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
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”?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?