Thoughts on E3 2013: Day 3 – A Tangent on Great Games Journalism

Now that no new information is going to be revealed over the threat of the graphical plateau driving development costs to destructive heights, we can officially say that the drama of the press conferences is finally over. On that note, let’s talk about  games journalism! Here are a number of channels and newssources whose thoughtful content I enjoy substantially. If you like the kind of stuff I write here or on The Artifice, check these places out, its likely that they do what I do way better.

  • Super Bunnyhop – This is a very intelligent Youtube channel giving smart, well researched, and highly interesting (if not a tad cynical) criticism and analysis of games and gaming news. Check out their Critical Close-Up of Metal Gear Solid 2, its the most accessible and creative analysis of its kind.
  • Errant Signal – Excellent and educated analyses of recent games, I think Campster is a game studies scholar. Check out his videos on Spec Ops: The Line and Kinaesthetics, they informed a lot of the research I did on the game.
  • Rev3Games – Youtube channel made out of TechTV and X-Play expatriates, including the fantastic Adam Sessler, who states that being freed from the time constraints of television has allowed him to go more in-depth with his criticism and previews of upcoming games, incorporating elements of game studies and critical theory shockingly missing from mainstream games journalism. Not to be missed is his weekly rant series Sessler’s Something, where he opines on recent news each monday.
  • Extra Credits – Almost everyone I know at game school watches and loves this show. Smart, terse, and very funny, this not only the best educational series for game-students around, but an excellent introductory show for people who want to study and understand games from a deeper level.
  • Kill Screen – Fans of Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter take note, as this is essentially a response to that fantastic book. Going above and beyond the medium, Kill Screen discusses games with a distinct and unique voice, going into many fantastic places in terms of society and culture.
  • PolygonThis online magazine gives scintillating coverage of current events in the game industry, giving host to some fantastic opinion articles and journalistically-ethical reviews.
  • Gamasutra – Everyone in the gaming industry already reads this, but for the unfamiliar, this publication is managed by the people behind GDC and gives host to wonderful writers and critics such as Leigh Alexander and Ian Bogost, as well as yours truly.

Well, I hope you like those sites, check them out. They’re my conduit for what’s going on in the industry right now. If you have any recommendations, share them in the comments.

Thoughts on E3 2013: Day 1

Today was… oh hey wait, have you checked out my latest article for The Artifice? Give it a look, its about the Games for Change festival happening next week.

Today was… bonkers…

I followed much of the E3 coverage throughout today and was increasingly embittered and grew increasingly cynical at the presentations that each of the companies had to offer.

My frustration and disappointment towards Microsoft is incredible, their exhibition inspired nothing but annoyed cynicism from me. A total failure to address the ethical controversies that I raised in my last post regarding internet connectivity as factor that excludes the poor from participating in game culture sends the message that Microsoft is simply oblivious to the complaints of its fanbase. This disconnect from reality is further solidified considering the Xbox One’s evident lack of an audience. Simply put, if the Xbox One’s target demographics are mainstream families looking for an all-in-one entertainment system, there is no way that they would be attracted to purchasing a $500 system on the first day. Hardcore gamers, as much as I regret using that term, are the early adopters that purchase consoles at launch. Families looking for a home entertainment system aren’t going to want to purchase an entertainment system like that until the price goes down substantially. With hardcore gamers being turned off by restrictive DRM policies, and families turned off by the restrictive price, the Xbox One has no audience at all.

The depiction of women at the conference was rather frustrating, especially given the tasteless rape joke at Microsoft’s press conference. Awkwardly scripted intentionally by whatever executives were responsible for this trainwreck, it maintains the “us and them” mentality that paints gamers as a group of immature nerds. Its the exact opposite of what we need as an industry.

Now that I have that off my chest, what’s with the trend to show a prerendered, or at least in-engine, cutscene, and call that a “gameplay trailer”? Prerendered footage doesn’t tell us jack about a game. While Watch Dogs‘ slick trailer and Assassin’s Creed’s deep blue sea may look cool, we’re attracted to games for their interactive nature, spectacle makes for good marketing, but in the end, its meaningless when we’re creating a cultural product whose value hinges on interactivity. Who cares about your visual style and story world when your fundamental mechanical structure is a mystery?

Mirror’s Edge gets a second chance.

Out of the conferences, Mirror’s Edge 2 was the trailer that excited me the most. Mirror’s Edge was an interesting game that did a lot of things wrong, like mixing together platforming and combat sections into an oddly paced whole, but it was exciting and fresh  and deserved a second chance to iterate on its unique mechanics and excellent characters. Count me sold on this wonderful, unexpected surprise.

And if Microsoft’s press conference left me bitter, frustrated, and angry, Sony’s immediately restored my trust. Opening the conference with a reel of developers effusively gushing over how great it is to develop for the console lent the show an appropriate and fitting focus on games, showing that it had a clearly defined target demographic of gamers of all stripes, simultaneously appealing to both the mainstream CoD-FIFA people as well as the strong indie following that Sony has drummed up with games like Guacamelee! and Journey. Marketing the console to developers by emphasizing the openness of the platform and the ease of distribution through Playstation Network shows that Sony recognizes what will be important this upcoming generation: indie developers.

And to speak for the consumer within me, there were a lot of exciting games revealed at Sony’s conference, including the awesome Transistor, The Elder Scrolls Online, Destiny, Octodad, and Kingdom Hearts III(!). For a little while, 14-year old me came back with some giddy excitement, which is crazy to think considering how jaded I’ve been getting over the past few years.

And to speak of cruelty, consider this:

More Ranting on the Xbox One

Like most of my friends, I was disappointed at the reveal of the Xbox One, an ill conceived focus on mass-media led to a massive communication mess-up that fomented ill-will towards Microsoft. I can forgive them for that, they can remedy that at E3, which was promised to be more interesting to game-consumers than the May 21st Conference.

The Xbox One :/
The Xbox One :/

But there’s another thing that’s super-important that we need to talk about, and that’s the issue of ethics.

I’m a huge proponent of the open-source movement, and I believe that the tools that they generate make computer-literacy, perhaps the most important skill in the 21st century, accessible to anyone. The code and assets that they generate are crucially important for our digital culture, heck, every single one of my games involves borrowed assets of some kind. Open-source software allows us to have ownership over our computers, freeing us to tinker, experiment, and explore these important machines, enriching our world as a whole.

And that’s why I’m so frustrated at yesterday’s news regarding the Xbox One. The information that was released yesterday revolves around ham-fisted attempts at piracy-deterrence, the policies, as summarized by Eurogamer, include:

  • You do not own the games you buy. You license them.
  • Discs are only used to install and then license games and do not imply ownership.
  • People can play games installed on your console whether you’re logged in or not.
  • 10 people can be authorised to play these games on a different Xbox One via the cloud, but not at the same time, similar to iTunes authorised devices.
  • Publishers decide whether you can trade in your games and may charge for this.
  • Publishers decide whether you can give a game you own to someone for free, and this only works if they have been on your friends list for 30 days.
  • Your account allows you to play the games you license on any console.
  • Your Xbox One must connect to the internet every 24 hours to keep playing games.
  • When playing on another Xbox One with your account, this is reduced to one hour.
  • Live TV, Blu-ray and DVD movies are exempt from these internet requirements.
  • Loaning and renting games will not be possible at launch, but Microsoft is “exploring the possibilities”.
  • Microsoft may change these policies or discontinue them at any point.

While I can accept similar DRM-measures like Steam, and believe that the democratized nature of digital distribution is a blessing to our medium, wholly eliminating disk-based distribution to promote profits is remarkably dangerous to the consumer and our medium as a whole.

I wouldn’t be half the gamer that I am if it weren’t for the friends with whom I shared games. In high school, passing around game discs and cartridges amongst my peers was an integral part of my experience as a player of games. In college, a lot of my gaming diet came from the lending library we have available at the Interactive Media Division. Open access and sharing of this kind of content enriches people’s lives and the dialogue that goes on around games, helping us grow as a culture. Adding these kinds of measures will simply destroy the great game libraries that are kept in colleges and universities to enrich and edify students.

If the Sim City debacle taught us anything, its that always-online is bad for the consumer, it failed for Diablo 3, and it failed for Sim City, there’s little reason to continue in that direction.

Look, always-online restrictions on playing games deters people from playing them, excessive DRM measures have turned people off for years, unobtrusive-DRM has been a core pillar of Steam’s success, and DRM-free installations are one of the primary perks of the Humble Indie Bundles. Adding these restrictive measures to consoles is overkill on a massive scale. Yes, used and shared games are destructive for publishers and developers, but the lower price point allows for more and more people to enter this medium and become constant consumers of these cultural products. Tell me how having more gamers is bad for the industry?

Outside of being morally contentious from a consumer’s and digital-freedom advocate’s point of view, Xbox One’s internet-access requirement is ethically impermissible from a cultural perspective. I can think of no other art form that restricts its participants to those that can afford internet access. We have museums to give the public access to seminal works of art from our cultural history, and public libraries allow anyone from any socioeconomic class to engage with film, music, and literature. Restricting the audience for games to only those who can afford to have to high-speed internet access is systemically discriminatory, making participating in game-culture a privilege reserved only for those living in certain parts of the world.

In a seminal GDC Talk, Greg Costikyan said “I want you to imagine a 21st century in which games are the predominant art form of the age, as film was of the 2oth, and the novel of the 19th”. In order for that dream to be fulfilled, the barrier to engaging with the medium must be low enough that people from all cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds can join in the fun. Only by allowing free access to and sharing of games will we accomplish that.

My opinion might change when E3 rolls around, but right now, I have severe ethical qualms about the Xbox One.

An Ill-Advised Rant on the Next Console Cycle

These are my gut reactions to the XBox One press conference. Forgive me if I can’t predict the future. 

People predict that this next console cycle will be the last of its kind due to the proliferation of alternative distribution methods like Steam and iOS, and that might be true with the advent of cloud computing. Outsourcing the number-crunching to powerful remote servers and having the console act only as a client for playing these games means that the only upgrades that need to be made are to those remote servers, nullifying the need to upgrade every few years. I’m excited.

Square box with sharp edges. Bleh.

That said, I can’t help but be incredibly disappointed at this morning’s XBox One reveal. Aside from its ugly design that would have been acceptable only in the early 2000s, the preoccupation with television other traditional forms of entertainment sets it up for failure. Fewer and fewer people are watching television and prefer to catch series through channels like iTunes, Youtube, and Netflix, formats that suit our increasingly busy lives and schedules. I mean, consider a number of my friends from film school, most of their goals don’t lie in theaters or TV screens, but in web series and internet video. To focus on traditional, centralized methods of media production sets us back. In essence, the XBox One is just trying to be an uglier DVR, while it is nice to have a centralized place to access all our entertainment options, I think we’re missing the point here.

 Which brings us to games.

Aside from cloud computing’s power to advance the big-budget AAA games, it would seem that indies will be the deciding factor for who wins the so-called “console war”.

Let’s back up a bit, previous generations were never decided by console specs, they were decided by price and exclusives. Consider the Wii’s $250 launch price and the casual revolution that it started, and compare it to the PS3’s incredible processing power locked away behind system architecture so problematic that the 360 ended up consistently getting the best version of a multiplatform game. Point is, the complexity and power of a console isn’t going to make too much of a difference in how this console cycle plays out.

Furthermore, another change owes itself to the “Ludus Florentis” phenomenon that I pointed out in my previous post. Consumers are beginning to get tired of the big-budget AAA games, and instead of dropping $60 on a highly anticipated blockbuster, people are beginning to prefer to put that same money to purchase a variety of downloadable games, the success of Journey, Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, and The Walking Dead prove this. Simply put, its not the console that has access to the most anticipated exclusives that will dominate this next generation, but the one that has the strongest indie-outreach program and online storefront.

Nintendo and Sony both recognized this change and made aggressive pushes to their plans for downloadable games. Sony made their massive indie kick by reformatting their storefront and adopting a familiar PC-like architecture for the PS4, as well as completely eliminating their developer registration fee. Nintendo made theirs by releasing the HTML5 based Nintendo Web Framework for the WiiU and opening up their submission process. As a result, the registration and development process for these consoles will be comparable to what already exists with Desura or the App Store, which can only mean good things for the diversity of games that will exist on these platforms. The XBox One’s preoccupation with the Call of Dutys and EA Sports of the world will probably make them increasingly irrelevant as the cycle plays out, which is disappointing, considering the wealth of great indie games like Bastion that owe their existence to XNA this generation.


But more than anything else, what concerns me about this next generation are development costs. Both press conferences in the past few months marketed incredible graphical fidelity, pushing amazing texture resolution and ridiculous polycounts for each model in a game’s world.

This’ll mean bad things for games.

Art assets are one of the most time and resource consuming components of game development, already, asset production is outsourced to outside studios for many AAA games. Increasing the graphical fidelity of each asset in a 3D game world will only continue to bloat development costs and increase the level of damage done to a studio should a project fail.

Furthermore, games seem to market “emotional storytelling and characterization” with the graphical fidelity of these games. Strangely enough, “emotional” seems to have become a new buzzword in the odd era that we exist in at this moment.

But graphics don’t mean anything for emotional resonance.

The Walking Dead

Games are games, and achieve their meaning through play. The scarf-restoring cuddling and momentary escape from gravity connected to each jump in Journey made it such a compelling experience. The narrative weight lent to each dialogue option in the low-fi Walking Dead made one of the most emotionally intense games I’ve ever played. Graphical beauty didn’t make these games emotionally powerful, great ludic design did.

If anything, I’m intrigued by what this next console generation has to offer. Ludus Florentis opened up Steam, mobile, and cloud-based games to an unprecedentedly wide audience and diversified the kinds of games that could exist and succeed. The effects of what happened in these alternative spheres will mean a lot to how this next generation plays out.

And I want to try the Ouya.