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a video game blog by Tadhg Kelly

Updated: 2017-02-09T04:44:52.182+00:00


A Simple Lifeform I


Friends, it is time to close up this old blog o' mine. I am moving house.

Some weeks back just before Christmas, I left my job working as a producer and moved to a partnership in a startup company. Simple Lifeforms is its name and social games are its domain. We have a blog in which I will be relaying my new grand adventure. I hope you'll join me there!


The Economic Crises: A Game Design Approach


With the recent set of turmoil that has engulfed markets all around the world, I can't help but think of it as a game. At the moment the banks are all in trouble, the levels of trust in markets at an all time low. It is, in essence, a game of poker that has gone bad, and many people are taking their stakes and going home. There's a lot of culture of blame going on, with various groups and politicians calling for curbs on pay packets to executives and the like, which I tend to think is basic scapegoating when the actual problem is that the rules of the market game were poor and lacked balance. Investment banking, indeed any kind of financial business, is really just a game. There are rules to adhere to, diplomatic phases to engage with, trades to be done and so on. The reward for playing the game well is money of course, but after a certain level most investment bankers would agree that the money that they get is really just points. The rules of the game allow for a vast accumulation of points, reinvesting of points to build even more points, complex deals based on the promise of the transfer of points etc etc. It's just a big MMO.What happens with any game of any sort is that players instinctively try to exploit it. Grokking, as it's generally called, pretty much demands this sort of behaviour. To be a great player, you have to learn now only how to play but also how to play well, and what the limits of the system are. An example of this is rocket-jumping in Quake, or the road-rail cheat in Transport Tycoon. All game systems have unintended emergent behaviours and the more complex the system becomes, the more opportunities for exploits become available. Exploits, it should be noted, are different from actual cheats. A cheat is where the player uses some outside influence to artificially alter the system (such as looking at your opponent's cards). An exploit, however, is legal within the system even though many players may not consider it sportsmanlike behaviour.The current financial crisis is essentially the result of two things:1. Poor rule design in the game of the markets. 2. A proliferation of exploits gone badRule designThe key rule design that has been flawed is that of the complex derivative and credit swaps market. In short, the intergovernmental system had adopted a highly free market approach to all business as much as was possible over the last 30 years (pretty much since the 80s) which had had good effects in liberating a lot of credit but also had bad effects in limiting monitoring and oversight. While free markets sounded good in principle, in actuality they drove the complexity of transactions. It has been said a lot in recent days that the core of the problems really stem from most of the players having a very poor understanding of the transactions to which they were committed. A whole vast industry had arisen on the basis of this exceeding complexity to the point that pretty much nobody knew what anything was worth any more and everybody believed that everything was secure until they realised that it wasn't.ExploitsSo what about those exploits? Well transactional complexity figures largely here because they essentially allowed the players to inflate their value in the absence of a clear sense of worth. Secondly in many countries the relationship between players and rule-makers was too close. Financial institutions (being as they are players) are motivated to want to collect as many points as possible and so they lobby for changes to the rules of the game in order to get those points. This is not dissimilar to high-level long-time players whining about their characters in WoW to Blizzarrd in the hopes of getting some advantage for themselves.So since lobbying is legal, it has been an oft-used exploit. Another is the practise of creating new kinds of financial product at a rate much faster than the hobbled government can catch up to and examine them. When you have a mortgage market with hundreds of thousands of separate "products" (meaning deals) in it offering all sorts it seem[...]

Embedding and sharing in the Play Room


The Play Room is proving to be quite entertaining, and it's always fun to share within it. Some tips:

It's really very easy to join. Simply register a username on (this takes all of ten seconds) and then click this link: and the Join This Room button.

You can share items to the Play Room very easily using a bookmarklet. This is simply a button that you drag on to your browser's bookmarks toolbar. Thereafter, any time you see a page that you'd like to share, you simply click the bookmarklet and a little box appears asking you to fill in some details. Don't forget: While the bookmarklet is opne you can also click one of the pictures on the page to add it into your share. Shares with pictures are always more attractive. The bookmarklet is here:

You can embed a little frame of The Play Room on your own blog or site if you like. Simply add the following piece of javascript to your site, and you will see a widget just like the one on the right hand side of this page:

Come join in the fun!

Nine members


Well it's a start.

So far the activity in The Play Room has admittedly mostly been mine (come on members, get with the sharing) but some of those items have been quite interesting even if I do say so myself.

Two articles, for example.
  • One is about piracy and Cliff Harris's call for pirates to speak to him directly about why they pirate (A mildly confrontational, but I suspect fruitless, challenge).
  • The other is from Gamasutra and is about the hurdles that Johnathan Blow encountered with the Microsoft certification process for XBLA.
Both links are sitting in the room now. Come, join, comment, share. 

The Play Room: Friendfear?


Something I hadn't expected.

I've asked a few friends, not many - people in games - to sign up to the room. A few have. But some of the reactions that I've had from those who haven't has been something that I hadn't expected: Fear of publicity.

Specifically, that they didn't want discussions, even light-hearted discussions, on the subjects of games in case somebody somewhere (from their jobs mostly) might Google them and find them.

It says a lot about what it is to work in games when even a link-sharing group strikes terror into the heart.

The Play Room: 24 Hours later


Well things have gotten off to a good start: There are 7 of us in the room now.

I've had an interesting day talking to a few friends about it in fact, giving them a link etc. All but one of them didn't know what Friendfeed was at all, and there was a lot of suspicion. One friend kept badgering me and asking what was in it for THEM. It was hard to explain that it was one of those "what you put in, you get out" deals.

For those that don't know: This is a wiki page about what Friendfeed is.
It's not a spammy service, it's just a simple gathering tool, not a million miles away from a webforum or Facebook group, but it's really easy to pass interesting links that you've found on the web and start discussions etc.

Come, join in.

The Play Room


I don't know about you, but recently I have become very very bored with the whole blogging scene. Games blogging such as it is had this really high wave of activity about 3-4 years ago when people like Greg Costikyan and Scott Miller and Daniel Cook were at the height of their powers. It was all big, serious-minded people writing big serious essays on every subject from how to manage a brand to very in-depth talks about game design.

But lately the scene has just gone to seed. We're not along in this either: Lots of the world's biggest blogheads are engaged in furious debate at the moment over why blogging has gone so damn boring. A lot of them are now talking about micro-blogging, life-casting and sundry other concepts which could be described as fascinating and horrendous all at the one moment.

I'm not proposing to start life-casting my day or anything of the sort, but what I am proposing is to get a conversation going and leave the blogspace to become more noteworthy and probably turn into Google Knol in the fullness of time. As with games themselves, this blogging lark should be fun, no?

Well here it is: The Play Room.

The Play Room is a room on the social meta-service called Friendfeed. It is a service in which you can share links and comment on them, share photos, embed feeds, all that good stuff. A room in Friendfeed is simply a sub-division of that space in which an administrator (in this case me) sets a very few ground rules (like staying reasonably on topic would be nice) and really just lets everybody else get on with it. Friendfeed is ridiculously easy to use. Just sign up, set up the things you want to embed in your own feed, and then click on the link above (or here) and join in.

The subject of the Play Room?

GAMES of course. And social media. And funny videos. And webcomics. And photographs of queues outside shops at midnight to buy Halo 4. And blog posts. And links to neat magazine articles. And deriding E3. It's basically a place to share, think, comment and enjoy. Share and enjoy.

That's it, that's the pitch. Come on in, tell your friends, get them to come on in too.

Zero Tolerance: The new music in Zero Punctuation


I love Zero Punctuation, the mostly-weekly review video that The Escapist have been running for a while now by British emigré journalist Ben "Yahtzee" Crowshaw. For those three of you out there who may not know what it is, ZP presents 4-minute long animated reviews, mostly of one specific title at a time, and it does so with a calavcade of animated characters and a very distinctive speaking style on the party of Yahtzee. He literally fires through each of the points of his reviews in a mad rant that offers little or no chance for breath or full stops. Hence the name. It's the game reviewer equivalent of The Show with Ze Frank.

Aside from the machine-gun speed delivery, however, what makes ZP work extremely well are three things: Its visual invention, its analysis (which is sharp, witty and often brutally to the point) and its very British off-kilter tone. It has been the making of The Escapist also, which prior to ZP's introduction was a very dusty magazine full of intellectual pieces that seemed more at home in an academic journal trying to make some impact in the world of Gamespot and IGN.

But there's a problem and it is this. Someone in the editorial circle of the Escapist, whether it be Yahtzee himself (doubtful) or somebody at the magazine, has decided to jazz up Zero Punctuation with the introduction of boilerplate animations and music at the front and back of each of the new videos.

So where previously we had relevant and witty music choices.

Now we have cheesy metal and explosions.

This has to be stopped!
Letters need to be written!
Avengers assemble!

The conference ritual


There's this ritual that I have: Every year I log onto whichever of the gaming news sites are showing webcasts of the E3 conferences, and in another window I click open British gaming forum, wherein live commentary is provided. It's a real treat for two reasons: 1. The conferences are usually dreadful, full of flash graphics and music around some of the worst presentation giving you have ever seen. They are legendarily awful unless there's some totally awesome hardware launch. 2. The commentary on the forum, on the other hand, is fantastic. They literally tear it apart in a super-lively babble of reality up until the point that the forum keels over for having too many users. Things we've shared over the years:
  • Fist-pumps to no applause
  • Timid voices trying to sound exciting
  • Everybody using the words "opportunity, "experience", "innovation", "compelling", "exciting" blah
  • Fake thanks on stage
  • People clearing throats
  • Bored bored bored journalists
  • The "one more thing" thing which is so tired even Steve Jobs doesn't do it any more
It's great fun, but not really what the interested parties are trying to do, surely? It strikes me that if you're going to do the conference thing then surely the thing to learn is some stagecraft? Don't put the timid exec on stage if he's not good in front of a crowd, for instance. Find someone to do it for you with confidence, even a celebrity if you have to. Don't talk about how exciting things are: show how exciting they are. Don't trot out lists of features as a replacement for content. In the end of the day, there are better ways to present this stuff but ultimately what it comes down to is charisma, and most of these people doing the conferences are no doubt very talented at their jobs but they comes across as nerds talking about their science project at the head of a bored class on a hot summer's day. "Exciting!"

A question of value


If I were to ask you what you think the value your game's content was, what would your answer be? I think most developers would answer somewhere between 10 and 25 pounds (or 20 and 50 dollars US). It's what they would likely consider a fair price for their services rendered, and that's perfectly understandable.The problem is that they don't set the value of their output, the public do. And the public have always placed the value of content at one number:Zero.When paying for entertainment, the public are always paying for one of three things: Tickets, memorabilia or convenience. Tickets as in entry to an event. Memorabilia as in merchandise. Convenience as in the ability to use their content as and when they choose. So, for example:A ticket to go see Led ZeppelinT-shirts for the eventAn album of greatest hits that they can pop on and listen to whenever they chooseIt's not the actual thing that they'll pay for so much as the toll to get to the thing, in otherwords. This is largely born out by the radio and television industries' realisations back way whenever that people wouldn't actually pay to listen to radio shows or watch TV shows. Instead they developed the first business models that gave content away at the value which the public perceived (i.e. for free) and instead made the toll a business-to-business transaction in the form of advertising. And I think we can all agree that that model has been nothing short of a roaring success for those companies that could scale that model appropriately. Add in the extra ticket incentive of cable television and there you have it.So, to games.Currently most games sell themselves on the convenience model. The discs that the people buy to put in their Xboxes represent the equivalent of the album. Except not all discs will fit all boxes, a situation that fragments the market in a bad way and keeps games effectively on the sidelines culturally. While the industry wrestles over which format to support (and these are especially uncertain times in that regard), it effectively produces a natural cap for the consumer that does not want to be confused and suspicious.The convenience model for games therefore has its limits, because the prices for new games are quite high compared to other forms of entertainment, and the selections are small. Thus the only predictable course for the industry overall is to continue building self-enclosed toy empires that extract value as much as possible from each step of the chain. The Nintendo model, basically, of which the only step that's still missing is for Nintendo to bite the bullet and open a set of retail stores. As things stand I can't see why they wouldn't.Another fairly popular model is the ticket approach. In this model, the game is kept away from the player until he pays a toll to access. World of Warcraft is an example of this model in action, as is arcade gaming or interactive TV "pay to play" services (small disclosure: I currently work in that end of the industry). Ticket models have a significant advantage over that of the convenience model in that they can encourage repeat or continuous purchasing form the players. For their £8.99 a month, players play as much as they want, and Blizzard eventually make out extremely handsomely as the players eventually end up paying far more than they would have had they been individually purchasing the game plus updates.Aside from the fairly small trade in gaming merchandise such as plastic figurines and cross-media applications like Halo novels and the odd movie tie-in, the main kind of memorabilia sale in the games industry is through the exclusive edition, in-game property (i.e. micro-transactions) and that sort of thing. People like a sense of ownership, particularly of something tangible.The key thing to understand from all this nugget-wisdom above is that r[...]

Why is the book world NOT threatened by gamers?


I don't normally do this, but I am moved to write a response to a post on the Guardian Tech blog by the journalist Aleks Krotoski on the subject of book publishing, computer games, and asking generally why is it that the publishing industry seems so behind the times. Her point is effectively an argument for the oncoming wonders of interactive storytelling.I have written about this before (here) and made the basic point that the differences between games and storytelling are not simply a matter of one being a restrictive version of the other, but rather that there are key differences. Editing being one, and the role of the hero being another. So-called "interactive storytelling" isn't, in my view, something that is practically achievable because of these two key traits.She writes: "In computer games, for example, the player is the hero."No, she isn't. This is an essential and oft-misunderstood point. The player appears to be a hero because in a movie the hero is a walking talking thing with arms and legs that does stuff, and if I play a videogame I am also a walking talking thing that does stuff. QED? No. A hero in a story is an essential part of the structure of the story. Their personality and character, bad decisions and good are what make them as much a part of the story as the setting and the incidental characters. In a videogame, the player is not a hero. The game character that they manipulate is simply a doll, a suit of clothes, a projection of themselves into a game world. The player's mind is immersed in a world through that doll, but they do not become the doll (as in adopt their actual personality, motivations and whatever).The publishing industry really doesn't have any cause to be afraid of what's going on in computer games. While there are many fans of the idea that games represents some great departure into a branching new age of multiple stories and generative solutions, there aren't any good games that back this notion up. One of the most recent (Grand Theft Auto IV, which is fantastic, play it) is a great example of how gaming and sliced story segments can work really well together, but it isn't a threat for an author of a novel.Hanif Kureshi has it right. From Aleks's article: "At a recent literary event, I asked author Hanif Kureshi what he makes of interactive literature - the kind emerging across blogs, social networking sites and in the virtual sprawl of computer games. He poo-pooed the idea of co-authorship with unknowns, unless he could ensure that collaboration was with someone "good", and appeared reluctant to relinquish the control he has over the narrative experience."The implication being that Kureshi is simply being a fraidy cat. He's not, what he's voicing is experience: Authorship is hard, and it's a mostly internal process. While there is some virtue in the idea that the wisdom of crowds might be applied to editing or offering constructive criticism, the authoring doesn't really scale. One only needs to look at various efforts across Facebook and Penguin's experiments to realise that crowd-writing of fiction is generally bloody awful (whereas crowd writing and editing of fact like Wikipedia is great). It's not simply because most people who write are bad writers; it's because the fiction process requires structured imagination and experimentation to work.In Aleks's piece, she writes "Books are the equivalent of single-player games and old-school websites. They are snapshots of information at a single point in time, where stories are created and navigated from the point of view of one person. Social media has changed the nature of information gathering and production, and multiplayer games have re-inspired collaborative play. Static media which insists on remaining static is on its way to becoming a curiosity."Except it[...]

Aggregation vs Portals: Where Microsoft is going wrong with Xbox Live


In perhaps the most interesting news of the week, Microsoft have announced that they are going to start de-listing games from Xbox Live Arcade based on two criteria: Sales and review scores. In their view this means that they are trying to bring some overall quality back to the product line, probably because they've had consumer feedback that says they are tired of wading through lots of mush in order to get to the good games. In my view it's likely the death knell for Xbox Live Arcade as somewhere to go for great games and is leaving the door open for Sony or Nintendo (or someone else, Apple perhaps) to take their crown.It's also a move that's been a long time coming. If anyone has spent any time browsing through the interface of Live in the last few months, it's becoming an increasingly sodden experience. There are long, poorly maintained lists of product in there. There are a few notable remakes making the headlines (such as Rez HD) but also a lot of really very bad product (such as the Battlestar Galactica game, or the unplayable port of Marathon) and the service has lacked focus for quite some time. But why is proposing to remove the crap a death knell move? On the surface it sounds like a sensible plan because it means that the consumer experience would be improved. Indeed. But the problems are threefold:1. Any such system is going to be wide open to collusion, politicking and will reward only those companies who are more sales-driven and ruthless about getting good review scores.2. It reduces consumer choice.3. It doesn't solve the main problems. Let's tackle these in turn:1. Collusion.The unfortunate truth of the retail games industry is that it relies on a lot of wheel-greasing, which is why it tends to favour higher-end publishers and developers with deep pockets. It's no great secret that review scores can often be bought indirectly through the means of exclusive interviews, junket goodies and even potential job opportunities for reviewers to become game developers. It's also no great secret that reviewers tend, as a group, to have certain in-built prejudices against certain types of game, and they tend to think and award scores like a community. This behaviour is arguably necessary in a retail environment where the buying power of the retail chain is largely concerned with what bulk orders for volume they can place. With only limited shelf space up for grabs, a publisher looking to maximise its shareholder returns has to take the view that they need their product in prime position. Indeed it would be irresponsible of them as a company not to do that, and so the only questions become whether what they're doing is legal, and whether they have genuine ethical concerns about some of the tactics that might be deployed. In most cases the answer to that second question is "maybe, but not enough to make them stop doing it". Publishers are not evil, but they operate in a difficult environment. So this behaviour model will clearly also translate across into Xbox Live Arcade. XBLA is already a constrained retail model (See point 3 below) and the threat of de-listing only intensifies that pressure. So what will happen is that sales-oriented developers will behave like retail publishers and start taking steps to get those high review scores. They will also continue to establish their personal relationships with members of the Xbox team so that they can have a champion inside the platform itself, because it's easier to de-list a game from someone anonymous rather than from your friend at developer X who'll phone you hurt and angry. Lastly, and far more seriously, it means that the developers will increasingly pitch for products that they think Microsoft will like, or products that Microsoft themselves might think should be on t[...]

Is it over for the UK?


In the news today, a petition has been started on the Downing Street website (which I've signed) to basically ask the government to do something about the conditions that the UK industry has operated under in the last few years because times are difficult, and increasingly so. Though I support the idea, I think that it is basically doomed for the usual reasons:

1. The British public have a very negative view of games and wouldn't support it.
2. The British industry is not at all sure that they want it.
3. The other prevailing conditions in the UK (infrastructure, corporate tax rates, transport, location, standards of living, the crazy high value of the pound etc).

The British industry's chief problem is that it's full of middle aged men who have fought their way into a fairly comfortable position, and have no real need to change the way that they do things. No offence intended to any of the middle aged men out there, many of whom I am good friends with, but it is not exactly a young industry at heart and a lot of them have become suburban types with families and saloon cars, and they tend to be quite oppositional in their viewpoints.

This means that they see the industry as a big game of move and countermove, and to them the field is full of players that they already know. So for them the industry is largely a static place, so many of them don't support tax breaks on the basis that it means their enemy will get the upper hand. And to a certain degree, they are right.

But it doesn't really address the wider issues of the industry, which are things like why is it about to go bust again (And it will, now that the dust has settled on the new hardware generation and the publishers will be counting the costs of having spent so much jockeying for position), why is all the work increasingly not coming to Britain, and what does it mean for the future of the industry as a whole?

I'm sorry to say that the prospects are not good. Economic downturns are causing credit crunches, which means investment is drying up. Serious inaction on the part of the government means that places like Montreal, Shanghai and Mumbai are getting the upper hand in a variety of disciplines - all while still being cheaper than the UK industry. It's a global marketplace for skills, but the UK industry still behaves like a local one, and so does its government.

So in that respect, is it basically over for the UK as a serious source of game development?
What do you think?

Gary Gygax RIP


Apparently so.

Not At GDC


Another year, another not-going-to-GDC.

Last night a friend of mine stopped over at my place, as I live reasonably close to Heathrow Airport. And why, you may ask? Well he's off to GDC of course. Lucky so-and-so that he is.

I have never been to GDC, or indeed any of the major game conferences except for ECTS (which was always a bit of a shambles to give it its due). They always seem to come along at inconvenient moments, such as periods of high business or dudgeon in my job, or low activity on the financial front. Mostly, I think it's because I've not really remembered that they're on until way too late.

I also find the whole conference circuit vaguely unsettling. A lot of my past comes from the world of rpg conventions and the like, so I know what it is to waste time in a hotel in some far-flung town getting drunk and talking crap with strangers. I'm aware that professional events such as GDC or E3 also have the illusion of business about them, but I can't quite tell if they're actually just pretending to be busy, or whether work actually gets done at them. It's quite an important question when you're talking about laying down 3 grand for a trip over to Northern Cal, especially if that ticket is not being picked up by your employer (and most in the UK don't send batteries of people over any more, as it is a lot of money).

A large part of the games industry likes to behave like as though it's the movies, with the image of deals being done and reputations being made at some grand insider carnival. Yet when you step back and take a look at the outside world, there doesn't usually seem to be a great deal of effect from the main conferences except as PR posts for the truly giant to announce their next big things? What does a small company get from sending a field agent out there apart from contacts, and wouldn't those contacts be better developed in individual sessions, trips, meetings, Linkedins and the like? Is there any actual value to what amounts to the gaming version of Sundance? Gamedance?

Why go?

Well the party atmosphere has to count for something. And the inspiration value as well. You can't forget that. Plus there is the thrill of being there, watching things happen (or at least pretend to happen). See? It's like I'm already there, liveblogging the whole thing.

Next year I'll get there. Promise.

Sudoku Blocks


For those of you who have Sky TV, we've just released a game called Sudoku Blocks, developed by Craftwork. I'm rather proud of this game, so hence the web pimping. You can play it by accessing the Interactive menu on your Sky remote, selecting "Sky Games" and it's on the front page. All opinions welcome.

What are Kongregate etc missing?


I've become quite the fan of "neat gaming" in the last year. Not least because it has become my job (I now work for Sky Games as a development manager of casual games on interactive TV), but also because it is simply the most interesting and alive sector of the whole gaming world bar none.Yes, you have your console shenanigans and your managed Live networks, your retro collections and your handheld cooking simulators, and most of these are perfectly valid enterprises. For a while, casual games was somewhat mired in the realm of big portals like basically squeezing value out of both developers and customers, but that is changing.There are hundreds of portals now selling games or subscription packages for games, and distribution networks from companies like Oberon are servicing that whole fragmented sector, as well as helping to publish. The distinction between casual and self-labelled indie games is also blurring considerably, which is why I use a broader name like "neat gaming" to describe what is essentially a taste for smaller applications.Services like Kongregate - which basically are trying to be a Youtube of gaming - are emerging and doing a good job of capturing the innovation mindset, the neat idea set and the popularity contest. And it seems to be doing all of this via advertising, which is the aggregation model that is very "web". There are even such neat things as chat clients hanging beside many of the games on such services, and attempts to place ads in-game via the likes of Mochiads.Flash is really the technology that is making all of this happen (finally) and providing a road toward a single platform that the hardware makers and devkit-obsessed developers of the classic industry are simply unwilling to face. You can play any game on an aggregator, such as Bowman 2, for free in your browser without any fuss. It is easy to see how such a game could be converted into an iPhone-friendly format, or a DS format if Nintendo saw the light and opened the DS up to indie development with no strings attached (maybe that'll have to wait for DS2). In a world of gaming dinosaurs, Flash is the fore-runner of mammals.The problem that these would-be aggregators have is that they are not quite there yet in terms of really embracing the aggregator mindset. They still have some of the elements of a games directory about them, and they have not yet really gathered the full power of the social network to their cause.For example:Kongregate places a lot of advertising on its pages and offers a Digg This link to help popularise its games. What it's lacking, however, is sharing technology.1. There should be a link on the page that allows the players to share the game with their friends, embed the game in their blogs and so on. This is a critically missing piece.2. Each of the games should have a Kongregate watermark or small bar at the bottom of the Flash app, and also a short pre-game advertisement in the Flash app. Thus Kongregate-hosted content can travel anywhere and be monetised.3. Each of the games should have a facility that puts its tagging to use, recommending other games on the page. A lot of the detail on the Kongregate pages are unnecessary (such as the description text, which can wax lyrical) and instead be replaced with small icons for other games that the player might like to try.Significantly, AddictingGames does include the ability to share games, but it doesn't always seem to work (I attempted to embed a game in this post by copying and pasting the embed data, but it didn't work).The problem that AddictingGames has is one of layout, in that their sharing/embedding code is very t[...]

New Blood, Old Blood


My old commander-in-chief Peter Molyneux was in the press recently making the case for new blood and new graduates in the industry, as well as advocating passion and communication skills over experience (here, via A fine sentiment, but I think he's not seeing the problem.

The problem that new blood has is simply one of obscurity. In any new field there is always the early-mover advantage for new blood, and by necessity the first-movers inevitably make it harder for follow-on groups to emerge. Look at the world of search engines, for example. In the early years there was room for Yahoo, then Google, and a few others to stamp out virgin territory. Nowadays although there are many attempts at redeveloping search semantically, with specialist focus, or whatever, nobody really expects the established players to become unseated.

This applies to people as much as it does to companies. The problem that new blood has is that Molyneux, Miyamato and about 50 other people and companies have already had the early-mover advantage and they eat up virtually all of the press inches with their comments. A late-mover like myself can express a hearty opinion on any subject but whatever my opinion I am unlikely to gain any widespread traction or awareness. It takes either acts of extremity to get noticed, or the stamp of big name legitimacy.

In strict terms, therefore, for new blood to emerge the old blood either has to make way or actually die off, and even then it's not guaranteed. While many game developers look to the movie industry and try to emulate that, the industry's behaviour is often much more closely affiliated to that of the comics industry.

In comics, even 60 years after their initial post-war explosion, it is still very hard to get past Jack Kirby and his long shadow. Comics and games share the common trait of having undying intellectual properties, unlike film or books. Tom Cruise may be huge but he will die, but Mario is immortal. As such, those IPs and their early creators influence and fame can very easily blanket out new blood long after their flesh and blood forms have kicked the bucket. To large companies like Marvel or EA, the IP is the thing and it actually serves their purposes in the long term to retain the legend of the old creator.

So if the old blood are serious about engaging with the new blood, what they need to look at is the idea of patronage. The advantage of having some celebrity is that you can use it to drive others' celebrity. Quentin Tarantino does this quite a lot by fronting movies that aren't his and giving other directors that he likes responsibility. We would not have seen some martial arts movies in the west without his influence, nor would we have heard of Eli Roth (which some say maybe we shouldn't have, but I digress).

Active patronage is something that we do not see a lot of in the games industry. It lies with Peter and a number of high profile developers to actually take action on it though. One example would be to try and do more through the likes of BAFTA, or even develop schemes of sponsorship and funding, like a startup foundation that promotes the people as well as the product or publisher relationship.

Xbox Live: Release the Hounds


Why are console manufacturers afraid of developers?It's right at the heart of their whole business model that they place developers at arms' length purposefully, first by producing steep barriers to entry and second by instituting approvals processes that guarantee that developers will shape their games to the needs of the gatekeepers rather than the audience.I speak specifically here about the online side of the major consoles. I have recently (finally) acquired a 360 and had a chance to really have a look at Xbox Live, and the one impression that I took away from it is that of over-management.Firstly, it's obvious that the catalogue is entirely managed, like a TV schedule. And just like a TV schedule this means that there aren't many surprises but rather a series of checkboxes being ticked. It reeks of platform-holder side meetings in which they discuss how their catalogue has holes and those holes need to be plugged to gain the upper hand against Eastasia. I mean Nintendo.Secondly, with such a managed catalogue and antiquated business model based on the retail model as invented by Nintendo, Atari and co, it's obvious that Live is going to run out of steam fairly soon. Once you have settled on a series of catalogue categories and holes-to-be-filled, well where do you go when those holes have all been filled? Where does your audience go, more importantly.Thirdly, the front page of Live Arcade in particular is very drab and uninteresting, and the browsing mechanism doesn't really do anything to sell games, promote games, or basically work like an enthusiastic retailer should. When compared to Popcap, Big Fish, Amazon and Itunes, Live looks almost embarrassed to be seen selling games. It seems to actively want to downplay games and instead make it all about the multiplayer retail games like Halo 3 and the like, even though the online retail is where Live would make most of its money.The great fear, and it's the same fear that Nintendo had back in 1988 with the NES, is that opening the floodgates leads to a drop in quality. It does. Opening the floodgates also leads to a rise in innovation, however. The reason why the casual market is so exciting these days is all to do with it being essentially anarchic. No one company can be the gatekeeper of the web, and so no one company's sense of catalogue aesthetics is going to over-run a marketplace. Casual gaming is the games industry's closest example of a free market, and it is where all the life is.Microsoft, the company that brought you the OS that anyone could develop for and they would not control, is worried sick of letting evolution play its part in the evolution of Live, and this means they are very likely to run into the same issues that Nintendo did when their managed catalogue foundered in the face of competition. Managed catalogues don't really get the job done if you want to be the number one destination.What they should do, especially with the roll out of the Windows extension to Live, is step back. They should behave like the company they natively are, which means:Provide the environment, and the tools, all at reasonable pricesCreate a standardised contractual model that gives them a slice of game sales that is fair and not punitive to smaller companies in particularHire someone talented to redesign Xbox Live Arcade's portal as something attractiveStep the hell back and let nature run its course.Really all they have to do is set up the playing field and let the developers run with the ball. An avalanche of titles, some brilliant and some shit, will emerge. Not having seen PS3 or Wii[...]

The Death of Console Generations


Though I am a supporter of a free and open standard console format, I don't think that it's likely to happen any time soon. First we need to get through the Age of Updates.

What this means is that the next direction for console manufacturers is clearly one of multiple configurations based on a standardised hardware type rather than trying to make a whole new leap again in 3-4 years. They spend all this time and effort developing their baseline, but rather than just let it sit there and grow old (as has been traditional), what they are doing - and should continue to do - is think like Apple.

That means constant revisions of the baseline product. Xbox 360, for example, could easily run and run with more features, better controllers, more hard drive space, HD-DVD drives and the like while keeping the common features of the console fairly static. PS3 can do likewise. Wii is probably less easily amenable and its not certain whether they have an audience that responds to that sort of constant-upgrade strategy.

Gamers clearly have an appetite for machines. Since 2000, including handhelds, there have been over half a dozen major hardware launches from the GBA SP to the PS3, and stores have become a Byzantine hive of formats with dedicated catalogues. For Microsoft and Sony this should be thought of as good news, because it means that they can tap their customers again, and regularly, perhaps as often as every two years.

Via the joys of eBay and second-hand sales in stores, customers can mitigate costs and be encouraged to upgrade to the new 360, the new PS3, with its shiny new stuff all in. They can also be assured that their old joypads and the like will still work, that the console network can update/patch any compatibility issues that arise, and possibly even transfer important data or download it again.

Of course multiple-configuration development would be more difficult for developers, publishers and QA-ing games, but it's probably absorb-able when traded off against the cost of another full generation shift.

So that's the future then. It's not Xbox 720 and PS4, it's Xbox 361 and PS3.1.
And probably Wii2 somewhere down the line.

Down on the Farm: Barnyard Developers


I'm in the mood for a little Saturday afternoon amusement, so here goes:I met up with a friend for breakfast this morning and we're both games industry peeps. As such, we invariably got around to the subject of the industry, developers, and all the amusement that that topic generates. In the middle of it all, I coined a phrase to describe a particular type of company, to wit: barnyard developers.As I said adios and made my way into Kingston to lust over the new iMacs (they are very lustworthy incidentally) I thought to myself that I have encountered various kinds of company in the industry, as well as hearing stories of others. I thought it might make a subject of some humour to caricature them a bit. So here goes:(shout if you recognise any of these)Barnyard DevelopersA barnyard developer is often a large-ish studio(or multiple studios in some cases) that literally works out of a barn, shed, or other farming-based building. More loosely it might apply to developers that work in big facilities off the beaten track, but the barn image is the nicest. These developers are often led by a charismatic member of the industry's old guard. They are surprisingly common in the UK, with many counties in South-east England having one, or maybe even two. They are usually located in this hap-hazard fashion because the leader was originally born in the area and is not inclined to bring himself to the mountain.Barnyard developers are usually very introverted, egotistical and political places to work, rather like extended families. They usually have a culture split into what you could call lifers, parole cases and 2-year stretchers. Lifers are the long-timers who've stuck with the company through thick and thin and can regale you with stories of yore. They are usually engineers, long-standing designers and that one QA guy who sort of seemed to hang around until he became company president. Parole cases are the 6-month limited contract types, the ones who are green, new to the industry and full of bright ideas and hope. This is usually drained from them by degrees. 2-year stretchers are the ones who have been around a little longer, figure they know how the industry works and, the mad fools, are actually looking to make a career out of advancing up the corporate ladder among a number of barnyards. This usually does not go so well.The goals of the companies are uncertain, the engines and tools that they use are often Byzantine. They don't seem to be that commercially successful any more, but rather seem to trundle on from project to project. Every project is deemed worthy mostly in the light of how technically cutting edge it is, but most of the employees, especially the lifers, are generally unsure if the project is actually any good or not. A general air of plus ca change pervades much of what they do. Even when bought, the culture remains largely as-was, though usually with the addition of fancy amenities like running water and non-power spiking electricity supplies.Every veteran of a barnyard developer has their hilarious stories about working conditions and general conduct of the upper echelons of the company, whether it be that time when the tea and coffee facilities were taken away, to the bumpy carpet on the second floor that eventually caved in one night, to the fist-fight that broke out in reception over whose soft toys got turned upside down, placed in a dishwasher or whatever. These stories prove the subject of much amusement in the local pub, which is used copiously at lunch and other occasi[...]

The End of Novelty


As is my wont, I shall now wax lyrical on the subject of novelty.As some readers may be aware, I have in the past taken pains to note that the trend for novelty and innovation is not one that is self-sustaining. What I did not pause to consider when looking at, say, Nintendo last time is how wide the novelty culture goes. Actually, it is of course far far larger than gaming, encompassing user-generated content across several media (such as this one).Novelty has been a very powerful force in recent years. It is the backbone of Web 2.0 for the most part, having spawned a variety of services that have become household names. Youtube is one. Wii is another. What novelty is exactly is saying to the audience "Bet you never thought of that before". Users love to play with novelties, like magpies,particularly if those novelties are free or reasonably cheap. They get off on the idea of little things that brighten their day as long as they continue to do so in some way.The problem is that at some point novelty itself must give way to depth. So we can see the novelty of Youtube and all of its short films and trailers etc, but after a little while Youtube becomes damn boring to play with if you're just out for some entertainment. As a sharing tool it's useful in a holiday-video sort of way, but the sheer entertainment of it as a thing for itself is actually very low. Similarly, blogs are the for the most part airbags full of text rantings about nothing in particular. The vast majority of music on Myspace and the like is simply amateurish.And then games, oh games, where you see ten thousand versions of the same game again, or the company that pioneered the controller to end all controllers then turning around and producing half a dozen more, as though to underscore that their innovation is, y'know, a bit lacking once you get past the joy of swinging your arm in the air.What we can see here is that the so-called year of "You", the joy of the strange and unbridled creativity is very quickly giving way to the dawning realisation that, actually, "you" isn't very good at most things, and so "you" naturally creates a wall of content that eventually turns people off wholesale. It's the same reason why podcasting has basically failed to find a general audience in the face of radio. Amateur is still amateur, and one man's democratised content is ten men's idiocratised mess that they just have no interest in.Of all the Web 2.0 content tools that have emerged, the only one that shows examples of depth is Wikipedia. Some people like to lambaste Wikipedia for its inaccuracies, and it sometimes is, but what they are missing is a genuine community devoted to gathering all there is to know about everything. And it proves that vetting matters, editing matters and, ultimately, quality matters. Once the novelty has passed you by, Wikipedia remains useful.The backlash against user-generated content is gathering pace from all quarters, but what's missing from it is the understanding that it's not the whole thing that's borked, it's the essential lack of editing/vetting that makes it so. Editing is what weeds out novelty with no purpose from novelty that is an actual font for creativity.Turning to games, what this means is that the content vetting still matters. Casual portals perform this function automatically by ranking on popularity, but the games sites and news arenas are much more important as both seeds of discussion and vetting that which is not. Yet they have the problem of being so [...]

93% of new IPs Fail


According to Steve Allison of Midway (says Shacknews).Which sounds daunting. But wait, there's more (some via N'Gai Croal's Level Up)"If there were, 'great' games Beyond Good & Evil, Ico, Okami, Psychonauts, Shadow of the Colossus, Freedom Fighters, Prey and Midway's own Psi-Ops would all have been multi-million unit sellers. The aforementioned games are all games that average review scores of nearly 90 percent out of 100, some even higher. The reality is none has sold more than 300,000 units at full price in the U.S. and a couple of these less than 250,000 units lifetime even with bargain pricing."And"To rectify the issue of overlooked games, Allison suggests that developers focus on broadening the appeal of their games beyond hardcore players, crafting an on-screen experience that causes casual gamers to respond "I've got to get that" or "Bad ass!". The executive also noted that timing is key, using the example of moviegoers overlooking an asteroid film if two others recently arrived in theaters before it."Steve doesn't get it I think.The problem is not that new ideas have limited appeal. If you examine most media, it is painfully transparent that new ideas always have limited appeal. Even many of the darling franchises that the executive class have come to rely started out with relatively humble roots. Some IPs are immediate break-out hits, but most of them will hit a middle layer.The first problem is this: "broadening appeal" is not something that you can just stick in and hope it works. A successful IP is more than the sum of its parts, so taking away, say, the aesthetics of Shadow of the Colossus and replacing with Tony Hawk-style graphics (but the same basic gameplay) makes it a worse IP rather than a better one. It makes the IP more likely to fail. There's an occult magic to making a new IP and you fuck with that at your peril.The second problem is this: In most other disc-based retail media, 300,000 units sold of anything new is actually pretty damned good. Book authors would faint at the idea that they've gained that many sales of their first book. Indie movie makers would be very pleased indeed. Because, when you break that down into numbers, 300,000 sales could be anywhere from 7-15 million dollars worth of revenue at the till.That's an awesome number. Unless you work in games, and the reason for that is that games cost way too much money to make, and the margins for third parties are less than ideal. Manufacturers have an easier time of it because they make more per copy, have a lot of prestige value riding on being seen to be cutting edge, and can market in ways that third parties can't. This is why manufacturers are increasingly becoming the sponsors and source of successful new IP.So the overall problem is that making games is too expensive. 93% of IPs don't fail. They don't succeed enough for their paymasters to recoup all the money that they've wasted, to pay all the hands that are out looking for their cut (including the manufacturers) and the industry is too restrictive as a business to allow for middle layer development and publishing.So the overall overall problem is free market access for small and middle-level players who are better at being efficient, an end to excessive censorious controls, and a way to build the industry into a rounded business that can cater to more levels than just blockbusters or nothing at all. It's the biggest single issue item on the agenda for developers, journalists and executives[...]



According to a recent article on Next Gen, the BBFC have published a report that identifies 11 key things about games and gamers. Many of the points are rather obvious and well-repeated, but a few are interesting:6. People view game playing as a risk-free means of escapism and feel in control of game experiences as opposed to real life.7. Game playing is active and brings about feelings of achievement as opposed to passive forms of entertainment such as TV and film. Gamers are driven by achievement but are unlikely to become emotionally involved. They care more about progress than elements such as storytelling.Imagine if similar research was done with regard to readers. Most of the reading done on a day to day basis is probably newspapers, websites, emails and other functional reading. After that, perhaps glossy magazines and tabloid celebrity journalism. Then perhaps cookbooks, gardening manuals and educational textbooks. Based on this, as a global picture, you could be forgiven for thinking thatPeople view reading as an information gathering exercise that informs them of their world.AndReading is active and brings about feelings of knowledge imparting. Readers are driven by the need to acquire knowledge, and care more about that than storytelling.A mad conclusion? Perhaps not, going on the majority use.Of course it's mad. The reason it's mad is that we can distinguish between different kinds of reading activity. Any study would begin from the point of view that reading poetry, fiction and the sports page are different things. A poem is not a play is not a web page is not a novel is not a technical manual. We understand it because it's convention.There exists no such convention for games. Where we see different forms of reading, surprisingly few see different forms of playing. They see "games" and they see "gamers". Beyond that they see "hardcore gamer" or "casual gamer" maybe, but that's about it. In terms of game genres they see functional categories (puzzle, shooter, etc) and also aesthetic categories (survival horror, freestyle crime, roleplaying game) all sort of jumbled together as "genres".What they don't see is forms.It is my suggestion that there are in fact several forms of what we call game, and what we call gamer, and that by assuming that Minesweeper and Resident Evil are the same means that we will assume a series of majority-based ideas about what all games are. There is a difference between those who interact to "game" and those who interact to "play", and the difference between gamers and players is one of perspective, much like the difference between factual and fictional readers.Gamers play because they see a game as a system. Their perception of interactive games is very literal, about understanding the semiotic language of a game and figuring out how it ticks, how far it goes, or a combination of the above. Gamers are not automatons, and they much enjoy the visual or auditory elements in games, but they enjoy them because of their signifier value rather than their cultural content.Players, on the other hand, see beyond the edges of the game into fantasy. Players see an imagined world in their heads when running down a corridor, flying a spaceship or typing "Go North". A player sees a conversation between himself and the game. They're the ones who think they can see things waving at them in the distance in Another World, and the ones for who adventures and some sense of creativ[...]

Eight Steps for Good Game Design Documentation


1. Write with active verbs in the present tense and use consistent perspective viewpoints.

2. Use bullet points. Lots and lots of them. And indented ones. Make the document bulleted as much as possible because bullets force you to think in terms of short sharp points. Always use the same bullet point style.

3. Keep your document map consistent. Actually, step back two from that: Learn how to use MS Word Styles properly, learn what a document map IS and then keep your document map consistent.

4. Use diagrams. Lots of them. Visio-style diagrams are fine. Use the diagrams to lead your points and explain the complicated things as simply as possible, and the bullet points to support them.

5. Edit. No, really: EDIT. I honestly think no doc should be released from design until it has had at least 3 passes from first draft to final version. One for content, one for flow and the last one for mistakes. Have an editing loop whereby the original writer makes all the instructed changes. The editing loop is the single best way to make your writers better at their jobs if only to avoid feeling humiliated.

6. Build the GDD/whatever document from a series of consistently formatted and written spec documents. These can be in wiki or in doc form, whatever suits you better. Writing GDDs from scratch is a pointless waste of time. They should be built alongside prototyping. A spec doc is simple to write and revise in the face of reality. A whole GDD is a nightmare.

7. Somebody needs time in their schedule to maintain and loop old documents so that they do not become irrelevant. Somebody else needs time in their schedule to edit those changes and loop them back to the writer.

8. Design documentation should not be either fiction or technical documentation. The job of design documents is to explain, without recourse to vagueness, pretentiousness, game theory or windiness, what the player can see, do and hear in the game, how those things work from the player's perspective, and the supporting game rules (not technical specs) that are needed to do that.

Everything else is guff.

This makes me think I should start some sort of freelance documentation editing/teaching company for game developers. Documentation is as much a problem as it was 5 years ago, and sorting it out is something I'm really good at. What do you think?