Archive for the 'Industry Rants' Category

The importance of (good) teachers

Posted in Industry Rants on June 25th, 2012 by MrCranky

I usually recommend that students looking to get into the games industry as coders stick with traditional, academic courses like Software Engineering or Computer Science. Not because those courses teach the content most appropriate to games development, but because they leave the students with a well rounded education. With a well rounded education, they can learn the practical / vocational skills needed for games development (a higher level of programming expertise usually) on their own, plus they have the option of a career somewhere other than the games industry if they change their mind or find there is a shortage of employment available. If they specialise in a vocational course too early, they wouldn’t get the more general education that would allow them to work anywhere other than games.

That’s not to say that I discount students from vocational games courses though, far from it. But the quality of those courses varies dramatically, and so it’s even more important to assess the quality of the education they’re receiving. The first and probably biggest alarm bell that rings is when courses employ lecturers without games industry experience. That to me is utter madness. They might have masters degrees or doctorates, they might be the most engaging lecturer in the world, but without industry experience, they are wholly unqualified to be teaching a vocational course. That’s like someone teaching others how to swim when they’ve only ever had a bath. There are many other warning signs of course, but to me an institution that thinks to staff their course with vocational teaching staff with no experience in that vocation is only ever going to produce sub-par graduates.

So my advice to those institutions is this: hire industry experienced people. Poach them away from the industry with better working conditions and less stress, even if you can’t offer them more money. Entice them with the notion of enthusing a new generation of games developers. Find the next big studio that gets shut down (there’s no shortage of those), and see if anyone wants to take a break from the industry proper to teach. But whatever you do, don’t hire academics who’ve never shipped a game in their life.

And don’t hire people who couldn’t get into the games industry on their own, but who want to pretend like they’ve made games so get into teaching. Hint: you’re not a professional games designer until someone has paid you real money to design a game which has shipped. That doesn’t include:

  • designing games for your friends
  • designing your own game but never actually making or releasing it
  • writing books about other peoples’ game designs and how they are good or bad

If you’re going to teach games design, personally I think it should be compulsory to detail which games you designed (or part designed), and how well they did. Your students should be able to go find your games and judge for themselves how good your design chops really are, before they start taking your opinions on design as ‘the way things are.’

In defence of middleware

Posted in Industry Rants on May 31st, 2012 by MrCranky

This mini-rant sprang from a discussion on The Chaos Engine about middleware, in answer to the question: “even if it’s the best engine available is it really worth being locked in to anything other than in-house, license-uninhibited tech?”

That depends on whether you’re interested in building games or shipping games. You’re trading many man-months of effort on a new / unknown engine versus a non-trivial licencing cost. How many games do you have to ship on your internal engine before the difference in cost becomes positive? And what do you do with all those engine developers you’re carrying once the engine is done? Because they’re part of your burn-rate now.

Making your own tech is simultaneously the risky option for the business, and the safe option for the developers. Why? Because as long as you can persuade someone to bankroll it, there’s a tonne of work to do, and it’s nice, tangible work with obvious goals and milestones. You know when you’re done. You know what you’re making. The customers are the other developers on your team, and they’re not nearly as fickle as the public. It’s a lot easier to find success in building your own engine than it is to find success making and shipping games.

That is super short-term thinking though. Because once you’ve succeeded in making the engine, you’ve still got to ship a successful game, and worse, you’ve probably got to ship several successful games before the engine development effort is paid back. Plus your engine will have a lifespan just like they all do: if you don’t profit enough from the games made on it in that lifespan, then it’s been a net loss.

It’s no wonder that individual developers don’t like middleware. It’s clunky, it rarely fits right with what you’re trying to make, and you’ve got little to no control over its development. But “it’s expensive” isn’t a great argument against it, because the alternative is expensive too. It’s not risk-free, but it’s certainly less risky than doing it yourself. It’s a known cost, and in most cases a known risk. Fundamentally, it frees your employers from having to take a gamble on the tech you build, and when the money they’re gambling on your tech is money that they could be gambling on your games, I don’t think that’s really very attractive.

I’d prefer to be working for a smaller company that can be more agile, more robust, and capable of shipping more games, over a company that’s carrying an engine development team, that has to build games based on tech that won’t be done till some future date, and which has less capital to work with because it’s invested a chunk of it in an engine that has yet to pay that money back.

Crunch is avoidable

Posted in Industry Rants, Links from the In-tar-web on July 28th, 2011 by MrCranky

I’m putting off my blogging responsibility this week onto someone else: a great opinion piece from Charles Randall of Ubisoft, rebutting entirely the piece by that moron Michael Pachter which I won’t even dignify by linking to it. Here’s Charles’ piece. Stand-out quote for me:

Crunch is avoidable. But it requires a level of maturity and acceptance that the game industry sorely lacks. People argue that there’s always a period of crunch necessary at the end of a project. But that’s not true, either. If you are disciplined enough to accept deadlines and understand that there’s a point where you have to stop adding features, schedules can be planned with some lead time for debugging.

Anyone who tells you crunch is unavoidable is a fool. It might be that the games being made just now are unprofitable without crunch, but that’s not a reason to crunch; that’s a reason to change the way we make games.

On a similar note, you will find a couple of opinion pieces from me over on I <3 Crunch, a new blog set up specifically to raise awareness about articles on crunch, studios who are crunching their staff (and those which aren’t). I hope that by talking about this more we can put to rest this ridiculous notion that crunch is somehow acceptable or something we just have to live with. It’s the industry’s dirty secret, and the more we bring it out into the open, the better we will all be.


Opinion: How the IGDA could help tackle crunch

Posted in Industry Rants on July 18th, 2011 by MrCranky

Erin Hoffman’s comment on my previous IGDA post got me to thinking. If the IGDA are looking for a tangible way they can help things, what can they really do? So here’s my suggestion:

My issue with the way the IGDA work with regards to these reports of crunch is pretty much the same every time. They don’t seem to do anything unless someone makes a formal complaint to them, and even then they seem to put the onus on the individuals at the studio to be acting on it themselves. To me, it should be the other way around. There should be a ‘report a company’ button on their website which is 100% anonymous, and really simple to find/use. Once pressed, the IGDA (or whomever) would come along to the company and ask the company if it’s true. Either:

  1. the company says it is, and they’re not ashamed
  2. the company says it is, and they’re sorry, and here’s how they’re going to address it
  3. the company says it isn’t.

In 3) the IGDA can then ask if it can speak to employees at random for their opinion. The company can only really refuse if they’ve got something to hide. The company won’t be allowed to know who said what, and they’ll have to ask enough people so that the employees can’t be threatened or accused of ‘ratting the company out’. The employees will either:

  1. confirm that there’s no crunch, and the original report was bogus
  2. confirm that there is crunch (and ideally give details), showing that the company is both deliberately crunching, and deliberately lying about it.

In most of those outcomes, they can publicly state the results of their investigations. It doesn’t have to be a big fanfare or singling particular developers out (at least to begin with), just quietly announcing what they discovered when they asked the question.

  • If a company is never reported on, you can take that as a good sign.
  • If a company isn’t crunching its staff, it can be held up as a good example.
  • If a company is crunching its staff and isn’t ashamed, the IGDA can publicise that fact (and discourage potential applicants).
  • If a company is crunching its staff but wishes it weren’t, that can be publicised, and the situation monitored; if they have a plan to fix it, the IGDA could go back in a year or two and see if they’ve made progress, and if so hold them up as an example to others as to how to get out of crunch mode.
  • If a company is crunching its staff but pretending they aren’t, that can be publicised as well, including the fact that their staff say something different, all of which will discourage potential applicants.

Even those at the IGDA who are convinced that the “40 hour week” is some crazed ideal that not everyone agrees with can’t really argue against that, because you can do it neutrally, without stating categorically that crunch is bad. Even if you think crunch can be a good thing, it can be highlighted in the findings. What matters is that the situation be made clear to one and all.

It only relies on the simple fact that any organisation can ask a question of another publicly. The respondent is then put on the spot, either they have to ignore the question, lie, admit it, or deny it. Failure to answer the question is damning enough in itself. An organisation which doesn’t crunch has nothing to fear, an organisation which crunches and doesn’t care (like Team Bondi) won’t mind the question being asked. The only organisations which would be disadvantaged are the ones who are crunching and trying to hide it. In which case simply asking the question is enough to bring it out into the light.

Our real problem is that the press and the IGDA and others aren’t talking about it enough. Not in general terms (‘crunch is bad’), but in specifics (‘the kind of crunch being talked about at Bondi is bad’). If no-one asks the awkward questions until after it’s been so f*(&ed up for years, then it’s only going to continue.

Portal 2 / Scope

Posted in Games, Industry Rants on May 17th, 2011 by MrCranky

I thought I’d add my voice to the rest of the gaming community praising Portal 2, which I finished last week. A great story, which made me laugh out loud at least a dozen times, which is rare in any medium, let alone a game. It’s not without its flaws, but all are minor and do not detract noticeably from the overall experience. It most definitely passed my usual acid test for quality: that I wanted to play it even when I didn’t have any free time, to the point where I was skipping sleep to play it some more.

I loved the original, even though I wouldn’t have bought it were it not tacked onto Half-Life 2: Episode 2. It always struck me as a wonderfully weighted title – just the right length, elegant in its simplicity, and with a level of polish that larger titles just don’t achieve. More than anything though, it was a title that left me wanting more, not because it was too short, but because it was so good. Much like a wonderful novel or film where I get immersed in the universe and characters, the end comes with both a warm glow of satisfaction at the conclusion, and an aching for more. More of the characters, more from the rich universe. It’s a rare creation that brings that level of quality to the observer, and both Portal incarnations have that quality in spades.

I’ve been ranting somewhat about the poor judgement of top-end games development recently. Quality of Life and financial issues are just one facet of a deeper problem: that we’ve been trapped into an arms race of scope. To justify a ‘full-price’ cost, developers feel they have to match or out-do each other. Worlds grow larger and larger, not even bound by memory constraints, since every large game streams their environments off disc. Stories grow more and more epic, and require game-play lengths to match. More characters are wedged in, even though there’s not enough time to get to know them in any great detail. Their voices are provided by more and more famous actors. Cut-scenes get flashier and longer.

The problem is that the underlying mentality to it all is ‘go big, or go home.’ Budgets spiral upwards, or if they don’t, then quality spirals downwards. Both hurt a title’s chances of success. But more quality doesn’t justify a higher price tag to match the increased costs. The players have shown in a wide variety of ways that they’re not prepared to pay any more for games than the already high cost. Second-hand sales and rental mean that the RRP quickly gets turned into the ‘real’ price – far lower. Popular titles drop slower than unpopular ones, so market forces still apply. But as an industry we still delude ourselves that we ‘deserve’ the RRP times the number of units sold.

That’s not the real madness though. The real madness is that despite all our profitability numbers showing the decline, developers and publishers keep on down the same path. They know how much more it costs to increase the scope of the games we make, but they do it anyway. Why? Because they know if they don’t invest enough in titles they flop, because they are competing with other titles on quality. But they don’t know how to turn investment money into quality. Quality is hard. It’s intangible, and you don’t always know it until you see it. So they put the money on things they can understand. More levels, more characters, bigger worlds. They set themselves a benchmark of their competitors, plus some. Because if X was a success, and we have more of everything than X, then we’re as good as X, right?

So when a title like Portal comes along, I regain a bit of hope for our industry. By showing that you can make a massively successful title, not by making it bigger, or more complicated, but by making it good, it’s a bit of ammunition for the decision makers. They can point to Portal and say “it doesn’t need to be big, as long as it’s fun”, or “let’s find a mechanic that works well, and just stick with that”. And maybe we can halt this crazy race to massacre our industry’s profit margins.

IGDA redux

Posted in Industry Rants on April 25th, 2011 by MrCranky

So I hinted last time about my continuing disappointment with the IGDA, and promised a more complete write-up of why. It seems though, just to take the sting from my tail, they’ve chosen this month to do something useful. So that has cheered me somewhat. It doesn’t erase the failings of the past, but it at least gives me hope for the future. Here’s a summation of my last couple of years of impressions of the IGDA.

[EDIT: the original draft of this article did not mention the IGDA press release made a week after the Rockstar San Diego Gamasutra post mentioned. Thanks to Erin for pointing this out in the comments, it’s definitely pertinent information, and in the IGDA’s favour.]

Credibility Hit #1: Mike Capps and working hours

This was the incident which prompted my previous posts: a board member, who had become aware of the IGDA’s efforts to work towards more sensible working hours, and didn’t agree with those efforts. Now, fair enough, the best (indeed only) way to influence policy in an organisation like the IGDA is to get involved, and he’s forthright about why he joined though:

But yes, I’m familiar with that [IGDA QoL white paper]. In fact it’s one of the reasons that I joined the Board in the first place. Because when I ran for the Board it was right around the time of “EA spouse” hitting and there were certainly organizations that were not taking quality of life seriously. But I thought that the efforts of the IGDA SIG task force were really misguided.

His stance ran completely counter to what the IGDA had been campaigning for. When pressed, the IGDA had the choice of standing by their original position, or defending what Capps had said and done. They chose the latter, which to me invalidates all they’ve stood for. Worse, individual board members made statements which pretty much supported Capps’ views, although many of them were later retracted.

Credibility Hit #2: IGDA and Rockstar San Diego

A chance to redeem themselves came in early 2009, when the wives of various R* San Diego employees got together and threatened legal action against their husbands’ employer. Not the best of moves admittedly, but a move borne out of frustration and an inability to help their situation any other way. After a week, the IGDA posted a press release which nodded to the Gamasutra article, and re-iterated their position on QoL, without outrightly accusing R*SD of anything (understandably so). This I can’t disapprove of, although I felt it could have been far more critical, and should have called for R*SD to respond publicly to the accusations made against them.

However I was worried by the immediate response (on the day of the article) from the IGDA, in the comments, as represented by Erin Hoffman. In it she voiced vague moral support, followed quickly by claiming that things were better than they were 5 years ago, defending the IGDA against criticisms about its inaction, and seemed to be blaming the developers for not asking the IGDA nicely for help.

It is an inflammatory red herring to call attention to the IGDA in this case. I have sat on the IGDA’s Quality of Life committee since it was formed and the ECQC since 2005 and its formation. No one from Rockstar has ever once contacted either group, nor, to my knowledge, sought advice from the IGDA on this issue at all. I have individually spoken with multiple Rockstar San Diego developers over the years and have known that this was brewing, but until someone was willing to do something about it, there was nothing to be done from the outside.

The QoL SIG has achieved very little over the years, and it seems very much that it is content to sit and debate the issue, without taking any active steps. What role does it have, if not to act as an independent voice through which the development community as a whole can criticise the actions of studios who abuse their staff’s quality of life? They shouldn’t be waiting for permission.

If there’s even a hint that conditions like this exist at a studio, it’s time to make a carefully worded statement condemning such practices, and asking the studio in question to defend itself: either by debunking the accusation, or by coming clean and apologising for the way things are (and explaining what they intend to do to fix them). The IGDA is one of the few organisations in a position to bring these practices into the light, and by doing so help us start the conversations needed to fix them. I was cheered to see their statement in January about Kaos studios and a similar situation. This should be the norm, and I hope to see more of it in the future.

But at its heart, the IGDA’s position is inherently unclear. Are they representing the individuals, the staff, who develop games? Or are they representing the studios (a large chunk of the IGDA membership is from ‘studio’ memberships, where every developer at a studio is a member only because their studio is a member). When it comes to Quality of Life, those two groups are in tension, and in trying to represent both, the IGDA would represent neither.

Credibility Hit #3: Tim Langdell

More trouble on the IGDA board. A member who not only does not represent the games industry, but indeed is someone whom the games industry is actively ashamed of. Someone quite happy to use the fact that he was an ‘IGDA Board Member’ to bolster his own reputation. Elected in March 2009, eventually forced to resign in late August 2009. His underhand tactics and practices regarding abuse of tenuous trademarks have since been thoroughly exposed, documented, and now thanks to EA of all people, consigned to history. But I mention this here not for those reasons, but because even once the full extent of Tim Langdell’s business practices were exposed, the majority of the IGDA board not only condoned his actions, several of them even defended him. Much like the Capps affair, it seemed clear that the IGDA board would stick together, regardless of their members actions.

The resulting furore and outright uprising on the IGDA forums should have been ample indication to the board that they had royally pissed off their membership, and that they needed to do something. What they did, sadly, was to first ignore, then to suppress the discussion, by locking threads and deleting the increasingly shrill posts condemning their actions. Month after month, it dragged on. Those most passionate about the whole affair demanded that Langdell be removed from the board, but the board refused to do consider this, stating that the IGDA membership would have to raise a petition before they’d consider it. But, they wouldn’t consider the forum thread a petition, nor would they consent to actively poll their members on it. Eventually, those involved had to scrape the membership’s email addresses from the website just to solicit the membership opinion. Very quickly thereafter, the support for Langdell’s removal (or at least a proper vote on the matter) was irrefutable. Only then was the IGDA board even starting to acknowledge that Langdell’s position might be untenable.

Throughout this whole affair, I was flabbergasted by just how disconnected the board was from its membership. If this is how the IGDA as an organisation responds (or fails to respond) to a matter where their membership is clearly polarised, how can they be expected to reach a representative decision when the matter is less clear cut. As a democratic organisation, it is continually struggling to reach quorum on its votes, and as a result very little can be actioned. Even board membership elections fail to reach quorum, but by convention the board accepts the votes anyway (otherwise the whole thing would fall apart). So how it can claim to represent developers, I’m not entirely sure.


Ironically, the mechanism by which the whole Tim Langdell debacle really kicked off: the forums, is also one of their most chronic failures. For several years, a new website had been promised, all bells and whistles, which was to transform the IGDA website and how the community interacted with each other. To say that the website, when it was finally delivered (late), failed to deliver would be an understatement. The old forums weren’t great, but at least it worked. The complaints about new forums are so bad, it’s no surprise that conversation has dropped off to a pitiful amount. Which I suppose is great for avoiding controversy and criticism by your members, but much less so if you want to maintain a thriving community which promotes communication amongst your membership.


It would be remiss of me to write a post like this without talking about the up-sides to membership of the IGDA. For an ‘international’ game developers association, the benefits of membership are largely not that international. The biggest tangible benefit: health-care discount, is only applicable in the US. The discounts on conferences are mostly for US conferences, except for GDC Europe. There are discounts on books and they provide web resources though, which is very likely useful.

There certainly are useful SIGs as well: the Toolsmiths SIG is a gold-mine of knowledge, a great place to bring some very good and very experienced tools developers together to share knowledge.

But the biggest benefit of the IGDA in my eyes however has always been the social aspect. The local chapters are where the real value of the IGDA lies: getting game developers to come together, share knowledge, and get to know each other. That is why, for all the organisation’s flaws, I’m still happy to see efforts to restart the IGDA Scotland chapter. As a banner to rally under, it’s a pretty decent one – well known and easy to find.

The vast majority of usefulness I’ve seen come out of the IGDA has been voluntary work, done by chapter organisers for the benefit of their local community, not paid for by the membership dues. I want to know how I can support those people, not the IGDA. Absolutely, let’s get together and get involved: the more we work as a community the better we’ll be. But that doesn’t need to involve paying $48 dollars to a US-based organisation, for some intangible benefits. Especially when that organisation gains both cash and credibility by counting you as a member, but is not actively working in your best interests.

Some people think the IGDA’s day is past, and the declining membership is a sign that a new organisation is needed. I don’t agree. There’s a new crop of board members elected, that know fine well what has gone before. Some of them (like Darius Kazemi) have been open and honest about the organisation’s flaws, and are working hard to make things right. I want those people to succeed, and restore the IGDA to being something I am not only happy about, but would actively support. And in taking a stance against Amazon’s app store policies, it looks like they’re heading in the right direction. I look forward to the day when they sort out their work on Quality of Life in the games industry, and I can reconsider my stance.

XBox abdication of parental responsibility controls

Posted in Industry Rants, Links from the In-tar-web on February 9th, 2011 by MrCranky

It’s been a busy winter for us, but this story (originally in the Daily Mail, unsurprisingly enough), made me grumpy enough to warrant a post.

It concerns a mother who is indignant that Microsoft are ignoring her complaints about her 11 year old child being ‘allowed’ to spend over £1000 on XBox Live. Over the course of six months as well, so it’s not like it was a spending binge.

Some choice quotes from the article:

“It is ridiculous to allow someone of his age to make payments without any checks being done,” out of pocket mother Dawn Matthews told the Daily Mail.

Indeed. Lucky there are several checks in place to ensure that children can’t spend someone elses money. All of which you bypassed for him.

“When he is in gaming mode he can’t be thinking about the money. You can’t put all that responsibility on a young boy.

Yes. Heaven forbid a child understand the concept of money, and the spending of other people’s.

“It is impossible to monitor everything your children do. These companies should take some responsibility. They take advantage of vulnerable people.”

Well, someone should certainly take responsibility. I’m going to go with the person who gave the child the ability to spend that money, and to a lesser extent the child for actually spending it.

“A thousand pounds isn’t that much to people like Bill Gates,” concluded Dawn Matthews, “but for a single mum it is a lot of money that I don’t have.”

Okay, well a) Bill Gates has been gone from Microsoft for a long time, and b) if you don’t have the money to spend, then you should be careful about how you allow it to be spent. Six months went past before this was stopped. That’s six credit card bills with their contents ignored. If you don’t understand what you’re doing with your credit card, then maybe it’s not a wise thing for you to have a credit card.

As if the refusal to accept responsibility for disabling all the parental controls and putting her credit card details in wasn’t enough, a cursory examination of this 11 year old’s public gaming history shows a slew of 16+ and 18+ plus titles.

  • SmackDown vs. RAW 2009 – 16+
  • Red Dead Redemption – 18+
  • Borderlands – 18+
  • Call of Duty: Black Ops – 18+
  • Gears of War – 18+
  • Call of Duty: MW2 – 18+
  • Assassins Creed – 18+
  • Left for Dead – 18+
  • and several more
So Dawn is quite happy to let her child play games rated well beyond his age. And yet we’re supposed to blame Microsoft. If she let her child rent and watch the Saw or Hostel movies through Lovefilm, should we blame Lovefilm for that? Ratings are there for a reason, just as the credit card checks and parental controls are. If you let your child play on the train tracks, you don’t get to blame the train company for the ensuing accident.

Graphics Aren’t the Enemy

Posted in Industry Rants on December 26th, 2010 by OrangeDuck

Maybe I’ve just been reading too many youtube comments, but as a game artist, you can’t quite help get the feeling that some people consider you partially responsible for the downturn in the quality of recent blockbuster titles.

I was recently discussing the new GTA facial animation technology with some friends and someone made a comment along the lines of “Meh. It’s a shame people will be praising this, the gameplay will no doubt  suck.”

Hearing a comment like that isn’t uncommon, and nor is hearing support for it. There have been a bunch of memes with a similar attitude flying around the internet for the last few years, so I figured I should give a go at dispelling some of the main ones in the chance for some unity and piece of mind.

Modern games just focus on graphics instead of gameplay

This is by far the most common one to hear, and though there might be some truth in it, it’s just a gross dismissal of the issue. The statement is purposefully ambiguous – as to actually use a word other than “focus” ties people down. For these people graphics have just become a scapegoat for bad design.

Most commonly by “focus”, people mean that more money is being spent on graphics than is justified. While games do have much larger budgets for artwork now – budgets across the board have increased. Programming teams, too, are larger, with a requirement for a much vaster selection of technical skills. These teams have had to deal with increasing expectations from the industry as well. The building of expansive maps and characters, which is often the standard now, isn’t just an artistic burden! Design teams are larger too, with a host of new dedicated positions for mapping, scripting, writing and many others. The idea of this paradigm shift by funding toward “having to be the best looking game” is simply a myth.

Even more to the point – does anyone really believe money can simply be thrown at good game design, and if it was the case, with the kind of sums made from WOW, wouldn’t developers and publishers be doing it already?

All my old favourites were just about gameplay

Recently I went back and looked over some old reviews of one of my favourite games, Populous: The Beginning. I expected it to score well overall, being a fantastic game. But what I wasn’t expecting was the fact that in almost every review it scored 10/10 for graphics.

Thinking about it afterwards, it didn’t seem so odd. The graphics for the time were amazing. Deformable terrain and flowing lava, as well as a beautiful world which felt alive with a host of subtle touches. Thinking about it even more I realized that almost all of my favourite games are in the same boat – Quake, Black & White, Sonic 3, Half Life, numerous others. I couldn’t even think of an example with graphics significantly worse than average. Developers have been pushing both graphical and technical bounds since the beginning of gaming.

Graphics are largely unimportant in a game

I think most people would agree, that almost by definition, gameplay is the most important part of a game. But pretending that graphics are unimportant is simply ridiculous. Atmosphere is one of the key parts of a game, and is deeply tied to the graphical style and quality. Immersion also is important, and while this doesn’t really relate to the number of polygons a game can draw, the consistency of the visuals are hugely important.

Developments in graphics are a hugely important device in opening up doors and new opportunities for game designers. It isn’t just coincidence that the vast majority of games for early systems were very similar, and usually tile based or 2D scrolling platformers.

Perhaps in the near future we’ll see another shift in game design and development, similar to what happened when 3D worlds became a legitimate mechanic. I, for one, want to be around when that happens, not lamenting over my Sega Mega Drive.

I don’t care about graphics providing the gameplay is good

This one is most commonly heard from the die hard fans of games such as Dwarf Fortress and the various MUDs and Roguelikes out there. There are grains of truth in this statement but most advocates seem to just be picking and choosing what they consider to be “graphics” when it suits them.

Gameplay and graphics can’t be separated so easily. Interaction, the key element of games, requires graphics at some level, and if it is impossible for a person to relate to this representation of interaction, the game is bound to fail.

The origin of this meme appears as an attempt to distance oneself from the typical screaming Call Of Duty kid, but just because a game doesn’t look like a generic Gears Of War clone, with bloom and HDR turned up to 11, doesn’t mean it isn’t impressive graphically or technically – often quite the contrary.

A good example is the indie gem Minecraft. Perhaps suprising to some, most artists would agree Minecraft has excellent graphics – and the progammers are reasonably impressed too. The whole game is soaked in atmosphere, the style is charming and consistent. There isn’t much more you could ask for.

Look on the net and you’ll find hundreds of instances of most incantations of puzzle and platformer games. It isn’t a surprise that the most popular version is usually the one with the most charming graphics ( N,  Orisinal come to mind).

Number of polygons might not matter to some people, but the ultimate system for how interaction is achieved, does.

So whose fault is it

One of the common trends I see in great games that stick in your mind, is an approach where by the essence of the game appears to be drawn out from the world. Populous, as mentioned above, is a good example of this, as well as another old favourite, Dungeon Keeper. In games such as this, the world and gameplay go together so beautifully that it isn’t even possible to quantify the gameplay mechanics without including the graphics, the atmosphere, the story and all the rest with it.

It seems that many modern blockbusters have a focus on “features”. Fallout 3, for example, feels very odd to play because it is set in this wonderful rich universe, but the gameplay is still more or less completely separate and abstracted from the setting. In a similar way, you could name a number of other recent titles, that seem like basic first person shooters with a graphical setting, and a number of “features” tacked onto the side – and none of that holds together very well.

Graphics and gameplay aren’t these two brothers competing for attention, and if you intend on making a truely great game, act like the responsible parent and don’t send them to their individual rooms – force them to play nicely together.

Game Development Budgets

Posted in Industry Rants on October 31st, 2010 by MrCranky

As I mentioned before, this post started life looking at the various big budget game studios which have gone under recently. After reading it over again before posting, I decided to scrap it. While I do see the wave of studio shut-downs as being directly related to the poor profitability of games, that’s just a supposition on my part. And to list the many failing cases would be both depressing and insufficient as an argument anyway. It’s not enough to look at only the failures, you have to look at the successes as well.

And therein lies the problem. There aren’t enough successes. Sure they’re out there. World of Warcraft, Halo, COD4, Red Dead Redemption. But for every Halo there is a Haze, for every World of Warcraft there is an APB. What matters, for the health of the industry in general, is that the averages play out. It’s not enough that a hit brings in $100 million in profit, if for every hit a publisher also ships 6 titles that lose $20 million each. If every title was independent, that would be fine: quality is rewarded with profit, and its lack with loss. Businesses who make poor quality product should be punished, that is all part of a free market system.

But the problem is that the businesses at the core of the current system, the publishers, are shipping titles on both sides of the line. This is what they’ve always done. There’s nothing really wrong with that: it’s extraordinarily hard to predict in advance whether or not a title will be a success, and certainly not before a lot of money has already been sunk into the project.

What made such a system workable was that in the past, the profits on the hit titles were so much larger that they easily paid for the development of the flops. All publishers had to do was to stay on the right side of the line – make sure their hits were big enough and their flops were infrequent enough. So what has changed? Budgets.

Development budgets used to be far, far smaller. The retail price of games has stayed mostly the same, and the number of units sold has risen, not by much, but risen. But the budgets have gone insane. In any other business, the notion of accepting costs an order of magnitude higher, knowing that the incomes wouldn’t jump in the same way, would be madness. Bit by bit, the publishers have slipped to the position where only a few flops in a row is enough to cripple them.

For the games industry to be healthy again, an average game needs to be able to make money. That’s how averages work. If you have to be in the top 10 or 20% of titles just to break even, then there is 80% of the titles being made that are losing money, and those 80% cost almost as much to make as the top titles. And in the end, the funding for that top 20% comes from the same businesses that are funding the bottom 80%.

It’s not entirely the publishers’ fault – the console platform holders gave them a technology platform for which the development costs were far higher, and then took the old platforms away. No-one asked the consumer if they were prepared to pay a higher price for games on those platforms, because we knew they wouldn’t. Instead, the industry held their breath, and sucked up the increased risk and cost, hoping that they would be able to make good enough games to survive. That’s not a healthy business model.

Have you seen any new publishers enter the market recently? There’s a reason for that. Our business isn’t one that people want to get into. If publishers were making good money, for every failure because they shipped consistently poor games, another business would arise with a better focus on quality. That’s not happening – even the most experienced publishers are struggling for air.

It’s not just the publishers either. I know many developers who refuse to consider making anything but top-flight AAA titles, pushing the hardware to the limit. When it is suggested that titles on that scale aren’t profitable, they sneer, and point at the successes, and ignore the failures. They say that if being profitable means making social networking games, or mobile titles, then they don’t even want to be in the industry any more. What sort of an attitude is that? “If I can’t make these shovels out of diamonds, I don’t want to make shovels any more.” Does anyone want a diamond shovel? No. If you’re offering one for the same price as the old wood and steel shovel, then sure. But the old shovel was fine for me, and I don’t have any more money to spend on shovels than I had before.

The pre-owned market is a big indicator of the pain going around the industry at the moment. Consumers think even the current price points are far too high, so when retailers like Gamestop, etc. offer them a re-sale value that gets them the same games for cheaper, they jump at it. Why are the retailers pushing it? Because their margins were getting trimmed to the point where they couldn’t make a decent profit. Why? Because the publishers were also trying to maintain a decent profit level themselves, as risks and increased costs of development slashed their profits to ribbons.

What to do? Fix the budgets. Better efficiency. Get scope under control – no more long games for the sake of it. If one publisher takes the first step, back towards to profitability in their core business, is the consumer really going to abandon them? Will they really not buy a high quality game because it’s shorter than some other publisher’s offering? And if they don’t, what about next year, when that other publisher has gone under, and there’s no “other game” to buy?

Westminster Scottish Affairs Committee

Posted in Industry Rants on September 8th, 2010 by MrCranky

I had a big blog post written up on various redundancies, companies folding, and how they related to game development budgets. Re-reading it now though I’m not happy about it: too much hyperbole and supposition, and very little in the way of hard facts. I’m going to scrap and re-write it I think; and rather than dwelling on the down-beat, focus instead on a general view of the overly large budgets / scope of current-gen games. Anyway, in the meantime, here’s the response I wrote up to the Westminster Scottish Affairs Committee, who are investigating the implications for the Scottish industry of the scrapping of the tax breaks scheme, which has been proposed, ignored, accepted, and then scrapped. Not that I think it affects the Scottish industry much now – RTW might have made use of it, none of the remaining developers really stand to gain very much from it as it was. Anyway, I don’t mind making my response open.

Executive Summary:

If the government wants to help the games industry, rather than through relief on corporation tax, it should do so by improving the quality of the talent pool. By supporting education, apprenticeships and internships within games developers, and making it easier and cheaper to hire talented but inexperienced staff. In doing so, it will help maintain the UK’s competitiveness as a creative centre, and the returns in increased profitability for UK developers should pay for the incentive schemes. Any incentive scheme which rewards large non-UK publishers will in my view be less effective than one which supports the myriad of smaller developers, many of which are wholly UK-owned.

Full Response:

Sadly, since the original request for input to this inquiry, the Scottish games industry has suffered a serious blow in the loss of Realtime Worlds. I would like to start by raising my voice against the ridiculous notion put forth by various MPs to the media that the previously cancelled tax-breaks proposal would have somehow prevented this company’s failure. The scheme proposed relief on corporation tax, and Realtime Worlds’ issues were certainly not down to being too heavily taxed.

I run a small studio that provides development support services to the wider games industry, primarily in the UK. We are members of the trade association TIGA, whom I believe will also contribute to this inquiry. TIGA were instrumental in persuading the previous government to take up the proposed tax relief scheme, but I must confess that I am not and never have been entirely convinced that their proposal is the best approach to boost the industry.

When the current government announced the scheme would be scrapped, I cannot say that I was concerned. It had never been implemented, only proposed in loose terms by the previous government. I doubt it would have ever made it to implementation. Its absence will not hurt the Scottish games industry, where the only sizeable developer left (Rockstar North) is foreign owned, and solid for other reasons than financial ones. The smaller developers left here are not in a position to expand massively, tax-breaks or not.

While corporation tax-breaks would I’m sure attract inward investment to the UK as a whole, their nature is such that the biggest winners in such a scheme are large, multi-national publisher/developer corporations. Implementing tax breaks might attract them to form or expand studios here, but aside from the direct investment here, their profits still largely go abroad. Once in place, it seems to me that removing those tax-breaks would quickly lead to studios being declared unprofitable and being shut down again, such is the fickle nature of games development.

Furthermore, subsidising the industry solely because the French and Canadian governments do seems to me to be a dead end road that can only end in subsidies escalating out of control. Yes, we are losing development talent to Canada, and the more developers that go out of business here, the more of our talented workforce will emigrate there. But when studios go bust, their talent doesn’t just leave the country, some also leave the industry, and our available workforce pool is diminished. The tightening belts of the publishers and financiers of the industry don’t allow developers the leeway they need to recruit and train new talent, and that hurts the industry both now and in the long term.

I don’t want to see subsidies for general game development. I don’t want to see incentives to make culturally British games (although I do think that there should be more of them made). What I think the government should be doing is to support what makes the UK competitive in the world market: our creative talent. We need more developers doing innovative, creative things. We can’t compete with Eastern Europe or Asia on labour cost, but we can compete on labour quality. But for that developers have to be able to take in new talent, new ideas, and reinforce a waning labour pool.

I would propose subsidies for education and training. And since the only kind of training that is really effective in the games industry is on-the-job, what I would like to see is more support from the government to get students and young people inside developers and doing real work. Apprenticeships for game developers almost. I’d like to see real financial support for developers who want to take on inexperienced but talented people. That might take the form of subsidised placements, internships, or PAYE relief on students. The universities like Abertay are doing well with their industry outreach efforts, but with better financial support they could do far better. The developers want the talent, but they can’t afford to take risks in hiring, or to get the people up to a useful level of productivity. The universities want to get their graduates into the industry. The government wants the students in jobs, and it wants the developers healthy and profitable.

So in summation, if the government wants to help the games industry, it should do so by reducing the real costs UK developers have: the staff. In doing so they will enrich the talent pool, maintain the UK’s competitiveness as a creative centre, and the returns in increased profitability should pay for the incentive schemes.

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