The Sunday Papers

Sundays are for making a big show of eating a sensible breakfast because your flatmate has returned from a fortnight away and oh god she’d be so disappointed if she knew how your flu-addled husk had been living. Graham’s away so this is a little slim as I step in to share some good games writing from around the Internet.

On Waypoint Duncan Fyfe writes about how Sierra came to make Police Quest: Open Season with Daryl Gates, the disgraced Los Angeles police chief who resigned after the beating of Rodney King and ensuing riots.

When Ken Williams, the chief executive of Sierra On-Line, brought the company’s newest game designer to the office, some staff stayed home. Better to get in trouble with management than meet the man accused of fostering a culture of police brutality on a city-wide scale.

Amy Hennig talks with Sean Vanaman on Polygon. She was the creative director of the first three Uncharted games and lead on Visceral’s now-cancelled Star Wars game, he was the co-creator of Firewatch and lead writer of Telltale’s first Walking Dead season. They talk about their careers, their games, getting older in the games industry, what they’re playing, and the changing industry.

Amy Hennig: I think we’re in an inflection point right now. Obviously what happened with our Star Wars project didn’t come out of the blue. A lot of too-dramatic articles were written about it — the death of linear story games and all that kind of stuff — but look, there is a real problem: this line we’ve been running up to for a lot of years, which is the rising cost of development, and the desires, or the demands even, of players in terms of hours of gameplay, fidelity, production values, additional modes, all these things. Those pressures end up very real internally. If it costs you, say, $100 million or more to make a game, how are you making that money back, and making a profit?

Inspiring empathy is touted as one great possibility of virtual reality, able to put us in other people’s bodies and lives, but Rose Eveleth on Topic investigates whether these experiences evoke the right sort of empathy.

As it turns out, there are a couple of different kinds of empathy, and the “walk a mile in your shoes” type is the one that most researchers, social workers, and nurses actually warn against.

XCOM creative director Jake Solomon writes on Polygon about Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle (the Ubisoft game I’d describe as “XCOM but with Mario and those floppy boys I like so much god help me I laugh every time they shout I can’t help it”):

What a joy, then, to have another team come along and upend your thinking, showing you that there is always room to improve on old concepts. For example, in XCOM, moving a soldier is typically a simple case of running them from cover A to cover B. That’s how it’s always been, and it’s not something I ever thought of changing. Until I played Mario + Rabbids, that is, where movement is a chain of interesting decisions like springboarding off of your squadmates, sliding through your enemies, rolling through warp tunnels — all before you fire a single shot. Movement in Kingdom Battle adds a whole new layer of tactical interest to every turn. It jolted me into reconsidering one of XCOM’s design principles.

Struggling to find fancy new graphics cards in stock anywhere? That’ll be because cryptocurrency miners are gobbling them up and causing a global shortage, Robert B. Lee writes on Ars Technica. The crytobubble is a wild ride.

We talked to Zach, a high school student in the Chicago area who also got involved in mining last summer. He was able to find a source that would sell him a couple dozen RX 580 graphics cards for the MSRP around $300. He immediately turned around and re-sold them for $400. Those profits helped to finance investments in still more graphics cards that he put to work mining Ethereum and a lesser-known cryptocurrency called Siacoin.

Not video games but America’s National Valet Olympics, as described by Geoff Manaugh for The Atlantic, does include some challenges that sound very game-y:

Then came the Luggage Load. Beneath a soaring outdoor veranda with spectacular views, a brown Hyundai Elantra stood waiting. Its roof seemed to ripple in the heat. A few of the athletes looked apprehensive: The car had “an unusual trunk configuration,” I heard one say. The luggage cart, another noticed, had a broken wheel. And was that a slope leading down to the car? That could send the cart speeding downhill, its bags spilling out onto the concrete.

With some folks speculating that Dark Souls: Remastered might copy later games and let players teleport between bonfires whenever they please (the makers have not said or even suggested it will, to be clear), Robert Zak says no thank you on Kotaku UK.

I think back to that bonfire in Blighttown, not only to the initial feeling of respite but to what comes after. Once I replenish my Estus and treat myself to a toilet break, the sense of relief gets swamped out by dread as the reality of my situation dawns on me; that in lighting this bonfire I’ve cut myself off from the previous one, whose surrounding area I’d grown sort-of comfortable with on account of how much time I’d spent there.

Jana Sloan van Geest, one of the scripwriters on Assassin’s Creed Origins, wrote a Twitter thread “about the need for simplicity and clarity in game writing” and how she changed her mind over the course of development.

“The player isn’t stupid!” I told myself. I mistook simplicity in writing for pandering.

Professional subtitler Max Deryagin looks at the good, the bad, and the illegible of game subtitles in 2017. This on a progression-gating phone call in Resident Evil 7:

So, what do you do as a hearing player? You turn around and take the call. And as a deaf player? Unable to hear the phone, you leave the trailer and wander around for a couple of hours, trying to guess what the hell you’re supposed to do now, until you either figure it by sheer chance or give up and go on the internet to find out. Pretty frustrating, isn’t it? Well, this game actually has a setting for enabling the phone icon, but many other games have nothing, and in such genres as horror, puzzle and adventure, sound information can be essential to your progress or survival. But, sadly, sounds and their direction are rarely subtitled.

It’s always worth remembering that studio crunch is a garbage process that lures people in with their dreams then chews them up and spits ’em out. This latest reminder comes from David Milner writing on Game Informer – a little surprising for a site and magazine owned by megahuge industry bestie retailer GameStop.

For this to change, crunch needs to be reframed as a failing not a virtue, workplace culture needs to be carefully managed so that passion isn’t preyed upon, and developers need to think long and hard about collective organisation and forming a union to represent their rights.

Do you follow .BSP? Run by David Will, the Twitter account posts daily screenshots of maps players have built for GoldSrc engine games (that’s Half-Life + CS + mods etc). Some are beautiful, and even those which are less so help build an appreciation for the scene, the craft, the effort, and what people were into. And sometimes…

Music this week is Pylon’s Gyrate. Stop. Spin. Back again.

38 Comments

  1. kwyjibo says:

    [Graham is fired]

  2. Plunkbat Oranges says:

    There was also a splendid piece in The Daily Telegraph about how gangs of unkempt youths have been terrorising the God-fearing citizens of Kentish Town armed with nothing but Plunkbats.

    Ban the sick filth, I say!

  3. Kollega says:

    The article about how virtual reality relates to empathy was interesting because… let’s just say that I’ve talked with a friend about this same topic recently, and we came to a similar conclusion. If you’re going to use VR as a teaching tool, you don’t want to traumatize your students/audiences, but just letting them visit some place and see how others are dealing with it could be more than sufficiently educational.

    Let me name one example that we discussed: the horrors of World War 1. Our conversation was along the lines that putting the visitors into the roles of WW1 soldiers would be far too traumatic to make it a learning experience – but in practice, a much better idea would be to let them make a “field trip” to Somme or Verdun, and just see first-hand how the trenches and no man’s land looked like, and how people fought, suffered, survived, and died there. With a lifelike VR experience, being able to talk to the soldiers from both sides would be far more illuminating, and somewhat less terrifying, than being one of them. And yet, it’d be very educational, because as Kieron Gillen said in his Cannon Fodder retrospective on this very side, with WW1 fading from living memory, we’ll have to turn to art if we want to retain those memories of it. It’s 100 years later now, and you cannot really talk to WW1 veterans anymore – but if you could make a virtual field trip into a well-made, convincing documentary of WW1, it’d be more than sufficient.

    • spamdangled says:

      This is one of the reasons I’m so excited about the virtual tour of Egypt being added to Assassin’s Creed: Origin. If they applied it to a conflict, WW2 for example, and included historical video, newspaper articles, interviews with survivors etc then it would be a fantastic learning tool with a genuine argument to be included in curriculums.

  4. Vodka, Crisps, Plutonium says:

    At this point we just have to get patient with big publishers, until they’ll finish sucking [pointless TL;DR next]
    the lootbox microtransactions fad and turn their fat lazy head towards success of smaller indie developers that, instead of wasting half of 100M AAA budget on developing and bug-squashing the game engine of their own and the other half on famous person endorsement and other promo-materials, ordered by marketing dpt for their ad campaigns, just license a cheap multiplatform engine and put all available points into the art department, one or two talented sound engineers and make a gorgeous-looking game with interesting gameplay / well-written 3hrs-long story to share (or maybe even both and even for longer!) and sell it for about the price of a movie ticket.

    Because some day some top executive might realise, how stupid it is to limit already limited audience with minimum entry point of 300 bucks of required hardware to play their damn AAA games and then sell those games for 60 bucks or more anyway, because budgets are too big.

    Seriously, my biggest purchase at full price for entire 2017 was Subnautica and not the least reason of all for it was how much stuff was there on offer for less than a half of what AAA developers usually ask for their games (and for previous years it was Solus Project, Oxenfree and SOMA)

  5. Ben says:

    That is an excellent Wild At Heart mug.

    • Kolbex says:

      Just logged in to tell you I was going to say the same thing.

  6. Meat Circus says:

    “Chat Its Fate provides the most personal psychic advice and supernatural real life stories”

    Do you, Alice? DO YOU?

    Well you bloody well should.

  7. mpk says:

    My son bought Mario + Rabbids just after Christmas, and I, as the XCOM expert in the house, obviously went Full Bradford, trying to mentor him in the sacred art of turn-based battling.

    I was at once both appalled and amazed at a) how little I needed to tell him, so intuitive and easy to play is the game, and 2) how much of my XCOM knowledge was immediately useless thanks to the movement system.

    It’s a, perhaps surprisingly, really, really good game that he and I have had lots of fun with. I’m looking forward to see how it informs the design of XCOM3.

    • Michael Fogg says:

      I’m a little concerned what kind of contrivances Firaxis will come up with to justify it story-wise.

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        The Almighty Moo says:

        Don’t fret too much, the next Mario + Rabbids will probably be a Portal crossover

  8. shoptroll says:

    Waypoint also had a companion Sierra article this week which links to an academic paper on the early history of the company: link to waypoint.vice.com

  9. TillEulenspiegel says:

    but look, there is a real problem: this line we’ve been running up to for a lot of years, which is the rising cost of development, and the desires, or the demands even, of players

    I’m getting really sick of this months-long PR campaign from the AAA games industry, so I looked it up: both EA and Activision Blizzard are making around $1 billion in annual *profit*. What the fuck are they complaining about?

    Nothing has changed recently, there is no crisis. Making big-budget videogames is more profitable than ever, the industry has had far fewer big flops than Hollywood regularly does. It’s extremely weird that people like Hennig and Raph Koster are bullshitting for them.

    • welverin says:

      But how much of that profit is because of two or three games, and how many games failed to live up to expectations and led layoffs or studio closures?

      So, sure, those two publishers did well over all, but how many of their studios suffered and how many other publishers did poorly? Just because those two publisher made huge profits overall doesn’t invalidate they points the people were making.

      • malkav11 says:

        It’s also worth considering how much of that profit is based on things like lootboxes and microtransactions that players so loudly hate.

        I think that if production costs are unsustainable for solid, singleplayer titles without a lot of added guff that they should be looking at scaling back what that production involves. I for one am more than happy to play a good game put together by one or two people on a shoestring budget, so the idea that I’d balk at a larger production that “only” cost, I dunno, 50-60 million, or even 20-30 is unfounded. And I’d a damn sight rather spend my money and time on something like that than a lootbox laden $60 multiplayer shooter with $75 worth of DLC maps.

        • DEspresso says:

          Excellent point, if a game moving 2 million units is considered unsuccessfull it is time to take a good hard look at the cost structure involved.

          Which may be the cause of seeing, in recent times, games with a smaller scope which then gets expanded by dlc, addons, expansions and whatnot. (Looking at you Paradox, Firaxis, Guys who did Payday2 and all Niche Simulator Developers)

          Unfortunately for all of us, AAA titles started following the same monetization plan while currently being multiplayer only. Ingame Balance of Power not included.

          • Baines says:

            Yet, while those publishers cry that a $60 title that sold two million copies was a financial flop, you have Ninja Theory with Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice.

            500k sales (over a three month period), at a $30 retail price, for a revenue of $13 million, was all it took for Ninja Theory to break even on a game that had a three year development period. Why? Because Ninja Theory practiced common sense and restraint, and weren’t chasing the pots of gold that bigger publishers constantly chase.

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            Ninja Dodo says:

            While I am all for more games of modest length and scope a la Hellblade it’s hard to deny gamers are constantly demanding ever longer and bigger games. “Only 10 hours?! Pffft what a rip off! Not paying for that!”

            These things are incompatible. Either gamers (and developers) learn to appreciate smaller games that don’t need to be 50-100+ hours, or we keep having this problem.

          • Baines says:

            Hellblade might be under ten hours in length, but how often do its massive budget Triple-A counterparts fall into a similar complaint?

            And length isn’t the only factor in these inflated budgets. Doubling Hellblade’s budget (to make a longer game) would still result in a small budget compared to the Triple-A crowd.

            Tomb Raider 2013 is around twice as long as Hellblade, but was claimed to have a budget approaching $100 million, with Square-Enix allegedly needed to sell 5 million copies to break even.

            (As for the math discrepancies between the two titles, there are two major factors. First, we don’t have exact figures on anything, just publicized numbers. Public statements even direct from the publisher itself do not always tell the whole story, and can depend heavily on what message the publisher wants to sell. Second, one of Ninja Theory’s goals with Hellblade was to successfully break away from the standard distribution model, allowing them to take home a significantly larger portion of each game’s sale. Square’s 5million sales is using the standard distribution model, which awards the publisher 1/3 of a game’s retail price. If when Ninja Theory said “revenue”, they meant that they’d personally made $13million, then they’d be taking around 85% of the retail price. If not, then Hellblade’s budget was even lower than $13million.)

    • joe_football says:

      The suggestion that it’s somehow these cross-armed, nose in air players demanding more money be spent on their behalf is what bugs me. What is far more likely is publishers believing they can(or have to) do better then the other guy making games by spending more money, and they’re able to because the returns available support it. Which has the effect of raising player’s expectations due to the standard of games being made, but it’s getting the relationship backwards

      Also, in a competitive industry, costs should rise to eat away at profit. If you’re making increasing amounts of money without putting anything more into your product, something’s wrong somewhere

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      Ninja Dodo says:

      As welverin said, just because publishers are making a profit overall doesn’t mean individual games make enough for publishers to keep funding them. Most games do not make a profit. This is instantly proved simply by looking at the never ending parade of game studios closing. The publisher model works only because they make most of their money off a few blockbuster hits and that funds everything else.

      Maybe you should stop listening to shithead YouTubers who don’t know the first thing about making games and actually believe developers when they explain to you how their job works.

    • upupup says:

      These companies also tend to put the onus on consumers for any mistakes that they themselves make. Rather than blaming themselves for building up people’s expectations through massive marketing campaigns and then struggling to meet them, they say it’s the consumers fault for expecting to get the level of quality that they were repeatedly promised.

      Not to mention that games are exceedingly profitable and have been so for a long time without any need for microtransactions – EA itself had to admit that it didn’t depend on them for Battlefront II to be profitable during that whole fiasco. Instead of pretending that cash is tight, they should be upping productivity by maintaining smaller but consistent teams with more reasonable workloads, rather than burning through them as disposable drones with the excessive crunch that they treat as mandatory. That way you can build up a skilled, efficient and happy workforce that can produce a higher standard of quality.

      Their claims are simply not believable. Any company of their size in the gamebusiness that isn’t profitable is a very poorly run company, for which they would only have themselves to blame.

  10. Grizzly says:

    That Daryl Gates article is quite something. Can’t believe that that was the mind behind the Swat series, that at the very least minded if you shot first and asked questions later.

  11. Viroso says:

    There’s a great article on gamasutra that talks about the rising cost of games and where this trend is taking us. The trend is, the amount devs spend on games is increasing (for everyone, indies included) and the amount people pay for games is decreasing. It projects that in ten years or so story games might not be viable.

    I would link it but sometimes when I link things here the post doesn’t get through. So just go to gamasutra, it’s on their front page.

    • Ghostwise says:

      The link —
      link to gamasutra.com

      I had come to learn more about the angel cat with a million fan, but since no tail nor hair of it is to be seen, heah ya go.

    • Baines says:

      I’m not saying that something will not eventually break, but that story has been preached for at least the last ten years. As time passes, the preachers just slide the doomsday point with it.

      And the whole thing largely ignores *why* those big publishers are actually in danger, that they are causing the problems themselves through unrestrained greed, bad management, and bad planning.

      • Vodka, Crisps, Plutonium says:

        This is an extensive article, full of figures, some of which don’t look immediatelly useful, particularly when it’s omitting correlation between cost per megabyte and business/consumer hardware market dynamics or when comparing the cost/MB vs paid/MB without mentioning the fact that the market is completely flooded with utterly bad and useless megabytes!

        But, credit where it’s due – writer mentions once, right at the end of the article that, perhaps industry should produce less games and that’s the only factual and quite obvious true to take away from the story (and market will inevitably correct itself at some point of over-saturation).
        But there’s never gonna be a point when linear / story-driven or any other games of specific blend of genres will be non-viable to make, as long as there is demand for it (market burst is always extensive shrinkage of supply, sometimes to a frightening degree, but it never means its complete wipeout)

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      alison says:

      This article is very interesting, but even more interesting are the comments. I particularly like the talk of offshoring. It’s obviously an issue that bums people in developed countries out, but i think this is the most ruthlessly capitalist way to keep the costs down, for a while at least.

      I like that outsourcing piecemeal work can lead to the creation of local studios. I think the industry can only benefit from a more global perspective. In the 8-bit days we all admired French games because they had a very different aesthetic from the British ones. I think German adventure games kept that genre interesting through its so-called death in America. But now there is also great original stuff coming out of formerly-developing countries in Eastern Europe. I noticed a few South African games popping up on RPS recently too. Surely the other BRICS have got stuff to share too. I’m fascinated to see what other countries’ local scenes will produce and how they may influence the industry as a whole.

      • upupup says:

        Further hollowing out team cohesion in what is in part a creative endeavor is not going to up quality. Those games you mention were simply made abroad, not offshored.

        Not to mention that the ‘need’ is a whole lot of people convincing themselves that they need to do a thing that screws over others because they ‘need’ to do something about a problem that doesn’t exist yet and has tons of other solutions if it did. Funny also that they never mention rendering themselves obsolete.

    • upupup says:

      The trick to understanding all these industry figureheads and their claims is to understand that no-one knows what to expect and no-one knows what they’re talking about. They can only follow the latest trend and make predictions based on that, which sometimes works in the very short term but frequently fails beyond that due to games their long development cycles. Nobody knows what the next big thing and anyone declaring that they do is full of it.

  12. quasiotter says:

    Thanks for the article on subtitling! It’s really got me thinking… I would like a job/career in accessibility, but with some sort of digital editing involved… I’ve got to start looking into this!

  13. gwop_the_derailer says:

    The Police Quest article was powerful.

  14. TychoCelchuuu says:

    This is one of the best The Sunday Papers in a long time. Lots of absolutely tremendous articles, some I had read already and some I hadn’t.

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    alison says:

    Wow, this is a great line-up of articles. It’s been a while since i not only clicked on so many but also read them through.

    On that VR long read, though, it felt a bit like i’d been had when i got to the Robert Yang quote and he basically summarized the whole article in just one sentence. And then the article kept going. For several very unnecessary paragraphs.

    The subtitling thing made up for it.

    Hearing that Firewatch dev talk with the AAA dev was really interesting. I have to admit, every time i hear AAA devs talk about canceled projects it’s baffling to me that they still work in the industry. I think i’d want to throw myself off a building if i spent 3 years coding something that never got released. Hell, i’ve quit jobs after 6 months of treading water. I get that some people see their work as some kind of extension of university whose raison d’être is to learn stuff, but i thought all those guys dicked around at douchey startups or got lost in the cracks at Google or Facebook. Somehow i put gaming devs on a pedestal, like they are so pure they will just thumb their nose and go indie if their dream project gets canned. It’s surprising to me the AAA dev in the article still sticks around hoping she’ll get to do something good.

    • upupup says:

      AAA development, as it is now, is absolutely soul-crushing. I’d never recommend it.