Posts Tagged ‘ Gamasutra

Conferences, Trade Shows, and Hype Fatigue

This wouldn’t bother me so much if I didn’t force myself to read, listen to, and follow so many sources for videogame coverage. I am over-saturated with gaming news and commentary by choice, and it makes me cranky. Still, I hate announcement season. I hate the Kremlinology that takes place in the weeks before every conference or trade show, and the endless parsing that immediately follows.

Do you think Sony is going to reveal its motion controller at GDC or hold off until E3? How will Microsoft respond? What does Nintendo have to do to maintain its lead? What games will they announce at GDC, and what will Microsoft keep under wraps for TGS? How’s that going to play in Japan?

And these conversations repeat for nearly all of spring, summer, and early fall, as publishers and manufacturers parcel out hints and teasers from week to week. Stock analysts offer running commentary to help us keep score at home.

“Oooh! It looks like Take Two’s holiday line-up is in bad shape, Peter. I really don’t know what they were thinking there.”

“I’ll tell you what they were thinking, Bob. They were thinking, ‘Boy, I wish GTA 5 would come out already!’ Hahaha! But seriously, it’s going to take a big E3 announcement to keep this from turning into a rout.”

Then there is the self-congratulation that marks so many major announcments: Hideo Kojima sneaking onto the Microsoft stage during the E3 presentation while the MGS alert sound played, Cliff Bleszinski showing up to Microsoft’s GDC press conference with a Lancer and a promise that Gears 2 would be “bigger, better, and far more badass.”

This is not to say I find announcements boring or pointless. You think I wasn’t squealing with school-girlish delight when John Davison said that the next GamePro cover was going to be Civilization V? The day Valve announce Episode 3 (or Half-Life 3 as the case may be), I will probably pour myself a celebratory cocktail and start reinstalling the entire series.

But the wheres and hows of announcements don’t interest me in the slightest, and I don’t care that much about the details, either. I’ve learned to be skeptical of preview coverage and developers’ pre-release promises, which means I’m mostly content to wait for an actual game to be released before talking about it. I dislike the way we’re all co-opted into marketing campaigns as we press for details on an upcoming release (“Tell us about your co-op campaign!” “We’re going to do something interesting and different with co-op.” “OMG, they’re going to do something interesting and different with co-op!”).

I suppose I’m also troubled by the way announcement season often seems to degenerate into a thinly-disguised form of money worship. So much of what passes for industry analysis isn’t really analysis at all, but a series of ‘attaboys for people who are releasing new entries in product lines that have already made a mint, and tsk-tsks directed at publishers and manufacturers who aren’t as flush with exploitable properties. Then, with a nod vaguely in the direction of criticism, the question is asked: “But how is it going to innovate?”

And perhaps that’s why I’m a bit snarky this morning. The idealist in me says that GDC is a time to discuss what works in games and why, and to consider possibilities for the future while revisiting lessons from the past. But we end up talking about which ideas can be copied and whether or not the copies will sell. Then, without a trace of self-awareness or irony, we demand innovative games and “new IP” from companies that are never quite so happy as when they are releasing the same game over and over. And we have turned GDC into yet another platform for them to make their sales pitch.

With the exception of Gamasutra, so much GDC coverage seems focused on the commercial side of the industry. There are far too few pieces like this one from Destructoid’s Anthony Burch, covering Soren Johnson’s discussion of theme. In fact, a glance at Johnson’s Twitter reveals that he seems to be attending a different GDC than the one I’m reading about.

If I’m wrong, if there’s a lot of exciting, thought provoking material that I’m missing, please tell me so in the comments, and feel free to throw in some links. Still, GDC is a good time to rant and air grievances, especially if you remember what GDC is supposed to be about: serious art.

A New Column and Addenda

For the past several weeks I’ve been working on a new column for GameSetWatch, and it went up today on Gamasutra. It will probably be appearing on GameSetWatch in the next few days. My goal is to examine how social and political issues are translated into videogame elements, and to identify the assumptions that underpin a developer’s approach to those issues.

With this first piece, I stayed on terrain I know pretty well: Europa Universalis III. It’s such a rich game that I could have focused on any number of elements, but what I really found fascinating was how it represents sociopolitical change. Here is a game that starts in the twilight of the Middle Ages and concludes on the edge of industrialization, and the player has to guide his country through all the upheavals that occurred within that historical span. How does it describe that process, and the role of government within it? That was the question I attempted to answer, and you can let me know how well I did with it.

One thing I fervently wished as I formatted the post is that EU3 screenshots did not all look so hellishly boring. While I find its aesthetics wonderful, it takes about the least interesting pictures possible: “Look at this exciting popup! Craaaazy!” The irony, of course, is that people who ignore EU3 because it looks boring are missing one of the most exciting games in strategy.

EU3 aficionados might notice that the story I tell in this column is a bit condensed. I had to cut out some of the context and some of specific events that contributed to the wave of misfortune that befell me. Early drafts read too much like, well, a blog entry. The important part was to illustrate the effects of the game’s mechanics, not give Gama/GSW a detailed after-action report.

I must also admit that my story shows EU3′s mechanics at their best. Readers and TMA listeners might recall that when we did a show on Heir to the Throne, both Tom and Troy had misgivings about how well the stability mechanic worked over the long haul. I argued that the mechanics worked fine. Having played much, much more of the game, I can see now that my fellow panelists were correct. In the end, a decent EU3 player will break the game wide open.

A full campaign in EU3 covers 421 years, but the mechanics really only work for about half that. Once the player has had some time to start working his will on the gameworld and provide the kind of strategic continuity that his state’s historical counterpart never possessed, the mechanics start to break down. They cannot overcome the money and power the player will eventually possess. The challenges stay the same, but the player’s capacity to meet them only increases.

Truthfully, I think the problem would be solved if Paradox changed the stability mechanic. Rather than having it act like a series of steps, it should be more like a steady slope. If the player wants to keep increasing stability past the level equilibrium point, he should be forced to keep putting forth effort to do so. At the highest levels of stability, the marginal cost should be dissuasive. As things stand now, once the player gets his society to the highest stability level, it stays there until something bad happens.

Anyway, during those turbulent decades that follow the beginning of a new campaign, those mechanics work well, and make some trenchant observations about just how national mismanagement can happen even under responsible rulers. EU3 does a wonderful job of puncturing the judgments of the armchair emperor. Here’s how it pulls it off.