Telltale May Not Makes Games, But They Do Make Magic

25 Jul

There’s something that’s been on my mind for a while (since GDC, for sure, and long before that, truth be told). What prompted me to share my thoughts now was an email I got the other day from an Australian journalist — Patrick Stafford — about something that happened at GDC 2015. Here’s the portion of his email that led me to this post:

“At GDC, I was at a panel about Telltale’s games – a bunch of their writers were speaking. At one point, Kevin Bruner asked the audience something along the lines of, ‘does anyone here think that what we make shouldn’t be called games?’ I looked around, and I believe I saw you raise your hand.”

Truth be told, the guy was right. I did raise my hand in answer to Kevin’s question, and I have to own up to the fact that I was expressing a sincerely held belief. I’ve often said Telltale makes things that are game-like, but not exactly games. I think of them as some sort of interactive experience (obviously), but does that mean “game?” I don’t think so.

Now, before people get their shorts in a knot about this, let me say a couple of things:

First, the definition of “game” is so broad (and ill-defined… and debated…), Telltale’s work can clearly be said to fall under that umbrella, if you want to put it there. And if you do want to put The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us, Tales from the Borderlands, Game of Thrones and others in the “game” category (or, to cite a non-Telltale example, David Cage’s Heavy Rain), go ahead. I’m not religious about this. Labels, at the end of the day, aren’t all that important, you know? Understanding how something works is important, but labels, not so much.

Second, I love Telltale’s work. The fact that I think of The Walking Dead et al as wonderful experiences but not wonderful games may seem like a subtle distinction, but it’s an important one for me.

So, circling back to Patrick’s email, I figured I owed him a response and, at the same time, thought this was a good opportunity to think through – for myself – my feelings about Telltale’s work. So let’s tiptoe through the minefield.

When I think of games – narrative games — I think of several things: plot (of course), but also challenges, goals and solutions. I think of character progression. Unlike, say, David Cage, I think of systems and mechanics – I think a lot about that. I think of players having some impact on the narrative or, at least, how that narrative plays out minute-to-minute (given each player’s unique skills and the choices each makes in overcoming developer-created problems).

That last one is the most important to me, personally, something to bear in mind here. Nothing else (literally nothing) is more important to me. Your mileage may vary.

I’m absolutely not saying that all games should or must empower players, giving them ownership of the narrative at the minute-to-minute level. However, if you accept that idea, even simple choices can make a difference. You don’t have to go full-on Mass Effect or, if you’ll indulge me, Deus Ex. It’s fine to empower players in small and/or conventional ways:

  • Which weapon do I use to defeat an enemy? A perfectly reasonable, if minor experience differentiator.
  • Do I go up here before going down there? Again, giving players even this amount of freedom is a small win.
  • Do I wait for a long straight piece to fill in a narrow gap or do I drop the L-shaped piece that’s already on the screen? Even Tetris tells a player-recounted story, of a sort.

You can probably think of dozens, hundreds, thousands more of these small differentiating elements, from games that most people wouldn’t think are particularly player-empowering. The ones I’ve listed, and the others you can think of, may be the lamest choices imaginable (though I’m not saying they are). Lame or not, each of these player-driven decisions significantly differentiates one player’s experience from another.

(As a note, the test of whether a choice has made a meaningful difference is whether two players, discussing their experience, describe a unique moment, even if the outcome of a choice is the same for both of them.)

For me, differentiated experience is a defining characteristic of games – maybe the defining characteristic.

By contrast, Telltale’s work, though incorporating a kind of player-empowerment, limits player options in significant ways.
Let’s go back to the list of things I think of when I think about game narrative – challenges, goals, solutions, mechanics/systems and character progression.

If you’ve experienced any of Telltale’s work you’re probably way ahead of me, but here’s my take:

Games like The Walking Dead certainly offer story, challenges, goals and solutions. Isn’t that enough to call them games and put all this seemingly nit-picky labeling behind us? Obviously, I don’t think so or I’d just stop right here and say “Oops. Never mind.” So what is it about Telltale’s work that makes it hard for me to say they’re games?

For starters, they basically have no mechanics (or when they do introduce simple mechanics — shooting while backing up stairs and such — they seem out of place and unnecessary). There’s no character progression to speak of. And there’s no real player control of the minute-to-minute. That last point is key.

Everything Telltale offers is pre-planned — even the game-like qualities they do incorporate. The challenges, the goals the solutions, everything is determined and constrained by the designers through a script that I’m pretty certain utilizes a traditional branching tree structure. (True confession time: I don’t have any inside information about how things work under the hood at Telltale, but I’d love it if someone who did know would chime in and tell me!)

If my experience of Telltale’s work has led me to the correct conclusion, you can’t really go where you want to go when you want to go there and I don’t think there’s ever the possibility of a player discovering a freeform, player-driven solution to a problem.

What that tells me is that Telltale is less interested in empowering players and, like a novelist or film-maker, more interested in the story they want to tell. It tells me they’re not much interested in the player’s impact on the minute-to-minute unfolding of the experience. Nothing wrong with that, though it’s not a choice I’d likely make as a developer. What Telltale clearly does care about is character interaction and dialogue choices that give the illusion that players have a role in directing the narrative. And they clearly value choices that feel meaningful (even when they’re really not). Man, does Telltale get choices.

Paradoxically, these player-limiting characteristics and the focus on linear story elements are, I think, where the Telltale magic happens.

Magic? You bet. The magic is that the choices Telltale offers say little or nothing about the characters’ feelings about a situation… and they’re not about allowing players to min-max or optimize or save-and-reload until they find the “best” solution to the puzzle or problem. Do you know how rare these characteristics are in games?

Pretty rare. The magic of Telltale’s choices – the magic of their work, overall, is that I, at least, and I suspect many of you reading this, forget the character you’re playing. The choices Telltale asks you to make as you wend your way through their artfully crafted stories reveal something about the player’s feelings about right and wrong. Telltale forces you to, within script constraints, think about what would be the best thing to do in a given situation if you encountered that situation in the real world 9or a zombie-infested one…). “Game space” is subordinate to “real space” and character development is subordinate to players’ realizations about themselves.

Despite featuring strong, well-developed characters, Telltale’s scripts force players to think for themselves and about themselves. That’s awesome and, if I may say, what I’ve always tried to do in the games I’ve worked on. I’ll let others decide how successful I’ve been. Clearly, Telltale’s approach is working.

Telltale succeeds at this not because their mechanics are great or their puzzles are challenging or their worlds are open-ended. They succeed because their scripts are flat-out better than other people’s, and even more important, those scripts pose ethical dilemmas that are more subtle and problematic than anything anyone else in the game business has on offer.

Is there more to the magic than talented writers and an interest in ethics? I think there is. Again, I have no inside information, but I think there’s a structural thing going on that’s pretty old-school but still very effective: I’ve already mentioned the branching tree structure. Telltale’s work takes that to a whole new level.

Without meaning to disparage anything or anyone in any way, I often describe the Telltale (or David Cage) approach as jamming several movie scripts together. And, then, refining those scripts so they intertwine with one another to give the illusion of player choice, rather than the reality of it.

That has some interesting side effects that make it hard for me to apply the word “game”:

No matter how convincing the illusion is, I’m pretty sure no one at Telltale has ever been or will ever be surprised by any choice any player makes. Millions of players can play, but because writers and designers carefully craft every choice ahead of time, the possible outcomes all exist, in some metaphysical sense, in “script-space,” regardless of which choices you select.

And no player will ever surprise themselves as they play because they really have very little freedom, if any, to leave the tracks laid by the intertwined scripts. Players will be surprised by the choices and consequences afforded them by the talented, creative people whose scripts they’re experiencing, but nothing can happen unless a writer/designer implemented it in the first place. Being surprised by something – largely a result of interactions between tools/interactions with in-gameworld elements – requires giving players control at a level Telltale simply won’t allow.

That means that the only difference between my experience and yours in a Telltale game is that I chose one script and you chose another. You saw a slightly different scene than I did but, ultimately, your script and my script will converge again, maybe even in the very next scene. In reality, we’re both experiencing a single story, just a well-disguised one. We can compare our choices with other people’s choices – something Telltale exploits in an exceptionally elegant and compelling manner — and the results seem player-driven because branching done in a sophisticated manner works that way. But that comparison of my pre-planned choices versus your preplanned choices is all players can do. They can’t really make a difference. It’s cool that you made the same choices as 42% of players, but that doesn’t add up to a game-defining, player-driven narrative in my book.

That it works at all is part magic trick and part something else (which I’ll get to in a moment – remember the words “familiarity” and “comfort”). And, just to restate in a slightly different way something I said earlier: I don’t believe Telltale’s magic tricks make their work “less than” or “worse than” other interactive narratives or works more irrefutably classified as games – far from it. Magic is cool – cool enough that The Walking Dead was my favorite interactive experience of 2012 and Telltale’s more recent work is compelling as well.

Going one step further, I’m so inspired by Telltale’s work that I actually thought about trying to make a game in that style. I’m sure it’s a lot harder than it looks, but I suspect it would be like writing a choose-your-own-adventure book (with pretty pictures). I wrote some pick-a-path stuff back in my tabletop days and had a lot of fun with it so, yeah, I’ve thought about exercising that muscle again…

Anyway, let me give you a sort of a bottom line (“sort of” because I’m not really done yet – this is just an illusion of closure…).

If you need to put a label on what Telltale does, here’s my answer: No, they’re not making games. They are, as I hinted earlier, making “experiences” (my preferred, if imprecise term). To be more concrete, and at risk of being mocked for resurrecting a term long thought dead, let’s say Telltale is the place that finally cracked the “interactive movie” code.

Terminology aside (and my embarrassment at using it), for those of you who’ve been sleeping under a rock for the last 25 years, the true interactive movie has been the holy grail for a lot of developers and, now we know, the experience of choice for a lot of players. And Telltale’s better at it than anyone else.

I know there’s no great insight in trotting out the hoary old chestnut: “interactive movie.” (I fully expect a fair amount of grief about even typing those words from the deeper thinkers among you.) But I think an accurate hoary old chestnut is better than lumping Telltale’s work in with clearly categorizable narrative games that function in fundamentally different ways and offer players fundamentally different kinds of experiences.

One final semi-relevant thought (and now I really am wrapping up): A large part of Telltale’s success probably stems from the familiarity normal people – i.e., non-gamers – have with existing media like movies and television. People get movies and TV and, therefore, have a high level of comfort with a work that looks like a movie or TV show and feels like a movie or TV show – but one that can be redirected in simple, safe yet still compelling ways by the viewer. A lot of developers – I’ll include myself here – would be well-served by focusing a little more on familiarity and the comfort of our audience. Going to them rather than insisting they come to us makes a lot of sense, something Telltale gets (and I do not…).

So does Telltale make “games” or “experiences” or “interactive movies?” Honestly, despite having just spent pages making some sort of case, I really don’t much care what you call them. Call them poodles for all I care. As long as Telltale keeps doing what they do as well as they do it, I’ll be a happy guy.

BTW, I was going to end this post with something along the lines of “If you want to comment on this, I’m eager to engage in a dialogue about Telltale, games and narrative. However, I beg you to refrain from using the terms ‘narratology’ or ‘ludology.’ Those words make my skin crawl. I’ll probably ignore any comments that go there.” I was going to do that, but thought it might be too obnoxious, so I didn’t. Well, now that I think about it, I just did end my post with that comment (foolishly, no doubt). First mine, triggered, I guess. Have at me.

I’m done now. Got to go play some Game of Thrones

DSGA year one recap, part 5

6 Jul

We had a focus. We had a staff. We had students. So how’d the first year go?

The short version of the story is it went really well. Things weren’t perfect of course – on day one of the first year I told our 20 participants they were part of the DSGA Beta 1.0 and part of their job would be to help us make Beta 2.0 better. They did a terrific job of that, letting us know through their words and actions where we were succeeding and where we were falling short. Let’s just say they weren’t shy!

On the plus side, our plan to split each day into morning lectures and afternoon lab worked pretty much as planned.

In the morning, we lectured, laying out the concepts of leadership and management. We covered the mundane (what the heck is leadership and how does it differ from management?… how do you brainstorm?… how do you create a compelling resume; how do you interview; and how do you network effectively to enhance the odds of getting a job?… even how to run a meeting so everyone isn’t driven mad!).

We covered, well, whatever the opposite of mundane is (how to conceptualize, flesh out and pitch a concept… how to deal with interpersonal conflict… how to communicate across disciplines… how to turn a bunch of individuals of varying skill levels and diverse backgrounds into a great team with shared goals… how to set up the conditions in which positive studio cultures form… what bumps, challenges and changing expectations you should expect to encounter as you advance in your career…).

And in between, we covered the nuts and bolts of project management (strengths and weaknesses of various team structures… strengths and weaknesses of various project management methodologies… how to work with QA… how to deal with requests from executives who can be, let’s be honest, random at times… how to parse a P&L…)

Obviously, we tried to provide tools for taking the conceptual aspects of these leadership and management issues so they could be applied in the practical environment of actual game development, as experienced in the lab.

The lab itself worked pretty well, too.

For sure, those of us who’d been through building start-ups felt right at home. We had too many people in too little space. We had people with varying levels of knowledge of the their disciplines as well as the softer skills necessary to make a game together. We had people feeling each other out to determine who would be buddies and who wouldn’t. We had people complaining about chairs and where they had to sit. Like I said – it was just like a start-up studio.

But there were some differences as well. Because of our lecture schedule, we didn’t start lab time – actual game development – until after lunch (1-ish), and though the participants all felt they were working hard, their experience didn’t exactly reflect the reality of game development, where hours tend to be long and expectations high. Let me be clear – several of our students put in a lot of time and worked as hard as I would expect any professional to work. But there was a definite tendency for the lab to empty out around 5 p.m. except for our stalwarts. The staff expectation was that the whole team would be in there longer, working until tasks were completed rather than to a time limit. Next year, we’re going to make sure our dedicated few don’t get left alone “after hours!”

Another big difference between real world development and the DSGA was our commitment to giving everyone a chance to lead the team of 20. To accomplish that, we put into practice a plan involving a rotating leadership structure. Every three weeks a different pair of participants would take on the roles of Producer and Game Director (Creative Lead), and those new leads could (if they made their case to the staff) actually change the team structure during their tenure. In practice, this didn’t happen often, but it did happen. Though roles and team structures do change in the real world, they rarely change that often or that regularly, and participants had a hard time maintaining the kind of consistency you look for, both on the management and creative sides of game development. We have some ideas about how to address the artificiality of that approach in year two, without compromising on the idea that everyone will get a chance to lead the team of 20.

Finally, as far as the class/lab split went, we didn’t always see people putting into practice in lab the lessons learned in class. There were communication, skill level and creative clashes exactly like you’d expect in the real world. But where we expected everyone to go right from concept to practice to address those challenges more effectively than untrained (or experientially trained) leaders might, some of the participants had trouble with that. To be clear, many of them were able to use the tools we gave them to lead our diverse team members effectively, but others of them foundered when putting things into practice. This coming year, we’re going to use a lot more exercises and roleplaying to ensure that more of our participants are successful in bridging that concept/practice gap, to their benefit and to the benefit of team and project.

At the end of the day, despite some hiccups, I think it’s safe to say that all 20 participants left with an understanding of how hard the jobs of project leadership and management are. They learned how hard it is to keep a team motivated during an extended development cycle. They learned what it means to be an effective team member and a leader regardless of title and position on a team. All wins…

And here’s one of the most amazing things to me: Despite hiccups, despite radical (though not unrealistic) creative changes along the way and some team restructurings implemented by different leadership duos, the end result was a complete, playable game – The Calm Before (which you can check out here: http://thecalmbeforegame.com/). I told everyone at UT that a completed game wasn’t the product they should expect at the end of the program – the students and what they learned would be the product – but a good, fun, replayable game DID come out of it. (It actually had some of the multi-solution/multi-path stuff I love so much in games.)

So, that’s the high level on class and lab. There were two other aspects of the program that I thought worked really, really well – mentoring and guest visits.

Taking that first one first, the staff met with participants one-on-one on a regular basis, discussing the unique challenges each of them experienced, as a team member and as a lead. The personal and professional growth I saw in our participants as a result of these one-on-ones was inspiring. Of all the things we did, I think these sessions may have been the most valuable.

And then there were guest lectures. We had over 30 industry folks come in to talk about their experiences as game development leaders, as entrepreneurs, as business experts, as discipline leads, and as industry pundits. I’ve been making games for over 30 years and I learned a TON from these folks. Each guest stuck around for an informal lunch, where students could ask questions, engage in conversations and just hang out with people most game developers never even get to meet in their entire careers. I mean, we had the Creative Director from Harmonix come by… founders of Bioware, Bethesda and Certain Affinity… the co-creator of Words with Friends… the President of the Entertainment Software Association… legends like Richard Garriott… industry analysts like Michael Pachter… experts in analytics, HR, game law, contracts, games as a service and even more. The varied viewpoints were critical to what we were trying to accomplish at the DSGA – “there’s no one right way” was one of our mantras – and our students were able to make some amazing connections.

Oh, yeah, and when the program came to an end, many of our students made effective use of the tools we taught, the career fair we organized and the networking opportunities they had and got some really good jobs – at Telltale, Gearbox, Turbine, Disney, 2K and elsewhere.

So that’s it. The first DSGA year is behind us and we’re rocketing toward year two. There’s more information available at http://moody.utexas.edu/gaming-academy and you can always check my blog posts from December 2013 through April of 2014 – https://warrenspector.wordpress.com/2013/12/. If you already know you want to join us you can apply at http://moody.utexas.edu/gaming-academy/apply. But act quickly – the application deadline is just a week away and the class is already filling up!

And with that, maybe I can now get back to blogging about things other than the DSGA!

DSGA year one recap, part 4

29 Jun

Now that my little foray into the messy world of VR is sort of almost please let it be over, it’s time to get back to the DSGA recap. A lot happened in our first year and I still want to talk about it.

When last we spoke, I described how the DSGA found its focus and how we found our staff. Our next challenge was finding students – a program without students doesn’t make much sense, obviously.

We knew what we wanted:

  • People right out of school who wanted to continue their education (without digging themselves a deeper hole of student debt) and who wanted to learn things they hadn’t learned in undergraduate or graduate programs.
  • People from industry – mainstream or indie, we didn’t care either way – who realized they needed to become better team members and team leaders if they were going to achieve the success they desired without spending a lifetime acquiring the necessary skills.
  • People who were so damn good and with such obvious leadership potential that we had no choice but to admit them. I mean, I didn’t want to be the guy who turned down the next Richard Garriott or Chris Roberts just because they lacked an appropriate degree!

But regardless of where these folks came from, we wanted only people who aspired to and had the potential to grow into leaders – official, titled leaders or people with the ability to lead from any position on a team.

Where the heck do you find such people?

It wasn’t rocket science: We spread the word through personal connections the staff had built up over seventy years of game development experience. We asked our Development Council of industry notables to contact their contacts. I went on the road, speaking at a variety of colleges and universities offering game development courses and degrees. We took out ads on Gamasutra. We got booths at conferences to pass out fliers, get email addresses and press the flesh. We built a website and a Facebook page and a Twitter feed. I blogged up a storm. In fact, if you want more information about the program plan, check out the series of blog posts I posted last year (see below for more info) – most of that information’s still valid and useful if you’re thinking about applying.

Out of all that effort, we got a ton of applications, complete with resumes, statements of purpose, portfolios and descriptions of work done on teams and in solo efforts. We played a bunch of submitted games. We argued amongst ourselves and, ultimately, came up with a list of people we wanted to talk to.

We did a bunch of phone screens – 60 or so of them – approaching the process much as we would have if we’d been hiring for a real game team, with the added twist of sussing out leadership aspirations and potential. We looked for people who would be a good team fit, or a challenging fit, or people we thought we could help grow in ways that would further their careers.

Finally, we made offers. Astonishingly, we had a nearly 100% acceptance rate – we made an offer; the offer was accepted. In all cases save one. Frankly, we were pleased but shocked.

We ended up with three people who’d been running their own studios but wanted to learn how to build a sustainable, growing business. We had six who came to us with industry experience at studios large and small. We had nine with educational backgrounds and two who, well, let’s say they fell into the “other” category. We had people with no college degree and others with Masters degrees. We had writers, level builders, UX/UI folks, 3D artists, 2D artists, modelers and coders. And, without going into detail, we ended up with a more diverse set of people than I’ve had at most of the studios I’ve run – and we didn’t try for that; we simply brought in the best people we could and the diversity issue became something of a non-problem.

Anyway, by the end of summer, we had our people. Classes were scheduled to start on August 27th and before that day arrived, we had to figure out how to mold all these people – people used to being in charge – into a functioning development team! We’ll come back to how we did that, and how the first year really went in the next post.

In the meantime, there’s still time to apply for next year’s class. The DSGA is looking for candidates for the 2015-2016 school year. More information about the Academy is available at http://moody.utexas.edu/gaming-academy. Even more information can be found in some of my earlier blog posts from last year, starting in December 2013 and continuing until April of 2014 – https://warrenspector.wordpress.com/2013/12/. And if you’re already sold, to apply go to http://moody.utexas.edu/gaming-academy/apply.

One last (I hope) word about VR

27 Jun

I got an email this morning from a friend who’s working in VR. His comments made it clear that I hadn’t been particularly clear in some of my statements and, certainly, not in my motivation for making them.

So here’s one (last?) set of observations/clarifications on VR and then, if you folks will let me, I’m going to sit back, watch what happens and let history take its course:

1. As an individual, I find VR cool, interesting and compelling. I’m not anti-VR. The content is coming, I have no doubt – I know too many super-smart, super-creative people working to create the unique content that will make the VR experience desirable if not irresistible.

2. As a developer, speaking strictly personally, I’m not much interested in making VR games. That could change, but right now I’m interested in other things. That isn’t to say other developers should follow my lead. I’m just a guy whose head is in a different space these days. (Mostly a mobile space, if you want to know…)

3. As a friend, I hope I’m wrong about VR’s long-term commercial future in the game space. I have lots of friends working on VR projects and I genuinely, truly, unreservedly want their hard work in the VR space to bring them satisfaction and success.

4. As a consumer, I’m torn. I’ll probably buy some sort of VR gear when I can because I’m affluent enough and enough of a geek to be intrigued by new tech, cool content and potential new futures. The question is, am I anti-social enough not to worry too much about isolation from the world or how I look to anyone observing me wearing a goofy headset? Probably, but I’m still wrestling with that.

5. As an investor (not that I am one!) I’d be pushing VR developers to explain how they’re going to overcome non-technical challenges for which I, personally, see no answers. There seems to be an attitude in the press and among fans, at least, of “If you build it they will come.” I suspect that same attitude prevails among VR hardware and software developers, but I don’t know – either because I haven’t paid close enough attention or because they’re just not talking. “If you build it they will come” works really well in movies but not so well in real life. This is the heart of what I’ve been saying about VR and despite trying to be as provocative as I can be without getting downright offensive, I still haven’t heard anyone address the ergonomic and user challenges VR faces – all anyone wants to talk about is content. Maybe there are answers to the non-content questions, maybe not, but I’d love to see people in and out of the field at least try to address them.

So that’s it. To summarize: I’m a VR fan but not a true-believer. I believe VR will be a game-changer (as it were) in many aspects of our future lives but not necessarily in gaming. I want to see VR succeed as a gaming device, but see potential roadblocks being ignored. I see history working against this new tech, but hope smart people can write a new kind of history.

In closing, I’ll just say that if anyone working on VR stuff wants to show off their work I’m always up for demos. Despite appearances, I’m not the enemy and I am interested in what you’re doing. Like I said, I think VR is challenged, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t damn cool…

So let’s talk about VR

26 Jun

I’ve been pretty vocal about my thoughts about VR, both in the past and most recently in an interview I did for gamesindustry.biz. (A few years ago I was pretty vocal about stereopscopic 3D, too, but more about that later.) I’ve consistently thought and said that VR would end up being a fad – not this year’s Next Big Thing or The Future(tm) of gaming, movies or the bringer of peace in our time.

I’ve gotten a lot of responses to that opinion, some of them along the lines of “It’s about time someone said this,” some talking about how wrong I am because VR is so cool and all I need is a demo to make a convert of me.

Let me be clear. I’m enough of a geek to AGREE that VR is cool. I get that. Heck, I supported all the available headsets in a couple of games back in the mid-90s. I can see all sorts of advantages over ordinary, external-screen oriented projects: There’s a sense of scale to VR, a feeling of immersion, a naturalness of some (though just some) aspects of interface and interaction you can’t get anywhere else. I get all that.

I see how cool VR games could be. And I definitely see non-game uses that might ensure VR has SOME place in our 21st century experience.

The question is should we and, more important, WILL we build those games (and non-game applications) and will enough people buy them to make the platform commercially viable.

(And don’t even get me started about all the movie guys getting into VR, afraid they’ll miss the next big thing. VR is NOTHING like movies. In fact, I’d argue that VR demands an approach to content presentation that undercuts literally everything that makes movies unique and wonderful. But that’s another topic for another time…)

Anyway, getting back to the general coolness of VR, my cynicism is largely limited to VR for gaming. For non-gaming purposes, as I said, VR has undeniable and huge potential that really excites me and is likely to appeal to an audience that has no interest in games more “game-y” than Candy Crush Saga. Business, educational and personal users are likely to integrate VR into aspects of their business and personal lives maybe even sooner rather than later.

The low hanging fruit of non-gaming VR is fascinating – VR for virtual meetings, Skype++, training, education and a host of other things seems totally desirable. (For some reason I’m obsessed with the ways in which VR can help phobia sufferers get past their fears. Go figure.). In non-everyday areas of life, the impact of VR seems inevitable and offers a major leap forward in many areas.

All I’m talking about when I trot out the “fad” language is that, for gaming VR is likely to be limited to hardcore players, not the larger casual market. And, though gamers hate hearing this, the business is already turning its focus to the mainstream – not exclusively, but heavily and permanently.

It’s the impact of VR on normal non-game-obsessed humans I’m thinking of when I say VR is a fad. It wouldn’t surprise me if the whole VR thing went away completely. But it would be equally unsurprising if a small group of dedicated geeks who already play games alone or online kept VR going as a niche peripheral, making some money for a handful of VR hardware companies for some time to come.

(And before anyone cites the “enormous” sales of consoles and the audience for online PC games, let’s compare that with the number of people who have smart phones in their pockets right now. The community of real gamers looks pretty small to me in that context.)

But let’s talk about another way to look at new media. Let’s talk a little about the history of technology adaptation as it relates to VR’s its “inevitable” dominance of the media scene.

I realize history isn’t a perfect predictor of the future, but look at technology adaptation historically, and you see something interesting. (At least I find it interesting.)

Adaptation of successful technologies tends to be fairly linear – after some semi-relevant experiments, movies began in the 1890s and grew steadily into a generally accepted part of life. The advent of sound was important, but it’s not like the movies would have ceased to exist without it.

Television was introduced experimentally in the 1930s, with no expectation of commercial success. Upon its release to the public, it has been with us ever since, growing in influence and cultural impact all the while. The advent of color was an important, but evolutionary step without which the medium would have continued unchecked and unstoppable.

Same for radio, personal computers, telephones, mobile phones, stereophonic sound (and successive enhancements), even games themselves.

Successful technologies develop in closed-door experimentation and, upon release, meet a need and develop without breaks. People vote with their dollars for the things they want, those things become part of their lives and they remain so. “Disruption” really isn’t much of an issue once a tech takes hold.

What we see with VR (and stereoscopic 3D) is very different. In both cases, the technology was touted as The Next Big Thing before anyone had any reason to expect that experimental and clearly non-commercial iterations were released commercially. And, most interesting to me, is that they appear, go away, return, go away and return again every N years to rescue some creatively or financially challenged business. The predictable appearance and disappearance – and the seeming blindness and lack of historical memory – kind of amuses me, if you want to know.

Stereoscopic 3D is a case in point. Stereo presentations were popular in the 1890s… and the 1920s… and the 1950s… and the 1980s… and in the 2010s… See the pattern? Every 30 years stereo comes and then it goes. Every time. It was trivial to call out the latest round of 3D movies, televisions and games as a fad that would become irrelevant if not disappear completely. (And, yes, I know 3D movies are still around, but I’d argue they survive because their premium price point helps make up for the mediocre grosses. And with that, I’ll never work in Hollywood, I guess.)

And then we have VR. It was proclaimed as The Future in the 1980s. The New York Times and other mainstream media waxed rhapsodic about it at the time. VR was The Future in the 1990s. It skipped a decade and is now The Future in the 2010s. Yes, optics and head-tracking are getting better. But fundamental problems with the technology still exist that exist well outside the technological advances we’ve seen – headsets that isolate rather than pull people together, can’t be called fashion statements and cause nausea in many users… These are still with us and likely to stay with us. They’re fundamental elements of the experience and they have minimized the impact of VR each time someone gets a burr up their butt about taking the first step toward the holodeck and tries to commercialize it.

So I’ll stand by my VR thoughts.Yes, VR is cool. Technologists and early adaptors love it. But I still think there are challenges ahead. Some of these — cost… quality of optics… lag in head-tracking…– will be solved over time. However, there are others that seem less solvable to me. And it bothers me enough to scream “Fad” because, in part, no one even bothers to address them, so blinded are they by VR’s undeniable coolness. Maybe to shut me up, VR fans simply have to acknowledge problems and engage in dialogue about how to solve them. I’m not an unreasonable guy. Okay, maybe I am, but I’m always open to being proved wrong. It’s just that no one has yet, when it comes to VR.

So… someone tell me you can design and wear a VR headset that doesn’t look stupid and make the user look even more stupid… Tell me how VR can help people – family and friends – engage with one another rather than isolating them…Tell me how a VR game can be both played by an immersed player and still be enjoyed by other people in the room who can’t see what the player is experiencing… Tell me why VR headsets will be the first ever peripheral not bundled with hardware people already want that formed the basis of a successful business. No one I can think of has created a successful business on the basis of a peripheral.

I simply don’t see how those fundamental aspects of the VR experience will be solved. Unless I’m missing something, they can’t be, without fundamentally changing the experience (which means we’d be talking about something other than VR anyway, making this whole conversation/argument moot).

I realize I may look like an idiot in 5 or 10 years. I know lots of you ALREADY think I’m an idiot. But I think it’s too early to tell whether I’m right or simply biased by my prejudices. Similarly, folks enamored of the coolness of VR are equally guilty of being blinded by that coolness – people who tout the potential of VR to be an inevitable game-changer and/or a disruptor express no other argument ASIDE from coolness.

So rather than focusing exclusively on creative compelling experiences and ignoring serious limitations and challenges ahead, let’s acknowledge that there are real barriers to commercial success beyond some very specific needs and relatively small audiences. The prevailing attitude and argument seems to be “if you build it (and the price point and optics improve) they will come.” And I’m not buying it.

What would this dialogue look like if you weren’t allowed to say “cool” or “compelling” or “creative?” What if you had to say “I see the non-creative challenges and here’s how to solve them?” That seems like a constraint that should be informing the VR discussion before we all get carried away.

Coolness isn’t enough to tout any technology (or anything else) as The Future of anything.

Thoughts on E3 2015

20 Jun

I still have more to say about the DSGA’s first year, but I wanted to offer some thoughts on the recent E3 show before it became old news.

For starters, either consoles are far from being dead, as many believe, or the hardware guys are exceptionally good at pretending to be alive, kicking and relevant. I’m not sure which is true.

Content-wise, I went to the show expecting non-stop sequels. To some extent, I was right. You had to work hard to avoid all the games with a 4, 5, 6 or 14 after their names. I will never understand why people put up with what basically amounts to the same old same old gameplay. But put up with it they do – the crowds lined up for some sequels were ridiculous.

It was also hard not to notice all the great graphics. (I mean Forza 6… the new Tomb Raider game… holy cow.) Having said that, there were times when I literally couldn’t tell what gorgeous game I was looking at if I didn’t look at the signage. That was kind of sad.

Couple of mysteries:

With the exception of Oculus Rift, which attracted the usual enthusiastic crowds, I really didn’t see much interest in VR or AR. (I didn’t see Microsoft’s Hololens, but everything I heard says it’s pretty special so take everything I say here with a grain of salt.) The other VR/AR stuff seemed like a big ho-hum to me. Maybe that’s just my prejudice – I think VR’s going to be a fad (again) and at best a minor part of gaming’s future, not unlike stereoscopic 3D, which I also called out as a fad. (I still think I’m right about 3D. Check back with me in five years and you can tell me what a boob I was about VR.)

And where was all the mobile stuff? I saw a smattering of mobile games here and there, but I expected a lot more.

In terms of content, there were lots of multiplayer shooters… lots of multiplayer battle games… lots of old classics making a return with modern graphics. Yawn.

But hidden among all the old hat were some gems of originality. Bear in mind that it’s impossible to see everything at E3, so I’m sure I missed a ton of interesting stuff. Also, bear in mind that I was unwilling to stand in line for six hours (or pull in favors) to see The Last Guardian. And I couldn’t find any evidence that No Man’s Sky was being shown. Those caveats out of the way, here’s what stood out for me at E3 2015:

First, the console guys are clearly serious about indie games and showed a lot of  them – a LOT. That was great to see.

In terms of specific games, let’s start with Cuphead. Simply put, Cuphead rocked. I’m not usually a graphics-first guy, but I’ll make an exception here. Cuphead looked unique… absolutely phenomenal. Maybe it’s just that I’m a geek for classic animation, but I cannot wait to play it, even though the gameplay will likely be too hard for me as a twitch-skill challenged gamer.

Over at the Nintendo booth, it was nice to see a Zelda Tri-Force Heroes. It’s ALWAYS nice to see a new Zelda game. And Mario Maker is totally cool if for no other reason than the possibility that normal humans will find out how hard it is to make games…

In the realm of traditional mainstream publishers, two other  things stood out:

For Honor, from Ubisoft, is a sword-fighting game that looks like it’ll offer something new in the fighting game genre. Looking forward to that one.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how cool Deus Ex: Mankind Divided looked over at Square Enix. Nice to see DX in such good hands.

And then we come to Indicade. Ah, Indicade… If you want originality, that’s the place to go. There was plenty to see there, but three games stood out, all for different reasons. (Differentness is part of what makes indie games cool.)

Wattam from Funomena and Katamari Damacy designer, Keita Takahashi, is just crazy unlike any other game I’ve ever seen. (Frankly, I worry that it’s so different, it might run into some commercial difficulties, but let’s hope for the best.) Wattam is a wonder. Soulful in a medium that’s often soulless… a work of childlike wonder… a real sense of discovery… and often laugh-out-loud funny. I just hope people get it. I’m not even going to describe the graphics or gameplay. I don’t have the words. Just trust me on this one…

Chambara is kind of a stealth fighter. (Like Wattam, it’s hard to describe, which I love about it.) One player character is flat white; the other is flat black. And the world is all flat white and flat black, too, so your character blends completely into the background. Before you can deal with your enemy, you have to find him (or her, gender being kind of a non-issue here). I’ve never seen a game that uses color as mechanic and graphics as gameplay. Very impressive (even if I sucked at playing it).

In Tribal & Error you have to help out a bunch of stone age people who speak a language you can’t understand. When they speak, they display a variety of symbols above their heads. You have to figure out what those symbols mean, string them together to construct sentences and get the stone agers to perform various actions to get themselves out of trouble, (Man, this game is ALSO hard to describe.) A game that’s about language learning that involves no real world languages is something I’ve never seen before. Here’s the paradox: I found Tribal & Error incredibly frustrating to play, but, despite that, I wanted to keep on playing. Language learning as mechanic. I wish I’d thought of that.

So. E3. Mixed bag. A handful of interesting mainstream games. Several interesting indie games (apologies to the games I didn’t mention here…).

I’m left thinking the games medium is in pretty okay shape, but it’s likely to be a very different medium before too long.

Okay, next time, it’s back to the DSGA first year.

DSGA year one recap, part 3

19 Jun

Last time, I talked about finding a focus for the DSGA, one that met an industry need and differentiated us from all the other programs out there. Once that vision was in place it was time to find people who could help take it from conception to reality. In that sense, the situation wasn’t much different than the complex but fascinating process of putting together a game team.

I knew I needed people with real and recent industry experience – people who had built teams, run studios, managed real projects. I’ve never seen the point in having instructors who’ve never worked on a game, or who worked on games ten years ago. Even though lessons of leadership are, to an extent, timeless, the games industry changes so rapidly that recent experience seemed like a must if for no other reason than to provide appropriate context for the lessons we want to teach.

In addition, I needed staff members whose experience didn’t just mirror my own, but differed from it, in terms of the scope and type of games made, the size and makeup of teams managed and the studio/publisher cultures in which they had worked. Varied real-world experience was critical to me and, I thought, to the mission of the DSGA.

Why is that? Well, I’ve hired lots of developers straight out of school and a surprising (and, frankly, distressing) number of grads come to professional development with the idea that there’s One Right Way to do things. I mean, they learned it from their teachers so it has to be right, right? (The power of teachers is pretty remarkable, actually, which offers great benefits, but at some cost…)

Certainty about the One Right Way has always frustrated me. First of all, every team and every project is unique. What worked on one project might not be appropriate on the next. Second, every studio and publisher is different – often to the extent of having radically different vocabularies to describe the same things. And finally, speaking strictly for myself, my teams and studios have typically made different kinds of games than a lot of other developers so, not surprisingly, we’ve had a different way of thinking about and doing things than others. Applying a “one size fits all” philosophy just doesn’t make sense.

But I only know what I know – my way. And my way was born in the crucible of triple-A PC and console games. I’ve never worked on anything small, anything mobile or anything multiplayer. So, I needed people with different experiences, who’d disagree with me on all sorts of topics. (We’ll talk about how that worked out during our first year in another blog post. For now, suffice to say, differentness was a key criterion for me in the staff search.)

Finding people with recent real world experience – and different experiences, to boot – wasn’t easy. The search involved months of outreach and interviews. I talked to a lot of people! I talked to some great teachers with great academic experience. I found great developers without proven teaching skills. Ultimately, I found the two people I wanted and needed to make the DSGA a success.

The first staffer to sign on was Joshua Howard. Joshua was a 15 year Microsoft veteran, filling a variety of positions there – Program Manager… studio head at MS’s Carbonated Games… Executive Producer for the Microsoft Flight team… He also put in some time as Executive Producer at Crytek. That was the kind of professional resume I was looking for. And talk about different experience! But there was more.

Joshua had been a regular speaker at GDC Online conferences and IGDA Leadership Forums. His topic of choice? Leadership. He had studied the topic more deeply than I ever had and was able to articulate core leadership concepts in a way I never could. (Face it, for better or worse – mostly worse, I suspect! – I’m a fly by the seat of the pants guy…) If you’re interested in some of his talks, check them out on Slideshare at http://www.slideshare.net/MrJoshuaHoward?utm_campaign=profiletracking&utm_medium=sssite&utm_source=ssslideview and if you want to check out his blog, it’s at https://thereisnothem.wordpress.com/. He hasn’t updated it in a while (and feels appropriately guilty about it) but what’s there is well worth reading.

Oh, and I’m totally jealous of Joshua’s lecturing ability and style. Damn it.

Then it was on to the search for staffer #2. That search led me to David “D.S.” Cohen. David’s background is as different from mine as Joshua’s was, and different from Joshua’s as well.

David comes to the DSGA with 16 years of videogame experience. He started in 1999 as a Marketing Coordinator on the publishing and licensing side before moving into Producer and Senior Producer roles for companies large and small (Warner Bros. Interactive/WB Games, Brash Entertainment, Oddworld Inhabitants, National Geographic Society, and Schell Games). He’s also a student of video game history (see http://classicgames.about.com/) writing and editing series of articles about classic video games for About.com.

David’s experience runs the gamut from small projects to large ones… casual, educational and elearning… ports and licenses… mobile, PC and console.., online, multiplayer, single player… Like I said, very different from me!

Oh, and David wrote a book about game production – Producing Games: From Business and Budgets to Creativity and Design (http://www.amazon.com/Producing-Games-Business-Budgets-Creativity/dp/0240810708/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1366136278&sr=8-1&keywords=Producing+Games).

Both David and Joshua were clearly committed to helping leaders-to-be achieve both personal and professional growth. I was sold and convinced them to join me at the DSGA.

We had a staff.

Next time, we’ll talk about students.

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