A brief confession.

OK then, I'll be honest the last week or so has been spent furiously trying to catch up on work before Monday’s assessments. There are no real excuses as to why I’ve fallen behind, mainly just (very) poor time management on my part. I’ve also realized I need to be putting in a lot more hours. That being said I do feel I’ve learned a lot about myself and my motivations this past week or so. I’ve seen just how much I can get done in a day if I focus. I have also learned how much I enjoy creating work. This semester started very slowly for me, but now I feel I’ve built up some momentum, momentum I want to carry on over Christmas and into the New Year. Also now I’ve got up to date with my blog I'll hopefully be using it more. Now I’ve archived a kind of blank slate. That’s another thing I’ve learnt about falling behind on work, it tends to snowball and the hole gets deeper requiring more climbing to get out. I remember my house mate (he's in his 2nd year studying History of Art and English at Leicester uni) saying to me; “half of uni is learning your subject; the other half is learning how to learn.” I think I'm starting to learn how to learn and not be led every step of the way.

Wonderfully ambiguous.

Ah 'game play' what a wonderfully ambiguous term. Great to use when you run out of actual adjectives to describe a game. It makes fantastic padding and is used by journalists the world over to fluff their way through a review. I myself have used it on several previous blog posts, sometimes just to fill up the old word count.

But what does it actually mean?!

Trying to define it is rather like trying to nail jelly to a wall. You can spend hours working at it and just end up with a mess.

If we are to believe what we are told, then game play is immensely important. It marks how we (the gamer) interact with and experience the game, or at least that’s how Patrick Mount attempts to define it. However, I think the term may be an awkward combination of many elements that make up a game. To help try and understand it I started to think about what it’s not trying to define. 1) Graphics 2) Sound 3) Presentation (story, characters, art design.) Well I'll be honest these are 3 of the 5 categories in IGN's reviews the 4th being the much fabled 'game play' and the 5th lasting appeal. But if it’s not about the first 3 what’s really left? I'm starting to think one simple definition might be 'what you have to do to play the game.' For example, do you have to race a car? Or shoot a gun? Then much to my annoyance I started to realize I was basically saying the same thing as Patrick Mount, although in a slightly less articulate way. All in all I think the best description I’ve read came from good old Wikipedia. So basically I could have saved a lot of time and just pasted that article on here.


Deeply flawed.

With developments in graphics and sound reaching their inevitable plateau, games of the future will have to think more carefully about their characters and narratives. I think games at the minute are at the level of your standard Hollywood summer blockbusters with lots of big explosions and thrilling car chases, but with characters predictably two dimensional and emotionally retarded. I enjoy this form of storytelling for the cheap disposable things they are, but they rarely leave a lasting impression.

This isn't to say the game world is without some interesting pieces. One I remember quite clearly is Max Payne. The game had your usual action packed gun fights etc, but they were presented in an intelligent way. The narrative followed a very disjointed path, switching between dream sequences, flashbacks and even drug induced hallucinations. This gave the whole experience a very unsettling feeling, but also kept your attention fixed. The character of Max was carefully unravelled during cut scenes and character dialog. He became a deeply flawed and emotionally damaged three dimensional human being. Something that kept you going through the game was a desire to find out what exactly was going on with him. It reminded me, in parts, of a mixture between Christopher Nolan's Memento, the Coen brothers Fargo and a Tarantino crime movie. Just now I’ve listed 3 of my favourite film makers. I’m a big fan of their use of non linear narratives and rich characters. Their stories unfold in such a way that keeps the viewers compelled and their characters are always rich individuals that make some for relation. Most are deeply flawed in some way and have their own demons to resolve, just like any one of us I guess.

That box under the telly.

Over the course of my relationship with consoles there have been a few note worthy developments in their design and function. The most noticeable to me is the change from cartridge to CD based media. The consoles that used cartridges all had a very simple design. Input for cartridge. On/off power button. Reset button. Power input. Video input. Controller input. They were easy to use but not much to look at, usually made from a range of dull grey plastics. Even the Nintendo 64 released in 1996 kept this simple design and fondness for grey. At the time I guess function was more important than aesthetics. The switch to CD's didn't make much difference to begin with, consoles still had the same basic function and design.

Things made a big step with the release of the PS2 with its inclusion of a DVD drive. This marked a change in thinking from Sony, one that wanted to place their product at the heart of a customer’s home entertainment. Its sleek black design was intended to sit in the living room alongside the (presumably Sony) television set. Games consoles had stepped out of the shadows and become desirable consumer products in their own right. However, by doing so they had lost a lot of their rugged usability, after years of fairly heavy abuse my old Super Nintendo still works perfectly. I very much doubt today’s console will fare so well, just blowing on the cartridge won’t work anymore I'm afraid. The current generation of consoles continue the trend for designer entertainment hubs, now boasting Blue-ray players and high speed Internet access.

Let me tell you a story.

In the early days of gaming the story was right at the bottom of the pile for developers, and what story there was tended to be messy cobbled together genre clichés. Luckily as the technology and budgets improved so did the story telling techniques. Games such as ‘Zelda’ began to mimic classic fairy tales with hints of epic fantasy authors. However, many were still very linear with the player simply following a story from beginning, middle and end. Players tend to always be at the centre of the story, the hero. The story of a game often helps us get involved with the experience, its gives us a goal/reason to keep playing beyond just beating your highest score. 

This isn't to say every game needs an epic Tolkien-esc plot full of twists and turns. Sometimes you just want to help Barney get his girlfriend back whilst gunning down hapless mutants. Sometimes a games story will in fact be more like a setting for the action to take place. Games like Call of Duty may take place during World War 2, but I think of it more of just a backdrop; a reason to be shooting Germans instead of a 'war story'. Upon thinking about this the same kind of definition could possibly be applied to films. Take ‘Saving Private Ryan’ for example. Is the fact its set during World War 2 necessary for the story? Or is it just a bloody good excuse to film a scene of the Omaha beach landings?

Art Guru?!......

The art director has a lot of duties and responsibilities, seeing as they are in charge of the whole art department. They are in charge of maintaining the overall look of the game. Below them would be an art manager and the the (take one out) rest of the artists. The director would work closely with the artists passing on their ideas and experience to help maintain visual consistency. They would also work closely with the projects art manager to ensure that the projects are manageable within the overall project budget and schedule. These are just a few of the many aspects to art directing.

The role of an art director in the games industry seems to have many things in common with that of one in the film industry. Both are responsible for a creative outcome that has been worked on by many people. I see this as one of the unique problems they both face compared to any other form of direction. Most of the other duties are based around time management or people management and is common place in most industries. The creativity required for the role is enormous, not only does the art director have to communicate the concept to the team of artist, but they also have to constantly review and refine the work produced by the rest of the team.

If I wanted to become an art director I'd have to develop a lot of skills, not just my artistic ones. My time management would be the biggest, as I would not just be in charge of my deadlines but those of the whole team. This being said I'm not all too sure I'd actually want the position, at least not until I'd had many years of just plain old art work. I do however remember that people from Blitz Games mentioned a position called ‘guru’, this person would not have to manage people but still have more acknowledgement of their skills and ability to impart their knowledge to others through mentored. 

If it ain't broke don't fix it.......

When talking about game designers, a couple of (cliché) names spring to mind for me. The first being the much fabled Shigeru Miyamoto. The second being Peter Molyneux, who oddly enough was made an OBE in 2004.

Both these guys have been credited with 'pushing game play to a new level'. A somewhat odd phrase that will mean nothing without some form of explanation. As far as I myself understand it, game play can simply be defined as how the user interacts with the game. Do they for example take control of one single character and navigate it through a set story? Or do they play as a kind of overseer or god, controlling the action of many individual characters? It is obviously a lot more complex than that and a games designer is responsible for finding new innovative ways to interact.

Some take this a lot further than others mind you and there are also some tried and tested formulas.

One particular formula that has stood the test of time very well is the FPS aka first person shooter. The mechanics have remained much the same since the day of Doom. Sure they look more attractive, have lots more flashing lights and neat little gimmicks, but they barely mask the fact you’re walking from room to room shooting back at whatever has the audacity to shoot at you.

Then again if it ain't broke don't fix it.

'Game play' elements I often enjoy in games often (get rid of one) revolve around personalization. I find it a lot easier to invest a large amount of time in a character or setting I can relate to or have some kind of vested interest in. I often see games such as ‘Gears of War’ like Hollywood blockbusters, good to just sit back and enjoy, but you leave having gained very little.

Its all about you.

After reading some of the articles on 'New Games Journalism' ( A phrase coined by Kieron Gillen in his 'NGJ manifesto'.) I have to say I wasn't really getting it...I couldn't see the problem. Let's say I've just been paid and after paying rent and astronomical energy bills, I have £50 left over. Now this £50 has a lot of value to me and I want to spend it in what I consider a worthwhile way, buying games. Where do I turn to help me make my decision? Well amongst others, the gaming press. I hope to gain from them a detailed view of what the games like and whether or not I might like it, and indeed should buy it. Then in a mild moment of realization I thought what an impossible task that was. So I re-read the NGJ manifesto and started to understand. Whilst an objective ranking system might help separate game A from game B, what does it actually tell us? Game A got 10/10 for game play whilst Game B only got 5/10. So is A's game play twice a fast as B's? Or twice as big? The trouble is its trying to rank abstract concepts such as fun and enjoyment. Whats fun for one person might be sheer hell for another. This is true for all forms of art and entertainment I guess. One man's Jackson Pollock is another mans spillage. A much more sensible approach, as suggested in the NGJ manifesto, would be to write about games in a very personal way. Explaining how they made you feel, what you gain from the experience. Then let the audience decide if they'd maybe like to experience similar things.

All this being said, I have been known to spend aforementioned £50 based on the pretty picture on the case.......

Developing pressure

The 21st century has seen an enormous amount of development within the entertainment industry. Games have played a leading role in this.

Within the last decade game releases have been rivaling movies in terms of revenue, games such as Halo selling tens of millions of copies. The movie industry has not been unaware of this success and many popular games have been turned into full blow motion pictures. An odd twist on the usual movie based game, cash-in bonanza. (“you've watched the film! Now play the game!”).

However, with this new found success come a new host of problems. Many games developers are now owned by big multinational corporations who demand quick returns for their substantial investments. According to BBC News, the average PS3 game costs nearly $15 million to make -- and that's before any marketing. Not only does this ensure our store shelves will be stocked with sequel after buyer-recognizable sequel, but it's also bad for developers, who could go belly up after one unsuccessful title. As time goes on and the technology and consoles get more advanced,gamers are increasingly going too expect more from their games, so costs are only set to rise.

All this pressure will surely have a negative effect for gamers. Developers will be less willing to experiment and risk huge sums of money on ideas that might not pan out. Resulting in less choice and the worrying possibility of a reverse of the video game crash of 1983 which was caused by there being too many games on the market.

So all in all the future of the games industry relies on finding a delicate balance between creative freedom and financial risk. I for one sincerely hope that balance is found.

Acceptable in the eighties?

John Lennon is assassinated, the Falklands war erupts and the Berlin wall comes down.....the 80's were turbulent times, and the fledgling games industry was no exception. 
Throughout the decade publishing house's rose and fell and consoles came and went. Some of these failings were more self inflicted than others. These include the production of poorly conceived games such as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial for the Atari 2600. Companies were producing cynical money grabbing cash ins of popular films, with little thought put into the actual game itself. As a result, so many E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial cartridges were left unsold that Atari buried thousands of cartridges in a landfill in New Mexico. In another somewhat hilarious cock up it was discovered that more Pac-Man cartridges were manufactured than there were systems made. However for all the mistakes there were also successes. It was during this time that Electronic Arts first formed and has since never really gone away. 
The Commodore 64, Apple II and the Atari 800 were all big players in the early part of the decade. The made use of vector graphics and could produce 3D-ish games, the first being Battlezone. Dungeons of Daggorath saw the first uses of health monitors, sophisticated sound effects and various weapons and monsters. 1
985 welcomed the release of Nintendo's Famicom (or NES to those who aren't Japanese.) It introduced The game pad, an 8 direction Directional-pad (or D-pad for short) with 2 or more action buttons. It also introduced the world to a fat little plumber named Mario, a heroic elf named link and an ironically titled series' Final Fantasy'.The NES dominated the North American and the Japanese market until the rise of the next generation of consoles in the early 1990s.
Towards the end of the eighties dial up Internet had become more widely available. Which allowed the more adventurous gamer a chance to go 'online'.This allowed different users to interact with each other for the first time. Fantasy role playing games known as 'MUD's or multi-user-dungeons became popular, these would eventually evolve into what we now call MMORPG's. 

Not just UFO's and Hemp...

OK so its 1952 your studding at Cambridge and you need something to write your PhD on. With it being the 50's, you and every everyone else is sure that in ten years time you'll all be jetting round in flying cars and taking holidays to the moon. You decide to do you PhD on something called Human-Computer interaction and use a EDSAC vacuum-tube computer to programme the first graphical computer game - a version of Tic-Tac-Toe. Mr A.S. Douglas if only you knew what you had started, if only you knew.

By 1958 a Mr William Higinbotham had created 'tennis for two'! The game was displayed on an oscilloscope, featuring a basic, 2D tennis court. It did however have to be played on a Brookhaven National Laboratory oscilloscope, not exactly 'mass market'. Not yet.

So its now the 60's and it appears not everyone is sitting in fields listening to music, doing drugs and fornicating. Well at least Steve Russell isn't, nope he's doing something far more 'entertaining'.....

In 1962 he created the excitingly titled SpaceWar! He used a rather large MTI PDP-1 mainframe computer to design his game. A game that featured simplistic controls and a more modern set of gaming goals. Many would later credit it as the first true computer game, so congratulations Steve.

It would take until 1967 for games to make the leap away from colossal main frames and onto television sets. A military electrician of all people, called Ralph Baer, created the first home based entertainment game called “Chase”. He later went on to develop the first games console call the Odyssey. 

As the 60's ended and the 70's began a few familiar names arrived on the video game scene. 1972 saw the creation of Atari Computers, which went on to release arcade classics, Pong and Space Invaders. This marked the beginning of the mass appeal of games, games that were designed from the outset to be fun. I'd like to speculate this shift of focus towards 'fun' might in some small part, be due to Nolan Bushnell's (co founder of Atari) previous work in the entertainment industry as well as his high-school job in an amusement park.

There we are, two decades of experimentation, development, success and failure condensed in (roughly) 300 words. Must of it should be fairly accurate, although probably not all that interesting.

First and foremost.

Ok, so this is blog entry number one. My very first blog ever entry in fact and I have to say its abit daunting. I’m not entirely sure how to write for it, let alone what too write. I’ve never had the urge to start a blog before. They seemed to me to be a place for self indulgent star trek fans to argue over who was the best captain. Or frustrated middle management types to whine about their lives and rehash old Dilbert strips They never really seem to offer anything us full or interesting, but the internet has given everyone a voice so I guess its up to them how they use it. I'm also aware of the hypocracy in that statement, as I'm about to do more or less the very same thing (minus the star trek debate). Oh well.

Its odd I feel like I’m writing a speech that’s going to be broadcast, which I suppose isn’t too far from the truth. That is if anyone actually reads it I suppose.

I'd like this blog to be in some way entertaining for the reader, but I'm not sure how to go about this. I guess the best way is to keep at it and see how it goes. I'd like to say I'm going to update weekly but know me that will be hard to maintain, as I tend to find slightly more frivolous things to do...

I have just spent an absurd amount of time looking through Dilbert archives.........