The Truth about games, apparently

Let's face it, television never lies. That is just one of those facts. And television, as well as other media, teaches us a lot about video games and video game development.

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Video games are played almost exclusively by young boys who sit upright on pouffes a few inches away from a CRT television and hold their controllers up in front of them. All games can be played while mashing buttons and simultaneously holding conversations with the person standing behind you.

Though graphics have progressed, video game sound has hit its peak in the mid-80s. Even today sophisticated FPS games use bleeps and bloops for audio, incessantly.

The only genres in video games are sports and shooting.

A lot of games require text input, which must be delivered in perfect English grammar and must be sounded out by the player as he is typing.

Video game development studios are always housed in lush, modern buildings with a lot of space and cool, trendy lighting and technology. There are never any security measures for visiting friends, family, delivery boys or crime scene investigators who can waltz through the premises with impunity.

The boss's star employee in every company is the programming genius, with an I.Q. in the high 300s with matching sociopath tendencies. Or indeed homicidal tendencies. He always has his own office which is spacious and has many, many monitors and awards.

The best job in video game development is that of Quality Assurance, or "tester", but competition is hard. Only the most super-elite video game playing masters need apply, but they get compensated extremely well and everybody looks up to them.

Triple-A, next-gen, big name productions require a team of around 7 people with job titles as "gore designer" and "bullet programmer". It may look like they live in a frat-house like, spacious office, but this tiny band of heroes actually makes your games for you. Except those times when the rogue tester creates an entire game on his own to wow the boss with, at home, doing code, art and design, while being stoned most of the time.

Nobody in game development is older than 23. Producers and bosses may be older, but only if they are metrosexual and take care of themselves, like ex-surfer dudes with money. Developers themselves are pretty and handsome in bland GAP-model ways, but all female developers geek themselves up by wearing glasses.

The role of the producer is to come up with game ideas.

Video games that inspire murders can faithfully recreate the circumstances of the real-life murder and lead to revelations on the identity of the murderer.

Massively-multiplayer on-line worlds are run and kept up by one guy.

Browser games look identical in style and quality to the best console games and load up in seconds.

You can always tell if an artificial intelligence wants to kill you because it will ask you, using a bad speech synthesizer, if you want to play a game. Never play games with a computer that asks you to play with it out of the blue.

Game development is fun!

Episodic done right

I’ve dipped my toe in the episodic gaming world once or twice. The results were usually pleasant enough, if never overwhelming. The Sam & Max series, for example, were mostly fun but as games paled in comparison to the original and the art re-use was always a little too obvious. American McGee too is currently toying around with the concept with his Grimm series and Telltale are further building on the idea with Strongbad’s Cool Game for Attractive People. It’s all go, apparently. However, I was most pleasantly surprised by Insomniac’s Ratchet & Clank: Quest for Booty, released this week over the Playstation Network.

I have just spent a very fun few hours of a hang-over blighted Saturday playing through R&C:QFB and it was tremendous fun. Coming as it does on the heels of the full-priced Ratchet & Clank: Tools of Destruction, it continues the story and play mechanics. Needless to say you’ll have to have enjoyed the latter before contemplating purchasing the former, but as it was undoubtedly a superb gaming experience it took me a mere 2 seconds to opt for the download.

I fully expect to see more of such “plus alpha” games appearing on PSN, it makes perfect sense. You reuse the tools, tech and assets that so many people have sweated over for so long and build a quicker, new game out of it of such high visual quality and presentational sheen it already stands head and shoulders over the competition in the download market. Development is quick and cheap, compared to the full game, and it keeps the fans warm for when the next instalment arrives, which, as by the unspoken rules of video game markets, must somehow require all new art and tech. It only took a few hours to complete, which is cheap at even half the price, but I was rewarded with a promise of more of the same this autumn, which I’ll lap up like a thirsty kitten when the time comes.

Insomniac really did deliver, in so many ways, even beyond the excellent craftsmanship of the game itself. We had a simultaneous release in Japan and the West, a very cheap price point pushing it nicely into the impulse buy sector, a fully localised game that sets its language to your system’s preferred choice as opposed to your IP, even in Japan, and, a commitment from the developers to deliver more, soon. Nothing is quite as good as feeling a little delicate one weekend, deciding there and then to buy a game, install it within minutes, play and finish it before the day is done.

I fully expect more companies to follow suit. Why spend years on creating a pipeline and assets only to never use them again? And indeed, many games could follow suit. There is of course the much touted extra content for Grand Theft Auto 4, though not owning the Xbox version nor a functioning Xbox, that will pass me by. Though not a full-priced game itself, PixelJunk Eden could easily add extra gardens to prolong the wonderful gameplay. Why not add an extra few hours of storyline to Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, using all the art assets and tech of the game but simply create some new areas and extra story?

If you want your fans to keep giving you money it’s extra games like Quest for Booty that give you the most bang for your buck, especially as a consumer, as opposed to paying for a few extra multiplayer maps or extra costumes, God forbid. Previously boxed games had a very short timeframe to sell, as sales would usually drop off significantly after the initial months. Using extra episodic content can keep money coming in on the back of that first initial development cycle. And even better, because such episodic extras are cheap and quick to produce, you’ll face less internet fury over “leeching the consumers dry” or “cynically reusing stuff from the previous game”. This is exactly what Quest for Booty does, and I feel in no way cheated!

As if the glass wasn’t half-full enough, I have to say that slowly PSN is shaping up to be what we all hoped it would be. Though I may have spent more money on full, boxed PS3 games, I have actually spent most time playing PSN titles, and that will certainly have an influence on my future purchases.

Oh boy, obon!

It's that time of year again where, amid the sweltering heat and numerous spectacular thunder storms Japan collectively goes on holiday. Though there are no national holidays this month most companies will graciously allow employees to cash in their holiday days, some even going so far as to actually give a few away, mandatory, though strangely almost never a full week's worth. I, too, have the pleasure of bumming off for a few days.

Obon has some history in Buddhism, so I am little interested in the theory behind it. It has something to do with dead people, I think. There will probably be some bon odori, fun little festivals where people dance in a large circle around a tent where some local will be banging the drums. These are nice events to hang out at, especially as they only come by once a year. Then we will have our local fireworks too where we'll be sitting on the grass getting drunk and hoping our bladder will hold out so as not to have to queue for the few public toilets before we all try to get back on the train home amongst the several thousand other attendees. The fireworks are good fun, though the trip home afterwards is always somewhat of a chore.

Mostly I am looking forward to the arse-end of the season, as I will be working a few days that week and, hopefully, most of Tokyo won't. That way I might be able to enjoy a commute without having the life squeezed out of me or being drenched in salaryman sweat. As with Golden Week in spring, Obon has the annoyance of being a regular holiday, so prices shoot up and holiday destinations are booked full weeks, months in advance. Very often developers elect to work through such holidays to accrue days off in lieu to spend a little after the season when prices are back to normal and availability won't be an issue. As I am saving my holiday days for a later, better use, I'll just take off the days I'm given and work the rest.

As my XBox's internal calendar is set to "Japanese" the console has, in anticipation of my approaching spare time, again refused to operate, sitting there with a green eye blinking, not doing much more and not even having the common decency to flash red. Especially this time I am annoyed as I was looking forward to some Braid and Castle Crashers, but Microsoft has willed it not to be. I am toying with the idea of having the machine fixed a third time, but I am a little afraid of the inevitable verbal aggression I'll need to display to the useless prongs at the help center. With this heat I don't know if I can muster the energy to shout them down to size, as they so richly deserve. Luckily Sony is there to pick up the pieces and I shouldn't wonder I will be spending my entire holiday playing PixelJunk Eden, which is a fine, fine game.

I had some plans to go out too, but this weather is still beating me down. Given the choice between a headachy day indoors underneath the air-conditioner or venturing outside in the blazing, stifling heat, the choice should be simple. I look forward too to my occasional excursions out on the balcony for a cigarette and listening to the noisy cicadas whirring up to deafening decibels, as well as having a good go at my drinks cabinet and trying out some new cocktail recipes. Which reminds me, I need to buy more vodka.


We cannot change anything unless we accept it.
Condemnation does not liberate, it oppresses.
- Carl Jung

Software piracy is one of those perennial problems that just refuses to go away, no matter what we throw at it. On one extreme of the debate we have the lollards who proclaim "Piracy is EVIL! Pirates are SCUM!" and say it'll be the death of the industry, despite strong evidence to the contrary (i.e. the industry isn't dead). On the other extreme we find those pirates that seem to warp space and time itself, not to mention logic, to justify their behaviour with ludicrous claims, such as "games are too expensive, so I am right to pirate them" or "I wasn't going to buy it anyway". Obviously such dogmatic approaches are useless and, as with most things, truth and solutions can usually be found somewhere in between.

The way I see it, piracy is just another example of the economic and philosophical problem of free riding. On an individual level it is extremely hard to condemn piracy because if you can get something for free with ease and pretty much no fear of repercussions there is no way somebody could be convinced to part with his money anyway. Of course it is in the interest of the consumer to pay for the product, as that translate into profit for the publishers and developers who can use that money to create more of the products you enjoy, but the free rider problem recognises that short-term individual gains outweigh the long-term effects of the masses. If enough other people pay for the game anyway, it'll make up for you not doing so yourself. It's a little like paying taxes. For the individual there is plenty of reason not to pay your taxes, especially as so little money can't have much effect, positive or negative, on the whole nation, but people must nevertheless be made to pay taxes for the greater good. With games, we must find ways to compel people to pay for them, not just expect it.

Part of this problem I think lies in the perceived monetary value of digital data, i.e. none. Because video games have for so long relied on tangible media carriers, from cartridges to cassette tapes to discs, they have taken their place in society as a commodity, a tangible product. However, what makes the game is, to put it stupidly, a series of 0s and 1s that can be transferred easily on a media carrier of your choice and propagated without loss of quality.

I remember reading "Being Digital" and being struck by an anecdote wherein the author had to give the police an estimated value of the laptop that had been stolen. It has been years since reading the book, so apologies if I don't hit all the finer details. His conundrum was that beside the value of the laptop itself there should be an assigned value to the data on it, namely all his material, all the things he had written. But somehow this is difficult to do. As a society we still see digital data as intrinsically without value. It's just there, you can't touch it, you can't see it, it is worthless.

So when anti-piracy preachers shout out nonsensicals as "you wouldn't go to a shop and steal a DVD" they miss the fact that data isn't tangible. Software piracy isn't at all like going to a shop to shoplift a material item. It would be more like going to the shop with audio recording equipment and recording the music they are playing through the store's PA system to be enjoyed at home at a later date. This lack of a sense of value is not the reason people pirate software but it's the facilitator that makes it easy to justify to themselves. And as society becomes more and more plugged in, even if that is wireless, this is an issue that will need to be addressed. Data has a monetary value. People need to change their thinking to incorporate this philosophy.

So as software creators we need to find other ways to compel customers to purchase our goods, as opposed to simply copying them. How do we go about this?

DON'T try to appeal to or blame pirates
It simply doesn't work. It's a classic free rider symptom that it's difficult to compel someone to pay for something for the greater, long-term good if the alternative appeals so much more. Why pay for a game when it's "freely available"? Of course attacking the problem at the source doesn’t work either; every group of hackers or torrent website that closes down spawns several new ones to take its place. Stopping piracy this way is like nailing a jelly to the ceiling and bombarding all users, including the legitimate ones, with patronising adverts and tedious copy protections simply doesn’t work, as time has told us.

DO entice customers
One of the reasons I have more Gamecube, Wii, GBA and DS games on my shelf than anything else, apart from being a horrendous Nintendo fanboy of course, is because of the wonderful Club Nintendo. Even today I am much more likely to make an impulse buy of a Nintendo game simply because I know I will receive a code which turns into points with which I can get free, tangible gifts. Hell, I've even bought games I've only played once or twice just for such codes! In the old days I would much prefer to own a copy of Ultima than pirate it just so I could have the tea-towel map and excellent bestiaries.
If you can give extra value to your game by adding something only legitimate customers can receive you will still encounter piracy, of course, but at least you're giving something to your customers rather than punishing them with copy protections.

DON'T muck around with annoying copy protection
Copy protection will be hacked. No matter how clever your limited pool of programmers, there are a large number of highly talented hackers out there up to the challenge. The strategy is, of course, to at least try and prevent hacked copies of your game being available in the short period just after the game's release when boxed titles traditionally sell most. If you can have a copy protection system that will at least hold up for the first few weeks you'll have made the bulk of your sales. This is, however, harking back to an increasingly outdated economic model and we have only to look at the record industry to see what happens to businesses clasping to old models, refusing to embrace the new.
On top of that, you are punishing your legitimate customers with all manner of annoyances, from having to have the disc in the drive at all times, having to keep track of numerous codes and keys or even installing malignant software.

DO think of new business models
The brick and mortar, boxed copy version of the game is on its way out, we all hope. But it is exactly these lingering older models that require these Draconian copy protection systems. Downloading games is easy and convenient and, so far, not that expensive. They could in fact be sold cheaper as you are dealing with a different kind of distribution that requires fewer overheads. Korea has seen some success with free-to-play games that rely on advertising and micropayments for additional features for income. Q Entertainment was sadly lambasted for its innovative segregation of Lumines on XBLA, where aside from a basic game players could but the additional parts they wanted for a lower price and ignore those they weren’t interested in. Valve are seemingly building their own download network with Steam, as Sony has PSN and Microsoft has XBL, and Nintendo…well, Nintendo.
Many of these newer models seem at this moment in time more secure and, though not entirely piracy-proof, are a step in the right direction. Though I possibly have the know-how, or could at least acquire the know-how, to hack my systems and play pirated copies of downloadable games, the prices are so low as to be in the impulse-buy category and with the added convenience of instant access I have seen no reason to go through the bother of mucking up my system, especially as automatic system updates could easily negate all this hard work.
Just as iTunes set up a new business for digital music distribution while record companies were clasping at straws to keep the status quo, so are we seeing the gaming world change. With IP addresses, system serial numbers, credit card information and user accounts hopefully the annoying and costly problem of copy protection and piracy can be alleviated if not entirely circumvented.

DON'T keep harping on about the Evils of piracy
We know it's bad. We know studios have closed down ostensibly because of it, though how true that is remains questionable. We know some people like to bandy about words as "scum" and "thieves". Piracy is a fact of software development. Screaming about it won't change it. Changing our business models and the way we look at our customers just might help at least somewhat.

As far as I can tell piracy in Japan would seem to be similar to that in the West. I remember my very first visit to Japan and seeing small stalls on the streets of Akihabara selling “multi-game Gameboy carts”, but these days such blatant illegalities seem to have been replaced with more shady, backstreet affairs. The R4 was being openly sold in shops and has been netting increasing prices due to Nintendo’s legal threats.

All being said and done, there will always be people who refuse to pay for software. There are laws in place to punish these but the effort usually outweighs the rewards, and they know it. In the end all we can do is entice, not pressure, as many people as possible to pay for games legitimately in new ways and accept some people will just never remove that padlock from their wallets. Preaching the Evils of piracy is as constructive as a Japanese progress meeting and vastly oversimplifies the situation to the point of being actually damaging to the debate.

(250th post, hurray for me!)