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Product or Process: an Indie Game Question

I haven’t been thinking about games much. Finals are rapidly approaching and so is Christmas. Though I’m not technically in classes, everything is coming to a head and I haven’t had a free moment to do some serious processing of my gaming experiences for this week. But I had had an issue a couple of weeks back that I wanted to blog about but couldn’t, so I figure there’s no time like the present to try and get my ideas out there (and probably crash and burn in the process).

There are a lot of issues with the indie game community, which I have tried to be involved in supporting and encouraging through my blog posts, my money and in a (very) small part my musical/programming ability. I feel like it’s a healthy community with a lot of people in it that doesn’t get nearly enough recognition from the mainstream media. (Interesting tidbit! NPR just did an article on “The Stanley Parable” that was an actual serious review of it in an artistic sense. Huge step forward! Read it here. As it turns out, they have articles about indie games every Tuesday? Who knew?)

I find it’s also a lot more of an artistic medium (the indie game community, I mean) than the triple-A games because there’s not so much commercial pressure. I’ve talked about that before, too.

But here’s the thing. It’s a COMMUNITY. There is no triple-A game community. There are businesses and that’s about all we can say for it. Sure there are developers and programmers and musicians and artists and writers and etc etc etc who are all well-known in their own communities of developers and programmers and (you get the picture)… but no crowdsourcing, no community involvement, no back-and-forth between the people playing your game and the people developing it. Massive outcry over Mass Effect 3’s ending got them to change part of it, and some other large protests (please note, PROTESTS) against things done in triple-A games have sparked change. But there’s no suggestion box at Blizzard’s or EA’s HQ.

There’s a lot to be said for that, though! Producing a PRODUCT is what video gaming is all about. You want something that a player can immerse themselves in and enjoy. They don’t worry about how it was made, they don’t question whether or not it could have been made better. Did you do your beta testing? Did you work out the bugs? Are you suuuuuuure?!?! (I’m looking at you, Skyrim.) Then we’re good. Ship it out, sell the preorders, make the DLC, reap that cash cow for all it’s worth. We’re done here. That’s how the industry works. You don’t regularly update something you sell people on a Blu-Ray disc. You can’t.

Granted, some game companies try to. It’s not always pleasant.

But an INDIE game, oh! The possibilities are endless! Every time you play it, there’s a new update! New updates every Tuesday? Twice a week, even? Say you’re playing at 8pm, and the update comes out. After you download it, at 8:30, you could be playing a different game! One that’s better, has more features, has less bugs, and more exploding cool stuff! (That falls under the realm of “features” but bears special mention. I mean, c’mon, EXPLODING STUFF, HELLO.)

Indie games have the ability to get you up close and personal with the development process. Let’s go into WHY that is!

1. The Kickstarter

Kickstarter/IndieGogo/Steam Greenlight have helped indie games in development get community support (and build their fanbase) since their inception (ooh, Inception!). They say, “Look at the potential of this idea! Help me make it a reality!” And the community overwhelmingly responds…

Fry <3

Fry ❤

What else? They provide “stretch goals.” This is also brilliant because even at the very outset of a game’s existence you’re involving the community in deciding what is in the game. Whoa. (This theme comes back, remember it.)

2. The Wiki

Great indie games have great wikis. How do these wikis get built? The community! Now, having said that, this is definitely a two-way street. The developers have to put their time into giving people the framework they need to edit and expand a wiki, and they need to be diligent about its upkeep… but the rewards are enormous! All you have to do is create and maintain a webpage (which I’m certain every gamedev has to do twice or three times for each blog/merchant site/github/etc. they own), and now your community is talking, discovering, playing your game, and making things happen. If they run across an item or dungeon that they don’t know about, it’s only a matter of time before they start figuring out how to explain it or use it in wiki-able terms. People talk about your game? People can get an inside look into your game before buying it? People can see how it develops? Good news, everyone!

3. The Forums

It seems ridiculous that a triple-A game would be without forums, and for the most part, you’re right. There are, of course, discussion forums for many, if not all triple-A games, but please, I beg of you, go on them and lurk for a bit. You’ll notice that it’s a greasy mixture of bragging, complaining and outright indecency and it quite frankly scares me. 

But, go on the forums for a game like MineCraft or Gnomoria, or Proteus or Bastion or Desktop Dungeons or or or or… and you’ll see something different. You’ll see (most of the time) a nicely organized and well-run site that puts updates up and posts patchnotes, encourages discussion AND FEEDBACK  about their game. WHOA WHOA WHOA. Stop the presses! Feedback? That makes a difference? My god! You mean that involvement in the process of the game’s development could… somehow… influence the game’s development in a positive manner? Holy cow!

Sorry about the sarcasm. But many triple-A games ignore their communities, and they sort of HAVE to. In a commercial business model, there is no open beta. There is no free updating. There might be some bug fixes, but if there’s going to be extra content, you’re going to be paying for it and it was probably already in the works when the game came out. The gradual adding and changing of features is something that’s only possible with an indie game community that’s involved and active in the development process. They don’t need to know how to code, but they do need to be able to say, “This was unbelievably frustrating. I tore out chunks of my hair.” or “Man, I wish this could be faster.” or “Wouldn’t it be cool if there were horses? I like horses.”

That’s community right there.

4. The Let’s Play

Everyone knows that MineCraft started the Let’s Play boom (sort of). People made living wages by being entertaining commentators of their exploration through the game’s mechanics. They showed curious users how to do everything from starting the game to building a house to farming to finishing the regular content of the game. Many just show people playing, screwing up, dying, figuring out their mistakes and growing from their experiences (okay, maybe not that last one). If there’s an indie game, there’s an LP of it.

I don’t know if I have to go too deep into why this is great! Why do you test-drive cars? And why DON’T you test-drive games? An LP is a real-life look into how a game works, how people play it, as well as figuring out a lot of the mechanics and playstyles of the game. It’s a fantastic and free way to get people interested in your game. It’s free advertising that comes from the ground up.

A lot of triple-A games have significant Let’s Plays behind them as well, especially in-depth, open-world games like Skyrim, but if you watch enough of these, you’ll notice a difference in the flavor of commentary and playing styles. In triple-A games, it’s not an adventure of discovery, because even in the newest, most innovative games, you’re still expecting the quests, blacksmithing, vendor trash and conversation options of the next Elder Scrolls game, or the “boogey-boogey-boo” scares of a game like Dead Space. When a Let’s Player plays a game like Proteus, Journey, or even the first forays into the world of MineCraft, often the player (and the audience) has no experience and, as a result, few expectations. You get this excited sense of discovery with indie LPs, instead of the… less discovery-oriented excitement of “WOOH LET’S KILL ZOMBIES GUNS GUNS GUNS FIRE YEAH!!!”

Also worth mentioning: dedicated Let’s Play creators are an amazing asset to gamedevs who want people to experience firsthand the changes made during beta. Instead of reading patchnotes, your prospective clientelle can watch the new features and cool stuff unfold before their eyes with snarky British commentary.

5. The API

“What’s an API, Another Gamer?!? Is that a kind of beer?” No.

It’s the Application Programming Interface, which is a complicated term (like everything in CS…) that explains a simple concept: it’s how the parts of your program work together, and how they receive and deal with extra parts. The modding API of games is a modders ability to reach inside the code, change things, add things, and extend the functionality of an already complete game.

Whew. A lot to take in there.

Why do you care? Because the mod API for games like MineCraft turned it from something of a curiosity to a fantastic, enormously massive game of never-before-or-since-seen proportions. Indie games have a penchant for letting their users fiddle with the guts of the game, and with MineCraft especially it has produced results that never fail to boggle my mind. Computer crafting, power and electricity frameworks, extra minerals, creatures, trees, biomes, items, weapons, items, armor, items… there’s a mod called “Too Many Items,” and a snarkier, newer version called “Not Enough Items.” There are mods that stretch the bounds of creativity, crafting elegant storylines and forging brand new dimensions for you to explore, mine, battle, and die in.

It’s about involvement in the process. It’s about involvement in the product. Indie games can do this, and they’re unique in their ability to. It’s a magnificent skyscraper of artistic and technological achievement that is built from the millions of users and their involvement with making something greater than an already pretty great game made of blocks.

Of course, not every indie game supports modding as well as MC (as a matter of fact, none of them do). It may be the difference between changing the zombie skins to My Little Pony characters, but most games have some small ability to be modded. Word to the wise, though: this mutability and versatility is what made MineCraft what it is. If you’re smart and you’re creating a game that is in any way a changeable experience, then let your users change it. Let them design new events or levels or characters or enemies. If you build it, they will come :3

I couldn’t figure out how to work in Garry’s Mod, but… Garry’s Mod.

It’s a long post, I know, but there’s a lot to be said for involving and building your community when you build a game. It’s something that indie games can use to gain a huge advantage in popularity and advertising reach, and it’s just a nice thing to do. Whereas big companies may have insidious ways to push their new game (toolbars, mobile apps, etc etc etc), this is a pure, simple way to be a good development company while putting yourself out there (or allowing your users to do the work for you!). As a dev, it’s great. As a consumer, I find it equally great, and if you didn’t appreciate it before… go out and buy MineCraft and start appreciating, damn you!

~AG

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How Algorithms Make Games Awesome

Yeah, yeah, I didn’t update Monday. Sue me. (Actually, please don’t.)

So I’ve been running through Dead Space as well as a couple of other games, and I keep seeing this recurring theme come up with how the games are constructed: algorithms. When I open a locker in DS and find the ammo for the gun I don’t have any ammo for, it’s like unwrapping that Christmas present from that aunt you never see, and it’s EXACTLY what you wanted. “How did you know?!?”

Algorithms. That’s how they knew. Well, your auntie probably called your mom and was like, “Listen, I need to buy this kid’s affection. PlayStation 4? Got it.”

This is the one you meant, right?

This is the one you meant, right?

What’s an algorithm? You probably cringe every time you read it, because it reminds you of math and being trashcanned in high school. Don’t be afraid of math! I hear this all the time in my programming classes and online in tutorials. Don’t be afraid of it. You know what? That’s ridiculous. Of course you shouldn’t be afraid of math. Math is so useful, you should dress math up nice, take math out to a nice restaurant, bring math back to your place for an expensive bottle of wine and a rom-com. If you were a proverbial gold-digger, math would be the extremely rich, nice old guy who’s still very handsome in a rugged way. That’s math. It’s awesome. Love it.

This is math. Don't you love math now?

This is math. Don’t you love math now?

Algorithms are nifty things that basically collect data and do stuff with it within a certain set of guidelines. Game AIs are extremely algorithm-based, because the data they collect is YOUR actions, and what they do with it involves figuring out a way to either help you (a la Left 4 Dead) or how to kill you (also a la Left 4 Dead). More examples, you ask? Minecraft worlds are generated to a very specific and complicated set of algorithms, making sure there are different biomes, caves, ores, enemies and special dungeons all over the place. In the case of the “data collection” part of MC, you have to put in a “world seed” when you create your world, which is essentially a word or number that sets parameters for the world’s look and composition. Whoa. Think about it. A word generates a world. That’s the power of algorithms.

What else do they do? They allow for a mutable gameplay experience. Whoa, big words, I know. Imagine you’re playing a level of some puzzle game you like. You finish a level but you really wish that you could do more levels of the same variety. If your game is designed with specific levels, then you’re outta luck (like Candy Crush, for example). However, if your game uses an algorithm to spit out levels and then calculates the difficulty of them (by using a solver or figuring out minimum number of moves to solve, etc.), then you have an infinite number of levels at your disposal, each with its own unique and algorithmically pooped solution. Nifty, right?

**DISCLAIMER. IF YOU ARE NOT A PROGRAMMER OR INTERESTED IN GAME DESIGN, YOU MAY SKIP THE NEXT COUPLE OF PARAGRAPHS**

In terms of  programming,  it saves you as the game designer a lot of work! I’m going to use the example of my RPG, “Blue” to illustrate what I’m talking about. I algorithmically generated my treasure. I placed treasure chests in the world and filled them “randomly” with treasure of several varieties. The bonus is that I save both lines of code and data. I don’t have to have a file specifying which treasure chest locations contain which treasures, and I don’t have to implement the code to deal with said file. It also gives me a lot more freedom with how I want to give the player treasure. I personally had two lists of treasure: a basic list that would always be a possibility for a chest’s contents, and a “unique” list that had better treasure, but could only be gotten once. Instead of placing them in the chests at the beginning of the game, I calculated what was in the chest when the player gets it. Bingo, more data and code saved! You can play with the algorithm as much as you want to make it fit you: change the favoring of the basic list to the unique list (which gets found more often?), make unique lists floor specific, or don’t and let the player get the previous floor’s treasure on the next floor. Make it possible to get unique treasures from battles (just in case luck doesn’t provide them with their dandy new equipment). Huge amount of possibilities, all of which don’t require a lot of work.

Another game design thing that algorithms do very well is “hiding the strings.” The “strings” are the hard and fast rules that govern your game. With Mario, it’s “jump on heads, try pipes, you can only jump so high and run so fast, get powerups to change what you can and can’t do, don’t fall in pits, on spikes or in lava.” Pretty simple and straightforward, and understanding the rules (“strings”) is how the player plays the game. In MineCraft, there are hard and fast rules that the player is made aware of, but the majority of the brilliance of the game is in the algorithms. The player need not understand the math behind the world-gen to play with it. They explore to find new biomes, they explore to find caves and dungeons, and they don’t have to be aware of the math that put them there to know that their exploration will yield results. They just won’t be able to predict WHEN, which means they’re playing the game without seeing the strings that make it work. The gamedev (that’s you) is saying, “Don’t worry about how it’s made, but trust that you’ll enjoy playing this level/world/fight.”

**END NERDINESS** (well, not really)

So what do algorithms mean for you as a gamer? Tons of stuff! They change the way we play games. Think of the AI Manager in Left 4 Dead. If you haven’t heard about it, that’s okay. It was a big deal back when L4D came out, because it governed the spawning of hordes of zombies and special zombies in partial response to how the players were playing. It allowed the 4 levels that L4D had to be played over and over, changing when the stress points and bad stuff occurred over the course of the level. Your objective is: get to the safe room while killing as many zombies as you can. Now, if you dally too long in a weapons closet, the AI Manager will send zombies after you again and again until you get moving. It will place obstacles in your path like special zombies to make sure the excitement level doesn’t get too low. It will place witches (bad, bad, bad zombies) in the most inopportune places to ensure that you don’t sleep at night. It allows players to react to challenges in an extremely ORGANIC way, because they have to be able to deal with problems as the occur without being able to predict WHEN they occur, even if they’re an expert at the game.

Somebody took too long in the toilet...

Somebody took too long in the toilet…

Also worth noting that it means the player is never “safe.” If you totally clear out a building of zombies in MOST games, you know you can hunker down there without pausing and go get a Mountain Dew. Not so in L4D. You come back, wiping Dorito dust off on your heavy metal band shirt to find that your entrails have become your extrails.

Algorithms also govern how the game “plays you.” In Dead Space, like I mentioned, there isn’t an algorithm that spawns enemies like in L4D, because the experience is supposed to not be a question of “survival” so much as a question of going insane from terror. Those kinds of experiences need to be carefully crafted. However, there IS an algorithm that takes stock of your inventory (and probably which guns you like), and spawns ammo more often for that gun. The game accommodates your playstyle. Let’s say you’re not a gun person (flower power, y’all! Kill the zombies with love <3), but you do enjoy beating them to death with your bare hands. I actually love this approach in a lot of games. I don’t know why. The “B” button just looks so nice on those Xbox controllers, and it never gets enough love. Well, a game like Dead Space would have a caveat in its algorithm saying, “Mr. Treasure Manager, sir? The player is taking a lot more hits than normal.” And the Treasure Manager decides that instead of putting ammo in crates, he’ll put medpacks instead, ensuring that you can run up to spiky zombies with blades for arms to your hearts content, as long as you manage to hit the “heal” button with sufficient excess as to live through it.

Lots to think about. I want you folks to give me something to work with, here! Comment or otherwise get to me an algorithm YOU’VE found in a game you’ve played, whether it’s a particularly pesky enemy AI, or the thing on your phone that gives you new Sudoku puzzles whenever you need them. I want to hear from you! Seriously.

See you Friday!

~AG

Conquering the fear (and F.E.A.R.)!

Hey folks, look at me! I’m updating! And I’m not going to say that I’m busy! Although I am! (Curses.)

Due to the business that is inherent to my life, the only thing I’ve really gotten to do video-game-wise this week was a full playthrough of We ❤ Katamari. A worthwhile effort, let me tell you. Those games are addictive.

But the “new ground” I’m breaking in my video game experience is in the area of thriller games. I did Left 4 Dead a lot, I tried Amnesia and failed, but… I needed a new game, and in one Humble Bundle or another, I’d picked up both Dead Space and F.E.A.R. 2. (I’m planning on buying the first F.E.A.R. game at some point). This meant… well, it was high time for me to foray into the horror genre in earnest.

That's okay, I didn't need to sleep tonight! :)

That’s okay, I didn’t need to sleep tonight! 🙂

Having said that, I just finished Chapter 1 of Dead Space. It doesn’t help that my real name is the same as the main character’s name, so when they start screaming things at him (me) through the intercom, I get a bit jumpy.

So where am I going with all this? Well, ironically, I’m doing this to not be just “another gamer.” The more I play games, the more I want to dissect them and figure out what makes me feel the way I do. How does horror in games work? How do I recreate it as a game designer? These are tough questions to answer and I fully intend to play through these games until I’ve figured it out.

It’s going to be a while. I have to take lots of breaks.

See you Monday!

~AG

Triple-A Games: Not Necessarily the Future

Okay, misleading title, I’ll give you that. But at least I’m updating! It’s not as easy as it seems!

What do I mean by “Triple-A games?” I’m glad you asked, person-who-is-not-a-gamer! They’re the games you hear about. “You mean like Mario?” No, person-who-is-not-a-gamer, not quite. Good try, though.

They’re the games that you see ads for on TV. They’re the games that have life-size cutouts of their characters plastered in front of every GameStop or video game store in existence. They’re the large franchises of the big three consoles, and they’re the games that you pay 60 bucks for (unless you live in Australia… poor aussies…). Think BioShock, GTA, Mass Effect, Call of Duty, the Zelda games, the Final Fantasy games, Dead Space, StarCraft, etc.

They’re big titles with a huge amount of support and money behind them. Their credits are longer than some flash games I’ve played on Kongregate. They have language teams, they higher game testing firms, and they have multinational branches of operations. They’re the games that you hear about in that they’re pretty much the only games you know of if you aren’t a serious gamer.

Of course they’re “the future.” They have the most well-funded operations, they have the best technology and they’re the most widely publicized.

But what most people don’t realize is this this rather strange truth: people like Pong.

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EA: The Road to Success?

So it’s been a busy couple of weeks. Happy belated Thanksgiving to all of my loyal readers! I love you, mom!

I haven’t had the chance to play many games over the “break.” Work, composition, coding… it’s all kind of taken precedent over my “leisure” activity, though I do try to keep current with what’s up.

New consoles! Yay!

See? I’m current. I’m hip.

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Are video games worse than the NSA?

WASHINGTON, D.C. – “What do we want?!? PRIVACY!” The third-graders screamed and waved signs. “When do we want it?!? AFTER RECESS!”

Tensions are high in one Washington, D.C. elementary school after children were fed the totally objective and unbiased information that the data from their time spent playing video games was – *gasp* – being collected by the boogeyman, Satan, and perhaps some various video game companies that make the former two bad guys pale in comparison.

I know which one scares me most.

I know which one scares me most.

If you’re unsure of what I’m talking about, NPR recently released an article detailing how the scumbag video game companies collect your children’s data (never mind their souls). First, I’m going to rail on how poorly the article was written.

1. The picture spread across the top has a child playing MineCraft, made by the Good Guy Greg of indie game development: Mojang. Originally not multiplayer, MineCraft’s huge modding community and regular updates come at no extra cost to the player, and are inspired not by suspicious clandestine data collection, but by an actual grassroots support base that encourages development in a fantastic game that has had applications in every field from music to engineering. Saying it addicts kids to video games (while perhaps true…) and collects their data to make the game more addictive and convince children to spend extra money on it — although it was only implicitly mentioned by the article — is patently false, annoying, and ignores a huge third dimension of quality that exists in game development.

2. The next mention of video games comes with a parent who is unable to control their child’s video game intake. Sorry, your poor parenting skills aren’t newsworthy. If your child is 13 and playing 12 hours of Call of Duty every day on his Xbox, don’t blame the developer. Blame yourself. Blame yourself a lot, because I quite frankly dislike being called a faggot  by him over voice chat every time I snipe him from my intellectual (and virtual) pedestal.

3. It goes on to group CoD (while implying EVERY OTHER VIDEO GAME is in the same boat) with the people behind Zynga’s freemium disasters and Candy Crush. It’s like grouping every burger joint with that one seedy McDonald’s in the ghetto where people go to distribute methamphetamines. And I feel like I’m insulting the meth dealers here.

4. Not only have you totally lost control of how much your child plays video games, but that tween Belieber you gave a smart phone to is now spending your money on microtransactions?!? And it’s the fault of the game developers. No. See number 2, only accompany it with the sound of my head hitting my keyboard in mind-numbing acknowledgement of your absolute failure to regulate your child’s interaction with… well, EVERYTHING. If your solution isn’t to take the goddamn smart phone away, then I have no sympathy for you at all. Let them cry. Let them wheedle and whine, but those boundaries are better set late than never, and believe me, if your child is (without your permission) buying things for Farmville or Candy Crush, you are LATE in setting those boundaries.

These people. You're them.

These people. You’re them.

Okay, done with that nonsense. Journalists, let me make an unequivocal demand of you as clearly as I can: update your views of the video game industry. Talk to game designers. Talk to people who know a lot about games (as in not the people who play CoD for 12 hours). Talk to me. Do this before you write your article, and you will make much less of a fool of yourself than you currently are in this day and age. Stop being tonedeaf and learn a bit about the industry you purport to be reporting on.

The real purpose of this post wasn’t to pointedly point out the pointless points of this journalistic “epic fail,” however. The data collection of video game companies is an actual issue that needs to be discussed, and as a person with absolutely no credentials in marketing, formal debate or pretty much anything else, I feel qualified to deliver my opinion.

First of all: let’s take a brief step back from this whole “data collection” buzz-phrase. If you’re in the USA (or Germany… sorry, Germans) then you’re probably shockingly aware of the NSA’s breach of what many consider to be a fundamental human right: our right to privacy. I’m going to avoid using the word “Orwellian” (damn, just used it), because if you’ve read 1984, I’m sure the scenarios spring to your mind upon hearing this stuff. We get it. We’ve been violated as a nation, and as individuals. It’s in the forefront of our minds.

The reason I say to step back from it is because the sensationalism of this article and the reality that our data IS being collected is based mostly on the fact that our privacy feels “violated.” The fact of the matter is game developers are not insidiously collecting incriminating data on play habits; they’re simply following a more effective version of the tried-and-true marketing that makes us as consumers want to buy a product. That they’re marketing to kids is irrelevant, as long as you still have some control as a parent on what your child purchases. Am I really saying this? Am I really suggesting there is a lack of parental control in what a TEN-YEAR-OLD buys?

The third graders write about how addicting video games are (I’m temporarily suspending my crusade against the word “addicting,” as I’ve resigned to the fact that the perfectly good word “addictive” has been chucked into the meat grinder of illiteracy). They are naturally offended that their data would be used to fuel that addiction! However, I’m going to be brutally honest and say that our world is full of temptation, and it has been for thousands of years. A rare Bible quote from the Lord’s prayer: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from Zynga.” It’s a problem that we have to deal with. If you, the parent, in your smart-phone-buying frenzy, have opened your child up to a world of temptation, then it is YOUR job to teach your child how to deal with it in a responsible manner. If you give your 14 or 15-year-old alcohol, it is not up to your child to decipher how to not become an alcoholic. We do not accuse food companies of foul play when they do flavor studies on how to make their food the tastiest (even if it involves drowning our children in a sea of fat, sugar, childhood obesity and diabetes). But somehow the accountability has been shifted from parents to game developers.

The other half of this issue comes again with the two-dimensionality that journalists, parents, and even some gamers tend to think of the game industry with. The majority of PC and console games available today (not counting Xbox Marketplace or whatever the PS version is) do not involve microtransactions (aka buying with real money powerups, new skins, new weapons, or extra lives). This means that your child is spending 12 hours a day playing a finished product. Many indie game studios like Mojang update their game FOR FREE. Any data collection that goes on by these companies is for the purpose of gauging how well their game went, what parts are good and what parts can be improved upon. They are taking opinion surveys that you don’t even have to fill out. They are doing what every game developer SHOULD do, that every gamedev has a RESPONSIBILITY to do, even: paying attention to how people play their game. If you fail to do that, you are like a car company failing to consider how the driver will feel inside their vehicle. The very nature of the artistic medium in which you’re creating something in forces you as a game developer to recognize how your game interacts with players and vice versa.

Even if you’re from Zynga. Even if you’re trying to get people to buy lives in Candy Crush. Even if you’re just a nice guy trying to make the sequel to your game better than its predecessor. That data is much more valuable to you from a development perspective than it is to the third-graders who don’t like being addicted to games. Gamedevs aren’t the NSA. They don’t single out people, they don’t assemble profiles to incriminate players they don’t like, and they don’t collect data simply for the sake of having it. It’s a business, it’s marketing, and if you don’t think it’s facilitated games being created at a higher level than they would otherwise, I’d suggest you take a page out of the American government’s book and start collecting some data of your own.

~AG

P.S. Don’t forget to visit this post I made about signing up to win a free game! The raffle ends just over a week from now, so get the maximum chance to win by visiting and sharing daily. Small price to pay (much smaller, in fact, than the price of a handy-dandy new game)!

The Indie Game Conundrum

So indie games are cool. It’s true! They’re easily distributed, they often pursue pretty lofty artistic goals, they’re fun to play and cheap to buy. And there are literally THOUSANDS of them. Hooray for the indie gaming world!

Now that I’ve effectively summed up my opinion on that particular subject (and there is ample evidence in previous posts of mine that this is really, really true), let’s talk about what makes them so problematic. Because there are problems. I think that indie games are a godsend for game developers everywhere, but boy, they have their downsides.

The main reason for this post is because Notch (the near-god-status creator of MineCraft) did an AMA (Ask Me Anything) on Reddit recently, and said some things that are very profound in terms of indie game development. Now, Mojang really only has ONE game. They may have some in the works, they may have put out a couple silly little projects before MineCraft, but MC is their big one. So, I guess we can’t call Notch “experienced” in the art of making indie games. But, actually we can! He’s had the chance to meet with, work with, fraternize with, play Halo and drink beer with every big name in the indie gaming industry, and some who are even bigger than indie games as a whole! He knows EVERYBODY, and thus knows a lot about the world of indie games and how they are made.

The big thing that totally struck me is the hype surrounding MineCraft and Mojang. EVERYONE who plays it loves it. There are a ton of people who are just completely apey over it, and I’m one of them. It’s a brilliant game, it keeps getting better, and every time I play it I look up and like 5 hours have gone by. (I’m not proud of that… okay, maybe a little, but in a very nerdy, self-loathing kind of way.) So what’s next for Mojang? What is going to capture our lives and our attention NEXT? It’s gotta be GREAT! It’s gotta be BETTER than MineCraft! WAY BETTER! CAPSLOCK! But the reality of the situation is that it won’t be. It can’t be.

And why not? Well, because it’s MineCraft, Notch says. He explained that MineCraft’s popularity was a fluke, a one in a million chance that he happened to get lucky on. It wasn’t intentional. And certainly, if we play MC ourselves, we can understand how this can be said to be true. The limits of the game are not imposed upon the player, they are imposed BY the player. Therefore, if players find it too difficult to embrace their creative desire, or an elite few hadn’t decided to make scale models of the Arc De Triomph, Neuschwanstein castle, and the FRICKIN’ U.S.S. ENTERPRISE, then perhaps others wouldn’t have picked it up and tried their hands at it. It really WAS a fluke. And the next game they put out won’t be. The reputation of Mojang is not enough to make a game that isn’t %100 awesome succeed.

Also, we must consider some other things. A different artistic goal must be in mind for their next game. To make a game quite a bit like MineCraft would make their fans jaded and let them down. In the indie game industry, novelty is a strongly attractive attribute for a game to have. The reason people like Haydn or Mozart were able to write so many symphonies and concertos is because they had a formulaic approach to composition. The same cannot be said for indie games. So, while Mojang may do sandbox games really well, they have no choice but to abandon that genre if they wish to make another game.

Finally, we must consider the people themselves. The gamedevs for indie games almost never number more than 12 or 15. There might be some indie studios with more than 20 people, but it’s very rare. When you have a close group of people like that, creativity is very hard to come by in large amounts. To produce awesome (and different) games consecutively is a very challenging thing for all game developers, but when you have such a small group of people, it becomes nearly impossible. Not every game can be utter genius. Not every game can be the most brilliant child a game company brings into the world. That’s not how it works.

To be an indie game company presents a very interesting set of challenges, and they’re ones that big game companies don’t have to face. They have the ability to create franchises out of their games that allow for a somewhat formulaic approach to how they do business, even if the artistic aspect is changed a bit (Final Fantasy or Tekken, anyone?). They have a lot more manpower, which, while it doesn’t create something completely mindblowingly brilliant very often, there is a base level of artistry in every aspect of the game (writing, 3d modeling, gameplay, programming, environments, music, etc.) that provides a quality product a lot more often than any indie company can hope for. And there’s the advertising. Big game companies throw around a lot more money, and can expect to make a lot more money from their investment. It’s the nature of the beast.

It’s a wonderful path in life to take if you love creating games. I would get up every morning and love my job if I could make indie games or write their music. But… everything that makes it so wonderful can also give these creative individuals a lot of problems and obstacles to their success. How does one continue being successful after one STARTS being successful? Notch says it’s not possible. Perhaps he’s right? Well, given the profits of MineCraft, he can AFFORD to be right! Frickin’ millionaire. For the rest of us, however, let’s hope he isn’t!

~Another Gamer

Miss me yet?

Well, I’m back from vacation. I missed Monday! I’m sure you’re all quietly boo-hooing into the plate of processed food you usually ingest while reading this blog. It was awfully quiet out in rural Florida, and I had a lot of time to think about video games.

It really is too bad, however, that I didn’t spend that time thinking about video games. All is not lost, though! I have some divinely-inspired ruminations about the nature of video games, and life in general, to bestow upon you. I know. I’m grand.

Moving on! Glad to have that one off my chest. Next: I have discovered that the world of MineCraft is a lot nerdier than meets the eye. I was turned on to some pretty hefty mods by a commenter on one of my other posts, and I realized quickly that I was in over my head. Had I not retraced my steps, I would have needed a member of the Geek Squad with a PhD in computer science to come untangle the mess I made. That might be a slight overstatement, but to someone who mainly PLAYS games without really delving into how they work, it was a catastrophe of magnificent proportions. Good god.

On a different subject: Poke’mon is good. I love games that keep getting better with each new release. Generally I pirate them anyway, but I actually shelled out the money for Poke’mon White. It’s really turning into an RPG. It’s less about “you must defeat your Professor’s annoying grandson and become the Champion,” and much more in-depth. With greater data storage and computing abilities (occasionally) comes greater games! It’s not just flashier, it’s more difficult, more deep, more personalized. Trainers you fight against have their own playing styles, versus the old-fashioned, “Hey, pick a random move, go!” that made the early games so easy. The world seems bigger, more diverse, and more interesting. There’s more dialogue, more puzzles, more challenges, more things to do. Red and Blue will always have a special place in my heart, but I think it’s time we step off our soapbox and accept the fact that there are, in fact, more than 151 Poke’mon.

You racists.

And, last but not least in my series of unconnected thought: “Amnesia: The Dark Descent” is a thoroughly horrifying game. I don’t even want to play it anymore. It mentions at the beginning that the game is best experienced “in a dark room while wearing headphones.”  Coincidentally, I hear that BEING KILLED VIOLENTLY by zombies and other terrifying creatures is also best experienced in a dark room with headphones on. Way to go.

Other than that, I have a game for ya’ll to try: Glean. It’s a relatively new mineral-mining-and-stuff game, based loosely on the original gem, “Motherload,” from XgenStudios. This one has more variety, more pretty graphics, more challenges, and more plot. I like it! I know you will too.

Alrighty! See you next time. It’s good to be back.
~Another Gamer