Sim City: Not For Educational Use?

4 09 2008

I don’t generally worry about violence in games. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t, on the whole, have the negative effects that the anit-videogames lobby attach to it. I do, however, still worry about the potential negative effects games could have. As vehicles for the transmission of information, they have potential to actually do damage, much like biased news coverage and mistaken text books.

Jamais Cascio writes about Sim City on WorldChanging:

While some of Lobo & Schooler’s complaints arise from the fact that SimCity is built as a game — the “God Mode,” for example — most derive from inability to modify the underlying model, whether to include mixed-use development (the ground-floor commercial/upper-floor residential buildings which help to make dense urban environments livable), to vary the demand ratings for various services, to make pedestrian travel more acceptable, or to alter the efficiency and availability of renewable power generation. As a result, some models of urban development, such as the “New Urbanism” movement of the mid-late 1990s, fall outside the scope of the simulation, and become invisible to developers-in-training.

As games become more commonplace, especially in training and simulation, such effects will probably be far more pernicious and widespread than the risk factors associated with someone from a gang-ridden area playing Grand Theft Auto. Nonetheless, the passing on of harmful assumptions is absolutely nothing new to culture; it’s something we’ve always done with all forms of media.

Will spoke at BAFTA a few year ago and mentioned that Sim City has caused kids to think about urban planning, which is great, but when assumptions cause us to see it as valid training that’s not so good. It’s kind of like average FPS players thinking they’ve learned to be soldiers or commandos, when in fact they’ve generally trained themselves to get killed over and over again.

The patching process a modern game goes through could easily alleviate this, though the codebase for such a project could easily become a nightmare as it’s incrementally modified over the years. Blizzard are one of the few developers I’ve known to cope well with this, patching Starcraft a decade after release. Perhaps a modern iteration of Sim City could become an excellent urban planning trainer?

(CC image of the Shanghai projected for 2020 by eugene)

Death of Leipzig Greatly Exaggerated

27 08 2008

The lingering death of E3 seems to be creating instability elsewhere, with European event organisers fighting it out to provide a better successor. As reported by MCV today, the MD of Gamescom organiser Kölnmesse is talking his show up, claiming it will replace Leipzig:

“It was to be expected that the Leipzig trade fair would try to keep the topic in its 2009 programme as well by announcing its date. But they will have to do it without the industry for the most part. The lead trade fair will take place in Cologne in 2009 and beyond.”

“From Leipzig we are bringing the clear message that the games industry will be exhibiting in 2009 in Cologne at gamescom.

We have met with broad approval, and the industry is looking forward to gathering in Cologne. Whatever happens in Germany in 2009 outside of Cologne cannot claim to represent this sector.”

Bullish, especially considering that Leipzig had record attendance at over 200,000 this year, and so many game developers have been talking it up as a good balance of trade and consumer shows during the long death rattles of E3.

However, GamesCom has the backing of the German publisher’s association, the BIU. Additionally, bad transport links have always been the Achilles’ heel of Leipzig, and and may be a big enough opening for Cologne to successfully attack. We’ll see.

For now, The Inquirer has some interesting details that aren’t being reported elsewhere:

Well, while the Leipzig organization owns the “Games Convention” IP, Kölnmesse was a bit more devious and hooked the BIU by offering it free-of-charge ownership of the GAMESCom event. So not only can Kölnmesse claim the backing, it will be the de facto official gaming entertainment tradeshow in Germany because it’s owned by BIU and regardless of whether it turns out to be a steaming pile of you-know-what.

So now, much like what happened in the UK, there’ll be two major gaming tradeshows in Germany that will eat each other up and ruin the fun for everyone.

There’s a massive opportunity in the wake of E3. Hopefully, these shows aren’t about to mutually strangle each other instead.

Troubled Waters

21 08 2008

A furious commotion has developed in the past few days over game piracy. Since I posted about an indie developer’s efforts to talk to pirates, a file sharer has been ordered to pay £16,000 in damages and costs, and five publishers have announced combined legal action against 25,000 people.

It’s unlikely that many of these will lead to damages, as proving infringement is fraught with difficulties and unset precedents. As a result, the approach taken with Dream Pinball was apparently to pursue the people who wouldn’t show up in court; the merest hint of resistance was enough to make the firm give up and chase easier targets.

ELSPA have distanced themselves somewhat from this kind of activity:

“ELSPA does not condone this activity in any way, however, due to the civil nature of the offences, this is a matter for each of our members to tackle in a way that they feel is appropriate for their individual businesses”

Peter Moore has also jumped in, stating “It didn’t work for the music industry”. He continues:

“I’m not a huge fan of trying to punish your consumer. Albeit these people have clearly stolen intellectual property, I think there are better ways of resolving this within our power as developers and publishers.”

Indeed. Spamming customers en masse with McLawsuits only works against companies in the long run. Some read that as apologist rhetoric for pirates, but it’s not. The example of the record industry is plain for all to see, and there are many things a developer can do and create to mitigate piracy, such as using ad-supported models, subscription models, and online components that are an integral part of the game.

It struck me on reading the batch of stories linked above just how much flux and uncertainty there is in the games industry, and how studios seem to respond to it. What games are becomes increasingly blurry as they merge with digital networks. Additionally, all forms of media face similar issues. On top of that, we’re going through the first truly global financial crisis. After years of strained relationships between studios and publishers, management crises, new technology and increasingly difficult retail conditions, these are hardly reassuring times for the industry despite the recent boom of games.

I suspect as a result of all this that some developers are looking for a straightforward antagonist. Universities that fall short on industry skills, governments that fail to help out with tax breaks, consumers that pirate games. All of these are genuine problems, but the arguments made are similar to “publishers are evil”. It may seem that way, but it’s business and once you understand it you can negotiate. Of the antagonists currently lined up on the firing range, it’s pirates that the industry feels most able to viciously attack. Noone really sympathises with them, or can be seen to in public.

Nonetheless, consumers, educators, policy makers: all three groups are comprised of people the industry needs onside. Not one of them is the kind of simple antagonist portrayed by the rhetoric currently flying about, and won’t be won over through attacks. These are very complex problems that require adaptive action and negotiation, not guns.

(CC image by peasap)

Indie Developer Talks To Pirates

18 08 2008

Indie developer Cliff Harris posted a request for comments on his blog last week: “I want to know why people pirate my games. I honestly do.”, and the response is both fascinating and important. He’s collated the responses and his conclusions here. The whole thing is worth reading, but one of the most important things he found is that only a minority of those who pirate games (and bothered to respond to him) do it for dyed in the wool ideological reasons. The rest seem to be acting under various constraints, many of which are actually under the control of the developer.

So it was all very worthwhile, for me. I don’t think the whole exercise will have much effect on the wider industry. Doubtless there will be more FPS games requiring mainframes to run them, more games with securom, games with no demos, or games with all glitz and no gameplay. I wish this wasn’t the case, and that the devs could listen more to their potential customers, and that the pirates could listen more to the devs rather than abusing them. I don’t think that’s going to happen.
But I gave it a go, and I know my games will be better as a result. I’ll never make millions from them, but I think now I know more about why pirates do what they do, I’ll be in a better position to keep doing what I wanted, which is making games for the PC.

Cost is one dimension of this, and this developer is as a result of the feedback he got experimenting with lower game prices.

The first transatlantic telegraph cable operated at a very high cost per word, and every time they dropped it, their business expanded dramatically. The same could surely happen with games now they’re being driven into wider cultural foundations. Setting the right price point for something is difficult of course, because you don’t really get to experiment with different ones around the same marketing campaign.

As tinkering and open source technology become more commonplace, people will increasingly redefine what they do with things. Approach them on terms they like, and they won’t be incentivised to pirate your stuff. Approach them on terms they don’t like, and they’ll redefine the way they acquire things they want, i.e. by using modchips, flashcarts, cracks, P2P, etc.

The space between those extremes, in which a business can be profitable and popular, or in respect of a product, where a low enough price generates a high enough sales volume to create maximum revenue, is still difficult to find, but it will happen, especially with dialogues like this driving things forward.

(via Wonderland, and CC image of piracy rosette by Sarodeo)

Develop: Games Up

7 08 2008

There was a panel at the Develop Conference about the Games Up campaign, which rather predictably went into tax breaks and stayed there. There were a number of good points I found in it, both for and against tax breaks, none of which I’d heard being made before.

On the panel were Richard Wilson from TIGA, Sarah Chudley from Bizarre Creations, Ian Livingstone from Eidos, and David Braben of Frontier Developments.

Cutting off any comparisons to any industries such as coal mining, Ian Livingstone pointed out that subsidising dying industries is futile, but as a growth industry games would likely be reinforced and enhanced by tax breaks. There was a quick audience vote in which a great deal of those present seemed unsure about the idea, with a few even putting their hands up against.

The reasons soon became apparent, with the session quickly turning into a debate. IGDA Director Jason Della Rocca offering some particularly challenging comments. Over all, his argument was that the problems faced in developing games at the moment are so complex that a tax break would probably make little or no difference to the UK industry.

Furthermore, he said, there are many other areas which are within reach of studios, such as tool standards and talent retention. He’s right; while game development is not quite in the management wasteland of the early 00’s, there’s still a great deal of development to be done on businesses and staff.

In line with the comments at this session, Paul Wedgwood gave this quote to this morning:

I can tell you as the owner of a studio that, at least has the perception of being successful, if I paid less tax we wouldn’t make better games

As with any debate like this, all camps tend to be a bit naive in their own favour, but it’s interesting to note such industry figures decrying tax breaks as too simple and too unlikely a target. Of course, if the government offers the industry money it would be foolish not to take it, but there’s far more to pushing the industry forward, and I can’t help but feel that through this Richard Wilson has stepped into a tricky cultural problem in terms of game development: It’s fairly straightforward for studios to unite yet act out of self interest as far as calling on the government is concerned, but other areas where studios can make improvements call for a lot more selfless effort.

(CC window tax image by akira_kev)

Shock and Awe

18 07 2008

Great quote today from Ben Feder:

technology is at a point where developers don’t have to shock the audience to amaze the audience

(CC image by CarbonNYC)

Rating System Fight Continues…

8 07 2008

The BBFC and PEGI continue to campaign against each other and for themselves, with the drumbeat of PR and anti-PR increasing in particular over the last week.

Today, at the Westminster briefing on the games industry, Margaret Hodge called for a “grown up” debate on the subject. It seems each has half of the solution: PEGI has a smoothly run back-end that’s scalable and already covers online and offline content. The BBFC has amazing “brand recognition”, with age rating symbols that have been emphatically drummed into the British psyche.

Since the games industry has cast the government as the miserly villain throughout the debate on tax breaks, it’s good to see a government representative sensibly warning the ratings bodies off a political conflict. The mudslinging is achieving nothing worthwhile and relegates a very important issue to the same territory as Microsoft and Sony execs regularly taking digs at each other in the industry press.

It shouldn’t be forgotten in the middle of this that the BBFC have often been in the corner of games, defending them against the more outlandish claims leveled at them. Hopefully the two can come to a resolution without either being unilaterally swept aside.

(CC image by lastyearsgirl_)