Archive for August, 2007

Dial-up = bad

Posted in Tales from the grind-stone on August 25th, 2007 by MrCranky

So the last week has almost entirely been lost for me due to moving, with only Pete holding the fort and continuing working. Most frustratingly of all though, the broadband order was (inevitably) delayed, and so I’m stuck with only dial-up access until the end of the month. It’s maddeningly slow, and all of the normal work operations I take for granted are next to impossible to do with such slow internet speed. Still, it’s only a temporary thing, so I’m sure I can manage.

We’ve just switched to developing on PSP again, and now both have functional PSP dev-kits – time to get some of our own stuff on there, and not just the samples that come with it.

Event Round-up

Posted in Conferences on August 14th, 2007 by MrCranky

Another rewarding experience this year, some interesting talks. A couple of turkeys on the first day, but on average certainly worthwhile. The most obvious emerging theme was, again, convergence of games with television, films, books and the Web. However while I think there is some evidence to back it up, I don’t think it is nearly as important as is being implied here. It feels like there is a need amongst the high level executives in the games industry to be seen to be thinking about something, and that convergence of the different media types is a convenient topic. Not so vague that it can’t be talked about, but not as embarassing as “we’re committed to making games so expensive that they rarely make their cost back”.

It seems like in all of the conferences, there is a lot of back-slapping and self-congratulation, but little self-examination. Yes, there has been massive growth in the last couple of years, and the transition to the new generation of consoles has gone pretty well (as long as you’re not Sony). But it has done well on the back of innovative titles, which push away from the hard-core gamers, and the ridiculously over-specced hardware, and back to what it should be: making fun games, that people like to play.

I’d like to see a conference where we look at the issues that are important to the average game developer, not just the EAs and Ubisofts (and companies who wish they were that size) – about what we can do about the recruitment crisis, about what we can do to make better games, more polished games. I’d like a conference that addresses issues like why we keep re-inventing the wheel every time we make a game, and why we don’t collaborate on technology and sharing of knowledge to benefit the industry as a whole.

Above all, I’d like to see a conference that dwells on the success stories, and how we can learn from those developers/publishers and emulate that success. With that in mind, I’d rate Hilmar Petursson’s talk on EVE as the talk of the show for me, not because I learned a whole lot from it, but because it was good to see a developer that stuck to their guns and made a game they were proud of, and have been proved right by the game-playing public.

Developing for Second-Life

Posted in Conferences on August 14th, 2007 by MrCranky

Several developers who work in Second Life, and more generally in virtual worlds to create content for the virtual world users. Many topics covered, and some interesting videos, but I can’t help but feel that Second Life is a poor example of how this could develop. It seems that there are lots of ways to experiment in Second Life, and lots of experimentation, but woefully short on convincing examples of how to make it work. Certainly apart from advertising and improving brand recognition, the examples given are gimmicky, and lack polish.

One of the interviewees who works for Linden Labs brought up the point that I thought was most relevant was that Linden Labs is forming a bottleneck to the continued development of the possibilities involved – the space and the users are growing at a faster rate than LL can grow to support. So by opening the API and allowing content developers to extend the world in unusual ways there is the possibility of refining the virtual experience, and perhaps polishing it in a useful fashion.

Of course, I’m a little bitter right now, as Second Life are unable to charge either my credit card or my Paypal account, due to some internal uselessness in their systems, and so have disabled my account, so you should take all this with a pinch of salt.

Dare to be Digital – Protoplay

Posted in Conferences on August 14th, 2007 by MrCranky

I nipped across town at this point rather than seeing the next couple of talks, as I wanted to see the end results of the Dare to be Digital competition. As promised on Sunday night, there was an impressive range of games on display, and all showed promise in one form or another. Titles to note were the Cupid game from the guys from Guildford, where you fly around encouraging people to falling in love by causing accidental meetings that might lead to a whirlwind romance; also a fun and polished puzzle title in the vein of Loco Roco, where the player has to guide a pool of water through the level, tilting the world and freezing and boiling the water to change its form; and a stealth-based third person ninja title with an interesting audible/visual mechanic. My vote eventually went to a local (Edinburgh) team though, who made a nice two player physics based game, with some neat gameplay mechanics and a real co-operative feel to the gameplay. It was very nicely polished, and looked visually impressive.

If I was to have any criticism of some of the titles on display it would be the lack of polish, but really that would be unfair of developers new to the work of making games to a fixed time-scale! Certainly the results are very impressive for the 10-week project, and the students involved all seem to have enjoyed the game and coped well with the pressure they were under.

How to get into the games industry, various

Posted in Conferences on August 14th, 2007 by MrCranky

Interesting stuff from what I caught – some frank admissions from the panellists (a couple from Realtime Worlds, and a few independents) that recruitment and training into the industry has been sadly neglected these last few years. Certainly I’d agree – the pool of talented developers is diminishing as people naturally leave (or get pressured out by the bad working conditions that permeate the industry). We need to take some more risks on entry-level people, but that will largely be dependant on the successfulness of the industry – we need more spare money swilling around to be able to afford to train developers. Or perhaps we should just accept that it is a necessary cost (if you take the long term view) and build it into the amounts we charge the publishers/consumers.

Beyond Social Gaming, Jamie McDonald

Posted in Conferences on August 14th, 2007 by MrCranky

I skipped out on this one half way through to check out the “How to get into games” panel, but it was a fairly straightforward message. Singstar’s producer Pauline Bozek did a bit on how they’ve updated it for the PS3 – basically integrating the social aspects which have naturally surrounded the game in the past into the game. For example, right now many people video themselves having Singstar parties and upload them to share – this is now integrated into the game. Secondly, they’ve integrated an iTunes-like music purchasing interface into the game, to allow people to customise their gameplay experience. Up until now, they have been milking Singstar by releasing a variety of track listings – almost like albums. Now they’ve killed that, but replaced it with a practically unlimited money making opportunity by allowing users to buy individual tracks.

I caught a brief glimpse of the PS3 home interface as well – again it looks like Sony are trying to push the integration aspect. They want users to use their virtual interface to be the social community/lobby aspect to all of their multiplayer games. A laudable goal, but I can’t help but think that it will take a while to smooth out the rough edges of the new style of play. XBox-Live took years to mature into the capable interface it has now, I don’t see that being any different for Sony. However, if they do it right, and the poor uptake of the PS3 doesn’t kill it first, I think it’s got real potential. Certainly Sony seem to be in it for the long haul, rather than the short term success.

Games with Character, Ian Livingstone

Posted in Conferences on August 14th, 2007 by MrCranky

Admittedly, by this point in the proceedings, my last coffee had worn off and I was running on fumes and about to nod off. Luckily Ian presenting an easy going and light hearted presentation, dwelling on existing examples of good characterisation. Oh, and a hearty helping of plugs for IO’s new game – Kane and Lynch.

Basically I can sum up the whole talk in a few bullet points:

  • Develop the character first, give them background, identifiability, and depth.
  • Build the character first, and the story second.
  • Decide on visual style, make it fit the game, make it a unique selling point if possible.
  • Decide on audio style – give them a voice, make it an emotive one. Use professional voice actors!
  • Choose the right name. Make it memorable

Games Actually, various

Posted in Conferences on August 14th, 2007 by MrCranky

Certainly not the strongest talk of the day, with weak moderation meaning that little of worth was said. Some interesting market research was shown though, and in summary:

19% of females game, and make up 41% of all gamers in Europe. Similarly in the UK, 24% of females game, making up 43% of gamers. In the 6-15 age range, more than 79% of people play games regularly, dropping to 50% in the 15-19 age range. Beyond that, it tapers off to below 30% and diminishes roughly proportionally to age.

More interestingly, in the last 3 years, although boys still play for longer and spend more on games, girls are catching up somewhat. So although there is still an issue, perhaps we’re addressing it. Certainly Nintendo’s work is reaching more female gamers than I would have expected, and there is a realisation in the industry in general that non-traditional games more popular with women are not only possible but profitable.

Key points from Pauline Jacquey (Ubisoft producer, heading up their accessible games drive) about improving accessibility in games:

  • Shorten gaming sessions (10min)
  • Invest heavily in UI development and polish
  • Allow players to track their progress

In addition, although it’s easier to create ‘shrink and pink’ versions of games, in reality those types of games are rarely big hits, and in the long term it is better to create products with real value (such as The Sims, Brain Training, or Nintendogz).

EVE Online, Hilmar Petursson

Posted in Conferences on August 14th, 2007 by MrCranky

Much more interesting was the talk from EVE Online’s Hilmar Petursson. Admittedly the content was very close to my heart – massively multi-player virtual online worlds, but as I mentioned to some other delegates, sometimes it’s good to hear from a developer that made a good game, made it well, and has done well out of it. There are too many ‘fluff’ talks here, about things which might be, or projections, or spin on developers/markets that aren’t quite as good as they are made out to be. And given the current disenchantment with MMOG developers in the games industry, it’s good to hear that if done well it can be profitable.

Anyway, Hilmar told a story of a rocky start, with a long pre-production time for EVE, including a period of a good 6 months where they ran out of start-up capital and relied on the goodwill of their staff to keep working for free essentially, entirely based on their faith in the product. After their rocky start, and some publishing woes (they sold the rights to a book publisher which then decided to neglect it entirely in favour of their book business), they eventually started to self-publish EVE, based on an entirely digital download model (no boxed game = no distributors). With a solid core of 30,000 players, they’ve grown their player base continually (and sometimes exponentially) since then. The amazing growth of the player base is matched only by their loyalty and immersion in the game, to the point at which they now have over one hundred thousand subscribers, and are on track to hit 200,000 before the end of this year. Soon, it seems, they will be the first developer to have more subscribers than the population of their home country (Iceland only has 300,000 residents)!

It’s this massive player-base, all sharing a single virtual universe, which leads to the parts of the game-play which captivate the players. Simple but solid core mechanics, closely modelled on their real-world equivalents (markets with bid/buy/sell systems, corporations with management structure, etc.) provide a framework on top of which the players operate rich social structures. It is these social structures which provide the real interesting play in the game; very much an example of emergent game-play.

Hilmar differentiates between two different styles of MMOG – the ‘theme-park’ games (EverQuest, World of Warcraft, etc.) where play is rich, but tightly scripted and given to the player in neat, measured doses; and sand-box games (EVE, Ultima Online), where a virtual world with some basic rules and mechanics is presented to the player, and they are free to create whatever interesting systems within that world that they like.

My favourite part was some video and concepts of the upcoming revisions to the game, which extend it to allow users to walk around inside space stations as a 3D character avatar – a vast improvement over the user-is-a-ship mechanic currently employed. CCP feel that it is this limiting factor which is skewing the player-base massively in favour of men (95% of the players), and hope that the new focus on personalisation in the game will redress that balance. Certainly this means that they are one step closer to my own vision of a virtual universe which scales from the personal scale to the universe scale, although I can see the technological challenges remain massive. It seems like they are feeling their way gently towards that system, with the personal avatars initially being limited to wandering around some lovely interior environments and chatting. They hope to eventually move to allowing indoor combat, but I think it is wise to work out the teething problems with the system first! They are also re-visiting the graphics of EVE – always one of its strongest points, to scale it up to current hardware levels.

Regardless, I think it may be time to re-visit EVE once again – the last time I played was a couple of years ago, with a much smaller player-base, and fewer features. Certainly the growth of the player-base makes me think that it is worth another try.

Virtual Reality TV, Peter Cowley

Posted in Conferences on August 14th, 2007 by MrCranky

This talk, from an executive at Endemol (they of Big Brother and Deal or No Deal fame), was mostly about the acceptance of the fact that traditional TV production and development is an aging dinosaur in todays entertainment medium. The younger audience is playing increasing amounts of games, at the expense of the time they used to spend watching television. Good for us, not so good for the television producers.

Mostly this talk was telling us things that we already knew – that TV producers take a blinkered view of content production, and that kids and younger people prefer interactive media to non-interactive (TV and films). Web-based content, both games and social networking, are being used increasingly to maintain the reach of traditional platform holders such as the BBC or Channel 4.

Most interestingly, they claim to have done research that shows that as users grow past 18 and school leaving age, they tend to be less biased towards interactive media, and tend to start using their mobiles and PCs in ‘more adult’ ways. Personally, I suspect this is an outgrowth of the free-time factor, that the younger audience spends more time on interactive media because they have more time to spend! Once they have more interesting pressures on their time, the desire for interactive content drops away.

Still, a long talk for not very much reward.

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