Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Making of REDUCTION: The Alien Swarm Campaign

Breaking My Silence

For the past four years, I've been silent. For two reasons:

First, I started up Core Talent Games Ltd, with some compatriots. CTG attempted to put in action many of the ideas that emerged here in the Grassroots Gamemaster blog. But I knew, when I started, I had to stop this GRGM activism stuff (or this complaining, depending on your perspective) and become a doer. So I shut up and worked on CTG, as CEO.

Secondly, during Core Talent, I made Reduction: an addon campaign for the Valve game Alien Swarm.

The preview campaign for Reduction is now finished (to beta stage at least). Here's a trailer:

I did Reduction because I wanted to. But as I did it, it sort of dawned on me that I needed to do it as well.

So here's my story of The Making Of Reduction...

Where Is The Game Designer's Voice?

I feel that the game industry has lost its way.

It has, in particular, been seduced by that whole Faustian game-design-is-psychological-manipulation trend. It has been seduced by big business a lot - where the whole objective is to addict addict addict. Addict.

Not that I think addictive games are wrong, but I want them to earn my "addiction" - I want to feel like I am alive when I'm playing them. Alive. Engaged. Not staring vacantly, like a ghost, for hours into a PC before returning to the misery of daily life. Not taking off two minutes, as one rides the bus, to waste time until the next stop... No. I didn't want games to waste time. I wanted them to be like real experiences. Vivid experiences.

When you encounter a great work, it doesn't waste time. It gives you time. It straightens your soul, and permits you to walk more clearly through delaying or dangerous ground. You find in it clarity, bestowed then on you, allowing you to skip ahead - to teleport through all the dead shit. This is how it gives you time. It removes burden.

Now what do we have? Corporate-driven game development. That's basically it. Corporate-driven. But even stranger - when you've done what I've done - now, institutionally-driven games. That's right: I've been involved in or around games financed by major government bodies. Games to train people to deal with pandemic management and with mass casualty situations (US federal), to promote the mining industry (Canadian federal and provincial there). Stuff like that. It's such a strange place to wind up in: making games in conjunction with bureaucrats or near-bureaucrats.

(I mean, there are good intentions in those games - teaching; saving lives. But those people don't understand games. And they don't trust the creative process: it's too... free-spirited. It doesn't fill out reports in triplicate, and adhere to doctrine or top-down command. It is... dead. I soon realized, the only way we could teach them the power of games was to do something beyond their control, then show it to them nearly finished. THEN they would get it. But how to fund such a process?...)


On the one hand, with games as a service - often using these strange metrics pored over by the "PhDs" looking for behaviour analysis - you have this bizarre situation: a kind of silence. We have these pseudoscience analysts hooking up the measures to the audience - like electrodes to their brain - to get the metrics that somebody decided were important (ignoring that that is a creative decision); to gather the data pushed out the other end. Listening. Listening so intently to the audience. Does it have a heartbeat here? Is there a brainwave there?


No. The "doctor" is now listening too too closely to the "patient". Because if he, gasp, stepped back - stood back and looked at the larger picture - he'd see that his patient - that the audience; the player - was blue. Was dying.

He would see that the patient has been waiting. Waiting. For the game designer to say something.


Think of how Valve self-declares it is now in the games-as-a-service business; and that now the authors of its games are going to be (surprise!) the audience itself! The gamers. And now, it just wants to know: Audience, tell us: What game do you want us to make?

In the comments following, immediately:

"Half Life 3! Duh."

"What happened to Half Life 3?"

"Did they just abandon that?"

...Repeated over and over and over again.

The audience is waiting for you to speak, but you are lost trying to psychoanalyze them with statistics.

The audience is listening for our voice. But mostly it is silent.

Silent... Listening for the audience to tell us what our voice should say. Should be.

But they don't know what our voice should be. They, the audience, have no voice. Not from that deeper deeper reach. That is why they are the audience. They listen.

They don't tell us what story, what game, what experience they want, and then wait until we parrot it back to them.

No. They say, "Show me something new! Something I've never seen or heard, never imagined. Ever! Give me an experience that rings so true it makes the hairs raise up the back of my neck! Put a new thought or a new feeling in front of me, so hot to the touch it feels like a burning cinder in my flesh!"

Imagine that.

Do you know, in the past, artists were executed for their work? That's how seriously the Listeners can believe in the Authors.

(Have you ever heard of a government  wanting to execute a game designer? No. Why not? Don't worry about them... They have nothing to say.)

(Well... With the exception of the anti-violence crowd.)

When the Authors have fallen silent, the Listeners are mystified.

We wind up in perfect feedback loop of silence. Deathly.

Deathly because, to the audience, our Leadership - our Authorship - is the oxygen that they need. But we aren't speaking; we're just listening.

And so they are suffocating. Waiting for our oxygen.

The Audience is waiting for us to breathe our voice into them. So we can resuscitate their souls.

But we won't. We have surrendered our voice to the suits.

So I just decided to do a game. A game campaign actually. A project that was a very personal project for me. Through which I could entertain, could challenge, could speak.

That was how Reduction began.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Open Letter to Zero Punctuation

Yahtzee, your review of Silicon Knights' Too Human was pretty fun, except for one thing.

You said it "stinks of the auteur".

Please do a little research. There are parties out there who are actually trying to shift power in the industry out of the hands of the suits to those of the creators. Flippant remarks like yours damage our work.

If you did your research you'd realize that Silicon Knights is the antithesis of a place in which the "auteur" is supported. It is very much a groupthink company. That makes far more sense in hindsight. Only in a groupthink environment would nobody object to that crazy valkryie death sequence. After all, to criticize - to say "I don't think this works" - would inject dis-resolution and untidiness - those classic elements that groupthink environments cannot stand but creators thrive on. The nail that sticks out gets hammered down. No one wants to get hammered down - so for me to not get hammered down I'm not going to mention that this Valkyrie sequence is just fucking stoooopid, I'm sorry!!!

A real auteur wants criticism. Not tolerates it - wants it. Wants good feedback. Wants to serve the project he's working on. Wants to look at things hard and is hard on himself. I think you're using the term "auteur" in its common connotation - that of somebody who wants attention in a pretentious manner. But that connotation is just a piece of emotional baggage. It's not reality. How do I know? All I have to do is show one good auteur and it collapses. I'm sure you can fill in that blank.

But here's the most telling sign it isn't an auteur game: Who's the auteur? D'uh... If it "stinks of the auteur" where is this auteur's name?

At the end of the day Too Human was a bad game. That's it.

There have been some good games made in the auteur manner. For example, Civilization and The Sims.

But the final irony, Yahtzee. You're an auteur.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

More Blasphemy

Putting some more of my comments on Gamasutra up here before they get deleted. These ones on the tension between group and individual in game development...


On a recent opinion by Raph Koster I said...

The thing I can't stand about Koster is his insistence on unifying the game industry into one giant homogenous monolithic singularity.

"We're building a lot of our worlds looking backward instead of looking at the world now."

"We have to change our definition of..."

"If you’re still reading 'Snow Crash,' you’re going in the wrong direction, because it's not 1992 anymore..."

What *we* need to do is shut the hell up and let individual designers free to do whatever it is they please. Leave the megalithic corporate-think to Microsoft or whatever. Game design is an art form, and it is the *Kiss of Death* to impose external criteria as if they are god-given-truth on creators.

On Gamasutra's recent list of 20 "developers" to watch - in which they didn't name the creators, only the companies, I said...
Who are the actual developers - the human beings - who are worth watching? Where's the detective work on this? We need to be interested in this game designer, that programmer or this artist far more than this or that company. Companies are just shells that own stuff. Games are made by people. Who are the people?
Then I followed with another comment...
From what I can tell the list reads something like this...

1.) Kyle Gabler
2.) Joseph M. Tringali, Jeremiah Slaczka
3.) Frank Lantz
4.) Katsura Hashino, Shigenori Soejima
5.) Tom Fulp, John Baez, Dan Paladin
6.) Max Hoberman
7.) Tim Schafer
8.) Goichi Suda
9.) Randy Pitchford
10.) Vlad Ceraldi, Joel DeYoung, Ron Gilbert
11.) Steve Fawkner
12.) Akihiro Hino
13.) Mark Healey, Alex Evans
14.) Mare Sheppard, Raigan Burns
15.) Shinji Mikami, Atsushi Inaba
16.) Dylan Cuthbert, Kenkichi Shimooka
17.) Jenova Chen, Kellee Santiago
18.) Masato Maegawa
19.) Michael Booth
20.) Dave Gilbert
Chris Remo rebutted, telling me that game development is collaborative, and that it's too hard to pick out who these individual creators are. To this I responded...

Also, a football team is made up of a lot of people - however, that doesn't stop us from learning and talking about star players like Bret Favre, Joe Montana, etc.

Also, a film is made by many people - however, that doesn't stop us learning about key creators like William Golding, Steven Spielberg, Francois Truffaut, Roman Polanski, etc.

Also, many people are needed to construct a building - however that doesn't stop us giving recognition to key designers like Frank Lloyd Wright, Daniel Libskind, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, etc.

(Shall I continue...?)

There is no excuse for the game industry to obstinately refuse to acknowledge and celebrate the talent of those individuals who have exceptional talent.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Watching the Game Industry Come To Its Senses

I commented on a story about outsourcing on Gamasutra. Basically, some big companies are starting to wake up to the fact that outsourcing makes sense. And not just for the sake of efficiency - for the sake of effectiveness.

My comment?:

Needless to say I've been hammering this message a long time.

Outsourcing is the rule - not the exception. You would never consider having a doctor on staff in case your employees got sick; or a lawyer for all your legal needs; or a plumber if your building broke down.

The most important thing about outsourcing is that the focus shifts from production to creative - as it should. We have to stop letting production questions get in the way of trying out new creative ideas. The attitude should be we can always "crew up" to make it - no matter how risky the new design seems.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Quick Post, Before They Delete It...

I posted a response to a story hailing the Utopian future of "scientific" game design. This kind of stuff makes my guts churn.

Posting my comment here before it gets deleted:

"Video game design is evolving from a barely understood activity done by genius designers driven by their gut feelings, to a craft with shared techniques and methodologies."

Yes... This is the very reason why we are in the midst of a creative crisis in games - why games are rehashed, commoditized and "deadly" (qv. "deadly theater"). Because of this drive to exclude the individual and at times irrational creative genius element in favor of something systematized, "scientific" and rational - but also ultimately lifeless.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Hammering the Effectiveness Message, Again

Effectiveness is more important than efficiency in the entertainment industry.

Take Apocalypse Now. Its making was a chaotic mess. But what they made was a good film.

True the aesthetic delivery needs to have efficiency. Apocalypse Now had tight cutting and dialog when it needed it. In a game, you need a certain framerate and so forth. But that's a different thing. That too ultimately falls under the category of effectivness - a quality of the final product. How we get to that effective destination need not be efficient - and should not be, if we sacrifice effectiveness to get there more efficiently. The whole raison d'etre of prototyping is to embrace the mess. To experiment. To try things out. To go by circuitous routes. In order to reach a destination: to build a better product.

I reinforced this at a recent comment on a story on Gamasutra about the Agile Methodology (which I've worked within)... Remember that what you're making is more important than the process by which you make it. If you arrive at a place where, for whatever reason, some people are doing nothing or waiting for others, you may very well need to be there.

Again, game development needs to be treated as an entertainment industry devoted to creating projects - not as a conventional operating business, focused on maximizing efficiency. Efficiency isn't the aim - effectiveness is. You can efficiently make a piece of garbage (it happens all the time).

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Load Tubes One and Two!

Okay, I've had enough of this silence bit. So many people complained that I was all talk, so I put away the black hat and put out a real first-stab at a real high-level business design. I've gotten some real, serious feedback, some offline interest, and a few of us are mucking about on our own time looking at that.

Then I shut up.

But my blog seems to have gone blahhh...

So let's light up some targets again!

Here are a couple comments I made on Gamasutra recently...

On Simon Parkin's examination of numeric rating systems for game reviews:

Think of all those great works in other media - films, novels, music, etc - that were trashed, ignored or otherwise misunderstood when first released but, after time, were "rediscovered" and then went on to become masterpieces and extreme commercial success.

Once again, I have to say we need to pry the reins of creative-decision-making in game development out of the hands of the short-sighted beancounters.

(Note: Somebody later commented against me, mistakenly believing I was criticizing the author. Actually Parkin and I were in agreement.)

On Will Wright's optimistic view of games being accepted as a form of expression:

"We are a couple years away from being respected as a form of expression, but it's not a battle we need to fight. We'll win anyway."

Yeah right... Kind've like the Civilization model of R&D: just keep pumping "research points" into a new tech (which, somehow you know is coming even before it's been invented), passively, and sooner or later the new tech just pops out of nowhere.

Guess what?: in the real world radical discoveries don't happen that way. They are far from inevitable... They come from unexpected directions, by people often looking for totally different things. They meet great resistance.

The reality is new advancements don't just magically happen. Anymore than in cinema the auteur system - and with it respect for the medium of film - appeared. The auteur system which brought respect to film occurred because of an act of government to break the monopoly of film studios. Similar accomplishments require great work.

I wonder if Mr Wright would speak so free and easy if he were a just-starting-out designer today. Without the immense power his name carries. Let's say Sim City had never been invented - and thus the entire genre of Sim-like games didn't exist. And he went as a lone designer (much as he did back in the late 80s) with the proposal for such a radically new design. If he didn't have all the firepower of a working 3D demo behind him - which is de rigeur today - would he have gotten anywhere? Or would some suit at a publisher say "How quaint? However, we're trying to fill out our roster of military shooters, so we'll take a pass..."

One wonders.