Posts Tagged ‘games’

Red Dead Redemption(I created the above illustration for an essay on crunch time. It sort of fits the themes of this little essay/review and since I’m too lazy/busy to do a new illustration specifically for this, I’m just re appropriating it. I’m very post modern.)

I finally got around to watching Indie Game: The Movie last night. It’s a documentary that follows the development of three big indie titles: Braid, Super Meat Boy and Fez (all three of which were sold on the Xbox Live Arcade). Super Meat Boy and Fez were both still in development during production of the film; Braid had been completed (and really served as the point of reference for the other two projects).

It’s a really fascinating documentary, one I highly recommend watching if you’re at all interested in game development (from either the video or tabletop sides of the spectrum). Oh yeah, it’s on Netflix Watch Instantly.

The movie was simultaneously inspiring and devastating. I found myself at various points in time with the urge to jump right back into games development and at other times thankful that I’m out.

At one point in the movie, one of the on-air interviewees (and I can’t recall who) posits that the turning point in the current state of the industry came when Valve (developers of the Half-Life games, the Portal games and the Team Fortress games [mods?]) debuted their digital distribution hub Steam. According to the interviewee, Valve claimed no allegiance to the traditional physical distribution hubs and with a big “fuck it” created Steam.

Personally, I’d argue that the turning point was subscription based MMOs. Once the consumer became comfortable with a game being an intangible (EverQuest and World of Warcraft were both games that were much, much bigger than the data you’d buy at the store), the other pieces fell into place.

What depressed me most about this movie is what sort of depressed me about the games industry in the ’90s and ’00s: the relentless grind of making games.

If there’s one issue that most defines videogame development it’s crunch time; the tectonic clash of time versus money. Videogames are developed along certain timelines dictated by market pressures (basically, most videogame titles are developed with schedules designed to fill holes in the publishers’ calendars; those calendars are written to accomodate certain patterns in consumer behavior [e.g. holiday shopping…]). To meet these often arbitrary timelines, developers are [often? usually?] forced to work long hours to complete projects. Unless they happen to be independently wealthy (or have unusually long leashes, given to them by past performance), developers are more-or-less obliged to do the bidding of publishers… they hold the purse strings!

What indie game development promised was a divorce from [what I consider] the dysfunctional relationship between development and external market pressure as imposed by a publisher. Divorced from the whims of physical retail and the expectations of ever-growing budgets, indie game development promised true artistic creativity! Arcadia!

After watching Indie Game: The Movie, that’s obviously not the case.

All of the developers featured in Indie Game: The Movie worked long, long thankless hours on their titles. All of them dealt with stress and depression. Instead of a dysfunctional relationship between development and external market pressure as imposed by a publisher, indie game development has created a dysfunctional relationship between development and external market pressure as imposed by lots and lots of micro-financiers.

And I’m not sure that’s any better.

I read today that roughly 84% of Kickstarter projects shipped late.

In order to secure the funding to make indie games, we’re forcing developers to scramble about and find many smaller backers. (Either through micro finance sites like Kickstarter and Indie Go Go, or though traditional methods.) Developers are using social media to create buzz around their projects. In doing so, they’re also building up expectation, and if things go poorly, entitlement and disgruntledness. (Underline away, Chrome. That’s totally a word!)

I don’t know what a solution to this problem looks like. Federally funded arts grants? We have them for film and other countries have them for game development. Even that invites pressure. Imagine having to justify your creative endeavor to a leathery congressman worked up into a lather about looming cliffs of fiscality. Doesn’t sound too appealing to me.

So, go see Indie Game: The Movie. And add your voice to the discussion.


Addendum: I think Braid is genuinely beautiful and certainly worthy of all its praise. Super Meat Boy and Fez both look excellent (I haven’t played either yet, though I have SMB). My argument isn’t that the current state of indie game development can’t yield true artistry (it can! it has!) it’s that the model is unsustainable. Eventually those involved in the process will burn out and leave and games will be poorer for it.

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The Dungeon Masters

The Dungeon Masters

Last year (and part of this year!) I wrote an essay on games and comics called “Equip Shield: The Role of Semipermeable Cultural Isolation in the History of Games and Comics.” (I wanted the title to be a bit longer, but the world’s supply of lead couldn’t be melted down fast enough to cast the appropriate type.) It’s a chapter in Nina Huntemann and Ben Aslinger’s book Gaming Globally: Production, Play and Place. (According to reports, the book is either out now [present], or will be soon [future indicative], or was out habitually, but is now interrupted [past imperfect].)

I’ve read much of the book, and it provides a fascinating snapshot of the current state of videogame development. Within less than twenty years, development has spread from a few disparate pockets to nearly the entire globe. It’s really worth checking out. And having local libraries order.

The above is my illustration that heads the section in my chapter on games (it references the transference of themes from Dungeons and Dragons to text adventures and modern computer RPGs).

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Have you ever wondered what goes into the making of an illustration?

No? Well, dammit, here’s your chance to find out. (I promise that it’s nothing like what goes into making a sausage.) Keep in mind, this is how I create an illustration. I’m sure others have much more refined methods for doing so; Probably involving lawn chairs, fine tawny ports, and orgone. Mine involves loitering at The Roost with green tea and a sketchbook.

I recently completed a couple of illustrations for the forthcoming role-playing game Avarice Industries. (Which just went up on Kickstarter on Monday and met its goal in just a matter of hours!)

So, here’s the final illustration. Two rival business executives: one with a steam powered shotgun and a sweet mustache, one with a laissez-faire attitude and psychic powers.

But, before we can get to the final illustration, there are several stages that proceed it. The first of which was establishing the composition. It had to be a quarter of a page, which doesn’t leave much room for a composition involving two people, one of whom is mid action. (The guy in the middle has nothing to do with the illustration. I was probably just drawing some random person typing away on their laptop. Clearly I have no sustainable attention span.)

Once I had the basic composition, I started doodling the two protagonists. I wanted the woman to exude an air of nonchalance. (And also to look like an extra from Mad Men, apparently.)

The guy was meant to be steampunky. I’m sort of mad that I forgot to include a monocle in the final illustration.

Eventually, I needed to come up with some more refined sketches. These I drew with non repro blue pencil, going over them with a pen. Also I accidentally drew the woman’s thumb on the wrong side, because I am awesome. These sketches were then scanned into the computer for the next stages, done in Manga Studio and Photoshop.

This is the first of the pencils done in Manga Studio. For the last few years, almost all of my art has been done digitally. I’ve found that it’s pretty liberating. I’m no longer paralyzed with the fear that I’ll permanently screw up something that I’ve been laboring over for hours. Unless my hard drive crashes in which case you’ll probably find me sobbing in a corner. You’ll note that psychic executive lost her tablet and her mary-janes and gained some leather boots. (Presumably because I didn’t want people to think that Velma Dinkle was psychic.)

After this point, the author asked me to make the guy less cowboy-y (generally valuable advice for any circumstance) and more 19th century British-y. Which is fine, since I love to draw a good cravat and plaid suit! Again, a monocle is criminally absent.

Once this sketch was approved, it was time to move into inking and coloring (at this point, there’s really no distinguishing the inking from the coloring; I’ve broken it down here for clarity’s sake).

Et voila! Color!

This may seem like overkill, but most of these steps are pretty minute: momentary changes in the evolution of the drawing, captured only because I happen to work digitally.


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Click upon the image to see the much bigger version.

Footnotes: Dropped Frames #7: Gatekeepers1: Activision was founded in 1979 by four Atari programmers, a venture capitalist and a music industry executive. The four Atari programmers felt that their contributions to the 2600’s best selling titles were being overlooked. They [understandably] wanted a larger share of the then considerable profits. Depicted above is Larry Kaplan—for no reason other than the fact that he had a sweet (and thus eminently cartoonable) beard. Kaplan had a falling out with his Activision partners and returned to Atari a few years later.

2: Atari never supposed that anyone else would develop games for their system and took no measures to prevent it. When Nintendo developed their Famicom system (called the NES in the United States) in the early 1980s, they included both legal and hardware measures to prevent unauthorized development for Nintendo consoles. This has become the industry default in the years since.

3: Atari earned very little on the sales of individual console systems. The bulk of their revenue came from the sales of games. When Activision opened the floodgates to third-party developers, that revenue started to dwindle. The crash of the 2600 was caused by several factors (ageing technology, growth in the home computer market, rival console systems), but the flash-point seems to have been a wave of new developers, and their subsequent collapses (which forced retailers to liquidate that inventory [and Atari to drop prices to match new market expectations]). (Tristan Donovan, Replay: The History of Video Games, pp 98-99)

4: Wizards of the Coast purchased TSR (the original publishers of Dungeons and Dragons) in the late 1990s, rescuing the game from financial collapse. When they decided to publish a 3rd edition of the game, they also created the Open Gaming License. It allows for groups to publish works derivative of the system that powers Dungeons and Dragons 3rd (and 3.5) edition. They also created a subset of the OGL called the D20 license. The D20 license was more restrictive, fluctuating (and needed the approval of Wizards of the Coast) but had greater name cachet. (R. Dancey, “Open Gaming Interview with Ryan Dancey,” http://www.wizards.com/dnd/article.asp?x=dnd/md/md20020228e )

5: The motivation behind the OGL was two-fold: one it was designed to promote sales of Dungeons and Dragons products (M. Cook, “The Open Game License as I See It, Part I”, http://www.montecook.com/cgi-bin/page.cgi?mc_los_154 ); and two: it was designed to prevent Dungeons and Dragons from ever disappearing down a rabbit hole of legal entanglements in the event that Wizards of the Coast (or some future copyright holder) should go out of business. (R. Dancey, http://paizo.com/paizo/messageboards/community/gaming/4thEdition/mikeMearlsHasOpenGamingBeenASuccess&page=4#156 )

6: There are no clear numbers for the titles and quantities sold of OGL and D20 products. There were a lot of them. (Just searching for D20 on Amazon gives you 176,000 hits. Even accounting for duplicate results, that’s a lot of them! And of the OGL/D20 split, D20 was the far more restrictive!)

Interestingly, Dungeons and Dragons’ current biggest rival in the role-playing game market is the title Pathfinder (created by former Wizards of the Coast partner Paizo), which uses the OGL to carry on the now discarded 3.5 edition of Dungeons and Dragons.

When Wizards of the Coast released their 4th edition of Dungeons and Dragons in 2008, they created a new license, called the Game System License. It is much more restrictive than either the OGL or the D20 licenses. I do not know the rationale behind the changes, though certainly, on the surface, it looks to be intentionally more protectionist.

7: Retailers purchase role-playing games from distributors up front; in doing so they place their financial well being on the line with every product they stock. They must gauge quality against local demand with every game they purchase. While they invariably purchase games of lesser quality when an audience (or trend) demands it, on the whole, they must act as industry arbiters.

Thanks to Jay Adan of Greenfield Games and Jim Crocker of Modern Myths for their input on games retailing.

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An illustration for a friend, who kindly MC’d many months of super-heroically themed Apocalypse World antics!

Click to see the full sized image.

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Another quick, monster-themed doodle, this time guest-starring my favorite monster from Dungeons and Dragons: the Otyugh. (Just try to pronounce that… I dare you.) Click to see the full version.

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Promotional art for The Number Crunch (see my last post!) and my best attempt to blatantly swipe from Genndy Tartakovsky. Click to embiggen!

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