Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Rock Band. Guitar Hero. Why They Are Doomed.

So I will begin this by saying I am an unashamed Rock Band fanboy. Playing expert guitar and drums (and, when I'm feeling brave, vocals) is now one of my favored ways to listen to music and relax at the end of the day. I'll be in line for Beatles Rock Band on day one. I've written about how wrong-headed criticisms of these games are and how they are a cool, new way to appreciate music. Playing fake plastic drums is probably the most fun I've had with a video game, ever. I am one of the music game dead-enders.

Which is why it pains me so much to be the turd in the punchbowl. The fad is dying. Fast.

We all know it. We've all seen the glut. (What? Eight rhythm games out this year? Yikes!) It's the sure sign of trying to cash in on the installed base as much as possible before the fall. Sales for new Guitar Hero titles are, well, not encouraging.

If there could have been any question, the offer of a free Guitar Hero: Van Halen with purchase of Guitar Hero 5, before either of those games is even out, is the clearest sign you could possibly want. (This deal actually tempted me a little, until I realized that taking it would put me at risk of listening to Van Halen.)

The Beatles game will goose the genre a little, but even new releases with serious, broad appeal (Led Zeppelin? Pink Floyd?) will only slow the decay.

But, here's the thing. It's easy to blame the glut for the death of the fad, but, even if music games had been released at a reasonable pace, the thing was doomed to collapse. It wasn't sustainable, ever. I think it's interesting to look at why.

i. The Magic Wore Off

Now, most of this is based on my own personal observations and thus should be taken with a grain of salt. But isn't the magic gone? When Rock Band was new, I and two other friends frequently threw Rock Band parties, and they were well attended. Getting four people to pick up the plastic instruments was easy. Two years later? Not so much. I stopped throwing Rock Band parties after my last one, when I looked around during one song and realized I was the only one left playing. Everyone else had migrated to the next room. It was pathetic.

There is a certain sort of brain that has a compelling, all-consuming urge to hit those little colored spots as they come down the track. I have such a brain. But for everyone else, well, let's face it. Pressing the red button to hit the red light and the green button to hit the green light does not compelling gameplay make. It was a kick to do it a few evenings. Now it's done. Even a game for the Casual Market (tm) has to have SOMETHING to it.

ii. It Is An Expensive Activity ...

$249 for the full Beatles: Rock Band set. Again, yikes.

Happily, in an effort to avoid flaming suicide, it was just announced that there will be cheaper bundles available. And yet, MSRP of $160 is still pretty darn spendy.

iii. ... and Not Just In Cash

I'm talking about cost in resources. And my liberal leanings are going to show a little in the next paragraph, so be warned.

It takes a lot of resources to make these bulky instruments (especially drums), pack them up, ship them over the sea, get them to you, and, from there, dump them in landfills. A lot of plastic and oil in our new oil-short, global-warming reality. And, if this recession should have taught us anything, it's that we're going too much in debt buying too much useless crap from the Chinese. Something has got to go. And I think shoddy plastic Fisher Price drum kits will be first in line.

And, perhaps most significantly, these games consume a lot of space in stores. You want to know when there will be serious blood on the walls in the music game business? It'll be when some executive at Best Buy looks at the enormous amount of precious floor space taken up by big, bulky Rock Band and Guitar Hero boxes, remembers the sloping sales, and says, "Enough."

What Is the Future?

Of course, music games will remain a profitable little niche in this huge industry. Nothing that generates as many sales as Guitar Hero 3 had can ever disappear. But how will it evolve in a sustainable form?

First, games with vocals will always do all right. Microphones are small and easy to make. People love singing drunken karaoke. SingStar fans have nothing to worry about.

Guitar games will always survive. Fake plastic guitars are relatively small, flat, and easy to pack. Stores will always have a small section with two or three brands of plastic geetar. Borderline Asperger's cases like me will always have little, bright lights to hit.

Which brings us to my beloved drums. Harmonix did an amazing job of creating a mode of gameplay which sits interestingly in the shadow zone between video games and real instruments. Fake plastic drums are awesome. But let's face it. They're big. They're bulky. They don't last long under heavy use. (No cheap plastic toy will withstand being hit with a stick thousands of times.) And they aren't popular. The current mode of fake drum playing is just too tricky for the casual types these games need to live.

The drums will have to go. And when they do, band games will have to go too. Music games will fragment into singing games (for the many who love that) and guitar games (which two people can play, instead of four). Rock Band, if it survives, will still provide drum charts for the installed base. But in a few years, when we go to the next generation of consoles? Forget it.

And, someday, we will look back on the Great Music Game Fad and remember the glut of titles and the mountains of instruments at Best Buy and the $299 video game controller and go, "Wow, what was that all about?" and laugh and laugh and laugh.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Beta Testers: Getting Them. Keeping Them.

I've been running Spiderweb Software for about fifteen years now. I owe my ability to make a living writing my cute, little Indie RPGs to a lot of things. Tenacity. A moderate amount of designing skill. Dumb luck.

But, as much as anything else, I owe my ability to stay in business to a group of skilled, dedicated, hard-working volunteer beta testers.

There is a huge chasm between the rough, quivering lump of code you just wrote and a solid product you can distribute to actual people. To make your game/mod/level/adventure publicly available without melting someone's computer, you will need testers. And, if you are a lone individual or running a little company like mine, you won't be able to afford to pay QA people. Thus, you will need to go out and find testers.

I've been doing this for a long time. Here is some advice for how to find the people you need to test your game (or other sort of application) and how to deal with them when you have them.

1. How To Get Testing Volunteers

I am established and have a fan base, so this part is easy for me. I write that I need testers on my web site, take the beta testing application page live, and winnow through a huge pile of applications. If you're just getting started, you will have a harder time.

Make a web page and put up some info and screenshots, so that people can drop by and see what you are making. Then go to online forums where gamers hang out. Write a short, respectful post saying "Hey, I'm making this and I need testers. Drop by my web site and take a look. Send such and such information here." While forums justifiably hate advertisements, offering an opportunity like this is generally tolerated. (And even sometimes appreciated.)

Ask potential testers to send you information about themselves. What sort of computer do you have? What sort of hardware? What sort of games do you like? What have you tested before?

Hopefully, you will get applicants. However, I'll warn you now. You will get very few decent testers. People who can play a game, analyze it, spot bugs, report them in a coherent manner, and come back for more are very rare. They are precious jewels. You'll have to sort through a lot of, well, people who aren't jewels, to find them.

Also, don't be afraid to use your friends, but don't get your hopes up. Very few people have the mental skills and dedication it takes to be a good tester. The odds of any given friend having those characteristics are low. But give it a shot.

2. How To Screen Your Testers

When you get a pile of testers, you'll need to pick out the ones who are potentially useful. One advantage of asking them to write about themselves is that you will be able to scratch out a bunch of incoherent, confused, and crazy folks right away. If they can't answer a few simple questions, they will not be able to report bugs well. We all know how dangerous the incoherent can be in positions of importance.

Once I've picked out a few applications, I make them provide a signed Non-Disclosure Agreement (I let them fax the form, mail it, or e-mail me a .pdf signature). Google "non-disclosure agreement template" to find a few boilerplate versions.

Now, to be honest, if someone leaks your beta, there isn't much you can do about it. But make people sign an NDA anyway. It's legal protection. It stresses to them how important secrecy is. And making them send an NDA in is great for weeding out flakes. If they aren't together enough to send a signature, they probably won't be able to test well.

OK. Hopefully you have a few testers. Some of them might even be decent. If not, you'll be back to begging on the forums again.

3. How To Instruct Your Testers

You will need to give your testers clear instructions. How should they report bugs? Where should they report bugs to? Any particular format you want bug reports in? The exact details will vary depending on the sort of product you are trying to test. However, you will need to tell the testers something.

This is also a good chance to explain to them important basics. Things like how to take a screenshot or how to compress large files before sending them. And make sure to stress that, in any given report, they need to say the exact version of the beta they found the problem in. (So you don't go chasing down bugs you have already fixed.)

4. How To Interact With Your Testers

First off, always be nice. Always take constructive criticism well. These people are volunteers. They are spending their priceless and irreplaceable time helping you for free. Be polite. Be professional. Never lose your temper. If you find yourself writing a snide e-mail, get up. Take a walk. Count to ten. Then delete it. I have lost my temper with a tester only two or three times, and I always felt terrible about it afterwards.

This is a good chance to work on developing a thick skin. Nothing the testers subject you to will compare to the abuse you'll take online after your project has been released.

Don't hesitate to ask for more information about a report when you need it. Ask for exact steps to reproduce the problem. Screenshots. Saved games. Stress to testers that they need to provide lots of details. You never know what tiny scrap of information will help you to find a bug. Vague reports are useless reports. And, if a tester never answers your follow-up questions, that tester should probably be fired.

Yes, you will sometimes need to fire your volunteers. If they don't use the product. If they don't send helpful reports. If they don't treat you in a polite and professional manner. (The way you are treating them. Right?) Just because they aren't being paid doesn't mean that they should always be kept around. They are taking up your time and they are eating up a precious beta tester slot. Also, being able to beta test is valuable, even if no cash is paid. It is professional experience (more on that later) and a chance to actually take part in the creative process. These are valuable things.

5. How To Reward Your Testers

You must treat your testers with the respect and gratitude they deserve. Thank them. List them in the credits. Give them a free copy of your game.

Some testers will help you in order to get experience, in the hopes of getting a real QA job. If a helpful tester asks you for a reference, give one, and make it good. I have had people ask me for references before, and my success rate for getting people their desired positions is 100%.

And Good Luck.

Don't be ashamed to ask for help. For a certain, rare, marvelous breed of person, the ability to take part in the creative process is a great opportunity. Find those people and let them help you. Be nice. Be professional. Figure out what works for your particular product and go with it. After all, without testers, all software would suck.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Sometimes, I Link To a Comic Strip.


I have two things to say about this.

First, every aspiring Indie developer should set this comic as their screensaver, so that it flashes up at any moment when you are foolish enough to feel hope.

Second, I love the term "Indie games" because it doesn't have all the Loser connotations that "shareware" did. I now realize that it's only a matter of time before "Indie game" gets all the same connotations.

If you don't believe me, drop by XNA Community games (Soon to be XBox Live Indie Games. Thanks Microsoft!) and try those out. (Shudder.)

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Review: Secret Of Monkey Island, Special Edition.

I used to, in a prior century, be an absolute fiend for adventure games. I loved Infocom more than anything. I would spend three or four months trying to solve a game like, say, Zork II, going at it again and again, trying absolutely every little thing, so that I could have the joy and satisfaction of solving it without degrading myself by getting a hint. Months.

Wow. I was a dope.

It hurts me deeply to say it. But. Is there a genre of computer game that suffered a faster, harsher, and more deserved downfall than the adventure game, with its obscure, illogical puzzles and its total lack of hesitation about stopping you stone cold because you didn't notice some 2x2 pixel detail on the screen?

I don't want to spend too much time kicking a genre when it's down. It has already been taken to pieces better than I ever could here and here.

But adventure games are not dead. Now the flame is kept alive almost solely by Telltale Games, makers of the Sam & Max, Wallace & Gromit, Tales of Monkey Island games, not to mention Strong Bad's Cool Game For Attractive People. Good for them. It's a lonely vigil. (By the way, I've played Seasons One and Two of Sam & Max. Good games. Lots of fun, as long as you grab a hint any time you're stuck for more than fifteen minutes.)

Although my feeble old brain lacks the patience to bang away at adventure games like I used to, I do get the occasional nostalgic urge to play one for old times sake. And since The Secret Of Monkey Island is a classic which I managed to avoid playing, I jumped at the chance to play the Special Edition on XBox Live.

My review: If you hold down the 'X' button for a few seconds, the game gives you a hint. Do this every time you're stuck for more than fifteen minutes, and you'll have a fantastic time.

Longer version: It's extremely funny. It comes with an awesome feature where you can press a button to toggle between the original version of the game and the new spiffy version, which never stops being cool. Some of the puzzles are really ingenious. And, if you go too long without pressing 'X', it will remind you of everything that was horrible about adventure games.

An Example. (Warning! I am about to reveal the answer to a puzzle!)

So there's a fish on a dock. There is a seagull next to it. You need the fish, but you are afraid that, if you reach for it, the seagull will peck you. So you have to scare the seagull away.

This seems like it should be easy. You see, at this point in the game, you are carrying around a shovel and a sword. And I personally may be no pirate hero, but I assure you that I could use either of those items to scare away a seagull. Because, you know. Sword.

But that isn't the answer. You see, the board the seagull is standing on is loose. Note that there is no visual cue that the board is different from any other board. You need to walk around the dock until you hit the sweet spot and lift the board and knock the seagull away. Of course. The puzzle is solved by wandering around randomly. And hoping you step on the correct spot.

Getting stuck and needing to beg for help on something like this makes me feel angry and stupid. In any game, any bottleneck along the lines of "Be clever or be stuck here forever." is iffy design, at best. So now I mainly play games where the puzzle is how to get past the monster at the end of the hall and the only thing I have in my inventory is a big, big gun.

How Smart I Am ...

I needed about six hints to finish the game. Usually the hint just drew my attention to the door or little screen speck I missed. Playing the game in my TV instead of a monitor and moving the cursor around with a joystick instead of the mouse only makes it harder to find that vitally important hotspot that's about the size of an ant's booger. So be warned. You're gonna spend a lot of time staring.

But I shouldn't let this just be some big rant about adventure games. Monkey Island is really funny, most of the puzzles are neat, and it's a chance to sample gaming history.

But if you stop having fun, even for a moment, lean on that 'X' button and don't be ashamed. Every adventure game should have that feature. What do the developers care if I finish the game quickly? They already have my money!