Independence Night

killscreenGDC is weird this year, because everything’s on the wrong days, and in the wrong halls, and accompanied by the wrong lunch, but by jove it doesn’t matter cos the people are so nice.

This evening, the people who were being nice were mostly indie-types, brought together by the now-fledged UK Indie Developers club. It made me think, while introducing people to other people it was inconceivable they didn’t already know, that there’s still an awful lot of us who haven’t met, despite all living in a country the size of a teapot. So, if you’re an established, or just-getting-established UK indie, and fancy being on a mailing list with a bunch of other nice indies keen to help each other out, drop me a line (contact form on right) with info about yourselves and the game(s) you’ve made and I’ll get you on the mailing list.

Other nice indies around tonight included the team behind new, ultra-irresistible games mag Kill Screen. I left my promo copy in the hot hands of some over-excited paper fetishist, so I’ll be heading off to their site to buy another. It’s smart and pretty – you should too.

Job(s) Spot(s)

As a consultant, I get to work with a lot of interesting companies on a lot of interesting games. A lot of them are based in London, and a lot of them are small, fast, satisfying projects. The two questions I get asked most at the moment are:

1) Do you know any really good Flash coders looking for a job?
2) Do you know any good freelance game designers looking for work?

My answer is always: not enough, so I thought I’d give the internet a shout. The Flash jobs are usually full-time at profitable, personable game indies or digital agencies. The game design gigs are often project-by-project, and are looking for people with proven game design and delivery skills (so have you conceived, fleshed out and finished something), rather than necessarily any particular professional qualifications or experience.

If either of those things sound like interesting opportunities, do feel free to get in touch (there’s a Contact link over on the right). I can’t promise anything at all – not even a response if I’m feeling scatterbrained, I fear – but I will pass on details to companies looking to hire where it looks like there’s a good potential match.

The gratitude of wolves

Wired March 2010Over the course of last summer, I sent out hundreds of mails to people who I knew, or suspected, or hoped, were Werewolf players, asking for help researching a big, fat Wired feature on the history of the game, and its status among the geeky.

I was expecting a bit of a response, since Werewolf players are often pretty enthusiastic about their game, but I wasn’t expecting to trigger an avalanche. So many people wrote me detailed, fascinating replies – full of history and psychological introspection and swearing and glee – that I genuinely lost count. The stack of print-outs on my desk would have crushed the spirit of anyone who doesn’t actively despise trees. I tried to thank everyone, but I bet I missed a few. Either way, let me thank you again.

Publishing grinds a little slower than blogging (although not much slower than this blog), so the article is now finally outed in this month’s mag. You can read it over at the Wired site or buy a copy and find out a little about Hela cells and Kodak and winning at darts as well. So many quotes ended up getting cut, from so many interesting and generous interviews – apologies if any of them are yours. And do let me know what I’ve missed or got wrong.

An interactive story game predictor matrix

storybingoLast week at Doc/Fest I had the pleasure of sitting on a panel about story games in the very fine company of Alice ‘Wonderland‘ Taylor, Paula ‘Bus.Tops‘ Le Dieu, Adrian ‘Smokescreen‘ Hon and Mike ‘Routes‘ Bennett. Paula asked us some unforgivably tough questions, like ‘what are games?’ and ‘what is story?’ and the audience threw us the odd paedophilia related curve-ball, but I’d say we held our end up.

Where I didn’t hold my end up was in preparing any kind of presentation. Mostly out of laziness, of course, but partly because I didn’t trust myself in any way, shape or form, to keep within the five minutes allotted. So instead I made a stupid toy, reducing an otherwise intelligent, informed debate into a round of bingo.

Making it – other than my incredible oversight in missing out Ico and Braid, which Mike and Adrian (respectively) were quick to correct me on – it did strike me how limited our range of references is when we talk about the whole subject of the stories games tell. I’m sure you could suggest all kinds of improvements in the 24 games I’ve picked (wot no The Longest Journey? etc), but I’m equally sure you could get a decent score at almost any games-and-stories talk or panel with it as it stands. Good thing that we have a shared set of cultural references to measure complex ideas against, or bad thing that there is so little that is interesting – or well known enough – to get a mention? Both, probably.

The other thing that it made me think was, why are there so few PowerPoint games? If Excel is equal to Sonic and flight simulators, shouldn’t PowerPoint have a wider following among game makers? Other than a legion of middle-school teachers making vocab tests and evolution quizzes, and some frankly rather demoralising Choose Your Own Adventure templates, I couldn’t find much. If only someone, somewhere would rise to the challenge and make the ultimate PowerPoint story game then I could add it to my ultimate story PowerPoint and then probably embarrass myself on stage by mucking up all the hyperlinking.

In the very unlikely event you’d like to join in the fun, here’s the file.

‘Well, duh,’ she opined.

250px-don_draper_wikiI promise I’ll stop talking about story sometime soon, but I woke up today with an actual spike of How Can I Have Been So Stupid? embedded between my eyes. Often when I’m inveighing against story, I’m actually warning people off plot and dialogue, since both of these are things games often do badly. The problems with plot are pretty clear – the challenge of keeping things credible over a 10-, or 20-, or 80-hour game run, the tensions interactivity can bring, the banality that the superhero-ness of your central character often encourages – but I have been wondering of late why dialogue is so hard to get right. Dialogue is, after all, a well-understood problem. Finding good script writers is hard, certainly, but a long way from impossible, and there are agencies and commissioners with buckets of experience in pointing you to serious talent. So why – and I’m sure it’s coincidence that I’ve just been playing InFamous – is it so rare to find dialogue in games that isn’t, frankly, wretched.

I was chewing this over when I ended up on the Wikipedia page for Mad Men, which quotes Don Draper’s pitch to Kodak that so resonantly closes the first season:

Nostalgia.
It’s delicate, but potent…
Teddy told me that in Greek, nostalgia literally means the pain from an old wound.
It’s a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone.
This device… isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine.
It goes backwards, forwards.
It takes us to a place where we ache to go again.
It’s not called the Wheel.
It’s called the Carousel.
It lets us travel the way a child travels.
Around and around and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved.

It’s the killer scene in a killer episode, but on paper it’s a strange beast. Definitely closer to poetry than prose, and highly controlled and yet florid at the same time. So what makes the difference? John Hamm makes the difference. And that, in a nutshell, is the problem with games.

A good actor can save a bad line. Good actors can save an entire script full of bad lines, and film and TV actors are able to deploy their bodies and their faces as well as their voices to carry the day. Relying on voice alone is a taller order. Despite my devotion to Radio 4, and my addiction to The Archers (Woe for Matt and Lilian! Hooray for Tom and Brenda!), I find most radio drama hammy and wearing. Money Box Live is a more appealing listen than From Fact To Fiction.  And these are not less talented actors (I’m not even enjoying Simon Russell Beale as Le Carré’s Smiley, for heaven’s sake), nor necessarily less talented writers. It just seems to be harder to help dialogue shine without the visual cues. (Please, don’t think for a moment I’m denigrating radio – it has an intimacy and an intensity that TV, film and theatre can never match. But scripted drama seems to be something it doesn’t do as well as it can documentary, discussion, prose and poetry.)

The trouble is, of course, that game voice actors have it even harder than radio voice actors. Our digital actors are almost universally acting against the talents of the people supplying their voices, rather than with. Gammy animation, glassy eyes, bad path-finding, tongueless mouth-holes: we still have a lot of problems to combat before we even level the playing field, let alone produce actor-avatars which can help save patchy writing.

So that, with my apologies, is the blindingly obvious revelation that I had this morning, a decade after everybody else. Dialogue is one of the single hardest things there is to write, and games are the single hardest environment to write it for. No wonder we struggle.

This is why.

dsci0530I’ve mentioned before that I get the ‘so how come you like games’ question pretty regularly, and don’t have a particularly cogent answer, beyond ‘because they’re awesome’ and some stuff about the funny quizzes my brother used to write for me in Basic. But one key component was an amazing pop-up book about computers that made it perfectly clear that they were the most exotic, powerful and fascinating things ever made and that, if at all possible, I’d quite like to grow up inside one. I’ve long lost the book, and long given up trying to do it justice in words and gesticulations, but now I don’t need to, because The Internet has found it!

Jonathan Ryan has been kind enough to post a complete set of pics over on his blog. I still remember every single page, perfectly. He doesn’t, however, mention the crucial fact that the tab on the dot matrix printer page was cut in a saw-tooth, so it actually made the printer noise when you pulled it. I bet there’s a whole army of us out there, who grew up into geeks partially thanks to its cheery oversimplifications. Good times.

Wasting my life

So, over from my home-from-home Offworld, I wrote a piece about the majestic God Hand, particularly praising its adaptive difficulty. The more dudes you pummel successfully, the more dudes attack you. The more you get pummelled by dudes, the more other dudes leave you alone. It’s a system I like because it preserves the absolute challenge – you can only go toe-to-toe with other player’s high scores by pushing for the highest difficulty – while ensuring progress through the game is possible for poorer players. And it does it all transparently, letting you see what difficulty level the game is setting for you and therefore allowing you to make decisions and plan strategies around how hard you want the experience to be.

It’s kicked off quite an interesting debate, which seems to be focused around two issues. The first is whether or not adaptive difficulty dilutes the purity of the challenge, and therefore the satisfaction of victory. As is so often the case, the right answer to that conundrum is the cop-out answer: it depends. There are undoubtedly games where you want unwavering, unalterable hardness: lines in the sand you can measure yourself against. Sometimes it’s more important to guarantee progress. I had a rather marvellous meeting yesterday for a sex education game I’m helping out on, and its designer very astutely pointed out that it’s pretty much essential that everyone who plays the game is able to finish it. No use clueing teens in to the perils of herpes if they get stuck before they find out how to spot syphilis. What prompted me to write yesterday’s column, though, was delight at how often truly hardcore games manage to balance those two needs. It’s not that God Hand lets you coast, flailing aimlessly through a challenge-free experience. It uses its adaptive difficulty to lure you in to harder fights, teaching you as you go. It’s the perfect teacher, constantly advancing the goalposts to stretch your skills, whatever your natural level.

The second issue was best summed up by commenter Inverse Square:

But damn, to give in to the desire for a power fantasy is a terrible thing to do. Escaping from reality is nice, but it’s indefensible. To flatter it, to trade in it, to treat it like it’s useful is wrong. It’s helping no-one; it’s teaching you nothing.

Are all games just power-fantasies? By no means (although – fair cop – I did say they were in that piece, mostly cos I was feeling a bit grumpy). They have long done much more to inspire, challenge, surprise and educate. Are some games just power fantasies? Yes, absolutely. And do I think that’s a bad thing? Sometimes. Sometimes I’m delighted to have a ready-made range of sand-castles I can kick over, oceans of virtual balloons I can rampage through with a pop-gun, virtual plates I can smash and virtual pencils I can snap. Often though, I go back to Geoffrey Miller’s eminently scary article (you’ll need to do a text search for his name to find his entry)  from a few years ago which posits that the eventual downfall of all intelligent civilisations will be our seduction by fitness fakers – virtual constructs which gives us the feeling of achievement without actually achieving anything. The natural extension of the argument? That videogames are the reason we haven’t got to Mars, and the reason that other advanced alien life-forms haven’t got to Earth. We’re all too busy playing God Hand. Sorry ’bout that.

The lost levels

Here’s a question for you. What level are you? Overall, I mean. What level are you in total? How do you even start that sum? What would the rules be? Let’s make one key decision straight off: main characters only. It’s easy enough to begin with – tot up all 11 normal Final Fantasies leads and World of Warcraft alts. Add in all your Laharls (or Etnas, depending). What about Links? Alright, another key decision: only games with actual numerical levels, rather than ranks or grades or whatever. Except I can barely remember which did and which didn’t. Did Deus Ex? Did Dark Chronicle? VF4?

Even after thinking about it on two trains and one bus, I’m not even sure what the magnitude of the number is. 5000ish? Or is it going to be one of those numbers which is much lower than you expect, like the number of books you read in a lifetime? Or maybe huge! Maybe 200,000? I have done a lot of levelling, in a lot of games, some of which have very high level caps. It seems crazy to me that something which has been such a big focus for so many hours adds up to nothing more than a big question mark. There should be an app that tallies it for you. Somehow it would depress me less than my /played in WoW (too high) and my Gamerscore on 360 (too low). For now, though, it gives me something to ask people at parties other than ‘what’s the furthest you’ve walked in a day and why.’

So, not that this is much of a party, what level are you?

Rule revisions: let’s include tabletop, let’s include games you played for any length of time, let’s say you take the top level your main character reached, regardless of what level they started at, but let’s say you only count your top-level Pokemon (or whatever), whichever it was. But that’s top-level Pokemon per version of the game, and per play-though per game – so you might be adding up three or four different Pikuchus that you raised at different times.

Actually, I think everyone should totally be allowed to make up their own rules as long as they explain them, but I’ll keep a tally above for anyone who wants a level (!) playing field.

Tiny update

tinytetrisLimbering up for my L4D playdate this evening reminded me of the rather brilliant Left 4k Dead which did the rounds some time ago, which in turn made me think of other brilliant tiny games.

Grandaddy, of course, is Wolfenstein 5k, but you might have trouble getting it to run in your space-faring, jet-pack-toting browser-of-the-future. Current darling is the 5k Lunar Lander, where Seb Lee-Delisle shows off by doing first a straight remake and then a 3D version in under 5120 bytes, as part of a competition run by the rather awesome sounding  £5 App club. Which just goes to show that 5k is probably a bit generous, surely the thinking behind the annual Java 4k compo, which this year has a reworking of PixelJunk Eden, some improbably lavish atmospherics, courtesy of 4bsolution, and a nice crisp Tetris-meets-that-colour-clearing-game-I-don’t-know-the-name-of.

4k starting to look a bit too generous? Then why not take a stab at Tetris in 500 bytes? Sick of all this reductivist retroism? Then check out what 432k can get you, which turns out to be blowing up Battersea Power Station, complete with smoke and sound, in A New Zero, which also wins my favourite-game-FAQ-ever award.

Still to big for your tastes? Then fetch your reading glasses and head over to Defender of the Favicon. If you get there and you can’t spot the game, then you’ve rather missed the tiny, tiny point.

Videogames and things