Wednesday, December 6, 2017

I Settle All Video Game Arguments, Part 2: What Is a Game?

According to the rigorous definition of Game that I will provide, creating "dank memes" IS a video game.

One of the painful things about being in the games biz for a long (LONG) time is that you see the same tedious arguments brought up and rehashed, again and again, by new generations. I am writing a series of posts to settle these debates once and for all.

No need to thank me. When I get the Nobel Prize, don't worry about sending the medal. I just want the money.

This time, I settle a question that has tormented academics and Mad On Twitter types alike: What is the definition of a game?

How This Tedious Discussion Started

When the Indie Boom hit, several games of the genre called Walking Simulators came out and achieved huge financial and critical success. I personally enjoyed many of them greatly. (Despite this, I still use the term "Walking Simulator" because I find it funny.)

When they first gained notice, a certain portion of the gamer community was angered by the acclaim for Walking Simulators, sniffing in response that they "Aren't games."

This is, of course, entirely the wrong way to phrase their complaint. What they should have said was, "These games, whatever their good qualities, strip away everything we value in gaming and don't give us enough hours of distraction for our limited dollars, and the fact they are being treated as the future and only thing of value in our medium fills us with resentment."

Whether you agree with that sentiment or not (and there's plenty to say on both sides), it is a statement you can actually debate on its merits.

But this debate, such as it was, was moot. Last I checked, Walking Sims (even really good new ones) are selling modest numbers and games where you shoot monsters in the face are still making billions.

So there was no reason to continue the argument ...

According to my rigorous definite of Game, this IS a video game.

But Then Academia Got Involved.

A lot of people go to college to study videogames, and some try to create advanced critical analysis of the form. Don't blame me. It's not my fault.

I studied theatre in college, which was a fantastic experience. When I was there, I observed that people new to an art form constantly try to attach firm definitions to everything in it.

"What IS a play? What is acting? What is a work of art? What is the explicit definition of joy? And beauty? Dude, my hands are HUGE! They can touch anything but themselves!"

Exercises like this are not useless. It's good, when you’re young, to spend a lot of time thinking about the nature of your art form. Then you stop, because you realize that the nature of art is a very slippery thing. Whatever rule you come up with, someone else will become awesome by breaking it.

Here's the deal with art: Your brain compels you to make a thing, then you make it, then people dig it or they don't. The end.

Despite this, otherwise sensible people still actually spend time trying to define a game. Google "What is a game" and marvel in wonder. It's really quite the thing. A whole bunch of definitions, none of them adequate, because they're all too broad or too narrow or too abstract.

So I'll settle the issue and save everyone a bunch of time. This is important to me because I'm working on a cool new indie role-playing thing now, and it'll be out soon, and I want to be sure I can call it a game so I don't get in trouble with the FDA or whatever.

According to my rigorous definition of Game, this is NOT a video game.

What Is a Game?

Consider the large, highly profitable genre called Hidden Object Games.

Here's how they work. The game says, "There's a squid on the screen." Then you find and click the squid. Then you do the same thing with a sandwich or a skull or whatever.

Is this a game? I mean, hell, I'm not 100% sure this counts as an ACTIVITY.

But it has to be a game. How do I know? Because "Hidden Object Game" has "Game" in the name.

So just clicking a few times makes it a game, and you have to click just to launch the game. Sooo ...

According to my rigorous definition of Game, this IS a video game.

The Answer!

If you're asking, "Is this a game?" it's a game. Sure! Why not? Who cares? It might be a good game or a long game or a bad game or a word processor.

Semantics arguments are lame. Argue about the content. What is a game is trying to do, how does it attempt it, how well did it succeed, and why? That's all that matters.

Wait. You Didn't Actually Define a Game.

So if you're hangin' out and someone starts to discuss with you what the definition of a game (or gameplay, or play, or immersion, or ludonarrative dissonance) is, do what I do!

Step 1: Nod sagely and adopt an expression of extreme concentration.

Step 2: Point over the person's shoulder and shout, "Hey, what's that!?"

Step 3: Activate the ninja smoke bomb you have in your pocket. FWOOOOSH!

Step 4: Sneak into another room.

Step 5: Talk to literally anyone else about literally anything else.

Problem solved!

According to my rigorous definition of Game, this IS a video game.

This Is Ridiculous. By Your Laughable Definition, Photoshop and Excel Are Games. That Is So Broad As To Be Meaningless! But What If You First Define Gameplay To Be ...

OK, you've broken through. My decades of experience have enabled me to have one simple, unquestionable test for how to peel apart interactivity for a productive purpose from interactivity for an entertainment purpose. First, you ... Hey, what's that!


As An Extra Multiball Reward For Making It All the Way to the End of This Mess, I Will Settle Once and For All the Question: "Are Video Games Art?"

No. Never. Don't be silly.


If you're intrigued by giant indie RPGs with cool adventures and epic stories, you can wishlist our next "game" on Steam. News about our work and random musings can be found on our Twitter.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

I Settle All Video Game Arguments, Part 1: Game Reviews

There was a ridiculous controversy recently because a games journo was bad at this difficult game. All time spent debating it was time wasted. I am writing this so that such time-wastage never happens again. I live to serve.
"You can speak your mind but not on my time."
      - William Martin Joel
One of the painful things about being in the games biz for a long (LONG) time is that you see the same tedious arguments brought up and rehashed, again and again, by new generations. I am writing a series of posts to settle these debates once and for all.

Don't bother to thank me. Seeing my own face whenever I look into the mirror is reward enough.

First up, I will settle all debates regarding games reviewers: How good should a reviewer be at a game? What topics are a reviewer allowed to bring up when doing a review? Are review scores and review aggregators a good thing? Does anyone still care about game reviews?

So the next time someone gets Mad On the Internet about a game review or mega-butthurt because the newest installment of their fave series gets a 91% when they KNOW it should have gotten a 93%, you can send them to this page and get on with your life.

A thoughtful and useful review of Avernum. Hmm. Let me check if it's still, 17 years later, making me money? Yep!!!
Why Are You Authorized to Settle This Argument Forever?

Because I am old, and that makes me wise. Also, once PC Gamer gave one of my most popular and enduring games a 17% review, literally said it was worse than choking to death on your own vomit, and provided a helpful sidebar with a list of rock stars who choked to death on their own vomit.

Believe me, every possible opinion you can have about game reviews, I have had at one time or another.

(Also, we have a kick-ass new indie, retro role-playing game coming out in early 2018, and I want to make sure everyone's heads are on straight before they start reviewing it.)

The Most Important Fact About Reviews

Think about your friends. (For the purpose of this exercise, I will assume you have friends.) When they recommend games/movies/TV shows to you, you take their personalities into account, right?

For example, there are some people who I listen to when they say a movie is good, and there are others who I won't, because they only like cheesy romantic comedies and Shrek. Or some guy will say I have to play Face Obliterator 5000, and I like him and all, but I'm not a fan of the Face Obliterator genre. Or, while his wife is great, no, I don't want to see the new Benedict Cumberbatch movie. Under any circumstances.

They're good people. We just have different tastes. I don't make them watch the long, depressing foreign movies I like, and they restrict their evangelizing Rick & Morty to me to one hour per day. I only accept recommendations from people when I've found their tastes line up with mine. You're the same way, right?

Pick Reviewers The Same Way

Reviewers are just individual humans, with their own tastes, and no one human can be a perfect, impartial justice machine for evaluating a work of art. Any decent reviewer can say how buggy a game is and whether it runs OK on their PC. Beyond that, it's just, like, your opinion, man. 

If you want reviews, don't just sit there. Find a couple reviewers you like and read them. If a web site doesn't have regular reviewers and just uses a rotating stable of whatever recent college grad is most desperate that week, it's not going to be useful to you. It takes work to find a site that works for you, but that's life.

Fun bonus fact: All awards for art, from the Nobel prizes down to video game awards, are arbitrary and meaningless. If you want to obsess about the Oscars, hey, you do you, but don't pretend they have any value beyond distracting you for a minute.
Are Numerical Review Scores Dumb?

On the surface, yes, evaluating a complex work of art and boiling it down to a single number is dumb. I mean, it's not like critics have an Art Scale, and they can put the last Call of Duty on it and say, "This game weighs 8.3 Arts, and the last game only weighs 7.1 Arts, and that's 1.2 Arts more!!! So this game gets a 93%."

Review scores, in practice, are fine. However, remember, a high or low number is just a reviewer giving an opinion, and if you trust his or her opinions, you're fine. High number means they like it. If a reviewer I trust says, "Yeah, this game is a B-," I know what's goin' on.

Is It OK For a A Video Game Reviewer to Be Bad at Games?

Of course. A lot more game reviewers should be bad at games. Fact is, most people who play computer games are bad at them, and they deserve reviewers who advocate for them and can say, "If you blow 20 bucks on this, you'll die 500 times on the first level and hate it. Don't waste your money."

Look, I love laughing at game professionals flailing at games as much as anyone. Remember when that unnamed Polygon writer tried Doom and showed no signs of ever having played it (or any video game) ever before? That was a hoot.

(My favorite bit is when the player unloads a full shotgun blast into a health pack resting on the ground, in what I can only assume is a post-modern deconstruction of late-stage capitalism.)

But some people watched that video and said, "Wow, I should never buy this game," and were right to say it. So the video was useful after all.

This is why I was a huge fan of Conan O'Brien's Clueless Gamer series, before it devolved into a series of tedious celebrity skits. Watching someone who isn't fully proficient in our art form and its weird conventions struggling to enjoy it can be painfully useful.

In the end of Ratatouille, a supposedly heroic writer gives a good review to a restaurant whose kitchen is infested with rats. GROSS! Never trust reviews.

But This Goes Both Ways, Right?

Yes. Some gamers have very little money and lots of time to fill. They don't want to spend twenty of their limited bucks on a one-hour art piece, and they deserve reviewers who advocate for them as well.

Is It OK For a Video Game Reviewer to Have Strong Political Opinions?

Yeah, why not? A lot of people only want games that support their particular political opinions. They can use politics-fixated reviewers as canaries in a coal mine. The writers are exposed to bad opinions so that you don't have to be.

Again, you have to pick a reviewer compatible with you. If someone doesn't like a game because it's too politically whatever or has too much of the color blue, use that person or don't. You get to choose what reviewers you watch.

What If I Think a Reviewer Sucks?

Don't read their reviews. That'll show 'em!

(And leave it at that. Don't be an asshole to them because you don’t agree with them. Not reading them is really the only vote you get.)

Review aggregator sites would have you believe every Marvel movies is one of the Best Movies Ever Made. Which, I mean, Marvel is fine I guess, but nobody will remember any of these flicks in 3 years.
How About Game Aggregator Sites? Are They Cool?

So you can go to a place like MetaCritic, which averages 50 different game review scores to take all those accumulated opinions and blends them together to create one number which represents Objective Truth. (Interestingly, Objective Truth is, the vast majority of the time, between 70% and 90%).

Look, is this useful? Kind of. I suppose.

I mean, look. Suppose ten people you don’t like give you their scores for a game. That won't be very useful. But what if you take those ten dumb opinions, blend them together, and take the average? That won't be any more useful, will it? Do you think that if you mix a lot of dumbness together, somehow smartness is made? Does this work with political parties too?

But it's all subjective. If you get value out of MetaCritic, use it. It's no sweat off my nose.

But Aren't Game Developer Payments Sometimes Determined By Metacritic Scores? Isn't That Bad?

All Metacritic is doing is getting some numbers and averaging them together. Yes, taking this random number and paying developer bonuses based on it is kind of shady. But on the list of Ways the Game Industry Mistreats Its Employees, it's like 893 out of 1200.

And if you look at the list of Concrete Things That Can Be Done to Make Developers' Lives Better, "Being mad at MetaCritic" is not on it at all.

My kids don't even know video game reviews EXIST, but they will buy anything even mentioned by this guy. God. Why do I even pretend I know anything?
One Last, Horrifying Truth About Game Reviews

I'm ancient, and even I don't use them anymore. There's no review that can tell me anything I can't get by watching the game on for ten seconds and checking the Steam reviews to make sure it’s not too buggy.

In Conclusion

Take responsibility for yourself. Accept that the world is full of people different than you and there's space for all of us. As long as they're not punching you in the nose, people are allowed to have dumb opinions in their dumb heads. When choosing who you allow precious space inside your own head, choose someone you trust.

I will trust in the good people of the Internet to take this sensible advice and act with a bit of basic empathy in the future. I consider this entire discussion closed.

One Final Small Bit Of Whimsy

For a games web site, there's a huge advantage to having reviews written by inexperienced, eager people who try to stir up arguments instead of calming them. Those people work cheaper, and their work tends to stir up anger which gets more clicks. Sure, these poor writers/targets get screamed at, but that's what they were hired for. Their employers don't care as long as the clicks keep coming.

In the end, however, we’re talking about video game reviews. In the global scheme of things, game reviews are REALLY unimportant.

Here's what keeps me up at night: How do we know that the journalists covering politics, the economy, and wars aren't being picked in exactly the same way?


If you're intrigued by giant indie RPGs with cool adventures and epic stories, you can wishlist our next game on Steam. Give it a terrible review if you want. We just need the attention. News about our work and random musings can be found on our Twitter.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Avernum 3, Remasters, and the Joy of Owning Your Work.

It's weird to see over four years of my life just sitting there in a lump.
I've been making my little indie games for a living for 23 years. Being a greybeard in such a weird and young industry comes with special privileges.

For example, while some of my peers are getting around to remastering their old games, I am remastering our most popular game, Avernum 3: Ruined World, for the SECOND time. It is only when you rewrite the same material twice that you really test your discipline and integrity.

Writing indie games has become miserably competitive lately. Most new games, even promising ones with a lot of work in them, are sinking without a trace. Yet, thanks to the grinding tedium of rewriting the same game again and again, I have a fighting chance of my business surviving enough to write cool new stuff.

So I'll tell the story or Exile 3: Ruined World/Avernum 3/Avernum 3: Ruined World. (Also on Steam.) There are things to learn here for any young person who thinks, "I wanna' make cool things (not just video games), and make a living doing it."

Don't laugh. It sold like crazy.
In A Previous Millenium, I Wrote A Hit

In 1997, I'd been making games full-time for a couple years. I wrote (and still write) retro, turn-based, low-budget indie RPGs with fun systems, interesting stories, and mediocre graphics.

Happily, I got started at a time when there were very few good RPGs out in the market. I got a nice computer, wanted to play a good RPG, and couldn't find one. So I wrote one. It sold, because no competition. This is a key example of my most important business strategy: Get Very Lucky.

My first games, Exile: Escape From the Pit and Exile 2: Crystal Souls, were designed on a simple principle: I would go back to all the RPGs I loved as a kid and steal the best idea from each one. I then carefully combined all my quality stolen ideas into a coherent whole. This is called being a game designer.

For our third game, I had a better idea. I spent months playing all the new RPGs that had come out over the previous 2-3 years. Then I stole the best idea from each one of those. Thus, I transitioned from stealing ideas from old games to stealing ideas from new games. This is how you evolve as a game designer.

I ended up with Exile 3: Ruined World, which has been our biggest success. It features a gigantic world, that is easy to get lost in. As time passed, the game world evolved. If you didn't fight the monsters off, they would ruin towns and kill the townsfolk. (Though, no matter how slow you play, you can always still win the game.) If you didn't want to follow the story, you could be a bounty hunter or merchant. You could buy a house.

(If you want to try it out, it's available as freeware here. Warning: It probably won't run on your computer. That's one of the reasons we had to remaster it.)

Exile 3 came out so long ago that most new computers then looked exactly like this.
It Was The Right Title At The Right Time

In 1997, it was what people wanted. It was a legit shareware hit. Now, having a hit indie game in 1997 (when the world wide web was basically nothing and most of my sales came from AOL) was different from having one in 2017.

These days, the sales of a hit indie game will buy you a mansion made of yachts. Back then, it bought me a modest house and made my parents slightly less ashamed to say what I did for a living.

I won awards, to the extent there were game awards back then. I got attention from the traditional games media, which was really worth something then. And it established me in the business for good.

But even then, I knew that the real prize was not the praise (which I don't care about) or the money (which is nice, but then you spend it and it's gone). What was really valuable was that I owned the game. It was mine. I could do with it whatever I wanted. Forever.

Five Years Later, I Rewrote It For the First Time

We rewrote Exile 3 as Avernum 3 in 2002. Five years is a really short time to wait before rewriting a game, but I have a good excuse. When I started Exile 3, I'd only been making games for money for two years, and I wasn't very good. There were a ton of ways in which the story, interface and graphics should have been improved, and I didn't know to do it.

I spent well over a year writing Exile 3, and my wife and I spent another year turning it into Avernum 3. We went over every single location, line of dialogue, and bit of code, improving and expanding it to the best of our improved abilities. The revised version didn't sell as well as the original, but it still made a lot of money. (Again, by early indie game standards. It was a lot of money for lone artists, but not big-shot money.)

(If you want to try it out, you can buy it super-cheap here. Warning: It probably won't run well on your computer. That's one of the reasons we had to remaster it.)

The new game. I am constantly accused by cranks of never improving my games. Look. I'm not saying this is super-fancy. But I don't think you can say there's been no improvement.
Now, Fifteen Years Later, We're Doing It Again

Fifteen years is a long time in the tech industry. Our most popular game is now woefully out of date in every way, largely forgotten, and doesn't even run on new Macs anymore. Now I can rewrite it so it actually works, and an iPad port will fall out of the process in the bargain.

Interfaces and game design have evolved in a million ways. I'm spending 18 months going over every tiny bit of the game again, redoing every single thing from scratch. I'll release it in January or so, and it will hopefully sell. I think it will. I've spent over 20 years building up a loyal fan base.

The Pros and Cons of a Remaster

The good side of remasters is that they can be less work that writing a game from scratch. You can, with luck, get a full new title for 2/3 of the work, and it's easy to market it because people already like it. (I'm assuming you're not remastering a game everyone hated.)

The bad side of remasters is that you become the curator for your own work. It can be grinding to go over old material day in and day out. The reason a remaster is successful is because your fans like the original game. You don't want to crap it up with too many new ideas, no matter how clever. People tend to not like change.

A Lesson For Young Creators

Never underestimate the value of owning your work. There hasn't been a day since 1997 that I haven't made money off of Exile 3. The reason is that I own it. It's mine, to alter, remaster, and distribute. All according to my whims, with all the earnings going to me.

It's a tough market out there. But suppose you release a new game and nobody ever even hears of it. Wait five years, remaster it and it really will be, as far an anyone is concerned, a new game. You can try selling it again!

And ten years from now, people will be using new consoles, new devices, new sorts of computers. Port your game to them! Each new port is an all new release. A new chance for your game to get noticed and catch on and become a hit!

Nature provides us with a perfect metaphor for any internet discussion.
"But Your Games Are All The Same And Look Like Crap"

I have a follow-up post about the reactions when I announced Avernum 3: Ruined World. It's pretty funny, but this is already long so I broke it out into its own post.

When Avernum 3: Ruined World comes out (hopefully in January for Windows/Mac and March for iPad), I'll have spent over four years of my life on it. It's not a game for everyone. It's mostly the product of one person, and it'll show.

Even if you don't like my work, I hope you take some satisfaction in this: Vidya games are still a place where one weirdo can make weird things for other weirdos and make a living at it. As long as this is possible, there's hope. Maybe the next weird thing for weirdos will be YOUR perfect game, the Best Game Ever, and it never would have existed in a purely big-budget world.


If you're intrigued by the retro-RPG goodness of Avernum 3, you can wishlist it on Steam. News about our work and random musings can be found on our Twitter.

Edit: Added the Pros and Cons section.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The Life and Merciful Death of the Fad Controller

Sorry, grandma. This doesn't exist anymore. I guess you should have bought more than the launch title.
Over the years we have had console gaming, the perfect control mechanism for our entertainment has emerged.

Our thumbs, those nimble and durable pieces of flesh and bone, operate the joysticks and buttons. Our trigger fingers work the triggers. The rest of our fingers, stupid and useless, hold the controller stable. And our bodies are left to peacefully recline and decay on the couch. (Because if we wanted to actually use our bodies for anything, we wouldn't be playing video games.)

This control mechanism easily allows two joysticks, four buttons, a d-pad, a touch pad/Back button, two triggers, and two bumpers. Enough inputs to easily handle even a very complex game.

(You can also push the joysticks in to provide two extra buttons, which is how controller engineers tempt game designers into making mistakes. If your game uses pushing down on a joystick as an input, please move that command to a real button. If you don't have a button free, just lose that feature. Your game has too much stuff in it as it is.)

Yes, the modern console controller is a marvel of design and functionality.  Yet, brave game designers are never satisfied with mere perfection. They are always coming up with new, weird fad controllers to tempt us. This article will describe the lifespan of this process.

Harmonix tried to teach players how to actually do something. It didn't work out. Moral: Never hope for anything to ever get better anywhere ever.
Why Make a Fad Controller?

Part of it is artistic exploration, I suppose. The desire to elevate our new art form to new and undreamt of heights.

The real reason is money. There's a lot of money in this biz, but there's also a ton of competition. A new sort of game that catches the consumer's fickle eye will result in a fortune. Guitar Hero and Rock Band both sold well over a billion dollars. The motion controllers of the Wii led to that console winning its generation (old people like fake bowling).

Employees of game companies need to keep coming up with ideas to justify their salaries, whether you want them or not. No executive wants to go to E3 to say, "We're treading water another year. We have the same old crap. YOLO!"

In the end, all we’re trying to do is reach an increasingly jaded, desensitized audience and present something new enough to raise their heart rates above rest level for five freakin’ seconds.

You ask: How on EARTH did they ever get anyone to buy the Wii Fit board? Answer: Pornography.
Phase One: The Shock and Joy of the New

So fad controllers are made. What is a fad? Something new and exciting, which hordes rush to buy to get a bit of newness and variety in their mundane, repetitive lives.

Maybe your fad is motion control, to get the pudgy masses off their couches. Like the Wiimote, or Playstation Move, or the Kinect, or the Wii Fit Board. ("No, THIS will be the peripheral that gets gamers to exercise while they game LOL!")

Or maybe it's the plastic version of a real life peripheral, to better simulate something in the real world. Like a guitar or drums. Or maracas. Or bongos. Or, for the suicidal, a skateboard.

Most attempted fads fail, of course. Some, however, caught on and made a bunch of money. Bloggers, ever hunting for the next Hot Take, gazed upon them and proclaimed a new exciting future for gaming! Then, a few months later, reality set in.

How will we get people to play Guitar Hero again? I know! We'll make the controller incomprehensible and beige!
Phase Two: The Bloom Comes Off the Rose.

The thing about fads: The newness wears off. Purchasers start to think, "Oh. Wait. This isn't holding up that well." And they move on in droves. A fad is a massive wave, and waves always recede.

I was a diehard Rock Band fanatic. I played it a ton. I went to many Rock Band parties. Enough of them to say with some authority: For the vast majority of humans, 3 songs is all it takes to get tired of Rock Band. (Some blame the music game crash on too many titles coming out per year. This is nonsense. If your genre can't handle 5-6 titles a year, it's a crappy genre.)

Phase Three: The Fatal Flaw Becomes Apparent.

Most fad controllers fail for one of a few simple reasons:

1. They just aren't precise enough to support more than a few crude, simple games. (e.g. Wiimote. Wii Fit Board. Kinect.)

2. The controls are precise, but the games you can play on them turn out to not be that interesting. (e.g. Any music game ever.)

3. Even if it's a decent controller and a cool idea, it's tied to one platform, so no major developer ever bothers with it. (e.g. Wii U Tablet. Also, did you know that big pad in the middle of a PS4 controller is a full touch pad and you can do little drawings on it and stuff? It's OK, nobody else did either. Why would any developer who supports more than one console ever use that feature?)

4. The controller requires getting up off the couch. I'm not doing that. (e.g. Almost every fad controller.)

If the controller is lucky, a few more games get written for it after the initial release. They made bank at first, but now they are tanking with increasing severity.

Now comes Phase Four, the endgame. The company who makes the fad controller has two choices: The path of the canny businessman. Or the path of the insane Viking.

I want Star Wars Kinect dancing videos to be the new Rickroll.
Phase Four, Option One: Give Up and Take the Money

Seriously, if your product becomes a fad, you can make a TON of money. When the big cash river stops coming in, accept that your product wasn't actually going to change everything forever. Cease production, count your winnings, buy another Tesla, and never speak of it again.

Phase Four, Option Two: Double Down!!!

There are some who are struck by Divine Madness. They are the true believers, who really believe they are changing gaming forever. Like remember when Harmonix convinced itself that Rock Band fans actually wanted to learn to play a real instrument?

The greatest such tale: When it became clear that the Kinect was only good for dancing games, Microsoft could have accepted its limitations, cashed their huge checks, and moved on.

But no, humility is not the Microsoft way. They were determined to explore the Kinect's maximum possible potential. So they not only kept it around, they built their entire next console generation around it. With disastrous results.

But it's all right. We'll always have the cautionary tale, and the wonderful memories.

It's OK, VR Beard Guy, YOU GOT THIS.
Phase Five: Regret and Garage Sales

The final destiny is the same. The story starts with a beautiful dream, moves on to cargo ships full of cheaply made plastic drum kits, and ends with piles of the things filling garage sales and thrift stores everywhere.

I mean, seriously, isn't it amazing? Factories in China made millions and millions of shoddy plastic drum sets. They were shipped across an entire ocean and delivered to households in America, where they were played for probably 2-3 songs and then thrown in a dumpster somewhere.

Think about how much effort went into this project! Someday, historians and economists will look back on that whole event and ... Well, I don't know what they'll think but we're going to come across pretty awesome.

How Does VR Enter Into This?

I should point out that this whole cycle has absolutely nothing to do with the VR craze. I mean, sure, VR goggles are really expensive, make lots of people sick, and have yet to come up with an actually compelling title. But it's fine. VR is the future. Bet your mom's bottom dollar on it.

I'd like this picture but with grandparents in the goggles instead of pasty tech nerds. It could be the beginning of a really lousy episode of Black Mirror.
So What Have We Learned?


That's the wonderful thing about the game industry. Almost everyone burns out of it by the time they're 35, so whatever institutional memory they developed disappeared and a new generation of worker bees is brought in to make all the same mistakes again.

So when the next weirdly-numbered generation of XBox comes out in a few years (Working Name: "XBox Eleventy Five"), you can look forward to its new motion controllers about three years after that. They will sell ten million units, have two decent games, secretly send pictures of your clothes to Forever 21 for marketing purposes, and your kids will LOVE it. For three days.


You can buy our awesome, easy to control games here. We are also on Twitter.

Edit: Changed the Harmonix guitar caption to something a little less unkind.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Persona 5, Cartoon Cats, Depthless Evil, and Dating Your Teacher.

Strap in. This might get a tiny bit weird.
I write long RPGs for a living. Yet, I am the most jaded RPG gamer in the world. I tend to hate playing them. Yet, I force myself to play a long RPGs, because if you become totally divorced from playing the sort of game you write, you are lost.

That is why I recently spent 92 (92!!!) hours completing Persona V, Altus's cool, quirky, cult-hit JRPG. I didn't play it. I sunk into it, like a warm bath. For 1-2 hours a night, for months, I led my band of oddball Japanese high school students through their routine of going to school, dating, capturing demons, crushing evil, and being the best darn flower salesmen and part-time curry cooks they could possibly be.

It's really weird. When I look back on the obscene amount of time I spent on this game, I remember so many flaws. Storylines that were dull and uninspired. Repetitive dungeons and combats. A flawed translation. A lot of padding. A lot of content that was genuinely disturbing.

Yet, let's be clear, this game took over my brain. It’s the best example I've seen in this medium of a work that is much stronger than the sum of its parts. If you love this genre, it’s really worth playing, at least through the end of the first chapter.

So please allow me to go on about it for a while, as I process the experience and try to figure out why it works. Because it kind of shouldn't.

I freely admit that I can be very juvenile in my video game selection standards.
So What Is This Thing About?

Persona 5 is part of the (deep breath, bear with me here) Shin Megami Tensei media franchise, a sprawling web of books, anime, video games, etc. that have been very popular in Japan for 30 years or so. The last video game in this world to gain traction on my continent was the cool and utterly bananas 2011 puzzle dating game Catherine, which I still believe does not actually exist as it was merely a fever dream I alone experienced.

I want to try to explain what Persona 5 is about in a way that will probably agitate Megami Tensei fans to no end but will actually have a chance of getting civilians to comprehend it.

So you play a teenager in high school. You spend your days deciding what to do. You can study, or work at odd jobs, or go on dates, or hang with friends, or go see movies with your intelligent talking cat.

But you are also a, I don't know, a soul wizard. You are able to travel with your friends to the "Metaverse," which is where everyone's souls hang out. There, you can summon demons called Persona and fight the souls of bad people. If you can beat up their souls enough, you can change them and make them be less evil (or just kill them).

However, these enemies are also able to summon their own Persona demons. But then you can capture and use them yourself, in a process that plays out like Pokemon on shrooms.

So it's a JRPG, combined with an anime dating sim, with heavy Pokmemon elements. I am now stepping out of the way of those of you stampeding toward the exit.

What really sucked me in to this game was the first chapter, where you do battle with that most sinister of foes, your school's volleyball coach.

Just don't forget who, in the end, your real enemy is.
The First Storyline

The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt was, by video game standards, fantastically written. This means that most of the writing was simply fine, but it has one storyline (the infamous "Bloody Baron") that was genuinely good. In game writing, one good story can go a long way.

In Persona 5, when you learn how to summon demons and punch the souls of your enemies, your first foe is the evil volleyball coach Kamoshida. As a famed Olympic athlete, when he retired from competition, your school eagerly snapped him up as a teacher. And then proceeded to look the other way as he repeatedly assaulted his students, the boys physically and the girls sexually. He's famous, so nobody does anything about it.

You discover that he drove one of his students to attempt suicide. You confront him. He then swears to use his position to get you expelled. Thus begins a race, with him trying to destroy you in the real life while you try to wear down his spirit and change his personality in the Metaverse. If you lose the race, the game ends. Badly.

Let's be clear. Persona 5 is a really dark game. Horrible things happen. Some of the enemies are truly evil. Not evil in an abstract Sauron/burning eye/save the world whatever way, but in a skin-crawly "Yes, this actually happens. All the time." way.

Kamoshida is one of the most loathsome characters I've ever seen in a video game. He is so horrifying because he is so believable. It happens in the real world to the point of being mundane. A game like Tyranny can play with evil all it wants, but it's in a world full of magic and elves and cat people, so who cares?

In Persona 5, the bad guy is, and let's not mince words here, a serial rapist. In a seemingly light dating sim RPG. This is what led me to write this blog post. Video games only rarely tackle this sort of extremely difficult material. So when they do try it's worth figuring out if it worked. If so, how?

Persona 5's graphic and interface design is relentlessly cool.
Video Games Have No Limits, But They Have Limits

Here is the quandary: Video games are art, and therefore no element of the human experience, no matter how horrible, is off limits. Yet, video games are mostly adolescent power fantasies, so some topics seem too serious for them to address. Much of human experience, therefore, must be walled off in weenie little indie art pieces that nobody plays.

Now look at Persona 5. It is full of horrifying abuse. And wacky JRPG battles and hijinx. With a rapist gym teacher. And a cartoon cat.

Persona 5 is a financial and critical hit. I have read criticism that there are flaws in the ways it addresses the issues it does, but I have not seen anyone, male or female, seriously say that the game is disrespectful or should not exist. If they did, I would not agree with them.

This is a game full of horrors. It shouldn't work. People should recoil from it. But people don't recoil, and it does work. This is a good spot for some meaty game criticism. How do they pull off this magic trick?

To show how it can work, I'll point out one tiny, vital part of the game: how these traumatized kids get their magical powers.

How Can a Game Have Such Horrible Things and Silly Things Next To Each Other and Not Be a Mess

You might be thinking, "How can an RPG contain material like that and still be bearable and not super-gross and offensive?" Part of it is that, when dealing with sexual assault (and it comes up a lot), Persona 5 never jokes. It treats the topic seriously.

More importantly, they use a bit of a narrative trick, which I want to highlight because I think it works extremely well.

OK, so you play a band of teenagers who gain the ability to summon demons to attack the souls of evil people. Fine. How does this happen?

It's not like Harry Potter. A fat guy with a beard doesn't show up and say "You're a wizard!" and you go off to boarding school.

Here's how it works. You have to be betrayed. Someone has to be truly cruel to you, completely take advantage of your trust and weakness (and you've been weak and trusting in a way only a child can be). And then you have to realize it. You have to enter the Soul World to fully comprehend the magnitude of what has been done to you, and you have to completely lose yourself to rage. When this happens, a mask will appear on your face, the visible form of your still belonging to and believing in society. And you have to rip it off. It's AGONIZING. There is blood. And when it's finally off, you're free.

Here is what it looks like. (The one at 9:17 is pretty good.)

It's intense and bizarre and glorious and totally silly and utterly sincere, in a way that the Japanese do really, really well. It’s full of crazy animations and cartoon cats, but it's SERIOUS. I think it's the secret to what makes the game work.

He never saw it coming.
I Love Tonal Inconsistency

Now I know I am doing a super-crappy job of selling this game. I mean, I promised you a totally bananas adventure where you travel through surreal magic lands summoning demons, and then you return to the real world to be a seventeen year old tending bar before going on a date with your high school teacher.

This is a game with a really inconsistent tone. It can switch from weird and silly to dark and heavy in a moment.

I love that. I think tonal inconsistency is one of the necessary traits of a really good story.

It's not just that, if you never allow your tone to vary, your work is monotonous and grueling. It's that, if you want your work to in any way mirror life (and Persona 5, above everything else, wants to be a life simulator), well, life itself has an inconsistent tone.

Persona 5 is about damaged people trying to recover and build happy lives for themselves. It's about having been exploited and having your trust betrayed, and healing and rising above it and building a life. So when the characters recover from the latest outrage by going out for fried octopus balls, it's not a flaw but the whole point.

Window Into a Foreign Land

Persona 5 is a work of Japanese cultural and societal criticism, focusing on the ways in which old people exploit young people (and young women and girls especially). It can get really rough.

So if this doesn't sound like a place where you want to spend 90 hours of leisure time, I'd certainly understand.

I valued it greatly, though, as a window into another culture. This game is thoroughly and unapologetically Japanese, with Japanese characters commenting on Japanese society, in a very, very cynical way.

Politics in the U.S. in the last year has been a bit, shall we say, unsettling. As a big politics and civics nerd, I really liked stepping out of it for a time to be reminded that other societies have arguments and their own problems. They are the main characters in their own stories.

I love works of art that give a view into foreign mindsets and problems, like how The Witcher comes from a very Eastern European point of view.

Of course, selecting any character as "Best Girl" is offensive and problematic on so many levels, and I apologize for any inference that I ever engage with a sincere work of Interactive Art in such a childish way. Video games, as a true art form, deserve better, and so does humanity.
"Enough of This Serious Nonsense. Get to the Important Part."


"Who is Best Girl?"

Makoto. #shotsfired

As for good optional storylines/people to date, a lot of the side storylines are kind of bland. It's kind of a problem, alas. I found the most interesting characters to be Kawakami (teacher) and Tae Takemi (doctor). There's a lot of room for disagreement here. Feel free to point out other good bits of writing in the comments. (Also, be sure to never miss a chance to be mean to Mishima.)

Oh, and as one more aside, I have never liked music in video games. This is the first game I’ve ever played where I really, really liked the music. I still love the main battle theme after hearing bits of it 10000 times.

The Fun of Transgression

One of the coolest things about video games is that they give you the freedom to misbehave. This is one of the unique things about vidya as a storytelling medium. It's one thing to read about someone misbehaving, and another thing entirely to control someone being bad. Even if we know it's not real, when you choose for your avatar to do something crazy or bad, for a moment, it FEELS real.

You play a highly rebellious high school student, and Persona 5 lets you be transgressive in a way a western game could never allow. You can be responsible and do homework and get a job, sure. Or you can get a job as a bartender, or hang out with your alcoholic reporter friend, or, yes, date one of your teachers. (In a storyline that ends up being weirdly sad and touching and is one of the better bits of writing.)

This is just a first bid in picking apart Persona 5.

Be warned. While Persona 5 will allow you to two-time (or 9-time) your girlfriend, there may be consequences.
There's Plenty of Flaws

It's a 90+ hour game, how can it not? It's about 10 hours too long. There's a lot of bland writing and weird translations (in English). The writers had kind of a weird obsession with modeling. The combination of utter weirdness and total sincerity really requires some getting used to. The depictions of gay people are pretty offensive. The character of Akechi (Boy Detective!!!) seems to have been parachuted in from a different, worse game.

But if you care about the art form and the genre, this game is INTERESTING. It swings for the fences. Its reach exceeds its grasp. I haven't even begun to sort out all of the fascinating choices and ideas in this crazy, overstuffed game.

If nothing else, the next time I hear someone gassing on about how, "Video games can't do this," or "Video games can't cover that topic," I can now just say, "Persona 5, fam," and walk off to a more interesting conversation. Persona 5 got me thinking about all the things we can still explore in this young, weird medium, and I'm grateful for that.


Our very non-JRPG games are always available here, and I am on Twitter.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Games Have Too Many Words: A Case Study.

In this chapter, I unwisely critique the work of my betters.

I recently wrote an article about how video games have too many words. We designers don't properly edit our writing to make sure our words are worth a player’s time reading them.

I want to do a case study where I go through a wordy game, step-by-step, and show what it's doing right and wrong and how it could be doing better. Most game criticism frustrates me. It tends to deal with generalities and floaty ideas, instead of dirtying its hands with specifics that could actually help make for better games. This is my chance to egotistically provide a different approach.

This breakdown will be long and gritty, but I'll try to include a lot of solid pointers. I'll throw in some jokes along the way.

The Subject

Let's look at the very beginning of Pillars of Eternity, developed by Obsidian and released in 2015. This game was a huge hit, critically and financially, taking advantage of a shortage of quality Baldur's Gate-style, gritty, isometric-view, story-heavy titles.

I really wanted a game like that, so I bought it. I finished it in a little over 20 hours. The combat was fine, though really chaotic and hard to follow. (The best description I read was "clusterf***y".) The story was OK, but the game is loaded with words, many of them written by Kickstarter backers. I ended up getting through all the conversations in the back third of the game by typing the '1' key as fast as I could.

I did play Pillars until the end, which is rare for me. Overall, it was pretty good. It made a lot of money, and the crowdfunding for the sequel is doing quite well.

I don't usually like being negative about the work of other sincere, industrious creators. Luckily this game got enough cash and acclaim that its creators can comfortably ignore the nattering of a non-entity like me.

This is how I picture the devs of Pillars of Eternity. They walk everywhere with big clip art watermarks floating over their chests.

"So What's Your Complaint?"

Too many words.

Pillars of Eternity wants to have a really elaborate world and story, which is fine. It wants to have a creative game system, with new, innovative sorts of character classes and spells, which is great.

However, it doesn't do a good job of communicating stuff to the player, because there's no editing and care in giving out information. The game just floods the player with text, important bits buried in gushes of irrelevant detail, practically training the player to think that the words aren't really important. (Again, I played a huge chunk of the game without reading anything but the quest log.)

To illustrate this, I'm going to go, step by step, through the introduction and character creation, the stuff anyone who tries the game is sure to see. Let's see what the game thinks is worth the player's time and how good a job it does splitting up vital knowledge from static.

"So What? You're Just Scared of Words, You Sub-Literate?"

No, I have a problem with the pacing. The human brain can only absorb so many random facts about game systems and lore at one sitting. This stuff needs to be carefully paced out, or it'll just slide off of the brain.

But character creation in this game floods the player with tons of facts, both about the game and the world. I came out of it feeling numb and confused, and almost none of it stuck.

So. You start the game. You pick your difficulty. And then you begin the eleven (!!!) steps of character creation.

I. Introduction.

A pretty graphic and some basic text saying what is going on (you're on a caravan going to some fantasy town, you feel sick), read by an old guy. About 140 words. It's fine.

II. Pick Your Sex

And now the troubles begin. You need to choose whether you are male or female. Here's a description:

Describing the sexes is about 160 words total. But look, it mentions a bunch of different countries. Let's mouse over one of them and see what their deal is.

Yikes! That's a lot of words. All the descriptions together are about 330 words, much of it references to random game locations the player has no knowledge of. "Ein Glanfath" "Dyrwood" "Glanfathan" "Ixamitl" "Naasitaq" How can anyone get anything coherent from this tangle? This is literally the second thing the game shows you.

Seriously, try this: Read the description of "Eir Glanfath" above. Then close your eyes and count to ten. Then say everything you recall about Eir Glanfath. I'll bet you retained very little. And that's setting aside whether this stuff is actually necessary to play the game. (Not really.)

And, worse, it's all irrelevant to the actual choice the player has to make, because the vast majority of players will know whether they want to play a man or a woman before they even launch the game. If a woman only ever plays female characters, telling her, "The men of the Derpaderp Tribe of Sirius XII are in charge of all of their basket-weaving!" isn't going to turn her head around.

My Friendly Suggestion - Go through all these random facts and see if there are one or two of them the player MUST know. Pluck them out and put them in the Introduction. Cram the rest of the lore in books the player finds in the game world. Then make Male/Female be a toggle in the next screen.

III. Pick Your Race

OK, we're into solid fantasy RPG territory now. Here are six races to choose from:

You've never heard of three of the races. This is good. Pillars's desire to create new, weird things is one of its good points. Each race has about fifty words of description:

Now, this is a description of a "dwarf." But, if you have even the slightest familiarity with fantasy, you know what we're talking about here: Standard-issue, Tolkein dwarves. Short. Stocky. Like digging holes, gold, and ale. Grumpy. Scottish accents. We get it. All you need to say here is, "Strong, durable, great warriors."

For each of the races, the description mainly says the lands they live in. Let's be clear. This is useless information. If I tell you dwarves come from New Jersey, whether or not you've heard of New Jersey, this tells you nothing about whether you want to be a dwarf in your adolescent power fantasy.

It's a total cliche to say, "Show, Don't Tell," but this is a PERFECT example of why this is a key concept in writing. If I say, "Dwarves come from New Jersey," and you've never even heard of New Jersey (or dwarves), you won't care. But if you go to New Jersey, look around, and see nothing but dwarves, you'll instantly be all, "Oh, I get it! I'm in Dwarfland!"

But it gets trickier. This is the first choice you make that has actual impact on the gameplay. There are six statistics in the game, and your race affects what you start with. Each statistic description is 50 more words. Let's take a look at one:

What "Might" means is important information. The player needs this. This text needs to be punchy and clear. Something like, "Improves damage from all attacks. Gives a bonus when healing. Helps intimidate people in conversation."

And this description does that, but messily and with lots of extra words. Pillars tries to do a lot of things differently from other RPGs, so it needs to be extra-clear about the surprising stuff. Having the strength skill also improve spells and healing is neat, but it's also really unusual. ("Dwarves are better wizards? Wut!?")

My Friendly Suggestion - Editing pass. Shorter and clearer. Ask, "Why does the player need to know this?" If you don't have a good answer, save this lore for much later.

IV. Pick your Sub-Race

This is where the seriously over-designed quality of Pillars starts to show up. Picking a race isn't enough. You have to pick your sub-race:

So about 160 words (not counting rollover text), to learn about the woods dwarves and the mountain dwarves:

None of this lore has anything to do with the actual game.

What bugs me here is that this choice has gameplay significance. One choice gives you resistance to Poison & Disease (though you have no idea how serious these conditions are or how often they appear in the game), and one gives you a bonus against "Wilder" and "Primordial" creatures (though you have no idea what on Earth those are, let alone how often they show up in the game).

Giving a player seemingly high-impact decisions with no ability to tell which one is correct is stressful and confusing.

My Friendly Suggestion - Ditch sub-races. Instead, give Dwarves BOTH of these bonuses. This creates more distinction between the races and getting multiple bonuses helps the player feel more powerful instead of confused and stressed.

"Cutting Out Lore? What Is Your Problem With Lore In Games, You Jerk?"

Lore in games is great, as long is it's not thrown at the player too quickly and without any gameplay context that makes it mean something. Anyway, let's keep going. There's a LOT more screens to go.

V. Pick Your Class

Hokay! At last, this is the big one! This makes a huge difference in your play experience. Here are your eleven choices:

One of the coolest things about Pillars is that they tried to make some weird classes unlike anything in other games. The cost of creativity, however, is that you have to be extra-careful when explaining to the player the weird stuff they've never seen before.

When I started the game, my eyes were instantly drawn to "Cipher". That sounds neat! And here is the description ...


The main description of the class is four long sentences, but only the second sentence actually says much about what the class does. Then a very vague description of the powers, which involve something vitally important called a "Soul Whip," with no explanation of what that actually is. Then a bunch of algebra.

That's about 120 words, for one class. You have to go through all of it to get a vague idea of how the class plays. The other ten class descriptions are comparably complex.

This is just too much stuff to muck through, too early, for a choice so important to the play experience. Bear in mind that we are still less than halfway to actually playing a game.

My Friendly Suggestion - For each class, only show the stat bonuses and two or three carefully written sentences describing what it's like. Move all the weird lore and mathematical formulae to a different tab that can be opened by those who care. When the player starts using the class in the game, bring up some tutorial windows saying the key details of how to actually use it, like what a "Soul Whip" is.

VI. Pick Your Class Details.

If you're a priest, you have to pick your god. If you're a caster, you have to select a spell or two from the starting list. For the Cipher, the list looks like this ...

The spell descriptions look like this ...

Again, a ton of reading, referring to statistics, distances, statuses, damage amounts, damage types, etc. that mean nothing because you've never actually played the game.

My Friendly Suggestion - Lose this screen entirely. Pick one basic, useful ability (the best one) and give it to the character automatically to get through the tutorial. Then, after the first bunch of fights, have the player meet a trainer and be able to choose new abilities in an informed way.

VII. Edit Your Character Attributes.

Figure out how many points of Strength, Constitution, etc. you have. The game, to its credit, says which ones are most important for your class. Standard RPG fare.

VIII. Pick Your Culture


Yeah, I know you aren't reading all of this. This post is wayyyyy too long and gritty and nit-picky and tedious. But reading this article takes much less time than actually picking through all of these windows in the game. Which is too long. That is my main point. Now scroll to the end and call me an idiot in comments.

Anyway, yeah, pick some country you're from ...

Each of the 7 contures has about 70 words of description.

None of this has anything to do with playing the game.

This is the most unnecessary step in the whole process. When making an RPG character, you need to build two things: Its stats/abilities and its personality.

Knowing your character is from "The White that Wends" tells you nothing about its abilities, and it's a lousy way to determine his or her personality. If you read the description of "The White that Wends," and learn that people from there are mean and selfish, that's still not the way you want to player to create a mean, selfish character. You do that by giving play options in the game that are mean and selfish and letting the player pick them. Show, don't tell.

My Friendly Suggestion - Lose it entirely.

IX. Pick Your Background.

Choose from one of nine backgrounds.

The main thing this affects is that, every once in a while, it will open up a new dialogue option. This never makes a big difference.

My Friendly Suggestion - There's a real lost opportunity here. Once again, "Show, Don't Tell." Instead of having me declare that my character is a Slave or Aristocrat or whatever, why not, once you’re in the game, make every conversation option for all of these different nine backgrounds available to me when the game starts.

Then, if I keep making the "Aristocrat" pick, start removing the other options, so that I end up always talking like an Aristocrat. Then my character's personality emerges organically from the sort of dialogue choices I make in the actual game.

X. Choose Appearance and Voice.

Standard appearance editor and list of different voices. It's fine.

XI. Choose Your Name.


X. The Game.

And, finally, the games starts with the tutorial. Which begins with a long conversation. Which I barely pay attention to, because my stupid brain is tired.

It's all way too much. Too many words, too many irrelevant choices, exhausting when it should be informative. Not that they will listen to me, but it might be an improvement to look for in Pillars of Eternity 2, because the market is not what it was in 2015.

"But Who Cares? The Game Was a Hit, Right?"

The real test of how good a game it is, is not how it sells, but how much its sequel sells. And it is entirely fair to ask what business a pissant like me has criticizing a hit game written by a bunch of big names.

Let's leave behind the idea of craftsmanship and a desire to always keep improving our work.

Lately, sequels to hit RPGs have been selling far worse than their predecessors. Obsidian's successor to Pillars, Tyranny, by their own words, underperformed.

Also, I looked at the Steam achievement statistics for Pillars of Eternity. According to those, fewer than half of players finished the first chapter. Only about 10% of players completed the game.

Now granted, this is not unusual. Most games remain unfinished. But that still invites this question: If the vast majority of players didn't want to experience the Pillars of Eternity they already paid for, why think that they will want to buy more?

Everyone should keep improving, if just for their survival in this mercilessly competitive business.

Video games are a new art form, and there is still so much we have to figure out. That's the terrifying and awesome thing about making them. And now, having already written way too many words, I will take my own advice and cease.

Edit (6/19) - For fairness, I want to point out that Josh Sawyer of Obsidian did write a rebuttal to this piece.

It is an extremely dignified and thoughtful response, and it makes me really interested in seeing how Pillars of Eternity 2 turns out. (And, of course, I wish them every bit of good fortune.)