Gamer Hate

Belligerently lacking in remorse.

Monday, September 22, 2008

What Is My (CommanderHate’s) Opinion of Denis Dyack’s One Console Future?
From Eduardo

Full Question: “What is your (as in, a developer) vision of the whole one game console future of gaming as envisioned by Denis Dyack? Is it a viable market model or you think that eventually some other manufacturer would step into the market? What would be your pros and cons? And finally, if this prevision ever comes true, which companies could make a joint effort to build it and why?”

-Eduardo

Well, first everyone should read his full statement to get an idea of exactly why he thinks that a one console future is inevitable. To summarize, he believes that the current market is unsustainable and that it is for the good of developers and gamers alike if we all migrate to one console. He mentions things like 100% market penetration, everyone understanding how to develop for that one console, drop in pricing, higher quality, etc.

Now, Denis Dyack seems like a smart guy, but like all smart people he’s able to fully construct thoughts that sound like well thought out ideas when he’s really pulling them straight out of his ass. I believe this to be one of those cases. The fact of the matter is, whenever one company or console or anything has a monopoly on the entire market, you end up with corruption, cut corners and crappy decisions. Yes, in a Utopian world, the one console future seems like a grand idea. If every console developer got together and shared all their information, they might make an amazing machine. However, they would not make a machine that everyone wants.

You see, consumers want choice. That is how multiple types of machines are able to survive. Some people want amazing graphics and the absolute latest hardware. They buy a PS3 because it has blu-ray player and a “Cell” processor. Some want to play fun games with their friends over a well maintained network, they buy a XBox 360. Some just want to have fun playing wacky games and they don’t care too much about the graphics. They buy a Wii. Let’s analyze each console real quick (and yes, I realize I’m ignoring hand helds, I’ll mention them a bit later).

The PS3 model is semi-unsustainable. They lose a lot of money on every machine sold, and in order to keep up with the other cheaper consoles, they will need to drop the price at some point or risk being booted out of the big boy’s club. Apparently making and selling the PS3 has cost them all of the profits they made on the PS2, which puts Sony in a real bad spot. Would Sony have benefited from a one console future? Possibly, but almost none of the technologies that make the PS3 shine would be present in it (due to cost), and those who are hardware junkies would lose out on their blu-ray player and likely become disinterested.

The XBox 360 model is doing just fine. They now make money on their consoles and the price of production becomes cheaper by the minute (hence the latest price drops). Their on-line network generates a constant stream of revenue and they’ve been able to use all the money from this to secure exclusive games to attract new audiences in other countries (Tales of Vesperia and Japan for instance). Would the 360 benefit from a unified console plan? Well, they would certainly benefit from the experience that the other console developers would bring to the table, however Microsoft is a company that is in this business to dominate. They would not be a big fan of sharing technologies and working together to make something bigger because they want to own that something bigger. What can I say, it’s the American way…

The Wii is doing amazingly well. They actually make a profit on every Wii sold, and they continue to sell Wiis at breakneck speeds compared to their competitors. Nintendo is essentially the winner at this point in the console war. Their only issue is that while people buy their consoles, many don’t buy their games. The only games that sell well on the Wii are Nintendo’s first party titles. Something that the other developers are becoming wary of. What good is a console if no one will buy the games you make for it? Nintendo is clearly doing a lot of things right on the hardware side. Low cost, innovative peripherals, a new fun way to play games. However, they’re doing something dreadfully wrong if other developers can’t sell their games on it. Would Nintendo benefit from a one console future? Not in the slightest. They’re winning the console war and their games are the ones that sell best on their console. They have no reason to share their success with anyone else.

Do consumers benefit from a one console future? In short, no. Here’s why.

Whenever there is a monopoly, the people who buy the product are always the ones to suffer. With only one console to buy, there will be no choice for the end user. You either buy that console or you find a new hobby. If the technophile can’t get their latest and greatest hardware fix from the PS3 side of things, they won’t buy it. If the multiplayer fan discovers that the one console has decided to focus on single player as opposed to multiplayer games then they won’t buy it. If the Wii fan discovers that the one console doesn’t have an innovative and intuitive interface, they won’t buy it.

So let’s say that they’re somehow able to put ALL those things into this one amazing console. Let’s assume that somehow, all these different technologies are able to come together and form the Voltron of consoles and that everyone is happy with it. Well, chances are, no one would be able to afford it, and more likely than not, they would have to sell at such a ridiculous loss that no company could sustain itself while selling it. What you would eventually see is all the features and expensive hardware stripped out, the innovative stuff worn down to classic old stuff that they can sell for pennies on the dollar, and what you would be left with is one of those imitation piece of crap consoles that China spews out by the boat full.

Much like God, you would need a united console developer to be all powerful, all knowing and benevolent. As we all know, absolute power corrupts absolutely, and no human being can know everything. To have both those powers and in addition be benevolent is a veritable impossibility. A one console future will not exist because it cannot exist. At least not in a free market society like the one we have. Now, if we ever end up in City 17, I’m sure we could have a one console future, but trust me. You wouldn’t like it, and neither would any developer.

As a developer, we want the choice to be able to make games for the console that suits our taste best. Maybe we’re feeling like innovating and want to use the motion controls on the Wii. Maybe we want to make a blockbuster new tech game on the PS3. Maybe we just want to relax for a year and make a cool low-budget game for the iPhone. We have choices because of these different consoles. More importantly, we get business because of these consoles. If they want a port of a game from the Playstation 3 to the PSP, that’s a whole new job that can keep a game developer afloat for months. If a company wants to simultaneously release a game to all the consoles but they don’t have tech for the XBox 360, another game developer is able to keep 10 of its employees in a job because they do have that tech and would be happy to help them port the game. Developers need these competing consoles because it provides a lot of job opportunities that wouldn’t exist without them. Many of these development studios will go on to create amazing games in the future, games that wouldn’t exist if they weren’t able to stay afloat by doing ports and other minor things for other game companies.

Denis makes a grave error when he says: Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo have put tremendous resources into trying to make the best hardware, including spending significant amounts of money trying to get exclusive mega-titles like Grand Theft Auto on their system first. Despite all this, it’s still not enough. The economics of the proprietary models seem to point toward spending more money and receving fewer returns with each generation, with no clear winner.”

Where is the error? Well, it’s in the assumption that there is no clear winner. There is a huge winner in this battle for the hearts and souls of gamers. That winner is you. When they compete, you win. You get choices (great and grand choices). Some of you will buy all the consoles, some will only buy one. A few have yet to be reached and have chosen none of them (or you prefer handhelds, which also have great selections). When large corporations compete, we all win, because they have to try and innovate in order to make money. There will never be a clear winner in the console wars, and that should make us all smile.

If there ever is a clear winner in the console war, it may take years for a new developer to be able to dethrone them. When they are dethroned, they will attempt a comeback and it just might be as glorious as Nintendo’s comeback with the Wii.

Well, we can hope.

A one-console future is a future we can hopefully avoid, because it’s clearly a future in which we would all lose.

posted by CommanderHate at 11:00 am  

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Why can’t other companies do what Blizzard does?
From Mike

Full question: “Why isn’t the Blizzard business model applicable to other parts of the industry? Why is this the only exception?”

An excellent question with a sad and unfortunate answer.

First let me explain a little bit about Blizzard’s business model. Let me stipulate that I am not a business person and I never had a lot of access to the nitty gritty details of the business side of things, but I could infer a lot from talking to various people in the company and while I worked there they had a general policy of explaining everything in plain terms to their employees (which as I understand is no longer the case).

Blizzard began with 3 young men deciding to form a game company called Silicon and Synapse. Mike Morhaime, Frank Pearce and Allen Adham created this company and basically funded it with credit cards. Like most small studios they started by doing ports of games for other larger studios before they were able to craft their own games, the first two of which were Rock ‘N Roll Racing, and The Lost Vikings. Those they published through Interplay. They then briefly changed their name to Chaos studios before switching over to Blizzard Entertainment, and then they sold out to Davidson & Associates. That’s when they started their string of hits beginning with Warcraft (1).

I should note that Warcraft originally started as an electronic real time version of Warhammer (which was primarily a miniatures on map fantasy battle game similar to the popular military ones but with a distinct Tolkien twist). But the Warhammer folks turned down Blizzard and thus Warcraft was born (much to Games Workshop‘s later chagrin). Warcraft’s success was largely luck and timing, but it and its sequel earned Blizzard a golden reputation and a windfall of cash.

Since then they changed hands a bunch of times but they were always able to keep their autonomy. By the time I joined, Starcraft had been out for a while and they were working on the Broodwar expansion for it. The entire time that I worked there I never saw people in suits come from the mother company (whichever one it happened to be, Davidson and then Cendant who then sold their entire games division, including Blizzard, to Vivendi which started as a French sewage company in 1853, I shit you not) and I never got the sense that the overlord company was pushing for things to happen at Blizzard. This was either due to Mike Morhaime being amazingly good at keeping the political bullshit away from the studio itself (likely), or because the overlord company knew it was best to leave Blizzard to do its thing (also likely).

Blizzard’s general policy about releasing games was that they would not ship until they considered it completely polished. This typically resulted in a 3-6 year development cycle. No other company can get away with this long of a development cycle, it’s simply unprecedented. So what allows Blizzard to do this?

Well, they generally had a lot of luck, but they also had the benefit of never having released a flop (other than The Death and Return of Superman in their early days). Once they were owned by a big company though, they released hit after hit and built up their franchises to epic proportions. When something works, most companies are reluctant to start tinkering with its inner workings. Well, most smart companies. Blizzard has had the good fortune to always be owned by fairly smart larger companies. Companies with lots of money that know a good thing when they see it.

So why can’t another company copy the success of Blizzard?

Well, it’s not impossible, but it’s largely a situation of luck and timing. First, you need the opportunity to make your killer hit. That usually means being purchased by a larger company that can fund you for the 2-3 years necessary to make something really polished and good.

The trouble with that particular scenario these days is that the cost of development for next gen titles has gone significantly up. Making a name for yourself on lesser titles is not impossible, but definitely difficult and also has the possibility of making a name for your company as a small title developer rather than an epic blockbuster one (like Blizzard). If you’re known for small titles you’re unlikely to get the funding and time necessary to do an epic blockbuster, and if you’ve never made an epic blockbuster you’re not going to get that funding either. You basically need a company that either doesn’t understand the game industry or is willing to take a HUGE chance to fund a company for an epic blockbuster and give them the time necessary to polish it as much as is necessary.

Second, assuming you somehow find the miraculous company willing to fund a blockbuster possible title, you need for the blockbuster title you’re making to actually become a blockbuster hit. So many factors can destroy a title that for all intents and purposes should be an epic selling title. Psychonauts and Beyond Good and Evil should both have sold like hotcakes, but they were largely ignored by the gaming masses. That sort of failure only makes large companies more gun shy about funding a smaller developer through a giant project, because even if they succeed and make a great game, there is still the possibility of dismal failure.

That doesn’t mean it never happens though. In fact, it has. Bungie largely went through the same process as Blizzard. Funding and producing their own small games, only to be bought by a large corporation (Microsoft) and then crafting Halo. Of course, Bungie has found that they don’t like the corporate atmosphere of Microsoft and so they’ve essentially gone back to being their own company, but they did pull off what Blizzard did.

That leaves us with one other type of company, or rather development team. Why aren’t the big development teams at large companies like EA allowed to take the time to polish their products like Blizzard does? Well, they generally speaking are allowed to keep a project until it’s polished. These days EA is making a large effort to keep games until they’re ready for release. This is not always the case, and in the past they have been complete jackasses, kicking games out long before they should be, but they’re trying to turn this around now. How much time a product is allowed to stay for polish is largely a factor of who is on the development team. Anything by Wil Wright is allowed to go through infinite polish phases, such as Spore. Anything that’s being done by a newer development team will likely have a set schedule of 1-2 years and the game will have features cut and stripped bare until it makes that release date.

Most corporations that fund games have investors to take care of, so most of them, only care about the bottom line. If a game doesn’t ship on time then it can’t make money for that fiscal year and if the company doesn’t have a certain level of profitability, then the company is going to be raked over the coals and their stock value will plummet. Look at the recent Lucas Arts firings and you’ll see that they’re just trying to make their company seem more profitable by cutting costs. In that case, the cost of funding a development team.

So while there are other companies that have done what Blizzard has done, they are very few and far between. The unfortunate truth is that it takes a series of lucky incidents and a lot of hard work to get to where Blizzard has. Are they happy where they’re at? Judging by the Lamborghinis and other cars they buy with their disgustingly huge World of Warcraft bonus checks, I imagine the very top of the company is very happy.

However, Blizzard’s success is not for everyone. The corporate atmosphere that becomes a necessity when you have as many employees as they do can often crush the soul out of a creative individual. Many of their employees don’t even play games anymore, something that was a requirement in order to be hired there when I first applied. Diablo 3 and Starcraft 2 as well as Wrath of the Lich King will be some of the first titles that have been done completely by this new corporate atmosphere Blizzard. I’m curious to see if they’re still able to make the right decisions for fun gameplay.

posted by CommanderHate at 3:25 pm  

Monday, September 8, 2008

Do Developers Leave Out Features For Sequels?
From Eduardo (again)

The full question is: “Do developers, due to the publisher’s pressure, or even intentionally, leave full working features out of games to save it for the inevitable sequel? Not because of time constraints, budget or lack of play testing, but full fledged, working, maybe even already implemented, features/items/characters/chapter/vehicles? Does the publisher ever think that the developer is offering too much content for mere 60 dollars?”

Well, that’s rather detailed as far as questions go. I do usually give detailed answers though so it’s all fair.

So, do developers leave out full working features from games? I have seen this a few times. Primarily this is done when the focus of the game shifts away from a particular feature. As an example, in Warcraft III there were a whole slew of features involving rotating cameras that followed your hero that we didn’t use in the end game. Why? Because the focus of the game shifted away from a single hero that you follow around, back towards the standard RTS paradigm of an overhead camera. Of course, that’s Blizzard Entertainment. They can do whatever they want and take as much time as they want to do whatever it is that they want to do. Other companies are not so fortunate.

At most companies, when a feature is going to be cut, it’s the one that hasn’t been worked on at all yet. There might be design ideas for it, and there might even be some hope that it makes it into the final game, but when it comes down to it, not shipping on time will utterly destroy most companies (i.e. not Blizzard). Thus they will always cut unrealized features and will keep anything they’ve got working within the game.

Do some companies intentionally pull a fully functional feature to save for a sequel? I personally have never seen this, not even at Blizzard. I have seen them hold off a fully functional but buggy feature for later implementation in a patch, but generally speaking, no company (that I know of) holds features off that they have fully realized within the game with the intent of introducing it in a sequel.

As to publishers applying pressure to hold off a feature for an inevitable sequel… I have never seen this happen or heard of it happening. To be perfectly honest, publishers tend to be fairly disconnected from the actual content and features of a game. Some don’t even play the game, relying instead on videos of Quality Assurance tester play throughs to give feedback to the developer. Other than the bullet points on the box, a publisher could care less what features go in or are held back from the game, primarily because so few of them have any concept of what the game is really about.

In the Da Vinci Code game, there was a feature that any publisher with half a brain would have asked to have removed. If you are unfamiliar with the book, the Da Vinci Code is primarily about a professor/grail historian who gets sucked into a murder mystery involving the Priory of Sion, the hidden sect of religious folks who happen to be hiding the true Holy Grail (according to shaky historical evidence). As you can imagine, there would be very little fist to fist fighting in a book like that. The movie went out of its way to work up an action sequence involving a car chase.

One of the game’s bullet pointed features was “combat.” Something that really doesn’t make any sense for this particular game. This is clearly the sort of game where you could revitalize the point and click adventures of old, with really intricate puzzles using the various types shown within the Da Vinci Code book (cryptography, anagrams, etc). Well, we made a bunch of intricate puzzles and had a plot line that mostly followed the course of the book, but despite it flying in the face of everything that would be wise to do in a Da Vinci Code game, combat was forced in there. While this had more to do with Richard Hare being a self-absorbed idiot who lost whatever sense of game design he had a long loooooong time ago, any publisher worth their salt would have noticed the incongruity of having combat in a game that should be focused on puzzles and would have had it removed.

So as to the last part of the question, does a publisher ever think they’re offering too much content for their money? No, I’ve never seen that, and in cases where it might be wise to pull content (as in the Da Vinci Code game), they do not. Publishers tend to be very disconnected from the content of a game, primarily because they are full of business minded people, not creative types. There’s a good reason for this though, and that is because if a publisher starts telling the developer what they can and can’t do when it comes to creativity, the relationship will quickly become strained and fall apart.

The reason that Blizzard has never published another company’s game, is because they themselves are creative people and get caught up in the minutae of the project. It will never be good enough unless they have direct creative control, and no company (other than Blizzard) can afford to wait for the level of perfection that Blizzard requires. Which is why they originally rejected Nihilistic’s attempts to make Ghost until they had to give it up (or go out of business), and then bought Swingin’ Ape after they took over making Ghost.

posted by CommanderHate at 5:22 pm  

Thursday, September 4, 2008

“Do Publishers Request Games Based on Other Successful Games?”
From Eduardo

Here’s the full question.
“Do publishers ever request a certain type of game similar to one that’s a huge success right now? What’s the reaction of the developer?”

Well the first part is easy to answer. Yes, they do. They do it frequently and they do it in a large variety of ways, sometimes without understanding exactly what they’re asking.

There are the blatant ones: “Can you make it like God of War, but cooler?”

There are the sly ones: “Well, this is neat, but maybe you could incorporate some aspects of God of War.”

There are the ones who think they’re telling you to do something totally new and different without realizing they’re copying something: “Well, what if he were some sort of deity, and there was an epic battle?”

There’s the commandment: “Make it like God of War, we need it to be marketable.”

And there’s the mix and match: “So you’re this God of War, but you have a robot companion named Clank and you’re trying to save City 17 from being oppressed by the Lich King!”

Of course the most obvious, and to me the most insidious, is the sequel. They want the same game, but with improved graphics, features and a slightly different story. Sequelitis is one of those things that has always plagued the game industry and will continue to do so for as long as people choose to cling to the familiar rather than take a chance on the new (see also, politics). Nothing kills innovation more than being forced to make the same game over and over again.

So how do developers react to this?

When being asked to imitate another game, most developers will use the basis of the request as the groundwork for what they will make. A good developer with a nice publisher is usually able to stray far from the source material and make something altogether different with only a few identifiable strands leftover from the original. A good example of this is Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath which had its initial inspiration from Halo but ultimately ended up being an entirely different game.

I’m currently working on a title which started with the publisher requesting a Harry Potter meets Pokemon universe. That sounds like a losing proposition but where we’ve taken things has ultimately left both source materials as practically unidentifiable. Hopefully to such a degree that no one will even bother to make the comparison, seeing as how I find both franchises utterly detestable.

If you’ve played Heavenly Sword or the recently released demo of The Force Unleashed, you’ve felt the heavy influence of God of War’s profitability on those games. A lot of games borrow from GoW, but some are blatantly trying to capitalize on their success (particularly Heavenly Sword, but also there was a Conan game that miserably failed). Force Unleashed pretends to be a Star Wars game, but really it’s God of War with a few mods and new art. Oh and less polish… I’d say there might be more polish by the time it’s released but when you fire your development team, there’s little hope of that.

Anyways, a lot of companies that are asked to do sequels are usually more than happy to. Particularly when it’s a successful franchise. Most game designers however, are not so happy. I think in almost every case, the lead design for the original moves on to another project or forms their own company when asked to do a sequel. There are very few game designers who like to do a sequel to their games unless it’s almost an entirely new game each and every time (for example Wil Wright and Sim City, The Sims, Spore, as another example Kojima and Metal Gear, Metal Gear Solid 1, 3 and 4).

Companies like Bungie and Bioware who enjoy innovating, generally do not like doing sequels. In Bioware’s case they want to tell completely new stories so they try to move into different universes with each game. In Bungie’s case they just want to make a totally different and new game every time (Minotaur, Marathon 2, Myth). Of course they made the mistake of making too popular a franchise with the Halo series, and Microsoft didn’t allow them to hand the game off to another developer like Bioware was able to do with KOTOR 2 (Obsidian). I wonder if that has something to do with Bungies recent departure from their Microsoft Overlords.

That isn’t to say that no companies like doing sequels. Some more than happily do so of their own free will. Blizzard has made their entire business about three franchises that they will likely repeat for eternity. Sony’s God of War will always be able to find a new lead designer to expand the game. For some companies, sequels are their bread and butter. Sports games in particular seem to be cranked out every year in conveyor like fashion (as if being able to recognize the name of a player would add some appeal to a game you should go out doors and play in real life).

So, do publishers request games based on other games? Of course they do, though more often than not someone is already trying to steal the thunder of a successful franchise before they even mention it. How do developers react? Well, that depends upon what type of developer they are. If they just want money, they’ll jump at the chance to have a franchise with a built-in sales guarantee (read fanatical franchise followers). If they want to prove themselves, they’ll certainly take the opportunity to try and expand upon a known game world. If they want to innovate, they might try to take the franchise in a whole new direction. Developers are just people at the end of the day, as varied as snowflakes (unless you’re talking about people at a Republican convention, because then they’re just old and white).

posted by CommanderHate at 2:16 am  

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