Dec 232012
 

I, Ianucci

I’m a big fan of Armando Ianucci. For those of you who don’t know who he is (which will be pretty much everyone outside of the UK – unless you’re a big fan of Veep), he’s a comedy writer who writes at times brutal and bleak, but consistently brilliant comedy. If you ever seen The Thick of It, The Day Today, any of the various Alan Partridge shows or In The Loop then you’ll be familiar with his work.

I was recently rewatching The Armando Ianucci Shows, which is one of his more obscure bits of writing, but no less incredible for it. In it, Ianucci creates a series of dire, hilarious, confusing and absurdist sketches to examine his outlook on subjects as diverse as death, neighbours and “twats”. What struck me is how uncompromising he is about everything. It’s clear that Ianucci is an intelligent man who’s really wrestled with modern living and basically reached a state of contented dissatisfaction. When you watch it, you realise it’s quite amazing that it ever got commissioned by a national TV network, given its unrelenting bleakness. Alongside with the likes of The Wire it really highlights how far TV has developed as an art form, and begs the question how much further can it go?



The village sniper from the Armando Ianucci show

This got me thinking about how far off we are as industry.

We’re a long way off a scenario where for example, one day a publisher-funded game could appear where objective of the game is nothing more than to reach a state of contentment in spite of the world around you. Sure, there’s been exceptions down the years. The 80s and early 90s were great for interesting ideas (especially from small indie studios), and the previous console generation had its moments (I’m looking at you Chibi Robo and Katamari Damacy). But by and large we’re obsessed with gun-toting gravel-voiced slabs of man-granite, pneumatic ass-kicking teenage girls, undead elves and sexually gifted “Witchers”, all of which come bundled with crappy dialogue. How far off actually are we from reaching the point (which TV, film and literature have all reached) where a mainstream game appears where the protagonist’s main objective is not even to be happy, merely content? The argument which is trotted out against this is that games are a form of escapism, but so are books, TV and film, and they have are no less palatable for not suffering a Nietzschean obsession with the “super man”. The current state of affairs in AAA games is equivalent to going to your local cinema and not having a choice other than superhero films.

 

“There’s no blame culture here, I just want to know who’s fault this is…”

It’s all too easy to point and laugh at the state of creativity in the games industry.

It should come as no real surprise that when the various games industry groups try to hump the leg of arts councils around the world, that we’re not taken terribly seriously, and when the games industry does get some form of artistic recognition it actually becomes a newsworthy event. The real question is why the artistic state of play so very bad?

The apologists within the industry will often try and shift the blame onto the audience itself. They’ll say things like “These types of games sell, hence we make them”. Whilst this is true, it’s very difficult for someone to know whether or not they’ll like something different if you don’t give them the chance to try it. The rare occasions where interesting games are released by major publishers, they tend to be treated with disdain and a lack of support from marketing teams who don’t “get” the game. In turn, this can be used as an example of reinforce the status quo (the game didn’t do so well, let’s not make more), but more on this a little later…

If a variety of different studies is to be believed, the average gamer is around mid-twenties to early 30s and has been playing games for 10+ years. These people are not teenagers, yet we still create and market games with the same mindset the industry had in the 90s.

The real cause lies at our door as an industry. A situation has developed whereby an “unholy union” exists between business/marketing teams who don’t even play games and frequently hold our audience in contempt, risk-adverse backers (and who can blame them given the spectacular implosions our industry sees regularly) and an industry which often attracts and nurtures the inadequate, disaffected and sex-starved. I still haven’t gotten over the audience reaction to seeing someone begging for their lives before having their head blown off during The Last of Us reveal at E3. If these people are the finest creative and technical minds our industry has to offer, then we’re fucked.



E3 reveal of The Last of Us, skip to 6.40…

 

Golden Years Ahead?

So recently, we’ve seen a big name publisher with a long-standing history go bankrupt and there’s rumours of one or two others which may follow. For many in the “traditional” retail/box product area revenues are declining and things getting harder. Many are being hit by the growth of F2P and a lack of consumer interest, which in itself is hardly surprising as we’ve been serving up the same gruel since early 2006.

Perversely, I think this reverse in fortunes could be a good thing. Publishers are re-examining their product catalogue and shifting from expensive “AAA” titles and looking at leaner and much cheaper options which, given there’s less at stake, allow for imagination and invention. Likewise, cost-cutting pressures will push marketing initiatives further away from “suits” who all too frequently (though not always) dislike both games and our audience, and toward greater social and community involvement. How we deal with the problematic attitudes and behaviour (things like misogyny and a lack of social awareness) within our industry is another albeit more difficult challenge that we have to shine a light on and confront. We can no longer tolerate certain things with a shrug and a smile simply because the perpetrators lack social skills and are a bit “odd”. Please, please, please… let’s never see the likes of this again.

As a collective we need educate these behaviours and attitudes out of the workplaces and games we create.  This is essential if we’re to continue developing artistically and, more importantly, as human beings. At the end of the day, art is a reflection of the humans which created it and the society which enabled it.

This generation has witnessed an almost utter dearth of creativity and invention. XBLA hasn’t delivered upon its initial promise and PSN has frequently been unambitious at best. Only now at the end of current generation and the start of the next do we start to see the first glimmers of hope cutting through the dreariness. This year has seen a small number of wonderfully weird and interesting efforts pop up, such as Hotline: Miami, Journey and Tokyo Jungle, as well The Walking Dead which took in-game narrative and choices to new heights.

It feels like the industry is at a crossroads, and on one side the future’s bright and it’s there to be had. We cannot allow the forces of stupidity and ignorance to continue to wrestle our artistic growth away from us. I dream of the day we can look at the work our industry creates with pride; and in much the same way that people look at literature, film and TV, wonder how we could possibly take things forward any further.

Dec 092012
 

Opening Shots

In the last few days we’ve witnessed the first shots of the next big battle in games being fired. As usual this took the form of a major product launch, a product with the potential to revolutionise how the mainstream play and interact with games. A product which could open the floodgates for developers of all sizes with new ideas and innovations.

…I am of course, talking about Steam’s “Big Picture”.

The Silent Revolution

Although initially only intended as a means of distributing patches and updates, Valve realised the potential and importance of Steam as a distribution platform some four years before Apple managed to launch the App Store. Since then Steam has gone on to become synonymous with PC gaming. By removing all the different proprietary layers, Valve consolidated your games collection within one application with a consistent UX, functionality and social features, thus creating PC gaming’s “killer app”.

I can’t remember the last time I bought a PC title in a shop, took it home and installed it. I’ve got better things to do with my time than troubleshoot installation problems, crappy porting, out-of-date drivers and other miscellaneous incompatibilities. Give me a choice between a PC game which is also available on consoles and I’ll go out and buy the console version every time. I can hardly be atypical for being someone who now almost only entertains buying PC games on Steam or via Humble Bundle sales.

We don’t even go out and buy retro games anymore as many of the great ones are available online in one way or another. Although these don’t allow you to own the original 98 inch box and hand-stitched-and-embroidered-by-a-child instruction manuals which were so common in the early to mid-90s, you do get that warm fuzzy feeling of knowing that some of your money is (probably) going to the original creators, rather than some hideous collector who hoards shrink-wrapped copies of the original Leisure Suit Larry in the hope of cornering the market.

In essence, what I’m saying is that when people talk about PC gaming in this day and age, what they’re usually talking about is Steam.

Domination through Innovation

Valve’s strategy in cornering distribution on PC is all the more interesting because innovation and risk has always been at the heart of it. Two of the first non-Valve games released were niche indie games (Darwinia and Rag Doll Kung-Fu). Long before Android, Steam was the first major platform to not require submission fees for games going live on the service (a massive boon for cash strapped indies) and has since forged a reputation as a hotbed for innovation and the unusual. It’s recent forays into social networking, F2P games (and how it almost single-handedly changed the hardcore perception of F2P with Team Fortress 2) and now non-game software is only cementing that. Where Steam leads, others inevitably follow (though usually years later), and now it’s coming to your living room.

“Reason and justice tell me there’s more love for humanity in electricity and steam than in chastity and vegetarianism.” – Anton Chekhov

 

Revolution Begins At Home

“Big Picture” effectively allows you to have all the benefits of the PC gaming experience whilst playing in your living room. It’s been specifically designed for console controllers (you can use mouse and keyboard if you insist), and it has and even its own browser designed specifically for controllers, which is the first “console” browser I’ve seen which doesn’t suck. In essence what they’re trying to achieve is that you take the PC out of the bedroom and into the living room. Neither Sony nor Microsoft have given any reason why you should invest in their machines next year other than increased power. In the face of this, there’s no reason you shouldn’t just chuck your PC in your living room and have the same experience (but better and with more quirky indie games) for less.

For years PC gaming nerds have frothed about how the PC is world’s biggest gaming platform, its openness, the unashamed complexity some of its biggest franchises and how it’s always 5-10 years ahead of the curve of the console market. What Steam are trying to do with “Big Picture” is to take it away from the nerd in the bedroom, and make it a genuinely social experience with all the needless layers of complexity and stress that stifle the PC gaming experience peeled away… so that at the end, only the games are exposed.

Even if “Big Picture” doesn’t eventually take off, you can bet your bottom dollar that the big boys are worried and they’ll be upping their offering as a result.

A Short History Lesson

Some 240 years ago in a quiet corner of Glasgow, Thomas Watt was hard at work on refining an existing invention. Up until then steam engines had existed as a theoretical possibility with some limited practical successes, but remained ineffective due to their inefficient design and poor manufacturing. Watt’s success in developing the first commercially viable steam engine, would go on to galvanise and power the Industrial revolution, thus changing the course of humanity forever.

It seems fitting then that to this day, the words  ”steam” and “innovation” should remain inexorably intertwined.