Missing the Point

So, a few days back Irrational had a job posting with a “need to have shipped a game with a 85+ metacritic ranking” requirement and the Gamasutra staff took turns bashing it. Disregarding how rarely job “requirements” turn out to be anything more than a wishlist I find it a bit odd that none of them could make any sense out of this.

To be clear, I don’t think it is a particularly good requirement and I agree that in AAA productions you cannot judge games by individuals, or individuals by the games they have been credited on. Even if the entire team is top-notch, a multitude of external factors can affect the quality of a game negatively – also, games that are niche, underhyped or inaccessible usually score lower. In short, having worked on a “bad” game does not in itself make you a bad developer and I think allowing metacritic more influence on personel issues is a dangerous idea. You can, however, usually make some assumptions about high-scoring titles.

Games that score higher tend to be more polished, usually at least slightly innovative and having a good sense of identity. There are many reasons for why this might happen – enigmatic leads, a well-functioning team, an incredibly strong core idea, a technological breakthrough or enough money not to have to bend to anyone’s will. None of these guarantee success, but usually successful games have at least one of them. Working under these circumstances is different than working without them, and if you are an otherwise good developer you will learn things from it. I think when you are hiring a lead with this requirement you are not looking for someone who will automatically write a design for an 85+ game, you are looking for someone with experience in doing the little things a bit better. Be it prioritizing tasks, finding new talent, making sure everyone is heard, plan social events or anything else – you are hoping the applicant knows something that might give you an edge.

Again, I do not think this kind of requirement is the right way to go and I do not think they will enforce it. But I can see why you would want to hire people who have experience in working with a successful process.

Posted on Jul 31/12 by Saint and filed under General game development | No Comments »

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The yearly IGF controversy


There’s always something, it seems – I suppose that it being big enough to have detractors is a sign of success. This year the integrity of the judging process is called into question by developers the Rotting Cartridge.

Competitions like the IGF can be great fun for all involved, but the stress and hardships can easily get to you no matter what your part is. If you are arranging, it becomes a matter of putting together a big event while placing your trust in a large number of developers to produce entries, and a large number of professionals to judge them fairly – neither of which you can be sure of. Judging can be an arduous and thankless task where disappointed entrants will press you for information on why they did not win. Being an entrant has the chance of giving some payout but it can feel more like a lottery where you have no idea if your game was judged fairly or disliked because of the personal taste of the judge who happened to be assigned.

I have been on all sides of this so going into it I figured I would not want to take sides, but I can’t remain completely neutral. Sure, the judges could have taken their duties more seriously and at least made sure to pass them on if they couldn’t live up to their promise. And yes, the people behind it all should have had accounted for an increase in entries and maybe been a little more professional about responding to the criticism. In the end though, I have to agree that fundamentally the IGF is a competition and if even the developers themselves did not expect to be nominated for anything then maybe they should not be too disappointed when they were not. If they’re just after publicity or focus testers, there are better ways to spend $100. Complaining about the possibility of games being ignored feels like a poor argument, to their credit the Rotting Cartridge mostly advocates more transparency in the judging process which I certainly can see no fault in.

As the chart above shows, the IGF has been growing more and more every year since 2005 (and before that for as long as there are records) so I do not think things like this will affect the success of it. Even bigger events like the Oscars have it worse since it is fully up to the movie makers to make sure that members of the academy get to see their movies and a lot reportedly vote without having seen all of the movies in their category. Considering that publishers and platform holders seem to be in love with “award-winning” developers and metacritic scores, I do sometimes wish IGF and others would consider the impact they are making more thoroughly. Bringing in politics into it would remove focus from the games though, and that would undermine the integrity of the competition more than anything.

In other GDC related news, developer Scott Anderson started a blog about the failure of the Shadow Physics project, even though he claims not to have learned a lot from it I am looking forward to an interesting read. I also enjoyed reading about the Great Middleware debate, it brings up a few points on both sides that may seem obvious but are surprisingly unknown. I’ll hopefully get back to that at some point.

Posted on Mar 08/12 by Saint and filed under General game development | No Comments »

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The Mojäng – Zenimax thing

Apparently the first step of Zenimax’ lawsuit is concluded. The trial remains and appeals do not seem unlikely, so it may be a while still.

Now, I am going to draw upon some experiences of my professional life in this post so maybe it is best to make it clear that this post, like all others on this blog, are my opinions alone and are not to be attributed to any of my employers, past or present.

In “the Darkness”, a little less than halfway through the game, Jackie runs into a WW2 era cannon. It is a rail-mounted monstrosity, somewhere between a train and a building – but more importantly, at one point the train had the number “999” stamped somewhere. This was a subtle reference to the anime “Galaxy Express 999”, but you will not find it anymore as it was removed due to copyright concerns. There is also a lot of graffitti in the game – we actually hired artists to paint this for us as just grabbing it from concrete walls around town put us in a sticky ownership position. The cool part about this is that the entire development team got to have their handles recreated as tags – though you will not find mine there as I requested that my tag have a stick figure with a halo. You know, “Saint” and all… I have some more understanding for the cutting of this (even though the figure in the tag looked nothing like the icon popularized by Simon Templar), but still. And those things are just the beginning.

Now, I do not blame the studio heads for wanting to play it safe – Intellectual Property law is apparently a minefield in entertainment in general and videogames in particular, for several reasons.

First, as a small independent studio making a global product we were at the mercy of our publishers. As far as I understand it, most similar contracts make it the developer’s sole responsibility to make sure that there is no IP infringement in the game, even if the publisher has signed off on the game and it sits on shelves around the world. A small independent studio could not handle the cost of a lawsuit concerning a game selling millions of copies.

Second, there is a general notion that since everything in a videogame more or less has to be explicitly created for the game, there is never a lack of intent. I have not been able to get this verified or denied by anyone – again, this is a subject no-one wants to touch. But unlike movies, where other trademarks might happen to be in the background, you better be sure all your designs are original in a game. This creates a warped responsibility where our artists had to design everyday objects and model fictional characters only to spend hours searching online to make sure they had not accidentally made it similar to an existing design or celebrity. It hurts narrative too, Max Barry wrote about the alienation of fiction when we are not allowed to use brands that have forced themselves into our everyday lives – this is the biggest reason why so few AAA games are set in contemporary settings.

Third, this is an issue that very few people talk about. No-one wants to be publicly involved in IP lawsuits, so nobody talks about it. All of the things we had to do for the Darkness (and later games) were not because of warnings from outside but from self-policing in fear of a reportedly massive number of copyright and patent trolls looming around every new release. Stories from publisher representatives and rumors from conventions where all we had to go by – but it was enough. We could scarcely afford to finish the game, a lawsuit would leave everyone without a job.

It is mainly because of this third reason that I appreciate that Mojäng are fighting this and they are being public about it – there needs to be a lot more light shining on these issues so we can get some real, official examples of what we can actually do. That is not to say I think either them or Zenimax are obviously in the right, but maybe if a case like this is settled in public we can be on the way to a functional industry where IP decisions are made based on facts and reason instead of fear and rumors. I think that would make the entire entertainment industry a nicer place to work in.

Posted on Oct 19/11 by Saint and filed under General game development, Intellectual Property, Meta-blog | 5 Comments »

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Carmel on XBLA

Ron Carmel of 2D Boy has an article about XBLA up. As usual when it comes to Carmel, it is a well-researched article putting hard and sometimes unexpected facts in context for an immensely interesting read. I would recommend everyone to read it.

Carmel points out that while XBLA has been instrumental in the rise of the independent games of recent years, a decline has already started and is looking to be more serious in the next few years. He argues that this is mostly due to Microsoft being unreasonably hard to work with and gives a few suggestions as to how they might change this. Again, read the article – it is great.

I am hesitant about one of his suggestions though, that Microsoft should establish their own rating system and ditch the ESRB – considering their console represents a good chunk of all the biggest budget titles in the games industry, them giving up support for the ESRB even in an unrelated way is a political issue as well. It is a hard problem to tackle – small developers do not necessarily have the means to secure a rating in all territories, but allowing more leeway would call into question the integrity of the rating system itself. The more I think about it, the more I wonder if XBLA as a service is actually right for this – maybe making these changes to XBLIG and promoting that service more would be a better idea. A small change, but an important distinction.

Posted on Oct 04/11 by Saint and filed under General game development | No Comments »

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The game I used to work on was officially announced a while back and today some video footage was revealed. It has been quite a while since I worked on it but since I could not talk about it while working on it for more than two years I am going to write something anyway.

I suppose the elephant in the room is the fact that it is not an assymetric, squad-based RTS thing, or rather that people are complaining that it isn’t. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t hurt a little when so much hard work is hatefully dismissed by people who did not want it in the first place, and seeing as some of my best friends are still working on it I really feel for Starbreeze. Hopefully it will die down as more information about the game surfaces. On the other hand, I can understand the disappointment. Games like Halo Wars and Mario Party did not get nearly as much complaints, but I am very sure they would have if we did not have Mario Galaxy and Halo: Reach. Metroid Prime was universally hated before it was released for similar reasons, and that game kept most of the central gameplay intact.

I am happy to have worked on it though, even if a lot of people seem to be of the “all or nothing” – mindset Syndicate is a really good IP even without the characteristic gameplay. It takes place in an establish dystopian future where humanity and personality is worth nothing, and it approaches this subject in a way that feels eerily plausible. I really am not usually the one to complain about materialism but the grim future in the world of Syndicate is not that many steps from what we have today. There is a very brutal element to the IP but the excessive violence serves to drive home the point – I remember being a vocal opponent to gibbed body parts in “the Darkness” because even though the IP was also very grim it did not feel like it made anything better. Some of the previewers have mentioned a somewhat disturbing scene of something being extracted from a man’s skull – it used to be even more disturbing, and I was kind of sad when they toned it down.

I am hoping this all goes well and the game is a success. If it is, maybe the IP will grow big even in a modern context, and maybe if it does EA will have enough faith in the setting to release a game with elements they do not have as much faith in; such as a non-FPS.

Posted on Sep 30/11 by Saint and filed under General game development, Meta-blog | No Comments »

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Why yes, the grass is greener

I am probably going to sound wrapped up in myself in this post, so I will try to keep it brief. Programmer Andy Bastable writes in #altdevblogaday, reprinted on Gamasutra, about how gameplay programmers deserve love, too.

Gameplay programmer is a bit of fuzzy term, depending on the company it can cover anyone from the low-level C coder who just happens to handle some of the game mechanics to the LUA scripter or the technical designer who uses flowcharts to create interactivity. Needless to say, wherever the work of individuals starts or ends the discipline is necessary for game development. Without the gameplay programmer we would not have a game. But I have heard the story about envying “the hardcore graphics coder” a bit too often now, and I think the envy (and occasional backlash) is misplaced.

Sure, it is nice to be in a position where you seldom have to wait for someone else to implement a feature that you need in order to do your job – usually you are the one developing the features. And “hardcore graphics” being what they are, we tend to get specialized and often get a lot of freedom to work the way we feel is best since people are reluctant to tell you how to do your job when they do not understand it. There’s also this. Tobias once jokingly told me he loved being a graphics programmer because it had this reputation of being difficult so you got many interesting offers when, really, any programmer could do it.

But the obfuscation is also the catch, and envying a graphics programmer seems to me a bit like envying the engineer who puts the hardware in the console together; it is a fundamentally different task and you loose some of the things by doing it. It is often very hard to explain to someone who is not a programmer just what your contribution really was. A lot of the work is just painstakingly trying to widen the box just a little so artists can have slightly fewer restraints, oftentimes you are so far away from the game that people expect you to not care about it.

By no means is it a bad job, but it is different. I know a lot of engine programmers who hardly play games at all, maybe if this was part of the image of the graphics coder we would see less misplaced envy.

Posted on Sep 07/11 by Saint and filed under General game development | No Comments »

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A couple of weeks back, programmer Poya Manouchehri posted a piece about pitfalls in hobbyist game development to #AltDevBlogADay, I am going to use this a ridiculously far-fetched lead-in to something I wanted to write about anyway as I liked this quote of his:

I guess if had to summarize “agile development” (as overloaded as that term is) in a sentence it would be: Write enough code to do the job, no more, no less.

While certainly not an idea unique to agile, to me it encapsulates how agile can be a really good practice – if you use the tools provided by agile to provide simplicity and focus, it can help you solve some of the issues that might pop up in game development without introducing new ones. But I am not going to write about agile – while interesting it has been a hot topic since I started working with games and I have little more to add to what has already been said. What is interesting – bothersome, even – to me is how project management practices in general are sometimes misused in small teams.

In recent years, budding studios have adopted more and more complex development strategies – at first it seemed like this was mostly out of a desire to operate like studios in the large-scale games industry rather than a way to solve a problem. There are numerous annoying results of this; projects caught in eternal meetings as all information must be shared and all sharing must be documented, small teams where individuals refuse to do any development work as they consider their roles administrative and in general projects where the integrity of the development process comes before the quality of the game.

Now, whereas in larger teams (the ones in need of a solution for communication problems) enough people might work in every discipline that solutions are needed to make sure everyone is heard, in smaller teams where people know each other and know who needs what, it is usually faster to just talk to people directly. There is some idea that bringing all decisions through a committee will help people from different disciplines reach consensus, but I would say this is rather ineffective – which finally brings me to my point.

Most people in the AAA game development industry will tell you working with people from other disciplines is difficult. It is a bit eerie, really – it certainly seems like the kind of working relationship a programmer and an artist have, for instance, would create an understanding for each other fairly quickly. While this is true to some extent, with development focus comes a set of goals, methods and priorities. Rather than making sure all details of every change is discussed and agreed upon by each discipline, we instead try and solve issues in ways that allow each other to be creative in as large a space as possible without breaking the game.

While a relationship built on virtual limitations might seem bleak compared to mutual understanding, I would say referring to it as distrust is missing the point. As a programmer, given a broad description of a system instead of a specific feature allows me to build something coherent and robust – as an artist, having tools that will not allow you to create assets that break the game allow you to think about the art instead of  the rules you need to adhere to. More importantly; creation itself is inspiring and by doing more of it we get new ideas.

Some things, like high-level design, will require everyone’s involvement – especially in small projects where people are more invested. But in terms of other things, I find that one of the marks of experience in the games industry is the insight to foresee potential and problems in what you do, and the ability to allow others to do their thing.

Posted on Jul 11/11 by Saint and filed under General game development | No Comments »

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Out of the Water


… This blog was always intended to be a place for me to store my thoughts when I had them, a way of venting meaningless things in a public forum so that I could taste the words when I wrote them – by forcing myself to formulate ideas I would perhaps gain new insights. That was the reason for the blog format in the first place, having a public place meant having to think a little more about what was written than writing in a mere diary would. Or maybe it just made me cowardly.

My point being that satisfying exhibitionist tendencies was never the primary intent of this blog, but I will not deny I like it when people read what I write and comment upon it. As such I feel bad about not writing anything for longer times.

A couple of months ago I moved to the United States and started working for Blizzard Entertainment – trying to settle into a foreign society and a new job has taken up a lot of my time and attention and I have not been able to reflect upon the happenings around me as I would perhaps have wanted. Due to how information is handled in the games industry – perhaps at this company in particular – there is little I can say about my job but the way different views affect how a company functions has been an eye-opener.

At Starbreeze (and I suspect at many other similar companies), most ideas came from a perceived experience. It was all about hitting the emotional target and anything that would help deliver that could be added without much thought; I imagine it was similar to working on movies in some ways. Blizzard, on the other hand, are focused on delivering gameplay first and the purity of it supersedes everything else. As an engine programmer, going from a console development environment to developing exclusively for PC has been a big change. As a gamer and part-time designer, moving from a company where games have traditionally been cinematic, single-player experiences to one making the world’s largest MMORPG and the world’s biggest e-sport has been kind of overwhelming. It all reminds me of the piece on Game Design Cognition from a few years back.

I have almost resolved the practical issues  involved in moving abroad though, so hopefully I will soon have more time to consider more interesting things again.

Posted on Jun 25/11 by Saint and filed under General game development, Meta-blog | 1 Comment »

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Everything is controversial

I have been complaining a lot about people claiming that the IGF should cater only to those who actually need the money and recognition associated with the awards rather than simply those who make the best games… This is of course more than a little silly considering how much connection to the IGF I have really had. And to be fair, there are also voices from the other end of the spectrum claiming that games with high production values should beat out all others. Which is what this is about, really, apparently Nintendo recently said it wants games to have a certain level of quality to be released on their consoles. Nothing new about this, really, but apparently it was controversial and Nintendo now tried to smooth things over.

It is more or less the same argument that Hecker and Blow have talked about for so long, how people are reluctant to explore ideas to any depth. Nintendo approaches the subject from a business standpoint of wanting to provide quality to the players rather than a playground for the developers – arguably a poor excuse for a console with that much shovelware, but still a sound idea. And that is not even what they are arguing about, the whole idea of Nintendo being more elitist about who they work with is fiction – neither Sony nor Microsoft will support and send devkits to a studio that does not have office space with proper security.

That is not to say I dislike hobbyist development. Some of the best games I have played have come from one-man teams and there is always tremendous fun to find in people’s experiments. I do hobby development myself – but there is a difference to making a small game about something simple and a full game that explores multiple ideas to a deep level and manages to balance the design. Both can be good games, but they are different enough that a platform can reasonable choose to provide one but not the other.

Posted on Mar 29/11 by Saint and filed under General game development | No Comments »

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The Room Jam was held this weekend, a gamejam where the participants each created a flash game taking place in a room – the collection of rooms have now been merged into the game SoManyRooms. The Global Game Jam also was this weekend, so it seemed like a good idea to join the GGJ:ers in spirit rather than join in the actual event.

The room I made with music by my coworker Johan Althoff is a short arena shooter of sorts, my intention was to create a game where the player’s powers are more aggressive and powerful as his health decreases, thus having a central risk/reward mechanic. To some degree I think it worked and the concept could be taken further by experimenting with reach, spread, power, cooldown and other attributes of the different attacks, but I am not sure it is interesting enough to warrant more depth.

Posted on Feb 02/11 by Saint and filed under General game development, Homegrown | No Comments »