&t Phil on Games: February 2008 <$BlogMetaData$;

Monday, February 4, 2008

Assholes and Elbows

I apologize for the long pause between blogs. I also realize that something is messed up with my blog’s html, so it displays oddly on some browsers. I guess that makes me the asshole right now.

A lot has happened over the past couple of months! I no longer work for Sony Online Entertainment. It was by my choice, and it was not an easy one despite leaving on very good terms. I worked with a great team, and made some great games. It's too bad that our accomplishments in the mobile development community will go largely unnoticed by our peers in the industry, but I'll just leave it at that. At least I know what I accomplished.

2 years ago I moved from San Jose to Los Angeles for mobile and casual game development because I didn't know anything about it. My goal was to figure out how the industry worked, and why people found these bastard child’s of the game industry so fun to play. At the time I thought they were sort of a joke. I was very much into playing World of Warcraft and Ghost Recon, two very complex games in their own way. I considered these the supreme gaming experiences.

I quickly understood and respected what Casual gaming was all about. And over time I began to respect the potential for mobile gaming, but I don’t particularly like it and think that its way too controlled by some non-gaming morons wearing monkey suits at the carriers. With very few exceptions, I have less than zero respect for the people running the gaming divisions the carriers have set up.

Here’s a little free advice for them:
Get your head out of your ass, and you might be able to make better decisions and more than the quick buck you’re currently comfortable with… Respect in this business is earned through smart actions and elbow grease, not given freely because of your status. Now go shine that BMW again and get the hell out of my way.

I'm very glad to be out of the mobile industry, and am happy that fellow Producer friends of mine have stayed within the mobile gaming industry. It needs all the talented, level headed people it can find. Don't get me wrong here; I'm not bashing Sony... I'm bashing the carriers like Verizon and ATT.

The carriers are the glass ceiling that keeps the mobile industry from breaking ground and becoming a viable platform. The only way I think this will happen is if Microsoft and Apple (and/or maybe Sony) both get involved in a viable platform battle, creating some semblance of a unified development structure similar to what exists in console/PC development. I'm not sure which one of the 500 or so versions of God of War: Betrayal you got to play, but I pray it was the 350k version. I apologize in advance if you had to play the 64k version (though you really should get a new phone buddy).

Once the mess of having to create various base versions, such as a 64k, 128k, 200k, and 350k version in Java code, then porting it to two different base BREW handsets, then porting from all those handsets down to be compatible with around 500 different phones across the globe, you might actually see a real mobile gaming community sprout up.

It is profitable to make mobile games right now if you do it right, and some are quite fun and well made. It has amazing potential to be the top gaming platform, surpassing the Nintendo DS like you wouldn't believe. But until there is some sort of order to the chaos, it will remain a dumping ground of games for the average consumer.

Despite the obvious bad taste in my mouth working with Mobile games, I found my exposure to the casual gaming community a very positive experience (though some may disagree with me, I lump the Casual and Mobile gaming markets together, as they share many of the same design philosophies and have similar target demographics). I used to think that casual gamers were only housewives or people that suck to badly at ‘normal’ video games to enjoy them. While this is partly true, I believe the true explosion behind casual gaming is actually the adult hardcore gamer.

Think about it for a bit; say you are in my age group, between 25 and 35 years old. We are now the average age of the video game consumer; we grew up with it, and now we have our own money to spend on it. Chances are you had a ton of more time and patience to devote to a video game when you were a kid. Fast forward to the present day; you want the fun and distraction of playing a good video game, but you just worked a ten hour day, had to go to the grocery store for food, possibly cook your dinner (…does ordering pizza count?), do your bills, clean the house, feed the pets, and possibly watch your kids before they go to bed. All of a sudden, devoting even 8 hours a week to playing video games becomes quit a big chunk of your free time.

Obviously, I’m projecting my own life onto this scenario, sans the kids. Though I still play the ‘hardcore’ games, I find I only have the attention span to play one, possibly two during a period of time. Then there is this magical time where I really want the challenge and fun of a good game, but I really don’t want, or can’t, play for more than 15 minutes at a time. Suddenly, these streamlined, quick gameplay experiences available in the Casual gaming market are a viable distraction for me.

So here I am, playing a huge space-opera game like Mass Effect, but still enjoying quick play experiences on games like Dice Wars, Uno, and Puzzle Quest. I actually got excited when I saw Chessmaster got released on the Xbox 360 Arcade the other day… damn, now I know I’m getting old!

From a design perspective, I believe that the defining lines between Casual and Hardcore gamers and games will become so blurred, it will disappear within 5 years. It’s already happening with games like Guitar Hero, Rock Band, and to a lesser extent, Puzzle Quest. These are games almost everyone can enjoy, regardless of their skill level, age, or sex. These are the types of game designs that are paving the way for an expanded video game market, which will lead to more revenue, which will lead to even better overall games.

Personally, I enjoyed the challenge of having extremely limited hardware resources to design around. It really taught me to identify the small little gameplay chunk that makes a game fun, and not to rely on the pretty bells and whistles to distract the player into thinking they are having a good time. This is especially true with Mobile game development; you have to fit an entire modern gaming experience into an average of 128k of memory, so you don’t really have room for anything but that core experience you design.

Let’s compare Gears of War to Puzzle Quest. I love Gears; I think it was a very solid game design, with great level design and some of the most fantastic graphics I’ve ever seen. It also didn’t do a single brand new thing other than its graphics and overall production quality. In my mind, it didn’t deserve all the ‘Game of the Year’ awards it received from the industry. It would be like rewarding “Cloverfield” best movie of the year just because it was such a freaking cool visual assault. It is this type of industry self-congratulating that is the exact reason why the “games are like porn” debate thrives today. This is why I’ve been wary of spending money on BioShock… too many industry insiders like it too much, though I hope I’m proven wrong when I play it after I’m done with Mass Effect.

In my mind, Puzzle Quest is a vastly superior gameplay experience to Gears. Though the game itself didn’t introduce any new gameplay elements that have been seen before, it found a great formula for fusing previously unrelated gameplay mechanics to create an entirely new experience that nobody had ever played before. Though it certainly wasn’t the prettiest game ever made, it provided something fresh and unique, and I know it forced me to rethink my definition of “fun”. If I told you to make a game about matching 3 like symbols up in a row, and there are only 5 symbols in the entire game, you’d probably question my sanity. If I told you I wanted to make the game an epic, multi-hour adventure that forces the player to keep playing ‘match 3’ over and over and over again, you’d probably have me committed at that point. But it works, and the reviews and sales numbers prove it. Thank god for a level headed publisher like D3 that’s willing to take a calculated risk or two.

ARGH! I’m rambling way too much. I’ll leave this as my cut-off point for now, and wrap up this particular entry by saying I moved to Springfield, Missouri. I bet you didn’t see that one coming! And yes, I still work in games. But that’s for my next blog entry ;)