S.

May 102015
 

The statement above  will provoke outrage and bluster in many Producers and Programmers. It’s an assault on an unassailable truth they hold dear, and like most statements that provoke impotent rage by attacking widely held beliefs, it also happens to be true. The things we believe in, should be open to scrutiny so that they can be improved. The Agile manifesto isn’t a sacred text (despite the level of reverence some hold it in), it is a document written in a lodge by a group of (possibly grumpy) Senior Developers who were fed up with Waterfall development and Managers “interfering” in their work.

 

Genesis

At some point in the early-2000s game developers found the silver bullet which overnight was going to resolve all of their development woes. Agile development, and specifically Scrum was going to fix everything.

Schedule overruns were going to be consigned to the dustbin of history, crunch would magically end, and interfering Project Managers would be replaced by ScrumMasters whose role it would be to subserviently facilitate the team’s work whilst wielding no authority.

Something like a developer’s idea of heaven would dawn and all would be well.

 

Reality

Despite widespread adopting of Scrum and millions spent sending developers and managers to Scrum training workshops, none of this happened. Delays still occur with most major releases (GTA V PC anyone?), according to the IGDA’s 2014 figures 81% of developers still crunch, with some 38% of the IGDA’s 2014 respondents reporting typical crunch times of 50-69 hours per week.

(Given the lack of tangible results, what could it be that’s attracting seasoned developers to quit their demanding day jobs to lead Scrum “training” sessions charging participants several thousand dollars per head to attend?)

Utopia did not dawn, even though many PMs remain convinced that if they just follow the book closely enough it will do… below is just a small subset of big issues with Scrum and why it isn’t actually a particularly smart way of making games:

Just your typical game in development

Just your typical game in development

 

With great power comes no responsibility

Scrum dictates that the team should be responsible for the planning and execution of work, with no outside interference from the Product Owner (the person who’s actually accountable for shipping the game/feature) beyond setting priorities and direction.

In essence this creates a situation where the people planning and doing the work, are not held accountable for its success or failure, and the person who’s accountable for it can’t “interfere” in how it’s done. So if the team misses their deadline, there’s no accountability or repercussion, and the person who is accountable for the failure had no say in how the work was done.

Anyone who’s accountable for a piece of work and adopts this approach is either a) working with the most reliable team in history or b) asking for trouble.

A person (PO or otherwise) who fails to deliver on their responsibilities while entrusting all of the planning, oversight and execution to other people is guilty of nothing short of negligence.

 

We can’t all be rockstars

Scrum relies on developers being able to accurately predict the complexity of their tasks and how many of these tasks (based on their complexity and their previous workrate) they can perform within a “sprint” (usually 2 weeks), at no point should the PO impose deadlines. The team knows best what a reasonable amount of time is to deliver a feature, and no outside interference or deadlines should come into the picture.

In terms of finance, most of us can’t even predict exactly how much we’re going to spend within a two week window, despite most of our costs being roughly the same every month, let alone how difficult a new task with multiple interdependencies and external factors might be.

Unsurprisingly, this problem gets even worse when you start introducing Junior Developers into the mix. At this point the planning can become so bad, that an experienced PO might (secretly) start adding a 200-300% buffer into the team’s tasks, communicating one set of earlier intended dates to the team, whilst communicating a different set of expected dates (with the 200-300% buffer built in for management) to ensure they don’t get burned by the team’s inability to accurately estimate their work.

Scrum also relies on the team being “self-motivated” and always striving to deliver 100%. Anyone who’s ever been on a large team, and then seen the team continue to deliver the same (or even greater) output after several members of the team were reassigned to other projects, will know that this isn’t the case. In any large organisation (and in some small ones), there will be people who will try to “hide” and get away with doing the minimum, leaving their colleagues to pick up the slack. The larger the team, the more of these people you will be carrying, and Scrum gives these people the perfect “get out of jail free card” when they do fail to deliver.

To top this off, teams are supposed to be “self-organising”. Outside forces don’t tell them what to do, and the workers collective will join together to establish the most efficient and effective means of production. Without leaning on crude stereotypes, it’s not a stretch to state that many developers don’t have particularly strong social skills. So, putting a group of developers together and asking them to take collective ownership can often result in no-one taking a strong lead and a lack of communication and coordination – many developers will try to avoid treading on each other’s toes or being seen as telling their peers what to do. Again, this problem becomes more acute when you inject a higher ratio Junior Developers into the mix…

The standard response from Scrum advocates to these complaint is that “Well… you can’t expect tot achieve anything with a high ratio of Junior Developers”, which is:

  • Unrealistic: Not every company has mountains of money to spend on Senior Developers, or even if they do, the ability to attract them.
  • Counter-productive: How are you supposed to be developing your next group of Senior Developers if they don’t fit within your idealised version of a dev team?
  • Self-defeating: Junior Developers bring fresh ideas and energy to the team. Having a good balance of Juniors and Seniors is essential to having a harmonious and enthusiastic team.

 

Cultural bias

Here’s another dirty secret… Not everyone can or wants to be self-organising. Many developers are much happier and productive when they don’t have to worry about leading or owning features. Many of us who have worked in teams that transitioned to Scrum will have heard developers complain about the Scrum process and how they are not comfortable self-organising or taking ownership of features.

If you’ve worked in continental Europe, or even more so Asia, you will also have seen that the assumption that everyone wants to be a stakeholder or own part of the responsibility for delivery is rooted in Anglo-Saxon (and specifically, American) cultural bias. Not every developer wants to be “the boss”, many just want to focus on their craft.

Some people will be more productive if you allow them just to focus on what they’re best at doing. Why  not let these people focus on what you hired them to do in the first place, rather than try and force them to try to be something they’re not?

 

Not all disciplines lend themselves to iterative development

Even if all your programmers, QA and Designers can work perfectly in Scrum harmony, other parts of your production pipeline will not. For example, building 3D assets is very much a waterfall process with clearly defined stages, inputs and outputs. Trying to shoehorn this into an iterative approach for the sake of consistency (or dogma) will not make you faster.

If you look at the history of the Agile Manifesto, it was authored almost exclusively by B2B application programmers and coaches, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that it’s entirely skewed to the needs and desires of Senior Programmers, and won’t necessarily meet the needs of other disciplines.

 

The failed PM’s shield

Your ScrumMaster is not a Project Manager, and as such is not supposed to guide or direct the team, even if they’re misfiring. This is the perfect shield for weak PMs, as they will have the perfect excuse to hide behind the team and not take ownership when the team is consistently failing to deliver. As mentioned above, the team holds the responsibility (but not the accountability), so there is no recourse here. In practice a good SM will throw this out the window and step up and start challenging the team when they’re failing.

 

If you can’t react, you’re toast

Scrum dictates that the Product Owner can’t change the content of a “sprint” (usually 2 week’s worth of work) once the team has committed to it. In order to change, they’re supposed to stop the sprint, redo all the planning and start again, even if the team has built a buffer into their estimations. As anyone who’s every worked on an online game (or any online service for that matter) will tell you, this is simply not a viable way of working and in the realm of fantasy.

Imagine a scenario where 1 day into a sprint, a serious exploit surfaces in live. It needs to be fixed yesterday or the damage to the game’s economy will be serious and long-lasting. Would a PO worth their job waste valuable hours (with the exploit still live) stopping the sprint, re-planning all the work for the next two weeks and then getting the team to self-organise and reassign the stories? Or worse still, wait another 13 days until the end of the “sprint”!?

No, the PO will put the relevant people on the issue ASAP, reprioritise their other tasks, and hope that the team will still somehow be able to deliver most of what was agreed for the sprint.

When you’re operating a live game your development methodology needs to be able to adapt to the needs of the business, not the other way round. If you prioritise development best-practice over your core business needs, then you’re destined for the dole queue.

 

You’re not praying hard enough!

Sometimes terrible things happen to good people. Someone who is of a religious disposition can be struck down by a sudden illness or a tragedy (self-inflicted or otherwise). Rather than focus on the issue itself and its causes, these people will instead blame themselves for not having prayed enough as if their faith were the actual root of their issue.

Similarly, things will inevitably blow up in your game development at some point; in a Scrum environment this can often be perceived as a challenge the development approach. The stock response by Scrum advocates in this scenario will be to proclaim that the team “wasn’t following Scrum enough”, and that the solution lies in a more rigorous adherence to textbook best-practice.

This response doesn’t take the time to analyse the problem and its causes in depth (Toyota’s famous “5 whys” is a great way of doing this), and unless the issue is specifically a problem with your Scrum implementation (which more often than not, it isn’t), you can be certain the problem will resurface at a later date.

 

Rocking in the real world

The real answer (like so much in life) is to not blindly follow any one set of rules blindly.

Every single team and project is different and will have different needs. The best Project Managers will adapt their approach to their team and combine the best bits of various different development and Project Management methodologies.

Despite all of the above, there is a lot about Scrum that is laudable and generally works well for dev teams (iterative development, constant releases, sprint cycles for development, etc.) just like there are aspects of PMP, PRINCE2, Kanban, Lean, and other Development and Project Management methodologies that also make a lot of sense. However, blindly applying one catch-all approach to developers of all shapes and sizes with differing needs is doomed to failure, and ironically, goes against many of the principles Scrum is supposed to embody (people over process, agility and pragmatism).

The simple fact is that there isn’t one method that will work for every game and team. Anyone who says so is either grossly oversimplifying things, deluded, or trying to sell you a 3-day course for $1,500.

May 242014
 

Why I’m writing this

Catching up with an old friend recently, he suggested I write a post about losing my job a few years ago. I’m not somebody who enjoys speaking about themselves, however, I was very close to “giving” up and leaving the industry a few years ago after an unfortunate series of events. With all the recent industry layoffs and the upheaval caused by various studio closures, I suppose this is as good a time as any to share my experiences in the hope that someone out there who can relate will not give up.

 

My Background

Like many who work in games, I got into the industry by accident. A struggling musician in the middle of my music degree, I needed to make extra money and an opportunity arose to make some “easy cash” doing “a dream job”… Yep, I became a QA tester.

Of course, as everyone in the industry knows being a QA tester is not a “dream job”. It was pretty shit. We worked 16+ hour working days for low pay, testing N-Gage games on zero-hour contracts (we didn’t know if we had paid work from one day to the next and sometimes we didn’t get paid for weeks at a time) But, I relished working in the industry, worked hard and soon enough I was a QA Lead/Coordinator.

After finishing my degree I briefly continued with music, but my graduation coincided with the rise of file sharing and the years during which from a business perspective the music industry tried to pretend the Internet didn’t exist, whilst trying to sue their customers. Within a year of my graduation, all of the major labels in London either closed their doors, moved into much smaller offices with fewer staff, or merged (which as anyone who’s been part of a merger will tell you, is much the same as firing people and moving the survivors into a smaller space). The situation for smaller labels was even bleaker back then (though things have turned around since). I realised that the only way I could make a decent living as a musician lay in teaching. Unfortunately, I hated teaching almost as much as I hated being broke.

I was lucky enough to have a “Plan B”. I decided to use (or some might say “spin”) my 3+ years lead QA experience to land a Producer role. Fast forward a couple of years: I was 25, working as a Producer for an established Publisher/Developer, having a riot in London and my personal life was going great.

Gradually things began to unravel. First, the girl I had decided I wanted to spend the rest of my life with decided she didn’t want to spend any more of hers with me. After which I began drinking heavily and losing it in private, though I was keeping it together at work.

Round this time, the global financial crisis began to hit various different businesses. Murmurings began at work about cash flow problems. Things became more acute following the collapse of distributor which was holding almost all of our physical stock. Then we started receiving pay early (it later came to light they were paying us as soon as cash was paid in to the account, before it could be debited to pay other companies they owed money to). Then one pay day we weren’t paid. The MD didn’t show his face for a few days and then surfaced. His line was that the difficulties were temporary and no-one need worry, we would be paid.

Over the coming days people became more and more agitated. At this point, the MD announced the company was looking for a buyer and there were a few interested parties. However, we needed to keep coming into work to keep things going! Plus, if we were to quit we wouldn’t be entitled to benefits as we had voluntarily left our jobs (despite the fact we weren’t being paid).

To this day I still consider him to be a total scum bag. He basically hung the sword of Damocles over 60 people’s heads by ensuring they wouldn’t be eligible for benefits if they quit voluntarily, whilst not paying them whilst they remained.

This went on for about 3 months. In the final cruel act, some execs came by to appraise the studio and bought pizza and champagne for everyone to celebrate our imminent purchase and the saving of everyone’s jobs… only for the publisher to finally close its doors a week later.

We were all out of work with 3 months of unpaid salary and financial obligations to meet. Not a penny in compensation was ever received by any of us as the sale of the company’s assets would later fail to cover its debts.*

*The MD’s new company would go on to acquire many of our IP and assets, with many of the same individuals who were involved in the closing and administration of the previous company later appearing at the new, much smaller publisher which coincidentally happened to purchase our assets and IP. Not that I would imply that anything untoward took place, but it must have been terribly, terribly difficult to maintain the discipline required to ensure they were getting the best deal possible for publisher and the staff who had lost their jobs, when the new buyer they were facilitating was in effect, themselves.

London is an expensive city and as a young Producer I wasn’t earning huge sums of money. Like most 25 year-olds I was living month-to-month and by the time the three months of unpaid salary were up, I was pretty much at my credit limit and overdraft limit and had to go cap in hand to my father just have enough money to eat and pay the rent. It was not the proudest moment of my adult life.

The only bright spot in this whole period was when a UK games industry hero (a very well-known figure who shall remain nameless to avoid embarrassing him) took it upon himself to organise a “wake” for the staff of the newly defunct company. Out his own pocket he paid for us to all meet up in the pub, reminisce, laugh and drown our sorrows. He never let one of us pay a single drink all afternoon. He didn’t really know any of us, but he heard about what had happened and took it upon himself to make this kind gesture. I still feel touched when I think about it.

 

Go away, we're closed.

Go away, we’re closed.

Life on the Dole

In 2009, the UK games industry was fucked. Large devs were following the tax breaks and relocating to Canada and smaller devs weren’t quite stepping up to F2P, iOS and digital yet. Basically they were all dying out. Worse still, retail was just as fucked (I’ll explain why this was a problem in a second).

The next 7 months were without doubt the most difficult I’ve faced. Throughout this period I spent 8 hours a day, 6 days a week, alone in my room applying for jobs. Throughout this period I must have applied for hundreds of jobs. At first, I started with similar jobs to my previous one in my local area. I got a few expressions of interest and interviews initially, but then the trail would go cold as studios realised they weren’t in a position to hire. In a couple of instances the studios even closed during the interview process! After three or four weeks I was getting desperate, so I widened the net to companies outside of London. It was the same story, no hiring capacity or a change of heart about being able to hire. During these 7 months I verbally accepted three different job offers only to have them all cancelled at the last minute. The worst instance being a company which paid to fly me all the way to China, agreed a deal with me (including salary and pension contribution) and told me to come in to sign the contract next day. When I came in the next day, they had decided they not to fill the role. I spent a very drunk and angry night in Shanghai before catching a flight home.

I was so desperate to be back in work that I was also looking for anything just to keep things going financially in the short-term. As retail chains were imploding left and right in the UK during this time, I wasn’t even being considered for minimum wage retail roles, as they had dozens of newly redundant candidates with relevant experience. I was also turned down for cleaning jobs (“no relevant experience”, really that was the reason given…) and a job in a local cinema (over qualified). I was so poor I couldn’t afford to ride the bus, so once or twice a week I would head to the library to use their free printer and then walk literally dozens of miles across London giving my CV to shops and restaurants, and trying to hand it in person at game development studios.

Most recruiters weren’t much help. Pre-2009 the job market was good and I couldn’t keep them off. Then when I lost my job and was struggling to find new work, I really discovered which of them were actually decent people. One guy who had been all “pally” (and had helped place me in the company which went bust) started refusing to take my calls about 4 weeks after I lost my job, I found out that another falsified interview feedback, but the absolute worst was a recruiter who told me that I probably would never find another job in games as I had my previous employer on my CV. In hindsight, I can’t believe someone would say that to someone who’s out of work and struggling to find a new job. Needless to say he’s no longer a recruiter.*

*There are a handful of really decent people out there though who put up with my calls and tried to help (if you want names of good recruiters then drop me a PM on Twitter @bearvsgames)

When I was unemployed, job seekers allowance and housing benefit combined for a single young person just about covered the rent for a room in a shared apartment in London. This didn’t go as far as covering costs like electricity, food, heating, let alone anything like a phone or Internet (I understand the situation is even worse today). Basically, benefits allowed me to pay my rent, but not feed myself or pay my bills. Moving back in with my family was not an option either due to unfortunate circumstances.

So, the only options I had during this period to cover the shortfall were maxing out two credit cards and two overdrafts and doing what I could to get by. I was also aided by the goodwill of my wonderful friends (who bought me drinks in the pub, took me to Nando’s once in a while, and in one case bought me to tears by showing up at my doorstep with shopping bags full of wonderful food when all I had in the cupboard for the rest of the week was a bag of brown rice and some curry paste). My grandmother would help out with a bit of money here and there when it was possible, and on a handful of occasions I took on some slightly dubious “cash in hand” work. I’m not proud of it, but when you have to choose between not starving or not paying the electricity bill, your morals become a bit more “wobbly”.

When you spend day after day, month after month apply for hundreds of jobs and no-one wants you, not even for the most menial job, it is an utterly soul destroying experience. This coupled with the stress, anger and upheaval of the collapse of my previous employer and relationship, left me in a very bad way. I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety, and I was drinking every day.

One of my best friends wasn’t very well either and I was his accomplice. He would buy my drinks, we’d be out getting drunk and angry almost every night of the week. After a while I began to think that I’d never find my way back into work and that my best days were already behind me at 26. It was illogical, but when everything seems hopeless you start to lose hope. I even began to question what the point of carrying on was. Life appeared to be a fruitless struggle with no reward. Thankfully, it was the beginning of the end of that period.

 

Back In Action

During this period I’d frequently go for long walks to clear my head and because there was little else I could afford to do. One day I walked past a series of interesting looking buildings in London’s financial district with cool-looking people stood in the doorways taking their cigarette breaks. I remember feeling a pang envy at the fact that when they stepped back inside they’d be back at work. When I got home I started looking up all the digital agencies in the area and identifying those which were connected to the games industry, so that I could try and use my industry experience and knowledge to land a role. My plan worked. Within 3 weeks I was back in work and in Christmas 2009 I received the best present I could have ever hoped for, my first pay cheque in almost a year.

Life was getting good again, and things became much more stable and settled. Sure, working at an agency wasn’t necessarily what I’d always had in mind, but I made friends there and the pay was enough for me to start getting my life back in order again.

After 9 months, I was headhunted off the back of the some of the projects the agency had been shipping and was flown out to Germany to eventually head up one of the most profitable browser games in history. Since then, things have gone from strength to strength. I have lectured at GDC, featured in Develop Magazine’s annual “30-under-30” list (though sadly I am no longer eligible!) and established myself in a senior position on a leading online title at a major international publisher. Not bad for someone who was told to give up by a recruiter…

Nowadays when I receive CVs from people who have recently been made redundant, I put them straight at the top of the pile for consideration. My own experiences completely changed my outlook on life and work. When you’re young and things are really working out, you naturally assume that it’s always going to be that way. I even allowed myself to believe that I “deserved” what I had achieved through my own hard work. Of course, I was wrong. You don’t “deserve” anything, to think as much is a form of entitlement. Everything you do “earn” is as much an accident of birth, and luck, as it is “hard work”.  I learnt through my own experiences that this line of thinking is little more than bullshit which politicians espouse as a means to ostracise the needy and not address social ills.

Life (like the labour market), is cyclical. Some cycles are shorter some are longer, some are good and some are bad, but eventually all things must pass. So even if you’re at rock bottom, don’t lose hope because ultimately “this too will pass”.

Jan 142014
 

Outlast is scary. Not just “creepy” like say, an over-enthusiastic uncle or a young Conservative, but more like the kind of full-on mentalist terror you feel when you realise that curry you ate isn’t going to stay in.

Plotwise it’s somewhere between Shutter Island (yes, the Scorcese/Di Caprio movie) and the Silent Hill games. You play an investigative journalist who receives a tip-off about some nefarious activity at a nearby asylum. Like every good horror story protagonists your character makes a series of dick moves, resulting in you being stuck inside.

Outlast is probably the scariest game I’ve ever played, the main reason being that your character is as about as safe as cupcake on the set of Oprah . Being completely defenceless the only thing your terrified character can do when you encounter enemies is hide (in the dark, under beds, in the closet) and enemies will try and hunt you down. Also, most of the game takes place in almost total darkness, so you have to rely on the poor visibility of the nightvision on your camera to try and get by, which ratchets up the tension further. To top it all off, the content and the subject matter is at time really dark. There are scenes and concepts in the game which you won’t forget it anytime soon.

The initial 2 or 3 hours are awesome. What lets it down is that the repetition starts to set in about half way through with the same shocks popping up (they’ll still make you jump), the same enemies stalking you and more and more fetch quests (albeit in different locations). Thankfully the change of pace toward the final third lifts things and the game manages to pull off a tense final sequence with a nice wrap up to the plot.

Though not a long game (4-6 hours), it would probably have benefitted from being a bit shorter and more concise. Nonetheless Outlast is a fun experience while it lasts. Given that there’s almost fuck all else on PS4 right now, you’ve no excuse to not download it when it comes out on February 5th.


Dec 272013
 

“Not One Step Backwards!”

28th July, 1942: Over a year into the Red Army’s brutal struggle against the Nazis, Stalin’s forces stared defeat in the face.

Despite inflicting over 850,000 Nazi casualties, the Red Army’s losses were around ten times that. To make matters worse, they had lost some 1,950,000 km² of territory and with it came the loss of control over 75 million citizens as well as the loss of the USSR’s industrial and agricultural heartlands in the west.

Faced with ill-equipped troops, low morale and the possibility of the loss of key oilfields, Stalin issued the now infamous Order 227.

Officers who allowed their men to retreat were to be arrested and “treated as traitors”, whilst regular “panickers and cowards” were to shot on the spot or sent to atone for their crimes with certain death in penal battalions (these were sent to walk across minefields, probe enemy defences and the like). Blocking detachments were created to fire upon men who lagged behind  or were thought to be in some way avoiding conflict.

While the effectiveness of Order 227 is debated, the outcome of the Battle of Stalingrad is beyond dispute. It stands as a decisive moment in the Battle on the Eastern Front. Because of this and its horrors, Order 227 holds an difficult place in the post-Soviet memory of WWII history.

Crossing the line

Perhaps then, it’s unsurprising that this stirred outrage:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BEO3V0ztUj4

Aside from not being entirely historically accurate, the game’s depiction (and arguably, triviliasation) of Order 227 as well as the use of Russian tropes (gulags, inadequate weapons,  political commissars, etc.) sparked so much outrage in Russia that the game was removed from sale in August.

The indignation is neatly summarised by a quote from a Polish player on Polygon:

Lukasz Markiewicz is Polish (and Poland, he says, has “the fewest reasons to say anything good about the Soviets”). But he charges Relic with distorting the facts about the Eastern Front.

“The campaign is basically one giant, offensive stereotype,” he said. “The events on the Eastern Front were likely the most grim four years in the history of mankind. There is nothing wrong with trying to recreate that. It is wrong however to essentially reduce it to the lazy stereotype of German Übermensch Wehrmacht and SS against the Soviet Horde.”

The question I would ask is: “Is it really necessary for us to tackle real-world atrocities in videogames?”

A Question of Legitimacy

I appreciate the phrasing of the question above is provocative. The truth is that the historical events depicted in Company of Heroes were “terrible” in the most literal sense of the word, regardless of whether they could be justified or not.

This quote from Kotaku underlines the crux of the problem for me: “…this is exactly why Relic chose the Eastern front setting in the first place: because it’s the bloodiest conflict in history, seeing 20 million Russian deaths.

Really? Can we justify making games out of some of the most horrific periods in human history? Surely the setting of such a bloody conflict should make creators more weary, rather than providing some kind of  real-world vindication.

Moreover, do we even need to refer to real events? What’s wrong with fictional scenarios anyway? If you want to have a military-based strategy game is not enough to invent stories which aren’t based upon the death of millions of actual people – or is that we are too concerned with seeking legitimacy as an art form?

I appreciate that some will argue that for games to be a considered a “true” art form, then we have to be prepared to tackle difficult subject matter intelligently and I completely agree with that sentiment. Where I differ is over the use of certain real-world events.

Games cannot be treated in the same way as film or literature for a very simple reason: in games the user is an active participant.

Primarily games are about providing gratification of some sort. Watching a film about the horrors of war is not the same as taking part in a graphic recreation of those horrors designed to dispense some sort of pleasure from the experience.

There are three other major difficulties which face developers who want to tackle difficult events from history:

  • By recreating any event in a commercial product, you are exploiting it for financial gain. How comfortable are you directly profiting from events in which people died within living memory?
  • The second issue is tone and representation. Conflicts are littered with grey areas and indivisible lines of relative rights and wrongs. Though few would defend Stalin, Russians took offense to the way their country and the conflict was represented. If you were developing a game about a real-life conflict would you be able to do justice to the nuances of the differing narratives and national perspectives? I very much doubt I could.Even with modern day events which from a Western perspective can seem clear-cut and obvious, we do ourselves a great disservice if we take a dualistic approach. If I were to digress slightly, I’d say the only way we can resolve complex issues is by developing a full understanding of both sets of narratives and grievances.
  • The final difficulty is that if we are to represent atrocities, then by extension we have to decide which atrocities are OK to represent and which are not. Being able to make this decision implies that we have developed a criteria which allows us to separate atrocities which are OK against those which aren’t.  I’m not sure many developers do this and instead they rely on “instinct”. This would explain why no major publisher has shipped a game about the Battle of the Somme or a stealth game called Escape from Auschwitz, but slaying Nazis is OK.

I’m not sure this is a call which most people would be happy to make if they were to consider it and attempt to define tangible criteria. If you’re not defining criteria which dictates what’s acceptable and what isn’t, then I’d question your capacity to make such a decision in the first place.

“Art, like morality, consists in drawing the line somewhere”

Very few games cross this moral quandary and come out of it looking good.

Spec Ops: The Line very neatly sidestepped this. A game inspired by Hearts of Darkness and Apocalypse Now which poses some very awkward and disturbing questions about war and the simplistic black and white nature of the actions users are asked to take in games (ie: do I nuke the village or save it in Fallout 3). There are points where Spec Ops is very uncomfortable to play because you’re no longer doing the “right thing” and every decision available just seems wrong. The developers had the freedom to tackle these questions because they smartly set the game in the aftermath of a fictional natural disaster.

Spec Ops: The Line

I suspect that the game industry’s need to create games based on historical events stems from an obsession with our external perception and a cloying desire to be taken seriously as an art from. This is ridiculous on a number of levels, especially as games are the only “true” post-modern art form. Games are entirely built upon foundation of pre-existing art forms and technological development. What could be more post-modern than that?

Developers need to worry less about external perception and other art forms, and instead focus on the area where we excel artistically: narrative immersion – the ability to astonish players by placing them in alternate worlds and situations. Games as varied as Elite, WoW, Dishonored, Papers Please, GTA, Gone Home, Outlast, The Stanley Parable and even Super Mario 3D World all deliver completely different experiences but each is an amazing work of art in its own right, which places players in an alternate world full of wonder and depth.

By fixating ourselves on and imitating film and literature, all we achieve is to create empty parodies of the works which inspired us.

Sep 022013
 

The Power of Free

For the longest time, marketeers and behavioural experts have known that one of the most powerful ways to get consumers to part with inordinate sums of cash is to give them something for free.
On the face of it this sounds completely illogical. Why would you spend on something which is free to begin with? Dan Ariely’s excellent introduction to behavioural economics, Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces Which Shape Our Behaviour (a copy of this should be on every F2P designer’s desk) devotes an entire chapter to this topic, titled The Cost of Zero: Why We Pay Too Much When We Pay Nothing. In it he uses various studies to demonstrate that zero cost provokes an emotional reaction in people, which in turn can be manipulated to make consumers do things they wouldn’t normally do.

Examples of this include:

  • People queuing in line for hours for a free product which they wouldn’t normally buy.
  • In studies, customers opted for a “free” service with an inferior offering and greater long-term cost over a superior offering with a nominal cost (free vs.7 dollars). When the price for both increased by one dollar (one dollar vs. 8 dollars), almost three quarters then opted for the more expensive (but better value) option.
  • Customers will buy more than initially intended in exchange for “free” gifts or services. The classic example being Amazon’s “free” shipping service.

Zero is not just another discount, zero is a different place.

“Free” can be more expensive over time, lower quality, not really what we want, less convenient and yet we fall for it time and time again. When dealing with “free”, conventional logic and reason go out the window. This failure to apply common sense thinking when confronted with the word “free” is at the core of why F2P has become so successful, and the reason why games with ludicrous monetisation models continue to to extract inordinate sums of money out of players (often tens of times what a retail game would cost), whereas “fairer” games (where the user is under less pressure to spend) frequently fail. This assumption that players are “logical” and will rationalise and behave in the same way that a developer (who understands the mechanics) might, is in my experience the single most common reason for monetisation models failing in games.

In the first part of this post (here), I stated that gamers are not price sensitive. The argument I made is that when it comes to in-game purchases users are in fact proposition sensitive. As one of the commenters rightly pointed out that users may not be price sensitive with in-game content, but they are in fact extremely price sensitive when it comes to their initial decision to try a new game.

And what better price is there than free?

You know you want it…

I Can’t Stand Losing You

This emotional reaction toward the concept of free goes some way toward explaining the strength of player feeling around F2P. The excitement a user gets out of legally getting something genuinely enjoyable for free is great. Ironically, it’s because they haven’t invested that they become so fiercely protective over it. Any change to the game or its systems (especially around monetisation) is construed as an attempt to “take” the free game away from them.

All you need do is look at the forums for any F2P game after a change, for an indication as to the strength of feeling that users have at the prospect having the “free” thing taken away from them and the fear of it transforming into a “paid” thing. It’s as if the whole basis for enjoyment is the fact it is free, rather than the actual game itself. This despite the fact that the game will almost certainly not be going Pay2Play (I’m yet to hear of a F2P game going Pay2Play), and the users are likely to be people who would normally not think twice about paying for a retail game.

In recent times the gaming press has been shocked at a spate of stories around high-profile game developers receiving abuse and death threats over changes they made to big games. In F2P we’ve been dealing with this for years. Over the past 4 or so years I’ve been subjected to numerous threats, abuse and the like because gamers are scared they will either lose, or see the value diminish of something which cost them nothing to begin with and in all likelihood (as over 90% typically don’t pay) will never invest in.

 

Great Expectations

Perhaps part of the problem is that gamers approach F2P with a certain set of assumptions and expectations, which we as an industry are at times responsible for fostering. The most common ones I’ve encountered being:

“This game is supposed to be free. Therefore, everything should be available to me for free.”
“Paying is cheating.”
“Because this game is free, it’s probably not very good/has quality issues” (Though this is changing thanks to the likes of DoTA, LoL, Planetside, GRO, etc.)

The first two are interesting because they convey a certain naïvety about the nature of business. Users will happily accept free apps with a reduced featureset, but the element of competition in games makes many users feel that placing certain items behind a paywall is unfair. In some instances the higher-level items are not even behind a paywall, they just take time to get to if you don’t want to pay. Even in these cases some users will scream “PAY2WIN!”, which is a bit like complaining your free thing isn’t cheap enough. There are some ludicrous exceptions to this; we once analysed a game and calculated it would take an average user (1-2 hours a day) in excess of 300 years to unlock everything without paying!

On the cheating argument, most users don’t ever consider that even free games usually cost hundreds of thousands (if not millions) to make and maintain. If people don’t pay, the game gets shut down. I’m stating the obvious but it’s not a point which seems to ever cross most players’ minds.

The quality argument was true for a long time. The power of “free” is so strong that throughout the 2000s F2P games didn’t have to be any good to have an engaged community, and developers knew this. With the rise of AAA F2P this is no longer the case. Users are being given more and now demand better as a consequence. The age of unplayable Flash-based shovelware is over.

 

Would I Lie To You Baby?

As an industry, are we being dishonest when it comes to F2P? I would say that this feeling is the real cause as to why users really lose their shit in F2P games.
Some developers pitch games as being “free” but hide the best parts behind a paywall, others make it impossible to compete, whilst others make the user feel powerful and then suddenly take everything away from the user and try and charge them to get the original free offering back. Whether or not these games are still “free” is a question of semantics but some of these practices are disingenuous at best.

What seems to irk players is telling them they’re getting something for free and once they start playing trying to squeeze as much money as possible out of them. I can’t help but shake the feeling that if we spent more time evangelising the qualities of the games we make and less time pushing the “free” element we could shift the debate and get more users onside. Let’s not push games based on what they’re not; there are no free games – games without paying users get shut down. Instead we should focus on selling great games based on what they really are. This is what Riot and Valve have done this well, talking about features and content rather than hammering the “free” message. They primarily make great games which just happen to be F2P, all their communication and presentation is directed at highlighting how awesome their games are rather than focusing their efforts on a message (“this game is free!”) which depending on the F2P game can range all the way from being slightly dubious to an outright lie.

There’s no doubt that “free” is the best way of getting players to try something new. The power of zero cost is indisputable, but with it come strong feelings. If we’re to gain users’ goodwill (and if we’re being totally business-minded)  their willingness to invest, we need to be more transparent about the offerings we do have rather than the initial investment.  If more developers were open and honest about the business model, fewer users would have this reticence to pay for “free” games, as the expectation of it being entirely “free” wouldn’t be there to begin with. By shifting the debate entirely we will end up with users focused on the content we create and more willing to pay for in-game items as a show of support for the game and the developers.

Even if the only goal (for some) is getting to users’ wallets, the quickest and most sustainable way to for all of us to get there is by first giving them something they love and winning over their hearts and minds.

Aug 032013
 

I want to have my cake AND EAT IT!

The recent furore over the “exploitative” practices of certain big-name F2P titles got me thinking. Mainly because I didn’t think they were exploitative at all…

In some instances users (and critics) complained the free stuff wasn’t cheap enough, in other cases it was because it took too long to get free stuff, sometimes it was because it was too expensive to buy everything in the game (seriously, when would you ever manage to grind your way to owning everything in an MMO?!) or my own personal favourite: developers kept presenting them with offers in the hope they’d monetise. The cheek of it! Trying to sell stuff in a game which relies on users buying items!

I was genuinely taken aback at strength of the feeling expressed in some of the reviews, and by the sense of entitlement some gamers seem to possess. It’s almost as if some people believe game development is this fun hobby, where everybody gets magically paid by the benevolent CASHLULZ fairy and you should never, ever monetise.

 

My story

I came to make F2P by accident, much in the same way I suppose most others do.

Lured by the chance to live somewhere new, take on a new challenge (and potentially earn more money than I’d ever earned before), I strolled into the studio on my first day assuming that I was there to kick ass and take names. Making F2P browser games would be easy given that I’d spent the past few years making “real games”. You know, like the ones proper gamers play on consoles.  Surely making that F2P “rubbish” was easy, right?

Wrong.

I was in for a very rude awakening.

Just your average F2P Producer having a typical day at work.

A brief history of F2P

F2P has its roots in South Korean Internet cafés. Back in the 90s, developers found that café owners refused to buy multiple copies of the same game, instead installing multiple copies off one disc. This made developers begin to consider how to get paid for their work despite café owners buying a single copy for potentially thousands of users. Rather than adopt the same heavy-handed, ass-backward tactics employed so successfully by the film and music industries, game developers embraced the opportunity offered by the Internet cafés and forged a symbiotic relationship with them. Today, revenue sharing and promo deals between developers and chains of Internet cafés are commonplace throughout Asia.

F2P has gone on to become the dominant business model throughout Asia (in no small part due to the rampant piracy in China and throughout South East Asia – making retail games for the domestic market in this part of the world is basically a waste of money). It also grew in prominence in Europe and the Americas throughout the 2000s to the point where its influence is pretty much inescapable, regardless of your platform of choice.

F2P offers a “golden ticket” to developers. Safe from the clutches of piracy they can make a game with a team a fraction of the size of what would be required for a AAA current-gen game, which attracts millions of downloads and monetises every paying user multiple times what they would normally get per user, on an on-going basis for several years. Just to reiterate, that’s fewer people working on a game, more people playing and more money per paying user.

Some games have been known to make in excess of €10,000,000 a month. Anyone in the industry who thinks F2P is a “fad” which will soon pass, is basically an idiot.

 

How the sausage is made

At risk of stating the obvious, F2P relies on making the user feel the urge (or need) to part with real money in exchange for virtual currency or in-game items.

Most users don’t just open their wallets out of sheer goodwill if they happen to like a game. Developers have to offer users something which is worth paying for, and if users won’t pay, then you may as well start thinking about packing up and flipping burgers. This is when things start to get a little murky…

The easiest way to get users to part with their hard-earned cash (especially in a PvP game) is to sell them an advantage over non-payers. Users want to be the best, and if paying a few Euros for a new weapon or a boost will give them an edge, then a percentage of players will pay (what’s more, once they have paid once they’re far more likely to stick with the game and keep investing over time…) This is where the whole spectre of “Pay 2 Win” raises its ugly head and reviewers (and hardcore gamers) start frothing at the mouth.

I personally see “fairness” as a spectrum, rather than a binary value (the belief that a game is either fair or its not). At one end of the spectrum, you have games like LoL which does sell power, albeit in a way which isn’t necessarily game-breaking. These games make non-paying users feel like they have a chance to be competitive, but if you get two users of equivalent skill and one is using paid gear and the other free gear, the pay user will almost always win. How “fair” then is this?

Whilst at the other end of the scale you have games which will allow you to outspend your opponents, to the point where defeat is pretty much impossible against non-paying users.

I liken good F2P monetisation to owing a football pitch. Anyone who wants to can come and play and enjoy themselves, but they’ll be playing with the most basic gear. If you want a good pair of boots then that’ll cost you. Sure it’ll give you an edge over other players, but if you suck at football, then you’ll still suck. The boots won’t make you a superstar.

Likewise, if you want to train to get better over time you can. You can even purchase a boost which means you’ll get just as good in half the time! You’ve not bought an advantage at this point (you still have to invest your time and train), but you have decided that a few hours of your time is more precious than a few Euros. The whole “Pay to Win” argument boils down to this as far as I’m concerned: If the user can buy the right gear to be competitive by investing time into the game then it isn’t “Pay to Win”. It’s a cost/benefit analysis the user makes – which is worth more to me: time or money?

Truth is that having an insider’s knowledge of “how the sausage is made” has made me weary. The perspective I gained working in different places over the past few years and analysing dozens of competing products means I can spot “classic” F2P tricks (reward removal, mad difficulty spikes, pay walls, etc.) a mile off. I only play a couple of F2P games in my free time now (unless I’m doing research). As anyone who’s ever worked for a butcher will tell you, knowing “how the sausage” is made can mean you don’t necessarily want to eat it.

 

The new wave of F2P

The numbers posted by F2P games over the past few years have not gone unnoticed. Keen to be part of this exciting cash tsunami, traditional AAA publishers and developers have mobilised their forces to try and get in on the act. It’s only a matter of time until large franchises which don’t have a F2P spin-off will become the exception. EA wedged the door open to console gamers with the excellent FIFA: Ultimate Team, Team Fortress 2 going F2P showed just how smart Valve are, and some great titles have followed since such as Tribes, Planetside 2 and of course, Ghost Recon: Online.

Unfortunately, many of this influx of developers seem to be coming to the party with the same outlook I had when I started off in F2P years ago. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that implosions and botched/canned F2P games seem to be commonplace across all platforms at the moment.

 

Arrogance and the price of failure

The two most common mistakes you see from traditional AAA devs who move in to F2P are a belief that they just need make an awesome game (and users will just basically donate their money through sheer goodwill and engagement) and that they’re still “game developers”.

The first point is unfortunately not true. Most people don’t like handing over money and most users would pirate your game if they could, particularly on PC where the piracy rate for some franchises has been reported to exceed 80-90%. Users need an incentive to monetise, so if you focus on making an awesome game and treat monetisation as an afterthought, then the chances are the critics and players will love you, but the financial director and studio bosses won’t. The problem is you can’t make or sustain a game without those folks…

As to the second point, you’re no longer in fire and forget mode. The game will probably go on for the next 5+ years (if you do a half decent job) and your job will be one of providing a 24/7 service and content which can engage players over months and years. That’s a whole new set of challenges.

For Producers and Studios coming to F2P for the first time, here are some of the fun realisations I’ve come to over the past few years.

  • Perhaps the most interesting thing I’ve come to realise over the past few years is that users are not price sensitive. I just want you to dwell on that for a second… Users are not put off by a price which in some instances will exceed the cost of a regular retail game. Most users are in fact, proposition sensitive. If the perceived value of an offering is strong enough then they will gladly hand over multiple times the amount it would cost to buy a “full game” at retail. In fact, it’s not unheard of for users to spend upwards of four figures to get rare and powerful items. Though whether you feel morally comfortable charging your users that much for in-game loot is another matter altogether…
  •  As mentioned above, online F2P games are not just games in the traditional sense, they’re a service. That’s a live service where every hour of uptime is worth thousands (and in some cases – tens of thousands) of Euros. “Owning” such a service can be 24/7 nightmare that requires you to forget previous notions of “work-life balance”.
  • The worst thing you can do when you’re under revenue pressure is check the in-game revenue multiple times a day. However, others will do this and ask explanations for random revenue fluctuations up to multiple times a day.
  • When staff are let go for poor product performance (not enough growth or revenue), it’s normally the culmination of several years’ worth of bad decisions, with the bulk of the decisions having been taken by people who have since moved on or are too senior to fire.
  • Accurate KPI analysis (not reporting, there’s a great deal of that around…) is difficult and if you’re working with an analyst who doesn’t know your game intimately it can lead to damaging results. In some instances this can even cause the team to take a course of action to correct a flaw that doesn’t even exist! In one example, an analyst made a very strong (and inaccurate) statement about a system and its financial impact, postulating a theory of why almost all users bought a certain item. This was because the analyst didn’t play the game and wasn’t aware of the in-game rewards – the item was a gift all users got. Make sure you have an analyst who doesn’t find the game “too hard” to ever find the time to play or understand.
  • Depending on your audience, gameplay can be of less importance to your users than the fact the game is free and features a chat window. I know this may sound cynical, but some very successful browser games are little more than an online chat with a shop. You have to be honest with yourself if this is the case, and give your customers features they want rather than wasting time building complex systems that they won’t use.
  • As a Producer/Product Manager, you will regularly be asked to deliver additional short-term gains “without doing anything which will impact next month’s revenue or future growth”. Unfortunately, these are usually at odds with each other. If you had a way of pulling an extra 500,000 Euros out of your ass you’d have probably used it.

Mar 312013
 

So I’ve been gone a while. Life kinda got in the way a bit and I wrote a few pieces which were never uploaded because I didn’t feel that they “said” enough. Fuck that. The style of this blog is going to change a bit. Fewer lengthy monologues at irregular intervals and more short pieces of thought and commentary (with the odd dick joke thrown in).

 

S.

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.

Oct 282012
 

Rab the Brave

Recently I was delighted to see that Eurogamer had taken Robert Florence on as a weekly guest writer for a column called Lost Humanity. Down the years, Rob Florence has been to videogames what Charlie Brooker is to TV. (in)Famous for a number of things, he’ll always be the man who said “Bummed in the gob” live on the BBC, bought us the excellent (and sadly missed) Consolevania, as well as working with BBC Scotland a few years later on another irreverent take on games, Videogaiden.  Cutting, insightful and consistently funny. Like Brooker, he’s a man who’ll call bullshit when he sees it and will make you laugh/squirm while he’s at it.

I was pretty surprised when I saw he was writing for Eurogamer. Down the years, Robert has also made a habit of sticking the knife into crappy or pretentious journalism. A few years ago Kieron Gillen (long-time Edge and Eurogamer reviewer) wrote a piece (he referred to it as a “manifesto”, but we’ll gloss over that one) called The New Games Journalism, which spoke about how games journalism had to transcend the traditional confines and conventions of traditional print journalism and strayed into the “personal” and should function in the broader cultural and artistic context. It was too big a target to miss. Florence and Consolevania dug up the still-born corpse of NGJ and proceeded to beat it mercilessly for most of the time that Consolevania ran. During Videogaiden’s short run, they even managed to find the time to give games journalism another whack.  I would have assumed that Robert had upset enough of the mainstream games media clique to ensure that he wouldn’t exactly be welcomed with open arms by a mass market gaming website.

 

 Storming the Castle

This week’s column was arguably the best one he’d ever written for Eurogamer. In it, he basically called out a subset of mainstream games journalists for the uncomfortable circle-jerk they indulge in with PR and Marketing teams. He even went as far as citing examples of journalists using their Twitter feeds to promote a sponsored event in exchange for the chance to win a PS3 (seriously, what kind of a games journalist doesn’t own a PS3 already?) One journalist even objected to being accused of advertising after sharing a sponsored hashtag with thousands of followers, in exchange for having a chance to win the PS3. If sharing a sponsored keyword with thousands of your followers in the hope that they’ll look into what it is isn’t advertising, then I’m Ron Jeremy.

Not me.

When I originally read the article, I was gobsmacked and elated. Eurogamer had shown the world what a huge pair of balls it had by publishing an article that spoke openly about such an uncomfortable topic and called out by name some of those who were guilty.

Alas, it was too good to be true. Shortly after, Florence confirmed via Twitter that he had parted ways with Eurogamer and an edited version of the article reappeared on the website. If you’d like to see the “original” (the edited sections are in bold) you can find it here.

 

The Old Boys’ Club

I must say, I’m not entirely shocked by this. When it went up, it was too good to be true. I don’t blame Eurogamer for what happened. After all, it’s a large commercial entity with backers and advertisers it has to keep happy, from the moment I saw the article the outcome had a faint feeling of inevitability about it.

I’ve been in and around the games industry for nearly a decade now and I’ve seen first-hand how these relationships work. There are  journalists/reviewers out there who really call it like it is and stand for something, but I’ve been around for too long and been to way too many industry events to know this is not the case across the board. Journos who should be challenging PR and Marketing at every turn, have very cosy relationships with the people they should be holding to account. Favours are exchanged for freebies, advances copies, invites, etc. and scores altered. This is why most hardcore gamers don’t really buy into the breathless excitement of some of the major gaming websites.

We’ve all gone out and bought games with 90+ review scores in the past only to find they’re steaming unplayable turds. The funniest example of this I seem to remember is the controversy which kicked up after all the gushing reviews went out for Driv3r prior to its release, only for the final game to be an unplayable mess.

A few years back I worked for a small scale publisher which got a poor review on one of the major gaming networks. In all fairness, the game was crap (there’s a whole post coming sometime about how crap games get made) and the review was pretty fair, except for a line about the game being “less offensive than paedophilia” (there’s your clue that it wasn’t an American site), which I thought was uninspired but wasn’t particularly offended by. Cue the PR guy going into a blind rage and picking the phone up… Within the hour the offending passage had been removed and a “compensation” agreed. All this for a tiny publisher with very little financial or product weight behind it. It really opened my eyes to how much publishers dictate the content and editorial policy of sites.

Ultimately, I find the Robert Florence/Eurogamer falling out disturbing for two reasons:

  • I want journalists to feel free to call things as they see them.
  • I want my games to be assessed on their respective merits and qualities, not in direct relation to my publisher’s marketing budget vs. other publishers marketing budgets.

It’s no wonder that people are increasingly moving away from mainstream games print and online media; there’s a reason why poorly-written fan efforts are so much closer to the pulse of the community: “Honesty and passion doesn’t wear a suit.”