Volatility

Today, I woke up to this.

The usual caveats about not reading the comments apply. For those unable to follow the link, it’s the press release about layoffs at Zenimax Online Studios, the most recent in the unceasing string of games industry terminations.

I have a lot of feelings about this. It’s where I worked most recently, and I was there for more than five years, which is an eternity in the games industry, and I’ve been there recently enough that a good many of the people hit by the layoffs were my close, personal friends. Most games industry bloggers don’t really talk about the layoffs in specific, because it’s expected– the games industry is “volatile”. It is the biggest, most important thing to internalize for anyone planning on entering the industry– steel yourself for the things you hold dear to get put through the wringer. Whether that’s your own creative output, your sense of your own skills, your hobbies and free time, your family, or your very job itself, be ready, because they will all happen.

To my friends who find themselves without a job, now or whenever, my condolences. It’s never, ever easy, and I hope you land on your feet quickly.

This volatility is hard. It’s the result of highly demanding projects that require large staffs to complete, constantly moving targets and shifting priorities, complex creative tasks, and some amount of guesswork and hope. There are no safe bets in the games industry; even the biggest, most well-beloved franchises can release games that flop, or, more likely, succeed but not enough to continue expansion.

The oft-cited average career length in the games industry is five and a half years, a figure which I see repeated frequently and, anecdotally, seems to hold true, but I can’t find hard statistics to back up. If it is an accurate number, it means that game devs have careers right in the same window as football players in the NFL (NFL Player’s Association says 3.3 years, the NFL proper says 6 years). For a non-physical (read: non-injury-prone), technical, creative industry that a person should be able to retain skills at for an entire career, that number is insane to me.

It’s because we love making video games, and we’re often willing to put up with the associated terribleness that goes with it. I know a lot of people who I’ve worked with who say things like “I don’t know what else I could do”, and indeed, that’s something I’ve struggled with myself. Eventually, though, something wins out. Family, mental health, a more relaxed and better-paying job in a more stable industry. It’s a brutal Catch-22– in order to succeed in the games industry, you have to be smart, adaptable, creative, technically-minded, and possessed of a broad skillset… exactly the combination of things that would make you very attractive outside the industry.

The industry is starting to feel this, I think. Crunch is still omnipresent, but I’ve heard fewer extreme horror stories lately than I had previously. Companies are emphasizing experience more and more, looking for those industry vets (the ones who left the industry for greener pastures after 5 or so years on average). That volatility, though, between the sudden long hours and the unexpected layoffs, burns people out. A big part of the reason I left my last job was because I wanted to take classes, get my Master’s degree, and I couldn’t do so with the volatility of my schedule (much less the possibility of getting laid off and possibly being forced to move across the country again). I’m now in an environment where a majority of the people are taking classes with special dispensation by their employers to work slightly fewer hours to cover class and assignment time, and that’s de rigueur.

Game companies, generally, aren’t interested in assisting their employees’ career growth unless it fills an immediate gap in the company’s needs– this is a result of that volatility, and at the same time is a contributing factor to it. What game devs have instead is the network. You keep in touch with your friends from your various jobs, and everyone understands and tries to help out when one company lays a bunch of people off or goes under. It’s a never-ending cycle of paying it forward, to push against the never-ending tide of volatility.

There has to be a better way, but the people whose interests are immediately served don’t have the stability to work it out, and the companies who would benefit long-term lack the flexibility to experiment. I like to hope that a solution will surface, but I don’t know what that would look like or how long it’ll take.

Being “Tired” of Hearing About Problems

If you’re into video games, the last few weeks have been… tumultuous, to say the least. There’s a lot of vitriol, a lot of hate, and a lot of both things disguised as armchair academics, to say nothing of the overall exhaustion people are expressing with any given issue, or even all of the issues combined.

The exhaustion is, I think, very telling. People are tired of a lot of things, and are more than happy at this point to loudly express it. Otherwise forward-thinking, open minded people sigh and avoid discussion, or attempt to change the subject entirely. There’s very little question that this is harmful for everyone involved, but I don’t think a lot of thought has gone into the reasons why.

Being tired of something, to me, suggests one of three things: change is not occurring, change is occurring but too slowly, or too much change is happening too quickly (assuming we’re talking about being tired of change itself). I don’t think you can make a cogent argument that things aren’t changing, though I think in many ways they’re changing for the better and for the worse in equal measure. The Internet gives a voice to the formerly voiceless, and those voiceless people can be underserved groups or overserved, entitled brats — both have a much louder voice than before.

I think, however, that there’s a break in the discussion, where people shouting at one another precludes communication, to the point where the same arguments are being made over and over and people are getting fatigued. The essential arguments — internet communities are toxic, sexism is real and present, racism is real and present, all have not changed enough for us to even remotely suggest that they’re “solved problems”.

However, what we lack is effective means of communication. Arguments get bogged down in semantics and debates over trivialities, and the discourse doesn’t move forward as a result. Much of this is the result of intentional muddying of the waters, attempting to prevent the discourse from even beginning for any number of reasons.

A lot of this, I think, stems from a cultural issue we have with being wrong. We fight being proven wrong at every turn, and when evidence presented portrays us as wrong unequivocally, we attack the evidence. This is ingrained in us at a young age– a student who is never challenged in grade school is “scored” far better than one who struggles but ultimately learns, and coming from the perspective of the former, I think the latter is by far the more laudable. This constantly continues throughout life, and the Internet only exacerbates the problem. Be wrong once, and any future rightness is called into question.

People are tired of the arguments because they clearly present one side as wrong, and we don’t have a good way of handling that, either from the perspective of the person who is wrong or from the perspective of the person looking at someone else who is wrong. Wrong = bad, and more open-minded sorts will frequently “forgive” someone for being wrong, or thinking the wrong thing, as if that weren’t something we all do constantly.

I’d like to see our discourse move away from attacking whoever is wrong and seeking to find blame, and start looking for solutions. We are far too quick to punish errors rather than laud the discovery of solutions, and it stunts our growth– as people, as a culture, as a nation, and as a species.

30 Posts in 30 Hours: The Manifesto

I haven’t officially participated in Blaugust, but it made for a nice framework for me to launch this site.

In the last 30 or so hours (some of the dates have been altered on my posts so that they’re in the proper order), I’ve put together a list of things that I think about and plan to write about, hopefully if anyone reads them they’ll have a better idea about who I am and how I think.

Putting them here, for an easily-referenced list:

1. Video Games
2. Game Design Theory and Practice
3. Tabletop RPGs
4. Warmachine/Hordes
5. Infinity: the Game
6. Gaming Psychology
7. Relationships
8. The Games Industry
9. Games Academia
10. Linguistics and Definitions
11. Etiquette
12. Technology
13. Food
14. Games I Recommend
15. Stories I Write
16. Books
17. Articles worth reading
18. Miniatures Painting and Modeling
19. Alcohol
20. My Dog
21. Games I’d Like To See
22. The Future of Games
23. Q&A
24. Business and Money
25. Culture
26. Politics
27. Aggrochat
28. Terrible, terrible jokes
29. Cleverness of any kind
30. Things That Are Broken

“Fun”, Defined (Part 2)

We left off yesterday trying to define “fun”. I spoke before about challenge and expression of mastery, two components of fun, and I want to mention them again briefly. The psychological approach says that the brain likes to learn and the ego likes to be recognized– this is the core of challenge and expression of mastery. To create fun, however, we cannot force someone to learn; it’s very difficult to have fun when coerced, and so rather than forcing players to learn, we merely provide challenges and payoffs for said challenges to encourage learning. Voluntary learning is fun. Expression of mastery is in a similar vein– we have moved past simply telling the player “great job!”, though many older games did exactly this. We instead provide high scores, online play, leaderboards, and other such external functions as a measurable demonstration of mastery. Achievements are an extension of this, and are part of the next part of the equation.

So.

Fun = Challenge + Expression of Mastery + ?

Yesterday, I talked about following the money, as it were. Tracing the paths followed by game devs allows us to see the things that are emphasized, where a lot of effort is put forth. These are not decisions made in a vacuum, nor are they made frivolously. Resources in game development are always tight and games vary so widely that a particular feature or concept that crosses games (like difficulty settings) are worth noting, because they hint at a crucial piece of the puzzle. This next part is what we see emphasized in advertising, with each new console generation, in sequels, in indie games, and even in mobile games and flash games.

I’m talking about Spectacle. The loud, bombastic, explosive deluge of a triple-A blockbuster or the serene, calming meditations of a variety of indie games or the simple, focused pleasure of a match-3 mobile game — even the flailing-in-the-living-room spectacle of games of the Wii, Kinect, PSMove, Dance Dance Revolution, etc. I would have once described this as “exploration of beauty”, which I think is still accurate but isn’t broad enough to cover the entire spectrum. Spectacle is a term pulled from a friend and former colleague of mine, who points out that pressing “the most fun button in video games”* is much akin to enjoying the gorgeous desert of Journey and finding fantastic vistas in Skyrim. Whether that spectacle is a particularly satisfying button, a perfectly tuned user interface, a breathtaking visual, a particularly evocative musical piece, or some combination of all of these isn’t important– whatever it is that makes you stop and stare, or say “wow”, or laugh with surprise and awe, that is spectacle. Spectacles inspire awe, and awe is fun.

Fun = Challenge + Expression of Mastery + Spectacle + ?

The last piece to the equation is something that my aforementioned friend would call “delight”, which is linked to spectacle in the same way that expression of mastery is linked with challenge. I agree with the general concept, but in the same way I think “spectacle” describes a broader spectrum than “appreciation of beauty”, I think that a better term than “delight” would be “catharsis”. Video games offer, in many ways, an emotional release, and work to both inspire and satisfy emotions. If spectacle inspires emotion, cartharsis satisfies it. One builds up, the other pays off.

In the end, we have this:

Fun = Challenge + Expression of Mastery + Spectacle + Catharsis

I think this fairly well covers the spectrum of games that are fun, while realizing and accepting that different people will like different games (but all of those game can be fun!). It also gives us ways of analyzing why a game is or isn’t fun. Fun is obviously subjective, but this gives us a framework to understand how games are fun for different people in different ways. Certain games also focus more or less on these various things.

As an example, three extreme points on the gaming spectrum: Call of Duty, World of Warcraft, and Angry Birds. All three of these are highly popular games and their players will tell you they’re fun, but why? Let’s see if we can break them down:

Challenge: Call of Duty requires excellent hand-eye coordination and fast reflexes, as well as good spatial reasoning. World of Warcraft doesn’t challenge the same skills in the same way, but does have a broader scope– challenging a player’s long-term commitment, their ability to comprehend and evaluate complex data, group coordination, pattern recognition and execution, and for many, social skills. Angry Birds also offers challenge, focusing heavily on spatial reasoning and pattern recognition as well as iterative experimentation. All three of these challenge different skills (with some overlap), and it’s thus unsurprising that the playerbases for each game differ very widely (again, with some overlap).

Expression of Mastery: Call of Duty allows players to test their skills against one another directly, as well as offering leaderboards and achievements for difficult goals. Its single-player levels also follow arcs of difficulty, allowing players to become good at fighting a particular enemy type or using a particular weapon and then allowing them to show off their skills with that weapon against foes they’ve become good at defeating. World of Warcraft follows many of the same arcs, with rare, powerful items replacing leaderboards and a heavier focus on team dynamics rather than individual skill. It also allows players to easily return to portions of the game they’ve grown past, displaying their power against enemies that once seriously threatened them — indeed, this behavior has for a long time been a cultural touchstone in MMOs. Angry Birds follows similar logic, with easier levels following difficult ones and ample opportunity to use different bird types effectively, often using fewer birds than allotted to win.

Spectacle: For Call of Duty, this is clear. Explosions, massive set pieces, loud music and flashy effects are on display. The game pits you against a variety of threats and offers you the chance to come out on top, showing off a variety of virtual locales and cinematic sequences along the way. World of Warcraft awes with the size and scope of its world– not only is the world large, but the roles a player can play in it vary widely, as do the ways in which mastery can be expressed. A highly skilled PvP warrior has a starkly different experience than a raid-focused mage, who in turn is wholly unlike the socially-oriented guild leader who spends most of their time talking to other players and growing/galvanizing their network. Angry Birds offers varied levels and a colorful, distinct art style, but for that game the spectacle is less inherent to the game itself and more a function of its convenience– Angry Birds can be played anywhere, at any time, quickly and easily, filling time that its players might otherwise spend bored or unoccupied. This transforms otherwise unsatisfying moments (where someone is forced to wait) into exciting ones (I can play Angry Birds!), giving the game an awe all its own.

Catharsis: Call of Duty’s spectacle is clear, and to some extent so is its catharsis– defeating enemies and beating the game is satisfying, but the more notable catharsis is more subtle. Call of Duty provides moments of high action followed by moments of relative calmness (on the player’s part), as non-interactive cutscenes play out, which in turn drive the high action. Cutscenes are a reward for succeeding at the action, and serve to pay off and then further set up the next action sequence. More subtly, the game is responsive and intuitive, two oft-overlooked elements that are very important. When a player’s emotional response is to move, or shoot, the game accomodates them without fuss, building and releasing that tension in every moment of gameplay. Similarly, World of Warcraft distinguished itself from its competition early on by having a highly polished, highly responsive game that enabled players to perform the actions they feel they should need to. It also pays off move execution, major milestones, and other interactions with sharp, clear audio and visual cues — the well-known “ding!” permeates the entire genre. Angry Birds has similar moments in its responsive controls and overall polish, but the real catharsis it offers is in the satisfaction it provides in what would otherwise be a boring moment, which itself is strong enough to inspire players to play at other times as well.

All four of the pieces of the “fun” equation are important, but different games emphasize them differently. It’s important to consider that different thresholds and paths for each of them will appeal to different people, or frequently the same person at different times. As developers, we can be informed by the things we are emphasizing in a game and how they might affect our audience (and how our intended audience might inform the things we emphasize). As players, we can better understand ourselves and make better-informed decisions about the games we like to play, since time and money are both limited resources.

I hope this was interesting or useful to someone. Let me know if you disagree, or if you think I missed something!

 

*For him, this is the “call assassins” button in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. For others, it’s the last button in that devastating ultra combo. For me, it’s frequently the “oh shit” button in MMOs.

“Fun”, Defined (Part 1)

What is “fun”?

Fun is an ephemeral thing, hard to pin down and harder to replicate. It differs from person to person, and what is fun for one person is anathema to the next. Fun is also absolutely crucial to the success of a game; a game can be brilliantly produced with the blood, sweat, and tears of hundreds of developers, testers, support staff, executives, and everyone else who is involved in its creation, and all of that is for nothing if the game isn’t fun enough for enough people to buy it.

You might note that I said “fun enough” and didn’t stop that previous sentence at “fun”. The qualifier “enough” in both sentences is really, really important, partly because it hints towards a realistic approach to talking about (and reviewing!) games, but also because it gets us a step closer to my goal, which is defining what “fun” is.

Fun = ?

Here’s where we’re at. This isn’t really enough to build a game (or anything else) on, with a definition like this at best we’re guessing and hoping we get lucky. Certainly some highly successful games have done this, but it’s not a sustainable way to make great games, or for players, to recieve great games to play.

That “fun enough” comes back, here. Our equation needs to reflect the fact that this will be different for different people; no single game, no matter how well-made, will be fun for everyone. To this end, let’s find a variable that appears in lots of games that differs from person to person. Our variable is so prevalent that game developers have classically put a lot of work into allowing players to manipulate the way the entire game works just to accommodate it.

That variable is difficulty. Put another way, challenge: which is so important to a game being successful (read: fun) that devs are willing to put time and money (extremely valuable resources) into supporting it for as many players as is feasible.

So.

Fun = Challenge + ?

It’s important, here, to note that more challenge is not strictly better. Challenge rides a very thin line between being so difficult it’s frustrating and so easy it’s boring. It’s also a sliding scale– as a player plays a game, they get better at it, and if they play it too long, they become bored (though the amount of time this takes is widely variable from person to person). The game also has to allow players breathing room, to appreciate the skills they’ve attained in overcoming challenges. If a game’s challenge continually rises with no variation, the sense of progression, of mastery, is lost. This suggests that there’s another factor here, which I’m going to call “expression of mastery”. Players need to be challenged but they also need the opportunity to appreciate the skills they’ve developed while overcoming challenges.

Fun = Challenge + Expression of Mastery + ?

These two things, while important, aren’t enough to define fun, and they leave out a lot of games in the process. They’re a part of things, but there are some other parts missing. As with challenge, I suggest following the trail of developmental money, time, and effort. This isn’t a perfect metric (something I’ll talk more about later), but looking at what game developers focus on can tell us a lot about games.

More on this tomorrow. I’ll talk about what game devs focus on, try to complete our Fun equation, and talk a little bit about what that equation means and how we can use it, whether we’re making games, playing them, or just observing.

Some additional reading: Raph Koster’s A Theory of Fun, from which many of the concepts described here are derived.

30 Things This Blog is About (#30: Things That Are Broken)

Reality is broken. So says Jane McGonigal, and I don’t disagree. I think it’s important to pay attention to the things that are broken, but it’s often even harder to realize when things are, in fact, broken. Oftentimes, like an ailing car, we believe that things aren’t broken, because we know that the effort or cost incurred in fixing them will be high.

This is a human tendency that we must fight at every turn.

We cannot allow ourselves to hope that broken things will fix themselves without our efforts. We cannot allow ourselves to turn a blind eye to things that are problems, or need fixing, even (especially!) if they’re within ourselves.

I have had beliefs that I now know are harmful; I have said things and used words that I, in ignorance, thought were acceptable, even poignant. I have had my car break down suddenly at 80 miles per hour on the highway. I’ve been lucky to have had patient and varied friends, who have broadened my perspective and helped me realize that this isn’t about being PC, it isn’t about being right, and it isn’t about doggedly driving the car until it breaks down and threatens your life and the lives of everyone with you.

The faster we admit that something is broken, the faster we can fix it, and the less pain we’ll incur in doing so. Harmful beliefs are a frayed drive belt on the engine– they will appear to be working just fine until they suddenly snap and your world is thrown into disarray, possibly catastrophically. We live in the age of the internet, the Surveillance Age, where careers and lives are ruined because of harmful beliefs that someone has held onto for too long.

If something is broken, it will need to be fixed or it will break down. I’ve decided that if that something is me, I need to fix it, before the breakdown occurs.

30 Things This Blog is About (#29: Clever Things)

A clever person turns great troubles into little ones, and little ones into nothing at all.

–(attrib) Chinese Proverb

I am obsessed with efficiency. I like problems to be solved quickly, effectively, and with a minimum of fuss. Myers-Briggs pegs me solidly as INTJ, and while I don’t necessarily ascribe completely with the evaluation, it’s definitely fitting in a lot of ways. I want things to be done in tidy ways, and I tend to feel like any problem that is solved with brute force is being solved inefficiently.

I’m also fascinated by the solutions to problems. I love to hear about the clever processes people have discovered to solve otherwise unsolvable (or extremely difficult) issues. I equally love little life hacks, ways of creating little efficiencies and helpful tricks in everyday life, particularly if they’re not intuitive but highly effective. Anything that makes me go “wow, that works? I would never have thought of that” catches my attention.

Similarly, my favorite entertainment to watch involves highly skilled people doing the thing they’re highly skilled at. This can be everything from professional League of Legends to Iron Chef to Ocean’s Eleven and other heist movies. I like to see how things are done at a high tier of skill, sometimes to learn, sometimes just to appreciate demonstrations of skill.

30 Things This Blog is About (#28: Terrible, Terrible Jokes)

I love terrible jokes. They’re really the best. Awful dad jokes, excruciating puns, you name it.

Rather than going on a list of truly outrageously awful jokes, I actually want to try to analyze WHY I like them. Kodra or Ash would probably say it’s because I’m a terrible person who feeds on the anguish of others, and while that’s not entirely false, I feel like there’s more to that story.

Cognitive dissonance is the term for the mental friction between two thoughts or concepts that either contradict one another or just don’t fit. It’s a weird form of discomfort, like pulling a muscle, except that the muscle is your brain. It’s also a really potent source of distress– when you pull a muscle, you limp a little bit, because you’re forced to adjust how you move. When your brain undergoes the same effect, it can force you to reevaluate how you think. I’m a big fan of anything that forces thoughts to go sideways, or otherwise flex in unusual ways.

A really excellent awful joke is like a bridge with a gap in the middle. To cross it, you have to jump, and that jump is a brief thrill for your brain as it adjusts. As you “get” the joke, everything snaps into place suddenly and you laugh. Like a puzzle or a math problem or any other sort of challenge, it’s a brief moment where your brain gets to bend in a slightly unusual way, and it keeps your mind sharp.

Also, I do sustain myself on the anguish of others. Hence the puns.

30 Things This Blog is About (#27: Aggrochat)

The link, if you’re not familiar, is on my sidebar. I have never been much for podcasts, there are relatively few that I listen to, and none regularly. I’ve had a few people ask me to participate in podcasts, and I’ve generally declined, partly because when I’ve been working in the games industry I’ve worried about having people potentially think I’m speaking for the company, when I’m speaking only for myself, but mostly because I don’t feel like I have very much terribly useful to say.

The same, honestly, is true for blogging. I’ve long hid behind “I can’t blog because of paperwork I’ve signed” as a shield behind which the reality is I generally don’t feel like I have useful or interesting things to say. Even this blog didn’t really take off until I framed it as a repository of my thoughts and ideas. We’ll see how well that works.

Participating in Aggrochat has helped me unwind a bit. With the gentle but relentless tidal forces he emits, Bel managed to talk me into doing a few shows, which became more shows until I’m more or less a regular on the cast. I occasionally put on my “game designer hat” and go on some rant or another, which hopefully doesn’t put anyone off, but on the whole it’s rarely any different from my usual nights just talking with Rae, Ash, Kodra, and Bel.

At any rate, hopefully it’s worth a listen. As I say in August 30th’s episode, come here and tell me when I’m wrong, it’ll be fun.

30 Things This Blog is About (#26: Politics)

I’m continually frustrated by politics. This is probably true of everyone in this and every other country. Kodra, if pressed, will probably tell you that I’ve said that I hate talking politics, and this is generally true. I take serious issue with the “red vs blue” political spectrum, and the unyieldingly trenchant taking of sides that marks most political “debate”.

The entire thing makes me think of MMOs. I’ve long said that two-faction PvP doesn’t work terribly well, as it leads to massive imbalances and a lot of direct butting of heads without a lot of nuance. The same is true of politics. In the meantime, PvP factions in excessive numbers tend to create a big, disorganized mess (and my limited understanding is that the same is true of politics in other countries as well).

I do, however, think that games make for good microcosms of society in many cases, and there’s a lot to be gleaned about the political system by looking at the smaller analogues in player organizations in games. Resource management, policymaking, conflict resolution, all need addressing and there are some very compelling practices that both sides can glean from one another.

On top of that, I feel that in the same way we’re seeing games become extremely mainstream, we’re likely to see the same thing creep into the political sphere. We’re not too far out from a government where a majority of the participants play video games at some level, and I can’t help but wonder how that will change things, if at all.