I’m not an artist.
You might think that someone who spent the better part of the last couple decades making stuff, pictures of stuff, pictures all lined up in a row and played back at 30 per second, and pictures you could convince to move around with a gamepad would be an artist. At the very least they would call themselves an artist. When they ask me what I do, I usually tell people “I make things”. It just feels more comfortable. More honest.
A while back I wrote a bunch of words about the the term “art”. I described how I thought maybe “art” was more of a verb than a noun, and that anyone that ever made anything is, by definition, an artist. I’m not going back on that. I still believe that art is a thing you do and not a thing you make. Whittling down the specifics of the language, people who make things are probably best described as artists.
Unfortunately the title of artist is saddled with a lot of expectations and strictures. Artists are supposed to have some well of inspiration. They are supposed to draw on human universal truths. Artists are supposed to be granted some uncommon talent that most people can only marvel at. That’s not me. That has never been me. I solve small problems and make things.
Maybe there are people out there that have ideas and capacity to manifest those ideas gifted to them. It’s nothing that I have any knowledge of. I see a task, break it down into small problems, and solve them one at a time. Sometimes the task is completed, sometimes it isn’t, but mostly I just run out of problems I am capable of solving. What comes out the end of that process, I suppose, could be called art.
The cultural shorthand for what I do would probably be artist. Maybe the term Maker will fully insert itself into the vernacular, and I can call myself a maker without all the techno-hippy baggage that comes with it. Until then I will continue to do what I have been doing, being fully uncomfortable with the worlds of artists, or makers, or developers. If you read this, the next time you hear me say that I make things, now you will know what I mean.
Best Games - Sid Meier’s Pirates!
Imagine there was a game made up almost entirely of minigames. Strike one. The minigames are repeated a bewildering number of times. Strike two. The bulk of the remaining part of the game is uneventfully sailing across open ocean. Strike three. For a game called Pirates! you very rarely get to wear a captain's hat or an eyepatch. Strike four.
That’s right. Four Strikes. That’s more than the recommended number of strikes. On paper Pirates! should be a dismal failure of a game. It is both repetitive and slow. It’s also fun in every direction. The repetitive minigames are fun, or at least short enough that they never become grating. The sailing is simple, but engaging enough that it still demands your attention. The naval combat is so enjoyable that you could probably base a game on ship to ship fighting alone and it would still be fun. The presentation, at least in the 2004 remake, is light and stylish in a way that makes it almost timeless. Save for the resolution of some of the textures, Pirates! could have been released last week.
The game is dense with numbers, sliders, and management. This could easily make doing anything a slog. That would be another strike, except Pirates! is so cleanly designed that maintaining a crew of hundreds on a whole fleet of ships is trivial. Even enjoyable.
If you had a list of features in front of you, Pirates! appears to be a terrible game. Dull, tedious, and repetitive. The final game is, of course, anything but. The best description would probably be fun. Top to bottom fun.
I played Bill Budge’s Pinball Construction Set some time in the mid 80’s. I don’t remember exactly when, but I do know that it was on a friends computer, and I do know that it wasn’t a legit version. It was a disc with the name Budge PBCS written on it in sharpie and the manual was photocopied. I later wound up buying a real copy of it for the Atari 800 computer out of a bargain bin. I think it cost $2.99. I also bought The Last V8, but that is a disappointment for another time. The thought of being able to create my own pinball tables was intoxicating. I had so many ideas, and I sketched many mockup pinball tables in lined paper notebooks. I wish that I could say that I created a great table. I wish that I could say that I figured out how to link the various bumpers, spinners, and score lights into something playable. I pieced together a few terrible tables, but nothing that anyone would mistake for fun. Shortly after that I put the disk back in it’s box and never opened it again.
It wasn’t that creating pinball tables with Pinball Construction Set was difficult. In fact the tools were incredibly easy to use and surprisingly powerful for the time they were made. The tools included, along with all the requisite pinball gizmos, a vector graphics and raster graphics editor. A lot of modern graphics programs can’t muster that kind of oomph. It was shockingly easy to put together something that would play a simple game of pinball. There just wasn’t any good reason to do it.
This has been the failing of most in game editors, or game construction sets, since developers started making them. There can be an inherent joy in building things. Usually that joy is hinged around the fact that the thing you build will be enjoyed, either by yourself or, and this is the kicker, someone else. Building a thing to be experienced by other people is one of the most fun and satisfying tasks a person can undertake. If you get to witness them enjoying that thing, so much the better. In the mid 1980’s finding a way to get a virtual pinball table that would only work on one type of computer into the hands of even a few people so that they could enjoy it was positively herculean. There was very little joy to be squeezed from that activity. It’s not very surprising really that I was not incentivized to work very hard at it.
We have been playing a decent amount of Super Mario Maker around here. All of the ways that Super Mario Maker is amazing and beautiful and joyful made me wonder why the Little Big Planets and Modnation Racers of the world stumbled. Why did games with intelligent and elegant toolsets for creating game levels and other content not stick.
Simply, in Super Mario Maker creation is the game. The levels you play will be created by other people, and you have at least a reasonable expectation that the levels that you create will be played, and enjoyed, by other people. You don’t make a level to enjoy playing it yourself, you make it so that other people can enjoy playing it, and you are informed by the game when they do. You may never meet the people who play your levels, you may never get to see the excitement in their eyes when they play your levels, but the system they have created provides enough feedback to spur you on. The loop is complete. You create something, other people enjoy it, you are provided feedback on how they enjoyed it, and that feeds your desire to create more, and better, levels. This is the exact reason that people make games in the first place. They are made for other people to enjoy.
Creation might be inherently enjoyable, but let’s be honest here, it doesn’t get really fun until you can share it with other people.
It’s 2016. That’s one whole digit higher than the last time I wrote one of these. The responsibility to do it up right is tremendous. Not really. I figured I would just ramble on about games for a few hundred words like I usually do, only this time I will be writing about the future. Strap on your shiniest scifi outfit, fire up some theremin music, and cuddle up with your robot companion. Here we go.
It’s exciting that this year will be the first year of virtual reality. Like actual virtual reality products that you can buy. Lots of them. It is sort of a bummer that virtual reality is the term that we have settled on though. Virtual reality was ginned up in the 80’s, before anyone had any idea what we could use these immersive displays for. Recreating reality, the place we all live all of the time, was the best we could come up with. So reality, only not so much.
Sometime this year you will be able to buy a high end screen that you can plunk on your head and, I’m speculating here, you will be able to pretend you are a giant frog, flying a spaceship, into a star, that turns out be the dream of a young girl from Croatia. Then you get to be the girl, and dream that you are the frog. The girl falls in love with the frog. The frog falls in love with a nebula. It’s all very touching and beautiful. The score is by Austin Wintory. It will be decried as heralding the downfall of the games industry. You’re going to love it.
This year indie games will continue to grow in popularity and cultural relevance, but the term “indie’ will fall out of favour. Indie will be labeled exclusionary and derogatory. Mostly by seattle rock bands that want to take the title back. Also, Electronic Arts will spin up its “indie” label and start a marketing campaign to attract developers with the tagline “hey Indies” set to the tune of “Mickey”. The campaign will end in a dramatic failure, but it will spawn a neogaf thread on whether the original song was titled Mickey, Hey Mickey, Hey Kitty, or simply Kitty. Seven people will become very angry.
The latest graphical treatment trend will be visible polygon seams. Several tutorials will go up on Gamasutra defining different ways to create shaders achieving the perfect polygon seam look. Extra aliasing will be computationally costly, but considered worth it.
Ubisoft will completely reinvigorate the Assassin's Creed franchise when they release Assassin Creator. The game will allow you to create any assassin and assassination scenario that you can image. The ability to create female assassins will be patched in after launch.
Highly anticipated game The Last Guardian will be released. The game will be exactly 83 hours long, regardless of the players actions. To play the game you will mostly have to hold the controller to the right, but occasionally up and to the left. It will go on to be one of the most massive critical successes of the year.
One pioneering team will blow it’s early access program wide open, and allow players to write code and create art for the game in progress. The game will become an unprecedented money maker. It will be officially released in 2019.
Sometime in the early hours of a dark 2016 night, I will put out a game. Of the games I have personally made, it will go on to become an unprecedented money maker. It will be officially released in 2019.