Games * Design * Art * Culture

Thursday, March 27, 2003
N-Gage: Another shoe drops
Evidently, Romero's Monkeystone Games will be working on a version of Red Faction for N-Gage (or as Nokia house style insists, for "the N-Gage mobile game deck"... Yes, I know that a trademark is legally an adjective, but lawyers shouldn't dictate language... but I digress).

Fast-action multiplayer FPS over Bluetooth--this is the kind of thing that's needed to differentiate N-Gage, and something that was glaringly missing from the originally announced launch titles. (Gamespot talks about it here.)

Other bit of news that caught my eye today: Capcom will be distributing the Japanese PS2 version of Klaus Teuber's brilliant Die Siedler von Catan (Settlers of Catan) boardgame for free--the catch being that you need an online subscription to play. This is backwards, I think; the history of online gaming is riddled with for-fee turn-based games for a handful of players that utterly failed (and yes, the 404 you get if you follow that link is intentional). FPS and RTS games have trained people to expect to pay at retail for games at this type but play online for free. That's a model that makes a lot more sense for Catan, actually; if an online version were available here, I'd play it occasionally, but I very much doubt I'd be willing to pay an ongoing subscription for that kind of occasional play. Subs make more sense for MMGs, where you play frequently for long periods.

But nobody asked me, of course.

Monday, March 24, 2003
Online and Mobile game news
Some news items I noticed today:

Online Gaming Anything but Fun & Games: Analyst's report from Instat that projects online gaming as $3b industry by 2007--rather more modest than most such reports, but seems to be slanted toward broadband providers, warning that online games already produce 9% of net traffic, and that's likely to increase--but no dollars flow to broadband providers as a result. (Except, of course, that gamers are broadband early adopters, and many wouldn't be shelling out for broadband subscriptions if it weren't for the fact that they're gamers.)

From Nokia, Something for Everyone: Report from CeBIT, and rather more positive about N-Gage than a lot of coverage to date.

Ministry of Sound Moves from Clubbing to Java Games: Apparently, THQ is going to do a mobile game 'dancer' featuring music from the Ministry of Sound (one of the London clubs most closely associated with techno). Wish I'd thought of that.

Friday, March 21, 2003
So Feanor, in a comment, says he expected me to have a comment on the Salon piece on Dani Bunten Berry by now...

And perhaps I should have. It's a nice piece, and it's a good thing that Dani is getting some attention still.

Part of the reason I didn't feel it necessary to comment before is that it doesn't say anything new to me. But it--and the desire to say something here--did lead me to redact the piece I wrote about Dani back in 1998, when she died, and get it up here.

It still makes me teary to read it, goddamn it.

I wrote it for Happy Puppy, but they underwent a change of ownership last year, and have apparently dropped links to a lot of older pieces, including that one. The web, she comes and she goes.

So I've put it up on my own site here.

Friday, March 14, 2003
So Warren has promised a response to my response, and I'll post it when I get it.

In the meantime, I thought I'd take the heat down a notch. Not that I'm displeased by the controversy this has aroused; controversy is good and, as Karen says, it's cool that a blog about culture can, at least for a moment, generate the same level of controversy as all those political blogs. But on the other hand, I'm not sure I want to come off as a commie--and while I've doubtless already reduced the already miniscule odds that I'll ever do any work for EA (heh), I have at least as much of a reputation for intelligent commentary to defend as I do a reputation for wild-eyed radical rabblerousing.

1. Two drinks a night is good for you. A fifth of Jack is not. Nothing wrong with sequels and licensed products--in moderation. The problem isn't that sequels and licensed products exist--the problem is that they're beginning to overwhelm original work.

2. Sure, Warren's right; if your job is to work on a sequel or a licensed product, do the best job you can. Its both the professional and the Right thing to do.

3. As several people have pointed out, "highly innovative" product isn't the only thing to be honored. Blizzard, for example, hoes a familiar row, but it consistently produces extremely playable games with a high level of professional polish--and there's not a damn thing wrong with that. Better "yet another RTS" from Blizzard than a highly innovative mess like, say, um, my game Evolution.

4. In a way, this discussion has gotten hijacked. It began with my observations of GDC, and turned into Warren's defense of licensed products (which I surely was not going to leave unanswered :). But the glut of licensed product was not the thrust of my original report.

5. The larger issue is: This is a very tough time for developers. Partly that's a result of industry conservatism. Partly (and part of the reason for that conservatism) that's because this is a very tough time for publishers. Even though the press keeps reporting that dollar volume is up and up in gaming, most publishers are doing very badly. XBox has done poorly, the terms of Gameboy licenses are onerous, PC games have taken a nosedive, there hasn't been a successful MMG launch since Dark Age of Camelot, there's a glut of PS II games, budgets keep increasing and sales increase less. Publishers have acquired a lot of studios over recent years, and they cut back outside development first to ensure that there's a stream of work for their in-house studios. The result is that a whole lot of developers are looking for work--or unhappy about the derivative titles they're working on. I don't think this is opinion; I think it's demonstrable fact.

6. Consequently, as I believe I observed at GDC, developers are veryinterested in trying to find some other way to keep working on cool games even as the opportunities through the conventional channel narrow. Thus the interest in digital distribution of simple games online, the revival of shareware, the independent games movement, and mobile.

I said "Something is going to blow," and some have taken that as a call to revolution, smashing the evil corporate behemoths and building a brave new world on the ruin of the old. It doesn't work that way, of course; no one is going to storm the gates of EA's corporate headquarters, or guillotine the folks at Sony Computer Entertainment (entertaining though either event might be). Rather what I meant to imply is that I see a cultural phenomenon shaping up--at least, I hope I do. Pressures are at work that, I think, have a chance of creating a true 'independent games industry', parallel to the conventional games industry, but distributed through other channels, with a different aesthetic, and appealing to fans who do not feel well served by--if I say "Redwood City," please take it as a games industry analog for Hollywood, rather than specifically a reference to EA (whose headquarters are there).

How and where that "independent games industry" can emerge isn't clear to me, either. Maybe it's by finding a different retail channel; maybe it's built entirely online; maybe it's built with lower-budget online games that support a subscription fee (like Laser Squad Nemesis or Imperial Wars), maybe it's through mobile gaming, maybe it's something else entirely. And maybe it's a combination of all of the above.

But I think it's undeniable that conventional gaming is getting stale--and it needs to be reinvigorated in some fashion. We've seen this pattern emerge many times in film and music--but both those industries have parallel independent industries (indy film, indy labels), which serve to find new styles and reinvigorate the mainstream. I'm hoping something similar can emerge in games--and think I'm seeing evidence that it's about to happen.

Which is another point: Most people seem to have taken my post on the GDC as pessimistic about games. Actually, I think it's almost the reverse. It's optimistic that we're starting to see attitudes that will allow us to deal with the industry's problems.

But I don't expect the solution to come from Redwood City. I expect the solution to come from people who share my frustrations and sense of greater possibility than the conventional industry can permit.

Maybe it's my personality, more than anything else; with a slightly different slant, instead of ending "Something is going to blow," I could have ended "Something wonderful is going to happen."

I think it is. Or at least, I hope so.

Thursday, March 13, 2003
Devine Intervention
Graeme Devine says:

To talk to Greg's comments on the state of the industry. We've had our five basic game designs for about ten years now, to suddenly see at this point that we're on a one way train with 90% of what we produce is I feel giving this trend too much credit. I think it's fair to argue that between 90% and 95% of the games produced within the industry are derivative clones, I think it's also fair to say that the by far most of these titles are not profitable. The titles that are profitable are those that exhibit some form of originality and extension. Why publishers feel safe making derivative titles that lose or barely make money over original and innovative designs is a deepening mystery which seems to be expounded by events like GDC.

We make too many games. We cannibalize ourselves, publish crap, license great IP and make crap with it, and then we port it to as many different platforms as we possibly can. Some publishers are beginning to fall over themselves needing to get more crap published in order to sustain the next round of crap coming up for the next quarter, this thankfully only goes one way and that's down.

We're poor at innovating. Sure, there are lots of games that innovate, but we're terrible at pitching our innovative products to the people that sell and buy our product. So we find comparative titles that these people can relate to and well, see above.

We're next-big-thingers. The next big thing is now mobile. Mobile this, that, it was everywhere at GDC. Hello!! I really didn't know. While I'm sure that's an opening market, it's not the only market and it is certainly not the largest market or the one in which we can have the most impact as game designers.

We still live for tech. Technology, new platforms, and engines that push current technology are sexy and cool. Absolutely, no disagreement. Sexy and cool is often a small percentage of sales on technology which pushes on the PC platform (as I'm sure games like C&C Generals, an awesome game btw, will show with it's high tech requirements). And while it's true that first to market titles on new platforms are generally profitable, they are generally made to be first to market titles with very few exceptions.

The game industry is changing, and I believe for the better. The classic development team is on the way out because games can no longer be made by segmented teams that each have an active and inactive period working on a single title (the really short gist of this is artists wait on tech, then programmers wait on art). There will ALWAYS be room for exceptions to this, and some of these exceptions will stun us with their substance, but in general we're approaching a giant upheaval and one that will leave a lot of developers running for cover.

So yes, it's a scary time to be in the game industry. I think there were three years back in the 1980s when it felt safe. Other than that, it's always been scary for me.

Wednesday, March 12, 2003
Specter vs. Spector

Look, Warren; you're taking my post as largely an attack on your speech at GDC. I -reacted- to your speech at GDC, but my point really isn't "Warren Spector is a blind fool leading us all to perdition."

What you're speech was fundamentally saying was: Okay, you're stuck doing a sequel or a licensed product, stop whining, make the best of it, it's still possible to do good work.

That's true. And it's worth stating. But it misses two points: First, it may be possible to do good work on a sequel, or a licensed product, but the odds are stacked against you. And the pussilanimity of the industry, which will now fund virtually nothing but sequels and licensed products, is threatening the very survival of our field.

To address the first (and I think weaker) point: Why are the odds stacked against you?

Let's take the case of a sequel. Sure, yeah, it's possible to do a good job. Who remembers GTA II? GTA III is head and shoulders a better game. But you start with the expectation that the game will essentially be an updated version of the original, with slightly better use of media but the same basic experience. The members of your team who want to do cool stuff are not going to be enthused, and may well depart for greener pastures. You're left with second raters. You may be able to sustain it for a while (Heroes of Might & Magic II > III), but ultimately, you're left with a souless piece of crap that hs nothing of the vigor or spirit of the original (Heroes IV....) Sure, it's worth rabble rousing, and saying "By god, try to do a good job, you're professionals"... but fundamentally, who can get excited about this? In version II, you fix the problems with version I. In version III, you polish. By the time you reach IV... it's bullshit.

(Have I adequately expressed how unhappy I was with Heroes IV? I mean, I not only bought every expansion set for III, I bought every one of the quest games they produced.... and so eagerly looked forward to IV.... Nnnnngh. It's enough to make me want to go do a mod... for III, of course. But I digress.)

Licensed games? Suck me.

Yes, you're right, Warren; I've done licensed games, and done what I think was a good job with them. I won an Origins Award for the Star Wars RPG, and I'm still proud of the work I did. But fundamentally, I did the game because I thought it would make West End a chunk of money, and I was a principal in the firm, and I cared about the company's success (idiot that I was, since the owner of the firm basically fired me the moment it went into production--but I was only 25--young and foolish). Would I have preferred to be working on something original?

Fuckin right.

(The Discovery game was original, by the way--not a licensed product. It also sucked, but its suckiness did not derive from the fact that it was designed for Discovery. I take full responsibility.)

The fact is, though, that thought it may be -possible- to do a good job with a licensed product, the exigencies of working with a license make it hard. For one thing, you have to deal with the licensor, who may impose completely ludicrous restrictions on you like, say, "Indiana Jones may not die." [I'm not going to go into the horrors of TSR's Indiana Jones license here, but I do expect that Warren will cringe at the mention.]

Even if you have a sensible licensor that doesn't give a crap about the product they're licensing, and simply cash the checks--the -best- outcome you can hope for-you still have to deal with the fact that the license is, except in the case of sports games, based on a linear narrative. Warren would have us believe that it's easier to adapt a linear narrative to an interactive medium, than to adapt one form of linear narrative (say, print) to another (say, film). This is a load of horseshit. As an example, consider the hoops that poor Raph Koster and his team have had to jump through; they know full well that every player of Star Wars Galaxies is going to want to be a Jedi (well, except for me--I want to be Jabba the Hutt, or possibly one of the clone traders), yet they're forced by the nature of the universe to make Jedi powers scarce--frustrating the desires of their players in order to kowtow to the Sacred Vision of George. Linear narrative forces you to make decisions (he is the only Klingon in Starfleet; he is the last of the Jedi; he alone defends the bridge to Helms Deep; if she does not marry now she will be an old maid of 26 and unmarriageable; if he does not defy his stepfather now the Kingdom of Denmark is lost; under the force of Soviet oppression, what is a intellectual forced to paint houses to do but despair and fuck as many women as possible even at the expense of his own marriage) that are simply untenable in an interactive product where alternative decisions must be equally tenable. The best games are algorithmically driven, not instantiated by 'level designers'; the objective of the game designer should be the greatest player freedom possible, within the constraints of the system. The best stories are inherently forced by story demands into constrained paths. There is a fundamental contradiction.

(And yes, in my examples of license constraints, I moved from the jejune to the sublime--and while I would not relish doing a game based on The Unbearable Lightness of Being, I'd at least find it amusing. Scooby Doo, Warren? Fuckin Scooby Doo? No, I would not do a good job, because I have no sympathy for the material. Scooby Doo my ass. Animaniacs at least, please.)

Sure, Warren. If your job requires you to do a Scooby Doo game, by all means, buckle down and do the best fucking Scooby Doo game you can do. Get what ever satisfaction you can get you of your degraded circumstances, you poor motherfucker. You have my every sympathy.

But what would Jesus do?

I'm being facetious.

What would H. G. Wells do? What would Sid Sackson do? What would Dani Bunten do? What would Charles Roberts do?

I'm purposefully choosing dead game designers, here. But I can't imagine Miyamoto, Meier, Garfield, Garriot, or Naja think much of licensed drivel, either. For chrissakes, create something original.

In the inimitable words of EverQuest, What do you want your tombetone to say? "He did the greatest Tom & Jerry game ever?"

(Pace Seth Rosenfeld, who produced what is, in my opinion, the best Tom & Jerry game ever, and good for him.)

Here we are, at the inception of the interactive revolution, creating the first entertainment media that does not treat its enthusiasts as thumb-sucking passive dweebs, marvelling at the amazing creativity of the Godlike Creators, but instead invites them to collaborate actively with us in the creation of emergent narratives, creative expressions in which their contribution is at least as important as ours. Here we are, tentatively stepping toward a truly democratic artform, one that harnessses the creativity of the participants even while allowing scope for the creative expression by the field's professionals. Here we are, like Balboa, shocked with wild surmise as we face a fast unknown Pacific of enormous creative possibility--and all we can do is licensed drivel?

This makes no sense! It makes no sense even from the blinkered perspective of a publisher. Would you rather batten onto someone else's IP, with considerable licensing cost, or create your own? A Spider-Man game, or Mario licensed sheets? Is it better to be the licensee--or the licensor? And don't we have confidence by now that the work we create is eminently licensable to other media?

Never mind that. Let's get back to the fact that the most successful properties have always been out of left-field--SimCity, Balance of Power, Doom, WarCraft, The Sims. Yeah, that's an Americo-centric list, but I could as easily say Mario, Sonic, Parappa, Jet Set Radio.... Licensed crap is a way of ameliorating risk, but it isn't a way of building a franchise.

I'm fairly friendly with Tom Doherty, who built Tor Books from a start-up to the single largest publisher of science fiction and fantasy in the world. He has an attitude I like: There's crap you just have to publish. There's stuff that allows you to stay in business. You publish it, and you sell the hell out of it, because you know it can, and will, sell. But fundamentally, that's not why you work in publishing; there are easier ways to make a living. You stay in publishing because you sometimes get to publish books you really like.

Tom Peters, the business guru, echoes the sentiment: No successful business exists to produce a profit. Yes, you need to produce a profit; in a capitalist system (and thank god we have one), profit is the condition of survival. But profit isn't the goal; no one other than the stockholders get excited at that. A corporation is one way or organizating a group of people to strive toward an objective--but that objective, the vision they share, is always, for successful businesses, something other than mere profit.

A game publisher exists to publish games. If its managers and employees are decent human beings, a game publisher exists to publish cool games. And if they aren't decent human beings, they should go out of business instantly; there are far better and easier ways to earn a decent return on investment.

In this climate, I advise defense industry stocks.

If I were running a game publisher today, I'd take a page from Tom Doherty's book; I'd publish a certain amount of licensed drivel, and sequels to successful products.

But I'd also find room to fund development of cool stuff. For two reasons: First, because while most innovative products may fail, every once in a while, one will succeed beyond my wildest expectations, and create IP I can exploit into infinity.

And second, because I'm a =game= publisher--and my whole raison d'etre is to publish cool games.

Why is it that no one in the game industry behaves this way?

I don't believe it's because they have a better grasp of the realities of that industry than I do; I believe it's because they're a bunch of idiot fucks....

Many of them out of Hollywood...

Who actually believe that licensed drivel is the highest, and most valuable, way to exploit our creative potential.

Warren, you are, in some ways, in an enviable position. You're employed, full-time, to create interesting games. Even as the rest of ION Storm produced astonishingly apalling garbage, you produced a fine game in Deux Ex. And I have to imagine that, even though your current products are sequels, you're allowed a degree of lattitude by Eidos that few others in the industry are permitted. And good for you. And good for Eidos, to be sure.

But this is not typical. What's typical is desperate game dweebs circulating their resumes in the forlorn hope that they might be allowed to participate in the creation of Spider-Man III.

You're in the belly of the beast, my friend. And the rest of us will have to try to find a way to create something meaningful in a world that has gone mad.

A Spector is Haunting Gaming (Warren, that is)
Warren Spector writes:

Hey, read your GDC report and, since I come in for a fair share of enthusiastically embraced and totally exhilerating criticism I want a chance to respond.

(Mr. Baruth would be so proud -- two Horace Mann alums duking it out, with the future of the cultural zeitgeist hanging in the balance!...)


Interestingly, though I'm convinced half the audience at my GDC talk was just plain bored, the other half seems to have split right down the middle -- the folks who were stuck in license hell seem to have been inspired to go looking for more effective ways to communicate with their licensors and, most important, to find ways they could get something original into their licensed games; the rest of the audience just seems furious with me. And I'm fine with that. I believe every word I said up on that stage and hoped to hell my beliefs would get people hopping mad and thinking. I may have succeeded too well!

The thing I'm most interested in, from you, is why you, and others, seem to have ignored two critical points I was trying to make. I can only assume I didn't express myself clearly enough:

First, I tried to be explicit about the fact that I wasn't going to get into the DESIRABILITY of making sequels and licensed games. I wanted to address the commonly held and, I thought, unexamined notion that such games were, a priori, a bad thing, from a design and/or creative standpoint. (Remember, I was giving a design keynote...)

Second, while I acknowledge the dominance of licenses and sequels, I really, truly, don't see how setting/character/context -- a license or previous game, in other words -- significantly limits a GAME developer's ability to introduce original GAMEPLAY elements into his or her work. Adaptation from one linear medium to another (e.g., movies adapted from books) run far more risk of creative bankruptcy than works making the transition from a linear medium to an interactive one.

From the sequel side of things, I hold up my own career as an example of the ability to do original work in someone else's sandbox. Other than having produced System Shock (which clearly derived much of its gameplay from the Underworld games) and having conceived and directed Deus Ex, EVERY computer/videogame I've worked on has been a sequel or derivative. On every one of them, I had to negotiate to find my own creative space and on every one of them, I feel I succeeded (though others may disagree). As a result, every game I've worked on has (I hope!) included enough original gameplay elements that no one cared a whit that I was exploiting a world created by Richard Garriott or a core game structure created by, for example, Chris Roberts.

On the license side of things, I haven't (as some rousingly vocal folks have point out) had the same kind of experience on the electronic side of things. However, I HAVE worked on a bunch of licensed boardgames and roleplaying games and think my experience is valid and applicable to the current situation. Certainly, it's possible to find a licensor so enamored of his/her own ideas that your creative space is severely constrained; and certainly, you find licensors who think they "get games" well enough to make pronouncements about design issues. But those seem like isolated cases and not so different from the sometimes crushing anti-creative pressure developers often get from publishers. In general, I firmly believe that, if developer and licensor (and publisher) get on the same page about what people expect -- a dialogue that clearly has to be driven primarily by the licensor, I admit -- you can STILL do creative work in someone else's universe.

I applaud anyone out there with the clout and/or intestinal fortitude (and, as I said, the personal fortune) to swim against the tide and try to craft games that are original (and, therefore, risky) on ALL fronts -- technology, setting, character (if appropriate) and gameplay. But the point of my talk was that most of us AREN'T in a position to take such broad risks with someone else's money and that gameplay risks -- the ones we SHOULD be focusing on -- can and should be considered separately from context. I mean, do you REALLY believe you couldn't design a good Lord of the Rings game?

Heck, let's be wacky for a minute -- don't you believe in your heart of hearts that you could create a cool Scooby Doo game, if you were charged with doing so?

Heck, I KNOW you could. You've done licensed work for the Discovery Channel and others. And think back to your papergame days and consider the work you did on Star Wars... the work others did on Ghostbusters for West End when you were there... the work Jeff Grubb and I did on the Buck Rogers, for crying out loud, boardgame! Is electronic gaming really so different?

The bottom line is that we live in the world we live in. (How's that for stating the obvious!) And the world we live in is one where a game concept occasionally crosses over to the other side of the media divide but where -- for now -- it's far more common for content to travel the other way. With costs and schedules and risks going up, I think we're stuck in that world for the foreseeable future, so we have to make the most of it.

For me, making the most of it means doing everything in our power, as developers, to ensure that our games exploit to the absolute maximum the medium's unique characteristics (which I see as the power to transport players to fantastic worlds and immerse them as completely as possible in those worlds; the requirement that the experience be driven by player participation and that the game respond actively and appropriately to player choices; the crafting of experiences and stories that are the result of emergence and not simply careful planning on the part of a writer or designer. In other words, I want to see a game industry that strives to share authorship of the gameplay experience with our collaborators -- our players.

You'll note that NONE of those unique characteristics have a blessed thing to do with the creation of a cool universe or a marketable character. That stuff's almost irrelevant to the gameplay experience I think players want and deserve.

If we focus on these unique characteristics of our medium, we will find ourselves riding a tidal wave of originality in a medium that continues to grow both aesthically and formally -- a medium that does, on occasion, produce something totally and blissfully original (a la The Sims, GTA3 and Thief), a medium that offers us more than first-person shooters set in the Star Trek universe, go-kart racing games starring Bugs Bunny and Marvin the Martian or Samurai Jack games that are all about platform jumping.

Ill-conceived and seemingly willfully uncreative sequels and licenses are the crimes against gaming that have to be eradicated. And I believe it is within our power as developers to ensure that the sequels and licensed games forced upon most of us by current industrial circumstances DON'T fall into that creative trap. We CAN make games that are true to the spirit of their forebears, that minimize the almost overwhelming risks associated with game development and that (most important!) offer players something new in the way of gameplay.

I could go on for days about this but I have some sequels to work on. I'll close this email-that-got-out-of-hand by citing a conversation I had with some folks the day after my talk. One guy at a session I attended thanked me for having given him some hope. He was, he said, working on a licensed game (one I won't name) and, rather than feeling bad about it, was now determined to go back and see if he could find a way to incorporate something new --just one thing. As we were talking, another guy, sitting a couple of seats away, turned to us and said, "Yeah, I'm working on and I feel the same way."

Neither of these guys has a chance, right now, of working on an original title. But both of them left feeling like they had to try to make a gameplay difference despite the constraints imposed by license and licensor.

That ain't all bad!

Anyway, glad to see you riled up again. The angry young man of gaming was seeming entirely too complacent!

Hoping I still remain your old high school buddy...


Monday, March 10, 2003
A Specter is Haunting Gaming

The mood at the Game Developers Conference this year was, fundamentally, one of despair. To even the blindest apologist for the silly, if monstrous, construct the game industry has become, the handwriting on the wall was clear. Ten years ago, you could find a dozen publishers to pitch to; today, perhaps five. And of the remaining, half are on their last legs: the Vivendi Universal game group will almost certainly be in someone else's hands by the end of the year, Infogrames is fucked, Activision is screwed, 3DO is tottering, Acclaim is in dire straits. The only companies with evident strength are the manufacturers--Sony and Nintendo and Microsoft (included on this list not because they make any money in games, but because they have deep pockets)--and EA, despite the fact that it has utterly failed to make a go of online gaming which, two scant years ago, they claimed was the future. (And it is, but EA is too fucking stupid to listen to those of its employees who understand how online gaming works, and instead try to make it work like its sports game franchise. Which it doesn't and never will.)

Year by year, budgets increase. Year by year, sales increase less. And year by year, the publishers become more conservative; at $3m a pop and a 3 year dev cycle, it's too risky to invest in any game that's--risky. Thus only sequels and licensed drivel get funded.

Year by year, independent developers disappear. The lucky ones get acquired; the unlucky ones simply go under. Their only hope of funding is to bid on a sequel or a licensed product--and the reality is that doing that crap is cheaper in, say, Eastern Europe. It takes no creativity to do III in a series, or a game based on a movie that innovates only by appliqueing movie characters to a successful game style; that takes no creativity, and underpaid coders in Romania suffice.

Never mind the self-evident fact that the industry's real hits have always been innovative, always been out of left field--SimCity, Balance of Power, Command & Conquer, Deer Hunter, Roller Coaster Tycoon, The Sims. Licenses and sequels are perceived as less risky. No one ever got fired for greenlighting a Major League Baseball game, or something licensed from a Hollywood hit, or game IV in a series that's always sold. Pick wrong on an innovative title, and you're history.

And so the walls come closing in. You have to be fuckin' Will Wright to get an innovative title through; no one else can do it. (Okay, Miyamoto can do it. Maybe Sid Meier. But you get the drift.)

Fewer and fewer titles are commissioned from independent developers; the publishers gobble up studios, until they themselves fail, because they don't have the publishing spread (or, in many cases, the brains god gave a biscuit) to compete with the largest houses.

The industry is fucked. It's less imaginative, more risk averse, than the fucking music business. It makes Hollywood look happy to take a flyer on talent.

Mene mene takel upharsin. The writing is on the wall. And here we have my high-school buddy Warren Spector to confirm it: There in his keynote speech, telling us not to worry, just be happy. Drink the cool aid. Go to work for an in-house studio. Develop a licensed product. By God, Warren would be glad to do a Harry Potter game. What a lovely universe to work in. It's the future. It's the way things are. And it's not so bad.

Trust the Computer. The Computer is your Friend. Honest.

Desperation breeds--sometimes despair, but at least as often, desperate innovation.

Some years ago, in a piece in Game Developer, I said that gaming needs an independent label, something analogous to independent music labels or independent film, to provide an alternative distribution channel for games that challenge the conventional wisdom, allow experimentation on smaller budgets, and can serve to reinvigorate the mainstream. The basic idea is true--but we live in a different world, and conventional retail, even if through slightly different retailers, may not be the answer.

Here's what I observed at GDC:

I went to a session entitled Proven Strategies for Self-Publishing on the Internet. Two years ago, it would have been empty. This year, the room was so full that conference associates had to keep on harassing people to keep an aisle clear, presumably in case of fire and panic. Panelists from companies like Pop Cap and The Groove Alliance say they're making real money through places like Real Arcade and Panelists say they think that downloadable shareware games like theirs will generate somewhere between $70m and $100m in 2003.

Now most of this stuff is drivel, although some of it is highly addictive puzzled games like Bejeweled that can't find a place at retail today, and bully for them that they've found a marketing venue that works. And in all likelihood, this marketing channel has its own strong forces that prevent any real creativity--instant-pickup games with no real depth. But still; this is starting to look like real money, without dealing with the twits in Redwood City, and developers are lapping it up.

They just want so badly to find a way out.

Or look it at the crowds around the Independent Game Festival finalists. That's a bunch of machines on the showroom floor, with representatives of the finalists demoing their titles. The IGF is basically open to any game that doesn't have a publishing contract, and hundreds of hopefuls submit titles every year (every year of the five it's been running) hoping for a little glory--and a shot at a publishing contract with one of the majors. Never mind that no IGF title has ever gone on to major publication and success. It's one of the few ways a garage operation can hope for a shot at glory.

So sad--and yet--look at all the people crowded around those demo machines. It wasn't like this last year. Or the year before. Three years ago, the demo machines were a virtual wasteland--and the IGF finalists were so happy when I'd stop by to ask them about their games. This year, I can't even get close enough to play--sometimes not even close enough to get a glimpse over the shoulders of the throngs about the machines.

They're this desperate--this desperate for the hope of a little innovation, a little chance to do something real, a little chance to reach an audience. These 10,000 geeks (that's what CMP Game Media claims was the attendance), most of them professionals, would just love to do what the IGF guys are doing--do a game for chrissakes, work on something you believe in, not churn out the next big-budget piece of crap.

Then we have the Experimental Games Workshop. It's so crowded they open all the doors so people standing out in the hall can pogo high enough to catch a glimpse of the screen and see the games they're demoing. The highlight is, as I expect, the Indie Games Jam (about which more in another post)--although I also very much like the entry from some Japanese guy whose name I don't catch, who has something he claims is PSII email software that plays like some bizarre rap dancer with a synthesized voice rapping the text you enter, and a character bopping about swishing a Japanese calligraphic paintbrush and spattering virtual ink about the page--I have no idea what this thing is, but it makes every game I've played this year look tired.

Why are all these guys here? This isn't even a channel. These games were never created with anything approaching commercial intent. We're supposed to be cynical industry fucks, not a bunch of starry-eyed artistic dweebs.

But we're all so desperate for something real, something creative, not the same old same old same gold crap. Tony Hawk LXIX. Hollywood Blockbuster XII. Army Men XXIII. Coasters of Might and Magic.

And even.... even... at Nokia's sponsored Developing for N-Gage sessions, the room is jammed--despite the doubts about Nokia, the doubts about N-Gage, the feeling that even if it works, it's just another console shell-game, another route to the same dull uniformity. It is something new, a little different; maybe there's still opportunity to do something real here, maybe there's a route in, maybe it won't be Tony Hawk Mobile Edition and James Bond 007 for Bluetooth--maybe Nokia means what it says when it talks about "enabling new game styles" through connected mobility.

Though that sure does sound like the same old corporate drivel, doesn't it? Connected mobility, forsooth.

It's not just N-Gage, in fact. Mobile is on the tip of everyone's tongue. Is it real? If so, when? And how much? And what's the business opportunity? Where does it lie? And (in Glenn Broadway's language), will retro gaming kill it? Does it really all have to be Asteroids recloned?

There's something going on here. Exactly what, I cannot say. Where it leads, I have no idea. But there was a palpable sense of frustration at this year's GDC, a feeling that the walls are closing in--and that something has to change. Somehow. Somewhere.

The game is a virtually infinitely plastic medium; it's adaptable to every technology from the neolithic on. Digital games have explored a tiny fraction of the possible--particularly tiny because of their (up until recently) inherently single-player nature. Inexorable business forces--fuelled at least as much by the lack of imagination of publishers as their risk averseness--have nonetheless squeezed the range of the commercially possible down to a few hackneyed lines. Yet at the same time, developers have become far more aware of the potential, far more respectful of their own history and the promise it held, far more educated about the possibilities of design--and consequently far more frustrated at the narrowing paths into which their talents are channelled.

A specter is haunting gaming--the specter of its own oblivion.

But gaming is young, and restless, and not ready to die.

Redwood City is tense; the king and queen go about their affairs, oblivious to the public mood. But angry men congregate in the public squares, and harangue the passers by.

Something is about to blow.

Sunday, March 02, 2003
Off to GDC tomorrow...

Saturday, March 01, 2003
I Got the Box Right Here
Another pointless song...

sung to the tune of "I Got the Horse Right Here"
by Greg Costikyan, with apologies to Frank Loesser

I trust in Microsoft, I got a Wintel box,
We've come a long way since the days of DOS.
We got the user base, we got the apps that rate
And all the best games you can play to date.

My box is best, there's no doubt it beats the rest.
It triumphs on every test.
My box is best.

I love my Macintosh, because Jobs's da boss
And ease of use puts it at the top.
Besides it makes the scene because it's tangerine
The chicks all dig it, it's a cool machine.

(Repeat CHORUS)

I code for BSD, because it's free, you see
And open source makes for stability
I email rms, I got his net address
And there ain't no doubt my OS is best.

(Repeat CHORUS)

(Repeat three main verses as a round, ending in CHORUS).


I sent this to Johnny Wilson, who emailed me back suggesting we collaborate on "Guys and DOS", providing the lyrics to "I've Never Lost a File Before."

And to the inevitable question, "Why BSD?" Have you ever tried to find a rhyme for Linux?

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