10 New Years Resolutions for the Games Media

Picture unrelated

As 2009 draws to a close a cliched but ever-popular piece of editorial schtick is to present a list of resolutions. If you’re arrogant enough you’ll make resolutions on behalf of others. What better way to show off how you could do someone else’s job far better than them by suggesting how they should improve themselves?

Here we go!

1. Stop trying to inject your personality into factual information

You may believe that the time of the superstar journalist is upon us but only you and your industry mates feel that way. Everyone else in the world will only care who you are when they disagree with something you’ve written and want a name to attack. If you were as entertaining as your ego suggests then you’d be an entertainer and not tied to a keyboard instead.

2. Decide whether you’re an amateur or a professional. You can’t be both

Don’t badger a corporation with the journalistic mantra that “the people need to know the truth” if you’re not going to uphold that standard. I don’t want to see you adopting the mantle of a freedom fighter pensmith on Monday if you’re going to dismiss criticism of your work on Tuesday with claims that you’re “just a blogger”. Show some fucking backbone and be accountable for what you say and do.

3. Reduce the amount of double-standards you exhibit

If you’re going to expose Fox News or The Mirror for over-sensationalising games and misinforming their readers with poorly researched information or half-truths then it’d be nice if you practiced less of that sort of thing yourself. I’ve read many an article this year that’s originated from a small detail and has since been embellished and distorted by the journalist to a ridiculous degree and their audience, not knowing any better, have simply accepted the guesswork as fact. Stop it.

4. Stop complaining about having to do your job

Nobody is making you post a news article about a teaser site with a countdown clock on it. Just because you and your kin feel obliged to report every piece of minutia that occurs in order to feed your ad revenue, your commission and avoid the risk of one of your equally OCD competitors running a story that you overlooked (oh no!) it doesn’t mean it’s anybody else’s problem but yours. If you don’t want to report it then don’t report it. If you have to report it because that’s the nature of your work then don’t complain about the content of what you’re reporting. Do your job – just like the rest of the world. Just because you’ve an audience you can manipulate as part of the process in order to spin yourself some sympathy or conjure up some criticism doesn’t mean you should whenever it suits you to.

5. Spend less time in Photoshop or on Google Image Search and more time in your word processor

Whilst we’re at it let’s also stop rotating every header image to a jaunty 30 degree angle. It’s about as welcome as lens-flare in games was by the end of the ’90s. On the off-chance that your header image is directly representative of the content of your article then your rotation of it isn’t only unnecessary but counter-productive.

6. Stop removing context

When you run a sensationalist story based on four lines of a five page interview you’re removing context. Plonking a link to the source material at the end of the article is not good enough – you’ve already done the damage and you know it. People don’t suddenly blurt things out all the time, they usually respond to questions from people. Often those people are journalists. But when you carefully remove the question, selectively quote and sensationalise part of an answer in order to make it seem spontaneous and incendiary then you’re just a worthless hack favouring misinformation over information. Don’t fob this off as some sort of necessity – it’s not like you’re not limited to article length online We see evidence of this when you copy-and-paste a large press release and announce it as news. Special mention goes to hack-journalists that actually edit out words from sentences so as to alter context.

7. Have the courtesy to allow your readers to think for themselves

To some it’s a daunting thought that their people may start thinking for themselves but it ought to be encouraged. I don’t want to see an article that’s actually just a game trailer with your opinion that it’s awesome stated in the headline. If it interests me then I’ll view it and determine my own opinion. I don’t need your attempts to colour it being broadcast at me. Likewise, your guesswork about a forthcoming game and whether you think it’ll be good or not is not factual and is just opinion. People often confuse the two and its not surprising given the number of news articles that, more often than not are not news.

8. Proof-read your work

This goes double if you’re even thinking about adopting a stance of being classified as a professional. Yes, people make spelling and grammatical errors when writing on the internet. Often this is in casual communication. If you’re an author of anything that is intended for mass readership then learn to spell or, at the very least, learn how to spell check. There’s no excuse for this sort of crap, it’s not like you’re debugging tens of thousands of lines of someone else’s code is it?

9. Get and check your facts before publishing them

If any news article gets edited after publication with an “UPDATE” getting inserted into it and corrections having to be edited in then you should never have published the original article in the first place. If the facts weren’t available then don’t publish it. If the facts are actually just a bit of bias, guesswork and a tip-off from someone you can blame as an ‘anonymous source’ then, again, it wasn’t ready to publish.

10. Don’t you dare dictate to others what they should or shouldn’t be saying

What’s that? You’ve read something on a developer’s personal blog and have decided to quote it, sensationalise it then add your opinion to the bottom of it suggesting that this sort of stuff is a bit pre-emptive or fuelled by personal views and shouldn’t have its profile raised. Well maybe if you’d decided not to raise its profile and publicise it only so you can damn it you’d have a point. And, either way, your point should be in the comments section of the developers personal blog – that’s what they’re for. Except you’re abusing your status and exploiting your audience by doing what you did. If you then do some sort of round up of “people who should keep their mouths shut” based on things you yourself chose to publicise then you’re manipulative, hypocritical and insular. That’s before we even consider who the fuck you think you are to govern the freedom of speech of others.

Many instances of the above occurred in the sites I viewed in 2009. Certain sites exhibiting such behaviour practically on a daily basis.

Plenty of scope for improvement in the new year and beyond eh?

Pixelated Sandboxing

Going through some old bookmarks I paid a visit to some semi-forgotten websites. One of those websites covers 8-bit home computers and the games found on them. As I was piecing together an image for an earlier article I found myself pondering the origin of the popularity of sandbox or open-ended games.

Certainly there had been many open games presented on BBS in the 80s but their textual nature and often expensive cost of entry always tended to place them on the fringes of gaming.

Like many, Manic Miner was one of my earliest home game experiences but I suppose its successor is the one I’m more interested in at the moment. Jet Set Willy saw you wandering around a multi-screen mansion collecting items placed in each room. Rather than being a single-screen platform game where progression to the next screen was only permitted once the current screen had been cleared Jet Set Willy let the player wander about and explore.

Although primitive by today’s standards the freedom to deviate from the game’s core goals and just tour the game content was quite a big deal at the time.

I recall playing the game – often in turns with my sister – and making a snap decision on whether to see if I could make it to a new area of the mansion or diligently collect everything in one screen before moving on to the next. On reflection, this is possibly the earliest instance of choice-to-explore gameplay I can remember in a mainstream game.

Jet Set Willy and Skool Daze

Jet Set Willy and Skool Daze

A little later on another title appeared which extended the player’s freedom of choice in a popular mainstream game. Skool Daze saw your character, Eric, attempting to crack the school safe and swipe his end-of-term report before its incriminating contents could be seen by his parents. Unlike Jet Set Willy the game boasted a number of identifiable characters: a headmaster, an assortment of teachers, a school bully and a school boffin. For Eric to achieve his goal he had to fire his catapult at school shields without being caught by teachers. He also had to trip up teachers in order for them to reveal a letter of a code. The school blackboards could be used to try out codes and write messages. These exploits all took course during a regular school day so lessons would take place which Eric could attend or skip.

Once again, the choice to focus on the game’s core objectives or mess about was available to the player but, this time, in a far richer environment and one that a lot of ZX Spectrum players could probably relate to very well.

It’s rather surprising that about twenty years passed until another game portrayed school and school life so vividly (subject to technological constraints) in Rockstar’s Bully.

Rockstar, of course, are inarguably the champions of the popular open-world game with the juggernaut franchise that is Grand Theft Auto. Even so, the seeds of the mighty GTA oak can be seen laid in some older titles.

Skips were (are still?) prawn-cocktail flavour crisps that look like little flowers. For a period of time their makers saw fit to promote their product with a cartoon character called Clumsy Colin – an imbecilic, Hell’s Angel type character perched on a Harley Davidson style motorcycle. Somehow a deal was done that saw budget-priced game publishers Mastertronic produce a computer game featuring Colin. Action Biker was the result.

The wrap-around world of Action Biker

The Commodore 64 version of Action Biker was surprisingly good and saw Colin placed in (what seemed at the time) a large world that  wrapped around itself. In this world were the obligatory tokens that had to be collected in order to gain entry to the race at the climax of the game. The game-world, had enough driving challenges and points of interest to easily distract the player from the relatively mundane tast of driving over flashing tokens. Particular points of interest were a roller-coaster, a building site, a race strip and a seemingly unreachable isle in a lake. Sometimes it was just a thrill to pelt down the main road at top speed watching the world whizz by!

The second GTA-like title that springs to mind is Turbo Esprit. Considered by many to be far ahead of it’s time, Turbo Esprit placed the player in the aforementioned car and in the role of a drug-busting hero. A car carrying drugs would be heading to a rendez-vous and the player was required to use the city map and their driving and navigational skills to intercept the criminals and save the day.

Turbo Esprit - in-game (left) and city map (right)

Turbo Esprit - in-game (left) and city map (right)

The game was presented in 3D, featured a basic traffic system that saw the need to obey traffic lights at junctions and to observe the indicator lights of other vehicles. Whilst there’s not characterisation or plot to speak of any game that allows a player to drive around a city as they wish cannot help but find itself compared against GTA. Some cite Turbo Esprit as an influence on GTA but I think that’s just over-active retrospective assumptions. Having said that, both games were conceived in the UK so.. who knows?

Without wishing to take anything away from the standards and achievements of games today, I think it’s interesting to see these glimpses from past and how they may have played a role in forming the digital playgrounds we enjoy today.

A treat for the eyes

Although I’ve often been the type to argue gameplay is more important than graphics I’ve never denied that graphics are important.

We’re visual creatures, we make snap judgements based on appearance. We judge books by their covers. For years, the only way a game publisher had of conveying their game to their customers was through imagery. Screenshots on the back of the box and in adverts. Today we still rely on screenshots but are also provided with carefully edited trailers showing animation and audio too.

As far as games are concerned I think audio development has pretty much reached its peak. Enhancements over and above 5.1 positional audio may be too slight for the typical gamer to notice and involve more work and far too little return to be considered worthwhile. This isn’t to say that audio in games can’t be innovative, creative or surprising – just that its not hampered by any sort of technical limitations.

With the current generation, I believe we’re approaching a similar saturation point with visuals.

For decades the fidelity of game visuals was dictated by the technical performance of the host machine. Colour was once a novelty – even though it may have been used sparingly due to technical constraints. As resolutions and palettes improved so did the ability to convey characters and activities on-screen.

An example of how visual fidelity has grown over the years

An example of how visual fidelity has improved over the years

Initially the task was to simply get imagery up on the screen that was functional enough to portray what was going on. Sacrifices often had to be made due to technical constraints or considerations where graphics favoured clarity over detail.

Batman as rendered by videogame systems in 2009

Batman and friend as rendered by videogame systems in 2009

With today’s systems there is sufficient power to portray the functional with enough left over (and expected by the consumers) to adopt a specific style. This is where the medium has a chance to elevate itself and mature.

Whilst there will always be a need to portray characters and entities in a conventional way that communicates clearly with those viewing them, there’s scope to add distinctiveness and style to things these days. The best games will have some sort of justification to their style rather than adopting, say, cel-shading, for the hell of it.

Zelda is one such instance that serves as a good example.

Ocarina of Time (N64), Wind Waker (GC), Twilight Princess (GC/Wii)

Ocarina of Time (N64), Wind Waker (GC), Twilight Princess (GC/Wii)

Whilst Ocarina of Time reflects an era where technological limitations were still a dominant factor with video game graphics it’s clear that it’s successor (Wind Waker) chose a radically different art style to depict similar characters such as Link. The next Zelda game dropped the striking visual theme and returned to a more conventional method but exploited the greater technical power available at the time.

I’m not the type to go doe-eyed at the mention of Zelda like some. However, I thought that Nintendo’s decision to make such a remarkable break from tradition (particularly in a franchise built entirely on tradition) was quite brave and, dare I say it, innovative.

I recall reading a quote from Nintendo that stated that the visual style was a result of the desire to convey expression and emotion more effectively in the game. Given that traditionally the Zelda franchise features a silent protagonist it makes a lot of sense to utilise expression as a way to enhance the sense of communication between Link and other characters. It’s even apparent on the screenshot selection I chose above. Link is playing an instrument in each game but the centre image really shows expression on Link’s face compared to his two neighbours.

Left, right, jump - then and now

Left, right, jump - then and now

Braid is another example of a game that goes way beyond the functional requirements of it’s graphics and utilises style to enhance communication and narrative. Where once we could see blocky pixels of a single colour we now get a style that suggests hand-drawn imagery rather than something designed for a grid. What’s not apparent from the static image of Braid is the way the imagery serves the time-manipulation aspect of gameplay. Sunbeams gently pulsating outwards from the sun, fluffy clouds rolling across the screen and wisping in and out of themselves – all this movement is in keeping with the visual theme chosen by the game developer but the movement of the images shows the player which way time is flowing (if at all). Style serving a function.

Alas, in my opinion Braid is so far up it’s own ass with being smugly clever and post-modern it’s a game that’s far easier to appreciate than to enjoy. I found it interesting that the character in the game was grounded in the mundane – running and jumping through fantastical levels in a suit and tie. Like other parts of the game, I’m sure this is meant to support a greater profound theme hidden somewhere within. What I realised when selecting the Manic Miner image above is that Miner Willy’s profession is also clearly depicted in the game. His miner’s helmet with a lamp on the front is apparent in spite of the character sprite only being a few pixels tall and composed of a single colour. Perhaps, in the same way that Mario in Donkey Kong had a moustache as it was easier than drawing a mouth a miner’s hat was an alternative to a hairstyle.

So what’s next?

With technology increasingly becoming something that enables creativity rather than limits it I think it’s really down to the inventiveness and creativity of the people directing videogame art. The art has to be functional – that’s always got to be there, but layered on top of that.. ..who knows? Being immersed in impossible worlds still works wonders for books and movies. Being able to reach out, touch and explore those worlds is something only games can offer.

Here’s a selection of videogames that, in my opinion, showcase style above and beyond the functional to enrich the gamesplaying experience. This isn’t just me choosing games that look pretty but games that deliberately chose a theme and visual direction.

The Chaos Engine

The Chaos Engine

Donkey Kong Country

Donkey Kong Country

Vib Ribbon

Vib Ribbon

Parappa the Rapper

Parappa the Rapper

Rez

Rez

Metal Slug

Metal Slug

Shadow of the Colossus

Shadow of the Colossus

Okami

Okami

Killer 7

Killer 7

Paper Mario

Paper Mario

Space Giraffe

Space Giraffe

Bioshock

Bioshock

Mirrors Edge

Mirror's Edge

Geometry Wars 2

Geometry Wars 2

Borderlands

Borderlands

Mad World

Mad World

Don’t worry if a game you feel worthy isn’t shown above. The images are to illustrate a point, not be an exhaustive or definitive guide.

Embracing the cloud

I’m fond of Google’s services, finding them well realised and powerful. I’ve a few different email accounts including a gmail one but I’d rarely bothered to use it. In fact, at home, I rarely used email at all.

By contrast I use Google Reader daily. I think RSS is a great way to collect information that interests me and had used a number of desktop and web-based clients until Google Reader came along and became my favourite. The most convenient aspect of it, for me, being the J and K next/previous article navigation.

I realised that I’ve used Google Reader for a long time and never felt a deficit of functionality or performance simply because it was a web-based application. It’s focus was on handling information delivered by the internet so it was a good fit anyway.

I’d recently installed Windows 7 on my aging PC and, being a new operating system, it was more demanding than my previous one. I considered how I might lighten the load of common tasks on my PC and decided that migrating my email from desktop client to a web-based app was worth investigating.

Searching the internet showed up little information about actually migrating existing and establised email accounts and message stores to GMail. I specifically wanted:

  • To transfer all my archived emails to the new client
  • To retain my email identities rather than change to a new address. The client should be transparent to anyone reading my emails.

The first was relatively simple to accomplish. My emails were organised in folders. In spite of having years and years worth of emails I tended to be fairly merciless with deleting stuff and archiving only the most important of old emails.

GMail uses labels rather than folders. Superficially, users can have labels behave like folders – with a list of labels on one side of the client. They click on a label title and the view changes to show all emails with that label assigned to them. The handy thing about labels is that a single email can have multiple labels. Sometimes categorising information can be tricky. Does it belong in “Personal” or “Important”? With a folder system you tend to have to choose one or the other – or, at worst, duplicate the email and put a copy in each folder. With labels the email can be both “Personal” and “Important” and will appear in each label view and yet still only exist as a single email.

Using GMail’s IMAP support I simply connected my desktop client to my GMail account and set about recreating the folder structure in my GMail account using labels. After that, it was simply a case of dragging and dropping the contents of one folder to its corresponding label in my GMail account and the emails were moved over to GMail.

So far, so good.

The fussier part of me wanted my original email address such as fred@123.com to stay as it was rather than change to fred@gmail.com and have to have all my email contacts know there’d been a change in my address. After all, I wasn’t changing email accounts, I was just changing email clients.

I actually over-complicated the process. I went to my mail server and set up some rules for auto-forwarding emails to my gmail account. My only concern with forwarding emails is that, as I’m sure you know, when you reply to a forwarded email you tend to reply to the person who forwarded the email, not the original author. I didn’t want to find myself replying to my email server that had forwarded each email to GMail.

Fortunately, this was taken care of automagically. Unfortunately not all my emails were getting forwarded and, in some cases, some were being forwarded and copies of the originals were left on the original mail server. Odd.

The simple solution was the most effective: leave my email server settings as they were and simply have GMail check those other email accounts from its own end, collect the mail and delete the originals. Or in other words ‘pull’ the emails to Gmail rather than have my email server ‘push’ them.¬† This worked a treat with the only drawback being that I couldn’t tell Gmail how frequently to check for new emails – although I can tell it to ‘check now’.

Gmail even catered for some other finicky stuff I wanted. I have a serious and a casual email address. When I reply using my serious account I use my proper name in the email address. When I reply using my casual account I use “Koffdrop” in the email address. You can tell GMail to automatically adopt the identity you want to reply as based on the account the original email came through. If I hit “reply” to an email on my serious account, my serious identity is used as a result. For maximum flexibility, GMail allows the user to change identities during email composition too.

About a month or so in to my GMail home and I have to say that all is good. I’d only had a couple of niggles I wanted addressed. One was the inability to use delivery receipts on emails. The other was setting up a default font style.

The latter has actually been addressed very recently. The former isn’t a major issue for domestic email use. I relied upon it heavily in some jobs when I’d need to cover my ass or know for certain that someone had got my message. It’s unlikely that email receipts will make it into GMail.

I’ve been really pleased with how GMail has met my requirements. Like Reader, I don’t feel I’m suffering a lack of functionality because I’m not using a ‘full’ desktop client. There’s the usual advantages of web-based email to be had and, on top of that, GMail’s spam handling and excellent email searching functions to be had too. In addition to that, my homepage now points to a customised iGoogle page rather than Google itself which offers me the ability to preview my inbox. These days I tend to feel I have a web-client open more than an email-client so now I have one program performing both functions for me.

It’s been a bit of a learning experience for me. I still don’t know why my email forwarding on my mail server was patchy and that irks me somewhat. All in all, I am very happy with how things have turned out. I’ve put my faith in Google – trusting that they won’t disappear overnight, lose my data or compromise it. Perhaps I’m biased in their favour but my experiences with their services have, so far, always been positive.

If you use a web-based email or migrated from computer to web-based email (or the other way around) do you have any tips or stories to tell. What, if anything, would reverse your decision?