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July 2011

Artgames: The Infinite Shelf and the Market Shadow

artgame Last week, I presented some of the key problems that the blockbuster games industry suffers in terms of attaining the esteem afforded to art works as a consequence of engine inertia. This week, I want to offer a postscript to that discussion and consider some of the reasons that those artistically motivated videogames in the diversions market are also blocked from cultural esteem outside of the narrow confines of that community of individuals interested in the artistic potential of the medium of games.

I call the space of smaller, lighter videogames the diversions market to distinguish it both from the blockbuster market discussed last week, and the specialist market of genres with a strong gamer following. It is true that some of these diversions games are great money spinners – just ask Zynga – but inevitably those with artistic intent make less (often no) money. These artgames struggle because as much as anything they are invisible in the sea of content now on offer.

At the IGDA Summit last week, which was a really great event that I was proud to present at during its inaugural year, the point came up that it is terribly difficult for people to find games online. The problem is that the volume is now inconceivable in scale – the size of the metaphorical shopping mall that is the internet is so vast that games are positioned on an infinite shelf and it is challenging for anyone to find them. The tendency therefore is for a small handful of games to bubble to the top and the rest remain in the dark corners, gathering virtual dust.

The players who are picking titles of the infinite shelf can be crudely subdivided into two boxes. Firstly, the mass market players – Zynga’s target audience – who are only just discovering for the first time that they actually do like games,after years of being slightly disturbed by nerd gaming with all its quirks, or of total ignorance of contemporary games. Secondly, the gamer hobbyists who are also the players of the blockbuster games. As Emily Greer of Kongregate testified at the IGDA Summit, the demographics of her players are 85% male with a median age of 18. Her company offers some 45,000 different Flash games – but she’s catering to the same audience as Sony and Microsoft, players with such an appetite for games they are always looking for new ways to push their buttons outside the highly expensive world of console gaming.

Because these players – the same male dominated geek culture that Sony and Microsoft compete so viciously to control – are effectively the gatekeepers to the infinite shelf, the content that gets singled out tends to be conditioned by the nature of the market for blockbuster games. There is a kind of a market shadow which radically limits what can be of interest on the infinite shelf.

There is one kind of game that can get attention online that cannot on the consoles, and that is games that are focussed on puzzle solving – not puzzle games like Bejewelled or Tetris, which are not really about puzzles, but games like Braid and classic adventure games which focus on tough problems to solve. There is a parallel with blockbuster games in that both deliver the emotional reward of fiero or triumph – but whereas Call of Duty offers it in an accessible gun-oriented way that can appeal to a wide swathe of (predominantly male) players, something like Braid is only playable by ubernerds. That’s why the adventure game market, which I used to work in, died: the audience was too small. But on the infinite shelf, those smart geeks who can get their kicks solving tough puzzles can be satisfied.

Trouble is, artgames can’t be based on puzzles of this kind if they are to attain to cultural esteem. The art works that are respected are those which talk to the human condition, that are accessible to a wide range of people, that stand ‘the test of time’ (i.e. that have transcultural appeal). Problem-solving games are a private club where only clever introverts get to come in the door. Braid is not a game that shows off the artistic potential of games – it’s a game that offers an exceedingly narrow geek audience an artistic vision of the gaming culture they are already embedded in.

What about the mass market players – might they serve as gatekeepers to artgames? Never. The players that Zynga and so forth court are only now discovering games, and they are not interested in being curators in the way that the geeks of the internet (bless their obsessive-compulsive socks!) can’t help being. The mass market players must be reached by marketing spend, by money invested in acquiring their interest. And artgames, by definition, cannot do this. They must be discovered and talked about by a culture of players interested in the aesthetics and critical discourse of games as art.

However, whereas I see engine inertia  as a currently insurmountable issue, the problem created by market shadow and the infinite space are very much soluble. All that is needed is a strong critical discourse surrounding artgames to develop, and for artgame aggregators to become discerning. Such aggregators cannot afford to be bogged down with Braid and Portal – this road cannot lead to cultural esteem. They must instead find and discuss those games like Passage, The Graveyard, The Marriage, The Killer and so forth that might speak beyond the subculture of the gaming nerd and thus encourage new artgames that push this envelope even further. This has not happened yet, and in part because game criticism is (as both Dan Cook and Bob Chipman attested in different ways at the IGDA Summit) suffering from both youth and ignorance.

If this account is accurate, it means that the future hope of artgames as a potential source of cultural esteem lies with the development of a viable critical discourse on games. The seeds of this are, I believe, being planted – meeting Ben Abraham at Videogame Cultures the other week gave me some hope. But we’re still have a vast mountain to climb to overcome the shadow of the market and the enormity of the infinite shelf.

The opening image is by graphic artist Michael Katz, which I found here on his website, Michael Katz Design. No copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.

Videogames: Engine Inertia vs Creative Industry

Film Reels Is the videogame industry a creative industry like movies, where ideas can be bought and sold? Or does the central role of the game engine in blockbuster titles render innovation and invention meaningless against the practical constraints of game development?

The movie business is considered an archetypal creative industry. Ideas are circulated in the form of pitches or draft scripts which are optioned by studios as possible future projects. These studios are a centralised source of money, which is allocated to projects which are then staffed from the talent pool working in movies. No-one is irreplaceable in this system: star actors and actresses may be the biggest driver of box office receipts, but they can and are replaced. Directors have the leadership skills required to steer projects with hundreds of staff, but they too are replaceable.

It can be objected that the film industry achieves more commercially than it does artistically, but it can't be denied that the big studios keep money flowing to the talent pool working in film, thus keeping the industry alive. Creative, artistically valued films get made in the cracks between the studios because movie makers have a robust industry to fall back on. You can take more risks when you know there's somewhere safe to fall should things go wrong.

In many respects, the blockbuster videogame industry has modelled itself on the movie industry. Money is centralised in publishers who fulfil the same role as studios in bankrolling projects, for instance, and marketing practices show considerable similarity too. But in games, there is no mechanism for a pitch or 'script' to be floated independently of a developer. I often meet people from movies who have "a great idea for a game", but in almost all cases there is no conceivable way that idea can become a game. Why should this be?

It is not that games lack a suitable brief document equivalent to a script: concept documents are passed around all the time, and my company does quite a lot of work developing these concise descriptions of potential game projects. But publishers don't option concepts for games the way movie studios option scripts, and for very practical reasons. The process of converting a script to a film is well established and has no critical element that can't be shuffled around as the project develops. But the process of converting a game concept to a game is deeply and critically dependent on one particular asset, which has no equivalent in film: an engine.

Ian Bogost has drawn attention to the theoretical importance of the engine for game development. In many respects, the engine is the game - or rather, any given engine supports a wide array of games with fundamentally similar capabilities. The engine determines what a game can or cannot do, and the cost of developing the engine is so significant that for blockbuster games an engine must deliver at least three game titles to make it worth creating in the first place.

Engines are also big business: superstar programmers (i.e. uber-nerds) write the code that steps up the top end capabilities for graphics, physics etc. and these cutting edge engines are then licensed for big bucks. Companies like id Software only make games to showcase their engines, which are their real money makers. This radical monopoly on engine construction is a central feature of the games industry - there can be no game without geeks to make them, which means every blockbuster that gets made is almost guaranteed to be 'nerd friendly'.

There is no equivalent to the game engine in film production, and this is the primary reason movie studios can afford to trade in ideas (i.e. option scripts). Movie projects have no significant critical elements beyond budget. If you have money, you can make movies. But money alone isn't enough in blockbuster games: you can license an engine, but you still need geeks to make it do what you want, and if you have the requisite programming talent it might look better to have them write the engine in the first place, taking about five years by today's blockbuster standards e.g. Team Bondi and L.A. Noire (2011).

The game engine is never an off-the-shelf resource. Engines have their own inertia that makes it hard to change what they do and time consuming to maintain and upgrade them. This all requires a significant investment of programmer time to master - or tame. This is why blockbuster projects revolve around teams, and pricipally around programming teams and their leaders at the executive level of the business. Artists, game designers, audio, QA - like actors and directors in films - are expendable, exchangeable... But whomever keeps the engine running is almost irreplaceable, and whomever can lead the unleadable (since programmers are wilful beasts) becomes hot property in game development.

Engine inertia not only reflects the efforts to build and maintain program code of the relevant complexity to run a blockbuster videogame, it reflects the trend across all such engines. Game engines are locked into a competition to produce higher quality renders and more detailed fictional worlds. This state of affairs is made inevitable by the constant market pressure to sell more powerful equipment on the one hand, and the game programmer's addiction to technical excellence on the other. An obsession with perfecting simulation meshes with ever more powerful computer equipment to create an industry-wide engine inertia that drives towards more advanced graphics and other computational flourishes. The mass market for games doesn't care about this futile arms race, as the Wii and DS show, but gamers buy into it for sport, if nothing else.

Suppose we wanted to remodel the games industry so that it was possible to trade in ideas, like the film industry - how could this be achieved? Arguably all that would be required would be an industry-wide standard engine, something that could be taught as the basic tool for making games. With this common footing, a shared methodology (equivalent to that used in film-making) would reduce the emphasis on technology and allow for more fertile creativity. Engine inertia would still have an effect, but it would occur on a  slower scale - compare the many decades 35 mm film was standard, to the sudden obsolescence of engines in games.

However, this fantasy is misguided. Hollywood trades in ideas because movies are mass market, and there's an appetite for novelty. But even then, the ideas it trades in are rather conservatively construed. A standardised games industry would still be making simulated fictional worlds, and these are not mass market. They appeal to gamers, not all-comers. Since gamers actively enjoy the high degree of fidelity, complexity and capacities that result from escalating engine inertia, the current situation serves them as much as the programmers (hardly surprising, given the crossover in tastes).

Thus it seems that games can never be a creative industry in the same way as films. We will never be open to inventive concepts brought in by a lone creative individual, as can happen in movies (at least on paper!) and those games that get made will tend to lean heavily towards the play needs of the nerds who program them. Engine inertia blocks the possibility of creative invention by placing a necessary requirement for programming as the essential and irreplaceable component of any blockbuster game title. While this is the case, innovation in games is heavily constrained, and this situation is unlikely to change any time soon.

Videogames are a creative medium, but they are only barely a creative industry. Engine inertia blocks this possibility by making code resources the critical element in any blockbuster game project. As a result there is no trickle-down from the funding of big games to the support of small, artistically interesting projects. Until this can happen, videogames are almost exempt from cultural esteem, being little more than expensive geek toys. I'd love to see this change, but at the moment the economic conditions are poisonous to risk. While code is more important than ideas, creativity necessarily suffers, and games are doomed to fall short of their potential.

Highlights of Videogame Cultures 3

Spring Where does the games as art debate go now? How much do stereotypes of "the gamer" dominate and distort perspectives of games in culture? Can counterplay and co-creation in games change the relationship between the makers and players of games? Issues such as these were the focus of lively debate in-and-out of the conference halls at Videogame Cultures 3 in Oxford University’s Mansfield College.

The contemporary collision of traditional and the futuristic was underlined at this event by the architecture: the late Victorian “Queen Anne” style quadrangle building sits uncomfortably in the shadow of a modern steel-and-glass monstrosity that lurks in the background as if superimposed for an episode of Doctor Who. The oak wooden door to the conference eerily opens on its own as you approach.

I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into, but I can honestly say that this was far more than a typical academic conference – the camaraderie of an industry event like GDC coupled with the intimacy of a small conference (fewer than forty people in attendance) led to great opportunities for lively discussions that commenced within the programme to leak outwards into the pubs of Oxford during the night, and on in many cases into the early hours of the morning.

Hosted by, an implausibly wild organisation that consists of hubs with titles like “Transformations” and “Evil”, and individual programmes on everything from Eroticism to Whiteness, I was slightly disappointed that for the most part it felt largely like a conventional game studies crowd – where were the psychologists, the economists, the law theorists? But this complaint is rather unjust since, as was pointed out to me, the event did feature presentations that offered radically diverse approaches to videogames, from literary and media theorists and virtual world researchers on one end of the scale through to philosophers and bloggers at the other, this was a long way from presenting a unified approach to the topics at hand, and all the better because of it. Besides, although interest in game studies is high at the moment and many universities now offer a degree in video game design or something equivalent, most discussion of game studies is still of a very low standard. That simply wasn't the case at this event.

My own presentation, a highly condensed version of Imaginary Games, was in the opening panel. This turned out to be one of my favourite sets of papers just because they fitted together so perfectly – Belgian philosopher and artist Christophe Bruchansky went first, presenting a semiotic approach to games that Corvus Elrod would have been proud of, then after my piece, Adam Ruch pushed the idea of a tyranny of 'game-fun’ while looking strangely like Corvus Elrod without the handlebar moustache. All three of us drew from each other’s papers on the fly, and the discussions afterwards became incredibly animated – especially on the matter of the artistic status and lack of esteem afforded the medium of games – setting a level of energy that was sustained for the most part throughout the conference.

Felan Parker’s later piece on artgames (referencing Passage, The Graveyard and The Marriage amongst others) put this issue of games as art into further context by considering the historical circumstances by which cultural products are legitimised as worthy of esteem, while Mathias Fuchs considered the use of ‘ludic interfaces’ in art installations and games, while also discussing how exciting new interfaces like the mouse quickly become “domesticated”. Julienne Greer delivered one of my favourite presentations of the conference, discussing digital companions in games such as Shadow of the Colossus (argo) and Portal (GLaDOS) from the perspective of an actress and a performer – as well as being the most consistently animated source of weird and wonderful new perspectives on just about everyone’s work.

Still in the context of the interface between games and art, conference chair Daniel Riha asked questions about whether the capacity for a simulation to be subverted in ways people find shocking is a viable argument for not exploring historical situations via games, while Kris Lee presented an early version of his artistically-motivated game that explores the experience of limerence – the romantic obsession with an individual that comes to dominate a person’s life as they fantasise about a fulfilment that may never happen. (This topic was to prove interesting in late night discussions after one too many glasses of The Singleton). Dimitrios Pavlounis’ discussion of co-creation also dealt with aesthetic issues, looking at the way a game like LittleBigPlanet conceals the labour of level design by pretending its play, while other games such as Minecraft seamlessly blend the two activities, and although not intended as an aesthetic exploration I found Rowan Tulloch’s analysis of health as a representation perfectly adapted to negative enforcement learning to be highly stimulating.

The question of subversion and transgression came up on many fronts. On one hand, it ranged from Cameron Vaziri’s account of the micro-resistance of players who subvert the political order internal to games to Dale Leorke’s exploration of counterplay and countergaming in the context of location based gaming. On the other, Jen Jenson and Nick Taylor denied sex-swapping in avatars can be construed as trangressive (emphasising their point by switching name badges for the conference), while Kelly Bergstrom and Steph Fisher explored the way gamers distance themselves from the stereotype of “that guy” – the sweaty basement addict with a lack of that mythical substance, self-control. Marian Carr arguably went further, suggesting that gender identity in hobbies were being distorted by the use of the term ‘gamer’, and contributing to the failure for the industry to attract female talent.

My favourite of the questions about transgression came from Nick Webber, whose spirited defence of the right for players to engage in griefing denied last-day fatigue to generate a flurry of fascinating questions and consequent discussions. Although not a griefer himself, Nick tore across the usual assumptions of how to deal with the topic, and suggested that policing against griefers did not reflect a social consensus, but rather a pandering to a vocal minority. This talk was only topped in the conference in terms of laying the smackdown by veteran firebrand Suzanne de Castell who bitch-slapped the entire field of virtual world research for the shoddiness of their methods in a polemic that was, frankly, richly deserved, but that will probably fall on rather deaf ears.

The ‘cultures’ part of the conference title was amply demonstrated in Cat Goodfellow’s descriptions of the connection between post-Soviet identity politics and Russian games, Marcelo Simão de Vasconcellos discussion of serious games for health communication in Brazil, and Philip Lin’s analysis of “militainment” from both a Western and Eastern cultural standpoint, while Jumanne Donahue proposed possible methods for capturing cultural value data in games in a voice like being bathed in honey. The theme also emerged in go-to-guy Ewan Kirkland’s discussion of the tacit prejudice of “orientalism” in LittleBigPlanet, although Ewan himself made perhaps a greater impact as the driving force behind the regular evening think-and-drink sessions, that grew later and later with each passing night.

The interdisciplinary aspect of the event worked in a slightly subtle fashion - Jan Argasiński’s case for game studies as software studies, for instance, felt like it was on its home turf despite operating against the conventional paradigm for game studies. Also, a nice touch was a set of workshops for attendees lacking in experience with games run by soon-to-be husband and wife team Monica Evans and Tim Christopher, while their colleague Jacob Naasz (inescapably looking like a younger, smarter Jack Black) discussed options for rapid prototyping that had me thinking about actually making a short videogame for the first time in years. 

Finally, this blog post would be incomplete without a shout out to Ben Abraham, who explored the capacity for bloggers to be considered domain experts. (During his session, I got to be Levi Bryant, which was a blast!) This talk lead to a challenge from me about the claim that “the Wikipedia is widely considered an expert” that produced fascinating perspectives from the whole panel on the topic of the infamous web resource, combining equal parts scepticism and respect for the epistemological credentials of the site. I spent my last night in the pub having a great discussion with Ben on everything from philosophy to Australian politics, before inviting the survivors up to my penthouse for one final, spirited, late-night discussion. The hangovers at breakfast the following morning were a badge of honour as we scattered to the four winds on a beautiful Monday morning…

It was the third of my five conferences this Summer, but the remaining two would have to be quite incredible to come even close to topping the fascinatingly eclectic collision of ideas at this event.

The opening image is Spring, by Vitor, taken from here on his Fractal Forest website with implicit permission. The artists retains all rights to this image.

Fighting Used Game Sales is Suicide

Slashdot ran a piece under the heading Sony Introduces 'PSN Pass' To Fight Used Game Sales. This is an old bitch of mine, but it is counter-productive for publishers and platform holders to "fight" used game sales since used game sales drive sales of new product.

What Sony and others occasionally seem to forget is that young players, those who actually have the time to play a lot of games, generally don't have a lot of disposable income. The only reason they can afford to buy the hot new game that comes out is by liquidating a large quantity of their videogame collection in order to muster the purchase price. Thus while older geeks may be sitting on a videogame library that fills their appartment, younger gamers don't have this luxury - they must sell their old games to buy new ones, and thus never maintain a very large library.

Its not unreasonable for publishers to want to encourage the purchase of new product, but it is utterly self defeating to attempt to block the sale of used games. (The Japanese publishers were paticularly guilty of this about ten years ago). If the industry manages to disincentivise buying used games too much, they will feel a hit on sales of new products because the available income for buying new games will be reduced - and if this happens, they will only have themselves to blame.

Imaginary Games Out Now?

The Zer0 Books website lists Imaginary Games with a “Buy Now” button, so despite the release date in November there may already by copies in stock in the warehouse. (Zer0 did mention to me that unlike other publishers, they make books available as soon as they’re in stock, rather than holding them back for the release date).

Perhaps someone who was planning to buy a paper copy of the book could make an order and let me know if it turns up?

Cross-posted from Only a Game.

Retro as Genre, Retro as Art

Today I want to draw attention to two rather different games that share in common a retro aesthetic: Jordan Magnuson’s The Killer and Nitrome Games’ Silly Sausage.


Silly Sausage

sillysausage Over on the Nitrome Games website, you will find the game Silly Sausage, which was programmed (and I think designed) by regular Roman Age (Romain Macre). All of the games on Nitrome are informed by retro sensibilities – they look, and sometimes play, much like classic arcade games from the 1980s, which speaking as someone who practically lived in the arcade during this decade, is an era of games with which I feel a great connection.

In many respects, the Nitrome games are informed by more mature sensibilities (for instance, you do not have to start the entire game from scratch each time you play!), but they also try to recapture some of the qualities of these early games that are less often encountered in contemporary games. There is still, for instance, something of the fail-repeat sensibility to their play – although failure will only lead to repeating the same level, not the entire game. Still, there is something quintessentially ‘arcade’ about all the games of theirs I have seen.

Silly Sausage (pictured above) is an original variation on the classic game Snake, and will likely appeal most to players who have spent hours stabbing away at a cluster of four keys to control an ill-defined squiggly line purported to be a snake. The Sausage of the title is a cute sausage dog, whose 16-bit style animations are a definite part of the appeal of the game. Unlike Snake, whereby movement is continuous and cannot be stopped, this dog can stop for a scratch. Indeed, the basic play of the game involves stretching her out (snake-style) and grabbing onto a new block, whereupon she unravels up to the new point. If you stop moving before reaching a new block, she unravels back to where you set off. It’s a simple mechanic to grasp, and one that generates a surprisingly diverse play experience.

The connection to Snake lies in the fact that this game is also a collector at heart, and also in the fact that the control scheme draws heavily against the controls of Snake – if you haven’t played a lot of that older game, I suspect you will find Silly Sausage difficult to master. In fact, it is also highly reminiscent of one of my favourite arcade games, Anteater (Stern, 1982) which can be described as Snake meets Pac-man, and which shares with Silly Sausage a kind of risk-reward juggling play, since extending and retracting the anteater’s tongue is much like stretching out the sausage dog, with the same kind of risks when you are highly extended.

Personally, I found myself quite wrapped up in the game’s charm – challenging without being too irritating, it feels very much like a forgotten gem of the arcades even though it was released this year. It uses its retro sensibilities as a definition of the genre it operates within, and makes the most of it in the process. Innovative and accessible fun for retro-heads everywhere.


The Killer

the killer Jordan Magnuson’s “notgame” The Killer is what I’ve taken to calling an artlet – a short and simple game-like piece of software with artistic goals. Jordan, you might recall, is the insane individual I mentioned last September in Game Design as Travel Journalism. Using funding raised from donations, Jordan is travelling around the world making short digital games to document his journey. This is, as far as I know, a unique project, and one that pushes the medium a little bit further into new ground by using the game (or notgame) as a means of representing social, political and cultural information in a unique form.

I won’t say much about The Killer since it is something that you should try for yourself. The controls are trivial, such that anyone could play it. Here is Jordan’s introductory text:

A small notgame inspired by the thousands of senseless killings committed in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge regime. Requires no gaming skills whatsoever. Takes about three minutes to play through, though the length varies, and the experience is never quite the same for any two people.

The content has been evolving since I first took a look at it, and I recommend The Killer as a great example of using retro sensibilities in entirely new ways. (You can find it here). The 8-bit style pixel graphics are resonant of the early home computers, but the play (or rather experience) of this artlet is not like anything from the 1980s. Its sensibilities are clearly aesthetic and representational – it asks you to put yourself into a particular situation, and the more you accept its fiction the more effective it will be in terms of its emotional impact. Highly recommended.