Closing out 2012, I figured it would be worth it to have a think about the year. Not really self reflection, I do enough of that, and it's pretty dull for anyone who isn't me. I think I'll just go over the one thing that struck me about games and the state of the game industry this year. I'll state it by way of prediction.
It's downloads only from here on out. And that is sort of a big deal.
This was the year that download games surpassed the entertainment value of the standard issue, go to a store and buy a game on a disc, game. Now it's pretty easy argument to say, of course I'm wrong, the most money making games of all time came out this year, and they came out of on a disc. But actual entertainment value? The money and time put in versus entertainment received? For all but the most entrenched of call of duty fans, this year went to the downloadable game. That goes triple if you played anything on a PC.
There is the old contention that not enough Internet speed and bandwidth is available to make a download only business viable. That may have been true at the start of this console generation, 7 years ago, but that's not the case anymore.
There are still a few minor benefits to buying a game deployed on some physical object, but there are ways to have both a brick and mortar store presence and be an all download games market on the same platform. I've stated before, if the physical media solution on Microsoft's next console isn't a usb port they have done something terribly wrong.
For anybody who’s been using the internet a while, you might be saying “that’s completely obvious” or “that happened a long time ago”. Well yes, and no. Sure, we downloaded and played the add on for Wing Commander Prophecy in 1998, but we are really odd exceptions. Most of the world didn’t even get close to that level of internet usage until sometime after facebook launched. A big chunk of the game industries target audience wasn’t even born in 1998. Internet is as ubiquitous as telephone service now, for a lot of people it is telephone service, but that only started about 5 years ago.
This year was the tipping point. 5 years from now, games on physical media will be as common as 8 track tapes.
Why is this important at all?
Time was, you could sell your game on a disk (floppy disk) in a ziplock bag, with hand written labels, and make a few bucks. The audience for your game depended on how far you could travel and how well you could pitch your game.
The packaging and distribution of digital entertainment products advanced quite a lot from that point. It also cost a lot more money to package, distribute, and pitch those products. That money came from publishers, some went to stores, most went back to publishers, and a small trickle returned to developers.
The new stores will be the boxes hooked up to the TV and the developers will be able to sell almost directly with or without a publishers help. That doesn’t mean that all of a sudden developers will be rolling in filthy lucre. There are a lot of different roadblocks that come with digital distribution and the digital stores that facilitate it. But still, the variety of outlets where a developer can peddle wares is on the rise, and getting a game into one of these stores is fairly frictionless when compared to manufacturing cartridges, or discs, and sending them to be sold. Out of buildings. Personally, I can really only speak for the digital store route, since I’ve never had to put something on a cartridge. By the sound of it, I didn’t miss out on anything.
The audience for your game now depends on how well you can pitch your game. The vehicle for your pitch, packaging, and distribution exists in their home. Maybe even in their hand.
Best Games - Puzzle Uo Poko
I’ll just get this out of the way right off the top.
Whatever you do, do it to the full extent of the jam.
If the perpetual hilarity of the of the warning screen was the only thing this game provided, it would be notable. Lucky for us this is also an excellent game.
The match three to win formula was already pretty worn when this game came out. We had gone through matching shapes, matching creatures, matching colours, matching squares, matching cubes, and matching pharmaceuticals. So what does CAVE do to advance the matching puzzle genre? Take away all control options, save one. You pull down on the joystick, and then you let go. That is the totality of your influence on Uo Poko. Pull down. Let go. I won’t describe the gameplay beyond that, because 12 seconds into this video you will understand all the complexity and nuance that Uo Poko has to offer.
Seriously, if that cats gleeful cheers don’t make your heart happy, then you are dead inside.
There is an amazing thing about Uo Poko. In the opening levels the game is taught to you so well, that when the guide that shows you where your bubble will land disappears, and you are left, unaccompanied, to make the shots yourself, you probably won’t notice. You will likely make several shots, each one precisely on target, before you realize that you did it on your own. The timing required to make accurate shots is etched on your cerebellum, leaving the rest of your brain free to listen to that cat, and feel happy.
There is only one kind of multiplayer on offer, and depending on who you play with, it is either a collaborative, back slapping, we’re in this together, good time, or a hate field of free form griefing, and counteractivity. Both players are meant to take turns firing their bubbles into the same play area, working together to clear the screen. Often, you are able to fire your bubbles at the same time, resulting in a mid air collision. Since each missed shot advances the board upwards by one notch, a few of those can end a game right quick. Maybe you didn't mean to do it, maybe you did. I won't judge.
Uo Poko is a great game, where you can do a lot, by doing almost nothing. You should play it to the full extent of the jam.
Have you ever had an epiphany?
“What sort of hyperbolic nonsense are you treating us to today, you ridiculous goof?” you might ask. You would probably be right. I am a ridiculous goof, but I do have epiphanies from time to time. Usually while I’m peeing. That isn’t, exactly, an important bit of trivia. I’m not sure if I was peeing when this particular epiphany struck me, but it is possible that my pants were down. If that put any unfortunate images in your head, that’s on you. Everybody pees.
Anyway. I have spent literally months working out how the game I’ve been working on should look. I have been more concerned with how to make all the pieces work together, than really nailing down the aesthetic. Do these shaders work? Do they work on mobile? Is the fill rate too high? Do the models need to be rigged, or can I just use hierarchical animation? do they even need to be models? Should the animation be sprite based?
When you start a game, the blank page analogy applies, but this blank page stretches out in 4 dimensions, and requires a 6 cylinder engine that you must also design and assemble. You don’t just draw a nice picture and then add ‘game’ to it.
So I drew a picture, and now I have to add game to it. Luckily the game part is already well underway. I’ve been working on the underpinnings of the artwork, while Rich Hudson has been working on the code.
While doing this, very necessary technical work, I’ve been systematically reducing and refining what I wanted the game to look like for months. The dark secret of art, is that it never comes out like you thought it would. No one imagines a picture and then, recreates exactly, that picture. You attempt an approximation and then push, pull, and refine from there. Typically, this process only comes to an end when you run out of time. When you work to a deadline, you do what you can in the time allotted and then hand it off, dissatisfied. The client, since they were not the ones doing the work, usually is satisfied, and might even say they “like it” or “it’s good”. If you did your best, you know that you did your best, and move on. You have to be content with that.
When you don’t have a hard deadline, or you have a loose, self imposed deadline, you just have to ram into the problem as much as possible in the time you have. Sometimes, what everything should look like will become apparent quickly, and then you just do the same as you would under deadline. You attempt an approximation and then refine from there. Other times, like with this game, you might be more concerned with the function of the underlying systems than with the final look. I would never recommend waiting for an epiphany, since there really is no guarantee that you will have one. I go pee a lot, and honestly, epiphanies are rare. This time, though, I had an epiphany. That is to say, I worked on the problem long enough, and from enough angles, that the solution came to me, all at once, almost fully formed. As if it were obvious.
Now I just do the same as always. Attempt an approximation. Refine. I’ll know I’m done when I run out of time. And now I know when I will run out of time.
Adventure Caddie will launch in 2013.
Modelling with Owen
If you've read any of these posts you will notice that my initial intent to write about the development of a game fell off pretty much instantly. I figure I'll write about whatever is jangling around in my noggin. I'll attempt to keep it to games, not that will be too difficult since those are usually the thoughts doing the jangling. This week I was thinking about modelling a game character, so if that is what you showed up for you are in luck. If not you can watch this anyway. It's only fifteen minutes long, there is a subtitled commentary, and I put some nice classical music in there to back up the visuals. It's sort of relaxing.
The illusion of racing
I really enjoy racing games. Racing has a built in drama and tension that requires nothing more than increasing speed and an opponent. The opponent is optional. Foot racing is likely the original "game", and endures, undiluted, based on that drama alone. Given a free moment, people will race anything. The feeling of mounting velocity, driving headlong toward the finish. Toward the goal, the next corner, the next target. It's a rush of energy and excitement that builds in the center of your chest and radiates outward. Racing is a feeling that is universally human.
Artificial human characters, created to look and act realistically, are almost always hideous, dead eyed, monstrosities. What humans look like and how we move are so fundamental to us that any deviation from the norm is instantly noticeable. In a bad way. There is something in us that can identify any imperfection in human morphology and movement. Instantly. Most animated characters avoid the uncanny valley by simply sidestepping it. Animated characters do not look or move like real people. This is something that 1930's Disney animators called the illusion of life. The goal of the Disney animators was not to mimic reality, but to create something convincing. Attempting to recreate reality left characters feeling cold and lifeless. Oddly enough, they didn't seem real.
Racing, and the physics of movement at increasing rates of speed, are similarly fundamental to us. Racing is susceptible to the uncanny valley. Most racing games avoid the uncanny valley by simply making the racing unrealistic. Mario Kart is fun, and it feels sort of like racing, because it is nothing at all like really racing. Mario Kart is more like the board game Sorry played at high speed. We can call it the illusion of racing. It's not real, but it feels convincing.
Of course, there are simulations that attempt to model the real world as accurately as they possibly can. Tire compounds, road surface, engine torque over the entire power band. All of that is in there, but they model the physics of the world, not the racing. The best simulations put you up against real people operating their own fake vehicles. When they try to model the racing by fudging the rules for the AI, or even for you when you play against an AI opponent, it all falls apart. The rubber banding is apparent. The whole experience goes tumbling into the uncanny valley.
Just as a man with a limp still registers as human, a race where one competitor outclasses the others, but competes within the same rules, plays out as real race. Adjusting the experience to try to make races close, or placing the player at a disadvantage off the starting line so they have to fight through the pack doesn’t increase drama or tension. It feels wrong. Uncanny.
Racing works as it is. It is built into us. There is no need to “tune” it to make the experience more exciting or dramatic. Put that work into the race courses, the setting of the competition, or improving the feeling of the simulation. Trust that simply racing will be, as it always has been, fun.