This blog was a way for me to structure my thoughts and “create” experience for myself without actually having a job in the videogame industry. The endgame was, you guessed it, getting a job in the industry. And I did, and I like to think this blog probably helped.
So the official disclaimer is: Everything written below was written before I had a job in the videogame industry and does not reflect any corporate message whatsoever. It’s the personal work of a guy trying to achieve something; nothing more, nothing less.
The secondary (but altogether more important) disclaimer is: You can do it. Whatever you want to do, there is always a way to do it. I’m not saying write a blog about space if you want to be an astronaut (that’s silly!), but don’t let yourself stop trying because of imaginary hurdles. There’s always a way to prove your worth, to become better at something without actually doing it, and to get to do what you want to do.
This blog wasn’t much, and wasn’t read by a whole lot of people, but in the end I was doing it for one person only: myself. And boy, am I glad I did.
Games as language and marketing’s role in teaching it
As far as entertainment goes, games are in the worst possible position right now. Not to say that they can’t outgross any best seller in all of the major forms of entertainment, be it books, movies, television or music—Modern Warfare 2 did that easily (one thing that should be noted, however, is that this game primarily achieved such a freakishly large gross because of its price, which is twice that of a hardcover book). No, I’m talking about games as a form of entertainment, and their potential to be enjoyed by as many people as possible. When it comes to that, they’re severely outclassed.
The problem is that books and movies are natural. You don’t need to teach anyone how to read a story, or how to watch a movie.They just crack the spine open or press play, and go with the flow. Boot up a game, however, and you can’t enjoy it right away. You first need to understand the control scheme, the thing that makes the game interactive. Not only that, but you also need to have a certain amount of skill to thoroughly enjoy the game.
Here comes the problem, then. As far as audiences go, movies can be enjoyed by anyone. So can books, to a certain degree. In that sense, the only differentiating factor to determine an audience for these media is taste. For games, though, the taste factor only works for the acquainted, for those who are used to interactivity. For everyone else, the control hurdle has become way too big to conquer since the days of Super Mario Bros.
Think about it this way: Super Mario Bros. used 6 buttons, if you count Start (5 if you don’t). It didn’t even use the Up button, and was playable without using the B button to run. In fact, you only really need to use Left, Right and A. To play Uncharted, on the other hand, you need to juggle two analog sticks and 16 buttons. Control schemes have gotten so complicated these days that developers have taken the instructions out of the instruction manual to put them in the game itself in the form of tutorials. This means they are genuinely scared that you can’t play the game without them telling you what each button is for.
How do you sell a game like that to someone who may not even know how to play it? It’s like trying to sell a Swedish movie to an American audience: unless it’s subtitled (tutorials) or dubbed (translated to a language the player already knows, such as motion or a few buttons), there’s a large chance it’s not going to work.
This, to me, explains the growing schism between hardcore gamers and casual gamers. They’re just not the same people, and they don’t speak the same language. No wonder Japanese RPGs, which became increasingly complicated in an effort to differentiate themselves, are quickly losing their appeal. The hardcore player pool is dwindling and nobody’s teaching the newbies how to play Final Fantasy anymore. The Japanese RPG is going to become Latin: an extinct language that has large influences on today’s newer languages, but only a small amount of people actually understand it.
Therein lies a solution, though: increased collaboration between the marketing and design teams. Control is a design problem and audience is a marketing problem. Except in today’s industry, design often comes first and marketing has to adapt itself to it. If a game has a smaller appeal, then it’s marketing’s job to find that game an audience. If the game doesn’t have focus, marketing doesn’t have the power to rope design in and focus it.
With greater design-audience integration, games wouldn’t flop anymore. A game like The Conduit with a relatively small budget would be made for the 200,000 or so people who would buy it, instead of overshooting its target and spreading its budget too thin to try to please everybody. Marketing knows what the market is like and what it wants. It can even make niche games into blockbusters, given the right tools (Heavy Rain just passed 1 million copies sold, which kind of proves the point).
Sure, production is without a doubt the most important component of a game’s team. These guys are creating their own masterpieces. But more often than not, they’re doing it for themselves, losing sight of the people who will buy the game in the end, while the publisher keeps pouring resources into development. They’re all more or less blind and in some cases refuse to listen to outside commentary. Marketing can and should be able to suggest improvements, to recommend budget adjustments and to retain a veto, as they know best the audience who will have to experience the game.
People don’t understand why Nintendo is so far ahead in this generation despite their poor performance quality-wise. They are in advance because marketing could see how people weren’t able to play games anymore, so they made a bowling simulator with one button and one motion. They knew their desired audience’s language and spoke it fluently.
To conclude, here’s a silver lining for you all. Nintendo filled that casual, easy-to-play, two-button gap. Apple is saturating it. The general market is learning to play games again. Nintendo did it themselves, making people go from Wii Golf to Wii Play to Mario Kart Wii, a relatively complex game. That’s a tremendous opportunity for more traditional game publishers to jump in and take care of these people, to carry on their teaching of the language of gaming and to eventually create a whole new pool of gamers with their own needs and language. You don’t need to be afraid of the casual market, you just need to learn how to speak to it.
Did you ever stop midway through collecting the (insert number) hidden (insert exotic noun) and ask yourself just why you’re doing this? Do you want to complete the game? Do you want to unlock whatever it unlocks? Or do you just want to get to hear a DING and see the much sought-after “You have earned a trophy!” pop-up? And if so, why the hell do you want that trophy? You probably don’t even know. Hell, I don’t even know. I collected all 300 blast shards in Infamous and I hated it. It was gruelling, un-fun and it must’ve sucked a good 4 hours out of my life, which is exactly why I’m going to try to crack that nut open and try to understand just why we do it.
First of all, we have to understand that there’s a history here. Games are historically about collecting things: points. Back in the old days, when they gave you control over a triangle and asked you to break as many big lumps as possible, you at first did it because you had fun. You saw that the more lumps you shot, the more that counter at the top of the screen went up. So you kept shooting, and the counter kept going up. At some point, you died and that number represented your journey. And then, they put that number in a huge list and you saw that you were 6896th in the list of people who played that game. At that exact moment, your competitive instinct kicked in. Surely, there aren’t 6895 people better than you? (Also, how crazy is that guy at #1? (He probably owns a hot sauce company.)) So, these points represent a marker in your journey that compares it to everyone else’s.
Then games moved to home consoles, and they kept the points. In some cases, they even added more collectibles: coins, rupees and cherries (what can I say, Adventure Island rocks). This addition rendered points essentially useless, save for one reason. You didn’t need to compare yourself against other people in that era; you owned the cartridge, therefore essentially the only person you had to compete against was yourself. Points, however, gave you gratification. And at this very moment, you stopped asking yourself why. Who cares, right? Goomba = 100 points. 100 points = good.
Trophies are the exact same way. They’re telling you what you’re doing is good. Keep on doing it (or, as is sometimes the case, stop doing it because now you have to kill 100 dudes with another gun). It transcends the instant gratification of performing the actual action in the game, as it confirms that yes, what you did was indeed awesome. Not only did you think that, but Sony confirms it by giving you a digital trophy! Congratulations!
Reward systems, be they points or trophies or achievements or just an extra life, are necessary in order to keep the player happy. It confirms their actions, shows them that they’re doing the right thing because they’re getting something in return. Something intangible and probably useless, but a reward nonetheless.
So now you’re doing something in a game, and having fun (instant gratification). You’re also getting a tangible reward for it, which is great. But why do you need a third level of gratification? Why would platforms want to have such a system in place? Why did Sony go to such lengths to implement one, why is Microsoft genius for thinking about it and why is Nintendo making the wrong decision by not implementing one?
It’s all about attribution, really. It’s about associating that reward with a helpful and kind figure. Imagine you’re working a summer job, and it’s the best summer job you’ve ever had. Just doing it makes you happy (initial gratification) and you’re getting paid for it (reward). And then, at regular intervals, your boss comes over and says “Hey, David, that’s a great job you’re doing, keep up the good work!” You end up loving that man. It’s the exact same thing with trophies and achievements. They’re that third level of gratification that confirms your good work and that make you invest more and more of yourself in the platform itself. You not only remember the good times you had with the game, but also that you had them with your console of choice. Not only that, but no matter what game you play, that console always rewards you. It keeps track of the love it gave you and tells you how much it loves you. Over time, you end up with a vested interest in a specific object that’s not a game, but the platform itself. It’s like a game layered over all of your games, and you end up playing a game to play the game.
That vested interest becomes brand resonance. It becomes part of the very essence of what makes consumers intrinsically linked to your company, what makes them devotees. It’s an overarching net that ties all of your active consumers together, and that makes them happy to be part of it. What’s more, it ties back to that era of leaderboards in arcades, by pitting them against one another.
What does that mean for platform holders? Well, it means that I, for example, will choose to buy on PS3 any game released on both platforms because I have more trophies there. It means that I would much rather play any game on the PS3 over a game on the Wii because the Wii doesn’t make me advance in that never-ending journey. It makes me sad to buy iPhone games that have OpenFeint instead of plus+ integration, simply because I beat a few games on plus+ and have a higher standing there.
That third level is becoming a necessity in this current period of the industry. With Nintendo completely ignoring it, they leave a door wide open for publishers to jump in on the action and add their own third layers. Disney is the pioneer in that sense with DGamer, a social network of sorts where you create an avatar and get to dress it up with game-themed clothes, unlocked by playing certain specific games. Not only is that the best reward system possible for a nine year-old kid, it wouldn’t have been possible if not for Nintendo leaving the field wide open.
Other companies are starting to jump on the bandwagon in what could become a fourth layer of gratification, functioning similarly to the third layer in that it creates a bond with another key player, the publisher. It’s a tool that publishers will learn to utilize in an increasingly competitive marketplace. It’s not entirely impossible to imagine a future where the only games people buy are Ubisoft games on Xbox 360.
That fourth layer brings forth important concerns. Will developers lose sight of the first layer, instant gratification? It is, after all, what all of this rests on. If actions in games aren’t just plain fun to perform, there’s no point in having a gigantic infrastructure to reward people. And what about the second layer, plain old points? Is it bound to disappear someday, as games become more story-driven? It’ll be interesting to see where all of this leads us, but one thing is for sure, you’re going to get increasingly more people giving you virtual high fives.
Still, this whole system is something that works and that not only resonates with gamers (it’s been with us since the dawn of the industry) but with people in general. AirMiles is a tremendously successful business on its ownas well as a capable revenue-booster for associated products. Many social networks, such as Foursquare, are implementing badges as a means of getting people to use them. Humans are wired that way; they just like having rewards. It’s up to publishers and manufacturers to make that system the best it can be for everyone involved.
Remember what I said about the Gamer Hive Mind? It strikes again. Final Fantasy XIII was released a week and a half ago to a resounding meh from the gaming community. Yes, the game took five years to make, yes, you’ve probably never seen anything look so good on in a game before and yes, it’s awesome, but what do gamers really say about the game? “I heard it’s linear! Seriously, the first few hours are all in a straight line!” For that reason, and for that reason alone, most people are dismissing the game immediately and deem it as a failure.
This outcry brings to light a few problems with gamers’ thought processes. First of all, they immediately dismiss the game without playing it, which probably has more to do with the industry’s culture more than anything else (see Press Fun to Play for more on that). Not only that, but people who play the game start complaining about it and judging it before finishing it, and don’t realize that the game does open up 25 to 30 hours in. Thus: premature judgement hampering general opinion of the game. But that’s not the biggest problem point. The biggest problem is that gamers have expectations, and if you don’t meet them, you betray gamers.
They expect a Mario game to be about running and jumping. Super Mario Sunshine was not, therefore, they chastised it. They expect a game about parkour to include only parkour and running across rooftops. Mirror’s Edge was not, therefore, they chastised it. And the same thing happens with FFXIII. They expect a Final Fantasy game to be about flying your ship around, trying (and failing) to breed a Golden Chocobo and hitting A in front of every clock to find Elixirs. Well, FFXIII is not, therefore, they chastize it.
They complain about the game’s linearity, but what they’re really complaining about is progress. Final Fantasy XIII is what a JRPG looks like when you adapt it to today’s reality. It’s taking a genre that is clearly falling apart, losing fans left and right to the Mass Effects and the Borderlands, and that is (barely) sustained by small publishers brave enough to port games over to the US without high expectations, and doing something with it.
Square Enix noticed that the best selling games these days are 1) driven by story and linear as hell by necessity or 2) multiplayer frag-fests optimized to make you pwn fools. Since option #2 was clearly not feasible for Final Fantasy, they took option #1 and adapted their game to it. Final Fantasy as a series is already story-driven, therefore the only thing that needed to be added was the linearity, the necessity of driving players through a certain path in order to tell them the best story possible. Through that process, they take a dying genre and make it accessible to gamers who have not spent 80 hours 18 years ago trying to kill Kefka. They make the game as fun as possible for both players who love Uncharted and players who love Final Fantasy 7 (and make it even better for players who love both).
The decision to do this kind of adaptation is not purely a game design decision. (It’s also not to anger fanboys, in case you’re wondering). It’s in very large part a business decision. The reason Square decided to modernize its franchise isn’t because Yoichi Wada stuck his thumb in his mouth, held it up in the air and said “It’s time”, it’s because it wanted a game that has been in development for five years to sell as much copies as possible. Games are not only works of art, they are also products, and products sell better when they 1) define their market well and 2) know how to cater to that market as best as possible.
The market for Final Fantasy XIII is not a relatively small audience that craves sidequests and grinding and has fond memories of Cecil, Kain and Yang the blonde moustachioed master of kung-fu in Final Fantasy IV. That audience is part of the market, which would be single-players interested in a top-of-its-class storytelling experience (or something along those lines). Unfortunately, doing what those hardcore fans are clamoring for just wouldn’t appeal to that whole market.
This “trend” in linearity is not new, either. It was very present eight years ago in Final Fantasy X (which was basically about going from point A to point B, where there was a huge monster that needed killing). Maybe it’s because it’s been so long since then, or maybe it’s because the surging popularity of sandbox games has transformed gamers into beings that need to be able to do whatever the hell they want at any given point in a game or else it’s not worth it, or maybe it’s even because hardcore gamers just want games to be exactly like they were when they were nine years old, but it seems like this game is the game where everybody decides that they’ve had enough with linearity.
The funny thing about the Gamer Hive Mind, though, is that it sometimes is wrong even about itself and its own opinions. Games it chastizes sometimes become under-the-radar hits (see Mirror’s Edge, Dead Space and, I’m expecting, Dante’s Inferno). In FFXIII’s case, the game it chastises becomes the fastest-selling game in a THIRTEEN-game franchise. I honestly don’t think this would’ve happened if Final Fantasy XIII would have been the same old Final-Fantasy-formula game with new graphics. This shows that Square Enix was right and that they can revive the JRPG, even if they have to take away one’s freedom to do it.
In the first ever Shoulder Button post, I talked on and on about how I think reviewers are not in the best position to give their opinion on a game and that, at this point, they really only cater to the masses.
Case in point: IGN gave Mega Man 10 an 8.5. As you all know, an 8.5 represents a good, but not great game. It indicates you might be interested in the game, if you’re into that kind of thing. In fact, once a game breaks the magical 8.0 barrier, the only thing that determines how high the score will go beyond that is how wide of an appeal does the game have. Now you all know I couldn’t give a damn about review scores, but there’s something to be said about that score versus what is said in the review. In the final paragraph, the reviewer writes “In terms of pure gameplay, Mega Man 10 is easily a better game than 90% of what we play on a yearly basis” but gives the game a score that means “Yeah you might be interested in that”.
But isn’t that the case with every game out there? Bioshock, Fallout 3 and Modern Warfare 2 all got crazy high scores from everywhere, and I didn’t like them. In fact, I would pick Mega Man 10 over them any day of the week. There’s a similar thing going on with God Of War 3, which is currently tracking 94 on Metacritic. The game, despite its critical success, has a very vocal base of dissenters. So no matter how high you score a game, it always might not appeal to everyone. What’s the point, then, in giving an average score to a game you deem to be better designed than any other game out there? Isn’t this the whole point of the review? Giving your actual opinion, and not lining it up with what people (and, most importantly, your editors) expect? If the game is the best you’ve played in the past year, then give it the best score you’ve given in the past year. That’s really, truly how review scores should work if you’re ever going to use them.
Groaning. That’s pretty much any self-respected game nerd’s initial reaction to the news that both Sony and Microsoft are getting in on the motion craze almost four years late. It was mine, anyway. But what if we’re all wrong? What if Sony and Microsoft did their homework and can really make this thing work?
It’s normal to think that it’s all going to fail miserably. The general sentiment among the gaming populace on the subject of motion control these days is exactly the same as LucasArts’ executives’: why the hell can’t we swing a goddamn lightsaber in someone’s face already? It’s been four years, a condom and an ugly add-on peripheral later and the most we expect is that maybe Red Steel 2 won’t be as bad as the first one.
But think about it this way: despite its shortcomings, despite the fact that it let all of us down so badly, the Wii still sold like hotcakes made of gold. Flash back to 2006, and anyone who would play that tennis game for the first time, be they hardcore gamer or proud grandmother had fun. Instant fun. These first seconds, that first time swinging a tennis racket or a bowling ball were all it took for most people with a pulse to run out and purchase a little white box (and if they couldn’t find one they transformed into bloodhounds trained to track the faint smell of Shigeru Miyamoto that is distinctive of the Wii until they finally found one and reverted back to their normal state).
The disappointment only came later, when people realized that the Wii could pretty much only do that. And with each golf swing, with each baseball thrown, the excitement died off until gamers tried to find something else to satiate their hunger innovative games (they wouldn’t) and normal people tried to fathom what else that white box could do (they wouldn’t either).
The point is that motion done well is fun. And that the Wii only really did it two times (and that’s all it ever did). But three years later, Sony and Microsoft are bringing that same excitement, that same x-factor to established consoles that can do much more than play boxing with our cousin or our drunk single friend.
Sony, in particular, is in the very best position to benefit greatly from this. Some people are already purchasing PS3s to play Blu-Rays, and to do just that. Well what if your Blu-Ray player could also play Wii Sports? And what if, beyond those fun but short-lasting motion games, it also had meaty, fully-realized current-generation masterpieces of gaming? In short, what if your Wii could do everything it can’t?
Depending on the level of fidelity Natal enjoys, the Xbox 360 could also cement its position as the unopposed leader of this generation. I’ll admit I’m still worried that it won’t do exactly what it says it does and we’ll all develop tendonitis from doing the same gestures 580 times to get Milo to sit down on that stupid log, but who knows? They might actually pull it off, or at least restrict it to games where it can be pulled off.
Now, don’t expect to see PS3s or Xbox 360s literally flying off shelves. Don’t forget that the initial OMG of motion-control has mostly worn off. But still, with a captive audience that already owns these systems and that was most likely already let down by motion control, all they have to do is to do it right and the excitement will build. People with consoles will upgrade them to support motion. Then they’ll get mom and dad to play it on a rainy Wednesday night. Then dad will talk about it with Bill at work, and Bill, who doesn’t have kids, will buy one and (that’s the important part) probably won’t sell it in two months, since he’ll have understood that not only can he break out the crazy bowling game when he’s getting rowdy with people at home, but he can also use it when he’s by himself to do other things.
The inherent fun appeal of motion control has not worn off and will not wear off. Gamers are only weary of it because it was badly supported before. The dual nature of the Xbox 360 and the PS3 (that they can support both regular and motion-controlled games) gives them a head start over the Wii, which made developers feel obligated to shoehorn motion in every single game they put out. Consumers, in turn, felt let down when they bought a motion-less game for the Wii because that’s really all the console is about for them. Well supported by parallel offerings and implemented only in games that can make it shine, motion control can be embraced and be part of the gaming industry’s future.
I’ve decided to write more about video games, and the industry that surrounds it. And before I go into weird tangents about how Mega Man is the greatest video game design ever, or why I decided to name my dog Goomba, I feel like this would be a good time to state my stance on the current state of affairs.
I’ve been asking myself lately why gamers seem to be so hive-minded. In any other entertainment medium, people are free to have their own tastes and often don’t care what other people think. What is a crap movie to some people is a masterpiece to others. The same goes for music, television and books. I’m an avid comic book reader, and I follow 1) series that are critically-acclaimed but seldom bought by other people and 2) series that are regarded as rubbish but that I still thoroughly enjoy. And nobody points fingers at me and tells me I’m wrong. In every one of these mediums, reviews are but a helpful way to suggest that something may be of interest to someone.
Gaming is different, though. People will often devote more attention to reading reviews than actually playing games. Some gamers know about every game out there but play only a small percentage, simply because reviewers told them that other games weren’t worth their attention. Because of that, gamers generally flock to the same games and disregard others. They just play the same games everybody else plays without thinking critically; somebody else has already done the thinking for them. Just ask anyone if they’ve played any game that tracks below 80 on Metacritic. I can guarantee you that more than half of the time, people will respond “Hell no, that game sucks”, without ever having played the game. The biggest problem is that they might enjoy it if they tried it. They just don’t.
Part of the problem stems from the gaming press. It is an all-powerful, omniscient being. Constantly feeding avid gamers more information than they care about, it has been present in the industry since the very beginning. Most people who consider themselves gamers grew up with that same press, and have been reading reviewers their whole life. There is, therefore, a strong trust element in play.
Since reviewers are hardly ever wrong about a game being good, we tend to give more and more credence to their words, to a point where we’ve created an opinion supremacy that no game is worth being played if it is not Game Of The Year material. But what about their opinions on “bad” games? While anyone can recognize greatness, we all have different thresholds for bugs, design quirks and tedium in videogames. Not only that, but the genius bits in some games might be worth the trouble of suffering through those problems. But how are you ever going to know that if the game is panned by a person whose job it is to play games? Game reviewers play a much more significant amount of games than most people do. As such, the review score and the conclusions they draw from a game are based on their own personal scale of what is “worth playing” and what is not. For a normal person who doesn’t play as many games, the “bad” games suddenly become much better as they have much less other games to compare them to.
Not only that, but game reviewers are also on the clock. They often have tight deadlines and need to finish games in a specific time period. Anything that hinders progress in the game, then, becomes something that drags the game down, no matter how good the rest of the game is. Hence, some games are regarded as “wastes of time” for a reviewer but might be perfectly enjoyable by a casual gamer. A game doesn’t need to be “important” to be fun. It just needs to procure enjoyment to the person playing it.
The second problem is pricing, or rather, commitment. Since games are very expensive (2 times more than a DVD, 6 times more than a music album and 2 to 6 times more than a book), it is understandable that gamers are afraid to invest that much money in a game they might not even like. Therefore, they rely heavily on reviewers to steer them in the right direction, to make sure that their money is well-invested. This pricing model drives impulse buys very far away from the realm of possibility, and turns games into the highest-involved purchase of any entertainment medium. Consider this: we sometimes hear about games that, despite low scores, despite slow sales and, despite appearances, have something special. The Fortress of Gaming Journalism shows a crack and, *whisperwhisper*, you somehow hear that X-Men Origins: Wolverine is fun as hell. Or that Mirror’s Edge is, contrary to popular belief, more innovative than any game released in the past year. But are you really willing to put your trust in such rumors? No. Not at $60. I’d much rather make sure I buy a game I will like, thankyouverymuch. But at $30? Hell yes, sign me up for some parkour, baby!
There is no better proof of this than the iPhone, hallowed handheld haven of the impulse buy. The majority of games have a demo, are priced below $5 and are driven purely by buzz. I very much doubt a game like Doodle Jump would have fared well on the PSP, or the DSiWare. Reviewers would have said it’s no better than a Flash game, that it has no depth, and that there are litterally two animations in the whole game. But the game is released on the iPhone, gajillions of people buy it and then, reviewers say it’s genius. Major publishers regularly crash and burn on the iPhone while indie developers thrive. That is because people are willing to try games, and when they do, they sometimes stumble onto hidden gems. Games that they like even though appearances are deceiving. And they tell all of their friends, or maybe not, but at least they’re having fun. And that’s the point of a game, right?
I’m not saying that Games Journalism should die, and that publishers should sell every game for five dollars. That’s not a way to make business, and that’s not a way to sustain an industry. What I’m saying is that the consumers who support this industry should stop for a bit and consider if they’re having fun or not. They should stop fearing playing a game that got a 7.5 on IGN. They should make their own opinions about their favorite games and genres, and why they like them. And publishers should support that in every way possible, be it in game design or in promotion or in the pricing structure of the game.
In short, all I’m saying is that I’ll try to talk about having fun more than about playing video games. Because that’s what we all should be talking about.