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Monday, May 28, 2007

Not Everyone's a Critic


So I've not written much for awhile, but that's not halted the games playing or conversational predicaments we as gamers find ourselves hoisted inexorably towards. I live in a household of five lads who are each receptive to the value of games (at least for entertainment, if not for any significant 'gaming cause' (note to self: must write something about the gaming cause)). My housemates' sympathetic outlook therefore contributed to my surprise when Ged (last seen laughing at the plight of Okami's villagers) challenged me, stating that we'd grow out of gaming eventually. "They're for kids, aren't they", he furthered. I explained to him the belief I hold - that games deserve to be recognised as a meaningful creative medium, that there isn't any specific age synonymous with a love of games, just as there isn't with books or film - but I don't think my impassioned words made a dent on his shiny chrome belief, which got me thinking.

Ged's not alone. Although I'm not privy to any reliable statistics, I'd assume he's a holder of the majority's viewpoint. As an advocate of gaming, I'm intrigued as to why games continue to be regarded as a hobby to grow out of. I think perhaps the truth lies partially in that last sentence - 'continues' - the 'games are childish' viewpoint is as well established as the games themselves. Not only have the players of games historically been teenagers but also their playing has been based in a external position relative to the household - in the arcade. The arcade thus became a point of contention between parent and child. The pocket money granted to Horace Jnr. ("Perhaps you'll save that money for college, Horace dear?) mysteriously frittered away on a new fad, a habit rather than a hobby - self-destructive and unproductive. These early arcade games set a precedent, their influence reverberating into the present.

At the centre of the problem is the notable failure of a certain ilk of games developers, unable to comprehend a gaming conciousness extending well beyond the reach of their particular game and into the lives of many people. Other creative industries were fortunate to not experience the glut of essentially similar products as those proffered by the early days of gaming. Spacewar! was the target of such an incredible intensity of cloning it's a wonder there wasn't some unforeseen mutation, and with such direct plagiarism as Atari's Computer Space or the later Asteroids, perhaps a mutation would have been beneficial to the fetidness of the average gamer's diet. There was an atrocious degree of 'inspiration' which reeked of Pong shortly after its release in 1972. Some would argue that memory constraints were the limitation that necessitated the similarity of early games, yet this weakness persists in 2007. Now is a time when the cliché should be true - the only limit to our industry could be our imagination - yet Kuma War (standard FPS attempts controversiality for sales), yet LOTR Online (the single distinguishing feature : it's Tolkien), yet Fifa, yet every Sims expansion, yet more. I propose this too is due to precedent and driven by an uncritical audience. Because early games set a trend for the gradual evolution of gameplay through the mimicking of predecessors, today's industry finds no fault in doing so either. Many gamers aren't discerning, and thus publishers are not left smarting through the punishment of few sales because we keep buying drivel. Ironically the section of society that views gaming critically is the non-gamers who have observed gaming's (attempt at) progression and decided their time would be best spent elsewhere.

I propose that the 'games are for kids' belief originates from non-gamers, that it began with parents' fear for their children's failure to mature, became rational with the stagnancy of our industry in the 70's, and entered mainstream conciousness as 70's children became parents and began to worry about their own children as they perceived our industry's failure to find inspiration beyond profit.

This is all rather pessimistic. I should mention that there are various sub-groups wallowing below the mainstream, people that care about gaming, that participate, discuss and contribute to gaming and the various media associated with gaming. These are the critical gamers, and these people are important because they are informed enough to know that games aren't simply for kids. These people have vitally engaged with the mechanics of game production; they are journalists that act in their readers' interests, spurning publishers on to make an effort for originality, they are modders that critically engage with the heart of the game in order that something better might arise, and they are developers and the students of game development that consider their jobs an augmentation to their identity as gamers.

Despite my harsh words, I believe that the future of gaming will be awesome. Thanks to the efforts of the people mentioned above, our medium has become self-aware - embodied by the scathing truthfulness of Progress Quest to the wondrous shock upon learning that Ubisoft are willing to smash all the test tubes and concoct a new formula for their guaranteed money-earner Splinter Cell, in which Sam Fisher (the protagonist and super-spy of the series) becomes protagonist and emphatically-human.

Depressing? Too long? Utterly bollocks? Your criticism is welcome.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Saturday, May 19, 2007

New Starcraft, not an MMO

I've not had the chance to write much lately, exam time and Europa Universalis 3 have tangled their terrible tendrils amidst the part of my brain that associates the sight of a keyboard with blog writing. EU3 is good though. I'd write a review if I thought anybody else liked that kind of game. Heck, I'll probably write a review anyway.

Big news announced today, and the reason for my writing at this time: Starcraft 2. Yes. Blizzard loves you.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Dave Perry: Be Merry

Informed readers will be aware of Top Secret, a collaborative games development project - the collaboration taking place between a few veteran games designers and thousands of gaming enthusiasts. The aim of Top Secret is to release a new MMO racing game. So far, I know that the game will involve beast riding (cyborg dinosaurs, not ponies) and embarrassingly that's all I know for definite.

I've mangled a few IRC transcripts together and formed some kind of monster that ought to represent highlights from last night's encounter with 'dperry':

*Knight1b* You guys have been in the industry for awhile what do you think of the progress TS has made so far?

dperry: It's been a much more complicated start than expected. Normally we just make decisions and forge ahead. If we need to make changes it takes minutes. In this project, there's a week added each time we change our minds on something. Not used to this at all. So we need to plan 5,000 times more than normal.

demaria: On the other hand, we are getting a great, and unexpected variety of ideas, making this game unique.

dperry: We are pretty clear on that now, so we are planning new ways to present problems. One major issue has been the catch-22 problem. It's hard to plan out the entire project when you don't know what the project will be. We had no idea there would be fantasy beasts running around. So the plan unfolds as we go. It's actually very fun, but nothing like as fast as we are used to.

demaria: We're really working to address several issues: 1 competition and the perception that this is more contest than collaboration
2. How to make it clearer what we are asking
3. How to help you grasp the scope of the game design by creating a dependencies chart
4. Ways to get you involved in more rewarding activities
5. How to provide some additional rewards... ;)
And we're hoping to find ways to help you become leaders of the project more and more.

*jwboggess* Other than boosters, what other income streams do you see as viable?

dperry: We want to keep the game free to play. So that anyone can give it to their friends and they can play as long as they like for free. This is the general rule with the Acclaim games.
(1) Online
(2) Free.
dperry> :)
dperry: On the other hand, it's a business and we need Acclaim to do well and keep funding these kinds of risky projects.
dperry: (I LOVE RISKY PROJECTS!)
dperry: So we need to help Acclaim find ways to allow people (that love the game) to spend some money. Thats done with in-game items, upgrades, and sponsorships. We will also have in-game advertising. Acclaim tries to put the advertising in places were there are natural pauses. They don't want the gamer to suffer death by advertising. So if it's loading, or if you are wating for someone, it's a great time to squeeze in some revenue. The items however can't affect the game balance, so our team will have a chance to get creative with these items. What would you be happy to buy? I met a team in China recently. A designer came up with an idea for one item. This one item makes a million dollars a month. Could you come up with one of those really innovative items. Acclaim would love you! But so would ever other game company. The US market has not realized that there is potential to just allow gamers to spend money when they are happy, and when they choose to. It's a working model, but you bet 110% on your design team, and their knowledge of gamers. So I will be really interested to see if we can find a million dollars a month guy/girl from this group. It's a new kind of (forward looking) business design challenge. Right now however the game comes first, but we will discuss this stuff later.

*adonai|mxo* Can you give us a sneak peak at whats coming up over the next month regarding TS?

dperry: Well for me it's really going to be drilling into the gameplay. I really want to dive into the action, the controls, what you can do, when, why, how can we make it more fun. What will make you really point to the screen and say "Did you see that?" That will be mixed with abilities. What can the beasts do? What can the players do? How can they be modified? How can we keep the controls simple? How can we attack others and really enjoy it? How can they attack us and not piss us off!

*Juindalo_irc_irc* Any insight about the kinds of tracks that will be featured pertaining to the chosen theme?

dperry: I had some Pancakes in San Francisco yesterday. Westin Hotel at the San Francisco Airport. Anyone live near there? I'm chewing on my pancakes and I look at the wall.
There's a GIANT mural of a race. It's really cool, immediately made me think of top secret. It was in a town square, with a few thousand spectators, so many, they actually MADE the track. Meaning you ran around them. I kinda like that idea... So you could fall over and role into the audience. Anyway, that's just an example. There are ideas everywhere. We just need to gather them up.

*adonai|mxo* From my perspective the community seems under utilized, going forward can we expect the same at arms length relationship, or can the community expect to be intimately empowered to define its own success in the near future?

demaria: I'll take a stab at this
demaria: Yes, we want to get you guys busier. There are several ways to do that. First, you guys are doing an amazing job. I keep saying that, and it's true . So... right now the four current tasks are going to open up many more new tasks and refinements. We're just getting to the heart and the real meat of this project. It's like the overture before the symphony, so you will be getting more to do. I am exploring the concept of community leadership. This means that we want to find a way for YOU to nominate people to help lead tasks. We will be introducing new systems to empower that. Really, there is a lot more to come. we're out of time, but keep an eye on the forums and feel free to PM me. I'm already in conversation with the moderators to get this project even more productive. Feedback is helpful.

For a unique and untested concept, I'd judge Top Secret is manoeuvring towards the correct racing line. I'll keep Splines updated with any further developments.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Dave Perry: IRC Clients at the Ready!

Project: Top Secret continues to lead an oxymoronic trail to the realms of becoming Project: Well Known. To this end, Dave Perry (MDK, Messiah, Sacrifice) will hold a conference on IRC today. The time is 8PM GMT, you can click this link to be teleported via Java to (almost) the correct place - simply type '/join #topsecret' (without the inverted commas) and you'll be there. Alternatively you can fire up your own IRC client and find the channel on irc.stratics.com port 6668.

I'll see you there!

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

All I Think of is Blocks

In the first few moments of watching this video (which is of a slightly higher quality and longer length than the video you see above), I thought I'd seen it all before. The gravity gun of Half Life 2 has previously jollified me through the tossing of helpless ragdoll soldiering types, so what's new? Those shiny metal blocks were acting all swirly! The last time I felt so inclined to say 'Ooo' was when I saw exactly the same thing in Prey, a year ago. Ageia were trying to scam us gullible gamers with promises of hardware-enabled treats although such stupendosity would be entirely possible without the need for their crass component.

Luckily I kept watching. How wrong I was! 'He's... He's... He's... He's got those blocks dancing to the beat of his whim, thousands of them'. And then BLAM! The dancers are dispersed, scattered according to laws I have very little knowledge of but OMG I want to get intimidate with those principles.

Principally, I want, nay, need ... My continued existence in life will be determined by the presence of a PhisX card in my PC. Gaming Gods - make it Christmas, or extend my student loan, or pay me for every word I write on this blog. No? Well I'm going to have to deeply consider not eating for a few months. First though, let's collectively drool over this page.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Nees Up


Liam Neeson has been brought on board Bethesda's Fallout 3 team to provide voice talent. Will the fans by satiated by a public display of Bethesda's intent to encourage quality narrative, or will this only strengthen the fans wrathful cause? Does this confirm that Bethesda are treating Fallout as they did Oblivion (in which Patrick Steward played the Emperor and Sean Bean, his estranged son). Only time, and the gnashing of forumite teeth, will tell.

North/South Decried

Ian 'Omroth' Hardingham will be in Keble (Oxford) tomorrow, and he'll be talking about Indie games development. In his own words, he'll be, "trying to make the talk as punchy and non-boring as possible". If I lived closer, I'd be there in a snap.

Ian Hardingham develops for Mode 7 Games, his most recent project is Determinance.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Scripted

First Person Shooter is a preeminently prophetic play which addresses one of the games industry's contemporary concerns.

"The play’s plot, while complex and deeply-nuanced, boils down to this: two teens in a rural Illinois high school gun down a number of their classmates with brutal efficiency. Within days, it’s revealed that they rehearsed their massacre on a custom game map, and the management of JetPack Games (the developer of the aforementioned software) finds themselves scrambling to deal with their possible role in the school tragedy. What could have quickly turned into a tale of lawsuits and greed gradually unfolds into a believable story of shock, anger, grief, and, ultimately, self-realization."
-GayGamer.net

Sunday, May 06, 2007

That's The Rub

I'm not so sure that I play games (especially RPGs) as any 'character' other than myself - a person who vehemently seeks to demystify their game-world.

Yesterday, I started to play Planescape:Torment. Although Planescape was released in 1999, I'd only heard brief whispers of what my experience would entail. I remembered hearing that you could potentially play the game and bypass the majority of the combat through persuasive charm and, failing that, by running faster than Chikkita Fastpaws. I held this remembrance in mind as I created my character, investing all of my skill points in charisma, intelligence and wisdom - each traits that would further the storyline (intelligence and wisdom aid in the piecing together of lost memories), leaving my character immensely fragile. I'm still early in my Planescape experience, but what an experience! I can't quantify the pleasure of having NPCs fall over themselves in a rush to divulge all of their deepest, most sacred secrets to their new best friend ... who they just met ... as they unlocked the gate ... which they were supposed to be guarding ... to prevent people like myself from escaping. And the thrill of knowing a single wrong word could lead to a single blow which could spell instant death (not that this means much in Planescape, but I won't spoil the surprise for you!).

Many modern RPG staples seem obsolete: stats, loot, dungeon crawling; I'd rather explore the mind of a complex character than the lair of a dragon. Ethical decisions only present a dilemma as to which choice would trigger the most interesting result, the most exotic content. I like to play a game and think that I'm delving into areas that the developers later regretted coding, figuring that hardly anyone would go to the troublesome extremes required to stumble across their work. If I find a typo, incomplete text or placeholder, my quest has met with success.

Perhaps this quirk is borne out of a tiredness of traditional gaming archetypes, and a yearning for emergent gameplay. Games have become simpler in what I assume is an attempt to broaden their appeal. Unfortunately, I believe this simplification has led to the dumbing down or total removal of abstract or untested gameplay elements. Take, for example, the X-Com series, which began its tirade as a game of structural and personnel management, R&D, UFO interception, and crash-site investigation. Now, consider the evolution of the series, even if you discount that awful arcade-style space-shooter (X-Com Interceptor, was it?), there's no discernible progression, only a disintegration of the elements which made X-Com unique.

I seek to de-mystify my games, to tickle them in the right spot and have them bare their souls. That's right, games have souls. What I like most about games is that everything exists because someone thought it necessary; nothing exists without the inspiration of a coherent team - director, artist, coder, even QA's play their role in the humanisation of a lifeless body of script. I believe a little essence of character is rubbed into a game as each person gets to grips with their creative task. The citadel of Half Life 2 is a prominent example of script with soul. The citadel has a purpose and a meaning. My interpretation of this meaning is special because it's formed by the interplay of all my life's experience and all the citadel's developer's collective values.

When I first emerged from Half Life 2's train station and caught sight of the citadel, I forgot all about Gordon Freeman and his little mission to save the town from traffic congestion, or whatever. I was very firmly me. Me, gawping at something truly stunning. The same is true of corrugated iron. Fallout's rusty girders helped me unearth meaning in the midst of Junktown. There's no need for Pipboy. If the game's objectives are met, that's merely incidental to my quest of demystification. So long as there's a soul to be found, so long as the developers keep rubbing, I'll keep on digging.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Ungagged

There's now a PC Gamer (UK) Podcast, which is lovely. This might sound odd, I often think of the PCG staff as transcendent heroes. I'm sure John Walker would dispute this, but he seems more human since I've heard his voice. The whole team are no longer muted producers of text, they're alive!

You'll find a new podcast every month. I believe the intention is to have the chatter serve as an accompaniment to each new PCG issue. The second wave should be heralded around June 7th.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Happy Shadowbolt Day!

Welcome to a regular new feature on Splines! Because my purpose of existence is essentially to earn the admiration and approval of one man, a man who thinks this blog isn't updated often enough, I'm going to dedicate today's posts to a particular fondness I know he has. His particular fondness is of the Fallout series, which quite frankly I'm more than a little fonded by myself. Anyway, Joystiq have recently posted a video (below this post) and this link, both pertaining to the excellence that will sadly never become reality, Fallout 3 by Black Isle.

Black Isle's Fallout 3