Thursday, 15 January 2009

What becomes of our future when things turn for the worse...

Oh my God what are we going to do!!! We are in an economic recession and companies are going bust. What do we make of our chances in the industry and what’s happening to it? Is the games industry really recession proof? The games industry has come a long way since the days of just making games for fun. The industry has become bigger and more powerful. It can now compete with other entertainment industries, however, it is now being run as professional businesses. This means that projects have become bigger, teams have increased, more is invested into them and a yearly profit needs to be made.

Its January 2009, there is currently a recession in the UK. Now you maybe thinking ‘how can that affect the games industry?’ well if you look at it, the sales of games and consoles are hitting a high even though the recession is taking place. Why aren’t sales affected? Well games are affordable and probably a cheaper form of entertainment. Considering that a game lasts well over 6 hours (average time depending on the genre) and that they can be played several different times to achieve different experiences, they are definitely worth the money paid for them. Look at this way; if I bought a 2 hour long DVD at £16 (all depends on the retailer), I would be paying roughly £8 per hour for entertainment. If I bought a video game (Call of duty 4) at full retail price that I played for over 70 hours, I would be paying £0.57 per hour for entertainment. Either way you look at it, buying games is cheaper and lasts longer. The audience is also mainly filled with teenagers and kids that can afford to spend pocket money on games.

The majority of people, who buy video games, buy them to escape the reality of the world we live. During a recession we fall into dark times where the struggle for tomorrow is unclear, what better to do than escape the world for a few hours and become an Italian plumber with a moustache and fashionable dungarees. Yes FASHIONABLE you all know you want dungarees, tomorrow you will feel the need to go outside and buy a pair. Wait right there…I have a thought (my mind wonders), we have Hawaiian shirt days and Halloween and ‘underwear only’ days so why can’t we add one more for the calendar, Dungaree Day (D-Day). Imagine offices and stock markets filled with people in dungarees, in fact I think it should be suggested for our Game Art course: Mandatory Dungaree Day by which everyone has to include ‘its’a me Mario’ in every greeting.

New paragraph to end the lunacy of the statements above and carry on. The sales of games have increased and are still fine even though there is a recession. But the problem occurs when companies have to decide which games they can afford to fund. How can a company decide on what game will be profitable? Where will the initial development costs for the ideas come from? It’s scary to think that on one hand, everything seems fine yet the mechanics of the industry have just had a spanner thrown in to the works. Games that are on shelf and ones that are very close to release will be fine in this mess, but what about games that are due to come out in a year or two. What will they be like, will good ideas be canned due to the lack of money and resources.

Jobs…don’t get me started. If you are a third year or someone looking to enter the industry at this moment, I feel for you. Think, if Midway just ‘axed‘ 180 developers from its US studios and rumors are spreading that Free Radical are going bust, how many professionals in the industry are also now having to look for a job. Competing against people who are already recognized for their work in the industry is like deciding to compete against Tony the Tiger over who becomes a better cereal mascot. To include people already in the industry, if Midway had to fire 180 developers to ensure that the company could still keep going, how do employees feel about their job security. It doesn’t matter how good you are at the moment since companies will be looking at trying to make it through these tough times instead. It is tough when something like this happens, but from the other perspectives. Other countries are able to purchase even more stock than before due to the drop in the value of the Pound Sterling. They look at this as a gold mine; figures show that Japanese customers can get GBP 74,361 from JPY 10 million whereas it used to be GBP 47,619 for the same JPY value. America has similar increases as well, so what’s to say will happen to the overall gaming industry. Will it actually pay off to become an employee at an Oversees games company? What is the competition like? Troubled times but ones that will become better, there will be a point at which everything hits a low and the only way out is up. Sorry to put the fear of realism into your souls but these things have to be considered with great thought. I will now leave and hope that you spend a few minutes analyzing the situation since it is late and I need to escape into a alter universe.

Here are some links on the affects of what is going on today;

'Hawaiian Shirt Day'

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Fear for the Mist that shrouds our judgement…

I woke earlier this morning (well if you call 11am early morning) to find myself getting ready for the first Wednesday lecture and seminar of this year. The alarm went of at 10.45, at which point I immediately hit snooze. Don’t you just love to set the alarm a little earlier than expected so that you can hit snooze and feel as if you got extra sleep. I fought my way out of bed to find the room warm for once. I stumbled over to the window like a mindless zombie only to hope for a ray of sunlight despite it being England and January. I pulled back the curtain and was surprised. It wasn’t sunny but heavily covered in a blanket of Mist, seeing as I’m on the fifth floor the fog outside covered the rooftops and made it look even worse. I got ready and headed of to my Seminar only to find that I had to wait an extra 20 minutes. The seminar motivated me to do better work than I’m doing right now. As of now I am making a timetable so that I can get some more work done. I find that after being on a gap year with a timetable floating around and changing every second, my time management has been a little bit more relaxed. But, anyway onto the topic of this blog.

The lecture for this week beginning was on the Stephen King movie, The Mist, queue the irony (it being misty for real if you didn’t get it). Our lectures are varied and for certain weeks we watch movies to relax and most importantly to gain some form of inspiration. It also allows us to look and analyze good movies. The Mist is a good movie, the acting is average and plot is simple to begin with. Its what you would expect from a normal horror movie, except since its Stephen King, the story starts to take a turn for the even worse.

It shows how human beings change when tested using fear and survival. Majority of the characters are stable at the beginning of the film and have their individual opinions until they are forced to choose a side with the person who offers them the best plan of survival. On the right, the main character trying to save his son and escape the supermarket they are all stuck in. On the Left, the insane religious person who believes they should all pay the price of blood for their sins against God. I don’t want to go into the film much, since its best to be watched and I can’t be bothered to fill out a Plot Spoiler warning. The main topic I wanted to approach was the fact that I find watching films such as The Mist more frightening (well what you would expect from a horror movie before you realise that everything is just puppets and CGI) since the direction of horror is suggestive and left mysterious. There is no real explanation for what the creatures are and why they are there, but we just know they are in the Mist. I feared for the characters each time they decided to go into the mist. I don’t usually get into a horror movie this much but found that due to this style of direction, it drew the audience into the action and made it as if it was really happening to them as well. The movie made it for me at the End, if you haven’t seen it you will probably not see what’s to come. Rarely movie’s end in the way this one did and the emotions felt by the audience are out of the norm.

Back to the irony, don’t you just find that on certain days there is a constant running theme to your day? Its odd but it makes it seem as if everything was planned and meant to happen. I’m sure there have been moments of either repetition in your day or Déjà Vu. Anyway I think I’m now going to avoid any kind of fog approaching, that’s if I can escape it………..

Sunday, 11 January 2009

A man without vision is a man without creativity……

Creativity is manifested everywhere we look. The dawn of mankind as we know it today is subject to thousands of years of creativity. Think, ‘we wake up in a bed created by someone, we brush out teeth using a toothbrush created by someone, we wash using either a shower or bath created by someone…’ everything we do and touch has been influenced by creativity. Without creativity progression cannot take place. But what is creativity and how do you get it?

Well you can get creativity by sending me a cheque for £50, well if only. Truth is, we all have creativity. The question to be asked is ‘How do I unleash my creativity?’ Since the moment we start to formulate ideas within our head, we are given the ability to be creative. A child playing with Lego is just as creative as a highly renowned artist. What a child can do with Lego or anything in fact is considered to be creative. Playing adventurous make shift game such as Cowboys and Indians and being able to create an imaginary friend is all part of a creative process. It is what we do and who influences us that change our perception of creativity. Anyone can paint, draw, illustrate and invent but it takes for someone with talent to be able to recognize what sells and what doesn’t. An artist is a person who can instill life within their creation and present it to an audience whether it is sound, visual, and tasteful or something that can be touched. I have had friends in the past that cannot draw or paint but have been able to create characters and worlds, the only difference is the way they convey these worlds. Anyone can draw since drawing can be seen as moving a pencil on paper to cause it to create a picture of some sort, same goes for painting, singing, acting and so on. In the world today, creativity is used to sell. Not necessarily to do with money but it can range from inspiring, motivating, creating emotion and generally whatever majorities of people take from it.

A scientist, programmer, engineer, and even an evil genius can be considered to be creative people. The only difference is the creative fields. The word, “artist” usually describes a person that can paint, draw or sculpt, but it is also a person who can sing, perform and write. The thing with creativity is that everyone can learn how to be creative within the different fields, its just some people have the talent for it and learn a lot faster therefore they are able to become musicians, sculptors and artists. With other people, they tend to follow different paths due to their upbringing and influences and this allows them to be creative within fields that are not considered to be creative e.g. becoming a businessman. A businessman is creative within the financial field and is able to understand how to create a business empire.

Within the Game Design field, every single part of a game is part of an individual’s creativity. Generally majority of the creative part is nurtured and directed towards a final outcome but it is still considered an individuals personal work. The sounds, visuals and storyline are all part of people’s creativity. It goes for everything in the entertainment industry. For me personally I would like to be recognized for the creative work that I have produced since I hope to become an artist. For artists, I believe the recognition and appreciation are most important above the selling aspect. As for what creativity is? I believe the answer is, it is everything that is manifested and stimulates the five senses (touch, hear, see, smell and taste). How do you get it? (Well other than giving me a cheque) I believe it is instilled within all of us and simply needs to be nurtured and developed towards the right field and interests.

Gameplay, back to square one…

The definition of gameplay is something that is always questioned. What does it mean by gameplay, what do you do with it, how does it affect a game. Well, sometimes it seems that it’s just a description to try and sell a game or its invented to describe lots of aspects that make up a game. I have always considered it to be a description of the overall experience and the game mechanics. It is what happens in the game, what needs to be done by the player and most importantly what makes them keep playing. Games such as Call of Duty 4 have two gameplay experiences, the first being the main storyline of the game. Playing as either (SAS) ‘SOAP’ MacTavish or (Marine) Sgt Jackson fighting against Russian ultra-nationalists and Middle-Eastern Rebels. This would be the main gameplay, the reason for playing the game (that along with the fact that it’s an FPS shooter based on today’s times). The second gameplay experience is the multiplayer side of the game, what is achieved when playing against other people over the Internet. With Call of Duty 4 the ‘Perks’ and weapon upgrades change the way the multiplayer is played since players are constantly changing their combat technique.

With Gameplay being a simple description of the overall game aspects resulting in a good experience, there can therefore be no rules to set what makes good gameplay and what doesn’t. The rules apply to the various aspects;
• How long is the game?
• What is the ‘Difficulty curve’ like?
• Is there a story, and if so is it entertaining and crucial to the game?
• What is expected from the players?

The list goes on ranging from character development to overall graphics. Gameplay for me will always be the description for the experience and what is expected. For others, they may perceive this as something else. Most of the time people’s understanding of gameplay focuses on individual aspects of a game rather than all of them. Whatever it is, I believe the true definition will never be subjected to a single sentence and will rely more on theory.

Today an advanced fighting cyborg, tomorrow a team of footballers and yesterday a pink pony…

Characters are a vital part of a game, they constitute what is considered a game and allow the player to be engrossed within the virtual worlds. If you want a better example; Imagine playing half-life without Gordon Freeman or G-man, imagine Mario without Luigi. DON’T WORRY!!! Its not the end of the world I was just making a point, but you can see already how un-effective ‘gameplay’ is without core characters. People generally play games to entertain themselves and escape into different worlds. They want to be different people in these worlds and that’s what the characters allow them to be. If I wanted to entertain myself for a couple of house I wouldn’t want to play as me sitting around doing stuff that I do (generally, because I play games in my spare time and well that would create some kind of paradox…Me playing, me playing a video game, about me playing me).

Characters in any kind of situation or form need to always be believable on some level. Look at characters such as Neo from the Matrix. People can associate with his character since although fictional, there is a sense of the story being very real and possible whether now or in the future. His character is one that majority of adults can believe, a middle aged man who works as a programmer in an office and lives a day-to-day ordinary life (possibly not so much with the night time alter ego of Neo being a hacker but still….). Characters have to have something in common with the genre of people interested, for example Peter Parker is a geek which would appeal to comic book readers since they generally are geeky (there’s a geek in everyone whether they like or not). His alter ego of Spiderman appeals since it makes it almost possible for an amazing ability to be associated with geeky and intellectual people and therefore the character becomes more interesting and almost believable. For me ever since I was a kid I was hoping to god that a radioactive spider bit me even though I generally hate spiders. It would be so cool to be able to shoot webs from my wrists and climb buildings, although England would be a bad place for Spidey since there aren’t many tall buildings. Radioactive Spider where are you…

Film characters are great although to make them believable, good acting is involved. Characters such as Joker in Batman would not have been as effective if either Jack Nicholson or Heath Ledger couldn’t act the part. Imagine Joker being played by Sylvester Stallone, actually scratch that the humor would make it worthwhile. Anyway, a good character always needs a good history, connection to the main story, other strong characters that are related in some way and most of the time they need a stereotyped. History plays a huge role in the development of a character, it can connect the character to the current story and allows the character to become more real. Other strong characters make the story more believable and create better flow. A stereo typed character bridges the gap between several audiences. People are all different and whether we like it or not stereotype is the only way we can be compared to each other. A character that breaks away from stereotype begins to become more interesting since majority of people do not like to be stereotyped and would rather be seen as someone else. People that play games, read books and watch movies escape to become someone else for a while and therefore the characters start to have a similarity with the audience. Characters make a game but good strong characters set the benchmark in entertainment, whatever the form.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

You can push my buttons.....

The SNES, I remember the first time I held the controller of one of these. I was in Kenya at the time and game consoles where extremely rare to find. You had to have imported one from either the US or Europe (Japan as well but can’t handle learning a new language at the age of six). Course the problem was the Internet, this was around 1995 and Africa was just starting to get used to the idea of computers being used in small businesses. The Internet only hit off around 1998 onwards when phone companies started to integrate it and create a possible connection to customers. The amount of people who owned a computer back then was limited as well, so home users couldn’t connect and it was left for businesses and schools. Anyway…a friend of mine had just gone to Europe and picked up a Super Nintendo Entertainment System (Snes). He set it up one day and handed me the controller, I looked at it wondering what on earth this thing was, a flat rounded piece of plastic with the combination of buttons and a cross (later I realized this was the D-Pad). I must say it was a little bit big for my hands and the buttons where far to stiff, it oddly seemed rite though. I knew, just holding it that it was meant for great things…Street Fighter II and Super Mario Kart. Looking back it did the job well, Mario Kart was a little tricky to handle but once you got used to it you where okay. The Snes controller like many back then, had one bad quality, after playing for over two hours the pain could not be contained. I had once played for more than four hours until I had blisters on my fingers, but all of it was in good vain.

As games progressed, so did the advancement of controllers. The analogue stick greatly improved the steering in racing games, the accuracy in shooters and it looked cool. The N64 controller has to be one of my favorites, the design appealed to both left and right-handed players as well as the game genres. Strategy games and early plat-formers didn’t need the analogue stick and therefore the outer handles of the controller could be used for the buttons and the D-Pad only. For games such as Golden-eye and Perfect dark, they required the use of the analogue stick and the z-trigger at the bottom to replicate a gun. It was easy to use (well once you understood what you needed from it) and was comfortable. Most of the buttons were smooth and did not cause pain as you played a game.

I preferred the N64 controller to the Playstation controller. The Playstation controller has always seemed cheep to me. It feels as if you’re holding a plastic toy rather than a controller, it doesn’t seem right. The button combination was confusing and I struggled when first trying to use the bumpers. Playstation upgraded the controller by adding duel analogue sticks, which did make gaming easier than having to use the D-pad all the time. The problem was the analogue sticks being too close to each other making it less comfortable and harder to move from button back to analogue. The controller hasn’t really changed over the years and still isn’t any better. The bumper buttons still seem as if they’re going to fall off, and they make a very unusual noise every time you press them.
Microsoft original Xbox controller…………what were they thinking? Was it meant for a Godzilla? Lets make a console that both kids and adults can play, but at the same time lets see how they cope with Godzilla’s controller. It’s like watching an elephant climb a ladder. Microsoft was thinking BIG, I recall seeing stickers on my first Xbox warning me not to drop the controller on my foot to avoid major harm. Once they released the S-Controller, gaming hit off. The new controller was comfortable (still a little big but micro versions helped) and the analogue sticks where in a good place. It still took a while trying to figure out what and where the buttons on the thing where. Controllers at this point where trying to achieve far too much but at least they had the right amount of buttons needed for shooters and sports games.

The GameCube to the rescue, I loved this controller purely because of the colour-coded system that makes it easier to find buttons. The “A” and “B” buttons are green and red since they are used as action and negate buttons in most games. If you wanted to do something press “A” (green) if you wanted to go back, press “B” (red). The c-stick also worked well not to distract the players attention from the primary analogue stick so that it was easier to know which one did what. But save best for last, the 360 controller has to be my choice. NOT because I prefer Xbox games but ergonomically this controller is extremely comfortable, the layout is easy to read (looks similar to the GameCube layout) and it’s the only controller that successfully fits my little sister’s (seven year old) hands. The added bonus of it being able to attach a microphone headset and a micro keyboard also make it reliable and user friendly. It is also easy to navigate from applications and tasks due to the central logo button.

Controllers will always advance such as the Wii mote but for practical and design reasons. The Wii mote it great for family fun, interactive games and the 360 controller is good for racing, sports and shooters but nothing beats the old fashion keyboards and mouse. Over the years I’ve been able to get my hands on some of the most interesting controllers, generally they don’t work well as all round controllers but work for the games they are intended for. The Nes zapper and Snes Bazooka are great for arcade type shooters. You can have a lot of fun playing Duck hunt with the Bazooka. They need to make more of these for next gen consoles.

The most fun I’ve had playing with a controller (hands down) has to be the Steel Battalion controller for the Xbox. I’ve never seen a controller so big and complicated. It has two joysticks, one analogue, a gear lever, brake, accelerate, clutch and several buttons (one of which is a windscreen wiper button). All these allow you to control a massive robot as if you were inside the cockpit. The game never really hit off since it was released close to when next gen consoles were being released but it is seriously one of the hardest and most entertaining games I have played in years.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

I’ve got a story to tell……..

Stories play a relevant part in human life. We can learn lots of things from a simple story while also being entertained. Ever since I was a child I’ve been told various different stories from books, film, television, word of mouth and even through songs. They all make up a part of who we are and define our own personal stories. Depending on the games we play, we will most likely find some form of a storyline within them. Without a storyline a game has no purpose. Majority of the arcade and puzzle games along with sports games don’t have a story since they are point based which generally forms the objective of the game (Person with highest points wins). Other genres such as shooters and strategy games tend to have a story since they don’t rely on a point-based drive. The games are driven by the need to complete the story or make the story. Either one allows the player to carry on playing and creates an overall gaming experience.

A good story often makes a difference within a game and results in its success. The story usually makes the player feel connected to the game, it gives purpose to what the character has to do and can affect the way the player interacts with NPC’s (non-playable characters). Games like halo, half-life, call of duty and gears are good examples of games that manage to create a connection between an NPC and the player through means of story. In Halo, the connection between Master Chief and the A.I named Cortana becomes stronger as you play the game since Cortana is a vital part of the Master Chief’s story. By the beginning of the third game, Cortana is separated from Master Chief and is found in the hands of a dangerous being. Since the bond between the two characters grows through the prequels, the player has a greater understanding of why he needs or wants to save her and would do anything to get her back. Sergeant Johnson is also another character that the player starts to feel comfortable with due to the story that builds around both Johnson and Master Chief. At certain points in the game the player can feel at ease knowing that Johnson is on the gunner of a warthog and is rite by their side. Gears does the same kind of thing with the connections between the four characters and the histories that some of them share. Dominic Santiago shares a history with Marcus Fenix, which makes them a good partnership (if the AI was good for Dom). The combination of Baird and Cole Train also add to the story since each character has their own personal history that unfolds as the game carries on. The more a player plays the game the more they care for each of the characters.

Games such as GTA, Sims and MMORPGs allow the player to create their own stories. GTA focuses on a main storyline but also has the addition of several sub-stories. The player can choose to do whatever they want to do but generally the main story of the game is played out, the only changes are the outcome of how the story is played out and the conclusion. GTA’s sub-stories revolve around NPCs and the more sub-stories the player follows the more they achieve throughout the game, some NPCs can help the player in combat and others can help the player with money, relationships and weapons. In GTA 4 the option for calling NPC friends over a mobile phone was introduced. This way the player was able to build relationships with NPCs by arranging dates or activities that they could take their friends to, this involved going to play pool, bowling, comedy shows, strip clubs and many more. MMORPGs such as World of Warcraft have a main storyline but generally don’t have an end to the game since the player can decide to do whatever they want. The game is built so that people can create their own stories in another life and world. The interaction within the game is done through real people also playing the game. This way people can for a history and relationship with other people. I was watching a show called Pure Pwnage, which takes it to the extreme but also portrays reality. An episode was dedicated to the World of Warcraft experience, which showed the main character having a real relationship with a person over WoW. The two involved did not play the main story of the game but concentrated more on dating each other’s characters. It’s a good example of a game that lets the players create their own stories (even if they are strange) yet also have the option of playing the main storyline as well. Story telling is important and therefore to make a successful game, the game needs a story. It needs to make the player want to play the game yet care that they are playing at the same time. Certain games however will not need a good story or one at all due to the way the game is played.

Thursday, 1 January 2009

ART DIRECTOR or Motivator……

Art Director….Art Director…….ART DIRECTOR.
Doesn’t matter how many times you say it, it sounds really important. So what exactly does the role involve? Well it seems that the games industry (and film) works very much like an ordinary business with management ‘breathing down’ on employers’ backs, getting them to work harder and faster. An Art Director is very much like “management” and instead of ‘breathing down’ on employers’ backs they simply inspire and motivate creativity. The Art Director works closely with the game designer to set the style, art and overall gameplay. They ensure that the art team maintains the objectives set and works within the budget for the game resources. Good directors can affect the outcome of a game’s visuals and the 3D components. An art director for a game has a slightly different role to that of a film art director. Film art usually involves setting and designing scenery, clothing, characters and props. All the things designed are either found or made in real life and viewed through the camera. Only the things seen in the shot need to be designed. With games; the scenery, props, clothing and characters have to be virtually made and everything within the player’s environment has to be included. To become an art director for either film or games is not easy and that is probably why it pays well. You need a lot of previous experience in the field that you want to go into. For games you need to have worked as a lead artist on a major project or worked on two to three successful games that went on the market. You can’t simply jump into the role since the more experience you have the better your understanding of creating a successful game and the better your creative judgment. An Art Director doesn’t do the actual art for the game, but they influence the project. I personally would like to become an Art Director at some stage in my life but would definitely love to build up the experience to get to that stage. I can’t imagine working in the industry and not having done any art for it at all. For me to be successful in the role I would make sure I also have the skill to be able to motivate and appreciate good artwork. To hold the responsibility of defining future game artwork is a major responsibility and therefore the title or “Art Director” is fitting for a role of this importance.