Thursday, July 31, 2014

Little Inferno, PISS, and Doing Real Things

In December of 2012, I played a game called Little Inferno. My purchase followed that of my friend Iceman's, and both were due to Chris Franklin's video on the subject (warning, total spoilers):

(By the way, if you aren't familiar with Chris Franklin's work, I highly recommend you rectify this situation.)

The game isn't perfect and one can argue over the price point for a 3-hour experience you'll probably never revisit, but it stuck in my mind and left me thinking. The obvious reading of the game is an attack on freemium games of the time-and-money-sink variety. I think one could make a pretty strong argument that its themes apply to games or trivial entertainments in general. But for me, the game is about growing up.

It's about existing in a safe, warm, comforting, structured, but ultimately meaningless world. It's about deliberately leaving that world behind for a dangerous, cold, unpredictable place where you have to find your own path and walk it alone, but where you can do things that are real.

Like many works with this sort of message, Little Inferno conveys an obnoxiously vague moral. It tells you to stop wasting time, there's a great big world out there, go do stuff, seize the day. But then it doesn't tell you how, or give you any idea what to do.

There was a time in my life when I was utterly sick of doing things that didn't matter. I wanted desperately to do something real. But I had no idea where to start. I cast about for quite a while, frustrated and depressed, before I started to figure it out. Back then, a work like Little Inferno would have struck quite a chord with me - but would have left me in no better position than before. Telling me, back then, to stop wasting time and do real things - I would have responded with something like, "YES! I really want to do that! Now can you please tell me how?"

It's part of the point, of course, that nobody can hold your hand with this stuff. Little Inferno is very clear on this. But that's a bit of a cop-out, really. I think there's some legit tools and guidance that can be taught to help people set off in the right direction without trying to guide them by the nose. (My own entry in the "stop wasting time" genre has a few tips, though I acknowledge it's only a start and something I may return to better flesh out in the future.)

In an odd way, the same topic is covered by a very different game. One I found out about via Rock Paper Shotgun, and which you can download free for Windows here. And it's called PISS.

It's an off-putting name, yeah?

PISS is a short point-and-click adventure game set in a fascinating world. Here's one tidbit: the gods grew tired of dealing with mortal affairs, so they granted some of their powers to their priests to serve in their stead, with the result that religion has become fully commercialized as the churches charge for miracles. I'd have loved to learn more about this setting, but the game really just serves as a prologue to a full story that will probably never be completed. The ending occurs when you finally uncover the nature of the terrible secret of the player character's past, leaving unresolved the exploration of why it happened and what must be done to set things right. I'd love to see the creator put this up to tease a Kickstarter campaign to finish the full story.

But the reason this game stuck in my head had less to do with the setting and more to do with the central theme. A theme which, believe it or not, is actually captured in the name, and is explained in-universe by a bard writing a poem with the same title. When pressed as to why he'd call a poem "PISS", he says the following:

"You know the feeling late at night, when you are desperate to urinate? When your bed is comfortable and warm, and the rest of the world is cold, and you want to stay in bed? That's how writing poetry is for me sometimes. I am so full of ideas, absolutely bursting with them, and I really want to share them with the world. But they're comfortable inside my head, and to pen them into verse is like getting out of the warm blankets. I know I'm not going to be able to rest until I have gotten out of the warm, comfortable place, but I still put it off. That really frustrates me sometimes - I know it is my own laziness holding me back, but I still lay there, desperate to piss, but unwilling to get up. So in a sense, I guess my poem is about writing poetry, even though it's about taking a leak."

Just like Little Inferno, PISS is about finding the courage to leave behind the comfortable-but-unsustainable in favor of the risky-but-rewarding. But by tying in creativity, it offers a major hint as to the true solution. Take the half-baked ideas you have and follow through on them - bring them into the big scary world where they may fail, but where even failure begets growth and learning. Build something - anything. Put it where people can see it. And you will become stronger.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

A Parenting Lesson from Athena

One day when my brother was a young boy, he decided to expand his meager collection of Nintendo games. Super Mario Brothers and The Legend of Zelda were great fun, but Brother Professor wanted something new.

So he enlisted the aid of Mama Professor, who took him to Toys R Us. With maybe fifty dollars to his name, Brother Professor surveyed the $35 NES games, inspecting the boxes of the games he did not already own. He found the one that looked the coolest, boosted by its ties to Greek mythology, and took it home. Unfortunately, Athena was the game inside.

When he began playing, my brother quickly realized it was an awful, awful game. Graphically ugly with no plot to speak of, featuring poorly designed levels and suffering from major control issues, the game didn't even have any real connection to Greek mythology besides the name.

Brother Professor tried hard to like the game. It had been a major investment, and who knew when he could afford another one? But Athena was just too horrible. He couldn't do it. He gave up. From then on, there was a self-enforced rule in the Professor household: rent before you buy.

Decades later, I was talking to Mama Professor and asked if she remembered when my brother had bought that one awful, awful game. "Athena," she said immediately. I was impressed she remembered the title so easily. It turned out she remembered much more than that.

She'd been watching my brother inspect the game boxes. She knew this couldn't possibly be a good way to pick out a game. She wanted to tell my brother to check reviews or talk to someone who had played the game. She wanted to forbid him from buying the game until he knew it was good. But she didn't.

My mother held her tongue, and let my brother make his own mistake. And thus instead of resenting her treading on his freedoms, he learned a valuable lesson. A lot of parenting, my mother said, is knowing when to keep your mouth shut.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Achievements are Broken; Here's How to Fix Them

Fundamentally, an achievement is just a publicly-viewable checkmark indicating the completion of a particular action. The Xbox 360 added points gained from each achievement that accumulate into a total across all games. The PlayStation 3 followed suit, as did Apple's GameCenter. (Notably, Steam did not. Steam achievements have no point value and do not add to a cumulative total.)

In order for these points to be meaningful, there has to be some kind of equality across games. The 360 mandates that each full retail game must provide exactly 1000 points worth of achievements (it's a bit more complicated than that, but for our purposes let's keep it simple). The PS3 has a similar rule, though its numbers are obfuscated (for convenience here, I shall refer to their point value as also 1000). This prevents oneupmanship between game developers, who might otherwise put out games with ever-increasing amounts of achievement points available, which would quickly render the running total meaningless and destroy much of the marketing value of achievements.

So what happens when a game launches with bad achievements? It's become standard for games to be patched, but it's unusual for achievements to be patched, and even then it's generally just to avert controversy via a cosmetic change. Because of the need to keep a consistent point total, you can't add new achievements without removing old ones - and removing or replacing an achievement is almost certain to upset people. No matter how ludicrous the achievement, somebody out there has it - and they don't want the proof of their hard work stricken from the record. If you leave it up on their profile but make it no longer available for new players to get, then the new players may feel slighted that the opportunity to earn it has been taken away from them.

But the inability to add new achievements is severely limiting. It means you can't fix problem achievements (of which there are plenty). It also leaves out a powerful way to grow a game - just look at how Valve has kept Team Fortress 2 fresh by adding, among other things, batches of new Steam achievements. (Steam achievements don't have points, so they can freely be added without running afoul of point imbalance.)

Monday, July 28, 2014

Amazon Opens 3D Printing Store

So, Amazon has opened a 3D Printing Store. The selection's pretty limited, though, and you can't print arbitrary designs. It's hard to get excited about this in a world that already has shapeways, sculpteo, pinshape, etc.

I've honestly found it difficult to get excited about consumer 3D printing in general, because what I consider to be the obvious use case - printing your game characters - is incredibly underserved. You can print your World of Warcraft characters, you can print your Minecraft worlds, and that's about it. (You used to be able to print your Rock Band 2 characters, but that stopped when Rock Band 3 came out.) I would pay a lot of money for a print of my City of Heroes main, or my character from the Saints Row games. This would be great even for games where you just customize an existing character - I can get a Team Fortress 2 Medic, but I can't get him wearing the right hat.

I hope we get to that world someday. I do enjoy iconic, established characters from beloved games, but I have much more personal attachment to the characters I've actually created - they've been imbued with a piece of myself. Nobody else has one quite like them.

Relatedly, with Nintendo coming out with game-enabled figurines of their cross-game characters called "amiibos", it's a perfect time to ask again - why can't I get a print of my Mii? More than one of the amiibo-using games allows you to play as a Mii, so why not sell amiibos of actual Miis? I know it can't possibly look as nice as the other amiibos, but it would be yours in a way the others can't be. I know I'd get one.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Sony to Lure Nintendo Gamers with a Fractured Platform

Wait, Sony's plan to win back Wii gamers is to sell them games they can already buy, but charge more for them?

"...House is keen for Sony to remaster old PlayStation games for this new audience on PS4. We're already seeing the fruits of this with The Last of Us Remastered on PS4, due out soon. Naughty Dog's game launched on PS3 in June 2013, and Sony believes there are a significant number of PS4 owners who never played it."
Wesley Yin-Poole, Sony: PS4 targeting Wii owners who skipped PS3 and Xbox 360

If the greatest hits of the PS3 are a substantial draw for the PS4, then maybe the console should have been - oh, I don't know, backwards compatible? Maybe they shouldn't have fractured the PlayStation platform to begin with, so that they wouldn't need re-releases to try to patch it back up.

I'm sure somebody thought it was a great idea to repackage these games and sell them for launch prices again. But this comes off as an argument that now is a great time to buy a PS3, not a PS4. You can get one and the same games they're using to sell the PS4 for a fraction of the cost, with a much larger library of other games available to try out next. And if you're coming from the Wii, the graphical jump from SD to HD will be plenty impressive - way bigger than the jump from PS3 to PS4.

I don't know who this is really for. If you already have the games, there's no real reason to pick them up on PS4 again. If you don't, it's still better to get them on PS3. A backwards-compatible PS4 would have been more appealing for new and existing customers alike.

"It seems like [a] crazy decision. Consoles gain value as their library grows. They also gain brand loyalty. If I have a bookshelf full of Xbox games at home when my Xbox dies, then it's a safe bet I'll just replace it with a new Xbox even if there are other, cheaper, more popular, more reliable devices out there. I'm tied to the machine by the library, and the longer I'm with the machine the bigger the library gets. It's almost like a cell phone where the penalty for cancelling the service grows over time. A lot of other businesses would LOVE to have this kind of soft, incremental lock-in.

But if the new generation isn't backwards compatible then I'm cut off from that library. The incentives tying players to the platform are gone. When you break compatibility you're setting your customers free to dabble with the competition and begin a process of gradual lock-in with them."
Shamus Young, Experienced Points: Why the PS4 Doesn't Do PS3 Games

For my part, I still have no PS4 and I still have no concrete plans to buy one.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Boobs are Not the Enemy: Videogames and the Male Gaze

Fancy CarSuppose I'm making a film about street racers. The film's characters have a great appreciation of cars, so when they first see the fancy new car that just might enable the hero to win the race, there's an establishing shot with a long, slow pan across the car while dramatic music plays. Later, there's a scene of the villain in his fancy car which the audience is seeing for the first time. There's again a slow pan and dramatic music, even though there aren't any other characters around. This time, the scene is establishing what a badass the villain is - not to any other characters, but to the audience itself. The way the camera lingers over the car's lines isn't showing a character's appreciation. It's to allow the audience to experience their own appreciation.

Probably the people watching my street racing movie like fancy cars, so they will appreciate the scene with the villain's car. But now suppose I make another movie about a small-town high school teacher rallying the community for a local cause. When I first show the teacher driving to work, I use the same cinematic tricks I did in the other film - slowly panning along the car while playing dramatic music. Then the teacher gets to the school, and the story moves on.

Someone who really likes cars may still enjoy this scene, but to most people it's going to be distracting at best. The car isn't important to the story at all - why is it receiving so much attention? Why would I assume that the audience of this completely different film would be into cars? If I keep doing this, with more and more films on various subjects all treating cars in this same way, people who don't care about cars may start to get annoyed with my work. They might feel that I'm being exclusionary in my film-making, privileging part of the audience over the rest for no clear reason. Plenty of people aren't obsessed with cars - why can't they enjoy my low-budget monster movie or my railroad magnate biopic too? Why do I insist on shoving in these totally distracting segments that damage the experience for them?

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Uninformed Economic Voters

Recently, your friend and mine Cliff Bleszinski wrote an essay defending microtransactions in general and EA in specific. There are a lot of things to be said about this essay - some of which are said expertly by Jim Sterling here, and some of which touch on concepts discussed by Shamus Young writing a couple of years ago about Bobby Kotick here and here.

Cliff's main point is that game developers exist within an economic landscape, and as such they will do what makes them money and avoid what doesn't. As consumers, our job is to vote with our wallets, supporting what we like and boycotting what we don't.

In response to this, I'm going to finally post something I wrote back in October 2011. I never put it up before because I couldn't find a way to turn it into a full article. It's really just one simple idea. But as foreseen by Nathan Grayson and proved by the recent SimCity debacle, if anything it's more relevant today than it was a year and a half ago.

Here it is.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Tropes and Trolls: When the Game Is Not What You Think It Is

In games where the player character has a specific goal - save the Princess, escape the testing facility, defeat a nemesis - the player is presumed to share this goal. But even if the narrative does a good job lining up player motivations and character goals, there's still a wrinkle. The character wants to accomplish something, and the player wants to experience accomplishing that thing. This is why we bother playing games at all, rather than just watching the endings on YouTube. If the player had the exact same motivations as the character, they'd cut whatever corners they could to beat the game as quickly as possible.

The humor in this video comes from the tension between Mario's goals and the player's goals. Of course Mario would want to just warp straight to the Princess and save her immediately. But for the player that would mean skipping the entire game, which would completely defeat the purpose of playing it in the first place. As long as Mario has that warp whistle in his inventory, there's dissonance between what the player wants to do and what Mario would want to do.

So what happens when games create that dissonance on purpose?

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The GameStop/OnLive Debacle: How I Like To Think It Happened

GameStop Underling: Huh. That's interesting.

GameStop Boss: What is?

Underling: These Deus Ex: Human Revolution games Square Enix shipped us include a voucher for a free OnLive copy of the game. I don't think they mentioned they were gonna do that.

Boss: What? OnLive? But we just bought our own digital delivery game service - Impulse! That makes OnLive our competitor!

Underling: I suppose it does.

Boss: We better open the boxes and remove the vouchers.

Underling: Wait, what?