot called @Greenlight_Game (source code here),a bot that randomly generates and tweets descriptions of games based on a list of clichés I’ve seen far too often on Steam Greenlight. The purpose of the bot is to call attention to the limited range of the kinds of games that crop up on Steam Greenlight.

Many of these games include elements that have been used by recent successful indie games, like Minecraft’s procedurally-generated sandbox worlds, or DayZ’s open-world zombie survival gameplay. Some of them are nothing more than shameless clones of existing successful indie games. But many more are games that simply reuse elements of popular games in incredibly boring ways, rather than coming up with their own ideas. Blocky designs, the perennial cliche of zombie enemies*, or the promise of endless procedurally-generated content… it’s all more of the same.

Continue reading