game industry

All posts tagged game industry


Wow it's been quite some time, since I've posted, my every day propelled in an endless orbit around the dense cluster of wonder-eyed cartoon pets and treacherous travails of game development that was my universe for the past year. Today our MMO-lite star was borne (not born) to the public, and in some ways the work has only begun. If I'm being overdramatic it's because this project has really felt just that cosmic.

Littlest Pet Shop Online officially launches today although it's been online for the past month in various beta phases. I firmly believe that while there is so much more I know this game can be, it has the best production values of any Light Persistent World out there, and certainly has the foundation for us to build upon it all our production dreams. That is the great game changer about an online game. I remember mulling about how MMOs were services not games before, but now I'm really face-to-face with just how much the capacity for dev-to-customer responsiveness ends up requiring more responsiveness from all.

My personal involvement has ran the gamut from game design to production to mentorship to padawanship to press monkey to DARPA think tank… too much to define. Sometimes I felt like I was part of everything, sometimes like a part of nothing anyone else could recognize. Towards the end of the project my Sr. Producer was removed from the project and that made it even more nebulous for me. It's quite a realization to accept that your project is really a living organism, not the vision of any one (or few) creators but a sentient mass of decisions, tweaks, features, design, and code that you must constantly redefine the vision of for yourself and your customers.

I can't talk about the lessons learned from this project because the lesson is only at the semester midterm exam, you know that one you wake up just before, in a cold sweat, fearful that all the preparation you did was lost in a previous dream? But no, regardless of much dream stuff there is, when I log into the website and see our client waiting there for real kids to make real accounts and meet real friends as we push real content out in real patches… certainly something wonderful was achieved. It sits on a bed, not of passive dreams, but clever threads, being weaved by hands that disregard real or not real, because the endless space of kids out there demand their days fulfilled.

It took the past year to get here. Now, we entertain. :drunk:

Yeah, it’s been a while since I’ve had a chance to post. And boy have there been so many things I’ve wanted to talk about, but now at the cusp of what should be a bright new year, I can’t bring myself to carol about all the devastation our economy is experiencing… it’s just too negative. While Xstine and I have consoled ourselves with the idea that our industry is recession proof, is it really? The official unemployment rate is 7.1% in Silicon Valley, above the national average, but if you used metrics from before the Clinton administration retooled CPI to their pleasure, national unemployment is over 16%.

But like I said, let’s stop talking about it. There will be plenty to decry next month, when the market loses faith in the mythical year-end bounce. Let’s talk fun things, like my new favorite site: www.mymomisafob.com It captures the charming, annoying irrational love of the asian mother, steeped in impromptu paranoias and Engrished superstitions.

Ignore the fact that the picture I posted comes from the now defunct Timesplitters developer Free Radical, who sadly along with Factor 5, Midway, EA, et al. are among the many with career casualties this last month. You know what’s fun? RoboKill is darn fun for a simple flash game! Reminds me of shareware classics like Raptor: Call of the Shadows and Zone 66, remember those goodies?

Also, I know this is a bit old, but I finally got to check out Wario Land: Shake It at the store, and it really leverages every bit of the Wii’s potential into a solid, novel platformer… and it has an awesome “trailer” so check this out!

Anyways, it’s tough mustering up much season’s spirit this year, but things are darkest before the light, right? And with so much dark coming, preparing to take advantage of the light is the best way to position ourselves for festive years to come.

Yesterday's cover story on Gamasutra was an article I wrote called Designing Happiness, about combining happiness research and game design. Please check it out!

I'm very happy to see design mature from throwing opinionated spitwads at glass to see what sticks to the discipline that it is becoming. It seems like after the Silver Age of gaming in this country, the dedicated designer role disappeared for a while. It wasn't a bad thing, as it forced designers to master other disciplines, to become more technical or more artistic, to gain a more tangible role than the kind that hackers and table-top dungeon masters had. And now, armed with some dangerous knowledge, game design is seizing it's own role again. I think some practices in the past gave pure game design a bad name, but that will change.

In this evolution, I see the next step of it as attuning the plentiful principles of game design into both a science in itself, and a substrate for other sciences. Philosophical taxonomists like Eric Zimmerman and Katie Salen did the former in Rules of Play, finding the core features of what games unique systems. Their book helped game designer know ourselves. My article was a small step towards knowing others. With the science of game design defined, I think we should apply them in context, find our motives and our audiences, and cross-reference the vast knowledge of other fields. As long as games are designed for a player, and that player is human, then all the other realms of science that actively seek to improve human life are relevant.

The two big swaths of entertainment for us this past week has been Iron Man (which Xstine and I saw for a combined 5 times!) and, of course, Grand Theft Auto 4.

Ah, GTA4… I quickly got bored of the original Playstation one, but somehow this latest entry has really brought back the fun. THere is a certain threshold that the right amount of variety crosses to give you the feeling of an infinitely rich world, and they were finally able to pull it off. Don't get me wrong, there are still obvious repetition in peds and vehicles, and the facial animation isn't nearly as well done as people seem to think, but all is forgiven the moment you enter this beautiful game. They've set a standard in time-of-day lighting, panoramas, and sheer environmental variety. Every part of town has it's own flavor reflecting the virtual "realities" of the local economy, history, and people. It's as close to a living breathing city as we have in video games.

The gameplay interests in a different way. Sometimes, the missions can be unforgivingly hard since the camera is utterly obtuse, and the controls are a mash-up of schemas that just couldn't get along. I suppose they had no choice, but there is certainly little elegance in getting your protagonist Nico Bellic to do a wide range of mundane to violent actions. Somehow, the sandbox play eases up the difficulty scaling by letting you go on murderous tangents whenever you feel frustration rising. It's very self-regulating. I may be en route to a critical mission when an off-the-cuff remark from a sassy pedestrian will send me into a rampage, and an hour later I've accomplished nothing but a trail of bodies. What better way to take out my frustrations at repeated mission failings.

That lack of progress is a bit tiring, and the game's punishment system is too binary (being arrested is worse than dying because you get all weapons stripped?), and the saving is a penalty itself (you can't save mid-mission, you can't quit missions, and you only have one place in a huge town to save). But for once I can overlook fundamental gameplay flaws because the game isn't just polished, it *is* polish. From the endless webpages you can browse to a huge amount of television and radio content, there is no shortage of quality satire of every aspect of our real lives. There's too much to absorb that it's almost paralyzing.

There is even an in-game joke referencing idiot attorney extraordinaire Jack Thompson, who oh-so-cleverly phoned into NPR to voice his misguided attack on the game's content. Unfortunately, the gamer correspondent on the show made for pitiful defense. Gamers need to stop masturbating over the game's features and start talking about the issues intelligently.

It's ignorant to claim games can't incite violence. There is no way that that amount of violent exposure doesn't cause some level of aggressiveness or desensitization. Gamers need to accept that. Then they need to turn around and point out the double-edge sword that treats games as brainwashing kill trainers, but pretends violence in TV, film, comics, books, music, or any other medium is innocuous. Yes, GTA4 will end up in the hands of certain impressionable children, but you can't sue Take-Two for that, you have to blame the retailers. And frankly, they really can't, because game retailers have done a great job controlling sales to minors. Check out the FTC report yourself.

But since stupid lawyers want to reduce games to nothing but murder sims, I see nothing wrong with putting lawyers into games as nothing but sims to murder. After so many violent games, it's not like we have the free-will to think otherwise.

Taking the top-100 games between March 13th, 2007 and March 13th, 2008, as reported by Next-Gen.biz, I did some number crunching to find some correlations. Keep in mind that the conclusions drawn are only appropriate to the games and timeframe stated, and that I did make certain assumptions along the way (like treating re-releases as different games). Plus my math isn’t so hot, but you get the idea.

Here are my findings:

And you can download the excel file here.

What I found is that there is a 0.28 correlation between daily game sales (DS) and Metacritic score. Is this alot? That I cannot tell you, but what I can point out is that this is (surprisingly) higher than the correlation between DS and the # of SKUs the game was released on, which was 0.20 based on the data.

You may notice that there is a negative correlation of -0.13 between total sales numbers and days since release. This is not a mistake. Because the timeframe ends not long after the holiday season, this season’s blockbusters actually have higher total sales than games released after the last holiday season. This goes to show how important that season is. I am aware that the # of sales decreases at an exponential rate after release, so keep in mind that DS is probably weighted higher for more recent releases.

Dividing the mean DS by 100 possible Metacritic points and then multiplying by the correlation squared, I guesstimate that last year each +1% to the Metacritic score was worth 7.67 sales per day (for the top-100 selling games). Is that worth it to developers and publishers? Without more data on budgets and per SKU revenues, it’s hard to tell. One thing to notice is that no top-100 game scored below 30%, so I would think the DS per Score would be slightly higher.

Similar to Chris Pruett’s article (except that I corrected for number of days released and extrapolated correlation) I conclude that a good score does not guarantee sales. I’d clarify his observation that there are no bad games over a million units by saying that companies who make bad games wouldn’t have the budget to attempt a million sales. Scores are important for selling blockbusters, but that doesn’t mean you need to make great games to make money. Sadly, the majority of games just need to be between 50% and 95% to sell well.

In the future, I would like to further refine this data, using platform marketshare and total SKUs, as well as including IP vs. non-IP into the discussion.

I haven't time to comment much on the economy recently, thanks to Super Smash Bros. Brawl and… oh who am I kidding… I didn't even do a portfolio postmortem for last year. We are clearly in a recession right now, something I predicted in 2005 after much research, and my wishes go out to everyone in the American workforce… except those in the game industry! We don't need it! We are recession-proof! Hah!

Well, predicted sounds arrogant… I didn't predict a recession, I just tried to point out the mountain of evidence that it would happen. It's no surprise to me that games are recession-proof, though. Entertainment in general follows different fundamentals than other industries. Games often get compared to film, but there are two key differences that have made us an industry that has begun to intimidate Hollywood in size. …

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The Games Developer Conference (GDC) ended this week, and while I'm a bit unhappy about how it's slowly being turned into a place to announce big upcoming titles (don't make this E3, please), it was a good show. I got some great books from the GDC books store (Zimmerman and Salen's Rules of Play and a game business/legal stuff book), and Xstine was lucky enough to attend two full days of workshops on staging and normal mapping workflow.

The emphasis by both Microsoft and Nintendo on the importance of the rising wave of micro-developers, a mix of indies, individuals, and small-timers, is a glimpse of what I think will be a powerful trend in the future. I'm excited at what XNA and WiiWare will offer. It is inevitable that as the tools and the venue for games mature, game development will meet extreme democratization. The long tail will grow with the short head, Chris Anderson would say.

So it would behoove all gamers to anticipate that wave, and plays some of the Independent Game Festival's finalists and winners for best independent games. I especially recommend Fez, Crayon Physics Deluxe, and Goo!. While I think indie games are a little hung-up on physics based interactions at the moment, it's inarguably a parsimonious flavor of design to make, and it's just great to see these little games eating into the mindshare of triple-A titles with multi-million dollar budgets. It makes this gamer proud.

Speaking of proud gamers, I had the pleasure of watching one of the best documentaries since Murderball. It's a story of good and evil, the American spirit, the meaning of life… and nigh-unwatchable world of competitive Donkey Kong, where grown men's lives revolve around the high score board of an ancient arcade classic. There are priceless lines from characters I'm embarrassed to say reside a bit in all of our inner nerd. And yet the movie was crafted so very very well that even while we are incredulous at how socially retarded these people are, by the end of the movie we are swept up in the drama of it all, and that silly game becomes almost as epic for us as it is for them. You need to watch The King of Kong tonight!


Wow, disgusting. Sure, this tribute is an honest, sincere, touching expression for their dear friend Gerstmann, but c'mon… this is an unprofessional, weepy-feely, nerd funeral in the worst way. They should grow up and get used to the real, ad-capitalized world that keeps them employed doing a throw-away job. These people seriously think they are on the vanguard of a brave new era, contributing. Per my last post, I believe that is bullshit. Gamespot's own statement about the situation makes perfect sense to all but the kids on game forums who continue to rave over their late reviewer, screaming "fuck you" to the proverbial "man."

Incidentally, talking to our studio head recently, he told me an interesting anecdote about an independent reviewer contracted to cover a major sport title for Gamespot or IGN (he forgets which review site). Anyways, the guy wrote a decent write-up of the game, gave it something like an 8.0 or so, and one of the lead developers wrote to him to say thanks for the fair review, thanks for actually playing the damn game (unlike most reviewers), and offered to send him him an alpha of the next version for him to check out early.

The guy emailed back to say that he probably shouldn't be talking to him. The independent reviewer, turns out, had actually wanted to score the game much higher, at around a 9.0, but was told that was an inappropriate score for a games of its ilk made by big, hated corporations like Sony and EA. He hadn't met their scoring "guidelines." He concluded by saying that his game reviewer stint promptly came to an end, and he decided to give up game journalism and move far away.

So I'm glad Gerstmann was made an example of. In a way, game reviewers are very much like Wall Street analysts, treading a fine line between reporting and currying favor with either the executives or the greedy market. Often, it devolves into a popularity contest with few threads of meritocracy holding the whole system together. Either way, you should take them all with a grain of salt, however much they may seem like the "little guy."

I've been reading Use the News by money honey Maria Bartiromo, and while her book is gossipy and light on practical information, that's what Wall Street is, and her perspective is a great read, especially about those analysts. You can see exactly how she got in trouble over the Bernanke slip, as her personality comes through strongly, but it's an excellent slice of street-think to pore over. If you watch financial news on TV at all, it's certainly worth a read, and will hopefully help you get a handle on your own trading emotions.

Yeah, hot on the heels of EA acquiring Bioware and Pandemic, we have the Activision + Blizzard merger, which is big news and has Xstine wishfully talking about getting a free subscription now… but I have something else on my mind.

You, fair reader, must ask yourself. Was Jeff Gerstmann's review (above) of Kane & Lynch wrong? Was it unfair? Was it a justifiable reason for him to be to be fired from Gamespot after an offended Eidos snatched back stacks of advertising dollars with an angry yoinks? Probably not. But somehow, I don't feel the slightest sympathy for him. I'll tell you why his firing pleases me, and why it should please all those gamers who hope their medium is taking its rightful place among the world.

Criticism. What does it mean? Why does film, art, and music criticism surpass video game criticism? Because criticism, as an artform in and of itself, teaches you something about what it criticizes. It deconstructs the craftsmanship, the message, and the greater context of a work's role in the pantheon. Video game reviews, however, are nothing but paid opinions of what Steve adroitly described as "people who couldn't get into the game industry." Fanboys, backseat game designers, internet experts, and such forth.

Their reviews contribute little to the creation of a better game because these people have no experience working in games. On the other hand, music reviewers can play instruments, art critics can create art, and movie reviewers can have academic backgrounds. What do game reviewers have besides a subjective internal list of what they'd rather vege on a couch playing? I'm not ignoring the flaws of other forms of criticism, but let's be honest here, even at it's best, game reviews are bad. At the end of the day, games are designed for someone in particular, unlike movies which generally can be enjoyed by anyone when done well. Games are inherently fantasy fulfillment, not fantasy creation, and have to be judged on how well they satisfied gamers of a particular type. It is on that level where, for some, Bejeweled can be as good of a game as World of Warcraft.

Gamespot reviewers think that by arbitrarily demanding some games to have innovation, some games to just be fun, some games to be an "experience," whatever their pseudo-standard is, they are "raising the bar." Bullshit. Until there is a real literary quality in games that can be criticized, game journalism is just a recommendation to buy. We all know game advertisement pays for reviews, don't kid yourself. There isn't even anything wrong with that, and I bring up Penny Arcade reviews as an example of it done well. People are simply shopping for the review they need, and for your site to pretend it's creating a golden metric for an immature medium is ridiculous.

To those who want to go out and picket for Jeff, who think the review above sounds like something of senior editor quality at a major game mag, who think they're fighting the evil corporations who are "corrupting" this brilliant stuff with sponsorship, you've already lost. That shit ain't free, nor should it be. Ask yourself how any criticism is paid for. Then demand a higher standard. Abolish this bullshit point system.

Go with the Netflix 5-star system:
:star: hate it,
:star::star: didn't like it,
:star::star::star: liked it,
:star::star::star::star: loved it,
:star::star::star::star::star: unmissable
.

Ultimately, the only two factors that matters for a game are fun and value. Game review snobs demean the whole industry, just like snobs in any other industry.

We've been working a lot recently, coming home to squeeze in what time we have left into some of the great titles out right now. I indulged in a week of the Hellgate London beta, which is my first Diablo-esque, and consequently was a virtual ambush of vacuous addictiveness.

Xstine and I have had some great games in Team Fortress 2, which I is part of the greatest game deal of the year, Orange Box. It's got the utterly surreal and anti-genre Portal, and Team Fortress itself is an excellent fast-paces team-based shooter that has ingenious visual design based off 50's commercial art. You can even play the levels with developer commentary, with behind-the-scenes design processes described in detail as you run around relevant parts of the world. Now that is a labor of love.

I also want to say that the character designs for each of the Team Fortress classes is especially well done, with each having unique body/weapons silouettes that are geared towards making them easy to read in the frenetic action. Characters have a concentration of lighting and color saturation in the chest area, and the shapes that the colors and lines form lead the eye to the chest, and by extension to the weapon the character is holding. For example, you have the medic class with a lab coat that opens out to form a V that points back up to his upper body. A tremendous amount of thought has gone into these character designs. My only regret with the game is that its lack of levels really limit the creativity of a team's class make-up.

So anyways, I'm working on my annual portfolio post-mortem. Here's to hoping Helicopter Ben keeps the market buoyed 'til the end of the year, as inflation has taken a backseat to the credit crunch as the big issue. In the meantime, I'll continue to fill my pre-bedtime hours with unhealthy doses of Puzzle Quest; it's mutation of mindless Bejeweled into a satisfying RPG-lite experience is way more playable than the unsummed parts would have you think.