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Category: Aside

The “microtransaction” of buying a console

This morning, I made a tweet that I believed would make sense to everybody I ramble to about discussions being uninformed, but that is incredibly hard to follow if you’re not approaching the tweet from the developer-centric angle I’m talking from. As communication is a two-way street, I take full responsibility for any confusion, and for making my Twitter a hilarious mess of angry gamers. It remains absurd to me that I’m somehow thought to be shilling for exploitative microtransactions, especially since the tweet doesn’t actually contain any defence of microtransactions, and even more-so considering given Ridiculous Fishing staunch premium model, and my continued vocal opposition to exploitative microtransactions going as far back as 2011.

Regardless, the point I’m trying to make I feel is worth explaining, because while I am a vocal opponent of exploitative microtransactions, I am also a vocal opponent of incredibly uninformed but popular objections to exploitative microtransactions getting in the way of the industry figuring out real solutions regarding the topic.

The games I listed are ‘First Party Games’, ie. games made by studios owned by the same company that makes the hardware or platform. Nintendo is well-known for its focus on First Party – series like Zelda, Mario, Metroid, but similarly Microsoft has Gears of War and Forza, and PlayStation has Uncharted, Killzone, Horizon, and The Last Guardian. Steam, for example, has Half Life, Team Fortress, Left 4 Dead, Portal, and DOTA.

Even though these games are often highly successful, the purpose of these first party titles is not necessarily to make a profit. The purpose is to sell the platform – the console – by showing the audience what these platforms are capable of. As soon as a user has bought a game for the platform, after all, the platform-holder could make a profit through sale of any related hardware or accessories, but it will certainly make a profit on every game bought by that user thereafter, as platform-holders usually take a 29 to 31 percent cut of sales of any game sold on that platform, no matter who the developer is.

Consider that Steam, for a long time, let developers freely create as many keys as they wanted to give along with Humble Bundles. They’re not making a profit from the sale there, but they’re paying for server costs for downloads. The reason they do that is simple: if all your games are on Steam, you’ll buy your new games on Steam too. You stay locked in, they take a cut from every game you buy. If you buy a game on Steam occasionally, you’re self-subsidising that free Steam code. And it should not be surprising that Apple, with its billions of dollars shifting through the App Store, still thinks of the App Store as a selling point to convince you to buy an iPhone or iPad, rather than as the major revenue stream.

Such is the power of holding a platform: you could literally develop a game against a loss, and still end up making a profit through all the revenue you’ll make from selling other developers’ games.

Third Party Games is any game made by a studio independent from the platform. They can be published studios, be part of Ubisoft, Activision, EA, etc., or they can be fully independent. Either way, they don’t have that luxury. If the game, merchandise, licensing, DLC, microtransactions (cosmetic or not), subscriptions, or whatever the revenue model is, doesn’t return the investment and enough to invest into new products, the studio is done for. In some cases, if the projections for a project dip under profitable or profitable enough, publishers take the relatively small hit of the already invested capital rather than invest more.

My point is that a First Party Game can never be compared with Third Party Games in terms of how they handle monetisation. A First Party Game can return on its investment through console sales, or through the cut the platform takes from games sales on that console. A Third Party title will have to make its money through the game and any sales related to it.

For games made in countries with lower labour costs or with strong subsidies for digital industry, like CD PROJEKT’s The Witcher series growing into a behemoth, the risk is smaller (not to mention they own GOG, an actual games platform of their own). For smaller budget titles like NieR: Automata, games funded by other games doing well, the risk is smaller. For the Star Wars: Battlefront II‘s of this world, it just takes a look at Bethesda’s relatively disappointing Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus sales to understand a lot of Third Party Studios feel forced to be experimenting with alternative revenue streams now.

But Mario? It already got a little “microtransaction” out of you. You’ve already paid some dollars when you bought the Switch, and you paid some extra dollars to Nintendo through their revenue cut when you bought Rocket League, and some more when you bought Stardew Valley, and some more for every other unrelated game you bought for the Switch, and it will take a cut for every game you will ever buy for the platform. So when people say ‘how come Zelda can do without microtransactions‘, what they’re saying is ‘I am completely unaware of the fact that Zelda earns Nintendo money through console sales and through any game sold on that console, too, and as such is far less dependent on other income‘.

DMCA’d

There’s a few things that keep getting lost in the discussion around PewDiePie and Campo Santo’s DMCA. I just wanted to list them, instead of repeating myself over and over on Twitter.

  • The slippery slope argument depends on content creators’ rights being on that slope. They’re not. Technically, all Let’s Play and other content is copyright infringement, and until a precedent for fair use has been set through court proceedings they remain there. YouTuber’s rights are currently at the bottom of the slope, and as such whether the hill is slippery is entirely irrelevant. Any video they create can be taken down over copyright infringement.
  • From the first point automatically follows that there is no such thing as legal DMCA abuse unless the claim has no merit. Since the video that Campo Santo filed against does indeed contain a significant portion of copyrighted audiovisual materials from their work Firewatch, the DMCA claim is automatically valid and not abuse. Their motivation is irrelevant, as the DMCA does require motivation, only infringement. At this point, PewDiePie has three options: to contest the claim, to ask Campo Santo to revoke the claim, or he can accept the claim and move on.
  • I agree that DMCA is not a great system, but it is currently literally the reason Let’s Play can exist in the first place. Without DMCA, YouTube would not be able to host copyrighted materials of any kind, and all Let’s Play would be prohibited. The DMCA existence is pretty much a requirement for YouTube to exist right now. Anyone arguing for an end to the DMCA is currently arguing for the end of Let’s Play.
  • DMCA does not include financial repercussions. It is simply a way to take down a video included infringing materials. PewDiePie has not been sued, and no monetary claims have been brought against him. Campo Santo will not be receiving money for the video or its removal, unless they file a separate claim. That claim they’d almost certainly lose, due to the “license” posted on their site, which granted any content creator the right to post video from the game.
  • The “license” on their site is not part of a contract, or any formal agreement. As such, it is revocable at any time. That means that, when they informed PewDiePie they wanted the video taken down, the license stopped applying to him. This is, again, a reminder that content creators rights are currently non-existent. If a license is created in a formal capacity, more dependable terms and reasons for termination could be agreed upon. For now, it’s 100% up to the developers’ discretion.
  • The three strike system is not part of the DMCA. It is, in fact, a YouTube specific system that YouTube chooses to impose on its content creators. People filing a DMCA are not informed of the three strike system existing, and while I can’t say for sure, it is likely someone filing a DMCA is unaware of YouTube choosing to impose that system on its content creators (see https://support.google.com/youtube/answer/2807622?hl=en).
  • Fair Use is a US law, and even in the US it has not been tested for Let’s Play in court. Whether Let’s Play is fair use or not only becomes relevant if the case goes to court, but that would be precedent-setting and could severely damage YouTubers lifelihood on a irrecoverable scale. In this case, Firewatch being a four-hour narrative linear game of which a two hour video was created that gives away major plot points and almost entirely just shows the game is pretty much the worst possible case you could argue fair use on.
  • The fact that content can earn developers money via sales does not diminish developer rights. While Let’s Play is commonly mutually beneficial, it does not require developers to “accept help”, or “be grateful”. Since the content creators also benefit via ads, and via charging developers money for sponsored content, the whole notion that content creators are “doing a favor” is absurd. They’re a business aimed at growth and ad sales.
  • Large YouTubers might be personable, but they are brands. The notion seems to exist that PewDiePie is ‘just a person’ being ‘bullied by a company’, but PewDiePie is a formerly Disney-affliated company and brand that currently sells advertisement through an ad-network to an average viewership of millions and a subscriber base of 57+ million subscribers. Business of that magnitude is usually governed by rights and agreements, and PewDiePie has chosen to exist in a legal grey space that has led to the current situation. There is no reason he can not have someone manage rights and negotiate with developers for rights of the content he creates.
  • I would argue that YouTube should be encouraged to create a legal licensing path for developers and content creators, or that content creators should work to create a basic framework for developers. Currently, YouTubers have no entitlement to the content they stream, and for their own sake and stability, they should have a way to legally license content. Obviously, developers would be giving away their rights to create that stability for content creators, so basic terms of broadcasting would have to be put in place. I would also argue that there should be separation between ‘hobbyist’ streaming and ‘brand-based’ streaming. How to legally differentiate between the two is not immediately obvious to me, but subscriber base and monetization could be a good place to start.

The Tearoom

I got a bit morally stuck wanting to tweet about an article, so instead I decided to write a short blogpost about it.

Robert Yang’s work tends to include powerful commentary on and about sexuality and gay life, and touches upon topics that in many cultures and countries might be classed as inappropriate. On my Twitter, I tend to avoid topics of sexuality due to the wide and worldwide variety of cultural perspectives about the appropriateness of sex and sexuality in the public sphere or outside of the family sphere. That Robert Yang’s work happens to touch on gay sexuality is not part of this consideration – I believe that if sex is considered an appropriate public topic in a culture, gay sex should not be an exception.

As a game designer and developer, I would strongly recommend reading the following phenomenal article by Jeffrey Matulef on Robert Yang’s The Tearoom, which uses the ubiquity of guns in games to try and sidestep censorship rules about nudity on Twitch.tv. It also uses publicly available statistics and the form of quitting a game as a mechanic to provide powerful statements about the topic of homophobic laws in the United States of 1962.

Twitter’s ability to reach people around the world remains a forever mystifying puzzle of personal moral judgments and considerations.

Fear your customer

I run a creative business. In fact, I make entertainment. One of the most common discussions I face on social media is the idea that I should not put politics into my work, and that I should not use my platform to talk about politics. I should not talk about politics because my purpose is to entertain, to distract, to make my entire existence a function of my job.

Making games isn’t what I am. It’s what I do. What I do is game development, but despite the fact that most of my life so far has been focused around that, it is only a tiny part of what I am. I’m Dutch-Egyptian, a fiancé, a socialist, an airplane enthusiast, an avid reader, a pop culture consumer, a gadget lover, a traveler, someone who likes cooking, but hates the dishes. I couldn’t tie my shoelaces if my life depended on it, but I run an indie games studio that has reached million of people across the world. I am someone who will happily travel across the Atlantic to talk to a dozen enthusiasts in South America starting a development community, but who loathes walking six minutes to the supermarket unless I really have to.

My job does not regulate what I can do outside of my work. A sold copy of my game doesn’t entitle someone to anything beyond a functioning game. A sold copy of my game definitely does not exclude me from any type of political thought, or any other opinion about the real world. A customer at a fast-food chain can’t tell an employee what to do when they’re at home, and they’re only entitled to the french fries they ordered.

At the crux of the argument that I shouldn’t post political content is a simple notion: the idea that my customers are somehow leverage against me. That I should be careful to not lose them by being myself too honestly, or too bluntly. That my work should cater to them, and that my existence depends on their grace and acceptance of me as a whole. I should be afraid of them, and that fear should guide me.

Here’s the thing: I don’t fear my audience. They’re not leverage. The notion that some random people on the internet can tell me what ‘my audience’ wants from me is preposterous. Every time we’ve had a boycott announced against us our sales have gone up. I love my audience. They’re the greatest audience I’ve ever had the privilege of working for – they’re passionate but polite, they’re curious and understanding, and they tend to ask rather than shout. 

Fear doesn’t produce the best work one can create. Not in art, not in games, not in marketing, and not on social media.

IndieCade Awards 2016

Last week I visited the annual IndieCade Festival, which was an absolute delight. I had the opportunity to check out some of the many phenomenal games on display – Wheels of Aurelia, Replica, Bad News, Beglitched, Killbox and Elsinore, just to name a few – and catch up with a lot of the local community. I was also asked to announce the winner of the IndieCade 2016 Grand Jury award. With that comes the ability to say a few words. My short speech was as follows:

It’s my firm belief that every game is important to our medium, and that every game that exists is both a miracle and a part of our collective history. So when the description says the winning game is a true work of passion, I say every game is. When the description says a game contributes to the cultivation of artistry in games, I remember that my original inspiration for making games was a coding tutorial for QBASIC from the eighties.

 

Every game is part of the ever widening history of our medium, sometimes improving and inspiring, sometimes comfortable and sometimes foreign, sometimes cliche and recognizable, sometimes rebellious and revolutionary.

 

Every game that you saw here this evening evoked something, somehow, that made us fall in love with games, that honors the foundations we build on, and gives us fresh hope for the future of our medium.

 

The Grand Prize, then, is the award for the game that exceeded the categories, that was found to evoke that feeling you can’t quite catch in words, the feeling that this game is something momentous in the history of this medium, something we can look to as we look to the future, and something that – when we’re in that future – can hold onto as a foundation.

When I opened the envelope, I was delighted to learn and announce that the winner of the award was the phenomenal 1979: Revolution by former Rockstar developer Navid Khonsari of iNK Stories, a Iranian-Canadian game developer. What’s notable is that, when I penned the speech, I was not aware of the winner – so while the speech mentions history, revolution, rebellion and foreignness, I did not know that the game I was about to announce fulfilled all of those hopes I have for this medium – that IndieCade lived up to every expectation I had of it as an curation and as an event, in such a way that I could write a speech perfectly befitting its winner even before knowing who won.

But after we walked of stage I realized that, in many ways, this was a momentous occasion in one more way: a Dutch-Egyptian developer handed out the Grand Prize of a major games event to an Iranian-Canadian developer, for the creation of a game about the history of a Middle-Eastern country.

So thank you, IndieCade, for being the place where that could happen.

Event[0] and intentional clunkiness

Event[0] is a game about survival. If you haven’t played it yet, I’d like to warn you that this article contains major spoilers. As in, this post reveals the ending of the game, and some of the most magnificent moments in the game. The game is a few hours long, available through various stores through their website, and launched at $19.99. It is a fascinating game, and one of the more tense game experiences I’ve had in a while. It comes strongly recommended, and even if you feel the price isn’t worth it, I’d recommend you bookmark this article and read it only after you acquire it through a sale or bundle in the future. This game is good.

In Event[0], you play the sole survivor of a failed space mission to Jupiter’s moon Europe, and find yourself marooned on an unknown human spaceship that unexpectedly draws your escape pod in. The spaceship turns out to be a luxurious cruiseship with all sorts of comfortable facilities. In this alternative timeline, humanity kept exploring the technology for space exploration after the cold war as their top priority. To achieve its goals, Earth united its governments towards that goal, and also sent cool 80’s luxury technology into space.

The modes of interaction in the game are limited. Hovering over an object will interact with it or show you information about it. The left mouse-button moves your character forward, and the right mouse-button moves backwards. This is a clever hack to avoid having to use letters on your keyboard, because the main mode of interaction is typing messages on a Kaizen-85 terminal, the shipboard AI aboard the luxurious Nautilus spaceship.

The terminals are numerous old-fashioned interfaces scattered across the ship that allow the user to type anything they want to. You can write messages to Kaizen-85, or you can execute commands or interact with programs you can boot up to hack around a bit. The core of the gameplay, however, is simply typing messages at Kaizen-85, which operates primarily like a chatbot.

Kaizen-85 is a bot that operates better with well-written, human-sounding operations. “open door d3” will open the door, but “Would you please open the D3 door, Kaizen?” will do so too. Typing “log” to open the logbook on the specific terminal you’re in will simply make Kaizen confirm there is a logbook, while “open log” will open it for your (plot-crucial) reading pleasure.

The shipboard AI, you see, has a moral quandary. Something aboard the ship has proven to potentially be dangerous to humanity at large if returned to an Earth orbit, and it has allowed Kaizen-85 to have less regard for the safety of those people aboard the Nautilus. Yet, unless the crew actively tries to return the ship to Earth, the AI’s programming forces it to cooperate in full honesty.

In Event[0], nobody is right and nobody is wrong. Throughout the game, it turns out everybody has been misunderstood and slighted in some way, everybody is dealing with incomplete or faulty information, and everybody has failed to communicate those concerns properly. Event[0] is a game about the failure of communication under stressful circumstances. It’s both a story and a game about failure across world views, perspectives, communication paradigms and differing value systems.

Kaizen-85, like many things in Event[0], is clunky. It’s Siri or Google Now or Alexa, if any of them was built in these fictional space 80’s. It will just as frequently understand you as it won’t. But Kaizen-85 is also more than that. It understands a tiny bit of context across several messages, and it has a somewhat insecure personality. Kaizen-85 has been alone for decades, and with its primary concern the safety of humans, it has developed a personality that is somewhat hesitant, somewhat paranoid and somewhat ecstatic to meet a new purpose after the crew of the Nautilus presumably perished.

You’ll frequently wonder what specific combination of words will allow Kaizen-85 to give up information it doesn’t want you to know, what you can say to let you through, what attitude will make it trust your intentions. Kaizen-85 can read tone, and it will test your willingness to cooperate and trust it through various means in the ship. Early on, the ship computer opens the door into a room in a ominous corridor with some reluctance, asking you to not enter the room. The response to that request seems binary – you either listen or you don’t. If you listen, or inquire more, Kaizen will reveal that it was preparing the room for your comfort and that that was supposed to be a surprise. If you don’t listen, the game brilliantly places no reward or punishment on that, simply changing Kaizen’s understanding of your personality, but not changing its core purpose, to ensure your comfort and safety. Kaizen-85 is not a rogue AI. It’s isn’t a cliche murder-bot. It simply doesn’t know whether it can trust you, and it’s trying to figure that out as you both try to fulfill your separate goals.

The best scene of the game takes place not aboard the Nautilus, but outside of it. After an unfortunate accident that the AI believes killed the player character, the player finds themselves floating in space near an airlock with a terminal. Kaizen-85 is unconvinced the person outside the airlock can be the same person that it believes is now dead inside the spaceship. As your oxygen runs out, you have to talk and convince the shipboard AI that it is you, and that it should open the airlock to let you in.

Normally a chatbot not responding properly gives us a feeling of failure on the computers’ end, but in this case, who has the blame doesn’t matter. Kaizen-85 has a different personality, a different communication paradigm, and a different value system. It perceives trust and consciousness a different way than humans do. It perceives language and communication unlike humans do. It perceives urgency and necessity differently from how humans do. The computer isn’t being clunky or failing – it’s making a genuine attempt at communicating across these cultural barriers. What you’re facing is a communication problem, and in the scene outside the airlock, our agency and immersion places the stakes on our end through the dwindling O2 supply in our suits. Our immediate solution is to reach for empathy, but Kaizen-85 has no such thing. In our arrogance, we believe our projection of humanity, of ourselves, means Kaizen-85 is like us. Because there’s a semblance of humanity to Kaizen-85, we believe it to accept and agree with our worldview.

So maybe, Event[0] is a game about different world views. Kaizen and the player have to learn to communicate across different types of consciousness. The two-person crew of the Nautilus perishes over a failure of trust between each other. One of them trusts the AI, and befriends it as if it were human and ultimately perishes. One of them sees the AI as utilitarian, antagonizes it, and ultimately perishes too.

In the end, there is no way to fail at Event[0], because there’s no right or wrong. The game ends with the player having to choose between trusting Kaizen, trusting the judgement another human whose consciousness in now stored in a computer, or trusting neither of them. Kaizen-85 suggests to severely damage the ship in order to remove a device aboard that could threaten the Earth. The computer-stored human suggests that the device is stable, and that it will bring prosperity to Earth and end inequality. Both of them claim the other will lead to your ultimate demise, and both of them claim they will return you to Earth safely. And you, you’re just trying to survive and get home.

All endings resolve positively, although not always for equally so for everyone involved. If you choose to trust the human, you’ll find yourself uploaded to a computer, leaving behind your body and returning to Earth. If you decide to trust neither, Kaizen-85 will shut down and trap you aboard the Nautilus alone in an orbit around Jupiter, keeping the Earth safe. And in a beautiful twist, if you decide to trust Kaizen-85, Kaizen-85 still has to decide whether it actually trusts you.

In that regard, Event[0] can teach us a lot about communicating and what our humanity is and isn’t, and what it means and what it doesn’t. In all cases, there’s a computer terminal right there to communicate with. Our biggest challenges to overcome in the game are our projections and assumptions, our failure to communicate and our frustration at how clunky that communication is. We need to understand Kaizen-85 as a logical device, filtered through human creators and our human interpretation.

Event[0] is about being abroad, and not understanding the local language and culture. It’s about communicating in stressful situations. It’s about the dangers of projection our belief system on others that might not share it. But mostly, Event[0] is about asking and listening, even if we disagree, even if we misunderstand, even if we wish they would just understand what we’re trying to say. A failure to communicate between two willing and genuine participants is never the fault of one person alone.

A pitching masterclass through No Man’s Sky

Over the past few days, my constant No Man’s Sky ramblings on Twitter have led to a number of interviews from domestic and international press about the game. One thing that really caught me off-guard was just how hard it is to pitch No Man’s Sky. I decided to spend some time today looking at Hello Games’ pitch for No Man’s Sky, and came away rather impressed at the care and effort that must’ve gone into iterating the high-level concept pitch. This isn’t specifically about the expectation management, or the details or minutae of the game, but how the core of No Man’s Sky was communicated – the cumulative exploration of a procedural universe.

So here are the things you would probably try, that I’ve found to be ineffective:

  • Mentioning space exploration as a thematic, or referring to other space exploration themed media doesn’t work.
  • Explaining that the game is practically infinite, and allows for infinite exploration doesn’t work.
  • Comparing it to other media, say a movie, or a performer or musician, doesn’t work.
  • Explaining the disproportionate amount of content for its download size doesn’t work.
  • Explaining that thanks to the procedural generation, everything you see or encounter is unique to your game experience doesn’t work.

The main objections you should consider for each of these is ‘is there a context’ and ‘does anyone care?’. So one by one:

  • Mentioning a genre is not a powerful pitch, nor does it emphasize the strengths of the game. Comparing it to other media doesn’t work, because the general audience tends to assume games can be photorealistic, infinite, and capable of simulating reality rather well.
  • The general audience does not care that the universe is infinite, because many assume all games are infinite. I’ve mentioned this before, but most non-gaming people don’t directly assume Grand Theft Auto isn’t an infinite world beyond the city borders, and don’t realize a Call of Duty game takes place in a map rather than a country. The question of game world size doesn’t occur, because that’s an abstract idea that requires an understanding of game boundaries, and a context of game worlds.
  • To most people, games are not movies, music or any other such form of art. Comparing a digital piece of software to something where they see people perform will never work. A board-game or other physical game is the closest metaphor people would accept and understand – and those are woefully inappropriate to explain No Man’s Sky’s experience.
  • Apple famously stopped using Gb/Tb to discuss their storage space, and now uses a made-up statistic of ‘how many photos, songs or movies will fit on this device’. The average person does not understand data storage, data requirements and data limits. They just know when a device is full, and then generally assume it’s the devices fault.
  • Procedural generation is not something you can explain easily to someone without a basic understanding of deterministic mathematical models, or without an existing context for what it leads to, like seeding in other games.

So what remains? Well, it turns out Hello Games figured out a pretty impressive way of communicating the game’s core.

  • They properly identified that communicating the astronomical size of the game in terms of our own universe works. No Man’s Sky is a game in which there are 18 quintillion planets (wow, a number that sounds bigger than a trillion!). Even if a planet was discovered every second by a player, our own actual sun -not the one in the game!- would die before every player in the world combined would have seen them all (wow science). Not that they specifically avoided the term infinite, because infinite sounds videogame-y and doesn’t actually sound all that special. 18 quintillion sounds specific, and scientific.
  • They properly identified that emphasizing that even the developers of the game are shocked to see what can exist in the universe is evocative. In fact, they’ll mention, the developers haven’t seen all that’s available in the game – and they’re commonly excited to land on a planet to see something new (if even the creators are, it must be true). The developers didn’t create the planets, or the creatures on it, they instead programmed the laws of evolution and physics into the computer and let it simulate a universe (impressive!).
  • They properly identified that a top-down approach works really well in words, but bottom up works really well in visual. Their pitch starts with talking about the universe, and then goes down through planets and creatures, down to the elements (so much detail!). Their videos tend to start with the periodic makeup of a place, then a creature, then a planet, eventually zooming out to the universe. A universe isn’t a scale or mental model most people can grasp, but it is a thing that’s easy and impressive to show (so much scale!).

Note if you shuffle this around into three recognizable focus points, you also start seeing how these communicated back at the normal gaming demographic.

  • The ‘science’ in ‘science fiction’ and making it sound as scientific as possible: the game has its own periodic table, there are specifically 18 quintillion planets. Science fiction is clearly something the Hello Games’ crew is naturally excited about, and thus a great primary talking point. Also note the appeal to traditional gaming demographics’ geekdom here.
  • Scale in relation to our own universe, explained using the Apple method: it is statistically improbable for two people to reach the same planet, if a planet was discovered every second our own sun would die before we’d have seen them all. Note the ‘completion time’ wink at the normal game demographics here.
  • Uniqueness of the experience: even the developers themselves are surprised at what they find on new planets, and it is statistically improbable for two people to find the same planet. Note the implicit challenge to traditional gaming demographics here.

Looking at the challenges they faced in communicating the game to this many people of varying understanding, Hello Games’ No Man’s Sky core pitch is a little masterclass in explaining an abstract concept to the largest possible audience.

I also promise that there’s only one more No Man’s Sky post in my queue for now.

Patch The Process

No Man’s Sky didn’t send out review builds because the game wasn’t done. No Man’s Sky gets leaked by resellers breaking street date. Polygon, Kotaku, and numerous streamers obtain a copy before release date and play it. No Man’s Sky developer and the platform holder both say the game isn’t final. No Man’s Sky developers shows changelist for the Day 1 patch to stop this nonsensical discussion about a build that wasn’t meant for the public. News hits No Man’s Sky is getting a ‘huge’ Day 1 patch that’s going to fix many of the issues.

I want to talk about Day 1 patches, but I don’t want to talk about No Man’s Sky. Since this is ‘controversial’ at the moment, I want to emphasize that I am not affiliated with No Man’s Sky. I’m not attacking nor defending No Man’s Sky. I’m not speaking on their behalf, nor do I have any insight into their process. This post isn’t even about No Man’s Sky. I’m just going to use No Man’s Sky as an hypothetical example, but this could apply to pretty much every single game that’s available today, whether it’s digital or physical. You also need to realize a lot of what I’m about to discuss cannot be discussed by a developer during the development process for various reasons, including legal contracts we have to sign to be allowed to release a game. This is also the reason I have to be vague about the details, and each of my statements is not about any specific console manufacturer or platform holder but sort of about all of them and none of them at once. Most of these things have been mentioned before in public discourse in some form or another, and I have to emphasize the examples aren’t from any one specific console manufacturer either, and might be hypothetical, modified or altered to avoid mentioning things too specifically. This is pretty much the most transparent I can be while staying without breaking NDA’s I’ve signed to be allowed to publish on all major console platforms.

There’s two things that are relevant here:

  1. Consoles are platforms and devices that come with an expectation of quality, and as such have systems in place to ensure that quality.
  2. Developers are creatives working on a commercial schedule, leading to the ancient and never-broken rule that a developer will always be two weeks late for their deadline – no matter how big or small the deadline is.

When you make a game for console – no matter which one – you have to realize the systems developers and platform holders are dealing with weren’t built for 2016. These systems are legacy systems, built upon legacy systems, built upon legacy systems. It’s like the system you are or were forced to use at your day job, if you’ve ever worked in retail, stock or booking systems, or at any checkout. Many of these systems interface closely with bureaucracy and console technology, and instead of radically changing how systems work between generations and breaking everything at a console launch, console platforms tend to try and not break things that work. As such, many of these systems are unwieldy, complicated, intricate and really built for teams that can afford to hire more people to read the manual and figure out the systems. These systems come from an age before indie, and some of the manual pages still refer to mailing copies by postal mail. Despite that, the console creators and their teams all work super hard to ensure developers have a smooth process, improving their systems where possible without touching the legacy foundation, and ensuring players get a functional game.

The most egregious example of this is called ‘certification’. On computer platforms, stores like Steam, Humble, GOG and itch.io have decided that developers just have to deal with the fallout of releasing a broken product themselves, and thus allow you to push a product or patch at any point whatsoever (they often do a pre-release check of your store page, though!). Consoles on the other hand, come from the ‘Seal of Quality’ mindset. To ensure that quality, they use a system called ‘certification’, or FQA, or TRC, or TCR, or some other random acronym that refers to something technical and a checklist. Devs like to call this quality assurance process ‘cert’, and no matter what developer you ask, you’ll find most developers understand why it exists, and we all really appreciate all the people working super hard to ensure our games are working right, but we tend to all hate ‘cert’. What you have to imagine when it comes to cert, is a giant book of checkboxes. There’s an absurd amount of them, and they could be different not only per platform, but per territory (for example, a European build has different certification rules than a US one, requiring differences between the two), and sometimes even between a patch, a DLC, and a release version.

Some of these make a lot of sense (don’t crash), and some of these are reasonable (if you leave the main menu open for 24 hours, is the game still smooth?), and some of them sound obscene (if you rapidly plug and unplug the controller, does the game know what to do?). Some of these are enlightening (your game needs to figure out what controller the player is assigned to, thus requiring the ‘Press [button] to start’ screen only console games still have), and some of them are just headaches (don’t put UI in the outer 10% of the screen, unless you use one of those ‘how big is your screen’ interfaces). Some are legal (is any form of parental control activated or is the profile under the allowed age for gameplay? if so, did you disable the required functionality?), and some can make you desperate (the console can not have had firmware updates between your release build and the patch). Did you know consoles don’t necessarily pause your game for you when players switch to other interfaces? You have to do that yourself.

Anyway, certification is a big thing. The process for it is also a big thing. In most cases, you have to fill out a weirdly complex form for your submission, and then ‘book a slot’ of sorts, or wait until you get an OK to submit your game. Since the people testing games aren’t infinite, you need to let people know when you’re submitting your build. So you check which dates are available, and usually there’s a free slot a few days from today. If your build isn’t in a certain amount of time ahead of that, your slot can be lost, and you’ll have to ‘book’ a new one. When the slot starts, and your game goes into certification, there’s a variety of reasons your submission can be rejected, in which case your slot can be lost too. Then, the teams start testing, and they report certification violations to you. In many cases, your violations are graded along a scale from ‘Must Fix’ or ‘Fix This’ to ‘Suggestion’ or ‘Whatever really’. If any of them exceed a certain level, your submission fails, and you have to start from square one and fill out the form, find a free day to book a slot or wait until certification starts, and submit a new build.

Some of the certification problems are impossible to avoid. Developers can’t control when consoles update their firmware, and when engines shift their support for firmware. In those cases, developers can request an exception to a rule. This is a bureaucratic process, and it can require negotiating, a formal request, and formal permission. It takes time. Then, when you get an exception, for most platforms you often need to fill out on the submission form how, where, and from who you got that exception when you submit again.

Did I mention all of this is poorly documented? One console has a field that says ‘assets file’. It doesn’t mention what the assets file is, nor what it does, or what these assets are. If you don’t add the file, it can’t process your submission. If you add it, but it isn’t ‘right’, your build can fail. You lose a week. If there’s a checkbox somewhere in the hundreds or thousands of obscure rules that you missed, you lose a week. If there’s something that’s subtly different between Europe and America, you lose a week. What I’m trying to say is that certification could take a week, and in the worst cases, it could take months. From personal experiences, I can say that it can make developers cry. It could delay your game. At the end, though, the game that launches checks every checkbox. You’ve got your proverbial “Seal of Quality”. Your game is allowed to launch.

Now, I’m not saying No Man’s Sky did this, but in most cases, developers with a launch date need to make sure they can hit that launch date. We start submitting certification builds somewhat early, in the hopes that one of them gets the check mark that says ‘you’re good to negotiate a launch day’. Certification is technical – it doesn’t bother with what the game is, it just concerns itself with whether it works technically. It checks whether the boxes are checked. You can market a dark gritty murder game titled Dark Horses, and submit a pony farm tycoon game, and as long as the name on the form matches the name of the game, they would not object.

So – since development is messy and unpredictable – if you’ve got a build that’s ‘pretty much done’ and it works, and you can get it through certification, that’s a good sign for your final build. So you submit it, it goes through cert, and you stage it for download and launch. For disc games, the game needs to go through certification in time to be printed, boxed and distributed. At that point, developers are usually still one to three months from release, which tends to mean you need one and a half to three and a half months to get the game done, and then you still need to keep in mind that unpredictable amount of time you’ll spend in certification. A day 1 patch is technically still submitted at least one week from launch, but until it actually goes through certification, it can’t be made available to the public.

Knowing that, it should be easy to see why Day 1 patches are often “huge”. For a game that goes on disc, the ‘gold’ build that went through certification is one to three months old by the time the game launches. That gives developers half a month to two and a half a month to do a month and a half to three and a half months’ worth of work to make the game ‘perfect’ while still hitting the release date with the patch. If your studio is huge, you probably have an internal QA department that (for good reason) slows things down internally, but if your studio is nimble and small, you can change enormous portions of the game in that span of time.

So in the hypothetical example of No Man’s Sky, when No Man’s Sky launches, for most people, it’ll launch into the intended experience thanks to the Day 1 Patch. That build is as close to what the developers envisioned as they worked, learned and improved upon that vision. That’s No Man’s Sky. The version that is on the disc, however, is months old. The only way to avoid that kind of thing is to not launch on disc.

One could argue that developers then, should make certain that a game is perfect when they submit it to disc, which is not an invalid stance. It’s just an impractical stance. If you’ve got months to improve upon a game that went through cert, do you think you would leave those months? Do you think audiences would appreciate a developer just kind of doing nothing for three months? Can you imagine the Kickstarter outrage if a developer, three months from launch, posted ‘we’re done, it’s good, we’re not touching it again until you get to play in three months’? Anybody arguing that a game should be done when it goes ‘gold’ is living in the 90s.

Developers care about the games they make, and we’re trying to make the best game we can for our players. We’ll take every opportunity we can get for that. If consoles operated like Steam did, No Man’s Sky wouldn’t have a Day 1 Patch, because the build you’d download and play when it comes out would’ve been submitted comfortably a few days before launch. Day 1 Patches aren’t necessarily a failure on the developers or the platforms side, they the result of people that care about what they make, trying to deliver the game the audience expects by the date they expect it, while everybody involved is struggling with outdated systems on cutting-edge technology. Everyone is trying their hardest. Nobody is doing anything wrong. The developer isn’t lazy. The platforms aren’t malicious. Day 1 patches are simply a patch to a submission system that’s old and convoluted.

The Center Of All Things

Games communicate something from the creator to the player, and as such, carry intent. While I can’t statistically prove it, I’ve come to believe intent is what separates a good from a bad game. Intent creates a direction, an impulse to a design. It doesn’t necessarily start at the idea’s inception – very often a game comes from messing around and experimenting, but at some point an intent must form. When an intent is decided upon, a game can form around that.

Rocket League, a 2015 favorite car-sports game, famously started as a weaponized car combat arena game, much in the vein of Twisted Metal. When a programmer added a ball for a physics test, the team decided to re-imagine the game as the first iteration of Rocket League. This is where the intent came from: create a game about skillfully navigating a ball using cars. Rocket League is many things, but that essence statement summarizes not just the core gameplay mechanics, but also the inherent absurdity and humor of the idea.

When you think about it, most good games can be summarized into simple essences without too much effort. Their intent shines through clearly, and without the designers’ interference. This is why, when I give feedback, or have to greenlight a project, I try to build up to what I expect to be the essence statement for the game, based purely on the build I played. I then question the designers or creators about their game, and try to get them to make an essence statement of their own.

Obviously, I then compare the two statements. If they overlap, the game and the designer have an aligned intent, and I have faith in the game. If not, I try to build a mental model of what led to those separate statements.

Schools often teach the Mechanics-Dynamics-Aesthetics framework to analyze game design, which is a tremendous framework focused on the input-output loop a game creates. While that is an extremely powerful perspective to have on games, I tend to shift focus to the space between Mechanics and Dynamics, and use a personal Intent-Mechanics-Declaration model to communicate flaws in the game design. As always, the model is always in flux, and I doubt I’m the first one to use a model like this. The model is rather simple and by no means exhaustive, but can be most easily communicated as three concentric circles. The Intent is a circle. Around that circle is a larger circle, the Mechanics layer. Around that is a third circle, the Declarative layer.

The Intent is the essence statement, a short and clearly communicable statement that the team working on the game should agree on. It’s important to realize this statement does not have to be exhaustive, and should be considered more along the lines of an architectural parti – something that encompasses the big idea of the game. An essence statement is also not a pitch – it’s used internally. Where Ridiculous Fishing’s pitch was “a game about fishing with machineguns” – a pitch crafted to elicit laughter & interest, internally the goal was to “create a game with an infinite positive feedback loop” – an essence that was pleasant, comfortable and positive no matter the skill of the player.

The mechanics are designed to reinforce the intent, or at the very least not contradict the intent or the other mechanics. This sounds remarkably obvious, but it’s the easiest way to distinguish the average student game from the average professional game. The mechanics are purely the technical state-changes in the game, the values adjusting, the input processing, the ruleset and the ‘deltas’ between two distinct moments in the game based on those rulesets.

The declarative layer, then, is what communicates these ‘deltas’ back to the player. They’re the graphics, the audio, the feedback. It’s each frame of the game rendered (or otherwise communicated) to the player. In other words, the declarative layer is what the player can actually process. It declares to the player that which has changed. Based on that, the players adjust their mental model, create a new intent of their own, and offer input based on their intent. Clearly, the declarative layer should communicate the mechanics and the intent behind them as clearly as possible.

When the model is drawn, you can imagine every decision made in the game as a point in the appropriate layer. The model gains value when you think of the decisions as arrows, drawn from a point in their appropriate layer towards what they’re meant to communicate. If everything is alright, your game should look a bit like a snowflake, with every single arrow more-or-less pointing back towards the center of the circle – the intent.

Considered as a whole, the model should teach you one or two things. The first lesson is that having a clear and easily communicated essence statement early on in development, will avoid disagreements about where the intent is, and as such, it’ll avoid arrows pointing in wildly different directions. The second lesson is that if you apply this model to agame, you’ll usually find some decisions of which the arrows point in the opposite direction of the intent on purpose. A model is not something that should force your hand. A model should guide your decision-making, but never force a decision.

In Ridiculous Fishing, the game we built so carefully to be an infinitely positive feedback loop, we created the second ‘boss-fish’ of the game to intentionally break with that essence. The ending of Ridiculous Fishing, then, again, breaks with the ‘pleasant’ and ‘comfortable’ essence. These moments stand out, because they’re carefully and intentionally opposite.

I use this mental model frequently, not just to give feedback, but also in figuring out what to do with Vlambeer games. You can extend the model further, to include pretty much anything beyond that. I often consider a packaging layer around the declarative layer, for the menus and other non-game interfaces. At other times, I’ll model a marketing layer around the game.

Most experienced designers and creators go through this model somewhat instinctively. Nevertheless, when working with a team, it is valuable to ensure the intent of the game is clear to everybody. Unless a team is remarkably attuned to each other, it is very likely that someone is trying to make a game unlike the game the others think they’re making. A single essence statement, a few keywords, a mock-up of the game, a sketch or silhouette or color palette or small video for the visuals, a sound effect or song to define the sonic qualities of the game – they all help. They declare an intent. They help keeping your game consistent, your team focused and your goals clear.

There’s enough to discuss when you’re making a game without having to argue where the center is.

Beautiful Things

Last week, I visited Tel Aviv to speak at GameIS, an independent games event run by a group of indies and volunteers from the Israeli games industry. It was a phenomenal event, filled with inspiring, aspiring and creative individuals. The event felt vibrant, and was full of interesting projects.

Given my political views in favor of a Palestinian state, and my heritage as an Egyptian Arab, I was not surprised to spend 6 or 7 hours of my two-day visit to Israel in security at Ben Gurion Airport. While I’m used to spending time in security, this was the first time I ever spent more than a quarter of a visit in a ‘suspect booth’.

Since my visit to Israel, I’ve had a few disappointed people from around the world reach out to me regarding the visit. People have pointed out that I should’ve taken note of the BDS Movement, an international movement to boycott, divest and sanction Israeli businesses and end international support for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and to pressure Israel to comply with International Law.

Global politics are inherently intricate and complicated, and while I am against Israel’s economical and frequently violent oppression of the Palestinian people and state, I am not against Israel or the Israelis per se. I am against the politics of Israel, just as I am against many of the global politics of the United States, but also those of many other countries.

So to those questioning my visit to Tel Aviv, I just want to emphasize that in a pursuit to make the world more just and fair, I refuse to dismiss or limit my support to creative individuals with no or little say in these matters. In my visit to Tel Aviv, I found many of the developers to be progressive and open-minded, and frustrated by the political situation.

I was born a third culture kid, too Dutch to be Egyptian, and too Egyptian to be Dutch, and the games industry is the first ‘country’ I’ve felt I belong to. I believe in the power of creativity and games to bring people together, and just like no one can help being born in Palestine, nobody can help being born in Israel.

If anything, I hope to visit Palestine and the independent creators making beautiful games there sometime soon. I hope to continue supporting game development in all forms in the Middle East, and the rest of the Arab world, the Muslim world, and everywhere else. In the meanwhile, I will continue to voice my discontent with the political situation of Israel regarding Palestine, but I will not stop supporting the Israeli individuals and studios dedicating their lives to making beautiful games.

An inline response to “wage-slaves”

I read this guest post by Alex St. John today on Venturebeat (which is one of my favorite destinations for industry news, by the way). I got angry. I wrote an inline response. The bold parts are the article’s original text. My responses are the rest of it. Yes, this lay-out is half-copied from the amazing nodontdie.com (which you should read) because I couldn’t come up with another one this fast.


I read this article by Dean Takahashi the other day, and my jaw nearly hit the floor.

Mine too, I can’t believe structural crunch is still a problem in the games industry in 2016.

Many modern game developers have embraced a culture of victimology and a bad attitude toward their chosen vocations. They complain that the long hours and personal sacrifices great games require are a consequence of poor management.

And rightfully so, structural crunch is a horrible attitude and can really damage someone’s ability to function and enjoy their dream job.

They want to pretend that they can turn an inherently entrepreneurial endeavor like game development into a 9-to-5 job.

Wait, only entrepreneurs are entrepreneurial. People that are employed aren’t entrepreneurs. The whole definition of entrepreneur is that if you mess up, the risks are for you. The definition of employee is that you work the hours assigned to you for a wage.

Somehow, these people have managed to adopt a wage-slave attitude toward one of the most remarkable and privileged careers in the world.

I’ll give you that game development is a remarkable job, and I’ll give you that it’s a generally privileged career, but ‘wage-slave’? Isn’t that a tiny bit hyperbolic?

I’ve been working at technology startups since I was in my early 20s and later founding and running them. I’m fortunate for the career I’ve had, and I’ve always been grateful for the incredible opportunities that the technology industry has afforded me, especially when you consider that I grew up in a log cabin in Alaska with no electricity, plumbing, heating, or cable TV. I grew up largely home-schooled; I never did get that high school diploma. None of those educational shortcomings seems to matter in the high-tech world. Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of working with a lot of truly amazing and hyperaccomplished people, many with backgrounds just as unorthodox as my own. It was my job at Microsoft and later at WildTangent to develop relationships with every leading game developer on Earth.

It’s lovely that this industry accepts people of “unorthodox” backgrounds. Definitely something I’d like to see more of.

I know I’m going to offend a lot of people by saying this, but I do so with the hope that a few will wake up and shake off their mental shackles. I’ll grant that it’s been 23 years since I used an outhouse or had to hunt for dinner, but I’m stillthrilled by the incredibly decadent luxury of porcelain toilets and fast food. I can’t begin to imagine how sheltered the lives of modern technology employees must be to think that any amount of hours they spend pushing a mouse around for a paycheck is really demanding strenuous work.

If your job is just pushing a mouse around, I can see how you got this attitude. However, game development is far more than that. Programmers are continuously working at their utmost mental capacity, solving and optimizing highly complex and intricate codebases. Modelers and artists are continuously creative, operating complex software to create high-quality art that needs to not just look nice, but also animate, shade and interact nicely. Musicians are continuously creative, exploring new ways to weave game and sonic qualities. Designers are continuously struggling with communicating ideas, creating interaction, player feedback, test feedback, at the forefront of our understanding of human-machine interaction. There’s dozens of more jobs that are all equally important to creating a great game, and none of them ends with pushing the mouse around. The jobs involved in the actual creation of a game require high degrees of specialization, research and care. All that happens when you push your mouse around is that the cursor moves. That’s the easy part.

I’ve hired thousands of people over the years and can’t help but notice the increasing frequency with which I encounter people with a wage-slave attitude toward making video games. A wage-slave attitude exhibits itself in several tragic ways.

I’m just going to assume ‘wage-slave’ is how you spell ‘healthy’.

I’ve known a lot of stupid self-made millionaires — really, hundreds of them — and they’re usually young as well. I’m talking about kids who made some of the worst games you can imagine and got rich accidentally, working in their parent’s basement in the Florida Everglades. They make their first game, get rich, and they’re gone, never having attended a single networking event at the Game Developers Conference, done.

This has absolutely nothing to do with your point, but good for them.

Contrast the dozens and dozens of these kids with the many game industry veterans I know that have long storied resumes listing dozens of triple-A console titles they have “labored” on, who decry the long working hours they are expected to invest in the games they are employed to work on.

Aren’t these veterans probably better equipped to discuss structural issues in the games industry than the Florida Everglades kid that made one game and never attended an industry event and then left the industry?

These people are smarter, more experienced, more talented, better trained to produce amazing games and they’re still working for paychecks and whining about avoiding long crunch hours to finish big titles or about not being paid fairly by some big employer.

Your complaint here is literally that someone asked to be paid fairly.

Listening to them complain about it, you would they think that they are trapped in some disenfranchised third-world country forced to dig for blood diamonds to feed their families.

I don’t know where you got that from, to me it sure looks like they’re just complaining about avoiding long crunch hours to finish big titles or about not being paid fairly by some big employer. The rest is your imagination.

I’ve never been able to mentally reconcile these conflicting experiences.

Conflicting experiences? You mean the conflicting experience of a Florida Everglades kid with an accidental hit and the 30-year industry veteran that has seen the structural shortcomings of the industry? You can’t mentally reconcile those? Or do you mean passion and health? You must either not be passionate or not healthy. They’re pretty easy to reconcile. You must lead a pretty sad life if you can’t seperate a passion for games and development from having a healthy and sustainable life.

Any time I hear this stuff, I tell these people; quit, go make great games on your own, pursue your passion, you’re better equipped to succeed than any of the dozens and dozens of amateur kids I’ve seen retire early while you were still “trapped” in a job you hated and trying to rationalize mailing in a 40-hour work week makingvideo games.

What I’m reading is “You don’t need to pay rent. Just do exactly as the Florida Everglades kid did. It’s a simple process. Step 1: Quit your job. Step 2: Move your family of four to your parents’ basement. Step 3: make a multi-million dollar game. Step 4: done.”

To my great shock and disappointment, they never respond to this feedback with any sort of enlightenment or gratitude for my generous attempt at setting them free — usually, I just get rage.

What a surprise.

Being a victim of their employers has somehow managed to become a deeply cherished part of their core identities and any suggestion that they are far better equipped to rekindle their sheer passion for making games, do a Kickstarter startup with their other talented friends and crank out an original hit game, than a bunch of amateur kids working in Flash, is greeted with a lot of anger.

You literally told them that their requests for ‘fair wage’ and ‘not horrible crunch’ is only to be valid if they go independent and risk their financials and families.

They rant about the value of “work-life-balance”,

That’s a great and important thing to rant about.

how hit games can be delivered on a schedule with “proper management”

Which is (mostly) true.

and how they can’t produce their best work when their creative energies are tapped after a long forty-hour work week

Creatives can’t do creative work after doing too much creative work? You’d almost think this is common sense. Athletes can’t perform their best after their athletic energies are tapped after a long forty-hour work week either.

 … sitting … at a desk….

You keep forgetting the actual work part that the sitting at the desk thing enables.

Apparently people can even “burn out” working too hard to make … video games….

Did you just say burnout in the industry isn’t real? I can’t figure out if that’s what your saying but it sure seems like you’re saying that.

Having worked with many of the game industry’s most legendary game developers and also many of the game industry’s least known early retirees, I can’t help noticing a clear and distinct difference between the people who really make it huge in gaming and the people who just have long résumes.

Me too.

It’s the attitude.

Correct.

Every legendary game developer I’ve ever known pursued gaming as a vocation out of sheer passion. Most could have made more money, had more security, lived more “balanced lives” in other tech jobs, but they wanted to make games and they pursued it 110 percent all the time.

You act like this is exclusive to ‘legendary game developers’, but this goes for pretty much most people in this industry. You work in the industry because you care.

Not a single person I have ever known who went on to greatness in the gaming industry has ever exhibited a shred of wage-slavishness.

That’s because those people tend to be the CEO, or founder. They pay themselves, and they can choose when to go home. The only valid point you’re making here is that as an industry, we’re still not good at celebrating or communicating that great games are made by an amazing team, instead of a single designer.

Making games is not a job — it’s an art.

What is it with this making two compatible things mutually exclusive? Passion and taking care of yourself aren’t mutually exclusive. Making art and a job isn’t mutually exclusive. Monet was a painter. That’s a job. His job produced art. Shakespeare was a writer. That’s a job. His job produced art. Marina Abramovic is a performance artist. That’s a job. Her work produced art.

You can’t “make fun” on a schedule, under budget, on time with a bunch of people who are all grumbling about what a miserable time they are having finishing a game together.

You can’t, which is why you make sure that your employee’s aren’t miserable finishing a game together, because you did stay on schedule, under budget and on time. This situation occurs when your schedule sucked and your budget sucked, and that’s the fault of the entrepreneurs – not the employees.

That’s not to say that there aren’t good organized ways to produce games,

Then why not use those, so that the tragic complaints go away?

but it will always still come down to the same thing. Great games are exclusively made by giving them everything you’ve got and more, and then hoping it’s enough.

Great games can be made by giving them everything you’ve got and more, and great studios and developers are made by not burning the fuck out. Turns out great studios and developers make better games, because they have more experience that they can apply because they did not burn the fuck out.

There’s no amount of money that anybody can pay people with a wage-slave attitude to let it go and put themselves completely into a great game.

Wage-slave attitude just means ‘employee’ here and thank you very much but those hundreds of ‘wage-slaves’ that work on each AAA title deserve not just our utmost respect, but also reasonable wages and working hours.

There’s nothing that can compensate people “fairly” for the sacrifices that great art requires.

I’m having a hard time ‘mentally reconciling’ you saying game development is ‘just sitting at a desk’ and ‘the sacrifices for great art’. But, I agree. There’s no way to compensate fairly for those sacrifices. Especially not if your schedule is awful and your budget is too low. So maybe don’t have an awful schedule and too low budgets.

It’s art.

ART IS NOT MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE WITH TAKING CARE OF YOURSELF YOU DON’T HAVE TO CUT OFF YOUR EAR TO MAKE GREAT PAINTING

You need to get an actual job producing productivity software if you want to be paid “fairly” and go home at 5 p.m.

Last time I checked ‘producing software’ is exactly the job description you have working at a large studio and there is no shame in that. What guts to imply people demanding more sensible hours are lacking passion for the art games. Fuck that. They just care enough to wanna do it forever.

Anybody good enough to get hired to write games can get paid more to work on something else.

And yet they’re here. Because they care.

If working on a game for 80 hours a week for months at a time seems “strenuous” to you … practice more until you’re better at it.

How about the people doing scheduling and budgeting get better at it? The entrepreneurs take the risks, so they should pay for mistakes. If your crew has to work overtime, pay them for it. If you’re a AAA, make sure they’ve got good health insurance, holidays, make sure they’re mentally & physically healthy and capable of creating the best game ever.

Making games is not a job,

If you’re doing it as your job, then yes it is.

pushing a mouse is not a hardship,

Repetitive strain injury disagrees, and I’m still curious what job you do that pushing a mouse is your full job.

it’s the most amazing opportunity you can possibly get paid to pursue …

I think everyone in this industry agrees with that one, but many of us also feel being paid ‘fairly’ and for all hours we work should be part of that deal.

start believing it,

Can I pay for this loaf of bread with my belief in how cool my job is? No?

and you’ll discover that you are even better at it.

Maybe if your job is pushing a mouse, believing will get you further. In this industry, you get better from making games, practicing and experience. You only get to use that experience if you don’t burn out entirely and leave for a saner industry.

Great art isn’t made by burning out making it. Great art is made through passion & experience and you won’t have either if you burn out.

Don’t be in the game industry if you can’t love all 80 hours/week of it

Don’t listen to this person. Please be in the games industry if you want to make games and care. I don’t care if you want to make games for 2 hours every night after work, or for 40 hours for a paycheck, or for 80 hours as an entrepreneur. Just don’t make others pay with their health for your shitty scheduling.

— you’re taking a job from somebody who would really value it.

Don’t worry, the way you see this industry they’ll burn out really fast too.

Devs, this is an absurd article. I care so much about games. I’ve dedicated my life so far to making games, to enabling others around the world to make games and to learn as much as possible about this medium – mobile, casual, AAA, indie, whatever. I tell you here and now: structural crunch is bad, and burning out is real. I hope you’ll take care of yourself, so we can have you and your games and your experience around in this industry for many more years to come. Whether it’s as a 9-to-5 employee making AAA games, a legendary developer, an indie working on their first games, or a part-time developer that makes games for fun. Be passionate. Make games. But please take care of you.

 

A good choice between A & B

Quantum Break is a video game intertwined with a TV series. It’s neither, and also both. It’s hard to explain. If there’s any spiritual predecessor for the game, it’d be Remedy’s previous release, Alan Wake. The game is set up similarly, in Episodes that are effectively TV series episodes, complete with cliffhangers and credits sequences. The actors used for the real-life TV series are also the motion capture, body capture and voice capture artist for the in-game models, and Remedy’s ability to seamlessly transfer us from game to real-life video is impressive.

In Quantum Break, the central idea is that the player plays two roles – the first role is Jack Joyce, our do-good protagonist who accidentally ends up setting the End Of Time in motion. The other role is the central antagonist, Paul Serene.

The majority of the game is played as Jack Joyce, and plays as a pretty good Third Person Shooter With A Twist – the ability to freeze and unfreeze time in certain locations. This can be used to really fun effects, slowing time down to stack bullets, dodging around an entire battlefield to flank your attackers, or creating a safe bubble around you to Catch Your Breath And Heal Bulletwounds. There’s some rather solid level design at work here, and the skirmishes are generally set up well. The game itself is gorgeous, and with the exception of some odd platforming puzzles, the atmosphere and set design is as consistently good as you’d expect.

At the end of each gameplay Episode the player switches perspective to Paul Serene, the antagonist, to show what he’s been up to, and to make a choice as Paul Serene between two options – a Junction. Both of the choices can be previewed, but those previews can be quite unpredictable.

After the Junction choice, the game switches to a TV episode for 20 minutes or so, where the contents of the series are directly affected by said Junction, and in smaller ways by events from the game. Usually, they show events that are happening at the same time as the player’s actions – some characters you run into in the game and some characters you never meet.

In the world of Quantum Break, time itself is collapsing, and the world is slowly unraveling into an infinite ‘stutter’ of time. Paul Serene has seen many futures, and his choices are built around a larger understanding of the mechanics of time and a way to stop the End Of Time.

Jack Joyce is mainly driven by anger and confusion, and only later comes to terms with what is at stake. This makes you vie for both Serene and Joyce, and that is the victory of Quantum Break. I found myself struggling at Junctions, trying to figure out whether my choices would harm not just my protagonist, but also my antagonist. At pretty much any point during the game, it is unclear whether the solutions suggested by both the protagonist or antagonist are capable of fixing Time.

In the end Quantum Break is a story about two conflicting and flawed humans at the center of extraordinary circumstances trying to do good, with many other flawed humans around them trying to do what is good. Remedy’s willingness to showcase protagonists and antagonists as humans – even literally so through the TV series – pays off. Remedy’s willingness to depict all primary and secondary characters as trying to solve a shared issue in different ways pays off beautifully through the Junction system.

It’s a good reminder that simplest game constructs in the world, in this case a choice between A and B, can be fascinating if the context is right.

The Nuke That Makes It All OK

To me, one of the most fascinating narrative things in games is the narrative justification for whatever unholy acts you have to fulfill to somehow end up on the side of good again. Where most games cater to a power fantasy, they also cater to a sense of moral justness, and to resolve the two people need a good reason for their spectacular murder sprees.

One of my favorite examples of that was very popular around 2005-2008, the peak of the FPS military single player campaign, and I have to admit I kind of miss it. It’s the third act nuke launch.

For the first two acts of the story, the game maintains a politically plausible narrative – a political faction separated itself from the forces of stability and order, but not unlike current political events. The player is sent to the Wartorn Country Du Jour, where they fight local inhabitants and their puppet masters. Players get to participate in something realistic.

While that creates a great theater for a story, games are commonly unhappy to tell a story – they’re expected to tell the story. The soldiers that breached the walls and died shortly thereafter while ensuring ultimate victory aren’t as interesting to the player’s agency as the one person that singlehandedly took down an army and the superweapon and the person that built it and also the person secretly behind all of it.

If your antagonist is a politically realistic faction, it’s unlikely you can tell that story. Reality rarely is that absolute, and few political factions are interested in triggering something of the scale that places the protagonist in the camp of Absolute Objective Good.

But we want to tell the story, the story of the hero – and as such, we need an absolute evil to the player’s rampant but absolute good. So at the start of the third act, we justify the player’s violence up to that point with a satisfying “They’re launching a nuke?!”

And it’s kind of reassuring, that nuke. We haven’t shot all these people for nothing. And everybody we shoot after that is fine too. You can have everything in your game script: realism and heroism – all you need is to launch the tired old nuke.

Convenience

Convenience is something that sounds exclusively positive, but I was reminded yesterday that it can have rather harsh consequences.

During my irregular call-in show Call Me Ismail yesterday, Palestinian developer Rasheed Abueideh reached out to talk about his upcoming game Liyla. It’s an Android game based on the events of the Israeli attack on Gaza of 2014, from the perspective of a girl who lived through the war.

Rasheed called to talk about general advice, and one of the advices I gave him was to submit a game with such personal meaning to an event like IndieCade. The conversation that followed is included below.

IndieCade uses the convenience of a payment processor for the submission fee, which is $80. Payment processors are extremely convenient, in that dealing with payments in 2016 is still far more complicated than it should be – they take care of pretty much everything for you. Usually, processors allow multiple methods of payment – PayPal, creditcard and Amazon are popular offerings.

The problem is that convenience is often aimed at those already convenienced – and it’s difficult to consider beyond those boundaries. IndieCade’s payment processor accepted PayPal and Amazon, both of which are US regulated and both of which do not accept Palestine as a sovereign state, leaving Rasheed with a completely filled out submission form and no way to pay $80.

Whenever something others interact with is convenient for you, try and think how it might affect others. If you’re dealing with international issues, there’s too much to know – but there’s definitely steps you can take to consider geographical & cultural diversity. One of them is to put a message on your payment page allowing alternative payment requests to be made via e-mail, and having a clear user flow available upon request.

I’ve reached out to IndieCade organizers, and they have since started working on making clear there are alternative ways to pay.

Lightbars in Her Story

One part that’s interesting to analyze in a game is what the player’s presence is. In most modern games, players assume the role of a character, while in games like Candy Crush or Tetris, the player is simply that – the player. In some games, as Brendan Keogh pointed out in his analysis of SUPERHOT and Cibele, the player is intentionally kept out of the game world entirely or forcefully. One of my favorite recent games in terms of presence is Her Story, which has you assume the character of a detective (not very original) sitting behind a computer sifting through files (the player character does the same as the player, also not super original). But the light bars that reflect in the virtual screen of Her Story, those are something I hadn’t seen used like that.

The light bars, in the screens’ reflection, are inferred to be behind you in the physical world, your real-life reflection mixing with the reflection the game projects into our the real world. In a way, Her Story reaches into the real world and puts something there that isn’t real behind the player. It creates a weird sence of being enveloped by the game world, as your reflection and the game’s reflection meld together into what you see on your screen. It’s an extremely simple and subtle effect, but it created a sense of presence I’d expect of VR or AR, just like that.

Designed Language

I was thinking about language the other day and realized there’s a beautiful example of a system that is partially designed with intent, and partially grown through chaotic iteration. Most language has a design, but mostly has grown organically through a history of centuries and centuries. Anyway, I got curious about purely designed languages, such as Esperanto, and found an entire list of designed languages. There are two that stood out to me: Toki Pona, which is designed to be as small as possible, and Ithkuil, which is made to express human thought as accurately as possible. Where Toki Pona can be learned in days, a thought expressed in Ithkuil can easily take hours to construct.

The […] goal is to attempt the creation of what human beings, left to their own devices, would never create naturally, but rather only by conscious effort.

There’s an interesting notion there, design as opposition to organic and uncontrolled growth. I’m not sure whether I found anything to really dig at here, but I do know reading through the Wikipedia page for Constructed Languages is fascinating.

SUPERHOT and ripples

There’s one mantra that has guided me over and over and it is that every structural action you take causes ripples. I don’t want to go as far as to say I believe in the butterfly effect as much as 2015 horror title Until Dawn did. What I do believe in is that facilitating things pays off in the long run. If you worry that there are not enough developer meetups in your town, create one. If you want a certain game jam to exist, organize it. If you think games should be in gallerys, contact a gallery nearby. There’s no reason not to try, and it might just ripple further than you think.

A few years ago, fellow Vlambeer Jan Willem decided he had gotten bored of pretty much all AAA First Person Shooters, and that indies needed to make some First Person Shooters to create innovation. That led to him organizing the first 7DFPS in 2012, a seven day gamejam focused on the FPS genre. That, in turn, led to the jam being held again the year after. That jam saw a group of Polish developers creating a prototype of a first person shooter that played with time and movement. That first person shooter got popular enough that the developers decided to pursue it as a commercial project. That project came out today, and it’s named SUPERHOT. And it’s fantastic. It’s also priced at $25, which is awesome. Who knows. Maybe that’ll cause ripples.

Rabbitfood

Adriel and I were visiting Campagne Cafe in Seattle at the recommendation of a friend & got to talking about salads when Adriel ordered one. We ended up talking about how salads are referred to as ‘rabbit food’ by people in the US sometimes, and I thought it was interesting as the Dutch will call it ‘konijnenvoer’. The two of us being huge etymology fans, but the etymology here seemed obvious (did you know the English word “rabbit” also comes from Middle Dutch robbe?) – what caught us this time is that the term is usually used in a negative way, while salads are generally a healthy and good thing to eat.

The solution is obvious: since salads are a generally healthy and often low-calorie thing to eat, it triggers the holier-than-thou backlash in people who are not eating a healthy salad. The same effect exists when it comes to vegetarians, people on a diet eating small portions, and people that don’t drink. The salad one is extra devious when it comes to traditional and outdated gender expectations: it’s most commonly employed by men, and societal expectations nudges women to put more effort into looking good and thus getting into (delicious) salads, it’s mostly employed against women. In other words, men generally expect women to look slim, but they also poke fun at them for using diets or employing more considerate food choices to achieve that. That’s kind of messed up.

I asked a few female friends to see if they ever felt made fun of for eating a salad, and it ended up being a thing that was almost unanimous. I was told it’s a common annoyance in business and work environments, and in fact, some mentioned, it’s so common that men will make fun of ordering a salad, that some of them have started having salad parties away from men. Turns out that healthy food also tastes great, and that people generally feel great about being allowed to eat their food without being made fun of.

I, for one, have decided to just not poke fun at what people order in terms of food – whether it’s quantity, type or place. I hate it when people make ‘witty’ comments about me not drinking, and I realized phrases like ‘rabbit food’ kind of do the same to people that like salads. Next time, I’ll order some sort of salad too, because chatting with my friends sure seems to suggest they’re awesome.

Fire Emblem: Fates & Localisation

One of the most interesting conversations happening in games right now is the controversy surrounding Fire Emblem: Fates, a Nintendo game in the popular Fire Emblem series. While the game originally launched in Japanese markets in June 2015, the US version of the game came out today (as of this writing, there is no mention of a EU release date), and it’s already one of the most controversial launches in quite a while. The controversy is focused on the localisation of the game.

The goal of localization is to create an enjoyable, non-confusing play experience for the end user by paying heed to their specific cultural context. The suspension of disbelief is of utmost importance to the process; if a player feels as though the product was not meant for them, or if the localization creates confusion or difficulty in comprehension, this may break immersion and disrupt the player’s ability to continue the game.

In Fire Emblem Fates, a number of changes have been made to accomodate US audiences. To reflect the PEGI-12 rating and US culture, some dialogue has been changed to avoid reference to drugging a character and gay conversion, a mini-game in which your character – the leader of a warrior force traveling the lands – could pet other characters has been cut, some character personalities have been made to fit Western story archetypes and obviously, the game and audio have been translated.

These changes have particular parts of the internet up in arms about the purity of the game as art being lost. As they see it, the game is art, and as such should not be modified from how it was created originally, regardless of anything. Others argue that localization and game development are both expensive, and that as such an entertainment product should be optimized to be as profitable as possible – to ensure future games can be made.

What I do know is that Fire Emblem: Fates would’ve not existed without Nintendo funding it, that developer Intelligent Systems worked with Nintendo on creating and localizing the game through localisation studio Nintendo Treehouse, and that there is no reason to believe the developers feel their intention has been modified or thwarted.

This comes back to a larger issue: audiences believe they know the developers of their games – while very commonly, they have no idea. Somehow, it seems completely reasonable to people on the internet to claim ‘the purity of the games’ intent’ has been modified’, while the only people that can really say so are the developers and the publisher. Seeing the publisher made the choice to localise the game and signed off on it, I think the ‘purity’ argument doesn’t hold. If the average user doesn’t notice that the localisation changed things from the Japanese version, it seems like the localisation was a success. Those who want to play the game ‘pure’ can import the original Japanese version.

That doesn’t leave me ultimately conflicted: I believe a large strength of games is that it reflects the creators’ culture. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to reconcile that with localisation, but I do believe that having access to localised content while funding new projects is better than not having access at all. In an interesting move, groups of fans that didn’t just go and yell at things have created patches that allow the legally bought version of the game to be ‘patched’ to use a fan translation and restores the mini-games.

Only Nintendo has a good idea of how the controversy affects their bottom line, and what the majority audience of Fire Emblem: Fates is. I’m looking forward to seeing how it handles these issues in the future.

Devil Daggers

Sorath’s Devil Daggers released today and it is fantastic. It’s fast-paced, it’s brutal and it’s relentless. What is most striking about how relentless it is, though, is not the relentless action – the type of overwhelming mayhem Vlambeer uses in our own games to force flow in the player –  Devil Daggers is relentless in its identity. More than anything, it has become clear that independent titles that manage to relentlessly adhere to their internal style are amongst the only ones that really stand a chance. Games like Hotline Miami, Undertale, Her Story and The Witness are all games with their own flaws and strengths, but what they have in common is that they are succesful, and that they refuse to be anything but themselves. They have a sense of identity, and they understand that identity from start to finish.

I argued the other day that auteurship might have its potential pitfalls too, and this all seems to loop back to games and trees. Games grow an identity, and it’s up to the developer to recognize, amplify and communicate that identity. If you’re working on a independent game, see if you can find anything that looks, sounds or plays similar. If you can, you might want to think very carefully about where the identity of your game is.

And if you haven’t picked up Devil Daggers, you should do so.