Different take on Customer: few centimeters of millimeter thickness

Every hundred posts on this blog I turn things around and take a good look at the customers and take the providers’ point of view. Y’know, for a change. There 809 posts on this blog currently, including this one,  so I’m slightly over the mark point. Nothing unusual, I sort of stopped following how many posts I have after the second hundred was fulfilled. Kinda laughable.

In recent weeks I’ve been wondering how little people care about others’ work. Without a doubt we care about the work our friends and close ones do, and tend to go our way out to agree that certain jobs are just undervalued and these workers get criminally low wages. Nothing new under the sun, we’re a selfish lot.

I’ve come across this more than once, especially from people who consider their job to be of utmost importance. The people at high places, if you will. Some who consider their work to be culturally significant to the point that society could not function, or that their contribution to how healthcare should be run (rather than working in healthcare itself) makes them somehow above some rotting welder.

Welder, who in the end, is responsible for your every day safety in cars, elevators, staircases and even to you home piping and certain structures. Or the cleaner who has to go through every nook and cranny when you leave the office and cleans your desk and windows, the same cleaner who has to deal with your shit you leave in the hallway. Or any other people who build and design the stuff you use every day and never give a thought about. Why should you, in the end? You never see them, you rarely interact with any of them. Perhaps it is this lack of contact and having no real information how terribly awful conditions some work places have, comparatively speaking. You’ll curse whoever it is who is responsible of taking care of your water running and keeping it clean, yet do we ever give any appreciation.

That is not to say all invisible jobs are out of the way. Cleaners are an example of people who we do see, but do we even say hello to them or wish them a good day? Small gestures like this do matter and make people feel worthwhile.

As astonishing it may sound, but there are so many people who don’t know how to clean. While having a coffee break, I had a chance to listen an old veteran giving a lesson to few new aspiring professional members of the cleaning industry. An extensive knowledge on chemicals is required and how they react not only with each other, but with oh so many materials that’s it not even fun. Especially when the Western standards of cleanliness are at their historical high. That, and the fact everybody seems to wait the work be done in record time without cutting any corners, really should make anyone appreciate these poor bastards a bit more. A documentary film Bread and Roses gives some insight how little cleaners are valued, and while it does concentrate on the situation in change of the millennia Los Angeles, things aren’t much brighter elsewhere.

But the customer is always right and providers should fulfill the customer demands. Well, until the provider points out how stupid the customer is and how he is unwilling to pay enough for the work and materials required, or demands a work that could not be done with the equipment and facilities at hand. And of course, they just insist on at least trying, for them. Anecdote be damned, but again a good example would be a random customer who brought his supposedly aluminium built oil base from his Volvo. The very moment he produced it in front of our staff, we could say it could not be done. The shine and colour was not that of aluminium and we would only fuck it further, if we tried fixing it. I don’t know what the hell it was, but it was magnetised alloy for sure. Working on a material you have no idea what it is composed of most likely will ruin the piece, and naturally said he was well aware of this. Well, when he came back and we showed how his piece had gone to hell thanks to the metal structure collapsing under normal TIG welding, he went on the usual customer rant on ruining what was his.

Again, how could have he known? Nobody gives a damn about what their furniture or cars are made of, as long as they’re sturdy, safe and look good enough. Damned be any worthwhile values. That is a customer’s right of course, and providers can bamboozle customers as much as they want. An informed customer wouldn’t let that happen, but who gives a damn if we’re screwed over little if we seemingly get what we want.

I had a series of posts some time ago on how we really should start appreciating each other’s works a whole lot more. We could go in a circle how one field of profession requires another set of multiple fields to exist right beside it, but that’s rather useless. Anyone with some brain cells left should already know that one man can’t do everything. The simple fact that the screen you’re reading this from requires multiple production lines to produce the plastics, glass, electronics, metals, someone to make the moulds, producing the pieces, someone to design it, someone to test build it and so on and so on.

All this goes for all customers. We’re all woefully ignorant on other fields. Sometimes out of simply not knowing they exist, or just don’t give a damn about them. However, just remember this little bit next time you think you’re undervalued; your life hangs on few centimeters of welding of few millimeters thick each day in multiple occasions, and nobody around you who is dependent on those same small seams never even realise these welding exist in the first place. You’re blindly trusting that the man who never gets thanks from anyone else but his boss, if even then, to do a job enough to keep you safe.

And this guy was probably drunk or had a terrible headache from night long drinking. Makes you hope he didn’t fuck up. Better not look at the seams at all, on the second thought.

The skill of play

With Cuphead raising such questions as What is gameplay? and Is easymode bad? we really do see something lurking inside the media. As little as any of us care about John Walker’s ignorance, the question is valid in its own way. As humans we tend to describe the same thing in different ways, sometimes expanding and taking away details depending on whatever, but his insistence that gameplay is a wrong word for interaction with a game. Then I guess putting a game into a console is gameplay, as that is interacting with the game. Smartass remarks aside, gameplay is a term that was originally used to describe the system of functions that the player would play with within a game, and because electronic games are a continuation of children’s play culture, this term has then trickled down the evolutionary ladder of games towards tabletop and other sort of games with play as an element. Interaction is far too large term, and nobody in their healthy mind would use anything like it to describe something so precise.

This leads us to Ben Kuchera’s post on Polygon, where he has missed the whole point of games. Using books and art galleries as his point of comparison is missing the point. Kuchera is comparing apples and oranges at best. Because a game like Cuphead has more in-common with sports parkour and card games than with books and art galleries, his comparisons lack any sort of oomph. Yes, a game expects basic competence from the player to be able to clear a level before you see the next. It is, after all, a game. You don’t win at a game, unless you know how it is played and are skilled enough to play. You don’t get freebies in Solitaire either.

Easy Mode is something nobody should have anything against, as options are just that: options. That is not the case of Skip Boss Button. Electronic games are self-tiered tournaments of sorts. You can not advance in a martial arts tournament further if you lack the skill and discipline to follow the rules and execute your desired moves. Similarly, in Street Fighter you have to have enough control over your character to defeat each opponent to advance further. In a 2D action game like Cuphead, bosses can be seen as a similar opponent to any normal Street Fighter fight, with the exception that a stage is a warm-up. Of course, it just may turn out that the stage was harder than the boss, but there are always healthy exceptions. Skipping a Boss effectively negates the need of any sort of skill, and while the idea does not have anything wrong in it inherently, it really does tell you how little some people are willing to put effort.

My notion of effort in this isn’t about getting good, though it certainly is a part of it. Much like any other product, not all games are for everyone and not all games are meant for everyone. I would use a food comparison here, but it wouldn’t be apt enough. The one I used previously, about how no game with multiple players allows one to advance without excelling, is what applies here. While in a single-player games cheating does not cause any harm to anyone, it would go against the structure of the game’s play and how it’s planned out. After all, games are virtual spaces made with restrictive rules that the player plays according to and with. A game that allows its structure and rules to be broken without any consequence often turns into a dull and wasted game rather fast, mostly because skipping play is essentially just not playing it at all. If you’re not intending to play the game, you might as well find your pass time with other titles that challenge you a different manner, or other forms of entertainment and play. After all, just like with pasta sauces, some games are more chunky and demand more active jaw work than runny ones you could just use intravenously.

The problem, quite frankly, is not that a game is too hard and that the players can’t see its “art,” as Kuchera puts it. The problem is that they’re not appreciating the art. If anything is art in video and computer games, it’s the mathematics, coding, the set of rules and design, the thing that ends up being called gameplay. Not the graphics, the sound, visual design or any other part, those belong to other schools of arts. The art of games is the art of designed play, and much like other forms of art, this one challenges us both mentally and physically. Why? Because electronic games are a form of play and without that play, they’d be virtual spaces of content to see and watch but never to be played with. The pathetic thing about all this is the fact how Kuchera and other supposed journalists like him want to remove a section of this art and force it to become something mundane and have no legs to stand on its own. Variety is demanded and required.

Do I contradict myself there? Regarding this blog yes, but I can always entertain the argument of games as art whenever necessary.

Kuchera then goes in a tirade of personal achievement how nobody’s stopping you from fast-forwarding a television show, but again misses the point; games aren’t television shows. Not that anyone who would like to review a series or a movie would use fast-forwarding, that’d be skipping on the content.

Games are about learning and using information learned. If you make a mistake, you should be learn from that and not make that mistake any more. Any sort of pastime we have with any sort of game, be it cards or miniature tabletop figurines, there are always rules that we abide to and learn new things we screw up. Of course, there is a group of people who are just unable to do this, but you can’t please anyone. You can never create a product of any kind that would be universal to everybody. Someone will always bitch about it, so might as well make it as good as you can the way you know it’ll work the best. While it is up to the provider to provide the piece for the consumers, the provider can always choose its targeted customers. There are other similar products out there that will suit the consumers outside your targeted demographic better, and if there isn’t… well, that’s a niche someone else can step in fulfill.

Or you could carry some personal responsibility and step up the game.

Don’t overdo the quality

The concept of quality is somewhat twisted among modern consumers and manufacturers. Not because there are not high quality products or the like, but because there is a certain kind of veil that goes between product quality. Granted, this veil does exist for a reason, as the consumer shouldn’t have a need to see behind the curtains in which the his product are made of. Then again, it would be better if companies would be far more transparent in everything they do rather than protect less than favourable practices.

Companies must keep the quality of their product at a certain level. While advertisement and promotional speeches often tell you that they’re aiming for the best possible quality, that’s not exactly the case. I’ve discussed the subject of things being good enough in the past, and this is the core of if all; Quality, Time and Resources are tied to each other, and extending one of them extends the other. While there are numerous versions of this triangle, I’ll present here the simplest one out there.

Tri-Angle.png

You can pick only two, and depending on the product you may only have a chance to hit one spot.

If you go for a product that’s done quick and with as little resources as possible, you’ll end up with a product with low quality. If you go for a product with fast production time and of high quality, your resources will go out of hands. Most often this just means you need to put a whole lot more money into it. If you want something with as little resource expending as possible but still maintain high quality, the time the product will be made under will increase and in the end, it’s probably a very low priority product then.

Everyone would wish to balance these three in their daily lives, be it at home or at work. We all make decision if we want to, for example, put the time and effort into washing our dishes properly, when there are other things to consider as well.

This becomes a whole lot more complex when you must consider multiple projects and expenses. Any corporation that wishes to provide products for consumption have to juggle multiple triangles, or multiple elements of each triangle. To use translation in video game industry as an example, it often ends up in the Resources-Time section, where quality is not emphasised in favour of allocating that into other sections of the production.

NIS America is an example of a company that has managed to ignore Quality most of the time and have introduced questionable translations, additional bugs that did not exist in Japanese versions of the game and removal content. An example of this would be in Ar Tonelico II; Melody of Metafalica, where a mandatory boss battle locks the game up at a certain point.

As such, a company policy towards the public often states how their quality are the highest possible quality where in reality the product is balanced between the aforementioned elements in order to have a product on the shelves making money faster. This also means that the worker must adhere to the level of quality they’ve set. This sounds counter-intuitive, especially in the craftsmanship industries, but it is a necessary level. It is far too easy to get sucked into your own work and begin to burn your own self, and surrounding resources, for the sake of quality that goes wasted.

A product that has gained its quality by burning its creator, time and resources may serve the consumer to some time, but that level can’t be maintained without sacrificing something elsewhere. To use translation as an example again, a translator can’t sit on a translation until it has become what he considers perfect. A product that sits on the production line excess time due to some element, be it translation or whatever else, costs money each day. This is where having an acceptable level of quality steps in; it protects both the worker and the company.

What about the consumer then? For the consumer this is something he rarely thinks about. A literary work like a book or a visual novel that has thousands upon thousands of sentences in it is allowed to have certain amount if typos, misspells and textual errors. Content and information errors are of different things. The consumer does spot these errors more often than not, be an extra e in a word, lacking some alphabet or sentence starting with a lower case letter. Nevertheless, they are acceptable in overall terms. The worker hates the errors and would rather have them straightened out, and the corporation might recognise that this would raise the bar higher, but in the end the effort that is needed to achieve a certain kind of perfection of quality costs the damnest amount of money. Unless you can just issue a small, simple patch on your website without extra costs.

To use an analogy of this, achieving perfect emulation of a game console is rather hard. Most people who use emulators don’t care that the games they are playing on these emulators are not running the same way as they were intended on a real console, but care little because the quality of the emulation is good enough. As long as its playable, they’re satisfied.

In order to achieve perfect emulation of a more complex machine, the requirements stack up the closer you get 100% emulation accuracy. The last few percentages towards cycle-perfect emulation square from each other, and for modern systems it is currently simply impossible due to emulation requiring many times faster CPU than the original console’s.

Similarly, achieving perfect quality towards requires increasingly high amounts of resources and time. A steel product that needs to have a mirror shine to it takes its shape in a very short time, and the bulk of the work is spend in sanding and then buffing the surface in order to get that wanted finish. Of course you could just throw some reflective coating on top, or anodise the surface, but the end result wouldn’t be the same.

There are times when we just cut the cord and be done with things. This applies to every work. Still, the best thing is, in the future we’ll have more experience and better technology to increase that quality without putting any more resources or spending more time with it.

An untouched library

There is an excess of video and computer games nowadays. Games are a luxury items from the get go and have always cost a high sum, especially computer and NES games in Europe. The amount of games released per system seems to to grow with each generation with the ease of digital publishing. However, there are fewer games that carry impact on the industry or the consumer crowd, partially due to how large the marketing push for Tripple A titles are getting and partially due to sheer amount of them. Despite the overwhelming amount of games released, some with extremely questionable quality, there won’t be next Video Game Crash. The core gamers will see to it.

A classic gamer seeks to build a library. Not just digital titles in your Steam subscription. That’s what mostly separates a modern gamer from an old-school one. The use of money also applies here. A Steam user builds a backlog so much faster and easier than an old-school gamer who picks what games he purchases and why. Valuing a single game in its entirety, if you will. There is a significant difference between purchasing a game from a store and… whatever the correct term is for getting a license to use game software in Valve’s digital console. The same really applies to GOG to lesser extent. The simple physicality of it all is a significant separation enough, though there is more to it, like owning a copy of a game rather than just having a right to use it.

It is harder and more expensive to collect a proper library than one in digital form. It’s not uncommon to see Steam users that have thousands of games in their Steam library, most of which are barely ever launched. Most of these games come from sales and bundles. It is a common practice to sit idly and wait for games to drop in price, and Steam’s sales have become rather expected even within the user community. These games that just sit in the library really have no value to the player, thus the overall perceived value is low and fetches low amounts of money. This sort of attitude really seeps into other titles easily, where the expectations of low prices has become a standard across the board.

This is a problem of sorts. It twists the market results quite a bit, and when everything is eventually available at a bargain price. The Tripple A titles saw a decline in sales from 2015 to 2016, and the trend seems to be continuing. This directly reflects to the fact that these high budget, highly hyped titles simply do not meet with the consumer demands. This really should tell something to the developers and publishers about their products and about their approach for them.

For these reasons, about 38% of game consumers have stated intending to purchase fewer games than previous year. With an increasingly number of titles in one’s software availability, putting more resources into something you won’t be able to consume and enjoy really seems stupid as hell. We’re getting to a point where people have more games than they can play in their lifetime, even if they were to become full-time gamers.

It doesn’t help that with emulators and such we have the access for most of the games produced. There is an excess of games, but that’s market for you.

Perhaps because of the excess itself one should practice a more moderate approach in their purchasing habits. Considering digital games are pretty much always online, unless if it’s a licensed game, there really is no reason to purchase a game at launch or at sale. While library collecting is a part of the whole high-end game consumer culture, this should not displace the act of playing these games. With digital games it can’t be argued that someone is buying them for value either, as digital games can’t be sold onwards as such, especially not on Steam (which is why Valve had to change the description of their service.)

The fact is, the fewer games you have, the more you’ll be ending up playing those individual games, and thus your library will be end up being far better curated. Switch’s current library isn’t anything to call home about, especially so if we’re only counting the physical titles, but the more reason to practice this self-limiting, selective purchasing. All this really maximises the amount of time a consumer should be spending with an individual game. There is something in common with the idea of practising one motion a thousand times rather than practising a thousand motions once.

It is also easier to appreciate a game when you’ve spent enough time with it. If you’ve ever experienced lower-income households where money is tight, each luxury item is valued. This applies to each and every game purchased, despite their quality. Thank God rental videos and games was a thing, so people could test games before committing to a purchase before widespread use of the World Wide Web.

Collecting a library of games does not necessarily mean the consumer doesn’t have appreciation for the games he has, though without a doubt less than a person who has gone through nook and crannies of his own library.

This excess and the possibility to even collect a large library of games is taken as self-evident. While I did mention that another video game market crash is not likely to take place, an implosion is not. Steam’s Greenlight and Kickstarter have been full of titles that never went anywhere or have questionable quality at best. Anyone can become a game developer if they so choose to, but very few indeed can become good game developers or even successful ones.

I’ve said this before, but this is the first time in gaming short history where we live in an era where you can purchase most major titles from past consoles on your modern one. Not only a new game is competing with its contemporaries, it’s also competing with highly venerated classics. There are very few games that even intends to stand up to the challenge, and sadly there are those who are in for the simple quick-cash and nothing of worth or intending to push an agenda for the sake of it. Eventually, all this will reflect in sales and direction the consumer goes. When one-third of the consumers seem to go back to their untouched game library and rather than investing in new titles, that’s time for some alarm bells.

Games cost money to make and buy, and it would seem that it would be the right time for both consumers, developers and publishers to take a good look how they are spending their money.

A franchise chilled

This and the two previous posts would’ve formed good ol’ fashioned Monthly Three I put into indefinite hiatus, though this time it’s more or less on an accident of sorts. All in all, these should’ve been one long post.

A franchise has to have quality that is expected of it or higher. A fluke here and there is expected, but overall speaking a title in a series has to deliver at least to its core fans. When it comes to games, each and every title seem to be important and a drop in sales will be taken seriously. Seeing how the game industry barely understands how to hit the Blue Ocean market (making games easy or dumbing them down for “accessibility” is laughably weak method,) it is understandable how a franchise can fail miserably when its quality is weakened by newly added elements that are supposedly aiming to expand some aspects of the franchise.

I’m not really sure how Mass Effect got where it is now. As a franchise it was hailed as one of the stronger new franchise introduced during the Seventh Console Generation. Overall, it had a good balance between hitting the census of the consumers of the era (economics have changed quite a bit during the last decade) to the extent of Mass Effect being considered as one of the bigger franchises in the industry on par of the likes of Metal Gear. These are of course up to contention, to my knowledge no Mass Effect game has not been perfect enough to be considered for pachislot conversion.

However, as things tend to be in the industry, game sequels seem to get more attention from those who put the money down on these things. Mass Effect 3‘s colour coded ending has become infamous, but if the rumours are to be believed, EA was the one that put their boot down with the deadlines and BioWare had to relocate the “real ending” to DLC. Whatever the case is, Mass Effect 3‘s ending (and some argue the whole game) is below the average quality the consumers expected from the franchise. The ending is just one of the examples why Mass Effect 3 was panned by the core fans, mostly regarding contradictions in the setting, and inconsistencies regarding BioWare’s statements during development and how the game ended up being.

And a franchise it really is. While here up North we barely get anything relating to the spin-offs or licensed products, Mass Effect 2 and 3 had a huge ad campaign in magazines, television and in stores. Comparatively speaking, game ads have all but dried out from the general media, telling more about how they’re marketed and what the targeted consumers are than about their success. However, pretty much all fans of the franchise I’ve known have talked me about the mobile games, books, comics and whatnot. Even a movie based on the franchise has been under works since 2010, but very little has come of it.

It’s no wonder Mass Effect would go to a small hiatus. The trilogy had come to its more or less natural conclusion and the final part didn’t exactly match up what was expected. At times like this companies tend to take a small break and return when there is renewed interest. However, it would seem the franchise has now been put in ice for the time being due to the lacklustre success of the latest game, Mass Effect: Andromeda. While we can debate the finer details why the game performed worse than expected, the first bit that sounded alarms bells with yours truly when with the announcement of the game running on a new engine, which means you will see, hear and feel Mass Effect like never before. That’s a direct quote too. Clearly they missed the part that games need to play better than any of these.

Andromeda took five years and forty million dollars to develop. That sort of money and time is expected to deliver higher profits and far better reception. Alas, they the developers couldn’t even put a gun the right way in. Then you have issues of gameplay being worse than its ten years older progenitor and animations being absolutely all over the place and the plot’s not all that good either. Effectively, pretty much everything that should make a game great is sub-par. Andromeda overall shows how lack of quality control and professionalism, opting for making whatever brew you think would work the best.

It’s no wonder after an abysmal entry, the games went under hiatus. Sadly, Andromeda is probably the best example of current Tripple A games in the industry. One has to wonder where did the money go during the development. It doesn’t show up in the final production. When a franchise’s fame has taken a hit two times in a row, with the second making pretty much everyone who was involved a laughingstock, it is a good idea to take a step back and put the things on hold.

To use an example with Godzilla, Toho has put the franchise into ice three times over. First one was after the second movie when they had no idea how to continue properly onwards, though I still want to see Bride of Godzilla? realised in some form. The second time was in the 1970’s when the movies stopped bringing in enough profits, though the quality had dropped a lot since then. 1995’s Godzilla VS Destoroyah was supposed to end the franchise in Japan and have Hollywood continue it, but alas that was not to be. Godzilla was brought back fast in 1999, after the American attempt failed, and then was put back into ice after Godzilla: Final Wars. 2014 saw a new American Godzilla, and 2016 showcased us what I’m going to call a the bets modern Godzilla made in form of Shin Godzilla.

When a notable franchise like Godzilla returns after a significant hiatus, it is usually with a new take that is intended to make an impact. If a new Mass Effect game would be done right now, it would carry the baggage of Andromeda for the worse. As much as fans would like to see a game made right away to remedy the situation, sometimes it’s better just to wait for things to settle down and let time give more perspective on things. Whatever was done, be it due to corporate or personal interests from the developers’, the game took a sledgehammer to the franchise and damaged it. A hiatus also allows the developers and publishers to look into other options and possibly put resources into new IPs, though my personal trust in EA or BioWare has never been worth mentioning.

What is apparent that whatever happened during production of Mass Effect: Andromeda, it’s clear that the no research was done on what the consumers really wanted or needed, and that’s probably the worst offence a provider can do; not giving a jack shit about the consumer.

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.

Switch inherits Wii’s philosophy

Nintendo Everything has an interview up on regarding the inception and design of the Switch. We’ll take it at face value for now, all this sort of interviews are mix of hard facts and PR after all. It’s a bit on the long side, four pages in total, but a good read nevertheless.

The first thing they quote with big blue font is how the Switch was designed to bring everyone together and play. Remember Wii’s We’d like to play ads? The Switch encompasses the same idea, which incidentally is shared with the NES (which they specifically mention and want to go way back to the hanafuda cards) and to some extent with the SNES. Can’t forget the Game Boy and the DS. It’s sad to see Koizumi saying that playing together is core essence of Nintendo, when they’ve done so much do disregard this. It is also not the full extent of Nintendo’s core, but this is neither here or there. What Koizumi is saying with his little speech about getting strangers into gaming is expansion of the market, something that Nintendo’s successful consoles have done.

The idea of Nintendo’s home console being a device that could be turned into a sort of game-presentation/sharing device on its own probably shaped the console all the way through the development. The Switch is chock-full of technological things that aren’t really needed, like the HD Rumble that the upcoming Senran Kagura is probably going to use somehow to imitate the physics of female body. The split wireless controller would’ve been enough to allocate this, but Nintendo does have a history of obsessing with useless WOW!-factors, like the 3D screen on the 3DS or the tablet controller on the Wii U.

While the Wii wouldn’t fit into this console-presenter idea, it had much easier time penetrating the wall that modern controllers put up. The Wiimote is an easy contraption to handle and use, which made the Wii an excellent console to boot up and have people playing games without worrying much how to control a given game. The rest was up to how well the game itself was designed. There certainly was a WOW! factor in Wiimotes without a doubt, but at least they saw use.

I should note at this point that the Switch is mentioned began development about three years ago. This is about the same time Nintendo’s main support on the 3DS and Wii U started lacking in major releases (or on VC for the matter) and fits their modus operandi. Just like with the Wii and previous consoles, about half of the predecessor’s life cycle is dedicated for the development of the successor.

Both Takahashi and Koizumi mention how Iwata helped them with engineering challenges, as both of them have design backgrounds. While they paint designers’ life as a daydreamer, it’s much more closer to constantly trying to solve a puzzle but having jack shit idea how to proceed. You just gotta make things work, and it helps if there are people in your team who can tell you what’s possible and why. Giving a designer total freedom only asks trouble.

I’m also calling bullshit on the fact that single-player games saw a rise on the N64 because only one controller was included. Knowing how Nintendo has gone on the record how they don’t follow their competitors’ actions (which is probably bollocks as well), how can they determine whether or not N64 was the reason for this supposed rise in single-player games? If Nintendo is worried about lack of multiplayer games and support this view, they should’ve dropped the price of their controllers and adding multiplayer elements to games like Super Mario Sunshine rather than bitching how third party is doing the same. It could be also argued that a game that can be played both single- and multiplayer and can stand on its own in single-player mode is superior to a game that requires two or more players at any given time.

Naming your product something that could attract the consumer is no easy deal. Sometimes you find a perfect name that has nothing to do with the actual product, like how Uncle Ben’s has nothing to do with rice, yet it’s a good name due to branding and all that. A PlayStation does give some hint what done with it, as does GameCube. Switch on the other hand doesn’t, but with the marketing and branding Nintendo’s doing, the idea of switching things up on the fly seems be associated with the system. Whatever else they had as candidates would be interesting to see, but at least it’s something simple and memorable. Like GameBoy.

One thing that will make the Switch stand apart from its competitors… actually, I’m not sure if the Switch has any competition per se. Because it’s a hybrid console, it doesn’t compete in traditional game console field. It competes against whatever Sony and Microsoft will dish out next, but they’re on weaker legs due to decentralisation of home entertainment. On handheld markets it has absolutely no competition with Vita being dead in the water elsewhere but in Japan. I hope you like importing for that little bugger. What a load of wasted potential Vita was. Whatever it is the competition will offer probably won’t be a pure bred game console. Consoles as home media centres is a ruling paradigm Nintendo has mostly gone against, and the Switch continues to do so. It’s main thing is to play games and dammit it needs to do it fast.

Takahashi’s argument that they didn’t want to fight smartphones and wanted to make friends with them makes no sense. Nintendo’s games and smartphones are two different markets, but I guess this is where the whole DeNA thing steps in. The whole social media aspect is what they gunned for, and seems to be the reason online chat and numerous other aspects of their online seems to be less than screwed up. Now that their online will actually cost money, I really do hope they’ll up their game in every aspect. I know it’s a futile wish, but it’s good to live with hope.

Nintendo also knows VR is terrible but still claims to be researching in it.

What strikes hopeful in Switch’s development is that it took in young people, to an extent. While it is good to take in new blood in order to rejuvenate your company and get in some new ideas, this is a generation that has lived with game consoles their whole lives. Unlike with the first three or four console generations, there is a preconception with high-end consumers what a game console needs to be like nowadays. It’s like how Zelda fans who jumped unto the ship with Ocarina of Time tend to rewrite Link’s Adventure as some sort of terrible aberration from the form. That’s Majora’s Mask.

Perhaps the last bit that garners a mention in this post is how Takahashi agrees that Switch should have more software than what was on the Wii or Wii U. Wii might be a bit hard to overcome, but Wii U’s statistics aren’t anything to write home about. Bloomberg seems to think that the Switch will sell more than the Wii, which is a tall order. While the initial reaction to Switch was essentially the same as with any other successful Nintendo console, i.e. dead on arrival, its sales show otherwise. Because the Switch sits in the handheld console market, it has the possibility of selling higher numbers than the Wii without a doubt. If it hits both home console and handheld markets with equal force, it’ll outsell the Wii. If the devs have games half-assed, it’ll sell less.

The Switch had a similar launch to the DS. It was big, with big sales left and right. Then came about a year long slumber, after which it was revised as a portable SNES of sorts. The Switch could have a similar cycle, where after this big start it trails off, and when enough and certain kind of software is release, blows up in sales again. Most likely during a holiday.

Thousands of failures

Great design is like great translation; you don’t notice it unless you make the effort. The problem with this assumptions is that there is no design that would have universal acceptance. Let’s use something general as an example, something most of you use in your daily life, like a cupboard handle in your kitchen. Now that I’ve mentioned it, you’re probably conscious on of its shape but may not really know how it feels in your hand. After all, it’s just a handle you pull and push every day, probably multiple of times. This handle may be very ornate or just a simple shaped metal arch, but this handle is something you never really should be conscious about. At least not after you’ve finished your kitchen renovation that took ages, made your wife mad and probably ended up costing you an arm and a leg after you managed to screw up the installation process early on. There are more fitting handle shapes than there are hands, because the hands we have all can accept more than just one shape. We just tend to notice when the handle doesn’t really want to work with our own.

The numerous handles does not mean that there is an equal amount of successes. While there may be thousands of handles that fit just perfectly, the reality is that there probably has been five times or more discarded pieces that never moved beyond prototype phase. And sad reality is that some of these protos probably were better than the final product. For each successful product there are tens if not hundred unsuccessful attempts.

Even the most seasoned designer will make missteps and sometimes fails to realize what is self-evident to the consumer. This is why prototyping and giving enough time to finalise the product is incredibly important. Not just in design, but in every field. Sad thing is that no product is truly ready and will have to be released to the wild in good-enough state. Sadly, with games this good-enough has been lowered to many times that games are essentially being released half-finished in order to hit the publishing date, and the missing content or known bugs are fixed through Day-One patch. God I hate Day-One patches, it never bodes well.

How does a designer know he screwed up? In game industry it’s pretty clear, when the consumer feedback can be directed to the designer through forums and social media. Sales is second, but that only tells you that the product wasn’t met with the best acceptance out there. It’s not exactly easy to pinpoint why a kitchen handle didn’t make a breakthrough in the market, but we have to allow some leeway here; kitchen handles don’t tend to sell tons after initial launch. They’re not something people need to renew too often. If ever.

The easiest way of knowing what went wrong with a design would to have the user tell you outright. For a handle, where it chafes, what wrist position it does wrong, is the surface too sleek to cause slipping and so forth. Not exactly rocket science, but general consumer doesn’t really care to give such a feedback. Then again, door handles really aren’t a million dollar business, so losses from more experimental and niche products isn’t a big deal. The good old and time-tested basic shapes still rule the market.

Feedback is something all designers should want. I say should, as this splits opinions. To some a finalised product is as intended and it fills the role it has been given to. There is no reason to go change the product afterwards, no matter what the feedback is. Sadly, this doesn’t really bode well, and I’ve seen few companies go bankrupt due to the people in charge unwilling to change aspects of their products. After all, design isn’t art and doesn’t require the same respect of author’s intent. This goes to visual design as well, e.g. web design is very dependant on how the consumer can navigate the site. I’m sure all of us could give loads of feedback to websites about their current designs.

However, as said, the consumer isn’t really willing to give feedback, not when it’s really needed. The skill to read this feedback is important as well, as feedback on a product is not a personal assault. One needs to be professional and distance themselves properly in order to read through some of the harsher bits. The difficult part begins when you start applying that feedback and may start noticing that the very core idea of your handle had is slowly being discarded in the re-evaluation and redesign process. This can lead to more prototyping and more discarded pieces, but this sort of thing happens only to something that’s absolutely required for a task, like how the Xbox’s controller got completely redesigned for the Japanese market after the hulking beast of a controller got some feedback.

Of course, when you have no feedback to go outside sales, you’re forces to analyse what went wrong. Unless you have some people around you to get things re-tested or even have money to hire a test-group. Sometimes self-evaluation is cheaper and more effective than general feedback when the faults are apparent (though you never thought them up before even when the faults were staring in your face) and relatively easy to fix.

If a designer (or a company) manages to roll out a second, updated version of the product and makes their initial one obsolete, the initial release has been essentially trash. There’s no way getting around it. Even with best intentions, with loads of time put into and a lot of polishing on a product, a failure is a failure and one just has stand up and own their mistake to learn from it. Everybody is allowed to make mistakes, we just need to learn from them. A designer can’t continue to create products that repeat the same mistakes, like a cupboard handle that has sharp enough corners to cut your hand open when grasped.

Hard mode is now DLC

So I was intending to leave this Friday’s post on a somewhat positive note on Switch’s possible future after reading Shigsy’s interview with Time. The largest positive thing here is that Miyamoto slightly hints that the Switch in few ways seems to be Iwata’s final piece, giving feedback on portability and ideas in networking and communicating. How much of the current networking elements are from Iwata and how much is made disregarding his feedback is an open question. Iwata spearheaded the Wii and the DS, and if the Switch is anywhere near them in terms of idea and approach, then the Switch will definitely do better than the Wii U. Not that doing that should be all that challenging.

However, Miyamoto also speaks of virtual reality again. In essence, Nintendo is looking into VR at the moment, which ties itself to the obsession of 3D Nintendo still has. If you look how long Nintendo has been pushing the idea 3D with games, you can trace it back at least to Rad Racer if not further. You could almost make an argument that the more Nintendo tries to push 3D and VR as the main element of their machine, the worse it does.

VR currently has gone nowhere. After the initial boom of Virtual Reality, nothing has come out of it. No software has changed the industry or has set new standards. We’ve been told that VR will be at its peak in few years for few years now, and this repeats every time a VR product comes out. It’s not about lack of marketing or failing to market the product right. It’s about the common consumer not really giving a damn about t he VR in actuality, and most VR headsets we currently have are far too expensive for their own good. None of them work independently, which only adds to the costs. They’re a high-end luxury product at best with no content to back them up.

That said, Miyamoto cites Iwata talking about blue ocean and red ocean marketing, two points that his own actions seem to dismiss most of the time, but does commend Iwata for bringing this ideology to the front within the company. To quote what Shigsy said;

This is something that Mr. Iwata did, to really link the philosophy of Nintendo to some of the business and corporate jargon, while also being able to convey that to all of the employees at Nintendo.

Iwata had a presence both with the company and consumers. While Nintendo had few faces after Yamauchi, Iwata stood out. He was the company’s corporate face that managed to juggle between worlds. If you’re a fan of his, you’ll probably find elements in the Switch that underline Iwata’s approach as the head of the company.

Nintendo has many faces now that Iwata has passed. It’s not just not Miyamoto and Iwata any longer, but numerous of their developers have come to front even further. It’s like almost each game or franchise is now attached to a face. Like you have The Legend of Zelda tied to Aonuma.

The recent BotW announcement video killed pretty much all my personal hopes for the game being something special, mainly because it confirms that even when Aonuma is wearing something that resembles a suit, he still comes off sloppy. Still, the video does right by having subtitles instead of him trying to speak English.

The fact that Hard Mode is now DLC signifies that Breath of the Wild won’t be Zelda returning to its glory days as an action title that requires skill, but it’ll continue being a dungeon puzzler. Whether or not these DLC packs are an afterthought or not, it strikes very worrying. The Legend of Zelda had a completely new quest after the first round. Aonuma saying that they’d like to give seasoned veterans something new and fun is outright bullshit. New Items and skins don’t add to the game but in miniscule ways. A Challenge Mode was in previous Zeldas from the get-go. Additional map features do jack shit, unless the base map is terrible in the game. New original story and a dungeon with further challenges are nothing new or exciting. These are basic run-of-the-mill post-game stuff Zelda used to have. Modern Zelda tends to have a terrible replay value, but this DLC announcement hints BotW has worse replay value than normal.

I guess this shows how Nintendo is going to deal with the Switch overall, at least after the launch. The Switch requires extra purchases to be complete, like to purchase the Charging Power Grip because the bundled ones don’t charge. The game industry has been blamed for cutting their games into pieces to sell as DLC, and it really does feel like that at times. DLC is often developed with the main game and nowadays DLC is planned from the very beginning. Taken this into account, with the announcement video with Aonuma Nintendo effectively showed that they took parts that used to be standard parts of modern Zelda to some extent and made them DLC. The veterans they refer to are core Zelda modern fans.

Nintendo can’t have two dud of a console in their hands now. Twenty years ago they could have N64 under-perform when it came out much later than it was supposed to, and GameCube couldn’t stand against the rampaging truck that the PlayStation 2 was. The economy was completely different now than what it was in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. The Wii U was pretty much a disaster, but perhaps even more so that the Virtual Boy as it was Nintendo’s main home console with full backing of the company in the vain of two of the most successful consoles in game history. Granted, not all machines can see the success of Game Boy. They could, if developed properly and the software library would see proper maintenance from the first and second party developers.

I’m still going to stick with Switch being more a success than the Wii U. However, if Zelda BotW is any indication for the future, there is a fly in the ointment.

Monthly Three; The Game Boy march

While reading on materials on the history of the Game Boy, there was always two things that popped up; people saying it outsold like no other despite having technological disadvantage and the fans of the its competitors calling each others’ favourites a piece of overpriced garbage. Unlike the NES, the Game Boy was a much larger success in all three main regions, despite it still seeing shortages in Europe overall. However, going into GB’s market success is not the point here. The design philosophy is, and how pretty much all ‘victorious’ consoles reflect this.

While I tend to give Gunpei Yokoi loads of credits about his philosophy about mature technology, he was no different from any other Japanese business executive. The corporate culture is that the man upstairs gets the glory over the hard-working underling, and this can go well up to the main chairman if it benefits them. Such was the fate of Satoru Okada in Nintendo’s R&D1 under Yokoi. In an interview with Retro Gamer (shortened here) he goes over the main design points that the Game & Watch, the Game Boy and the Nintendo DS had. Even in this small bit you see that Yokoi’s Game & Watch series was a good starting point for what was to come, as the Yokoi’s group first wanted to downsize it and make more pocket fitting. Indeed, while Game & Watch was led by Yokoi, and the D-pad design is credit to him, Satoru Okada deserves the same amount of credit for creating said device when he handled the technicality of things. A designer is only part of the solution, unless he is a jack of all trades, master of none.

The point of this group wanting to do technologically better game system is nothing new, and while on surface is all about the cutting edge technology, nothing in the Game & Watch games was new when it came to hardware. This is where the design sets in with the D-Pad and the overall shape of the unit. These are the hardware design choices that matter more than how powerful the CPU is or the architecture of the machine in terms of what makes things tick right. It’s not exactly about bringing in something new. I hate to use this term, but innovating based on existing facts. The D-Pad was, and is still a great solution to a control problem. Single buttons don’t really give the most intuitive feeling out there, unless they’re in a cross shape like on the PlayStation controller. The wrong kind of design can make it feel terrible, like on the Dreamcast and Xbox 360. In the end, the D-pad really is a very downscaled, flattened joystick in its core form.

As for the Game Boy, what is a surprise that Yokoi’s initial pitch is essentially a continuation of the Game & Watch, which Tiger Electronics’ games essentially were in many ways. Indeed, the Game Boy as it came out is the child of Satoru Okada’s ambition to push the envelope further. If Yokoi had not given in to Okada’s persistence to develop a far more robust and ambitious handheld gaming machine, we might be calling any other handheld game console a Game Gear.

This is one of the elements of the silver bullets in creation a successful console. It’s not enough it to use existing, mature technology and innovate with it, but it also is required to innovate. The Game Boy’s legacy for future handheld consoles is in its careful design to be cheaply produced and sold, while offering a lasting housing that can be carried easily and take serious damage before being decommissioned (or even survive a missile strike in Gulf War), but also offered games that last more than few minute at a time. The hardware was not cutting edge for these reasons precisely, but was good enough. Good enough is a magical term that is more successful than cutting edge. Game Boy didn’t succeed because it was like the Game & Watch, it succeeded because it used the same ambitious model the FC and NES had… at least in Japan and US. We know how well Nintendo handled Europe.

There is nothing special or magical in Game Boy’s victory march over Atari Lynx, Sega Game Gear or PC Engine GT/TurboExpress. It sold for $99 at launch and was packed with Tetris, the only game that could be called perfect in design. Atari’s Lynx was out at $179.99 two months later, with lesser titles in its launch library. Game Gear launched at slightly lower price of $149 with the usual marketing campaign of it being the cooler option for mature gamers who liked hardcore titles. Like the PSP. While Game Gear was essentially a Sega Master System in a smaller box, the PC Engine GT really was a portable PC-Engine and able to play the same card based games as the home version. Its $249.99 price point was stupidly high, and this is 1990 money we’re talking about. Taking account devaluation of the dollar, the price equals around to $453.00 modern day money.

Paying $99 for a console that came with a game, earphones and a link cable to play with your friend was an option that couldn’t be beaten. Better, more robust hardware with backlit and coloured screens lost to a console designed to be enjoyed en masse by everyone, everywhere. Batteries ain’t cheap, and the fact that you got a whole lot more bang for you buck with the Game Boy than with any of its competition. The successive sales encourages more third party developers to develop games of the Game Boy over less popular options, and the rest is history. Nintendo would replicate the grey brick’s success with the DS… after they stopped treating it like portable N64 and tackled it as it were a portable SNES.

Yokoi left Nintendo at a point in the mid-1990’s and developed the WonderSwan, a terribly Game Boy-like console, for Bandai. Other than its extremely slim form and monstrous battery life of over 24h on a single AA-battery, it was also completely out of date and had no driving ambition behind it. Even its buttons were inferior in design, especially the loose D-pad that had no feeling to it. For a handheld console that came out in 1999, it had no legs to stand against Game Boy Color that was released a year prior. SwanCrystal, the best version of the console with colour LCD, saw a release in 2002, but with little support and mostly Bandai’s own games on the system, it was a relative niche product overall. Sure, it saw one of the best versions of Final Fantasy I, II and IV before modern era remakes, and even that is debated sometimes. WonderSwan is something what Game Boy could’ve been if Yokoi’s original idea had been implemented instead of Satoru Okada’s; a system standing on old ideas, re-using concepts rather than innovating based on them and creating something new.

To return to the opening to the start of the post, the very reason why people are astonished by the fact the Game Boy was so successful is because it was good enough, but still better than its predecessors. You don’t need to be cutting edge, just ambitious to have the good stuff available for everyone, and keep the quality high while delivering all sorts of games across the spectrum.

With this, I’m officially putting Monthly Three’s on hold. Whenever I get a subject that requires more than one post, it’ll return.