Flap Off: Creative Conservatism and the App Market

It’s been a while since my last post, dwelling as I currently am in the depths of thesis-writing purgatory. However, on a recent excursion to the surface to obtain coffee and sunlight, I had the pleasure of observing the Flappy Bird saga (no, King. No.) and considering how well it epitomises one of the most consistent issues within the games industry. I’m going to focus in particular in this article on the mobile app marketplace, but this applies to console titles too, although possibly in a slightly different way.

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Never Played DOOM: The Importance of Teaching Games History

This year will be the first intake of fresh-faced undergraduate students, the majority of whom will have not been alive when Doom was released. Think about that for a moment. Not only Doom, but other key moments in the history of the industry – Dune, Sonic, Mortal Kombat, Zelda, the Game Boy, the NES, hell even the first interation of Solitaire on Windows.

Now, I admit, I myself was but a twinkle for some of these, and was a spritely six years young when Doom was released, but nevertheless it didn’t take me too long to get round to playing it, and a multitude of other key titles, thanks to a wonderfully liberal approach to violent games in my house.

Jump forward to the present day once more and we find students looking to work in the industry that have never played Doom, and have possibly never even heard of the likes of slightly less iconic titles such as Marathon or System Shock. Last year, the percentage of final year undergraduate games research students who were playing such titles for the first time because I was telling them too was frankly, mind-boggling. This is like film students never having watched Citizen Kane, Art students never having seen a Van Gogh, Literature students never having read Shakespeare…

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Single-Player Games are not a ‘Gimmick’

Anybody that knows me will tell you I tend to dislike people.

This isn’t personal. It’s not the person I dislike, usually at least – it’s the dominant discourse within today’s culture that says I have to talk to them. The one that says I should share stuff with them, and invite them to do otherwise. Frequently I am bemoaned by my friends for not answering my phone, or letting it run out of battery, or burying it in a small pile of clothes in the bedroom. But this is my prerogative is it not? I don’t need to be accessible for idle conversation all the time surely? Is society really going to break down into anarchy because I let my email go unanswered for an entire 24-hour period?

This extends to my attitude towards games as well. Gaming time is sacred, relaxing, chill out time, to be shared with others on the rare occasion a game has a worthwhile co-op mode. Other than that, I want to sit down and immerse myself in something that isn’t real life, from a twisting and turning plot through to a rich, deep fantasy world.

I recently stumbled upon an interview with the CEO of developer Gogogic, Jonas Antonsson, with the somewhat inflammatory title “Single-Player is a gimmick, says mid-core developer”. Ignoring the issue of the term “mid-core”, which is frankly, utterly redundant when the use of ‘hardcore’, ‘core’ and ‘casual’ as demographic-defining terms feels fundamentally base and outdated, this title poses quite a bold claim.

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Can Innovation Truly Coexist with the Triple-A Model?

Quite possibly one of my more controversial post titles, but I’m going to run with it.

I’ve just finished the first phase of game play testing on Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs and, along with a wealth of massively interesting data for my PhD that I now have the job of writing up into meaningful prose, some very intriguing conversations were spawned from a range of different players.

In terms of the general data gathered, there was a very clear, almost entirely polarised divide between the positive and negative responses to various aspects of the game (none of which I am going to specifically mention, of course, so if you’re looking for tidbits of information here you’re out of luck I’m afraid). The divide was between those players with a lot of experience either with horror games in general, or specifically with Frictional Games’ past work, and those coming to the franchise for the first time. What one group of players liked, the other almost always detested, and vice-versa. Now, that is to be expected in some cases, as the Amnesia franchise’s style of play is not for everyone – as is the case with every type of game, after all. But the extent to which this division existed was very surprising, even extending to things which were on the list of intended changes because they didn’t seem to be working.

So, this, coupled with some conversations over alcohol later on, got me thinking, can truly different, innovative or uniquely challenging gameplay ever comfortably co-exist with the established Triple-A model of development? Don’t get me wrong of course – I enjoy games where I don’t need to think too much – I do enough of that in my job, I often want to switch off when I’m playing a game, and BulletShoot XVI and its brethren fill this need very well. But, why does it have to be up to the independent sector to step away from the established, to step away from the expected, and to do something – anything – different. The independent sector is often viewed by its detractors as providing experimental, academically intriguing, but ultimately less than amazing games – which of course, is a ridiculous and outdated point of view. However, two words do still ring true there; experimental, and intriguing.

I can’t remember the last ‘big’ game that genuinely intrigued me. Thrilled me? Yes, perhaps. Satisfied my rampant blood lust? Of course. Made me sit back in awe of its overall spectacle? Occasionally. But actually intrigued me to such an extent that I was left itching to know more of what was going on in the designer’s or writer’s heads? That is rare. But it shouldn’t be. These are the people, the developers, with the power, resources and know-how to deliver experiences like this in abundance.

The argument that there isn’t a big enough market for it to be a profitable way of doing business is flawed. Of course it is profitable. Perhaps it is profitable over a longer period of time, but it is certainly profitable. There are more demographics within gamer culture than ‘those that play Call of Duty and ‘those that play anything else’. ‘Those that play anything else’ is such a richly varied demographic with multiple facets within it, each one as potentially lucrative as the CoD audience. After all, only so many big developers are required to satiate that group of players. Why is there no rush to be the first big developer to tap into one of the underestimated demographics hidden elsewhere in the industry?

I’m going to be very confrontational here – but, it does appear to me that the big players in the industry are scared. All business, big or small, has risk associated with it, and rewards attached to that risk for those willing to take the plunge. Are you all quite happy to sit back, guard your ever decreasing portion of the demographic pie, and wait until the independent sector comes along with a whole new, far tastier pie? Or are you going to do your bit to drive the industry forward, to drive the medium forward, and to create different types of gaming experience and gaming challenge for all of the eager players?

That which indie games are often very successful in achieving in terms of fresh experiences or types of play can be brought to so many more players if the industry as a whole sees risk not as an incentive to hide under a hat made of sequels, but rather as an incentive to start making lots of new hats for itself. Yes my metaphors are strange today. Shut up.

Ghosts, Gulls & Goats: Analysing Reactions to Dear Esther

For me, experiencing Dear Esther was like a balmy summer’s day. I didn’t really mind the meandering paths, the dead-ends and the ambiguous (at least at first) story because it all came together to form a comforting blanket – a warming glow that suggested that so much more was still capable of coming from my favourite entertainment medium. Walking around the deserted island for the best part of an hour and half, I felt more relaxed, more calm, more utterly serene than I have for a while – in the real or virtual world. The heart-wrenching story that unfolds across such a short (in game terms) narrative time line only helps solidify the feelings not only of solitude, but of a form of self-discovery. You have no real clue exactly who you are playing as, but nevertheless, you feel for them; you appreciate every line of masterfully delivered prose almost as if they were coming from your own mouth.

Subsequent playthroughs offer surprising levels of continued depth, and I found myself stumbling upon new sights and small changes to the game world, as well as slowly forming my own interpretation of the game’s plot to more and more refined levels of detail. This is not a one-playthrough-wonder; there is so much more here for the eye that pays attention to the finer details. Even if one takes a step away from the immersive experience itself and looks upon it as a piece of technology, it is impossible to not occasionally stop and simply stare in awe at the visual and auditory depth on show. If ever a screenshot key was a good addition to a game, this was it.

As is to be expected of course when anything pushes the boundaries of a medium, Dear Esther has wildly split the opinions of critics and consumers alike. It is an undoubtedly Marmite-esque experience; I have yet to see a ‘mediocre’ score afforded to it. Some of the reasoning behind the scores however opens up some very interesting avenues of enquiry into players, gameplay, perceived value and the future of the industry on a broader scale. For a game with such an apparently plain face, it has truly sunk its Hebridean mitts into the heart of gaming and given it a mighty good jiggle.

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Beauty and the Geek?

In one of my very first articles in June last year, I discussed what I consider to be an archaic and unhealthy division between those that society proposes ‘should’ and ‘should not’ play games; to be precise, the blokes that should, and the girls that should not.

Now, the traditional image of the bespectacled teenage boy in a darkened room surrounded by Cheeto crumbs and an intriguing odour is strongly embedded in our culture. However, it is now so utterly outdated with the explosion of games into mainstream entertainment that if anything, more games are played either socially over the internet, or out in the big wide world on mobile devices, tablets and other gadgets. The traditional stereotype may still apply in some cases, but for the most part, games have moved on, and the people that play games have become far more varied in a variety of respects.

This applies in no small part to the gender of gamers today. I would stress of course, that there have always been ‘girl gamers’, or simply, gamers that happen to be female, since the dawn of the medium. However, there has been a notable increase in numbers of female players, especially in this current console cycle. So, why do we insist on still segregating out these players? It is damaging in a number of ways; it makes the industry itself appear archaic, stuck in stereotypes spawned in the 80’s; it makes the male gaming populace look like social morons, so incapable of associating comfortably with the opposite sex that they have to refer to the ‘girl gamer’ like some sort of mythical creature, or alien being; and it encourages ridiculous, cheap and tawdry attachments to our beloved medium such as Maxim’s Gamer Girl competition.

This is, in effect, simply a popularity contest and a beauty pageant that happens to have the words ‘Gamer Girl’ emblazoned on it. The kicker however, is that the winner of this competition will be employed by Virgin Gaming as a sort of spokeswoman – a public-facing industry representative, for all intents and purposes. Now, stop me if I’m wrong, but this seems like hiring someone for an industry role based entirely on their perceived beauty, and, presumably, appeal to this outdated concept of the stereotypical gaming geek.

This strikes me as also being somewhat insulting for those women trying to break into the industry (or that are indeed already in it) that got there, not on their looks or ability to pose in swimwear, but for their passion for games and their ability to design, develop or produce them – you know, the things that matter in a professional context? When we think of notable male figures in the industry – Miyamoto, Kojima, Molyneux, Chen, or just about anybody for that matter, we recognise them for their achievements, not for how much sex appeal they have (sorry chaps, no offense intended!) so why should we treat industry females any differently?

Now some people will argue that we shouldn’t take it so seriously – it’s a competition being run by a classic ‘Lad’s Mag’, intended as a marketing campaign and a way to appease their core readership. However, the fact remains that it is reinforcing a damaging view of the industry, and of the people that have or are looking for careers in it. The media does a fantastic job of suggesting to girls all the way through their upbringing that they can and indeed, should use their looks to get ahead in life – and all this type of marketing does is continue that on into the professional world. With all of the work being done across the industry to encourage more women to take up positions in development roles, it feels like Maxim is actively undermining that in order to further its own agenda and bring in more readers.

Do us a favour, and keep the smut masquerading as a beauty contest out of the games industry, it is nothing but damaging in the long run.

Rumour Mill: PlayStation 4 to Block Used Games?

I’m not usually the sort to be posting rumours on my blog, but this one just seemed too good to not contemplate – if only for a moment at the very least.

According to ‘reliable sources’ speaking to gaming news site Kotaku, the new PlayStation 4 – or Orbis, as it is possibly going to be named is possibly going to be due for release in the 2013 Christmas season. Aside from the intriguing name (which, when put in conjunction with Vita, forms the Latin phrase Orbis Vita, or Vitae to be precise, meaning Circle of Life), there are two rumoured ‘features’ that are really rather concerning, at least how I see them.

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