Got It In One

I’ve always enjoyed Jerry’s writing over at Penny Arcade, so I suppose it should come as no surprise that I think he damn near nailed the game industry metaphor when he said this:

The stakes are high, and getting higher, and publishers who were once merely gun-shy are now officially paranoid, rolling around in a padded cell until the drugs take effect. Part of the reason GDC made me uncomfortable is that I could feel its culture pressing on me from all sides, and I knew it wasn’t mine. But the other part was that I got a sense of how brutal that life is, how unstable it can be, how maddening, and I just wanted to come home and match gems or some shit. I didn’t want to see it anymore. I don’t want to think about a cow’s quiet eyes every time I grip a hamburger.


What MUDs Still Have to Offer to the Virtual World Discussion

There has been a lot of discussion within academic circles regarding the use of virtual worlds for the purpose of researching various forms of human and communal interaction and formation. Due to the exorbitant current cost of entry in creating an MMORPG (and the fact that they already have a population for the purposes of sampling), it seems like a great deal of the research is occurring within already established games. There’s nothing wrong with this, per se, though there will come a time when the greater degree of control over variables that comes with creating your own environments will likely become necessary. (As a case in point, while they can select which games they choose to sample, researchers tend not to have control over how the game is marketed, nor which demographics it chooses to target.)

There also seems to be a fair bit of focus on contemporary games, like Second Life, and World of Warcraft. While this certainly has merit, especially in that these games reach a certain critical mass, allowing for a greater demographic sampling for research: you are more likely to get not just core gamers, but also casuals with other interests that play as a fad (because “everyone” plays). This can only help the overall direction of research into social dynamics and interaction, and examining the social organism as a whole. However, what I’ve found is very little attention to a return to prior research, prior virtual worlds and experiments.

I think this is incredibly unfortunate. I think there is still a lot of play left in earlier models, such as MUDs (Multi-User Domains/Dungeons, the text-based precursor to the modern MMORPG). Many MUDs at this point have been established for well over a decade, which I think would offer a wealth of opportunities for seeing how a community matures and shifts as it ages. Let’s take AvatarMUD for example, since I have nearly a decade of experience with it. Over the past decade, I’ve seen the population rise to a peak population count of 190 individual players on at a given time, with a median of roughly 120 across the day, to a slow decline as players moved on, where the median is closer to 60, with a daily peak player count of around 90. Even in this, it has survived better than many MUDs.

As the player community has shrunk, so has the sense of community, which could be partially attributed to several design implementations that allowed for greater fragmentation of the player base (in addition to outside factors, such as a shift away from MUDs in general, and the increased availability of broadband allowing for more visually robust games to be played). What is particularly notable is that as the nature of the game evolved, we started adjusting and adapting more and more for “min-max” players, and hardcore players. This came at the cost of the more casual, social player. While I don’t think it is a perfect ratio, I strongly suspect there is at least a passing corollary between the reduction in population, with the prior percentage of casual and social players. What has remained are largely committed players, who have invested hundreds or even thousands of hours into their characters, and generally have considerably more than one alt. They’ve “mastered” the play mechanics of the game, and generally continue to play because of their investment in the game, and the friends they’ve made within the game, rather than continuing to find new challenges.

Due to making these adjustments in order to “keep ahead” of the “hardcore” players, the barrier of entry for new and more socially-oriented players becomes untenable unless they already have friends within the game. This is not unreasonable, since MUDs are largely populated through word of mouth: they are often labors of love, and not even allowed to charge or generate revenue, which means they tend not to have the budget to advertise. It does, however, mean that the truly new player is largely left to fend for themselves, and can become extremely frustrated until they start establishing a rapport and support group among other players. If they aren’t willing or able to devote the time and energy towards that end, that often marks the end of their time on the MUD.

This isn’t meant to be a doom or gloom forecast of things to come with AvatarMUD, and the staff remains receptive to a number of ideas on how to aid the casual player in becoming established, without sacrificing the game mechanics and design path they’re interested in pursuing. It remains to be seen how effective these ideas will prove to be, but that returns me to the point of this essay: MUDs present an opportunity to observe communities further along in the cycle, and their continued use as a sandbox for virtual worlds should not be underestimated.

A Step In the Right Direction

Before I get into my own tirade, there’s some recommended reading for you. Don’t worry, I’ll wait:
Braid won’t be at Slamdance after all.
flOw won’t be at Slamdance after all.
Braid Ditches Slamdance in Protest
Slamdance Pulled SCMRPG On Moral Grounds (Referenced from a Rocky Mountain News article.)
Slamdance: SCMRPG removal was personal, not business
Super Columbine Massacre: Artwork or Menace?

Everyone back? Good. As has been raised by several of the more cogent posters, it’s not directly a first amendment issue (which I’m sure regular readers have realized is something of a personal windmill I tilt at), since the Slamdance festival is technically a private organization, and has a right to decide what will or will not be shown at their festival. But there is definitely still some relevance to the battle against censorship and winning over the public mindshare that games are a valid form of creative expression, and deserve the same freedoms afforded to other media towards that end. There is no legal recourse, but that does not mean we should not raise our voices in displeasure at this sort of behavior. As a festival that ostensibly supports the idea of games as art, it is patently unacceptable behavior to remove a valid game from the competition due to a specious claim of moral concern. There is no legal recourse, since it is a private organization, and so the only method of protest that remains to us is to not participate in the festival, to encourage others to withdraw as well, and to express in no uncertain terms exactly why we are doing so. I applaud those developers that have already chosen to make that stand, and hope their other brethren soon follow suit. It is only through community and solidarity that we’ll truly drive home the point that this sort of censorial behavior is not acceptable.

The Rise of the Small Production Team?

This week on Gamasutra, Stephen Ford’s article has garnered a fair bit of coverage. Is there something wrong with how business is being conducted in the gaming industry? Perhaps. That said, there are a great many companies doing fantastic business and reliably turning out quality products while increasing profits year-on-year. Regardless of any talk of problems needing correcting, Ford puts forward the idea of small production companies dominating the gaming industry in the future. What he’s suggesting, in essence, is that the games industry should adopt the production model that the film industry currently uses, especially as the average AAA game budget increasingly resembles the average blockbuster film budget.

Let’s take a look at the parallels between his model of game development and the film production model he’s basing it on: say we’re a film production company and we want to make a big comic book movie from an IP that we’ve optioned. So simulatenously now, we’re gonna start making the rounds of the different studios and see about finding one who’s willing to give us the money, we’re hiring a screenwriter to write the script, and we’re bringing on board a director and possibly casting the lead roles, simultaneously negotiating all of the contracts with all of those people. That’s the early stages, the make or break stuff. Boom, we’ve got one studio that’s willing to give us the money, and we found a director and big name to star. Let’s say the director also has a character artist he wants to help shape the look and feel of the film, plus an editor and cinematographer he likes to work with, so in this case we don’t need to find those people. So now we can really get into pre-production, scouting locations as we get our casting director on board (we probably use the same one or two over and over again), and hire the special effects company that we want to use, arrange the rental of all our equipment (possibly from the studio that has given us the money, possibly from one of the many other places in town that do such things, perhaps from several such companies), hire all of our production assistants, assistant directors, set dressers, grips, lighting board ops, sound guys, makeup artists, art assistants and all the rest, arrange transportation and housing and food for everyone, and THEN we can start production.

That’s a lot of fuss, a whole lot of negotiations, and a whole lot of places things can go wrong. Film production is a massive undertaking, even for a modest budget. It’s super expensive, because all those people are contractors. It requires knowing just about everybody in town, and the town’s pretty much gotta be LA or New York. So why is that a good idea?

It all comes down to due diligence. For every step of the way, you want to have the very best people you can possibly hire in each role, and you need to be able to fire them instantaneously if they drop the ball in any way. With a good reputation, you’re golden and you can get work into old age if you can keep up, and make LOTS of money in the process. That’s why LA is so notoriously networked. It’s all about who you know and what you’ve worked on, because as your reputation as a producer improves, so does the quality of people who want to work with you, and the more likely it’ll be for the studios to give you big piles of money. The film industry is one with vastly more people looking for work than actual work, and the production house system lets the cream rise to the top, in theory at least. While it seems like it would be cheaper to have everything under one house, it’s important to note that the film industry adopted the production house model to reduce overhead as well as risk while improving the quality of the films produced. Despite my significant dissatisfaction with most of the pablum produced by the film industry, after looking at the stuff made in the 60s and 70s, I’d have to say it’s been largely a good choice. The competitive pressures of the production house model help to ensure that the best managers are in control of most of the money in the industry.

Is the film industry the same as the game industry? No. The process of building a game is a different thing, with its own unique goals and challenges. But can the game industry use the business model utilized by the film industry? Absolutely. The increasing use of outsourcing makes it increasingly possible. As specialized companies rise up to provide the very best quality available in their specialty at a price comparable to doing it yourselves in-house with no worries of overhead, then we will of course see the small production company rise in popularity within the game industry. I don’t think that the studio model will be supplanted, but I do believe that once a major hit of the Half-Life or World of Warcraft variety is produced via this method, we will rapidly see a vast shift, specifically with regards to expansion of the industry. Starting a development house these days is a daunting task. Smaller companies committed to doing one thing perfectly just makes good business sense. The small production team is the natural outgrowth of that market trend. It’s sure not going to happen overnight, but we will see it happen.

What’s Up, Sony?

I hear a lot of talk about how Sony is trying to win ‘the HD format war’. At this point in the game it seems that there will be no winner. VHS was a poor technology that had long outlived its usefulness, and DVDs are vast improvements over VHS tapes. Having a DVD player is downright obvious at this point. But who needs either an HD-DVD or BluRay player? Other than audiophiles with $10,000+ home theatres, do you know anyone who feels that DVDs are in any way inadequate? There seems to be this assumption that one of the two will be crowned king of the movie market and the public will en masse gather behind the new king and stop buying DVDs. See, that’s just crap analysis. The only thing HD-DVD or BluRay has over DVD is higher expense, better picture, and more onerous copy-protection. DVD over VHS has chapter select, extras, better picture, similar cost and a smaller form factor and even then it took five years before the market had predominantly switched to DVD. So hear me now. Both HD-DVD and BluRay are doomed to obscurity, right alongside laser disc, mini disc, SACD, dvd-audio, and all the rest of the formats that weren’t vast improvements over the previous generation.

Five years from now they’ll put HD video on something like a minidisc and then that might become popular if readers and writers are cheap enough and the format natively supports both rewriting for data and DRM lockdown for the studio-produced discs. Plays on your 10th generation iPod (with 20 hr life playing hd video) or pop it into your Xbox 4ever and play away. But this? This is not a winning product. Neither HD-DVD nor BluRay has much over previous technology, and so both will rapidly fade into memory, just as UMP already has.

Sony is banking a lot on the notion of BluRay winning massive public support and becoming a de-facto standard. But it’s simply not feasible. In other words, they’re going down. They’ll bring in a butcher as the new CEO in a couple years who will pare everything down to their core profit centers. We may or may not see a PS4. Already Sony is shifting gears to a Japan-centric stance in the console war, regrouping to focus on the one market they know they can win. But can they? Nintendo is huge in Japan, and the DS is the clear winner over the PSP when it comes to both market share and profits. Sony may make good money with the PSP in Japan, but Nintendo is especially poised to dominate the video game market of Japan right now (as well as the world at large, to be honest). Half the cost counts for a lot in Japan’s dull economy, not to mention Nintendo’s efforts to expand the video game market past the hardcore Famitsu-reading fans will likely reap huge windfalls of new players. Sony will make good profits and push many units out the door, but in terms of market share they stand to lose in this generation.

The fate of Sony hinges primarily on the Cell processor coming down in price, up in yields, and being used across the brand for the next decade. While they are weak now, if Sony can push through the rough spot without falling down, and get even one major consumer electronics hit on their hands based on that new tech, then they could well see the land of rising profits once again. The PS3 may or may not become profitable in the US market– at this point it’s a crap shoot. But we do know that Sony’s dominace is over– they will have to play much better than they have in the past or they may be forced to walk Sega’s unenviable path. The PS3 may be Sony’s Saturn. I do believe that they could well rise again to the global market dominance they have enjoyed up until now, but it will most assuredly be a long, dangerous road for the corporate behemoth.

“For Fun” Indeed

To say that games cannot do whatever other media can do, that they are “just for fun” and have no other purpose, is to betray a profound contempt for games. (Raph Koster in response to a comment that games are played for nothing more than fun)

Very succinctly stated and in my opinion spot on.  As is evidenced by the nature of the appeal in Minnesota, there are still quite a few ill-informed and misconceived notions about the medium that need to be addressed.  While there is a fair bit of understanding that video games are the “political tool du jour” in this election year, that doesn’t make their attempts to restrict the rights and freedoms of a fledgling medium any less dangerous.

I’ve discussed this in the past, but I’ll say it again: comics sadly let themselves be pigeonholed back when they first became popular, and have now had to spend decades fighting that image because they didn’t fight it then.  Regardless of whether you like graphic, violent video games, I hope that we can all agree that in order to defend our rights as a whole, we need to defend these now.

The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one’s time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all. (H.L. Mencken)

Democratized Literacy

Raph Koster has an excellent post up right now discussing the notion of democratized literacy that is well worth the time to read. I’d have to say that I largely agree with him, and feel that he makes an important implicit point: the entire notion of literacy and literature is constantly evolving, and should not be assumed as a static and limited definition. The structure and limits of a definition can change and expand, as long as the idea remains.

There will be more substantial content “soon.” In the meantime, I hope readers are finding these links useful.

RPGs at Gestural Narrative

While I may go back and expand on this in the future, I wanted to mention this post about games, in particular role playing games, as a form of gestural narrative, which I found over at Roll the Bones. Rather than reinventing or reiterating the wheel, I would instead suggest you swing by the site and read it for yourself.

On an unrelated note, please be patient; we’ll be doing more with this site soon.