Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Let's expound on that last bit.

Voting with my wallet is problematic.

And I don't just mean in the sense that it involves restraint and management of money. I mean in the sense that it doesn't tell the other side much. It's the most powerful communication channel we have with the developers and publishers, but it can only carry one bit of information. Yes/no, like/dislike.

Gamers that grumble on forums about this or that loved or hated (mostly hated) game and its qualities (or lack thereof) are often told to just vote with their wallet. But what will my vote mean to the people in charge? It won't tell them anything about why I did or didn't buy the game. Modern Warfare 2 is an excellent example: how do I convey to Activision that I love their embracement of Steamworks without implicitly supporting their... slightly controversial stance on PC multiplayer?

Shouldn't we be past this? Isn't it time for publishers to take a slightly more proactive stance with their audiences? I don't mean the forums; they're half-useless as a communication or survey tool, what with the amount of demographic self-selection that applies to every poster. No, we need something with more weight. And I believe that a good approach might be designed around stealing from Brad Wardell.

Specifically, we should start with his popular and controversial post on piracy, where he essentially posited that "Piracy doesn't matter, only sales matter." Let's paraphrase that bit into "Opinions don't matter, only sales matter."

Let's be realistic here: a lot of people that complain about Modern Warfare 2 are going to buy it. I will too, in a few years. That means we'll give money to Activision. And even if they ignore the vocal minority on the forums (though I'm sure they do care at least a little bit), they should be listening to their customers. It's impossible to know who might have bought your game but didn't and why, but it's comparatively trivial to ask the people who did why they did. Big publishers already do this to some degree, but it should be done far more comprehensively. Exit polls, maybe? Cooperate with game stores to ask customers why they've bought what they did? No, that's simplistic. So why don't we use our Gore-given Internet to do it?

It's easy. Most of these games are already integrated into one online service or another, most of them with social networking aspects and cute stuff like achievements. So let's expand on that. Every purchase comes with one online account. Let us give each account two vote credits. At any time from the moment of purchase any customer may use the game interface to cast a positive or negative vote on an aspect of the game. But the votes aren't fluff like achievements. You only ever get two for any game, and once you spend them you can never vote on that game again. There are no rewards for using them - in fact, casting a vote might carry a slight in-game penalty (to discourage frivolous voting). They should be used by customers who really want to tell you something, so much so they are willing to inconvenience themselves to do it.

You do this, and you are no longer listening to strangers on the Internet. You are listening to your faithful customers, who care about your game (meaning of course they might buy the next one) and have something important to say. The trick of course is to integrate these votes wholly and elegantly into the game. This isn't tech support. You don't want to hear just from people who know how to use the console commands in your FPS; in fact you don't want to hear just from people who play multiplayer (still a minority, despite what most pundits think; not everyone is a social animal and games have diverse patterns of use). Casting a vote should be as simple as saving a game. Everyone should be able to do it, quickly and easily. And if you promote these vote credits as much as achievements are touted (so that everyone knows about them), you can start estimating with some degree of reliability what percentage of your customer base really cares about this or that design choice. Not to mention the knock-on effect of customers feeling like they matter and their voices are heard, which is how fanbases are born.

You do want to know more about your customer base, don't you? We already have these wonderful communication and data processing machines on our desks - so let's use them more.

Why the Modern Warfare 2 uproar is dumb, but not for the reasons you think

Also why voting with one's wallet presents quantization issues 

Here's a letter I sent to Tycho of Penny Arcade after reading his comment on the whole MW2 mess. I didn't much care one way or the other before, but his attitude - specifically with him being an avowed PC enthusiast - caused me to form a concrete opinion. (I later realized the prose is a bit ornate, but since it's Tycho I find it completely appropriate.)

Still a big fan of this teaser. Infinity Ward are artists and artisans. 

Here's the thing: a lot of really big game makers create PC games with server browsers and dedicated servers and all that. It's not unreasonable to expect Infinity Ward to follow suit - what is unreasonable is the degree of fanaticism, malice and paranoia present in the uproar. This is wrong not in relation to the game, but as a signifier of the introversion of the PC gaming community. One game is irrelevant, but this type of nonconstructive response might lead to a future PC platform inundated with console-like games, as the developers abandon the community entirely.

I like my PC games. I like mods and user-created content and server browsers. It may be whiny to complain when we're disallowed them, but it would be disingenuous to pretend I don't care. I don't spew hate on gaming forums though, because it won't change much. I will vote with my wallet however, but it saddens me to be forced to do so, because it robs me of an opportunity to wholeheartedly support the inclusion of Steamworks in the game, hopefully a sign of a coming trend*. How can I condemn one and praise the other? There's but a single box and single price. How could the developers ever know what my reasons were, whatever the decision?

One last bit: You imply that PC gamers are lashing out because they feel betrayed, their platform of choice abandoned. You have no sympathy for such an emotional response to a foregone conclusion, but I do. It always hurts when someone you love (however superficially and transitively) tells you they don't much care about you, and in fact would much rather court that cute young demographic from down the hall. It doesn't hurt less just because many others before them said the same thing. Perhaps I'm being naïve though. I do condemn the methods, but I can't not sympathize with the emotions behind them.

* I'm aware of the hypocrisy of lauding one type of consolization of the PC platform while decrying another, but I firmly believe that Steam represents most of the best bits of the console experience, while avoiding most of the worst. I can't honestly say the same about some parts of Modern Warfare 2.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Now, here's something awesome...

Rumors say that LucasArts already approached the guy, but he turned them down because he works at Crytek. Since they can't have him, let's hope they just generally take the hint.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Spirit and Steam

Some time ago, an interested customer on The Spirit Engine 2 forums asked if the game will be available on Steam, citing the likely popularity and income boost. The developer, Mark Pay, said no, citing the game's lack of popularity and production values/his reluctance to get into the marketing&sales game. I've been interested in TSE2 on Steam myself, and was flabbergasted by this response. So I set out to give him a piece of my mind. This is relevant because my post also encapsulates my general opinion on Steam and indie games (in short: they mix well). Here are my arguments as to why:

I've registered specifically and only to tell you guys this: You really really should put this game on Steam.

Here's why:
1) A placement on Steam guarantees a sales boost. Considering how big and mainstream Steam is, from their perspective you basically don't exist - which is good, because it means you can expect buyer behavior similar to your initial release (only bigger). Steam pretty much made Darwinia, and by extension Introversion. It's been a while, but things haven't changed much.

2) You're in a position to do exactly what the guys at Zombie Cow Studios did just recently. They just released Time Gentlemen Please, a very lovely (and very very low-profile) adventure game, and sequel to the freeware (and not so good, but still fun) Ben There Dan That. The indie press adored it. People bought it. Then Zombie Cow pestered the guys at Steam to publish them, and did it as a package: you buy our new game, you get the original for free. The original already was free, but it didn't matter, because that's not how buyers think. Steam customers see "Double Pack", and they buy. It's psychological. You guys have an older, OK game, and a great new sequel, and we can have both for $15! Yay! (Granted their price point is lower, but I think it translates.)
Though I have no firm numbers either way, I'm led to believe they haven't regretted their partnership with Steam.

3) Low-hassle, customer-friendly anti-piracy system included free of charge.

4) Valve are fussy about games they allow onto Steam, but TSE2 absolutely has more than good enough production values (compared to some of the other stuff on Steam) - in fact, it's downright odd how much you fit with the Steam Indie aesthetic, if there is such a thing. There are guys on the Steam staff that love indie games, and you absolutely have a chance with them. And they don't require popularity (though it helps) - they can make you popular. This is actually a symptom of a larger issue, which leads me to my next point:

5) I don't intend to be mean, so please take this as a friendly critique: from where I'm standing, you haven't done as good a job promoting the game as you could have. As I understand it you've sent the release to a few indie-oriented sites, and relied on word-of-mouth to carry you - which it surprisingly has for a bit. But you've underestimated yourself. You've been aiming at GameTunnel, while you should have aimed at 1UP and Eurogamer. Because you're good enough for mainstream, and you need to be aware of it and take advantage of it. Kieron Gillen wrote a glowing article about TSE2 on Rock Paper Shotgun, after hearing about it accidentally and doing some digging. You should have been all over Rock Paper Shotgun from the first announcement you made. OK, so you don't consider yourself a good salesman. You didn't publicize the release all that much. Forget about it, because now you have a chance to fix it, and to make things even easier, this time there's only a few people you need to convince, and they all work at the same place. (Yes, Valve's Steam department is surprisingly small. Don't get intimidated.)

6) Therefore, I know Steam is not very "fun", and is about as mainstream as you can get in this line of work, but please don't let that dissuade you from trying. And trying. You will have a hard time convincing Valve to pay attention, but treat them just as you would a game journalist. Be polite and insistent, and show them why Steam absolutely needs to have your game, because it's just that good. (And it is more than good enough.) Show them how and why you're special and different from the rabble trying to get in. You might want to emphasize your streamlined, but not simplified innovative combat system, your strange and new gameworld, your wonderful graphics, and of course all those glowing reviews and awards.

7) It might be possible to integrate Steam Achievements into the game, you know better than I whether it can be done. But if you can do it, your game will sell more. In fact, I encourage you to integrate as much of Steam functionality as you reasonably can (not just Achievements but general gameplay stats, a la Team Fortress 2 - you can imagine how much more some numbers in an RPG mean if the whole world can click on the player's Steam webpage and see them), because these things do matter to us customers. They're kind of stupid, but they help sales. Think of them as a metagame - one of the advantages of a huge, unified online game platform. The guys at XBox Live can tell you it does make a difference.

8) I'll be very honest now: I haven't bought TSE2. Oh, I've played the demo, and liked it a lot, but as a matter of habit I just don't buy games online. Except on Steam, where I buy quite a fair amount. The reasons are partly rational (the advantages of Steam as a platform, cuts down on my spending if I have a mental line I won't cross) and partly irrational (I like to keep all my games in one place). So understand I'm not just doing this for your benefit - I want you to put the game on Steam, so I can convince myself to buy it. I guarantee there are others like me, because Steam is just such a mindshare leader.

*) Oh, finally, when you get Steam to publish you, do all of us European gamers a favor and don't let the bastards equalize the prices. Currently the default European price for a $15 game is 15€, a ridiculous 40% increase. Same goes for pounds. Apparently all it takes for Valve to fix this is that you firmly insist on it, and tell them what prices you prefer for each market (US/UK/EU). You wouldn't believe how much it pisses us off when we see a game that hasn't had this done.

OK, I understand. You hate sales, marketing and business. That's perfectly normal :-)

But don't think of it that way. Think of it from my perspective: there's this awesome game, see, but so few people know about it. I want it on Steam, not so you can reach my market segment to monetize your brand leverage (or whatever bullshit), but to give myself and all the people like me the opportunity to play it. Or, to really lean hard on the guilt-trip, you're not denying yourself our money - you're denying us your game.

Well, not me specifically, but all those gamers who don't know about you. You know what I mean.

So there. Thank you for your time, and I hope you will consider my proposal. Best of luck, lots of sales.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

An interesting phenomenon

Did you guys notice? Steam game prices seem to be diversifying.

Not so long ago, there was mostly just a few price classes, and all the games fit them, but lately (at least on the cheap end of the spectrum, which is the part that interests me most) new articles are sliding in between. This is especially true for indie games, which of course are free to set their price point as they please.

I like it - diversity is good.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Game Theory

There was a long discussion a while back at the end of the comments section of ActionButton.Net's review of Metal Gear Solid 4, which was also the penultimate entry in their list of Best Games of All Time (but not on the list itself; Tim Rogers likes to do things like that). After a couple hundred posts it degraded/evolved into a broad debate on games as an art form. Feeling compelled to add my two cents (as I always do), I typed up a few posts that came out pretty good. About three people read the whole thing, but I think it's worth reproducing here for posterity - and so I don't have to repeat myself when asked for an opinion. So, for anyone who cares, here's what I think about the medium of games in general:

Games cannot have an integrated story, because they are not books or movies; they are really Possibility Space Architecture. Well, Tetris & co. are closer to Sculpture I guess, but we’re talking about MGS4 and other Big Games here.

Game designers are therefore architects and not writers. Most modern big-budget games choose to ignore this, and turn themselves into the equivalent of a ride. Really, how many times have you heard a game described as a ‘theme park ride’ (or maybe a ‘roller coaster’)? People intuitively get this. The metaphors line up nicely, I think; in this case, non-interactive cutscenes would be like a big video screen that you have to pass by on your way to the next room/level (’level’ is also a fitting term). They provide context.

You might think of better ways to provide context to your exploration of a building than video screens at every ten feet telling you where you are; maybe that’s fine by you. It’s the same with cutscenes. But the result is the same: you get context, not story. Someone way up in the thread said something to the effect of ‘I don’t care about the details, they’re demons from Hell invading Earth and I’m a badass Space Marine’. That’s context, plain and simple.

So, most games today are designed in such a way that the player’s narrative combined with the context results in a retroactive story. They tend to do it by straitjacketing the player into an overly detailed context (masquerading as ’story’), where we just have to play our little predetermined part, and everything will be OK. Others try for some sort of compromise. Hell if I know what the answer is. But I believe the parts of the puzzle are pretty clearly laid out.

Also, for bonus points, let’s get into the Games as Art debate by stating that of course they can be because they can (attempt to) use possibility spaces as tools to convey an emotional state or frame of mind. What the fuck more can you ask of an art form? Authorial control? I don’t recall Frank Lloyd Wright crying ’cause “people don’t pass through my houses in the right way”! You buncha fuckin’ linear media pussies.

That being said, I happen to think stories can be awesome in creating context for games; they’re simply not necessary (like I said, Tetris). [Regardless of Carmack,] porn with story really is better - story makes shit better, because we care.

[Poster CubaLibre here noted that I'm separating “context” from “story” where he'd consider them more as two different types of stories; also he mused on whether/how the act of playing influences the retroactive story. He used improv theater as a 'story-making' example where the context and story are closely entwined.

GilbertSmith opined that better AI, allowing for complex drama during gameplay, would help here while still fitting the original definition.]

Yeah, I don’t want to get all semantic about it, that’s just the word I use in my head; it’s as good as any other, I think. What I described as ’story’ could probably also be called ‘plot’. But as long as you understand what I’m talking about.

As far as influence on playing goes, on the simple end of the scale people will show off with cool but unnecessary moves while playing any game, even if they’re alone, mostly I think to make the experience cool - which is just another term for ‘improving the retroactive story’.

On the complex end of the scale, what I think you’re asking is ‘will the player feel pressured to play a certain way, so as to improve the story?’ And I believe the answer is yes, in fact a number of game design techniques rely on this pressure in order to subtly direct the player.

Like the chess example [where a number of posters considered what imparting predesigned narrative into chess would be like], it’s one of those tradeoffs where you diminish the game (because certain parts of the possibility space are now preferred, so you’ve lost the freedom/equality of choice of the “ideal” game) in order to improve the experience (the designer will obviously choose for maximum impact). On the one hand, ‘diminish’ sounds like it’s a bad thing, but I think it’s really okay, because most modern videogames (again, unlike Tetris, Quake 3, or Soul Calibur) really aren’t games at all, like you guys noted earlier, but interactive experiences that use specialized game fragments as artistic tools. Pac-Man would be harmed by a designer preference, but Shadow of the Colossus isn’t, because it’s trying to make a point.

Someone upthread already mentioned that, as game mechanics get more complex, people start asking for reasons, so you need context to keep players engaged. That’s a pretty good way of putting it, but I would add that context is more important in directed experiences. When the designer directs your choices, you feel limited and you want to know why. When there are no limits, the game is easier to accept on its own. Soul Calibur, like I said, is a true ‘game’ (at least in its classic VS mode), even though it’s pretty damn complex. Does anyone give a shit why Sophitia is fighting some French dude? It’s just a game. They’re fighting because you want to fight.

The improv thing I’m not sure about. The way I deconstruct it, there is no ‘context’, because improv is basically a pure game, just like a Quake 3 deathmatch (Soul Calibur, etc). The only thing you get out of it is what the players bring in; there is no ‘designer influence’, so there’s no need for context. The story is not the rules - the rules shape the story. Think of the story like the blocks in Tetris: not every block goes together, so you have to align them in accordance with a few rules (the main one being ‘the blocks will never stop falling’ which is actually pretty close to that main improv rule that you must always accept what you’re given and go with the flow). It’s only confusing because the raw material you work with is so similar to what’s usually a part of the context. It’s not so far from Guitar Hero, really, which is also a game that gives you something usually reserved for the context and makes you play through it. And just like there’s no background music in GH, there’s no story in improv.

Also, GilbertSmith, that’s kind of where I went with the improv analysis, where you treat your co-players as objects to work with in the game.

And leaving aside true AI (which would really be just another player), a designer-specified pseudo-AI, the kind modern games are going for, really is sort of a tool for dynamic rearrangement of the possibility space, with the goal of maximum drama. It’s a good idea, but I think people often go too far with it, trying for realistic human characters which are also game elements, which is so fucking hard I don’t think I’ve seen it work yet. But make a big, dark horse, make him come to the player when called, and not fall off cliffs when you ride him, and there you go, empathy, works like a charm. So obviously it’s doable. People truly want to love game characters. The designers just have to stand out of their own way, and stop with the rude awakenings, like the voice-acted well-spoken well-articulated mysterious sexy stranger that repeats the same three fucking lines whenever you talk to him.


Well, actually, that last part may have been a bit messy. When I say designer-specified pseudo-AI, I mean that all NPCs in any game are really just representatives of the designer. When the sergeant screams “MOVE!!!” it’s really the designer who wants you to run. Real AI would just turn them into real people, and if that’s what you want isn’t it better (and less ethically dubious) to ask a friend to play with you?

Progress in games AI is simply trying to make the NPCs better and more faithful stand-ins for the designer. You’ll notice here that we already have games that do this perfectly, because the designers had the good idea of actually getting one of the players to co-design the game, and play all the NPCs in each session. That’s why CRPGs aren’t like the real thing; you lose the human factor, and computer DMs aren’t yet up to snuff. Maybe they can never be up to snuff, and someone should finally design a good multiplayer CRPG where one player is the DM (Neverwinter Nights was merely close).

The difference between D&D and improv, incidentally, is that in D&D one of the players, the DM, has an agenda beyond the situation at hand. That makes him a designer, and moves the game closer to an experience.

[CubaLibre then considered evocation: stories are designed to elicit things from readers - do games have a similar goal? Do they elicit different things than stories? If they overlap any, could a story-game be made in that area that respects both forms? In other words, why do people play games?

He disagreed about improv; watching the actors create within (or around) the rules is partly a joy in itself, regardless of the result - the ephemereal nature of it adds to the experience. The idea is that the audience is moved because the presented story is made temporary by the game-qualities of improv. He noted how he was focusing on the psychology of the audience.]

It does pretty much come down to ‘why do people play games’ - can we solve that one some other time? :-)

I will note there’s plenty of overlap between games and stories (all media overlap), they just have different strengths and weaknesses. Who was it that said novels delve into characters, while movies watch them interact? The particular strength of video games is something I can’t quite name (maybe there isn’t a name yet), but the closest concept is maybe ’sense of place’. I never really cared about Alucard, but I vividly recall the castle from Symphony of the Night. Except the ‘place’ in ’sense of place’ doesn’t have to be a physical location, so it’s not exactly right… I’m still working on that.

But that’s not important here. I’m convinced that a story-game properly placed in the overlap would be fascinating, and also probably awesome, but the evocation you’re talking about is a matter of player perception, while my concepts are mostly about the way games are created, and while I’d love to play what you’re describing, I haven’t the faintest idea how to make it.
And yeah, I was mostly thinking about improv comedy when I wrote that, but the point still stands. Improv comedy tends to make like Kojima and go all meta ‘n’ shit, while drama is like a good shmup, and works within the rules to perfect the result. And you’re right, I’m focusing on the actors, because after all the actors are the players; the audience is… well… the audience. But here’s what’s important, to me:

The audience is moved by the story because it’s a good story (its temporary nature is a cherry-on-top - if it were a bad story, the fact it was made up on the spot couldn’t save it). It’s a good story because the actors made it, and they’re self-aware, intelligent, emotional, social entities, which means they possess the massively complex mental toolset required to work those dramatic Tetris blocks into an impressive whole. It is a game, it is played, and the audience enjoys the result (you know Electroplankton? that thingy for the Nintendo DS where you, like, make microorganisms and they make music? show a particularly well-done blob to your friend and they might be moved by it, but it doesn’t change the fact that making it was a game to you). The thing that makes improv stand out among games is also why it has such an emotional impact - you will never (well, at least not for a very long time) be able to play it on a computer, because it manipulates emotions directly, and computers just don’t possess that toolset and understanding of human nature. Hell, they can’t even talk properly yet.

(That’s also why improv is a dead end to me, as far as video games are concerned. It’s a game, and it can be classified and all that, but the fact remains that it’s operating on a whole different level, and as much as we crave all that wonderful emotional resonance improv gets, we just don’t have the design tools to climb up there. We’ll have to think of a different way.)