Female Friendly?

14 01 2009

http://flickr.com/photos/orinrobertjohn/114430223/

Aleks talks about Eidos getting lower than expected sales on Tomb Raider: Underworld, and as a result saying they’ll possibly make Lara Croft more “female friendly”. What on earth does that even mean? Do Eidos have a clue why North American sales were so low compared to expectations? Have they tied that to American women not buying it?

I don’t know, but it’s a sore point for may gamers and developers, with the industry and especially publishers hung between what a rare piece of good reporting in the Daily Mail (really, of all places) calls the “Pink Plague“, and shallow appeals to heterosexual men.

Commenters on the Guardian Gamesblog piece point out that Lara always was a female friendly character to them:

It’s funny because the original tomb raider on PS1 did appeal to women. For many women (and older people) I know Tomb Raider was Playstation, it was a family game. She was an intellectual young woman travelling the world solving puzzles.

There really is a lot of potential to make Lara into a female role model rather than a sex object, but every chance most game companies will still screw it up. Other comments are tragically piercing and hilarious:

Going by previous games industry efforts, the next instalment will be Little Pet Shop Raider: Pony Sanctuary.

-Instead of killing tigers you have to dress them up in beany hats and necklaces. If they dig your style they wont attack. If you style enough animals correctly you unlock a fashion show.

– Sometimes Lara will refuse to unlock doors or lift items because she is having emotional issues with her bf. To prevent this Lara can use her in game mobile to chat inanely to her girlfriends raising her stats.
Medipacks are replaced by heat magazines and hot chocolate.

– Lara’s quest involves hunting a rare bangle that Grazia named their hot pick of spring 2009.

– Lara will refuse to walk anywhere, instead she can ring her ingame bf to pick her up and drive her through the temples.

– Extreme humidity will result in Lara’s hair going frizzy. If players cannot find hair straightners within a set time limit, Lara will throw a hissy fit and refuse to continue the mission

(CC image by Orin Optiglot)

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Non-Linear Art

9 01 2009

http://flickr.com/photos/kevinsteele/24771587/

Margaret Robertson is on fire in this post. There are lots of stupid quibbles and assumptions in the games industry, things that function as shorthand for mainstream legitimacy among developers and games journalists, which in fact are trivial and potentially very damaging. I hadn’t noticed this one much until Margaret pointed it out:

Tears shouldn’t be our goal. Stories don’t need to be our tools. The majority of art forms don’t rely on narrative for their emotional impact. Stop and think about that for a second. The games industry tends to draw on such an amazingly limited roster of inspirations that it’s easy to forget it. But our obsession with linear, story-based – word-based, even – non-participatory art at the expense of all the other forms makes life so much harder for games, and it makes me crazy. I swear, next GDC I’m going to set myself up behind a table in the lobby with a huge pile of rubber bands and a huge pile of Jelly Tots, and each delegate, as they come in, is going to get a band on their left wrist and a handful of sweets in their right pocket. And then, all week, every time they hear the word ‘film’, ‘book’ or ‘TV show’, they have to give themselves a snap. And everytime they hear the world ‘painting’, ‘theatre’, ’sculpture’, ‘opera’, ‘architecture’, ‘comics’*, ‘dance’, ‘music’ or ‘poetry’, they get a sweetie. Two, if they say it rather than hear it. But goddamit, we’re not the only people trying to create emotionally resonant experiences in environments that aren’t kind to linear narratives.

Emphasis mine.

(CC image by Kevin Steele)





LRB: Good, Cultural Games Commentary

8 01 2009

http://flickr.com/photos/marfis75/2459534903/

This week, the London Review of Books have an excellent article by John Lanchester about games. It’s intelligent analysis of games for non-gamers, full of assumptions about the LRB audience but none whatsoever that they understand what games are. It’s full of considered analysis of what games are and what they mean, using examples like Bioshock, Resident Evil 4, The Movies and LittleBigPlanet to make a case for the cultural significance of games.

Northrop Frye once observed that all conventions, as conventions, are more or less insane; Stanley Cavell once pointed out that the conventions of cinema are just as arbitrary as those of opera. Both those observations are brought to mind by video games, which are full, overfull, of exactly that kind of arbitrary convention. Many of these conventions make the game more difficult. Gaming is a much more resistant, frustrating medium than its cultural competitors. Older media have largely abandoned the idea that difficulty is a virtue; if I had to name one high-cultural notion that had died in my adult lifetime, it would be the idea that difficulty is artistically desirable. It’s a bit of an irony that difficulty thrives in the newest medium of all

The “Is It Art?” title is a bit cringe worthy for developers who’ve perpetually lived through that debate in the industry, but it’s the exact kind of coverage games need outside the industry. I had some issues with the author 18 months ago when he claimed that the moral outcry over Bully was justified in a piece about the banning of Manhunt 2, but even back then he came across as very much on the side of games.

Millions of Wii owners do widen the audience of games, but they alone do not make them into a well cemented, rounded part of the cultural landscape. They help, but John is the kind of writer they need in order to progress in more than just an economic sense.

(via Infovore)

(CC image by marfis75)





Companies Request LittleBigPlanet IP Whitelisting

7 01 2009

http://flickr.com/photos/sillygwailo/348769786/

LittleBigPlanetoid brought this very interesting nugget to my attention on Monday: Companies have been asking Media Molecule to add their IP to a whitelist for LittleBigPlanet, meaning that rather than being treated as copyright infringement, works based on their things will be treated as fan art or free marketing, and allowed to stay in place.

Sony have taken a very cautious approach so far: that nuking things from orbit is the only way to be sure. At first there were complaints of overly zealous moderation, and lack of explanation for it, but MM/Sony have worked with the fan community to improve this immeasurably. It’s very pleasing that they seem to be just as amenable with companies too; LittleBigPlanet is so polished that people want their IP to be in it.

Merely squashing copyright infringing user generated content is often a terrible step to take, as it’s generally non-profit making, and those who put their time and skill (of any level) into creating it tend to be the fans who care the most.

There’s a story from the Unreal modding scene I often use when talking about these things, but it seems like pretty much all of the blog, forum and news posts about it have rotted away as it was about 8 years ago (Blimey. Link rot could get a lot worse than we expect…). A modder named Patrick “BadKarma” Fitzimmons was making a Star Wars map pack for Unreal Tournament, and repeatedly got cease and desist letters from Lucasarts’ lawyers. After (IIRC) several years of justifying it as non-profit making, sophisticated fan art, and getting people to sign petitions on his behalf, Lucasarts eventually stopped with the threats and started tacitly backing them, with it going on to become a fully fledged mod.

The entire struggle threw the issues into very stark relief, with a protracted fight between Lucasarts and BadKarma that led to a lot of head scratching. At the time, Twentieth Century Fox had also gained a reputation for threatening and generally stamping on all mod makers who infringed their copyrights, to the extent that the verb “foxing” was invented to describe it. Conditions laid down on an Aliens mod for Half Life were basically: “Cease work, hand over all assets and copyright to us, delete all of your own copies of your work, and we reserve the right to still sue you even if you comply”. The problem with this is that the fans have put a lot of time, effort and love into their creations, and the companies are engendering disillusion by attacking their strongest devotees.

LittleBigPlanet is actually quite a nice compromise, acting as a sandbox that, hopefully, will keep the lawyers happy too. The news of whitelisting is excellent, and it seems likely that EA are on the list given some of the levels that have been permitted to exist there. Impressive, for a company that used to be regarded by many as the evil empire of the games industry.

(CC image by sillygwailo)





Sense of Wonder

11 12 2008

http://flickr.com/photos/trackybirthday/257419001/

I’ve been slowly (too slowly) working my way through these Sense of Wonder Night videos from TGS. It’s a great bunch of strange indie concepts and prototypes, including current belles Pixel-Junk Eden and The Unfinished Swan as well as a lot of more obscure prototypes, like Depict, where you have to reproduce things with a phone camera:

and Gomibako, which appears to be a Tetris style game involving shoving litter in a bin with physics, then setting fire to it:

(CC image by tracky birthday)





Split Streams

9 12 2008

http://flickr.com/photos/t_lawrie/320871693/

The Guardian have a perky report about how well the games industry is doing in the UK, which has some good observations, such as the timing of this recession being as good as it could be, falling in the middle of a console cycle when sales and resource allocations are optimal. Another is that publishers are more likely to put money into established IP than risky new projects, something that’s already the case mid to late cycle, given that new IP is a lot easier to launch with a new console.

However, the Guardian piece is still only telling half the story. “Recession proof” is a term that has been thrown around a lot in relation to games recently, and given the massive spate of studio layoffs, sales and closures that has blighted the end of 2008, it’s just not true. Of course it affects games businesses, just like others.

NESTA have produced a new report on the state of the UK games industry, and despite an improvement in the dollar rate it’s really struggling against a few factors. While work for hire is getting easier and more common, the amount of IP UK developers can generate seems to be decreasing. Meanwhile, the vast revenues being generated by unprecedented retail sales only go a limited way towards developers, passing as they do through the filter of publishers.

Edit: Even today, bad publishing news.

(CC image by TCL 1961)





Games Criticism

8 12 2008

Beyond Good and Evil

As I mentioned last week, the relationship of the games press to game developers and gamers is something that has been bothering me a great deal for the past few months. I don’t want to write a lengthy analytical missive pointing out what’s wrong and offering solutions. Opinions on it are two a penny, and mine is that the solution is yet another cultural process that is going to happen automatically.

For decades, games journalism has largely consisted of a small group of dedicated enthusiasts speaking to fellow enthusiasts. This eventually seems to terminate in large scale dedicated news outlets with a high turnover of news; often copy pasted from press releases and refed through truncated RSS feeds designed to drive ad impressions. The sum total of all that effort is to create a news source which is only worth skimming over, much as the writers seem to have skimmed over their own sources.

There are scant examples of people digging beyond press releases. Hit Self Destruct did a little digging here on recent events at NCsoft (as well as saying a whole lot about games journalism), and Wonderland mentioned the launch of Sony’s new credit card, which in itself is an horrific non-story, other than the fact not a single other place mentioned the very high APR. In the case of all those other sites, that’s not news reporting, it’s publicity.

When Leigh Alexander recently wrote about possible salary fixing in Montreal, Steve Gaynor jokingly tweeted at her: “What’s this shit, actual journalism? Come on Alexander write a preview or something”.

That’s the thing. Very few people involved are unaware of the dynamic between publisher, developer, and player, and the resulting flaws in games journalism. The games industry is kind of stuck with the culture it built, and cultural change is glacial. The uncomfortable gulf between good reporters and critics who don’t understand games and people with highly specialised knowledge of games who are stuck in the industry is closing, but slowly and naturally rather than in any revolutionary sense.

I already highlighted Tom Armitage and Offworld in the past week, and I’d like to add Duncan Fyfe and Iroquois Pliskin. Both of those posts are specifically about the industry press and criticism, and both are also excellent bloggers.

All media, no matter how long established, still has some tawdry, shallow attendant journalism and reviewing, as well as elitist circles that chatter about the necessity of audience education (Which is sometimes worthy, and sometimes nothing more than an attempt at memetic reproduction). The presence of such extremes and everything inbetween is simply an indicator of a healthy culture. Exactly the same stratification is going to occur with coverage and discussion of games. Just as with every previous form of media, it’ll take a long time. The good news is that it’s inevitable.

(Image from Beyond Good and Evil)