Cover Art

I just read this:

Ken Levine talking about the box-art for Bioshock Infinite

bioshock_inf

I suppose he makes a sensible point from a marketing perspective, but isn’t there something rather ugly in the fact that the only way he sees to market a game which promises to be thoughtful and unique is to completely misrepresent it? Isn’t that rather sad? I could launch into an impotent tirade about the fundamentally unsustainable AAA games industry model, which relies on pumping so much money into each game that they’re deemed a failure unless they sell three copies to every human who’s ever lived, but it wouldn’t do any good. Instead, I’m just going to point to an infamous previous attempt to trick the hypothetical American fratboy market into buying a game that they might not like. Because that’s much more fun.

One of the best videogame box-arts ever:
ico1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And one of the very worst:
ico2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ico didn’t sell very well in the US. I guess gamers weren’t ready for “Petulant Viking Dennis The Menace: The Videogame.”

Sadly, compared to this,  “Angry dude with a shotgun” is a pretty safe sell.

Fez

I said a little while ago that I’d write a longer post about Fez. This isn’t what I had in mind.

The buggy, broken nature of Fez is fairly widely known. For a major console release it’s pretty damning: Among a host of minor issues, there’s this one: Save-games sometimes become corrupted in such a way that the game will crash back to the Xbox menu after a minute of play. This is utterly game-breaking, and until now there’s been no fix.

Today the fix was finally unveiled. After a typically protracted journey through the legendarily strict Microsoft approvals process, the patch designed to fix the numerous existing bugs was released. And it promptly failed. Badly. Reports started coming in of even worse errors: Instead of crashing after a minute or so, the game simply refused to load the savegames at all. Absurdly, the patch designed to fix the bug that caused players’ savegames to become corrupted, in turn corrupted players’ savegames.

My first game (before the patch,) corrupted at 61/64 cubes, so I started another one on my girlfriend’s profile, on which I’ve got to 63/64. I very narrowly avoided installing the patch today – weirdly, after having not fired up my xbox for almost a month I did today, with the express purpose of finally solving that frickin’ black obelisk puzzle. But there were a bunch of Microsoft patches to install, and while I waited for them I read a few blogs – which first told me the Fez patch was finally ready, then shortly afterwards that it was fatally broken. I feel lucky – if my xbox hadn’t needed to update itself I’d have patched Fez without a second thought. And if I’d had to start the game again for the third time I think I would have suffered some sort of catastrophic mental collapse.

It’s a bit of a farce, really. I’m torn between feeling utter sympathy for the tiny Fez development team – it must be a horrible experience for them, having spent such a long time in development, only for the release to be so plagued with problems, and shaking my head at their clearly inadequate playtesting procedure. But what’s more baffling is that these problems managed to sneak past the Microsoft approval process. I’ve heard so many horror stories of how protracted and draconian Microsoft can be with the functionality of the games they release that the fact that such obvious, widespread problems – both with the original release and the patch – could go unnoticed, seems bizarre. Even if, as I suspect, the problem only appears in savegames that have progressed past a certain point in the game, you’d think it’s the sort of thing that would flag up in testing. Surely Microsoft would have tested the patch on a bunch of savegames that had suffered the problems it was designed to fix? Apparently not.

The really galling thing, and I suppose the only reason I really care about the whole debacle, is that Fez is a genuinely amazing game. I haven’t felt such a sense of wonder and discovery in any game for a very long time, which makes the problems it’s been plagued with all the more sad. It’s the best game I’ve played all year, but also the most broken. I wish I didn’t have to qualify that statement.

Get off my lawn

Ooh, just checked my blog stats and found that there’s been a bit of a traffic spike going on, due to the fact that both Nitrome and Jay is Games have blogged about Small Worlds in the last couple of days. Hello internet people!

I should probably write something so nobody suspects the truth that I’m a rubbish blogger and a glacially slow game designer.

Um. Oh hang on, I’ve actually got some pretty big news! I spent most of last year making a big animation with the other chaps at rathergood.com, and it’s just recently managed to finally get itself sold, which is pretty awesome. So, if you live in the UK, you’ll be able to see Uncle Wormsley’s Christmas on Sky Atlantic this coming christmas! Hooray! It’s got Steve Coogan, and Julian Barratt, and a bunch of other very talented comedy people doing voices. And a giant crab! It really is the best Steve Coogan cartoon about a giant crab you’ll ever see.

There’s a trailer and everything, which you can see by clicking on the following words:

Trailer for Uncle Wormsley’s Christmas!

What else is going on? Oh yeah, gamedev. Long-time readers might remember that I made a super-quick game for the Blackberry Playbook, back when that was a thing, and always promised to give it a wider release later on. Predictably, I never really got round to doing that. Until now! I’ve spent the last few days hacking it apart and rebuilding it to be bigger, better, and less crippled by game-breaking bugs. Once it’s done I’m going to give it a big full release on every platform I possible can, which will be an event of such cultural importance that it might break the Earth. I’m calling it. The world will crack like an egg.

Rocket Storm

I’ve added a whole bunch of new stuff – powerups, more types of enemy, a difficulty curve that isn’t horribly broken, and I think it’s actually turned into a pretty decent little game. There’s not much more left for me to do – the new game elements are all in place, so all that remains is to update some of the aesthetic bits – add some music, pretty up the UI, add a proper options menu, that sort of thing.

Anyway, I think that’s all for now. Bye!

How are you?

Hello!

I just got back from Boston, where I was attending the insane and wonderful ROFLcon, in my capacity as rathergood animator. It wasn’t at all videogame related, so I won’t bore you with the details too much, but I have a picture which pretty much entirely sums up my experience:

I’m the one on the right.

Anyway, I’ve been playing a few games recently. Would you like to hear about them? I’m just going to assume you said yes.

Fez (Xbox360)

Fez is absolutely fantastic. I think maybe I’ll talk about it in more detail in a subsequent post – I have a lot to say about it – but for now I’ll just leave it at that. A single caveat: It’s quite absurdly buggy – it’s only due to the fact that the game is so wonderful that when my saved game (at 61/64 collectibles!) managed to somehow corrupt itself, I sighed sadly then started a new game instead of just angrily deleting the game from my hard drive. There’s a patch coming soon though – I have sneaky insider info that this particular problem is already solved.

 

Mass Effect (Xbox360, PS3, and PC)

I don’t very often play these big AAA ‘event’ games, but on a whim I decided to play through all three Mass Effect games in a row. It took me a few weeks, but I have to say I really enjoyed them. The first one is rather shoddy, if I’m honest: It’s a mess of mismatched half-baked gameplay elements, lazily repeated assets, and painfully underdeveloped writing. The much-hyped ‘romance’ subplot is charmless and mechanical, and the game conspicuously lacks an ‘actually I think genocide is a bad thing’ dialogue option at certain key points, but from the second game onwards it develops into a genuinely engaging story. It’s constantly surprising how much weight the decisions you’re asked to make turn out to have – moral choices in the first game have ramifications in the third, and by the end of the trilogy I was geniuinely proud of my achievements in that universe, and unashamedly invested in the survival of my team-mates.

The ending’s a bit crap, but you probably already knew that.

 

You Have To Win The Game (PC) (link)

Ha, this one came from nowhere yesterday and ate my entire evening. A really great exploration platformer – an old-school flip-screen Metroidvania, which takes cues from Super Meat Boy and (particularly) VVVVVV, wrapped up in a completely wonderful cathode-ray CGA monitor aesthetic. It’s really good, and bizarrely features a final meta-puzzle which wouldn’t seem at all out of place in Fez.

Oh look! In a nice circular way we’re back at the first game. I’ll pretend that I planned that, and wrap things up. I just need a clever observation to finish on…

…Videogames! Sometimes they are quite good.

Bye!

Are videogames games?

I just read a blog post by Raph Koster, in which he explores the problem of trying to find a definition of videogames that encompasses so-called ‘notgames’ like Dear Esther – and indeed, whether or not we should even try. It’s a good read, although I’m not sure I agree with him. I should also warn you that it’s based mainly around a Venn diagram.

The ‘notgame’ debate in general frustrates me though – primarily because of the near-universal assumption that videogames are a subset of ‘games’ – and that Dear Esther (for example) can’t be a true videogame because it has no challenge, or obstacles, or game elements. Rather, it must be a piece of interactive art; as Koster says, one which possibly needs a new name since it fits poorly into either existing category.

But is that what really defines a videogame? I’ve long held the belief that ‘videogame’ is a poor choice of name for the sorts of things we create and enjoy, chosen too early in the medium’s creation, before we really understood what it was truly capable of. Is the ability to lose really the sole unique defining aspect?

If Dear Esther isn’t a true videogame, because it doesn’t rate your progress, or allow you to fail, then what happens when I turn on the invincibility cheat in Doom? Am I no longer playing a videogame? I’m pretty sure I’m not suddenly participating in a piece of interactive art. Surely by removing one element of the experience I haven’t fundamentally changed what it is?

We could try a clumsy analogy: If I remove the wheels from a car, then it no longer provides the basic fundamental functionality I’d expect a car to have. But it’s still a car – Its carness requires some qualification, admittedly, but it hasn’t suddenly become something else, and we don’t need to define a new category of objects for ‘things that are just like cars but can’t be driven.’

There’s a philosophical concept know as qualia – simply put, a quale is the essential quality of something, considered completely on its own terms. Qualia are, by their definition, extremely hard to define, but immediately familiar to everyone who’s experienced them. An example would be ‘redness;’ it’d be impossible to describe the experience of seeing the colour red to someone who’d never seen it – but as soon as they did, they’d understand it completely.

I’d argue there’s a quale to playing a videogame – an essential videogameness that’s hard to define, but easy to recognise, and it’s this experience, this feeling that defines them, not their position in a Venn diagram. And I’d argue that as long as something has the quale of videogameness, then that’s exactly what it is, regardless of what individual properties it has.

To me, it’s obvious that Dear Esther is a videogame, because it feels like one. when I play Dear Esther I’m experiencing and inhabiting that world in exactly the same way I experience and inhabit any videogame world – it has an essential videogameness that’s clearly distinct from the way I experience an architectural simulation, or a DVD menu, or a powerpoint slideshow. I might struggle to explain the distinction between them in words, or construct a diagram than neatly places everything in strict categories, but the distinction is nonetheless clear.

Anyway, back to my original point, the attempt to define videogames as a subset of games, or as a subset of interactive art, or (as Koster does,) the subset of both, belittles them. As far as I’m concerned, Videogames are a thing all to themselves, not simply a shaded area on a diagram where two arbitrarily chosen categories overlap. They mostly incorporate elements of gameplay, and very often elements of artistic expression, but it doesn’t follow that they must always do both.

I don’t know exactly how to define a videogame, any more than I know how to define redness. But my point is, does it really matter? Koster says he’d “hate to lose precision on something that we are finally able to pin down,” but have we ever actually had that precision? And do we really need to?

It’s great that expressive media don’t always have clear-cut definitions, and this debate reaches back far further than the birth of videogames – it’s inevitable, whenever people start to make things that don’t fit neatly into the existing categories; Dear Esther is a videogame in the same way that Fountain is a work of art, or Blue is a movie, or 4’33” is a piece of music. We have nothing to gain from building arbitrary semantic walls around the things we make. Quite the opposite: not clearly defining the boundaries is exactly what allows us to exceed them.

A Rant

Tonight’s gaming experience: Recently saved my game at the start of the final level of Serious Sam 3. thought I’d finish it off tonight. I’d been looking forward to playing it all day, so once I finally got a moment’s spare time in the evening I eagerly fired up Steam.

“Updating Serious Sam 3: BFE. Ready to play in approximately: 59 minutes 31 seconds.”

Fantastic. An hour later:

“Steam was unable to sync your files with the Steam Cloud.”

Great. Maybe it won’t matter? I’ll start it anyway.

“Preparing to launch Serious Sam 3: BFE…”

Twenty minutes later:

“Preparing to launch Serious Sam 3: BFE…”

Right. Ok. No game for me tonight. Thanks Steam!

PC Gaming, eh? What laughs we have.

EDIT: So the RSS for this post is messed up too for some reason. This has been an evening of techno-frustration.

New Screens!

Hello!

Thought I’d give a little progress report, just to reassure you all that I’m actually doing some work, and not just living the dizzying highlife that comes with having written a moderately successful freeware indie game a couple of years ago. I am living that highlife, I should add; it’s a whirlwind of caviar, champagne and society balls round our way, but I’ve also found the time to make some progress on Two.

I’m hard at work on level design at the moment: Here are a couple of screen captures! They’re both from the same area, very early in the game. This isn’t final art – I’m still fiddling with the look of the thing, but I think I’m getting pretty close now.

(click the images for full-size)

One last thing – would anyone be interested in me putting up some more in-depth posts about the nuts and bolts of game design? I find that stuff pretty hard to write, to be honest, but I’d quite like to give it a go, and I do have this nagging feeling that I should be making more use of this blog. I think I might give it a go.



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