New Games Need New Eyes
San Antonio is becoming a bit of a hotbed in the IT industry and more IT business means more geeks. Capitalism has done the job and a number of geek-centric facilities have started popping up around the city. Tucked away on an isolated back-street not far from downtown is a small coffeehouse-come-bistro with good food and killer coffee. Thus its no surprise that a number of us have chosen it as a periodic rally point for intellectual stimulation. Sort of a modern Salon dMadame Geoffrin, if you will.
This weeks cognitive swashbuckling took a turn towards video games as it periodically does. The conversation got interesting as a senior admin at a local hosting company leaned forward to address the gathered geekery, I believe our esteemed colleague from Microsoft has had enough for one evening. He is after all, somewhat outnumbered by the Tux-toting Disciples of Torvalds here. But the conversation on software makes me think a bit. As kids we all played video games, and I remember opening a box and digging into a new game. Finding bugs back then was so rare that it granted bragging rights. Where did this change?
Thus began three hours of heated debate ranging from consoles to PCs and covering nearly every genre imaginable in search of exactly what has happened to change such a foundational element of the gaming culture. I couldnt help but consider that the same conversation had some bearing on recent articles at Ten Ton Hammer, and perhaps worthy of some recasting in humble written form. I think itll answer some questions about how the cycle of buggy games started, and how the rise of indie games has changed that model again. Finally, well consider what that might mean for us the gamers and our expectations with some of the recent larger crowd-funded games.
The Medium of Delivery
The reason games seem buggier is actually pretty simple. They are, and for a few reasons. In part its because games are absolutely huge compared to what we started with. A team of a couple guys coding a game small enough to fit on a floppy disk (back when disks were actually floppy) were infinitesimal by todays standards. With so much less code and only a couple folks working on it, the chances of bugs were just exponentially smaller to begin with. Then catching the few mistakes was way easier than it is today because there wasnt far to look.
But the main reason games are buggier these days is probably due to the delivery method more than anything. When a patch for a single issue meant mailing physical copies of the files to people, or if you were lucky maybe a day or two downloading via modem, you had to get it right. A buggy game just wouldnt sell, and future games by the company would suffer by association. Buying a game and finding a serious bug was just a big deal a couple decades ago because there was no easy way to get a fix.
As internet speeds have climbed and internet access has become virtually a given for any house-hold, bugs arent as critical as they once were. Any fixes are immediately accessible by the players with the click of a mouse and chances are they never even bought a physical copy of the game in the first place. Also, as theres no sense in spending all that money on quality assurance when theres no longer the same dire consequences for small glitches, the results become a forgone conclusion.
This particular point created a bit of a disruption as friend from a local telecommunication provider virtually exploded in outrage that anything short of perfection should be acceptable. A few in the group attempted to point out how it did make a bit of sense from a business stand-point, but the pattern of perfectly arranged sugar packets and geometrically aligned tableware in front of the individual in question suggested we wouldnt be winning that particular argument anytime soon.
The Indie Revolution
Instead, knowing our compulsive friends obsession with a certain indie game, someone piped up, Well, what about Minecraft? A very good question it was, as could be gathered by the sudden silence and considering looks on several faces around the small lounge. Its not just Minecraft, but any in the host of indie games that are starting to gain in popularity. Theres no argument that most of these games have a large number of bugs, and ship with missing features as a matter of course.
Nearly all of us in the room are frustrated with the amount of bugs we find in modern games, after all I nearly threw my coffee cup through a wall this weekend when the new Total War game desynced on a friend and I yet again. Yet I didnt bat an eye when my Minecraft client crashed later that same day, and looking around me I could see similar thoughts on other minds.
The corporate gaming industry managed to sort of sneak in a new standard of acceptable buggy games on us due to the modern ease of patching, but I dont think we ever fully bit on it being completely okay. Despite hating it when the big box publishers do the same thing, the indie game industry churns out games with missing functionality and loaded with bugs, and we smile while we throw money at them. So you really have to stop and wonder, whats the difference?
Honestly, you havent seen funny until youve seen half a dozen guys who consider themselves the embodiment of exceptionalism in their respective fields and masters of problem-solving stumped by a question. Theres this moment of panic as they realize that for one of the first times in their lives, not only do they not know the answer, but they dont even think they can make a decent guess. Then theres an added layer of embarrassment that intellectual supremacy has been thwarted by a mere question on video games.
I didnt let them suffer for long (though I did let them suffer a bit. I mean it was just too funny not to.), because Id actually been thinking about this for a while and had a thought. Basically, I think we accept it because we dont buy indie games. We support them, and it seems to me that this is a critical difference mentally. I didnt buy Kerbal Space Program or the Universe Sandbox. I thought those were neat ideas that I wanted to see expanded, and I threw some money at them to help them continue their work. Because they appreciated my support, they gave me access to their product while they develop it.
After kicking the idea around for a bit my fellow egotistical eggheads seemed satisfied that there might be some sort of latent social pressure or subconscious acceptance on those grounds. No one was really interested in exploring the potential social aspects any more than that, because well lets face it, Im sitting among some of the most brilliant people I know, and not one of us even remotely approaches what you might call being socially adept. Or even competent for that matter, so we just accepted the idea as probable and moved on.
Clear and Present Development
Moving on actually posed one of the more interestingly divisive and relevant questions of the evening, which was how we apply that to some of the recent crowd-funded titles. Among us were Planetary Annihilation, Star Citizen, and Shroud of the Avatar fans, not to mention dozens of much less known titles. Bigger staffs in some cases, but for all intents and purposes, were sort of talking about indie games. With that in mind, what do we expect of these games and which standard do we apply to them?
I have to report that the answer is pretty decidedly inconclusive, or at least none could be agreed upon among that small company. Theres sort of this expectation that with more money and a larger staff, were not really talking about indie any longer, but that has to be mitigated somewhat by the fact that were being given access to the games in development as we would an indie title. In the end, whichever of those two points you feel most strongly about is really what side of the line you appear to fall on with this question.
As I typically do, I find myself rather in the middle. For one, I do think there is a need to sort of re-evaluate what success looks like with some of these games because they are giving them to us in portions. PA specifically is delivering the game a patch at a time, while both SC and SotA will roll out more modularly. I think we can expect the games to be distinctly unfinished, just like weve seen with KSP and Minecraft over the last few years.
However, these guys have a lot more money and more man-power, dramatically so in Star Citizens case. Its more than reasonable to expect more of these larger teams than you would of the smaller, but defining more is the trick. It seems like the respective teams understand that and are already taking steps. PA is offering an expanded map, the opportunity to play what amounts to Total Annihilation on a galactic scale. SC has expanded the size of their universe modestly, but has promised a much more complex game than originally envisioned. SotA, in true Lord British fashion, is promising innovation and an unparalleled immersive experience.
So I think that this will be the trick to judging progress in these new games, and whether theyre being successful or not. With each update, we have to look to see if the games are progressing on their stated target, not whether or not the release as a game is good. Using SC and SotA as examples then, I would expect that each SC update expands the game and adds more things to do. Obviously, well have more to do with the release of the dogfight module, but as they update it further we should get more configuration options, more complexity in our ships, maybe more mission types to fly. Each SC module on down the line should see similar expansion in capabilities. Thats what Im looking for to grade their success.
With Shroud we should find a little more to do in each update, but we should really be looking to see that the updates make the world around us more immersive. Also, they promise to think outside the box, so Ill be looking for new mechanics or systems that I havent seen in other games before. The standard hot-bar of combat actions weve seen over the last decade and slot-based crafting system are just not going to cut it. New ideas arent easy, so I expect well see more bugs than we might in a development like Planetary Annihilation, though not nearly as many as we probably will with Star Citizen with all of its complexity.
Anticipation and the Heart
The conversation sort of started drifting apart with the final thought, which was whether the new style of development is better, worse, or just different. There really is something to be said for experiencing a finalized game in its intended form. Then conversely, theres a lot of reward in being involved with the development as a fan, and no doubt a huge boon to the developers being able to adapt on the fly to things that dont go over well.
Like when movies recently started flirting with showing in 3D again, I expect well see some successes and some failures. Which we see more of will largely determine what direction the industry takes moving forward from here. A big part of that success or failure may come down to whether or not we can train our eyes to a new way of looking at the developing games. Additionally, the developers will need to be especially cognizant of how theyre being perceived and work to manage it. Players are used to being told with beta access that a game is in development, so showing them the difference will be tough.
Ive said before, and Ill repeat it again, its an interesting time to be a gamer. We could see some seriously significant changes to how games are made over the next years, and now more than ever we can take a hand in it. I think thats why as we were standing up to leave that one of the final comments stuck with me, If theyre going to pull this off, social media and community relations are probably going to be the key for those guys. They could easily live or die by what memes spawn out of their forums. I sure hope theyre paying their Community Manager enough! Then in true geek fashion, the Salon de Hackery broke up to chuckling and the soft light of tablet screens.