Shovelware, also good for developers

So much crap, so little time

Chris Kohler, writer for Wired and generally awesome guy, posted today a provoking opinion piece on the “questionable” quality of some releases on the Wii. After a recent Game|Life video podcast where he looks at a number of these titles it’s not surprising that he has an opinion on shovelware littering the Wii lineup. What’s more surprising is his full–hearted defense of shovelware. Not of its quality — the lack thereof is in no dispute — but rather the necessity of shovelware to a flourishing system.

Kohler in his opinion piece comes to three basic points on why he believes shovelware is a good thing. They are (in no particular order):

  • Shovelware can occasionally be actually good or interesting
  • Players like choice, even if that choice is between bad games
  • Lots of shovelware demonstrates a hands–off approach by the console manufacturer

Chris has his own reasoning behind each point that you can read for yourself. However, let’s delve into the first point on the benefits of shovelware. Here, Kohler discusses how within the pile of terrible titles that comprise shovelware, a few gems do shine through.

D3 Publisher made its name by selling cheap budget software in Japan, under the Simple 2000 series. And they seem to be doing fine, too… A lot of the early Simple series games weren’t good, but eventually they had some hits.

D3 managed to break into a market that had been controlled by the same few publishers ever since the Famicom days. Could Bold Games or Conspiracy Entertainment bring us the next Oneechanbara? How about the next Zombie vs. Ambulance? You never know; they might come up with a game that’s actually worth twenty bones.

It’s like the old adage, you throw enough crap and something will eventually stick. But there’s a more essential truth hidden underneath this reasoning. And I believe that it’s probably the best reason why shovelware is a “good” thing. Yes, sometimes shovelware can be good. But those few interesting games can’t change the simple fact that most shovelware is utter garbage. When developers are creating shovelware rarely is quality the objective.

Developers don’t choose to work on shovelware to make great games. They make shovelware to pay the bills. Or fund another interesting project. Or simply to get their hands on something they otherwise wouldn’t touch. Shovelware is good not because the titles are good, but because it allows good developers to gain something.

From Ping Pals to Contra

WayForward — the development team responsible for cult Gameboy game Shantae — did exactly this with their titles on the DS. In 2005 they developed Ping Pals for the DS, a launch title that was by all accounts both bad and useless. Last year they released two titles for the DS (Contra 4 and Duck Amuck) that received their fair share of critical acclaim. Yet in an interview with Stephen Totilo of MTV Games WayForward creative director Matt Bozon about how developing Ping Pals was the first step in making titles like Duck Amuck and Contra 4.

“We had to prototype [Ping Pals] in the first 24 hours, having never seen the hardware, which is a huge testament to our programmers,” Bozon said. They had just a handful of weeks to make the game. “We needed dev kits desperately, and here was a chance to get them.”

What did WayForward get for releasing a subpar product? In exchange for temporary thrashing by the critics and a few months spent on development, they got early access to DS devkits. They got a title that went on to sell over 90,000 units. And most importantly, they got the funds to keep on going while they pitched better ideas.

No one outright loves shovelware. But in many ways shovelware is a necessary component of any successful medium. For the consumer shovelware has its own benefits as Chris Kohler addressed. But shovelware isn’t just beneficial for consumers. Developers can also gain a lot from developing throwaway titles.

Leap Day (or weekend) away

One of the intriguing ideas I walked away with from this past GDC was creating a Leap Day game. The premise is simple: take that extra day we’re given once every four years and use it as a day to simply make something. In this case, to rapidly prototype a game within a single day.

Rapid prototyping and development over the past few years has gone from something only a few development studios did to a fairly common development methodology among all game studios. Even if companies haven’t completely bought into full–scale rapid development, we’ve seen the adoption of AGILE and SCRUM throughout the industry. Maxis, for example, has long evangelized the benefits of quickly throwing together mechanics for testing with projects like Spore. And most famously Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center has had the Experimental Gameplay Project running the past few years where students quickly prototype a new game every week. Two of these games this past year have gone on to become full–fledged projects themselves with both World of Goo and Crayon Physics Deluxe winning awards at the Independent Games Festival at this past GDC.

Obviously seven days is seven times as long as one, but even in a single day one should be able to craft a simple mechanic into some playable fashion. And the end goal is not to create a fully–functional polished game, but to get the creative juices flowing. I hope to document the process here as I attempt to basically take one of the interesting mechanics as discussed at this year’s Experimental Gameplay Workshop (replay) and fashion a game with at least one level around this idea. Officially, I will start as 12:01 AM EST time and as long as my body and mind is willing I’ll attempt to stay up and design and program. Continue reading “Leap Day (or weekend) away”

Has it been a week already?

And thus ends another Game Developers Conference. The lack of updates corresponded pretty directly to how awesome a week it was. Lots of great people, great sessions, and most of all, great games. There were two nights with far too much alcohol involved for me so I apologize to: Derek Yu, John Swisshelm, Tommy Refenes, Will Hankinson (and Annie Lauser and Junius), and anyone else who had to deal with the consequences of my jack–assery. I’ll be posting a more in–depth GDC writeup tomorrow.

Adventure as textual exploration

This article was originally written on October 13, 2005 for The Next Quarter gaming blog. It has been unmodified except for the addition of images.

This week brings the release of one of my more personally anticipated games, Gyakuten Saiban: Yomigaeru Gyakuten or otherwise known to Americans as Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney.

To get the basics out of the way, Phoenix Wright is an adventure game in the classical sense (classical equating to text) that revolves around a series of court cases where you play fledging defense attorney Phoenix Wright as he tries to defend his clients from wrongful convictions. This is actually a series consisting of now four games (three on the GBA and 1 on the DS) and Capcom has finally decided to localize the 1st DS game, which itself is a remake of the 1st GBA game (with the additions of DS-specific features and stories).

With pretty stellar reviews and lots of positive responses from various sources, I’m sure I will enjoy the game thoroughly. And truthfully, these sorts of games ranging from any Lucasart SCUMM game to the ancient Infocom text adventures have always appealed to me.

Yes, I didn't include King's Quest I'm sorry okay?
From left to right: Zork II, Day of the Tentacle, Myst, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney

But adventure games have always represented a tricky conundrum in the face of serious game design. This problem arises from the fact that adventure games are possibly the most diametrically opposed type of game that we as ludologists tend to champion. These adventure games tend to be low on meaningful user interaction, devoid of just about any sense of user narrative, and almost always entirely stress content consumption. Or to explain in greater detail: interaction is strictly limited to minor puzzles designed merely as roadblocks towards advancement in the plot; the idea of users forming their own narratives from the game universe is disposed of completely in favor of glamorizing the designer’s narrative; and these adventure games have virtually no actual replay value since the game experience remains static from one playthrough to another.

Yet all these negativity flies directly in the face that adventure games, despite their seemingly innumerous number of flaws, are fun, are enjoyable, and universally cherished by a wide range of players. Why does conventional ludology seem to fail when it comes to these adventure games?

This seemingly vexing disparity was the subject of a lot of conversation between Chris and I as we tried to figure out what we were missing here. I think ultimately we arrived at the beginnings of a very interesting theory that illuminates very sharp differences between games and other forms of interactive media.

First, we looked at the fundamental reason why we play adventure games. The short answer? Most of our favorite adventure games are renowned for their stories, either dramatic or comedic, epic or intimate, the best kinds of these games have well-written enjoyable plots. The longer answer is that the best examples of adventure games not only have great stories, but also as a whole demonstrate a superior form of writing than any other sort of game. This writing extends beyond the immediate realm of the plot and infiltrates the entire story world presented in any adventure game. After all, half the fun from Sam and Max is from trying the entire gamut of dialogue choices to get the full range of witty responses from all the characters (to the point where players will consciously choose to ignore a “correct” response in favor of provoking dialogue responses from the other “incorrect” choices).

So where does this leave the interactive elements of these games? Well frankly, the interactive elements of adventure games are probably the least important facet in determining the quality of these games (in order of importance I would quickly rank story, graphics, sound/audio, then any sort of interactive element). And designers of these games recognize this fact; any sort of interaction is kept to a minimum since regardless of the specific game any sort of adventure game will be short on meaningful choices.

By meaningful choice, I simply mean that adventure games by their very nature do not allow players to make any fundamental gameplay decisions and those that do tend to be frustrating and poorly implemented. Fundamental gameplay decisions relates back to the idea that adventure games are entirely designer-driven, I as a player typically will not be able to change Guybrush Threepwood into a villain and become a villainous pirate since the story is immutable. Any interactive elements presented, be they the choice of choosing specific lines of dialogue or solving logic puzzles or playing mini-games do not allow me to craft a unique user-driven narrative, but are merely roadblocks to overcome in getting the game to divulge me greater details about the story.

And the games that do present fundamental gameplay choices tend to do it in two poor ways: either by giving the player the chance of dying (failure to complete certain tasks) or by creating some sort of branching story system. The latter still fails to completely break free of the idea that adventure games are designer-driven since the story branches are still entirely given by the whims of the writers and designers and doubly fails since making a good branching story is difficult.

Up, left, die. Up, right, die. Up, down, jump, die. Repeat.
Dragon’s Lair, where dying was most of the game.

The idea of dying in an adventure game is a more interesting decision, but one that tends to become one of the more frustrating aspects (unless the idea of death is played off entirely as another amusing “decision” with no long-lasting consequences. Because typically events that lead to death in adventure games lack any sort of context or logic, you die because you chose the wrong piece of dialogue to speak or you didn’t solve that puzzle correctly in three tries or you failed to properly execute a specific sequence of events. By adding the possibility of dying and subsequently the idea of failure into the game, the designer is implying that some sort of risk versus reward mechanic exists. Except adventure games rarely have any sort of real risk versus reward system because it is nigh impossible to provide any meaningful reward in an adventure game that outweighs the risk. The best possible reward is the advancement of the story or further exploration of the story world and in all adventure games this is par for course, not some special event worthy of risking your avatar’s life. In an adventure game, any successful action leads to this reward for the player and by juxtaposing the harsh penalty of death for the same reward, we get frustrated when while attempting to solve abstract puzzle #13 we die because we couldn’t figure it out in arbitrary number of tries.

This also leads to another problem, death in adventure games tends to be immediate and without warning, there’s rarely any feedback telling the player they are doing something wrong (beyond the immediate “you suck at solving puzzles try again” mechanic). In a more complex game system, there’s typically a granularity of feedback the game gives you to help you understand your progress and currently status in both obvious and non-obvious ways. Adventure games lack this granularity and thus failure is either completely ignored (in most cases) or 100% punished.

So if people play classical adventure games for the story and not for the gameplay, does this make them bad games? Yes in one sense, but the answer Chris and I arrived at takes a different path. I’d rather not delve into the argument whether adventure games can actually be called games or not since these arguments oftentimes are semantically driven. But instead, I can say adventure games function less as games and more as exploration of texts.

We play adventure games the same way we read books or watch films, there’s a story or story world there that greatly appeals to us (I suspect only masochists play adventure games for the puzzles). So why make adventure games at all in lieu of films or literature? The answer lies in the first word, exploration is a theme central to any adventure game. Adventure games uniquely offer the experience over celluloid and books that we as readers of the text can – at our own pace – explore the story, the details nay, the entire world presented in each and every adventure games. And the best adventure games focus most on the last bullet in the list, the story world that encompasses the narrative. While films have their pacing determined entirely by the filmmakers and books can be read at one’s leisure, but don’t encourage going beyond the bounds of the author’s narrative, adventure games are uniquely suited to allow players the chance to perhaps forgo the central plot for extended periods of time to mess around in the universe the writers have crafted so carefully.

Myst, the bane of most gamers, did these two things right. First, you couldn’t die. But secondly, the developers of Cyan realized this central virtue of adventure games and created the Myst world to encourage exploration, wandering, lack of advancement in favor of sitting down in the central library and browsing through each and every book. There was never any pressure to advance, no game character telling you to move along, not even any in-game hints to give players a direction to go in the game. Myst’s entire focus was to create an environment where exploration was pivotal to the entire experience.

David Cage is like Peter Molyneux except at least Peter has made a good game

And doubly, this is what Indigo Prophecy gets wrong with its needless gameplay elements and complex story branching system. Players don’t care that we need to time button presses to dodge traffic or move a body, players don’t care that the central narrative can branch in a hundred different places, and players certainly don’t care that there are failure options present at every turn. When people play adventure games, the demands are simple. We want an interesting text to explore with all but the most perfunctory gameplay excised in favor of this exploratory experience.

I suppose some of these statements are a bit too forceful and there are certainly exceptions to the rule. This is not a concrete thesis on adventure games and their place in the gaming world, but a starting point, a lot of ideas wrapped around a hypothesis dreamt up by two college guys. And the death of adventure games as a viable source of revenue has forced adventure games to either stop existing altogether or change dramatically in hopes of attracting a new audience, so in a few years this model for adventure games may not be applicable.

But then again, perhaps if adventure games branched out to non-gamer demographics and focused on the idea of exploring the text again we might have an interesting revival of sorts. After all there are thousands of cheap paperback romance novels out there for the entire community of housewives, maybe a simple adventure game in that mold could sell. Or what about a non-fiction adventure game set around creating a biographical narrative for famous figures as educational software?

Meanwhile, I’ll be playing Phoenix Wright and screaming “Objection!” into my DS’s microphone.

Unpacking the game

As a kid I was incredibly anal about handling the packaging my games came in. Growing up before there were CD/DVD cases most games — in particular anything for a Nintendo system — were packaged in relatively flimsy cardboard boxes. I took great pains to carefully remove the tape sealing the box; making sure to avoid tearing any of the package along with it. I even made sure to open the box in a gentle way to prevent creasing in the thin cardboard. Opening the game was a ritual of sorts, acquiring a new game was a relative rarity as a child and I made sure to savor every step of the process. Delaying the time until I could jam the cartridge into my console through meticulous unpacking was part of the experience.

As this and many similar stories can attest: packaging matters. It’s often the very first way people are informed about any product (including games). It’s why companies like Apple spend inordinate amounts of time and attention to simple details like the texture of the box. Apple’s packaging is so good that it is not uncommon for people to use it as decoration.

But even the fervor of Mac fans could probably not hold a candle to the nostalgia associated with videogame packaging. Today modern game packaging is at best perfunctory and at times now nonexistent. But games from yesteryear took great care in making sure the box wasn’t a just another barrier to the game, but a potent experience by itself.

The empty plastic bag is a microscopic space fleet

No where was this more evident in the lengths adventure game companies back in the 1980s went through. Partially to compensate for the low-fidelity of the text games themselves and partially to invoke the first steps in universe building, companies went the extra mile in jamming boxes and other unusual containers with maps, hidden messages, and other treats. Infocom became legendary for the amount and creativity of their trinkets. Loving dubbed “feelies” they included items such as a “magick glowing stone” for Wishbringer or “peril sensitive sunglasses” for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (a pair of shades with no eye holes). The entire packaging history of Infocom can be seen at this amazing tribute gallery.

But the unique packaging of games from publishers like Infocom or Origin are now obsolete. Original packaging is expensive to manufacture and cumbersome for warehouses and stores to handle. The demands of shelf space are now at a premium with the death of smaller game stores in lieu of big box retailers. And the truth is that most consumers simply can’t be bothered to care about anything inside a box besides the game. Even the manual has become superfluous as most companies have gone from color to black–and–white to a single sheet of instructions along with a website address.

Microsoft is among the worst offenders in this decline of game packaging. Microsoft in any of their marketing efforts has always lagged behind standard bearers (as famously mocked in-house) and their Xbox–related efforts have not shown much improvement. Even when dealing with things that should be relatively standard Microsoft has managed to screw up. First was the Halo 3 Collector’s Edition tin which had such flimsy design that the DVD was more likely to not be in place upon opening then it was to be in place. And now we have this.

Not my picture, not my copy

Yes, you are seeing right. Lost Odyssey is a monster of a game weighing in at 4 DVDs necessary for all that high–definition video and music. But Microsoft’s North American division has perhaps gone the laziest of all possible routes to fitting every disc into the case. That’s three stacked DVDs on top of each other in the spindle. And to top it off you have the fourth DVD in a paper sleeve on the side. It screams cheap especially when our European brethren at least got a proper 4–DVD case.

Again, packaging is important because first impressions are important. Your first thought when opening this monstrosity isn’t a positive one. You’re left thinking, “Who the hell thought of this?” Even in this era of disposable boxes and cases I like to think that consumers still care about the little details. If we didn’t why people complain about terrible box art? It’s hyperbole to call the case for Lost Odyssey a disgrace. But it leaves an impression and in a world where people can be turned off products for the most minuscule of reasons it seems a bit thoughtless for a corporation like Microsoft to let this slip.

A start

The bushes are clouds. The clouds are bushes.Because even the grandest of journeys start with a single step.

In a few days I’ll get around to a proper About Me post, but first things first. The last thing the world needs is another blog. Especially another blog where the author gets to pontificate for a few weeks or months, gets bored after writing so many thousands of words, and lets it degenerate into another carcass on the internet (cough cough). That’s not to say that this blog won’t be the rule instead of the exception to the rule, but I’m going to try my damndest.

I myself am not a huge blog reader, but there are a few blogs I make sure to frequent. And perhaps the best blog in my blogroll (and perhaps one of the best blogs in existence) is Coding Horror written by Jeff Atwood. In a landscape where most blogs are single sentence entries posting to the newest YouTube video or another blog post (which is posting to a YouTube video) Jeff does something that goes highly unappreciated in the modern world.

He writes original content.

And not just original crap. He writes really good original content. It’s not a personal diary, it’s not a news aggregation site masquerading as a web log, he writes solid, informative entries about software development, programming practices, and other computer-related wizardry. Reading his blog on a daily basis is like attending a college lecture. One of those lectures with that really cool professor who was tough, but fair and knew his shit.

So I’m no Jeff Atwood. I lack both the experience or the knowledge to claim to be anywhere near as talented as he is. But I’m not claiming that I’m a peer. I’m just a 22-year-old guy trying to learn. But learning isn’t just reading and sitting around thinking, learning is nothing without application. And that isn’t just going out and doing something with your newfound knowledge. A wise high school teacher once told me that if you can’t explain something to someone then you don’t really know it in the first place. That’s what this blog is. As I discover new ideas (or just steal great old ones) I hope to talk about them here. And if my explanations make no sense that’s a sign that I’ve still have ways to go.

So that’s the underlying purpose of this blog. Like Coding Horror focuses on software development, gamedrinkcode will focus on games and game development. And I’m going to run with that where even the most tangential of topics are fair game. So one day you may get a post talking about neat coding feature in Actionscript and the next day one detailing the games of Toshio Iwai and then the next day me complaining about the Super Smash Bros. Brawl.

So enjoy the ride.