It's a mad world

It’s always good, at least for the ego, to have one’s opinions confirmed, or at least agreed with, by other parties. Let’s face it, I’ve made some stonking howlers on this blog over the years, but the growing trend of Japanese developers swallowing their pride and admitting the way Japanese development works is in no way competitive with that in the West mirrors my own, by now possibly tiresome, claims to the same.

This time two reports follow this rising tide of disenchantment. One is an interview with Platinum Games’ Atsushi Inaba, producer of the upcoming Madworld, as well as Okami and Viewtiful Joe. Though Madworld is not a game I am interested in, both Okami and Viewtiful Joe are astounding games with daring visual styles, so hearing him say things as

“I think that western developers are superior to those in Japan overall”
is somewhat of a shock. But he is, of course, right. Reading the rest of his interview here, it is obvious the man has his head screwed onto his shoulders. He talks of globalising the game market, the importance of IP and the fact Japanese developers need to get their act together to compete with the West. These are, by now, fairly common sense issues, but for Japan, always resistant to change and taking responsibilities, having this discussed out in the open is a positive sign that people realise there is a problem, which, in turn, is the first step to change and improvement.

The second news item comes from Square-Enix president Youichi Wada, a man whose open candour I am really beginning to respect. Earlier this month he explained the delay of Dragon Quest IX, and chalked it up to being caught off-guard by the number of bugs, apologising for the arrogance of it all. Pointing to the way debugging (QA testing, in Japanese development parlance) worked under the current system meant too many “stubborn” bugs slipped through the net. Indeed, I have found from my own experiences that no testing is done until certain parts of the team are finished with their tasks and are then moved on to bug checking. At this point it usually becomes a race between the coders trying to finish the game and fighting a sudden rising tide of bugs. As Mr. Wada explains in his comments, it might be better to test new features to some extent as and when they are being implemented, and not to just hack the whole thing together and simply fix some issues as they crop up, which is usually not the case.

As I previously wrote, and with Mr. Inaba’s own works to back it up, Japanese developers do do some things right, especially in areas of visual direction and exploring weird nooks and crannies of game design, but general development practices are now too old-fashioned and apparently uncompetitive. No longer can throwing more developers at a problem and requiring them to work weekends and nights fix every scheduling issue, and I, for one, am glad some heavy hitters in this industry are coming to terms with this and actively seeking to make changes.

Despite the reporting of such seemingly negative quotes about the Japanese development community I’d like to remind my readers that this is generally a positive thing. However much you may like Japanese games, they are facing difficulties here, and not just because of the global economic meltdown. Companies have been merging for survival for a while now, with several more to do so on the horizon, with only a few of them looking strong enough to survive; specifically, those few are mostly the ones that have committed to change and a global market. If you want to continue playing Japanese games and enjoy their cookie quirkiness, change is absolutely required, and acceptance is the first step.

Only in Japan

As I, and many more Japanese developers and publishers, lament the falling behind of Japanese games, now much harder to ignore, it behooves us to remember that Japan is not doomed; it does do certain things right and allows for games that no Western publisher, even in these indie-courting times would probably ever greenlight. Exhibit A: Noby Noby Boy.

If you haven’t played this Playstation Network exclusive yet, well, um, nothing that can be said about it would make any sense. Even watching the trailers and movies on-line can’t quite convey the utter insanity this product enjoys. Imagine a designer, possibly delirious from lack of sleep or maybe even riding the Cake horse, just throws up some ideas for the Hell of it with nobody to tap him on the shoulder to say “Excuse me, this is just ridiculous and insane, let’s not do this”; imagine also graphics that are colourful and cute but also sort of smell like 1st year Game College graduate's experimental tomfoolery. Imagine a game with no direction, challenges, goals. You are now only part-way to imagining Noby Noby Boy. Seriously, just play it for a while and enjoy – that’s really all you can do with it. Like me, you probably won’t spend weeks and weeks on this, but for $5 it’s hardly worth fretting over. At that price it easily outlasts a movie rental or purchase, so just go ahead and give it a try. Your brain will thank you for it.

Noby Noby Boy is a toy, in the purest sense of the word. We could only call it a game because it is played on a games console, but that’s about it. There are some trophies that, provided you cheat on the internet and find out what they are for, could provide some goals for you to aim at, but generally, the only function this game has is to occupy you and make you waste some time, time spent giggling, being confused, laughing, more being confused, being confounded, and possibly more giggling. If I were forced to describe the game, I mean toy, which I’d hate to do, it’d be something like: you control an extendable worm-like character that can fool about in a scene, eat stuff, poop stuff and let characters ride on his back. There is some meta-game (whatever that means) about growing long and having the Girl character grow long with you in order to reach the moon or something, but generally, it’s about faffing about.

And it’s great that such titles, alongside the gorgeous “Flower”, also on the Playstation Network, are being made. Noby Noby Boy is obviously several degrees more insane than Flower, which is simply beautiful and relaxing, but both offer a gaming experience that is quite unexpected. And if these games prove to be a success, which I not only hope they do but somehow think they will, it will show that there is a market for non-gamey games. It certainly shows Japan has an ace up its sleeve; technically it may be behind, but when it comes to mad ideas, the possibility to explore them and release them commercially, they still seems to have the upper hand.

Falling out

When it comes to video games I am a man-child who knows what he likes. I’m not interested in shooters, I’m not interested in dystopian future settings, I hate RPGs, I don’t care one jot for gore and gibs, realistic characters bore me, open world environments with little to do but travel across them are tedious. I like simple, colourful games, with fun or cute characters, some challenge but mostly just rote activity, and general glucose happiness. So why in the world am I so addicted to Fallout 3, a game which goes against every gaming sensibility I thought I had?

This is not the fist time Bethesda has made me a traitor to my own desires. I have arguably spent more time on Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion than any other game in recent memory, even though I hate your usual orcs and elves malarkey. At the time I thought it was merely because it reminded me of what I saw in my mind’s eye when playing Ultima back in those long forgotten days of my youth, such as they were. Oblivion’s pretty environments were a dream become reality, though a decade or two too late. And here they do it again, giving me a desolate post-apocalyptic wasteland for my semi-realistic character to traipse through in a tedious, repetitive grind. And I’m loving every second of it.

The sense of utter devastation as I travel through the wasteland that was Washington DC, the underground shelters, vaults, dotted around in between ruined monuments and ramshackle dwellings, the burnt out buildings that hint at a past life, burned books and furniture everywhere, the old-fashioned technology that helps me unlock doors, the rebels that scour the lands for Nuka-cola bottle caps, though slightly depressing, in a ponderous way, never before have I spent so much time exploring and surviving a believable world, each new area bringing both the joy of discovery and a sense of futility, both uplifting and depressing at once.

Combat too has grabbed me to an extent I had not anticipated; not playing it as a shooter, but each time opening up V.A.T.S. and carefully aiming my rifle at specific body parts to disable them, a system I haven’t seen executed so well since Origin’s Knights of Legend. And having a rabid dog jump at me, shooting its head off with a shotgun, and seeing its headless body fly past me carried by its initial momentum, or separating a mercenary’s head clean off his torso with a single sniper shot, may be gory as Hell, indeed much gorier than I want from my games, but is immensely satisfying. Part of this is due to the slow-motion sound and the echo my gun makes as the boom bounces around this empty landscape, and the physics applied to these dead ragdolls make the experience so visceral and demanding and somewhat exhausting, I truly get the sense I’m a survivor, protecting myself for the sake of living, rather than rampaging like a buffed-out roid-rage space marine.

Another reason I am spending so much of my time in this world has probably something to do with its achievable trophies (as I am playing this on a Playstation 3). Too many games out there still have ridiculous trophy demands; spend the entire game hopping on one foot, or beat every single person in the world in an online battle within 4 hours. Fallout 3, however, has trophies designed to make you explore the wastelands, do those cool side missions you’d otherwise ignore, and collect those rare items you otherwise wouldn’t have bothered with. Sure, two bobbleheads are one-off opportunities never to be reclaimed should you miss them, a design decision I loathe with a passion. This is exactly why Bioshock never got a deeper play-through; miss a few audio dairies and you’re boned, as well as those ridiculous “play the game on the highest difficulty setting without dying” trophies no sane man with things to do would attempt. Fallout 3 rewards you with trophies for doing things that actually make the game play experience better, which is exactly how it should be. I wish designers would pay a lot more attention to the heightened experiences well-designed trophies can offer.

The question I couldn’t escape while playing this game, though, is the obvious: would this game ever sell in Japan? The answer is obviously “no”, it certainly wouldn’t. Aside from the fact the gameplay is very “foreign”, ie. not suited to your average Japanese gamer, there is also that elephant in the room: the bomb. Part of the appeal is the what-if question of what would happen, more or less, if an atomic bomb dropped on America. Japan, of course, has the answer already, though Hiroshima and Nagasaki were never plagued by super mutants and feral ghouls, as far as we know. But so much in the game surrounds the nuclear attack, from the village called Megaton to the Nuka-cola plant, that it is almost a joke. Now don’t get me wrong, I think your average liberal lefty foreigner like myself is probably far more concerned about the sensibilities of selling such a game in Japan than our average Japanese youth. Don’t forget their own proud creation, Godzilla, rampaging and destroying whole cities to the delight of the local audiences. No, the Japanese like their fantasy global or national destruction, and few younger Japanese would probably care too much about nuclear attacks forming the background of a video game; a few psychopaths aside, the difference between reality and fantasy is well understood here.

Still, one can’t help but think: Fallout 3 paints a bleak picture of humanity’s survival and corrupt governments in a barren desolate landscape filled with destruction, death and radiation. Hiroshima and Nagasaki aside, your average Japanese gamer isn’t looking for such an experience from their entertainment, I shouldn’t wonder.

And though parts of the game are rough, buggy and badly acted, Fallout 3 is already a high-point in my gaming year and I can’t wait to see what Bethesda comes out with next. Whatever it is, and however much I’ll hate it on paper, I’m sure I’ll buy it, play it and love it. Damn that confounding developer!

Make or Break

Ask any developer what they think of their marketing department and you’ll be guaranteed a flood of expletives and death threats. The common knowledge dictates that marketing departments have a disproportionate and destructive say in the design of your product; stories of interesting ideas being shot down, due to the uncertainty of their success in an unproven market, or numerous me-too design changes based on today’s best-selling competitors are the standard. Indeed,it would seem a lot of games are designed entirely to the marketing department’s wishes, so that they have a known entity to sell, rather than the onerous task of actually trying to market something new and potentially exciting. These stories are obviously vastly exaggerated, though I’m sure some have a kernel of truth to them, but it is certain that most developers view their marketing departments with hatred and scorn. Japan, thankfully, seems a different story, with sales and marketing brought in when the project is presentable, so they can learn what it is they have to sell; the way marketing is supposed to work. Either way, and however much we’d like to ignore it, marketing is possibly the most important aspect of your success. The designers may think it’s their bold new ideas, the artists their pretty pictures, the coders their bleeding edge technology and the producers their sexy, moody fashion shoots for the popular media, but all those mean nothing without the proper marketing behind it.

The crux of that last statement is, of course, proper marketing. And as an up and coming, God-willing, new independent venture, it’s something that has occupied our minds to a large extent. It has not been a direct influence on our business plan, but it is obviously something that needs to be addressed, because without it we might as well not bother.

Of the various marketing strategies, the media overkill is not something many can afford. It’d be nice to have our titles splattered across huge billboards, aired during the Superbowl and tied in with a MacDonald’s Happy Meal, but unless I travel back in time and invest heavily in Google, it’s unlikely to ever happen.

Then there is the “all publicity is good publicity” tactic, of which I am no great admirer. Abhorrent marketing campaigns like these are plenty in our industry, thinking particularly of the late Acclaim’s horrendously puerile “name your baby Turok” and “all speeding tickets paid for by us” scandals, but would include, in my book, the pushing of spokespeople like the rather obvious female pro-gaming groups, the hiring of porn stars and the disastrously sad Jade Raymond fallout. Yes, such tactics get your name splashed around, but bring with it a decent amount of loathing and bashing, not to mention nasty personal attacks that can really hurt both the person and the product. To this day John Romero has failed utterly to make me his bitch.

This interesting interview with independent developer Cliff Harris pretty much seems to hit the nail on the head.

“…if you sell games, and you don’t know which pages on your website have the lowest bounce rates, if you don’t know what the average CPC is for your ads and do A/B testing to increase the CTR…. and much more importantly, if you have no idea WTF I’m talking about, then you are quite simply losing sales to people like me, who study this stuff :D.”
Marketing is part fine art but mostly a matter of hard figure crunching. As Mr. Harris points out it’s no use spending a certain amount of money on advertising and hoping that’ll do the trick. Constant vigilance, adjusting your marketing according to short-term results and basically, spending a large amount of time and not an inconsiderable percentage of your profits on it would appear the minimum requirement, and is therefore a very important aspect of any independent venture but one that many forget about.

Our industry is a young one, and filled with gusto. Too many people still believe it’s the ideas that count, or that pouring your heart and soul into a project will result in a quality product that will sell itself. And though a passion for the job seems indispensable, it means nothing if people don’t know about it. And though it is something I have a deep personal interest in, our necessary focus on future marketing and other business strategies does distract from actual development. Starting a new business requires participants to wear many hats, but all these tasks compete with each other for time and attention, and with only so many hours in the day it’s often difficult to find a balance.

Don’t despair, though, I know more about marketing than I’ve let on. This blog is a terrible example, with badly placed GoogleAds, resulting in disastrous CTRs, equally badly placed adverts for my CafePress store, which in itself is in dire need of updating, and a readership that has been entirely built up by word of mouth. Luckily, the blog is a hobby, something for myself to satisfy my Muse, and readership, though very welcome, was always somewhat of a side issue. For a business however these sorts of things need to be ironed out and perfected. Every single dollar, or Yen rather, and every minute of time spent on marketing must be worthwhile. In the short term that is a matter of experimenting and learning from those who have gone before us, like Mr. Harris, but in the long-term it’s a constant struggle with results, CTRs, page hits, pick up rates, metrics, time, effort and money. Otherwise we might have to fall back on plan B: make a game so insensitive and abhorrent, that it will be covered on Fox News and the Daily Mail and get our names out there, and possibly land us with a jihad.
I’d prefer proper marketing, though.

Up the hill backwards

“Vacuum created by the arrival of freedom,” warbled David Bowie, “and the possibilities it seems to offer.” For all my hypocritical moaning about overtime and the drop in productivity that invariably accompanies it, I found myself to be my own worst manager. Our little indie venture is going extremely well, which is massively exciting and energising, but makes it almost impossible to switch off. Recently I have been feeling a little peaky, walking around in an aching haze, not quite realising why, until it struck me I end up working a good 10 or more hours a day, with only a lunch break some days.

I have tried to force myself to relax on weekends, with limited success. I switch on the PC in the mornings, check my mail, read the blogs and news, and end up sneakily drawn into work. Several hours later I realise it’s past lunchtime, at which point I’ll shower and leave the house for a breather, all the while thinking hard of what I could and should be doing in that time. After lunch it’s back to the PC, to work until supper, continuing afterwards until well into the evening. This weekend I tried to relax and play some games, to little avail, and found myself behind my desk again. The workload is enormous, yet fun and exciting, and not being busy on it feels wrong. I really have to think of a better way, but in these early stages of the venture I feel too guilty and, frankly, impatient to not kill myself over it.

Beard growth has been continuing apace, if slightly disappointingly. My cheeks refuse to foster anything more than a few pubes, whereas my moustache is getting ahead of my chinbeard, making it look slightly Village People. I’ll be off to the local Donki tomorrow to try and find a cheap beard comb to tease the growth along. At this pace I won’t look at home in the 19th century until the end of the year, bah humbug!

I have also mastered a useless but highly honed new skill. Over supper we often watch the cable television Mystery Channel, a fine collection of old films and good old British serials, such as Morse, Poirot and whatnot. However, for some inadequately explained reason not all programmes are broadcast bilingually, often featuring only the Japanese dubbed audio and believe me, Poirot in Japanese loses a lot in translation. I am now an expert on figuring out if a programme is in Japanese or English before even a word is spoken, thanks to, what I now hatefully call, “the Japanese groan”. For some reason, Japanese actors, and voice-actors, always overact physical discomfort. As most mystery shows start with a murder of some kind, the first audio usually revolves around groaning, and so horrendously bad and vaguely sexual is the Japanese voice-actor’s interpretation I can identify one at a hundred yards in bad light; short sharp exclamations and plenty of them, interspersed with audible gulps and intakes of breath. “Ugghh…ahhh..(gulp) …uhhhhmmmggg…(gulp again) Gggggg.” Terrible. Why this particular phenomenon might be remains a mystery to me; possibly a cultural thing about not showing emotions whenever possible, and so your average Japanese not being fully aware what actual exclamations of pain and discomfort sound like. I haven’t a clue, but each time I hear one of those groans my irritatometer shoots up and kills any potential enjoyment I might have received from watching a Japanese Belgian detective being massively clever.

Another annoyance is the lack of decent audio to keep myself occupied through these long working days. As a commuter I had more than enough podcasts to carry me through my trip, using the BBC iPlayer radio during the day to catch up on the wireless. These days, however, I don’t seem to find enough audio to fill an entire week. I would request from my readers any decent podcasts that I can try. Personal favourites like “The Bugle”, “Collings and Herrin”, “Perfect 10”, “Answer Me This” and things like “Smodcast” offer only tiny titbits once a week. “Filmspotting”, “Skeptics’ Guide”, “Fresh Air”, “This American Life” and “Keith and the Girl” help fill the gap but I am in no way close to filling my 10 hour a day quota. I’ll gladly receive any tips for recommended listening through the comments to this post. In grateful return I’ll give you this free bit of advice: do not listen to “Stop Podcasting Yourself” when in public because guffawing openly causes people to stare and avoid you.