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)

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GTA IV: The Current State of PC Gaming

12 12 2008

gtaiv-meltdown

GTA IV has been released for the PC, and compared to the April console releases it’s bedlam.

This blog post has a melodramatised summary of the installation procedure, but that’s still a lot of hoops to jump through: Install Rockstar Social Club, sign up for Windows Live, sign up for Rockstar Social Club, accept that it comes with SecuROM, update the various bits of software you’ve just installed, then contend with various potentially game breaking bugs.

Amazon user reviews have already plummeted to 1.5 stars out of five, and the tags are mostly “defective by design”, securom infected”, “malware”, etc.

For this to happen to one of the standout games of the year in making a transition from console to PC is phenomenal, both in terms of the developer/publisher not seeing this coming and as a look at the current state of PC gaming.

I played through GTA IV on the 360, and play it with friends online every week, and have never suffered half the aggravation PC users are having to go through with it. I was a died in the wool PC gamer for about 5 years, and because of this kind of thing generally don’t go back to it except through Steam.

The whole installation procedure, as described in the blog post above, is an astoundingly poor piece of UX design. Good software does it’s thing in the background rather than talking to you; it has a low cognitive load by not pestering the user.

Steam is a form of DRM; consoles are, in the words of Bruce Everiss, giant anti-piracy dongles. I accept this on both of these platforms, not because I’m apathetic about DRM, but because it’s an explicit condition of the platform and doesn’t shove itself down my throat.

I suspect things like Steam might be the only viable platform for PC gaming. It’s not that it prevents piracy, it doesn’t, Valve’s titles are widely pirated. However, it’s a convenient way to buy, install and play games. That’s what people are looking for, and a lot of PC developers/publishers are completely failing at it right now.





Offworld, Left 4 Dead Intro

4 12 2008

Left 4 Dead

Offworld was also recently launched by Boing Boing, and along with Rock Paper Shotgun appears to be a stalwart and interesting games blog that updates a lot yet is above the standard of typical games blogs like Kotaku and Joystiq.

One of the posts that caught my attention the other day was this one about Left 4 Dead’s intro video. I’d picked up on the approach it took to the game, but not that it was a tutorial. I think that’s an excellent bit of insight.

Tutorials don’t necessarily have to be interactive: give people the right information and space to play together and they’ll generally figure things out. Nonetheless, many games take the patronising approach of “This is the button to jump. Press the button to jump! Well done! you just jumped! Now creep. This is the button to creep. No, don’t jump on that. Go back and creep. I’m not letting you do anything else until you do as you’re told.”

The “shopping list” approach to the Left 4 Dead video in terms of introducing the enemies and game mechanics is the kind of thing that make s a TV show or film look lazy and unfocussed, but I think it works exceptionally well for expressing a videogame through passive media.





Virtualisation, Dematerialisation

14 11 2008

http://www.flickr.com/photos/monkchips/2886907177/

James Governor has written a fascinating account of his visit to Microsoft’s Virtualisation team, who are attempting to simulate as much as the possibly can. It has potential to improve both the efficiency and the greenness of businesses, as James puts it:

Moving Atoms has a cost. I have recently started talking about Bit Miles as a Greenmonk narrative, defined as is the carbon cost associated with moving a good or creating a service that could instead have been delivered digitally. Bit Miles offer us a moral imperative to digitize: a simulation of the world is a beautiful opportunity to rethink and potentially dematerialize business processes.

Why not Supply Chain Simulator ™, which would pull together all of your plant information (pulled in from OSI, say), where your people are located (Peoplesoft), and how you move goods and services (SAP) around the world? An organisation could begin to run really deep “What If” scenarios about the energy costs of their businesses with simulations like these. But what would really make these models sing is the fact they’d be visual and immersive. Telling is rarely as effective as Showing. What would a low energy manufacturing business look like? With virtual technology we could maybe work it out.

Quite revolutionary stuff for Microsoft, and leaning heavily on their growing expertise in games. Another related post I read yesterday is “Who Stole My Volcano? Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Dematerialisation of Supervillain Architecture.“, which compares the opulent fortresses of Cold War Bond villains with the briefcases and phones that their modern counterparts work from. The utter difference in philosophy and power is obtuse at first, and utterly alien to the old guard, yet is accelerating into an unstoppable force.

I’ve been fascinated with the dematerialisation of physical objects ever since starrting to read Bruce Sterling, notably his book Shaping Things, which looks at the tendency of physical products to become information, ultimately existing as specific kinds of data that can be instantiated in the real world.

While AutoCAD is still the standard for architectural design, all the designers I know who use it regard it as outdated. The tools and skills that game developers use are up to the minute, and stand a good chance of being extremely relevant to the world in much larger ways, not only in terms of simulation, but also designing and producing physical chunks of it.

(CC image from MS Virtualisation studio, by RedMonk Red)





MMO Behaviours, Bruce Sterling at AGDC

19 09 2008

Bruce Sterling gave a keynote at the Austin Game Developer’s Conference, and Rudy Rucker quickly posted a transcript of the talk. He manages to use a set of nonsense words to illustrate how the present regards the past, presenting his talk as someone from the future talking about our present. The entire thing is entertaining and worth reading, but one part in particular stuck out to me:

The other question they ask—if they’re smart—is, what is that I did not see? What was I NOT thinking about? What is that blindsided me? What is that I couldn’t see in my industry? The future development I just didn’t understand. The wild card, the black swan.

Well, I can tell you about that problem.

[…]

Entertainment is fun. Am I correct? I’ve gotta be. If it’s no fun, obviously it’s not entertainment. It’s one of those phony game educational applications that kids have to be tortured to use. You definitely want the users to have fun. That’s the definition of your industry. That’s what it is all about.

Except for three kinds of people. They’re not fun people. They’re not even users. They’re abusers, you might say, because they don’t obey your rules.

First, gold farmers. Rip-off artists. The excluded. The black market. The pirates. […]

Second, griefers. […]

Third—and these are the weird ones—the convergence culture people. They will play your game all right, but they play it while using six or seven other kinds of media. They don’t make any distinction between the media they use. They use the networks as a meta-medium. They don’t play the roles in your role-playing games.

People play roles in Dungeons and Dragons because that is a paper game, it’s like little theater for the home. People play roles. You don’t see D&D people passing each other text messages and looking for cheats on wikis. Convergence people are metamedia people who are looking for meta-fun. Not your fun.

New and emergent forms of game are dependent on new and emergent forms of play. Not enough of us are looking at these trends, least of all developers who mainly have their heads down in the trenches producing AAA code and art assets.

The picture at the top of this post is a mount in Age of Conan, inspired by this video of a griefer with a horse. Cut down, shown without context as in that video, we tend to find griefing hilarious, yet if it’s done to us in game we tend to be outraged.

As a behaviour, it’s probably only been on the radar regularly for less than a decade. We’re not even close to understanding it, though along with others it is being studied. Videogames are a fascinating lens to look at ourselves through, and doing so may give us some clues about the future.





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)





Paper Protoypes

3 09 2008

Game Career Guide posted a truly excellent article yesterday, on teaching game design without computers. This kind of thing seems an ideal activity to do at secondary level. In fact, prototyping our own boardgames and RPGs was exactly what me and a bunch of mates did in our early teens, beginning with Space Crusade mods and also making up rules for an Advanced Heroquest set we got hold of sans rulebook. We quickly moved on to building our own dungeon crawlers, boardgames and RPGs.

There’s a lot to be said for paper renditions of game assets and prototypes. Several studios I know of cover their walls with printed versions of stuff to keep developers focused on what they’re making, finding in the past that just committing things to a server meant things disappeared into a kind of digital void. This would lead to a state where not many on the team had much idea of the scale of the project, what had been completed, and what remained to be done. Protoyping, it seems, can suffer in a similar way:

Students tend to identify “games” with AAA titles, rather than simpler casual games or games of 20 years ago (Tetris, Space Invaders). These AAA games are often terrifically complex, but they represent the kind of game most students want to produce. However, as a practical matter, most of them actually won’t go on to work for companies producing AAA console games; nor in an educational setting can they make such complex games requiring dozens of work years of professional effort.

All this complexity obscures the actual game design in the games. That obscuring complexity rarely exists in non-electronic games; furthermore, the students aren’t likely to design complex non-electronic games because they cannot expect the computer to take care of the details. Gameplay is a much more obvious element of non-electronic games than it is of video games. The result is that the student is forced to concentrate on the most important part

The article states that video-game prototyping tends to lead students into either story-telling or game production, resulting in the waste of a great deal of time on non-game design practice. It seems the lack of a representation of everything on a project can lead to a profound lack of focus. Typically, only producers have such a representation, but all can benefit from it. Non-electronic protoyping can create the right focus for designers.

Lego and components nicked from other board games are great resources for prototyping, as recommended in the also excellent Siren Song of The Paper Cutter (The article above links it, but the link is broken). Siren song indeed, it’s made me quite nostalgic for cattle abduction strategy boardgames.

Both articles are well worth the time needed to read them. At a time when game development skills have mostly become so complex they require a Graduate or Master’s degree as well as additional years of vocational training at a studio, paper prototyping offers a very accessible way for students at nearly all stages of education to get into and start discussing game design.

(CC image: Portal papercraft by a440. Bet that game would be difficult to prototype with paper).