Friday, July 12, 2019

Bubble Pop

Going off on a complete tangent, a few posts ago I mentioned a website called I said I probably ought to take a look at it more often because it seemed interesting. For once I actually followed up on something and put it in my Feedly, erm... feed... where it's rapidly become the source of the some of the more interesting game-related posts I read.

Being an MMORPG enthusiast with only limited enthusiasm for other genres, I've never followed any of the big, general gaming sites like Kotaku or Polygon or PCGamer. I only really look at them if there's a link in a Massively:OP news item or on someone's blog that I'm reading.

I do like to read commentary and interviews from the more business-oriented end of the media, when I happen across them. You often find out all kinds of things that way. Back when he was active, John Smedley of SOE/Daybreak fame (or infamy, if you prefer) regularly said things to games business journalists and, indeed actual business journalists, that he wasn't saying in interviews intended for a more general audience of players and customers., though, seems to be more of a magazine format with a focus on meta-concerns rather than reviews or individual products. The pieces are well-written and nicely laid-out, usually short enough not to outstay their welcome yet long enough to get into some satisfying level of detail.

The editorial policy is plaeasantly neutral and matter-of-fact, something I greatly appreciate. No-one seems to be testing out material for their open-mic slot at Friday's comedy club. (I know, I can talk, right?).

The writing isn't bland, though. There are plenty of opinions expressed. Most days I could easily spin a post or two out of something I've read there. Today I'm going to do exactly that. I'll try to keep it short.

Look at those key assignments: ToggleShowObjectBounds ctr-shft-O. Come again??

The post in question is called "The industry is still "developing games in a bubble", a quote from the interviewee, FlavourWorks' Jack Attridge. Jack is primarily talking to to promote awareness of his company's first game, an "interactive live action thriller" called "Erica", whose usp seems to be that rather than using CGI it employs an actual camera pointed at an actual actor, because "...all you do is point the camera at an actor and you get all this nuance for free".

He also talks about the way the game functions in terms of player interaction with the content:
"The game is structured much like a film, albeit one where the audience can interact with what's happening on the screen throughout. And that interaction uses the studio's proprietary touch-based technology, meaning players can control the game with either the PS4 touchpad or, more likely, a smartphone (Erica is part of Sony's PlayLink series)" and how it will be "geared more towards "emotional drive than skill," relying on engaging the player with a compelling character and story that allows them to choose how they want to progress."
I think he's pretty much saying they're making an interactive movie. How much of a "game" it will be is harder to assess.

I've been saying for years that the real future of the broader gaming medium - outside of what we currently see in Mobile, that is - will be movies people can feel they are part of. I'm amazed we aren't there yet. There have been attempts in the past, some of which drew significant general media attention, but by and large things have carried on much as they always have - games are aimed at gamers and most people, even though they may play games for many hours a week, do not think of themselves that way.

The bulk of the article addresses what has been the fundemental problem for gaming for the entirety of it's existence. Well, almost. Arguably just about anyone could pick up and play "Pong". Even by the time Space Invaders appeared, with its two-button controls and one-screen gameplay, though, a line had been drawn between those who "got it" and those who didn't.

One of the first comics Iremember reading on my own.
I had nightmares. Still have the original somewhere.
I grew up reading comics. My mother had to read American comic-books to me before I could read them myself. I read British comics, newspaper strip cartoons and eventually bandes-dessinees and graphic novels. I learned their languages and dialects without consciously considering what that entailed.

Occasionally I'd meet people who were intrigued by someone who enjoyed and respected a form they'd previously dismissed as beneath their intellectual level, or simply not something they'd considered at all. I tried the usual things - giving them issues I thought were particularly smart or clever or iconic. Trying them out on things i thought were straightforward and of good quality, easily accessible.

It never worked. Even with good will and genuine interest they would always get hung up on some aspect I would barely notice, sound effect bubbles and advertisements being the usual culprits. If we could get past that things only got worse.

People couldn't follow the story because they couldn't figure out what order to read the speech bubbles. They did read the lengthy blocks of descriptive text that most comics readers merely scan or skip because those look like proper writing.

As untrained readers, they missed almost all the nuances in all the text because they had no idea that a particular, hand-lettered "font" implied a specific emotion, let alone that, because the font was hand-written, which emotion it might mean would depend on who the letterer was, which was why his or her name was in the credits, which of course, meant nothing to them anyway.

They didn't understand that dotted bubbles leading to the big bubble meant you were hearing the character's internal narrative or that a blue outline to the speech bubble meant a cool or cold demeanor. These and a thousand other factors meant that I might as well have given someone with a grade C GCSE in Spanish La Pais and asked them what they thought of the op ed piece. They could understand a lot of the words but they had no clue how they fitted together.

And that's without even considering the whole visual language of narrative line art, which has no equivalency with reading but much with cinema. It was a hopeless task and I soon gave up trying.

Instead, if I thought someone was genuinely curious, I would recommend they read Scott McLoud's briliant "Understanding Comics", which treats the whole processs as though you were learning a brand new language from scratch, which is precisely what you are doing. Of course, then they'd have had to buy a copy, which they never did, so that didn't work too well, either.

As the piece summarizes so well, the exact same issues apply to gaming. I'm not going to rehash them here - go read the piece and also watch the Conan O'Brien "Clueless Gamer" video. It's highly instructive. I'll even put it here so you don't have to click away.

Now, "Clueless Gamer" seems to be something of a regular slot on The Conan O'Brien Show, which I rarely if ever watch, so it's hard to tell how much of an act O'Brien is putting on here. Regardless of authenticity, his reactions are very much in line with what I'd expect of someone who knows, at best, the very basics of how to move and shoot. A lot of genuine new players, of course, would have no clue how to even do that much.

He gets immediately de-railed by what the game won't let him do and by how arbitrary and ridiculous those red lines are. If you try to make your characters look and feel like human beings with emotions, how can you take that seriously when they utterly ignore interactions that would send a real person into fight-or-flight mode in moments? If you create visually rich, realistic environments, how can you expect anyone to become involved with them when almost everything is inert and normal physical laws don't apply?

Let's take opening doors as an example. MMORPGs are maddeningly inconsistent on this. In some games opening a door is virtually a mini-game of its own. I've known games where it takes three separate actions to open a door. Other games simply omit doors altogether, which makes it all but impossible to consider the society depicted as analagous to the one it attempts to show.

As Jack Attridge says, 
"...99% of games end up being about traversal, which is really weird because it means all our challenge, all our gameplay comes out of your exploration of a 3D environment. That's really funny because we don't really think about that in the real world. We don't think about how complicated it is to walk up to a door and open it -- that's second nature for us.". 
 But almost nothing that's required of a player in an MMORPG is "second nature". All of it has to be learned.

When we talk about MMORPGs being all about the journey not the destination, what we tend to mean is that they're about learning. Learning the mechanics, learning the systems, following the story, discovering the world. We don't mean an actual journey but as Jack points out, mostly that is what we undertake when we choose to level up.

Sixteen sub-menus, two dozen gear slots, a stat list that's too long to fit in the window... and that's your main character screen.

The leveling process is like a road-trip movie. You begin at home and an unrolling set of unexpected and unplanned circumstances send you careening off across the countryside, increasingly out of your depth and alienated from all you know, dealing with situations and events that become ever more bizarre and threatening. Along the way you meet a whole bunch of strangers, some real (players) others fictional (NPCs), sme of whom you fight, some of whom you help, some of whom team up with you and join you on your journey for a while.

But is that what players who've never played an MMORPG before expect? Or want? Conan O'Brien, playing Resident Evil 6, soon hits the point where he doesn't want to explore hallways and talk to NPCs - he just wants to kill some zombies. In MMORPGs, as is often discussed, what new players want to do is either play with their friends or play the part of the game everyone else is playing.

But they can't do that because a) they can barely understand how to get their character to move in a straight line b) almost nothing they encounter makes any logical sense and c) if they do manage to get past all that, the game they want to play is on the far side of the world and the only way to get there is walk.

In come all the leg-ups and boosts to skip the journey part, but without going through the journey the destination makes even less sense and the mechanics and systems are even more obtuse and impenetrable. If it's so confusing to play a Level 1 character through a tutorial that more people give up than carry on, how must it be to start at close to the end-game with no more understanding than that?

Gamers don't see this. They already have the transferable skills to bootstrap themselves into a new game and learning the specifics is something they expect and often relish. They are frequently dismissive of new players who don't demonstrate those abilities, assigning such behavior to laziness, ineptitude or plain stupidity.

The helpful players, who try to explain and answer questions, almost always assume a far greater pre-knowledge than the floundering newbies posses. Not just knowledge of mechanics but of the jargon and argot of the specific game and of gaming in general. Even the helpful answers are incomprehensible.
Rider of Icarus has an excellent in-game help utilty, although all I want to know about duels is how to avoid them.

This, at least in part, is why Mobile Games are flourishing while Console and PC games remain, as Jack Attridge says, locked in a bubble of their own invention. One thing he may be wrong about is the absence of games that would suit his mother, who wanted only to "have this nice quiet village by the sea" in a God game he worked on. There are plenty of games that would let her do something like that - but you still need to be a "gamer" to play them, because console and PC games are made for gamers, not for game-makers' mothers. Mobile games have a broader perspective.

Obviously I don't have any answers to any of this. I just find it facinating to observe. I also find it fascinating that some people don't need any help or assistance to read a comic or paly a game. They look at it, it interests them, they teach themselves how it works by trial and error and never look back.

No publisher or developer needs to court those people. They're not the problem. Yet. They will become the problem, though, because soon they will become The Audience and that's who pays the bills. So the comic book readers and the gamers get what they want and everyone stays comfortably in the bubble together, while outside everyone else either ignores them or points and laughs.

Until something comes along to pop that bubble. It's happened, astonishingly quickly and overwhelmingly, to comics.

When I was growing up, comics were just recovering from the congressional hearings spurred by the scare stories of Dr. Frederick Wertham. The 60s saw a recovery in popular confidence in superheroes driven by the huge success of the high-camp Batman TV Series. The 70s saw the medium follow cinema into dark introspection but throughout all the changes the popular opinion of graphic narrative art in general (in America and the UK, it should be said, not necessarily in other cultures around the world) remained locked at the intellectual level suited to lowbrow adults, slacker adolescents and impressionable children.

Probaly the simplest of all the AA trees. I've been playing since launch and I can immediately spot something there i don't uinderstand. How have I got seven unassigned points in a tree that's 25/25 and locked?

The sea-change to those presumptions and the acceptance of the superhero as a viable dramatic protagonist did not come from within comics. It came from other media using the raw material comics produced, morphing it and feeding it back to a much larger and more profitable demographic in a form that audience could readily understand.

With Avengers Endgame breaking global box office records and on track to become the world's bigest-grossing movie of all time, that process is complete. Superheroes are as mainstream as it's possible to get and they will stay that way. Superhero comics, though? They're pretty much where they always were.

Gaming is set on exactly the same path - or journey, if you will. The hungry maw of mainstream entertainment, having glutted itself on novels, non-fiction, biography, real-life stories and now superheroes is in pursuit of the next seam of gold.

Gaming movies have had a poor reputation until now but that's slowly changing. It might take a decade. It might take two. It will happen. It's not going to change the way games are made, though. That bubble's going nowhere.

What it might change is what comes after games. Something that's neither wholly passive nor wholly active. Something you live rather than play or watch. We're nowhere near that, yet. When we get it, will we want it? And will we get a choice?

I really didn't manage to keep this short, did I? Oh, well...


  1. You should see what Pokemon Go did around my part of town.

    A whole myriad of factors came together to make it a mainstream phenomenon. It was simple and easy to understand (gamers might even call it simplistic, but the design made it easy for even non-English speaking grandmas to grasp.) Our highly tech connected tiny island meant that everyone owns a cell phone (or three), mobile network services are available, relatively reliable and affordable. The compactness of the urban dot we crammed into meant landmarks and Pokestops at every street corner and then some, making the pace of the game and rewards come fast and furious. The competitively FOMO part of our culture meant everyone wanted to check out the new fad to see what all these mysterious crowds were up to...

    First everyone was playing it. Then as attrition kicked in, the students and working adults actually dropped out first, having many other things (and more complex games) to pull away their time, leaving only the most hardcore dedicated to PoGo to continue on. The population of players is now primarily at least 50% retirees who have found that the particular game design favors them to pull ahead in power.

    The recent introduction of Wizards Unite was truly interesting to observe. This game appeals more to actual gamers, utilizing more gamelike mechanics like skill trees, turn-by-turn combat and strategic spells. It utterly bamboozled a good many existing PoGo players in our locale, our chat groups filling up with basic questions. By definition, someone willing to join a specialized chat group to socialize and look for tips is already not-so-casual.

    An elderly relative, who plays PoGo like a hardcore fiend, gives up on the more gamelike aspects and hands me their phone to select skills for them. And I would say said relative is already more toward the self-motivated side of the spectrum, with some very patient coaching and support on my part.

    I am quite confident that a great number without a support network gave it a go, had their mind explode on them and promptly went back to what they already knew in PoGo. Then there are those who are PoGo faithful like the WoW faithful and would never consider installing a second game.

    HPWU numbers will never reach PoGo numbers, it's baked into the game design. But yes, the experiments to reach the mainstream are out there. It's out in the mobile arena. It's out there in interactive movie 'games' on Netflix - Minecraft Story Mode made the port over, and that Black Mirror one I haven't yet tried.

    There's an FMV game called Late Shift that straddles mediums - I'm exposed to it via more gamer oriented networks Steam, PS4, Humble Bundles, but the website apparently describes it shown in film festivals and as a cinematic experience where a collective audience votes with their cell phones too. The content of the film itself is not particular stellar and more workmanlike, but I find it notable for just how -seamless- the transitions after each choice can feel.

    I do question if the inevitable will be to live this new thing, rather than play or watch. If we do one day as a culture embrace screens in front of our eyes, or some form of always-on augmented reality, then yes.

    But for now, the screens are still separate from us. They are portable, yes, we grasp for them at every juncture we need them, yes, but we still have the wisdom for now, to put them down and see an unaugmented reality.

    1. Great comment. That's very much what I was getting at but the empirical evidence is what I was mising. When I was researching "interactive movies" for the post yesterday, just searching that term brought up so many apparently unrelated things that I ended up not linking to anything at all. I saw some stuff about the Netflix version and Black Mirror and Late Shift, but other links that claimed to be the 20 best interactive movies were full of what we often call "Walking simulators" like What Remains of Edith Finch. I couldn't find the link to a BBC review of a very-well publicised interactive crime/detection game from a few years back and I couldn't see the name on any lists. The whole field seems muddled and confused right now, which is just as you'd expect of a medium still in its birth pangs.

      Niantic have totally dropped the ball on Harry Potter. Pokemon is 100% a gamers IP, Harry Potter is exactly the opposite. They managed to break Pokemoon out of the niche it should have been stuck in and make it into a global megaphenomenon for pretty much anyone, then took a product where that work had already been done for them and forced it back into a gamers-only box.

      The ARG format is another tangent, though. I own a mobile phone and a tablet but I never use them in a way that would allow me to play ARGs. I keep them switched off unless I specifically need to use them and when I have used them I switch them of again. Consequently the ARG format doesn't work for me. I can see how very natural it must be for most people, though. It's pushing at an open door.

      As for "immersion" and "virtual reality", we are waiting on the tech. Never going to happen while developers are expectign people to strap things the size of bricks to their heads. Google had the exact right idea with Google Glass, I always thought (and they are quietly pursuing that, too, so I wouldn't count it out yet). Even then, though, it's spectacles and people are vain. Implants sound too science fiction to consider but after fifty years of reading SF I have to say that most things that sound weird end up sounding quite ordinary when they happen and so many things that I read about have indeed happened. Body modification is hugely on trend now, at least in the UK and US. Compared to some of the things people are happy to have done to their bodies in a high street salon nowadays I don't think a jack in the skull is going to put a lot of people off, should the tech ever arrive.

    2. Well publicized crime/detection game... Contradiction: Spot the Liar? Her Story, perhaps? The Madness of Doctor Dekker? Possibly one of the Tex Murphy series of detective adventure click-em-ups?

    3. I thought it was "Her Story" for a moment but it's not. I also thought it was something to do with The Black Dahlia but nope.

      It was a good few years ago, at least five I'd say. I remember there was a piece on the BBC website about it (not that unusual, they cover video games quite regularly) and I heard it reviewed, with a brief excerpt of someone playing it, on a BBC arts radio program. Or I think I did. I might have dreamed it.

      Oh, wait, I've got it! I'm thinking of L.A. Noir from 2011. It got the big attention because it was from Rockstar Games, I think. It's listed more as an action-adventure game but all the mainstream comentary I heard was about the video segments using the then-new tech:

      "The game is notable for being the first to use the newly developed MotionScan technology developed by Depth Analysis. MotionScan uses 32 surrounding cameras to capture actors' facial expressions from every angle. The technology is central to the game's interrogation mechanic, as the player is required to use the suspects' reactions to questioning to judge whether or not they are lying. Over twenty hours of voice work was recorded for the game." (Direct from the Wikipedia page).

      Okay, we can all sleep easy now!

  2. I've long been interested in this topic, my Mum and Aunt have been playing World of Warcraft as long as I have (almost, since late 2007). They have multiple capped characters and happily repeat the same story content and daily quest zones on all of them in turn. They never do group content unless we invite them to a dungeon. They are far from beginners, but even now there are fundamental aspects of the game that they do not get - whenever they play in the same room as me I'm forever having to correct their viewing angle. They seem to end up looking at a very steep downwards angle a lot. They will not spot monsters if they are looking for something else, just blundering into mobs. They get lost *a lot*, if we give unclear directions (take the stairs up) they'll quite possibly not work out where to go, if there are clear directions or a mini-map ping they'll get it. I'd give anything to see for a moment what they see on screen - I just think their lack of decades of playing FPS, RTS and mmorpgs intensively as I have leaves them much less equipped to absorb and analysis all the complex colour patterns on screen.

    It's the same as you wrote with the super-simple talent 'tree' in WoW now, choose a talent among three every 15 levels or so, they never have a clue what to pick for their class/spec. That said they do still have a lot of fun playing and they do always have more capped characters than us...


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