Theres a lot to be said about the Keynote speech that David Cage made. But I feel like we’ve said it all before. Basically, when Michael writes the things David said, everybody yells at him and insists what we want to do is game-dev heresy. Maybe they will listen to someone who is making a multi-million dollar project for Sony instead? ha!
Jeff Ward wrote an interesting analysis of the commercial viability of independent games. I highly recommend it to anyone who has any illusions about the Great Era For Indie Games that we’re living in. Because the reality is cold and hard for most of us. Indie games is becoming as much a commercial and hit-driven business as its AAA counterpart (via Game Set Watch).
This, of course, made me immediately think about alternatives. The indie scene is too valuable to be spoiled by banal commercial considerations. There must be another way! But perhaps not within the games industry…
The games industry is -still- largely a manufacturing industry, not a creative industry. What I mean by that is that its focus is on the production of goods that can be consumed, rather than on invention and communication, or even entertainment. One of the oddities about the games industry is that the highest selling games and the games that get the highest critical praise are -by and large- the same. Whereas in other creative fields, the opposite is true: mass market products are looked down upon by the connoisseurs and marginal experimental products often get praised.
Within the games industry, the only criticism on this situation comes from academic circles and small groups of dissident gamers and journalists. Most people in the industry (publishers, developers and audience) are perfectly comfortable with reducing a game’s merit to its commercial success. There is no strong desire to invent new things or expand horizons. In fact, every new idea that comes along is heavily criticised, not for its intrinsic value, but for its potential lack of commercial viability. Even on the indie scene, where most developers are primarily driven by passion and not greed, success is still measured in commercial terms. Up to the point where indie developers congratulate their colleagues when they are bought by a bigger company or funded by a publisher (which, in essence, means they cease to be independent).
Commercial gain trumps everything in the games industry. You can make games that hardcore hobbyists despise, but if you sell well, you’ll be respected (Nintendo’s recent success, for example). But what’s much much worse is the opposite! If you make a game that does not sell well, it is simply ignored, shoved aside and dropped into a bin labelled “irrelevant”. If a game doesn’t make money, it’s considered to be irrelevant!
Even the few exceptions that exist, always carry this mark of shame with them. Any article that celebrates the greatness of underselling but highly praised games such as Ico, Psychonauts or Beyond Good and Evil, will invariably mention that the game did not sell well. As some kind of warning to anyone who would dare to do the same. While, seriously, after all this time, does the lack of sales still matter? In any other medium, first of all, commercial success is all but ignored when discussing a masterpiece. And second, a masterpiece that might have been commercially unsuccessful when it was released, makes up for that over time, after being praised on and on by the critics (Van Gogh being the most ludicrous example of this phenomena).
When it comes to games, it almost feels like commercial considerations are an integral part of the form. And I wonder if this is because of the kinds of people that are attracted to games. Games are competitive activities. And striving to win is a big part of the experience, especially in the prominent single player action game category. Gamers can be quite ruthless. In fact, it is expected of you to be ruthless. Your enemies must be defeated, if not destroyed. That’s the main winning condition of most videogames.
These goals happen to be shared by business culture, particularly its capitalist variety. Morals are set aside, friendship is set aside, care for the community or the environment all have to make way for the desire to win, to beat the competition. Business seems to be in a continuous state of war, where things are permitted that would not be accepted in normal society. When all factors in any issue are considered, profitability is the one that leads the decision. A decision that does not support growth of the company, growth of the market share, increased profits, etc, is considered foolish. Is considered playing badly. And will lead to losing the game.
If the people who are running the industry work from the mindset of gamers, it should come as no surprise that the games industry is not a creative one. In a field where financial gain defines success, there is no room for experimentation, exploration, expansion, maturation. And there certainly is no room for considering the quality of people’s lives, care for the environment, art (only when these concerns coincide with financial gain can they pop up on the radar). Maybe this is why the games industry never seems to grow beyond its confines as a manufacturing industry. An industry that is doomed to cater to the whims of the market, instead of leading the community by example, information and discussion. As a result, games are doomed to be forever shelved in the toy store, between to the board games and the superhero comic strips, never living up to their potential to challenge the crown of fine art, cinema and literature.
When Lewis Denby asked me to write an answer to the question “Why I play games” for a three part feature in his excellent Resolution magazine, I wasn’t planning to participate. Because I don’t play games. I try often enough. But videogames just don’t amuse me any more. Then I realized that this hasn’t always been the case and I started wondering what has changed. So I ended up writing an answer to the question “Why I don’t play games”. And they published it.
Have a read and let me know what you think. Am I crazy? Do you feel the same? Is there still hope? Or should we just move on to something else? Or are the other writers right? Are their reasons for playing games more pertinent than mine not to? Oddly, it seems that several of them feel the same about the scarcity of really good games and the lack of evolution, but this does not lead them to stop playing as it does me.
The other day, in a chat with several someones, I stated, “Artists are not interested in games.” As with any blanket statement it cannot be entirely true. Upon reconsideration I think it’s more accurate to say “Artists are not interested in the games industry.” For that is something that will drive all but the most iron-stomached away. I do think many artists can see video games as a worthwhile medium… just not many of them do.
Someone mentioned to me last week, as an example of an artist made game, this work by Mel Chin called KNOWMAD in which one must navigate roads contrived from patterns found in Turkish carpets. I believe the ultimate prize is to find a promegranate.
He says in an interview with ART 21
ART:21: How did “KNOWMAD” evolve?
CHIN: I was interested in the maps that are not written down but created in the mind. And where do they occur? In contemporary culture, they occur with eleven year-olds, ten year-olds, playing video games and winning or getting the prizes or whatever they do, slashing or slaying the beast. And they memorize their path because that’s the one way—it’s the start of memory—and that intrigued me. How can we create this kind of mapping? I’ve been interested in arcade games and in all these things, not necessarily as a player, and not necessarily as one who participates in that, but as it has a profound effect on culture. How do ideas survive in culture? Not necessarily my ideas or anybody’s ideas, but how do ideas stay around long enough to have a conversation? From a conceptual standpoint, I’m interested in that. And knowing that video games probably equal or better Hollywood in their volume of intake of money shows you how much influence it have in the world. And then where is the art? Where is the cultural aspect involved with it?
Interactive video installation with Playstation, vintage carpets and fabric tent, dimensions variable
Last week, when we were asked in a room full of people if there were any progenitors to what we are doing, we didn’t have an answer. I believe we simply shook our heads and said sheepishly “No, there is no one doing what we are doing… There has never been anyone doing what we are doing.” Well, not in the way we are doing it. Put over-simply, some sort of art and video game hybrid with more emphasis on the art than the game.
Again, not _exactly right. Difficult being put on the spot on a subject like that.
We were taken aside after the talk by a performance artist/gamer who told us we need to know about Kenji Eno and his WARP development studio. Apparently we also needed to have a look at D, Enemy Zero, and D2. Sega Saturn and Dreamcast games… youtube will have to do.
A little search yields this fascinating interview
Kenji Eno: I want to go back a little bit and explain a little. Originally, I was an observer more than a game creator, like someone who was looking at the game industry from the outside. That’s why I had all of these different, crazy ideas — like creating a game without visuals. I had all of these kinds of ideas because I was seeing the game industry from the outside. But around the time of D2, I felt like I was getting too close to the inside; I felt like I was turning into a normal game creator. Before, I was more like a producer, trying to look at everything from the outside, you know, like, “This might be fun, this might be interesting, and it might make an impact on people.” And I didn’t like going to any game-related gatherings or anything like that because I was trying to distance myself from it. D2 was a fun game, and the story was crazy and all that, but I still think that it’s a normal game, and I was noticing that it was a normal game. So I wanted to distance myself again so I could be the person outside of game industry so I would be able to create fresh games again. So the reason I stopped creating games was because I wanted to create games again from the outside.
and this history lesson from GameSetWatch. Hard to tell from video, of course, but in every case, cutscenes seem to dominate them. Maybe it was just how things were done then. Enemy Zero looks particularly promising, a game wher eyou must fight/avaoid an en enemy you cannot see, only hear. Aside from all the unfortunate first-person shooteriness there is a soundtrack by Michael Nyman(!) and animations by *gasp* Fumito Ueda.
To recap some things which need to be kept clear (as possible)
* “Doesn’t matter if it is a game or not so long as you enjoy it.” Tattoo it on your inner eyelids kids.
* Interactive art and games have plenty of overlapping concerns.
* Video games differentiate themselves from traditional games (chess, go, hide & seek etc.) by virtue of what they can offer that traditional games cannot. immersion, interaction with a virtual system, networks, realtime/alt-time/non-time (non-linearity etc.), multimedia.
Unfortunately, I’ve found in my videogame experience that the big companies are just as conservative as the [Hollywood] studios. I was disappointed with the first Hellboy game. I’m very impressed with the sandbox of Grand Theft Auto. You can get lost in that world. But we’re using it just to shoot people and run over old ladies. We could be doing so much more.
Guillermo del Toro in an interview with Wired
The rest of the article refers to games in the typical broad strokes of an executive -as opposed to somebody who has actually created software- but I was happy to read that some film directors share the dream of the potential of this medium (and don’t fall into the trap that Spielberg and Cameron are falling into: embracing videogames as if the current fare is all there is to them).
We all know what del Toro is talking about. I’ll be interested to see if somebody with such economic (and cultural) power will be able to pull it off. It’s doubtful, since he seems to be thinking BIG, but at least he is trying. Which is more than can be said about most people within the games industry.
And I wish more film directors would stand up and speak out against the game adaptations of their work. So many great opportunities have been lost in the process of making cheap commercial games out of movies. It really shows the embarrassing contrast between an industry manufacturing product and a creative industry which at least pretends to respect creative vision and artistic expression. We shouldn’t let Hollywood out-art us!
Thank you, Alice, for pointing this out. Though I wouldn’t have called del Toro “extremely arty”…
I’m considering to officially join the legions who are sick of the games-as-art debate. Because I am sick of it too. But not for the same reason. I’m sick of games. I’m sick of the endless debates on how we’re supposed to achieve something deeply meaningful by making people play with puzzles or achieving fake goals by adhering to arbitrary rules. Let games be games. Let them be fun. Let them be playful. Don’t weigh them down with all sorts of demands of meaning. Let them be frivolous, meaningless, brainless fun. Please.
This is about much more than games! We have this wonderful technology, the computer. It is capable of doing so many things. And one thing it does amazingly well is serve as a medium for entirely new experiences. Interactive experiences, non-linear adventures with creatures that seem to be alive, strange lands to explore and things to discover. Making you feel like you are somebody else in another place, another time. The Holy Grail of any art form that has come before. The thing that all paintings, all poems, all architecture, all opera, all literature and all films have wanted to be for centuries!
And what do we do with this medium? We make games!
In fact, we obsess about making ever more intricate little puzzles, with ever more clever little mechanics to make people feel ever so smart when all they did was follow rules and obey commands. It’s decadent! It’s wasteful! It’s negligent! It’s a shame!
Imagine that caveman down in Lascaux finding pigment and a wall and drawing a grid on it to play tic-tac-toe! Imagine the farao’s in Egypt deciding to make Tetris instead of pyramids! Imagine Botticelli putting his canvas down on a table and move some pawns over it instead of painting The Birth of Venus! The shame! The horror!! Yet, it’s exactly what we’re doing with the interactive medium. We have this incredible technology -almost like magic-, this wonderful medium! And all we do is sit there and throw dice with it.
Let games be games. And let’s move on.
Knytt, Gravitation, Braid, Everyday Shooter and Zeno Clash. Five independent games. Five times the same experience for me. I launch the game, get to grips with the controls and start playing. Then suddenly, the game stops me. In some cases it makes my avatar die. In all cases, the only thing to do is to retry. And fail again. And retry. And fail again. In some cases I do this two or three times before I close the application (sometimes I uninstall it on the spot). In other cases perhaps 4 or 5 times. But I never made it beyond the first challenge in any of them.
So I ask myself if these games were perhaps badly designed. Some videogames allow you to enter them smoothly and easily. It often takes hours for me to reach the point where the game blocks itself off, closes up like an oyster refusing to give up its pearl. But at least I got a few good hours out of it. Portal was like that for me. So was that remake of Tomb Raider 1. Hm. Does it take money to design a game well?
When I related my confusion to Auriea, she said “You just don’t like games.” That was enlightening! For a moment. I don’t particularly like games. That’s true. I won’t go out of my way to play a game of chess or hide and seek. And I’m not exactly thrilled when my daughter wants me to join her game of Legos or Playmobil.
Those games never end in such a cruel way. When I play chess, I often lose. I’m not very good at it. But I still like playing. When I lose in chess, my opponent wins. And that’s kind of nice. It’s nice to see how my opponent is happy with the victory. And I’m happy for them. But with videogames, when you lose, nobody really wins. And it feels more like the game is designed to make you lose. As if you deserve to be punished for something. When all you did was try to play a game.
If you can call it that!
Outside of the electronic realm, the majority of games require multiple players. As a result, no matter who loses, a human always wins. Electronic games are mostly single player games (even many so-called multiplayer games are expansions on a single player idea). Maybe games weren’t meant to be single player? When I play a non-computer game by myself, the rules are always loose. And when I stop playing, it feels more like the game has lost me than I it.
Computer-based games are like tests. They ask you questions and require the right answer. They make it hard for you, on purpose. They’re not meant to be easy. It’s a format that lends itself to quizzes as well as school exams. Only one of which is a game. Though formally they are the same. What makes a quiz a game and an exam not a game? Purpose! Not its rules, goals or challenges. But its purpose! A quiz is a game (and not an exam) because it is done for fun, because it is not serious (like an exam).
Or is a quiz an exam simulator and considered a game because it’s a simulation, because it’s not real?
The fact that Braid isn’t fun for me does not disqualify it from being a game. It’s perfectly valid to say “This is not a fun game.” What makes Braid a game? Its rules, goals and challenges? No. Because the same format can apply to something that is not a game (an exam, e.g.). On some level, Braid is serious. Like an exam. Does that disqualify it from being a game? Or is the level on which Braid is serious not part of the game? Is Braid an “augmented game”? But what if the level on which Braid is a game is not fun for me? Does it then stop being a game for me?? That’s ridiculous. The nature of something should not change just because of my feelings about it.
Maybe it is sufficient for a game to be fun for someone. Then you can call it a game. Maybe for some people taking an exam is fun. Maybe they would consider it a game too. Maybe it is indeed enough to simply consider something a game. Maybe everything can be a game! You could turn riding on the highway into a game by pretending it’s a race! You could sit in the park and look at the ducks and count their quacks and see if the black ducks win or the white ones. Sounds like a game to me.
So maybe Braid can be a game too?…
Ah, it’s sunday. Nothing better to do than surf the web and look at screenshots and videos of upcoming games. Sitting here I was struck by a few games that I am actually looking forward to and decided to make an addendum to my previous post of games I am looking forward to playing, so here it is…
Top of the list is Bayonetta, of all things.
Yeah, I know, I’m as surprised as you are. Why?
Well… back in the day I had a thing for Devil May Cry 1. Just the first one. I thought the sequels didn’t really take advantage of what a cool character Dante was so with each new DMC game I was bitterly dissapointed. Platinum Games seems to have carried the vision of that game into Bayonetta. SO I am *hoping* it will be finally an action game I can enjoy again. They recently created blog and the character designer and modeler come forth with some of their process. I love it when character artists do that!
Bayonetta’s long hair is the source of her power, and she normally wears it around her body as a means of adornment and protection. However, once she enters battle, she can use her hair to summon incredibly powerful demons from hell. When she summons these Infernal Demons, she is using all of her power, so she has no time to control the hair wrapped around her body and thus she ends up in more “comfortable” attire. The exciting way she looks in this state is one of the parts of Bayonetta that I love.
Next stop, Blueberry Garden!
Winner of the grand prize during the IGF. An indie game by Erik Svedäng of the amazing hair and an all around sweet guy.
Cruising through Steam channels this morning I noticed Blueberry Garden will soon be for sale. I had a chance to play the game during the IGF and it’s quite a charming platform game… though not exactly a platformer as it seemed the goal was more whimsy than winning. I love the drawn style and how while playing I was always kept curious to figure out what was going on. I think anyone who reads this blog will really enjoy Blueberry Garden, so once it’s out you should all give it a try!
One game I forgot to mention in my first ‘looking forward’ post is actually a game I’ve been waiting on for years. And that’s Heavy Rain.
When is this game gonna be finished? And why won’t the developers, Quantic Dream, answer our repeated emails requesting an interview with them? hah? We’d love to talk to them about their design philosophy more in depth! I think this game could end up being a big budget example of new ways to tell stories through interaction. Not sure… but maybe… I like that they are at least trying to get out of old forms of gameplay and put the emphasis on the narrative content. Of course, until theres more released about the game, we don’t really know what its gonna be, do we…? :/ Still, given the version of it I make up in my mind, based on what has been released so far, this game is one to look forward to!
I am very excited about Noby Noby Boy multiplayer and getting Girl to Mars!!!
Lastly, there is our own The Path for the Mac… because we’ve been working hard to get the game released on this platform! It’s been received wonderfully on the PC but as a Mac user I think it is going to be a great fit for the game loving Mac audience! Trust me, you guys have never played anything like this!
Things haven’t changed much, have they? Except that Mr Sylvester may be wrong. Maybe Hungry Hungry Hippos and Fallout 3 are still too much alike to make his point.
I know what he means, though, by saying that the term “game” does not fit videogames anymore. Except that it does. Even Fallout 3 is still a game underneath. He’s just playing it wrong. But his wrong style of playing is infectious. And at some point, there will be more developers than just us -with bigger budgets- who design explicitly for this play style. It may take another generation, though. A generation of designers who were born after Pac Man and Space Invaders. Looking forward to it!
What’s wrong with this picture?
Answer after the cut.