Postcards From The Clipping Plane
Conveniently ignoring the serious side of videogame development
Can I talk about the green shoots of economic recovery yet? Other people are, and they’re not getting hit by bolts of lightning. Even in the game development world, there are new startups, ideas, clever reworkings, gritty reboots, and confident people with fresh business cards in those cool aluminium cases.
I love working with new teams: anything seems possible and they’re raring to go. By anything, I currently mean anything they’ve seen on Game Of Thrones and in the last few games they played. I recently spent a diverting hour being shown how one new game has all the stars mapped out in their correct sky locations. I think I first saw this in Metal Gear
Solid V, but it didn’t seem a good idea to say that. I just made appreciative noises. Alas, these faded when I realised that part of the game required players to use the slowly turning, impressively mapped sky to employ astrology and get an advantage by attacking, trading or whatnot when Virgo was in Jupiter and Sagittarius had transgressed the median of Betelgeuse. Ah, well. They were doing it with tongue in cheek, I hope. Chiefly because astrology is annoying, and I didn’t like them spending their wads of startup fivers on it.
I got to thinking, though. I’m often used as a sounding board when I first clamber on board a project. I get it: I’ve played and worked on lots of games. Long ago, I learned to be tactful but honest, and there’s always something to love about every game in development. It’s a minefield, though. I once played through a game set on an island chain that the player had to explore and conquer. Each island contained a huge shopping mall, where the player could trade hard-won gold for clothes, hair bands and shoes. It seemed to make up about 40 per cent of the game. There was no significant defence benefits to the Ugg-style boots or pastel hoodies, so I questioned it. Apparently, it was to attract the teen girl demographic. Really. I suggested that it might be a little patronising to assume teen girls would be swayed by this blatant attempt to curry favour. A file full of market research was presented. It turns out that a vast number of teen female opinions were canvassed and what they overwhelmingly wanted to do was go shopping at regular intervals as they crusaded along the archipelago.
I learned my lesson there, so when the developers showed me how they were also planning to incorporate a facsimile of social media into the game, which wouldn’t connect to the outside world, but allowed the player to read posts and messages from NPCs, and which consisted entirely of the letters O, M and G, I nodded wisely. The team then made it clear that the teen girl crowd had, in fact, rejected this as they did enough of that sort of thing in the real world and could spot that the generated messages were not real. Upon hearing this, I had to go outside for a while and sit quietly in my car.
All this mind-capsizing nonsense aside, the next bunch of games have a style and tone that I think is going to be refreshing. Epic, sprawling games are delicious to immerse oneself into, but smaller and, yes, cheaper experiences are just so pin-sharp, shopping aside. Vast worlds need to be so fleshed out so deeply that it’s now common for an entire book to be written as the game comes together, detailing exactly what’s possible, how things work, and which items or characters fit. I love all that, but it’s a big old task. Sometimes it’s lovely to have a little gameplay arena, hardly any exposition, a lot of humour, and a series of increasingly cute and marginally trickier tasks to do.
Smaller games benefit from not having weeks of market research and hours of talks about target demographics, too. If done right, they tend to do only one thing well. This – and I’m aware I’m going to sound old – is how games used to be. You played an aardvark. Or an egg. Things happened and you dealt with them. Aardvarks eat ants (probably), so you’ll be looking out for ant nests. Eggs don’t eat, but they can break, so you need to avoid spikes and spoons. That’s the sort of world we can all understand, and if it’s fun, it’s fun. And games like this don’t go for the massively multiplayer option; you aren’t cursed by legions of fiendishly quick, heavily modding young lads who kill you within a third of a second every time you respawn.
Lord. I really do sound old. And I know that I, like everyone else in development, don’t really know anything. If we’re all playing astrological games with a plethora of retail opportunities next year, be aware that I’ll have just shut up and rolled with it.
They were doing it with tongue in cheek, I hope. Astrology is annoying, and I didn’t like them
spending startup fivers on it