Saturday, 4 December 2010

Games Journalism

It might not look like much but I challenge you
to find better camera reviews than
When Canadian camera review site went on (seemingly permanent) hiatus early last year, I was most disappointed. Their impartial and exhaustive reviews of popular digital cameras led to the purchase of four digital cameras for myself and friends, all of whom have been very satisfied. Their nine-part illustrated review structure laid out in meticulous detail everything you could possibly want to know before making your choice and contained typically only 20 words for their personal opinion. Extremely suitable for the subject, for which subjectivity is unnecessary.

But games journalism is different. Games journalism is personal. No statistics, screenshots or videos can tell a player whether they will enjoy a game. Certainly a rating out of ten cannot. These things can express the content and quality of the game, but who can say how enjoyable an individual will find a game? I do not think a games journalist can.

…For that matter, I haven’t played a new game in a while. I Should really pick up something…

So why do games magazines and websites exist at all? Despite the above fundamental flaw, they have an arguably stronger raison d’ĂȘtre than music or film journalism. These mediums ask less time and money of their consumer than games do. Gamers need to know what to spend their limited resources on - it’s a big investment. Gamers need games journalism.

It’s a position that publishers exploited for years. Cries of skew and bias were rampant in the early 2000s, particularly among publications devoted to a single platform. A solution was proposed in 2005 by journalist Kieron Gillen, dubbed ‘New Games Journalism’ (NGJ) - it focuses on how the journalist experienced the game, rather than focusing on the game itself. This was born from the simple observation: gamers do not play games to interact with a feature set and pretty visuals, but to experience something fun. The experience is what is of interest to the gamer.

…Enslaved: Odyssey to the West allegedly has an engaging and cinematic gameplay experience. Pretty screens a plus. Short gameplay a plus. Something of a flop a plus (should be cheap soon). Check Amazon. Not cheap yet. Such a spendthrift. Justification: Student…

The biggest difficulty here is that of objectivity and subjectivity. It is possible to be objective about visual fidelity, gameplay mechanics, quality of writing, gameplay mechanics, music score, etc. It is not possible to be objective about one’s overarching experience of the game.

Whilst video reviews are relatively new, follows a traditional 'describe and critique'
approach and closes with a score breakdown
It is, however, more entertaining to write in this way. The writer can compose their inner monologue, primal frustrations and ecstasy in a more personal way. They can connect with their reader as an individual. They can write their entire article in first person if they wish. They can write some utterly egotistical self-centered rubbish. It’s a problem that has developed over time.

Chris Lepine wrote an article in 2009 addressing the issue, declaring the NGJ movement “dead” using adjectives like “pretentiously intellectual… opinionated… corrupted”. His major criticisms seem to be that NGJ has led to poor quality journalism and/or a loss of objectivity, particularly in reviews. Lepine was inviting change.

In Brendan Caldwell’s rebuttal, he cites examples of excellent articles in the New Games Journalism style and contests that poor quality exists because of the author, not its style. Lepine’s later commented on the article, suggesting that while NGJ isn’t fundamentally at fault, it invites poor journalism and publications have become “driven by economic and prestige considerations” above those of “good writing”. It all sounds somewhat familiar.

…Also on Amazon: Castlevania. Played that at Gamescom and was impressed. Another clichĂ© fantasy setting. Should probably try and broaden my gaming palette or else the vampires will start to recognise me…

So what do we, as consumers of games journalism, make of this mess? I find that most gaming media fits into a spectrum and that each publication has a specific niche within this spectrum. Before I subscribed to GamesTM earlier this year, I read through a few gaming magazines for the same month. Having now read up on new games journalism, it seems clear that GamesTM seems to separate their NGJ into its own little section at the start. While not game reviews per se (some would claim NGJ can never be reviews), these 800 word pieces I have found to be very hit-and-miss. And I find they often fail to answer the questions I have before buying a game. But I guess that’s exactly what the above debate is all about.

…Distracted by reading magazine. Not noticed Little Big Planet 2 preview before. Looks good. Family might also like the game. Investigate the purchase of a PlayStation 3. Justification for new console (hours spent playing) cannot be met (no hours to spend). Disregard…

So do I like NGJ? Yes, I very much do. I find it highly entertaining. But waddayaknow - I still don’t know what game to buy.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Personal Gaming History

One of my flatmates was looking through Ebay listings of old consoles today. He wanted to buy a Sega Dreamcast. Looking through the games included in the listing descriptions, soft cooing could be heard from behind his laptop screen while I cooked my dinner. We exchanged nostalgic gaming memories; I concluded I was most sad that I had sold my Nintendo 64, exchanging it for the GameCube which has lain dormant on a shelf for the past few years. He made me promise absolutely to bring it back with me the next time I go home. If I forget, I’m not sure I will be going home again…

The first computer game I remember playing was Commander Keen on my Mum’s PC. It was some years later that I got a Nintendo Entertainment system (NES) with a light gun and Duck Hunt. I remember the games being quite difficult. I even exchanged a game which I couldn’t get past the first level, only to watch in the store as the press start screen demo showed how to get past the bit I was stuck on. It was only later in my gaming life that I came to really enjoy difficult games.

Command and Conquer really got me into PC gaming. Although I had enjoyed many PC games before that, realtime strategy became my preferred genre for some years after that game. Its sequel, Red Alert, was the first game I made custom content for - the maps I made for that game were the start of a side-hobby of modding games that has continued to this day.

Everybody's favourite blue hedgehog in his heyday
But there was never a year went by I didn’t buy at
least a few games for my console. I played the Sonic games to death on my Mega Drive, but my fondest console memories are for the Nintendo 64. Having mates around to play the likes of Super Smash Brothers and Mario Tennis was an experience no childhood should be without. Of course, no talk of Nintendo 64 would be complete without a mention of Goldeneye, which really set the standard for compelling and diverse single-player first-person shooter experiences. I’m baffled to this day how I managed to get almost all of the stars on Super Mario 64 without any form of guide. The internet spoils us these days.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time set a benchmark for
adventure games that few were willing or able to follow
Looking back on The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, I feel it was the first game that really tied down everything I like in a game. A compelling plot and emotional attachment to key characters, challenging gameplay which sometimes required a bit of thinking and interesting environments enhanced by solid visual and audio production values. Those three benchmarks can be set to most mainstream games. In my opinion, only one game has bested that game.

Not a year has gone by since its release
that I haven't played Baldur's Gate 2
I’m not even sure why I picked up Baldur’s Gate 2. I got stuck on the first level (sound familiar?) and decided to pick up a walkthrough book. Before BG2, I barely knew what a role-playing game was. I have never read literature so compelling, never been so absorbed by a world in film or TV, nor played a game whose mechanics I have dissected so thoroughly to improve my play… as Baldur’s Gate 2. I could go on praising it, and I might just do that… but in another post. I have to move on.

As my gaming palate matured, my appreciation of gaming genres broadened. There really are very few genres I don’t enjoy sampling, even if I don’t have enough time or money to try everything the genre has to offer. Even my parents have got in on the act - owning a Nintendo DS and Wii between them; and we continue to regularly play board and card games as well.

To say that games in the past ten years have been less influential on me would only be partly true. I think the frequency of high production cost games (triple A games) has resulted in fewer games that stand out head-and-shoulders above the competition. Games I love from the current generation include Lost Odyssey, Bioshock, Portal, Dragon Age: Origins, Ninja Gaiden 2, Mass Effect, Guitar Hero 3… I could go on.

Ninja Gaiden 2 was renowned for its brutal difficulty. I guess I love a challenge!

Games continue to fascinate me. I only wish I had more time to play them. I asked my friend how long ago he sold his Dreamcast. He never owned one. Nostalgia is a funny thing.

Monday, 15 November 2010

History of Computer games 2000s

Videogames had been pacing along well enough for the past two decades. The gradual balance shift between arcade and console/PC gaming was barely a wave lapping at the bow of the ship compared to the boat-rocking that was to take place in the 2000s. Prominent among these changes were the rise in multiplayer gaming and the commercialisation of the “casual gamer” market.

World of Warcraft features a persistent world
where players may group with others
to fight monsters and complete quests.
All new consoles in the 2000s featured inbuilt or addon modems and offered services for matchmaking in games. Publishers displayed clearly on the box those games which could be played online and gamers began to expect titles to allow them to compete or co-operate online with their friends. Gaming became social.

Internet-dependant games became increasingly popular with Massively Multiplayer Online titles like World of Warcraft boasting more than ten million active subscribers by the end of the decade.

I am unsure whether it was this new social aspect of gaming or the increased computer literacy and abundance of Personal Computers that was the major cause of the commercialisation of casual gaming. I say “commercialisation” since casual gaming has always existed, but few games were specifically targeted at this market and those that were tended to be low-budget, low-cost games.

The Sims was massively popular among new casual gamers, totalling over 16 million sales in the first half of the decade. In the years that followed, Nintendo released the Wii, stating outright that their console “isn't focused on the core gamer”. Hosts of gimmicky peripherals and family- and party-friendly games boosted the Wii to the top-selling console of the generation, firmly cementing casual gaming as equally commercially important as core gaming. Microsoft and Sony have since taken steps to capture some of the casual market with their products.

Games like Guitar Hero feature new peripherals and
split screen modes to appeal to casual gamers
Although mobile gaming wasn’t new to the 2000s, mobile phone gaming was. As phones became more capable, so too did the complexity of the games offered to rival the dedicated handheld gaming devices.

With internet distribution channels like Steam, Xbox Live Arcade, Playstation Network and the App Store, the need for publishers eroded still further and increasing numbers of independently developed games reached more gamers’ hands. These “indie” developers with small budgets diversified both the casual and core markets with niche games that rely on compelling gameplay above high production values.

But online distribution was not just used by small developers - additional paid-for downloadable content for popular games allows developers to generate extra revenue for games that are greatly enjoyed by their players.

Services like Steam allow people to purchase entirely
digital versions of games, cutting out distribution and
retail costs almost entirely
Many MMOs like Lord of the Rings Online are experimenting with abandoning the subscription fee and relying entirely on microtransactions to fund development of the game. Services like OnLive are even offering streaming gaming of existing titles for microtransaction and subscription charges.

Retro gaming and ported games delivered through Xbox Live Arcade and Wii’s Virtual Console highlights what made gaming classics so successful.

As the 2000s finish and we press into the 2010s, I feel the games industry has reached a curious maturity. Console manufacturers have chosen to hold back on releasing consoles in the immediate future: a decision which backs the strength of the games developers and their creativity. The next ten years promise to be really rather exciting.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

History of Computer games 1980s - 1990s

Like excited children with golden geese, the developers, publishers and console manufacturers of the early eighties couldn’t wait to try out their new toys. The only problem was, a goose made of gold doesn’t fly, it doesn’t swim, and bashing it over the head with the same old mallet will not force it to lay another golden egg. In fact, it’ll probably cause the gold to flake and tarnish. Which is exactly what happened.

Atari buried millions of unwanted
cartridges in a landfill after sales
 fell far below expectations.
Publishers were paying programmers poorly; some even disallowing credits. This caused programmers to splinter and develop their games independently. With no publishing rights for the games being created for their consoles, quality and quantity control was entirely lost. The market became saturated with disingenuous and iterative games, and in an attempt to compensate: redundant and unnecessary console upgrades. By 1984, swathes of interested parties had pulled out from the games industry or become bankrupt.

The video game recovery was largely due to Japanese manufacturers and developers, who were less affected by the crash than their North American rivals. Through the eighties Nintendo’s Entertainment System and Sega’s Master System vied for superiority with notable releases including Super Mario Bros, The Legend of Zelda, and the Alex Kidd series.

Sega and Nintendo continued to hold strong positions through the nineties, releasing the Super Nintendo Entertainment System and Mega Drive (Genesis) respectively. The popularity of home video game consoles continued to rise, while the popularity of arcades diminished. Many arcade developers began to develop games for home consoles or port their existing arcade game to these platforms.

The popularity of Personal Computers grew through the nineties and consequently, PC gaming became a more commercially viable activity, where previously the consumer base had been too small. An increasing market size coupled with low barriers to entry for PC developers afforded an extremely diverse selection of games.

The highly contraversial DOOM game for PC
Specialist video game retailers began to appear, stocking games for consoles and PC, offering a wider selection of games than was typically available in the toy stores.

One of the most significant changes for gaming in the nineties was the transition to 3D games - games which displayed objects using points plotted in three dimensions connected with triangular surfaces. Although Elite, released in 1984, is widely regarded as the first 3D game, 3D games did not gain much traction in the console market until the release of the more graphically capable Nintendo 64, Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation platforms.

While at first these games were relatively ugly compared to their 2D counterparts, they quite literally added a new dimension to the gameplay experience. Some developers chose create new Intellectual Properties for 3D, some stuck with making decreasingly popular 2D games and others re-imagined their 2D characters and environments in the third dimension… with mixed success.

As would be expected of a platform gaming superstar,
Mario cleared the jump to 3D in style
As the nineties were drawing to an end, internet connectivity was rapidly increasing and playing games over the internet was becoming increasingly popular. Improvements in the speed and reliability of internet services allowed real-time games to be played with gamers across the world. This phenomenon started in PC gaming, but the Sega Dreamcast pioneered in the console market with an inbuilt modem that gave a taste of what to expect from gaming in the 2000s.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Update 2

As the excitement of starting university (again) wears out, its time to knuckle down and I have found myself spending a lot of time modelling. The current projects are to construct an old building from reference (pictured) and a project set by third-year mentors: to create a modern day weapon (still a work in progress).

I particularly focussed on the textures on the building project - trying to get the best pixel density and most believable surfaces possible on the building within the specifications of the brief. I’m happy with how they turned out, though I fear my rendering techniques do not showcase them at their best. Something to work on.

It certainly hasn’t been a conscious decision to prioritise modelling over drawing and digital painting, given it is my aim this year to really improve in these more traditional skills. I wonder if it is telling that I am leaning this way naturally? Or perhaps it is because I am outside of my comfort zone with the drawing and digital painting?

Nothing could be more out of my comfort than a twice-weekly time-restricted digital painting exercise. It would be fair to say I have had very mixed success, but I hope just getting the hours in will help me improve. Today’s exercise used the randomly-generated theme “a metalized puppet assembles”. Grammar robot are fail. 

Seeing the incredible posts that coursemates in the second and third years (and even some first years with digital painting experience) are making, it is very clear to see that practice makes perfect. It inspires envy both loathesome and pitiable.

While I have been a little lax with the blog lately, you can expect a bunch of games history posts while I catch up on the blog assignments in the next couple of weeks. I have been struggling since the start of this post to find the pun to fit the following picture, but fortunately as I write this sentence it has finally come to me. Handy timing.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

History of Computer games 1950s - 1970s

When pondering what I thought the very first “computer game” to be, I expected some sort of primitive text adventure game might be among the contenders. I missed the mark by more than 20 years! I was considering which games would require the least processing power, but early computer games had more to worry about that just the number crunch. The graphical fidelity to render text was extremely limited and alphabetic keyboards were not typical input devices.

From what I could see, there is no absolute on the first computer game, so I will break down the early games with their significant landmarks:

1947 - Thomas T. Goldsmith Jr. and Estle Ray Mann develop a missile simulator game, the first use of a computer for entertainment.

1950 - Claude Shannon devises a chess game in his paper, demonstrating the first artificial gaming intelligence.

1952 - Alexander Douglas creates the first digitally displayed computer game, OXO - a noughts and crosses simulator created to study human-computer interaction.

 1958 - William Higinbotham exhibits Tennis for Two, the first multiplayer computer game, displayed on an oscilloscope.

1962 - Spacewar is created for the DEC PDP-1 mini-computer by MIT students and is the first time a computer game is designed not as a simulator for an existing game or scenario.
Computer games continued to be the preserve of students with access to university mainframe computers throughout the 1960s.

The increase in availability of mainframes in academic and business institutions, coupled with the rising populatity of computer games fuelled the growth of personal game projects undertaken by pioneering programmers. Games such as Spacewar were even ported across platforms and later distributed with the mainframes themselves.

It wasn’t until technological advances in miniaturization and cost-effective production of electronic components made the hardware accessible in the home. The first home video game console was the Magnavox Odyssey, released in 1972 which sold 330,000 units in its three year production cycle. The console used any of 30 separately-sold game cartridges to play the games on a home television set. It was this console and business model that paved the way for the entire video game industry to follow.

In the same year, the coin-operated arcade version of Pong was released by Atari to massive commercial success. I find it interesting to think that tennis inspired Tennis for Two, which inspired Pong, which by my reckoning appeared to inspire air hockey, coming full circle to a physical game again. A testament to the circular and self-referential nature of games to follow?

By the time popular titles like Space Invaders (1978) and Asteroids (1979) hit the arcades, the appeal of arcade video games was clear: they were affordable, fun and addictive entertainment. At a time when televisions were not commonplace and consoles were extremely rare, arcades were a place to meet and play games with friends.

Through the 70s, mainframe games proved to be the catwalk by which coin-operated arcade games and late-70s consoles and personal microcomputers followed. By the end of the decade, video games had become a multimillion dollar industry on an upward trajectory.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Mod released

I have spent a very significant proportion of my free time over the past year working in a modding team of a dozen or so people. We’ve been recreating a portion of an old game called Baldur’s Gate 2 inside another game engine; that of Dragon Age: Origins, a newer title. The module has around 2 hours of gameplay. I am reminded of the Honda advert where vehicle components knock into one another in sequence. $6,500,000 and 3 months of work by engineers and a film crew for 90 seconds of entertainment.

 I first saw the opening room from Baldur’s Gate 2 modelled out, ready to be converted into Dragon Age some 11 months ago. As probably my favourite game of all time, the overwhelming nostalgia it evoked made it impossible to resist getting involved. The project was simple: remake a 10-year-old game in a new engine. A game that happened to have over 100 hours of gameplay.

I did not anticipate taking a major part in the project, but I’m not somebody who will stand by as dreams and hard work fall apart to bad co-ordination. Before long I was responsible for the organisation of the project as well as creating much of the content. It was a great opportunity to improve my modelling and texturing before starting this course and I’m very pleased with the look of the levels, which were my main focus (besides doing bits of everything else!)

But the task was not straightforward - the scope of the project was immense. Those involved were scattered around the world with varying levels of experience, availability and commitment. This industry is renowned for failing to meet deadlines despite having control over all of the above factors. Some even get abandoned, usually due to over-ambition or inexperience. Here are a handful of amateurs who have never met one another plotting to recreate an enormous game… for no pay… in our spare time. What chance did we have?

With a manoeuvre straight out of high school, setting achievable targets was crucial. Releasing the project in short modules meant that the end was always in sight, interest could be built and more people could get involved. After almost a year of development, I am pleased to report out first module has just been released.

It has been a great project to work on, and it ticks pretty well all the boxes employers like to see in an application - working in a team, meeting deadlines, accepting and delegating responsibility, I could go on. I have been extremely fortunate that the people I have been working with have been so dedicated and enthusiastic. I look forward to continuing to work with them in future modules.

Despite being released for less than 24 hours, the feedback so far has been extremely positive: 
 Insanely Great! 
 Best DA-mod so far
Far above any DA mod I had ever tried
Easily one of the top mods ever produced
This mod should be on TOP OF dragonagenexus forum as THE MOST DOWNLOADED MOD IN HISTORY!!
A little sensationalist but they seem to like it! 

I like to think the people at Honda are proud of their advertisement. I love that ad.

You can read more about the mod and player’s comments on the project page. If you have Dragon Age Origins, you can also download it from there and have a go.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Update 1

I am pleased to report that in these first two weeks I have produced a significant amount of work! Especially pleased since a certain someone I know typically spends much too long doing much too little! But all of that is going to have to change…

I have never been more jealous of my sister's time management. Not because she has a fully packed schedule and does a million things; but because she does the million things without fully packing her schedule. I'll be sure to ask her how she pulls it off, since now that I am at university, too many things are pulling at my time in different directions.

So, in no particular order, in my first two weeks of term I have mostly been doing:

Visual Design (the drawing/painting bit)

We have been looking at single-point perspective. Its a topic I'm fairly comfortable with. For one, my former art teachers managed to drill this into me many years ago (thank you!). Also I think I've always had a very mechanical eye as far as art has been concerned. I mean that metaphorically - any artistic flair is always constrained by a need for a technically "tight" drawing - not that i have some sort of cybernetic ocular receptor in the sockets of my skull.

Our first subject was the canal near the university. I have completed my preparatory sketches for our second assignment - an old stone archway on a cobbled street, but have not yet finished.

Game Production (the modelling/texturing bit)

Our first assignment was to create a Dalek - a tall order for the students on the course who had never done any 3d modelling before! Fortunately, I do have some experience and was able to help out some of the other guys. I find explaining stuff to others actually fleshes out my own understanding of the topic, so it has been helpful for me too. Working to a technical brief really made me rethink how I could model more efficiently. On the advice of a third-year, I redid my first attempt with what I had learnt and am pleased with the final result.
The second assignment was to model a wheelie bin. I chose one of the bins from my building's bin store, though later regretted the decision upon seeing all the interestingly grimy bins my fellow game artists had dredged up. So then, my disappointingly clean paper bin...
The Mod I have been working on for the past 9 months

Its finally drawing to a close. Or at least, the first chapter of it. I am working in a small team to remake an old role-playing game called Baldur’s Gate 2 in a new game engine - Dragon Age. Although I took on the project with a sentence something like “I don’t want to take a major role in this mod”, before long I found most of my free time was sinking into this mod, and I ended up being the guy organizing it.

I can’t say I regret doing so - it has been thoroughly enjoyable and I have learnt a great many skills from it. I will let you know how it is received after the first chapter releases this Friday.

Thursday, 7 October 2010


You know what’s hard? Starting things is hard. Continuing things? That only requires momentum to be sustained. Ending things? Easiest of all, it usually requires doing nothing whatsoever. But starting things - like a blog? That requires things - like a title.

An introduction is in order. I’m Mike Pickton, a first-year Game Art student at De Montfort University in Leicester. I made the decision a couple of years ago to abandon my Economics and Management university course and attempt entry into the games industry - something which I have a genuine passion for. I haven’t looked back!

Working in Quality Assurance for Codemasters allowed me to see that I really wanted to visualise ideas and worlds into something tangible. For years I have modded and created my own games in my spare time. Retraining myself on an art foundation, and joining a three year course in Games Art, I hope to improve my self-taught skills to industry standard.

I would love to work as an environment artist initially, and move on to lead artist or producer. While my interest lies in the fantasy and science fiction genres, I enjoy the technical challenges of photorealistic production values and would be thrilled to work on any triple-A title for PC or consoles.

I have recently been very active in a team of modders looking to reproduce the roleplaying classic Baldur’s Gate 2 using the Dragon Age toolset; our first release is imminent. As part of this community, I also co-host a fortnightly podcast, record modding video tutorials and organise regular sponsored modding contests.

I’m crossing my fingers that I’ll be able to convert my work on Dragon Age into a summer placement at Bioware, and have an open dialogue with a couple of the developers there. I will be applying for a 3 month placement as an environment artist, hoping to demonstrate the desirable skills they list for this position:
  • An ability to think in 3D
  • Drawings/sketches that display basic skills as well as any modelling and texture work related to objects, buildings, natural terrain, etc.
  • Excellent sense of form, weight (mass), and volume
  • Good use of light and shadow- Breadth of artistic styles
  • An understanding of optimization
  • Excellent sense of scale and level of finish

While I can currently demonstrate most of these abilities to some extent, building a professional portfolio in my first couple of weeks will be challenging. Fortunately, by the time I come to apply for a fulltime job, I plan to have developed many of my weaker areas. I intend to focus strongly on improving upon my breadth of artistic styles and sense of form, weight and volume as well as continually pushing myself outside of my comfort zone to become a better games artist. 

Outside of games, I regularly play tennis and volleyball. While I really enjoy watching films of most genres, I struggle to find time to watch everything I’d like to! I love to travel, and have toured Southern Africa and Europe by road. I hope to travel to South-East Asia one summer, finances allowing!

I have been looking forward to this course for 18 months now, and am extremely excited to be here. I anticipate thoroughly enjoying my time and hope to really excel in a subject that I am so passionate about! 

Starting this course? Easiest decision I have ever made. Continuing it? I have never wanted anything to be more difficult. Ending the course? I only hope I can!