Kickstarter: An education in reality

So I wrote this but a good long while ago. Back in late 2013, but at the time elected not to publish it for various reasons (some work related). I didn’t want this to mis-interpreted by readers either in the community or at my former employer Microsoft Studios. As I no longer work there and I’ve had a bit of time to edit this and come back to it, I feel confident putting it out there. 

I have recently gained a new appreciation for Kickstarter. I was always a fan of the system. I am as excited as the next person. The idea of directly donating funds to products or projects which hold your interest is a novel one. Kickstarter delivers the instant gratification of voting with your wallet. Participants and users can elect to put their money forward and immediately feel invested, or they can pass on a project and fancy themselves the discerning investor. I personally backed several projects through Kickstarter at its outset. A handful of which were video game projects, so I have some skin in the game here.

However, my new appreciation of the service has come from a recent realization. It was prompted by a few events, but the clarifying moment came with the announcement by Chris Robert’s Cloud Imperium Games that the dogfighting module of their crowd-funded Star Citizen was going to be delayed. Cloud Imperium were simply adjusting their development schedule based on changing situations. As a developer I understand this completely. But there was significant backlash from those who backed the project. They felt as though they were investors and therefore entitled to answers. What I realized is that Kickstarter is so interesting because it is the standardized introduction of Micro-publishing. Kickstarter projects create a financial situation and an overall atmosphere where the gaming community and anyone who backs a project has adopted the role akin to a singular amalgamated publisher.

What the introduction of said micro-publishing / crowd funding achieves is three very important things; it manifests and amplifies the struggle of publishing a game, it educates the community about game developments budgeting and scheduling, and finally it underscores the degree to which the games market is driven by supply and demand.

Publishers take a pretty serious beating in the games press. They are called unethical, greedy, and incompetent on a very regular basis. Kickstarter brings a small bit of schadenfruede to industry folk by making every backer painfully aware of what it feels like to be a publisher.

Are you a backer on RSi’s Star Citizen or Double Fine’s Broken Age?

When it was announced that said project would be delayed due to unforeseen development issues, were you mad?

Did you feel angry or cheated?

Yes? Good, you have now experienced on a micro-scale exactly what most publishers experience multiple times every day. Professional game development is a fickle and transient process; projects are in a perpetual state of flux. Some things happen in due time, sometimes projects are behind schedule, but what is constant is some unforeseen and immutable problems. This very public and messy exploration is why I am such a huge proponent of the crowd-funding and transparent development process. It succeeds in educating many of the community members on just exactly what it is like to build games. When a project misses the mark or screeches past a deadline, backers get nothing. What’s worse is they hold no leverage or ability to make demands in that situation, they are left to sit and stew.

When the same thing happens with a publisher there a few more options. The publisher, if they are funding have the ability to push the project back potentially disrupting their portfolio timelines (which can cause large scale problems) or they can kill the project. Either way their investment has been lost and there is not much that can be done, its simply mitigation at that point. A third option is possible, that is to launch on unfinished game, which happens far more often then people may think. Often these games are called ‘bad’ or the developers are called ‘incompetent’; the truth is something more complex, chances are the game is at its core good, but is rotten in terms of coherence or polish. The primary reasoning behind this is because most games, being the sum of about a billion moving parts, do not always function perfectly the first time you turn them on. As a result most developers and publishers attempt to build in ‘polish time’. Essentially this is a surplus of time at the of the development schedule (usually more then 3 weeks and no more than 3 months) to allow the team (programmers, designers, and all) to work on those kinks in the machine. But when a project falls behind schedule, often the call is made to eat that surplus time to finish putting the machine together enough so it can turn on, but no time to smooth out the issues. What users get is a game that hardly functions in an optimal way.

Secondly, Kickstarter is effective at illustrating just how large gaming budgets have become. Community members will complain and rant about the cost of games increasing, the superimposing of subscriptions or Microtransactions on existing games. The reality of the situation is that many games have such large budgets and operating costs, that enabling some motivated users to pay more money is one of the most effective ways to ensure a product just achieves its return on investment. This is not to say that the large budgets of most games are appropriate, but they are the current reality. Understanding just how much these games cost can explain why consumers are seeing a rise in pricing and other monetization schemes. So when they shake their head a smaller scale game with a  decent feature set asking for $1milllion dollars, what they don’t realize is that amount of money is actually quite LOW by industry standards and that most games are well above and beyond that. Tim Schafer recently responded on twitter to criticism about the Broken Age budget which was nearly $3.5 million, but failed to deliver a whole game at that amount. Check it out here: https://pbs.twimg.com/media/BxL2D4lCUAAv0qx.png:large

Finally, the surge and growth of crowd-funding is a blatant reminder that fans and enthusiasts will pay for anything, truly anything. Kickstarter is a quick education in extrinsic value propositions and monetization. Please, take a moment and peruse some of the ‘reward tiers’ for any game Kickstarter out there. Note that these promotions, are not an inherently bad thing, in fact it’s quite liberating. Gamers in the community are getting very upset recently because of the introduction of different monetization schemes. While some of them are poorly implemented and truly exploitative, there are many examples of fair and valuable monetization done right. Downloadable Content, Microtransactions, Collectors Editions, and Merchandise can all provide great value to players who are looking for it. Funny enough though, these same vocal players seem to be willing to pay for these more material based Microtransactions up front, before the game is even completed, because of how it is framed. In many cases it seems like an altruistic act of charity, helping out the struggling developer to make their game, as opposed to the filthy patronage of someone who has already paid for their game. They will put up money to get their name in the credits or to get a cool signed poster, but the collectors edition of the game is seen as money grabbing. In all it takes a certain cognitive dissonance to place the two purchases in totally different categories. It also requires a certain level of ignorance to continue believing this is the way of things. That developer who you refuse to patronize because they already got their money and made their game, is in so many cases on borrowed time. They have funded said project through private investors or publishers, both of which fully expect to be repaid, or said developer will suffer greatly.

This is one of the great things about Kickstarter, it allows developers to fund their projects upfront, keeping themselves in the black, so that they can remain solvent as they build. Instead of over extending themselves only to fail when they don’t hit the sales requirements / recoup number in their contract.

But hey, as long as games keep getting made, and more people understand how they are made, that’s just fine with me.

Reference on the Star Citizen Delay: http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2013/12/18/warpdrive-disengage-star-citizen-dogfighting-delayed/

Alien: Isolation – now this is how to reveal a game.

So if you were watching the games presses Monday (1/7), or my twitter feed. You saw that Sega & Creative Assembly announced a new Alien game. Alien: Isolation is the latest game installment of the film franchise started by Ridley Scott in 1979.

I have to say I am just really impressed and pleasantly surprised by this announcement. The game itself has me excited to be sure, but that’s not really what has caught my eye.

Truthfully I think the manner in which they announced the title hits just about every key point of a clean game reveal. I’ll break down what I mean.

Firstly Sega/CA did a competent job of keeping this project quiet by minimizing leaks. It probably helped that Aliens: Colonial Marines burst into flames so publicly; effectively blinding the community to any other mentions of the word ‘Alien’. However, when it comes to confidentiality they executed wonderfully on the plan of “If you have to keep things quiet. Keep quiet.”

This game pretty much slid in under the radar until it was just upon us; a well orchestrated maneuver for building hype with surprise.

Perhaps one of the most important parts of this announcements is that, by all press accounts, they let the game speak for itself. They sat members of the press in a darkened room with surround sound and put a controller in the hands of journalists, unleashing them into the demo.  There was no faffing about. No sophistry.  Simply put the game in the hands of reporters and answer questions when asked. This method of ‘show and quietly tell’ does well to dispel much of the speculation and misplaced hype that can torpedo game at launch (ie Aliens: Colonial Marines). Creative Assembly has demonstrated that the value of saying little is more valuable than saying a great deal.

The reason I feel comfortable saying that this ‘demo’ is more legitimate than other vertical slices is driven by the fact that all indications point to this being a Alien: Isolation is near being finalized. Showing the games final engine with a stable and playable build speaks volumes about Sega/CA’s desire to assuage consumer fears of another debacle of misrepresentation (ie Aliens: Colonial Marines).

Arguably the best part about the entire reveal is the perfectly precise nature of the showcased gameplay and selected conversations. Creative Assembly clearly understands what experience they are trying to deliver in Alien: Isolation. Their reliance and insistence on the fear-inspiring, suspenseful, and dreadful atmosphere of the original 1979 film is apparent. In the game segments shown there is a focus on moments of slow and weary exploration of an eerie space station. The attention to detail in these moments is an incredible. As CA mentions, they faithfully recreated the art style of the film by ruling out in-game assets that couldn’t have been reasonably manufactured in 1979 for the original films production. These tense times of wandering are punctuated by moments of startling noises and terrifying glimpses of the Xenomorph. Every dark corner becomes a danger, every time you turn your back an overwhelming sense of vulnerability takes hold of you. The ominous reports of the motion tacker stop you heart with every beep. The team at Creative Assembly made damned sure that players were aware of how these moments of gameplay drive the overall experience. There was no need to stand on ceremony, buzzwords, or mention of graphical fidelity.

By sharing a complete press package of trailers, in-engine footage, hands-on demos, hi-res screenshots, and straight talk the CA/SEGA team have introduced a skiddish community to a promising game that respects its origins. They have laid the groundwork for a game that focuses on a compelling experience which is not trying to be anything other than what it needs to be: a horrifying, suspenseful, and engaging survival tale without the distraction of needless features or content.

Bravo to the teams at Creative Assembly & SEGA. I’m not one to place pre-orders, but rest assured you have my attention. My undivided attention.

A million times: Yes.

I watched Adam Sessler as a kid on G4. I always liked his quirky ways and insight on games. His coverage on G4 was one of those things that got me more into gaming.

But he has truly come into his own after joining Rev3Games. He seems happier, more vocal, and seriously on point with his editorials and reviews. It has been a pleasure to watch.

So when I heard he and another jurno-guy I respect Jim Sterling had done a panel chat at SGC I wanted to watch. I found the stream and what I saw made me stand up and applaud while sitting at my own desk in my own home.

Adam Sessler with fiery indignation rips into the trash talking, exclusionary, rape-y/misogynistic culture of games and dismantles it in under a minute and a half. It is glorious. Please watch the whole stream, but if not. Take 1:30 (starting at 32:59) to listen to Sessler’s response.

STREAM HERE: http://www.twitch.tv/screwattack/b/420530718

Below is a quick transcription:

“I am assuming no one would attest to be one of those guys who are in this room right now. But there seem to be a lot of them. Maybe a lot of them are in junior high school. If you know some one who does this, could you stop playing with them? Could you call them a douche?

I mean it really does ruin the experience. I mean when I hear, ya know, clearly a young person using racial epithets and derogatory terms for homosexuals it just makes my stomach churn.

The idea that we are supposed to be a culture of people who at one point if not now, felt already on the margins of a greater society, then you just see this behavior that replicates the same thing with a different target. It really makes the whole affair seem deflated and defeated. It really does. And don’t even give me that ‘First Amendment’ nonsense; you have every right to say it, and I have every right to call you a fucking asshole and try to find your address to put it out there. [Sterling nods vigorously in agreement]  

And one more thing: Are any of you people part of this absolutely ridiculous ‘mens right’ reddit/subreddit thing? This-this word misandry which is thrown around with the frequency of Rip Taylor’s glitter its just got to be – you don’t get to flip the argument back to you, okay? You are the problem. Acknowledge it. Go home and think about how shitty you are. End of story. “

Thanks for saying what all of us sane people were thinking.

Stop Trying To Use ‘Companies Are Greedy’ As An Argument. Just Stop.

Recently I was on Kotaku, a place which I often try to avoid due to the content of their comment boards and editorials. Nonetheless I came across an editorial that just miffed me. This particular article was entitled “Stop Trying To Use ‘Companies Exist To Make Money’ As An Argument. Just Stop.”

This article was essentially a concurring editorial posted in response to an editorial penned by Jim Sterling, someone for whom I have much respect. The Kotaku op-ed itself was authored by Patricia Hernandez. Aside from the fact that 40% of the piece is quoted from Jim Sterling’s piece, what it succeeds wonderfully in doing is illustrating the most profound lack of understanding of the games industry by a ‘journalist’.

What do you mean by that, Connor? Well allow me to explain. The main thrust of Hernandez’s article, which is ripped directly from Sterling’s, is that game publishers are greedy robber barons. That these companies are leveraging their control over the market to charge an exorbitant price for content that should be free.

Alright, I suppose I understand your point. I mean I understand the point Jim Sterling made (and made it better), but I still get it.

Do I disagree? Not entirely, no. I admit I see products being pushed that are inferior quality and priced up to a premium. However I think the intent of this article is entirely misdirected and comes from a place of ignorance. It assumes that there exists no Downloadable Content (DLC), Digital Rights Management (DRM), or Microtransactions (MTX) that actually provide value. It goes on to imply that any person who says otherwise in defense of such systems is “stupid”, “spineless”, and “a fanboy”. Interesting. I’ll move past the insults and directly answer the first part by saying: there are surely some pieces of DLC, DRM, and MTX that have value. To suggest anything to the contrary is to discredit things like Steam’s DRM, MTX for games like Blacklight Retribution, LoL, or World of Tanks, and the DLC on games like Borderlands 2. I believe such a quality speaks for itself.

Continuing on that train of thought, if you are so offended by the implementation of such services, you could simply not involve yourself with them. Sterling’s article was much more clear about this, there is nothing wrong with being a happy consumer, and there is nothing wrong with being a disgruntled customer. I agree, you have every right to speak your mind about what you see as unethical or exploitative behavior. In fact I encourage you to do so! As a game designer, I see a baseline for quality. Your product must be of _this_ quality. I think that a company who falls short of that is not doing their job, and should be reminded of that. But I do not believe it is fair for consumers to rant and rave at companies who happen to make a product that users simply don’t like. I believe you have the right to expect a certain level of quality, information, and respect. I do not however believe consumers have the right to be entertained by every product. Often when I see people who attack companies for being greedy, it is totally misdirected at a publisher based solely off a personal dislike and not any real objective lack of quality.  So I would ask Jim Sterling the same he asked of me. “I’m not telling you that you definitely have to support a company/product — but don’t tell others they can’t.” I would as for one more thing, if you are going to call a company greedy and exploitative, do it from a position of certainty and reason. Not just a the default reaction when your personal fancies are satisfied.

Moving on from that immediate context, I think this rant gets to a larger issue about game companies. The implication is that the products being released serve no end, other than the financial exploitation of consumers. Let me just squelch that fucking thought there. Are there companies that put out products so that they can profit from them hand over fist? You-fuckin-bet. Is that every company and every product? By no means.

I’m going to let you in on a secret. That game you love, the one that you’ve spent hours playing, the one that you love to chat about with people, and the one for which you recoil in disgust when people don’t recognize the name; yeah that one. That game lost money. I mean, that game cost X dollars to make, it made Y dollars, and Y is less than X. Long story short, the only reason that game is ever getting a sequel is because some behemoth of a blockbuster game was published. Between the retail and DLC the blockbuster raked in 400% of its investment. After that money was used: to recoup the enormous costs from development,  pay employees, cut bonus checks, and saved away for the next iteration of that blockbuster; the remaining dollars were set aside to fund other projects. Projects like the game you love so much. What am I saying? I am saying that the success of other products and their monetization that you find so distasteful paid for the financial failure that is your favorite game.

What does this mean? How could this be possible? If these greedy capitalists only do things for money, how could they possibly make a sequel to a game that made no money? Because they give a shit. As much as it may strain the fabric of you tenuous argument, developers and publishers actually care. They create products not just to line their own coffers, they do it to provide entertainment.

And frankly, as someone who has in the past and will in the future worked at a publisher in the games industry: it not only offends me that you think so little of my motivations, but it just makes you sound ‘stupid’ when you characterize an entire organization off of your flawed understandings.

Financial viability means an awful lot in games production. If something can’t get its money back, its very difficult to get it made, regardless of its quality. That is just how things work. If every developer made every game they wanted, they would quite frankly go broke. Its very difficult to sustain titles that do not have broad appeal.

So what am I saying? The games industry is not black and white, no matter how much so called ‘journalists’ try to pigeonhole it. There are bad or derivative games that have a positive result. There are companies who disrespect their consumers. There exists quality DLC and MTX. Finally, there do exist limits to your entitlement as a consumer, you are in fact not always right. Especially for those who haven’t the slightest idea about the cost and commitment required to develop video game.

Disclaimer: I have worked for, and accepted a job offer from, Microsoft Game Studios. My views expressed here are my own and no one else’s. I represent myself. 

FTL: Faster-Than-Light

FTL game is one the best games I have played in a very long time.

FTL is a space combat survival game. Its made in the style of many indie games of late, 16-bit graphics and sprites. For those fans of pixel art, FTL is a prime example of pixel art done right. There are a few scaling issues with text, but unless you are looking for such problems they are unnoticed. Visually it looks great. The 2d overhead view of your ships and its crew lets you see everything you need to. The game’s survival element comes into effect in a few different ways. The core mechanic will resonate with fans of the Battlestar Galactica series, the player takes control of starship that hails from a civilization who has just suffered a catastrophic attack. The player’s vessel is tasked with  traversing the galaxy to reach a rendezvous point where the remnants of their Federation will rally. Your ship is carrying information vital to the war effort. However the evil aggressors are hot on your tail, so the player must push through the galaxy will continually FTL jumping away as the enemies just enter the sector (see BSG  Season 1 Episode 1 “33”). The player must also micromanage the systems and subsystems of the ship. They can diverting and forward power to the different systems (which can be upgraded over time from resources gathered in-game). These systems include: Engines, Shields, Weapons, Life Support (Oxygen), Flight Control, even Door Controls and Sensor arrays. The micromanagement of systems provides intense gameplay where you can reroute power away from oxygen just to squeeze a few more seconds out of your shields to prevent total destruction; or divert all power from thrusters, leaving you dead in the water, to the guns to pummel the enemy before they can hit you. The leveling up of different systems and crew (who man the systems and gain skills for the systems they use the most) is an engaging progression that keeps you hooked. It also attaches you to the crew.

If you want more background on the game feel free to check out the numerous review floating around the web.

The main elements survival here are crew management, ship integrity, and travel. You need fuel to keep doing FTL jumps (1 fuel per jump). You need crew to operate your ship. You need hull integrity  because you can’t damn well play the game without a ship. These survival keys come into play a few different ways that are really intriguing and it is actually why I became so enthralled with the game.

FTL surreptitiously teaches you about what kind of person you are. At first you start the game out. Everything is peachy, relatively safe and stable. You have a clear mission, and a direction. You are the valiant commander of a Federation ship who is tasked with saving an entire civilization. You can do no wrong. You jump through a few systems and come across survivors, you lend them aid as you are flush with supplies and resistance in minimal. You encounter a few rebel pickets, they put up a fight but soon surrender as your superior firepower withers their shields. Being an upstanding captain, whose primary directive is to save lives, you grant the rebels their lives and allow them to surrender. As the game progresses though, it changes pace and forces you to make choices that you never expected to make. Soon you are facing down enemy vessels with technology you don’t know how to combat. After surmounting these obstacles, you go further into uncharted space. You encounter deceitful pirates, slavers and rebels. It becomes unclear which distress beacon is trap and which is not. You grow more suspicious of every vessel hailing you with peaceful intentions. Eventually you lose one of your crew to a stray missile, or a hull breach. You mourn and move on. Then your supplies begin to dwindle, you have enough fuel for a jump or two, but the rebels are closing in. Finally you expend your last bit of fuel to keep yourself just one jump ahead of the Rebels. You drop out of FTL and see a civilian trader floating harmlessly in space. Desperately you ask for them to give you some fuel, but they have none to spare. You now have only one option, you have to get your data to the fleet. Surely the lives of the entire Federation outweigh one crew. You fire on the ship and strip it for fuel and parts. You heave a sigh of relief as you jump through the next few systems with the gather fuel. Looking back in horror you realize that you have done the unspeakable, you have taken an innocent life to further your own. It was with good reason, you assure yourself, but it doesn’t make you any less of a murderer. The next system drops you into heated combat with the insect-like Mantis. You send one of your crew to fight off the boarding party, but a fire is spreading through your ship and he is losing fight. You need to keep the ship afloat, you’re forced to vent the ship killing the fire, the attackers, and your crewman. You’ve save the ship, but at what cost? The lines between right and survival get blurrier every jump you make. The slow degradation of your morality and the vicious survivor FTL turns you into is a great way to show the player just how deluded they are.

FTL loves fucking with you. The randomly generated galaxy throws twists and traps at you with joyful abandon. However, it delights at the fact that: When you die, it’s usually your fault. You will die in a number of ways: ship fires, hull breaches suffocating your crew, boarding parties tearing through your ship, enemy vessels blowing you up, asteroids destroying your hull, and the Rebel fleet descending upon you. However, at almost every loss, you can find an error in your ways. If you had jumped to a different system, you wouldn’t have encounter this ship. If you had built up your shields a bit more, that laser wouldn’t have shredded the hull. If you had just paid more attention when you vented the ship, you would have noticed the boarding party attacking the door control and depriving you of your only way to close the airlocks. Every time, the blame for failure rests on your shoulders.

To be fair there’s a decent amount of chance to the procedural generation of events, this makes for some difficult game setups. But the ultimate player control and finality of the game is consistent. The experience is something to be appreciated.

I recommend this game to any and everyone one who enjoys strategy games, or rogue-likes, or space games, or RPGs, or just about anything Sci-Fi related.

I kept a ship log of one of my playthroughs. Take a peek to see the type of shit you run into in the game. And the type of crazed internal monologue of someone who really loves space sci-fi. The entire account is what happened in my game, with a bit of embellishment for dramatic effect.

PlanetSide 2 Beta Experience

I will say this about Planetside 2 (PS2). It is fun.

Overview & Positives

It possesses an unparalleled sense of scale in an modern action shooter. Being able to move from one end of a the continent traveling over 10km to the other end, flying over geodesic dome labs, gigantic star forts, space warp gates  mountains, canyons, rolling planes, and watching epic battles unfold beneath is at its best in PlanetSide 2. Battlefield 3 eat your heart out with your 64 player cap and limited vehicle spawns. PlanetSide 2 boasts 2000 possible concurrent players per server. I have yet to see so many, but I have hopped into a full Galaxy dropship which carries 20% of a BF3 server in one  load.

Fuck me does PS2 look good and sound great. When cranked up to High settings this game impresses with it fidelity and sheer volume of effects.

Watching 3-4 Galaxies (each filled with 12 troops) escorted by 4-5 gunships moving towards an enemy fortress is wicked cool. Watching that formation start to take Anti-Aircraft fire from below and strafing runs from enemy aircraft is spectacular. Watching that happen during the night to see the tracers tear through the starry night and rip apart the Galaxies as they begin to burn and spin out of control dropping their payload of anxious fighters, that is truly surreal.

This game will eye fuck you with visual showcases of legitimate gameplay that most engines would weep at the thought of pre-rendering. Well done SOE.

Vehicles are another great part of PS2. They are versatile and effective. Both ground and air vehicles have ‘roles’ and a vehicle that fits that role. The generalized roles are: Transport (Galaxies & Sunderers), Fire Mission (Main Battle Tank & Liberators), Fire Support/Recon (Lightnings &  Mosquitoes). These have different costs based on your faction resources and personal progress. Generally speaking, if you play you will be able to afford vehicles if you want them.

Base Layouts are pretty awesome. They have about 6-7 ‘types’ of bases throughout the continent. These range from small outposts with a handful of buildings to military compounds and industrial complexes. The different bases allow for some different tactics when approaching them, however battle ultimate boils down to corridor fights inside the base buildings. Each base has a capture procedure; some bases are a single capture point that needs to be taken, some have multiple points. The massive forts have 5 capture points spread out across the compound, these points are sometimes a 1000m from the farthest other point. Larger compounds also have defenses, namely forcefield barriers. These barriers protect the interior player and vehicle spawns, as well as the final capture point. The only way to circumvent these barriers is through either some tricky jetpack work as the Light Assault class, or destroying the shield generators which will drop the barriers granting the attackers access to the main structure of the fortress. A single fortress can be vied for by hundreds of fighters and battles over control can last for hours.

Character classes are a thing. There are 6 basic classes: Light Assault (Jet Pack!), Heavy Assault (Machine gun & Rocket Launcher), Medic (Heal & Revive), Engineer (Repair & Mines), Infiltrator (Sniper & Cloak), MAX (Mech Suit w/ Chain Guns). The classes variation is nice, each class ability is balanced and effective for that player role. The weapons are fairly ubiquitous so support classes are totally underpowered with pea-shooters.

Flaws

  • Shooting – I am sorry, thus far shooting fails to impress. For a game whose main mechanic is shooting, this is not really acceptable. Controls are a bit splashy, getting the sensitivity right for accurate shooting is tough. Default aiming is too slow. Most guns kick too much to keep steady with no solid means for compensation. Reacquiring targets is difficult because the gun model takes up nearly the entire screen when aiming down sights and recoil ensures that your target is totally concealed by muzzle flare and the weapon itself after the second round out of the barrel. Opponents take a bit of damage, so lighter caliber weapons (Carbines) need to land multiple shots at center mass to take foes down. Doing so is too difficult at this time. Serious adjustment needed.
  • Concurrency – This is not a flaw, so much as a limitation of the beta set up. This game is built around large scale combat, unfortunately there are not enough players in game at any one point to get frequent epicness. At peak hours in your server (around 7pm for my server US West 01) you can get some pretty kick ass battles. Outside that, its tough to even fill a galaxy or 2. Obviously when the game releases this will be less of an issue, but SOE will really need to push the game to as many players as possible and keep them invested for longevity.
  • Lack of Player Control – Right now all servers are run through SOE, which is good and necessary. I mean dedicated servers supporting 2000 players may not even be possible. However, players can’t control the settings they play on: Friendly Fire, Team Settings, Comm Settings, and the like. Currently players can’t remove other players either, and there is rampant team killing right now. I recently saw a player in a Sunderer (basically a semi truck with guns) in front of my factions Warpgate (the un-capturable faction spawn) driving back and forth running over every teammate who exited the spawn point. Players could do nothing to stop him but eventually kill him. There needs to be some recourse there.
  • Aerial shooting / bombarding – Not sure if this is poor controls or something SOE is striving for, but right now firing from the aerial platform is pretty tough. Specifically bombarding from high altitudes. My initial understanding is that they want to make accurate bombardment a difficult skill to master, especially at high altitudes. Unfortunately airships move fast, and the projectiles move slow. After an hour or two of dedicated gunning in the Liberator gunship, I still can barely hit shit. Maybe something to consider tweaking.

Bugs

  • Geometry hitches – I cannot list the number of times I got stuck on a boulder, a crevice, even building geometry. I have stood on roofs and walked towards sloped portions of the roof that a normal person could step over with a 1-2inch adjustment in their stride; my conditioned super soldier however had some difficulty with it. Obviously this is expected at beta, but not to the extent I saw.
  • Entering Vehicles – This pissed me off to no fucking end. Some vehicles I could simply not enter. Running along side them and hitting ‘E’ furiously on every side was futile. I also spotted a ‘feature’ in the PS2 engine. It seems that when a pilot leaves a vehicle, the pilot seat is reserved for him so no one can grab it and drive off. I am not sure how long or in what manner that seat is reserved. I recognize this is to prevent BF3 style team hijacks and I am appreciative. Though right now, some guy will role a Sunderer or a tank up to a base, hop out, run off leaving the vehicle, and we as teammates can only sit in the gun ports and hope for salvation. That needs some readjustment.

All that being said I am on US West 01 Beta server going by Zappor (Account is CaptKerberos)

Fun Theory

According to the New Media Consortium Horizon Report: 2011, many modern museums face the following problem with advancing technology: 

Greater understanding is needed of the relationships, differences, and synergies between technology intended to be used within the museum and public-facing technology such as websites, social media, and mobile apps. Too few in museum administration see the opportunities that virtual museum visitors might be bringing for fundraising, philanthropy, and specialized marketing. The dichotomy between the physical and virtual museum visitor is blurring rapidly, and both audiences have high expectations with regard to online access to services and information. Still, the notion that museums must provide comprehensive information and services online is a genuine challenge, especially for smaller museums. For larger institutions, however, providing such services has risen to an expectation from the visiting public.

When looking at how address the different connections and perspectives of museum pieces, I think of how I reflect on what museum pieces enthrall me most. Usually when examining an exhibit I find myself mentally evaluating it against other pieces I have encountered, either in the same museum or in past experiences.  I also usually get feedback or recommendations from people about museums or exhibits that they believe would interest me. Often times I get great recommendations, and other times I find it difficult to follow up on a recommendation either because I have forgotten or had trouble finding the suggested exhibit.

All of these seemingly connected components of my museum experience could be enhanced by a technological ability to expound my museum findings (and look at others’). This led me to imagine a technology platform that could provide the public museum visitor with a very interactive and customized experience. I began to imagine a system that integrated across multiple media platforms, specifically: websites, mobile applications, and social media.

This system would be similar to a Yelp! or Google Maps system; where users could provide feedback on their experience with a particular exhibit (or piece in an exhibit), the feedback would be available to the public, and it could be used to make connections to other exhibits/pieces (or even other museums!). Each user could at any point during an exhibit find a placard associated with the item in question, on it would be a digitally readable identifier (possibly a QR Code) which would access a digital indexing of that item on their mobile device. There others will have posted opinions or related recommendations. The user could add their own feedback on the spot, or they could use the mobile application to find other exhibits in that very museum that are similar or in some way related to what they are examining. The application would give concise directions to the other exhibit so the user could find it. Each step of the way the visitor would be able to leave their own advice and promote advice others had given that helped them. The system can also interface with social media by affording users the ability to ‘share’, ‘tweet’, or ‘check-in’ at an exhibit or piece. This would be visible to their social media connections and could possibly draw outside attention through free social marketing.

For the ‘virtual’ visitor they would see the result of ‘physical’ visitor’s actions. They would be able to look at a specific museum on a webpage and read up on different pieces before visiting the museum. They could plan out a travel path through the museum to make sure they see only the pieces they are interested in. They could plan ahead and purchase tickets in advance (ease of purchase means more visits for museums). Users would also be able to sift through other visitor’s opinions, and follow connections made by visitors to find other pieces of interest. The possibility exists that they may end up visiting a different museum than originally intended based on the recommended connections of a past visitor. And in the typical social media fashion, users could promote other peoples recommendations they found helpful or insightful; further reinforcing high-quality feedback.

There are obvious concerns, as always, with internet interactions and marketing. It needs to be moderated to ensure that users are putting up appropriate and germane information. This is an obvious obstacle that the respective museums would have to evaluate before opting to use this interactive museum system.

This system is an interactive way to voice your opinion of museum content, but also to help others find what they are seeking in a museum. The hope is that you help yourself in the long run by bringing more visitors/friends to museums who can provides solid recommendations that improve your experience. By posting our great experiences on social media we bring attention to a part of society that is being left behind by advancing technology and we refocus a waning interest. This will bring more donations, revenue, visitors, discussion, and (hopefully) progress to the entire museum/gallery community.

The Madness of Roland

The Madness of Roland is an early example of interactive and branching narrative. It is written with multiple perspectives of a single event. For reference it can be found at http://www.hyperbole.com/full/serial/roland/roland.html

To start, The Madness of Roland looks and feels very dated. Its navigation and styling makes understanding and following the story very difficult.

Beyond its organization and technological shortcomings lies a relatively engaging story. What is interesting is that while the different characters use the Siege of Paris as a background for their narrative, the story arc is focused solely on the character of Roland.

The Madness of Roland’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. Each story, or perspective of the story, has a very unique feel that is in many ways in direct opposition to other accounts. Normally the fresh perspectives would improve the dynamic story, however the different accounts lack adequate introduction which can confuse the reader.  Without knowing the setting for the account, the characters involved, or the time frame; connecting the ideas from one account to another can be difficult.

The Madness of Roland uses good language and strong dialogue. The individual stories themselves not only provide a different account of the Roland character, but the manner in which each account is delivered literary unique. The first account is given by a minor character who narrates his interaction with the major character Mandricardo. This is in a way a second-hand account because the perspective is Mandricardo’s viewpoint, but it is chronicled by his companion.  Roland gives his side of the story in a narrative form as though he is retelling the account to someone or logging it in a journal. It’s clarity and insightful nature provide a completely different view of Roland’s character than all other accounts. Charlemagne’s fevered and rambling account gives small pieces of background while maintaining the focus on Roland. The account from Angelica was given as a stream of conciseness narration of a very brief event.

Separate perspectives give an understanding of not only Roland’s character, but of the mindset and personality of each person giving an account. Readers can recognize different biases and irregularities from each character and it will facilitate the formation of a clearer understanding of the Siege of Paris and Roland’s involvement.

The Madness of Roland has strong writing and a good foundation for branching narrative. However its obsolete and troubled system of delivery (and acting) make enjoying the story more difficult than necessary.

What SOPA, PIPA, and ACTA are really about.

Disclaimer & Citation- A lot of the ideas and arguments that I will be discussing in this post are positions and arguments that I have heard from a number of sources, but the one that deserves most of the credit is Jim Sterling.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Jim Sterling, he is a semi-notable video games journalist. He does extensive Reviews for Destructiod.com (one of the best places for balanced and thorough game reviews). He also does a lot of Op-Ed pieces around the web for sites like Destructiod.com and The Escapist Magazine. He has some truly interesting view points, a stinging wit, and tremendous persuasive ability.

In one of the recent most Destructoid Podcasts he discusses the true motivation behind the recent rash of Intellectual Property (IP) related legislation, and it provided a view point that I hadn’t previously considered.

Most proponents of the current IP legislation whether it be SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act), PIPA (Protect Intellectual Property Act), or ACTA (Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement); will claim that their goal is to stop the illegal distribution of copyrighted material. That they wish to stop the illegal distribution of said material in order to protect the property rights of those that created it, and to ensure the successful/profitable sale of that property without illegal competition.

Now that seems just fucking peachy, but unfortunately, the measures through which that property is to be protected could aptly be described as draconian. I will assume at this point that most people understand that full power that legislation like SOPA and PIPA could have wielded. That the government and corporations could effectively remove certain sites from the web through server takedowns, DNS blocking (making your webpage unreachable), or restricting cash flow. If you are still unclear I would point you to this brief video which is one of the best and simplest breakdowns of the bills (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EBy7yooz3MM).

So while many may understand what the bill is capable of doing, many of us don’t understand fully why it is being lobbied so fervently.

The publicized position for most publishers, producers, and corporations is well known. But Mr. Sterling accentuated a very real ulterior motivation for supporting such legislation:

These publishers want the ability to stifle potential IP owners who they don’t directly control or who are not connected to them. Most publishers will claim be protecting the rights and property of the creative artist, but in fact they are protecting themselves because more often than not: they own the rights or licensing to IP created by others. These publishers, recording companies, movie studios, and printers are scared shitless of Artists who can effectively cut them out the equation.

The internet has made it possible for a single person with no backing or large distribution company to reach an audience of millions, making these very powerful companies obsolete. These distributors fear that obsolescence and are fighting tooth and nail to stop artists from circumventing them. This is a prime example of middle men trying to hopelessly to remain relevant, with destructive results.

Indie video game developers (like Team Meat and Mojang), musicians (like Trent Reznor), and comedians (like Louis C.K.), have made thousands and millions of dollars on media that was not controlled or managed, simply delivered to the audience and payment was asked for up front.

That type of business model involves a direct dialogue and interaction between the artist and the consumer is the exact reason why major publishers and distributors support legislation like SOPA and PIPA. It destroys the feedback loop that they use to entrap most creative artists.

You can talk to nearly any person well versed in copyright and they will tell you the same thing: while copyrights and patents were invented to protect an individual’s ideas and intellectual property; that is no longer the case. IP laws have created an environment where copyrights are used by corporations to leverage each other in business dealing.  Publishers and Recording agencies convince unwitting artists to surrender the rights to their ideas for the ability to spread those ideas. Most artists are trapped by these distributors, paying off ever accumulating debt and service charges, while retaining no rights to their IP should they choose to walk away.

Now that the internet challenges the current paradigm, everyone with a stake in exploiting the work of artists (or selling someone else’s intellectual property) is scrambling for the nearest telephone to whisper sweet nothings in the ear of our Legislature. To convince elected officials that this open environment of communication must be regulated in order to prevent ‘theft’ and to uphold the rule of law.

The bottom line for most of these pieces of legislation is that entertainment groups and organizations like the MPAA, RIAA, and ESA are seeking to extend their control over the IP licenses that have accumulated and to ensure that other people can’t freely share the IP that these companies don’t yet own.

For those of you who think this is over, you would do well to pay attention. We haven’t finished this argument yet.

Edited Podcast

**I have cut the original podcast for those who just want to listen to the discuss on IP. I do not own the rights to said podcast, I am just simply trying to give credit where credit is due, and to spread ideas that are valuable.**

Original Podcast

(IP discussion starts around 53 minute mark)

Voice Over: Not a button you can simply push.

(DISCLAIMER: So I have written this post about 3 separate times. First it was disjointed, so I scrapped it, and then it was about 4500 words. So I started once more… So bear with me. )

Sound is one of the most criminally underappreciated elements of game design. Sound design, game music, musical scores, sound effects, and voices all of these pieces make up the whole that is a cohesive game experience. When one of these elements lacks polish or is simply nonexistent a game can flop.

Voice over is one of the oldest parts of sound and game design. Before 3D graphics were considered in games, people were stepping up to the mic and giving speech and form to the in game characters and experiences.

Voice over is critically important to numerous aspects of any game. When it fails everyone seems to have an opinion on it; when it is delivered perfectly, most people overlook it.  When a player is immersed in a game, chances are that they do not realize what exactly is creating the experience, for to realize the ways in which they are being drawn in would render the effect useless. When players can’t find themselves enjoying or being enthralled by a game, they will begin to catalogue every issue they notice with the game. Voice over is usually pretty high on that list of problems. Voice over is categorically overlooked except when it fails.

As mentioned in a previous post (Why Skyrim isn’t Racist Enough) I explained the ways in which a voice can provide for subconscious character development by drawing upon user’s understanding of existing cultural identities. Take a look if you are interested how VO impacts in character design.

There is a way of producing Voice-over, but before you can address the quality of VO you must understand how voice over is created. It must be clear how an idea on a page can transform into thousands of lines of polished dialogue.

1. Ideation

Ideation is the process through which the designers/developers create and brainstorm the project. They will develop the setting, mood, atmosphere, theme, and game play. When they have outlined the basic information and they have sketched out a story, the process can continue.

2. Character Sketches / Bios

During the second step, developers will begin to create characters for the story. They give the characters names, faces, imperfections, personalities and backgrounds. All of the information cultivated by the designers and writers is broken down into character sketches, approximately 1-2 page summaries. This is used as a template for the production team in casting decisions. I’ll elaborate later.

*After Step 2, this is where production begins in earnest. At this point responsibilities shift hands. Step 1 and Step 2 usually fall squarely on the shoulders of a smaller group of writers and designers. There are a few different ways voice over can be done: 1) in-house 2) on contract or 3) a mixture of both. Each method has its benefits and drawbacks, but I won’t get too heavily into detail on that.*

3. Casting Research/Celebrity Searching

Research is a combination of a few different processes. Primarily, this is the stage where the casting crew will pore over the character sketches and try to understand the characters as best as possible; the process ensures that they can make the best casting decision. Most AAA games call for at least 1 celebrity appearance to raise the profile of the game and bring strong talent to the project. The rest of the roles will fall to other non-‘A List’ actors.

4. Casting

Casting can be conducted in many different ways. There are 3 general types that can describe casting practices.

  1. Celebrity Casting – As I stated before, celebrities are often casted for video game roles in order to elevate the caliber and marketing profile of a game. When dealing with these celebrities, they are not to be handled like normal actors. Unlike normal actors, won’t be calling a celebrity in for an audition; you will simply offer their agent/manager the role. After the manager and agent discuss it with actor, the production crew may be given the chance to open a dialogue with the actor. Once questions are answered, and if the actor accepts, negotiation starts. The negotiated contract will cover everything from how much they will be paid to how many copies of the game they will receive, even including what beverages will be stocked in the car that transports them to and from the studio.
  2. General Casting- This is targeted casting where the casting director and crew will contact agencies and actors directly for auditions. These actors will range from mid-profile film and TV actors, to high profile voice actors. These actors will usually audition for the role; if they perform well they will be asked to return for ‘callbacks,’ a second round of auditions with a selected pool of actors. These actors may negotiate contracts or be paid according to *scale (*See below).
  3. Cattle Call – This is what people think of when they think of casting. First, the production team will publish a casting call for each role. The call will typically go out to small time or unknown actors. Then actors will schedule auditions. The casting director or associate will sit in a room for the better part of a day doing back-to-back auditions with all the actors. If one of the actors performs well they will be offered a callback (*See above). If they get the part they will be paid on *scale.

Scale – Think of scale as minimum wage for voice actors. Scale is established by AFTRA (an actor’s union), and starts at ~$800 a day. One day of performance (a ‘day’ is a 4-hour session) will earn the actor just under a grand. Depending on the reputation of the actor, they may be paid overscale, which is simply more than scale. Usually overscale is paid in increments of scale. So a C-List actor or a big name VO actor will get Double Scale for a session. A 4-hour day will net them pay equivalent of two 4-hour days, ~$1600. On the surface, a $200/hr wage may seem excessive, but most actors will finish their recording in only 2 or 3 days of performance which means they receive only 2-3 scale payments.

5. Writing

*Clarification: Writing can happen at any point during the development cycle of a game. Some studios prefer to write at the start of the project, while others prefer to write dialogue well into the game production.

With the roles and story solidified the writing team (either the studio’s writers or the contracted writing team) will develop dialogue for the characters and weave a ‘screenplay’. The game script will determine not only what actors will say what but when and the manner the lines are to be delivered. Additionally, all games have ‘throw away dialogue’. This dialogue is something that takes place outside the scope of the story and with no player interaction. A prime example would be the Elder Scrolls series: in the game you will notice that as you pass NPCs within a certain distance they will spew a nebulous piece of dialogue at the character. The purpose of that speech is to deepen immersion for the player.

6. Organizing

Tied in with writing is the organization of the script. Each line for each character must be organized into categories by actor and by role (*Note: some actors play more than one role in a given game). If the primary character has 2000 lines to read, those lines must be put into a single organization. During recording, the actor and staff can read a line; mark it done; and move on efficiently.

Writing is often done in-house and production is done on contract; as a result organization between companies can break down and cause undue delay. Uniform and efficient organization is critical for a timely production schedule. 

7. Recording

Recording is what first comes to mind for most when they imagine voice over production. However, it is probably much different than most people assume. Recording is a small and intimate process. There are only 3 people necessary for a successful recording session.

  1. The Talent: The actor is the pivotal part of recording and without them everyone else is recording an empty booth.
  2. Voice Director: This is the primary support for the actor. The director’s job is to prep the actor before each line. If the line delivery was not spot-on, the director will provide some direction to push the actor more towards a more perfect delivery.
  3. Sound Engineer: This person is responsible for controlling the technical side of recording. They manage the sound board, run the software suite that records the session, and update the line count after each delivery.

Voice Over is a very strenuous on the voice actor. It involves a large amount of repetition, speaking in unnatural accents, straining of the voice (to either create abnormal sounds or loud vocalizations called ‘efforts’), and it is fast (relentlessly so). This type of activity can be both physically and mentally exhausting for actors. Many screen actors who are new to voice acting will soon find they struggle to keep pace. Newer actors with little experience find that delivering lines with little preparation is difficult, that may mean a recast will be necessary for certain actors if they can’t keep up.

If some lines don’t get recorded before the session ends, or if an editor can’t salvage any of the takes, the actor will be called in for pickups. Pickups are simply when the actor returns for another session to record the lines that weren’t completed.

8. Editing

Voice Over editing is a two part process. First, during the recording session the director will denote which of the recorded takes was best delivered. Second, it is the responsibility of the editor to examine the indicated take and cut it accordingly. When a line is recorded, all the takes are recorded to one audio file, the good take is surrounded by bad takes and aimless talking. The editor needs to cut the good take cleanly from that file and polish it up. ‘Polish’ is adding any number of voodoo type post production magics to the line: cleaning up audio artifacts, removing excess noise, and cutting out sounds unintentionally made by the actor. If in the good take the actor stumbled on a single word, the editor may take the problem word from a different take and overwrite the mistake in the good take, creating what is known as a ‘Frankenstein’. These edits will be the final production quality version of the line with background noise and voice problems cleared out.

9. QA (Optional)

Some producers choose to perform Quality Assurance on the dialogue before it gets sent off for good. During QA, production employees will comb over every line that has been edited to check for: consistency with the script (Does the actor say what they are supposed to say?), audio clarity (Are there distracting background noises or artifacts that the editor missed?), and accuracy of labeling (Is the line labeled and named properly? If not the developers will add the line based on its label and the wrong character will spit out the wrong line). If they find errors they mark them to be sent back the editor. If the mistake is bad enough, a re-record will be needed and the line will get sent back to the director for inclusion in the pickups (*See Above: 7-Recording).

10. Delivery

So now that the lines have been recorded, cut, and checked: they are ready to be added into the game. Lines still in the hands of the production team need to be delivered to the development team in order for final implementation. Both teams will have to designate uniform method of delivery so that the developers can anticipate when the lines will be delivered, how many there will be, and what lines are in each delivery. This usually means delivering in bulk organized by: recording day, character, actor, and scene.

11. Implementation

The developer receives the polished lines that have been delivered and inserts them into the game. The developers are responsible for taking the deliveries and decomposing them and then taking the parts and placing them properly throughout the game. This step shows how critical it is for reliable Editing and QA. If a line is cut or labeled improperly, the developers may not catch the mistake, and the may player will hear a character speak someone else’s line.

So that’s Voice Over production in the tightest nut shell I could squeeze it into. I have attached the original full (and relatively unedited) 4500 word post. It goes into much more detail about why certain processes are important or the problems that can arise in each step. If you are interested I ask you to download it and take a look.

As always, comment if you have thoughts, praise, criticism, or objections.

I would ask that you keep in mind this post is based off of my personal experience, and I fully understand the each game publisher and developer goes about VO a different way.

Original:

Coming Soon (I have to clean it up a bit).