You Can Keep Your Rift On

I recently attended a workshop at University of Lincoln entitled “Performance and Games”. In this case, performance meant performing arts, which I was a touch apprehensive about, since it was invite only event, and an area where I have no prior experience (not counting my (in)famous dancing when on nights out with friends). As it transpired, I was far more useful for my ‘performance’ than the programming and game development skills I had intended to bring to the table.

I’d envisioned something much closer to a game jam, spending a large portion of the workshop laying down code of some description. In fact, we spent the entirety of the first day talking through a whole bunch of different ideas in teams of four or five people. That was quite a departure from what I’m used to in my professional work, where ideas are all but valueless, save for their successful execution in a finished game.

Rambling Awkwardly

My team’s suggested theme / starting off point for exploring was social awkwardness, which we discussed for a while before steering into a long conversation about sexual harassment and discrimination in the games industry and wider workplace. Having not worked in a “triple-A” games studio, and been largely independent, working alone or in small groups for the entirety of my career in games, all my sources on the subject are second hand. Furthermore, I seem to have, more by accident than design, ended up following a lot of feminists and those writing about issues of discrimination within the games industry on twitter or industry publications like gamasutra.com.

So it was interesting for me to talk to the others to see if some of the ideas I’d formulated on the subject tallied with their experiences or thinking. A discussion which itself is quite awkward to navigate when you’re still getting to know a bunch of strangers for the first time (the irony of which was not lost on us).

By the morning of the second day, I was fretting that my team would have nothing to show for our being there. Fortunately, the others in the team had done what I hadn’t, which was prepare for the event by bringing a large toolbox, (demo programs, code snippets and games they’d previously made which could be easily re-purposed). In just a few hours, we were able to solidify our ideas into a veritable game design, construct the game and play it through once, though from a technical perspective, largely without my help. Consequently, I felt slightly sidelined, and that probably goes some way to explaining my enthusiastic playing of the game itself.

Naked Quake

On the game specifically, I think we all recognised we hadn’t really reached a consensus on the harassment issue, so we rowed back to a theme we’d touched earlier on the first day, which was awkwardness around nudity with strangers. The example of sauna etiquette was discussed, in which different countries had different norms around what was acceptable to wear (or not wear) when in the sauna.

Our first idea to explore this was a first person shooter game in which players could upgrade their weapons by taking off various items of clothing. So a sock might only get the player a basic pistol, whilst they would need to take their underpants off if they wanted to get their hands on a rocket launcher.

Players would all be in the same room, but use Oculus Rifts (or other virtual reality headgear). This would mean they wouldn’t directly see each other stripping, but would still know the other players in the room were potentially nude or undressed.

Balancing issues and details somewhat put a dampener on everyone’s enthusiasm for the idea. Someone who was already good at FPS games might not need to lose more than a couple of socks and a jumper to defeat someone not familiar with the genre. Instead, we decided to run with the ideas about clothes equalling points in a game, and of using the Rifts as a sort of blindfold.

Clothes Points

The result was a game where each round, players would take off items of clothing and place them in a basket or designated spot. Each item of clothing would carry a different value (sock, scarf = 1 point, jumper = 2 points, shirt = 3 points, and so on). Whoever had the biggest points score would win the round. The winner would be the player who won the most rounds after everyone had run out of clothes (or decided they had reached their limit of what they were willing to take off). There was also a time limit on each round, to force players to make their decisions (and undressings) quicker than otherwise.

Both players would stand in the same room wearing Oculus Rifts, connected to Kinect cameras pointed at the other player(s). The other player would be represented as a 3D model of a person, movements of the model corresponding to the movements of the player. In this way, players could “see” each other’s moves without actually seeing them.

For our version of the game, there was also a “dungeon master” in another room, whose role was two fold: To adjudicate who had won the round, by means of being able to view webcams pointed at the baskets in which the players were placing their clothes, (but away from players, so as to not see them). And to add tension to the game, the dungeon master would also relay voice commands and special instructions to the players as the game went on.

Thankfully, seriousness and tension went out of the window once the game started. Our dungeon master blasted the full monty theme tune through the speakers into the room as we made our choices, or gave us until the end of the A-team theme to get our trousers off. Quick fire rounds gave us 5 seconds to fumble with our shoes or belts.

More importantly, I won this first ever playing of the game, which we quickly named “You Can Keep Your Rift On”. And I didn’t have to even have to take my underwear off! In fact, at the end of the game, I found out I needn’t have gone anything like as far as I did, as my opponent was still mostly dressed.

Acting the Part

Context is definitely the key to understanding the game. The specific context for me was that I had spent the last day and a half with the other people in the workshop, found them to generally be liberal, open minded people. I didn’t have anything to fear from them, but at the same time, as mentioned earlier, I had a bit of a point to prove.

Being one of the architects of the game itself, I had plenty of time to mentally prepare for it. I actually made up my mind before I went into the game how far I was willing to strip down by the end of the game, and since there was a break between each round ending and the timer for a new one starting, I was deciding in advance what clothes I was going to take off that coming round.

In the end, we were a bit pressed for time, so only had one Rift hooked up with the Kinect. I still wore the other Rift, but without input, acting effectively as a very expensive blindfold. I think that lead me to concentrate on thinking more abstractly in terms of my strategy and how to out-psych my opponent, rather than trying to guess how he was moving. I did some fake moves as though I was taking off a shirt. I took my shoes and socks off in one round, but then didn’t place my shoes in the basket until a later round. I also pretended to take my socks off again after having already taken them off, which due to the imperfections in the old-style Kinect, apparently made it look as though I was turning myself inside out. I also had to think creatively, taking my phone, wallet and keys out of my pockets and using them as extra ammunition. Or placing the Rift’s adapter/connector box in my basket (since it wasn’t actually connected to anything) as an extra ‘item’ I could try and score points on.

As well as not worrying about the other player’s moves, I think not seeing the other player probably made me less conscious of what I looked like to them. I felt more self-conscious once the game finished, and I took the Rift off, than during the game itself.

Not to say I wasn’t self conscious at all, but, I actually went further in stripping off than I had originally planned. I had decided to stop before taking off my trousers, but knowing that I’d done no exercise since some time in January, I was aware that wearing trousers slightly too tight around the waist probably wasn’t especially flattering. Ditch the trousers and it wouldn’t look so bad. Body image isn’t something I usually worry about, but it was still a factor here.

The other half of it was that we had a small audience of 3 people in the room, which wasn’t something we’d really planned. I think it helped that the audience was all female, (and that goes back to the having-something-to-prove point), but also, as the game progressed, the combination of the dungeon master’s cheesy voice over, combined with the ever increasing fits of laughter from the audience that I could hear on one ear, combined with my competitive spirit, pushed me to go further than I’d initially expected.

Public Sauna

As for taking the game outside of that context, it would certainly produce a different result. For example, our team discussed the possibility of bringing the game to a public space. Have the players in a booth or temporary structure, so they couldn’t be seen from the outside once they entered. Or perhaps other members of the public outside could watch on some big TVs the same view as what the players and dungeon master were seeing through the Rifts and webcams. But not actually see the players in the flesh.

For me, if I encountered that on the street, I’d probably shy away from it if anything, especially if there was peer pressure from my friends. The main problem I’d anticipate though, which wasn’t an issue when I played, is trust. Players have to have trust in the game and the people who are running it, not to have hidden cameras and suddenly display them getting naked to all the public outside (or worse, live streaming to the internet).

They also have to trust the other player doesn’t take a sneak peek from under their Rift during the game. I think this is where the game breaks down slightly. It’s possible to put up a dividing curtain or put players in separate cubicles, but once you start giving them a sense of privacy from each other, at that point, those ideas around knowing your opponent is getting naked in the room with you (even if you can’t see them) start to erode. It begins to depart from the initial idea of awkwardness around nudity (though not necessarily public nudity) with strangers.

As well, one person asked me whether I would be more willing to play again if I was up against someone I found sexually attractive. To which I couldn’t honestly say No. We often skirt around the subject of sex in games, which is exactly what I’m going to do as well, but it’s definitely another dimension the game has to it.

The video of me playing still needs editing and uploading, so meantime, here’s one of the other workshop team’s creations: Mario Kart being played with a violin as controller:

A week with Wii-U

Experience and thoughts from last week’s experimenting with the Wii-U

I’ve had a Wii-U devkit sat on my desk since the end of last year, but it had been largely gathering dust whilst I was busy working on other projects. However, I have been noting down ideas and concepts I wanted to try with it, and last week, I finally found time to dedicate to prototyping some of them.

Hard and Fast

First idea out of the hat was a game loosely based on the classic party-board game twister. In this variant, different directions (up left, down right etc) are used to represent the colours. Players hold a wiimote in each hand and have to point the wiimote in different directions to select different colours with the correct hand, as called out by the game. An extension would involve one player using the Wii-U gamepad (touch screen) to do the colour/hand selection manually.

After a couple of days, I had the Unity for Wii-U samples up and working, figured out how to connect wiimotes, and get useful data from them. Pretty quickly, I came up hard against the limitations of the system. Specifically, the original wiimotes (as far as I can tell), only measure rotation in two axes. There’s no way to determine the yaw. It literally cannot tell left from right, which for the purposes of the twister-like game was not very useful at all.

The newer MotionPlus wiimotes that ship with the Wii-U are capable of determining yaw, but for a game that is likely to need as many wiimotes as possible, trying to explain to users (especially kids) that they can only use one type of wiimote, but not a near-identical other type probably won’t wash. Plus on a practical level, I only had one of the Motion Plus variants myself to play with.

I also discovered, much to my disappointment, what appeared to be a hard limit of four on the number of wiimote connections. So out of the window went the second extension idea I had for the game, whereby players would shove additional wiimotes down each sock and sitting down, dangle their arms and legs in every which way.

Colour Clash

Next up was less a game and more a mechanic around which various games could be constructed. In principle, the input from a wiimote, or touch screen, or analogue stick is just two or three variables between -1 and 1. It makes sense that since you physically move something in the real world, something moves by a corresponding amount on screen. But there is nothing saying the data necessarily has to be used that way.

One way you could use the data instead is to create sounds and music of different pitch, tone, volume etc. However, it’s an area I have no knowledge of, so I decided to go with colour instead.

My initial thinking was that each of the x, y and z values produced by the wiimotes could be fed into a colour cube to output different colours. However, I figured it was probably overly complicated and difficult to visualise on screen (in a way people could work out what colour they were pointing to).

So the cube became a square, with left/right being hue, and up/down lightness. Which, after the twister-game non-starter, became a single axis of up/down to change the hue. To top it off, I created a colour strip / slider with an indicator to help show players what colour they currently had selected.

colourbar_1

So in a way, back to the link between physically moving a controller, and movement on screen. Though technically I could have simply displayed the colour selected at any one time, from the perspective of helping the player learn the mechanic, they are unlikely to get what colours correspond with which movements without it.

Testing testing … 1 2 3

Was it fun though? Before I could test that, I had to construct a mini-game around the mechanic. Players would be given a target colour that they had to match with the colour they controlled. Each successful match would give the player a point, with the first to twenty wining the game. A timer would count down how long they had left to make the next successful match, and if they ran out of time, they would lose. To add extra tension, the more successful matches / closer to victory, the shorter the timer.

For balance, the corresponding time they had to hover over a certain colour before it was accepted as correct also came down in proportion with the timer. I also made the colour bands / range of colours accepted quite wide to make the game a bit easier.

Success! My testers all liked the game, though commented that even after just a couple of rounds, it felt a bit short and simple. However, a long discussion ensued about all the different things the game could add to make it more substantial, leaning mostly in the direction of a DDR or Guitar Hero style rhythm game.

I also found that having one player with two controllers (one in each hand), competing with themselves, definitely caused more of the annoyed/frustrated type of confusion, than the crazy hectic fun variety. Any sort of games that require more than one wiimote per player definitely can’t have them using more than one at a time.

Where Next?

The obvious thing to do moving forward will be take the points from the initial testing into the next iteration of development. See if I can get players to engage more deeply with the game, and retain their interest for longer

However, I also want to prototype some completely different games using the colour selection mechanic, and in particular, ones where I can start to bring in the Wii-U’s gamepad/touch screen.

 

 

 

Spec Ops: The Line Review

*Spoiler Warning*

I’d seen several reviews and articles on the web praising Spec Ops: The Line for its storytelling, and in particular, how it purposely puts itself at odds with the fervently pro-American narrative of titles like Call of Duty or Battlefield.

So, I picked up a copy when it came up for sale on Steam, and finally got round to playing it through the last couple of days. The problem is, I’ve not played Call of Duty nor Battlefield, or any of the other “modern military shooter” titles of recent times. I grew up playing games like Half-Life, where shooting US soldiers was standard. As an avid follower of current affairs, interested in international politics and economics, and as a non-US citizen (I’m from the UK), shooting American soldiers is not especially shocking, nor the idea that they’re not necessarily the “good guys”. (I personally subscribe to a shades of grey outlook on the world).

Politics to one side, I had a few issues with the story, both it’s telling and direction. Firstly, it becomes fairly obvious in the early chapters that the Delta-force team, of which your character, Walker, is the leader, has both achieved its initial mission of finding out what is going on inside Dubai, and is causing more harm than good by continuing to stay there.

There’s simply not enough suction, no feeling like you’re being dragged deeper and deeper into a situation that is, at the same time, becoming more and more difficult to control. There is a false sense of urgency, the product of having your AI teammates constantly push/pull you into the next scene at breakneck speed, rarely giving you a chance to take your time and soak up the atmosphere. As if the option of simply hiding out somewhere for a day or two and actually talking things through, and formulating a plan, didn’t exist.

In fact, there is one scene where delta team are holed up in a container while a sandstorm blows through, and it’s as if they spent the time discussing who would win in a fight between batman and spiderman or something equally stupid. They pop out of the pipe implied “some time later”, for your character, Walker, to only then make his weak and flimsy justifications for continuing.

These justifications happen repeatedly, especially in the early game, yet the writing fails to cultivate a natural feeling progression; of Walker starting off as merely curious about finding Konrad, and later turning that into an obsession.

Neither do the other team members make protestations strongly enough. It’s not as if they bitterly complain, only to fall into line when Walker pulls rank. Rather, the others meekly suggest it might not be such a great idea to continue the mission, then shrug apathetically when Walker brushes aside their concerns. And as the game progresses, the other team members turn on each other, rather than, as you might expect, on Walker.

Lugo’s character is also inconsistent. He is introduced as the funny man of the team right from the opening scene, but loses his sense of humour pretty quickly. Makes sense, considering the circumstances, but he then flips from placing Gould’s life above civilians, to, in the next scene, being the most reticent to use the mortar. (Conversely, Adams does the opposite). It could be argued that these characters are conflicted, are having a change of heart as a result of events, rather than being static caricatures.

However, that really doesn’t come across if, indeed, that was the intention of the writers. It’s really not helped by Lugo’s killing of the radioman, who himself is pretty nonchalant, considering the circumstances.

Characters aside, there were a couple of things that really stuck out at me about the game’s world. Setting the whole game in Dubai was a stroke of genius, and having myself visited Dubai during a lay over between flights, it really does feel like Ozymandias. An unnatural affront, or perhaps a great big middle finger, to the heat and desolation of the desert. I don’t wish ill on the Emiraties, but that place is the antithesis of sustainable development and working in harmony with what the land provides. Seeing it in ruins, albeit virtually, for me feels like a grim “I told you so”.

Another interesting facet of the game is the airbrushing out of Islam from the world. When I first saw clusters of candles in parts of the game work, my initial reaction was “that’s not typical Islam/Arab culture?” As I played further, it became clear the makers had purposely made a point to leave Islam out of the game altogether. It’s sad, but understandable, as in the current social/political climate, it’d probably overshadow other important messages the game is trying to get across. Being realistic with the Dubai setting is in contrast to the unrealistic civilian population, who appear purposely vague and lacking in detail, perhaps because the makers want the audience to be able to place themselves or their own people and culture in their place.

Speaking of civilians, I was somewhat spoiled by having read about the angry crowd scene in reviews of the game before playing it. My instinct probably would have been to look for escape routes, and afterwards, start working out how to shoot as many people in the face as efficiently / quickly as possible. But as such, I knew what would happen next, perhaps depriving me of one of the more powerful episodes in the story.

I did try to make conscious decisions in other parts of the game. I never finished off any of the dying enemy soldiers once I worked out early on that it was unnecessary. I did fret about it though, unsure whether the game would, like some do, have an internal “moral compass”, that would later score me badly.

It was a little frustrating though, to see my character Walker acting unhinged in cutscenes, where I had otherwise tried to play him as professional and considered.

Probably my biggest issue though, was at the Gould rescue: Where it was clear I was being given a choice, but how to actually make that choice wasn’t obvious. It took me a couple of play throughs to work out that I needed to walk past Adams to an area that otherwise looked a lot like so many other dead ends scattered around the rest of the game world.

That then motivated me to spend even more time trying to shoot my way through the next scene at the Gate itself, rather than use the mortar. Seeing the rappel lines and not being able to use them felt like an invisible wall, and killing a dozen insta-respawn snipers until I ran out of ammo likewise felt like I most definitely was not being given the choice (contradicting that Lugo had just stated “There’s always another way”). Equally annoying, when I did use the mortar, I figured I’d fire a couple of shots, then start shooting, only to find it wouldn’t let me disengage until I’d finished the whole sequence.

I think actually, the game would have been more powerful were it the other way around. Given the option to rescue Gould or the civilians, but actually, force you to always pick the civilians (who, along with Gould, all die, despite your best efforts). Then give you a genuine option next time, not to use the mortar.

It’s perfectly understandable that, since the whole game pivots on that one incident (or rather its consequences), the game designers decided it had to happen, and contrived the game to make you push that button.

But actually, we don’t live in a vacuum, and it’d have really brought the point home if, when talking online, or to friends, or on another play through, you only then discovered the consequences of that decision.

For sure, if you made the decision to use the mortar without thinking twice, then went back after the act, and tried to find an alternative way (only to fail), then I can understand how that could deeply affect you.

However, taking away that player agency for the slightly more self-aware players, really killed the game for me.

Instead, I’d posit the game developers should have actually ended the game after the mortar scene at the Gate. It would subvert the typical game ending of defeating some big boss in his great big tower, and the abruptness could really hammer home the message.

I’m not sure what the alternative should be in that case (if you don’t choose the mortar), but the story for the rest of the game, after the Gate, really didn’t stack up. The descent into madness was stretched a bit too thin, and really should have come earlier in the story to actually make sense. The water and radioman levels, it was as if the team simply didn’t think through the fairly obvious consequences. And the very last level was a disappointing rip off of Fight Club.

Spec Ops: The Line feels like a music album where the individual songs sound great in isolation, but don’t flow between each other. Things seem somehow in the wrong order, and despite having some great ideas, it never quite gels to become more than the sum of its parts.

 

 

Mini Manifesto

I read about game development and the games industry a lot, and apparently, games aren’t interesting, varied or “innovative” enough. Indie game developers are supposed to be the solution, free to take risks and unencumbered by meddling corporate higher-ups.

I don’t think it’s anywhere near that simple. Most indies I know are limited by serious resource constraints; financial in particular. Some turn that around and use it to their advantage, but most are actually very cautious, sticking to technologies, mechanics and themes they know.

I’m in the fortunate position of having an independent income, meaning I can (just about) afford to work as an indie game dev full time. Bearing all that in mind, here are a few guiding principles I want to lay down:

Walk the walk
No point criticising from the side when I’m in a position to actually experiment. I’m definitely running Crystalline Green as a serious, professional business, but between working on fully realised, commercial products, I have the time, space and tools to get creative. No excuse to do otherwise.

Stop overcomplicating
Instead of endlessly hypothesising in my head about whether an idea will work or not, just get on and try it.

No space
I love all things space themed. Rockets and lasers, galaxies and nebulae. But so do lots of other game developers, and there are a preponderance of games out there to keep my inner astronaut happy for a lifetime. Better to see instead what those arts and cultures that don’t often feature in video games can bring to the medium.

February Happenings

Unfortunately, Soul Machine, the game we were working on since October, has been put on hold indefinitely. We’d been working with local indie dev Jay Adeloye on the game, but he has just been offered a new day job, and the terms of his employment contract stipulate no working on other games in his spare time.

Personally, I’ve also been working on weekends to finish up a PSVita game called Schizo3nia. This was originally a Global Game Jam effort, and the folks I teamed up with at the jam all agreed to spend some time polishing it up for release on the Vita. We’re hoping to have that submitted to Sony by the first week in March, and should hit that deadline quite comfortably now that I have a bit more free time.

Longer term, the team here at Crystalline Green will be ramping up work again on the new Unity3d version of Executive Star. The original plan was that Soul Machine would be finished by June, with work on Exec Star taking from then until November. We’ll announce a revised release date in due course, but it should be well within this year.

Using Unity3d will also allows us to target a far wider range of platforms. So far, we’re 95% certain it’ll launch on OUYA and Wii-U. Xbox One we’re still waiting for Unity3d support, and likewise with PS4 (though PS4 will also require us finding the funds for a devkit).

Positive Discrimination

The games industry is wildly unbalanced towards young white males (something like 90% of people in the industry, including myself, fall into this category). The case for changing this is strong. A more balanced workforce has been proven in other industries to increase profits, whilst for a creative industry like Video Games, having greater diversity allows for the coming together of a wider variety of ideas. Ultimately that leads to more innovation and better and more interesting games.

Recently, it’s been suggested to redress this issue with positive discrimination. Specifically, taking on new staff only from under-represented groups (so if you were a white male applying for a job, you’d be automatically rejected, regardless of skills and experience).

Firstly, at least in the UK, this practice is highly illegal and numerous employers have been prosecuted for doing it. However, there are examples where the practice has been institutionalized, such as in Malaysia. After achieving its independence from Britain, despite making up over half the population, ethnic Malays held just 1% of the nation’s wealth. So for the past 30 odd years, Malays have been given preference when applying for any job in the civil service / government (elected politicians aside).

Has it worked? Yes and no. Malays are now richer as a proportion of the country’s wealth, but the policy has pushed ethnic Chinese and Indians to retreat from public life and concentrate on the world of private business, which they still largely dominate. The country has generally prospered, helped by exports of petrochemicals, and living standards have gone up, which in turn has masked the cultural divisions along ethnic lines that the policy has arguably created (or at least widened).

It’s hard to directly apply this example to the games industry, but it illustrates that positive discrimination is complex and difficult to assess the cost/benefit of. However, just as Malaysian specifics of ethnic / cultural makeup have caused issues, it’s worth asking what might be those specifics in the games industry?

One of the reasons oft cited for lack of women in particular is the workplace culture and the (poor) treatment they receive from employers and male colleagues. Normally, positive discrimination might aim to change this by stealing away the best (female) employees from a company with bad practices, thus encouraging them to change so as to keep hold of their valuable staff.

The games industry has a high employee turnover, not so much in terms of employees leaving on a regular basis, but from whole teams being laid off at a time after a couple of years working on a project. This easy-come-easy-go, revolving door type situation allows employers to sidestep the issue. They can easily just get new, (male) employees to fill the skills gap.

Skills shortages that could cause such an attitude to backfire, aren’t unknown in the industry, but the proportion of women in particular (slightly less so, ethnic minorities), is such that losing the odd one or two amongst a workforce of hundreds has minimal impact.

Equally, the impact on a company’s bottom line by employing a diverse workforce is muddied by the way the industry is structured. Typically, there are a relatively small number of large teams working on big, high end “AAA” games, organised into even larger corporations. Companies such as EA or Activision may have thousands of employees, and there are so many other variables affecting the success of one of their teams or games. The different factors are so numerous and wide ranging, it is difficult for managers and executives to create a business case for diversifying their workforce, especially considering the cost side of the calculation is relatively easy to determine, versus a far less tangible benefit.

More importantly, were positive discrimination to be adopted over night by a large section of the industry, the sheer lack of suitably qualified minorities would severely hurt companies in the time it would take before new people were trained up and given the experience to fill the gap. (It would be somewhat extreme and possibly self-defeating).

On a longer term, smaller scale, having some high profile examples of studios staffed by a majority of minority groups may encourage / inspire more people from those minority groups to consider careers in video games.

The problem for the games industry is that when it has in the past, tried to champion individuals, the amount of hatred and abuse directed at those people from behind the veil of anonymity the internet provides, has the opposite effect to the one intended.

My own personal opinion is that it’s actually easier (on paper/from my armchair perspective), to split the problem into sexual discrimination and racial discrimination. The latter is in theory easier to solve, as the cost of development tools and distributing games (digitally) has dropped, allowing people from a much wider range of countries (and so ethnic groups), to set up their own studios. I fully expect to see some of the studios now emerging from middle income countries like Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia, grow into substantial, large studios, that in turn, feed off local workforce and by doing so, inject a new wave of skilled workers into an international labour market.

At the local level in countries with an already developed industry, I know there are charitable groups, NGOs and government agencies that work with disadvantaged youths and ethnic minority groups (sadly the two often go hand in hand). It’s certainly not as simple as reaching out to them and offering training and skills investment, but from where I stand, the opportunities are definitely there to get the next generation interested in game development, and so reap the long term rewards.

With regard to gender, in practical terms, yes, changing workplace culture, but also giving female characters more prominent roles in narrative-led games, and generally making less “macho” games. This is where things like all-female studios can have a real impact without feeling artificial or contrived. And without needing to be put on a pedestal, because they are themselves the pedestal on which the games they are making, shine.

There is hope as well, now that the proportion of game players is roughly equal split between women and men. Clearly women enjoy playing games just as much as their male counterparts, and it makes sense that some of them will want to take the next step, and work to create those games.

There are wider issues to do with society pushing girls at an early age away from STEM subjects, which in turn causes issues on the programming side of things. But not on the art, design and production side. I think it’s these areas where, in the medium term, the industry needs to encourage women, to apply for roles, and make those roles more appealing to women.

Even if it’s unbalanced in terms of disciplines within the industry, I think that just plain getting more women on the inside will long term have a trickle down effect, in terms of women wanting to learn coding, specifically to get into video games.

In short, positive discrimination has it’s pros and cons, but quick fix it isn’t, and other methods can have arguably bigger impacts for less cost. The real issue is the industry’s willingness as a whole (or in large part), to commit to long term solutions.

Games Industry and Quality of Life platforms

I should preface this by saying I’m coming from a purely games industry perspective here. I have no insight into health and fitness industry or related products aside from my own experiences as a consumer.

According to recent reports, Nintendo are planning a new “Quality of Life” platform. Quite what that means is a bit vague at the moment, but here are a few examples of the sort of problems/people/products that Nintendo (or indeed other companies in the games industry) can solve in the health and fitness sphere:

Elderly

In rich, developed countries, there is a huge demographic shift towards ageing populations, and it’s already well under way. The “baby boomer” generation, born after World War II are reaching retirement age. Improvements in healthcare mean that they will live longer, and so be a bigger drain on pension funds, government social welfare programs. They will also be spending more on those increasingly advanced healthcare systems that are keeping them alive.

At the same time, they hold a larger proportion of the wealth than younger generations, who in turn are smaller in number. The tax receipts generated by the working population is going down at the same time that costs are going up.

This trend is most accute in Japan, and as a Japanese company, Nintendo will be aware of the anxieties around this issue in the general population. But it also afflicts countries like Germany, with it’s declining birth rate, China with it’s only-recently relaxed one-child policy, and in countries like the UK, where it is only recent waves of migration that are masking the effect.

From time to time, here in the UK, we see on the news a feature about a new kooky looking robot from Japan, which claims it will be the care home worker of the future. Whilst it’s easy to get cynical about such ideas, there is definitely a huge market for products that will help the elderly in some way. Whether it be straight up monitoring devices, devices to keep the elderly active (and so healthier), or a combination of both.

Nintendo saw a huge surprise hit with older people in the form of it’s Brain Training game for DS, which espouses mental stimulation as a way for the elderly to keep their minds active and healthy. The precipitous rise in cases of Altzheimer’s/Dementia is a particular worry for many older people and healthcare professionals, and traditional forms of staying mentally sharp in old age, such as chess or bridge, can all be enhanced by taking them into the digital age, even where frail individuals aren’t necessarily being encouraged to fling their limbs around.

On the monitoring side, there are simply less of the younger generation around to wait hand and foot on the elderly, make sure they are ok and generally look after them. A console-like quality of life monitoring device might not be able to dress a person, tuck them into bed, or help them go to the toilet, but it will help doctors and carers remotely assess patients needs.

Moreover, the scale of demand for these devices means it now makes sense to bring them out of the rarified world of medical equipment and into the realms of mainstream consumer device. Nintendo could offer, using it’s knowledge in mass-produced consoles, something people can buy from a regular department store, for hundreds, rather than thousands of dollars, easily and quickly install in their elderly parent’s home, and teach their relatives to use.

Fitness Enthusiasts

There is a group of people for whom health and fitness is a way of life. They are athletes, personal trainers or people for whom fitness is their primary passtime. Not only do they have the full gym membership, but in many cases, have all the associated gear at their own home.

Gamification has long been a part of the fitness scene, with devices sporting indicators of how many calories have been burned, or miles run/cycled, for decades. Today we live in a data rich world, with a profusion of sensors and devices recording a plethora of stats on our physical state and activities. A console-like device would make an excellent central hub for all this information; the “brains” behind a gym of interconnected devices.

The success of games like Wii-Fit and Zumba show that there is a huge demand for “interactive-lite” workout videos / games, and it’s easy to imagine giving them their own dedicated console device. Reskinning it to be purely health and fitness might further encourage purchases from consumers who don’t want all the baggage and associations that come with buying a device advertised as primarily for games.

I do however think that Nintendo will be making a massive mistake if they fail to embrace connected smartphones and wearable tech. Whilst right now, the smartphone is the weapon of choice for the joggers and sports-people when out and about, that could easily change with the arrival of Google Glasses. Consumers will fully expect seamless integration of their outside activity data with that generated in-home and at the gym. Any device that fails to do that job of pulling together all their disparate activities will fail in its primary mission of being the centre of someone’s fitness world.

For sports, it also makes just so much more sense to have a console-like base unit, onto which you can attach the specialist peripheral-sensors needed for the specific sport, and on which can be run whatever specific software / app that sport needs.

Nintendo have already been doing this with their wide range of Wii and Wii-U Fit extras, and there is definitely scope to take this approach up-market and sell direct to sports clubs, and professional and amateur sports-people and athletes. (In fact, Microsoft would have an advantage here were they to also enter the market with a reskinned/branded Xbox One plus Kinect, pitched as a Golf/Tennis swing analyser, for example).

The Guilty Unfit

Many people are aware their sedentry lifestyle of driving to work, sitting at an office desk all day, then going home to watch the TV or play video games isn’t healthy. But damnit, it’s cold and raining outside, and their favourite film is about to start on TV, and it’s already 8pm and dark outside.

The game Zombies, Run! is a fantastic example of motivating people in a fun way to get off the couch and go burn some calories, where the usual guilty feelings for not having done enough exercise, or overzealous fitness fanatics telling them to get fit for the sheer masochistic joy of physical exertion, just aren’t getting them to slip on their trainers.

This quote from an interview with the makers of Zombies, Run! really exemplifies the point:

“It’s just really surprising because we tell people about this at conferences that storytelling can be really valuable,” he said. “And it’s just…they cannot comprehend it. They get badges and they get points and all this other gamification stuff. But they don’t get stories, and that’s partly because if you are naturally quite fit, or you are quite fit, you don’t need a story–you just go and run. But for everyone else, it’s a bit different.”

Here, Nintendo has a real strength to bring to the table, in the form of it’s story-writing, world and character creation abilities. Key will be striking a balance. On the one hand, making fun and entertaining games first and foremost, that in turn encourage physical activity through their mechanics. As well, avoiding trying to gamify fitness by crudely replacing Wii-fit lady with Mario. But importantly, not trying to hide and deceive the players. Being upfront that this is a fitness game, but one that revels in it’s sense of fun.
Why care?

Each of the above probably needs a different product, (even if it’s the same physical hardware/OS underneath, but with different branding/marketing and selection of software). Right now, there is a big question mark as to which of those Nintendo are aiming for, or whether they are approaching a “Quality of Life” product from a completely different angle.

Obviously, if any of this takes off, many game developers might find themselves making the apps / games to go on these devices. At a deeper level though, it’s going beyond gamification, or the idea games are something everyone can enjoy. Rather, it starts to break down the usefulness of classing things in terms of “Game” or “Not a Game”, and in a much more tangible, real-world way than the academic-intellectual debate about art-games like Proteus or Dear Esther.

This is all a whole lot of if’s, but just could have radical ramifications for how we view our industry

Retail Revival

Retail may yet be OUYA’s best hope for breaking into the mass market

OUYA’s marketing strategies to date have revolved around trying to get the word out about the console via social media and the gaming press.This makes sense on the surface for a small company with limited resources, trying to reach a large audience using new technologies in a way only nimble startups can.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of gaming press and hardcore gamers / gaming enthusiasts who hang around on youtube, twitter or facebook are unimpressed with OUYA to say the least (for various complex reasons).

Instead, OUYA should really be being marketed at casual players and mum & kids type audiences, and these consumers don’t follow the latest gaming trends on twitter, and certainly don’t read gaming websites.

The problem is reaching them through traditional media, such as TV commercials and advertisements is very hit and miss, and very expensive. It simply doesn’t make sense for OUYA.

Earlier in the year, I went into a number of branches of the retailer GAME here in the UK, and spent the day demoing the OUYA to customers in stores. I concluded that having permanent OUYA stands at retailers, would undoubtedly result in both higher sales, and greater visibility in the market for OUYA.

OUYA has a good crop of fun, cartoony games that people can jump and start playing in seconds, which is perfect for an in-store games stand type situation. Plus, at $99, the console is well within impulse purchase territory.

The initial investment required would be expensive. Clearly, there is a big initial cost to set up the physical stands themselves and arrange to get them into stores. Moreover, many retailers rely in large part on being able to offer on the spot deals to entice consumers to spend more. Typically, this is in the form of taking old games as trade-ins, in exchange for reward points or money off the latest releases. OUYA doesn’t fit into this, and there is no incentive to promote it, either by the retailer at a corporate level, nor for the individual shop assistants, who receive commission on trade-in sales.

As a result, I’ve often seen OUYA tucked away in a corner, or locked in a glass cabinet at the back of the shop (owing to the OUYA console itself being contained in the retail box shops use to display it with). That does nothing for sales, as neither customers nor staff at stores are really aware of exactly what it is all about.

Without being an expert in video games retail, I’d guess OUYA would likely have to pay for additional in-store space that would otherwise be taken up by more profitable trade-in games from other consoles.

That may just be the price of getting a foot in the door of the mainstream market, something OUYA need to do (combined with the launch of OUYA 2.0), if they want to be more than just a tiny niche/fringe player in the video games industry.

 

Free-to-try Revisited

OUYA’s Free-to-try requirement goes against the prevailing trend in the games industry. And not in a good way

I wrote previously about how many developers were being put off from OUYA by free-to-try, but I’ve somewhat revised my thinking as to why this might be.

The current trend in the wider games industry is towards cross-platform tools, where you make the game once in a platform agnostic way. Then with minimum fuss, click the button to port it to various target platforms. Even Sony/MS/Nintendo are being forced to improve their tools, processes and systems to make the platform specific work as small as possible. Arguably, Wii-U is unattractive to 3rd-party developers because it requires extra effort for the second screen. This is despite Wii-U selling millions, so I don’t think even units shifted and big brand name backing necessarily overcomes that developer resistance/friction.

Now, with OUYA and Free-to-try, at some point, in the game, you have to ask the player for money. This is the platform interfering with the overall user experience of the game in multiple ways:

  •  It may be difficult or impossible to do that without breaking the player’s immersion in the game. Which is self-defeating, as they’re then going to be annoyed, and not buy anyway
  • It introduces the need to incorporate business decisions into the game design

This second point means you need to either consider OUYA at the pre-production / early game design stage. Or as already pointed out, you need to spend significant time/effort reworking the game to mitigate the first point about breaking immersion. Both of those go against the industry trend by adding extra platform-specific consideration.

Furthermore, there is some research suggesting demos actually reduce sales. Whilst not the most scientifically rigorous study, it’s often quite hard to get hold of solid numbers in the games industry (we don’t even know how many OUYAs exist!) so actual hard data is something many developers will latch onto and incorporate into their own experiences to conclude that demos are generally a bad idea.

Generally, fewer and fewer games have demos. Demos from back in the day were really a way to market the game before the internet. They let people see the game in action, which has been largely replaced youtube trailers and let’s play videos, as well as videos on review sites showing actual gameplay footage. Secondly, demos were a way people could share a game with friends. Now they can share using social media and twitch.tv, and indeed developers can directly engage with those activities and their players / fans.

As I said before, free-to-try has been an interesting and worthwhile experiment, but OUYA Inc as a business suffers from a poor reputation in many developer circles. Dropping it could be a big part of a wider push to rectify that.

Side Quest: J-Game

JGame: An exercise in game balance

download2 source
Download Game Source (Unity 4.2)

Frustrated with the slow pace of browser games, I decided to see if I could re-create one such game faster than I could play it

I really like the idea behind browser MMO OGame by GameForge. In it, you create a space empire, collecting resources, building up colonies and launching mighty fleets to raid other players and relieve them of their stuff.

I first came across the game a couple of years ago, but gave up after a few days: Like most such games, it is incredibly slow paced, with ever-increasing wait periods and timers between actions. While this helps regulate players from becoming too powerful, too quickly, its main purpose is to frustrate the player into paying to speed things up.

I really resent that, since I usually only have a very limited time period in which to play games, and I can’t afford to pour money into the experience just so that I can do more than one meaningful action per hour.

Recently, I decided to give the game another shot, and set myself the challenge of building a single spaceship as quickly as possible. In the end, after gathering resources, doing research and building shipyards, it took just over 24 hours. However, in that time, I got thinking that actually, I could probably get that spaceship quicker if I re-made the game myself.

Challenge

Recreate OGame within 24 hours to a point where I can build a spaceship
Success!

Bonus:
- Create a nice looking UI to match the OGame one. Partial Success
- Connect the game to a back-end server so multiple people can play. Fail

Analysis

Firstly, yes it is possible to recreate the core mechanics of a relatively simple game like OGame in a game-jam style situation. To make it look good takes some considerable amount of time and effort longer. To put in the back-end server infrastructure was something I didn’t even get onto, and all this is leaving aside some of the more subtle nuances of the game.

However, by recreating and subsequently testing JGame, as well as playing the original OGame, I feel like learned a lot about game loops and free-to-play mechanics.

OGame is actually quite fun after the point I implemented up to, which is getting your first spaceship. You can then raid other planets / players for their resources, and add them to your own pile. By doing so, your ability to make progress in the game is directly tied to the decisions you make, and loses the deterministic feel of the early game.

That initial game loop of upgrade building, wait to collect more resources, upgrade building is deeply flawed. Although there is a spike of excitement when the player finally gets to hit the “upgrade” button and see some progress, it is tempered by the wait timer. The player suddenly becomes stuck again, for minutes or even hours.

This is even worse after the player has left the game overnight. Upon seeing a great big stockpile harvested over many hours, the possibilities of what the player can do with all that stuff is really exciting. But, after one or two initial build/upgrade decisions are made, the player finds either that the wait timer is once again putting the breaks on their plans. Or alternatively, the game is balanced such that as more buildings are upgraded, technologies researched etc, their costs go up in line with what the player is able to collect. Meaning that big shiny pile of crystals is actually only good for a single high level of Crystal Mine upgrade.

Being a casual game, it’s reasonable to expect players to dip in and out. Spend 5 minutes here or there. But there is a big issue when the game prevents the player from executing complex strategies, or forces them to remember what the heck they were in the middle of doing an 8 hour-work shift later. That frustrates the player not in the positive way that a challenging adversary or difficult puzzle does. Rather, it’s the meta-game; the arranging of your day so that you’re online just as your battlecruiser finishes building, or your Metal Mine completes an upgrade; that forces players to make compromises in their real lives that they then resent.

On a deeper level, the reason they resent that is because games are part escapism, but as well because the game exists in a magic circle. The illusion of both is broken by the intrusion of the meta-game.

Another problem I noticed with many players I spoke to, who had, like me, given up on first trying the game, was that they could see the long term benefit of building an economy in the early game. Reinvest hard-won resources into more mines and factories to generate even more resources. Money makes money.

However, the game didn’t make it clear when to step off that treadmill. At what point to start building peripheral / support buildings that have clear longer term benefits, but give no immediate, tangible gains? When to start researching technologies, building ships and defences? If that appeared to be days away, the prospects were so distant that players would conclude it wasn’t work the risk/effort waiting to find out. As a result, they would quit before they got to the more engaging parts of the game.

As for JGame, I’ve included the ability for the player to adjust the various time and cost multipliers (though at the moment those values can’t be saved). From my own testing, it is too easy to simply flatten the requirements tree and unlock everything from the start, turn all the timers down to 1 second, and a few clicks later, achieve “victory” by popping out a few spaceships. However, when I leave everything on default settings, I find I’ve simply not got the patience to sit through even 30 seconds of time ticking down that I’ll never get back.

My hope is that people will use JGame to experiment with finding that middle ground, that “fun” zone between what constitutes too long/boring and what is blatantly too quick/easy a game.

My Progress Hour-by-Hour:

For the record, here is my progress blog, which was updated live throughout the challenge

Hour 1 – Create the universe
I created a universe with a single solar system and 15 different planets. I created a player and assigned one planet to be the player’s home world:

hour 1 compare

Hour 2 – Resources and Buildings

Created some resources and buildings to mine / produce those resources

hour 2 compareHour 3 – Improve Buildings and Update Loop

Created a mechanic to allow buildings to be improved to the next level. Also created an update loop where mines will collect resources depending on their level

hour 3 compareHour 4 – Energy Up!

Added in power plants and accounted for energy needs of the mines

hour 4 compareHour 5 – Low Energy

Implemented the Energy Management readout, bar the level adjustment buttons. Will revisit that later.

hour 5 compareHour 6 – Facilities and Prequisites

I must admit, I thought I’d be further ahead at this stage than I actually am. As things stand, the game has (nearly) all the resource management implemented, plus in the last hour, I’ve laid down the structure for the tech tree, and for different buildings requiring different other prerequisite buildings and technologies. Next step will be to allow the player to research those technologies

hour 6 compareHour 7 – Technology and Shipyards

I finished off the job of creating technologies and added in a research tab. The shipyard was made entirely of code I’d already made, so was a simple copy and paste job.

hour 7 compareHour 8 to 10 – Fixing

I made a numbers input system for the player to specify how many fighters they wanted to build in one go. I also went back to Energy Management in the resources section and made a button to let the player select what energy % they wanted their mines to run at.

hour 8 and a half compareHour 11 – Snazzy

Started working on making the user interface look less vanilla Unity, and more space-style. This is a never ending process, and I stole some art assets from Executive Star, but made good progress in just a short space

hour 11 compareHour 12 – Pink

You know when to call it a day when the most your brain can think about is what shade of off-pink to make the text in your game. Hour 12 rolled around with some parts of the UI looking passable, if a little sparse, and others thoroughly unloved

hour 12 compareDay 2

I spent the day tidying up the code, commenting it and sorting out all the hacky work arounds that I’d scrambled together in my game-jamming state.

I also finished off the UI for the remaining sections, as well as making some subtle but important improvements to the overall UI

Finally, I added those accursed timers that force you to hang around waiting instead of actually playing / making progress in the game.

day 2Day 3

I added some more artwork and a system to allow many of the variables and stats to be changed at run time. The player can choose how to balance the game, making buildings, technologies and ships more or less expensive, build faster or slower, and allowing the addition and removal of prerequisites.

Finally, I uploaded the game and source code under a non-commercial license. As much as I might complain about wait timers and free-2-play monetisation techniques, it is just not cool to wholesale copy someone else’s game, doubly so to then start selling it.

JGame uses OGame as its base, but has ended up sufficiently deviating over the course of development, that I’m satisfied it’s not so much a copy any more, but a tool for exploring gameplay balancing.

day 3