Amnesia Month

In which I step back from all of the games and culture stuff and try to reclaim some of my own creativity.

At GCAP, Natham Martz talked about Amnesia Fortnight at Double Fine – a 2 week period in the middle of Brutal Legend when the entire company put that project aside and prototyped a bunch of smaller games, which gave them the grounding for Costume Quest, but also helped recharge their creative batteries.

Just before Freeplay hit, I had the realization that not only was I stressed about the event itself, but I was also stressed because i hadn’t really spent a lot of time, for a long time, working on my own stuff, and ultimately doing what we implored people to do at Freeplay – to just get out there and make things

Since being self-employed, my own projects have fallen by the wayside as i’ve tried to maintain paying work, realised how much time it takes to run a festival, and tried to find the balance between money and creativity. The main one of those is the novel I’ve been working on for a few years now, and while I still care about it and want to see it finished, I also think a break would do that work good – and would give me a chance to try out everything I’ve (hopefully) learned as a writer.

NaNoWriMo is perfectly timed for that break.  I know my premise, plot, characters, first few scenes, and the core conflict – and even this early, I’m starting to feel my way through the shape of the thing. I’ve done it before, and know it’ll drive me absolutely mad, but I’m also looking forward to seeing what comes out of the whole process. I’m signed up as Pcallaghan if anyone wants to follow along there.

It does mean that I’ll likely be blogging a lot less for a little while, at least about games and culture. Shame. But I do have some thoughts on why we need to have the moral outrage & censorship arguments, narrative and mechanical grinding in Dragon Age, and the role of archetypes as they apply to not only game narrative, but to the cultural discussions we have too. I’m sure I’ll need a break from the 50,000 words though, so maybe they’ll get written before they evaporate completely.

If not, see you back here on December 1st for a Nano debrief.

Industry, Suits, and Audience

The Six Steps from Scott Mcloud’s Understanding Comics.

MTV’s Multiplayer Blog recently interviewed Trey Smith, Creative Director at Electronic Arts working on NBA Jam.  In it, there was the following exchange:

What do you think is the biggest problem current games suffer from?

I think there are a number of problems we have with the way games are being developed today, but honestly, I think one of the biggest problems right now is the actions and attitude of some of the gamers out there. You know who they are. If they spent less time spewing ignorant hate on the boards and in online games, and more time rallying behind the great games they love and helping to build a thriving community that welcomes everyone that shows up to play with them – everybody wins. Nothing wrong with a little smack talk here and there, just wish gamers respected each other more. I just got back from PAX Prime down in Seattle. I am of the opinion that if the people of PAX ran the world, it would be a much better place. Costumes optional.

The Age’s Screenplay blog picked this up and, significantly I think, changed the emphasis:

What’s the biggest problem facing the games industry today?

According to NBA Jam’s Creative Director Trey Smith, who just put the finishing touches on the slapstick sports game for Electronic Arts, one of the biggest problems right now is “the actions and attitude of some of the gamers out there”.

What do you think is the biggest problem facing the games industry today?

I’ve already written about this use of ‘industry‘ as a defining metaphor, and this is a perfect example of that.  Trey points out that there are issues with how games are developed, certainly an industry issue, but his chief complaint is as actually quite removed from industry – it’s about a small part of the audience that exists in the wider gaming culture.

But this hasn’t stopped it being picked up by some local blogs.  On GameTaco, Smoolander wrote:

I would like to respond to this sentiment by stating that this is not the biggest problem facing the games industry. The internet is synonymous with idiots, and this does not just restrict itself to gaming, but the internet as a whole. Hell, just step outside during the day, or night, and you’ll find your share of selfish idiots wandering around.

No, the biggest problem facing the games industry at the moment is suits. Corporate suits. Worn by people whose first thought is to their shareholders above anything else.

And in response, Fraser Allison on RedKingsDream wrote:

That’s what’s wrong with the games industry. Not the suits: they’d disappear in a month if we stopped supporting them. Not the angry ranty geeks: for all their lack of social graces, they often reserve their passion for the things that deserve to be supported. No, it’s the ordinary people who keep handing over their money for overproduced, soulless shit that doesn’t need to exist, either because they don’t know any better, or worse: even though they do.

We have met the enemy, and he is us.

As Trey pointed out, there is a lot wrong with how we develop games.  No disagreements there.  But, I do disagree with the framing of suits and audience because I think, even when they apply to ‘industry’, they’re not necessarily a useful abstraction – and that’s where Scott Mcloud comes in.

In his book, Understanding Comics – which if you haven’t read, you should – attempts to decipher the essentials of the creative process, breaking it down into 6 stages:

  1. Idea / Purpose
  2. Form
  3. Idiom
  4. Structure
  5. Craft
  6. Surface

In becoming an artist – in any form – Scott puts forward the argument that an artist works backwards from 6 – first mimicking the surface aspects of the work, then learning craft, experimenting with structure, then underlying genre & possibility, before leaning on the essential strengths of the medium or exploring the breadth of their own ideas.

At each of these stages during the descent, people fall away.  The number of people sitting on the surface level is larger than those at craft, is larger than…well, you get the idea.

This applies to both our audience and our creatives.  A tiny little fraction of people who choose a specific form will dig all the way down to Idea / Purpose – and a tiny fraction of an art form’s audience will be interested in exploring work that does.

The same goes for those who provide the financial stake in the ‘industrial’ aspects of games – the suits.  The majority of them will sit with their understanding at the surface level, a smaller number at craft, and so on, and so on.

What these blog posts seem to be railing against is essential human nature, not some abstract money-man, or an audience that fails to appreciate creative work, but something fundamental in the way we develop as creatives, and in the way creative industries develop alongside that.  Like quality, community, platforms, and projects, this is fractal in nature.  Our ability to dig through those 6 stages as individuals is mirrored all the way through our gaming industry and culture – and not just ours, but every single creative industry & associated culture too.

So, how to address, really address, the root of this question of ‘audience’ and ‘suits’?

It appears to me that this is about the type and range and creativity of the projects that are made, not only by the industrial style of production, but the engagement of the independent sector audience as well.  But in order for that independent sector to exist, there needs to be a critical mass of gamers – gamers who inevitably engage with the superficial aspects of the work, but who, sometimes, feel the need to dig deeper and deeper.  Somewhere in the world, Halo: Reach will be a somebody’s first introduction to the world of video games, and if we’re lucky they’ll find something there to engage in, and if we’re even luckier, they’ll be drawn into the possibiltiy of the medium and want to learn more.

Since GCAP, I’ve been thinking a lot about community and the ecosystem that needs to exist in order for a creative industry and the associated culture to function.  While the language we use is important – no scratch that, essential – in capturing the various facets of what we create, it shouldn’t be used to create divisions and artificial boundaries between ‘suits’ and ‘creatives’ between ‘developers’ and ‘audience’.

In reality, all of these parts need to exist, sharing a symbiotic relationship, enabling more people to make more things, which in the end is the only way to increase the number and ability of the people who dig all the way down to Scott’s core levels.  This is simply the price to be paid, and I for one am mostly okay with that.

Which isn’t to say that we shouldn’t continue to try & improve development practices, we shouldn’t stop trying to better educate our audiences, and we shouldn’t stop trying to be more creative developers, because we should.

But we also need to start digging deeper into all of those things to get to the core of why they happen rather than our arguments simply skimming the Surface.

GCAP – Quality, Community, Fractals

One of the things I noticed post Freeplay is the uniquely personal experience of conferences and festivals.  Every one who attends the traces a unique path through the content, and as such it’s difficult to plan before the event what the ideal experience is and post the event figure out whether it hit those.  The best you can do is to hope there’s enough interesting content that everyone finds something in their path that connects with them.

This year’s GCAP did that for me.

And disclaimer: as part of the board, I helped program it, but compared to something like Freeplay, my involvement was minimal. Continue reading GCAP – Quality, Community, Fractals

A clockwork mountain

This post is a little old now.  I wrote it immediately before Freeplay and then let it sit there while I wondered what to do with it.  I’m reposting it because it helps to frame my thoughts on GCAP, which I’ll get up in the next few days.

So.

Freeplay 2010 was built around the theme of  ‘Play is Everywhere’ and we approached it as a way of looking at the fundamentals of the creative process.  As a result I ended up thinking a huge amount about the design of things – including a festival (and in light of GCAP, a conference too).  Some of this is a little out of date where I’ve explored it in more detail since, but what the hell?  It’s free content, right?

Continue reading A clockwork mountain

Government support – Part 2

Over at Overland, Christopher Madden has a piece responding to Ben Eltham’s ‘Culture is bigger than the arts’, and anyone interested in both games in culture & government support should read it because it perfectly articulates two questions at the heart of these issues:

Eltham advocates government support for game design because it is ‘capable of breathtaking beauty and stunning leaps of imagination’, creating ‘entirely new worlds for gamers to explore’, and presenting ‘compelling moral challenges’. Without elaboration, this is a description of the joys of gaming rather than a solid argument to convince government it should support game design. There are many things that are beautiful and new that governments leave well alone.

More persuasive arguments for policy reform would allude to the benefits to society (the ‘public benefits’) or market failures associated with new media culture. Arguments would also need to overcome public cost perceptions of games as an addictive activity that encourages violence and time-wasting.

So, how best to answer both of these arguments without evoking the economic?  And without heading into ‘well, they get support so we should too’?

Digging deeper into the question of government support

First off, my condolences to everyone affected by what’s going on at Krome.  It’s a horrible situation, and I’m sure an incredibly complex one, but in the aftermath there has been an expected volume of chatter analysing the situation.  I don’t want to add to speculation on what lies at the root of the closure, but there is one part of the conversation that I think does need a more critical eye cast over it.

I’ve written before about how the language we use defines our ability to think about our industry & culture, and I think that, for better or worse, the discussion around government support has for a very long time dominated the public discussion and resulted in an almost knee jerk positioning of it as a solution to what’s going on.  Some examples of what I’m talking about can be found on Screenplay and tsumea here and here.

Now, I’m not in any way minimizing the importance of that, but I do think the situation, like a studio closing, is the result of a far more complex range of influences – and worth exploring in much greater detail.

Sadly, I don’t have the time to dig fully into these and provide answers, so this post is more of a call for people to think about what they’re saying, to apply a bit more critical thought, and to consider things as they are now – not how they should be in some idealised situation.

So, with that caveat, rather than blindly saying government support, let’s look at what that implies and perhaps what deeper questions we should be asking:

  • What economic conditions enabled Canada to offer their incentives?  What existing infrastructure was there to support it?  Do the same conditions exist here?  What other models exist overseas & how well do they function?
  • Why weren’t the lobbying efforts of the GDAA successful?  Were they asking for the right thing?  Was it well articulated?  And when it wasn’t working, what alternatives were tried? (Disclaimer: I’m on the new GDAA board)
  • Does the local Film Vic funding actually help studios break out of the work-for-hire cycle?  Granted the return on games is higher than film, but what is the actual shape of that – does the return belong to a small number of projects, is it across the board, and has it actually, significantly grown studios and employed people?
  • What is the end goal – inward investment of large publisher owned studios?  More work-for-hire studios? More small-scale indie devs?  To survive, there needs to be a broad ecosystem of developers, but how is that built?  How does government support fit into any of these?  And is it the role of a single agency, or is it split across a number of them?  Are those efforts co-ordinated?
  • Does government support automatically translate into new, original projects?  And are government best placed to evaluate those?  Or is the industry best placed to evaluate those itself?  What systems can be put in place to raise the standard of applications?
  • Why was the Film Victoria budget cut?  Are there broader economic or cultural reasons for that?
  • As suggested on the screenplay article, is it really about the mobile market?  Or is it also a quality issue?  With the number of titles in the app store specifically, what makes Firemint’s or Halfbrick’s games stand out?  Is it really a function of the market, or are there other quality & marketing factors there?

I’m not saying government support wouldn’t be gratefully received, because there’s no doubt that it would.  What I am saying is that it does us no good to uncritically position it as the major solution to the current situation, especially when even if they were introduced, there would be a ramping up period before they became effective.  It makes more sense, and helps us as a creative industry overall, to accept the situation as it is, to establish what *can* be done rather than what we’d like to be done, and then to respond accordingly.  And the best way to do that is to dig deeply and honestly into the guts of the issue rather than skimming the surface.

The culmination of my games & culture musings…

It’s going to take me a few days to properly process my thoughts on this year’s GCAP, especially in light of how its emergent themes reflect on what is happening with Krome.

In the meantime though, I thought I’d post a copy of the presentation I gave as part of the government round table to state and federal representatives titled ‘An Insight into Games in Culture’

Continue reading The culmination of my games & culture musings…

Reframing the Australian game

In writing and thinking about these posts on games and their place in the Australian cultural landscape, I found myself digging into the notion of what makes uniquely Australian content, and more specifically what might make a uniquely ‘Australian Game’.

There have been attempts at games that focus on Australian elements, most notably Ty the Tasmanian Tiger, Escape from Woomera, or some levels in Flight Control, but in the main the bulk of the work done here in industry and independent development contains none of that, making us easy fodder for those who maintain the argument that games have no cultural relevance – an argument that, at least in my research, never seems to meet with much resistance beyond ‘more people play games than ever before’ or ‘other mediums are supported so we should be too’.

I think there is an answer, but it requires a reframing of the entire question of what might make an Australian game.

Continue reading Reframing the Australian game

Neither a screen nor a technology culture be…

Ken Levine from Irrational Games, and creator of Bioshock and the upcoming Bioshock Infinite was recently interviewed by Develop magazine and in it he talks about his life in games, and some of the key differences in film. It culminates with him being offered a chance to work on a hollywood film – an offer he flatly refused.

Continue reading Neither a screen nor a technology culture be…