Thursday, November 27, 2008

video day

So I decided that I would update this blog today (it has been a long while) with the first in my video series. I'm working on scripts for the next vids, I'll post relevant video posts a little more regularly, although I might have to truncate my written content due to the fact that... well... I'm doing vids as well now.

Below is the first episode of Keys, produced and animated by my little brother Mathew, and the first episode of outside the box, developped by yours truly. Enjoy!

Keys (ep1) Good Games For Cakes

Outside the Box (pilot) Gaming Arty

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Second Hand Games are How Bad?

Reading an interview with EA Europe’s senior VP and general manager for publishing, one Dr Jens Intat, I was visited by a bubbling sense of frustration upon his proclamation that Second hand game sales are a critical situation for the entire games industry.

It’s difficult to discuss issues like this in a serious industry context. Second hand game sales are comparable to piracy issues in that none of the profits from a second hand game go to a publisher.

On one hand, it’s silly to argue that this doesn’t impact a product’s bottom line; Dr. Intat would be remiss in his job to take any other stance on the issue.

On the other hand, it’s kinda difficult to listen to a company talk about critical anything in the same year that they pay one billion dollars to acquire yet another development studio.
Virtually every sales product has a business model that accounts for second hand sales. According to Intat though, this doesn’t apply to video games. Apparently when you go into video game store “X” and pick up that DVD-ROM what you are actually purchasing is the right to play a particular game. And when a second hand game goes onto the shelves, unlike other second hand merchandise, the game doesn’t suffer any form of degradation.

Umm… No.

Firstly, The person who is selling the right to play games on an xbox or playstation or DS or whatever / is the manufacturer of that particular console. What EA is selling me is a disc that causes said device to function in a particular way, usually causing it to put cool looking pictures on my television screen that respond to buttons I push on a game controller and these discs do get beat up and scratched and damaged and they become out dated and don’t always work when a new console generation comes around.

Never mind the pre-owned quality hit, it’s the cutting edge is that the second hand games buyer is denied. When you buy second hand, someone else has already played the title and moved on. And there is considerable value lost to that.

So enough of this “the games industry is special” bull.

The fact that companies like EA always paint this issue in terms of black and whites does not help anything either.

Listening to Intat one would presume that every dollar that goes to second hand game sales translates into a dollar lost by the game’s publisher. It doesn’t work out that way. Over the years I have put thousands of dollars into the video gaming industry, a lot of that has been invested into second hand games. A great deal of these games would never have been purchased at the company decided price and it is rare that there is a competitively priced first hand product of the same calibre. Whenever I picked up these second hand games, it was that or no game at all.
Because of this I have been able to increase my knowledge of different game types, different studios, even different aspects of gaming culture, it has resulted in me putting more value on more aspects of gaming, buying more systems, more games (both first and second hand) with more money. Without second hand games I would not have been able to experience this type of growth and the end result would have been just another casual gamer with a bank telling job. And the game’s industry would be out several tens of thousands of dollars.

The conclusion I’ve arrived at is that the second hand game “situation” has lowered the financial barriers to becoming an active participant in the gaming world.
So, EA et al., lay off. If you want to eliminate the second hand game you need to be more creative in coming up with solutions that remove the financial blocks that second hand games directly address.

I have only one thing to say when it comes to this issue.

Shut up.

Seriously, you make billions so you lose millions? Cry me a river. Second hand games are just one way that gaming culture has worked to expand itself in blatant defiance of callous of business interest. You’d think people like Mr. general manager of publishing would be happy about it.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

What's up?

So it has been a couple of weeks since my last post and a number of y'all might be wondering where I'm hiding myself.

Answer is I am in the process of building up my new vlog. There are a lot of things that need to be done, I am cheaping out a little bit and not purchasing an actual camera, but that is about it (the overall expense is way too much) but that is about it, I just can't dump $500 onto a piece of film equipment right now.

But in all other aspects I want this production to look interesting and decent, and be a valuable addition to the culture.

No false3 ego, I am of the same Calibre as the likes of Croshaw or Krahulik, and I am not going to put up something that requires less work than being in that field entails.

Stay Tuned!

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Good games for cakes

Happy birthday, Lil Derrick!

How’s it feel to be four?

And completely fictional?

Seeing this wacky cake design all over the internet, often accompanied by several blog posts crying about how poor parenting is destroying the world, I can’t help but think that the goofball that took the picture is feeling very proud of himself.

And here I go adding to the pride. Given the controversy of GTA it is not surprising people would react so powerfully to an image such as this. However, the number of three year olds that are capable of playing and understanding the game-play and themes of M rated games is a very small and possibly nonexistent number.

The primary market for GTA titles at this point is the same middle-class audience that buys derivative gangster rap with little to no appreciation for the cultural history of the genre. It’s actually a brilliant marketing move. Not all press is good press, but this kind of thematic approach turns a large amount of that bad press to useable print.

Layer solid map negotiation and chase mechanics on top of that (which is the core of GTA mechanics) as well as the impressive additions that have come with every additional GTA title and you have a studio making hit.

But that does not change the fact that this is not a game for kids. And it is more than the periodic bad word or prostitute. Having worked with children a lot in my career, I have never met any child that talks about GTA, preferring discussions of Pokémon and Zelda.

What this comes down to is certain game types are just not for a younger crowd. The puzzles of Zelda and Pokémon are all fairly directed and contained. And while the missions of GTA have a fairly direct nature to them, Zelda does not leave you completely lost if you take the fourth left instead of the fifth. This doesn’t make one game better than the other, both are fun and entertaining, but it does make one game more accessible do a different audience, considerably more accessible. And it is a two way street, I don’t know many twenty-five year olds who talk about Zelda en masse.

The audience best suited to the style of game mechanics of a title are often reflected in the thematic and marketing of these titles. The fantastic imagery and bright cartoony environments that are definably Zelda appeal to the youth market much more than the gritty realism of GTA.

Lil Derrick is almost most certainly an imaginary construct. There is just nothing in GTA for children; given the chance it is unlikely any four year old would opt to play GTA over virtually any other game title. Besides, Who calls a kid “Lil”?

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The functionality of visual design

Talking with an EA associate producer recently, I mentioned my visual design abilities as a high point in my developer retinue of skills. He was not sure of how relevant these talents were to game design. In his head, the realm of the visual design and game design are two wholly isolated areas. Having heard this before I was neither confused nor surprised, but this common sentiment held in the games industry is a confusing one indeed

Game Designers need to understand what is entertaining for a player in an interactive and dynamic space. In order to build a game world the designer has to understand how information is being delivered, received, and responded to. This is an inherently visual process.

When designing a webpage the first thing to consider is how a user will respond to the site at first glance. Successful designs allow users to find the information they need immediately without any thought. This is primarily achieved through visual layout cues.

A game designer has a very similar role in the presentation of their game world. On top of designing mechanics that are fun and fluid, there needs to be devices in place to inform a player as to how the mechanics are functioning. The second a player needs to stop to ponder the rules or what they are able to do in order to function in this game world is the same second they are pulled from the game experience.

Playing through Call of Cthulu: Dark Corners of the Earth I find this game makes excellent use of visual construction opening up the game to HUD free play. This could be amazingly immersive. But on the other side of the quality coin, whenever I hit the action button and nothing happens (a frequent occurrence) because that bright distinctive object is simply background decoration I am torn from the game world. This is a visual problem that relates directly back to level design and the game-play functionality of the action button.

Another visually based problem is the less than obvious game-play cues provided: You are on a boat, and never having had to grab a railing for support previously in the game you have a minute to figure it out or die. A slight glow on the rail and a solitaire NPC doing the thing you are supposed to does not provide the visual information required by a player to compute that they must press the action button at the bar area. Not in the thirty seconds that you have to figure this out before you die (one example of many). The game designer fell short in constructing their visual cues grossly impacting game-play.

There is a distinctive reason that game design, level design, and creative direction are commonly listed together. These positions all require a grander understanding and envisioning of a larger space and game dynamics. These positions all require that conventions be established and followed to consistently, including visual conventions. And these conventions need to be quickly and consistently understandable by players.

In video games, the rules are visual. They’re not audio games... So why is it challenging to understand the importance of visual design skills in the gaming industry?

Friday, August 15, 2008

Favorite Games? Maybe Geometry Wars.

What is your favourite game? As a game designer I am always thrown by this question. It is irresponsible to just blatantly choose a favourite. There are so many games out there with so many widely varied mechanics that are excellent it isn’t as simple as “insert title here”.

The risk of pigeon-holing yourself as a specific type of gamer also abounds with this question. And that pigeon-hole inevitably covers the type of game designer you would be as well.

It shouldn’t. It does.

What’s worse is that when you choose your favourite, you begin pigeon-holing yourself. You have decided what the best route to fun is, and that makes it harder to see all the other paths.

So I don’t fill in this blank. In a recent job interview for a design position this question came up (it does every time) and I say why this question is contrary to a quality designer. However (because they want an answer) a pure mechanics based game which I regularly get a lot of fun out of is Geometry Wars.

What makes this game fun? Simply put, Geometry Wars is a pure mechanic. Hit the enemy before it touches you. The rest is just layer upon layer of level design and visual and audio feedback. Stephen Cakebread revisits a video game tradition established by the likes of Pacman and Galaga quite accidently. Geometry Wars was originally a test for joystick control.

There are no presumptions with Geometry Wars, even to the original creator. It was just fun and then it was marketed. While elegantly designed to be visually stunning, there is little along the lines of story or art layered onto this game. This adds to the pure fun of this game, it has no heirs.

“But how would you improve it?” eep. The problem with a game that is so cleanly designed around a very simple core mechanic is that suggestions for improvements always seem unimpressive. Add more enemies with different behaviours, include multi-player functionality, maybe design more elaborate playing fields for the player to negotiate, or have upgradable weapons… All are easy decisions, all run the risk of diluting the main mechanic (effectively diluting the play experience), and all of them have already been attempted by the developer to mixed results (generally positive).

I don’t know what else I would do to it. Geometry Wars brilliance lies in its simplicity simple touches are all that it could handle. Anything more and you no longer have Geometry Wars. I don’t know if this is a title that should be iterated on as regularly as it is. When the Pacman sequel was released thirty years later, we got new mazes and new forms of progression and discovery. But besides that and some fancy new graphics XBLA’s version is the same old Pacman, how bored would we be if those sequels came out every year since its release. Geometry Wars needs this sort of love, surely it is primed for the canons of video game culture, surely it could be on the first titles for the hologamer 3000 retro import series.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Pesticide: Non-Playable Characters

This post seems a bit long, but it is fun, let me explain. I am just starting a new indie project called Pesticide (I'm sure I will mention it a bunch of times over the next year) I just finished the first character description itteration for our art lead. I will be passing it on to him today and thought you all might be interested in what goes down in game documentation.

As I work on this project I will be sure to share how it's going and post frequently. For corporate game projects proprietary protections are the norm, and even I won't be posting everything and anything all at once. But I am not so fond of the "Top Secret" thing when there is no reason to be, and as an indie project, there is no reason here.

Enjoy some first iteration creative writing!

NPC Characters

Our cast is grouped according to players that accompany them. They are often found together, and often define the environments they are found in. A functional relationship needs to exist between these characters at all times. As such they are listed in the documentation together.

A.J. and Tobiasis:

Candace’s two best friends, early in the game they provide a mechanism for driving the action. These two are an “Odd Couple”.

A.J. is the beautiful girl who is socially weird and hyperactive. Always happy she is the one that gamers will fall in love with, but in the context of the game world “do not go there”.

Tobiasis on the other hand is much more serious, he doesn’t take to teasing well and doesn’t laugh much. He is not anti-social but he is also not one to enjoy the loud and obnoxious behaviour of A.J. who is just always around.

Justin (hippie) and Tannis (Poli-sci):

Justin is your Shaggy from Scooby Doo sort of hippie, you know his feet resemble those of a hobbit, never mind retro styling, most of his clothes appear to be sported by the first hippie generation.

Tannis is a University undergrad involved in student government, she volunteers at political events, and always has something to say. Although bookish in appearance, she will talk forever in something vaguely resembling passion on any issue that may be considered important “to the people”.

What Justin and Tannis have in common is the love of protesting. These are the two that organized the protest for the failure of government intervention in the Pesticide crisis.

Water Refinery Plant Employees (3):

Generic plant worker character models that will need to be reused. Is it the same worker or a new one? We don’t know because these generic characters represent the idea of a plant employee more than a character. Three designs are suggested for variation and in case multiple identifiable officers need to be on screen at the same time.

Police Men (2):

Generic Police character models that will need to be reused. Is it the same officer or a new one? We don’t know because these generic characters represent the idea of a police officer more than a character. Two designs are suggested for variation and in case multiple identifiable officers need to be on screen at the same time.

Soldiers (2):

Generic soldier character models that will need to be reused. Is it the same soldier or a new one? We don’t know because these generic characters represent the idea of a military grunt more than a character. Two designs are suggested for variation and in case multiple identifiable officers need to be on screen at the same time.

Louis Strauss (refinery plant supervisor):

Lou is a gruff character, you would have to be to be a trades supervisor. However he has a graduate degree in Mechanical Engineering and his bachelor degree dual major was in Civil and Biological engineering. So there is a profound intellect behind his diamond in the rough exterior. He functions as the “owner” figure of the sanitization plant and could be one of the lead figures for the player, assisting toi unfold the mystery of Pesticide.

Safron Timms and Chuck Jackson (CEO and assistant):

There is money to be made in this time of peril, whether through bottling water or saving the world.

Safron is an aloof multi-billionaire type that may become one of the guiding characters for the player in this game. She may also become one of the key villains. Her fatal flaw is that she cares more about her own personal interests than the betterment of humanity.

She will make the exception for the non-judgmental and fiercely loyal Chuck though. Always there, he is a messenger, secretary, gopher, hit man… whatever. He does not question it and never grumbles. This is just because he honestly believes in being responsible and being loyal not because he is looking to get into the will (not going to happen) get a promotion or because he’s in love with Safron.

Both these characters have very straight forward motivations that are too rigid to be considered unimpressive given the world of Pesticide.

Daniel Hees (reporter):

This rough around the edges beat reporter has been around the block more than once, and he’s got the weather worn outfit to show for it. Here is an on the site news reporter trying to get to the bottom of what’s going on. Premised off of the film noir hero, he’s always on the same side of the fence and always on his own. Candace’s relationship with Dan all depends on which side of which fence she falls.

Agent Jeremy Sasher:

This is the official response to Pesticide crisis. A career agent and extremely talented at what he does. A major player in this story most threads will involve him in some way. Maybe the most normal of all the characters, how would an agent act handed this particular situation?

Nurse Travis Bell:

Dehydration is the problem of the day. The Emergency Ward is a major center of activity in this world. Travis is the guy with all the information. Besides acting as the central figure for a number of story lines Travis is a regular element in the game available to the player. Whenever Travis is not a main story arc character he will be available as a game unlockable to provide hints for the player.

Colonel Dionne Kieren:

What do you get when a sexy and sultry women begins calling for martial law and blowing the crap outta stuff? That is Colonel Kieren. Her character is direct and her stories are direct. The only thing that is contrary is her appearance. While there is a simple visual gag at play here, it does not push into the inappropriate and the Colonel does play as a serious character. Some cartoony exaggeration may play into the character but it should not distract from her believability.

Vinny, Cough Drop, and Tim:

When there’s a need to be filled. The organized crime of this story is premised on traditional organized criminal enterprise (similar to the Outfit).

Tim is the Over-boss of the city Pesticide takes place in. No whacky nicknames, no Italian stereotyping, no ritual initiation, just organized crime. Dressed in comfortable and stylish business apparel, Tim is loyal to himself first and then his interests (which is what he considers the mob) and then little else.

Cough drop was born into the racket. A frail character, he still dresses well, but always looks a little disheveled, likely due to his constant ill health. He got his nickname from the fact that he is never without some variety of cough represent. He would be quite content to not be in the mob so he only ever deals with dull smuggling jobs.

Vinny on the other hand is the wannabe, smart enough to be good with business, and in love with the idea of being a mobster enough to be trusted with tasks, but everyone knows if he ever had to get his hands dirty, he’d be useless. This is probably why Tim partners him up with cough drop. Another set of potential guides or villains for the game.

Salizar. Shesta, and Sparkee:

These are the aliens of the game. Human in appearance if ever out of their protective suits. While identifiable, these suits should not be noticeable unless they are being looked for. Maybe distracting even weird but no weirder than those kids in dog collars. This trio is always about the action and a key part of the story. Outside of the protective gear their skin occupies an odd plastic hint to their skin which is a peculiar shade.

Shesta is the sad realist of the bunch. She is doing what she must for her people, but is disheartened by the damage it is causing, much like a farmer who finds clear cutting the woods for his fields distasteful. Interacting with Shesta leads to the more thoughtful and emotional threads of the tale.

Sparkee on the other hand is a girl with a job to do. She is about solving her planets problems in an efficient and effective way. She’s not a bad person, but working out of town has the promiscuous Sparkke a little sexually frustrated. She can’t wait to get back home and if dropping an anvil on one of the natives will get that to happen sooner, look out for falling anvils.

Salizar is a bit of a scaredy-cat. In an unfamiliar environment with unfamiliar creatures working with dangerous chemicals. He takes his job very seriously and handles it with care and professionalism, but he freaks out if anything is out of sorts and one of his biggest fears right now is that he will be separated from his group and have to live in this unsurvivablly dangerous environment. He may harm someone in the way we would harm a cockroach by screaming and randomly stomping our feet. But when all is said and done, he’d just much rather stay the hell away from the cockroach in the first place.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Whose fault is it really?

Today’s post is less about the art of the game form and more about the culture which surrounds the art form. Specifically the ongoing whining about E3 and how it is not the overpopulated and bloated digital geek-fest it used to be. In this context I am using geek in its more traditional linguistic definition of chicken-head biting, but I can see how that may be confused. I am also very aware that I am letting my bias show a little bit in this statement.

No one in the industry of gaming seems to understand that E3 is not a gamer convention. It is an industry trade show. E3 is supposed to be a platform by which different aspects of the industry can come together to market themselves and their products in a comparative forum so that industry, as well as the consuming public, can more easily see industry trends and markets for more functional and profitable forward movement.

It is a comment on the overall maturity of the industry that E3 is not up to snuff. While 2007-2008 hasn’t been the most revolutionary and forward of years in gaming, the reason E3 is not up to snuff is more because of the attitude developers are taking to it than because of any huge failing of the event organizers.

Game Journalists express annoyance at the lack of big flashy expensive lights, reporting that this just demonstrates how weak the show is. Developers who bother to show up at all lounge around their presentation booths / areas like apathetic lumps ignoring all opportunities to explore the event, attend seminars, and communicate with their peers. Surely they realize by their very efforts of not attending all they can or doing all they can at this event when the opportunity arises (an opportunity that is incredibly frequent by current reports) they are inherently causing the lacklustre atmosphere of E3.

Hence the lack of excitement can be placed squarely on the shoulders of the culture at large who are more concerned about pouting about recent changes to E3 in an effort to prove that it is a dead event. They are angry that they are being treated like mature and skilled.

EGM, I recollect had a regular “E3 scavenger hunt” feature in which they went looking for unimpressed girlfriends, fat smelly fanboys, booth babes who would direct foul gestures at the camera. The reason they got away with that. Because these people they were photographing weren't members of this industry, they were jokes that would be the inevitable population of an industry event; guys with websites about video game drinking games, Walmart Electronics employees, high school kids whose Mothers worked in HR departments at local studios.

That's fun? That's professional? That's mature? That’s respectful? That’s the image we want associated to our field, to our professionals, to our consumers? This is what we aspire to:

I, for one, am not impressed. The game's industry can be professional, mature, self-respecting and still have fun and still be "out there". And when gaming culture starts accepting this fact and growing up a little as opposed to throwing the little E3 hissy fit it is now, not only E3, but everything about the industry will get better.

I'm just going to chalk the bad attitudes this year up to growing pains.

As an aside I would like to congratulate the ESA on enduring the rather rough and unfair treatment of its event and goals, I'm glad to hear there will be an E3 2009 and I hope to see many more in the future.

Monday, August 4, 2008


With brain training games and recent moves to turning the DS into a cookbook or language trainer I was not surprised to hear a gamer comment on how much he dislikes this trend. In his opinion it is like giving the educational system the middle finger. Additionally, games are supposed to be fun; these types of games dilute the identity of gaming. For gamers who mistakenly purchase these games, or have them purchased for them, frustration is inevitable. Given that these titles are competition for “actual” games, the gaming market is only being harmed.

This is what I would say if I believed any of it. A central theme to all games is learning: You learn rules, timing, mechanics, strategies, physics, language, statistics, etc. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be able to play the game. For game designers, one of the most important parts of game creation is making this educational process engaging.

It is sad that educational games do not make up a major component of the market today. Realize that brain training games are not “educational games”, nor are those little cartridges you can get for your DS that teach you French. One is not inherently educational; the other is not inherently a game. However, these titles do fill a market gap and further expand the culture of gaming. Brain trainers are amusing. They serve up a daily dose of mini-games that are clever enough not to even try to pretend to be anything other than mini-games. And DS styled text-books are no more offensive to the educational system than a bookstore.

As for actual educational games: how I long for the days of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego (and not that recent action / adventure PS2 nonsense). When I was a kid, Carmen taught me about nations and socio-political-economics in an exaggerated cartoon world of mystery. A later instalment threw in a time machine which added historical events to the mix (and proceeded to make the game way too hard for an eleven year old). This made school more entertaining and fun for me: social studies became a strategy guide. Ultimately, I began to earn better grades.

I don’t understand the resistance to educational games past the “Dora the Explorer” age range. Parasite Eve on the PS1 taught me so much about human cell structure within the context of biological science fiction it was almost silly. How many more A’s would students earn if this kind of culture was layered onto the schooling world?

Calling it

See! I called it. The second I post my first entry I get pulled into a truly idiot dev team that has me doing more work than I possibly can. So I apologize for the long absence, this week’s blog entry is on education in games.

Monday, May 5, 2008

First Postings

"Welcome to the Art of The Game." Mark says as much to himself as anyone else. This is the christening post for this blog. First and foremost let me say that I hold the belief that games are a serious, sincere, complex art form and I am going to be discussing how this art form functions as a significant part of the world we live in. And it does.

The attached image is a quick concept sketch I completed for a ShadowRun-esque adventure concept. The idea of your low rent, scummy landlord being orcish in his origins seemed to come very naturally, and twenty minutes later this Lazyboy luvin' character was penciled out. Twenty more minutes of Photoshopping and I had a portfolio example of my quickdraw conceptual work.

Starting a blog proper is an intimidating process for me.

It's not easy.

I've seen a lot of blogs go the wayside to other things, and my life is jam packed with other things.

I make games, I play games, I read, I like languages (learning Japanese is not blog-authoring-conducive), artistry of all sorts...

But, a blog is a necessity in today's game development market I hear over an over again. And when applying people want to see what you're made of. So be it. Aspiring for a career change from visual design to game design I start a blog and I do have a lot of relevant information, experience, and expertise to disseminate.

With knowledge of design, mechanics, art, scripting, business, marketing, and who knows what else, I understand games from many different kinds of perspective. I've been coming up with game concepts since I was eight, I've been programming games since I was ten, and I have been artistically conceptualizing since I was I don't know how old.

This blog is going to cover multiple aspects of game theory and how game's function in the market-place, what aspects of them make them succeed or fail. It's not always as simple as "it's a cool game" or "it's fun". And I say this knowing full well that in a lot of cases it is as simple as "It had about a billion dollars thrown at it", but we'll be sure to look at that as well in this blog.

Also, there will be times when I post some of my own design and achievements on the board. New to the game design field, I'm sure it will be a couple of years before I'm dropping triple A stuff on here, but for now, as a noobie, it is still mighty impressive (while I try not to brag, I am proud of some of the things I do, and I like sharing those things) and it says a lot saying this is where I'm starting at.

Well, there's the intro to Mark N. Barker and his new blog The Art of the Game.