Electron Dance
24Nov/14Off

The Conversation, 3: Win Cash Prizes

The Conversation is a retelling of my meeting with Dan Stubbs, who is developing the probably-too-ambitious-for-its-own-good game, The Hit. In part one, we discussed the squandered promise of the GTA open world model and in part two, the restrained ambitions of AAA.

conv3-minecraft

What is The Hit?

When I originally arranged to meet Dan Stubbs I thought of it as a GTA open world with a bit of dynamic narrative trickery, but as time went by, I realised I was trying to visualise a ten-dimensional object in my head: all I could see was a three-dimensional slice of the whole. Stubbs had said that giant AAA projects were “like a collection of different things” but that’s all I really appreciated of The Hit.

“I'm taking development at my own pace,” he told me, still in the coffee shop, forced to listen to an endless torrent of the 80's greatest hits. “So if you make your own world, I want you to put your own money up so that if people can beat your own story or win whatever goal you set, they actually have a reason to play it.”

Beat your own story. Or win whatever goal you set? This didn’t sound like the GTA open world with emergent narrative system I had pictured in my head... it sounded more player-authored?

“Whether they are winning pennies or a fortune, whatever, it doesn't matter. But I love the possibility of advertisers being able to have a ‘Cokeworld’ and you actually go there because you think you can win money. Or film tie-ins or something.”

Whoa, whoa, whoa. Time to talk about money. And ethics.

My opening gambit was straightforward. “This steers us into a controversial area. When you start putting money into something, it changes its nature. Isn’t this dangerous?”

“I think the fact that it's dangerous makes it interesting,” Stubbs said, a fan of Jason Rohrer’s experiment in The Castle Doctrine where players could steal real money in the game. “I think there are right ways of doing it and massively, massively wrong ways of doing it. The whole free-to-play thing has been dominated by the fact you can put free on the screen and people will download it because it's free but it's a complete lie. All they are downloading is a demo that's going to have a paywall. But people are downloading because it is free, and we've exploited this fact that you can use a word which means one thing when actually the game is something else completely, an exploitative rigged system that will try and screw you for any penny it can. We should put that on the front screen rather than the word ‘free’ because that would be more honest.”

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I couldn’t stifle my chuckle, even though I am uncomfortable with painting F2P purely as a force for evil because the reason any company exists is profit. But I wanted to get back to what money did with The Hit. During the Kickstarter, Stubbs had referred to players being able to win real cash in the game. “I thought you had said something like ‘I don't want to get rich, I want people to play this game’. But at the same time, there's a commission for you in there, right?”

“I actually want to put in systems where players can give other players money or let other players win their money without involving me at all. If I do put a commission in there it will be optional, players can pay me nothing if they want to. I want to get to a point where I can make enough money to live on and carry on making games. But if... if it did make more money that I could spend, then I would be happy to give that back to the players.”

The last person who told me they didn’t care about the money was Richard Hofmeier – and he eventually took Cart Life off Steam and made it open-source so he didn’t have to look after it any more. Can I believe Stubbs is this altruistic? I said, “One of the temptations is that anyone who sits on a ‘money pipe’ will ask for a percentage because they can see exactly how much money is being generated through their pipe. Financial investments always charge percentage. PayPal? Amazon? Percentage. Even if this coffee shop provides very important coffees for your business and without those coffees you could not have made your software, they can't charge you a percentage because the coffee house can’t quantify the impact – even though big YouTubers are pulling that one right now.

Even if Stubbs doesn’t want to insert himself into the money equation now, consider the situation two years down the road after becoming successful. If he’s having trouble finding the money to keep the servers running... he’s going to have to do something.

He concurs but genuinely seems more fascinated using real cash as a resource because it’s having skin in the game. There are stakes. But this aspect of The Hit hasn’t been talked about too much and, even though it might make an interesting headline, I worried that it wasn’t what he wanted to be remembered for.

“I've got a plan for The Hit that will take me five years to complete and I'm not ready to have those conversations yet,” Stubbs explained. “If I do free-to-play it will be in two years at least. I find it interesting how financial success and popularity damages games. I kind of wish Minecraft hadn't been as successful... or that EA had bought it.”

conv3-minecraft2

We laughed but one month later, Microsoft bought Mojang. What Stubbs offered up next is precisely what scares Minecraft’s fanbase.

“I know this makes me literally Hitler but if EA had bought Minecraft it would have been World of Warcraft by now. It would have had tons of features dumped into it, it would be free-to-play and it would be horrible for that. But it would be a huge enormous game and they'd have found ways of exploiting players to generate content for other players which I think is what Minecraft should have been doing all along. I don't think everyone should have their own world.”

Hmm. Minecraft griefing is a real problem because when you have enough players, you’re always going to have people that want to role-play the anonymous asshole. Stubbs perceives creative privacy as undermining Minecraft’s status as an engine of creation. “What I'm going to do with The Hit is give players ways of feeding back their creations into other players' games which is the whole idea behind ‘storybullets’ - when you get shot with a player’s storybullet, the world will dissolve, fade to black and you'll wake up in a hospital bed or a cell in their world.” He suggested players would have to find a way to escape back into their own world.

Once again, I could only see a slice of the game, never the whole. That sprawling ambition worried me. I could pick on any aspect and see a wealth of problems. I picked on networked multiplayer: “Everybody talks about the difficulty of making an FPS because of the assets you need et cetera, but at the same time networking is very tough, dealing with latency. I think it was Michael Brough who said he likes doing local co-op because you don't have to worry about that stuff.”

Stubbs conceded the current build had no multiplayer support although had worked with an off-the-shelf solution for an earlier multiplayer prototype which “worked okay”. It’s possible Stubbs is on safer ground because The Hit is not about sub-second hit detection, but about information. NPCs start as blank slates and only become interesting – worth sharing – once the player has made them special in some way.

In GTA III, if you beat up a pedestrian, he/she either flies into a panic or starts fighting back: the NPC is more than just a random bystander now and is aware of the player. According to the version of The Hit Stubbs hawked on Gamasutra, NPCs gain story and importance once the player takes notice of them. Merely following them will convince the engine to start fleshing out an NPC.

But, like money, multiplayer is a design ingredient that Stubbs thinks has not yet attained its full potential and he cites several inspirations for the storybullets idea. “The fact that Dark Souls is a single-player game in which your world can occasionally be invaded by another player is really interesting. And that's also reflected in Jason Rohrer's The Castle Doctrine when you have a world that other players can invade while you're out.”

For all our talk about cutting-edge design and breaking out of the AAA mould, there’s an elephant in the room which I had to address. “Would you be concerned that essentially you're still building a violent world? There's nothing wrong with that but if you’re trying to push the envelope of narrative design... at the end of the day it's still a game about, well, killing people?”

He had an answer. He always had an answer. “The comparison I usually make is to things like Dog Day Afternoon. Dog Day Afternoon is a film about guys with guns. I'm assuming you've seen it?”

I hadn’t but a few weeks after this conversation, I made a point of watching it. It’s a great film. It stars Al Pacino and was based on a true story of a bank heist that quickly goes wrong.

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“It's a film about guys with guns but it's a film in which the number of bullets fired – I'm not going to tell you the number because that would spoil it for you – is a small number. And I'm not going to tell how many people die in the film. It's not Rambo, it's not Total Recall, but a film where violence is present. I rewatched Reservoir Dogs the other day and it’s a classic example, a film about violence where the violence itself is the least interesting thing in the film but the fact that it's there is the catalyst for everything else, which is fascinating and absolutely spectacular. I mean, Shakespeare wrote stories about people who fight each other but they're not Call of Duty.”

I smirked. “That's funny because when you go back, Call of Duty was a game which seemed to be trying to go down that road.”

“Yeah, Modern Warfare was interesting. It's one of those games that stopped me in my tracks. There’s a bit where I bust onto a boat with this group of heavily-armed soldiers and we charged through to where these guys were sleeping on their bunks – and they just start stabbing this guy while he's asleep! That's not right!”

From here, Stubbs went off on a tangent about the lie of a clean war and how drones play into that. He ended up worrying about the ongoing war between the government and the individual. “We don't want them to be in control of our media and our internet – then they get to tell their stories rather than let other people tell theirs. But we're going to end up in something Orwellian or end up in something... else. And I'm not sure what the something else is.”

“But that's the problem isn't it? We don't quite know where all this technology is headed.”

“Videogames are a communication medium, every videogame made is an expression of a worldview. And most big budget videogames are an expression of a corporate worldview that is the lowest common denominator, which always goes with the most prevalent, most accepted cultural symbols for hero and villain and trophy, whatever. We have to be able to let individuals tell their stories in ways which have mass appeal that can be experienced by many people because it's important.”

I countered: “In a way, isn’t mass appeal itself also the problem? Just thinking about where we've gone in terms of the last ten years with the internet – I touched on this a couple of years ago, you know personal stories are the most interesting but how much fact-checking are people doing on a blog? And suddenly it's viral, round the world, and no one knows how much of that was actually true, sometimes it's actually fictitious. There was this wonderful article about this guy tracking down someone who made an unfinished game in the 80s on an Amstrad, and the author of the piece wanted to know the ending. He wrote how he found the guy who gave him a private, completed version of the game and there was a huge response of ‘that's a really amazing true story!’ but it quickly became obvious that ‘oh, it's not true is it?’ It was kind of sad because it was a really amazing story that sounded very true... I mean it was still a good story.”

“Yeah, and it can be enjoyed as that.”

“But everybody jumped immediately to the conclusion this was a great true story and was shared around as that...”

“We don't have to throw stories away because they're not true...”

I was almost ranting now. “But the thing is the boundary between truth and fiction, because it's not coming through an authoritative outlet, right? Again authority's a problem because they get to decide what truth is. But then you throw away authority and you don't know what truth is any more. It's like... it didn't actually solve the problem, it just means you've now got a lot of emergent, you know...”

I don’t know how the fuck I ended up here.

“...you've got a different problem and this is the central problem of our time,” Stubbs offered.

I thought I found a way to get us back on track and talk about videogames, but I failed. “Personal stories have become very big on the internet but there’s the issue of wanting something to be shareable, to be viral, to have mass appeal. And it's like the complexities fall away. Okay, there's some nuance in this story which is just too confusing so let's just drop it. So in the end it becomes about ‘the affair’ rather than ‘what led to the affair’ which is a complex issue. I just wonder sometimes that many of our complex stories that we need to hear have actually collapsed into ‘this guy has got a black moustache and black hat, that's why he did that’.”

“There are reasons for this, though,” Stubbs said. “Our brains are capable of holding an awful lot of information but when we need to do something we're using a part of the brain which can only hold a very tiny amount of information so we need to simplify everything.”

Yes, I know, people have a natural urge to boil stories down to fables because they are easier to consume. The modern fable is the clickbait headline, the soundbite. I can’t accept this is the way things have to be.

But we weren’t going to thrash out an amateur philosophy of truth in a raucous coffee shop, so we left and headed to Dan Stubbs’ flat.

In the final part: "I don't know how much I want to talk about this."

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  1. “But it would be a huge enormous game and they’d have found ways of exploiting players to generate content for other players which I think is what Minecraft should have been doing all along. I don’t think everyone should have their own world.”

    I think there’s a fundamental disconnect between people who want video games to be a social, multiplayer thing and people who don’t. I react to comments like this like I’d react to someone saying, “Reading should be a social activity. I don’t think every reader should have their own book,” or “Gardening should be a social activity. I don’t think every gardener should have their own garden.”

  2. As you might be able to tell, I wasn’t persuaded that all players should be forced into the same, shared space. I left my delusions of this happy internet utopia a long time ago. 140 characters was proof enough, if more were needed.

    Dan would/will have to walk back on that line at some point as I believe it would/will hold people back from participating.


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