dwlt.thinksOutLoud

Miyamoto Profiled in the New Yorker

The New Yorker has an in-depth profile with Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto which is worth a read (all-in-one page here).

Overall, I’d call it a positive piece, although the tone veers between patronising and sincere. A few other things I want to comment on, in no particular order:

Fishermen have a saying, in reference to the addictive sensation of a fish hitting your line: “The tug is the drug.”

So when can we expect the Panorama episode on fishing?

this is called “gamification,” or, more gratingly, “funware”

Seriously? “Funware” is more grating than that other word? Good grief. I’ll save my rant on this for another time.

games are typically considered to be commercial products, rather than creative works; consider the fact that game titles, unlike the names of, say, movies or songs, appear in most newspapers and magazines, including this one, un-italicized

This bugs me, almost as much as it bugs me that the Guardian Gamesblog is in the ‘Technology’ section. However, this line clues us into why the industry is approached this way:

There aren’t very many video-game auteurs, but Miyamoto is one.

and this quote from Miyamoto towards the end of the article nails it:

“It’s becoming increasingly difficult to tell, from the looks and the play of the games, who has created the software.”

Most games companies take the Walt Disney approach, and create everything from behind one brand. There’s nothing wrong with that. And it’s not the oft- lamented lack of ‘auteurs’ or ‘personalities’ that’s causing the problem here either.

It’s a lack of distinctiveness, and not just in terms of the central character. Note that Miyamoto mentions both ‘looks’ and ‘play’.

The problem is that you (or, at least, I) can very rarely tell which company is responsible for a game. Off the top of my head, if I was to do a play test on a range of games from various creators, I think I’d probably only be able to identify a Valve game, a Denki game and, yes, a Nintendo game. Maybe a PopCap game.

Writers, filmmakers and musicians often talk about ‘finding their voice’, the distinctive tone or mood or themes that marks their creations out from the hundreds of others. I think many game creators still have a way to go to find their voice. And until games show greater diversity of theme and mood and tone, it’s difficult to provide a compelling argument they deserve ‘creative work’ status.

Anyway, asides aside, there are loads of great design tips in the article, too many to quote here, so just go and read it. I’ll just end with this comment from Will Wright on Miyamoto:

“He approaches the games playfully, which seems kind of obvious, but most people don’t. And he approaches things from the players’ point of view, which is part of his magic.”

Hiya! The Gary: Tank Commander App

ScottishGames.net has a nice little post about another iPhone app I made that came out earlier this week. This time, a tie-in with Gary: Tank Commander.

Featuring a range of soundboards, almost guaranteed to confuse non-Scots, with classic clips from Gary (Gary McLintoch) himself, alongside ‘Gary’s Mystic Ball’ in which the hero of the show provides helpful advice and answers to questions, in the same manner as a Magic 8-Ball, but with an eerie Scottish twist.

So far, so good on the ratings front: 4 out of 5. And if you have an iPhone or iPod touch, you should totally download it. It’s free, so it’s not like you have anything to lose.

Angry Birds Fragmentation

Remember when I said this?

To anyone who thinks that Android is somehow “better” for developers, you’ve clearly blanked out/weren’t around for the first ten years of mobile games development.

Rovio explain why:

We are aware that a number of our fans have had trouble running the game on their devices. For example, some older and lower performance Android devices are experiencing severe performance issues.

Biodiversity in Games

Our real world has tremendous biodiversity. We have everything from cute little prosimians like tarsiers to crazy cuttlefish … I hope that our gaming industry can one day show the same type of diversity … the only way that we’re going to get there is if some of us are bold; if we try out new ideas and commit ourselves not to taking the easy path, but to taking the strange path or the hard path or the path we’re passionate about.

Nathan Martz (Double Fine)

No Basis in Reality

There have been widespread claims that deficit-cutting actually reduces unemployment because it reassures consumers and businesses; but multiple studies of historical record, including one by the International Monetary Fund, have shown that this claim has no basis in reality.

—Paul Krugman (British Fashion Victims – NYTimes.com)

Recent Round-up

This is an ‘all about me’ PSA:

  • I’m (or at least, my words are) on page 60 of the Oct 4 issue of Holyrood magazine. You’ve already read them, however, as it’s an edited version of my In Transition post from a few weeks back.

  • I’m now officially the games adviser for the Cultural Enterprise Office. What’s that?

Cultural Enterprise Office is Scotland’s specialist business support and development service for creative businesses and practitioners.

  • I gave a talk at ScotSoft2010 on what I’m calling Selfish Creativity, which seemed to be well received. More to come on that “soon”.

  • I created an iPhone app for theatre company Cryptic (iTunes). You can see a video of it in action here.

No Limit for Better

Another week, another PopCap interview, this time with Matt Johnston, senior producer on Plants vs Zombies for XBLA over at Gamasutra. This one generally focuses on the value of being able to iterate repeatedly until you get it right:

We spent a lot of time just trying to get [the control system] to feel right but I think eventually we got there

(Although weirdly, the next paragraph states: “Spending a lot of time on small elements like this is something PopCap prides itself on” – although I’m not sure I’d classify the control system a ‘small element’ of a game.)

They bear in mind that you have to think like a player:

we sat there and spent a lot of time looking at how that double sun was going to look and animate, trying to second guess over and over and over again how somebody who had never played PvZ or somebody who may be confused by it, what they would think and what they would do.

They obsess on details:

I feel incredibly lucky to be working for a company that values those things and shares my need to sort of exercise my OCD and go through every little detail.

Aside from iteration, they also value knowing when to stop:

To be honest, getting that working and tested would have taken another six months … I didn’t feel like it was worth [it]. … At some point every good game developer has to decide, ‘OK, I’m actually gonna ship this game this year.’

That last paragraph reminds of me of this quote from Harrison Ford:

You keep on going until you get it as close to being right as the time and patience of others will allow.

And if you read this interview with the Dave Roberts, the CEO of PopCap, you can see why they work like that:

[W]e are pretty happy. We have never had to compromise anything about what we believe in for great products … I think we are going to continue to build some awesome value here, and people love the games. And we are going to keep making great games.

Lovely.

The Scale of the Problem

This morning, Rory Cellan-Jones of the BBC reported from Dundee about the games industry. In the preview of his visit to Dundee (and reiterated in his report), Cellan-Jones makes the following statement:

[I] struggled to pinpoint any firm big enough to give this cluster some real weight.

He’s right of course. But it’s worse than that.

A Geographical Aside

A few years ago, we talked about the “Scottish games industry”. Companies elsewhere in the UK (and abroad) referred to it as the “Scottish games mafia” — whether that was tongue-in-cheek or out of annoyance (or perhaps even fear) is open to question. Over the last few years, though, we’ve gone from talking about “Scottish games” to talking about “Dundee games” as companies across the country disappeared, and now to try and remind people that things still happen in other cities, “Greater Glasgow games”. I appreciate what people are trying to do, but I dislike the locality of these terms. I find them divisive and parochial.

I work in the Scottish games industry. My career in the industry has seen me work for companies based in Livingston, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee and now Glasgow again. I want to talk about the Scottish games industry. That’s what matters to me. Above that, though, I believe Scotland can only support a burgeoning technology and digital media sector across the country as a whole. Dundee might well be the epicentre for digital media, but we need to think at the right scale.

Siren Calls

One of the biggest problems we saw at Denki was on the recruitment side. We struggled to bring in the extra people we needed and wanted on the production side. Of course, we were trying to recruit at the beginning of a terrible recession which didn’t help, but it’s also indicative of a larger problem for the Scottish industry: we lack the siren call of the industry’s sexiest games.

It seems to me, on a purely anecdotal basis, that graduates in Scotland who want to work in games are drawn to the bright lights and big names of the games and companies people have heard of, so they go off to work for EA or Ubisoft on games like FIFA, Assassin’s Creed or the latest Tom Clancy game. I don’t have a problem with that, it’s good to get experience, and of course there were few jobs in the sector going even prior to last month. But the lack of famous games and companies becomes a problem if you want to tempt people home again, or attract talent from elsewhere in the world.

With the exception of Rockstar North and GTA, there’s no glamour or glitter to attract people here yet. Nothing they can work on here will give them that kudos.

Do You Know The Way To Puget Sound?

Following last week’s post about the Scottish games industry being in transition, I’ve been asked a couple of times about exactly what I think the Scottish games industry is transitioning to.

Clearly, I can’t say exactly what the industry will look like in a few years, but I know what I want it to look like. And it’s not anywhere in Canada.

Rather, as the subhead suggests, I’m looking at Seattle and the surrounding area. Not only does it have a very similar climate to Scotland, but it has an incredible list of games companies (not to mention Microsoft):

That’s just a partial list, which is pretty damned impressive, I think. It’s a good mix of companies that work on their own thing and work with publishers; of companies that are independent and companies that are part of larger organisations. And that’s before I’ve mentioned another pair you may have heard of: PopCap and Valve.

I’d love to think Scotland could have a couple of companies as strong and world-renowned as PopCap and Valve are today. Of course, there’s no particular reason why it can’t happen, but we should realise that these companies have a head start for one big reason: Microsoft had already ensured that the Seattle area was a draw for software developers, and Amazon and Real built on that. That ensured there was a large pool of talent for other games companies to tap into, and it means that people have options. As we’ve seen in Scotland recently on the back of Realtime Worlds’ demise, people don’t really have much in the way of options here.

Another reason for comparing Scotland to this area: the population of the Seattle area is around 3.4 million people. Scotland’s population is just over 5 million. We need to work at the right scale.

One Step At A Time

At the recent games workshop organised by Revolver, one of the speakers was from Blitz. It struck me that far from even producing our equivalent of PopCap or Valve, we’ve yet to produce our equivalent of Blitz or Team 17 or Frontier: successful independent development companies who have success between developing projects for customers and working on their own products.

As Cellan-Jones says, the Scottish games industry lacks weight, and it lacks hits. We had some for a while with Realtime Worlds (Rockstar North tend to keep themselves to themselves, in my experience). As I said last week, it’s not going to come overnight and it’s definitely not going to come without a fight.

There’s a longer term ambition here, to create an industry that matters not because it’s deemed to be politically important or because it keeps a few people employed, but to create an industry that matters because it’s creating products that people want to play and that they want to be a part of making.

Thinking at the right scale is one of the greatest problems we need to overcome. Given the choice, I’d prefer we didn’t fail because we were thinking on the small side.

No amount of goodwill or public policy can do what Cellan-Jones identifies in his preview: produce a billion-dollar games company. To be clear, when I talk about a billion-dollar games company, I don’t expect that it would have a billion dollars of revenue – even PopCap and Valve haven’t hit that level (yet). But a company capable of consistently producing hit games and that has the wider world salivating at the prospect of its next game? Yes, please.

Will tax breaks help build such a company? Clearly they would, since that’s exactly what they’re designed for. They won’t will such a company into existence, though. Only the industry itself can make that happen, and I for one won’t care if it’s in Dundee or Aberdeen or Elgin. I’ll just be delighted we have the first one.