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)

Advertisements




Blitz 3D

2 12 2008

http://flickr.com/photos/barron/2253769108/

Midlands game company Blitz today announced new tech for making 3D games. That GI.biz piece links a few other announcements of games companies going into 3D tech. I wonder if it could actually catch on?

This kind of thing really excited me as a child, until I realised the only way to experience it at the time was in theme parks. Next to real roller coasters has to be the worst possible place to show off this kind of technology.

Lately my local multiplex has been offering some films in 3D for a few extra pounds on the price of a normal ticket. It had novelty value, but that seems to be it. Though people seem to have less of a problem wearing dorky NHS style glasses in the darkness of a cinema, after a screening of Beowulf in 3D I nonetheless heard them remarking quite caustically on how obviously things were made to stick out of the screen to emphasise the effect.

I have strong doubts about stereoscopic 3D on screens, but also suspect that interactivity could overcome all of them. For instance, Johnny Lee Chung’s head tracking 3D using slightly modified Wii hardware offers a much more striking effect than a traditional film, and people are developing technology to create 3D using standard TVs.

Would FPS playing be improved when playing with a true stereoscopic picture? I bet.

(CC image by barron)





UK Games Archive

30 09 2008

I’m pleased to see this being set up by one of my local universities; I was present for the launch of GameCity and the announcement of this:

An archive to preserve the history of videogames is being set up by university experts.

Nottingham Trent University says the global videogames industry is worth about £22bn and steps are needed in order to record its development.

The archive will be housed at the National Media Museum in Bradford and put together by researchers from Nottingham Trent University.

The collection will include consoles, cartridges and advertising campaigns.

The archive will chart the history of videogames from Pong in 1972 to present-day blockbusters.

A lot of people won’t appreciate just how necessary this is, yet as Dr. James Newman points out countless works from other media have been lost over time due to a lack of these kind of efforts. A minority of people in the comics community have been agitated for years over the lack of a similar archive for comics, while important indie work piles up and gets forgotten.

Despite similar efforts for film, plenty of celluloid film has simply rotted away, and that’s somewhat due to it languishing under copyright law for decades at a time. That games are a retail product will no doubt make that less of a barrier to collecting and archiving important games and the media surrounding them.

(CC image by Brainless Angel)





The Art of Digital Distribution

1 09 2008

(Above: Preliminary artwork from the development of Braid)

It’s unprecedented: The Daily Mail have given a gushingly positive review to a videogame, Braid. The Daily Mail, of course, has been at the front of many a “ban this sick filth” campaign against nearly every controversial game of the moment. As Destructoid put it, “British tabloid in game-liking SHOCKER!”.

Anecdotally, even my older brother, who only rarely plays games and hates most of them, watched me do a speedrun of the game this weekend while I explained the story to him. At the end, his words were “This is a significant piece of work”.

Since it’s a 360 exclusive, many will have to wait until the PC version of this is out, and luckily it’s likely to have fairly low system requirements. In the meantime, Gamasutra have an article about the development of the game’s art style, going from the basic programmer art through many iterations to the final product. It’s an interesting read, though a little fragmented due to originally being a series of blog posts. There are more in the same series there.

It struck me during this weekend that there weren’t really many propositions that would make a game entering the market at £10 look good or desirable next to £50 new releases like GTA IV. Am I a snob for thinking the idea of a £10 price point in brick and mortar retail kind of smacks of the cheap multipacks of Spectrum cassettes to be found littering cash and carries during the late 80s? Indie games can’t possibly hope to compete in the AAA arms race, and as a result it’s likely that a rack of boxed XBLA titles would create a bargain bin perception.

Digital distribution is the perfect medium to bring indie games back to the fore and reward experimentation though. Braid, Castle Crashers, RezHD, and Pixeljunk Eden are all things that have caught my eye over the past month, but in the past 5 years of my gaming there was very little in the same vein to be had. As a result, in one month since signing up for xbox live, I’ve spent more on games this past month than I usually do in most. There are PS3 titles I’d be buying digitally if I owned the one in our house too. £40 – £50 price points lead me to contemplate AAA purchases carefully, and I don’t make many. £10 for something that will keep me and a housemate entertained for a quiet weekend is a steal.

Digital distribution is a strange current where technology and culture mingle and drive each other. In the case of music, there’s an absolutely overwhelming amount of content, but with games, it’s still fairly easy for a single one to stand out and be remembered. I feel quite privileged to be able to observe a new form of media adapting to new technology.





Games Move Further Into TV, Film

15 08 2008

A couple of news items about games and film caught my eye yesterday, the first in particlar indicating that machinima is quickly jumping towards the mainstream. Starting with the relative obscurity of something like the demoscene, it’s now moving via games and youtube to become a much better known and expected thing.

Mark Rein of Epic Games writes about Blockade Entertainment this week, a studio set up to create animation using game assets. Technology has improved to the point of being visually acceptable (Though of course nowhere near the standards of Pixar), and games companies are understanding the potential value of their IP a lot more deeply. For instance, EA are looking at film licensing for Spore. Will Wright:

“With Spore, we’re looking way outside the game space, such as TV, movies, etc. We’re basically planting the seeds to spread Spore out to a much wider group of people than would ever play a computer game,”

The image above is from the execrable Doom film, which is pretty representative of screen projects based on games so far. With a greater number of people getting into the space, especially any like Wright, things are bound to get more interesting. Games technology has also at least advanced to the point where it can express drama even if making in interactive is still a grail.





TTTV: Traveler’s Tales Aiming at Television

7 08 2008

For a few years now, since Lorne Lanning’s announcement of Citizen Siege at GameCity, game developers have been talking about using the same art assets for games and films.

With the backing and IP of time Warner, Traveller’s Tales have now set their sights on making children’s programs and one day possibly films:

And for me personally, I think further in the future we’re making a kids’ TV show… using some of the tech we’ve developed for games. In the mid-distance, personally, to be able to dabble around in CG and film would be interesting, and Warner allows me to push in those directions without “quitting the day job,” so to speak. So for me, to look to the future and think, “I wouldn’t mind [doing a film]…” And Warner allows me to take a step in that direction, and if I suck? Great, I’ll make games.

I’ve got experience in top-level design and direction and have spent 18 years analyzing movies, so it’s “how do you build that into a game?” It’s very interesting and exciting, but it’s just one possible avenue that’s available for me personally within this deal. If I’d wanted to do this in another arena – if we’d been acquired by, say, an Activision, I’d have to leave, and then I’m out of the industry.

If we did get to making movies… we could make the game and the film at the same time, and there are so many things you could build at the same time. My dream is combining the two, and making a property that you can share all the assets across everything taking place.

Strictly ambition and speculation for now, but nonetheless very intersting. TT Games are in a very good position to manage something like this.

(CC image by Kaptain Kobold)





NYC Apartment Has Games, JJ Abrams Has Rights

25 06 2008

NYC Apartment

Last week the New York Times ran an article on a stunning apartment overlooking Central Park, which had various puzzles and games built into it for the owners. The article is here, though may require a login to view (try bugmenot.com).

What Ms. Sherry didn’t realize until much later was that Mr. Clough had a number of other ideas about her apartment that he didn’t share with her. It began when Mr. Klinsky threw in his two cents, a vague request that a poem he had written for and about his family be lodged in a wall somewhere, Ms. Sherry said, “put in a bottle and hidden away as if it were a time capsule.” (Ms. Sherry said that her husband is both dogged and romantic, a guy singularly focused on the welfare of children, not just his own. Mr. Klinsky runs Victory Schools, a charter school company that seeds schools in neighborhoods around the country, as well as an after-school program in East New York that his own children help out with regularly.)

That got Mr. Clough, who is the sort of person who has a brainstorm on a daily basis, thinking about children and inspiration and how the latter strikes the former. “I’d just read something about Einstein being inspired by a compass he’d been given as a child,” he said. The Einstein story set Mr. Clough off, and he began to ponder ways to spark a child’s mind. “I was thinking that maybe there could be a game or a scavenger hunt embedded in the apartment — that was the beginning,” he said.

The flat is full of keys, ciphers, puzzles and hidden compartments. The article is an absolutely fascinating read, and there’s a slideshow here.

Paramount have now bought rights to the article from the NYT, apparently for a film to be produced by JJ Abrams, and I’m not surprised. He gave a fascinating talk at TED about mystery last year, about how it is a potent element in creating compelling experiences. Games and puzzles, by combining this with specific objectives, are among some of the most compelling experiences we’ve produced.