March 31, 2009

Artsy Fartsy: Mona Lisa, David, and Super Mario Bros 3?

This past week I was fortunate enough to attend my first Game Developers Conference, which took place in San Francisco. The Game Developers Conference, or GDC, is a weeklong event during which thousands of developers attend seminars, tutorials, award shows, and an exposition, with the aim of learning from and networking with fellow professionals in the industry. Much of the week centered on promoting and pitching my own indie game, Reflection DS, which scored an Independent Games Festival award, claiming the title Next Great Mobile Game (shameless plug), but I did find time to sit in on a lecture or two. These were all very useful and covered diverse topics, ranging from finding inspiration when designing to managing conflicts in a small team of creative people. Most speakers projected a casual image common to the industry, but none went as far as my favorite speaker; a man approximately six and a half feet tall and skinny as a rail, wearing clothes tailored for a twelve year old.

I would not be faithful to the topic of non-traditional games if I did not write a post about Jason Rohrer (pictured right), the ultimate independent developer who makes my no-budget student effort look like a multi-million dollar sellout. When not baking the bread his family eats every day for lunch or teaching his infant to urinate on command, he creates small gems of games that begin to shed light on the human experience in a way no other developer’s work does. Rohrer, his wife, and two sons live off a meager ten thousand dollars a year, provided only by donations to his website, as he offers all of his games free of charge. However, he seems more than content with such a modest lifestyle on his Potsdam, New York meadow (which, even when ordered by the city, he refused to mow, landing him in a court case where he represented himself and won, in part on the basis that cutting grass releases toxins in the air harmful to the environment). Rohrer’s games all feature a minimalist, pixelated aesthetic, highlighting the fact that the path to achieving artistic reputability in games lies not in enhancing graphics capabilities until we can realistically represent human heads exploding, but rather in focusing on what makes games unique: their mechanics. And it is through his games’ mechanics, rather than cut scenes or canned, linear storylines, that Rohrer conveys meaning. In Passage, for example, widely touted as the first game to make people cry, the player controls a man seeking treasure. Early in the game, he can choose to join with a woman, and if he does, she will walk along with him wherever he goes. From this, he gets the benefit of constant companionship, but it becomes harder to accumulate treasure. As the five-minute game progresses, the characters’ sprites visibly age, until suddenly and unexpectedly, the woman turns into a gravestone. After twenty more seconds or so, the man also dies and the screen fades to black, leaving the user only with the word "Passage." While this game seems simple, it inspired Ubisoft designer Rod Humble to reprimand other commercial developers at GDC 2008, saying "Why can't we make a game that fucking means something? A game that matters?" Another one of Rohrer’s works, Gravitation, tackles such complex concepts as the relationship between father and son, the balance between work and home, weighing dreams and creative inspirations versus reality, and the loneliness of an empty nest, all in eight minutes of gameplay.

Yet this pioneer maintains that digital games are still not quite art. On the screen in a small but packed room in the Moscone convention center, Rohrer flashed his first slide. A dotted red line ran horizontally through the center, splitting the image in two. Above the line were images of famous works of literature, film, art, and even a Beatles album. Below sat some of the most acclaimed video games in the history of the medium. Rohrer claimed that the line represents the gap to artistic legitimacy that is still yet to be bridged. Some titles, like the Metal Gear Solid series, feature in-depth stories in an attempt to be taken seriously, but with hours (more than six in the most recent installment) of non-interactive sequences, what makes these games different from a mediocre movie? 2K's Bioshock nearly eliminated cut scenes, but it still conformed to a linear progression: a series of interactive moments strung together with bits of film-like narrative. In 2005, Roger Ebert (see left) alleged, "video games [are] inherently inferior to film and literature... [due to their lack of] authorial control." While most gamers lash out at this statement, Rohrer accepts Ebert’s argument as legitimate, though sets out to disprove him. He agrees that mimicking cinema is not the way to legitimize the medium. Just as movies had to break away from the constraints of theatre, games must discover what separates them from film in order to stand on their own. No one has yet produced a Citizen Kane equivalent for video games. However, a board game like Go, which has been around for over four thousand years, could possibly be classified as art because of its infinite depth, complexity, longevity, and replayability (players can come back to it over the span of their life and find new, interesting meaning and fresh insights that they did not see before). German developed board games like Puerto Rico and Settlers of Catan also share this near-infinite complexity. What do these table games have that their digital counterparts lack? Jason Rohrer argues that the missing element is an inherent reliance on multiplayer. Single player games, he says, fall into three categories: puzzles, like Peg Solitaire, chance or luck games, like Roulette, or reflex challenges, like Pac-Man. When combined, these categories produce something like Tetris, which has almost infinite complexity, but still feels a little lacking as art. He believes that truly innovative and defining work will rely heavily on multiplayer interaction.

I do believe that true multiplayer interaction (most current multiplayer experiences, as Rohrer argues, are simply puzzle, chance, or reflex challenges mapped to two players, rather than a thought-provoking, strategic struggle with infinite variation as in classic board games) is something that needs to be better explored in digital gaming, especially in this age of interconnectedness, and perhaps the medium will achieve artistic legitimacy as a result. However, I think that Rohrer sells himself and his fellow art game developers short. Passage and Gravitation may not be the defining works of the genre, but they provide unique moments and insight in a form that film and literature cannot quite express. I agree with Ebert in that the designer loses some control, but, if well executed, games transfer that lost authorship to the player, creating a more personal, tailored experience. When I play Passage, for those five minutes I am the man who searches for wealth, but cannot ever find it all, and it is my wife who passes as I slowly waste away beside her. By playing, I gain a sense of ownership, awareness, and perspective that is inherently absent from film and literature.

March 10, 2009

Browser Games: Tighten Up the Graphics

The computer is arguably the most widely distributed gaming device today (with the mobile phone being the other candidate), and the browser is by far the most viable platform on the PC. With the relatively recent surge of casual gamers, web-browser games have become immensely popular and wide-ranging, yet the hardcore player generally sticks to consoles or off-the-shelf PC games. As hardware has improved, triple-A titles have also evolved, with graphics becoming almost photorealistic – yet their browser counterparts have for the most part stuck with two-dimensional visuals and all too often one-dimensional gameplay. This week, however, I examine a game that not only has depth to its design but also has depth of field. In Blush (pictured below right), by Flashbang Studios, the player controls a graceful squid swimming through a whimsical neon sea, collecting eggs and attacking ocean co-inhabitants with its tentacles, all within a four minute time period. While most reviews of Blush have been extremely positive, many bloggers and community members have complained about the timer saying it is “no fun” or it “doesn't leave much time to explore.” One particular critic of the countdown mechanic wrote a very thoughtful analysis on the game, so I decided to debate the topic as a comment on her site. Controversy about the timer aside, most community members have overwhelmingly positive opinions about the game, yet its design alone, while innovative, is not extraordinarily so. What separates Blush is the fact that it is built on the Unity Engine, a 3D platform for the web-browser. Strikingly beautiful, Blush transports the player into an immersive, mystical undersea environment. In his post on the blog Play This Thing!, Patrick Dugan claims that Blush is an indication of what is to come in the browser game scene. My response to this prediction, as well as my comment about the game’s timer mechanic can be found below and at the respective sites.


I am happy to see so many positive reviews of Blush, another truly impressive entry from Flashbang, and one that I think boosts their stature and maturity in the game development community. While the previous titles on Blurst, such as Minotaur in a China Shop and Offroad Velociraptor Safari have pushed the limits technologically and are engaging and charming experiences, the “stunning” and “surreal” aesthetic that you mentioned certainly put Blush on another level. I am also glad that amid your mostly shining review, you make an observation that echoes what many players feel: the game lacks an un-timed version. The player is rudely jolted out of the serene flow after a measly four minutes of play; however, after some thought I would argue that without the timer, the game would not be as satisfying. A large part of Blush’s pleasure derives from the feeling of wanting more and that sensation would diminish given free reign of the environment.

The timer is one of my least favorite devices employed by designers, and Flashbang uses it as a crutch over and over again. In Minotaur in a China Shop, they exercise it with a little bit of subtlety, as each of the five days has its own time limit, and the security guards usually shower one with a barrage of arrows before one even notices the clock, but Offroad Velociraptor Safari has a nearly identical countdown system to that of Blush. My problem with the timer is that it exposes the underlying game system, lessening the immersion and thereby cheapening the experience by reminding the player that this world is not real. I think a more environment-oriented representation of the timer, like the view steadily darkening or the edges of the world creeping inward, might have better served Blush than its current clock, but without some concept of time, the player might become bored. The play area feels almost limitless during the short spurt of gameplay, but as the very illuminating behind the scenes footage indicates, it is in reality rather modest. I counted no more than seventeen game objects made up of only three unique types in the entire game world. Do you think that the player would sustain interest after exploring the depths of this sandbox? You mentioned adding levels as an option, and I would eagerly welcome this solution, but designing additional levels takes time, and with Flashbang’s pledge to develop six games in twelve months, they do not have any to spare. At any rate, I think the fact that the community yearns for an un-timed version in order to explore the entire environment proves that the designers successfully provided a user experience that satisfies and compels players, leaving them hungry for more.

“Blush: It Will Make You”

First I want to commend you, Patrick, and everyone else at Play This Thing! for bringing so many unique and innovative games into the public eye. It is refreshing and rare to see a site focus on the obscure rather than the mainstream, and every day I look forward to your uninhibited perspective about an unknown indie title. In this particular article, your comparison of Blush to flOw is well stated, and I tend to agree that the former borrows from, yet changes the latter, creating something entirely different. However, you also touch upon an issue that I think extends beyond the almost niche (yet extremely compelling) focus of this site, and applies more directly to the broader community when you say: “the game is more significant as a demonstration of what web-gaming can become than as a specific design.” Moreover, I would suggest that games such as Blush will push the browser as a platform in a more mainstream direction.

I suppose browser gaming is already mainstream, as everybody and (actually more often) their mother plays Bejeweled or Bingo Luau to pass the time. What I am wondering is, do you think games using technology like the Unity engine will turn the browser into a more hardcore-friendly environment? The games displayed on Blurst, like Blush and Offroad Velociraptor Safari are looking like pretty sophisticated 3D games compared to the run-of-the-mill flash game; Jetpack Brontosaurus (pictured above left) plays almost like Spyro the Dragon for the original Playstation, and probably looks a little better, albeit at about fifteen frames per second. These Flashbang titles, while immersive (thanks to their beautiful visuals and clean design), certainly were produced with the casual player in mind, employing simple control schemes and enforcing (often a little clumsily) a less than five-minute play session. What happens, though, when someone decides to make a more complete experience using Unity or a similar engine? As this generation of hardware seems to be nearly maxed out in terms of graphics capabilities, and with the next generation nowhere near on the horizon, do you think that browser games will start to close the technological gap? And if so, will the easy accessibility of these more extensive experiences captivate casual players, or will it simply attract more hardcore gamers to the platform? With consoles becoming increasingly expensive to develop for, I think developers will turn more of their focus towards cheaper mediums, as long as they can figure out a way to monetize their efforts.

March 3, 2009

Playstation 3: Purposefully Perplexing

This week, rather than examining an independent non-traditional game, I decided to write about a more mainstream issue in the gaming world, which still affects creativity and innovation in the industry. Before Sony released the Playstation 3, they promised a more powerful alternative to Microsoft’s Xbox 360. The PS3 used a new framework called cell architecture, designed jointly by IBM, Toshiba, and Sony, that was supposed to yield graphics far superior to anything seen before in games. Sony claimed it would blow everything else out of the water in terms of power, processing speed, and graphics capabilities, and the built in Blue-ray player was going to drive the unit’s sales. However, despite the hype and promise, upon its release in 2006, very few consumers bought the PS3. Most blame its lackluster performance on the extremely steep $499 baseline price tag (compared with the $279 cost of the 360 at the time). Some say that Microsoft, having released the 360 an entire year earlier, already had control over the market, leaving little room for Sony. While these two factors both worked against the PS3, the main problem was that consumers had no reason to purchase it. People do not acquire consoles to watch movies; they get them for the games, and unlike its predecessor, the Playstation 3 has had few must-buy exclusives. Additionally, the games offered on both Xbox 360 and PS3 look only marginally better on the latter despite the hype of a technically superior machine.

Ever since Sony released the Playstation 3, developers have been banging their heads against it, trying in vain to take advantage of the promised capabilities. A game studio at which I worked (I will not mention the company’s name so as not to violate the NDA I signed) had so much trouble programming for it that they were forced to release the PS3 SKU of their game almost three months later than the PC and Xbox 360 versions. Midway executive producer Shaun Himmerick went so far as to say, on the weekly podcast, “This Xbox Life,” that the PS3 is “a huge pain in the ass.” One would think that Sony would want to combat this image, but in the March issue of the Official Playstation Magazine, Sony CEO Kaz Harai emphasizes the difficulty, claiming that these troubles are in fact intentional by saying, “we don’t provide the ‘easy to program for’ console that [developers] want, because ‘easy to program for’ means that anybody will be able to take advantage of pretty much what the hardware can do.” He thinks that making it challenging to develop for the platform will force the games to mature during the cycle. As a side effect, this model shuts out the small or independent developers, leaving space only for those with the time and resources to crack the console, and even these companies spend money struggling with the hardware, instead of putting it towards refining the gameplay.

By placing this strain on developers, Sony does, however, discourage an oversaturated market full of half-baked titles like those of the Atari 2600 in the 1980’s. Games were so inexpensive and easy to develop that companies like Johnson and Johnson and Purina started making them (Tooth Protectors, pictured below, and Chase the Chuck Wagon respectively), and this influx of mediocrity contributed in part to the video game crash of 1983. While there are still some pretty terrible games like M&M’s Adventure for the Wii and the Xbox Live download Yaris commissioned by Toyota (which X360 Magazine UK simply and elegantly called “a festering turd”), Sony is being far too cautious. The video game industry has matured dramatically in the past twenty-five years, and consumers can for the most part, with the help of Internet resources that were previously unavailable, separate what is worth their time from what is not. Conversely, this steep learning curve for developers results not only in an absence of poor, highly licensed titles, but also a lack of quality selections that could drive the sale of PS3 units. As a result, the Playstation 3 launch was unimpressive and left Sony with a much smaller market share than they had enjoyed in the previous generation with the PS2. There have, though, been some impressive exclusives in the past year or two, such as Naughty Dog’s Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, Konami’s Metal Gear Solid 4, and LittleBigPlanet by Media Molecule, but none of these offerings has been able to spark hardware sales like Halo 3 or Gears of War have for the 360. Furthermore, Grand Theft Auto IV, the current number one rated game on Metacritic for both consoles and originally slated to be a Playstation exclusive, not only released on both systems simultaneously, but also offered unique downloadable content to Xbox owners. It is also worth pointing out that Naughty Dog, owned by Sony, is able to successfully realize the cell processor’s power partly because it has an entire group called the ICE Team in house devoted to dissecting the PS3 and figuring out how to reach its potential; a luxury most developers, especially indie studios, do not have.

The fact that Sony intentionally made it difficult to program for the Playstation in a strange attempt to increase the length of the console’s life makes me seriously question their judgment. While Sony has a very strong set of first party houses that have made such extraordinary games as Gran Turismo, God of War, Twisted Metal, Shadows of the Colossus and ICO, a console cannot survive without third party support, and by causing so many problems for outside developers, Sony is straining this relationship. Independent studios will continue to have trouble grappling with the architecture, and as a result I do not expect to see too many underground and fresh titles like Katamari Damacy on the Playstation this cycle. Hope remains with PSN (Playstation Network), as games like Everyday Shooter and Flower are innovative and have been released to some success and critical acclaim, but XBLA (Xbox Live Arcade) and WiiWare remain better portals for downloadable titles, primarily because of the install bases Microsoft and Nintendo have accumulated. Maybe in five years or so, as long as they do not get too tired of wrestling with the cell framework, developers will unleash the graphical and processing power of the PS3, but because so much time and so many resources have to be devoted to this struggle, innovation in design will more often than not be brushed aside. In either case, I am happy that Sony is finally giving an honest assessment of the PS3: cell processor, built in Blue-ray, and deliberate confusion.
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