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.

  • "In the 14 months since [TeamFortress 2] shipped, the PC version of the game has seen 63 updates – “that’s the frequency you want to be providing updates to your customers,” [Newell] adds. “You want to say, ‘We’ll get back to you every week. The degree to which you can engage your customer base in creating value for your other players” is key, says Newell. “When people say interesting or intelligent things about your product, it will translate directly into incremental revenue for the content provider.”" Great write-up from Chris Remo of Gabe Newell's DICE talk.
  • "This is a sort of thorough, empirical, sociological study of art students at two British art schools at a very interesting moment, the late 1960s (a moment when, as the book says, anti-art became the approved art, bringing all sorts of paradoxes to the fore). I find it fascinating that such a subjective thing as developing an art practice can be studied so objectively, but then I find it amazing that art can be taught at all. The book shows the tutors and students circling each other with wariness, coolness, misunderstanding, despair, appreciation." Some great anecdotes and observation.
  • "Busker Du (dial-up) is a recording service for buskers through the telephone (preferably public payphones hidden in subway stations). Audio recorded will be posted to this audio-blog and made available to all who cherish lo-fi original music. Try it out at your favorite subway station or street corner." Dial-A-Song comes full circle.
  • "Poole – HAL 9000 is a fictional chess game in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. In the movie, the astronaut Frank Poole is seen playing chess with the HAL 9000 supercomputer… The director Stanley Kubrick was a passionate chess player, so unlike many chess scenes shown in other films, the position and analysis actually makes sense. The actual game seems to come from Roesch – Schlage, Hamburg 1910, a tournament game between two lesser-known masters."
  • Lovely demo – some interesting interfaces that feel quicker than current alternatives, as well as experimental ones that, whilst slower and clumsier, represent information a bit better. I mainly like the form-factor, though – but what's the unit cost? These things get a lot better the more you have.
  • "Something like: Trying to create a reading list that gives the best introduction to everything. This may change." Phil is trying to collect the Good Books in many fields. It's an interesting project, for sure; it'll also be interesting to see how it pans out.
  • I was a little excited from the ongoing Offworld love in, but Oli Welsh's review suddenly makes me insanely excited about Keita Takahashi's new plaything. Why is it that all the reasons for me wanting a £300 PS3 are £3 PSN titles?
  • "…the biggest consequence [of a universal micro-USB adaptor] will be the ease of transferring data/content from street service provider to consumer, and consumer to consumer… There is a place at the edges of the internet where the level of friction makes content and data grind to a halt. It's largely unregulated. And it just got seriously lubed."
  • "30 Second Hero is an action RPG which consists of really short battles that require no interaction, as players race against the clock to save the kingdom from an evil wizard's wrath. As indicated by the title, you only have thirty seconds to level up your character sufficiently for the final battle, although additional time can be bought from the castle at the cost of a hundred gold pieces per increment of ten seconds." Hectic; the entire early JRPG genre (FF1, et al) condensed into a minute-long rush. Grinding as poetry.
  • "I was convinced that it was a spoof. As if there’d be a genre called Donk. Everything is wrong about the video. The knowing subtitles over subtle Northern Accents. The presenter’s slight grin when he’s chatting to folk. The funnily named shops. Everything. There’s no way I’m falling for a prank like that. It reminds me heavily of the episode of Brass Eye where they whang on about Cake (the made up drug). And all the characters and the interviews look like they could be setups or clever edits." But no, it's real. Iain Tait discovers Donk.
  • "…with that sad note from Sarinee Achavanuntakul, one of the most enduring (if illegal) tributes to gaming history came to an end." Home of the Underdogs is no more; just gone, like that. It wasn't that it had the best games or the worst games, or that they were illegal, or free; it was history, and childhood, and the smell of cardboard and boot disks, all wrapped up in one giant cathedral to Good Old Games. Most things I played on my old DOS machine were there. A shame; I hope they're elsewhere. This is why we need proper game archives.
  • Tweaking a game five months after launch to make it both more playable, and also more realistic; understanding that realism is key to NHL09 fans, and delivering on that as an ongoing promise.
  • "Warcraft’s success has always been substantially due to the extraordinary physicality of Azeroth, to the real sense of land transversed, of caves discovered, and of secrets shared. Players old and new bemoan the endless trudging that low-level travel requires, but it’s crucial for binding you to the world." Yes. Despite QuestHelper, I'm always in awe of the new areas. I just wish more people were playing the game as slowly and badly as me. Another beautiful One More Go, and one that resonates a lot right now.

Caxton in Hi-Def

30 January 2008

Spotted in Eurogamer’s review of Rez HD:

Back in the day we said of the original: ‘When Rez eventually turns up cheaply it will become indispensable, but until then it’s a luxury.’ Xbox Live Arcade is, then, our modern printing press: digital distribution transforming the expensive and exclusive into the affordable and inclusive.

Emphasis mine. I liked that quite a lot.

A bit of trust from the Kids

21 November 2006

A few days ago, I ran into my college friend Dave, who (amongst other things) is now running a small, independent record label called Kids. Kids release limited-edition, short-run 7″ singles (at the moment); they’ve got a solid lineup (including Paul Hartnoll’s debut single) and, as I bumped into him, Dave was off to a launch party for KIDS009, the latest Wombats single.

We caught up quickly, and he handed me their previous release, the double A-side of It’s Magnetic and Out on 24s (on clear plastic) from Assembly Now. When I got home, I stuck the 7″ on the record player and listened to both sides – really great stuff, and a band I’ll be keeping my eyes on.

What was really interesting, though, was the piece of paper that fell out of the single when I opened it.

On it was written a small note to say that because I’d bought the single, I was entitled to email somebody at Kids who’d send me details of how to obtain the MP3s of that track – for free.

I love this idea. The short runs of 7″ singles that Kids put out are ideal for a small record label trying to find its feet – reasonably cheap to press, I’d imagine, and which can turn a reasonable profit-per-unit. And for their target market, 7″ are still an acceptable distribution format for singles. But their target market also own iPods – and nothing’s more tedious than ripping vinyl to mp3.

So this pattern really works in their favour: people pay money for the music they want to hear on a format convenient for home, and get the mobile format thrown in – because let’s face it, they’re going to find a way to do that anyhow. The convenience of doing things this way around is a huge bonus, though. I hope other small labels do this sort of thing – it’s relatively little effort and cost on top of the pressing, but it’s a smart idea that’s in tune with exactly how people like to listen to music.

And, of course, I hope Kids continues to thrive as a label.