Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Gameplay – Really needed? Or can we leave it?

Gameplay is one of those tricky things, very hard to describe, but hopefully I can describe it for you.

To be exact gameplay is a set of rules that is enforced on a player, so that the players can have fun, why is this fact important? Since without the rules there is nothing for the players to push against for them to compete against one another.

Since I said they were rules I guess they must be definable yes? Well yes, but there’s so many rules that it would be impossible to list them all, and just because they are defined, doesn’t mean they cant change, the beauty of gameplay is that people can add and take away what they want, change existing rules slightly and so forth, all so that some variety can be added to a game and make it more fun.

But the question is do we design games, or do they just pop up in our heads, most likely the latter, so many things that we do are easily changed into games, just tells us that as animals human beings are much like otters, dolphins, apes and such. All intelligent creatures create games because they are stimulating. So as you can see its pretty important, or at least when we were walking on all limbs and went “Ug”. Nowadays, games are just for pleasure and unlikely to enhance our intellect like they did before.

So is gameplay really needed? Well it would be a boring world if it weren’t around.

Game Design – Story and Characters

Story and Characters, something which can be found in books, tv and films, they can move us to tears, feel joy, shock and fear. You can feel any kind of emotion towards a character thanks to the story and it’s acting, so long as both are of a good quality.

When its bad, you feel removed from what is being displayed in front of you, its just a list of pictures or words, none have any emotional content, While good storytelling and acting that allows you to relate to the characters, is good storytelling/acting, for it allows you to feel any emotion that the creators want, be it joy or sadness.

By why do we feel emotions towards what is essential fictional characters, by making them as human as possible, by giving them flaws, virtues, allowing them to make sacrifices or to steal due to greed. These are what people are made up of character traits and the more traits the character has, the more likely people will relate to them.

This of course is dependant on the script, something that a character encounters in a magical fantasy setting, or the far future of Sci-Fi is harder to relate to, we have nothing to draw from, but we can still take from similar situations seen in life to conjure up the right emotions. So long as the actors display the right emotions as to the mood of the situation, it is easy to draw upon the characters emotions and our own experiences to generate the feelings that the film/books creator desires.

Appearance to me means very little, books, are all writing and so long as the tv show/film isn’t a collection of children’s drawings then I am still capable of enjoying the piece of fiction that I desired to see.

But what stories do I find irresistible? Magical fantasy and Science Fiction are my 2 great loves of fiction, for they show me experiences that are impossible to have, for magic does not exist and the Science is usually so far away that I most likely wont see it in my lifetime. And so I feel richer for adding to the collection of experiences I have seen, whether they are my own personal ones, or they are ones I have seen as a viewer.

Game Technology – Joysticks vs Enhanced Reality

Game technology is always advancing, some to make nicer looking games, but we always forget that the feel of the controllers and the control system that the games use are the most important part of gaming, so why in over 30 years they have only just started to change, well its time to look into it.

When most people think of games they will at some point think of the humble controller, these days the controllers are not much different than what was made in the beginning, a couple of joysticks and a bunch of buttons. The only change is that there are more buttons and joysticks and that the shape has changed to make it more comfortable to play with.

But these days we have controllers that are capable of sensing how we actually move the controller, allowing us to do real life movements to correspond with what’s on screen, plus video cameras, which allow us to use our body to play games, sans controllers. So why is it not the standard of today’s control systems? The reason is that its finicky to use at times, your movements doesn’t correspond too well with what’s happening on screen well and so the humble gamepad is still the best way to play.

Does it look like the coolest way to play? Nope, the idea that you can swing a controller and have that play out on screen, except instead of a controller your character has a sword is a lot better than pressing a button. Which is why the Wii is the future of game control systems, gamepads and joysticks are dying out and will eventually phase out of gaming, reserved for only old games or for simulator games, where having a joystick is more realistic than waving a controller around.

We will continue to move to motion control tech, till we eventually get to the point where are games are played out in cyberspace, with us jacking into the game directly through our minds, so we can be in a world which feels as real as the world outside the game, the virtual counterpart to our normal reality.

Game Storytelling – a requirment? Or an easy sacrifice?

Ah we come to what can be one of the most slippery of all the subjects in Game Design, the story. Does a game need it? And does it make it a better game?

Well to question 1 – No, but it depends on the game and to 2 – yes, but at the same time no.

Still here? Guess I best elaborate then!

Now on to the messy confusing bits, does a game need a story, no it doesn’t, there are a lot of games that don’t need a story, or they only need something that is loosely made, something that doesn’t jump into the players face all the time. And there are some games in which the need for story is so great, that without it would make the game a chore and more punishment than a form of pleasure.

For example games like Battlefield 2, Counterstrike Source, Team Fortress 2 are all multiplayer games that have no story and have no need for it, the players have fun by just playing it and any story behind it beyond “there’s the other team, go kill” would just get in the way. (Please note all are online games)

While games like World of Warcraft, Aion and RF online have a loose story, its there if you want it, but you don’t need it to play the game. (We’ll come back later to this, just make note that these are all MMORPG Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game)

But most games do require story, games like Fear 2, Final Fantasy 12, Nexus: The Jupiter Incident and other games need it to make it a good game, without it, it would just make the game boring as hell.

Why the difference between these games and the others? Because they are single player based, a game for a single person rather than several, yes some have multiplayer features but they are not the main part of the game, without the story in Fear 2, you have no idea why this little girl appears and scares the hell out of you, why in Final Fantasy 12 your stealing an airship and why in Nexus: TJI you are trying to rescue this ship.

Because without it, the game is boring, confusing and often frustrating, this is because the game needs the player to have a working knowledge of the world he is in to make informed decisions and without that knowledge, he has no idea what to do and what’s going on!

So why don’t the others need it? Well they are all multiplayer games, designed with more than 1 person in mind so they must tailor the game so that the experience a player has is with a group, not a single individual. But there is story in these games, where you ask? In the situations that the players get themselves into, on purpose or accident. Instead of a characters plight, the stories that the players make for themselves are often more enjoyable than those made for them.

Now onto the 2nd question does a story make a better game, this is most definitely no, there are plenty of games that have a story and yet it is what ruins the game. Enchanted Arms is a RPG for the Xbox 360, the story is based on your character having a special arm, which is capable of destroying Golems easily, his friend has been kidnapped and he is trying to save him. Simple enough, good games have similar stories to them, so this one should work?

Nope not in the least as the story written makes a complete hash at character interaction, plot development and the final ending is down right horrible. The real problem lies with the lines spoken by the characters, since the game is developed in Japan, its possible that the Japanese wouldn’t find the lines so bad, but to me a westerner, someone who has been brought up in English, knows its syntax, grammar and form better than many born English speakers, it makes me want to cry every time a character opens his or her gob.

But why does Super Mario Galaxies work, when it doesn’t have a solid plot and this doesn’t? Its because Super Mario Galaxies gameplay, is fun to the point that it makes up for the lack of plot. While Enchanted Arms is the opposite, the gameplay isn’t fun enough that you would want to play without a good story to drive you.

Art Director – putting the director into art, then taking the art right out

The title Art Director is both a contradiction and a pretty good description of what he does, he most likely does very little “Art” when compared to his underlings, but he will “Direct” said underlings so that all their work looks similar, set them tasks and makes sure they complete them.

The job is very much that, a lot of not doing Art and a lot of delegating the work to others, but they also help guide their team so that the work they do fits together, they help to guide their team in developing their strengths, all that plus they have to be able to show his/her teams work to the rest of the company, to show their progress, to ask for constructive criticism and to find out what tasks they have to tackle next.

So not exactly a creative role, its more about solving problems (tasks – design a level) with the resources you have, (aka – your artistic underlings).

Of course you can swap art in the title for programmer, designer, tester and various other roles and you will find that it translates mostly the same, a lot less of what a lower employee would normally do and a lot more managerially work.

Now since the art side in games in very similar in films we should have a quick look at similarities and the differences.

Similarities – Both go through the same design process, each have to make resources which can either be used to show financers that the project is something that might make some cash, or the work is used to help others or themselves create props, settings and characters (swap settings for levels). They get their tasks from the Design team and will often have to show their work to the upper management to show their progress and any ideas that may have popped up whilst designing.

Differences – Games have a shorted time period for the art to be made, a lot more often has to be made, with a good portion not even finding it into the game (same as films, except there is a lot more of it), the range of styles that they may use for their work will be more varied than a film as well.

So not much difference, and its mostly how much is made in comparison with each other.

But what qualities might you need to become an Art Director? Well for one thing you work with a team, so you have to be able to work with them, to be able to recognize each individuals strengths and weaknesses, while to be able to develop them in each individual and to be able to delegate tasks to people according to their strengths.

Everything else you will need is already there, for you either start from the bottom and work your way up to director, or you already have enough knowledge in that subject and so start as a director.

Game Design - I wish it was to be paid to play

Game Design is something that is a part of every games creation process, without Game Designers there would be no games, period! But what is Game Design is it about A - Gameplay, the actions the player is allowed to do, formed in a way so that it is fun? Or is it B - the story of a game? Aka the reasons why the player character is driven to slay aliens, take revenge etc.

Most people would say B, but in reality it is mostly A! Something that people like Shigeru Miyamoto, a game designer that tries to be at the cutting edge, because he realizes that Game Design is not about writing cool stories, its about making excellent and “unique” Gameplay. When you look at the Super Mario Games from the N64 onwards, you’ll see that each one has had a unique game play feature for its time.

Super Mario 64 for the Nintendo 64, was big worlds and relative freedom to tackle said worlds. Super Mario Sunshine for the Gamecube was to use a backpack that sprays water in different ways to combat and get around the world. And Super Mario Galaxies for the Wii puts in simulated gravity for their “worlds”, using them to create a new form of challenge not found in platformers before.

But where does all of this take place with the developer? Well right at the beginning, without a Game Design document to work from, if you don’t have a set goal to work to then your game will only wander aimlessly and it needs to be updated through the entire design process, as things change and if you don’t change it with it, then your stuck in the same problem.

But don’t worry your not alone in this; most companies have dedicated Design teams that think up new content for games all the time, some of the designers are specialized, for example in making levels, while most are usually just general designers. But of course if you are a freelance worker then you are on your own.

Now not all games require the same things in design, you tailor it to the genre that you are making it for, you know that you wont need to control vast armies in a FPS, it would just be confusing and you know that in a RTS you don’t need to put in a stealth feature like a Stealth game would. Of course there are exceptions to the rule, but they are not many exceptions, as its hard to make both the FPS and the RTS sections of the game fun, thanks to you splitting your resources.

But what do I think is most important is that, the gameplay must be something that’s fun and doesn’t get stale easily, so I can do it again without it getting old and boring, otherwise the game is shelved in 30mins and I start thinking that I wasted some money.

New Games Journalism – Just what is up with it?

Games Journalism is a tricky subject, because like art, there is always room for debate and thanks to the magic of the internet, there are a large number of people to debate with, or depending on your forum, a huge flame war, with insults being flung left and right by the new age cultists of Nintendo, Sony, Microsoft and the PC, foaming mouths are not optional, but a required tool of the workplace.

But I’m moving away from the subject here; Games Journalism is indeed a tricky subject, thanks to a short time table (they have to pretty do everything in a little under 3 weeks, only to start again for next month), the internet stealing the magazines customers and so perhaps a short road to being laid off, down to boring games developers being unable to exude enough charisma, so that little Bob can take his life giving quotes in exchange for a pay check, so that he may stuff his little face with life giving pies, means that Games Journalism is no piece of cake, its not just about playing games, nor a rock and roll lifestyle of going to places, being treated like a king by games developers, all so that you can give them these few golden words.

“It wasn’t bad, 7/10”

And yes that does mean Peter Monxyew is adored by the press, for the sheer fact that to them, he makes their life a damn sight easier, while for the people who actually play his games for relaxation and find the reality is not the vision that was painted for us (see every game by Lionhead), journalists praise him for the fact that he hands out quotes by the bucket loads, has enough charisma to paint a beautiful world filled with lambs and chuckling kittens and actually gets back to them, something which apparently not many developers do, or at least not in time.

But lets not say that there are no problems with Games Journalism at this moment! Oh no, I for one consider the most damning thing that anyone can do is put a bloody number to an experience (which is what a game is), and the bastards plaster em all over the damn magazines, it reeks of unfeeling, mechanical science and if we go down that route, all games should come with a endorphin filled syringe, filled to the prescribed enjoyment level and then plunged into my brain, for that is what numbers fitted to an experience is to me and if anyone does try that on me in person, I will actually work out for the sole purpose of kaber tossing you into a tree.

If anyone gets the irony in that, then you are either very smart, or very Scottish.

Of course this kind of anger can only be prescribed against those that talk about the experience of the game, but if your talking about the machanics of the game, (good camera, excellent graphics blah blah blah), then yes a number ranking system is good for it, in fact I require it for the sole purpose of glazing over it and then trying the games demo instead. Because if there are any mechanics that spoil the game, then they spoil the experience, and the other guys will tell you that.

And that is what New Games Journalism is all about, talking about the experience rather than the mechanics, to know that you will most likely feel like a kid again when you play this indy game, and you know what?

That’s good, its what my own writing is going to be like if I play a game because I can only write about my own experience and what I felt whilst playing, although most likely a tad more long winded then most journalists, it will have the same character, the joy of a guy who never did grow up fully and thinks that to be an adult all the time is stupid and boring.

But I’m not the only one, there are many people with differencing ways of telling people what’s out there, Yahtzee from The Escapist, a online community solely catered for Gaming, creates Zero Punctuation a kind of video podcast where he reviews games for a living, using simplistic characters and artwork to push forward his thoughts on the matter.

And then he swears and cracks jokes all over it, with the speed of a Lion trying to decide whether to give the Cubs tofu, or a slice of Gazelle, the Gazelle wins of course, much tastier! Not so much for the Gazelle. Thankfully Yahtzee doesn’t butcher the review with all this and actually makes sense and is funny at the same time. He is both objective and subjective, he talks enough about the problems of the game mechanics that ruin the experience, yet he always describes the experience he has had with the game, which means that it all works, because you can be only subjective and only objective in a review, as you need both sides to truly explain the whole experience

And like me, he prescribes to the same idea that number based reviewing is stupid, because we all have our own minds and can make our own decisions. Its just a shame that most people seem to be sheep and will bleat with the herd.

I of course pretty much ignore most reviews and buy and play what games I want to, even if reviewers have said its bad and even enjoy them, why does this happen? Because compared to the bleating herd, I am a Bear that sits in a cave, smoking a bubblegum pipe, occasionally heading out to hunt some mutton for lunch.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

A Personal History of Gaming

Hmm my personal history of gaming, now that's a question and a half! I've played so many games it makes me head spin thinking about it, guess we'd best start at the beginning and I'm afraid its a long one, so make sure your comfortable.

My foray into gaming started when i was about 5-6 my dad had given me a NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) along with a bunch of games. These games are which I think started me off on a lifetime of gaming and were the first games I would have ever played and I will always have fond memories of the NES in my heart, I can still remember the time I spent with friends, or on my own, happily letting the hours go past and loving every second of it. But games hadnt fully gotten their claws into me yet, I was still a normal, average kid that preferred to play outside in the sun with his friends, rather than stay cooped up inside with a bleeping machine.

No it was only till the N64 came out did the claws of gaming sunk deep within. It was the first console I bought with my own money, I bought it about a year after its release and took with me Lylat Wars (Star Fox 64 again for those outside of Europe), I spent the rest of the day playing it and being awed by what I was seeing, it looked beautiful (at the time, plus I only had graphics from the NES as comparison) and the game played so well, but this was only the start. At that point games had their spell over me and I was hooked, I started to play games like never before, plus I sought out other consoles and other games, since if they were fun, why not give them a go!

This has continued to the present day, I guess the reason I have continued playing games is due to the effort that people spend making these games, all that hard effort spent making the games great shows through, it is a labour of love and it shines through when you play the game, very few games truly encapsulate that feeling, but the ones that succeed are usually at the top of their peers. But not all games are good, many have become “cookie cutter” games, basic clones of games that have achieved great popularity in the market and so are looking to get a slice of the action.

Thanks to this I have actually spent time playing old games, while these may not be as pretty as modern games, they have a freshness of originality not found in new games, with both story and game play usually being better than what’s being released.

I find it sad that the gaming market has become what it is, originality in games is far and few between, which creates such blandness in what I felt 5 years ago to be a thriving, energetic industry. But like all industries, they must cater to its market, which is as shallow as a puddle in the middle of Africa in the summer. But while the industry may be wallowing in a wake of Grand Theft Auto clones and vanilla flavoured FPS games, I would like to see it look back on the games that made the industry what it is, to see what made it so great and to maybe try to capture the spirit that games had. But while I may wish for games to go back to its roots, I certainly acknowledge that it is unlikely, which may be a good thing, if the likes of Bioware’s Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age: Origins live up to their expectations then I can see hope on the horizon for this industry.

And while I can certainly see the nearby future of gaming, I do not dream of what it could become, as a young art form, created in a time when the world is no longer truly divided by boundaries and held back by societies misconceptions. Millions of people of all ages, religion and racial heritage experience what video games have to offer everyday, it is not a closed off hobby to those that people consider to be social outcasts and as such it will benefit greatly by the influx of different experiences, views and creativity.

It has already become what I have dreamed, a shared experience for the entire world of which where no boundaries exist, the only thing left is for me to either be of the ones that stay on the side lines, watching what comes by, or to take an active hand in what comes before me, to shape and mould it, to work with like minded people to create something that can be enjoyed and appreciated by others.

"More Bloom! More! More! More! SHAZAM!"

If you get the joke in the title congratulations, you have no life!

Moving on.

Ah the present, what a wonderful time to talk about games, and yet what a terrifying time to talk about games. It is in no other part of its history have change and developed so rapidly, for so long were we stuck in a slump when games were first born, unable to fully grasp at their potential, now a days it’s the opposite, the big companies are getting out the big guns and are stopping at nothing to make a buck, or are the game developers trying to make sure that the feeling of fun is still kept in games, whilst they are being bombarded with new technology, pressure and sometimes, a slightly harsh and overbearing workspace.

But at any rate now is the time of the video game, for they have progressed to the point that they now rival movies in telling stories, thanks to them having a deeper connection with the viewer, plus they are becoming more realistic looking by the day.

The development of games has very much continued on as it has done in the mid 90’s, only the stakes have been raised, High-Definition quality graphics, motion control and the expansion into the Casual area of gaming has made some immense changes in the world of gaming. For one thing HD gaming has become the be all and end all of games, an arms race of digital beauty, has pushed gaming for years and most likely years to come, but that isn’t entirely good.

HD content is difficult to make, plus it takes a long time and a lot of space to store it, because of this the other areas of the game can suffer, plus games are far shorter than they were, there were games that went on for weeks, months even because they were so big, now they can barely fill a weekend. Add to the deadlines, stubbornness of a Game Developer’s clients can often break a team, forcing them to can a project and losing both time and money in a failed product.

Motion control is also an important development since it has opened up gaming to those that originally wouldn’t touch it at all, like my Grandparents for example, Nintendo’s Wii, with its Wii Sports is something that my Grandparents would happily play, yet anything else is usually classed as boring, or for kids. Plus the motion control of the Wii Remote (yes its shaped like a remote) means that you can do things in game like you would do in real life, like opening doors, swinging swords, punching and dodging in a boxing match, helps newcomers get into games quickly without having to learn all that much to play.

And while HD is often more of a hindrance than anything in development, technology is constantly being developed and so something new will come up, like the devices that use your mind as a controller being developed by Sony, the millions being spent in creating Virtual Reality devices.

The future has many possibilities and I feel privileged that I will get the chance to see them.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

80s-90s Mad hair, clothes, music and Video Game market crashes

Ho my, again I have to look at a period of game development, last time it was the 50s to the 70s and now I have to do the 80s/90s? The work never ends!

Now it is during the 80s that games really start to hit off, arcades started to become popular in society, the first true home consoles to appear, along with home computers being cheap enough for the average chump to buy, in a way it’s the beginning of the modern gaming society. There is so much that I can only really scratch the surface. And yet at the same time an event, which people call “The video game crash” or “Atari Debacle”, made a good portion of the video game world bankrupt and forced out of business, we are lucky that what we have now is even here!

And why did this happen? Well one of the reasons, is the same as why I can’t go into much depth of what happens in the 80s, there was so much variety in the business and to be frank, a lot of consoles and games were copied and sold which further hurt business, along with poor development (which is shocking considering how little effort was needed to make the games then) just meant that companies had to fold due to financial difficulties. A good example is Atari, they made a game of the E.T. film, but so few copies of the game sold, that they were forced to dump the thousands of copies into landfill in Mexico city along with a bunch of other Atari related goods.

Because of this by the 90s there wasn’t such a glut of different consoles and home computer systems, only a few companies had the money to make consoles, and so in the end they were the only ones that could make them, forcing everyone else into to develop games for their systems, that or go bust. Because of this, the consoles more readily became a part of the household, with Nintendo, Sony and Sega becoming the big boys on the block and the beginning of the present platform of gaming that we have today.

But still games were a little different in the 90’s compared to the 80’s, which is mostly thanks to the onset of 3D, yes my friends we upgraded a dimension and now we can go and revel in worlds of beauty, or at least that’s want I want to say, they unfortunately still looked like something made at the last minute, plus the guy making it was smoking something and I’m not sure that something had any business being put in a pipe. But at least there was 3D, which became the standard rather than the norm by the late 90’s thanks to Nintendo’s N64, a console of which every game seemed to be made in the 3D realm.

And thank god for that, for who knows where we would have gone without the blessings of the 3rd dimension!