I don't buy games on launch day. On the occasion that get a game during a kickstarter, or pre order, or buy a game that's in early access, I usually won't play it until weeks or even months after release. Partly that's because I have other things that need doing and my game playing time is limited. Partly it's because I'm really cheap and prefer to wait until games are on sale. The real reason though, is that I know a few things about creative work.
I’ve worked on projects with deadlines and projects with “deadlines”. Projects that seem to drag on for ages, even if you are technically on schedule. Had these projects been produce, you wouldn’t have gone anywhere near them. They started to smell pretty funky after the 3rd round of client revisions. While you are working on those types of projects, you know it’s a death spiral. There is no way that anything remotely resembling the initial concept pitch will ever exit the other side of the creative digestive tract. Still you work on it, hoping against all good sense and reason, that something good will come of all your work. When the deadline is dictated by someone with no idea how production is going, or worse, someone who does, but would rather not confront the client with the bad news that more time is needed, the result is inevitable. No one has ever shit a diamond.
Recently Warner Bros. pulled the PC version of Batman Arkham Knight to, you know, finish it. I mentioned on twitter that I thought this was a brave move. Most of the media that I have seen weigh in on this particular bit of news seemed to think that the coincidental timing of the Steam reimbursement program might have had something to do with it. Only the threat of an economic squeeze could possibly have made them pull a game from the market. Of course, that makes very little sense. The amount of people who actually return defective products is incredibly low. Even if Warner Bros. had to pay a fee for each refunded copy of Batman, if 90% of their customers returned the game, the other 10% would cover the cost. Admittedly I don’t have any real numbers here, and none of the involved parties are likely to release any, but there is almost no situation where they lose money continuing to sell this game.
What they would lose, is customer respect. The recent series of Batman games has been very well received. They are solid fun narrative action games, that treat the Batman and surrounding cadre of characters with honest respect. Even in the age of the superhero blockbuster movie, this is uncommon. On the current consoles, this most recent release has also been well received. There have been criticisms of certain choices the developers made, but it is roundly considered to be a good game. The PC version was made available for sale in a state that most would call not done. Since the PC version of most games where the console is the main platform will only account for a small amount of the overall sales, it seems the PC port was done quickly and not especially well.
PC port is sort of a misnomer. At one time a game might be programed and created for a vastly different architecture than the common x86 pc. Game consoles used custom processor chips, graphics chips, and even memory. Making that same game code run on a PC meant rewriting a lot of it to work with different architectures and libraries. They had to be truly ported. Current consoles are custom PCs. Specific parts, but none that are exotic. This Batman game, no matter what version, runs on a PC.
Making anything takes time. If you want to make a thing with a bunch of other people working on it as well, it takes scheduling, and planning, and looking ahead. People are famously terrible at planning more than a few days, or even hours, into the future. Nothing ever happens just as you plan it, and the more flexibility you build into your schedule the better. People have built some things on this planet, and off of it, at a staggeringly massive scale. It can be done, but it’s never going to go absolutely smoothly.
The developers of Batman where given a deadline to release 3 versions of this game. The core of the different version of each game would be identical, but the specific edge cases inherent in the different platforms would require attention. Most importantly, they would require time. Time I would suspect they asked for and were not given. After already adding many months to the development time of the game, someone decided that on one specific date all of the versions of the game would be released.
Of course I understand that at some point you need to stop creating a product and actually start selling it if you ever hope to make any money at all. The problem is, you need to be very upfront and honest about that. Early access and paid betas have proven that people are willing to put up with a lot, if you are honest with them. They will pay money for your broken game, if you admit with your palms upturned, that yes, this game is not going to work perfectly. What they won’t do is forgive you if you lie to them.
Pulling a game from the market until you can fix the problems with it is probably the closest to an apology as any consumer focused corporation will ever get. They will earn no money for selling this game, and they will have to pay to fix it. In the end the game will likely sell well and all of this will be forgotten. In another 3 months when the developers have had time to fix a lot of small bugs and glitches, the game will play as well as it ever will, but they will have missed the marketing blitz and other tie ins that likely dictated the deadline in the first place. We have to be ready for that. The timeline of months or years of potential game sales need to be built into the product from the bottom up. People will play your game, and love it, in ways that can’t be predicted by blockbuster centric marketing. Trust that your customers are smart, and don’t lie to them. If you need a bit more time, say so.
I just hope that whoever made the decision to pull Batman from Steam, also wrote an apology to all the developers for releasing it when it wasn’t ready.
If you have read any of my previous posts, you probably know about my custom arcade cabinet and the neverending saga of it’s construction. I never really mentioned it, but I’m sure at least one or two people have wondered how the games actually run on there. How do you take hundreds of games from the 1980s and 90s that used to inhabit several stacked circuit boards and reels of coiled wire each and make that fit into a smallish pedestal. The answer is emulation, and it’s kind of a big deal.
I’ll cover the boring stuff first. Emulation usually refers to creating software that mimics hardware. Sometimes it is software that mimics other software, but typically software can be ported, or rewritten to work on different hardware, so emulating it isn’t necessary. Hardware emulation is really what we are talking about here.
Take for example an old hardware system like the Mattel Intellivision. The Intellivision was created in the late 70s and used some common processor chips of the era. It also contained a lot of resistors and capacitors, the sort of non-transistor electronic components that are prone to age related failure. The majority of the Intellivision machines that exist today were manufactured as cheaply as possible 35 years ago. This means that the failure rate for that hardware is very very high. Also the video and audio output of those machines is for a video standard that is largely obsolete, making it difficult to connect one of these boxes to a TV if you can even get it to start up. The only reliable way to play an Intellivision game is either through reverse engineered, newly manufactured hardware, or through a software emulator. Usually a combination of the two. Create a solid simulation of that old hardware in software, and the game programs will run just like they did before, only on modern hardware.
This would all be hunky dory, except emulation of games is still a ‘keep your voice down’ type conversation in the game industry. This is mostly because of the grey legality of it. Here is the problem. Video games are copyrighted works whose distribution rights are typically retained by a person or company, or even several companies. Making and distributing a copy of that game without receiving the approval of the rights holder, usually by paying them money, would violate those rights agreements. Depending on where you are in the world this may or may not be illegal. This has led a lot of people, usually the rights holders, to suggest that emulating games is illegal, since almost all emulation of games requires creating a copy of the original code. I’m not a lawyer and I don’t know what is and is not legal. In fact, it’s been proven time and time again that a lot of lawyers don’t really know what is and is not legal when it comes to emulating old software. An awful lot of the computers that people use to keep the lights on and maintain the public water supply require heavy use of emulation software. Reverse engineering a hardware system to run in software is not really the problem. It’s often a practical necessity.
I think it comes down to public perception. For a long time, and more importantly for a certain generation of people, video games were considered commercial amusements, and not creative works. They occupied a place in our culture different, and somewhat lower, than movies, music, or books. Preserving a working copy of Buzz Bombers, would be an unthinkable waste of human effort to some people. Rights holders eager to maintain a hold on their creations would often agree, just because it made the argument easier to win. Doing the work to maintain a running copy of an old game takes effort, but putting in the effort costs money they often couldn’t be guaranteed to recoup, but allowing your work to be distributed without compensation doesn’t make sense either. It was, in the past, occasionally easier to convince a judge that software emulation wasn’t legal, and put off having to do anything at all about the situation. Then these old games were simply going to vanish into the wash of history.
If you told someone that they couldn’t read Frankenstein due to the original printing press rusting to powder, they would look at you like you were bonkers. New plates would be created and installed in an updated, faster, and more efficient press, and the book would continue to be sold, or distributed. People didn’t stop buying Revolver because vinyl records became obsolete. A created work outliving its distribution medium is sort of the norm.
Video games are the first medium to break the laws of supply and demand. With any digital work you have an infinite supply and a limited demand. Prior to copying games, people could of course copy music by recording tape to tape, but the nature of analog recording meant that each successive generation would suffer a loss in quality, eventually leaving you with ear grating noise. Even playing the original master tape would eventually wear it out. Computer data doesn’t work like that. If you make a copy, it will be identical to the original. If you make a 100 copies, or a million copies, They will all be identical. When games were distributed in cartridges, or stored in large circuit boards, it made creating copies difficult, but not impossible, and the data on the chips would still never degrade, no matter how many copies you transferred to new chips. When you factor in emulation, you don’t need the chips either. A software simulation of the chip is just as good as the hardware as far as the game is concerned.
While this is disruptive economically, since nothing in human history has ever presented us with infinite supply and limited demand, it also means that video games will likely be the best preserved cultural artifact we have ever had. There are a very small number of games that depend so heavily on the original electro-mechanical hardware that they can’t be accurately emulated, but everything else in the short 40-50 years people have been making or playing video games can be recreated on a relatively meager modern computer. At one time there were a lot of angry voices yelling that floppy copying would be the death of video games. It wasn’t. There were a lot of the same voices yelling that emulation would be the death of video games. It’s not. In fact it has introduced so many people to games they would otherwise never have seen or played, that playing old games has inspired countless new developers. Business have started and thrived based on making it easy to play older games. I have bought a lot of them. An awful lot.
If you want to predict what will happen to music, or books, or any other analog turned digital medium, you can just look at the history of video games, because whatever the issue is, video game have probably dealt with it first, fastest, and maybe violently. When we start scanning vinyl discs, wax cylinders, and celluloid at a molecular level, maybe those mediums will enjoy the type of precise preservation that video games already do and no one will be tricked into thinking that attempting to preserve a work of art is illegal, because video games will have paved the way.
Best Games - Twinkle Star Sprites
A bullet hell shooter hard as granite and a flop sweat inducing competitive puzzle game. Dress it up in childish, horrifically cute anime. Color schemes that can be best described as garish and audio like an elementary school squealing contest. Absolutely nothing about Twinkle Star Sprites should work. It is a Japanese arcade grab bag of bad ideas.
It’s also damn near perfect.
In Twinkle Star Sprites you play as one completely ridiculous character selected from a roster of ridiculous characters. Each character rides on some sort of jet or robot or flying pig. Each flying monstrosity has different styles of attack pulled from every flying-shooting game from 1986-1996. You are shooting at friendly looking fluffy cloud creatures, attempting to get them to explode near enough to one another that it starts a chain reaction of exploding fluffy cloud things. Explode enough of them and it will send what appears to be an evil ghost comet streaking across the barrier between your playfield and your opponents. If you send enough of them your opponent will be overwhelmed and catch fire, ending in a looney tunes-esque charred husk with eyeballs. It’s all stupid, it’s all frantic, it's all incredibly fun.
Twinkle Star Sprites is a game that should probably never have been made, and sincerely hope that a million more get made just like it.
This week I have been assembling a 3D printer kit I ordered a little while ago. I may have been under the impression that this was the thing that sucked Jeff Bridges into the computer in Tron. Turns out, it’s the exact opposite. If I build something in the computer I can have melted plastic spit out of a tiny hole until it looks like Jeff Bridges. Or something like that. Whatever. Here are some pictures.