Stuart Scott
Games Developer | Lead Level Designer

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    29 March

Why ‘Worse is Better’ for Early Access Games

Early Access games – the latest trend in PC gaming. They allow gamers to pay for access to an unfinished product that draws upon its user’s feedback and funding to steer the game to completion. Often labelled as a ‘paid-Beta’, Early Access titles are proving to be a divisive topic between players, developers and the games media. However, as the number of new Early Access releases on Steam and other platforms increases it would seem that the format is set to continue for the foreseeable future.

So why is Early Access currently so popular? The benefits of Early Access for developers and consumers have been discussed before, but I think there are more answers to be found amongst Richard P. Gabriel’s thoughts on software acceptance, summarised by his phrase “Worse is Better”.

 

What is ‘Worse’?


In his essay from 1989, Lisp programmer Richard P. Gabriel wrote a section titled “The Rise of ‘Worse is Better” where he described the concept of accepting a ‘worse’ solution to a problem, rather than the supposedly ‘right-thing’ to do. In this example, a ‘worse’ solution is one that is simple and limited in functionality compared to the ‘right-thing’ which is more complex and functional.

The core of Gabriel’s argument is that quality is not necessarily improved as functionality is increased, as software that can be used simply for a limited purpose will often be more accepted by users due to its practicality and usability. Crucially, ‘worse’ programs can be crafted and adapted at a much quicker rate compared to the ‘right-thing’, which likely faces longer iteration and usability testing times to function at its desired complex level.

Increased delivery speed leads to an increased use rate as more users adopt the ‘worse’ solution in favour of the unavailable ‘right-thing’. Gabriel describes this adoption process as a ‘viral’ outbreak due to the nature in which the program is spread through word of mouth and existing use, eventually leading to widespread acceptance. Once accepted, there may be pressure from users to expand the functionality but they have already been conditioned to accept ‘worse’ rather than the ‘right-thing’.

In time, the ‘worse’ program will ultimately become the ‘right-thing’ as it is adapted to cater to the increased functionality demands and requirements of its now diverse user base. With this in mind, let’s now look at how this applies to Early Access games.

 

Early Access Games are ‘Worse’


When considering the benefits of Early Access, many commentators are quick to point out the financial benefits for small developers that the scheme affords them to produce their vision. Users are also empowered by a sense of contribution to a project that they are presumably interested in, be it through feedback or funding, as well as ‘rewarded’ through the titular Early Access to the game.

The game that the users have access to in those early days is a limited and often simplistic program, lacking the intended functionality required to adhere to the developer’s vision of a complete product. According to Gabriel’s terms, such a game should be considered ‘worse’ due to its lack of functionality and an adherence to his principle that “Completeness can be sacrificed in favor of any other quality”.

Taking the comparison further, the simplicity of ‘worse’ programs allows for quicker production rates that can be more readily adapted upon. As project scopes for games become greater, so too does the time in which it takes to complete them, but Early Access titles often boast of a more immediate feedback loop with their customers and consequently a potentially quicker iteration speed.

As mentioned earlier, the quicker a product can be released, the faster the use rate of that product can be increased, particularly in the absence of the ‘right-thing’. In the case of Early Access, developers can quickly push out the simple version of their game with the intentions of generating a user base to expand upon with further updates.

With a user base established, the hope will be to foster a community with these users that in turn increases the product’s visibility and incoming revenue. The importance of YouTube ‘Let’s Play’ videos and community word of mouth is crucial to the success of many modern Indie titles in the industry now. In our time of viral marketing campaigns, Gabriel’s 1989 description of the adoption of his ‘worse’ programs as a virus outbreak is eerily prophetic.

 

There are ‘Worse’ problems to have…


So as a means of funding and promoting a project, Early Access has clear benefits for developers, but it is not without its risks and pressures. Releasing a ‘worse’ version of a game can have a detrimental effect on the all important first impressions of a product that is missing key functionality, potentially preventing the project to gain widespread user acceptance.

If a developer is successful at fostering a community, they are then under pressure to satisfy their expectations and avoid game fatigue for fear of losing their customer base. This may lead to compromises from developers on their original vision of the project and what they deliver in the long run, not to mention risk being at odds with the proposal which enticed their first adopters. Such compromises may prevent the final product ever being the ‘right-thing’ that its developers and users wanted it to be.

 

For Better or for ‘Worse’


When viewed in comparison with Gabriel’s concepts of software acceptance it may be easier to understand why Early Access is considered so divisive within the industry and amongst consumers. The greatest benefit of Early Access, when regarded as ‘worse’, is that it allows for quicker introduction and adoption from users with the ambition of widespread acceptance. It is a process that can provide improved revenue and marketing for smaller development projects that may allow them to compete for sales alongside the bigger budget productions.

However, it is not hard to imagine the Early Access scheme being exploited to facilitate the hurried release of a lesser product to reach the market ahead of an anticipated title. The viral success of the original DayZ mod soon led to a lot of similar products available on Early Access, perhaps looking to capitalise on the game’s popularity. Sadly, a similar precedent for this has already occurred in the mobile games market which has seen its fair share of clones and copy-cats looking to cash in on other’s success.

As the latest process that opens up the financial possibilities for games development to a wider range of users, Early Access will only lead to a more diverse collection of products available on the market. As it continues to gain more acceptance as a process, so too will the products created under the Early Access scheme, until eventually they may even be considered the ‘right-thing’. However, to achieve this goal, concerns regarding the honour system that currently revolves around Early Access transactions and user commitments to unfinished products will have to be overcome.

These concerns actually highlight the important reliance developers and consumers share with one another, and how Early Access may be leading the way to a more harmonious relationship with products that are usually more informed and tuned to their user’s needs when finally released. Whatever the ‘right-thing’ of future games development is, it will have to maintain this often fractious relationship if the industry is to continue its success. In this case, Early Access may be ‘worse’, but that does not mean that it is wrong.

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    2 January

Game of the Year 2013

In the final part of my look back at my personal gaming highlights of the year, I have decided to list my top 3 favourite games in rank order to reveal my Game of the Year 2013.

3. The Last of Us


This year I have struggled to find a good reason to brush the cobwebs off my PS3, but with the release of Naughty Dog’s bleak and emotional The Last of Us, I was glad I reached for the duster. This masterful character driven game breathed new life into the console as the generation was preparing to make way for future hardware.

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I wrote a blog post about the immersion breaking situations I often found myself in whilst playing The Last of Us, but this was more of an analysis of the problems of storytelling when creating believable worlds that players are then allowed to influence. To date, The Last of Us is possibly the finest attempt at tackling those issues, which is evident from my occasional dismay when the spell of immersion was broken despite the developer’s brilliant work.

It is that immersion within the world of The Last of Us and the connection to its characters which makes this game such a powerful experience. Whilst the majority of the gameplay is far from revolutionary, the implementation of the mechanics and the refined attention to detail makes the act of playing feel new.

The Last of Us is more than a brilliant story driven interactive drama that brings a fresh perspective to the tired themes of zombie apocalypse. As big budget, triple-A developments are considered to be burgeoning out of control and scope, Naughty Dog has proved that a large team of skilled developers can still create innovative and intricately polished products worthy of the attention they receive.

2. FTL: Faster Than Light


I have never found myself dreaming what it would be like to command a starship through the cosmos, engage in epic space battles or conduct interstellar diplomacy. That was until I played FTL!

ftl

FTL was often infuriating and seemed determined to punish me and my crew when we are at our most vulnerable, damning us to an inglorious death in the depths of space. Until I eventually completed the game, I went through numerous ships. Death by enemy boarding, oxygen starvation, deadly fires spreading…. But with each spacecraft’s passing, my determination to finish the game would grow and hopefully vengeance against the dastardly Rebels would be mine.

It was this constant threat and pressure that actually helped me become so invested in the outcomes of my crew and starship. Thanks to FTL, I was now weighing up the tactical decision of diverting power from my ship’s life support systems in order to direct a (hopefully) fatal blow to my attackers. The game was full of these tense and exciting moments that reminded me of some of my favourite situations when commanding my squad in the brilliant XCOM: Enemy Unknown.

I thoroughly enjoyed the game’s punishing and thrilling gameplay that made the eventual moment of victory ‘oh-so sweet’. However, the enjoyment would not stop there as FTL had great replay value with new ships to unlock, species to meet and secrets to discover.

1.Gunpoint


I remember hearing about Gunpoint many months before its release as I was directed to the dev-log of the game’s creator, Tom Francis. As soon as I saw the early gameplay footage and heard the way Francis talked about his project, I knew that this would be a game to pay attention too. Fast forward to the release and it was great to see the game lived up to its promise and my expectations.

gunpoint

Here was a puzzle game that refused to constrain players to simple right or wrong answers, and instead provided a freedom to experiment and imagine the most unbelievable solutions possible. Using an innovative hacking device that allowed players to rewire a building’s systems, the game offered an opportunity for an inventive and unpredictably fun form of stealth not seen before.

With the invention of this brilliant hacking mechanic, Francis created a gaming environment for players to craft a level to their own wishes beyond his design. This experimental playground was presented in the beautiful pixelated world of a private detective, complete with its own alternative Film Noir murder-mystery plot.

Full of typical British cynicism and humour that seems to be a mirror of Francis’ personality, the game is constantly witty and hilarious. The old adage of ‘Always leave them wanting more’ is quite apt when talking about Gunpoint, which seems to end as quickly as it hooks you into its opening scene. That said, with the vast possibilities offered in each mission and the addition of a level editor I am hardly going to begrudge this game for its short story length.

Gunpoint is the most perfect blend of refreshing ideas, enjoying experience and accomplished production that I have experienced in 2013, and quite possibly one of the finest games I have ever played.

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    31 December

Best Handheld Games 2013

In 2013 handheld gaming was bigger than ever. Nintendo finally seemed to be returning to form with popular releases for the 3DS such as Pokémon X and Y and Animal Crossing. Sony’s Vita has also dusted off the cobwebs thanks to the PS4 Remote Play functionality as well as new exclusives such as the imaginative Tearaway.

However, it is mobile and tablet gaming that has interested me most of all this year within the handheld market. Aside from the mega-success stories of titles such as Candy Crush Saga, I have found mobile gaming to provide some secret gaming pleasures that kept me exploring the Android Play Store. Amongst the numerous titles I played this year, these are my favourites that make up my list of Best Handheld Games of 2013.

Plug It!


Plug It! is a first-time release for new indie start-up haveUplayed and is one of the finest mobile games that (sadly) no-one is talking about. Using their device’s tilt and touch controls, players must guide Goi the lizard around the platform puzzler to help him ‘plug’ a hole before lava spews forth and destroys the lizard eggs!

plugit

It is a beautiful ‘cutesy’ game, but don’t let that deceive you to its challenging puzzles and gameplay. Thanks in part to the use of tilt controls, Plug It! requires quick reflexes and can be quite demanding, but haveUplayed have finely balanced the control system to avoid punishing at the cost of player enjoyment.

Packed with a selection of unlockable game modes and bonus levels, Plug It! was one of those mobile games that I would pick up with the intention of briefly playing with a quick cuppa. However, I often ended up determined to beat just one more level then realising my cup of tea had gone cold. You will be hard pushed to get a better compliment out of me for a game if I don’t mind losing a cup of tea to it every now and again!

Pudding Monsters


Coming from ZeptoLab, makers of the popular Cut the Rope series of mobile games, it was no great surprise I was impressed with their latest offering, Pudding Monsters. This is a delightful puzzle game where you have to slide jelly monsters across a dinner table so that they can form into a bigger creature to save themselves from becoming dessert.

pudding-monsters

Much like the previous titles from ZeptoLab, this game has a charming and glossy presentation that I enjoyed whilst pondering over the puzzles. As I progressed through the game I was introduced to new monster types that offered new problems and techniques which kept the game fresh.

By using an inventive new 3-star reward system the game encourages replayability by presenting each level in a new light. Players are encouraged to complete levels in a multitude of ways, rather than simply awarding stars based on score, as is often the standard.  Like the best mobile games, this is quick and easy to pick up and play, but hard to put down once you’ve started.

Pocket Mine


In case you hadn’t noticed, mining is kind of trendy in gaming at the moment thanks to games such as Minecraft, although where most games attempt to copy the format of such titles, Pocket Mine decided to try something different. In a game that perfectly utilises the functionality of mobile devices, Pocket Mine presents a simple game where the player must attempt to dig as deep as possible in the limited time provided.

Pocket-Mine

Using ‘one-touch’ gameplay, players must tap a block to ‘mine’ it, but each tap weakens your pick axe until it eventually breaks. However, as you mine you will collect valuable ores that can be converted into in-game currency which can then be used to upgrade your pick for future excursions. As this might suggest, there are in-app purchases which is usually a major turn off for me in a mobile game. Thankfully, they are easily ignored and do not provide much benefit beyond the ability to prolong playing duration.

I found that the default time limit was more than enough for me to have an enjoying trip down the mine shaft and attempt to salvage some of the varied collectibles and power-ups or complete one of the random challenges. One of my favourite features of the game is the act of unlocking and building a deck of modifier cards which are then randomly selected at the beginning of each game. These ensure that each game has a slightly different experience or challenge that gets more satisfying the more you play.

Roofdog Games have crafted a finely balanced mobile game that presents a variety of ever changing rewards and challenges that ensure each play through is as fresh as the last. There is no shortage of things to achieve or unlock in the game and I’m constantly encouraged to play it whenever I find myself with a few minutes spare. Each bite-size session leaves me satisfied yet still hungry for more, though I wouldn’t say I’m addicted to playing it… honestly, I’m not!

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    30 December

Best Multiplayer Games 2013

Most new games have a variety of multiplayer options tailored to extend their lifespan and provide additional experiences for players beyond single player pursuits. This trend for ‘games as a service’ is understandable in a modern world where people are finding more ways to connect and socialise digitally.

Personally, I tend to prefer dedicated multiplayer games to satisfy my desire for social gaming, as opposed to the often shoehorned multiplayer modes offered by some games. Many recent games have introduced interesting multiplayer components to compliment their single player features, but none of those have managed to entertain me beyond mere curiosity. I have selected the following as my Best Multiplayer Games of 2013.

Chivalry: Medieval Warfare


What originally started as a Half-Life 2 mod released in 2010, Chivalry is now a standalone release built on the Unreal Engine. This new revamped version of the game retains the inventiveness of the original whilst providing a more polished presentation and control. The result is a multiplayer game that gives players the opportunity to experience firsthand the intense brutality of ‘medieval warfare’, but also offers unintentional black humour.

chivalry

Spurred on by the surprisingly comical player controlled battle cries, heading into a brawl rarely fails to be an enjoying, unpredictable and tense scenario unavailable in most other games. Skirmishes often play out like a battle in Monty Python and the Holy Grail rather than a grisly melee to the death.

Comedic novelty aside, Chivalry’s combat is finely balanced to ensure that it can be quickly picked up by new players whilst more nuanced control can be learnt for a more skilled play style. This helps to ensure that skirmishes are frantic yet balletic displays that can be quickly changed by the addition of another player charging into the fray. It is dangerous, thrilling, refreshing and ultimately fun; a brilliantly enjoyable multiplayer experience.

Guild Wars 2


Released last year, Guild Wars 2 and its player populace seem to still be going strong, whilst so many other MMO’s have been struggling to survive this year. This is perhaps in part due to continued development and community support despite its lack of subscription service.

guild_wars_2

ArenaNet promised big innovations to the MMO format and they have certainly delivered on a number of their guarantees following the game’s release. Guild Wars 2 provides a rich and varied world for players to explore, socialise and compete within that rewrites a number of the conventions of the genre. With their Super Adventure Box ‘April Fools’ prank this year, ArenaNet demonstrated just how much they were determined to cater to a unique and entertaining world for their player base.

Not afraid to step out from the shadow of World of Warcraft and attempt new ideas, Guild Wars 2 has proved that there is space for more than one MMO in the market. The way the game handles individual storytelling and employs more fluid multiplayer gameplay are techniques I expect to see mirrored by future multiplayer focused games, regardless of genre.

Battlefield 4


Those of you who read my Most Disappointing Games of 2013 post may be surprised as to how Battlefield 4 could be included on this list. Yes, the game has been plagued with issues since its launch at the end of October, and yes, the game has been almost unplayable at times. But, the inevitable disappointment that this caused is proportionate to how much fun this game is when you do manage to play it without issue.

BF4_2

Continuing the exciting unpredictability of previous releases, Battlefield 4 is one of the finest games this year for providing those amazing moments that you eagerly want to retell to your friends or share on Youtube. It is only in the multiplayer environments of Battlefield that the random behaviour of 64 players can produce unique spectacle on such a consistent basis that ensures watching a game unfold is just as entertaining as playing.

It may be suffering from technical issues, but compared to the alternative multiplayer shooter experiences available this year it still provides the most exciting and unexpected gameplay. Despite its teething problems, it is already the multiplayer game that I have committed the most time to this year, and I’m sure that it will continue to entertain for a considerably long time (once the issues are fixed..!)

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    23 December

Most Disappointing Games 2013

Usually games featured in a category of ‘Most Disappointing’ would be hauled up in front of the snarling public and shamed with the badge of disappointment, held to account for their crimes against consumer’s expectations…! This is rarely a form of constructive criticism but often only serves to vilify developers’ efforts more than provide insightful critique.

This list of games is not about shaming the efforts of the teams responsible for them, but is a reflection on my own expectations and how this ultimately led to my disappointment. The following games all entertained me during my time with them, but there was just something that tainted that satisfaction enough to distract me from total enjoyment. In retrospect, that ‘something’ was probably due to my own expectations and not so much a fault of the game.

Here is my personal list of the Most Disappointing Games of 2013.

Battlefield 4


In EA’s parlance, I am a Battlefield ‘Veteran’ that has enjoyed playing the series since the original BF:1942 and most of the iterations since. With the announcement of Battlefield 4 I wasn’t exactly giddy with excitement at the prospect of a new version, given that I was still enjoying the frantic action of Battlefield 3. However, as the launch date approached I could not help but feel intrigued as to how the ‘Levolution’ events would play into the chaos of 64 player warfare and what new features would be added.

So, with the game finally released I decided to jump on board and see what the future had in store for the Battlefield franchise. So much of what I enjoyed in the previous incarnation was still here, as well as some seemingly small additions that still provided an invigorating freshness to some tired aspects. Before long I was caught up in the excitement of new weapons to unlock, assignments to complete and maps to explore.

BF4

Sadly, the excitement was intermittent. Problems such as crashes to desktop, loss of game audio, temperamental hit detection and latency issues to name just a few, all severely marred the game in its early days of release. Online community forums and outlets for the game were quickly inundated with complaints and concerns, though thankfully the game’s developers appeared to be making efforts to rectify the serious issues.

With 2 months passed since its release, Battlefield 4 is starting to find some stability but it is a real shame that the game could not be closer to the intended quality upon launch. Whether through over-ambition or an inflated confidence, EA and DICE have stretched themselves and the formula of Battlefields gameplay to far for their own goals.

Troublesome launches are nothing new for the Battlefield series, and even knowing that going into the latest iteration, I was still dismayed to see the problems that have plagued this game already. I am still playing the game and hope that this instalment will be entertaining me long after release as the previous titles in the series have done.

The Bureau: XCOM Declassified


XCOM: Enemy Unknown was quite possibly my Game of the Year 2012 (had I actually awarded such a thing this time last year!). The sense of perilous excitement I felt whilst trying to ensure my squad of operatives, named after friends and family, survived insurmountable odds was an experience I have longed to encounter again. It was clear that any follow-up in the series would have a high standard to reach in order to recapture my sense of engagement.

With the release of The Bureau I saw an opportunity to revisit the world of XCOM from a new perspective during the inception of the secretive agency at its heart. Set amidst the conspiracy and propaganda of 1960’s Cold War, the premise of clandestine ops and alien invasion was a natural and interesting fit for an XCOM prequel, and one that I wanted to experience.

bureau

One major difference between the two games was the blend of 3rd-person cover/shooter mechanics with the turn based strategy synonymous with the series. I was eager to see how harmonious this marriage of gameplay would be and hopeful for a continuation of the tactical dilemmas presented in Enemy Unknown.

However, whilst The Bureau is a very solid and enjoying game, at no point did I feel the engagement and excitement of commanding my squad of operatives against the deadly alien threat. 2K did well to implement the tactical interface in such an easy to use format, but due to my AI comrades inadequacy during combat I felt no desire to utilise them. Missing the camaraderie and connection to my operatives that was such a key part of my enjoyment in Enemy Unknown, The Bureau was unable to satisfy my XCOM fulfilment.

If The Bureau was to exist in a world without Enemy Unknown, it may well have garnered more praise from reviewers and players alike. Unfortunately, I don’t think it could have existed without Enemy Unknown, and despite confidently attempting to introduce a new gameplay experience, it was always going to have to live up to the success of its older brother.

Hitman Absolution


Before Hitman Absolution was even released it had managed to disappoint me with its questionable portrayal of women as sexualised cannon fodder in the much maligned E3 2012 trailer. Overt sexism aside (of which much on the matter has already been written), it also presented the game as an all out action blockbuster, rather than the methodical assassin fare I was hoping for.

It was with much trepidation that I bought the game amongst promises from Square Enix of catering to fans of the previous Hitman titles with hardcore gameplay options and modes. Indeed, beyond the stunningly updated visuals, the core of a classic Hitman game could be identified.

Hitman-Absolution

Here was a game that provided a multitude of varying locales and instruments of death to ply Agent 47’s superior skills, but to what ends? Missions were now segmented into small chapters of conflict, often with a lack of assassination target or objective other than move onto the next area. This segmentation was presumably to encourage replay-ability of levels and promote experimentation of the environment’s elements.

However, this partitioning of the content seemed largely in order to push the player through the stifling story line that the developers had decided to embroil Agent 47 in, complete with cartoon characters and clichéd plot. It severely detracted from the essence of Hitman’s historically professional attitude as a gun for hire, forcing the player into new situations and foregoing the briefing and planning phase before missions. I relished those moments in previous titles of best laid plans going drastically wrong and having to improvise to avoid failure.

Absolution felt like a game that attempted to cater to Hitman players new and old, and it would seem that in trying to appease both it unfortunately left neither party truly satisfied. It introduced some interesting and inspired features to Agent 47’s arsenal that I would like to see return in a new Hitman title. Hopefully, if such a game is released in the future, lessons from this title will be learned and fans of the series could have the game they hoped for this time around.

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    17 December

Most Intriguing Games 2013

What does it mean for a game to be intriguing? It could be due to the mechanics of its design, or perhaps the form of its presentation. It is the hint of a deeper purpose beneath the initial façade of a game, or possibly just the promise of a new experience for the player.

The following games demonstrated these and many more intriguing qualities to earn a place on my list of the Most Intriguing Games of 2013.

 

Papers, Please

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It was way back in March this year when I first played this bureaucratic credential checking simulator by Lucas Pope. At the time the game was still in development but a browser based version was available on Pope’s website.

Despite the apparently mundane premise of the game and the simplistic mechanics, Pope managed to evoke a lot of emotional and ethical dilemmas to the act of checking virtual passports. What initially started as an interesting diversionary challenge one lunch break quickly led to me questioning my own morals and humanity! Quite a journey to take in 30 minutes with a browser based game…

With the release of the standalone version of the game in August, Pope introduced further human complexities and ambiguities within his world of fictional citizens.  Drama, intrigue and despair would be revealed by each hopeful stranger that approached your booth, taking you on a doubt filled quest of questionable incentives.

Pope successfully managed to transform the act of administrative work into a social and psychological commentary of trust, authority and humanity in everyday life, all in the context of a game. Such powerful responses are rarely exploited in a game, let alone as masterfully as Pope does in Papers, Please.

 

Candy Box

candyBox

In April, industry luminaries, press representatives and internet commenters were all in unison on social media talking about a new game craze simply known as Candy Box. Such was the fervour surrounding the game and its deliberate mysteriousness that word of mouth quickly took hold and this viral intrigue would play a large part in how the game would prove so popular.

What initially starts as a sparse browser page with a number slowly ticking up begins to unravel into an ever expanding ASCII graphic adventure that rewarded experimentation and curiosity. The crude art style provided a charming nod to text-based adventure games of the 80’s, but also masked the devious psychological nature of the game’s design.

The constant, measured trickle of reward and discovery quickly led to many players becoming addicted to furthering their progress in this fantasy world, hoping to uncover new secrets. However, this deliberate drip feed was no more than a simple time gate intended to draw players back to the game in regular intervals.

It is a design employed by the infamous Facebook games such as Farmville that so frequently received condemnation from many of the people that were now singing the praises of Candy Box. Here was a game that subverted the opinion of many people in the industry, myself included, as to what an acceptable method of controlling player’s enjoyment within a game could be. That unwitting realisation may not have vindicated such design practices, but it definitely captivated a seemingly impervious market and demonstrated how we are all susceptible to addiction.

 

The Stanley Parable

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The Stanley Parable is a brilliant and inspired game that originally started as a Half-Life mod. The experience of playing The Stanley Parable is directly linked to the individual playing it, and therefore in many ways it is difficult to quantify what may captivate a player. In my case, as a Level Designer, I was led on a fantastically humorous journey where I knew the setup to all the jokes, but the punch line still always managed to surprise and entertain me.

The essence of The Stanley Parable was to hold a mirror up to the very fabric of designing and creating a story driven game where the player controls the protagonist. It plays with convention and expectation of level design principles, as well as narrative structure and implementation within games. Therefore, when I looked into the mirror I felt justified, ashamed, fascinated, inspired, entertained and surprised every time I played as each time was different. In fact, I think I will have to go play it just one more time…!

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    17 December

My Games of the Year 2013

2013 has provided us with the end of eras, the beginning of a new generation and a wealth of controversy and success in between it all. As this interesting year in the industry draws to a close, people begin to look back and rank their gaming experiences.

Ignoring all the news stories and studio closures, what of the games that are the very essence of this industry?

What follows is a collection of the games that have nestled in my gaming memories of 2013, though (disclaimer for nit-pickers) they are not necessarily games that were only released this year. So without any further ado, here are the categories for the Stuart Scott Game of the Year 2013 awards!

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    5 August

The Last of Us: The conflict of storytelling in games

In a word, The Last of Us is astounding. This is not something that should come as a surprise to many when glancing at the perfect scores that were showered upon Naughty Dog’s latest title by a lot of satisfied reviewers. It is not premature to consider it a triumphant swansong of the current generation as we all prepare to usher in the Next-Gen of home consoles.

However, I don’t want to describe why I thoroughly enjoyed The Last of Us. Aside from it potentially taking too long to explain every fantastic minute detail, I want to focus on a fundamental issue I experienced throughout my time with the story of Joel and Ellie.

The keen-eyed amongst you will notice that, until now, I have made no reference to The Last of Us as a game. Therein lies the issue, and it is one that I just couldn’t overlook no matter how hard I tried during playing. The Last of Us is an intensely gripping story that happens to be presented in a brilliant game that puts the player in the leading role. Unfortunately, one of these aspects can end up being overshadowed or disrupted by the other despite the best intentions of the player or the writer.

Breaking the illusion


Right from the outset I was hooked by the character personalities, the way they moved, the dialog and little nuances of emotion visible on their face whilst playing the game. I was performing the part of a real character in a believable and horrific world and I was completely immersed.

I am Joel, walking with my partner Tess through the dystopia of a world ravaged by an unknown infection. As Tess and I converse on our journey through side-alleys and derelicts I suddenly notice something out of the corner of my eye.  As Tess moves the conversation to highly pertinent matters I have wandered away from her and out of ear shot to see what this shiny item laying in a dark corner is. In that moment I am transported from this bleak world back to my living room and I am suddenly incredibly aware that I am actually playing a game.

This immersion breaking incident is not an isolated occurrence as it is largely unavoidable when giving the player free control over the lead character’s actions. In each instance I was presented with a choice to explore every nook and cranny of an area or continue to follow the lead of my NPC guide, I was conflicted about which decision to make. On the one hand I wanted to stay true to the situation and the people involved in this scene, but on the other I have conditioned myself to search everywhere in a game environment for fear of missing that one key resource or collectable.

During these moments of mental conflict, I am no longer focusing on the atmosphere, the nuances of emotion on my partner’s face or the developing story between character conversations. I am focused on playing a game and I am reluctant to miss the potential opportunity to discover some revolver ammunition that I sorely need.

These instances are compounded in a linear game like The Last of Us, where the world is built and themed around the struggle for survival and the constant scavenging for resources. If I choose to ignore that dark room down a corridor in order to continue running with my partner away from an impending threat, I have maintained the reality of the situation but disregarded the scavenging themes of survival that resonate through this presented world.

It is a testament to the believability of the story, its characters and the design of the world that I am often presented with these dilemmas in a game, but it leads to the question of how much further the medium must go to reduce such moments of disconnect. When compared to other storytelling media forms such as TV, film and literature, games can offer an additional level of involvement for its audience, but the benefits can also be its undoing and must be leveraged appropriately.

Maintaining the illusion


It is not just Naughty Dog’s offering that can lose audience engagement in these ways, with most games determined to tell a story often hampered by a necessity to allow the player control over the situation. Indeed, temporarily removing the player control to act out a key scene via a pre-rendered cinematic is itself a form of breaking immersion as the player is more aware of their lack of control in the circumstances.

While The Last of Us is guilty of this on occasion, they achieve a lot of increased immersion through the design of the game in order to compliment the engagement in the story. The in-game display is fittingly minimal to suit the themes of scarcity, as well as be unobtrusive to the point of being unnoticed until required by the player. Players are left to determine their own path to follow in most situations, with clever Level Design subtly leading the player rather than an artificial objective marker floating above an exit. When attempting to sneak around the player avatar will instinctively move into cover rather than requiring the player to press a button to snap in or out, thus creating an intuitive and natural interaction.

For all its masterful techniques of maintaining immersion in its world, the issue in linear story based games such as this remains that the player will ultimately have the capability to disrupt their engagement in the scene. It may or may not be intentional, but it is this player choice that is integral to feeling they are part of the world at that moment. Without it, the player may as well be watching a non-interactive medium such as TV or film where the story plays out before them.

Of course, the issue is negated somewhat in more open gameplay that can rely on emergent story developments and interactions influenced by the player’s actions. The problem then becomes guaranteeing an interesting narrative for the player to be part of so that they feel compelled to continue further. However, in many ways the strain this can create on writers and developers could have a greater negative effect on the overall quality of a game that sets its scope too wide.

Future stories


As the gaming industry looks to evolve it is encouraging to consider that the issues of storytelling are becoming more complex and challenging within the medium. More products are aiming to convey a message or have an engrossing narrative to compliment the interaction of playing a game. In some ways it appears that these products are progressing beyond the oft perceived immaturity of games and should possibly be considered as interactive entertainment instead.

Although a gulf between the storytelling and interaction aspect of such entertainment still exists, it should hopefully encourage more developers to follow in Naughty Dog’s footsteps to deliver an even greater synergy of content. With more mature approaches and themes to interactive storytelling becoming increasingly prominent it will hopefully lead to more widespread success, respect and enjoyment within the medium for developers and consumers alike.

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    21 June

Who really benefits from Microsoft’s change of DRM policy?

Just last week I wrote a post in the wake of Microsoft’s arguably lack lustre performance at this year’s E3 event wondering if the company had broader plans for the future of their new console and controversial policies. Now, with the surprising news of a complete u-turn on these their used game and online connectivity plans following public outcry, it seems we have an answer.

Don Mattrick’s written statement released shortly after the news broke presents a picture of solidarity and an insistence that this change was a result of the company wishing to deliver to its loyal customer base. Whatever Microsoft’s reasoning, this decision is sure to have an impact on all parties concerned with the future of the Xbox One, and not all of it may be positive.

Consumers


As the news of Microsoft’s u-turn broke the internet was awash with self-congratulatory tweets and enthusiastic posts from those who had campaigned against the policies. Such an outpouring of strong opinion on social media had seemingly achieved the impossible and convinced a massive company to bend to the will of its consumers, so it was no surprise that the reverse decision was met with equal expression.

With restrictions on used games removed from the system, consumers felt that they were once again in control of their entertainment in a manner with which they were accustomed. But perhaps they will be missing out? What Microsoft was proposing was a new method for handling trade-ins that would have still allowed players to exchange used games for newer titles, though admittedly with some limiting caveats. However, what this also suggested was the possibility of a digital marketplace for instant purchasing and delivery of new entertainment, effectively mirroring the success of Valve’s Steam platform on home consoles. This could have presented a whole host of new benefits for consumers such as discounted prices, holiday sales bundles and instant gift purchasing and sharing.

Steam Holiday Sale
Steam Holiday Sale events generate a huge buzz and provide great discount benefits for consumers.

 

Game Stores


With the reduction of disc-based products and the subsequent used game trade-ins, game stores were looking at potentially lean times until Microsoft’s announcement. It’s quite telling that following the news GameStop’s shares rose by 6% as it became clear that the business could continue with its primary income practice of reselling used games with a large mark-up.

Of late, many stores here in the UK have been struggling financially, with the closure of Gamestation and the down-scaling of Game. This news will likely benefit these ailing stores and their employees, but the effects on consumers may be less positive. With these stores able to continue their used-game practices, consumers may find that they are receiving less value for a trade-in than that of what may have been offered on Microsoft’s proposed trade service.

Developers


With the anticipated structure of used games trading on the Xbox One, developers and publishers looked set to receive a more adequate slice of the pie from such transactions with external stores practically removed from the process. Now that the decision has been overruled they may have to revisit existing methods in an attempt to limit used game trade-ins such as the much maligned Online Pass system.

Another factor of this announcement is the effect it could potentially have on teams currently producing content for the next-gen hardware. Turn 10, the Microsoft studio responsible for the Forza series presented their latest title at E3 and outlined a number of features which suggested a necessity for regular online connectivity such as the ‘Drivatar’. This sudden policy reversal could have damaging repercussions on the studio’s efforts if they have been working under the assumption that players would always be connected whilst on Xbox One. Now they may have to consider what this means for their designed systems and how to provide a game for players both on and offline.

Forza 5
Will the design of Turn 10’s Forza 5 require a u-turn following the removal of Microsoft’s online policies?

 

Microsoft


With this announcement, Microsoft has seemingly placated a lot of their fans who were worried about the contentious policies they had announced. However, in some cases the damage may have already been done, with some consumers losing faith or trust in the company, wary of such policies being reinstated as suddenly as they were removed.

The company may have a new found respect from some consumers for admitting their mistake and trying to rectify the problem rather than dismissing the concerns of its market. Equally though, they may have lost respect for collapsing so readily under public pressure and not sticking to their convictions in an attempt to innovate their platform with new services.

What this has achieved is a brief respite for Microsoft which was required following the backlash from E3. The timing of the announcement also coincided with the recent firmware issues plaguing Sony’s PS3 which was an unlikely coincidence. There are still some factors about the new hardware that remain to be addressed such as the necessity for the Kinect and the higher product price when compared to the PS4. For now though, Microsoft has pulled itself up off the canvas and is looking to get back into the fight.

So who benefits?


In the short term it could be said that consumers look to benefit from this decision more than the other parties concerned, although looking ahead to the future it is unclear if this will continue to be the case. Microsoft were attempting to introduce new practices and services that may have led to greater benefits to the company, developers and most importantly, the consumers.

Perhaps in the long run we have all lost out as the future innovation of home console entertainment has been stilted due to poor communication and a lack of public acceptance. If so, then we are all partly responsible for this turn of events, and we all must now live with the consequences moving forward, for better or worse.  The true potential of Microsoft’s policies will unfortunately go undiscovered until the gaming public is more open to these or new concepts, or a company is willing to attempt to revolutionise the format once again.

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    14 June

Does Microsoft have a secret weapon?

This year’s E3 event in Los Angeles saw Microsoft and Sony competing for the attention of millions of video game fans with a shiny new line up of exclusive game announcements and platform information. Coming into E3 it was clear that Microsoft had a lot more at stake after a negative reaction to the Xbox One unveiling 3 weeks ago due to used game restrictions and a perceived lack of focus on games. Once at E3 it was apparent to most people watching the Sony press conference that Microsoft was still lagging behind in a contest to impress potential buyers in hopes of supporting their new hardware.

In the fallout of the conferences, social media was in strong voice supporting the PS4 due to its open platform practices, lower price, and indie support. Online polls added to the Sony fanfares as voters deemed them to be overwhelmingly more favourable than Microsoft who scored as low as 9% in some cases.

Poor communication


What seems to have added to Microsoft’s woes in the face of such public disapproval is the communication regarding key issues raised by the primary market and press alike. Don Mattrick’s response to concerns regarding Xbox One’s online connectivity requirements felt cold and insulting when he suggested consumers can use an Xbox 360 instead. Throughout recent interviews and growing developments Microsoft representatives have provided conflicting messages and appeared defiant in spite of the negative reactions from the core market it now seems to be alienating.

In addition, the new technical features unveiled have been poorly demonstrated, meaning the true gaming potential of these innovations is not very apparent. Perhaps this is due to a desire to avoid further separation of the core gamer market with additional TV focused examples, or simply because they do not fully understand the potential themselves.

What could be construed as steadfast arrogance on Microsoft’s behalf may just be a reluctance to admit that they have pitched their new product poorly. Alternatively, there may be an element of truth to this perception given the company’s success in the current generation possibly providing an inflated sense of security.

Taking to the stage at E3, Microsoft presented some impressive and desirable Xbox One exclusive titles such as Respawn Entertainment’s Titanfall. However, given the negative feelings towards the platform many may see this as a hostage like situation where Microsoft is attempting to withhold popular content from players in an attempt to present a necessity to buy their product.

The secret weapon?


The Xbox One unveiling event was intended for a new demographic of consumers that could potentially provide an increased revenue which will always be a top business priority, though not usually at the risk of losing existing customers. This perceived shift in focus will be the result of deep analysis into the market behaviours and usage statistics to create informed predictions of where the company’s future efforts are best invested.  According to Microsoft, that future looks to be one that is no longer solely based around a games platform but rather an interactive entertainment hub for the home.

What Microsoft is proposing is causing a huge riptide of ill will towards the company, but they likely believe that they have accumulated enough good will in the past that they can weather this rough transition period whilst securing new potential customers in the process. Right now, Sony is capitalising on this critical period by riding the crest of the wave and telling everyone exactly what they want to hear in the current battle of hearts and minds.

Looking to the future as Microsoft inevitably are, it is not hard to consider that a lot of the contentious features of this new hardware will become more commonplace and possibly even accepted. If, or even when, that day comes, Microsoft will already have the systems and infrastructure in place to assure dominance of the market to the point of possible monopolisation.

Inspiration


Radical change can often be met with equally radical negativity of the unfamiliar. In 2003 a new service was launched to provide game updates and improved anti-cheat protection to online gaming. Shortly afterwards the highly anticipated game Half-Life 2 was released which required authentication through this service in order to play. The platform was fraught with issues on launch and the target of much public outcry regarding a necessary online connection and perceivably invasive anti-piracy systems. Nowadays the platform, commonly known as Steam, is seen as the darling of PC gaming from a company that can do no wrong. Perhaps Microsoft will be hoping to emulate the success of Valve as they too try and revolutionise their own entertainment platform for the future.