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.”

 

Sep 242012
 

I’ve had a very “complicated” relationship with her for most of my life; when we first met it was love at first sight. She was everything I’d been looking for, she came along right at the end of a very dark period and saved me. She was everything I could have ever asked for:  intelligent, witty, sexy and always full of cheeky surprises.

The start of the relationship was a relationship like none other. We’d spend hour upon hour in each other’s company without a care in the world. I was so happy in her company I didn’t even look at anyone else.

Time passed and slowed until one day I realised things had changed. Slowly but surely they’d changed. Her embraces had suddenly become cooler, her eyes took on a faraway look and her passion became less frequent. Eventually I realised it wasn’t me she longed after. There was someone else. Someone younger and who wasn’t tied to her past.

There’s barely a day which passes where I don’t find myself thinking about her and the magic days when we first met. They represent one of the fleeting periods in my life where every day felt magical. Deep down I’m resigned to the fact that you can only experience those feelings once in your life. It’s a defence mechanism which you develop after going through deep pain: once you’ve been stabbed in the neck, you make damn sure the inmate’s using crayons in the next art class.

Now she’s started to creep back into my life. Part of me says I’m over it and to move on and stay cool – just on friendly terms, see her once in a while round mutual friends houses and social occasions. Another part of me says to just ignore her altogether, there’s nothing there but pain. There’s one last part of me though, the part that wants to take her back and make another go of it. Maybe it can work again. Perhaps, enough time has elapsed that we’ve both learnt the error of our ways…

Her attempt at reinvention at few years back flattered to deceive and before long she fell back into her old ways, but now this time it looks like it’s for real. She might have even recaptured her magic; even though she’s perhaps not as glamorous as other girls, she has this quality that enraptures and delights.

Having seen Bayonetta 2 and Rayman  Legends, I’m hopeful. Her and I, we might just be back on. There might just be enough hope in my heart to give her another chance. Let’s see if the most awkward and long-running relationship of my life can manage another go.

 

 

 

 

Sep 112012
 

About 2 years ago I took a look at my games collection and tallied up all the games on my shelf which were unplayed. Not unfinished, but had actually never been played before.  When you’re a “hardcore” gamer who buys lots of cool-looking games off the back of reviews on a semi-regular basis (or hunts down rare titles on eBay) this can happen quite easily. What happens tends to look something like the following:

You buy one cool game, but you don’t start playing it because you’re very busy or in the middle of completing another game or whatever. When you finally get the time, something else has come along and the game sits unplayed on your shelf indefinitely. (Obviously this isn’t exclusive to games, I also find myself doing this with music, films and books).

In total there were about 20 odd unplayed games on my shelf, some of which dated back to the previous console generation. After tallying up a quick calculation of what these games were worth (especially the collectors pieces), I was horrified at the amount of money I’d wasted. I then vowed to not buy another game until I had played through the games in my unplayed pile, the idea being to finish them all.

So, over the past two years I’ve not bought new titles with two exceptions: the annual FIFA update (gotta keep the skills up if I’m going to keep pnwing my workmates) and the very occasional title in the Steam sale (I think it’s only been 3 in the 2 years) or App Store with a max value of $4.99 which I would start playing immediately.

I’ve now come to the end of the pile. I saved a load of money and it’s been absolutely awesome.

Highlights included:

Awesome quirky cult classics which I missed first time round: I’m looking at you God Hand (now available on PSN!) and Chibi Robo (man, I loved that game).

Laughing my ass off and having a great time with friends at the crappy voice acting and stupid action of EDF.

The sheer insanity of Bayonetta on “Non-Stop Climax”, Ikaruga and Vanquish.

The atmosphere and settings of Dead Space, Limbo,  Beyond Good and Evil and Okami (albeit for totally different reasons).

… and basically everything about Super Meat Boy.

Looking at the state of the market right now, I don’t really feel that I missed on much. I rant a lot about the lack of creativity and originality in most current AAA titles, but in the past 2-3 years I could practically count the number of games which go against this on one hand.

So next time you want something new exciting and interesting, why don’t you start by looking on your games shelf and give a little love to an oldie.

Sep 092012
 

I’ve been very quiet the past couple of months or so as some of you (hopefully) may have noticed. Truth be told, I’ve been working harder than a fat man’s arteries. The project I’ve been working on entered “crunch” after numerous years in development, and my life descended into a series of 80+ hour weeks in a heavily air-conditioned building, fuelled with crappy coffee, bad takeaway food and a permanent state of semi-exhaustion.

As a Producer, “crunch” is that period where the Gods lay down a seemingly impossible challenge which requires you to don you tin hat, dive into the trenches, ignore all work-time related laws, crush the artistic aspirations of your nearest and dearest, and push yourself and those around you as hard as possible without actually breaking anyone (though this does happen from time-to-time). All in the name of driving a burning train wreck across the line in time for your release date. It’s essentially what separates the “shippers” from the people who are just there for the 9 to 5.

Choo Choo!

Choo Choo!

In a sick, perverse kind of way I’m one of those who enjoys crunch periods (for the first 6 or so weeks anyhow). There’s something intoxicating about facing the seemingly impossible as a collective and all pushing in one direction without any distractions. You learn an awful lot about yourself and your colleagues when you’re working 20 hour days…

Still, it isn’t healthy and as for the industry as a whole it is a problem. You can’t reasonably expect people (particularly those with kids and  responsibilities) to work 80+ hour weeks. Even for those without a family life, the impact on your personal life can be pretty horrific. It’s a young person’s game; having been through a number of crunch periods I can’t see myself putting those kind of hours in when I’m well into my 40s.

So what can we do about it? Over the years I’ve heard people say things like “Crunch can be completely avoided” or “you shouldn’t need to crunch”. When talking about AAA projects, this is at best disingenuous and the speaker is being “creative” with their definition of crunch, at worst it’s a delusion, or the speaker is trying to convince you to spend thousands sending staff on a project management course.

On “AAA” projects some crunch is almost always inevitable for any of the following reasons:

  • What you’re doing has usually never been done before – Even if it’s a sequel, there will usually be components which to a lesser or greater extent are new, either to the team or industry as whole. It’s next to impossible to accurately estimate how it long it’ll take to do something which you’ve never done before. Anyone who can accurately tell me how long it’ll take them to perform an unknown task a year down the line should probably quit the games industry and go on tour with Uri Geller.
  •  High-end software development is by its very nature chaotic and unpredictable – You can have the best Technical Director in the world on your project, but they still won’t know where all the difficulties are going to be in a year’s time. This is especially true on AAA games as they will typically try and push the hardware as much as possible, often with “unintended consequences”.
  • Games get “signed off” for development before a final design is available (waiting for a final design is a waste of time as the requirements will change based on development and play testing). If you don’t know what it is you’re building, how the hell can you plan it?
  • Economic pressure:

Dev: “We need 10 million and 2 years to develop the game!”

Publisher: “We’ll give you a packet of skittles, £500, a copy of Razzle, two tickets to Cats and you’ve got a year”

Dev: “OK.”

 Often deals are signed which are unrealistic from the outset. This can be because the dev (and/or publisher) is short of money, unrealistic expectations or the worst some cases, macho posturing on behalf of someone at the developer.

  •  Commercial Pressure:

Publisher: “HOLY CRAP! Game X has underperformed by 100 million and we need to hit our quarterly targets! GO TELL THE DEV THAT GAME Y HAS TO BE IN 6 MONTHS EARLIER THAN PLANNED!”

 You get the picture…

If a game with any kind of technical or creative ambition is being built and there’s money involved, then some “crunch” is almost always inevitable. By extension, the only developers who can get away without “crunching” are those with endless pots of cash (I don’t know any of these), developers working with very basic designs/tech, those who are work on reskins of existing games, or those who only develop basic expansions and extensions to a well-established games.

If you want to make awesome games, you’ll probably have to crunch. Whether or not you have the appetite for it is another matter. As far as I’m concerned, it was all worth it. We were on-time, the game is online and available for all of you to play.

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.

May 252012
 

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

It’s one of the best games you’ve (probably) never heard of.
Hungry Giraffe first came appeared as a PSP Mini earlier this year. Unfortunately for PSP Minis, they’ve got the word “PSP” in the title, so most people instinctively treat them with them kind of aversion usually reserved for people who shout about God in the street (or John Terry).
You need not. Most don’t suck and if you own a PS3 you can download them and play them on a big telly – I didn’t know that until I downloaded OMG-Z and Hungry Giraffe a few weeks back. Birthed straight from the guts of the crew at Laughing Jackal, Hungry Giraffe comes across somewhere between Snake (no, not the crappy N-Gage nonsense) and Fruit Ninja. Needless to say as far as addiction goes it’s right up there with crack cocaine and Nutella.

I was recently asked to test drive the upcoming F2P iOS version. That’s right, iOS. Now you can play it on your iPhone whilst ignoring colleagues in meetings or “supervising” children.
All the original elements are still there, plus they’ve integrated Open Feint scoreboards. So you can engage in willy-waving with your friends and see who can post the highest score.
The level design is top banana. It’s as compulsive as ever, has bundles of charm and is a whole heap of fun. I would even go as far as saying it stands up to the likes of Temple Run in the iOS score-chasing stakes. Plus, how many games have you played which let you feed chilies and drugs to a giraffe? Take a moment to consider this – FEEDING DRUGS TO A GIRAFFE. Try tell me you’ve never wanted to do that… If playing as a giraffe with a recreational drug habit doesn’t warrant a download, then I don’t know what does.

Hungry Giraffe should hit the App Store soon and it’s free.