DIS­PATCHES CHRIST­MAS

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Af­ter­word/rag

An­other year, an­other time for lists. While I must ad­mit a strong com­pul­sion to­wards them, I recog­nise their ar­bi­trary na­ture. That said, on a fo­rum I fre­quent, I post a thread ev­ery year for the worst game of that calendar year.

This year has had me on a dif­fer­ent slant, how­ever. I feel I have had to re­name the thread to “most dis­ap­point­ing” game due to what seems to have been a very strong year over­all. At present, ti­tles like Mario Tennis Aces and State Of De­cay 2 seem to be dom­i­nat­ing the de­bate, but it has had me think­ing – has this ac­tu­ally been a rather solid year for games over­all, or have I been in­su­lated away from the re­ally ter­ri­ble ti­tles just through my play­ing of the ‘good’ stuff? I find it dif­fi­cult to be­lieve that 2018 has been any worse than any other year, but am strain­ing to find a ‘ter­ri­ble’ game. Please prove me wrong. Martin Hol­lis Firstly, it’s a lit­tle early for all this talk. But in gen­eral, you’re right. It’s hard for a game to be truly bad these days, and with so much on of­fer, you’re much less likely to play a stinker.

For be­gin­ners

Nathan Brown asks in E325: “When was the last time a game grabbed you in the first five min­utes, and re­fused to let you go?”. Big­bud­get games take too long to get go­ing. This col­umn pretty much re­flects how I’ve been feel­ing about triple-A games for two decades. This is the an­swer I’ve al­ways pro­claimed.

A game should im­me­di­ately give the player the op­tion to get in­volved in states of ei­ther para­dox or am­bi­gu­ity. Yes, this is go­ing to get the­o­ret­i­cal, but hang in there. It might help to com­pare it to Csik­szent­mi­ha­lyi’s the­ory on ‘flow’.

When it comes to ad­ven­ture games, para­dox­i­cal spheres are where the player is told, by nar­ra­tive, to do some­thing. At the same time, the player is told, me­chan­i­cally, that they should not be do­ing that. In other words: the story says you should do ABC, but the dif­fi­culty of en­e­mies and ob­sta­cles say you should stop. Over­com­ing this para­dox is the back­bone of ev­ery game, if not ev­ery story. Nat­u­rally, this is a tough bal­anc­ing act for devel­op­ers: make it too dif­fi­cult, and play­ers give up. Make it too easy, and play­ers feel like they’re do­ing work.

A good so­lu­tion to this is by cre­at­ing an al­ter­na­tive sphere of play for the player to es­cape to when they feel nec­es­sary. A lot of suc­cess­ful ad­ven­ture games al­ready do this, and we tend to call this the ‘open world’. This am­bi­gu­ity doesn’t tell the player what they have to do, but se­cretly re­wards the player for, well, play­ing. Again there is a dilemma for devel­op­ers. This can go wrong: if there isn’t enough to gain from ad­ven­tur­ing in such places, why bother? But this can also go wrong if there is too much to gain from these places: if the re­wards of the am­bigu­ous sphere be­come stronger than the para­dox­i­cal sphere, the player will feel like their ‘play’ has be­come ‘work’.

Clas­sic RPGs of­ten use this for­mula: go­ing into dun­geons will re­ward you with more story, the best up­grades, and the ex­cite­ment of see­ing if you can over­come epic chal­lenges. No­tice how you of­ten can­not save in dun­geons: this keeps up sus­pense. In the outer world, the player can usu­ally save any­where, try out all kinds of mis­chievous things, col­lect XP and gold to im­prove their chances of suc­cess, and im­prove their un­der­stand­ing of the game’s me­chan­ics. No­tice how the ben­e­fits of both spheres re­in­force the ben­e­fits of the other sphere: get­ting bet­ter in the open spa­ces make the de­ter­mined spa­ces more doable; the de­ter­mined spa­ces make the open spa­ces feel more playful.

“Play­ers are not only ad­vanc­ing in age; they have also started to pen­e­trate cul­tural bound­aries”

The open­ing of Breath Of The Wild does this splen­didly: it’s ob­vi­ous what you are sup­posed to do, and that do­ing so will grant the great­est re­wards, but it’s also al­ways ob­vi­ous that there is some­thing to be gained by de­vi­at­ing from the cor­rect path.

Spi­der-Man does a good job by let­ting the player im­me­di­ately swing around NYC, giv­ing an am­bigu­ous sphere to try things out. Un­for­tu­nately, be­sides learn­ing ac­ro­bat­ics, there isn’t much to be gained. Per­haps you re­call the let­down of en­coun­ter­ing the in­vis­i­ble walls: play­time has ended. Once you start the story, you’re stuck in the way-too-easy para­dox­i­cal sphere, and the game starts to feel like work.

One last ex­am­ple: Dark Souls’ best mo­ment, in my opin­ion, is when you find out that fol­low­ing the ob­vi­ous path leads you to skele­tons that will kick your butt. And it’s at that mo­ment that the game sud­denly leaves you to con­stantly gauge whether what you are do­ing is para­dox­i­cal or am­bigu­ous.

So there, that’s pretty much what I think leads to us ei­ther be­ing hooked or bored by a game’s con­tent. I didn’t say it’s easy to de­sign a game cor­rectly ac­cord­ing to my the­o­ries, but I like to be­lieve that there have been plenty of suc­cess­ful ex­am­ples. Thanks for re­view­ing 2017’s Hol­low Knight re­cently, which I’m cur­rently un­der­tak­ing. Maybe it didn’t grab me within the first five min­utes, but it hasn’t let me go since I got a feel­ing of where I should and shouldn’t be ad­ven­tur­ing. Robert Au­gust de Meijer Dark Souls

is an awk­ward point of ref­er­ence, be­cause it doesn’t im­me­di­ately grab you ei­ther. Still, we hope the mak­ers of the in­dus­try’s big­gest open worlds are think­ing along sim­i­lar lines. We’re get­ting bored.

In­vol­un­tary

All the out­rage and mis­di­rec­tion at the “100 hours” stuff is con­ve­niently miss­ing any in­put from QA staff in the game in­dus­try. All over the world, testers are forced or co­erced into work­ing 12-hour days, of­ten for months on end, but you won’t hear from any of them be­cause they’re scared of los­ing their jobs. I worked for one big de­vel­oper for over 10 years and the QA were al­ways crunch­ing hard for long pe­ri­ods. In some stu­dios it was com­mon pol­icy to ban hol­i­day out­right in Au­gust and Septem­ber. It was heav­ily im­plied when I worked there that if you didn’t “pull your weight” and do the over­time with ev­ery­one else, then you were risk­ing ev­ery­one’s jobs, let­ting the team down, jeop­ar­dis­ing the re­lease of the game. If you showed any neg­a­tiv­ity to­wards crunch, you’d be black marked and not get as good a bonus and def­i­nitely have less op­por­tu­ni­ties to progress.

I worked at an­other large game stu­dio in the UK where over­time was com­pul­sory. You’d have to have an in­cred­i­bly good rea­son not to stay late. We of­ten worked 13-15 hour days, of­ten five days in a row. There will be many HR de­part­ments and man­agers email­ing their staff, re­mind­ing them of the NDAs they signed and the com­pany so­cial me­dia pol­icy. The Rock­star devs that have spo­ken about “only do­ing 50-hour weeks” are only giv­ing one part of the story. QA aren’t get­ting a say. The low­est paid, worst treated part of the work­force will be too scared to say any­thing. This is an ab­so­lute scan­dal and needs to be in­ves­ti­gated prop­erly. Name with­held In­deed, it’s of­ten the case that those on the bot­tom floor that feel the most pain, and are the least likely to speak out about it. The in­dus­try has changed for the bet­ter since the Rock­star Spouse scan­dal, but if the last few weeks have shown us any­thing, it’s that there’s still a long old way to go.

Re­quiem

Af­ter read­ing in E324 about the an­ti­quated views on the worth of play­ing games es­poused on Univer­sity Chal­lenge, I sighed the same ‘change is slow’ as you. Still, I would like to of­fer in­sight from a re­cently pub­lished aca­demic study that I worked on that should re­as­sure your read­ers that change is in­deed com­ing.

As a medium, games are not new any­more (as the letters from gam­ing par­ents hastily writ­ten be­tween child-proof­ing and foot­ball-prac­ticeshut­tling at­test). Play­ers are not only ad­vanc­ing in age, how­ever; they have also started to pen­e­trate cul­tural bound­aries. At the same time, the seem­ingly dead­locked aca­demic de­bate on games’ ef­fects on vi­o­lent be­hav­iour is slowly shift­ing. Re­cently, my col­league Julia Kneer launched a sur­vey among gen­eral au­di­ences that high­lighted a deeper layer of this dis­course. In­stead of ask­ing if games make us vi­o­lent – surely by now that dead horse has re­ceived enough of a pum­melling – she sim­ply asked re­spon­dents why they thought other peo­ple would play games. This is a dif­fer­ent kind of ques­tion than ask­ing play­ers why they them­selves play. Their mo­ti­va­tions lie with man­ag­ing moods, feel­ing im­pact­ful, or bond­ing with other play­ers.

From an out­sider’s per­spec­tive this depth is not there. Imag­ine Pax­man’s an­swer to this ques­tion and you’re just as likely to get ‘gamers are lazy’ as a vague ref­er­ence to es­capism. The sur­vey’s re­sults (which you can find at bit.ly/ JustAsked) showed that there are in­deed plenty of Pax­men and Pax­women in the world who see play­ers as want­ing to play to com­mit (vir­tual) vi­o­lence. How­ever, it also in­di­cated that those peo­ple tended to be older, and that they did not count play­ers among their close friends and fam­ily. Fam­ily mem­bers and friends of play­ers who do not play games them­selves were more pos­i­tive about their loved ones’ pur­suits, with the mo­ti­va­tions they gave closely mir­ror­ing those of play­ers.

So, as we our­selves get crin­klier, non-play­ers with neg­a­tive views of games get crin­klier still, while we are nor­mal­is­ing gam­ing sim­ply by virtue of con­tin­u­ing to ex­ist. I just wish the load­ing time for this par­tic­u­lar level wasn’t quite so long. Ruud Ja­cobs Well put. Your PS Plus sub is on its way, and should keep you busy while we wait for na­ture to take its course on the di­nosaurs. (Is that too mor­bid? Sorry, dead­line does things to us.)

Is­sue 325

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