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Let's see some innovation in video game creation

Globaljam_dnfshot_sep08_2Video games are the most technically sophisticated form of media. The majority of titles are created by massive teams with multi-million-dollar budgets in a process akin to a factory production line. But innovation is still possible at the individual level, writes Michela Ledwidge.

Recently I popped down to Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum to see some contemporary interactive entertainment. Global Game Jam, an event simultaneously staged all over the world, celebrates video games and challenges participants to come up with new game designs.

In Sydney 16 teams worked around the clock all weekend to build games from scratch. I’d seen similar competitions run for short films and programming but never one for video games.

For those who haven’t tried their hand at video game production it may be hard to comprehend the complexity this challenge entailed. Video games are the most technically sophisticated form of media. It was a rather tall order to come up with something functional, original AND entertaining, let alone doing it in 48 hours.

That many of the entrants managed to produce playable and enjoyable games in the time was a testament to their ingenuity. Entrants were given the theme “Deception” and encouraged to try out ideas that might never otherwise get on the starting board. The commercial reality of producing video games means most titles that hit the shelves are derivative and safe. None of these efforts were. 

Globaljam_gnilleyTwo of the stand-outs were solo efforts. The Most Original award went to GNILLEY (read it backwards) which required the player to get really, really angry in order to destroy enemies in a maze – by yelling at them. The presentation of the game had the audience in stitches. Gnilley creator Radix (Glen Forrester) is now seeking donations to fund further development.

BREAKUP was a straightforward clone of the classic Breakout arcade game, with the distinction that you could create your own levels with hidden personal messages for the player such as “You’re dropped”. One step above breaking up with your partner via SMS perhaps. 

Regardless of whether you’ve ever been a gamer or not, the creativity, skill and teamwork on show at Global Game Jam was inspiring. This year, participants in 138 cities across 38 countries produced 928 video games and uploaded them over the weekend. Often the teams provided source code - a priceless resource for any wanna-be creators.

The event highlighted the cavernous divide between how blockbuster video games are produced today and the origins of the cottage industry which began the whole shebang in the 1980s. Back in the day, individuals and small teams ran the show. Many of these people still work in the industry with no small amount of nostalgia for those times. 

Today a vast array of digital technologies and processes work in tandem to allow large teams to collaborate on high-end projects with million dollar budgets. These processes are the equivalent of factory production lines.

In a traditional feature film production the main remixable phase is during the offline edit phase. With a video game production the process has traditionally been far more iterative. We are seeing a convergence in the way in which films and games are made but at some point, the remixing of a title ends with the notion of ‘final cut’ or ‘code freeze’ even though titles can always be retrieved from the vault and re-versioned.

This notion of an extended life-cycle, far beyond the traditional release, is an exciting future possibility for remix cultural practitioners. That said, there is little incentive for major studios and large productions to support this. Innovation with consumer game formats comes with a heavy price. Too many experiments miss their mark. Therefore the largely locked-down, passive consumer experience offered by a triple-A (latest release) video game continues to be what is offered. But for how long? 

The biggest games now involve years of effort, an investment that can only be recovered if the title is a hit. Notorious for secrecy of the highest order, and quality of life issues, game developers withstand years of speculation before emerging bruised and battered with the goods. It’s not always a happy ending.

Gamers have learned to filter the news about upcoming events and view the hype with suspicion. The intense competition amongst publishers means that any new release must be seen to be a landmark in all aspects. Obviously this can’t be the case regardless of their PR onslaught.

Some of the most eagerly awaited games launch with a whimper. Regardless of any new efficiencies in the process, the costs of game production continue to rise. The expense is all about creating an immersive experience but nobody is seriously spending millions on gameplay. 

It’s all about the visuals, one aspect of a title that dates the quickest. It’s a sucker’s game really. The longer it takes to make a game, the more likely it is that new developments will force a change in direction. 

Duke Nukem Forever was a long awaited first-person shooter game that began development all the way back in 1997. In 2009 DNR’s studio 3D Realms/Apogee Ltd. disbanded the game’s long suffering development team but still refused to confirm development had altogether ceased.

L.A. Noire by Sydney’s Team Bondi studio is scheduled for release this year, six years, and two publishers, after the project commenced. How can creative processes remain intact over such long periods?

Clearly there is, and will remain, scope for ambitious titles. And sometimes the results will be worth all the heartache and pain. But the signs are that the market is going in the opposite direction. After years of the industry stating that you could not make a decent game for less than $30M, we are seeing more case studies of the Little Idea That Could. 

This is the era of casual games. Mobile phones are nipping at the heels of the established giant devices; the Sony Playstations, the Microsoft Xboxes are giving way to the Apple iPhones. Exclusive and expensive software licensing deals, reserved for the elite and experienced developers, are slowly giving way to the model where any kid can download software tools for free and scratch their creative itch. At Game Jam Sydney, over a third of the teams used open source software (Python) as the basis for their game rather than commercial software. 

Over the last couple of years casual gaming has exploded largely thanks to the success of social networks. And we ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Farm Town and its more successful clone, FarmVille demonstrated the huge appetite for extremely casual (mindless?) gaming amongst Facebook users.

While they are often scorned by players of console and PC games, it is hard to ignore 75 million active users (Farm Ville, January 2010). What is so interesting about these apps is how little actual gameplay and graphics are involved. Techcrunch’s expose, “The Social Gaming Ecosystem of Hell” set out in black and white how easy it has been for unscrupulous developers to sucker punters looking for an easy way into the video gaming experience. The chain letter and social email virus has given way to the for-cash promotion that promises the hapless Facebook gamer additional points and access to new levels. 

Globaljam_mytownIt’s not all a cynical exercise in marketing, though. Recently the popularity of GPS and digital compass-enabled mobile devices like the iPhone 3GS and the HTC Hero opened the market for location-based mobile games. The US-only My Town acquired over 600K players in the last couple of months. The mobile game asks you to ‘check in’ (provide your real-world location via GPS) and then lets you ‘buy’ real world locations in order to start charging rent. A new twist on Monopoly. The company behind My Town, Booyah, is stacked with alumni from more traditional massively multi-player games like World of Warcraft and Diablo. 

All this seems to go some way to prove that game play is relevant to more people than you might imagine. The conventional wisdom that most adults don’t play video games because they don’t have time may prove less than reliable now that customised gameplay can be delivered up and served to the discerning customer in milliseconds.

The value of play in a complex ever-changing world cannot be underestimated. If play’s primary function is to prepare one with skills for life, then perhaps we should be looking closer at what skills adults as well as young people need help with.

Global Game Jam was a welcome reminder that away from retail outlets and publishers there is plenty of room for innovation at the individual level.

What do people really get out of interactive entertainment? Is it immersion in someone else’s story or mindless distraction? For some, the real fun of video games will always be their own contribution to the virtual world of the game. This won’t be for everyone but the jury is still out on how malleable future consumers will expect their products to be.

There has never been more information available for those who want to create their own forms of interactive entertainment. And there has never been a better time to prototype your own ideas and get them out there. The cost of producing high-end media will continue to go up, but the playing field for producing casual games is levellling out fast. What would you do at Game Jam 2011? 

The realities of the global marketplace do dictate a certain amount of reversioning. Producers are required to deliver not one, but several versions of a film or TV show as part of the distribution pipeline. Versions have to be delivered with subtitles and without. Editions have to be edited with local cultural protocols in mind. Cinema releases need to be customised for TV. Subtle re-edits are often required to satisfy censorship requirements in different countries. Airline versions have to be created, minus any expletives.

At present there is no standard process for tracking all these different versions of a title. The Internet Movie Database does not list this kind of information for films and video games. Thus the casual observer might easily believe in the myth of media being totally locked down and impervious to influence.

It is technically feasible to pass on flexibility to the consumer in legal forms but how many people actually want to muck around with the products? This is the big question I keep returning to.

Is the passive consumption of interactive entertainment due to nature or nurture? Is it possible to have a successful interactive title that truly is built on audience customisation? And if so, how long will it be before we see it? 

Michela Ledwidge (@michela) is an artist, entrepreneur and technologist. She is the founder of production company MOD Films and teaches Remixable Media at the University of Sydney.

Image credits: Gnilley – Radix; Duke Nukem Forever – 3D Realms; My Town - Booyah.

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