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 Pag on Games
Feb 8

Few things are harder than predicting the future. The people of Wall Street were paid vast amounts of money to do it and they failed miserably, causing an international financial crisis. I can’t be worse than those bankers, so it’s my time to make some predictions about the future — about game development’s future.

Times are tough for game developers: independant studios are falling left and right, Electronic Arts is cutting over a thousand job — a lot of talented people find themselves without a job.

Yet, when you look at sales numbers, things don’t look so bad. The gaming industry grew in 2008. If you ignore Nintendo (who was behind a lot of the growth), numbers stagnated but didn’t really drop. Publishers are cutting projects and jobs more in reaction to the drop of their stock rather than the drop of their sales. As such, they might be over-reacting to the situation.

Still, it’s going to be tough in the short to medium term. On the long term, things could get interesting. Times of crisis are when the status quo can change unpredictably. The gaming industry could be quite different from what we’re used to at the other side of this storm.

Here are some changes that I expect will happen:

  •  Cheaper Games
    At $60, games are expensive. While people will still buy games, they’ll spend more prudently and will prefer affordable titles. Game prices will drop and free games (supported by ads) will become more common.
  • Longer Games
    With the same intention of getting more for their money, customers will prefer long games to short ones. More unemployed people also means more players with a lot of free time to occupy. As such, long games will become more popular. RPGs, turn-based games, games with strong multiplayer and other games that can be played for a long time will rise in popularity.
  • More Independant Studios
    Independant studios are having a hard time right now because publishers are cutting projects left and right. Once that wave of panic has passed, publishers will still need games to sell. After gutting their internal studios, they’ll have to look outside for teams. At the same time, all those developers who lost their jobs will be looking for new ones. Some of them will create new studios. After years of consolidation, the gaming industry will quickly get back to having lots of third party developers.
  • Games from the Rest of the World
    Development in Silicon Valley is expensive: salaries are high and office space costs a lot. There are lots of talented teams working elsewhere in the world that are much less expensive. The crisis has been softened here in Montreal for that reason — projects here cost less than American projects. I expect more quality games to come from outside the US and Japan: China, Korea, Eastern Europe and Canada have the advantage when budgets are cut.
  • More Downloadable Games
    Large publishers are being extra cautious about which projects they sign. Stores stock fewer games, focusing only on the sure-fire hits. Downloadable games, on the other hand, avoid those hurdles entirely. Lots of developers are turning their eyes to downloadable PC, XBLA, PSN and iPhone games. As it becomes harder to get games into stores and easier to distribute them online, I expect the move toward downloadable games will accelerate.
  • Fewer Casual Titles
    By definition, casual gamers aren’t very passionate about gaming. If time are tough, they’re likely to stop purchasing new games. They might turn toward free games, but that will make it harder to sell them titles directly. As such, I wouldn’t be surprised to see fewer casual games.
  • Lower Budget Games
    Games will have lower budgets. That means it will be harder to compete strictly by having higher production values than the competition — you can’t just throw money at the problem anymore. Efficiency and creativity will be more important than ever. This will affect marketing too: social games that create buzz because people are playing together will become popular without needing huge marketing budgets.
  • PC Games on Netbooks
    Netbooks, those super-small sub-$500 laptops, are all the rage these days. People want small computers they can carry everywhere without paying through the nose. Netbooks are not very good gaming machines, but developers will have to adapt: there will be good business making games for these new systems.
  • More Episodic Games
    Making a game is a huge financial risk. Episodic games reduces those risks by splitting development in smaller chunks. If an episodic game is unpopular, it can be changed or even cancelled before further episodes are developed. What’s more, individual episodes are cheaper to purchase by players, are downloaded rather than bought in stores and the entertainment is split over a longer period of time — all factors I mentioned above.
  • The End of the Gaming Gizmos Fad
    Gizmos have been popular in gaming lately — how many fake musical instruments and plastic thingies to put wiimotes into do you have? Publishers love these things because they raise the profit margins of their games. Higher prices mean people are less likely to buy them in a recession. Guitar Hero World Tour and Rock Band 2 sold below expectations in part because of this — you don’t buy a $200 game when you fear you’ll lose your job. I suspect the popularity of games requiring special hardware will drop very fast.

Chances are, I’m completely wrong with these predictions. The future is hard to predict when things are going smoothly and near impossible to divine when things are chaotic like now. Chaos brings change — some will be good, some will be bad. A crisis can bring change in the status quo; those at the head of the current status quo have the most to lose.

Nov 29

If you look on the sidebar to the right, you’ll notice a new box at the top: “Twitter Updates”. So yes, I’m trying out this whole micro-blogging thing. You can also follow my updates on Twitter itself.

If you’re not a social media expert, you might be unfamiliar with Twitter. Essentially, it’s a place for people to post really short updates (140 characters or less) on what they’re doing, what’s on their mind, etc. So when you come here, you’ll read my last five short ideas I thought were worth talking about.

I haven’t been really good at updating this blog lately. Sometimes I don’t have the time to update; sometimes I just don’t feel like writing a long post. Often I think of something worth blogging about, but it’s just a simple idea that’s not worth expanding into a full post. My goal with Twitter is to update more often with quick notes regarding gaming: what I thought of the game I just played, interesting stuff I find online and ideas I think of.

We’ll see how it goes. Maybe I won’t update my Twitter any more than I update this site. Maybe I’ll become a compulsive Twitterer who writes everything that happens to me. Who knows? Anyway, it should be fun.

Are any other game developers on Twitter?

Nov 4

Magnus Alm, CEO of Muskedunder Interactive and good friend of mine, pointed me toward his company’s latest creation. It’s a fun little rhythm advergame created for Pepsi’s Swedish website with a few cool songs. The game is in Swedish, but if you’ve played Guitar Hero or Dance Dance Revolution, you know how to play.

The most interesting thing about the game though is the presentation. The game is in 3D, played straight in your browser with no special software to install. The graphics won’t rival dedicated PC games, of course, but nevertheless impressive considering the limitations.

3D games in browser are becoming more common. InstantAction is a website that lets you play directly in your browser — it has better graphics and faster framerate, but requires a special download. A little while ago, iD Software anounced Quake Zero, an upcoming free version of Quake 3 that will be playable in your browser.

Browser gaming with 3D graphics is definitely on the rise. It’s a trend worth keeping an eye on.

Sep 21

The rise of popularity of casual games has demonstrated that two great principles of game design are not nearly as universal as we thought — Guitar Hero is a great example of that.

The first principle came from Chris Crawford. This early thinker about video game design compared a game to a conversation: the computer “talks” by showing pictures and playing sound, then the player “talks back” by doing various actions at his disposal — he called each action a “verb”. Since then, designers have tried to make more and more verbs available to players. Grand Theft Auto IV has a lot of verbs available to players, so many that the controls take 2 pages in a very small font to explain in the manual.

Problem is, each new verb adds complexity. A game like Guitar Hero keeps the number of verbs, and complexity, very limited and yet it’s a massive hit. Guitar Hero slays the sacred cow of verbs: not all games are improved by giving players more verbs; simplicity is a virtue.

The second principle came from Sid Meier who once described a game as “a series of interesting decisions”. Sid Meier makes great games (who doesn’t like Civilization?) and so designers tried to emulate that approach. What’s an interesting choice? How can we make players make more decisions? A lot of efforts went into answering these questions, to make games deeper and more interesting.

But here comes Guitar Hero, a game with no decision whatsoever. The whole game is about doing exactly and precisely what you’re asked to do and nothing else — and it’s a lot of fun. It proves that not all games are a series of interesting decisions. Another sacred cow slain.

My point is not that those principles are worthless — they apply to a great many games and are useful tools — but rather that they’re not universal. What other sacred cow of design can be slain? I bet that’s where the next great new game will be born…

Aug 12

MTV has an interview with John Riccitiello, CEO of Electronic Arts, where they ask why Will Wright’s name would not be on the box of Spore. He answers:

 In music it’s typically a writer and a band of four. With films it’s a couple of lead talent, actors and actresses, a director and maybe a cinematographer. With games it’s typically 30, 50 100 people that make these things and they’re all integral to the process. So I’m absolutely in favor of bringing forward the teams. But the team dynamic in creation of our product is quite different than other forms of entertainment.

Basically, his answer is that teams make game, so it would be unfair to credit just a few people on the box. When asked about why, then, Steven Spielberg’s name is on the box of Boom Blox, Riccitiello backpedals:

Look, there’s business relationships you make with creators from time to time. Clearly Spielberg’s support and help and design of “Boom Blox” was great. We’re working on another title with him. And there are people who bring their sort of entourage of fame with them. At times that makes sense to put their name forward. But the truth is, behind “Boom Blox” there was a team of people, incredibly dedicated, talented people. And at times I can get a little frustrated when an individual is pulled out when I know how hard and how much innovation the rest of the team brought to the table.

So the real reason is that Will Wright isn’t famous enough to sell copies of the game while Steven Spielberg is. It’s the same reason Mark Ekko and 50 Cents (of all people) get their name on game boxes while game developers don’t. I find it sad that we have to resort to having to look at outside celebrities to market our games because publishers don’t feel promoting talented individuals.

I believe promoting individuals would be very positive for the industry. I don’t believe it would reduce motivation within teams — would anyone refuse to work work with John Carmack or Warren Spector because they’re famous? I think most people see working alongside a famous developer as an honor, not as an annoyance.

Promoting individuals would also put a human face on games. Humans naturally care more about other humans than about faceless corporations. Everybody knows there’s a huge team behind each of Spielberg’s movie, but they still care about him because he’s a creative force behind the movie. Nobody cares about PR representatives, yet they’re the only people publishers allow to talk to the press most of the time. I don’t think games will truly become mainstream until the public can put faces on the games, like they do for movies, books and music.

Perhaps most important of all, having famous developers would make it easier to market original games. Between a game you know nothing about and a game by a designer who’s work you liked in the past, you’re more likely to pick the latter. The name of the designer becomes a brand that helps sell the game — like Spielberg’s name is a brand that helped sell Boom Blox. American comics are another media where little promotion used to be put behind the creators and that forced them, like for games, to focus on extending previously succesful franchises. It’s only when creators like Frank Miller and Allan Moore became famous enough that truly original work started being more common. We need to do the same for games to end the deluge of sequels.

Mind you, I don’t think game developers could become as famous as actors, but they certainly could become as famous as novelists, and that would be a big gain.

Aug 6

“Final Fantasy XIII” is gaming’s greatest oxymoron - sequels are used and overused a lot in gaming. One of the greatest challenges when making a sequel is how to add new stuff for  experienced players while still keeping it approachable for new players. If you keep adding new features, you’ll soon get a game so complex that new players are overwhelmed by it.

Magic: the Gathering and Final Fantasy are two franchises with a long history of sequels and expansions. Both handle this problem the same way: by removing content. Every Final Fantasy is different from the previous ones: new things are added, but the last title’s additions are rarely kept. Same with Magic’s many sets: new abilities are included, but the previous set’s disappear.

If you’re making the sequel to a game that’s already pretty complex, getting of old stuff to make place for new features in often the way to go. Removing possibilities for the player can actually change the game just as much as adding new ones. Removing the sniper rifle in a FPS could change the gameplay massively, for example.

It can be hard to convince people that removing features in a sequel can improve it, but it actually becomes essential after a few titles to keep complexity in check. When designing a sequel, it’s better to ask yourself “How can I create an experience that’s different from the previous game?” rather than “What features can I add?”

Jul 16

E3 is underway and Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo have all presented their keynotes. Microsoft left the whole gaming community in shock by anouncing Final Fantasy XIII would be available on Xbox 360. Sony couldn’t match Microsoft’s anouncement, but did alright with a few interesting titles coming up — nothing earth shattering. And then there’s Nintendo.

It seems Nintendo has entirely abandonned their core fans. The two biggest titles at their keynote? WiiSports 2 (including awesome mini-games like throwing a frisbee to a dog) and Wii Music.

I don’t get Wii Music at all. As far as I can see, you just waggle your wiimote randomly while pressing buttons when you feel like it (no rythm necessary) to play bad Midi versions of hit songs like “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and “Yankee Doodle”. I wish I was kidding.

When asked if core gamers would feel left out of Nintendo’s line-up, Regie Fils-Aime (president of Nintendo of America) had this to say:

“How could you feel left out?” Fils-Aime said. “The Animal Crossing that we’ve been hearing about that people wanted. Fully connected to the Internet, go to other people’s towns. Plus, as I said, Grand Theft Auto on the DS. How do you feel left out with those types of announcements?”

So their best anouncements for core gamers is Animal Crossing — a game more casual than The Sims — and GTA on DS. Now GTA for DS would be cool if it were presented as anything more than a logo at this point. They didn’t even go as far as showing concept art for the game. Take 2 — GTA’s publisher — had nothing to say about GTA DS at their own press conference.

If Nintendo’s E3 keynote is representative of their current priorities, then it’s obvious they do not care anymore about gamers looking for deep gameplay. They now focus entirely on the casual cash-cow. Will third party developers bring what core gamers want? One can hope, but so far third party Wii games have been lackluster.

Jul 12

After a long wait, Apple has finally enabled third party applicaations to be installed on the iPhone and iPod Touch. All applications are distributed through the iTunes store, where a lot of games are already available. What will be the impact of this on the gaming industry? Will the iPhone dethrone the DS as the portable gaming system of choice, or will it be forgettable, like Apple’s previous efforts at getting games on their systems?

From a developer’s standpoint, the iPhone certainly has a lot going for it. The hardware is surprisingly powerful — with 620 MHz CPU, 128 MB RAM and 3D acceleration, it might even be better than the PSP.

Since it’s connected to Wifi and cellphone networks, the iPhone is essentially always online and since it’s a phone, users will carry it around with them at all times. I believe there’s a lot of potential for games using the always-on, always-at-hand nature of the system.

Finally, the distribution system for applications is really interesting. Contrary to console manufacturers, Apple does not consider applications sales to be its main revenue stream — they’re in the business of selling a platform. As such, they give back 70% of sales price to developers. That’s a much larger slice of the pie than what game developers usually get after distributors and brick and mortar stores take their slice. Getting rid of middlemen can only be good.

Still, the iPhone is not the perfect game development platform. One big question is whether users will care about games at all. They didn’t buy the iPhone to play games initially after all. Cellphone gaming hasn’t taken over the world, so it’s quite possible it won’t take over the iPhone world either.

Another problem is input. The iPhone is not a gaming device and has such it doesn’t have the buttons a typical gaming device has. The multi-touch screen is great and motion sensitivity is nice, but sometimes the best interface is pressing a button and you can’t do that on the iPhone. This limits the types of games that will play well on the system.

Finally, while the distribution system is nice, it doesn’t solve the problem of funding and marketing. Making a game takes a lot of people and time, which requires money. If you want people to know your game’s out and why they should care, you need marketing. Publishers are good at funding gaming projects and marketing them, so I don’t think we’ll get rid of the publisher-developer relationship just yet.

Overall I’m cautiously optimistic about the iPhone’s potential as a gaming platform. If good games come out and grab the public’s interest, it might be a very interesting system. On the other hand, it may become just another way to play Bejeweled and brain training games while on the bus, like the rest of cellphone gaming. Time will tell.

Jul 5

There’s a long and fascinating interview with Ron Gilbert on Gamasutra where he speaks about his next project, Deathspank, episodic games and the way the gaming industry works. Well worth the read.

Here’s an excerpt:

 You know, the movie industry certainly has its share of space marine movies as well. There are big blockbusters that are shallow, but they make hundreds of millions of dollars, and I think the movie industry is pretty good at taking that money and funding a lot of more indie movies, and smaller movies, and movies for niche audiences. And I think the game industry needs to move into that model.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with Halos and Half-Lifes, and all these other things being out there. But I would like to see companies like Microsoft, and EA, and all these people take some of that, and really start to support different levels of titles. And I think if the industry continues to be financially successful, we will eventually start to see that; so I think that’s actually a very positive thing.

Jun 24

The problem with being an early adopter is that you’re the one finding the problems with the first revision of the hardware. I’ve missed a few weeks’ update of this site because my Dell m1330 laptop experienced severe stability problems, then died and had to be sent to repair. Now that it’s back and working again, I figured I’d give some details about my problem in case someone else suffers the same.

A couple of weeks ago I started getting weird computer errors: the screen would freeze for a few seconds, the colors of the picture strangely messed up, then the screen would flicker a few times, go black and everything would return to normal after a few seconds. Vista then showed me an error message telling me that my video card driver — specifically the file nvlddmkm.sys –  had crashed but was recovered successfully. Updating my video card driver didn’t help and my BIOS was up to date.

With time, those crashes became more and more frequent, so I called Dell’s support. The m1330 is a XPS laptop — Dell’s flagship gaming line of PCs — for which they have a special service line. I’d heard bad things about Dell’s service, but I didn’t have any problem: a technician answered the phone quickly and directed me to uninstall my video card  driver then reinstall it while in Windows’ “Safe” mode. Since the problem only happened once in a while, the technician told that he would call me later that  week to see if the problem was solved.

It wasn’t. The driver clearly wasn’t at fault since I kept having the same problem. I did some research online and found out that a lot of the m1330 laptops with the Nvidia GeForce 8400M GS video cards had this problem. After 6 months or so they’d start showing the nvlddmkm.sys error message and about a week later the laptop would be dead, the only remedy being sending it back to Dell so they could put a new motherboard in.

Not the kind of news I was hoping to read. I called Dell’s service again. As I was going through more advanced diagnostics, my laptop began agonizing. When I rebooted, the screen would fill slowly with colored lines and nothing else would be visible. If I was lucky enough to reach my desktop, the video card driver would crash over and over until the screen just stayed black. The Dell technician quickly agreed to arrange for a pick-up of my laptop so a new motherboard could be put in (the m1330 is so compact that the videocard is embedded in the motherboard itself and can’t be changed separately).

I was told that the repair would take 5 to 7 work days, but it was much faster than that. I’m actually surprised at how fast and without trouble Dell handled this. It’s worth paying extra for a XPS PC if only for the service.

I can’t say such good things about Dell’s engineering team, however. I’m rather frustrated about this whole issue — I buy a top of the line laptop and I have to send it for repair after less than a year. Now I just hope my computer won’t die again in 6 months time. Good thing I took the 3 years warranty…

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