Game Design, Programming and running a one-man games business…

Reach for the stars

“Reach for the stars, cause they’re sweeter by far, than the moon, though she’s brighter and closer to you…”

Lyrics from a song I listen to (bonus points for spotting whose), but also my attitude in recent years to my job. The whole idea of ‘lone-wolf’ indie game development is absurd on paper. Activision spent $70 million making COD:MW:2, and $130 million to market it. That’s vs Me, in a spare bedroom.

I am doomed to fail.

Except somehow I don’t fail, but keep going for years on end, even making a reasonable living from it. Clearly, fighting such impossible odds attracts a specific, maybe warped mindset. I’m glad to say that ever since I started work on GSB, I’ve had that mindset in spades. A lot of the reviews for GSB praise the visuals, saying it looks really good, and that’s welcome, and very nice, but when I see it, it looks crap. it looks really cheap and badly done, and old school, and unconvincing. The reason I think like that, is rather than playing other indie games and comparing them to GSB, or other AAA games and comparing them to GSB, my point of comparison is Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, or any other high quality movie special effects.

You might as well set your sights high…

One of the things I do when I want to improve the graphics is take a huge bunch of screengrabs from space battles on DVD like this: (I’ve got dozens of folders like this). This takes hours…

I then take a look at what those ILM visuals look like in a single frame, which is very helpful for designing visual effects in code. For example take a look at this freeze frame of a laser gun in Revenge Of the Sith, I find stuff like this fascinating.

When I have time to improve the visuals again, I’ll go through a lot of this and study in, and also zoom in and study GSB and work on making one look like the other. I had a number of false starts with the explosions and debris for GSB, and although it’s better than it was at the start, I still need that stuff to be better still. Expect the game to keep getting better as long as it keeps selling.

Not enough web integration

The more I use the global hyperweb, and the more I rely on it, the less tolerant I become of everything that is *not* web-enabled. In fact the idea that anything I might own, invest in, or have a relationship with would not be accessible online or have an associated website is just infuriating.

We are now at the point where almost every business has a website. Even our local plumbers, or even butchers and bakers have a website. Admittidly, a lot of them suck, but the fact that they exist is better than nothing,

Hopefully, eventually things will go further. I might want a cup of tea in 5 minutes time, but I can’t turn the kettle on through the internet. I’m not sure if we have any cat food in the cupboard, and if there was a webcam in that cupboard, I could check that from here. On a cold icy day, it would make sense to turn the car on 5 minutes before leaving the house through a web interface.

Ok, so thats all a bit unlikely for now, but we live in a world where if you buy a new TV today, it will have a remote control that will control absolutely sod all else in your house. I have some software on my laptop that lets me share folders of pictures on the TV, but theres no easy way for me to adjust the tv volume or change channels from this laptop keyboard. This sucks.

Friends of mine who are a bit older, and dont use the web would consider all these ideas insane, and for the lazy, and totally uneccesary. And yet I remember my grandfathers black and white TV didn’t even have buttons for channels (you literally had to ‘tune-in’).

I reckon in 20 years time the idea that you couldn’t turn the cooker on or dim the lighting or lock the catflap from your laptop (or phone) will seem quaint. Whose with me?

Press button, get banana

I’ve been playing the star trek online beta (let’s just say I won’t be buying) and I also not long ago experimented with farmville, for research purposes (far too cute  a game for me). I am not a fan of these sort of games, in fact, they depress me…

MMO’s in general (not Eve) and many facebook games annoy me because they seem designed by business types who want to maximise player-time and revenue, rather than real fun. There seems to be a tendency for business types to equate an ‘addictive’ game as being ‘good’. Not fun, enjoyable or rewarding just ‘addictive’ will do.

We are at the very very early stages of research into how people react to games. 50 years ago, I could watch you through one way glass playing a game or watching TV, and make notes. I could maybe ask you subtle questions about your experience, and do some guesswork to interpret the real answers.

These days (if I wanted to) I could log every mouse movement, every delay, every button click, every action, and analyse you along with thousands of other players to work out all kinds of subtle effects.  It’s theoretically possible for a game to auto-adjust its gameplay to maximise revenue, and player time. This isn’t commonplace, but if people arent already working on it, I’m amazed.

Yet this saddens me. I play games for fun, to feel like a President or a Starship Captain. I don’t play games just to kill time or spend money. In short, the aims of the more cynical game developer (Get them to keep playing, tell their friends, and spend money) don’t marry up with my aims (have fun!).

Right now, it’s fairly easy to look at farmville and see it as a cynical viral marketing/push-button-get-banana business, that I stop playing the minute I see how shallow it is. But in 10 years time will it be so easy? I saw a furniture companies ad earlier today that was targeted directly at me, based on items I’d looked at days before on their website. Will Farmville IV be so perfectly targeted, so acutely balanced based on 50,000,000 playthroughs, that my brain is just incapable of letting me stop playing?

I don’t buy anywhere near as many games as most game designers. I get halfway through the demo and find myself having an internal conversation that starts “Am I having fun right now?” and the answer is often no. I might be wanting to see what item I unlock next, or what happens when I reach the next level (often nothing special), but is the actual process, the actual journey fun? often no.

I am not aiming to make addictive games, or viral games, I’m trying to make fun games. They probably aren’t as profitable (nowhere near as much), but it makes me feel better. You press a lot of buttons in GSB, we don’t always give you a banana, but I hope the button pushing was fun in itself.

Todays’ Specials

This is the one silly gratuitous thing I’ve bought for the office in the new house. I’m not very organised on the whole, and I tend to have sporadic moments of sudden ideas, and no consistent way to keep track of the huge huge list of things in my head. Clearly the solution is a great big chalkboard on the wall behind me.

I’d forgotten how horrid the noise of writing on a  chalkboard is :D There is a company that will print anything you want (logos etc.) onto a chalkboard, although it’s surprisingly expensive. I spend so much time doing the actual coding, and am so busy that I really need to grasp at anything that makes the coding time more efficient, and I think this will help me think more ‘big picture’ and still remember what I was thinking 10 minutes later :D

And my next guest…

I did a pre-recorded interview for Canadian radio today. The show is question is this one:

Because it’s a big proper national radio station, they wanted decent quality, so I had to go to the nearest radio studio which turned out to be the historic city of Bath, set for many a Jane Austen novel, and home of lovely bath stone, used for practically every house around here. It also meant having lunch in ye famous Bath Pump Rooms, a very old (1789) building, which just goes to show the elegance, care and grandeur with which people built everything back then. These days we build featureless glass boxes. Bah.

The show itself was quite good fun, I did feel a bit like frasier crane sat in front of a microphone with a light on the wall saying ‘on air’ (although it was pre-recorded). The show was about piracy, and involved me because of this blog post. I’m fine with doing that, but it’s a bit frustrating to be ‘the piracy guy’, just because I’m open about discussing it. There are a ton of hot topics in games I’d love to talk about, the mis-management of projects, development costs, sexism in games, game violence, game pricing, blah blah. Maybe next time :D