Category Archives: Industry

Snapping point

bluebell

This sometimes happens: I woke up mad at something I read a week ago. Today, it was Chris Bateman’s measured, interesting, informed article positing that a game has never – could never – make you cry. It’s not at all his fault. The distinction he makes between games as play, and games as systems is an interesting one, and his observation that games make people cry not through systems and rulesets and interactions themselves, but through the stories which are embedded within them, is sound.

What makes me angry – even in my sleep, it would seem -  is that we seem as incapable from moving on from the ‘can-we-make-people-cry’ debate as we are from the ‘are-games-art’ debate. I ranted about both before, in magazines and conference halls and pubs and railway sidings and on the internet, so I’ll try and keep it brief, but come on. Really? Can’t we leave it behind? The last group of people I encountered so dead set on making people cry were the boys in my class in primary two who had a dead frog in a matchbox they showed to all the girls. Can’t we aim a bit higher? Making people cry is not synonymous with high art, and it’s not synonymous with a deep and valuable emotional response.

I’ve been waiting all year to go to the Rothko exhibition at the Tate, and I’m not expecting it to make me cry. I am expecting to be ambushed by memories of things I thought or hoped forgotten. I am expecting to find solace and some strange kind of sustenance in the colours and contrasts that he painted. I am expecting the rhythms and patterns that I see to change how I think about the rhythms and patterns of my own life, and of my own thoughts. I am expecting to leave with a sense of wonder, melancholy and gratitude towards this man I never met, who died before I was born, who yet took the time to leave these treasures behind for me. In short, I’m expecting it to be moving, enriching, challenging. I’m expecting to be not quite the same person when I come out that I was when I went in. All with out story, all without tears.

Tears shouldn’t be our goal. Stories don’t need to be our tools. The majority of art forms don’t rely on narrative for their emotional impact. Stop and think about that for a second. The games industry tends to draw on such an amazingly limited roster of inspirations that it’s easy to forget it. But our obsession with linear, story-based – word-based, even – non-participatory art at the expense of all the other forms makes life so much harder for games, and it makes me crazy. I swear, next GDC I’m going to set myself up behind a table in the lobby with a huge pile of rubber bands and a huge pile of Jelly Tots, and each delegate, as they come in, is going to get a band on their left wrist and a handful of sweets in their right pocket. And then, all week, every time they hear the word ‘film’, ‘book’ or ‘TV show’, they have to give themselves a snap. And everytime they hear the world ‘painting’, ‘theatre’, ‘sculpture’, ‘opera’, ‘architecture’, ‘comics’*, ‘dance’, ‘music’ or ‘poetry’, they get a sweetie. Two, if they say it rather than hear it. But goddamit, we’re not the only people trying to create emotionally resonant experiences in environments that aren’t kind to linear narratives. Landscape gardeners talk with great sensitivity and great ambition about how they want visitors to their gardens to feel. Typographers can – and do, and have, and will again – talk for hours about the emotional resonance of difference fonts, of how different approaches to typesetting can totally change the mood and tone of a piece before you’ve even read a word. The world knows a lot about how to do this stuff, and all that knowledge is just there, lying about in galleries and on radios and along boulevards, for us to plunder.

So please, stop trying to make me cry, before you drive me to tears. But do keep trying to make me feel.

* I know comics are narrative-led, but I like them too much to not give people sweeties when they talk about them. And they’re still more useful to games than films, books, or TV.

Two week countdown

So, part of having The Best Job In The World, is getting to help run The Best Games Festival In The World, which is part of my cunning overall plan to get paid for doing things I would pay to do anyway. Here’s a brief guide to what you (you!) could be doing in less than a fortnight. I really can’t think of any sane reason why anyone who likes games wouldn’t want to come along.

Thursday 30th October
Sessions from SCEE’s EyeToy team and Midway Newcastle, a live Q&A with God Of War’s David Jaffe, art workshops with Bizarre Creations, design workshops with Midway Newcastle, and a chance to pick the brains of some of the best independent game developers from around Europe. Plus game design insights from Elite-creator David Braben, the inside track from mod-makers turned Quake Wars designers Splash Damage and the world premier of the new game from Amanita Design, makers of the universally acclaimed Samarost.

Friday 31st October
A unique masterclass in game design as original designers Martin Hollis and David Doak dissect Goldeneye, and an insight into the workings of Guitar Hero and Rock Band creators Harmonix, plus the chance to put your questions direct to Geometry War’s Stephen Cakebread and Oddword’s Lorne Lanning. TT Games will be on hand to advise on how to achieve real-world domination, and Monumental Games will do the same for virtual-world domination .

Saturday 1st November
Saturday takes us back to the birth of a phenomenon as we hear firsthand about the creation of the first Grand Theft Auto, before Media Molecule, creators of the extraordinary Little Big Planet take to the stage to deliver this year’s BAFTA keynote. Then we head back the the US (via Skype) to hear direct from another big star in the gaming firmament and discover how things will change when gamers rule the world.

But that’s not all!

It really isn’t. Keep your eyes peeled for some last-minute, big-name additions to the programme, which will present fantastic opportunities to hear first-hand from some of the biggest companies making games in the UK today. And, alongside all these fantastic sessions, we also have huge extravaganzas like our Halloween attempt on the world zombie gathering record, which will give you a chance to shamble your way into the record books, live gigs from Harmonix, Jonathan Coulton, Press Play On Tape and PowerPlay, pub quizzes, craft sessions, birthday parties, all-night gaming marathons and more. And that’s not to mention the chance to quaff our very own festival beer (Fine Ale Fantasy), and take advantage of fantastic offers across a wide range of Nottingham’s bars and restaurants.

Dedication (and an email account)

…are what you need.

psx_wipeout.pngJust a quick pointer for anyone who’s ever fancied being a world record holder: Guinness are accepting nominations for new gaming records from people who think they can achieve them live on the big screen at this year’s GameCity. So, if you know you have some obscure, unbeaten claim to gaming fame (I’ll give anyone a run for their money of fastest lap of Altima with the TV turned off) this is your chance to claim international glory. Head over to sign up here.

People in Glasshouses…

Edinburgh ’08 report:

Number of things I said that made the internet angry that I regret: 2

Number of things I said that made the internet angry that I don’t regret: 19

Number of things I said that would have made the internet really angry if it had been in the room at the time but it wasn’t so phew: 487,943

Number of people I promised I really would get a ‘Margaret Robertson is full of shit’ T-shirt made: 3

Gosh,  Edinburgh’s lovely. I really ought to know that by now, for all sorts of reasons, but it still takes me by surprise every time. But it was great to get a chance to load up on plain bread, and see a bunch of old friends, and catch up with all the Dare students as they all get one step closer to taking over the world.

The rather ramshackle slides for my rather ramshackle talk are here (sorry, 13 meg pdf or so, somehow). Fair disclosure: the notes represent what I had been planning to say if I’d had rather more sleep rather than what I actually managed to blurt out on the day, so apologies if they don’t mesh very well with what you heard. A lot of people have been asking me for the Patrick Redding talk, which you can get here, and really, if you’re only going to read one of them, read his and not mine, because his is properly brilliant.  Thanks again to EIF and Dare for inviting me up: good games, good people, good beer, bad weather. God, I miss Scotland.

Ah, good. The sea.

Brighton SeaDevelop ’08 report

Lost:  my voice, one earring, one suspected-knock-off, only-slightly-insanely-expensive, 60W MagSafe power adapter (now recovered), one phone USB cable, one bag of clothes (left in a taxi, returned 2 hours later by extraordinarily kind taxi driver)

Most coveted thing face-off: giant Space Invaders commemorative 100 yen coin vs Animal Crossing Happy Room Academy catalogue

Brighton restaurant recommendations:  breakfast – Bill’s for scrambled egg with pumpkin seeds on top and juice brilliance (thanks, T!);  lunch – Bankers for fish and chips (thanks, R!); dinner – Pintxo for delicious peppers and amazo-rasperry/coffee freddo things (thanks, me!).

Unforgettable moment face-off: swimming in the sea with Charles Cecil vs four-man The Final Countdown Band Bros.

New personal best: talking so much my tongue got blisters.

Best new skill learned: how to get an elephant into a fridge.

Cheers to everyone who lasted the distance to come to my talk – super quick’n'dirty slides-with-notes are here. Thanks to Owain for inviting me along, and to everyone who fed my brain-hamster with new ideas.

Home at last – my E3 verdict

Home from Birmingham, that is. My E3 verdict? Glad I didn’t go. By all accounts it sounded tame, contained, and underwhelming, although interesting to see that PSN rather stole the show with The Last Guy and Fat Princess and a better look at PixelJunk Eden, which I’d already made my mind up to love long before the screens started trickling out, but whoosh! and yay! and ooh!

No, I’ve spent the last week (and will spend next week) going round a much nicer, friendlier, and more exciting game show which is rather quixotically based – simultaneously -  in Dundee, Birmingham, Dublin, London and Brighton. And it’s got shorter queues and better sandwiches than E3.

It’s Dare To Be Digital, the UK’s leading student game-making competition, now in its 9th year, with 17 teams, based in five cities, all of whom have 10 weeks to make a playable prototype and which seems to be over-flowing with an embarrassment of good ideas. Channel 4 is the main sponsor this year, so as part of my work with them I’ve been running around poking my nose in, having a chat with the teams, and getting to play their games. I’ve been round about half so far, and I’ve genuinely been more excited about what I’ve seen there than anything that came out of E3. With the possibly exception of the life-changing  Duke Nukem Trilogy trailer.

So if E3 has left you a bit deflated, and you’d rather be fantasising about being a spring-loaded, magnetically-armed, bitmap-trailing, colour-coded, shoe-tree battling, origami-folding photographer than trying to get excited about Tomb Raider Underworld, then head over to the website and send some votes and encouragements to the team you think looks the most promising. The games will all be available to play at Protoplay from 10-12th August in Edinburgh, so you’ll be able to see for yourself whether or not I’m over-stating the case that it’s in these kind of environments that the interesting stuff is happening.

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Playing with history

Edge Online I don’t usually post about things from the past, but I couldn’t quite let these comments on the Next-Gen/Edge re- branding go unrevised. It’s understandable that Colin’s got a bit muddled, since he wasn’t involved with Edge at the time, but it’s not quite right to say that Edge had ‘never much bothered with the web’. It certainly isn’t how I would characterise the great deal of hard work that went in to the old Edge Online – initially from Jim Rossingol, and then latterly Brandon Boyer, as well as a number of Edge staffers over the years. Thanks to their efforts and general brilliance, Edge Online was one of Future’s most successful blog-based sites, and much loved by many, including me, even though it’s very un-British to admit to loving the things you make yourself. When I moved up to editor it wasn’t part of my remit any more, and it lay mostly dormant for a while before Next-Gen stepped into the breech. I’m sure the new Edge site will prove a huge success, but I’ll always miss the old one, even if I won’t miss laboriously hacking out all the wrongly-coded quotation marks. And it’s nice to have a chance to say thanks to Brandon and Jim and Steve and Ben and Duncan and all the other excellent chaps who made it such a uniquely omnivorous, considered, accurate, eloquent and wry place to be. The new crew have a lot to live up to.

Hallo Utrecht

baywatchcreatures NLGD conference report:

Swag haul: sweet fisheye camera, sisal friction mitt, two new T-shirt ideas, another Euro plug adapter, Smints, biros.

New big ideas: control and freedom are opposites; puzzle and strategy games are the same genre; creativity is best enhanced by limiting tools not increasing raw materials; games are disproportionate feedback loops.

New English words: aboutness, enculturated, Spornography.

New Dutch words: bluff (bluff), zwanger (pregnant), burgervader (mayor), success (good luck), slagroom (whipped cream).

Life-changing top tip: the thing that plugs into a MacBook adapter is secretly just a vanilla figure-of-eight cable, so if you’re feeling brave you can leave cable *and* country-plug-adapter at home, and just cannibalise something in your hotel room.

Unforgettable moment face off: discovering I’m exactly the same height as Ralph Baer vs popping my Rock Band cherry on a gold dump truck in the town square.

I’ll post slides and transcripts and stuff shortly, but for now, here are the games from my talk on Wednesday (links for playable stuff, fun for offline stuff):

God Hand (silly)

September 12th (solemn)

Braid (small team)

GTA IV (large team)

Cat On A Dolphin (rudimentary)

Bioshock (lavish)

Gravitation (emotional)

Dual N-back (abstract)

Perfect Cherry Blossom (reacting)

Advance Wars (planning)

Metal Gear Solid 4 (creator led)

Spore (user led)

And here are the del.icio.us tags I’m using to keep track of all the games, books and sites people recommended to me while I was there:

NLGD2008readinglist

NLGD2008playlist

NLGD2008linklist

Thanks to the NLGD team for running such a slick event and looking after us all so well. And thanks to all the exceptionally nice people who I got to drink and talk and think with.

Magistri Ludi

You Have To Burn The RopeI’m a juror for Indiecade, a roving festival which celebrates, promotes and rewards independent games and their designers, which means I’ve been horribly remiss in not publicising the call for submissions for their 2008 tour. If you’re a game-maker who isn’t funded by a major, ESA-member publisher you have until April 11th to check out Indiecade’s exceptionally hospitable eligibility criteria and get your game submitted. And if you’re not a game-maker, but you’ve spotted something of late which you think deserves to be paraded round the world and showered in glitter, then lose no time in firing off an email to its creators encouraging them to get involved. I’ll be doing just that to Kian, who made the epically satisfying You Have To Burn The Rope, which if you haven’t played, you should at once. Me? I’m off to watch a video.

Playing by the numbers

chainfactor I admit it: I like sums. My desk is covered in bits of paper covered in scrawled estimates of tick rates, mana effiencies and crit stats. Actual maths has always daunted me, but sums? Sums are comfort food for your brain. Soothing, repetitive, reassuring – it’s really just a different kind of doodling, except when someone walks in on you, they apologise anxiously and walk away impressed with your industry. My doodles have never impressed anyone.

So what could be better than sums? Sums in games, of course. You may have spent your summer enslaved to Plupon, or already be wrestling with Add ‘Em Up, in which case you don’t need me to tell you how hypnotic adding up can be. But if you’re yet to fall under their sway, or are looking for a new numerological overlord, then may I point you to Chain Factor? What at first sight is yet another block-dropper is actually a rather subtle puzzler, asking you to match the digits on each disc with the number of discs in each row or column. All your usual strategies are completely irrelevant here, so switch off your Tetris/Puzzle Fighter/Baku Baku instincts and prepare to feel the blood flowing to entirely new bits of your brain. The only tactic I’ve definitely sussed so far is to use the ’1′ discs to hammer away at exposed grays at the tops of towers. For some reason this reminds me very strongly of smashing eggs on the tops of bald people’s heads.

It’s rare to find a free Flash game this good, this fresh, and this polished – please do have the sound on when you play. And that seems to be due in no small part to the vehement passion of its developers, as revealed in the game’s FAQ:

The games industry is poised on the brink of a profound transformation. Games have the potential to be the most powerful artform ever invented, an unparalleled medium for the exploration of dynamic interactive systems and the expression of complex emotional, social, and political ideas.

But the creative power of games is being held hostage by the conservative forces of the marketplace. For years, the mainstream games industry has fed us a steady stream of lowest-common-denominator drivel: brightly colored mascots scampering around childish fantasy lands; hyper-violent, testosterone-soaked war simulators; vacuous, marketing-driven movie spin-offs; and the endless grind of mindless, massively-multiplayer treadmills.

Chain Factor offers an alternative: an independent game designed outside the traditional channels of development and distribution and driven by a singular vision: put the power back into the hands of the players and let them create the game they want to play.

Stirring stuff. But, turns out after some proxy Googling (thanks, B!) that this post should really be called Playing by the Numb3rs, because Chain Factor is actually part of an ARG spawned from CBS’s maths-detectives show of the same name. A recent episode, Primacy, centered on a fictional ARG, and a range of tip-offs and related adverts have followed in its wake. Play long enough, and anomalous things start happening. I won’t spoil it, just in case you want to follow the experience for yourself, but there seems to be a wiki growing up here, if you enjoy the meta-game of watching everyone else play more than playing yourself.

It’s almost a disappointment to discover that it’s corporate-fueled, rather than the work of plucky indies, but then you realise that the developer’s call to arms, rather than being empty invective (or deliberately tongue-in-ARG play-acting), it’s probably a very fair point. Under normal circumstances, Chain Factor would be an unusually good, unusually polished Flash freebie, struggling to get noticed and barely making money. As it is, it’s unusually good, unusually polished, finding a wide audience and paid cash-on-the-barrelhead by CBS. It may not be quite the process you imagined when you read ‘an independent game designed outside the traditional channels of development and distribution and driven by a singular vision’, but you have to admit it qualifies on all fronts. I look forward to some interesting developer interviews once all the alternate reality cats are out of the game bag.