Monday, January 31, 2011

Players, What You Do Matters

And so we come to the end, both of this series of posts and of the lifecycle of a game. Forged by creators, its existence disseminated by journalists and its content discussed by critics, a game finally is experienced by players. In the literal sense, you all make this possible. Without you paying for our games, we couldn't afford to keep making them and would have to do something else.

But players have the ability to be even more important. The last thing I want is an audience that will shell out for whatever is placed in front of them. I want you all to keep challenging us (all of us, developers, journalists and critics alike) to push the boundaries. Don't be satisfied with tired rehashes of yesterday's successes; seek out and champion the weird, new things you like. And if a developer creates some new, strange thing you like, tell them. There's no better feeling in the world than hearing someone's reaction to a game you poured your heart and soul into.

Please, keep pushing us to do better. Encourage journalists to write more substantive, interesting pieces and tell them when you do. Find game critics who inspire you to think about games in surprising ways. And if you find something you connect with, champion it to friends, family, coworkers, anyone you know that also cares about games. The only way we're going to keep things moving forward and not settling in to a stagnant local maxima is to work together.

If there's one thing I'd love anyone passionate about games to do it is to step outside your comfort zone a little bit. Try to diversify your tastes a little. Find something that seems interesting, but you normally might pass up. Maybe play it with a friend and discuss what's interesting about it. And not just digital games, there's a whole world of fascinating board and card games out there.

Thanks to a friend, I've been sampling a crazy array of indie tabletop RPGs recently (there's a post related to those in the hopper). I've also been playing and loving the everliving hell out of the Battlestar Galactica board game. In both cases, not only has it planted all kinds of seeds in the idea soil of my brain, but it's also been a great reminder that games are fundamentally social experiences. Even if we're engaging with a single-player game, discussing it with others can enrich that experience by putting it in a larger context. And that community of players might be the best thing games have going for them.

Take away the anonymity of the internet, and "gamers" (I find that categorization bizarre, but you all know what I mean) are almost universally great people. I have been to every Penny Arcade Expo (west coast, anyway) save the first, and I'm still consistently amazed by what a positive experience it is. The enthusiasm and sheer good will is great. That same energy appears at game jams; I certainly saw plenty manifest over the weekend, along with some very cool games. There's something about games that sets a certain spark alight, and I'd love to see us keep channeling that in the right direction.

Thank you all for making what we do possible. And thanks for indulging in these last four ramblings. It's not the most eloquent stuff I've ever put together, but it's something I've been thinking about for a while and want to get out in some form or another. But it really comes down to just this:

I make games because there are things I want to say, but without you all, there would be no one to listen. Thank you for listening.


Monday, January 24, 2011

Critics, What You Do Matters

I don't mean critics in this sense, but I couldn't pass on such wicked street art. Following on the discussion of game journalists' importance last week, now we move to critics. What any one person believes game criticism is comprised of varies, but I'd say it's any writing about games that isn't primarily meant to inform purchasing decisions (most scored reviews are thus excluded, but that's certainly not categorical). This kind of writing has increased in sophistication and quality in the past few years and I find that quite an exciting trend.

The distinguishing feature of criticism is that it's inherently reflective. Unlike journalism, where the lion's share of coverage for a game takes place before its release, game criticism is almost entirely post hoc. A game is played, analyzed and discussed. The role criticism fills is vital, because the pace of conversation about games otherwise moves at break-neck speed. Any game released more than two weeks ago is old hat. Criticism challenges that status quo by thoughtfully discussing games from months and years previous.

Game criticism is important because it encourages being more thoughtful about the games we play. Nearly all conversation about games elsewhere boils down to "Is it awesome or does it suck?" Criticism provides discussion that isn't necessarily rooted in value judgement. It's important to recognize and encourage the examination of what a particular game, or just some facet of it, actually means. For some games, whether or not it's fun to play is probably the least interesting to consider.

Good criticism gives voice and structure to similar thoughts in ourselves that hadn't quite congealed. It shines light on things we hadn't noticed or considered. Even if it's disagreement, sometimes the best way to form an opinion is to bump your mind against the contrary. My thinking about what games mean has matured due in no small part to reading these sorts of conversations.

As a game creator, critics help keep me honest, I think. It's challenging, in a good way, to know someone will be looking at what you do through this particular lens. It encourages me to go further and make something that's worth analyzing. It's fresh perspective and voice that deeply considers how games affect their players. Reading smart writing about games has genuinely helped me sharpen the tools I'll be pointing back at my own work. That's a healthy cycle, I think.

I'll close with pointing to some specific examples of games criticism I think represent just how useful and important thinking about games in this fashion is. This is meant as an introduction and won't provide surprise for anyone even passingly familiar with this domain, but for the uninitiated, this is where I would advise one to start.

Rather than call out the online writing of any specific critics, as there are many of excellence and I'd inevitably leave far too many out, I'll point to Critical Distance. Weekly, CD compiles a list of notable game criticism (Rock, Paper, Shotgun's Sunday Papers provides a similar rundown, but usually with little overlap with CD). And if one is looking for specific critics to follow more closely, Critical Distance's ur-compilation of 2010 games criticism is a fine place to start.

As for games criticism in other media, Kill Screen is exquisite. It's something like The New Yorker but for video games. For long form writing, Tom Bissell's Extra Lives reflects upon a handful of games that have affected him personally. It's both clever and honest; I highly recommend it. While I've been enjoying their written pieces less as of late, The Escapist does host two excellent video series, Zero Punctuation (which everyone has heard of) and Extra Credits (maybe less prevalent, but honest and optimistic).

Finally, for podcasts, since Idle Thumbs has retired and A Life Well Wasted seems to have done the same, Scott and Jorge's Experience Points podcast is just about the only gaming podcast I listen to regularly. EXP is delivered weekly like clockwork and Scott & Jorge never fail to provide food for thought. Michael's Brainy Gamer podcast is also excellent (as is all his writing) but quite understandably infrequent, and the RPS podcast is no slouch either.

So critics, thank you for helping find the more interesting things to discuss. Game criticism certainly isn't flawless (it's a bit insular perhaps and is pretty dwarfed by consumer-focused writing) but it's certainly as robust as it has ever been and doesn't show signs of diminishing. The writing (and other media-ing) you all do is important to me personally, and to games as a medium in general. You all encourage me to keep pushing the boundaries with the games I help make and I hope we can keep providing you with games worth discussing.


Monday, January 17, 2011

Journalists, What You Do Matters

Last week's appeal for game creators to bring more consideration toward their craft was just the opening salvo. The overture continues, this time addressing the next stage in the game ecosystem- game journalists.

I'm not going to mince words: what you all do is important. Really important. That I'm able to pay my rent and afford to eat is due in part to you guys. I can help make the best game in the world, but if only 100 people hear about it, I'm going back on the Costco ramen diet for a while.

Especially for a small independent developer without a large studio/publisher's marketing budget and specialist staff, the gaming press is often the only way some people may hear about our game. Some of this year's most successful independent games, like Super Meat Boy and Minecraft, reached heights that would have otherwise been impossible due to the (well-deserved, of course) love they got from the press. Really, you all do a lot for us and I'm very grateful. It's just that sometimes, I wish you appreciated yourselves more.

There's an attitude I see in some of the gaming press, one that denigrates the important work you all do. It's the idea that as journalists, and more generally as creators, you have to "give the audience what they want." While there a kernel of truth in there, certainly one doesn't want to write something nobody wants to read, it's very easy to take the wrong lesson from that. It leads to headlining an interview with an out-of-context comment that has little to do with the bulk of the interview but is more likely to draw page views.

There was the recent dust-up involving Chris, John and CVG/Destructoid (although Jim Sterling's lengthier response is partially what got me thinking about this, because I can't help but feel Sterling is somewhat selling himself and his readers short). One can see both sides, but I do find the "this is just how we have to do things" claimants perhaps too resigned and maybe even a little disheartening. But sure, one can see that both ways.

But then when one of the most thoughtful game designers working today, Jenova Chen, has his thoughts about the purpose behind making Journey distilled into a headline of "Journey dev: shooters are 'not useful'" I cannot help but shake my head (also here, ad nauseum). I do not believe, for one minute, the writer of that piece believed he was doing fair service to what Jenova had said.

It's especially troubling because I think journalists underestimate their influence. Readers take cues from you. In ways both grand and small, you shape the conversation about the games you cover. Respect the influence you all have and be conscientious about the good you can do with it.

Don't take this to mean I think game journalists are malfeasant or are in dereliction of their duty. I know what you all do is important, because I have seen first hand the effect it has had on the games I enjoy and have helped created. I wouldn't say all (or even many) game journalists are really just professional game enthusiasts, but we all know Jamie isn't totally wrong with respect to some either. When AJ Glasser talks about professionalism and "no cheering in the press box," I think she's beating a similar drum. Because (just like game development) I know you all aren't in it for the money. If you're passionate about games, and game writing, a higher standard for both creators and writers should be our common goal.

There really is a legion of exemplary games journalists out there. Rock, Paper, Shotgun is as close to the gold standard as one can get. The coverage is fair, but never breathless. It's written for an audience, not everyone/anyone (that's an important lesson many creators and journalists both don't seem to fully grasp). The writers have personality but don't avoid including pieces outside of their wheelhouse, as long as it lives under the umbrella of PC gaming, of course. One of the contributors, Jim Rossignol, wrote an excellent book about gaming and travel (sort of) called This Gaming Life.

Kirk Hamilton helped start Gamer Melodico but recently became Paste Magazine's games editor and I could not be more excited for what he'll do over there. Michael Thomsen remains IGN's best kept secret (e.g. that Homefront interview). Laura Parker fought hard to get an excellent piece about Limbo and AAA games run at all (disclosure, she talked to me and other smarter folks in that piece, but hey, who says I can't be bought?). Leigh Alexander is not only Gamasutra's News Director, enduring countless earnings calls so we don't have to, but she still manages to produce thoughtful monthly pieces on Kotaku. And that's barely scratching the surface. I certainly could not even come close to enumerating all the great game journalists I've interacted with.

Journalists, I entreat you to care about the importance of what it is you do, because it really does matter. As part of a small independent developer, you directly influence how many people we can reach. And more importantly, you help shape how we understand and discuss games. Be thoughtful about your words and do not be content with the status quo. Last week I implored game creators to keep pushing ourselves. I want to make games that deserve the voice I know you can help provide.

Not to be outdone, next week the other half of the game writer duo, the critics, get their turn. You all do very important work too, and I'm looking forward to tell you why I think so.


Monday, January 10, 2011

What We Do Matters

Last Tuesday evening, I presented the following speech/rant/whatever at the Vancouver Indie Developers assemblage. I've tweaked the language slightly to make it flow better in written form, but otherwise, it's more or less as I presented it. As always, I welcome your thoughts and reactions.

Not to stand alone, this encouragement (it's honestly meant as encouragement and not critique) will be directed at the other agents of the gaming ecosystem over the next three weeks. Without further ado, here's why I believe what we do as game creators matters and why we should be better at acknowledging that:

Today, I wanted to talk to you all about something that's been on my mind quite a bit lately. Plus, it's the new year, a time for reflection as well as setting goals for the future.

Now those of you that know me know that I'm generally a pretty optimistic, positive guy. But for those that don't, as a preface don't take what I'm about to say as condemning. It's not, at all. I'm tremendously excited about what we get to do as game creators. But it's also important to realize we still have a lot of work to do. One of the things I've come to realize since I started making games professionally is that what we do matters. Like seriously, capital M matters. But we need to get better at acknowledging this fact and utilizing the opportunities this affords.

The truth is, as game creators and game enthusiasts, we're often our own worst enemy. We can be self-deprecating about the importance of what they make. When challenged, we're timid and meek as often as we are proud advocates. There's one phrase in particular that gets embarrassingly trotted out every time games start getting flogged publicly.

This ostensible defense of games can pop up anywhere, be it in response to the firestorm about Six Days in Fallujah or the "controversy" that seeing a little blue alien sideboob in Mass Effect is tantamount to peddling porn to children (for the recond, it's not and the people who think so are, frankly, idiots). So often, when anything negative is said about a game, the response will come, "It's just a game. Don't take it so seriously."

I think this is one of the most harmful and dismissive things anyone can say about games. Saying, "It's just a game" isn't a response to criticism, it's capitulation. This attitude relegates games to the status of paltry amusements, no more worthy of consideration than a Rubik's Cube. It denies games have the ability to communicate, to possess a message, to mean.

And this is what I mean when I say what we do as game creators matters. Like it or not, the games we make influence the people who play them. The currency of games is interaction, and the result of that is thought and feeling. Players may end up spending dozens of hours playing something we've made, and honestly, we should care about what they're thinking and feeling while they're playing it. And more importantly, and this is an area where I feel a lot of games are deficit, we should care about how they feel when they're done. I'm not content to be building merely the digital equivalent of junk food- satisfying while consumed but ultimately empty and forgettable.

Because even though the circumstances that generated that emotional response are fictitious, the feelings themselves are quite real. To inspire these emotions but not be thoughtful about why we're doing so seems at best a wasted opportunity. I know I'm going to be trying to be more considerate of this in the future, and I'd encourage you all to do the same. And I don't mean that every game has to be a morose, existential meditation on the true nature of the human condition. Presenting players with interesting, intellectual choices to make and affording them enough agency to meaningfully make them is a perfectly laudable goal. But if you really look at the number of games that offer players meaningful choices, and not just dressed-up optimization problems (especially these days), it's a lot rarer than you might think.

I'm not saying we should all turn into beret-wearing snobs or that games can't be fun. Although I do think the idea that games must be "fun" is totally bunk, but I'll save that tirade for another time. What I'm really saying is we should just be more conscientious. Consider the return that player will get on their time and money. Was it just a diversion to fill some empty hours or something more substantive? I think either can be fine, but it should be a conscious decision not a default state that only the most ambitious deviate from.

And as independents, we have this opportunity. We don't have endless bureaucracy or shareholders that only care about the next quarter's earnings. We can make decisions that might not be perfectly optimal for the bottom line, but they are absolutely optimal for the player's experience. We can talk directly to players and we can shape the conversation we have with them. We can encourage them to seek deeper meaning, both in our own games and games we know that have been created by others. Finally, and I think this might actually be the greatest advantage independent developers have, because we're working solo or on a small team, we can actually get every contributor on board with what we're trying to make. Everyone can buy in to what we're trying to create and say something personal with their contributions. This is something impossible on a team of dozens, let alone the teams of hundreds some game necessitate. This affords tremendous opportunity and we ought not squander it.

Ultimately, it's about respecting the player and the impact our game will have on them. And it's about respecting ourselves and our craft. When we behave as if our games cannot meaningfully impact those who play them, we're doing a tremendous disservice to what our games could be as well as the skill we possess as creators.

I'm going to finish with a personal anecdote because, well, that's what all this is really about. Affecting people. Creating meaningful personal experiences. And this is one of the most meaningful and memorable experiences I've had with games, so thanks for bearing with me.

So, back in 2008, I had just purchased an Xbox 360. I've always been, and remain, more of a PC guy, but I'd decided to finally pull the trigger on getting an HD console. And the first game I ever played on my 360 was Braid. And of course, I thought it was fantastic. But this isn't actually about my response to the game, it's about my wife's.

Now my wife, fiancée at the time, she's certainly familiar with games. She drives a mean Mario Kart, is our vocalist in Rock Band and was seriously hardcore about The Sims. But in general, games aren't a prominent past-time and I don't think she'd consider herself a "gamer." Anyway, I was playing Braid and she was next to me on the couch, reading a book or something and not really paying attention to the game. At least, I didn't think so. Unbeknownst to me, she'd actually stopped reading and was just watching me play. I didn't notice because, well, I was pretty entranced too.

Then something unusual happened, something that had never happened before. Sometime in the second world, during one of those vignettes before the level, she started crying. I heard her and didn't connect it to the game at first. I said, "Oh god, sweetheart, what's the matter?"

And she just looked at me and said, "I get it now. I get why you want to make these games. It's just ... so beautiful and so sad. The music, the way it looks, the time thing. It's like art. I get it." I swear to god, I'm not making any of that up. It's one of the most touching moments I've had with a game and still one of my fondest. Where all kinds of conversation and writing had been insufficient in explaining why I'm so passionate about games, Braid succeeded. Which I guess is rather fitting.

So if one game can inspire feelings like that in someone that isn't even really into games and wasn't even playing, it's undeniable that what we do has a real impact on people. And we owe it to ourselves, to our art and to our players to very carefully consider the experiences we're crafting and the emotions that inspires. Because what we do does really matter and I'd love 2011 to be the year when we really seize the opportunities this affords.


Sunday, January 2, 2011

Holiday Hiatus 2: Dark Hiatus Rising

The holiday hiatus will continue this week. For being on vacation, there's still a tremendous amount I'm trying to get done. One thing worth mentioning is I'm going to be flapping my maw at the Vancouver Indie Devs meetup this Tuesday. It's a great group that Alex and Jake have been doing a fantastic job of growing. I've always been disappointed that Vancouver's local dev community, despite its size, hasn't been very cohesive. That's something I hope to help change in 2011 and stuff like Van Indies is exactly what I want there to be more of. So if you're local, it's going to be at Ceili's pub on Tuesday the 4th at 6:30. We'd love to see you there.

But if you can't make it (or you know, don't live here) an essay form of what I'm going to be talking about will appear here next week, with three related posts to follow.

Also, the two year anniversary of the blog passed without ceremony back on December 9th. Interesting that in two years I shipped two games, left Klei, returned and now I could not be more excited about what I'm doing. A damn fine run and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't tremendously excited about the next year. Hopefully 2011 similarly finds you well!