August 28, 2010
On Being A Thug, II: Life in the Big City
Caveat lector: In the “thug” series, I’ll likely have spoilers in each post. I haven’t written this one, but I suspect as I play the game, I’ll simply drop in events as they occur to me while writing. The game has been out a couple of years, so that feels fair. You've been warned.
As a programmer, I look at the simulation of the drivers in the streets of Liberty City and I see a lot of bugs. There are far too many collisions -- Niko will be waiting at a stop light and he’ll be lightly rear-ended by the car behind him, just a tap, or a car up ahead will pull into a pedestrian, knocking him down and possibly even peeling out and fleeing afterwards. These seem strange to me -- they are completely out of proportion with my expectations of how frequent such events should be. I see in them mistakes, pathing that is failing, areas that maybe got less attention because players mostly don’t stop at stoplights in Grand Theft Auto games.
But as a gamer, I often assume, or try to assume, that everything that I see was a conscious choice, that this is how the game is meant to be. Certainly I realize that games are never really finished, but in its fourth incarnation sitting on the same simulation engine or more, I sort of expect that they have gotten the streets more or less like they want them to be.
What am I to make of it then? I find myself wondering whether the frequency of collisions and interactions¹ between cars and pedestrians is meant to replicate the immigrant experience for a Western viewer. A person who has seen many car crashes, or the aftermath thereof, might not really notice a single crash or bump an hour or day or what have you. But if you came from a small village in Eastern Europe, you might never have seen a car crash -- and so any car crash you might encounter in America might take on much larger dimensions.
This doesn’t really seem to make sense, though, with a character like Niko Bellic. After all, we know he was in a unit in a war, and ultimately we learn that he is looking for a man who might have betrayed him from that unit. He’s used to violence, and having cars crash into one another or pedestrians being run down in the street seems beneath his world-weariness.
That leaves me with another alternative, that the game instead is trying to create a culture or environment that is filled with a casual menace, or a casual violence, or a casual apathy about property, all of which might serve to reinforce the central mission of making the player control Niko as a thug. If you’re surrounded by these things, you find yourself more willing to participate in them.
For me, as essentially a new player to the series², I started the game not stealing cars. I’d direct Niko to borrow Roman’s -- after all, it was only a couple blocks’ walk. Then he might run a passenger around for him. Niko borrowed it to take a young woman, Michelle, on a couple of dates, had a nice time bowling and shooting pool. He’d take it easy through town using Roman’s car, stopping at stoplights, minding pedestrians. But even playing nice, with a date in the car, he might have an incident where he was rear-ended at a light and chewed out by the driver for not making way, or a would see a pedestrian being hit as a car up ahead got impatient. These things would get under Niko’s skin, a constant low-level source of stress.
Niko needed to work for Vlad, a low-level boss representing a bigger organization to whom Roman owed money. Now he was out being an enforcer, breaking windows, chasing guys down, and generally doing things that were on the wrong side of the law. And joining in with the rest of the city in not respecting property or rules or even life and liberty didn’t seem all that bad, at that point. Now, Niko’s likely to leave Roman’s apartment and walk to the nearest corner to grab a vehicle and go, ignore stop lights. Pedestrians are still off-limits; it hardly seems sporting to simply run down someone because they haven’t put themselves in a car for protection.
Vlad’s gone now, by the way, and Niko is working for someone else. Vlad crossed a line -- just because Niko’s cousin owes money, doesn’t mean you don’t treat him with honor if he’s paying it back. And as the man doing the work that pays those bills, Niko didn’t appreciate Vlad’s poaching on Roman’s woman.
¹Kind of a moderate word there, for what is often a fatal event for the pedestrian. I can almost see one of the characters copping an attitude and say, “Yeah, man, I just interacted all over yo’ ass.”
²As I mentioned previously, my prior experience was brief.
August 26, 2010
Repetition and Meaning in (Art) Games
The Marriage is a rules-driven art game; it was the intent of its creator to have the message and experience driven entirely by the rules. My follow-on effort was intended to work the same way.
In replaying The Marriage, I found that it took me repeated plays to be able to beat the game, and I think this served to better illustrate its message. Through its play, The Marriage says that marriages are difficult², requiring significant effort to find an appropriate balance between the forces at play and achieve success.
Beyond that, however, is that in a short game like The Marriage, it takes time to understand the rules in a deep way -- and by deep, here, I mean at a level beyond a sort of surface understanding of the rules at work, what you might call a "gut" level. I think this time is particularly extended if one doesn’t read his artistic statement before one plays, since it takes a little time to even understand the mechanics at work.
I recently listened to a Brainy Gamer podcast in which Steve Gaynor discussed the MDA framework a little bit. In the framework, designers create Mechanics which give rise to Dynamics and result in an Aesthetic (loosely speaking, an emotional) response in the player. But the player perceives these elements in reverse, starting with the Aesthetics and moving backwards through to the Mechanics.
I think this is a useful framework for thinking about games: in the case of The Marriage or my divorce, it takes several plays of the game to uncover the dynamics well enough to feel more in control of the game, though in both, perfect control isn’t attainable nor meant to be. But this repetitive experience is necessary -- in playing The Marriage it wasn’t sufficient for me to read the rules and comprehend intellectually how they worked, I needed to play several times before my understanding became more visceral and automatic. I have played the game dozens of times and although I haven’t kept formal track, in my estimation I can now achieve victory maybe one in three times, which is about how often I can do the same with my divorce. It took me many more than three times to beat either initially; anecdotal evidence from one of my testers found it took eight attempts to beat The Marriage and ten to beat my divorce, though I’ve since balanced the game a little more favorably³.
In any case, the levels of difficulty of The Marriage and my divorce are therefore relevant to their Aesthetics, and at least partially convey meaning in that way; both indicate the difficulty of the situations at hand and arise from the Dynamics of the simulations. Either could be made easier, and require only a single play to understand the dynamics, but in doing so, a part of that meaning would be lost.
¹Possibly only two entries long; you’ve been warned. I have a few other ideas but at the moment they’re all a little sketchy, so I’m not sure whether I’ll get back to them.
²As should perhaps be obvious from the title of my game...
³I’d like to be a little more optimistic about the possibility of success when raising children in situations of divorce, for obvious reasons.
August 25, 2010
Death and Comedy
“Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” --various¹
Over the course of approximately a week I managed to play both Limbo and DeathSpank, and with the recent announcement that the DeathSpank sequel is shortly incoming, it seemed like a good idea to jot down my thoughts before too much time had passed.
What surprised me most about these games is how much I laughed in them, by which I mean what quantity of laughter each elicited. I expected to laugh quite a lot at DeathSpank, coming as it did from long-time comedy adventure game Ron Gilbert, and based on the foreboding atmosphere which began Limbo, I expected to laugh not at all. Pleasantly enough, my expectations were thoroughly turned on their heads.
For those who haven’t yet seen it, Limbo is a short puzzle platformer in which the player controls what appears to be a little boy lost in a forest². The controls are fairly simple, and the player interacts with what is a very hostile environment, but the shadowy presentation often obscures the puzzles, which would be immediately obvious were the game rendered in the bright colors of DeathSpank.
I don’t think Limbo is intentionally humorous, but I have to say, nearly every time death came as a very sudden and shocking surprise, I found myself giggling. Partly, I expect, it was because I was primed for laughter from having finished DeathSpank only shortly before, but most of the time I think it was just the shock of the unexpected and the bits of death animation. It was a bit like watching a formulaic teen horror movie; the deaths are gruesome but still often meant to entertain, and you laugh because it’s not happening to you.
Later in the game, this response was less frequent, and I think that’s largely because the puzzles became more involved, and death was slightly more costly. There were a few puzzles that stymied me through several attempts, and this would lead to tedium as I would often know exactly what was expected of me, but lack the skilled timing to bring it off³. Dying ceased to be easy, and so the comedy was much harder come by. My friend and colleague Chuck Jordan has written up his opinions about the last bit of Limbo on his blog and I don’t have a lot to add -- I agree that once the puzzles get a little trickier and the world a little more technical, the game loses some of its charm, and the whole experience got a little more somber.
Which brings me to DeathSpank, a game I thoroughly loved and played every chance I got4, spending time before and after work on it. But it wasn’t because I was laughing, or at least, it wasn’t just because I was laughing.
DeathSpank’s laughs for me also mostly came from surprise, but after a while my funny circuits burned out as the game constantly assaulted me with certain elements. The environments were funny, the names of the weapons were funny, the main character’s voice was inherently funny (and I can hear it in the back of my mind even now), the quests were funny (Orphans? Really? Audacious), the villain was funny, the quest-givers were funny, the critters were funny, the advanced healing options were funny, funny, funny, funny, funny. It was a constant stream of funny and after a while the humor seemed to rely on quantity rather than quality; I can’t now remember anything in particular that made me really laugh, because I can’t remember any particular event that had anything more than a very cursory level of setup. I do know that I laughed or chuckled any number of times. There was a constant level of silliness, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that; it just meant for less memorability of any particular element (okay, except for maybe the voice, which I find running a commentary in the back of my head at times; I have a strange brain to live with 24/7).
What kept me coming back wasn’t just that level of humor, sort of a "humor? You’re soaking in it!" constancy, but also a really slick action RPG. While certain elements fell flat for me5, the pure button-mashy with a little bit of health and power management was really deliciously fun and a graphic fidelity that was really terrific.
Hothead Games really impressed me with the first couple episodes of Penny Arcade Adventures6, not just because of the constant humor of the writing, but because of the competent JRPG-style game underneath that skin. It’s a really winning formula, and I find myself really looking forward to a second helping of DeathSpank in September, as well as whatever Hothead applies themselves to.
Join me again in a day or two when I return to thug culture discussing more of my delve into thuggery and spend some more time discussing the things I thought about while making my divorce.
¹Actually, it might as well have been "Dying is easy. Attributing quotes is hard." because the origin of this particular quote, which everyone has heard, is quite difficult to track down. This one is attributed to Edmund Kean (actor from the 1800s), Noel Coward, Oscar Wilde, Alan Swann (fictional character citing one of those), and others. So I’ll leave it at "various" and soldier on.
²The character is rendered entirely in shadow. For all I know, he has tentacles for hair and a third arm growing into the third dimension erupting from his stomach. Games admit of multiple interpretations, and I’m sure one could come up with an outlandish but internally consistent justification incorporating the details I’ve just thrown out. Its stylish presentation reminds me just how much I’m looking forward to Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet.
³Nothing makes me feel so old as to write that I am losing my reflexes for videogames. Pretty soon it’ll be all turn-based stuff for me. Roll me away to the Old Gamers’ Home...
4I’m fairly certain that I would have gotten my divorce out a week earlier had I not downloaded DeathSpank when I did.
5I don’t think I ever managed to pull off 98% of the combos, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t find all the instructional runestones therefor.
6Sadly, Episodes 3 and 4 will never see the light of day, though I gather the scripts will.
August 24, 2010
The Marriage, my divorce, and Abstraction
When I was working on "my divorce", I quite naturally spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out how Rod Humble’s The Marriage worked, since I was seeking to emulate some of its themes (and steal its appearance outright).
The obvious stand-out immediately is the graphical representation. It’s as simple as can be, and I think that’s a good thing for this type of game. Humble¹ was seeking to represent at least some of the interactions at play in a marriage, and I think this sort of level of abstraction really works well for that. One can at least imagine a fully-realized, hyper-realistic third-person rendering over which we have a god-like view, with the “events” that drop down from the top of the screen represented as real events of some kind. You could perhaps imagine this sort of thing on a holodeck, which would further give the opportunity to render an enormous amount of alternative male and female abstractions.
But in doing so, much would be lost. The Marriage seeks to abstract not a husband and wife, but the masculine and feminine aspects of a marriage, which could come from either partner, and I really respected that. The Marriage could in fact represent the forces at play in marriages between same-gender partners, for example, since it’s not really about gender. And at this point, a highly representational approach would not so much break down as require many, many more plays to get at the underlying meanings, since the representation would become part of the message, and that representation would have to change many, many times for the participant to understand that the graphical representation was in some sense irrelevant to the message the work sought to impart. When specifics are available, we tend to latch on to them.
So I sought to emulate that representation. It’s possible, in my divorce, to represent either “parent” as a pink square or a blue one: they aren’t meant to represent people so much as aspects of the things that parents give their children. It’s not even necessarily meant to represent masculinity and femininity - simply that each parent gives something different to a child. The game can be reconfigured to work with same-gender parents and still be winnable, by tweaking the weights.
Discussing my divorce with a friend who has two children, each with a different father, we talked about whether the game could represent more specific situations, such as a step-parent entering the scene or other such specifics, and how a parent or the children might respond to that. I definitely considered that quite a lot before I embarked on the game, but I decided that in doing so I had a hard time separating my own response to the introduction of a new figure in the lives of the children from how that might affect them. So I left that ambiguous rather than introducing another layered mechanic -- the green, grey, and black circles are whatever you might think them to be. There’s no reason, for example, to think that a given circle in The Marriage doesn’t represent an affair -- it’s a valid interpretation, I think.
So, that’s perhaps one lesson in art games that we can take away, because it also turns up in games like Passage, one of my personal favorite games² and a well-known example of an art-game. In its low fidelity, it’s abstract already, but other elements are highly abstractable -- the “treasure chests” can represent material gains or more abstract things. Perhaps a chest is a promotion at work that didn’t work out as one hoped, or a career change that did, or a new child, or any number of things. It’s of course, only one style of art game, but I think it’s a worthwhile tool -- maybe we are the “abstractionist” school of art-game :)
This is, of course, nothing new. Due to limitations in presentation, the first video games were necessarily highly abstract -- Pong represented tennis or table tennis and perhaps even throwing a frisbee around, and with simple reconfigurations of the representations could also represent handball, racquetball, or squash. But I like the idea of using abstraction specifically as a tool to achieve a particular effect.
This post has already gotten a little bit longer than I intended, and I’m being called to play a card game. I’ll return in the near future to talk just a little bit more about The Marriage and my divorce.
¹I remain convinced that Rod has one of the best names in game developerdom, particularly as a maker of art games.
²I have been listening to The Brainy Gamer Podcast lately and in some of the podcasts he’ll interview someone and ask what their “Last Supper” game would be. Thinking about it on a long drive recently, I realized that Passage would be mine.
August 23, 2010
On Being a Thug
Back in 2001, when Grand Theft Auto III came out, I can recall trying the game and seeing what the fuss was all about. I remember being really entranced by the opening credits, which seemed like they’d set up a great story of a life of crime. The voice cast was fantastic, the critical acclaim was living up to the hype, and it seemed like a game meant for me.
And yet, the game never worked for me. I bought or borrowed a copy, which I still have, and I played it for an hour or two before I gave it up for good, around the time when I was running a mission that involved me delivering prostitutes to a Policeman’s Ball. The controls annoyed me, the story didn’t engage me, and the sorts of missions I was running really appalled me. I could see what appealed to people in the game, the freedom, the exploration, the depth of the simulation... but those just didn’t appeal to me.
It was particularly strange not to connect with a mob story. I love mob and crime films; you can look through the last few years of films over on the side-bar and you’ll see that. In the last two and a half years or so I’ve watched The Godfather and The Godfather Part II at my beloved AFI Silver in Silver Spring, not once but twice. I love French film noir, especially those of the fifties and sixties, which are generally gangster films in some way and had a lot in common with GTA III. As far as I’m concerned, that first season of The Sopranos was perhaps the best single season of television I’ve ever watched, and the series as a whole is a masterpiece second only to The Wire.
And yet, GTA III just couldn’t connect with me, didn’t draw me in, and although I am often contrarian, I genuinely don’t believe that was the reason in this case.
As I mentioned, I’m a huge fan of the first two Godfather films. I keep an eye out for when it’s available on the big screen¹, and local theaters can pretty much guarantee I’ll show up to see it if they play it.
Even as I watch these films, I recognize Michael Corleone as a monstrous thug. Sure, he starts out nobly, having served in World War II and come home with all kinds of salad on his chest. But an attempt on his father’s life and corruption in the police department change him; he seeks revenge on the part of his family, beginning his rise to the top and destruction of all the enemies of his family. By the beginning of the second film, he has given in to his lust for power and has become a master of the offer that cannot be refused, framing a Senator who has slighted him to gain control over him.
But here’s the thing: I love watching Michael Corleone as he changes and embraces a sort of Nietzschean "will to power". He fully embraces his family after a traumatic attack on his father and descends into a life of crime, furthered along by a second loss. I love watching how this changes and hardens his character, while he still maintains a powerful charm and reconnects with Kay, and how that is further poisoned over time.
Tony Soprano is perhaps an even better character, in some ways, as a modernized version of the head of a crime family. He’s a lesser Don, in the fiction, because he’s in New Jersey and is looked down upon by the New York Families. The mental and emotional strain of his lifestyle cause him to need psychiatric help, and yet he struggles along within the confines of his life², raising and maintaining both of his families through guile and violence. He is a deeply conflicted character, but he clearly takes pleasure in violence and asserting his dominance over others, chuckling when he gives grief and grinning broadly whenever he feels he has put one over on someone else.
I feel for these characters because, despite being larger than life, they are recognizably human, with weaknesses and pain and foibles despite the very inhuman and immoral things they do. They sometimes feel forced to do these terrible things, but as an audience we know better; they enjoy their power or money or influence too much to be simply trapped within their lives.
Compare this with Claude Speed, the protagonist of GTA III (and I think earlier incarnations of the series). I never felt any of these things for Claude, and I don’t think it’s because he starts out the game without power, because in many ways so does Michael Corleone. I also don’t think it’s his rendering or anything like that. I think it’s that he is in many respects a blank slate.
Recently I decided to try to return to the series and see if I could again find what other people find in it; in particular, I’ve decided to give GTA IV significant playtime, not giving up early as I did with GTA III. I figured I would bull it out, put in twenty or so hours, meet it on its own terms, and simply agree to disagree with the many fans the series has if I didn’t care for it.
A strange thing happened. I became entranced with Niko Bellic, the main character from the most recent iteration of the series. I’ll return more to GTA IV and Niko in the near future; I expect this to be a small series of posts. But I wanted to start with what turned me off on the series to begin with.
In the end, what I think really bothered me about GTA III wasn’t the lousy car controls or the graphics or anything like that. What bothered me was that the main character was a blank slate, which left me in a position of needing to fill in the blanks, to occupy the role without enough distance between the character and my self. He never speaks, and so we don’t know what’s inside his head and as a character he fails to ever really develop, at least at the beginning of the game. I’m the sort of person who plays video games to be the hero; in role-playing games I am always seeking what I feel are the morally best outcomes. I’m just not interested in being a thug, and with Claude Speed’s lack of distinguishing characteristics, there was no distance to keep me feeling as if I weren’t myself the thug.
But understanding and participating in what it’s like for a thug? I can do that. I enjoy film and television thugs, and as a gamer I’ve committed enough virtual violence for a thousand hells. I enjoy watching and participating in thuggishness, if well-motivated. And so, despite not connecting with earlier incarnations of the series, I find myself really looking forward to some quality time in the shoes of Niko Bellic.
¹While I love it on the small screen, the texture and depth of color of the films are best experienced projected.
²This makes him a little bit like Achilles, in some ways, who recognizes in the opening pages of The Iliad that there is the possibility of breaking away from Fate and the will of the Gods, but feels unable to do so due to obligation and honor.
August 22, 2010
"My Divorce", my art-game follow-up to "The Marriage", has been mentioned a few places -- many thanks to them.
- Play This Thing has an interesting write-up; the author shares a bit of his own recent relationship past, so it definitely provoked a response¹.
- Jamie Fristrom gives the game a mention on his blog as well. Jamie was one of my play-testers, and what he says is something he mentioned to me in chat when he was testing² the game. It was a real boost and really encouraged me to release the game.
- And Raph Koster also makes mention of My Divorce over at his site, apparently picked up from Brenda Brathwaite's retweet of my original "launch" tweet.
Thanks for the mentions. I'm basically finding these either as they show up in my own feeds (or as I occasionally check the feeds). I very much appreciate these, and those of you who have downloaded and are playing the game. Thanks.
¹I admit, it's not the one I was going for, but hey, it's an art game, read it however you want.
²For whatever reason, Jamie turned up a few bugs that other testers (and I) had not. These led to some simple changes to the code that I had done another way mainly due to laziness, so Jamie not only gave me great feedback, he also made me a better programmer.
August 19, 2010
Several years ago, Rod Humble released "The Marriage" -- an art-game experiment of what forces he felt came into play in a marriage. At the time, I had been divorced from my ex-wife for some six or eight months, and I remember snarkily thinking that someone should do "The Divorce", an investigation of what happens to people during their divorce. It would be fueled by the anger and pain I was feeling, and attempt to impart that to the audience.
"my divorce" is *not* that game. I'm not interested in making that game, though making it (and perhaps not releasing it) at the time may have been therapeutic.
"my divorce" is my own attempt at the forces I feel are at play in a divorce, and specifically a certain kind of divorce: one in which there are children. Like "The Marriage", it is intended to be art -- it is meant to explore, through game mechanics, a set of human interactions or a piece of the human condition.
You can read more about it, and download it, here. Comments and suggestions welcome. I hope to release other autobiographical art-games, as well as a few other small games I've been kicking around.
August 17, 2010
Most Expensive Meal Ever
I guess it's a first-world problem, but I have a confession to make: I recently spent quite a lot of money on not a lot of food, and it's not the first time I've done it, either.
The setting was terrific, a little place in Virginia's wine country¹ a few hours from where I live, looking out on fields in the sunset, in a very well-appointed large converted parlor of an inn there. There were amuse-bouches, a small appetizer, a small first course, a palate-cleanser, a slightly larger second course, dessert. Each portion was rich and bursting with a carefully balanced set of flavors crafted from extremely fine ingredients by very skilled chefs. The experience, and others I've had that are similar, was one of the finest meals of my life thus far.
But by the standards that appear to apply to games, I should have been nothing but disappointed by the fare -- the servings were small and served on tiny plates, no matter how attractively presented. For what I had spent on the small piece of hiramasa in my second course, I could have purchased dozens of Filet o' Fishes or greasy plates of cod at a local pub. Shouldn't I feel robbed?
But the fact of the matter is, it takes significant skill and effort to hone a craft to the point of being able to deliver a meal of the caliber I enjoyed a week ago. It takes careful consideration of the available ingredients, and selecting the very best. It requires the cultivation of an extensive wine cellar to accentuate the variety of foods which might be served. It requires the staff to prepare it and present it in such an alluring manner, in a beautiful setting. Anyone can slip a frozen fish patty into a fry-o-lator and plop it onto a bun a few minutes later... but those of us who enjoy fine food are more than willing to pay ten times for more than mere calories.
So it is with games -- trimming a game down to its very essence and only presenting the choicest, most flavorful bits requires dedication, craft, and temerity, and I see no reason not to pay a higher "per-minute" price for fun so skillfully achieved.
So bring on the Limbos, the DeathSpanks, the Braids, and dozens of other small titles I've downloaded over the years. Give me Sleep is Death, and World of Goo, or the titles by any number of the folks linked below. Give me the little projects that Double Fine will experiment with now. Give me options to spend a little more for a little better, or a little different. Give me game developers who are willing to craft the very best experience, and trim out the filler, the useless breading, the empty fat. Give me meals worth eating, and games worth playing; I'm willing to pay.
¹I note that the second-most money I've ever spent on a meal, and likely the third, was also in wine country, albeit in California. VA's wines have a long way to go but they were competent.
I wrote this in honor of today's "Indie Voices on Game Length" day... Here are some others:
Jonathan Blow of Number None
Ron Carmel of 2DBoy
Dave Gilbert of Wadjet Eye Games
Mike Gilgenbach of 24 Caret Games
Eitan Glinert of Fire Hose Games
Cliff Harris of Positech Games
Chris Hecker of Spy Party
Scott Macmillan of Macguffin Games
Peter Jones of Retro Affect
Martin Pichlmair of Broken Rules
Greg Wohlwend of Intution Games
Jeffrey Rosen of Wolfire
August 16, 2010
Version 1.0 of "my divorce"
Submitted for your approval: a response/update to Rod Humble's "The Marriage" entitled "my divorce".
August 12, 2010
I decided to go ahead and put the lists of books and films I've seen over the last few years as links from the sidebar, under "Current" and "Recent".
August 09, 2010
Creative Control at Activision
Last week saw an interesting bit of investigative reporting over on GamaSutra by journalist Leigh Alexander, covering reports of gender bias towards AAA protagonists by upper-level management at Activision. According to sources, Activision specifically directed a studio to change its lead character from a female heroine in the Lucy Liu mode to a male hero. It’s a nice bit of balanced reporting; Alexander reports the accusations of the Activision-owned studio, notes Activision’s rebuttal, and makes specific mention of successful action series with female protagonists as a supporting framework.
My Twitter feed that afternoon was all, well, atwitter with mentions of some of the bizarre comments that the article garnered on GamaSutra. It’s also worth noting that this article received more than ten dozen comments, which is far more than any other news item in the last week or so (I saw one with a count of 32, most were in the single digits, and many of those were just 0)... clearly this touches some sort of nerve. Amongst the comments there were a few discernable threads:
- Activision is a public company; there’s no gender bias, they’re just going after what sells for their market
- Statements that the reporting is being done owing to some sort of political correctness
- Supportive commentary (either in the “there should be more balance in representation” or the “here are some more examples of great female characters in games and movies” variety)
The thing is, regardless of what you think of Activision’s alleged policy, this is valuable news for at least a couple industry segments: independent studio owners and potential or current Activision employees. It’s not political correctness to report on the interactions between corporations or between segments of a corporation -- it’s newsworthy, in this case especially to those two groups. (I'd like to think it's of interest to gamers, too, as it is to me as a gamer... but GamaSutra is primarily a games industry site, not targeted to gamers as much as to those in the biz, so let's leave them out for a moment.)
In the case of the former, it’s well-known that Activision’s strategy for growth over at least the last decade has been acquisitions and mergers, typically beginning with a development or publishing deal for a specific piece of IP and then turning into a later acquisition. This started with Raven Software and Neversoft back in the late 90s and continuing with others too numerous to list here (a few luminaries being Infinity Ward, Treyarch, and Bizarre Creations, but by no means limited to them). If I owned my own company, I’d definitely want to know that despite what they might say at the bargaining table, Activision was likely to involve itself pretty heavily in the creative process of the studio.
As for potential or current employees of Activision (or a wholly-owned subsidiary studio), well, if I were on the creative end of things, in character or narrative design, for example, I’d want to know that my work was going to be up for creative review by the bean counters at the head office based on a sales-driven market study. Those of us on the front lines pour a lot of ourselves into the games we make, and spending months or years with a character only to have him or her changed based on the mercurial whims of what space marine games sold last year would be a huge concern for me, personally.
I’m not likely to work for Activision any time soon; I’m not certain it’s the sort of corporation I’d like to work for. In the long term, Activision’s strategy will probably work with a certain market demographic, males 14-30 or so, and that market will be strong enough to maintain AAA development for years to come yet. It’s not like we’re running out of 14-30 year olds any time soon, they just keep making more¹. But a strategy which looks at last year’s hits will always just pump out iterations of, well, last year’s hits. That’s unlikely to gain new market share, and ultimately causes creative stagnation in the industry². It's unfortunate that a company which has the resources to explore new markets, even in a small way, chooses instead to chase the big hits from the last year or two; it's myopic, and regrettably it will probably work for a while.
So, Activision will plod along making the same kind of games, until it looks more profitable to jump to something else. It’s what the big corporations do. But where big corporations fail to go there is often opportunity to be had, and Leigh Alexander deserves credit both for pointing out those opportunities to smaller, more nimble companies, and to giving pause to those who might think they will retain creative control when they sign with Activision.
¹ It’s worth noting that Nintendo seems to start a little younger and last a lot longer. It’s a renewing segment, but Nintendo holds a hardcore audience well into their 30s, judging from continuing sales of Zelda and Metroid and other key IPs. (back)
² Hollywood seems to be on a cycle of this itself; every ten or fifteen years they have a few fallow years where they lack anything much of interest, and then they drag themselves out of it again. I’d say this year is a bit of a down year for Hollywood creatively. (back)