Maintaining the Status Quo (on Games Criticism)

August 10th, 2014

Every now and then I come across a great quote that articulates something that’s been sitting in one of the dark corners of my brain, patiently waiting for that light bulb moment of articulation. One of the great things about this game design discussion group that I’m part of (more details here) is that such quotes come regularly. Here is one on games criticism:

“I think a lot of the criticism field is about proving authority through displaying how well you fit in the group. You do this by outward displays of intellectualism, which is easiest to manufacture by taking the simple and rendering it complex enough to justify your college degree. Since today’s game design culture is such a loose world of ideas with very little in the way of concrete knowledge, currying status among the critical community doesn’t mean producing results that others can reproduce and use–it means harnessing intellectual fads and making everyone feel good (read: smart). “Let’s come up with language that is less ambiguous and more concrete so we can more directly describe how games work and how we can do game design better” is actually at odds with this status quo, and thus needs to be said. It’s tempting to see a statement so close to our values and say “well, isn’t that obvious?”–it’s not obvious, though no one will argue the other side of it because admitting that games criticism is primarily a status game would damage the status communication mechanism that is games criticism and provide no benefit to the vast majority of games critics who would prefer to continue their effective status-gaining strategies.

Regardless, there are often kernels of truth and useful information to be gleaned from the needless verbal profusion of games criticism.”

The speaker sums up a lot of the ideas I was forming back in 2007-2008 when I first started writing and interacting in this space. Not much has changed since then and not much will change going forward without a critical language to ground our conversations and communities. What are your thoughts?

E3 2014 Notes and Commentary

June 19th, 2014

This video was too funny to pass up.

For the first time in a long time I was completely satisfied by the E3 showing this year. Loads of great games and plenty of innovation. After hours of reading, watching, and reflection, here are my main take aways from the show:

Presenting Gameplay

Video playthroughs focused on select portions of a game accompanied by developer commentary and gameplay trailers with few cuts are the best way to show off your gameplay to a new audience. Montages, CG trailers, early prototype video, and conceptual demos of the developers talking high concept just doesn’t cut it. Let the gameplay do the talking.

Between Nintendo’s Digital Event and the Treehouse Sessions, they covered these bases pretty well. However, the Treehouse videos were often drawn out due to the Japanese to English translation. Yes, I’m interested in Codename STEAM. No, I don’t have 45 minutes to sit through a slowly narrated playthrough with translation delays. Sony’s developer interviews were much more digestible at 10 minutes a piece, but they were too unfocused. Take this video of Hohokum for the PS4. After watching a 9-minute interview, I still have no idea what you do in this game. Start the interview with a short, elevator-pitch summary guys….geeze. The interviews are also inter-spliced with short snippets of trailer footage. It’s a good idea, but there’s not enough gameplay or context in the interviews to be constructive. Sony’s punchy length and Nintendo’s dictated playthroughs together would make a winning formula. Next year, guys.

The Conferences

If you stripped out all the CG trailers and meandering demos from the E3 conferences and replaced them with focused gameplay explanations, they’d be much more effective. I’m an E3 nut, but 1hr and a half of sizzle grows tiresome real quick.

It boggle the mind that Sony and Microsoft continue this pissing match of minor exclusivity. “Console debut”, “DLC first”, “it’s better on…”, “exclusive alpha version”, every time you hear these words—or in the case of self-apparent multiplatform titles, not hear—you know that it’s still a free kick to the other team.

Microsoft’s conference was basically a rehash of what they’ve been doing for the past 7 years: shooting, stabbing, and driving. I have no problem with these kinds of games, but there wasn’t anything genuinely new—unlike Titanfall

The start of Nintendo’s Digital Event was so refreshing especially after two marathon hours of self-important sizzle. It was funny too; I almost fell out of my seat. I also love the idea of Nintendo pushing back against the vocal minority of idiots in the Nintendo fan base. However, it was unfair of them to use Mother 3—a game which they can easily bring over to the virtual console.

Sony gave even more time than last year to indie games and it certainly injected a shot of dynamism into their showing. I’m not sure that Microsoft’s “we have 100s of these games” tactic is as effective as Sony’s curation approach. Giving these games a platform outside of a video montage and winning over some exclusivity on key titles is the best way to demonstrate commitment. That’s to say I think that players are more interested in playing the next great wave of indie games than having a large quantity of indie games to play. After all, we’ve all got PCs. In saying all this, though, maybe it’s just a consequence of the way Sony presented their indie game line up, but it was hard to see how these games were unique outside of their visual flair.

New Zelda

I was surprised that no one said that the new Zelda looks like Killer is Dead meets Skyward Sword. It totally does, right?

Nintendo say that the latest Zelda will be “open world”, but I wonder what that means exactly. Open world design works against the squeeze of gameplay, so I wonder how they’re going to pull it off while still maintaining the high level of gameplay quality that the Zelda series is known for. I guess A Link Between Worlds, which I have sitting on my 3DS SD card unplayed, will answer some of those questions for me. Whatever the case, I think it’ll take all the design ingenuity that Nintendo can muster to deliver on what Aonuma articulated during the digital event.

Splatoon

Splatoon was my game of the show. The genius behind this game makes my head spin. Territory control represented visually and organically as ink. Ink as a central dynamic that syncs into movement speed, traversal options, abilities, game flow and progression, and spatial dynamics. Ink as a solution to the issues inherent to gunplay (easy-to-see bullets that you can respond to, a weight dynamic to aiming, gyro to tune aiming, non-violent gunplay). Motion controls, touch screen controls, and traditional controller inputs. A reinvention of a well-worn genre. In terms of design, this is the most modern and sophisticated game I’ve seen in a long time.

I’m also surprised that no one said that Splatoon looks like a Sonic team game.

Odds and Ends

Yep. Very satisfied indeed. What did you most enjoy about the show? Let me know in the comments.

A Few New Terms for the Critical Gaming Glossary

February 9th, 2014


In order to talk about games as I do, I need a specialised vocabulary of words to help me along. For several years now, I’ve been using Richard Terrell’s Critical Gaming Blog and the Critical Glossary to anchor my writing. Sometimes, though, I need to come up with my own words. Such as when I talked about player roles in Heavy Rain a few years ago. Below I’ve documented the twenty or so words I came up with to get me through my Wario Land 4 book, Game Design Companion.

Arrangement – A group of game elements arranged together, ie. a unit of level design.

Pre-fold – The first half of folded level design, where the player makes their way to the fold.

Post-fold – The second half of folded level design, where the player makes their way from the fold to the starting point.

Interaction set in context – A way of saying “an interaction and all the context that defines it”. Context being the feel of inputting the mechanic, the meanings and associations with the function, the background for the interaction, the visual and aural representation of the game elements and execution of the interaction, etc. An interaction set in context is the smallest unit of meaning in a video game.

Premise – The premise establishes the game world, its characters, and the personality and role of the avatar. By defining the avatar, the premise gives the player the information they need to inhabit the playable character and make interactions under their persona. Since the player/avatar interacts with the game world, the premise gives all individual interactions a collective purpose.

Restricted-to-Freer Practice – A model of variation whereby a level initially restricts the player’s freedom in order to ensure that they understand what is being taught, before opening up to slowly allow the player to take ownership of the content.

Bounding Box – The outer edges of level for a game set in the side-scrolling perspective. Bounding boxes often dictate the behaviour of the camera.

Form Accentuates Function – A type of form fits function where the form exaggerates the function so as to make the function more apparent to the player. (I’m thinking that this term is probably moot, but it served its purpose in the book).

Form is Familiar – Where a game element looks like something from real life so as to immediately give the player an idea about its function.

Test Teach Test – A form of education where the teacher proposes a problem to the students and has them try to solve it, observing as they fail miserably. Afterwards, the teacher introduces the lesson’s content before allowing the students to return to the original problem, now with the know-how to successfully solve it.

Fixed Linear Progression Model – A form of game progression where the player must complete the game in a linear order and has no control over progression.

Freer Linear Progression Model – A form of game progression where the player has some minor control over the way they progress through the game. For example, choosing which level to play first, where both levels must be completed.

Pure Fold – A form of folded level design where the pre-fold is the same area as the post-fold.

Reroute – A form of folded level design where the post-fold redirects the player to a different route from the pre-fold.

Skirting Along the Fold – A form of folded level design where the post-fold reroutes the player through a separated channel that is part of the pre-fold.

Environmental Upheaval – A form of folded level design where the post-fold is radically different from the pre-fold, but still uses the same base level design.

Dog Ear – A form of folded level design where the post-fold is very short.

Phases – Solid and permanent sections of a boss fight or key challenge. Once a phased is reached, the challenge cannot go backwards to an earlier phase.

Forms – Fluid and temporary sections of a boss fight or key challenge. Similar to phases, but the challenge can go backwards to an earlier form.

Linear Phase Structure – A structure used for bosses and key challenges where the boss/challenge has several phases and the player progresses through these phases linearly.

Looping Form Structure – A structure used for bosses and key challenges where the boss/challenge has multiple forms and can revert to an earlier form.

Without these words, I wouldn’t have been able to talk about Wario Land 4 much at all.