Games * Design * Art * Culture

Friday, February 27, 2009
On Hiatus
Play This Thing! has been consuming my blogging mojo for some time, now, so I'm officially putting this one on the shelf for now. I've also turned off comments, since they were getting filled with comment spam (boo hiss), though of course in many cases the comment streams were quite interesting. Some day I'll get around to culling them. In any event, try PTT, or my personal site for more.

Friday, May 16, 2008
Well, we've been working on a new business plan, and I think perhaps it's time to go public with it. Click here for the investor presentation.

Sunday, February 24, 2008
Game Criticism, Why We Need It, and Why Reviews Aren't It
Cross-posted from Play This Thing!.

The proximate cause for this rant is one of the few sessions I attended at GDC, run by N'gai Croal, about game journalism. I won't discuss the session (which was moderately interesting), but instead the conflation by the panelists, from sources as diverse as Kotaku, 1 Up, Game Informer, and MTV of "reviews" and "criticism."

Surely these are people who should know better.

There's virtually nothing we can point to today as "game criticism." And we badly need it.

During the panel, the participants mentioned both Pauline Kael and John Simon, historically important critics of film; neither seemed to understand that neither were reviewers, let alone journalists.

A review is a buyer's guide. It exists to tell you about some new product that you can buy, and whether you should or should not buy it. A good review goes beyond that, and suggests who should buy it, since not everyone enjoys everything. (E.g., A romance novel may be very fine of its kind, but is quite unlikely to appeal to me, since it is not a genre I enjoy.)

Thus, Ebert is, ultimately, a reviewer; the net result of his discussion of a work is a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. Mind you, he is also an informed and intelligent watcher of film, and his discussion of a movie frequently veers in the direction of criticism; but he is not being paid to write critical works. Pauline Kael was.

Criticism is an informed discussion, by an intelligent and knowledgeable observer of a medium, of the merits and importance (or lack thereof) of a particular work. Criticism isn't intended to help the reader decide whether or not to plunk down money on something; some readers' purchase decisions may be influenced, but guiding their decisions is not the purpose of the critical work. Criticism is, in a sense merely "writing about" -- about art, about dance, about theater, about writing, about a game--about any particular work of art. How a critical piece addresses a work, and what approach it takes, may vary widely from critic to critic, and from work to work. There are, in fact, many valid critical approaches to a work, and at any given time, a critique may adopt only one, or several of them.

Some valid critical approaches? Where does this work fall, in terms of the historical evolution of its medium. How does this work fit into the creator's previous ouevres, and what does it say about his or her continuing evolution as an artist. What novel techniques does this work introduce, or how does it use previously known techniques to create a novel and impactful effect. How does it compare to other works with similar ambitions or themes. What was the creator attempting to do, and how well or poorly did he achieve his ambitions. What emotions or thoughts does it induce in those exposed to the work, and is the net effect enlightening or incoherent. What is the political subtext of the work, and what does it say about gender relationships/current political issues/the nature-nurture debate, or about any other particular intellectual question (whether that question is a particular hobby-horse of the reviewer, or inherently raised by the work in question).

If I'm not clear on this, the set of questions in the previous paragraph are not intended to be an exhaustive list of all possible questions that criticism can address; criticism can, in fact, address any set of questions of interest to the writer (and ideally, to the reader) that are centered on a particular work of art.

The most important word in the last sentence is "art." Criticism is about art. Reviews are not about art; you can review anything. You can compare brands of butter, you can review detergent, you can review the hand-jobs given you by different whores. Reviews are simply about whether something is worth the money, nothing more and nothing less.

And you can, in fact, write criticism on these self-same subjects, as strange as that may seem. Criticism on the subject of butter might go into the techniques used in butter-making, and the effects produced thereby, and the passion brought to their craft by particular small-batch artisanal butter makers. Criticism about hand-jobs might begin with interviews of the whores involved, and their motivations, and to what degree they enjoy giving pleasure and to what degree they simply want their clients to come so they can move to the next one, and the effects of specific finger placements at different times in the process. Criticism about detergent -- well, you've got me on that one, but I'm sure a writer that was passionate about the subject would find something more to say than "Brand X is better than Brand Y, for the price."

The point is that a critic has to take his subject seriously, as an example of art, or at least of craft; and take seriously as well the intentionality of the creator, and the importance to those who experience the results of the results, and the impact on how they think and feel. Reviews don't go there; they give you three stars. Good or bad, that's all that reviews are concerned about.

Criticism understands that "good" and "bad" are just the surface. What's more important is why, and how, and to what end.

Have I made it clear now? Reviews are the inevitable epiphenomenon of our consumer society, writing to help consumers navigate the innumerable options available to them. They can be well or poorly done, but they are nothing more than ephemera. I'm sure the newspapers of early 19th century America ran reviews of the novels of James Fenimore Cooper; they are utterly forgotten, and should be, because by nature they were of interest only to the readers of the newspapers of the time. Contrariwise, Mark Twain's Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses is still considered an examplar of literary criticism.

(To divert by the way, it is an utterly unfair critique, and ignores Cooper's manifold literary virtues; one may point out that in Samuel Clemens's era, Cooper was widely considered America's greatest novelist to date, a position Mark Twain later supplanted. The essay can also be read--as it rarely is--as a calculated, and highly effective, attack on a literary rival, and as such, should be treated with far less respect, and far more skepticism, than it normally is. There: In the space of a paragraph, I've written an effective critique of a work of criticism.)

Similarly, there would be no point today in writing a review of Ultima IV, since it is long out of print. A useful work of criticism, however, is entirely conceivable: discussing, perhaps, its role as one of the first games to consider the moral implications of a player's acts, and to use tactical combat as a minigame within the context of a larger, more strategic title. Such an article, well-written, ideally with an understanding of the influence of tabletop roleplaying on the development of the early western CRPG, and of the place of this title in the overall shape of Richard Garriot's ouevre would be of interest to readers today, even if they'd be hard put to find a way to buy the damn game. And it might find a place in anthologies and studies of the 20th century origins of the popular medium of the game, going forward into the indefinite future.

The truth is that, for the most part, we don't have anything like game criticism, and we need it -- to inform gamers, to hold developers to task, and to inform our broader cultural understanding of games and their importance and impact on our culture.

We need our own Pauline Kaels and John Simons -- and we need to ensure that when they appear, no one insists that they attach a damn numerical score to their writing, because that is wholly irrelevant to the undertaking of writing seriously about games.

And even in a more proximate matter, we need those drudges called reviewers, despite the meager pay they receive, to think more seriously about critical issues, too. Why should a review of an RTS which doesn't understand the historical evolution of that genre and the place a particular work holds in the spectrum of previously published RTS be considered of the slightest interest?

Now here at Play This Thing!, we do not view ourselves as "game critics," at least in the high sense I've ascribed to the notion here. Our remit for writers is simply "find a game you like, and write something interesting about it." At the same time, we also don't view ourselves as reviewers; we're here to point to games we think are interesting, not to tell you what's good and what's not. And yet that very approach frees us from the jejune constraints of "reviewers;" we need to tell you that something is interesting, and why, not give it a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. As a result, our writers do, I think, get closer to real criticism than the writers on most sites -- each in our own individual way. Thus I tend to take a pedantic approach, with references to the history of the form and the place of works in that evolution; the99th tends to talk about theoretical design ideas and indulge in hip-intellectual verbal pyrotechnics; and EmilyShort tends to talk very much about design intentionality.

Even if we do not, in general, produce true criticism--which is almost always in essay form--we are still viewing the works under question from an inherently critical stance.

Would that anyfuckingone else in gaming did so. And would that other publications thought it important, or even interesting, to foster the critical analysis of games, rather than yet another scored review.

And that, I think, brings us to our close; but I cannot stop myself from pointing out a few things, which are inherent but may not be immediately obvious.

This post is an essay. It is an essay in the form of a criticism; the critique is that of the failure of our writers about games to take a critical and analytical view of the works they write about, and of their failure to make a clear distinction between "review" and "criticism," which are, in fact, very different beasts. It is, if you will, a critique of game criticism.

And a thought in conclusion: Would either Pauline Kael or John Simon have ever allowed their criticism to suffer the indignity of having a numerical score attached?

And would their work have been improved if they had?

Friday, February 15, 2008
Sean Ryan on Why Casual Game Development Isn't a Landrush Any More
Sean Ryan, a Bay-area VC, back from Casual Connect in Amsterdam, has two posts anyone interested in the casual game space should read: part one and part two.

His take is "natural maturation of the industry"; my take is "live by the Yahoo, die by the Yahoo." That is, the casual game market was built on piggy-backing onto preexisting audiences at major portals -- developers and publishers did no real marketing, because they didn't need to, and simply attached themselves to a firehose of traffic. But the firehoses have woken up to the fact that they're the chokepoint in the chain, and are using that to claw back an increasing amount of the consumer dollar. And meanwhile conversion suffers, because there are so many me-too clones that at the end of a one hour trial, consumers go and find another identical game with a one hour trial instead of purchasing. Which shows both the inanity of the "one size fits all" model in casual gaming (all games are 60 minute trials, all games cost $20, and all games rip off imitate in the essentials successful product from others instead of spending a little time, effort, and talent thinking about actual design).

Of course, what the portals are doing in terms of grabbing an increasing share of the consumer dollar is extraordinarily short-sighted; for casual gaming to be a large and growing market, they need to provide incentives for innovation and creativity, and there needs to be a functional ecosystem in which developers can profit--something the conventional industry has utterly lost sight of.

Oh, well, as usual, my opinion is that things are going to hell, but then you knew that, right?

Thursday, January 10, 2008
Games, Storytelling, and Breaking the String

Last year, MIT University Press published Second Person: Roleplaying and Story in Playable Media, an anthology of articles on the subject by a diverse group of contributors edited by Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin. By "a diverse group," I mean everything from game studies academics to digital game developers to tabletop game designers; it also included three experimental tabletop RPGs (John Tynes's Puppetland, James Wallis's The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and my Bestial Acts).

Recently, the editors have been putting selected articles from the volume online (under a Creative Commons release). One such is the piece I wrote, entitled Games, Storytelling, and Breaking the String, which is a look at the ways in which both digital and non-digital games (or game-like entities) have tried to address the inherent conflict between the demands of the game (interactivity and player volition) and the story (linearity and narrative coherence).

It's somewhat theoretical, but written plainly, and worth a read if you're interested in these issues.

The other articles they've posted from the book can be found here.

Friday, December 07, 2007
"Here Comes Another Bubble"
They told me to blog about this song, so I am. Quite funny.

Sunday, December 02, 2007
December Song: The Publishers Dwindle Down to a Precious Few
Activision merges with Vivendi Universal Games Group.

Apparently, Vivendi corporate get 52% of "Activision Blizzard," and Kotick gets to head up what may, depending on 4Q results, be a larger publisher than EA.

To give a little history here, the game assets of Vivendi were originally cobbled together by CUC International, a conglomerate that dealt mostly with travel companies; CUC merged with a company called HFC in 1998 to create Cendant, whose main assets were Days Inn, Ramada, HoJos, Travelodge, Avis, Coldwell Banker, Century 21, and Shoppers Advantage. That, plus PC gaming. One of these things is not like another.

To no surprise, they started shopping the game side around, and sold it to Vivendi's Havas division for something like $800m; turns out they needed the money too, because CUC had been cooking the books, its managers were indicted (and convicted) for fraud, and Cendant's share price went south.

It was never clear to me why CUC was in the game industry in the first place; I have to assume that someone there just happened to like computer games. But the net effect on Sierra, at any event, was more than a little disastrous; with weak internal management, and a series of owners (CUC, Cendant, Vivendi) with no real understanding of or expertise in the game industry, Sierra went from bad to worse. Blizzard, at least, was more or less left alone to do its thing -- its corporate masters at least had the sense not to kill a goose that produced golden eggs every few years. Blizzard is, of course, the value Vivendi is contributing; the tattered remnants of Sierra are not (alas) worth much, if anything.

There are some complexities to the deal, including the possibility of Vivendi increasing its stake to 68%, but this is one of the few big deals in the game industry that looks to me like it might actually make sense to stockholders; Activision has the kind of focus and industry expertise that Vivendi never did, and may actually do better with these assets.

From an industry perspective, though, it's kind of appalling. As the number of publishers continue to dwindle, independent developers' negotiating leverage dwindles with it, along with any real pressure for innovation. And while portfolio theory says size is important in a hit-driven industry, it's not clear that there are real gains to growing beyond some critical size, with Activision, at least, had surely reached before this. It looks to me like this is the end-game of the business conditions our industry has faced for decades--continuing consolidation of publishing--something that may prove to be basically irrelevant when the inevitable disruption caused by online distribution starts to change the nature of the game.

I wouldn't be surprised for this to renew rumors about an EA/Ubisoft merger, however.

This page is powered by 

Blogger. Isn't yours?