Saturday, April 4, 2015

You've All Done Very Well! : DAW

Rowan at I Have Touched The Sky was musing recently on a perceived trend towards "meanness" among those who write about games, whether professionally or out of a supposed love for the medium. He bounced off a very good piece by Bhelgast , who was in turn reacting to a fascinating and thought-provoking interview with an anonymous "game developer in his forties".

There are some great quotes in that interview:

"Why do so many of the people who consume the things you make seem to hate the things they consume?"

I wonder that every day as listen to people in map or global or general chat complaining they're bored, that the game they're playing sucks or that some other game does everything so much better. I'm aware of the psychological pressures that mean some people really do feel trapped and without agency in the games they can't stop playing, while others crave attention and will do and say whatever they have to just to get it, but still...

"Most game journalists are lefties and a big percentage of the audience is right-libertarian."

Now, I have no way of knowing if that's statistically accurate but it certainly feels true. I wonder if it also applies to game devs and players? You might like to think that a huge, mass-market entertainment genre like gaming would attract a representative spread of aficionados from across the culture but:

"...look what our games are about. Killing each other. This is not a coincidence. We have the audience we deserve..."

Killing each other in the case of PvP games; killing AI-controlled semblances of each other, in industrial slaughterhouse quantities, if it's PvE. Either way it's surely going to have a significant effect on who's likely to want to play. Eldariel at StarShadow praises ESO, as others have before, for the way its quests can "...make you think about your choices and look past the obvious". Games that encourage or mandate that kind of "moral choice" always garner positive attention for doing so but the decision nearly always comes down to the same thing: "who do I kill?".

"The loudest, least reasonable voice dominates, and it seems distressingly possible that the loudest, least reasonable voice basically is our audience, writ large".

The squeakiest wheel gets the most grease, too. When you combine the above fear with the anonymous dev's earlier contention that "Most of the people I know in the industry, the higher up people, do not engage with videogame commentary at all" you begin to get a picture of a bunker mentality, through whose psychic walls only the loudest, most insistent cries have any chance of penetrating. Is it any wonder the quiet majority often ends up feeling unheard and, quietly, moves on?

The parts of the interview that revolve around presentation and perception mostly confirm things I already thought I knew or had heard about from other sources. Some of the detail is new, though, and disturbing. I hadn't realized that game devs had to be 'handled' by PR people during public interactions, much like screen actors or members of a boy band. I certainly had no idea, for example, that a games journalist doing a phone interview with a games dev could expect to have "a PR person on the line during [the] entire conversation", who would then call back later and request elisions and alterations.

As for the involvement, or even the existence of "videogame consultancies", well that was a completely new concept to me.

"Consultancies are mostly staffed with former game journalists, and so these men and women are being asked to come in and offer their expertise on what they think isn't working"

They appear to be something like flying squads of critics-for-hire, brought in to critique games in progress on the fly, submit a report to upper management and then vanish. It's not as if video games aren't hard enough to make already, just from a technical standpoint, without having the extra pressure of critical hired guns peering over your shoulder. I'm sure everyone does their best work that way...

There was another recent interview, much more lighthearted but also quite fascinating in some of the things it revealed about the process, in which three Daybreak longtimers looked back on mistakes they and others had made while working on the Everquest franchise. One idea they came up with, involving a zone with a timer that would be affected by player actions that would cause the zone to change dynamically, has been nine years in development and still hasn't made it to the Live game because, as Alan VanCouvering says, “It’s a lot of effort and we still haven’t figured out how to script all that”.

Something we probably all know but rarely acknowledge is that getting these things to run at all is a major achievement. Take an apparently simple concept like storytelling, for example. Many of us in this part of the blogging community, which is almost certainly one of the more thoughtful and positively-oriented corners of the wider gaming media web, have frequently criticized MMOs for their inadequate and unconvincing attempts to tell stories. I know I have.

The anonymous dev once worked on a proposed multi-player co-op game, something not even close to the scale of complexity of interactions between players that would be taken for granted in an MMO. It never got out of the studio. They couldn't even solve the problem of quest-sharing:

"It was all very dissatisfying, and illustrated to me and a lot of other people on the team how difficult it is even to pull off the simplest little thing in a multiplayer game that tries to include story".

He goes on to conclude that

"Games are impossibly complicated. I wish more gamers understood that".

It's a sentiment with which I can do nothing more than agree completely. I also think he's on the money with this final, philosophical apercu:

"Everything games are going through right now... is about this false struggle for authenticity and legitimacy....nobody wants innovation and creativity. Look at the sales of games that are genuinely interesting and innovative. Very few people buy them. Certainly not enough to fund an industry...Someone's not telling the truth about what they really like or what they really want".

Amen to that

Rowan's reaction to Bhelgast's piece and the original interview that provoked it was to announce the return of Developer's Appreciation Week. Several bloggers have picked up that ball and run with it, including Healing The Masses, The Mystical Mesmer, Harbinger Zero, GamingSF, Casual Agro and MMOQuests.

I've never been entirely comfortable with treating game developers as though they were analogous to rock or movie stars. The entire enterprise is far too collaborative to support that kind of adulation and idolatry and anyway I'm of an age when it just feels weird.

That's no reason to hold back from showing genuine and heartfelt appreciation for the countless hours of hard work, dedication, determination, imagination and creativity that just has to happen, day after day, year after year, simply to bring to life these amazing, magical, imaginary worlds in which we all spend so much of our time.

So, to all the developers, designers, artists, producers, coders, creators, technicians, managers and communicators of every kind, thank you! Keep on doing that thing you do and don't take it to heart when we take it apart. In this little corner of the blogosphere, at least, we only do it because we care.

I'll leave you with this. I think it sums up how I feel rather appropriately:




  1. "Someone's not telling the truth about what they really like or what they really want"

    I love this quote. I have spoken on this before - it's hard to explain that you want a *feeling* that you once had but you aren't willing to be put under the same circumstances that you were forced into to get that *feeling* in the first place. That is the evil nostalgia =)

    1. That's definitely part of it. Another part is cultural conditioning I think. We're all brought up to believe that innovation and progress are always good, that change should be welcomed, even sought, and that life is about meeting and overcoming challenges. Doing things "the same old way" is frowned upon and often derided. Being comfortable with the status quo is very rarely an acceptable stance to take.

      Couple those ingrained attitudes with a medium that relies on technology that changes and develops almost too quickly for most people to keep pace and it's not surprising that gaming is always running so fast it falls over itself. Most other kinds of games (card, board, sports) change relatively little over long periods of time and when they do it's in small increments that rarely change the overall experience. No-one expects basketball, cribbage or chess to come up with an entirely new game-mode every year or two, far less an entirely new game.

      If I had one wish for the next decade in gaming it would be for developers to concentrate on perfecting and iterating on the types of games they already see people enjoying rather than expending vast amounts of money, time and energy trying to create endless novelty. More of the same but better is what I'd like to see.

      True innovation will come when it comes. It can't be forced or bought by the yard.

  2. Actually, it's not strictly true that people won't buy innovation. They will, to the tune of $2 billion dollars. (What Microsoft paid for Minecraft, the most popular game in history).

    So I guess it comes down to, what does the average person mean by "innovation", and what does the creative mean? They are probably thinking of different things.

    The average person probably sees innovation as the Beatles or Nirvana. Something based on what went before, but also totally new. The next epoch in art. If it's something only slightly new, then they might think, why bother? And stick with the familiar.

    But for devs, and creatives, getting to the home run, the next epoch, requires those incremental steps, innovation in parts before the whole. But people -- and probably especially gamers, notoriously conservative apparently -- are wary of that, and so stick with the traditional.

    It's probably like that in any genre actually. I'm sure genre novelists probably confront the same problem. The genres that actually accept continual innovation, like literary novels, actually only command a miniscule portion of the market (despite critical presence).

    Add to that the fact that games costs so much to make, and the pressure is so vast, it's amazing that anything new is made at all.

    1. The Microsoft/Minecraft deal kind of makes the point of how I feel things should work. If you compare gaming with semi-comparable creative/entertainment industries like cinema or music, what tends to happen is that small, independent operators come up with the genuine innovations on a shoestring budget and then big companies come in to market a blander, safer, more approachable and usually very much more lavish version for marketing to the mainstream. Or else they just hoover up new ideas and ruin them. Both, usually.

      What doesn't generally happen in other mainstream entertainments is for the audience to demand ongoing, radical innovation from the very big, established producers. That seems to be unique to gaming and as we can see it doesn't really work there either.

      Also, the cost thing is interesting. The guy from Crowfall, Gordon Walton, recently said Star Wars Galaxies cost "only" $18 million to make and took "only" two years nine months to make. That's $23m in 2015 money and to me that's still a lot of money to make a video game. When you look at the sums being asked for on Kickstarter you have to wonder where those millions are going. Either that or wonder if any Kickstarted MMO will ever be playable at all. Something doesn't add up.

  3. I personally vote with my wallet, not unlike people who donate way more then an actual finished game is worth in a kickstarter campaign. I've been subscribed to ESO for about 8 months yet my played time is way less then most single player games I outright own. This is mainly because I really appreciate what the developer is doing. I do feel for devs yet also hate when they speak to players in a pandering fashion. So it's not entirely surprising to learn they have 'handlers'. WAR was annoying to the nth degree in that way - every dev update was full! of! exclamation! marks! after! every! sentence! because otherwise us dumb gamers couldn't possibly fathom their enthusiasm for their game.

    1. That's one of the reasons I remain "subbed" to SOE (now Daybreak) All Access. They have been my favorite MMO developer for the entire time I've played MMOs and I am happy to do my small bit in paying for that to continue. It's a bit like leaving a tip for good service.

      As for devs talking to the media and on social media that's a bottomless pit of possibilities, good and bad. As a lowly bookseller, back when we were owned by a medium-sized, listed company, we had very strict rules on talking to the press: don't do it. Currently we are encouraged to use social media but personally I would never talk about anything I do at work in other than the vaguest, most innocuous terms because I have no idea what might or might not get me into trouble.

      Obviously no-one wants to talk to me about my day job but almost any developer or designer working on video games could get a hearing from international gaming news media by making one phone call or sending one email. Or even one tweet. It must take a considerable amount of self-restraint and it's no wonder the PR departments are nervous - one inappropriate comment could potentially sink an entire project.

  4. Mrs. Bhapuss' toon reveals are the BEST THINGS EVAH... or, anyway, in the top ten.

    -- 7rlsy
    AB & Barfgate

    1. Yes, and my characters are relegated to the "ugly friend" role. I'm used to it...

  5. firstly, thanks for reading and for quoting me :)

    secondly, the quote about getting the audience they deserve is actually very sad. I don't think it's true, although I can understand why they said so. There are so many things that could be said about this, it's incredibly complex (why people behave like they do online) and not actually just confined to gaming (the recent Goodreads controversies etc). ugh...


Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide