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.


May 192012
 

*If you’re one of the few people who haven’t played Portal then this entry contains spoilers. Sorry.

 Like Bill Hick’s rant about your children not being “special”, the times I’ve shared my views on Portal have stunned, outraged and provoked scenes of outright incredulity. It’s as if someone were to stroll up to a holy cow, lovingly place a garland of flowers around its neck and then punch it straight in its fat stupid cow face. Twice.

 Let’s be clear, Portal was a triumph by any measure. Within its short playtime it delivered excellent storytelling, level design, atmosphere and charm. It ripped up the rulebook (for a bit), defied preconceptions, achieved commercial success and cemented its place as a critical and popular darling. Valve triumphed (again) with their pioneering spirit, their daring and you loved them for it.

Yet, after being wowed by the initial experience (the first hour or two), I came away feeling empty and disappointed. It was like going to a Michelin star restaurant, having the most amazing starter and then finding out that all the subsequent dishes on the set menu are going to made out of variants of dog poo and bits of sick. Surely I can’t be the only one who felt this way? (Not the dog poo, the disappointment.)

Portal’s problem wasn’t that it was too daring and unorthodox; the problem was that Portal wasn’t daring enough. It felt as Portal gave into expectation and tradition at the points where it mattered the most.

 

The Beginning

Portal plays with our expectations from the outset. We’re playing a first person game, yet our avatar is not a burly marine or a begrudging hero suddenly imbued with special powers, rather a female test subject in an anonymous-looking lab. You don’t have a weapon you can use either; the player is relegated to being little more than a lab rat at the mercy of a sadistic inquisitor.

Yet despite this opening setting (as all designers know, players hate to feel small and helpless), the opening few hours of Portal are a lot of fun. The clever level and puzzle designs delighted and amazed in equal measure. On top of this the writing was charming and witty to the point where people felt a sense compassion and regret at being forced to destroy an inanimate metal cube*. Seriously, when was the last time you felt empathy for a hunk of metal, you heartless bastards?

* The way the Companion Cube had a “personality” and provoked a sense of emotional attachment to the player is a discussion worthy of its own post.

 

And then slowly it all started to slip…

 

The enemy

In hindsight, I should have known when the turrets appeared.

Throughout the opening part of the game, the only contact the user has with anyone else is through hearing the disembodied voice of GLaDOS taunting you about your intelligence and (lack of) ability.

A little while in as things get more difficult and more deadly, cute tripod-mounted gun turrets start to make scattered appearances throughout. Although these mark a shift toward more traditional gameplay mechanics, they still managed to fit neatly into Portal‘s world. With their slightly animal-inspired design and their cute snippets of dialogue, they felt a world away from the traditional macho death waves of enemies I’d been mowing down for the previous 20 or so years, so I dismissed them as a nod toward convention without worrying too much about it.

I was wrong. Very, very wrong.

Gradually over the course of the second half of the game, things become a lot less about careful exploration, smart puzzle solving and interesting and inventive twists and turns. Instead it’s more about surviving ever greater numbers of turrets either by avoiding them or USING YOUR PORTAL GUN TO KILL THEM IN NOT VERY CLEVER WAYS.

At this point my enthusiasm was waning. It was as if the beautiful girl I’d fallen for from across the room was looking suspiciously masculine the closer I got. There was a brief moment where my morale (excitement) rose as I escaped GLaDOS’ clutches and started investigating forgotten areas of the complex. Out of her reach you had a few fleeting moments to indulge in the setting and backstory and really get a feeling for the game and the world GLaDOS. Then everything came crashing down in the worst possible way.

 

GLaDOS

To recap, so far I’d navigated my way through the game vulnerable and almost unable to defend myself. Avoiding enemies as much as possible, solving mind-bending puzzles and moving through environments featuring level design that at times can only be described as sublime. Yes, it started to grate as things became more “combat-focused”, but by no means was the experience remotely like an FPS.

I’d escaped the test area and was about to leave the lab and leap into the loving arms of freedom when…

A wild boss battle appeared! Really?! REALLY?

Really?

An unseen enemy is always far scarier than one you come face-to-face with. At this point all the suspense and magic has gone. All the good work setting the mood and making the user feel helpless yet somehow triumphant despite the odds is undone.

Way to go!

So blah, blah, blah… Test subject suddenly becomes some sort of portal gun wielding superhero, slays an evil hydra-headed computer (voiced by Mike Patton), escapes and shit blows up. Cue credits and nerd anthem.

 

Fallout

I’ve discussed my feelings on Portal with friends of mine and the response I usually get goes something like this, “Well of course they ended it with a boss battle, that’s how games end. Innit?”

That’s a valid reason for doing something, because everyone else does? More worryingly (to me anyway), is that these are usually people who work in the industry. Why are we happy to accept 30+ year-old conventions rather than try something new?

Never mind that Portal broke the rules throughout the rest of the game, it’s almost as if the creators felt they had to deliver the means of closure that everybody expected. There’s no shortage of great ideas throughout, and I’ve no doubt they could have devised something infinitely more enjoyable than (let’s be completely honest about this) a very average boss battle. I’m not against boss battles per-se; I’m against the idea that a game where you overcome enemies must have one.

 

If you love Portal so much, why don’t you just go and marry it?”

Truth be told, Portal is a good game. In fact, it’s a very good game. However, it’s not a great game.

I believe there are three reasons why Portal is so fondly remembered by gamers:

- It’s charming (see Psychonauts)

- Some of the content lent itself to funny memes/merch, which in turn made it more fondly remembered

- It did some things which were original and different

The status that Portal holds in the minds of many gamers says more about the general dearth of creativity, new ideas and charm in games today than the greatness of the game itself. This shouldn’t be the case, consumers should expect intelligent, innovative and witty games, and we as an industry should be delivering them.*

Some will argue that the indies are doing this already. The problem with this line of thinking is that Minecraft aside, I can’t remember the last time an indie had a genuine mass market hit outside of the casual/mobile space.

In the past 10 or so years we have sacrificed creativity and inventiveness on the altar of technological greatness.

You can’t reasonably expect a team of 200+ developers on a game to do anything other than the bleeding obvious. The financial cost of failure for these teams is so great that anyone who even dares to suggest something bold is often looked upon like some kind of deranged lunatic.

I would like to see the industry move toward a return to smaller teams with a focus on creativity and fun over technological excellence. This has already started to happen in the download space (take From Dust for example), let’s just hope this trend can spread into mass market retail products.

The sad fact is that the reason Portal is considered great is because there have been so few recent alternatives.