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Wednesday, 13 July 2011

The (Non-Existent) Divide

I don't know whether us gamers are just programmed to enjoy a good argument - or flame war - but it seems to me that for a social group that essentially all love the same form of entertainment we have a daft amount of internalised divisions.

Console vs PC. 'Core' vs 'Casual'. Single-Player vs Multiplayer. Inverted Y Axis vs Non-Inverted Y Axis...

The particular division that has been discussed multiple times in the space of a few days recently is that of gender. This is not a new debate within games, and this is the fact that makes this particularly odd, because in modern society there are few things where an obvious division between masculinity and femininity would be tolerated. Yet within the games industry there is a trend for making a mountain out of a molehill over the fact that sometimes, the fairer sex also indulge in this entertainment medium.

On the one hand, we have the recent column in Edge magazine by Clint Hocking who says that studios need to encourage more women to join their development staff. As Quinn Dunki rightly points out, making an issue of the fact that there are minimal female staff is part of the problem - any women wanting to break into the industry immediately feel singled out.

RPG Cinderella Life - looks more like a dress-up game from here...
On top of this sort of attitude, there is another assumption bubbling under the surface that all female gamers can be tarred with the same brush - the one that drips with Nintendogs, Cooking Mama, and the entire Imagine series. The image to the right is from a recently announced game from the developers of the Professor Layton games entitled, rather worryingly Cinderella Life. CEO of developer Level-5, Akihiro Hino, also stated that the majority of the development team were female.

This smacks of an incredible level of patronisation. Not only is the subtext here stating that female gamers want an abundance of pink and the ability to dress up their avatars in the same way they may have dressed up a Barbie when they were little, it also suggests that even when these girls grow up and become professional game developers, that all they are then capable of doing is producing more of such games. I'm not female, and even I feel offended on behalf of the numerous female gamers I know that like nothing better than to shotgun soldiers' faces off...

It is as though the industry is saying that 'boy games' - i.e those that contain war, fighting, blood, guns, most sports and generally not much pink - are all far too hard or far too scary for the feminine mind which requires pretty colours, nice clothes, and not a lot else. It is misogonystic to medieval proportions.

The likely reason that there aren't so many female gamers is precisely because they are prevented at every turning from liking games - because after all, girls don't play games. It is a never ending cycle. It is an entertainment medium like any other, those that like it, like it, those that don't, don't. Stop making an issue out of a non-existent divide and that'll be that.

Monday, 11 July 2011

The Morality of the Story

The Rapture that I wandered through does not harbor a single discarded Little Sister - each one of them dutifully saved by my righteous hand. Well, you couldn't possibly murder an innocent little girl for your own gain, could you?

Obviously, in the real world that decision is void - at least I would hope so. But how do we play games that offer up such moral decision making? Do we play "as we would in real life", or do we take the opportunity to take the opposite path - the darker path? Is the presence of morality in games the selling point, or is the presence of the ability to not abide by any morality at all that is the actual allure?

Which is it to be - ADAM, or the feeling of a being a 'good person'?
This is an interesting question, because surely if it was the ability to be evil that was attractive we would see a far greater abundance of games focused explicitly on this - Dungeon Keeper for example, or Overlord are two that spring to mind. Instead there are a seemingly ever increasing number of games that offer what are more often than not relatively extreme forms of morale decision making. Do you save the man from the burning wreckage of the crashed car, or chuck a few vodka bottles in there to help him on his way? These sorts of 'decisions' cannot really even be classed as such - they are clearly framed scenarios that allow you to be frivolously evil, or obviously good. Many of these situations are so clearly polarised that they lose any sense of a situation one might encounter in real life, thus making the above question irrelevant.

I would argue that this is where the dividing line is - consequence. By definition, morality can only exist in a world where there is tangible consequence for one's actions. Without consequences, the notion of 'right' or 'wrong' simply becomes 'A' or 'B'. A game that actually makes being evil harder than being good - as it (usually) is in the real world - I think would have added depth and added believability. Yes you could still quicken the burning man's departure from this world, but your doing so will have very bad results for you down the line. Obviously, as we are talking games, there has to be some incentive for players to be evil - but that's fine, that's how games operate. Offer additional achievements, trophies, unlockables or other rewards for taking the path of most resistance, by all means; ultimately, players will still be able to choose to be evil. Except they will then have to live with the consequences their actions bring about.

No doubt if games were actually to implement something along these lines, they would be immediately shunned by most players - if they commit a single evil act and are disadvantaged for the rest of the game this would no doubt be seen as 'unfair'. But that is how real life works. And if what players really want is a true representation of meaningful morally based choice-making then the resultant impact of those choices needs to be as close to reality as possible too.

Hell - here's to more games that see the player executed and their save games wiped when they get caught for killing that random NPC...

What? Why is everyone glaring at me...?

All comments welcomed - please vent your views below!

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Passion with a Problem

You don't get far in anything in life if you don't have a passion - a fire in your belly that makes you want to do it. Few careers highlight this more than games development. You need to eat, sleep and breathe games and games development; you need to want to do it in your spare time - heck you need to want to do it when you don't have spare time. It's clear by looking at job requirements as they become available, each one indicating a need for the above albeit in slightly more professional and less emotional wording.

Team Bondi: Makers of LA Noire

The problem is that when people are this dedicated and this willing to partake in the development process, they become very easy to take advantage of. The recent whistleblowing regarding Team Bondi, Rockstar and the LA Noire development process are a case in point although they are most certainly not the only guilty party. A catastrophic mismanagement of the staff, based on punishing crunch periods over a seven year development cycle. The general consensus - or threat, to give it its correct name - is that if someone isn't willing to put in inhuman numbers of hours then they clearly aren't dedicated to the industry; and it's very easy to replace them with one of the thousands of others eager to get a break into the field. This generates a feeling of oppression and entrapment, which is bad for the individual, bad for the studio and ultimately bad for the game being developed.

The concerning thing is that, very quickly, that all important passion is stifled as the development team burn out; and this isn't just an industry problem, I have seen it happen at University level as well - I've even been on both sides of the scenario - both as programmer and as project manager.

This is why I think the best teams (and therefore the most successful companies) are formed, not by a passionate team of developers alone, but a passionate team lead by a passionate leader. Even better, a leader that has worked their way up through the lower developmental ranks. My institute offers both a Games Development, and Games Enterprise course, but they have a significant amount of crossover. The would-be entrepeneurs still learn the key parts of actually making a game. This produces more empathic, well-rounded producers, directors and managers that have witnessed first-hand the development passion in action, and (hopefully) understand its need to be nurtured and not trampled.

There will always be managers with unreasonable expectations - even those that could be described as bullies. However if enough graduates enter the industry over the next few years with this more empathic attitude, I think we will slowly begin to see a much-needed shift in the way the industry operates.

All comments and views welcome - add yours below! 

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Are Developers Purposely Stifling Local Split-Screen Play?

It used to be a simple activity, going round to your mate's house, sitting down in front of your (then) rather small television set and playing some four-way split-screen Mario Kart. For example. Now it appears that developers are going to the effort of actively discouraging this simple pleasure - sometimes in the most utterly ridiculous of ways.

Killzone 3 utilises a horrible staggered split-screen layout.
Two recent games have brought this to my attention; namely Killzone 3, and F.E.A.R 3. Both of these games are big, Triple-A titles from established development studios. Both lend themselves perfectly to cooperative, tactical game play. Yet both have decided to adopt what has got to be the ugliest split-screen solution I have ever seen. The screenshot taken from Killzone 3 shows the bizarre misuse of screen real-estate in action.

The reasoning purported for this design is that it was found in play testing that a more traditional horizontally split-screen made it harder for players to see above and below them. Other reasons, such as being less processor intensive have also been suggested. Surely however, what has worked for many many years on previous consoles is just as acceptable in today's games; heck, it worked absolutely fine in Gears of War - and that is a 3rd person game, with even less freedom of camera movement.

Now the cynic in me would suggest that by making the process of playing locally with a friend so aesthetically and functionally displeasing developers are aiming to shift more copies of games as players take to playing over the Internet. The optimist in me hopes that these titles are simply anomalies, and the play testers that thought that this method of split-screen was better have been put out to the proverbial pasture.

I know there are plenty of people who don't care either way about this, but equally a quick browse around the interweb shows I am certainly not the only one who does care; and I wonder, like me, how many of those have decided to put off purchasing games because of problems with the local multiplayer design?

Of course, I could just be annoyed that my investment in a big HD television seems somewhat void as I squint at a tiny box of game play in the corner of it...

Do you agree? Or could I not be more wrong? Leave your comments below! 

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Welcome to the Fantasy Zone. Get Ready!

Ok, so perhaps Fantasy Zone is pushing it a little bit. However, it is my aim to make this blog an interesting, thought provoking space within which any and all things Game can be discussed. I seem to spend much of my life arguing; or critically analysing, to be more professional, many aspects of games, game design and the direction of the industry. I have intended for many years now to open a blog to record such things in a more public domain and finally, I have found the time and motivation to do so.

So for those of you who do not know me (which at the time of writing, it is likely to be most people!), I am a Ph.D candidate from the University of Portsmouth in the United Kingdom. Having completed a B.Sc degree in Computer Games Technology, I am now researching into player expectation and game play schema in Horror games. I will also be working on upcoming game development projects in conjunction with the University, which I will be blogging about as and when I am allowed to disclose information.

As a newcomer to the research community, I hope that this blog, along with my personal website at will help to make me a more recognisable face in the crowd. Of course, I would also love it to become a discussion space for the wider gaming community - but we will see how it goes!