Ugly Games are Finished Games

25 March 2009

Matthew Wasteland’s writing is always worth a read, and I really enjoyed The Madeleine in Eight Bits recently. One quotation from the comments thread, though, got me thinking:

That was an interesting article. I was playing the indie game “Don’t Look Back” today and although I enjoyed it couldn’t help but wonder if it really needed to be so blocky. If it couldn’t have expressed it’s themes without the old school affectations.

This coincided with reading Leigh Alexander’s Video Game Hipsters, considering the convergence of “indie” and “lofi” viewed through a lens of cultural knowing.

And this all got me thinking about the lo-fi aesthetic, and “programmer graphics”, and “ugly” games.

Because, to respond to the commenter on Magical Wasteland, I’m not sure how “old school” its affectations are. Yes, it has a retro look-and-feel, and a simple mechanic (not to mention an old-school difficulty curve). But there’s something about it that’s incredibly next-gen to me: it was made by one programmer.

Now, of course, once upon a time, all games were made by one programmer; there’s nothing new about bedroom pgoramming. But what’s truly modern is the distribution: that one game, made by one programmer, already has a huge potential audience; it plays on any browser, and can be played anywhere in the world, at any time.

“Next-gen”, for me, exists at two ends of a spectrum. At one end of the scale, it is 1080p at 60fps, complex shaders and normal mapping, realistic cities, licensed soundtracks, multi-million dollar marketing budgets.

And at the other end, next-gen is empowerment. Making games is easier than ever before. And not just the programming part – the “making games on your own computer” part of the equation. I mean making games that other people can play. Flash is a wonderful tool, readily available (because let’s face it, how many Flash developers have – or at least, start out with – a legal copy of Flash CS4?), powerful, and it’ll work a) on anything and b) anywhere. The barrier to entry is lowered by better tools, higher level languages, and more powerful clients that mean you don’t have to optimise so much; but the real magic is that Kongregate and similar portals have lowered the barrier to distribution.

I think that the reason it appears blocky and crude is so that it could be in the world.

Matt‘s T-shirt stands as a point of reference: “Get excited and make things“. And: make things that are in the world. Applications I can use, t-shirts I can wear, games I can play. If you’re no good at graphics, maybe a pixellated look is all you’ve got time for – but is that enough to make your point? Because if it is, get that game into the world, watch the feedback, make another. Don’t bog down the ideas with asset workflows.

Right now, the predominant aesthetic in indie isn’t just a memory-saving exercise, or a nostalgic tip of the hat to the games we learned from. Yes, it is definitely both of those things, but to my mind, it’s more important that it’s a way of lowering the barrier of getting ideas into the world. Because until it’s a game I can play, it’s nothing.

The most significant change is not the better tools, it’s the better distribution. Compare XNA to the Net Yaroze. The idea of a home console you – as a consumer at home with appropriate skills – could actually make “real” games on was remarkable, at least to me. But what about a console where not you can not only make “real” games, but also sell them, and distribute them to every living room in the world? That’s what XNA Community Games is offering.

That, right there, is your “next-gen”. That’s a service crying out for games to be built for it, so they can be played by anyone. And if that means we take a hit on the art, then so be it. Ugly games may not be great sellers, or to everyone’s tastes, but they are a great way to get more games into the world. And who knows: some of those games might not be pixellated, 8-bit throwbacks. The more you do something, the better you get at it; a year of low-fidelity, two-week games, might make that blockbuster a year later. Look at how Blurst prototype. Look at Gregory Weir’s game-a-month. Even if the games they’re making are not always great shakes, the experience they’re gaining by practicing their craft in such a condensed, rigorous, and demanding manner is far better than a year spent making brick textures for a game that will never, ever, be fun.

The way games get better is if there are more of them, and I’ll do anything to ensure we get more games in the world, that programmers, designers, and artists can make more games, not fewer. If that means resorting to “old-school affectations”, or “programmer graphics”, or any other synonym for ugly: so be it. Yes, the “retro” aesthetic is, I’m sure, as much a trend and aesthetic decision as it is a conscious choice – but it’s not just videogame hipsterism; it’s a pragmatic choice made by those not just interested in making things, but making real things.

More games in the world. And, over time, one would hope: more good games; more important games; more significant games; more remarkable games. Not all of them will ugly, but they’ll be better for the more games that have gone before them. And so, to Terry Cavanagh, and all those like him, I say: keep going.

You keep going, and I’ll keep playing, whatever your games look like.

Silly exercises in game design: Street Fighter IV’s Bullshit Meter

25 March 2009

An evening playing Street Fighter IV with Steve revealed that, whilst he’s got a pretty dangerous Cammy, and my Abel is not half bad, what SF4 really needs is some way of quantifying the amount of bullshit players sling at each other.

You know what I mean: those endless command-throws that have you swearing at the TV whilst your opponent giggles into their headmic; endless repeated moves that you should be able to block, even if right now you’re failing; all those moments where you realise your understanding of move-priority isn’t quite in line with the game’s.

That sort of thing. “Oh no,” Steve would say, “you hit me with your bullshit again!

What if we could take that bullshit and turn it into a game mechanic?

Enter: the Bullshit Meter.

bullshit-meter.jpg

You can see the Bullshit Meter up the side of the screen. The supposedly-accessible SF4 is already festooned in meters, so one more in the only available space we’ve got won’t make much difference, right?

Let’s do a crash course in all the meters on screen, just to clarify the Bullshit Meter’s purpose.

At the top, you’ve got your health bar. That starts full, and decreases when you take damage; when it’s empty, you’re KO’d.

At the bottom-left or bottom-right you’ve got your revenge/ultra meter. This starts empty, and fills up as you receive damage. When it’s half-full or more, you can perform an “Ultra combo”. Basically: taking damage will eventually allow you to perform your most powerful move.

At the bottom, you’ve got your super meter. This charges as you perform special moves, and serves various purposes around making specials more powerful (“EX attacks”), performing a “Super combo”, and cancelling Focus Attacks. We don’t have space to explain it here much more.

And at the side, we have the new, improved, Bullshit Meter. There are two ways to charge the Bullshit meter.

Firstly, by performing repeated moves. Every time a player performs two identical moves in a row, their opponent’s Bullshit Meter charges a little. Standard attacks (eg: repeated jabs) make barely any dent in it; special attacks (eg: Shoryukens) make a bit more of an increase.

If a player mixes up the power of their attacks, the increase in the Bullshit Meter goes up less than if they just repeated the same strength special. For example: Ken performing jab-Shoryuken into fierce-Shoryuken fills the Bullshit Meter much less than two fierce Shoryukens in a row.

The second way to fill your opponent’s Bullshit meter is through certain “Bullshit Attacks”. Every character has one (or more) moves designated as “Bullshit Attacks”, and these make significant impact on the Bullshit meter.

Examples of Bullshit Attacks include Ken’s Shoryuken (particularly in its Fierce variety), Zangief’s Spinning Piledriver, Abel’s Tornado Throw, Honda’s Ochio Throw, and practically every special El Fuerte has.

You can see that Ken players spamming Fierce SRK are going to get punished thricely by the new Bullshit Meter.

As a result of all this: performing Bullshit slowly fills your opponent’s Bullshit Meter. This has only one effect:

when your Bullshit Meter is totally full, hitting all six attack buttons at once (preferably with your fist) will instantly quit the match.

This can, of course, be combo’d with other attacks, as it uses all six buttons; for instance, performing an Ultra attack with six buttons, instead of three (eg: QCF, QCF+PPPKKK) will perform an Ultra Bullshit Ragequit Finish.

I don’t know if Capcom are listening, but I hope we can get the Bullshit Meter into a future title update for SF4.

Disclaimer: I love SF4 just as it is, thankyouverymuch, and you don’t need a Bullshit Meter to punish the hell out of any Flowchart Kens you come across. It was an entertaining-enough idea to wrap a game mechanic around, though, if only in jest.

  • "We write and listen and play music in a cultural environment in which there's intense excitement and anxiety around the idea of music as a social object, not just a commercial one… in order to understand better the ways in which songs are becoming lines in listeners' conversations, we need different ways of thinking about how they've played that role for musicians too." Tom Ewing on music as fanfiction.
  • "After she left, the school began to switch away from Acorn computers to Windows PCs, and computing at school became less and less about actually wrangling the machines for their own sake: programming went away, to be replaced by word processing and the other kinds of useful activities which I'm sure helped a lot of pupils gain the kind of computer literacy they needed for the real world, but it wasn't the kind of computer literacy I needed. I needed the more abstract, joyful, engagement with computers that Sister Celsus provided, and which could only have been provided at the end of the 80s." A lovely post for Ada Lovelace Day from Matt.
  • "In this series I showcase a number of portraits of musicians made out of recycled cassette tape with original cassette. Also included are portraits made from old film and reels." Just gorgeous.

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