Gamer Hate

Belligerently lacking in remorse.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Narrow (Poetry)

Narrow is one who has sought no answers,
Narrow is the one who accepts the first thing handed over,
Deep and wide runs the river of questions,
While the narrow one can do naught but fetch from the bible like rover,
Without truly understanding their preaching the narrow dog finds they are in a chasm,
The sides too narrow to move forward or back,
But the river of questions will fill the chasm to the top,
Will rover stubbornly stay stuck at the bottom and drown,
Or swim to the top where those with open minds can see the world is round?

posted by CommanderHate at 2:20 am  

Friday, May 23, 2008

Satellites of the Game Industry
Voice Actors and Writers and Publishers, Oh My!

About 10 to 15 years ago, when a group of people would work on a game, they could expect to see royalties for the number of copies sold. Typically it was written into their contract and rather than the company absorbing all that and then deciding whether or not to hand out that money as “bonuses,” the money would go straight to the actual designers, artists and programmers. Yes, straight to their homes in fact, so that even if they quit, the hard work they put into the game was not for naught. They would get those checks no matter what company they worked at, even if it was a competitor to the company they originally made the game for.

A friend of mine recently told me that he got the last royalty check for a game he worked on 15 years ago. One I had never heard of, and it occurred to me that despite having worked on about 5 games that have sold well over a million copies each, I will never see another dime for those games because I don’t work at that game company anymore. With all of the grueling hours that goes into those games, you’d think that we would get some sort of personal stake in its outcome. Some companies do have a bonus system, but the bonuses typically only come if the company as a whole is considered profitable, and as we all know, once a company starts making a lot of money, they usually start expanding explosively. There goes your bonuses.

What is worse though, is that if you ever leave that company, all of the hard work and creativity you put into making that game is pretty much lost. Even if that game goes on to sell another 5 million units, you will never see a dime.

It’s rather odd to have seen how quickly the game industry went from a group of creative individuals pouring their hearts and souls into a game, to a corporate entity that uses and discards its talent like paper towels. Quite literally they will wait until a game is pouring blood from every seam and then throw every developer they have on top of it to try and seep up the mess. Yet, no sooner has that game hit store shelves that everyone finds themselves walked outside of the office only to discover they’ve all been let go. I’d like to say that the number of companies that does that is low, but it’s actually still surprisingly high. Even the ones that don’t lay off everyone still do a lot of layoffs whenever a project ends or whenever they can’t seem to find a project. It’s all to stay afloat I suppose.

So we developers who take these risks with the companies. We who sacrifice nights and weekends (often without extra pay) to make a game that we think is something special. How is it that we are not attached to the income of the end product? Why is it that we don’t see a dime if our game does well unless the company we work for deems us worthy of a bonus (pending profitability and what not). In the movie industry, the actors make money based on how well the dvds sell, or if their tv series gets another season. If a sequel is signed for a game we created, we don’t see any extra pay (although we get to keep getting a paycheck). Yet, we don’t really complain about it.

Why is that? All this work and effort and if our game goes on to sell millions of copies we don’t necessarily see any of that money, yet we continue to work in this industry. Well, we must like it. Despite the long hours and hard work, we must. I believe we must.

So it is with great disdain that I look upon the voice actors and writers who moan and complain about not getting residuals for the game. I sympathize a bit, I do, but seriously, fuck you guys. I’ve seen your work schedule. It’s about 40 hours of a voice actor’s time, maybe. Yet you get more than my yearly salary for that… And on top of that, you want residuals for the game? Fuck you. Writers work for about 3-6 months on the game, from home, yet get twice over my YEARLY salary. You want residuals too? Fuck you.

No one puts in more effort and time into these games than the designers, programmers and artists who make them. Voice acting is almost an afterthought. I long for the day when a computer generated voice rivals a human one so that we never have to use you bastards again. Writers? Pah, game designers have long been better at writing for games than you fools. You just can’t grasp some of the core ideas of what game writing is (not all of you, just most, particularly the hollywood types who want residuals).

So to any of you tangential people in the game industry who want residual payments from games. Seriously, go screw yourselves. If the developers themselves don’t get it, you don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell. Now if you fight for the developers getting residuals, then you might have a chance, but until that day, just shut-up. You guys honestly don’t seem to have even the faintest grasp of what we put ourselves through to make those games.

I’ve left out publishers on purpose for now. I just realized that they’re a whole other ball of wax… =P

posted by CommanderHate at 12:37 am  

Monday, May 19, 2008

My Way or the Highway
Designer n00b Mistake #1

Having started off as a game designer n00b myself, I’ve made my fair share of mistakes. The funny thing about being in the game industry for 10 years is you start to see new designers making the same mistakes you did when you started. Trying to explain to them why they’re making a mistake is often difficult as they’re rarely willing to listen, or they just flat out disagree with you.

However, the internet is a funny place. If you put something up on a website, people are far more inclined to hear you out and perhaps even agree with you. So, in the hopes that I can prevent n00b designers from making the same mistakes I did, I will attempt to go over as many of them as I can.

The first mistake I made, and the most common first mistake of many n00b designers is to assume that players need to play the game the way you want them to play for it to be an enjoyable experience. That is to say, the designer will have something in mind for the level and will attempt to force the player to play the game exactly that way.

Unfortunately, what you ultimately end up with when you do that, is a level that is frustrating for the people who don’t understand what you want. As an example, in the game ICO there is a point in the gameplay where you are supposed to run away from an endless stream of shadow people. I of course, didn’t know this, and since the previous sections of the game required me to defeat all the shadow people in an area in order to advance, I assumed that the gameplay dynamic had remained the same. Of course I was wrong, so I ended up fighting shadow people for about 20 minutes before getting frustrated. Then I thought about what the designer might have intended for me to do. Assuming the shadow people were endless, the only course of action was to run away.

20 minutes of frustration could have caused a lot of people to quit, assuming they ever did figure it out. Of course had they put some indicator that I needed to run away, it would have been a much cooler experience. The lesson to be learned, if you are going to try to force a method of gameplay on the player that differs greatly from what they’ve experienced until this point (in this case, a chase sequence) you need to let them know what’s going on. For ICO I think the best way to have shown this would have been to have the girl bolt ahead of you to the next area, thereby breaking one dynamic (of you having to lead her everywhere) to showcase another (run the hell away, there’s no point in fighting this time). In addition you likely would have chased after the girl since you’ve had to save her in every other situation.

I used the ICO example to show you that even veterans can make the mistake of trying to force the player to have the experience that they intend. In fact, it’s not always the worst thing in the world and you can sometimes force certain experiences in an intelligent way. The important thing to realize is when you are forcing a path of gameplay on the player.

As much as I despise “sandbox” games, they do allow the player a lot of creative freedom in how they choose to play the game. Ultimately there’s only so many true options and the rest are just the player making up their own games (not unlike when we were children and decided that certain colored tiles were lava and would do everything to avoid stepping on them when walking through a supermarket). The key is to not arbitrarily restrict the player to only the options you think are worthy.

In Warcraft III, in the Dungeons of Dalaran level, there was a fairly easy path through the dungeon if you used your troops in a specific pattern. Of course, if you didn’t use a certain ability here or there, by the end of the dungeon you wouldn’t have the troops necessary to defeat the last section and you were totally hosed and had to start over again. By simply adding a couple more troops I allowed for people who blustered through to just barely make it, and for people who fully utilized their available spells to feel like a hero for losing almost no units. The difference between punishing the player for not playing the way you want, and patting them on the back for playing the way you intended is huge. The key is to not make the game unplayable for people who want to go a different route than what you intended them to.

Final example. On the game I’m working on now we decided early on to have a difficulty slider. You slide it towards easy, the hit points of the enemies go down. You slide it towards hard, and their hit points and damage goes up. This is probably the easiest way to implement a difficulty setting and one I personally endorse as it allows for a lot of granularity. A couple of people were adamantly opposed to the difficulty slider. They argued that the game should be fun for everyone on only one difficulty setting, hence the exclusion of any sort of difficulty selection at all. I pointed out that not everyone is at the same skill level and that what some may find simple could be impossibly hard for another player. They scoffed at this and argued that if a difficulty selection option is in a game, everyone will choose the easiest setting and play on that and then the game will not be fun at all.

That argument is of course, ridiculous. Whenever you start a game, do you immediately put it on easy, or do you start it on normal? If you do put it on easy, is your gameplay experience less enjoyable, or did you put it on easy because you are playing more for the overall experience rather than the visceral enjoyment of combat? There’s no singular answer to those questions because everyone plays games for different reasons. Ultimately, people want to play the way they want to play. Some will choose easy so they can burn through the game and get to the story tidbits. Others will crank it to hard because they enjoy difficult encounters in a game.

Whatever the case may be, limiting the players to only one possible way to play will not limit the players to your one vision of the game. It will limit the audience that will play your game, and soon you’ll be out of a job.

posted by CommanderHate at 12:58 am  

Friday, May 9, 2008

Subtly Improving Your Design
A Quick Tip

Sometimes the ideas come quickly and easily. Sometimes it’s like trying to strain a potato through cheese cloth. Whatever kind of day you’re having, remember to step back from what you’ve done at some point and ask the most simple and obvious question that every game designer should be constantly asking themselves. Is this fun?

More importantly, would this be fun for anyone else?

What we tend to lose sight of in the game design world is whether or not a core mechanic we’re making is actually going to end with a net positive result at the end of the day. Being able to imagine what that thing you’re creating will feel like when you’re playing it in the game is critical to becoming a good designer. As such, if you can’t honestly think if something you’re creating is going to be fun or not, you need to stop and reassess what it is you’re doing.

More to the point, consider how often your game mechanic is going to be used in the game. Will it be fun for repeated uses? If not, re-do it. If so, consider how to give it greater variance so that each use will be slightly different than the last (although the timing and placement of its use may be all that it requires).

As an example, in Oddworld:Stranger’s Wrath we had a sniper character. Well, no, we just had a rifleman, but I wanted to make him into a sniper. My first pass on his script had the sniper dead shotting you in the head and killing you everytime. Not fun.

Second pass: He always misses his first shot, his second shot does 90% damage. More fun, but still not fun as the reload time was too quick.

Third pass: He always misses his first shot, his reload time is 3 seconds long. Perfect! But not versatile enough. The problem being if you wanted multiple snipers in an area, you would be dead if you couldn’t find cover in 3 seconds.

Fourth pass: Miss first short, reload 3 seconds, 40% damage, no leading of the shot and a 0.3 second aim to fire time (the bullets were pretty much instant travel). Nearly perfect… BUT, it was hard to see where the shots were coming from… So…

Fifth pass: All of the above, PLUS the bullet leaves a red trail for about 1-2 seconds after he fires. Perfect! But wait… It’s hard to tell when you kill him so sometimes you’re hiding from nothing. In addition, just having to shoot him multiple times was rather frustrating.

Sixth pass: Exploding barrels behind every sniper! Now you just power shot the barrels once and the sniper is gone. It was like you were also a sniper while you were fighting the snipers now. Totally fun!

What? Why are you cringing? I know, I know. Exploding barrels and crates are the crutch of game design, but you can’t argue with fun. It solved the problem of killing the sniper being satisfying and obvious (they would scream as the barrel projected them from their hiding spot), and it was just fun… But, exploding barrels didn’t make sense for everywhere… So…

Seventh pass: Barrels are invisible and intangible to player projectiles, but when the player uses the spark shot which would normally knock a foe out or explode a barrel, it will kill a sniper and trigger the invisible barrels thus launching the sniper to their doom and making them scream.

And then it was fun, without being cheap or lame…

So what’s my point? I could have stopped at several of those passes and left it at that, but I kept thinking about the subtleties of the problem and was able to find solutions that lead to the best end result for our game. You can too, just remember to ask yourself whenever you’re working on a game mechanic, is this the most fun it can be? If not, think about what the issues are and try to solve them using all the tools at your disposal. You don’t need to go crying to a programmer for every little thing. =)

posted by CommanderHate at 4:19 pm  

Friday, May 2, 2008

Things Are Changing!
Why Bad Game Companies Survive For So Long

Sometimes you have to wonder. How can an incredibly shitty business continue to survive when everyone in the world knows that they are destined to continually crank out failure after failure? Is it their business savvy that allows them to survive? Their huge stockpiling of cash from old successes? Their amazing ability to keep talented individuals that can move a project forward?

No, it is none of those things because they do not have any of them. They’re typically financially crippled, incompetent when it comes to business and have no ability to recognize a talented individual, let alone keep them interested enough to stay for the entirety of one of their miserable projects. No, indeed, the one thing they do have is an ability to promise more than they can deliver and then work their employees to death trying to get close to that promise.

Yes, these companies are fueled by dreams (or really nightmares) of being able to produce a quality title with an extremely limited budget and in a ridiculously short amount of time. They constantly and consistently work their employees until they’re red in the face angry and most who have any sense of what is right and wrong in the world will up and quit. Many don’t, and they end up perpetuating the cycle continuously until they are burned out and quit the industry altogether.

You see, the reason that these companies that absolutely suck at making games are able to continually survive is because of us. By us I mean developers. The game designers, the artists, the programmers that make up the life’s blood of a game company have been propping up and operating these monumental shit golems for many years. And for what? A paycheck… Is any amount of money worth staying at work 12 hours a day for weeks on end just to release a product that’s crappy because the company that is slave driving you can’t understand the difference between a good and bad game and only cares about meeting some stupid milestone requirement so they get their money? If you answered yes to that, then you shouldn’t be in the game industry. There are many other fields of work that will reward you much better for putting in that kind of effort into something you don’t really believe in.

So how do these shitty companies keep getting deals to make new games? They should be long dead given their track record so far, right? Yet somehow, they score new deals with slack jawed publishers at least once a year.

Well they’ve got quite the assortment of tricks and tactics to fool these poor unsuspecting publishers into giving them another deal. Let me go over them one at a time for you.

1. A fancy slogan for no longer sucking!

That is to say, they adopt some new program that they say they’re going to follow and they trick everyone into believing this will somehow miraculously solve all of their past problems and allow them to release an awesome game as opposed to the crap they just shat into a box a few months ago. The best example of this is Foundation 9’s TQI, or Total Quality Initiative. You might be surprised to know that TQI is something they came up with in the 70s. The primary principle behind the TQI is that the quality of the product is inherently linked to the motivation of the employees making the product. If they are motivated and allowed to make a good product, it will have quality (yes, this is a slight oversimplification).

The problem is that absolutely nothing has changed at any of the Foundation 9 companies that involves TQI. It was merely a publicity stunt to make publishers THINK that things are changing for the better. In fact, things have never been worse for the employees as raises have been stunted across the board and the general impression is that the company wants to bleed out people so they can hire cheaper alternatives. Yet somehow they continue to land publishers. Are these publishers so stupid that they were tricked by the Total Qualitive Initiative bullshit spewed by Richard Hare? Perhaps they were, but they won’t be for long, so these crappy companies reach back into their bag of tricks and pull out…

2. The Name Change!

Recently Shiny and The Collective merged to form one company. Realizing that both companies now have a long sordid history of crapping into boxes and putting it onto store shelves (see Golden Compass, Da Vinci Code, Mark Ecko’s Getting Up, etc) they decided to pretend to make it a whole new company. Now it’s called Double Helix, but guess what. NOTHING HAS CHANGED! It’s the same people, the same bad direction, the same poor business choices… Literally the only thing that has changed is the name. They’ve pulled the toothless stinky crack whore (who has aborted more than her fair share of fetuses) off the street, named her Lexus and are now attempting to pimp her as some sort of virginal Goddess that has done no wrong.

Sorry folks, but you can name your shitty company whatever you want. It’s still a shitty company.

3. The Large Employee Pool!

Misrepresentation is a common tactic as we can see from their other tricks, but this one is probably the most devious. When a publisher brings their game to the table, they want to know that they’re going to have a large amount of talented people working on it. So when the publisher asks how many people will be working on a project these shitty companies bring out their whole roster of developers and make it seem like every single person at the company will be making their game. The sad truth is, they’ve probably (through more trickery) already got 1 to 3 other projects already in the works. That pool of developers is going to be divided amongst those titles.

Does the shitty game company tell this to the publisher? HELLLLLLLS TO THE NO!! They let them think that everyone will be on their project, so when the publisher asks for something ridiculous for the 3 month milestone, what is the game company going to do? They HAVE to deliver it or they have to admit that they lied about how many people were on the project. So the publisher is expecting a pool of 100 people on their game when in fact it’s more like 30 and the frustration builds as the shitty game company now works those poor 30 people straight into early graves because they won’t admit they lied to the publisher. Fucking evil…

4. Make promises they can’t keep to employees!

This is probably the most insidious part of these shitty companies. After a long and grueling project you finally decide that you’re going to get the hell out of dodge and go to a company that actually gives a crap about its employees. Yet all of a sudden you start hearing things about the next project. They’re totally going to do something awesome and make a real quality product (of course they’ve used the three methods above to score this project so it’s destined to fail). But you stay and listen, and they promise you other things. They’re not going to make you work overtime. Everyone is going to get a raise and comp time equal to the actual hours they’ve put in. They’re getting a water fountain that dispenses Mountain Dew!!!

Well they somehow manage to snag the project, but guess what. They promised something they couldn’t deliver so you’re going to spend the next grueling 12 weeks cranking on a milestone that will be nowhere near what it needs to be to live up to what they told the publisher. You’re not getting a raise because they’re worried about this milestone and possibly having to lay people off, and hell, if you quit they can just hire a junior out of a design college to replace you for 1/3rd of the price (of course they need you to quit so they don’t have to pay severance). They also need to get this project out ASAP, so you can’t even use the paltry 5 minutes on the hour comp time they did give you. You have no choice but to grit your teeth, bare down and try to forget about the Mountain Dew Fountain that never seemed to materialize.

I liken creating a game to the birthing process. Squirting out a baby is a mind numbingly horrible experience for everyone involved. The first year of taking care of that little monster is filled with shit (literally), 2 hour sleep cycles, and an endless amount of screeching. Yet somehow, after the first year and a half, people start talking about having another baby… So developing a game at a shitty company is a lot like that, except that you attempt to disown the poor turd baby you just crapped out and run from the mother publisher as fast as you can while you hide your face in shame.

But I digress…

I realize of course that these companies are just trying to survive. I just wish they’d go about it in a more honest way. You can change your name every week but that won’t improve your games. You can spout off about Quality until you’re blue in the face, but if you don’t actually change your business model or the way you treat your employees, your products can only get worse. You can lie to publishers as much as you like, but… Well, actually you’ll get money for it so I guess that works, but EVENTUALLY you will run out of publishers and because your top business management guys never change, they will recognize your stupid face the next time you try to sell them on a product.

As to the people who work at those companies. You’re kind of like the battered women we see on tv. “But he loves me!” Wake the fuck up people. You CAN do better. Just because you’ve worked there for some amount of years doesn’t mean you owe them anything. They are a corporate entity, and if it suits their business interests, they will put you over a barrel and ass fuck you until you bleed out.

Don’t let them ass rape you anymore, get a job at a good game company. You deserve it after what they’ve put you through. 😉

posted by CommanderHate at 2:05 pm  

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