‘The Industry’ Category Archives


Great Read: The Cult of the Peacock

by David McD in General, The Industry

A great read recently discovered about the conflict between design artistry and accessibility: The Cult of the Peacock. The author’s opening words describe it well:

It’s easy to forget that at one time all videogames had manuals. I used to like reading manuals. Manuals were cool. Now, instead of manuals, we have interactive tutorials. They take about fifty times longer to produce, three times longer to consume, and players hate them so much that their highest aspiration is to become completely transparent. Currently I spend most of my waking hours developing them. It should come as no surprise that I hate them too.

Some other choice quotes:

. . .  it includes things like airport signage, Bolshevik propaganda and of course videogames.

. . . the user exists perpetually in a state of ‘about to abandon your game in favour of watching cat videos.’

A designer is kind of like a Turing machine: Given enough iterations she can figure out how to teach any player any game mechanic without causing boredom or confusion.

And the finisher:

It’s okay to ask for trust from your users rather than just money; sometimes they even enjoy it.



by David McD in The Industry

A recent blip on Gamesindustry.biz touched on the decision of Hello Games to release their hot little action game Joe Danger on PSN because they considered XBLA to be “a slaughterhouse” for small developers. This caught my eye on the feed today because I’ve been following Hello since I found their blog some time ago, and especially since they showed up at the IGF this year. They didn’t win the festival but their game is making money, so one out of two ain’t bad. Anyway, the blip reminded me of a talk at the Serious Games Summit at the same GDC, wherein the speaker boldly challenged our faith that digital distribution channels like XBox Live Arcade, Playstation Network, and Steam were going to save the game industry by being the proverbial Green Party to the Triple-A world: the upstarts-fulla-heart that would keep it all honest by being the eternal haven for the underrepresented and niche. The term he used for this phenomenon was “The Indie Paradise,” and according to him, it was a lie. A myth, actually, is the term he used, and the argument he gave was pretty compelling.

Channels like XBLA were heralded as being indie paradises because we believed an impossible dream: that they would be open to all developers big and small, yet somehow controlled so that junk product didn’t make it past the gates to compete with the truly salesworthy selection and dilute customer interest. The inevitable reality was that no channel could hit a true balance between these competing needs. On the one hand we have portals like Kongregate, the iPhone App Store, and Facebook (eventually) that erred on the side of openness. As a result they were flooded with garbage that people very quickly learned to ignore, and in the case of Facebook the platform developers themselves had to step in to groom the product line and restore some credibility before newborn giants like Playfish and Zynga could take their first steps. On the other hand we have channels that clamped down hard to keep quality up. XBLA, for one, quickly realized what chaos would ensue if everyone really did try to start making games for them, and they ensured that their portal would always be curated to present the best of the best. Indie devs became indie in name only as licensing deals for XBLA became necessary to get to the sales front.

The trouble with the former strategy is that competition is oceanic — games only shine and only sell when their production value crosses a certain threshold, one easily identified as “major funding from a publisher.” The trouble with the latter is the same, except in this case games of mediocre polish get shut down by the gatekeepers before they even see the marketplace. In both instances the lesson is the same: digital channels are no friend to the micro-project. Big money goes into these games, money that can mean only one thing: publisher backing. And the bars are getting higher.

Hello Games’ director Sean Murray commented in greater length in the article, giving stats that draw the same conclusion my SGS speaker did. A big one: 17% of titles on XLBA sell more than 200k copies. 43% sell fewer than 25,000. That means at average prices your game better cost less than $250k or you’re not even breaking even. My speaker quotes a stat from Kongregate that the top 1% of their titles get 50% of all playing time on the site. The sad truth is, the world of indie game development that began to escape the need for big budgets and greedy publishers still has not succeeded, at least not yet or in any significant way. Whatever Hello Games needed to get on PSN must have been sweet cause it seems they broke even on the first day. They made a great game, and they deserve it. But if you’re an indie interested in being unconventional, experimental, radical, or in any way not appealing to a traditional publisher, salvation is not at hand. Sorry.


A Student No Longer

by David McD in General, Schoolwork, The Industry

I walked out of my last class as a college student on Wednesday, November 19 at 12:30pm — art history, a final exam. I gave my thesis defense that evening: an hour-long talk on my topic, the nature and future of serious games. I’ve spent the last week home with my parents for the holiday, and tomorrow I return to Hunt Valley, Maryland, to start work as an associate producer at Firaxis Games.

This post marks a turning point in the life of this blog. I leave behing the conjecture and hypothesis that limits the student, he who can only assume and surmise about what real game development is like. From here on out, I speak as a professional game developer and a pending Master of Fine Arts in game design. I speak as one of the enfranchised, as an insider, an expert. I have broken in — let the new age begin!


9/11 In LittleBigPlanet?

by David McD in General, The Industry

I heard a rumor that someone had created a level in LittleBigPlanet that reenacts the bombing of the Twin Towers. Is this true? If it is, it represents a fascinating step in the growth and maturation of games as an art form and a medium of mainstream communication. Before, with contoversial game issues like Super Columbine Massacre RPG! and the infamous Hot Coffee mod in GTA San Andreas, the controversy could focus on authorship and the rights of creators (and in turn, the rights of consumers to refuse to consume, which was the core of Larry Flynt’s argument when Hustler Magazine went before the Supreme Court). But now the content is user-generated, and on a mainstream console. I am curious: will this turn into a big thing? Will it be different from people making similar things in open worlds like Second Life because it’s on the Playstation 3? Or will it just go away?


The Point

by David McD in General, The Industry

My brother recently graduated from college with a degree in physics and a minor in mathematics. After spending the summer with me working theater in New Hampshire, he’ll be heading to sub-Saharan Africa to teach science for the Peace Corps for two years. When he returns, he plans to enter graduate school in Edinburgh in one of four programs related to environmental engineering and sustainability.

By contrast, I plan to spend the rest of this year finishing my degree, then either moving straight away into teaching game design at SCAD or heading off to a development house somewhere in the US to work on commercial games for two to four years before returning to academia.

Let us compare: my brother is going to teach science in a desperate part of the world, and then he’s going to learn how to help people undo the damage we’ve done to the environment and avert the climate crisis. I am going to finish art school and then go make games that, in all likelihood, will be nothing more than distractions for rich Westerners.

Which is the nobler purpose? Who is using their time more constructively, to effect greater positive change in the world? Who’s path is more worthwhile?

Read the rest of this entry »


GCG Portnow Design Challenge: “WWII Shooter” – Croix de Lorraine

by David McD in Game Design, The Industry

My entry for this weeks Game Design Challenge, conceived by James Portnow and hosted on the Game Career Guide. View the full description of this week’s challenge – “Design a WWII shooter.”

WWII Game – Croix de Lorraine

Selling points:
Bold new perspective on the conflict
Rich urban environments
Unique guerilla missions and level design
Strong female protagonist!

The game takes place in occupied Paris beginning in the early months of 1940 and continuing through the rise and fall of the Vichy Regime and the Nazi occupation of central France. Players take the roll of a young French woman, mother of a small child whose husband is killed during the opening moments of the game. Forced to flee for her life, our heroine is harbored by and eventually inducted into La Résistance. Divided into three “Acts,” the story and level progression follows thus:

Act 1: Paris Brûle (Paris is Burning)
Our heroine witnesses the horrible death of her husband and many of her neighbors at the hands of the invading Nazi armies. As the shells fall and the city shatters around her, she must flee through the ruined streets, scavenging supplies and weapons from fallen foes and friends alike. To add to her desperation, her young daughter, Cloë, travels with her. Teetering between numb shock and violent hysteria, Cloë must be constantly protected and tended to. [Level Design -- Opportunities abound for HL2 or Thief-like sneak missions that require the player to traverse an area with Cloë at their side, trying to keep her calm and quiet and avoid attracting attention. Think missions with extremely scarce weapons – a pistol with three rounds, for example – that require environmental ingenuity to complete.] Act 1 concludes when our heroine and her daughter are found and smuggled into the underground by French freedom fighters.

Act 2: Défense de la France
Cloë is safe and our heroine burns with the desire for vengeance. Taking up arms with La Résistance, she trains in guerilla tactics [Design: think character customization, fitting out our heroine with skills in different categories: knife fighting, riflery, explosives, safecracking, codes and radio espionage, escape artist, etc.] and joins gangs of freedom fighters in daring raids and hit-and-run battles with Nazi forces throughout the city [Level Design -- Endless great options for rich levels depicting ruined Paris, and a wide variety of challenges and opponents: small bands of infantry, armored columns , VIP guard details, Nazi warehouses, etc. Opportunities for villain characters – brutal Nazi taskmasters who hunt down resistance fighters, kidnap them, or hold them hostage. Think arch-nemeses for our heroine and missions based on thwarting them.]

Act 3: La Libération
The Normandie invasion has succeeded and Allied forces are pushing inland. The Vichy regime is crumbling and the city is in chaos. The Paris Résistance joins the effort with other bands in the newly formed French Forces of the Interior (FFI) and the final stage begins. Now our heroine finds herself a soldier in pitched battles, part of an elite squad created to undertake the most difficult and critical missions: stealing codebooks, sabotaging Nazi convoys and airfields, pathfinding for Allied advances, breaking Allied prisoners out of Nazi camps and escorting them to safety, etc. [Level Design – again, plenty of rich environments around the French countryside, small towns, prison camps, and of course, Paris. Scale of the game grows from the more intimate, four-man team missions to larger battles with hundreds of combatants.] Act 3 and the game conclude with the Allied liberation of Paris.


Chinese MMO Rends Souls

by David McD in The Industry

I saw this post on King Lud IC and the link to this article about Chinese MMO ZT Online, now infamous for its monetization scheme and systematic player exploitation. This is truly something incredible. Reading the story of Lu Yang and her journey into the underworld that is ZT Online’s digital economy is like reading the epic saga of struggle against ancient evil — harrowing, awe-inspiring, and moving. For anyone interested in MMOs and virtual worlds, this is a must-read. If you can see this and not recoil at the thought of American MMOs adopting such systems, I will be shocked and horrified.


Hub and Spoke Disease

by David McD in Game Criticism, The Industry

I played WoW again the other day — it’s been nearly three years to the week that I stopped playing the first time around. I was only under the influence for about fourteen months, not counting the summertime when I didn’t have my computer. I’ve been told by many friends that the game is vastly improved with Burning Crusade, so I thought I’d give it a try. I made a Blood Elf warlock and started in…

It’s exactly the same. I didn’t last past level five. As soon as I saw that line “Gather 7 Mana Slivers and bring them here to me,” I was done.

Brenda often lambasts the game for its shallow goal/quest system — what she calls the hub and spoke mission: go here, get five of these, bring them back. Go somewhere else, get something else, bring it back. Without the ability to retain real persistence in the game world, and with the need to accommodate an unpredictable quantity of players competing against the same enemies for the same rewards, its the only basic quest structure that works for an MMO. Every MMO has them. There are no exceptions. And they all suffer for it.

Solving the problem of quest and story in an MMO is one of those big issues, the ones game developers constantly work on but have yet to solve, the ones professors use to teach their students that game design is not a walk in the park. But for all that issues like these are perpetual thorns in the minds of developers, I don’t often see them discussed. Do people assume that the problem cannot be solved? Are they content to wait until someone else has an epiphany? Or do they have good ideas but just don’t publish about it?

MMOs suffer from hub and spoke disorder, but it’s not a fatal illness. They say people only change when they’re in pain, and the entity that is MMOs is flourishing despite awkward design barnacles like this that it just can’t seem to shake. Perhaps no intervention is necessary. But as WoW’s power and influence plateaus, and new MMOs fail with startling regularity for trying to copy the WoW model and failing… the ground is being laid for an MMO revolution. What will define the basic quest of the MMO of the future?


You Just Don’t See It

by David McD in Game Criticism, The Industry

We just watched a snippet from a Discovery series on the human body, about sight and the ways in which the mind filters out noise and extraneous detail to present you an extremely narrow packet of information about the world in front of your face. It included a scene in which the host demonstrates a patently stupid card trick: he spreads out the deck and his assistant picks one. He spreads the deck again, face-up this time, and inserts the card back in. Then he turns the deck to show that the backs have all changed color except for the card she picked. The selective camera movement was more than enough to mask the deck change, hence the stupidity of the trick. But then they pull the proverbial rabbit out of the hat: it turns out that while you were watching the cards move… the tablecloth, the backdrop, and the shirts the host and assistant were wearing all changed color as well. When polled, exactly two people in the class noticed any change at all, and only the backdrop because it went from blue to red. I noticed nothing, and was genuinely flabbergasted.

The point made was that we just don’t see much of anything of what passes in front of our eyes, no matter how obvious it appears to those who do notice it. I commented to my professor that I missed 90% of the art in Gears of War — the uber-detailed normal maps and spiffy UT3 next-gen graphics that they spent so much time on. I was wowed for about two minutes, and then my mind just chunked the whole thing, washed it out, and fed me a Duplo version for the rest of the game. Oh, it perked up a bit when a cool particle effect or a new character showed up, but mostly I was content to assume that, once I’ve seen one rotting paneling texture or cement bunker wall, I’ve seen them all. So really, Epic… was it worth all that effort? By contrast, I have yet to become bored with the art in Okami. Because a word made out of brush paintings does not remotely approach visual patterns I am already familiar with, my brain is consistently interested. I “see” that game much more clearly. Which do you think is the better strategy?

Additionally, from the perspective of a designer, it’s humbling to realize that the brain works in this super-efficient filtering way, and that this applies to mechanics and dynamics as well. Think you’ve got an incredibly deep, beautifully complex system that is just gonna blow people away? Think again. For all you know, players are just washing that out the same way I washed out the art in Gears. Once again, I assert: simplicity is best. I remember little of how I played Baldur’s Gate, and nothing at all about how the underlying systems were put together, but I have a highly developed, deep understanding of the minute dynamics of Risk. Maybe that’s comparing apples and oranges, but I challenge you: take another look at the games you love, and see if you can find that 90% you’re missing. If you can, take caution: it means your brain missed it the first time around because it didn’t find it to be important.


GDX – Making Culture

by David McD in The Industry

A point Tracy Fullerton made during the same panel discussion (see previous post): to be a media-maker is to participate in the making of culture.

An often-forgotten but penetrating insight, I believe. It needs no reiteration how much games have contributed to our culture and vice versa, and I’m not talking just about the subculture of game players and enthusiasts. The industry very existence is, one could say, a byproduct of the success of games as a means of culture generation and manipulation, but the question seems to be a real chicken-and-egg proposition: are games popular and powerful because they are products of our culture, or are they popular and powerful because of their effects towards shaping that culture? Like art, like media, they imitate each other. Look in the dictionary now and you can find “woot.”

All this is known. Game makers are media makers, and by extension culture makers. What is less well-documented or considered, however, is the responsibility that accompanies the making of culture. When we read the news and see Jack Thompson at it again, or see mothers protesting GTA and the degradation of their kids at the controls of violent video games, what we are seeing is the symptom of irresponsible culture creation. These people are watching their culture being poisoned (or so they believe). Why shouldn’t they be upset? Why shouldn’t they protest?

In 2005 at the infamous GDC Game Developers Rant, Brenda Laurel delivered a speech that took many people by surprise — she made the case for changing the culture of game making. She told stories about San Andreas kids waiting to play the GTA expansion so they could drive by their house. She talked about the culture of hypermasculinity and childish gratification that defined the tenor of our games, and she called for change. Some of her remarks were in poor taste, some were demagogic, but some were profound… and all were imperative. To make games is to make culture… what kind of culture do we want to make?