Sunday, November 20, 2011

You suck at watching television

Dear Hardcore Gamers,

You know I love you guys.  We have had more than our fair share of laughs at the expense of the hordes of Dark Elves and Space Marines who have stood between us and our goal.  We've discussed at length the wonders of games like Shadow of the Colossus, Portal, and Civilization all the while wondering why more people; more non-gamers haven't given a care to play nor even heard of them.  I've got a fair amount of respect for you, my brethren.  But listen, there's something you need to know.  You positively suck at watching television.

I'm not saying it to be cruel. Really I'm not.  I just think that perhaps all that game playing has clouded your perspective of what other media do well.  Let's take a recent example of gamer nerd rage against a popular television series: The Walking Dead.  I'm not here to proclaim that this show is the greatest thing ever, but it's fairly obvious to any moderately intelligent consumer of TV what The Walking Dead is and what it isn't.

The Walking Dead is a character drama about a group of survivors during a zombie apocalypse.  It's about how the people on the show react when everything they know and understand it taken away.  Walking Dead is not actually about the zombies and it is most certainly not about how a group of people will devise some clever way to dispatch said zombies each and every episode.  Even the graphic novel the show is based on focuses less on the zombies themselves and more on the seemingly directionless travels of the survivors.  It's almost like the survivors are actually *GASP* the titular Walking Dead.  Their life is over.  They just don't seem to know it, yet.

It ain't rocket science people.  So why is it we have continued criticism that the show isn't delivering the requisite number of zombie encounters per episode?  Why do people scoff when the survivors don't act rationally and fail to execute a perfect set of plans?  After all, if we encountered a zombie apocalypse, we'd totally have our shit together, right?  Right?

I think what's going on here is a contingent of genre-loving nerds have forgotten that linear drama doesn't play out like a video game.  In a game, players are expected to strategize and execute their plans perfectly in order to progress.  If you fail, it's no big deal. You just start over.  By the time you've gotten well into the game, you understand the rules and the gamespace so well that you can handle anything the game throws at you.  And if the games hasn't prepared you for the challenge and you have to try to figure it out, it's called a bad game.   When a TV show doesn't prepare the characters for the challenge and they have to try to figure it out, it's called drama.

So when gamers watch a show like Walking Dead, they are first looking for concrete examples of how the world works so that they may exploit what they know in order to win the scenario.  Are the zombies slow?  Can they use tools?  Can they climb?  Hey, they weren't fast last episode, but some of them are running in this one.  THAT'S NOT FAIR!  THIS SHOW SUCKS!   Actually, it's completely fair.  Yes, TV shows need a certain amount of internal logic to function, but only so much as needed for the characters to get on with what they are doing.  Everything does not need to be spelled out for the viewers from the get go.  In fact, doing this would be considered very bad television.  The rules will be explained on a need to know basis.

Gamers also tend to dislike characters who don't behave how they would perceive themselves (as the hero of the story/game) as behaving in the same situation.   When Rick's son is shot right in front of him, his reaction is entirely believable precisely because he did not act like a strong heroic type.  He was scared and confused.  He made bad choices.  He abdicated his responsibility to the group.  You could say that up to this point, season two has been about characters who are all about following rules (Rick was a sheriff before the ZA) are learning how to live in a world where the rules no longer apply.  So when an episode or two go by with characters wrestling with these issues, that's not boring my friends, that's riveting television.  That's good character drama.  That's what TV is good at. 
Games on the other hand, are horrible at character development, but decent at plot progression.  It's no wonder gamers can't stomach all that "soap opera" stuff.  They have grow accustomed to moving from set piece to set piece with the belief that all the character stuff in between is complete rubbish.  Well, if they are talking about video games, I would be inclined to agree.  Most characterization in games IS rubbish and you're probably better off skipping whatever the hell Solid Snake is pondering in Metal Gear Solid.

But television is different.  It's those moments where characters wrestle with their reality that carry the real weight.  Yeah, it's fun when the zombies arrive and rip someone apart.   But can you imagine that happening every single episode?  Can you imagine the survivors going from place to place, mowing down hundreds of undead while scarcely muttering more than a phrase or two?  I can.  It's called Left 4 Dead and it's an amazing video game.  But it would make a horrible TV show.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

MIGS 2011: Day One

After fortifying my body and soul with poutine (whoa, my spellcheck doesn't know what poutine is) and beer, it was time to tackle the 2011 Montreal International Games Summit.   I go up about every other year with a group of my students from Champlain College.  Our game development program believes it's important to expose our students to professional events like MIGS, and sure enough there were plenty of things to chew on.

I attended several talks during the first day and while I haven't had a lot of time to process everything, here are some highlights.

Keynote with Richard Lemarchand from Naughty Dog on how the culture and practices at their company led to the successful Uncharted series.
Friendly enough speaker.  Most of the keynote felt like a giant advertisement for the Uncharted Series.  I would have liked to hear more about what makes their company tick.  To be fair, Lemarchand did spend time talking about the relatively flat hierarchy and how contant communication between the people on the team is key.  But is that really any big revelation in this day and age?

Brain Dump (7 or 8 rapid-fire talks/rants)
A pretty funny way to start the rest of the day after the keynote.  Not all of them were direct hits, but I really liked Raphael Van Lierop's premise that game designers really need to read more books.  Drawing on nothing but other video games for your inspiration leads to crap games.  While he did sound a little too alarmist (Seriously, dude.  Print is not dead) his position supports my belief that you can probably make a game out of anything.  Why aren't we trying harder to do this?  I mean, I love Space Marines and Elves, but come on.

A short Interlude...
I did notice a couple of themes emerging from the talk.  One of them was the Waterfall vs Agile debate.  There's not really much of a debate anymore as most developers feel that Agile is the production method that works best.  But there was definitely a feeling that developers should never adhire to one specific methodology because teams are their own organic thing.  A good lead has to figure out the way their team works best and not try to impose something just because it's the "best way to do it."  Sometimes waterfall might be the way to go.

The Great Divide, Cord Smith, Director of Marketing for Square-Enix on Developer/Publisher relations.
This was a great talk on how each side sees the other.  Smith comes from both backgrounds and he believes that both sides could learn a lot from one another.   Marketing folks should learn some game development tools and 3D art tools (hell, even a little Photoshop couldn't hurt) to get a feel for just what it takes to make a game.   Game devs should shadow a marketing team to see what it is they do all day.   Above all else, both side should show repect and most importantly empathy for the other.  On one want's their game to suck.  Really.

The last talk of note was from Lee Perry of Epic Games in protoyping gameplay for the Gears of War series.
An awesome and inspiring talk that reinforced my belief that game designers really need to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty.   With today's tools, there is no reason a game designer can't sit down and build working prototypes of gameplay.   It used to be that a designer would write up a spec for the feature (which no one would read) and then expect some artists and programmers to accurately interpret what he or she wanted.   Perry said designers need to be more like Chefs and less like Food Critics.  Don't just order up a meal and criticize what's put in front of your.  Get your ass in the kitchen and whip of that souffle yourself.  He showed a bunch of prototypes of features he cooked up for the Gears of War games.  Some of them made it into the full game.  Many of them were cut.  The point was that the team was able to play his ideas within a day or two of him coming up with it instead of the weeks it would take had he written a ponderous design spec.  Loved this talk.  

Day Two Awaits...