Jun 212012
 

I’ve triumphed over addiction.

After 3 weeks wrapped in a blanket in a darkened room, supping tomato soup through a straw and keeping myself “occupied” with Game of Thrones, Radio 4 Podcasts and porn, I was cleansed. The sins of old washed off, I recently stepped out into the summer sunshine ready to start afresh.

My addiction sunk to new lows earlier this year. Days were lost in a barely conscious haze, meals were missed and I developed a ghostly pallor due to a lack of sunlight. I was entirely consumed and crazed, like a bastard lovechild of Keith Richards and Charlie Sheen after wolfing down solvents and getting high on Miau Miau fumes.

Every waking moment when I wasn’t getting my fix was spent planning how and when I was going to get my fix.

It was the sweetest feeling. Pure unadulterated bliss, every experience different to the last. Sometimes it would plunge me the deepest depths of hopelessness, other times I’d ride high on the wings of ecstasy. Nothing could touch it, nothing else was worth my time.

Bills went unpaid, workdays were missed, I began wearing my underwear inside out so that I would have to make fewer trips away from my room. Everything else faded into the distance and into irrelevance.

I’m clean. Finally. After so long of fighting and trying, I’ve shaken it off. Or so I thought…

Now this. It all comes rushing back, my resolve has crumbled. I was never free, it had just loosened its grip for a while. It’s amazing how easily the needle slips back in.

Fuck you Sid. Fuck you very much.

Jun 052012
 

Watching the trailer for Tomb Raider: Crossroads, I was taken back to what it was like to be dysfunctional 12 year-old growing up in England.

Like an angry pre-pubescent male showing his “maturity” by swearing loudly in public, talking about all the girls he’s “done it” with and trying to start fights, the games industry has for the past 15 or so years been trying to distance itself from its “kiddie” heritage by ham-fistedly thrusting ever-increasing quantities of tits, violence and social ineptitude upon us. Only an industry with such a high quota of social retards could interpret “mature” in such a comical fashion. Normally, I would find examples of such clumsy incompetence endearing – “Awww bless… Little Jonny’s gone to tie up his laces and crapped himself” – but in the case of the games industry it’s galling for three distinct reasons:

  • Publishers have an annoying habit of destroying the charm in franchise by re-pitching it to a “Mature” audience – Shadow The Hedgehog is perhaps the single greatest example of this. I’m guessing the kick-off meeting went something like this: “Right… We’ve got charming classic franchise loved by millions the world over which is famous for blue skies, green hills and cute animals. Now, let’s remove all that pussy shit and add a ‘dark’ Hedgehog with guns, heavy metal and explosions!” – What could possibly go wrong? Well, the execution was a bit like this.
  • For years the games industry has been obsessed with being taken seriously as an art form. Many games (especially within the Indie scene) are examples of creative excellence, but the streams of charmless and largely interchangeable shooters, which clog the charts like kebab grease in a fat man’s arteries, do nothing but reinforce negative stereotypes.
  • All things being equal your average “man on the street” will sooner pick up a charmless turd (that’s the technical term) with boobs and explosions, than a better game with a more accessible setting.

This final reason, is I suspect the real reason why the games industry is so obsessed with projecting its awkward interpretation of adulthood wherever it can.

I’m not against adult themes in games. I think when the styling/content of the game justifies a mature approach then it’s only natural a game should follow that path. Games like Heavy Rain, Skyrim and even Kane and Lynch are great examples of this, and these games in their own way push the medium forward without feeling forced or contrived. It’s just a shame that it was felt that the charm and magic of exploration and epic set-pieces wasn’t enough sustain Tomb Raider (even if in an act of  cynicism, Lara Croft’s tits have been getting bigger and bigger down the years). Instead they decided what the franchise really needs is to be more like Uncharted, but grittier. Great. I wonder how much attention will be paid to Lara’s funbags in the run-up to launch? Earlier this week a friend suggested that the marketing meeting ahead of the creation of the website might go something like this:

 

Marketing chump 1: “Huh, so we can’t make the bigger? Well.. how about we make them move? Would that be possible?”

Marketing chump 2: “Hmm… We could pretend she’s breathing!”

Marketing chump 1 & 2 together: *GUFFAWS*

 

It’s not funny because you know it might just happen…

 

Games provide enjoyment and bring a little escapism to people’s lives. You don’t need lashings of gore, coked-up babies and pneumatic bimbos to do this. In fact, if you adopt a more “accessible” and charming approach then you’re far more likely to reach people of all ages and even people who are traditionally non-gamers. Games like Little Big Planet, Super Mario Galaxy, Rayman: Origins and Psychonauts are great examples of games with tremendous depth which also manage to appeal to people of all ages. There’s space in the market for all kinds of content to keep everybody happy, but “mature” does not necessarily mean better or even more emotive - Shadow of the Colossus, Journey and Braid all achieved this without resorting to  schlock. Attempting to prove how “mature” and “sophisticated” you are by recreating the fantasy world of a hormone-crazed and sexually frustrated angry young man achieves quite the opposite.

 

Jun 032012
 

*In the interest of disclosure – I worked for Laughing Jackal for a few months back in 2007

The news of 38 Studios and Big Huge Games recent closures got me thinking about which factors dictate why some developers implode in the most spectacular fashion, whilst others can continue moving along and even thrive despite relative obscurity.

Reasons for failure are innumerable. It’s far too easy to write a piece about failed studios which featured any (or several) of the following:

  • Over-ambition: “Let’s make this really awesome open-world game where you can do anything you like! Design? Leave it to me, I’m an ideas man! We can worry about the design later.”
  • Under-ambition: “We only make hyper-realistic sailing simulators”
  • Leaders with no relevant experience/Studio as a vanity project: “I love playing games! Of course I know how to run a studio!” This one is a bit like me saying, “ME LOVE FOOD! OF COURSE I CAN RUN A SUCCESSFUL RESTUARANT!”
  • Incompetent owners/managers who’d sooner run a failing company (with a 20+ year heritage) into the ground than sell.
  • A culture of bullying – “If you don’t work 90 hour weeks I’m going to fire you and spend your bonus on hats and keyboards.”

*I could list plenty of other reasons, but I’d rather not spend the next 1000 words or so poking the corpses of long-dead dev teams with tragicomic examples of witless leadership.

What’s more interesting to me is how some smaller developers have succeeded. Looking at Hungry Giraffe last week got me thinking about Laughing Jackal and how similar devs and publishers have survived and thrived, and what this tells us about the wider games industry.

Make no mistake about it, the last 4 or so years have been tough, and in few places has it been felt more than in the UK. At one point the 3rd largest development community in the world, the last few years have seen the numbers employed in games fall by approximately 9% (ironically many left for Canada which overtook then UK in 3rd place). Retail sales have been in decline since 2008.

The games industry today (especially in the West) is part of an ideas economy. If you have nothing new, interesting or different to offer, then rest assured that whatever it is you’re doing, someone else will come along and do the same thing cheaper, faster and probably better.

The success of the likes of Laughing Jackal has hinged an ability to look beyond the obvious and identify neglected areas of the market where there is still strong demand.

Back in the mid-to-late 2000s whilst other companies made a dash for Xbox360 and PS3 (often with disastrous consequences) LJ and its “sister” publisher label Midas (same staff effectively) were licensing and localising obscure Japanese PS2 games and selling them in supermarkets at an impulse purchase price-point. This was a smart move as there were still millions of PS2s in circulation which were effectively “forgotten” by the wider industry. For the past few years their other “sister” company (Ghostlight) has been picking up specialist JRPGs and have effectively become a partner for the likes of Atlus in Europe. This at a time when almost none of the bigger publisher outside Japan consider this “niche” market to be worth their while. Now they’re also making PSP Minis and high-score based F2P iPhone titles.

The likes of Bossa, Media Molecule are also great examples of this type of “blue ocean” thinking. Bossa took the city-building social idea and knocked it on its head with competitive play, awesome B-movie styling and monsters (and won a BAFTA for their efforts), whereas MM made a “AAA” PS3 game, but they did it with a (relatively) small team taking a highly creative approach in a genre which they basically had to themselves (and got bought by Sony and won numerous awards for their efforts). I’m not convinced they’d have been quite as successful if  Bossa had attempted a full-price retail PC title, or if MM had attempted to make a “Halo killer”.

Small and independent studios in today’s game dev scene are like guerrilla forces in a pitched battle: if they go head-to-head with bigger and more powerful enemies on open ground, then more often than not they will be crushed. The secret to success seems to be to find the one piece of terrain that’s unique to you – the space you can defend – and launch your attack from there.