On Depth and Awards

Designer Nels Anderson tackles the tired subject of depth in games with a somewhat fresh perspective, comparing the games industry to the music industry. I fully agree with his points that there is little reason to begrudge the perceived shallowness of mainstream games when they are in fact intended as an enjoyable consumer product more than a way to convey meaning, that as long as the long tail produces variety we can rest assured that the medium is expanding and that this rings true for other media industries as well. He also mentions that the volume of alternatives is lesser for games, there are a multitude of reasons for this and discussing them is outside of the scope for this post but I would guess the fact that games are largely born from toys and arcades (that is, pinball) as opposed to art or culture makes the “entertainment” part more prevalent.

I am not so sure about the presentation of “shallow” mainstream games, this is more a reflection on the culture surrounding art games than Anderson himself; the point of his article is, after all, that there is nothing wrong with enjoying games with little or no meaning. It does kind of come off as something you deign to do in between meaningful pursuits though, and deciding what has meaning and not in something as complex as games should not be done hastily. Small games often contain only a fraction of the content of mainstream games, and for instance a well-executed multiplayer mode might be immensely profound and enjoyable even if the rest of the game is bland. Even if a game lacks meaning in the narrative theme and presentation it may present aesthetic, technical or design solutions that are deep in themselves (Anderson actually mentions his rant not being about design, I just do not think it cannot be decoupled from meaning). And even if we do stick to the narrative, who is to say what is meaningful? … Then again, both the movie and music industries have indie appreciators decrying the shallowness of larger productions even when they have redeeming elements, so maybe this is just the way the world works.

On a related but slightly different note, Chris Delay of Introversion writes about a pretty cool voxel experiment and – more importantly for the purpose of this post – about his experiences judging the Techincal Excellence Award for the IGF. Feeling I had nothing to add I did not write anything about the IGF this year, but it seems my worries about elitism and eligibility were shared and some people felt that Minecraft – due to its reknown and financial success – should not be eligible to receive any IGF awards. I think this kind of thinking makes the IGF smaller, a sort of members-only club prizing  obscurity rather than simply celebrating great performances and great games – it is a bit sad. On the other hand it seems most award shows are heavily influenced by politics and for the IGF it all worked out in the end with Minecraft taking home a modest number of impressive awards.

Posted on Mar 10/11 by Saint and filed under Gaming culture | No Comments »

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Late again

I ranted about the media coverage of Indie Games a while back, more or less saying that reporters are a bit too eager to assign independent developers (“independent” according to the IGF and not the literal definition) all responsibility of creating innovative or interesting games. With so many new areas of gaming being opened up for us it becomes hard to make that argument – maybe even harder to counter it – but maybe it was easier when the scene was smaller. Long-time indie veteran Jeff Vogel wrote a piece about it almost five years ago.

The article is a bit of a downer to read and it could certainly be argued that Vogel is overly negative and outright wrong about the place of independent developers. The scene has grown quite a bit since 2006 after all and more independent games receive mainstream media attention now so I do not think Vogel would put it quite the same way had he written the article today. I do, however, think his argument is solid – not having enough money to get through the day can be a big encumbrance, just as having an overbearing publisher intent on forcing their ideas on the developer can. I think if the project is strong enough you will find a way to fight the opposition – whether this means taking crappy jobs on the side to make sure everyone makes rent or spending most of your time in meetings to convince middle-management that your ideas are solid is not really important.

The difference, again, is that in the case of the indie game the product will never be released or fall immediately into obscurity while a mediocre game with an AAA budget will still be marketed enough so people get to know about it and complain about the state of the games industry.

Posted on Jan 10/11 by Saint and filed under Gaming culture | No Comments »

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Hecker and Blow

Edge magazine recently did an interview with Chris Hecker and Jonathan Blow, it should be in the January issue but is now – fortunately – available online. As both of them are well-connected and outspoken veterans of the industry, it is an illuminating piece about everything from the state of Independent games to game design and polish and touching briefly on heavier, mainstream titles. It is opinionated, yes, but critical of both mainstream games, independent games and academia and not built up on the usual “this way is better than that” – arguments.

There was also some controversy as parts of the article was reposted with a different focus, Blow wrote about it and brought up a couple of interesting points on how this matters. He also provided a link to an earlier piece by Hecker who went more into detail about the state of games media. Also opinionated, but interesting anecdotes nevertheless.

I used to be kind of wary about any opinion piece written by Blow as I thought he tended to be a little harsh and self-righteous – brilliant designer, but sometimes a bit too negative and oblivious to the aspirations of other people. I am warming up to his way of thinking though, and I appreciate him being blunt with his opinions. Maybe he has toned the negativity down a bit since releasing a game of his own, maybe I have just been reading the sensationalist pieces that he mentions all this time or maybe I am growing weary of reading articles gushing uncritically over the latest big thing and then promptly forgetting about them.

Posted on Dec 23/10 by Saint and filed under Gaming culture | No Comments »

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Those who have known me for a long while know I like handicrafts and used to do it quite a lot when I was younger… Like any pretentious developer I like to be creative, and I like to keep my hands busy. It is not that I prefer knitting to other crafts, but it can be done without paying too much attention to it which is great when enjoying non-interactive entertainment such as watching movies – hence I occasionally knit stuff. Long story short, I decided to get rid of it a few months ago and started selling for the Child’s Play Charity in the beginning of November through this page.

All in all, the auctions gathered somewhere around $600, thanks in no small part to Terry Cavanagh who helped out by offering a bonus to those interested in the VVVVVV socks… I am not sure what to do next, but for those interested there is this thread on TIGSource.

… That is all. This was an extremely egocentric post, but it was fun to something out of the ordinary for Child’s Play instead of just buying something from amazon.

Posted on Dec 02/10 by Saint and filed under Gaming culture, Homegrown, Meta-blog | No Comments »

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Thinking further

A GameSpot reporter wrote an article about Limbo’s lessons for the mainstream and interviewed a few people regarding it – a piece that surely took some work, but it seemed to me there must be more important things to spend your time on.

It is the classic argument that most mainstream games are “…off-brown shooters requiring you to mow down hordes of vaguely foreign nationals and/or aliens” and that AAA developers need to be inspired by the independent developers, since they do not have to care what anyone thinks and therefore everything they make is amazing. Well… Maybe not that harsh, but that is the general idea that seems to fuel articles like these.

Sure, it is a valid point – most hobbyist or otherwise independent developers do not care about what people think and so you are more likely to see something you did not expect coming from them – but there are also loads and loads of games that are too uninspired, too weird or just plain too badly implemented to ever get any mainstream attention. Similarly, there are plenty of mainstream games that do new and interesting things well – the definition of an AAA game is muddy but I would say a higher percentage of them try to do something new and interesting than the collective indie catalogue.

The difference is – and here the article states a very good point – there are a lot of AAA games that try to give customers only what they want with minute improvements, and a lot of mainstream games that for one reason or the other are marketed heavily even though they are not very good. Games made by independents usually have little to no marketing other than word-of-mouth so no-one will push a bad indie title on you – hence, it does not get recognized and people with a good grasp on games in general but a poor grasp on independent gaming will hold up “indie” as something synonymous with “innovative and amazing.”

And is Limbo that good an example, really? I really like the game, it is atmospheric and genuinely creepy with it’s unique visual style and dramatic, silent scenes. In the end though, it is just a solid puzzle/platformer with really good art direction – not a bad game, but the only innovative thing about it is pairing the silhouettes and hazy backgrounds with one of independent gaming’s most common genres.

I do not really want to encourage more infighting between indie enthusiasts and… well, I suppose some claim to be fighting “mainstream games” but few people seem to be fighting back. I am just tired to see the entire AAA games industry be discarded as derivative and boring every time an indie game reaches the mainstream game media.

Can’t anyone look at a list of AAA games of the recent years and talk about the important innovations they brought to the industry? If no-one else will, I’ll write an article myself.

Posted on Dec 01/10 by Saint and filed under Gaming culture | No Comments »

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The “Games as Art” Meta-argument

Roger Ebert has written another piece in the “Games as Art” – debate, admitting he might have been wrong to enter the debate in the first place. The first paragraph sums it up quite well;

 “I was a fool for mentioning video games in the first place. I would never express an opinion on a movie I hadn’t seen. Yet I declared as an axiom that video games can never be Art. I still believe this, but I should never have said so. Some opinions are best kept to yourself.

Reading the entire thing provokes some thought about why the “games as art” – argument is in the state that it is. Ebert was criticized for saying that games can never be art without defining what art actually was, he then admits to failing in trying to find a definition for art that would both satisfy him and include all of what is generally considered art.

Ebert also says that he is not interested in playing games to find out if there is indeed something there to fit his definition of art, and is thus prepared to agree that there might be and it is not for him to deny it. In a sense, returning to his former conclusions the concept of “art” seems more personal than what he might have originally thought, and as such one who actually enjoys games to a great degree might with them have a similar experience to what Ebert has when he enjoys what he calls art. Maybe art has so much to do with your own emotions that you are unfit to judge the artistic value of a medium you do not like.

Sure, what essentially boils down to “everyone has their own opinions” is not really a groundbreaking conclusion, but  reaching that conclusion in an uncommonly rational way is a refreshingly clear contribution to a muddy debate.

Posted on Jul 01/10 by Saint and filed under Gaming culture | No Comments »

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Pixel – A Pixel Art Documentary

Animation student Simon Cottee presents a short overview of the pixel art style, talking about it’s digital roots and comparing it with other abstract art forms as well as interviewing a few artists on their take on the subject. A very nice way to spend 10 minutes.

Posted on May 22/10 by Saint and filed under Gaming culture | No Comments »

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Indie Game: The Movie off to a good start

Interviewer Lisanne Pajot and independent filmmaker James Swirsky very recently teamed up and announced the project Indie Game: The Movie, a documentary about the games and the people behind them. News spread and in less than 24 hours on KickStarter, the project has pulled together 40% of the funds needed for completion. Seeing what comes out of this is going to be really great.

Posted on May 19/10 by Saint and filed under Gaming culture | No Comments »

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Hero Core Released

Daniel Remar of Iji fame has released the sequel to his lo-fi space action/exploration adventure Hero, titled Hero Core. A very nice little game that lasts for a couple of hours and feels thought-through in all areas.

I met Daniel at No More Sweden last year so I actually played Hero Core (or at least what would become Hero Core) shortly before playing the prequel, at the time Daniel told me he had tried to make Hero Core easier – both in terms of it being more forgiving and less frustrating since it does not force the player to redo as much work should he fail. He has certainly succeeded with this, and it is a testament to Daniel’s skill as a game designer that the game is a lot less frustrating but offers the same amount of action. In addition, unlike the first game Hero Core is a nonlinear experience and the player can choose to defeat the final boss at any time – again, this works very well and while different paths are always differing in difficulty, you always have a choice in where to go next.

Like Iji, the greatness of Hero Core lies in the balanced design and is something you cannot really appreciate until you play the game. It is obvious Daniel has an eye for gameplay details and has been testing this notoriously in order to weed out all problems, and even though it is not the most profound of experiences Hero Core is a very fun game without noticable flaws.

Posted on May 02/10 by Saint and filed under Gaming culture | No Comments »

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Edmund on Difficulty

Edmund McMillen has a short piece on Gamasutra about the evolution of difficulty in games, a fairly lightweight piece and nothing really new if you’ve been keeping up the last few years, but an amusing read at least. Also, the 2009 Game Developer Salary survey results for independent developers have been posted, the first time GDM includes this category. Considering the very low average I’m guessing that there are a lot of different people being analyzed together; people working full-time, people working for free, on the side, gaining funds from alternative sources etc, so the average is not in itself that interesting. Nevertheless, a good idea that hopefully becomes a bit more structured in the future.

Posted on Apr 22/10 by Saint and filed under Gaming culture, General game development | No Comments »