Post­cards From The Clip­ping Plane

Con­ve­niently ig­nor­ing the se­ri­ous side of videogame de­vel­op­ment

EDGE - - DISPATCHES - JAMES LEACH James Leach is a BAFTA Award-win­ning free­lance writer whose work fea­tures in games and on tele­vi­sion and ra­dio

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

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