Your own brew of mead

The reason I tend to compare developing electronic games to cooking is that even with the right ingredients you may fail miserably for countless of reasons. This could of course be extended to pretty much any field that requires design, but for the sake of this blog we’ll stick with games.

However, the main obstacle with this comparison is that everybody capable has to learn how to cook something in order to produce food for consumption. We’re side-lining all the modern brouhaha of microwave dinners, because even then some preparations is required. In general, very few people are not inept within the kitchen and are able to use the oven and other appliances for some cooking.

This is not exactly comparable with game development, as one can argue that it takes longer to learn a coding language and create assets for a game. This is of course under the assumption that we have single chef compared to a sole developer. While food is a necessity, games are not. They are a common luxury item to many of us to the point that we barely even realise their worth and are willing to push their value down by any means necessary while expecting high enough production values. To be fair, this blog tends to argue that developing and publishing games as become too costly and grandiose, and should be scaled back and return to form. Video game industry does have its own Hollywood, and the same cores have taken effect; the committee.

Hollywood blockbusters tend to be described committee movies to an extent, with loads of people from marketing and higher ranks having a check-list of things that need to be included in a movie due to statistics and research showing that this and this age group and this and this audience likes certain factors in a given movie and genre. They’re not wrong either. The very reason you have dozens of different flavoured products is that people like certain things in a certain way. The movie being here the whole of pasta sauces and each variant an ingredient of a given movie.

I admit that this blog does emphasize the whole statistics perspective quite a lot, perhaps to a degree that it has given a hidden bias. However, trends are made to be broken, and it’s not beneficial to look just what the paper says works. Ultimately, this approach will only yield one design, one style product that will be repeated to ad nauseam. Film trailers tend to be a prime example of this, where they follow what was proven to be popular to the point of each trailer essentially having the exact same blueprint independent of the movie, genre or studio. An example that pissed yours truly off few times around was the BAWWMMM sound effect from Inception. Let’s not forget the distorted booms and stuttered downers either. Guardians of the Galaxy did set up a new trend for comic book movies with its use of music, for better or worse.

Nevertheless, there’s very little reason to fix what’s not broken. That’s not to say we can’t make previous items obsolete. In fact, we can make any design obsolete as there is no one perfect product out there. Well, the only good contender for that title is the Kikkoman soy sauce bottle, but we’ve talked about that already. Here’s where the whole thing about your own brew steps in.

At home you can produce your own mead or vine and have it taste pretty much perfect to your taste. Same with cooking and games. However, once you step into the market place, your tastes apply very little.

That is to say, whatever a designer thinks may be a great product for the user does not tell whether or not the product in reality is a great product for the user.

We can’t completely separate personal preferences from the cold statistics when producing a product, be it a game, book or food. They need to be married together in harmony that will push through the personal investment as well as present it in a fashion that is relatively easy to digest. This is not an argument for dumbing down, this is an argument for creating a product that comes half-way through to the consumer so that the more intricate aspects of it can be absorbed.

To use an example, we had plays before movies. The jump from one to another, while somewhat drastic in technology, ultimately relies in same core elements while having its own identity as a form of media. Further there we have movie genres, techniques and so forth that have taken the field onwards, both in terms of visuals and storytelling. Consumers have easier time adopting new movie formats and ways things are set up due them being accepted by the consumers, and most of the industry people, to contain valid values across the board.

The same goes for video games, albeit due to harsh crevice existing between the Blue and Red Ocean markets it should be noted that the trends valued in one does not necessarily meet with the other. These values are not just technological or design aspects, but also philosophical and political. As video games are escapism (undervaluing escapism as some sort of lesser act or even detrimental is a topic on its own) there are subjects and things that can be handled well, and that can be forced from a certain perspective towards the player.

The problem here is that the biggest sin a game can do is to take control from the player without their own action, e.g. for a cut scene. This lack of control is best shown in RPGs, where some games tend to showcase a topic through one facet only and ignore all others, deciding for the player in black and white terms what should be done and how. This sort of railroading is done for the benefit of the story and detriments the game’s play.

I would argue that in both game industry and in Hollywood the execs and marketing departments should lift some of the pressure off from the developers, but at the same time these creators should not ignore the audience’s wishes and wants (while aiming for needs.)  The mead you brewed might be the best shit you’ve ever tasted, but your neighbour probably thinks it tastes like piss.

Compliance should be resisted

This week we had a Nintendo Direct. I watched it to keep some of my friends company and report whatever interesting stuff came up on the Japanese stream. The Direct was as expected, filled with video footage rather than gameplay, Iwata talking and acting like a stuck-up wind doll and… that’s pretty much it.

I found the Direct bothersome for some reason. Nothing wowed me. All footage shown from Fire Emblem If to the upcoming Rhythm Heaven looked like something we’ve seen many times before. There was the usual Amiibo advertising with new upcoming Super Mario Bros. branded ones with more neutral posing and something about an Amiibo adapter for older 3DS models that lack support for Near Field Communication.

Then there was news about Wii titles coming to Wii U eShop. This is something that we should be vary of, as this leads to a huge possibility of Nintendo dropping backwards compatibility support, substituting it with selling previous console titles on their next iteration of eShop. Whether or not this come to fruition is an open question, one which I hope to see a negative reply. The lack of backwards compatibility for PS3 games on PS4 was met with an outcry, yet for some reason that outcry died out far too fast.

A new console doesn’t automatically make your old one obsolete. The Super Nintendo didn’t make the NES obsolete because the library is ultimately very different, especially if you take into notice the differences between Western and Japanese libraries. When a game makes the previous one obsolete, it has done its deed. Thus, to make the previous console obsolete you either need to give the consumer the option to directly move their older library to that new console, or produce games that would obsolete the older library. Of course, it’s easier to allow the consumer to move over rather than simply make good games.

That sounds pretty bad, actually.

The length a console lives nowadays is regulated by bullshit. The GameBoy lived long damn time because it saw support. The recent consoles, and by recent I mean post-SNES ones, could’ve lived a tad longer if there had been continued support. The Wii saw a dive in quality, and sales, when Nintendo moved their support to then-upcoming 3DS and Wii U. The same happened with GameCube, N64 and to some extent, SNES. The NES saw support from Nintendo even after the SNES was released with titles like Joy Mecha Fight being released in 1993. Granted, Joy Mecha Fight never saw release in the West, but the US saw Wario’s Woods in 1994 and Europe as late as 1995. Similarly, Zoda’s Revenge; Star Tropics II saw a release in 1994, and while opinions are split whether or not it is better than its predecessor, the game itself is guaranteed Nintendo quality and manages to how the NES shouldn’t be underestimated.

The cross-pollination between consoles and PC side has given a risen to a thought that hardware has overt significance over the quality of the games played on consoles. The comparison can be made with cars; the one with the better engine is not always the better ones. With food, the eternal comparison point with everything ever, would have that a dish with higher grade ingredients may be worse than dish with mediocre ingredients. It’s how they’re used in order to deliver the end-product matters more. Making a system like the Sega Saturn or N64 is pretty damn stupid; you always want the people working with the machines to have easy time to make the best use of them. This applies to other fields of design just as well; a service system needs to have easy usage for the service provider in order to guarantee smooth experience for the consumer.

The evolution of technology can’t be ignored. The more complex consoles grow, the more it will require from the developers. Game design becomes highly important at this point and… here’s where the crux is; nothing in the Nintendo Direct was actually interesting. All the footage shown looked much like various other games before that. To say nothing had a proper wow factor seems applicable. Even when games are relatively new medium compared to others, have we already exhausted everything the medium has to offer? During the Atari and NES era we had saw game that made the previous year’s games look like archaic pieces. It wasn’t just the visuals, but the game design and gameplay. The difference between games released in 1985 and 1986 is rather remarkable. The same can be said of movies of that era to some extent with 1983 being a high year in science fiction movies.

I question if game design has improved during the last decade or so. While there has been tweaks to tried and tested formals with every new sequel, there has been no chances made, not boundaries broken or new frontiers found. While some would argue that Oculus Rift is one of the new devices opening new regions, yet thus far we’ve seen the same game design repeated with new interface.

Evolution is regarded as a gradual process, and that it is. However, when it comes to breaking new boundaries there are moments where there is no gradual changes, simply steps. Similarly we should regard the evolution of gameplay, and games in general, taking steps rather than gradual change. It should not be enough to want same game with slightly different package and a new lick of paint, like a new G1 Optimus Prime toy, but something far more greater.

There is no denial that brand loyalty allowed my friends to hype the hell out of the games seen in the Direct. One almost creamed his pants after hearing about the Rhythm Heaven, despite it being a repackage with new minigames. Of course, what sells, sells. I can’t argue against numbers, and whatever my personal view may be are irrelevant. Nevertheless, there is also the point that games could sell more, like during on the NES, DS and Wii.

Are video game consumers far too comfortable with the current situation in their hobby? We should not be too compliant and demand better service.

Idiot proof

I’ve been getting into somewhat serious cycling lately and this has made me to educate myself on bicycle parts, design, tools etc more than what a general mucking with bikes can give you. Naturally, before purchasing any parts I read about what parts are recommended and their reviews. Often Amazon’s reviews are decent, but just as often they’re horrible mess, showcasing the inability of consumers to understand how products are used.

Such was the case of Shimano’s single sided SPD pedals. In this case, the reviewer had a situation where he (or was it a she?) had installed the pedals to his bike, and noticed how the pedals had destroyed the threads on his bicycle. How this is possible has number of possible reasons; the threads on the bike were not as the consumer thought, or perhaps the Left and Rig pedals were installed into wrong ends at the factory’s end.

The most probable cause however is that the consumer just didn’t give shits about the instructions or double checked how things were supposed to go in, thus destroying both the pedals and the threads in his bike.

Another reviewer had a problem where the pedals were always the wrong way and he had to flip the pedal in order to click his shoes in. Now, there are ways to balance a pedal so that it would always turn the other side upwards. However, that would add both price and weight, two things you don’t want to see in your go-fast bike. I don’t see a person who can’t check whether or not his pedal is the right way putting more money into a pedal that would turn itself ‘the right way.’ We can discuss whether or not this is enough merit to give the product a 1 Star review. I’d say it doesn’t, as there is more that goes into a review than One Thing.

What this all constitutes is that the companies don’t want the consumers to use the products any way they want because of things like this.

Repurposing or modding the product you’ve repurchased is all good when you know what you’re doing. When you know what you’re doing, you should also know, or at least be able to find out, what went wrong if the product says kaput.

And when you have no fucking idea what you’re doing or screwing things up because of both lack of experience and attention to detail it’s the product and the makers are in the fault, right?

Companies don’t like this. There’s a reason why some of the instructions and guides are made so through in most cases and have loads and loads of legal jargon. That’s why it is important to make things easy to explain and understand. In all honesty, deducing Left pedal from the Right pedal is not hard; the pedals have a clearly marked L and R on them to which side they belong to. Of course, one can view left and right from front, thus mirroring the intended left and right. Even then I would believe anyone could notice that the screw threads do not go together when they’re tried on, thus allowing for the realization of things going the other way. And of course there are those disregard everything that tells them that this doesn’t work and it needs to go the way they want and that’s final. That’s not up to the manufacturer any more or the seller, that’s in the consumer who decides to go against the manuals, guides and workings of the product and just breaks stuff. This is natural, thou. I have seen this happen many times, and anger has been part of it. Certain anger just clouds the basic reasoning and we push through wit brute force. The result might be fixed afterwards, or even reversed, but there are lot of products and cases where things are just broken for good.

The more expensive the product, the more visually intuitive the design needs to be and support the pre-existing concepts. The Play buttons has been engraved with that same arrow symbol for God knows how long, and the save icon still has that diskette image, even thou it’s an obsolete icon.

Products like washing machines tend to have, generically speaking, similar icons for same functions, but I have seen slight variations or completely changes icons within same brand family. Actually, there’s even changes in the user interface to a large extent that makes the experience with the previous models is moot. I trust that even the most frustrated, the most butt-angered person would take a clue and pick up the manual.

Manuals are awesome things. While it is true that most useful experience comes from practice, without a manual that practice will come the hard way. Manuals can be a lifeline to the function of the product, like the GameGenie cheat device, as the manual listed knows codes for the most popular games. The Internet wasn’t much use at the time, but nowadays you can find all found codes just with a quick Google search, unless you decide to be adventurous and create your own GameGenie codes. Back in the day you wanted to have a manual with you wanted to use a computer, as simply booting things required few lines of code. DOS commands have become more or less obsolete nowadays, but the Command Line still has some practical uses.

There seems to be sort of no-manual culture with some people. They take pride for not reading manuals and going in cold and learning as they go. I used to be like this as well, but the things that separates a manual and a schoolbook is that manual is not about theory; it is about the practice and how things will go when done properly. Experience is the best teacher by far, and theory is just the start, and manuals are the best way to begin with the experience.

Then again, there are times when manuals and theory just don’t work, and all you need to do is go in and get your hands dirty, and hope for the best. Or call an expert and have things done properly.