The ‘Small and Agile’ approach – A retrospective

I’ve finally gotten around to posting my honours work /dissertation for my final year at the University of Abertay Dundee, for my degree in Game Production Management.  It comprises of a dissertation proposal, the dissertation itself, and supporting project work which serves as a worked example of some of the concepts proposed in the dissertation body.  It was published in May 2008.

  1. Part 1: Proposal (The problem for Independent Game Developers)
  2. Part 2: Dissertation (Survival of the fittest – Investigating the survival strategies of “Small and Agile” game studios)
  3. Part 3: Honours project (Game Development Plan and Reflective Log)

Some five years have passed since I wrote this work, and back then the prospects for indie game developers looked quite bleak.  Since then, the games industry has changed dramatically — Angry Birds demonstrated the huge potential for small developers in the mobile apps market; the rise and fall of Zynga highlighted the potential and risks of Facebook as a games platform; Humble bundle, Good Old Games, and even Xbox Live emerged as reliable digital distribution channels for independent developers; crowdfunded projects on Kickstarter took off in a big way, resulting in the world’s first crowdfunded indie games console the Ouya.  Oh, and Minecraft happened. :)

At present, I feel confident that independent games development is thriving in a very positive, if unexpected way.  Yet, many of the problems and challenges surrounding Next Gen / AAA development reported in my original proposal are still present.  With the latest round of next gen consoles – the PS4, Xbox One, and Wii U – the costs of games development for the home consumer is unlikely to go down any time soon.  The business model, as far as I’m aware, is still broken, with regards the developer royalties. In particular, the use of Metacritic scores as another way to control and limit how much a studio earns is particularly troubling.

There are still development horror stories — L.A Noire was a critical and commercial success, but plagued by a protracted development schedule (7 years) and controversy surrounding poor working conditions.  In spite of the game’s success, the developer, Team Bondi, was shut down after failing to secure another game project.  What’s more revealing is the recent downfall of middle tier publishers such as THQ, and the closure of several notable development studios (e.g. Psygnosis), throwing doubt into the previous convictions that being acquired by a major publisher would offer financial security and was a viable end-game for any independent developer.  The Radar Group, which I had high hopes for, seemingly disappeared after 3D Realms ran into financial difficulties, and at the time of writing, no one else seems to have taken the concept of a production studio on board.  To be fair, why would they?  Having another middleman to share royalties with is unappealing to both publishers and developers, even if it does reduce overall project risk.

If asked on my views of the games industry today, I’d refer to Dickens and say it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.  Better games are being made, and there’s good reason to be hopeful.  Yet, there’s still much to criticise and past mistakes aren’t being learnt from (for instance, sexism in games / production is still a prevalent issue).

In closing, Scott Miller, who I used to admire quite greatly and referenced heavily in the above work, once posted the question “Who’s left who can design their own game?”  Back then, the answer was very few.  Today, it seems like there are plenty of opportunities for anyone with a clear vision, and the skill and talent to see it through.  Time will tell if the kickstarter bubble bursts, but for now at least, it seems like an exciting time to be developing games, and I’m looking forward to seeing how these projects develop.

Levels Matter

How DLC producers could learn from the modding scene

DLC or ‘Downloadable Content’ has become the big thing in gaming as of late.  Earlier iterations, previously known as episodic content (a la Half Life 2) and expansion packs, were PC exclusive; but with the latest generation of consoles coming complete with hard drives, DLC has become not only feasible, but an almost mandatory requirement for developers.

However, thinking about the recently announced DLC packs for Red Dead Redemption, Alan Wake, and Mass Effect 2,  it struck me that DLC is really just a licence for developers to mod their own games.  As I understand it, the way the DLC system works, you can add new content to a degree, but you can’t make radical changes to the codebase.  So in essence,  developers are now in the business of games modding.  The problem is, unlike the mod scene, they’re charging good money for it.

Frankly, I don’t blame them — if it wasn’t for legal restrictions, I’d probably charge for my mods too.  Surely Katana is worth a measly 400MS points, no?  But here’s where I take issue — a lot of the content on offer seems a bit meagre.  New skins? Guns? Custom armour?  That’s great, but if it wasn’t in the original game to begin with, why should I care about it now that I’ve finished it?

Though I loved the game, from what I’ve heard on various games forums, the latest RDR packs don’t sound that enticing.  In total you’re looking at $40 for the lot, which for a bunch of multiplayer maps, skins, weapons, and a few extras, seems like asking too much.  Weapon and skin mods are the easiest (and therefore the most common) mods you’ll see for any game, so to see a developer do this, and charge a LOT for it, is a bit disappointing.

Still, if DLC is just a fancy term for a mod that you pay for, is there anything developers can learn from the mod scene?  Well, the most important thing I learned from modding, and this is the real point I want to make with this post, is that the only new content truly worth making are new levels and missions.  For instance, releasing new cars in Forza 3 is OK; but if you expect me to pay money for it then what I really want are new tracks to race on.

Adding new weapons, characters, vehicles, and gameplay can extend the life of a game, or even force players to replay the entire game (e.g. Max Payne Kung Fu3, which actually is worth $10).  However,  it’s my belief that gamers constantly want to see and do new things. And by that, I mean genuinely new content, not modifications of existing content — brand new environments, new enemies, new challenges, and new stories.

That’s why the first couple of hours of a game are usually the most exciting, when everything is still fresh — that boat ride to Bright Falls in Alan Wake; Navi flying through the woods in Zelda; the first time you step outside in Oblivion/Fallout3; the first time you take control of the Normandy; running around the castle grounds in Mario 64…  these moments have a powerful impact on gamers, and are often the most memorable.

Unfortunately, gamers are very quick and very systematic about devouring and deconstructing this kind of stuff and there’s nothing, as a developer, that you can do about it, except make more.  It’s no secret that games are getting shorter (Modern Warfare 2 is shockingly brief); but this is where DLC and modding have the potential to make a real difference – to extend the story and create new adventures.  But it’s got to be worth the effort — for both the developer and the customer.

From what I’ve seen in the mod scene, the really popular, long-lasting mods are the ones that offer a substantial amount of new content — namely new story-driven levels.  Whenever someone shows an interest in games modding, I try my best to encourage them to learn the level editors and make new levels, because none of this extra stuff — kung fu, katanas, guns, skins, etc,–  are half as important.  In the long run, I think the same is true for DLC.  It’s new levels that are going to entice gamers to reach for their wallets, not peripheral content.

The Real World – Release Details and New Videos

Naively when we started this project, it took us a long time to realise just how long it would take to finish.  Creating levels and content is one thing, delivering a fully functional game, with polished levels and balanced gameplay is something else entirely.  When enthusiasm was high, we made promises and hinted at content that, over time have become difficult to keep.  As I’m sure everyone is more than aware, the biggest problem with TRW has been trying to stay faithful to our promises, while delivering the final mod in a timely manner.

Fortunately, it’s got to a point where there’s enough content to release the mod, at least in part.  The only reason we haven’t so far is because there are various key features and levels I still want to include, which either haven’t been started yet or just aren’t up to scratch. In addition, there’s certain core content that needs to be polished and the whole game database needs tidying up in general.

As result of all of this, we’re going to do something I said we’d never do — TRW is going to follow a staged delivery system similar to DLC on consoles.  In other words, we’re going to release it in bite-sized mod ‘packs’, which can then (hopefully) be combined into a bigger mod.  In theory, this more agile and focused approach to development should drastically speed things up, allowing you to play the mod and give me feedback while it’s still being developed.  Moreover, there’s now enough levels, characters, and movesets to truly justify releasing the mod in this way — each pack has it’s own ‘character’ and enough new content to warrant the time and effort.  As playtesting is always difficult for small teams, it also means we can address bugs and issues iteratively, and integrate them into the next content pack.  When everything is done, we’ll re-release the entire mod as a final package (TRW Epic Epic Edition is the wip name ;) ) – if that’s even necessary.

I expect that the first two packs will make up 80% of the mod that most people are looking for – they’ll have the greatest priority and the most time spent on them.  The second two packs are finishing off loose ends for people who want the extra content.  I realise that some people will be disappointed that X feature, level, or character isn’t included in the first pack, but this way allows me to focus specific levels and content, and not get distracted.  Above all, it means you get to play the mod as soon as possible.  At present, I have no specific date in mind (please don’t bother asking), but it would be good to have them both out before Christmas (the first pack at the very least).

So the tentative release plan is as follows:

‘Neophyte’ Pack

(initial core release)

  • Neo moveset (Kung fu and dodges)
  • New guns
  • Swat and police enemies
  • Standard Agents

Included Levels:

  • Intro
  • Training (TBC)
  • The Dojo (Battle with Morpheus)
  • The Lobby
  • Rooftop assault
  • Subway battle
  • Street chase

TRW Profile Launcher — allows you to customise your skin, moves, and abilities.

‘Anomaly’ Pack

(Mx Reloaded release)

  • ‘The One’ advanced moveset
  • Bojutsu moveset
  • Upgraded Agents
  • Merovingian’s Henchmen

Included Levels:

  • The Alley (Fight with Agents)
  • The Teahouse (Fight with Seraph)
  • The Burly Brawl
  • The Chateau

TRW Profile update – adds more skins, moves, and abilities.  Lets you play the entire mod with new movesets (e.g. Neo’s advanced moves).

‘Trinity’ Pack

Trinity and Morpheus release — exact details and levels to be confirmed later on, but it should be fairly obvious what to expect — new levels, weapons, and  moves, related to these characters are in the pipeline.  This pack will include the opening rooftops chase from the first film, and the Freeway battle from the second film.

TRW Profile update – more skins, moves, and abilities.  Lets you play the entire mod with new movesets and weapons (e.g. Trinity and Morpheus’ moves).

‘Omega’ Pack

Final release — new content will be… inevitable? =)

Final TRW Profile update – all skins, moves, and abilities.  Lets you play the entire mod with all characters and moves.

New videos

Last but not least, in case you haven’t been following TRW on Twitter, Facebook, or Youtube (please do for the latest updates), I’ve released a few new videos:

You can expect more updates, specifically on the Neophyte pack, in the next few months.

Keep it real. B)

Confirmation: TRW is not dead…

About a month ago, someone under the name “Maddeiman” posted on our board declaring that the mod was dead.  It’s a pretty cruel joke to play on people, but it was convincing enough that some people fell for it.  Unfortunately, I only found out about this just now, and by then the damage was done.

What can I say?  First off, obviously, the project isn’t dead.  Anyone who knows me, knows that I’m too stubborn or stupid to call it quits.  Even if I were to quit the project (which I won’t), AT THE VERY LEAST I’d release everything created up to this point — and that’s quite a lot.  There’s no way I’d leave people hanging dry after all this time.  Secondly, I want to point out that I’d never make an announcement that important in the general comments page.  All major announcements regarding the status of the mod will be posted AS NEWS. Lastly, I have to admit that this guy has done me a favour, by bluntly reminding me that I need to pay more attention to the people waiting for the mod, and spend a bit more time releasing updates.

Unfortunately, finishing a project of this size and scope requires a lot of focus and discipline, which makes it very difficult for me to find the time to post regular updates, let alone make anything more ambitious like a video.  Personally, I can’t focus on the project if I’m hanging out on the forums talking about it.  Yet if I don’t do that, stuff like this happens.  :-/  It’s a bit of a dilemma for me, and clearly I haven’t got the balance quite right yet.

Anyway, this is enough of a kick up the arse that I’m going to give some serious thought on how to update the mod more frequently, without interfering with its development.

Thanks, as always, for your patience, understanding, and continued support.

(click on image for larger version)

Casual Games

Contextual note:   I wrote these two essays last year as part of my honours work for university.  The casual games industry is not an area I’m overly familiar with (I’m a core gamer through-and-through), so this was quite a difficult exercise to write on with any kind of authority.  I did my best under the circumstances, but I’m by no means an expert in the field.

INTRODUCTION

‘Casual Games are just a short lived fad, and within a few years Video Games will return to their traditional demographic of young males playing action orientated titles.’

Starting from humble origins, the casual games market has grown significantly in recent years.  Today the market is currently estimated to be worth around $2.25 billion (USD) a year (CGA. 2007), and some expect it to grow anywhere between $11 and $15 billion by 2011 (Boyer, B. 2007).  One of the more interesting aspects of the casual market is that the primary audience are females, and on average, people aged between thirty-five and fifty (CGA. 2007).  Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of the larger players in the video games industry are now turning their attention towards casual games.

However, as the casual games industry grows, significant concerns regarding plagiarism, piracy, market saturation, and limited business models have been raised.  At the 2008 Casual Games Summit, Gamelab’s Eric Zimmerman declared the industry as “financially and creatively dead” unless developers took action to steer the industry in a different direction (Waugh, Eric-Jon. 2008).

To examine whether the casual games industry is merely a “short lived fad” or not, this essay will examine the origins and drivers behind the industry’s growth; examine the state of the market; and look at the future opportunities that could shape the industry in the near future.

THE PLIGHT OF THE INDEPENDENT GAME DEVELOPER

The recent Playing for Keeps report compiled for the UK government forecasts a bleak outlook for independent game developers:

“…smaller developers will struggle to start up due to poor access to finance. Those that survive will focus either on newer, smaller, cheaper platforms, or could become satellites around larger studios and publishers, providing specialised outsourced services…” (UK Trade & Investment. 2007)

This is consistent with the general trend of rising development costs and increase in consolidation over the last few years.  It is generally agreed that a “next generation” “AAA” game cost upwards of $10 million USD to develop, and have to sell around 1 million units to be profitable (Schoback, K. 2005; Costikyan, G. 2006).  Combined with lengthy development schedules and low profit margins (between 5-30%), it could be argued that the console market has become too risky and too expensive for all but the most successful independent developers to compete in.  Furthermore, the report suggests that by 2010 the majority of independent studios will be pushed into ‘work for hire’ contracts, with little or no opportunity to create their own game IP (UK Trade & Investment. 2007).

Therefore, in many respects the rise of the casual games industry could be seen as a deliberate response to this, both as a ‘back to basics’ movement and a way to reduce the costs and risk associated with making an AAA console game.  To illustrate, casual games typically cost between $50,000 and $250,000 to develop, and can be produced within a 3-12 month timeframe, with teams comprising of 3-10 people (Waugh, Eric-Jon. 2006).  More importantly, due to the reduced costs and overhead, casual games are perceived to be less risky to publish; giving developers the creative freedom to make more innovative games, which emphasise fun gameplay and not graphics.

“If the game’s not fun, it’s not going to make a sale. So everything comes down to whether or not the game is fun. …. It’s not about fancy graphics or movie licenses, it’s just about fun.” (Gwertzman, J; Cifaldi, F. 2005)

GROWTH OF THE CASUAL GAMES MARKET

While all video games can be traced back to the original arcade games and early home computers; as a pastime, casual gaming grew alongside the development and widespread adoption of PCs and the Internet.  Casual games as we know them today could originally be found in the form of free web-based games on the Internet, normally built in Flash, Java, or ActiveX by amateur game designers.  Due to the technical limitations of both connection speeds and web-browser capabilities, the majority of these games were visually simplistic, and designed to provide immediate gameplay satisfaction – making them ideal for 5 to 15 minute sessions (IGDA. 2006 – Present; Boyer, B. 2007; Nutt, C. 2007).

However, from around 2000, as the popularity of these web-based games grew, and as faster Internet connections became more widespread; a number of businesses, such as PopCap Games, began to develop and publish more polished games resulting in commercial hits like Bejeweled.  PopCap’s initial success was arguably the catalyst for the flood of casual games published today, which reportedly attract over 200 million players per month (CGA. 2007).  Today, casual games appear on a variety of platforms and distribution channels, including PC, Mobile Phone, PDAs, Steam, and even games consoles, such as Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and the Nintendo Wii, which both supplement their primary catalogue of games with casual, arcade, and retro games distributed via their own online services (IGDA, 2006 – Present; Boyer, B. 2007).

CASUAL GAME DEMOGRAPHICS

However, the origin of casual games as a genre, is not limited to web-based games, and goes back further.  Games like Solitaire and Tetris (packaged with Windows and the Nintendo Gameboy, respectively) are often cited among the first and most popular casual games ever made (CGA. 2007).  While it’s straightforward enough to trace casual games by their gameplay and interface similarities, it could be more insightful to reframe the definition in terms of the target audience.  In other words, not asking what the games are, but who plays them?

“If my mom can play it, it’s a casual game.” (Waugh, Eric-Jon. 2006)

The IGDA Casual Games Whitepaper and Casual Games Market Report agree on two main gaming demographics, or type of player – Casual and Hardcore.  The hardcore demographic represents the traditional videogame audience of males under 35 years old; typically playing action games with steep learning curves and significant time investments.  Whereas the casual demographic includes all players, with a 50-70% skew towards females and those over 35 years old.  These casual players tend to play for shorter periods of time, primarily for relaxation and fun; rather than for challenge and stimulation (IGDA. 2006 – Present; CGA. 2007).

By expanding this definition to demographics, we can include PC games such as Myst and The Sims into the casual market.  These games are unique in that they managed to successfully appeal to both hardcore and casual players, and as a result, sold tremendously well[1].  What they share in common include an accessible interface; relaxed pace; and universally appealing themes (mystery, exploration, self-development, experimentation, learning).  These characteristics, combined with a carefully balanced learning curve, seem to partly explain why the games have appealed to a much wider audience.

Ultimately, what this suggests is that there is, and has always been, a potential market for casual videogames, and that the scope of these games is probably much wider than current range of titles being sold by portals today.  Eric Zimmerman concurs, recommending that developers rethink the structure of market and consider the role games play in people’s lifestyles.

“If there’s going to be a casual game industry, its audience should be all the people who bought The Sims — people who don’t own an Xbox, yet neither do they resort to Yahoo! for their entertainment.” (Eric Zimmerman, 2008).

INNOVATIONS IN THE CASUAL GAMES MARKET

In theory, this would imply that every computer user could be a potential customer.  However, to capitalise on this, the industry would have to respond quickly to change in customer demand.  Yet, in its current state, the casual games market is already stable and growing steadily; thus raising concerns that it risks becoming stagnant from the same kind of complacency and lack of innovation seen in the high-end console market.

For instance, the primary business model for most casual games is the “Try & Buy” model, which is very similar to the shareware model of early PC games.  Portals host a number of games on their websites, and allow consumers to play limited trial versions.  To continue playing after the trial, the consumer has to purchase the full version of the game.  While this is the most widely adopted model, it has several limitations.  First, and perhaps most importantly, the conversion rates between players trying a game and actually buying it are extremely low – normally between 1 and 2%.  Secondly, there’s no continual revenue stream – once a user purchases a game, they do not need to spend any more money to continue playing (IGDA, 2006-present).

To work around this, most portals rely heavily advertising to supplement their revenue streams, both on their websites and in their games.  Other companies, such as WildTangent, use a “Pay for Play” model, which works around the concept of a virtual arcade (or slot) machine – users purchase virtual ‘wildcoins’, which they can use to play the games.  Variations on this idea include subscriptions, where the customer pays a monthly fee in return for unlimited access to the portal’s game catalogue and special ‘premium’ games.  Lastly, some companies have experimented with skill-based game tournaments, where players pay a small entry fee to compete for monetary prizes, from which the operator takes a small share (IGDA, 2006-present).

To further complicate matters, low barriers to entry have resulted in increasing levels of competition entering an already crowded market.  Since IP is harder to defend with simpler games, the market has become saturated with what are commonly referred to as ‘clones’ – derivative games that resemble bestsellers (UK Trade & Investment, 2007).

While this occurs in the hardcore market as well (e.g. resulting in terms like “Grand Theft Also”) it’s worth remembering that casual games can be developed within a relatively short timeframe, meaning that a new innovative game can often be ‘cloned’ within weeks of its release, thus making any unique gameplay hooks or innovations redundant (UK Trade & Investment, 2007).  Consequently, critics have cast a shadow of uncertainty over the future of creativity and innovation in the industry:

the field has “almost become a parody of itself… The degree of shameless clones seems, to my eye, to be more prevalent than other sectors of the game industry… I’m not seeing that innovation is rewarded.” (Zimmerman, E.; Waugh, Eric-Jon. 2008). 

On the other hand, developers such as Colin Anderson are more optimistic, arguing that imitation and adaptation are necessary to evolve games and drive innovation in the long term.  He goes further to argue that creatively reimagining and reinventing existing styles is fundamental to all artistic mediums, such as music and novels, which couldn’t have evolved to where they are now, if it weren’t for artists building on previous work and adapting it into something new.

“If the early rock and roll stars had patented the twelve bar blues, then music industry as a whole would not exist.” (Anderson, C. 2007)

CONCLUSIONS

While condemning casual games as a ‘fad’ might be going too far; some concern is justified.  First, it has been acknowledged that while the market is growing, it is quickly becoming saturated with derivative game “clones”, making it hard for developers to compete effectively.  Secondly, the current business models in place are limited, and tend to favour game portals and distributors, rather than the creators.  Lastly, the rapid growth of the industry, and low barriers to entry, will inevitably put more pressure on developers and portals to compete with each other.

However, despite these factors, there are some compelling reasons to remain optimistic.  For one, casual games development could be described as a move back towards the ‘golden era’ of game design, and the desire of developers to focus on simple, compelling gameplay mechanics, using innovative and creative ideas to capture the imagination of their newfound audience.  Whether this is due to a natural desire to return to the fundamentals of their craft, or simply a response to increasing market pressure, it can be argued that the casual games sector is a becoming more attractive for independent developers, and therefore more likely to remain active.  Whilst competition will put more pressure on developers; arguably, it will also encourage them to continue to refine, innovate, and hopefully break new ground.

Furthermore, casual games have naturally evolved in parallel with console games, and there is evidence to suggest that there has always been a demand for them.  Critically, studies reveal that their audience is not limited to the narrow ‘hardcore gamer’ market, and thus the potential for growing the market is seemingly limitless.  Whether this is actually the case or not, initiatives by Microsoft and Nintendo to bridge the gap between hardcore and casual gamers are likely to continue, with games like Wii Sports, Guitar Hero, Myst, and The Sims clearly demonstrating the potential rewards of bringing the two markets closer together.  Likewise the increase in distribution channels for developers, including mobile phones; PDAs; iDTV; Steam, Xbox Live Arcade, and so on; only confirm that there is clearly enough interest and activity in the market to sustain the industry in the near future.

© 2008 – 2009 Jonathan Hallier.  All rights reserved.

REFERENCES & BIBLIOGRAPHY

Anderson, C. 2007. Opinion: Why casual game cloning makes sense [online] Gamasutra. Available from: http://www.gamasutra.com/php-bin/news_index.php?story=14990 [Accessed on March 22, 2008]

Boyer, B. 2007. Casual connect: Microsoft on bridging the casual/core divide [online] Gamasutra. Available from: http://www.gamasutra.com/php-bin/news_index.php?story=14741 [Accessed on March 22, 2008]

Carroll, R. 2007. Casually speaking: ‘casual game portals: the inside story’ [online] Gamasutra. Available from: http://www.gamasutra.com/php-bin/news_index.php?story=15955

[Accessed on March 22, 2008]

CGA. 2007. The casual games industry summary 2007 [online] casualgamesassociation.org Available from: http://www.casualconnect.org/newscontent/11-2007/CasualGamesMarketReport2007_Summary.pdf

Cifaldi, F. 2005. Popping in on PopCap: James Gwertzman on casual growth [online] Gamasutra. Available from: http://www.gamasutra.com/features/20051214/cifaldi_pfv.htm [Accessed on March 22, 2008]

Costikyan, G. 2006. Games, genres, and why independent games are vital [online] Texas Independent Games Conference. Available from: http://www.costik.com/presentations/texasindie06.ppt [Accessed on March 22 2008]

IGDA 2006 – Present. Casual Games SIG/Whitepaper [online] IGDA. Available from: http://www.igda.org/wiki/Casual_Games_SIG/Whitepaper [Accessed on March 22, 2008]

Nutt, C. 2007. Casual game business worth $2.25 billion [online] Gamasutra. Available from: http://www.gamasutra.com/php-bin/news_index.php?story=16034 [Accessed on March 22, 2008]

Schoback, K. 2005. The economics of a next-gen game [online] IGDA. Available from: http://www.igda.org/biz/GDC05_NextGenEconomics.ppt [Accessed on March 22, 2008]

UK Trade and Investment, 2007. Playing for keeps: Challenges to sustaining a

world-class UK games sector; Commercial Models [online] uktradeinvest.gov.uk. Available from: https://www.uktradeinvest.gov.uk/ukti/fileDownload/Mono3GamesReport_LR.pdf?cid=411884

[Accessed on March 22, 2008]

Walker, T. 2002. The Sims overtakes Myst [online] Gamespot, CNET Networks, Inc. Available from: http://uk.gamespot.com/pc/strategy/simslivinlarge/news.html?sid=2857556&print=1 [Accessed on March 22, 2008]

Waugh, Eric-Jon. 2006. GDC: Casual games summit 2006: An introduction to casual games [online] Gamasutra. Available from: http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/2621/gdc_casual_games_summit_2006_an_.php [Accessed on March 22, 2008]

Waugh, Eric-Jon. 2008. CGS: Gamelab’s Zimmerman says casual games are dead (sort of) [online] Gamasutra. Available from: http://www.gamasutra.com/php-bin/news_index.php?story=17499 [Accessed on March 22, 2008]


[1] Myst was one of the best selling pc games of all time until it was surpassed by The Sims (Trey Walker, 2002)

Censorship and Social Responsibility

Contextual note:   I wrote these two essays last year as part of my honours work for university.  Having written plenty of essays on games and violence for school and college, I tackled this with the hope that it would be the last one I ever write.  The subject of censorship in games is one that I feel pretty strong about, and this article fairly adequately sums up my beliefs on the subject.

To clarify, I don’t have a problem with sex and violence in games, per seI’d be a hypocrite otherwise.  However, I do believe that if games want to be taken seriously as an artistic or entertainment medium, a line has to be drawn somewhere.  For me personally, that line is sadism, of the extreme kind you see in games like Postal2.

I don’t have anything against Rockstar Games,  or Manhunt2 specifically, it just happened to be in the news at the time of writing.  That said, I really hope publishing Manhunt2 was worth all the aggravation with the BBFC.

INTRODUCTION

“Pong didn’t make me aspire to play pingpong, tennis or another racket game in the real world. So maybe no one will want to join a street gang after playing ‘The Warriors.’ But making sport out of theft, murder, prostitution and senseless destruction seems wrong on every level.’ (Tom Martin)

After much controversy, Rockstar Games’ Manhunt 2 was finally granted an 18 certificate in March 2008.  Up until this point, the BBFC had been successful in preventing the game from retailing in the United Kingdom; however after a series of successful appeals by Rockstar Games, the BBFC was eventually left with no choice but to issue the game with an 18 certificate, enabling it to go to retail (Jenkins, D. 2008).  The game was controversial mainly due its explicit violence (including a highly publicised castration scene[1]), and its connection to infamous Grand Theft Auto 3 developer, Rockstar North.  Furthermore, the original Manhunt game had already received considerable bad press after being allegedly linked to the murder of teenager Stefan Pakeerah.  While this link was categorically disproven, the game’s reputation as a corruptor of children stuck, ironically elevating the game to the same status as the fictional world of snuff videos that it portrayed (Jenkins, D. 2007).

However, the debate concerning videogame content, and whether videogames in general are harmful to children and society as a whole, is not a new one.  Over the years, games like Mortal Kombat, Streetfighter II, and Doom have all caused similar public outcries and have also been allegedly connected to various accidents, injuries, and deaths.  Whilst outspoken critics such as Jack Thompson and David Grossman have been quick to condemn videogames as bad influences on children; game publishers, developers, and consumers have be equally quick to defend them, pushing the responsibility to parents, and defending game content on grounds of freedom of speech and artistic expression.

After more than a decade of controversy, legal disputes, and research, it would seem that there is still no conclusive evidence to directly connect videogames with acts of violence and crime.  Despite this, videogames are, and will probably remain for some time, a controversial medium.  As a result, the intention of this essay is not to retread the same arguments for and against videogame censorship, because, as Ren Reynolds highlights, these arguments are grounded on two different theological perspectives which are unlikely to be resolved (Reynolds, R. 2002).   Instead, this essay will consider the potential dilemmas concerning whether or not industry professionals have an obligation to act in socially responsible manner.


DRAWING THE LINE

First, it is important to distinguish between microethics (individual professional responsibilities) and macroethics (responsibilities of the profession itself), and the dilemma this imposes on the individual developer (Ladd, J. 1995).  Looking at the responsibilities of the games profession itself (in terms of game content), there is a clear conflict between social responsibility and artistic expression.

On the one hand, it can be argued that it’s in the best interest of the games industry to limit the production of titles like Manhunt, Grand Theft Auto, and other games which make a “sport out of theft, murder, prostitution and senseless destruction” (Martin, T. 2006).

Arguably, the Manhunt games aren’t ethically questionable because of their explicit content, so much as the implication that they were shrewdly marketed as games about murder; leveraging the negative publicity and tabloid outrage to their advantage.  For example, the BBFC’s justification for banning the sequel, combined with its limited availability, inadvertently serves to promote the game further:

“Manhunt 2 is distinguishable from recent high-end video games by its unremitting bleakness and callousness of tone in an overall game context which constantly encourages visceral killing with exceptionally little alleviation or distancing.” (Jenkins D. 2007)

Other examples of games which used controversy to drive their sales included JFK: Reloaded, a game which allows the player to recreate the assassination of John F. Kennedy; and Postal 2, which allows the player to engage in various forms of homicidal and sadistic behaviour, often towards innocent bystanders and minority groups.

These kind of games have already tainted the industry’s reputation as a respectable medium, and incidents such as the “Hot Coffee” lawsuit and Manhunt 2 release have already cost companies like Take-Two significant financial losses (Gamasutra, 2007).  Consequently, concerns have been raised, by industry professionals like Raph Koster, that if the games industry continues to push its luck in this fashion (releasing controversial games for the sake of controversy) there’s a fair risk that society will call for more restrictive self-censorship system, similar to the Comics Code, which he argues “stunted the development of the comics medium severely for decades” (Koster, R. 2005).

Yet, at the same time, Koster acknowledges that “the danger is philistinism” (2005) — in other words that if developers don’t take design risks, and don’t push cultural boundaries, then their games will never rise to more than simple entertainment.  Thus, if developers want the videogames medium to be respected as an art form, alongside the film, literature, and music industries, they will have to challenge the limits of what is socially acceptable.  The problem is, at what point do developers draw the line between acceptable and offensive media?

An interesting example of this is the freeware game Super Columbine Massacre RPG! (SCMRPG), which lets the player re-enact the Columbine High School shootings from the killers’ perspective. Whether this game can be considered artistic or tasteless very much comes down to individual interpretation; and while there have been many detractors of the game, it’s worth noting that one of the victims of the shooting incident supported the game (to some extent) (Crecente, B. 2006).  Likewise other developers have commented on its artistic value:

“The game lacks compassion, and I find the Artist’s Statement disingenuous. But despite this, the game does have redeeming value. It does provoke important thoughts, and it does push the boundaries of what games are about. It is composed with more of an eye toward art than most games.” (Blow, J. 2007)

Perhaps then, what differentiates a game like SCMRPG from games like Postal 2, partly depends on the original intent of the author.  Sincere or not, the creator of SCMRPG, Danny Ledonne, argues that he designed the game to make a statement concerning the Columbine incident and the issues it raises (e.g. gun control, videogame violence, bullying, etc) (Crecente, B. 2006).  In comparison, the developers of Postal 2 simply assert that the level of violence in the game is left to the player’s discretion, stressing that it’s possible to finish the game without resorting to violence.  However, certain design choices, such as the range and availability of weapons, clearly indicated that this isn’t developer’s intent.

While history will ultimately cast judgement on these individual cases, the question that has to be asked is: ‘What steps should the videogames industry, as a profession, take to reframe its public profile, in order to be taken seriously alongside other artistic mediums in the near future?’  Raph Koster suggests that a degree of moderation is required.

“The constructive thing to do is to push the boundary gently so that it doesn’t backfire. That’s how we got Lolita and Catcher in the Rye and how we got Apocalypse Now. As a medium, we have to earn the right to be taken seriously.” (R, Koster, 2005).

Silent Hill 2 is a game worth mentioning here, because while it combines violent imagery with sexual symbolism; it is also frequently praised for its mature narrative and presentation — culminating in a unique game experience that sets it apart from similar games in the survival horror genre (IGN, 2007).  Likewise, the BAFTA award winning Max Payne, while primarily an ultra-violent action game, also balances its mature content with an intelligent, film noir inspired story (Davis, G. 2002).  These games, while perhaps not breaking any major boundaries of the medium, are arguably a step in the right direction – not being outright offensive, but taking small steps towards a more mature industry.

PROFESSIONAL RESPONSIBILITY OF THE INDIVIDUAL DEVELOPER

However, on the microethics level, the individual developer may have to face the dilemma of his personal moral code conflicting with his employment contract (or the contract with their client, such as a publisher).  As a result, an unfortunate developer might find themselves facing the prospect of either ‘lightening up’ and working on a game they morally object to (possibly for several years), or finding a new job.  This was illustrated last year by a revealing and candid weblog article written by a former employee of Rockstar Games, Jeff Williams, who reported that the company was allegedly divided on the controversial Manhunt.

“It may sound surprising, but there was almost a mutiny at the company over that game. It was Rockstar North’s pet project – most of us at Rockstar Games wanted no part of it. ….  It was all about the violence, and it was realistic violence. We all knew there was no way we could explain away that game. There was no way to rationalize it. We were crossing a line.” (Williams, J. 2007)

In retrospect, it seems interesting that the publisher would pursue a sequel, in spite of this; however, for the individual developer, there is little guidance available for what to do in such a situation.  Other professions, such as medicine and law, have legally enforceable codes of conduct for members; and even software engineers have broad set of professional guidelines to follow in ethically ambiguous situations (ACM, 1997; IEEE 2007).  However, with an overall lack of union presence in the games industry, individual developers effectively lack representation outside of their employing company, and therefore have to go along with the company’s management and values – or resign. 

CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS

Like many ethical debates driven by media controversy, there is a tendency to shift the responsibility to other parties.  For instance, public outrage will likely put pressure on games industry professionals and governments to regulate videogames content more vigorously.  Likewise, game developers and publishers are more likely to hold the view that parents are ultimately responsible for monitoring and regulating what kind of content they allow their children to watch and interact with.

Rather than pursue the circular arguments and inconclusive research surrounding the issue of whether games are actually harmful; it has been argued that in order for the games industry to mature and become a respected cultural medium (either for entertainment or artistic expression), it is in the best interest of industry practitioners to take more professional responsibility for the games they create, and to become somewhat more sensitive to the cultural context in which they create them (outside of their target demographic).  As other mediums have shown over the centuries, adult themes such as sex and violence can be presented in respectable, even artistic manner.  However, the onus is on the creator(s) to approach the subject with some degree of tact and professionalism.

This applies on both an industry-wide and individual level; however it has also been noted that there is a significant lack of professional representation for individual professionals in the games industry.  The software engineering codes and guidelines of the ACM and IEEE have limited application in this field, and hence the games industry could benefit from its own game professional association, providing a moral compass for individual members.  While the IGDA does fill this role to some extent, the issues it advocates (such as anti-censorship) primarily concern the profession as a whole, and do not provide any specific guidelines or codes of professional conduct for the individual.

Ultimately, it would be unfair to suggest that the responsibility rests entirely on the shoulders of the games industry.  In the long run, all concerned parties are socially responsible, in equal measure, for ensuring that videogames are fairly regulated without resorting to unnecessary censorship.  Lastly, it’s in the best interest of the games industry to work with governments, and organisations such as the BBFC and ELSPA, to proactively raise public awareness of the facts concerning the videogames medium, rather than react over defensively to bad publicity.

© 2008 – 2009 Jonathan Hallier.  All rights reserved.

REFERENCES & BIBLIOGRAPHY

Association for Computing Machinery, Inc. (ACM). 2007. ACM Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct [online] acm.org. Available from: http://www.acm.org/about/code-of-ethics [Accessed March 23, 2008]

Blow, J. 2007. Braid won’t be at Slamdance after all. [online] braid-game.com. Available from: http://braid-game.com/news/?p=18 [Accessed on March 23, 2008]

Casamassina, M. 2007. Manhunt 2 Wii update [online] IGN. Available from: http://uk.wii.ign.com/articles/819/819465p2.html [Accessed on March 23, 2008]

Crecente, B. 2006. Columbine survivor talks about columbine RPG [online] kotaku.com. Available from: http://kotaku.com/gaming/feature/columbine-survivor-talks-about-columbine-rpg-171966.php [Accessed March 23, 2008]

Crecente, B. 2006. Gamer was on deadly road – Creator of download says Columbine was a wake-up call [online] Rocky Mountain News. Available from: http://www.rockymountainnews.com/drmn/local/article/0,1299,DRMN_15_4722344,00.html [Accessed March 23, 2008]

Davis, G. 2002. Game noir: The construction of virtual subjectivity in computer gaming [online] Gamasutra. Available from: http://www.gamasutra.com/education/theses/20020821/davis_01.shtml [Accessed on March 23, 2008]

Della Rocca, Jason. 200?. Regulation is everyone’s business [online] IGDA. Available from: http://www.igda.org/articles/dellarocca_regulation.php [Accessed on March 23, 2008]

ESA. 2008. Top 10 industry facts [online] ESA. Available from: http://www.theesa.com/facts/top_10_facts.php [Accessed on March 23, 2008]

Freedman, J. 2001. Evaluating the research on violent video games [online] University of Toronto. Available from: http://culturalpolicy.uchicago.edu/conf2001/papers/freedman.html

[Accessed on March 23, 2008]

Gamasutra. 2007. Take-Two announces ‘hot coffee’ lawsuit settlements [online] Gamasutra. Available from: http://www.gamasutra.com/php-bin/news_index.php?story=16182 [Accessed on March 23, 2008]

IEEE. 2007. IEEE Code of Ethics [online] ieee.org. Available from: http://www.ieee.org/portal/pages/iportals/aboutus/ethics/code.html [Accessed March 23, 2008]

IGDA. 2007. Anti-Censorship [online] IGDA. Available from: http://www.igda.org/censorship/ [Accessed on March 23, 2008]

IGN. Ign’s top 100 games of all time – Silent Hill 2 [online] IGN Available from: http://uk.top100.ign.com/2007/ign_top_game_97.html [Accessed on March 23, 2008]

Jenkins, D. 2007. Manhunt 2 denied rating In UK [online] Gamasutra. Available from: http://www.gamasutra.com/php-bin/news_index.php?story=14385 [Accessed on March 23, 2008]

Jenkins, D. 2008. Manhunt 2 wins legal battle for release [online] Gamasutra. Available from: http://www.gamasutra.com/php-bin/news_index.php?story=17869 [Accessed on March 23, 2008]

Jenkins, H. 200?. Reality bytes: Eight myths about video games debunked [online] KCTS Television. Available from: http://www.pbs.org/kcts/videogamerevolution/impact/myths.html

[Accessed on March 23, 2008]

Koster, R. 2005. A theory of fun for game design, Scottsdale, Arizona: Paraglyph Press, Inc.   pp166-170.

Ladd, J.1995. The quest for a code of professional ethics: an intellectual and moral confusion. In Johnson, D.G. and Nissenbaum, eds. Computers, ethics and social values. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Martin, T. 2006. What would Ms.Pac-Man think about the state of video games? [online] IGDA. Available from: http://www.cantonrep.com/index.php?ID=309231&Category=14 [Accessed on March 23, 2008]

Reynolds, R. 2002. Playing a “good” game: a philosophical approach to understanding the morality of games [online] IGDA. Available from: http://www.igda.org/articles/rreynolds_ethics.php [Accessed on March 23, 2008]

Rossignol, J. 2007. Blogged out: ‘rocking the boat’ [online] Gamasutra. Available from: http://www.gamasutra.com/php-bin/news_index.php?story=14868 [Accessed on March 23, 2008]

Tavani, H. T. 2004. Ethics and technology: ethical issues in an age of information and communication technology. Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley.

Williams, J. 2007. Life during wartime – working at Rockstar Games [online] Alphabet City. Available from: http://web.archive.org/web/20070804084043/http://badasscat.blogspot.com/2007/07/rockstar.html [Accessed on March 27, 2008].  Originally available from: http://badasscat.blogspot.com/2007/07/rockstar.html [Accessed July 27, 2007]


[1] Casamassina, M. 2007.

‘Appuyer sur la touché START’

It’s something of a journalistic cliché (or faux pas) to use inappropriate/broken/wrong French words and phrases while writing an article on languages, so from this point on, I’m going to try my best to refrain from that. :)

Recently, I’ve been really getting into French cinema and music; and as some of my friends are from France (their English is excellent) it occurred to me that perhaps I should seriously try to learn the language.  In fact, when I was at university, one of my lecturers, Jim TerKeurst, suggested we do just that (learn either French or Japanese), and I’m now kicking myself for not taking up the offer.

So, for the last year or so,  I’ve been trying to learn French on my own.  Now, I wasn’t especially good at French in school (I’ve no idea how I scraped through Standard Grade because I honestly don’t remember much of it); but I figured that I’m old enough and ugly enough to get my head around this time — nasal vowels n’ all.

The problem is that I can’t afford lessons right now, so what have I been using instead?

  • French Dictionary – a relic from high school (barely used, of course).  The one I have (published by Collins) has a fantastic grammar section, which is arguably more useful than the dictionary part.  Essential.
  • Music – I’m trying to translate the lyrics to improve my vocabulary and written comprehension.  Because it’s audio,  I’m starting to pick up on the pronunciation of words.  Pop music works surprisingly well, I guess because the choruses are so damn catchy.
  • Films/TV – same as music: to improve listening and comprehension.  It’s easy to fall back on subtitles, but every now and then I pick up on what they’re actually saying, which sometimes varies considerably from what the subtitles translate.
  • Literature — Well okay, I’m not talking about Victor Hugo here, but Hergé.  I grew up with Tintin, and the idea of re-reading the books in their original language is very appealing.
  • French Steps / BBC languages pageThis is a terrific resource from the BBC (barely justifying my tv license), with plenty of online material to go through, and several structured courses at various levels.
  • BBC Bitesize and Open University programmes – during exam season, the BBC shows various language programmes for school and university.  Handy.
  • French Pod Class — This is what I started with, and they’re fantastic – Sebastian has made almost one hundred episodes (usually between 20-40 minutes), and each one comes with a detailed review sheet and exercises.  Episodes are typically divided into 2-3 easily digestible chunks, covering phrases, vocabulary, and grammar, often linked by a common theme (travelling, shopping, pets, etc).  Best of all, he breaks these sections up with brief introductions to  French culture, including popular films, music, and literature.
  • LangoLAB.com — (updated) I’ve only just found this site, but it looks really useful.  You should check Jennifer’s comment below for a detailed explanation; but briefly, the site presents you with Youtube videos (such as cartoons and adverts) in the language you’re studying, and provides an on-the-fly translation via subtitles.  The best part is that you can pause the video and look up specific words and phrases with an in-built dictionary.  It’s also got various other tools to help you (again see the comments below), but I’ve not had time to try them out yet.  It’s a great idea — I really hope  it takes off.
  • Le hall de la chanson – Not really a languages site, but this is a terrific online museum dedicated to French musicians, singers, and songwriters.  The site is massive, and has tons of content to explore.
  • Radio FR Solo – An excellent little application that lets you listen to several hundred French radio stations.  I don’t know how effective learning by osmosis really is, but it can’t hurt, right?
  • Video games – Ah ha.  You can probably guess where this article is going, but I’ll expand on this in a minute.  To begin with Ubisoft have released an excellent series of language games for the DS, including My French Coach (they also have Spanish, Japanese, and several other titles).

Now I fully admit that none of these are an ideal substitute to actual lessons. In fact, as I understand it, by far the most effective way to learn a new language is to actually move to the country in question and force yourself to learn it.  Nothing speeds up the learning process as effectively as when your day-to-day survival depends on it.  However, as appealing as it might sound to hitch-hike across the channel and busk in the Latin Quarter of Paris, I can’t see it working out for me.  So for now, I’ve had to make do with what I’ve got.

After one year of on and off studying, I’d say my comprehension of written and spoken French is improving steadily, but I’ve probably not had enough time/discipline to practise spoken and written French yet (this is where a course would help).  As an example, I’m perfectly happy to order something from Amazon.fr now, but ironically, very uncomfortable when it comes to writing seller feedback.

However, what I’ve come to like about learning a new language is that it’s inherently rewarding.  I’m not talking about the ego factor here — we all know someone who likes to show off because they know a few phrases (I would hate to turn into Del Boy from Only Fools and Horsessi danke schon, bonjour anyone?).  What I mean is that not only does it unlock doors to new cultures and people, but it’s incredibly challenging — and very satisfying when you finally make some progress.

As a game designer, I find this intriguing.  In game terms, translating the lyrics of a song, or a piece of literature, for example, can feel like code breaking or solving a riddle/puzzle: – at the start you have only the corner pieces to grab on to (i.e. basic vocabulary & grammar), but little by little you begin to piece together the meaning (by looking words up), until you get the complete picture.  As your ability improves and you build upon what you’ve already learnt, the process becomes faster and you can then go back and discover subtle nuances in the text, which may lead to a greater understanding (like discovering hidden secrets in a game).  Mastery occurs when the process becomes automatic, and you don’t have to stop and ‘think’ about what’s being said anymore.

In essence, what I’m getting at is that learning a new language can be played and enjoyed like a game.  The structure is in many ways similar — you start as a beginner, learn the basic rules of the game, which you then practise and are eventually tested on.  As you progress, you refine those skills and develop complementary ones, until you achieve mastery of the game.  (Or you hit a bump in the road, get frustrated, and eventually give up).  They’re similar because this is the basic pattern of skill-based learning — it could just as easily be applied to a subject like maths or physics.

For me though, this is a further illustration of what Raph Koster discusses in his book A Theory of Fun for Game Design – that learning is synonymous with fun.  I don’t want to get bogged down with the discussion about what’s fun for me (learning a new language) isn’t the same as what’s fun for you (carving people up with chainsaw in Gears of War); Raph Koster covers that pretty extensively, if I remember correctly, so it’s probably best that you just read his book if you haven’t already.  What I think is important here, is that the challenges or obstacles aren’t obscure puzzles, logical exercises, or tests of dexterity/reflexes; but are actually teaching you something practical and usefulthat can be used outside of the game.

The psychology behind learning is something that fascinates me, as our capacity to learn, adapt, and pass that information on to a new generation is one of the main things that separates us from other creatures that inhabit the world.  So as a result, I’m very much interested to explore how video games can be used as a practical teaching aid – for real world/life skills, and not just rocket jumping or wave-dashing.  As I understand it, active learning (i.e. practising tasks, doing exercises, understanding the material, etc, not just reading about them and memorising by rote) is by far the most effective method of learning, and this is why video games have so much potential.  Their mere structure has conditioned gamers to intuitively accept a routine of instruction, practise, demonstration, and progression.  So the real problem then, is how you present it in the context of the game.

Since I’m learning French, I’m going to continue to use languages as the basis for this article and the examples I’m going to look at.  But with a bit of thought and imagination it should be possible to apply these ideas to other areas of interest, such as learning music (provided it’s not done in an arbitrary manner), or perhaps even as an introduction to something like Shakespeare.  Bear with me, I know it sounds grotesque  on paper, but I genuinely could see something like Macbeth or Hamlet working as video games (if the material was handled with a LOT of care and sensitivity).  Or put another way,  when I was 15, I might have engaged the material more had I already been familiar with it from a more accessible and ‘friendly’ source.  It doesn’t have to be dumbed down — certainly games like Final Fantasy X, Deus Ex, Silent Hill2, Grim Fandango and Max Payne aren’t,  so why not use games as a platform for heavyweight drama?  It might even give the industry more credibility (as unlikely as that sounds).  Again, the key here is how you present the material in the context of the game.

Okay, I’m digressing.  If that still sounds too much like sacrilege to you, then feel free to stick with languages.

The next part* will look at how video games currently incorporate foreign languages into them — both real and fictional.  I’m also going to briefly look at one or two ‘edutainment’ titles, like UbiSoft’s My Coach and Sony TalkMan.  For the final part, I hope to take some of the ideas I’ve discussed, and see how they work in practise.  A bit of empirical research, if you will.

*I wrote the whole article months ago, I’m just splitting this up to make it more readable, easier to proof read/polish, and to shamelessly boost my blog’s stats.

© 2009 Jonathan Hallier.  All rights reserved.