Tag Archives: critical games

“For Fun” Indeed

To say that games cannot do whatever other media can do, that they are “just for fun” and have no other purpose, is to betray a profound contempt for games. (Raph Koster in response to a comment that games are played for nothing more than fun)

Very succinctly stated and in my opinion spot on.  As is evidenced by the nature of the appeal in Minnesota, there are still quite a few ill-informed and misconceived notions about the medium that need to be addressed.  While there is a fair bit of understanding that video games are the “political tool du jour” in this election year, that doesn’t make their attempts to restrict the rights and freedoms of a fledgling medium any less dangerous.

I’ve discussed this in the past, but I’ll say it again: comics sadly let themselves be pigeonholed back when they first became popular, and have now had to spend decades fighting that image because they didn’t fight it then.  Regardless of whether you like graphic, violent video games, I hope that we can all agree that in order to defend our rights as a whole, we need to defend these now.

The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one’s time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all. (H.L. Mencken)

Democratized Literacy

Raph Koster has an excellent post up right now discussing the notion of democratized literacy that is well worth the time to read. I’d have to say that I largely agree with him, and feel that he makes an important implicit point: the entire notion of literacy and literature is constantly evolving, and should not be assumed as a static and limited definition. The structure and limits of a definition can change and expand, as long as the idea remains.

There will be more substantial content “soon.” In the meantime, I hope readers are finding these links useful.

RPGs at Gestural Narrative

While I may go back and expand on this in the future, I wanted to mention this post about games, in particular role playing games, as a form of gestural narrative, which I found over at Roll the Bones. Rather than reinventing or reiterating the wheel, I would instead suggest you swing by the site and read it for yourself.

On an unrelated note, please be patient; we’ll be doing more with this site soon.

Improving the Middleware Licensing Model

[Before I get into the specifics of what I’m talking about, I’d like to preface all this by saying that I am not a business analyst, nor an economist. I don’t know the realities of how feasible this is, as I have not run any numbers to check that feasibility. More than anything, I am putting this out there as an idea, in the hopes that someone with the requisite expertise can actually run the numbers and (hopefully) put them into practice. — Nabil]

As I’m sure most of you are already aware, games are generally no longer made in someone’s basement on a shoestring budget. They are developed by teams ranging in size but rarely under a dozen at this point, and for budgets that are quickly rivalling the most expensive Hollywood blockbusters. While the size and scope of game development is now on par with that of movie development, we haven’t bothered to adopt many of the business models that are used within this sister entertainment industry, and not because they couldn’t be successful, but simply because those holding the purse strings are leery of trying something new on a $20 million game. This is only going to become worse as budgets continue to escalate into the $100 million and even $200 million game. Put simply, the financiers of the industry are becoming more risk-averse, and are going to become more conservative as time continues. If we’re going to find alternative models for game development, it needs to be done now if at all. Personally, one avenue I’d like to see pursued is a royalties-based licensing model.
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Creating our Citizen Kane

Recently, Chris Crawford has been making waves by claiming that games are dead at the hands of an industry that has forgotten how to innovate. I certainly wouldn’t make so bold a claim as that– Alyx in Half-Life 2: Episode 1 demonstrates a remarkable piece of advancement in characterization, artificial intelligence, and narrotological methodolgy. His own Storytronics project, from my understanding of it, represents a particularly potent potential for innovation in storytelling within the medium of video games. On the level of pure design, Will Wright’s Spore represents huge leaps in applied computer science, just as The Sims expanded the very boundaries of gaming. Meanwhile you’ve got Guitar Hero proving that a unique controller can make all the difference in the world, and still there’s Katamari making perfectly clear whether voice acting and realistic graphics are universally important or not, and even within the realm of realism, Crysis has within it the closest thing to a living jungle ever seen in a game.

Clearly innovation still abounds. Though we aren’t seeing completely unique concepts of play exploding into one new genre after another, I think it would be foolhardy to conclude that we are therefore at the end of the road for gameplay concepts. Please remember, folks, that film as a medium existed for nearly half a century before Citizen Kane, and it was realistically 50 years before they came up with most of the technology still used today. Comic books were popular for 50 years before The Watchmen . Painting has been around for 10,000 years or more, and only in the last hundred years has there been a Picasso.

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Design Metaphors and Philosophies

Much like every other medium, there are really no hard and fast rules to making a good game. “Add nice graphics,” or “Make sure the gameplay is fun” is hardly a schematic for making a good game, and could be roughly equated with back seat driving, telling someone to be sure to remember to use their turn signal when their turn signal is already on. That said, there have certainly been some attempts to give a basic grounding in what design principles work or don’t work in game design, by a great many individuals. There are a fair number of similarities between these authors (which is unsurprising, since they all read each other and come from similar backgrounds in the industry), but what I personally find more interesting is the differences between different authors, and what metaphors different designers have found most effective for them.

One of the earliest books I read this semester was A Theory of Fun by Raph Koster. While not explicitly about game design per se so much as a discussion about the fundamental concepts of fun and play, Koster does also explore the method he finds most effective for game design. His metaphor is based around his theory that games are fun because the brain is constantly seeking patterns to process. With that in mind, he tries to find new patterns for the brain to process by thinking of a verb that would encapsulate an action or series of actions, and then designs the game mechanic around that verb (or if the game is expansive enough, verbs). From a ludological perspective, this is a very appealing method of design, since the game mechanic quite literally designs itself. This does not leave much room for a narrative-centric game, however.
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Narratology vs Ludology; Pictorialism Revisited

Video games are currently facing a slew of legislation attempting to ban or criminalize the representation or discussion of some topics within video games — effectively censoring what can be made in games, or even what can be defined as a game. This is hardly the first time this sort of action has come up, however, if you look back to other contemporary forms of media. In the early 20th century, photography had split into factions on the nature of photography as an art form. The division was between a style known as pictorialism, which allowed and encouraged image manipulation and pre-composition, and straight photography, which disallowed any pre or post-processing manipulation of the image. About the extent that was allowed in straight photography was some dodging and burning applied during the printing process. These two factions each had an advocate in the public fora, notably William Mortensen on the side of pictorialism, and Ansel Adams on the side of straight photography. The debates often became heated between the two, with Adams becoming the winner by default after Mortensen passed away. There was also some dirty pool played on the part of the straight photographers, who deliberately removed any but the most cursory mention of pictorialism as a photographic movement in Beaumont Newhall’s work, The History of Photography from 1839 to the Present.

My personal contention is that this turn of events has significantly marred the public view of photography as an artform, encouraging the mindset that photography is simply an objective view of what is or was (which is not the case even within straight photography). It has taken decades and a fundamental paradigm shift in the realm of photography (ie digital manipulation; Photoshop, Painter, et cetera) to even make a dent in this perception, with considerable inroads still needing to be made. This denial of the more expressive, authorial form of the medium encourages the public view of the medium as a sort of stepchild to more accepted forms of art.
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A Wii Little Bandwagon

There has been a considerable uproar about Nintendo’s choice of name for their new system in the days following its announcement. I’m not going to get too much into the reasoning or opinions about the name, since those topics have already been addressed ad nauseam by most of the web. Instead, let’s look at some of the facts surrounding ‘Wii’. First of all, love it or hate it, everyone is talking about this new system, which is a marketing coup that is hard to ignore or downplay. This buzz is also mere days before the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), where they have scheduled a major press conference to announce further details about the console, meaning additional time in the media spotlight.

What’s particularly interesting, however, is that they also used this buzz to gloss over their announced release date, which is apparently not until Q4 of 2006, which was covered by only one major gaming news outlet. This will be confirmed and properly announced at the E3 press conference, but it’s still interesting. It is also worth noting that even amid all this attention, Nintendo has still remained tightlipped about the technical specifications of the system. They are, in essence, generating an unprecedented media buzz over a system that no one knows much about — we know that it uses an innnovative new controller, and that they’ve opted not to pursue High Definition with this console generation. That’s about it. There’s been no gameplay footage to speak of, though there have been several high profile companies signing on to develop for the Wii, and they even had a prototype mockup in a locked display case at their booth at the Game Developer’s Conference this past March. There has been a not insignificant amount of speculation about the specifications of the machine, but Nintendo themselves have been quite tightlipped about it.

I must say, I’m rather impressed by this little gambit. Satoru Iwata gave a keynote at the Game Developer’s Conference about disrupting the industry, and from the looks of things, that’s exactly what they’re aiming to do. My vote is more power to them: we need to shake things up a bit, and show that there is more breadth and depth to games and what games are than is commonly accepted today. There’s more to that than simply deconstructing what came before, just as there must be more than just a new marketing campaign. To borrow a trendy slogan, it is not enough to Think Different. We must also Do Different. Nintendo is certainly showing signs of putting deeds to their words, and I only hope that it proves to be true.

GDC Day 5

This was the last day of the conference, and you could definitely feel people were getting worn out. I didn’t manage to make it through the expo before it closed, which is unfortunate but not the end of the world, and frankly the panels I went to were more important. I managed to make it to all three panels I’d planned to attend, albeit I got into the first of the day about 20 minutes late due to the shuttle hitting some traffic. All three were about methods to create a new game company, and essentially different routes people took to do it.

The first session was about bootstrapping a company, and mostly worked on a “work for hire”/contracting system to raise cash for their internal projects. This was held from one of the guys at Demiurge, which is based in the Boston area, and it’s worked quite effectively for them. We swapped cards, and I’m hoping to make it down for one of their game nights in the not too distant future, for the socializing if nothing else (I definitely took the advice from my first panel this week to heart, about encouraging you to surround yourself with a brain trust of people smarter than you).

The second session was about taking a game from design to product as an independent developer. The speaker had started his own company, and put together a game for about $25,000, “and could have done it for $10,000 if I knew then what I know now.” This was definitely encouraging to hear, and while a lot of his advice was common sense to me, it was still reassuring to hear that it’s still possible to do what he did.

The third session took a different tack to starting a company, and went the venture capital route. It was held by the CEO of PlayFirst, which had just completed it’s second set of fundraising ($5million in the first round, and another $5million in the second). It was interesting to see the difference in presentation between the three meetings, with this third session being significantly more business-like and number crunching in nature. It is both more intimidating, and reassuring to know that the money is out there, though. I don’t think venture capital is the route I personally want to take, but I’m not averse to it, and managed to swap cards with a VC who was in the audience that focuses on startups in the tech and media sectors, for seed and series A funding (30k to 2million). This could potentially be immensely beneficial, should I choose to pursue this route (especially since one of the things they bring to the table is financial and business tutoring to help you get your business running solidly… that’s something you get out of the deal. They usually aim for the 5-15% range for a stake in the company, which is acceptable. I may actually put Kevin in touch with them for UberCon, especially since they’re based out of DC).

By the time the last session ended, the convention center was a ghost town compared to the crowds that had been there all week. It was strangely refreshing, though it did very little to bring closure to the event for me. I took the shuttle back to the hotel, and spent the rest of the evening playing Brain Age… my current brain age is 49 (lower is better, range is from 20 to 70)… lot of work to do on that. I completed about 12 sudoku puzzles, though.

GDC Day 4

This will be a shorter post, since I already talked a fair bit about the keynotes that were today. By today, I was pretty worn out (being an introvert by nature, the swarms of people I don’t know really puts a drain on me, even knowing that they’re all geeks like me), so other than the keynotes, I spent most of the day hanging out in the IGDA lounge, catching up online and just in general trying to relax. It was moderately successful, and even with that, I managed to collect still more business cards (I’ll hopefully be doing follow-ups with them when I get back home). Overall, I feel like I should have made more effective use of my day, but I really needed the down time, so I don’t feel too bad about it.

In the evening, my cousin Cortney called, and we grabbed some dinner at a tastey Indian place called the Tandoori Oven (for those in the San Jose area, it’s over on First, near the Repertory, and across the street from the Fairmont). That was fun as ever, and was nice to chat with her and in general relax a bit. After that, I did a circuit through “Suite Night”, and ultimately left after about half an hour (the place was PACKED, and I just wasn’t in the mood to deal with a bunch of drunks).