The Big Tent.

So E3 2012 has come and gone, and made some people angry along the way. For my part I spent most of that period scouring the internet for any and all footage of one particular game, but what I did see of the rest of the event seemed just about as juvenile and unrelated to what gaming is to me as it has always been.

There were many things demanding of criticise about E3 and those things need to be criticised, vocally and repeatedly if anything is to change. The entire policy of “Booth Babes”, the fetishistic  treatment of violence, the reliance on spectacle over substance, the substitution of “gritty and mature” for actual content, these are just a few of the problems E3 brings up. I can’t in good conscience suggest these things, and many others, should not be criticised, I just worry about the form some of these criticisms take and the language used to voice them.

Journalist and indie game developer Tom Francis is a smart guy, and the game he’s making is very good, so I expected to be impressed with his E3 inspired manifesto. For about ninety percent of it I was in complete agreement, however certain implied, and in one particular instance explicit, criticisms stood out.

If you hamstring that to ensure the player gets a pre-packaged experience, you’re crippling this medium to make it resemble a less interesting one.

Inherently anything described as a manifesto is going to suffer from some degree of exaggeration and grandiosity but still I find  ”crippling this medium” to be an unnecessarily aggressive choice of words. I struggle to find two people who agree on how to define what this medium that we call video games is, so to declare something as crippling it is either presumptive or simply naive.

The context for this statement is that certain design approaches, particular those of the likes of Call of Duty are attempts to make games resemble a different and “less interesting” medium, that of film. I can let the “less interesting” part go since these things are subjective but I find the underlying premise troubling.

Why is making a game that is “film like” a bad thing? Interactive Fiction is “book like” but that didn’t stop the Interactive Fiction panel at PAX East 2010 from being the single most creative and intelligent part of that entire event. To completely dismiss a design approach because it appears to represent or reinterpret one medium in the form of another shows either a surfeit of hubris or a dearth of imagination.

Call of Duty is not a film. The very things that make it “not a film” are worthy of examination and critical engagement rather than blanket ridicule. There are few better ways of destroying a community than by instituting a purity test and that’s exactly what we do when we use language like “actual video game” or “crippling this medium”.

Two minutes spent with the archives of this site, or thirty seconds in my presence, should be more than enough to confirm that my tastes in games, and my personal design philosophy is closer to that of Tom Francis than it is to the likes of Infinity Ward, yet I don’t feel that’s enough justification to imply they are acting in a detrimental fashion, either toward the work they create or games as a whole. Not liking something is not a valid basis on which to make the claim that it causes harm either to itself or others. Should all games follow the path embarked upon by Infinity Ward? No,  but no more than all games should do anything.

Video games still have big problems, in terms of demographic reach, along with their representation of minorities, sexuality, and themes not defined by violent conflict. Against all that to single out one design philosophy as being flawed when it’s difficult to even find a consensus on the defining traits of video games to begin with is hyperbole that serves little purpose.

Ninety percent of Tom Francis’ manifesto is golden, and on the whole the criticisms of Kris Graft are justified, but let’s free them from the over exaggeration for a moment and accept that those of us who agree with them really have no better claim to what is and isn’t good for this medium than the millions of people playing Modern Warfare 3 right now.

A disappearing history.

Among the many badly kept secrets of the games industry was the existence of a multiplayer mode for BioWare’s Mass Effect 3. Officially announced recently details are still scarce though what has been revealed is that the co-operative multiplayer mode will connect with the single player game. Co-operative play will increase Galactic Readiness which will in turn impact the outcome of the single player game. There will be ways of increasing Galactic Readiness in the single player game itself alongside other platform specific means, Facebook or XBLA tie in games seem like the most obvious possibilities.

With rare exceptions I think providing additional options for players is to be lauded and as such there’s nothing about this news that has made me question the likelihood of purchasing Mass Effect 3. Of interest is what happens to the experience of playing Mass Effect 3 months or maybe even years after launch. Recently I replayed Mass Effect 2, over eighteen months from its initial release the availability of DLC means that there is now more content, more options, on offer than existed when I originally purchased the game.

It’s an assumption, but I feel a justified one, that eighteen months after the release of Mass Effect 3 notably less people will be playing the co-operative portion that were doing so eighteen days after release. Therefore through the simply act of delaying their purchase of the game, or by deciding to replay a game, players may well find that some of the options available to them for raising Galactic Readiness will not be as viable as they once were.

Thinking further out two or three years from the release of Mass Effect 3 will the servers for the co-operative multiplayer mode still be running? With a likely dwindling player base and no new revenue streams the financial benefits of turning the servers off will be high. This is not uncommon for EA, I cannot play Mercenaries 2: World in Flames because, unable to contact the now offline EA servers, it hangs at the main menu. If somebody wants to play Mass Effect 3 several years after release certain options may not simply be less viable they might not be available at all.

This is already a problem when it comes to multiplayer games, but the growing integration of multiplayer elements with the single player portion of games is creating a new issue. When the two modes, multiplayer and singleplayer, are separate then they are effectively two distinct, albeit similar texts. In time one may text made remain readable, which is to say extant in a playable form, the other not. That is the problem we have right now; I can still play the single player of Halo 2 but not its multiplayer. When the two modes are interconnected as they will be in Mass Effect 3, or as a better example Dark Souls, then it can no longer be treated as two distinct texts rather it is one text with multiple facets. In five years even if I can find or emulate the hardware to make these texts readable, one or more of those facets will still remain unavailable. Through actions beyond my control a game I have purchased will have been altered, instead of the future bringing more content in terms of DLC or Mods, the future will bring less as servers are shutdown and options once available disappear.

As a consumer this is problematic, but as a student or historian of game design this is tragic. Hardware alone already makes the play and study of games older than a decade or two a challenge, but imagine students of game design in the next decade attempting to examine and learn from a game like Dark Souls? How much of what makes that game unique will be lost when players are stripped of the ability to interact with each other?

If this doesn’t seem like a big issue imagine the state of cinema if film students were only able to study films made in the last two decades? Or if English Literature students no longer have the ability to examine the works of Shakespeare or Twain? What might be lost?

The answer is not to abandon multiplayer or avoid attempts to cross-pollinate multiplayer and singleplayer, to do so would be reactionary and narrow minded. A better answer might be for developers and publishers to rely on the community to maintain these games and their servers if it ceases to be financially viable to do so. No One Lives Forever 2: A Spy in H.A.R.M.’s Way is nearly ten years old, the official servers for it were shutdown over three years ago, fortunately thanks to the dedication of members of its community it’s still possible to play online. Obviously when it comes to console games, there are factors beyond the control of the developers and publishers that need to be worked out if the severs for certain games are to remain active in some fashion. But isn’t the preservation of gaming history worth solving those issues? If not then we are saying that gaming in all it’s forms does not deserve preservation and I don’t think I have the language skills necessary to describe how angry that idea makes me.

ADDENDUM:

The potential method described to preserve games is one among many, and only deals with a single aspect of the  larger issue of preservation. Though it may well be possible to preserve the ability to play a multiplayer game long after its release, this does nothing to preserve the experience of playing that game at launch, or the time you spent playing it for six straight hours with your best friends. Games exist to be played and the inability to preserve those specific experiences is noteworthy. These are larger problems of preservation and archival, daunting problems that I have no solution for. I’ll admit I avoided dealing with them in order to end on a somewhat positive note, this may have been naive of me.

Isolation.

“The closed door is a curious object. Secures a world inside or ensures one stays out. Harbinger of fear and joy in equal measure. Barrier both physical and mental requiring an act of will to remove. It keeps the sad isolated and the joyous together. Humble custodian, both guardian and jailer. There is little more truly powerful, more deeply terrifying than the closed door.”

- Unattributed parchment, discovered by Hammerite guards upon the inspection of an empty cell in Cragscleft Prison.

Regret.

“There comes a point where you start to wonder why you never gave it any serious thought before. You’re a smart guy and you could be making ten times what you do now. You’d have to break the law but really how big a deal is that in this country? You could do it without anybody getting hurt and even if they did what is it to you? You already see yourself as better than those around you, what does it matter if they get hurt? So you start to really think about it, and it’s funny at first. Idle speculation, something to fill the boring moments. You forget that all your entire life is is boring moments and suddenly it’s all you think about. So you have to try at least once, put one of those plans into action because just thinking about it gets to you eventually.  So yeah, you do it, and it works and you get away with it. That just reinforces the belief that you really are better that everybody else, so of course you do it again. Before you have time to adjust you’re making more money in a night than you used to in a month. It only gets easier from there, soon you’re not even doing anything yourself anymore, you’ve got people to do it for you. You’re working nine to five, sleeping in on weekends, and making more money than you know what to do with. So do I regret it? Fuck no what’s to regret?”

-  Transcription of a interview with Sergei Zavorotko, conducted 6 months before his death in Sicily. [Translated]

Love.

“What happened to that nice young girl you brought home last year..?”
“She was not a young girl mother, she was only two years younger than
me.”
“And you’re still my little girl. Now don’t avoid the question. She
was lovely and she had a thing for you anyone could see that.”
“… It wasn’t working. We decided to go our separate ways.”
“I see, and who’s decision was that exactly?”
“Mother.. I don’t have the time to discuss my love life, put Dad on.”
“Never have the time…”
“Mother…”
“Fine…”
“… She only wants what’s best for you, we both do.”
“I know Dad…”
“And that Michelle really was a lovely girl, attractive too…”
“Dad…”
“I know, I know you don’t want to talk about it… But there’s so little you can talk about.”
“It’s the Alliance Dad, you know what it’s like.”
“It’s not easy for us sometimes, honey, especially not after what happen during the Blitz.”
“You don’t need to worry about that Dad, we made sure those bastards paid…”
“Jaina! I didn’t raise my little girl to talk like that.”
“… I’m sorry Dad. Look I’ve got to go, we’re about to… Well I’ve got to go.”
“OK, honey, now remember your mother and I love you, so you watch your back out there.”
“I love you to Dad.”
“… And give our love to Michelle.”
“Mom…”

- From the communications log of Commander Jaina Shepard, SSV Normandy, 2183 CE.

Fear.

“This is the kind of case that makes you want to believe in true evil, to believe that only someone who’s honest to God evil could do something like that. But that’s not how it is, is it? He’s not evil, being evil would make him special but there’s nothing special about him, he’s just pathetic. Pathetic and all too human. And you know that’s the worst part. He’s not so different from anybody else really, just one more fucked up soul in a world going to shit. I guess that’s what scares me most, he’s just like any of us, so maybe any of us could be just like him.”

- Excerpt from the diary of Special Agent Ethan Thomas, 2 weeks prior to the Serial Killer X incident.

Betrayal.

“It hits you like a shock wave; that moment when you realise exactly where your friendship ends. Sure you have disagreements, who doesn’t? But this is different. Worse is you see he doesn’t even realise what’s happened. This burning mark seared into you friendship and he can’t even see that it’s him holding the brand. By now you’re no longer surprised, he actually thinks he’s doing you a favour, like you’ll owe him something for it down the way. What you once saw as just a strange quirk of his personality is revealed as the harsh reality of his worldview. You’re just a thing for him to use when he has need of you. And right now you are not required… But that’s ironically appropriate, it gives you the time to ensure that when he does need you, you’ll be long gone. Sure you could stay, try to help him sort his out problems but to what end? It’s clear he doesn’t even see the trouble he’s responsible for, his view of the world won’t abide it. So he can keep it, slate’s cleared you don’t owe him anything any longer. His fate is with the stars now…”

- Personal Log of Fleet Admiral Ras’Tok Lun commanding the Star Fleet Temperance, 2 hours before his forces abandoned the defense of Cor Caroli. [Translated]

I, Fanboy.

There are some games I like a lot. When you consider that I feel most games are bad, you may start to realise why this is a big deal. Yes, there are some games I enjoy but most I tolerate. I am inspired and awed by the potential of games but so few approach that, or even attempt to, that it’s difficult not to be cynical. So when a game really gets to me it’s a matter of personal significance.

Sadly very few games have ever affected me in this manner, those that do often achieve this in spite of their design rarely because of it. These games I profess to adore are not without their faults, I like to think I’m unbiased enough to be able identify these flaws; but this recognition does little to detract from my respect for these games. All that is necessary is a single moment, one small spark of imagination or intelligent that shows me a glimpse of that potential . What is any amount of design flaws or technical bugs compared to that?

Over the last few years I’ve been fortunate enough to play several such games. I’ve talked at length about some of them but still it’s difficult to describe the reason I hold these games in such esteem. I’ve described the fate of Frank Bilders but I fear in my attempt to personalise that account I may have sacrificed clarity. This was an event that actually caused me a moment of pause. I sat thinking, dwelling, on what had just happened. Through my actions I’d allowed another to die, somebody who had risked their life (albeit a virtual one) to save me on prior occasions. I felt something. I’m not trying to say I understand the pain of losing a friend (something I hope never to experience first hand), I imagine what I felt to be barely a shadow of that, a fleeting glimpse of a shadow of a concept of that. But it was enough. In that moment I saw the potential of what games could achieve. I’d been emotional affected by the game, something only a few works in other media have ever truly managed. It was different this time, stronger somehow for all it’s fleetingness; I’d witnessed the power and futility of my own agency.

Surely If I could get everybody else to play that game and experience a similar moment then that would put an end to the entire discussion of whether games could be art, whether they were interesting or worthy of study.  If I could convince everybody else that for that briefest moment I had truly felt a pang of guilt for the consequences of my actions then I believe they would understand the power of games. I understand that such things are subjective and maybe Far Cry 2 isn’t the game for everybody, but I can only speak from my personal experience so I had to try and get people to play this game, and appreciate it as I do.

If a moment like that could be attained in a era when games are still so focused on the juvenile concepts of violence and direct action what could be accomplished in the years to come?

It might seems ridiculous, asinine, that I could make such claims about a game like Far Cry 2. But no matter how much I wanted to be engaged I was utterly unmoved by the death of Aeris, unable to understand the appeal of the Zelda or Metal Gear series and left feeling stupid and frustrated by Braid. Something about Far Cry 2 drew me, held me, engaged me like so few other games have ever do. So that it was able in that one moment of holistic purity to me cause me to stop and really reflect on my actions; to offer me a look some of potential of games. How could I not want to talk about it, not want everybody else to share that experience?

And then, it only went and did it again.

I want to scream it from the rooftops because I believe in the power of this medium and honestly think that if I can get others to have the same experience I had with this game then they’ll understand it too. I cannot always accurately describe what it is about a particular game that has such an affect on me, and the excitement I feel at having witnessed that moment of potentiality can make such critical thought even harder. I can explain the circumstances of the event and what I felt but even that is not always enough. I get frustrated and angry at my inability to make other people understand, I get emotional, irrational. I rant, I snap, I resort to childish insults. You don’t understand and I can’t make you, and that’s painful.

So with a fledgling critical language and incomplete vocabulary I strive to explain a moment that was at once precisely as simple as I’ve described yet orders of magnitude more complex. Out of context it is easy to explain but without the foundation of the rest of the game, the build up and the pay off can seem facile, meaningless; my reaction to it pretentious at best and comic at worst.

If I can seem overly intent in my praise or damning in my condemnations it’s born of frustration at my inability to get across how much of an impact something has had on me, or how close I feel it came to giving me one of those rare moments of clarity. I am a fanboy and I have something to really be a fan of. It’s is my privilege, it is also my curse.

Sequels: Originality and Entitlement.

The news that StarCraft II is to to be released as the first in a trilogy has caused some controversy. The variety and tone of comments on the matter has swayed from the conciliatory to the openly hostile, to the abusive. I have quoted an example of two such comments, culled from popular game industry news sites:

“Tip to Blizzard: Sell this to Korea only, America does not want your stupid, expensive, and uninventive sequel. Also – get some balls and come up with a new concept. Diablo + Warcraft + Starcraft are getting stale.”

“This is Blizzard fucking over people to make more money. I played SC for the multiplayer, but Single Player was still great. Now because some guy in some fucking suit over at Activison-Blizzard thought “how can we fucking milk this shit more?” we have to pay for 3 incomplete games. You thought EA is fucked up? this sets a new standard.”

With such comments as this often standard and not the exception is it any wonder gaming and gamers are considered juvnile?

StarCraft II is being released as three separate products with three different single-player campaigns included in each product; the release dates and pricing details have yet to be announced. The original StarCraft featured a single-player mode with three campaigns, one for each race, “out of the box”. Are potential consumers somehow entitled to a sequel that follows that trend and again includes three playable campaigns on initial release?

Haven't I seen this somewhere before?

This is not the first time StarCraft II and Blizzard have provoked controversy. Ashley Cheng posted on his blog that he was disappointed that Blizzard were taking a conservative approach to the design of their sequels. I have no problem with this comment, and I agree with Steve Gaynor who described it as a “sad-ass day” when Ahsley felt compelled to apologise for holding an opinion. He was stating an opinion and in fact one I agree with, however I do question if whether the conservative nature of Blizzard’s design philosophy is inherently a bad thing.

The underlying issue seems to be how important innovation and originality are to a sequel or franchise title. Is there something inherently wrong with providing games that fans of the original will enjoy? It is all but impossible to create a sequel that is aesthetically or mechanically identical to the original, incremental changes occur all the time and together with new technology this means any sequel is automatically going to feel at least a little different to the original. Genre conventions (Whether you believe they should be kept to or not) change over time, is there anything wrong with a new game including those changes while keeping the core mechanics relatively unchanged?

Another question is who should the developers be making their sequel for? If hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of people purchased your previous title how do you decide how far to change or innovate for the sequel? The answer to this question is made even more complicated when you start to look at the general reception of some titles that have sought to innovate. Warhammer 40K: Dawn Of War II is taking a different approach to its mechanics compared to the original Dawn Of War. There is a greater focus on individual squads and tactics over base building and resource management. This has caused consternation in some quarters as it no longer feels like the original title. So how much innovation is too much?

Is this a case of Goldilocks and the three sequels? This one is too different, this one is not different enough but this one is just right?

Too little change gives up Diablo III, too much gives us Deus Ex: Invisible War.  But even in the case of the former the art style has provoked comment and controversy, because it has changed “too much” from that of Diablo II.

Oh look. Rainbows!

I can’t help but feel that sometimes “lack of originality” is the battle cry of those who feel their own pet projects are not getting the attention they deserve. Are games there to provide entertainment for consumers, or to gratify the artistic desire of their creators? Is it possible for them to be both?

Who are developers ultimately answerable too? Themselves, their publishers (And their shareholders) or their fans? Are their fans entitled to a sequel with the same art direction as the original, or the same style of single-player campaign? Or should they seek to innovate, and if so how much and in which areas?

There are far more questions than answers, yet reading comments to news posts regarding upcoming sequels it seems like everybody knows exactly what the right way to create a sequel is, and unsurprisingly only a few of them agree with each other.

Are consumers entitled to anything beyond products that function correctly? If you don’t like something you are not required to purchase it, no one is forcing that upon you. Is there a fear that with the release of a particular style of sequel what you might have enjoyed about the original will be ignore? It can often be difficult to get two people to agree on the strengths of an individual game let alone what they feel should be included in any sequel.

Is there a value in change for the sake of change? If it’s not broken why fix it? If you are providing entertainment for millions of people is there a reason to change what you are doing? Is the games industry a consumer driven industry or a product driven one? Which should it be?

Personally I know from experience that both StarCraft II and Diablo III will likely be high quality releases that will be consistently supported by Blizzard in the months and years following release. Beyond that I am happy to let them provide what they want to provide, if it’s a similar experience to what I’ve had before I see no problem with that if I still want that experience I will enjoy it, if I don’t I won’t purchase it. There are enough other titles released each year that I know I will find something to entertain and engage me somewhere.

Sequel Expectations.

What is the purpose of a sequel? From a corporate perspective it’s a means of establishing a brand, a franchise, and increasing revenue through recognition. As a  fictional work it’s to expand the universe, grow the narrative and revisit familiar characters. What is the purpose from a game perspective? Chess might have evolved over centuries but it was a gradual process, and it’s unlikely to change to any substantial degree in the near future. We are not expecting Chess 2.0 any time soon. The rules of most competitive games change subtly over time but the core vocabulary of the game changes little, even if the offside rules change slightly Soccer is still recognisably the same game it was twenty years ago, at least in terms of its fundamental rules.

That's going to leave a mark.

StarCraft as a competitive multi-player title has seen unprecedented success, especially in South Korea, players have developed and honed tactics over years of play. What will happen when the sequel is released? Is StarCraft II designed to replace StarCraft or to compliment it? Blizzard seem keen for StarCraft II to appeal to the those involved in competitive play. This is obviously a good audience to target as they have a built in enthusiasm for the game, but after spending years playing with the original game can they really be expected to invest more time into learning the changes in the sequel? Will their skills transfer? How much can StarCraft II change from its predecessor before the investment required to learn its intricacies becomes too much?

Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War, and Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War II though superficially similar games appear to be taking very different approaches to their game mechanics. The former is focused on base building, territorial control and combat between a number of combined arms units. The sequel looks to be focusing on smaller scale combat, taking a more tactical role playing approach, a squad combat title more than a real time strategy game. Relic have the opportunity to appeal to two different audiences with these titles, providing two complimentary experiences. These different audiences will only develop if Relic and THQ choose to support both titles in the years after the release of the sequel. How likely is this?

It is said that art is never finished it is merely abandoned, game development is rife with stories of cut features and unbalanced mechanics. These are obvious targets to focus on first when working on a sequel, but with the game now in the hands of players the fact that those specific features are missing, or that those mechanics are unbalanced has become part of what makes the game what it is. Changes to these features might move the game closer to the developers original intent but possibly away from what made it resonate with consumers.

So what is the purpose of a sequel to a successful game from a ludic perspective? To improve on and refine the mechanics, or to attempt to provide a similar aesthetic experience through different mechanics? Is the purpose of a sequel to replace the original? To compliment it? Or is it to provide a counter to the original, an antithesis with a third title potentially providing a synthesis of ideas from the first two titles?

The answers to these questions seems as manifold as the titles which inspire them.