Posts Tagged ‘game development’

The Origin of it All

It was the fall of `92.  We had just arrived in the country and needed to buy a PC for my grad school work.  We opted for a mighty 386 computer (and sprang for the 40Mhz rather than the 33) and after considerable soul-searching had a ridiculously excessive 1Mb video card installed (how good was this machine?  When I discovered Doom a couple of years later, much of the game played as a blinking, growling, slideshow accompanied by the occasional delayed weapon blast).  I don’t even remember how we found the particular machine, probably through the newspaper (we were young and stupid).  At any rate, it began having some issues pretty quickly.  So I took it back to the rent-a-box place where we’d bought it, somewhere in the anonymous light industrial depths of the city of Orange.  The sales person wasn’t at all happy to see me but quickly established, as I’d suspected, that the motherboard was defective and offered to replace it for me while I waited.  Then he sat me down in front of another PC with an attached joystick and started up a game called Wing Commander.

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Amazon.com’s launch of its new App store has met with mixed reviews (not to mention some legal challenges concerning the name).  It obviously sets up a clash of the titans, as Amazon attempts to become for Droid-based devices what Apple is for anything that begins with the letter “i.”  Amazon’s App Store (and let’s continue to call it while the trademark infringement allegations wend their weary way through the media and the courts) could, potentially, be a boon for game developers in particular, in the same way that Apple’s App Store has been.  The relatively low barriers to entry in terms of designing for smart phones in particular (barriers that are, however, increasing in size as developers are also expected to leverage their games for multiple versions of operating systems and different device scales (iPhone and iPad, for example) have been a big draw for new developers and a means to get some new voices into the gaming marketplace.

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There are many mysteries in life to which we will never, ever find a satisfactory answer: why Wall Street continues to make money hand over fist in the middle of a recession, how baseball replaced watching paint dry as the US national past-time, why anyone takes Michele Bachman seriously.

One of those unsolvable mysteries is categorically not why the genre of online flight simulation remains a nerdy niche unheard-of, unheralded, and unvisited by the overwhelming majority of gamers. The reason is because flight simmers, especially the hardcore variety, really like the fact that their preferred gaming genre is deeply unpopular. In fact, they want it to be even less popular than it is and to that end willingly applaud flight simulation developers who insist on giving them shitty, unplayable dreck instead of actual functioning simulation games.
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Art Deco Spandrel

Art Deco Spandrel. CC Copyright by Atelier Tee

In his article Broadpaw made an excellent point about the reluctance of many people to think of games as art or even that particular games might be a form of art; we are lightyears away from someone acknowledging that a specific game might be great art.  Broadpaw noted that the entire debate is structured around a series of false binaries.  And they are false  if we consider the way these things actually work in the world.  As I noted previously, the non-art/art binary doesn’t apply at all to our actual creative practices.  However, the important thing about false binaries is that they can nevertheless have real-world effects.  It is the reason why people use them, after all.  The concepts they describe and the words that give them life are the foundation of careers, schools of thought, forms of power.  All well and good, right?  The great wheel of capitalism turns to the benefit of all?  I want to spend a bit of time thinking about the downside, the real world negative effects of these false binaries on the present and future place of games in our culture.

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Upon leaving a reply to “It may be art. . .but I really don’t care,” I soon realized that the reply was quickly becoming its own post. So here it is.

My good Twitchdoctor, I am pleased that you tackle the question of “Are games art?” in the way that you have – in that you’re engaging the question itself. Beyond inspiring us to seriously consider games as art (or as texts or as narratives or as heralding the downfall of all of humankind), I grow tired of these “grand debates,” ones that exist only within the framework of a false binary. For instance, I understand — although without question partially disagree — with Carmack’s claim (also appearing in the McNamara article) that “A gamer pays to play, not to admire.” Ultimately, what Carmack intends, I think, like many ludologists have done (especially more than five or so years ago), elevating the actual gaming aspect of games. Sure, that makes sense, given that a game is, well, a game. We should be emphasizing their ludic, game-like, qualities. But such binaries are also foolishly simplistic as many gamers/scholars/designers/developers doubtless realize.

I take to heart your comment in response to games-as-art that “there is no reason that games, like other art forms, shouldn’t do both, or neither” (I might reiterate that “neither” portion, as I have attempted to play games that are virtually unplayable; I have tried to see as art, objects of art for art’s sake that I cannot, no matter my mind’s openness, see any artistic value in and certainly no function; likewise, I have seen plenty of objects that are intended solely to be functional that simply aren’t, yet they without question are not art, either . . . take, for instance, pretty much anything labeled “As Seen On TV”). Our obsession with absolutes — “yes or no” and “all or nothing” as you accurately put it in your post — frustrate me thoroughly. And you’re right, it’s not whether games are art, but rather “whether” (I’d say “when”) specific game titles can be considered art, or, to put it another way, what artistic elements we see in specific game titles. “Art” versus “artistic” might provide a clearer lens through which to look at these objects, and one that might reveal another question that you pose regarding motivation.

It is motivation, to some extent (those of game authors, gamers, and critics). For instance, I wonder if part of Carmack’s problem, too, when he labels those who claim games-as-art are sophists, even on an unconscious level, is that the critics are elevating themselves, for if games are works of art, then game critics are contributing to cultural knowledge, revealing and making meaning, whereas if games are merely commodities, critics are simply writing product reviews. And there has long existed a tension between critics and artists, as much as their relationships can be symbiotic. [This may really not be the case, even if I find it plausible, though, as I should point out that Au, quoting Carmack, indicates that Carmack is implicating “fellow developers” and not game critics: “In an apparent slam at fellow developers who strive for something higher …” (Au). This pointing-the-finger-at game developers and not critics changes the game, slightly, but I’ll get back to that).

Motivation need not be singular, either, though — we might think about, in addition to motivation, a matter of motivational priority. In other words, while my instinct is to say definitively (and obviously) that a game is both art and commodity (it is, or at least can be), I am willing to instead (or also) ask the question, “To what extent is a game a work of art and to what extent is it a commodity?” (Which is NOT to ask for some silly percentage or numeric value, but merely to point out that we can investigate games in numerous ways simultaneously; to put it yet another way, might a game be a commodity first and a work of art second?) That’s potentially a more productive and accurate way to frame the question (especially in that we might generate some identifiable answer to the question or at least an arguable, plausible claim, rather than just perpetuating the debate itself ad nauseam). Furniture is art. Or can be. But largely, furniture is first functional, and only then is it artistic (or do we have to bring up the distinction, now, between the “fine” and “decorative” arts? … although perhaps I’ll reveal my barbarity when I comment that if a painting isn’t “decorative,” then I don’t know what is.) Automobiles are works of art. Or can be. Compare a Delahaye to a Ford, and the case is made. But largely, automobiles are first functional, and then artistic (although not incidentally, many of those beautiful 1930s coach-built shapes also aided in aerodynamics, and their designers intentionally were pursuing aerodynamic qualities — without the benefit of windtunnels — while still focusing on pleasing, beautiful shapes: the functional can be beautiful, the beautiful can be functional). Quilts are art. Or can be. But largely, they’re functional first – it’s a poor quilt that won’t keep out the shivers, but it’s not as nice a quilt whose stitching is all uneven. Anyway, I think we get the idea.

Also on the question of motivation, you mention that “‘True’ artists are not supposed to be motivated by money but by the purity of their creative drive. If this were true, however, the list of art works in our culture would be pathetically short.” Yep, Twitchdoctor, yep. There’s no inherent problem with being also motivated by economic gain, even if just to support one’s artistic (or other noble) endeavors. In fact, this is where Carmack’s comment about “sophistry” gets especially interesting to me (as much as I recognize that he’s likely just using the term to mean “mere rhetoric” as we do in the common parlance), for we might argue along the same lines for teachers (wait for it…). So Carmack says, “We’re doing entertainment. Saying it’s art is a kind of sophistry from people who want to aggrandize our industry.” Let’s unpack that. The “aggrandizing” the gaming industry that some of its developers pursue — the elevating of, the exaggeration of the importance of — is indicating that, what, an artwork is “higher” than a game? Or, another interpretation that takes your smart “Art versus Commerce” section into account: because the motivation to create art is supposed to be somehow “pure” (that is, not for monetary gain), Carmack and the game industry should go ahead and recognize that they’re in it for the money – that games are indeed a lucrative commodity (they certainly were for Carmack). Many games are (but not always). (Or perhaps we can be more generous, and say Carmack’s intention is that games should be about gaming and playing, not art, and not necessarily money?) At any rate, these are, let’s admit, nice, honest claims. But again, they’re overly simplistic. Games are money-makers, entertainment media, and art — but each one is only potentially any of these.

But what an odd reversal of “sophistry,” which is also linked to motivation. It is well known that the philosophers took serious issue with the sophists, for the sophists accepted student fees for teaching (and accepting payment versus not accepting payment was in part what made a sophist a sophist, and a philosopher a philosopher, respectively). Somehow that made the sophists’ motivations impure, like those artists who smartly realize that their work may have commercial value. What’s more, motivation was at the heart of philosophy versus sophistry: as Plato may have had it, philosophers seek truth (presumably for the common good), while sophists seek only to teach people to persuade (in other words, “mere rhetoric”) and for monetary gain. If we over-simplify, then, we may come up with the following. In Carmack’s statement,

game-developer-artists = sophists = aggrandizing (games or the gaming industry)

And in terms of the original use of the term “sophistry,”

money-making-teachers = sophists = belittling (truth or the philosophic “industry”)

Like you do of artists, Twitchdoctor, I can imagine how many teachers we’d have now (or philosophers, for that matter) if being paid was not part of the bargain (I’ll refrain from snide commentary about how teachers’ salaries make that condition pretty close to the truth anyway). It might be fun to brainstorm a list of teachers who would argue how heinous being paid for their work is (yet that activity won’t provide much fun for long). Seems to me, then, these false binaries may inspire us to think about them, as I mentioned, and that’s productive. But they also have the potential to cloud the truth, which is, whether you’re Carmack, a developer calling games art, a critic, a gamer, a teacher, a philosophy, that all of these objects rest comfortably in-between all of these absurd boundaries — it is we who don’t.

References (from “It may be art. . .but I really don’t care”)

Au, W. J. (2002, May 6). Playing games with free speech. Salon.
McNamara, T. (2004, March 26). GDC 2004: John Carmack talks game development. IGN.com.

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Graffiti Art

Art isn't a Crime, Creative Commons Copyright by natashalcd

There is perhaps nothing quite as likely to initiate yawning and eye-rolling amongst game developers as the question: are games art?  Yet the question keeps returning and it is one upon which the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) has taken a strong position, arguing in its anti-censorship talking points that “Video games are emerging as the leading art form of the 21st century” and emphasizing that “Digital games are an expressive medium worthy of the same respect, and protections, as movies, literature and other forms of art and entertainment.”

The IGDA’s position, however, does not seem to be shared by a significant number of developers, many of whom prefer simply to avoid the question or to maintain that it isn’t relevant to the real work of game design.  For example, in Washington Post article, Ken Levine, lead designer of BioShock, when asked whether games are art, replies that “he doesn’t spend much time thinking about the art question.” He goes on to say, “I don’t know, and I guess I sort of don’t care. . . All I care about is, does it work—does it have an impact on an audience?” (F2).  Other developers have reacted more strongly.  John Carmack maintained in 2002 that “We’re doing entertainment. Saying it’s art is a kind of sophistry from people who want to aggrandize our industry” (quoted in Au); a point of view he reiterated in his keynote address at the 2004 Game Developers Conference (McNamara).  Carmack’s view, in particular seems to represent a more widespread attitude among developers and gamers (google Carmack’s “sophistry” statement, for example, and you’ll find it quoted approvingly in a number of gaming forum discussions).

These expressions of impatience and hostility, and even the more benign sentiment that the question is irrelevant, are based in large part on several fundamental misconceptions about the differences between art and non-art.  While the misconceptions are widespread amongst members of the public and even artists themselves, the distinctions they embody bear little resemblance to actual artistic practice either historically or in the present day.  By focusing on the most common misconceptions I want to highlight what is at stake for game development in trying to fit in with the popular (mis)understanding of the nature of art as well as the dangers inherent in refusing a more active role in helping shape cultural perceptions of art in a way that would include games. (more…)

Reflections Occasioned by a Five-Year Anniversary

My very first experience with MMORPGs probably ruined me for life when it comes to appreciating other online games.  I played around a bit with MOOs and MUDs but wasn’t really into the idea of online gaming during the Ultima Online and Everquest period.  I did play what was then called World War II Online (now called Battleground Europe, and still going despite being the most punishingly unrewarding (which, according to the masochistic logic of most gamers, doesn’t mean it wasn’t/isn’t fun!) game I have ever played.  EVE is a game of checkers by comparison).  My first experience of a large scale MMORPG was therefore Star Wars Galaxies.

It was 5 years ago, in November of 2005, that Sony Online Entertainment scrapped the first version of SWG and implemented the New Game Enhancements (NGE).  I stuck it out for a few more months, and then joined the horde of rats scurrying down the anchor chain.

When I started playing SWG I was utterly and completely hooked, sold on the idea of virtual worlds from the moment the tutorial (an embarrassingly primitive affair which featured the now infamous “dancing Imperial Officer”) dumped me outside the spaceport in Coronet on Corellia.  I hadn’t even got my bearings when there was a peal of thunder and it began to rain.  That is exactly how long it took me to part with my immortal soul.

Naively, I assumed that SWG was like every other MMORPG out there in its basic mechanics.  It wasn’t.  Now is neither the time nor the place to rehearse the reasons for the game’s self-mutilation that left it little more than a WoW wannabe. . .  Oh hell, who am I kidding, any time is the perfect time to discuss such idiocy.  In retrospect, after playing several other MMOs of various kinds, I’ve come to realize that the reason SWG made such an impression on me is not simply because it popped my MMORPG cherry, but because it was trying to be a kind of game that is still strikingly rare in the MMORPG marketplace: an adult game.

What follows is part reflection, part elegy, part rant, all in memoriam for one of the most promising MMORPGs never to last the distance.  But my purpose is a serious one.  SWG‘s failure raises numerous issues, but the central one is an issue that still plagues the MMORPG industry: the unwillingness of developers to stop pandering to those players who want childish games.

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