Electron Dance Highlights
Of all the Normandy landings on 6 June 1944, the landing at the sector codenamed “Omaha” was the most bloody. So much went wrong. The German coastal defences were completely intact as bad weather resulted in Allied bombers dropping their payload too far inland. Many landing craft couldn't make it all the way to the beach so the infantry had to wade through water first. Platoons were scattered across the beach, meaning chains of command were disrupted and chaos prevailed.
I doubt any of these soldiers, who were being mown down by German machine-gun emplacements, had hoped their desperate struggle would become the tutorial level for a videogame. But they were fortunate to have their sacrifice immortalised in the tutorial level of Company of Heroes (Relic Entertainment, 2006).
Technically, it's the first mission of the game, but it's still baby hour in the grand scheme of things. Players are effectively given an infinite supply of troops while they try to make progress up the beach. Initially, I cared about these little men disorganised and vulnerable, but I realised the only way to make progress in this crucible of death was to throw them all towards the shingle.
We might hope that the game forces players to contemplate the terrifying nature of war: that soldiers must die in pursuit of a goal which is larger than they; how a commander must remain detached to be able to send people to their deaths. But this level, as with every level of every real-time strategy game before it, taught me one thing: I was playing with pieces on a board, not people.
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I know, there was no post this week. Don't look so shocked. Here are some links instead. This week:
- What's a good plan for indie marketing?
- What are the seven questions you should ask every Kickstarter?
- Why is it time to stop calling games 'indie'?
- Should we tune down the hype for No Man's Sky?
- What happened with Julian Assange's autobiography?
- Who creates content?
- If you had to file form W-8BEN-E for UK limited companies, would you just file it with the trash?
Please find your seven click escapes below.
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- How does Miasmata-a-like The Forest play?
- How is it possible to play a game against your late father?
- Why are governments interested in algorithmic regulation?
- Why did Laura Michet stop writing on the internet (for a while)?
- Can the NHS stop making mistakes by making mistakes?
- How much fraud is there in crowdfunding?
- If the big indie shakeout really is coming, how can you better your odds of survival?
Please find your seven click escapes below.
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This week I've written a proper review of Quarries of Scred (Noble Kale, 2014) for Rock Paper Shotgun. Go have a read.
But I'm going to add a little bit more here, a Quarries anecdote from the weekend. Minor mechanical spoilers.
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For a few months now, I've been playing Quarries of Scred (Noble Kale, 2014) which causes me frequently to scream at the screen. Nowhere near as much as NaissanceE (Limasse Five, 2014) did, of course, but pretty much every time I die in the game it is because I am crushed to death by rocks. And it seems like it was my fault.
Quarries of Scred is a game that offers procedurally-generated challenge and if you die, just once, that's it for the level. No health, no extra lives. Just you versus the environment. Will you collect enough minerals to escape – or wind up dead after one wrong step?
When we talk about games that impose permadeath or similar aggravating conditions such as the sparse checkpointing of NaissanceE, we usually reference the power of consequences and how they make us feel. But have you heard of the “Peltzman effect”?
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Game developer Erlend Grefsrud is working on Myriad, an abstract-themed shooter that I wrote about last year. But Grefsrud can also be painfully blunt when it comes to critique so I asked him what he thought of #warningsigns then hid under a blanket. Instead of a bullet point list of disagreements, he offered the following thoughtful response, published with his permission.
Back in 2010, I said we needed tools for the democratization of game development.
Those tools existed already, but many were in denial about it, including me. There were still questions about delivery channels (browser, mobile, console, PC?) since the whole indie thing was really born out of Flash games on Newgrounds and the more hardcore devs sharing stuff written in Allegro or whatever on TIGSource. One dominant model emerged: selling games.
The proof was in the pudding. By then, the first wave of successful indie games had already happened, with straggler Fez quasi-triumphantly emerging on the tail-end. This moment grew persistent thanks to Indie Game: The Movie and endless scribblings about how indies would change games forever.
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Here Be Links
“Pricing: the key to not destroying everyone’s career” - Steven Bonner
If you’re young and a recent graduate, it’s pretty likely that you might still live at home and don’t really have a good grasp of what it takes to pay bills and probably don’t have too many regular outgoings that need to be met, so there’s a temptation to accept any offer of work without negotiating so you can get a foot in the door, build a client list, gain credibility and whatever else you think might push you to the top. This is probably ok for a while and most of us did it at some point, but sooner or later you will become frustrated when you can’t seem to raise your prices while your friends are out living it up, or worse, you’ll believe that this is what all illustrators should be getting paid and accept it.
“Emergent gameplay vs whatever the other kind is” - Andrew Plotkin
The work of solving these puzzles -- the play experience -- is of experimentation, discovery, and then synthesis of the results in a way which was not immediately obvious. That's creative thought. Dismissing this as "square key in square hole" is ignoring the point.
“Indie Advice: why you probably shouldn’t make a multiplayer game” - Dan Marshall
I don’t want to be completely negative, I just think as indies we need to be aware that the numbers TitanFall sells in order to be a constantly-playable online game eclipses anything we could possibly hope to achieve. It’s a case of being very very boringly realistic.
LONG “A Tale of Two Hipsters” - Dale Beran
The same thing is happening in Baltimore, where I currently live, and probably in many other cities all over the world. About ten or fifteen years ago, my generation moved into a crumbling warehouse district in another blighted area of Baltimore City. The DIY artist warehouse district is now labelled “The Arts & Entertainment District”, housing prices are on the rise and everywhere there are signs advertising “elegant urban living” and “artists luxury lofts” to people who are obviously not artists but rather middle class professionals.
“The Deleted Scenes of Outcast and Outcast 2...” - Joe Martin
For the team, Infogrames’ self-sabotage immediately impacted plans for the future. A previously announced Dreamcast version was cancelled and, while Infogrames’ claimed it was due to porting difficulties; the reality was that poor sales had crushed publisher confidence.
FAV LONG “Dude, Where's My Game - The Truth and Lies of Delays and Cancellations” - Odious Repeater
The Dead End (or DE for short) is one of the biggest issues plaguing game development to this day. For various bad reasons, it’s also one of the least understood and least discussed problems. One reason is that there are different types of Dead End that need to be avoided in different ways, by different members of the development staff.
“Pop Goes The Weasel” - Rob Fearon
It’s never really the end of a golden age. It’s just progress and as we progress, new people come along and get their chance to shine. It’s not harder, it’s not tougher. The market does not fill with videogames and we are not all doomed. It’s different. Because it has to be or we stagnate and if we stagnate, what’s the fucking point? You don’t get to keep the crown forever, no-one does. Move over, old man.
I like to imagine legions of “art game” enthusiasts queuing up outside the metaphorical Steam store to get their hands on the latest graphically-gorgeous “walking simulator”, NaissanceE (LimasseFive, 2014).
Once they’ve got a copy of the game, they sit in front of their PC, grinning with excitement as the game installs. It runs – there’s a flash of the Unreal logo – and then it's time for a quick tweak of the graphical settings. Maximum resolution, maximum effects: these people want to drown in its abstract beauty.
And then the game opens... with a cutscene? Dear Esther (The Chinese Room, 2012) wasn’t exactly an overflowing cup of player agency, so the enthusiasts deal with it.
But then the brutality begins. And the arrogance of NaissanceE is both startling and traumatising.
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It’s while I’m pacing through the haunting, empty megalopolis of NaissanceE (LimasseFive, 2014) that it occurs to me. I’ve had enough of the derogatory phrase “walking simulators” even though some are attempting to adopt the term as a positive label. Ya know... that doesn't mean I have to like it.
This kind of crap goes a lot further than “walking simulator”. Game have also been characterized negatively as toys. Or a theme park rides. It's all about the magic ambrosia known as “interactivity” which is as well defined as a drop of water in a puddle, because “sitting, walking, listening, looking, playing, just fucking being is interaction”.
Attempting to rigorously define interactivity is about as joyous as rigorously defining the word game into your preferred pigeon hole. You might see healthy debate in this conversation. I see a black hole event horizon through which my will to live is disappearing.
Anyway, that's enough of that. Especially as you've probably figured out that today I want to discuss “himitsu-bako”.
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Here Be Links
OLD “RPS Exclusive: Gabe Newell Interview” - John Walker
The worst days [for game development] were the cartridge days for the NES. It was a huge risk – you had all this money tied up in silicon in a warehouse somewhere, and so you’d be conservative in the decisions you felt you could make, very conservative in the IPs you signed, your art direction would not change, and so on. Now it’s the opposite extreme: we can put something up on Steam, deliver it to people all around the world, make changes. We can take more interesting risks.
“Selling candy to babies” - Rich Stanton
“The F2P space for kids is unfortunately a highly predatory one,” says Jeffery. “There are a lot of developers doing things they must know and feel are not the right things to do. It is predatory, and it is lucrative. We make six apps a year. Companies like TabTale make 200. It’s a machine, a freemium converting machine.”
LONG “Games By Design: AI War: First Four Years Postmortem (And By Extension Arcen History)” - Chris Park
That AI War can gross more than a million dollars (and growing) while serving that sort of niche -- and have players happy about the prices they've paid, and not grumbling about it as they do with certain $80+ titles that I can think of -- is quite something. It shows that there is a lot more life in the "small spaces" that the big AAA publishers are ignoring. And it's something that I think should be a hopeful sign to players who love various "dead" genres. Most "dead" genres could provide this level of developer income and this level of player happiness for the right game sold the right way, I'm convinced.
“Positional Balance” - Matt Pavlovich
Positional balance is a relatively new notion in game design, and it seeks to lessen the possibility of a runaway leader and keep players engaged through the duration of a game, even ones nominally at the “back of the pack.” The primary concerns of positional balance are addressing the runaway leader problem and implementing catch-up mechanics.
“Repeating History: N++ And The Case For Conservative Game Design” - Michael Thomsen
“It’s actually pretty shocking how lucky we are to live here,” Burns said. “From attending our first GDC when N was in the Independent Games Festival, to securing the loan to make N+, to help with financing N++, we would be in a vastly different position today were it not for government support of small businesses. Without this support, we probably could have still made the games, however we would have had to cede control of them — as well as the majority of the royalties — to a publisher.”
“How Long Does It Take to Make an Indie Game?” - Joseph Mirabello
Also, looking back, here’s a tidbit I learned about myself during prototyping: feeling overwhelmed leads to demotivation. Demotivation leads to stagnation/distraction/facebook. Working mostly in solitude makes this worse: the sense of a shared investment that comes from teamwork is replaced with an echo-chamber of doubt. Devising strategies to combat self doubt, therefore, became a crucial part of development (maybe that’s worth a blog of its own someday).
VID “Music Object, Substance, Organism” - David Kanaga
Liquid is of special interest being at the edge of chaos, as it were. It is between stillness and chaos. More or less viscous. Besides, we are inside of music. It is not in front of us, like a picture, going away if we turn around or close our eyes. No, music is like a bath. We have to dry off after to get away from it.