Another year, another RPS post about the IFComp interactive fiction competition.
— Mark Barrett
Another year, another RPS post about the IFComp interactive fiction competition.
— Mark Barrett
If you’re curious about writing for interactive companies, check out this two part Rock, Paper, Scissors interview with Erik Wolpaw and Anna Kipnis: Part 1, Part 2. They’re both talented writers, and just as importantly both fortunate to work for companies that value writing. Unfortunately, even twenty years on, that is still the exception rather than the rule.
— Mark Barrett
Long before last year’s grisly crash of a highly-modified P-51 Mustang at the Reno Air Races, I fell madly in love with that iconic airplane. Between building model kits as a kid, to having the good fortune to have a P-51 hangared at the local airport, which I could peddle to on my bike on a sunny summer day (here’s the actual plane in the actual hangar), to the unmistakeable sound of its engine, every interaction I had with the Mustang’s perfect combination of form and function seduced me. Its power, its speed, its capability, its history — the more I learned and the more I exposed myself to that machine the more it became indelibly etched in my mind.
So when the personal computer came along, and people started making flight simulators, and flying games based on simulations, you know I eagerly anticipated the day when I could take a virtual P-51 into the skies. And when the PC developed to the point that full combat simulations were being created, often including dozens of planes in the air at the same time, and high-end joysticks hit the market with multiple functions including rudder, throttle and trigger controls, not only was I personally thrilled, but to my surprise the market for such products exploded. In fact, only a decade ago the world was awash in flight simulators of every imaginable kind.
So what happened? Where did all those flight sims go? Well, one limitation of flight sims is that they model 3-D space that you can’t actually experience. Yes, you can swivel your view around using keys on your keyboard or joystick, but it’s a very constrained view of what should literally be wide-open sky. Too, the inevitable feature-creep that infects all tech products (think Microsoft Word, which currently includes 2,016 functions that no human being has ever actually used), began driving a bigger and bigger wedge between players who wanted fun and players who wanted historical accuracy.
One of the most interesting aspects of the rise and fall of flight-sim software is not so much the fall but the rise. I don’t have sales figures handy, but I do know there were flight-sim titles all over the place, which seems a bit odd when you consider that even back in the day very few people were lamenting or protesting the lack of flight sims in the global marketplace. Even when flight sims were selling like hotcakes I suspect they didn’t top the list of games most consumers wanted to play. So why the popularity?
The answer lies in the central processing unit. Computers are good at one thing more than anything else, and that’s calculating. As long as the math can be programmed, computers can spit out results with dizzying speed and unerring accuracy. This leads to the potential not only for modeling complex processes like flight, but for allowing those processes to be affected by user inputs — which in turns leads to the intriguing idea of interactivity. (My definition of this badly abused term here.) [ Read more ]
Nathan Grayson put up an interesting post on RPS last week while attending E3. If you’re not familiar with E3, it’s an often-lampooned convention where game-industry professionals get together to decide the fate of each other’s bank accounts, in cavernous spaces far too loud to facilitate intelligible conversation. But it’s not all fun and games. Not only are unintelligible deals routinely struck at E3 that determine the games you will and won’t see in the coming year, but E3 quite literally saves lives.
The impetus for Nathan’s post was a game demo he attended, during which the interactive industry expressed enthusiasm for hyper-realistic gore effects:
I sat in a jam-packed arena-sized auditorium and watched a game demo unfold on a screen bigger than my hometown. OK, that wasn’t the surprising part. I’d been doing that all day. This one, though, came to a rather abrupt halt when – mere inches away from the camera – a man’s head erupted into a volcano of hyper-detailed gore after a point-blank shotgun blast. And then: deafening applause from hundreds of people.
This was the blaring exclamation point on the end of a day of gleefully grotesque neck-shanking, leg-severing, and – of course – man-shooting. I can honestly think of maybe five games – in four multiple-hour press conferences – that didn’t feature some sort of lovingly rendered death-dealing mechanic. And oh how show-goers cheered.
Now, as shocking as this may be, it’s worth noting that this sort of thing is really the norm when you stand at the corner of Tech Street and Cash Avenue. Put a few techies in a room with some suits and sooner or later somebody’s going to come up with something truly disgusting, at which point the suits will run the numbers and see if it’s profitable. Only when the project gets to the marketing phase will anyone conduct a focus group to determine if there are moral, ethical or cultural impediments to launching that product or service. [ Read more ]
Stand beside a mountain stream and observe the water for a while and you’ll see that most of it moves in a continuous flow. Look a little closer, however, and you’ll see that the bed of the stream and objects in and along the stream — logs, boulders, the legs of a bear — all have an effect on the flow due to friction. Look closer still — say, at a rock near the edge of the stream — and you’ll find that the flow may slow to a halt if not actually move in the opposite direction, creating what is commonly called a whirlpool, but more accurately described as an eddy. Peer at the boundary between the flowing current and the eddy and you’ll see smaller eddies form and detach again and again, dissipating as they flow downstream because they are no longer powered by the object in the stream that created them.
Known as detached eddies in the science of fluid dynamics, these disconnected but still churning whorls can also be spawned in the atmosphere, as bodies of air move over the landscape or interact with each other. Heat water to the right temperature and move a low pressure area over that water and you may spawn a monstrous hurricane that lasts for days and travels thousands of miles. Move that same hurricane over dry land, however, detaching it from its power source, and it will slowly dissipate, even as it may still wipe entire communities off the face of the earth.
The key component of an eddy, and what distinguishes an eddy from a vortex, is that in the middle of an eddy there is a void — a place of calm that experiences none of the rotational effects of the moving fluid that defines the eddy itself. Drop a leaf in the center of an eddy caused by even the most ferocious mountain stream and it will float exactly where you dropped it. In a vortex there is no void, but vortices can also detach like eddies. This is known, sensibly enough, as vortex shedding — a phenomenon that has led to practical applications in the real world such as winglets on airplanes. [ Read more ]
Before you get excited, two things to keep in mind. First, Tim Schafer is an interactive entertainment legend. He is his own brand and his own reputation for quality in a way that few people ever are. If you’ve never heard of him that only means you have a giant, gaping hole in your database of important cultural knowledge. (And you’ve missed out on a lot of fun.)
Here’s Kickstarter on Kickstarter:
Kickstarter is the world’s largest funding platform for creative projects. Every week, tens of thousands of amazing people pledge millions of dollars to projects from the worlds of music, film, art, technology, design, food, publishing and other creative fields.
You know you’re reading marketing hype when you read the word amazing (or excited). You know a web site is super-serious about its marketing hype when it uses all the colors of the rainbow to format its text. (Click here, then on the link at the top to “learn more”.)
Tim Schafer likes making very smart and very comic adventure games. The greater gaming industry likes making routinely dumb and routinely disappointing crap. Because of this mismatch in interests, Schafer and others like him have had a very hard time getting funding for projects they want to pursue. At least until a few days ago, when Schafer put a proposal up on Kickstarter seeking to raise $400,000 over the course of a month.
He achieved his goal in eight hours. He raised One Million Dollars in a day. Currently the total is $1.37 million and rising.
Now remember: this guy is a legend. And whatever Kickstarter is all about, nothing helps sell a project like celebrity, which Schafter has in spades even if you’ve never heard of him. And while plenty of people have used Kickstarter to get their own projects off the ground, it’s not at all clear that all of the potential legalities — including frivolous or hostile lawsuits — have been beaten out of this or any other crowdfunding system. This is cutting edge stuff, which means it’s both cool and risky. (And I’m willing to bet Tim Schafer has a lawyer making sure he’s protected six ways.)
Still, it’s pretty impressive, and all the more so because it directly connects a creator with the audience that person would clearly like to reach. If Tim Schafer can get advance sales of a game sufficient to enable completion of that game, then he’s in business for the rest of his life. No more funding hassles, no more percentages off the top, no more publisher beating him to snot and running off with his IP, no more time spent raising money like a bottom-feeding politician trading a tattered soul for one more term. Just a straight-up trade: we give you some cash and you make us laugh.
Since most of you reading this post are writers, I know you’ve already gotten bored with Schafer and are wondering if you can fund you own, smaller projects in the same way. This list of smaller projects would suggest the answer is yes. But remember: if it blows up in your face for some reason it’s not my fault. Do your homework, protect your copyrights at all cost, and don’t promise something you can’t deliver. Your credibility is more important than whatever you think is more important than your credibility.
Very good comments here on a related thread. Covers many of the concerns I have while underscoring how this model allows creative people to avoid the gatekeeping inherent in third-party funding. My biggest concern is simply that a weasel could raise money then pocket some or all of the cash by saying the project failed for any number of reasons. Kickstarter disavows any responsibility to vet projects, and leaves the risk squarely with investors — which again underscores how important your personal credibility is in this weasel-infested marketplace we call the world wide web.
— Mark Barrett
We are now well past two solid decades of creating interactive entertainment for commercial markets. If some hurdles have yet to be surmounted there’s still a great deal we do know about the design and execution of various genre types, and this knowledge should — at least in theory — help us hold down costs and avoid making the same stupid mistakes again and again.
If you don’t know about id Software they’re one of the storied companies in interactive gaming. Led by tech wiz John Carmack, id defined and dominated the first-person shooter genre with games like Wolfenstein, Doom, Quake and others. If there’s anything to be known about how these games work and don’t work — and how the technology behind these games can most effectively be mated to design — that knowledge should have so permeated the culture at id as to be part of its DNA.
In keeping with its fetish for cuddly titles, id’s latest first-person shooter is called Rage. GameRankings.com pegs the aggregate review score at about 80%, and most review sites are giving it 7 of 10. Not bad as these things go. But what, specifically, are the complaints?
Here’s Jim Rossignol from RPS, prefacing his final take:
What this is really about is how I feel after playing Rage, which is a feeling not uncommon to gaming throughout the ages: the feeling that the options a game presents are actually an illusion.
Now, what you need to know here is that this is A) a problem in all mediums and B) the single biggest problem in interactive entertainment. Every storytelling and entertainment medium must protect itself from outside intrusions, internal inconsistencies, and technical failings. If you’ve ever been engrossed in a movie when the projector fails you know what I mean. If you’ve ever read a novel where the author leaves a critical logical thread unresolved you know what I mean. If you’ve ever had a moron behind you at a concert sing along, off-key, with the performer you paid to hear you know what I mean. In entertainment there is nothing more important than maintaining the illusion of whatever experience you’ve created.
In interactive entertainment this obligation is magnified by the fact that the audience has expectations that literally cannot be fulfilled. What every interactive user wants is full-blown, AI-driven language, plot and character interaction. This is the famous promise of the holodeck, and its academic spawn. Unfortunately, that’s never, ever going to happen. So everything that logically spills from that incapacity — including audience expectation — has to be anticipated and managed from the get-go. And everybody knows this. [ Read more ]
If you’re curious about interactive fiction, RPS has a post up about the 17th Annual IF Competition. As game-crazy and hardcore as RPS is, if they think it’s worth posting about it’s worth reading.
I never clicked with interactive fiction. I’ve got nothing against it and I know a lot of interesting work has been done with the form. I can never ignore the wires and limitations and get lost in the stories, but that’s my baggage — and a good share of it comes from knowing too much about the limitations of merging stories and interactivity.
Take a look and decide for yourself.
— Mark Barrett
Over the past thirty years or so, as computer and video games have become more mainstream, basic assumptions about the design of interactive entertainment have changed. In the early days, when the majority of the market was hardcore, designers aimed for more hours of play per title because longer games were in demand. (They often did so by rigging games with impossible battles and repetitive chores, but the demand for long games was real.)
Fifteen years ago or so the demands of the market began to change. Consumer research showed players in the aggregate preferring shorter and easier games. While hardcore gamers still existed, they now made up a much smaller percentage of a market that included casual gamers and people new to computer-driven entertainment. Presenting these customers with 100+ hours of hardcore (if not also tedious and unfair) gameplay made no sense, and ran the risk of alienating them from the industry.
Like mountaineers determined to cross another peak off their list, hardcore gamers tend to finish games no matter how grueling the experience. It’s a badge of honor and a way to differentiate themselves from the masses. Casual gamers, on the other hand, tend to explore interactive works like tourists, following their whims and interests for a few hours before heading back to the hotel for a nap. And according to a recent article on CNN’s Tech page, this sight-seeing approach is fast becoming the dominant response to interactive entertainment across all demographics:
“Just 10 years ago, I recall some standard that only 20% of gamers ever finish a game,” says John Lee, VP of marketing at Raptr and former executive at Capcom, THQ and Sega.
And it’s not just dull games that go unfinished. Critically acclaimed ones do, too. Take last year’s “Red Dead Redemption.” You might think Rockstar’s gritty Western would be played more than others, given the praise it enjoyed, but you’d be wrong.
Only 10% of avid gamers completed the final mission, according to Raptr, which tracks more than 23 million gaming sessions.
Let that sink in for a minute: Of every 10 people who started playing the consensus “Game of the Year,” only one of them finished it.
Computer and video games are not cheap to produce, and the best of breed — often called triple-A or ‘AAA’ titles — can be more expensive than big-budget films. Sinking previous development resources into a product most consumers will never fully experience might make sense if the expense was recouped through additional sales, but that’s a huge gamble in even the best scenario. Making the odds worse is the ugly fact that consumers are simply hard-pressed to find time to play and enjoy longer works.
Mystery is the first of three types of suspense that Hills analyzes, and I think it’s fair to say he’s dismissive of mystery as a technique. Despite my own life-long enjoyment of mysteries as a genre, I don’t disagree with his reasoning:
Stories where mystery is deliberately the method, and curiosity about the ending is the whole desired effect, are usually trick stories with wow endings.
Even as you may be bristling at Hills’ highbrow perspective, you probably know exactly what he’s talking about. Mystery can become an all-consuming, story-obliterating objective. As Hills himself notes, everyone has read a book in which the only reason for turning the page sprang from a singular desire — curiosity — to find out the answer to a mystery. Works in which mystery is the “whole desired effect” cannot help be feel insubstantial, if not insincere.
Yet: like sex, mystery does attract attention in fiction. It’s often meaningless attention, resolved by some equally meaningless bit of cleverness, but it works.
To see the raw effect of mystery and curiosity, think about any magazine headline with the word ‘secret’ on it. For a certain percentage of the human species that’s all that’s needed to invoke curiosity, prompting the reader to investigate further. It’s simplistic, even idiotic, but it works. [ Read more ]