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May 2009

Can There Be An Impressionist Game?

Monet - Water Lilies This month’s Round Table sets as its topic “What would one of your favorite pieces of non-interactive art look like if it had been created as a game first?” This has proved to be the most challenging Round Table yet, attracting just two entries all month. I have spent almost the entire month struggling with the concept.

The problems I face are two-fold. Firstly, determining a “favourite piece of (non-interactive) art” is a herculean challenge for me. When I go to a gallery, I am seeking an experience beyond the rational – I do not greatly enjoy art that asks me to decode its puzzle, or otherwise rationally interact with it, to anywhere near the same degree that I enjoy a piece of art that transfixes me in a space beyond thought – an experience of emotion or transcendence that is wholly beyond conscious thought. That for me is the essence of great art.

This brings me to the second problem: can a game actually access the transcendent experience of what great art means to me? And I suspect, perhaps that it cannot. Although I have no favourite artworks, my favourite art movement is impressionism – the nineteenth century exploration of light as a form. Whereas the realism of earlier epochs had produced convincing simulacrums, the impressionists like Claude Monet, Cézanne, and post-impressionists like Vincent van Gogh were trying to access something beyond the real – they gave colour priority to line, they allowed the passage of time a foothold in the image, and they moved art into a new space where capturing the essence of a vista was more important than accurate representation.

Can there be an impressionist game? Certainly, we could make a game with an impressionistic art style. But would it really be an impressionist game? I find myself doubting this. The essence of what we mean by “game” is a formal system, and the formal is precisely what impressionism was rebelling against. Perhaps we could make an interactive impressionist experience, and some might call it a game, but this for me falls short of the challenge of this Round Table.

The two entrants that as of this time have come into the Round Table are interesting to examine in the light of my dilemma.

Jorge Albor looks at the idea of a videogame memorial – an idea I find fascinating. Since the purpose of a memorial is to commemorate, this goal can readily be transferred into the game space. By rendering the lives of those lost as “narrative puzzles”, Jorge suggests something that is clearly a game, but which manages the same artistic goals as a non-interactive memorial. (Whether the game memorial could attain the solemnity of some of the great memorials of the world is something I question – would the player of such a game memorial really experience the sense of loss, or would they simply entertain themselves with the puzzles?)

Gianfranco Berardi takes the Michelangelo painting The Last Judgement, from the Sistene Chapel, and gets at the heart of what the image was conveying, unpacking this in a game which reminds me of the 1980 art-game Deus Ex Machina for the ZX Spectrum, by Andrew Stagg – a life lead in games, from birth to death. Because the original artwork has a tangible goal, it becomes possible to bear upon the concept in the form of a game. I love the idea expressed in this piece that the judgement in question is not imposed from the outside, but one’s own judgement of oneself. The transition to game in this case is possible because the artwork in question is essentially didactic – it opens the door to conversion into game-form.

So following in this line of reasoning, could I get at the goal of impressionism, and render this in the form of a game? After a month of pondering this question, I find I have got nowhere. From the point of view of impressionism as a rebellion against the previously accepted forms, a direction could be found, but any non-game might be claimed to fulfil this goal. Unless I could find a way to capture the essence of the experience of an impressionist painting, I would feel I had failed to successfully make the transition.

Perhaps what this shows for me is that game design as a process is always for me a rational experience, while art for me is at its greatest when it transcends rational experience. And thus, perhaps my problem is not that there cannot be an impressionist game, but rather that an impressionist game is not something that I can personally conceive – it is in some sense beyond me. And that, perhaps, is precisely what I am looking for in art.

The opening image is Claude Monet's Water Lilies (1916).

BrainHex Beta

BrainHex We are about to begin the Beta testing of the new International Hobo player satisfaction model, BrainHex. The model will be available for everyone to test how their brain responds to videogames this Summer, but we are currently looking for 50 individuals to try the sorter test and the information website and provide useful feedback about the experience.

If you are interested in participating in the closed Beta of this gamer test, please email [redacted] and provide us with your own email address and we'll get back to you shortly with the relevant information. (If you have already registered for the Beta, there is no need to register again).

Thanks in advance for your assistance!

Update: Brainhex has now gone live, thus ending the Beta phase. ihobo would like to thank all the Beta volunteers.

Do You Enjoy Fear?

Do you enjoy feeling afraid? Do you seek out games that give you an experience of primeval terror? We're interested in hearing from people who actively enjoy feeling afraid, primarily in videogames. What do you like about feeling afraid? What games have best captured this feeling for you?

To be clear, we're not interested in experiences of pressure, tension or excitement - just pure terror, the kind that makes the hair on your neck stand on end, destroys all conscious thought, and floods you with relief when you escape it. If you like games or experiences that give you these kinds of feelings, please leave a comment.

We would be especially grateful if you could complete the following sentence:

I love the feeling of fear and terror when...

Please share your perspective in the comments. Thanks for your assistance!

Ten Game Development Vices, Part Two

25vices Last week, we looked at some common vices afflicting Production, Game Design, Programming, QA and Art. The problems of these central development departments could be summarised as a failure to recognise that most players are nowhere near as game literate as most game developers. Players in the wider audience for games have played fewer games, and need more help learning to play than we currently provide. They generally don't care about the bad tiling of textures or the quality of your NURBS because they don't have the intimate knowledge and experience that game developers have of all the minutiae of the process. Game developers get hung up far too often on some minor detail the players will barely care about, and rarely spend enough time considering the diversity among the players who might eventually play their game.  

This week, the focus moves further afield, to the fringes of the development team, and the corporate framework that is supposed to support the development process.


6. Game Writing: Hollywood

To be fair to the game writers, they are practically the bottom of the totem pole, and most of the problems with game narrative are not the fault of the writers but the natural consequence of the circumstances the writers are faced with. It's rare that a writer is allowed to conduct the narrative design at the point in the project when it would make sense to do so, and more usual for a completed game design to be used as the inviolable template within which the writer has to cobble together something coherent. Not to mention the omnipresent threat of interference from marketing departments who despite little or no understanding of the principles of narrative still frequently insist on dictating the terms of story development.

So when I suggest that the chief vice of the game writer is working on a game as if it were a Hollywood movie, it's not really clear that this criticism shouldn't be directed at the marketing department. Nonetheless, treating videogames as if they were movies is a bad idea most of the time, as it puts all the story materials into expensive cut scenes when it is often possible to integrate the story and the play far more seamlessly. The tendency of developers to assume that a writer with Hollywood credits is a step up from a writer with videogame credits is also a baffling catastrophe that afflicts many projects with clunky narratives.


7. Audio: Ham

The quality of sound effects and music in videogames is of an excellent standard – in part, perhaps, because many of the techniques have carried over comfortably from more mature media. But please, can we ditch the ham acting? 

Most voice actors are perfectly capable of giving a good performance if you give them the context of the lines, and provide adequate support in the recording sessions. But too many games (especially Japanese imports) get by-the-numbers translations read by confused voice actors directed by people who have no idea what the words mean, and little or no respect for videogames as a medium. (I don't know who is advising Juergen Peretzki on the voice direction in the English-language Dynasty Warriors games, but I'm quite certain Zhang He was not gay).

An additional problem may be that voice actors are not being given the time they need to do their best work. A typical voice actor session has very little time allocated, and a lot of lines to be recorded – with a ticking clock, and deadlines to be met, it’s not surprising that the work is delivered to a poor standard. Voice actors can improve upon any script if they are given the opportunity, but this won’t happen when the recording sessions are run as gruelling death marches through endless lines of unexplained text.


8. Finance: Chasing Glory

This might be more of a criticism of upper management than of the finance departments who are generally more involved in running the payroll than in making major financial decisions, but too many game projects are based upon the idea that any game can sell millions of copies, so you should shoot high up the development ladder, grab the biggest budget you can, and hope that you catch a wave and make out like bandits. We can have a blockbuster game, right? No, almost certainly not.

In no other industry is the connection between budget and sales ignored. Yes, a blockbuster movie is competing for shares in big money, but even the Hollywood studios know that not every movie is a blockbuster – that's why they make reliable genre flicks, like the romcom (romantic comedy), the sick flick (low budget horror), or even the videogame adaptation. No studio expects a Paul Anderson movie like Resident Evil to shift big numbers, they only expect the sales to be proportionate to budget, which they often are (hence the bankrolling of three Resident Evil movies).

Game developers and publishers rarely get into sales calculations of the kind that are routine in almost every other industry, and as a result companies are frequently deluded as to the prospects of their projects. They are chasing glory when they should be trying to make a comfortable profit safely. The facts of the videogame market are that there are many comparatively stable niche markets that are undercompeted, while moderately valuable genres like first person shooter are radically overcompeted. It is not a coincidence that the majority of game developers play FPS games together at lunchtime – it is symptomatic of a wider naivety within the industry that deludes companies into thinking that “if we make a great FPS, we'll make millions”.

Yes, games like Halo 3 and Call of Duty 4 sell millions of units (8 million and 10 million respectively) – but most developers are not making games like that. These are flagship titles with lavish development budgets and (most importantly) well-established, heavily marketed brands. The FPS most developers are working on have zero brand value, and if it didn't have a huge budget when the project began it's very unlikely it'll have a huge budget when it finishes. (Note that Medal of Honor: Airborne didn't even sell a million units, and it came to the plate with pre-existing brand value and a significant marketing spend).

Being realistic about the prospects for a game title protects a developer's employees from job loss by ensuring cash flow and avoiding bankruptcy. Nothing could be more important to a developer than its continuing survival, yet many continue to treat game development as a contest to see who can make the best action game. It's shockingly irresponsible not to use the available market data to make calculations as to expected returns, to identify stable and undercompeted market opportunities, and above all avoid falling into the trap of believing that “a great game sells itself”. A great game for whom? What are the typical returns for that audience? And how many other companies are targeting that market?


9. Marketing: Teenage Boys

The role of marketing is supposed to be about anticipating the needs of the consumer, ensuring that the relevant consumer values are met during production, and then raising awareness and driving demand for the product once it is released. Generally speaking, videogame marketing departments are only competent at the third step – and even then, only if the market for the game is teenage boys (maybe going as far as the mid-twenties). If a game has a wider audience, good luck finding a marketing department that knows how to reach them.

This complaint isn't about the narrowing of the perceived market place to just the teenage boys, although as Sheri Graner Ray and others bemoan, this does happen, and there are certainly underserved markets outside of this niche lying fallow while companies fold trying to plough the same furrow as everyone else. In fact, there are times when I am grateful that a developer's bold ambition is brought into line by marketing departments who remind them that the game has to sell to the core market of 15-19 year old boys before it can reach out to a wider market, because there are definitely titles (including FPS and driving games) that absolutely require the support of this audience.   

The problem is that “teenage boys” are not a market segment. For those not in the know, a “market segment” is a portion of the consumer market that has common needs, responds to the same advertising techniques and is distinct from other similar groupings. “Teenage boys” are a market segment for deodorant and acne creams, because you can reach the entire demographic (more or less) in the same ways since the boys in question have similar needs (the need to be less ugly and smelly). But “teenage boys” are not a market segment for videogames, because videogame players within this age range (and indeed, beyond it) have many different play needs, and must be reached with various different marketing strategies.

Consider three wildly different videogames: Halo 3, Final Fantasy X and Animal Crossing: Wild World. Teenage boys actually form a key part of the audience for all three of these games, although from left to right we are also dealing with a greater number of female players as well. The key market segment for Halo 3 is FPS fans, which include a large number of teenage boys. But the play needs of these players are remarkably different from those of Final Fantasy X, some of whom, for instance, will report when interviewed that they don't have the reflexes to play an action game, and enjoy Final Fantasy because it gives them time to make decisions. The market segment for Japanese RPGs is not at all like the market segment for FPS games, even though both contain a lot of teenage boys. Similarly, the market segment for a social sim like Animal Crossing is even further from the norms of the action game genres, and in this case reaches out to a female audience as well.

(The sales figures for these three titles, incidentally, are 8 million copies for Halo 3 and Final Fantasy X, and 11 million for Animal Crossing. Despite the success of the latter title, there are a dozen developers working on an FPS for every one working on a social sim).

“Teenage boys” are not a market segment, and pretending that they are – and that this fictional segment only buys action games – is hurting the videogames industry both in terms of its sales and its image. It's time to grow up and start requiring our marketing personnel to learn about the audience for games, instead of just assuming they know “what players want” – presumably because they suppose they themselves represent the typical player. They don't. And no single person could.


10. Management: Crunch

Finally, perhaps the biggest vice of the videogames industry: crunch. When a project is running late, when there is much to do and very little time to do it in, the staff of game developers are expected to work unpaid overtime to ensure that the project ships on time – which, incidentally, it almost never does if crunch is required, because every crunch is a signal that the project is badly managed. Crunch is such a widespread phenomena it forms part of the assumed background of games development for many individuals.

The principle cause of crunch is milestone schedules. These out-dated production control methods make sense in manufacturing, but in a creative industry such as videogames it is essentially impossible to plan the project entirely in advance, and the effort expended in making the estimates to establish this process drain time from more valuable tasks such as rapid prototyping. In the conventional software industry, agile development has completely replaced milestones as the dominant paradigm because it has been recognized that programming cannot be fully planned in advance, and especially not if the targets are going to change during development which they always do. There are issues adapting agile methodologies to game development, but ultimately this change or something similar must take place if we are to beat crunch.

In the meantime, I recommend the following method of avoiding crunch: at the end of the pre-development period, when the team has an idea of the game they are trying to make and the schedules have been drafted, instruct every department to cut 50% of their content. Half the art resources, half the subsystems to be programmed, half the locations to be built and half the story to be told. As awful as this process would be for the team, it would be infinitely better for them to make this change at the beginning of the project than to be forced by the onset of crunch to throw out a similar quantity of material in a vain effort to keep the sagging balloon airborne. If there is time left over at the end of the project (which there never is) it can always be used to refine the material you have, and in general it is better to spend the time improving what you have than adding more to the project.

The IGDA has identified crunch as the single greatest quality of life issue in the videogames industry, and it's making life a living hell for many hard-working employees who have to give up their personal and social lives (assuming they have one...) in order to compensate for bad management practices. Maturing as an industry means bringing us to the place where crunch is a rarely-employed emergency measure, not a fact of daily life.

Have you been afflicted by any of these “vices”? Or do you have other game development vices you want to moan about. Share your views in the comments!

The opening image is Vices by cartoonist Alan Reuter, which I found here, at his portfolio site. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.