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Forty Hours

Blue ClockNot that long ago, the majority of videogames were made on the assumption that they would be played for forty hours. Now, games are being made to be played for longer and longer. What does this mean for those who make and play digital games?

After the decline of the arcade and the rise of the consoles with polygonal 3D rendering like Sony’s PlayStation and Sega’s Saturn in the mid-1990s, the dominant modes of play in the context of videogames were based around boxed products that were designed either to be played for 8-12 hours total, or to be played for 40 hours total. This forty hour play window became so orthodox that my partner in crime at International Hobo in the early 2000s, Richard Boon, felt the need to argue against it in the trade press in a piece entitled The Forty Hour Millstone. Of course, the norm didn’t change, and developers continued to aim for forty hours of content, perhaps fearing negative reviews if they fell short of the mark. For players outside of full time employment, forty hours could easily be racked up in one week, and with the production of games ramping up to greater numbers of titles at this time, the arrangement of the market for games meant that the gamers who played as a hobby could play something different every week if they wanted to. Many did just this.

The generation of consoles that followed saw the same general trend maintained, but also brought in many players who had not previously considered buying a console. Partly, this was because the increasingly film-like representations extended the appeal of videogames (in general terms), and partly it was because people wanted a DVD player and the PS2 gave them that with the bonus ability to play games. I found many ‘casual’ players in this era who had played just one videogame that they had bought with their first and only games console. As players who were not particularly ‘game literate’, their choice of game was largely down to the overt narrative content being advertised by the game box i.e. by assessing games in a similar way to films.

By the time the PS3, Xbox 360, and Wii were hitting the shelves, the forty hour model was already being challenged in significant ways by the rising popularity of World of Warcraft. It is almost unnecessary to mention any other massively multiplayer game at this point, except perhaps to comment how EverQuest cleared the way for WoW, and how that descended directly from the DIKUMUDs that emerged from the original MUD1. (Or to put it another way: how the UK invented a novel form of play, Europe modified it, and the US swooped in to monetize it). Forty hours meant nothing to the players of World of Warcraft… they might just be getting to the point of engagement with the community by that point. World of Warcraft is a game that is played as a hobby all on its own – just like the MUDs it directly descends from.

However, this was not a new phenomena. Magic the Gathering had established this kind of hobbyist dedication a decade before WoW, and Dungeons & Dragons had been played in the same mode twenty years before that! Indeed, at the tabletop it had long been the case that there were games open to be played in a hobby mode – hence the naming of the more complex tabletop games ‘hobby games’ (although most, it should be noted, are played 2-6 hours at a time, without the hobby-like commitment to a single game instance or campaign). Even earlier than that, sports and music had offered the chance for play that would be a lifetime practice, not a passing experience. In comparison to these, no single game can compete in terms of the dedication of its players, although if the player practices are abstracted from the individual games, perhaps a case could be made.

Nowadays, the forty hour model seems in decline – but it has not primarily been replaced with shorter play experiences. On the contrary, every major commercial game now attempts to ‘capture’ its audience for at least 200 hours, with multiplayer modes being the core method of retention. The forty hour model was a consequence of selling games-as-products, as boxed content that would be played then thrown onto a pile of completed games (although it turns out that the minority of players finish games). The 200 hour model is a consequence of selling games-as-services, with monetization now an on-going process throughout the time the players are engaged with the title in question. Even this is not new: arcade games in the 1980s were very much committed to the idea of taking money constantly, albeit a very small amount of cash for a relatively short amount of play (a quarter for a quarter of an hour, say), and with the profits distributed around many small business owners (arcades) as well as corporations.

One consequence of these longer play windows for games is that it’s harder for large game studios to break even than ever before, even though more money than ever before is coming into the digital games industry. The flow of money had always been concentrated, but the gap between market leaders and the rest continues to widen. It’s a pattern we’ve seen before. Dungeons & Dragons had made it difficult (but not impossible) for other tabletop role-playing game publishers to carve out a niche, just as Magic the Gathering had made it essentially impossible for anyone else to compete in the trading card game space (not withstanding Pokémon, which was made by the same company). World of Warcraft forced competitors to give their games away for free because they couldn’t compete directly with it’s critical mass of players and content. Now, every major game seeks the same kind of dominance over its space – Call of Duty is an illustrative franchise, since it now requires three large developers working on it in order to deliver content at the rate that would mean there is never a vulnerable opening for competitors to threaten its dominance.

The big money is no longer out to hold a player’s attention for forty hours, but to hold a player’s attention long enough to get the next game out, or to hold on to groups of players in the hope to pull in a few big spenders, or to hold the player’s attention throughout the year with events crafted to maintain appeal and bring back those who are slipping away into other games. Hobby players – those who commit to a game service over the long term – often play other games on the side, which is a tiny crumb of good news for indies making smaller games. Indeed, at the bottom of the market, there are perhaps greater opportunities for those who make games than ever before, but the lower market is competing for the scraps left over from the gorging behemoths above them, like crabs scuttling about for the tiny morsels that fall to the seabed after the giant sharks have fed.

Yet despite this, there are still spaces in the market where you can find players who buy multiple games of a similar kind. The computer role-playing game, which has always been the most popular genre in Japan, continues to attract players who complete one game before moving to the next, and the same appears to be true of horror games, and platformers (even though Nintendo is practically the only supplier of these for some insane reason!). More experiential games, including the derisively nicknamed ‘walking simulator’, similarly represent a space where shorter, more unique play experiences maintain a small but dedicated community of players. The same can be claimed of the point-and-click adventure, albeit solely in the context of Telltale Games, the reanimated corpse of LucasArts that can command million dollar budgets for projects no other developer could conceivably get greenlit.

The game-as-product approach where the forty hour model had dominated still survives, but only where it has proved difficult or impossible to tie players down for longer lengths of time. The market for videogames is ceasing to be one of packaged experience (like movies and novels) and becoming a fight for retention, as more and more games in the upper market shift their design towards training new hobby players in a ongoing economy. Look at Bungie’s shift from the boxed products of Halo to the endless service of Destiny. Forty hours is no longer the norm. Now, it’s a matter of keeping players for as long as you can, and getting as much money as possible out of them in the process. It’s an open question  whether players now are better or worse off than under the shadow of forty hours.

Do you have any thoughts on game length? Share your viewpoint in the comments!


Open Letter to Official Charts Company

This is a copy of the email I just sent to the Official Charts Company, whose contact details can be found here.

Everybody's Gone to the Rapture OST Dear Chris and Lucy at the Official Charts Company,

It has come to my attention that Jessica Curry's classical score to the digital game "Everybody's Gone to the Rapture" has been removed from the UK Classical Artist Album Charts, after having previously been an excellent performer in this category. Right now, thousands of enraged videogame fans are boiling with fury on the internet about this, and the knee jerk reaction has been that she has been removed because her soundtrack appears in a digital game.

If this allegation were true, it would be a tremendous act of disrespect to both musicians as a whole, and to games as an artistic medium.

I am hopeful this is not the case, but I urgently request a clarification as to the reason for the declassification of this album from your charts. Examining your Eligibility Rules suggests that, since Jessica has clearly composed in a classical form (rules 3 and 6) and is capable of live performance (rule 5), it should qualify.

However, I am uncertain of the intended meaning of rule 9, which states "Original soundtracks and scores performed in a classical style, by either a single artist or various artists, will not be eligible for the Classical Artist Album Chart." Nonetheless, since "The Complete Harry Potter Film Music" appears at Number 29 in your chart, it would seem that there is no prima facie reason that Jessica's soundtrack should not qualify.

I would be grateful for a swift clarification on this matter.

I have worked for many years to secure the case for games qualifying as artworks, a situation that has now become unimpeachable in terms of the philosophical arguments. We still, however, face tremendous prejudice from the media establishment. I hope and trust that the Official Charts Company is not part of the ongoing bigotry against games as an artistic medium.

Your sincerely,

Dr. Chris Bateman

 

Their reply:

Hi Chris 
 
I am out of the office so apologies for the brevity of my response 
 
Both the Jessica Curry release and the Harry Potter album you refer to appeared in the Classical Artist Album Chart in error. As you rightly note, soundtracks are not eligible for this particular chart, and we treat movie and game soundtracks in the same way. 
 
The Classic FM Chart is compiled by ‎the Official Charts Company and includes Classical Artist Albums, Compilation Albums and Soundtracks. Everybody's Gone To Rapture OST appears in this chart at #7 I believe, so we completely agree that this is a classical body of work and included it as such
 
We produce the Official Soundtrack Chart each week and both of these albums are of course eligible for this chart also
 
‎Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have any further questions, or would like any further detail
 
Many thanks
Chris

How to Run Discworld Noir

Discworld NoirSince the welcome defeat of Windows 98, my first game as lead designer and writer – Discworld Noir – has been virtually impossible to run. Until now! Friend of ihobo, Adam Sirrelle, has this video and text description of how to cajole the game into running. Hope it's helpful!

Step-by-step Instructions

Step 1: Install the Full installation of the game to a folder on the C: drive.

FreebirthOne says to copy the contents of Folder CD3 to CD1, but I found there were no files in there on my version, so I ignored this

Download the fix file and the no cd, if you want that, from this site: http://m0005.gamecopyworld.com/games/pc_discworld_noir.shtml

Replace the original TIN_DXD.EXE file with the fixed exe from the download, and bring the no cd patch across to the noir folder and run it.

Right click the new TIN_DXD.EXE, select "Properties" and go to the "Compatibility" tab, the check "Run this program as administrator".

Step 2: Download winexp from http://www.nirsoft.net/utils/winexp.html and extract it somewhere

This helps to play in a fake fullscreen as most of the crashes happen due to the game being in fullscreen mode.

Step 3: I haven't done this as the cursor doesn't bother me that much, but it is a good idea as the mouse cursor will move at a different speed to the game cursor due to the resolution size not being exact.

  • download the "tinycursors" cursor from http://www.rdpslides.com/tinycursors.zip and extract the "nothing.cur" somewhere
  • open the "mouse"applet in the ctrol panel and navigate to the pointers tab
  • here click on "Browse" on the lower right, navigate to the folder you extracted the nothing.cur to, and double-click on it
  • now click on "save as" in the upper left and give it a good name, like "hidden" or so

…from now on you always can choose this theme if you want a invisible cursor.

PLAYING

Step 1: Now we have to set up the monitor. This may seem a little strange, but follow it through.

This may be better if you have two monitors then you can set one up for this, else I'd recommend taking all unnecessary items off your desktop as we'll be changing the resolution and if you have a lot of desktop items they'll all get smushed together.

Right click on the desktop and choose "Screen Resolution". Change whichever monitor you'll be playing on to the lowest screen resolution (closest to discworld noir's preference). Mine is 800 x 600.

If you have more than one monitor, make this your main monitor – this is so that the game will boot up on this screen.

Then click on "Advanced Settings" and the "Monitor" tab. In the bottom left you'll see the "Colors" tab, change this to 16bit.

Note, you'll have to change the bit rate every time you change the resolution of the monitor as it will default back to 32bit.

Changing the resolution to 16bit will make the game boot up with its standard colours. If it appear in a washed out purple it means its still opening in 32bit. If that's the case makes sure 'all' your monitors are set to 16bit.

Step 2: Start Discworld Noir and press Alt + Enter to enter windowed mode, this'll stop it crashing after the intro cutscene.

IMPORTANT, the only button that works on the title screen in "New Game". press either of the other two and it will crash. When it comes to loading games later on press F1 and load from there.

Step3:

  • Start winexp from the folder you extracted it above
  • Select the "Discworld Noir" entry from the list
  • In the "Style"-Tab deselect "WS_BORDER" and "WS_DLGFRAME"

Then do the method suggested below or in the "Size and Position" Tab click "set to Topmost" to bring the screen infront of the start bar and check "Maximized" in "Window State".

  • In the "Size and Position" Tab, set "Left" and "Top" to zero as well as the width and height to your current screen resolution

Now you should have a window with the game running in it, fullscreen and without borders, just like a real "fullscreen".

Step 4 (Optional):

  • open the "Mouse" applet like above, choose the "Hidden" theme and apply it

Now you got rid of the really anoying Desktop mouse, and can enjoy the ingame one

DEBUGGING

This is important!

An issue I had after this was that the game wouldn't load any save files, it might not be the case for everyone but is good to check!

After you get past the intro press F1 and save the game, then try and load it. If it works with no issue great! Save frequently as i had it crash once after the Milka, i think its the transition between cinematic and gameplay that does it.

If it does crash and give you an odd error message this is what i did, i'm not exactly sure how it helped, but it runs now.

Step 1: Download this patch by the "Collector" http://sierrahelp.com/download.php?file=Files/NonSierra/DWNPatch.exe

Move it to the Discworld Noir folder and run it. If it gives you an option between fullscreen and windowed choose windowed.

Try and run the game and at the menu press F1 to load a game.

If it crashes try step 2

Step 2 (Really flailing around now!): insert disc 3 and copy the contents into the disc 1 folder on C:

Try and run the game and at the menu press F1 to load a game.

If it crashes try step 3

Step 3:

Start a new game skip through the intro with Esc and save in the office.

Go to the map and save a different file here

Go to the milka and save over the first

Try loading the second save.

If this crashes double double check that all your monitors are set to 16bit and try step 3 again saving and resaving until the load works.

Hopefully you shouldn't get this issue, but if you do this is how mine started working.

Please find my reference links below and play it again Sam...

REFERENCE LINKS

http://www.gamefaqs.com/boards/576124-discworld-noir/61200298

http://archive.adventuregamers.com/forums/showthread.php?t=22758

http://m0005.gamecopyworld.com/games/pc_discworld_noir.shtml

http://www.nirsoft.net/utils/winexp.html


Looming

Looming Title Page (Complete) I have little patience for exploration mediated by puzzles, but Gregory Weir’s 2010 Looming offers a minimal, elegant space that positively hums with charming meditations on the different meanings of existence we all render from experience.

More than anything else I’ve yet seen in games thus far, Looming explores the way that our different approaches to understanding existence (our metaphysics, or as I would say, our mythology) lead us to conclusions that feel absolutely valid, but are really a consequence of our specific viewpoint on the world. The two unseen races of the Lorem and the Seecha, reveal their unique culture via the time-honoured game technique of narrative collectibles, but the game forgoes ad hoc diary entries in favour of an artefactual approach, akin to archaeology. What’s more, Gregory eschews the overly used post-apocalyptic context and chooses instead a highly unique post-exodus backstory, revealing the restraint lacking among the ‘Big Media’.

Looming Influences 

Upon completion, players are also offered some welcome insights into the game’s creative process and, as shown in the image above, the creator expressly cites the games that influenced its creation: Myst and Yume Nikki. It is something I always strive to do in my own games, but it is actually quite rare for developers to place their work into a clear lineage like this.

For anyone looking for a game of nearly pure exploration, Looming is definitely worth the handful of hours it will take to play. I recommend planning for short, roughly half hour, sessions, spaced out over many days to get the full effect. There are a few puzzles – in particular, working out how you can tell if you’ve made any progress, which is never made explicit – but for the most part this is a game that invites you to take many short journeys into its windswept-plain, until it becomes utterly familiar to you. The elegance of both the design, and its classic monochrome visual aesthetic, make Looming stand out from the faceless crowd of personal game projects that reiterate the violence of mainstream commercial game development.

With thanks to Orihaus and ElectronDance for drawing attention to this particular game. Gregory Weir's work can be found via his blog ludusnovus.net.


What is a 'game expert'?

Over at Game Intellectualism, DapperAnarchist/Joseph writes a short blog letter asking: what does it take to be a ‘game expert’:

I’m pretty sure you know that the original Republic of Letters was made up of men (yeah, mostly men) with expertise in some subject - philosophy, law, natural science, history, whatever. This Republic of Bloggers is made up of… who? Experts in games? What then is an expert in games? … You’re clearly an expert, if any such thing exists. Do you feel like one? How do you think you became one? And do you think there are necessary things to be an expert?

I’ll be replying shortly, I’m sure other replies would also be welcome!


Games Are Not Shoes

Game Shoes Earlier this week, Nicholas Lovell argued that the consequence of Steam allowing developers to set their own pricing will be the price of PC games heading for zero, as free-to-play economics effectively vanquish the opposition through market competition. His argument draws against classical economics, which he illustrates via an example with shoes. But missing from Nicholas' argument is the elephant in the room: games are not shoes.

As ever, I can't fault Nicholas' understanding of how free-to-play works or the implications of internet distribution as a disruptive technology. His latest book is built on analysis of these phenomena, and his arguments should be taken seriously. However, my latest book, Chaos Ethics, gives me a very different perspective, since my interest recently has been imagination and its implications for games, art, science, and ethics. In this particular case, looking at moral philosophy makes me very wary of thought experiments with seemingly innocent stipulations. As Allen Wood points out in the context of ethics, stipulations within thought experiments skew the conclusions in ways that are never as innocent as they first seem, leading us to conclusions that depend upon the stipulations as much as they do the thought experiment.

In this case, Nicholas' thought experiment is the 'marginal cost argument', which he constructs upon the example of pricing in the case of competing shoe factories. Once this competition begins (the thought experiment states) the price of shoes stabilise at the marginal cost, which is the cost to make each extra pair of shoes after the first. Nicholas then claims that since the marginal cost in digital distribution tends to zero (because digital copying is without significant cost), the price of digitally distributed games must also tend to zero. He notes that this "excludes the impact of marketing; it assumes that one pair of shoes is as good as another" - and this is the stipulation that actually undermines the thought experiment. Because as simple footwear, one shoe is indeed as good as another. But as entertainment, one game is never as good as another.

Before drawing this point out further I want to examine the framework that Nicholas' argument depends upon, namely that free-to-play is a new business model that is disruptive because digital distribution is a disruptive technology. The later point is spot on, but the former point is misleading. To see this, we can look at free-to-play not as a new business model but as the latest form of a very old game pricing strategy, variable pricing. The current clash between microtransaction-style variable pricing for games and retail-style fixed pricing for games is almost as old as the industry itself!

In the 1980s, the videogame market also had competition between fixed pricing - boxed games for consoles and home computers - and variable pricing - at that time, arcade coin drops. Arcade games were the original microtransaction games, making money one quarter at a time. Initially, pricing was variable simply because players didn't know how often they'd play an arcade game, but in 1985 Atari introduced the first disruptive pricing strategy for videogames with Gauntlet. Previously, one play cost you a quarter (or ten pence here in the UK) but Gauntlet let players decide how much to pay - by letting them have more health the more they paid. There were enough health pick ups in the game for one of its four players to play for free, but the others had to keep putting coins in the slot to keep up. One (nearly) free player was subsidized by up to three others pumping in coins. Today, it's more like 90% of players being subsidized by 10% ‘whales’, but the situations are still broadly analogous.

Now notice here how little marginal cost had to do with the economics of arcade games. That's because the purchase of the product (the arcade game) and the revenue generated (the coin drops) were actually disconnected by the nature of the business model. By the 1990s, the arcade boom lost ground because home consoles were able to offer better value in fixed pricing when compared to coin ops. Additionally - and crucially - the games designed to be played at home could offer entirely new game design concepts because unlike arcade games they didn't need to worry about how long the game would last, over-the-shoulder appeal, and other factors that were crucial in the design of arcade games.

The aesthetics of play that were possible on the home consoles turned out to have huge appeal, allowing for bigger, more explorable game worlds, deeper and longer narrative elements, and no requirement to queue for popular cabinets. The arcades survived by recognising what it was that they could do that home console games couldn't easily do - offer specialist hardware. Nowadays (outside of Japan, at least), arcade games are dominated by plastic guns, steering wheels, and dance pads, because arcade owners are better placed to buy these expensive pieces of kit than home players, who generally object to unnecessary extra hardware costs (such as, dare I say, Kinnect).

Despite how it might seem, similar factors still apply today because the desirability of a game is not simply a factor of price-of-entry. What a AAA fixed price game can deliver to players is (potentially, at least) a substantially deeper game experience than is possible in free-to-play, where getting a minimum viable product to market is a near-requirement, preventing the inclusion of more advanced features of the game world. If something like Grand Theft Auto IV or Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag had been financed on a free-to-play model, they would have been impossible – only the economics of fixed price premium console games justifies the astronomical development budgets. This isn’t even an exceptional case: look at cinema. Digital distribution has reduced the marginal cost in the film industry in just the same way as it has in games, but people still go to the movies and pay a fixed price to do so. This is because blockbuster movies – just like blockbuster games – are made on a high budget in order to ensure that cachet attaches to the resulting brand.

I said before that games are not shoes, in that if you just want to put something on your feet any shoe would do (the stipulation Nicholas' thought experiment crucially depends upon). But in fact, in a very real sense, games are like shoes. Despite the availability of very cheap footwear, Nike enjoys a 40% market share in the United States. Branded, well-made, well-marketed shoes do not trend towards marginal cost. In the same way, branded, well-designed, well-marketed games will not trend towards marginal cost, even on PC. It's just that such games will now face strong competition from microtransaction-funded games, in what might be called the Revenge of the Arcade.

Now in the race to not leave money on the table, the companies with a stake in console gaming could screw themselves over by making all their games offer aesthetics of play along similar lines to free-to-play games. That is a risk. But as long as publishers can maintain premium brands on console - such as Assassin's Creed, Grand Theft Auto, The Legend of Zelda,and Call of Duty - the pricing on PC will not trend towards zero, just as cinema ticket prices have not trended to zero. Rather, there will be a split between the market for variable priced games and the market for (largely) fixed priced games, with most players playing games in both styles. In this respect, what's new is only the possibility of making the lowest price of entry zero - which does follow from digital distribution, along the essential lines traced by the marginal cost argument.

One final point should be made: games are also not shoes because there is no such thing as an indie shoe. Almost all shoes are industrially produced, but some games are made by dedicated hobbyists who can risk commercial failure in the pursuit of their own aesthetic values for play. Since free-to-play - like the arcade before it – significantly affects the design of play there is substantial room in the market for games in indie niches at fixed price. Such games are not subject to classical economics because, like other artworks, their value depends in part upon their individual uniqueness. But unlike other artworks digital distribution means that when the wind is right, a small number of indie game titles can hit very big indeed. Just look at Minecraft. This kind of situation is never the case in a market that the marginal cost argument will hold for. Money affects design - it always did, as the arcades demonstrate. But not everyone is in it for the money, and those that aren’t can still hit it big when they get lucky. And that factor of luck, of the right idea at the right time, is something that classical economics has never been able to model.

Cross-posted from Gamesbrief.


Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms Announced

hk_s_repre_05 So why put up the Kult: Heretic Kingdoms post-mortem now, nine years after the game? Well it gives me great pleasure to announce that after an epic quest in the world of games publishing, a sequel is finally arriving! The new game, Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms, will be released later this year as confirmed today by a press release by the publisher bitComposer.

The new game is developed by Games Farm (the new face of the original game’s development team) with game design, narrative design, and dialogue scripts by International Hobo. The Shadows website for the game is already up, and includes a teaser trailer for the game – check it out!