GDC impression: indie games have levelled up

It’s been 6 or 7 years that Auriea and I have been attending one Game Developers Conference or other, first in London and the last few years in San Francisco. Over all those years, speakers have complained about the same thing: games are juvenile, games are only for teenage boys, games are sexist, games are not artistic, etc. The continuous frustration of a medium that wants to be (regarded as) something more and other than it is.

In the first GDCs we attended, this made us hopeful. Because we felt we had a solution to these problems. But as we continued to fail to find a connection with the commercial games industry, we lost that hope. We learned that, although the industry complains about these issues continuously, it had zero intention to change anything.

Last year’s GDC was the year when independent games suddenly seemed to be the new thing, the most exciting area in the industry, where at the very least, people were making games for the love of it. This year, the excitement was still there. And the complaints were still there. But they were expressed in the most vehement and passionate manner ever. Heather Chaplin’s raging rant about how game developers are stunted and sexist juveniles brought a tear to my eye. But the main point of her talk was that we should stop making excuses about the medium’s young age, and start working on solutions for the problems.

And this is where independent games come in. As opposed to the desperation that accompanied the complaints over the previous years, this year everybody’s hopes were directed towards independent games. So much so that Clint Hocking even warned AAA game developers that if they didn’t change their ways, they would be rendered irrelevant by indie games. And I guess the AAA took note. We have entertained both Hideo Kojima and Fumito Ueda at our little booth in the Independent Games Festival this year. Warren Spector came by several times but we sadly missed the opportunity to talk to him. I have spotted Will Wright circling the indie floor. And who knows who that guy was with the funny name on his badge but looking so much like Cliffy B…

Anyway. Andy Schatz was pleading for unity between indie games and AAA games during the IGF awards ceremony. But it seems like AAA games will benefit more from this relationship than we will. Last year’s plaything has turned into this year’s hope for the future of the medium. Now I’m really curious about what will happen next year!

Because it’s not just that indie games have always been around and suddenly became fashionable. It is also important to note that the quality and diversity of independent games has increased tremendously over the past few years. So rather than sitting on our mini-laurels, I hope we continue on this path and make games that push the medium into territories that it always hoped to reach (or falsely claimed it had).

Achievements will save us all!

I find myself strangely fascinated by the recent trend of Achievements in games. For the uninitiated, achievements are a sort of titles that you get when you have done a particular thing in a videogame for the first time (like collect the Six Sacred Stones or run very fast into a wall, etc). So you don’t get a power-up or gold or points or extra lives or anything that influences the gameplay at all. Only the title. The reason for my fascination is that it seems like achievements can turn anything into a game!

We’re playing a bit with the concept in the design of The Path, and, depending on how we end up publishing the game, we might add more. Achievements are a very simple mechanic. They require hardly any design, are easy to implement and instantly provide the player with motivation and goals. These two, of course, being the Big Problem that needs to be solved in order to allow videogames to evolve from the toy-like things that they are today into the full-blown mature medium that we all know they can become.

Assassin's Creed

Assassin’s Creed, at least the way I play it, seems to be largely structured around the concept of Achievements. It offers you a fully explorable living world which is a joy to simply walk around in. But, typically, as such, it runs the risk of becoming too ambient to keep the player motivated. Setting your own goals and having the discipline and patience to explore is not an easy thing to continue doing for the many hours that games like these take. But just before you get in trouble, you almost accidentally collect a flag. And the game tells you that it’s flag number 1 out of a hundred. Or you climb a large tower to enjoy the view and the game tells you there’s nine of these. Instant motivation. Simple.
There’s more to Assassin’s Creed than this. It includes the traditional missions and combat and narrative progress. But I find these far less interesting.

Achievements can turn everything into a game. At least everything that is interactive.
I’ve tried to imagine a way to add achievements to reading a novel or listening to music but I couldn’t get there. Which doesn’t mean that it’s impossible. Suggestions are welcome in the comments!
The absolutely wonderful thing about Achievements to me is that they don’t interfere with the narrative experience much. They are extremely lightweight in terms of meaning. So now we can concentrate on making our interaction design express the story rather than forcing the rigid challenge-effort-reward game structure to do so, or -possibly worse- forcing the narrative to comply with the demands of such a structure. Achievements offer designers an opportunity to finally start exploring the non-linear nature of the medium without losing the players.

For instance: would it hurt The Graveyard to add Achievements to it? Hardly. Achievement: you have walked to the bench without limping! Achievement: you have sat on the bench without getting up before the song ends! Achievement: you have turned around three times before sitting down! Achievement: 10 birds have greeted you while sitting on the bench. Etcetera. You would still get the atmosphere. You would still feel the protagonist’s melancholy. You’d still feel the weak Belgian sun on your shriveled skin. You wouldn’t be distracted from the narrative content at all. And your protagonist doesn’t need to become a hero who defeats the monster or solves the mystery. Achievements can open the door for games about all sorts of content.

How game scores can be wrong

Brice Morrison has published an interesting article about how Metacritic, while being fairly reliable for traditional videogames, seems to be consistently wrong about Nintendo games. Wrong in the sense that the professional criticism does not correlate with the audience appreciation.

The reason for this, as he points out, is that Nintendo is adding two values to their games that are simply not being evaluated by the games press, illustrated by the reviewer’s recurring apology/warning that “this is not a game!” Traditional game reviews look at a combination of aesthetics, design and length. But Nintendo adds to these accessability and peripheral benefit (i.e. the value of the product beyond its entertainment value). And it is exactly these two values that attract new customers to Nintendo’s products, which, as we know, has been the key to success.

This is something that has been a concern of ours ever since we’re on the path (pun intended) towards publishing a commercial game. While our games are nothing like Nintendo’s, we also lean heavily towards exactly the same values that their games add to the mix. We also want our work to be accessible: there is no competition in our games, no stress, no hard rules and the controls are easy. And we want to add “peripheral benefit” in the form of a meaningful artistic experience that we hope enriches the player’s life.

We already know that The Path is going to get low review scores. Simply because its main benefits fall outside of the range of things that game reviewers pay attention to, or can express in a score. We’ve been toying with the idea of asking the reviewers to simply give the game a score of zero. But I don’t know. It seems so arrogant. And I’m still hoping that some day, the games press will open up, or soften up. Perhaps Nintendo will come to the rescue.

Slow Gaming!

What exactly does it mean to beat a game? You can’t have a meaningful contest against an inert digital artefact. From the game’s point of view, you did not beat it. On the contrary, you did exactly what the game wanted you to do, every step of the way. You didn’t play the game, you performed the operations it demanded of you, like an obedient employee.
Steven Poole, “Working for the Man: Against the Employment Paradigm in Videogames”

Steven Poole made some very interesting observations about how deeply playing videogames resembles work in his keynote presentation at the F.R.O.G. conference in Vienna, last October. Observations that brough to mind my own “Of cogs and machines” post, where I approach a similar subject from my perspective as designer and use some eerily similar metaphors.

[…] obediently following a game’s narrative or challenge-reward structure is nothing but work. Only when the player does something that isn’t mandated by the system can she be said to be playing.

He goes on to quote Horkheimer and Adorno as visionary prophets of our dystopian industrialized present and makes an interesting analogy with the Slow Food movement that states:

The culture of our times rests on a false interpretation of industrial civilisation; in the name of dynamism and acceleration, man invents machines to find relief from work but at the same time adopts the machine as a model of how to live his life.

Inspired by this challenge, Mr. Poole imagines a “new videogaming manifesto”:

It would speak of games where you really could choose your own adventure, but also where, if you preferred, you could just take time to smell the coffee, with no shadowy boss figure watching your clock and tapping his foot. It would be called Slow Gaming. Gamers of the world unite: you have nothing to lose but your boring virtual jobs.

Read the full article here!

Games seen from the outside

The next decade or so is going to see the world of video games convulsed by battles between the moneymen and the artists; if the good guys win, or win enough of the time, we’re going to have a whole new art form.
John Lanchester, “Is it Art?” in The London Review of Books

Since we partially make it our business to create “videogames for non-gamers” here at Tale of Tales, we have a keen interest in any messages we receive about games from the world outside. The few times when this happens, the author is either uninformed or simply a hardcore games enthusiast doing a little job on the side. A pity, because what better way to learn about ourselves as through the eyes of others?

So our interest was immediately peaked when we noticed a long article about videogames in a publication called “The London Review of Books”. Through thoughtful observations, John Lanchester combines a broad knowledge of the games industry with the advantage of both distance and erudition to place gaming within a larger cultural context.

And while his article is critical, Mr. Lanchester also does a good job at explaining the appeal of games to people not familiar with the medium (i.e., as he points out, everyone who does not actively play videogames). He points out the strong points and achievements of the medium as well as its flaws and shortcomings.

He compares games to novels:

You are in the game in a way that is curiously similar to the way you are in a novel you are reading – a way that is subtly unlike the sense of absorption in a spectacle which overtakes the viewer in cinema. The interiority of the novel isn’t there, but the sense of having passed into an imagined world is.

And to cinema.

Games are not, in general, better than films. But they are often better than huge-budget Hollywood films.
Not all games are cynically, affectlessly violent, but a lot of them are, and this trend is holding video games back. It’s keeping them at the level of Hollywood blockbusters, when they could go on to be something else and something more.
Games do a good job of competing with blockbusters, but it would be a pity if that was the summit of their artistic development.

And then, of course, speculates on how video games might become art.

The other way in which games might converge on art is through the beauty and detail of their imagined worlds, combined with the freedom they give the player to wander around in them.

He also makes a reference to a keynote presentation by Steven Poole (of “Trigger Happy” fame), which deserves a post of its own.

A common criticism of video games made by non-gamers is that they are pointless and escapist, but a more valid observation might be that the bulk of games are nowhere near escapist enough.
Most video games aren’t nearly irresponsible enough.

Read the full article here!

My new year’s resolution

Let the record state that my new year’s resolution will be to ignore troll posts on web forums and comments sections of blogs. The term “troll post” is defined broadly as any negative comment that is given without reasoning or justification. This includes statements in the comments sections about issues that had already been addressed in the main article (i.e. from people who did not even bother to read). As of 2009, I am reinstating the author in his role of authority. And urging anyone keen on voicing their own opinion, to do so in their own publication. I am aware that this resolution will probably mean that I will have to ignore the comments sections of most blogs entirely. So be it.

I do allow for an exception where it concerns comments to posts in our own publications, where I feel it is my obligation to act as a polite host. But this should by no means be interpreted as an invitation. 2009 Shall be known as the year when trolls returned to their caves.

Games I’m looking forward to playing in 2009

As counterpoint to Michael’s post about not having games to play I thought I’d be more optimistic and point to some games that I am looking forward to playing when they’re released next year.

So far:
Flower (Playstation Network, thatgamecompany): We’ve played with an early version of this game some months back and it can give one a feeling of absolute euphoria. Floating along on a breeze, the controls felt just right even back then. It looks like some game-like elements have been added but I bet it won’t dull the primary effect putting you in a dream-like state and giving you a moment’s release from care.

Noby Noby Boy (Playstation Network, keita takahashi, Namco): something that looks this exquisitely insane has GOT to be good. I am also pleased that the designer doesn’t consider it to be a game. The aesthetic is fresh, the play looks open, I can’t wait.

Gyakuten Kenji/Miles Edgeworth Perfect Prosecutor (DS, Konami): Confession, I have played ALL the Phoenix Wright/Ace Attorney games. I find the writing to be on par with any television series. The stories are funny and tragic and sometimes a bit strange. Great character design throughout. A spinoff featuring Miles Edgeworth is a fabulous idea.

Calling (Wii, Hudson/Konami?): I’ve only seen (apparently leaked) videos on the net but this spooky game looks awesome! I hope to no end that it gets released outside of Japan. The interaction reminds me of a design we’d come up with for an unfinished game called “The Apartment.”

F.E.A.R. 2 (PC, Monolith): not because i will actually play the game (I cannot play FPS games) but because i think Alma (all grown up now) is the sexiest, most compelling, female character in action game history. What I do with games I can’t, or don’t want to, play is I look at clips on YouTube so I can skip the shooting and get to the good parts (which are the parts in-between the shooting usually.) The first F.E.A.R had some priceless moments. I’m hoping this one will be just as striking.

what can i say, i’ve got strange taste in women.

Tension/The Void (PC, Ice-Pick Lodge): Speaking of mysterious women, this game by our friends at Ice-Pick Lodge is intruiging. It’s getting a release outside of Russia courtesy of Atari. Good on them. While I’m not sure I’ll love the gameplay (but it could happen) I think it may have some interesting narrative resonance. I definitely am looking forward to fully exploring this world. I admire the character and environment design to no end.

Pikmin (WiiWare, Nintendo): i played this on gamecube and it remains one of my favorites. I think the addition of Wii controls will totally add. I’m looking forward to throwing the little guys around. Not so much to having them eaten, set on fire, blown away and rolled over by the garden’s creatures. But hey…

#1 game I’m looking forward to is: The Path (PC, Tale of Tales), of course. Because we’ve been making it for 2 years and having it done is the only thing I can really think of right now. Gaming comes *after*. So many hopes…

So, What games are YOU looking forward to playing?

Are videogames contracting the meaning of the word game?

Noby Noby Boy

We’ve had our fair share of discussions around the term “game” on this blog. Often inspired by the fact that it was problematic to categorize our work as games. Up until now, our answer has always been that we are trying to expand the meaning of the word “game”. But perhaps something else is (also) going on.

Before videogames, the word game could be used for many things. And it still is used like that by people outside of the gamer elite. Basically anything whimsical, childish or silly was a candidate to be called a game. Game was even used as a term to denounce certain practices, as in “that politician is playing a dirty game” or “she was playing games with my feelings”.

Videogames, possibly because they are made with computers, have formalized games into something that is perhaps a lot stricter than what a game used to be. As games continue to become an economically important industry, this formalization only gets more extreme. I clearly remember as a turning point somebody from Activision saying, in 2004, that they “make games for gamers”. Up until then, there was still some doubt about what videogames could be. And ambitions about reaching new audiences. But since then, videogames overall seem to have become increasingly “gamey”.

The success of Nintendo has of course altered this course somewhat. But not to the point where the word “game” is being redefined -or given back its former meaning. Nowadays, we’re simply getting more and more comfortable with the idea of playing “non-games”.

Like watching non-movies and reading non-books. It seems rather silly.