I played Dodgeball today. Dodgeball is, to put it succinctly, uncomplicated. As names go, few are more descriptive than Dodgeball. The particulars of the game don’t actually extend much further see a ball, now dodge that ball. Left out of the title is that you then pick up a ball and make someone else dodge that ball. And thus, what at first might have been an assault becomes a game.
I have also been playing video games, and almost none of them can be called uncomplicated. Gamepads are the customary form of interacting with a video game and they are not in the same time zone as uncomplicated. If you wanted to operate all of the possible buttons and stick you would need a phalanx of thumbs, each with four or five extra joints. If you didn’t grow up with gamepads I have to believe that they would be terrifying devices to pick up and hold. It must be like attempting to operate a nuclear sub, in russian. There are all these bright objects to poke at, and you don’t know which one will destroy you.
Early video games used a single joystick, or even a knob that only spins clockwise and counterclockwise. Maybe, just maybe, there is a button on there too. A single button. It’s pressed or it is not pressed. See, uncomplicated.
I’ll quickly get this out there. Before this becomes a rant on how things were back in my day and blah blah blah, I’ll have to explain myself. I love complex controls for games. I can really get into a game that requires me to use every button on the controller in smart and precise ways. The digital gymnastics demanded of the later levels of Guacamelee was a great fun challenge. SSX only really gets going when you start resting fingers on all four shoulder buttons. Wing Commander and Tie Fighter use much of your keyboard along with a good flightstick, preferably one with a pinky switch, and those aren’t even real hardcore flight sims. What I’m saying though, is that I am not the majority. I am a weird outlier, and I know it. Most “core” gamers are. We shouldn’t be the ones that dictate the complexity of control schemes.
The Wii was a massive success, primarily due to how friendly the controls were. Telling someone that they could participate in a reasonable, hand drawn, facsimile of bowling in their house, and they would only be expected to operate one button to do it, has the effect of inviting a lot of new people to the medium. What they quickly discovered was that people who want to bowl in their house aren’t really the same people who will play Mario Galaxy or Goldeneye. They just want to bowl.
There are as many variants of Dodgeball as there are groups of people who play it. New rules, new court configurations, new limitations. They all compound the difficulty of the game, and the ramp up time for new players. But new players to Dodgeball don’t learn all the more complicated rules the first time out on the court. They dodge a ball, then they pick up and throw a ball. That’s it. Any additional complexity to the game can be added one slow rule at a time. Soon you are playing 5 a side dodgeball in a circular court with shot clocks and opportunities for eliminated players to return or help strategically from the sidelines. It is a completely different game than just dodging a ball, but the way you got there was so organic that you might never have noticed.
Video games too often try to invent entirely new schemes and dynamics to take advantage of all the mechanics of a modern gamepad. Some folks just want to bowl. With the new VR headsets there are a couple new controllers that, at first glance, seem to work very much like the Wii controllers did. Simply and intuitively you move them around in front of you and maybe you press one or two buttons. You can probably put together a mean game of bowling in VR.
Now what if, instead of developing a new and complicated finger dance for your new, hot, VR shooter game, you just started with bowling, or lobbing, or pointing, and worked players up to something deeper, denser, and more fun. A bowling adventure game, where you can simply stay and bowl in your house if you would like, but provide a broader experience for the player willing to go there. Make these games a jumping off point for the person who would otherwise never have bought another game because they were satisfied with only bowling. There is a built in, but limited, audience that will get the new Legend of Zelda game, but could there be a huge audience for a Bowling of Zelda game. We might never know. Video games are still developed for specific audiences, with specific tolerances to almost arbitrary complexity, and there is no real effort being made to invite new people to come and play.
Going from school gym Dodgeball to a competitive sport like basketball, or water polo, is only a matter of small accumulated rule changes. Where video games are concerned, I went through those small changes slowly over years and many different games. Currently, I’m afraid the only way to really get into video games, is probably to start when you are young enough that you don’t know any other way. You don’t know that what you are being asked to overcome just to enjoy a game is unfair and counter to the way people have been learning and sharing games for centuries. In the quest to serve the “core gamer”, we have mostly abandoned how and why games attract new players.
Maybe we will figure it out again, maybe we won’t. Either way, dodgeball is still a great game.
Best Games - Virtua Fighter
If you walked into an arcade in the early 90’s you would have seen a solid wall of cabinets all containing one game, Street Fighter 2. There might even have been many different versions of Street Fighter 2. Street Fighter 2: The World Warrior, the game that kicked off a new era in fighting games. Street Fighter 2: Champion Edition let you play as the boss characters from the first version and introduced mirror matches that let two players fight as palette swapped copies of the same character. Street Fighter 2 Turbo: Hyper Fighting sped up the game, added new character moves, and rebalanced the whole shebang for better competitive play. Street Fighter 2: Rainbow Edition was a hacked bootleg of one of the previous games that could have any number of tweaks and twists that made the fighting flat out goofy and unpredictable. There may have even been Super Street Fighter 2, a game with new characters, completely redone graphics and sound, and new sets of moves for the entire roster. It wouldn’t even be uncommon for there to be a couple copies of each game. Not only could there be a solid dozen cabinets all sporting Street Fighter 2, but odds were good that they would all be in use. That was an arcade in the early 90’s. All hadoukens, all the time.
Of course Street Fighter wouldn’t be the only game in there, just most of them. Off in the one of the less populated corners of the place would be another fighting game. It would only use three buttons rather than the Street Fighter 2 six buttons or the Mortal Kombat five buttons. Seemingly, not enough possible inputs for a fighting game with a rich set of moves. The characters looked like people shaped pinatas made from serrated construction paper. All flat faces and jagged edges. Compared to the beautiful hand painted animation of games like Street Fighter 2, Virtua Fighter was unquestionably ugly. Ugly and strange. In still shots, the game looked awful, but in motion Virtua Fighter sang.
Released a couple of years before the first Toy Story, the real time 3D graphics of Virtua Fighter were an unknown quantity. Where movies, television shows, and commercials could devote the time and budget to render all of the glossy effects and characters slowly, one small patch of pixels at a time, real time games need to draw the whole screen once every 30th or, for a fighting game, 60th of a second. That isn’t enough time to render one leaf in A Bug’s Life. Given those limitations, Virtua Fighter can be forgiven for looking sort of ugly. The way the characters moved was the furthest thing from ugly.
Street Fighter 2 adopted an animation style of held frames followed by rapid motion and short, cycled movements. The whole game feels snappy and precise. Virtua Fighter is fluid. All of the characters take on a martial artist dance like quality as punch, kick, block, and jump actions flow one into the next. Street Fighter 2 pits a collection of anime wizards in staccato combat, throwing balls of energy across the screen, breathing fire, or excreting lightning. Virtua Fighter moves like Jackie Chan choreography, close up and visceral. The hits land like cannon fire, but smoothly defending, countering, and chaining blows can feel almost elegant. All the while the camera dynamically swoops and glides to frame the action.
The transition to 3D graphics was not entirely flawless, but it proved what was possible when character movements are comprised of a sequence of mathematical probabilities, rather than pre-drawn images. The game simulation becomes reactive to player input rather than pulling from a grab bag of predetermined drawings on a millisecond to millisecond basis. This game that, on the face of it, was ugly, could actually feel more alive and immediate than the dozens of other games that lined the walls of a 90’s arcade.
Virtua Fighter is one of the best games.
It’s E3 time again. I frickin’ love E3 and I have no idea why. I get excited for the conferences and the trailers and the reveals and the gaffs and the press reactions and everything from the show floor. It makes no sense. I’m currently playing a game that is 5 years old, and after that I’ll probably play a game that is only two or three years old. My urge to be up to date on the goings on in the game industry is not in lock step with how up to date I am on actual games. I used to think that meant I was out of touch. Now I think it’s great.
There was a time in the early 90s when being a gamer meant that you played pretty much everything. There were a lot of games being made, but you could reasonably dabble in every available genre. You could sample all of the types and styles of experiences being worked on. There were many samey clones of tentpole games, but if you played one of them, you got the gist of the rest. Not so much anymore. Even given unlimited time, or a profession that revolved solely around playing new games, it would be physically impossible to play, or even know about, all of the games coming out. There are too many, on too many platforms, with too many requirements.
There has been a lot of chatter about the bursting of this bubble and that bubble. The indiepocalypse, the downfall of mobile, the mid tier crash, the shrinking of AAA. All of it is bunk. What part of indie is collapsing, is it the part where people put small projects up on itch.io? Is it the garage developer with three titles? Is it the large budget, but laser focus of something like The Witness? What indie bubble is doing the bursting? There are just too many of them. Mobile is failing? What part? The small compulsive game, the collectible card game, the touch controlled adventure? Again there are just too many. There is no one class of game that can be dubbed triple A, just like there is no one group of indie games.
The real issue is this. There are fewer and fewer massive blockbusters. There are less and less giant hits. There are no other Minecrafts. That isn’t a sign of a collapse. That is a sign of maturity. There are so many games available, that people can and will be choosey about what they play. Studios betting everything on a runaway hit has never been a great idea, it’s just less so now. Steady business that funds development of the next game, and the next game, and the next game, is the best that can be hoped for. Congrats, game industry. That’s called sustainable business.
I will watch this year's E3 coverage and get excited about all the new announcements. Over the next few years I will play a tiny fraction of those games, and that will be fine. Each of those games will have it’s audience and many of them will earn a modest return. Enough for that studio to make a new game, or maybe two smaller games. Universal acclaim will become more and more difficult to attain, but overall, more people will find real, steady, and fulfilling employment making games. We haven’t reached any sort of apocalypse yet, not by a long shot.
I stopped reading a book this week. Not finished, just stopped. This book had come to me well recommended, and it was in a genre that I enjoy but hadn’t read in quite some time, so I was interested. I really wanted to like it. I was rooting for this book, but I just can’t find it in myself to read one more leaden passage.
Of course, putting down a book is not really an event worth noting. I don’t feel moved to commit a feverish, gnashing review of the thing. It just wasn’t very good. Hardly a crime. The ways in which this particular book failed to engage me, though, that was interesting. Reading just part of it has taught me some very important lessons about writing.
Just previous, I had finished Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. In place of any grander review of that book I’ll just say this. While I don’t believe I agree with the author’s world view here, I do think that The Road is a well written book. McCarthy has written a story that I find actively off putting in a lot of ways. Not the context of a post apocalyptic world, but his implied assumptions about the inherent darkness of human nature. Even with that, I kept reading, and actually enjoyed the book. The deftness of the writing carried the lurching pace and strained allegory. It was a good book, perhaps in spite of itself.
Funny enough, the book that I put down has almost the exact same aggregate review scores as The Road, so there are a lot of people out there that really like it. It took me several chapters to zero in on what was bothering me. When I finally got it, I knew I could safely stop reading and move on.
It might be shockingly obvious to everyone else, but I hadn’t really realized that fiction in writing, just like in movies, is all about show, don’t tell. Maybe I realized it, I just didn’t appreciate the degree to which showing and not telling effected written works. That was the wall. That was my problem with this book. I was constantly being told what characters were thinking, and why, but I was never reading any descriptions of them actually doing things. Reading about them doing things in a way that reveals something important about their inner life without explicitly describing that thought process. Maybe that tell don’t show sort of writing really works for some people, and the reader reviews seem to indicate that it does, but I bounced off that book incredibly hard.
I think I needed the sharp contrast between reading a book that I enjoyed, but had problems with the narrative, and reading a book that in summary sounds like something I would love, but just couldn’t get through due to how the story was being told.
Now, I don’t know that this one moment of slight understanding will do anything to improve my own writing, but I have to figure that every little bit helps. Regardless, I’m happy to state that it took reading a bad book to make me understand good writing.