The Hell That Is Developing
I will come out and say it right now: balance is a myth. Every game is fundamentally broken in their own way, featuring playstyles that are favoured over another, and the best one can hope for is that their particular playstyle becomes relevant in the next “patch”, because I, too, enjoy games where the experience gleaned over months of playing is made worthless because of a team of bored programmers who have no idea what direction their game is going in and so develop arbitrary changes for the sake of “progress”, see World of Warcraft, RuneScape, and every multiplayer game Valve has ever made.
I do not base my design philosophy around what is fun for the community, or what is fun for the team. Gaming is innately a selfish act; we do not join a server so that we can make a group of thirty strangers happy. We do it to make ourselves happy, even if that means entertaining the hapless strangers through a bunch of shenanigans. Peter Griffin plays Black Ops 2? Scandalous! Certainly one’s happiness may also benefit the team. I always played the Medic in Team Fortress 2, for I knew my team owed me a great debt. But once the match is over, it is always one the individual, what you, have done, which causes you to remember it positively.
I focus on what is fun for the individual. As I wasted thousands of hours on TF2, so too did I on DOTA 2. I would spend forty minutes in a lane eating creeps for gold, in an attempt to stomp over the other team. It was an experience like going through a thick haze, a dry heat, where the only solace was the glib satisfaction afterwards. Such a strategy was barely fun; the idea of “farming”, where one patrols a limited area to amass more gold and thus better items, is a flawed one for the individual, for it is a very slow experience that requires only a bit of knowledge and does not expand on the stated endgoal of destroying the enemy team’s base, beyond being a means to amass more gold.
Such a mechanic could be made more fun by increasing the gold and experience earned and thus decreasing the time doing such, creating creeps with advanced skill levels and AI similar to what a human player might have, while still being predictable, making the manipulation of such feel more rewarding, and simply increasing the amount of gold and experience earned from killing heroes, encouraging the use of early – game players. I find the idea of a “hard carry”, who is worthless until they have done a significant amount of farming, offensive given the current state of DOTA. The game must either make farming painless, alter the hard carries to increase their use in the early game. Valve does have the courage, skill, conviction, or incentive to do either.
I bring up DOTA because of its notoriously poor cultbase, as I refuse to use the term “fanbase”, for all video game fanbases are cults in their own way, and developers rely on these minorities for the vast majority of their profits; a cynically manipulative way to use art for corporate interests, if we may even describe these programs as art. Such suggestions would complain I would change the game to be like some other theoretical game, as if having one bad game and one good game is preferable to having two good games to play. They would prefer to be complacent in mediocrity than to change to be excellent. A sure sign of men who will never be praised or written about.
Right the first time
It would be excellent to see games made right the first time, where development is geared towards a final release that is generally as good as it will get without getting into micromanagement, such as Paper Mario and Ocarina of Time, even including some fetch quests which are just plain awful and should have been purged with fire and salt. But this is not realistic, for games are innately living and breathing mediums — you change one little variable in one line of code, and the entire game can break. Under these circumstances, why would developers ever refrain from experimenting with their games every single day, to see what works, and what doesn’t? Ignore the money. Ignore the business. I am talking to artists who would rather be revered for eternity than rich for a few years.
Gaming in the current age is a state where updates may be made every single day, and yet we do not see developers make these updates, for fear of breaking something or losing their cults. They are ignorant that releasing a game, without the intent to make it as perfect as possible as in the old release model, is now an exercise in experimentation over the months. And yet developers batch updates, arbitrarily, without regard for the sheer privilege they have to be able to change every single facet of a game, every single day, once it is released, and to be able to do so until they finally achieve the vision they have set out to mold the game to.
It is true that there are changes so major that it would be best to create another game. It is also true that enough changes over time will eventually create a whole new game that will be impossible to go back to without the use of a strong version control system, publicly available, which no major developer has because they do not care about posterity, history, or providing insight into their development process for their few devoted inspirees. But if these two scenarios are ever a factor in your development scheme, then you are making the game wrong and need to adjust your priorities to develop new products instead of using mad science to create Frankenstein’s Game. Alternatively, you can use the Old – School RuneScape approach and simply make an earlier patch of the game publicly available, which would always be the case in an open – source, free software development model, but once again, companies would rather exploit than give back.
The Experiment Weapon
It is in this model that one makes clear the secret weapon of every successful enterprise to grace our Earth: experiment. To see what went wrong and to adjust what you do until you make it right. To aim to make an excellent game, but to understand it may be flawed, and to correct these flaws in the effort of creating a better product, and thus a better reputation for your enterprise. It is developing a clear goal of what they want a game to be, to continually change it and remove cruft, until it meets this goal to a much higher degree than your competitors.
Games companies already do this in their advertising and development processes, but only for the sake of earning sales and “retention”, meaning addicting them so they have higher motivation to spend more money on the product. The reason every successful games app is a picture of a screaming man is because those screaming men earn more downloads. Imagine what would happen if games companies used these techniques, which they use to sell forgettable troth, and used them to create better games?
There are four fascinating, at the same time horrifying, articles on Gamasutra discussing the cynical, marketing – based nature of the mobile games market: A “Tap Tap Builder” post – mortem, gerrymandering middle – aged moms, manipulating art to sell, and using every blunt selling tactic to make more money. Words such as “Quality”, “Honesty”, “Creativity”, “Talent”, or even “Effort” are in the vocabularies of these marketing experts. Instead they talk in terms of retention, points – of – sale, purchase flows, click – through rates (CTR), conversion rates (CVR), target markets, user acquisition, psychographics, and good – old demographics. I cannot ignore the data because it scares me… I can only understand it so I may rebel against it.
I am forced to concede that art is a business; if nobody sees your art, it does not exist, and so your efforts must revolve around creating work that will be read by a particular type of people. This blog is an exercise in search – engine – optimisation, what with the focused titles, the meta headline being provocative, and even my star ratings being made to look good on Google. It is a disgusting concession, and one which I am forced to live through for the sake of mattering one bit in this world. But I will never stoop to the level of these mobile games companies, who create solely to be consumed, who have defined selling to an exact science, and do not represent any artistic medium on any level whatsoever. They are businessmen and businesswomen who exist solely to sell addiction — human misery — and make money off of it. I hate them in no weaker terms than this.
But experimentation is at the heart of all good things, for those who have not failed are those who have never been seriously challenged. With these challenges come the thrill of invention, and the forever – desire to improve, to “strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”, in creating new ideas in this young medium, and in doing so cement themselves as a force to be reckoned with. My opinion is taken seriously because I have forced it to be taken seriously, having written a lot, played more, and remain educated in subjects far beyond my niche. I have dabbled in many things, and out of this dabbling comes the well – adjusted website you see today. There is hope for all those who are not afraid to fail… for while you are looking at my first draft, it took much trial – and – error to even reach this point.
We have at our hands an opportunity to create games that may grow and evolve, not just through the dogged determination of the players, but through the knowing efforts of the competent developer. The Internet, our always – on era, is too often used as a crutch by incompetent companies who know they are creating poor work, and simply allow themselves to fix it at a later date, if ever. There remain hundred of unfixed bugs in Valve, Bethesda, and Blizzard games which are never taken care of due to the developers simply not caring, ranging from questlines being impossible to resolve, weaponry which behaves in an unintended way (where Valve’s fix is to change the description of the weapon, where the broken weapon is now “behaving as intended”), and the many little annoyances ranging from getting stuck on a piece of map to NPCs behaving in inconsistent ways.
In the old development model, such bugs remained in the game, forever to be exploited, unless a company was rich enough to afford a reprint, as in the case with different regions or rarely a “1.01” second printing as popular games such as Ocarina of Time could afford. It’s a well – known legend that Donkey Kong 64 had a game – breaking bug which nobody could diagnose, only with the understanding it goes away with the Expansion Pak inserted. The solution? Ship every copy with the Expansion Pak. These blatantly hacky fixes are only possible with the tyranny of the release date, where a game has to ship on that particular date no matter what, the logical curse of both development time and distributing physical media.
Nowadays the release date is irrelevant, where the game is uploaded online at the first instance it is considered somewhat playable — for my little project, after about two weeks. Companies continue to maintain it for marketing purposes, including that free money “pre – order” scam where you buy a game without understanding if you will even receive a playable product, as well as the need for physical discs to be shipped out to console retailers, where the update process is a lot more arduous than that of PC and console manufacturers maintain strict guidelines as per their walled – garden approach to development, and so must be printed on the disc in the bare minimum state of acceptability.
Back to FOSS
A developer may upload their work online at any time, pushing it from a local copy on a daily basis, and even charge money for it. The scheme is so attractive that Steam continues to maintain their ”early access“ program. The word brings up images of pre – alpha barely – playable generic garbage that would not even be fit as a demo to show investors. Rightly so; the system is abused by developers looking for a quick buck on whatever survival – horror – sandbox – crafting simulator is popular, which is only popular because the proles keep buying the things.
But the same model is, essentially, the same as what open – source has been doing for decades: upload a somewhat acceptable work online, continue to improve it with updates as they come, and create milestone releases available for the general public. With this model we have built giants such as Linux, GIMP, Blender, Firefox, and Dolphin Emulator… but the fundamental difference between free software and gaming is that the vast majority of games are made as a for – profit enterprise, education and posterity be damned, and so game developers have no profitable incentive to make their work as free software. It has often been said the desire for money is the root of all evil. In the face of proprietary software, we have continued evidence for this statement.
The second difference is that those who create free software programs are doing so through sharing their years of knowledge and experience of programming, collaboration, and development, creating programs in the Kaizen model of self – improvement: if you do just 1% better each day, you have made a 1% improvement that will last for the program’s lifetime. Those who create video games are either hobbyists who see programming, graphics, et al. as a means – to – an – end to create virtual worlds, or groups of disinterested teams who seek to make a quick buck of this booming medium — thus creating the extraordinarily oversaturated market you see right now. Most everyone is in the middle, myself included. Both good and evil have one thing in common: they are both used to amass so much money.
Quality in action
I cannot overstate the importance of free software; it brings security and peace – of – mind to all who use it. It creates programs that one owns instead of being leased to them and controlled by a company. It encourages a community to build organically, not at the whims of marketers, by allowing similar – skilled people to work together. It ensures that a copy of a program which works will continue to work, using open formats that are not restricted to a particular program, are not created by a company to force you to use the program, and allow you to use any version, as precise as a specific commit’s revision, as you please. This is not even getting into the Digital Restrictions Mechanisms cancer, as perpetuated by Steam and lazily accepted by those users who simply don’t care about what they buy.
But I only bring up free software because of how it can be applied to games: the constant stream of steady improvements, based around a central vision, that creates games that are not just good on release, but remain better and better with every passing update, being tweaked every day to see what works and what doesn’t, and then releasing the result of these actions as milestones. Do you know what this creates? A living, breathing medium. A game where one can actually enjoy it for how good the developers treat it, instead of being farmed out for making money.
I know RuneScape is an MMORPG made by a company who has made some dodgy choices in the past, and there is a legitimate concern for many thousands of lives to have been wasted on the game for promoting continual grinding and constant log – ons, but on the whole I respect the creators of RuneScape for continually improving the game with new quests, areas, items, and so on — including the famous holiday events which are always a joy to see games include. Their membership scheme is similar to an expansion pack on a monthly basis, with permanent segregation of paid and free content according to a strong company culture of preventing paying customers from having an advantage over non – paying customers.
Just try seeing Valve implement this policy.
When a developer cares about their game, beyond just being a mechanism for profit, it is made clear in the way it is made. There are easter eggs being put into each corner of the map waiting to be uncovered, perhaps dormant for years. The description of each item has a wry cheekiness to it that does not take itself seriously at all. The story enjoys taking the piss, and one realises the value in a work that isn’t hardcore angst… a developer who has these special qualities of treating art as art and not as a paycheck is a rare developer, indeed. For long gone are the days where gaming is just a hobbyist’s career. Now it is global, for better, and yet a lot worse.
Not only is it possible for games to become this poetry – in – motion, these entities that exist instead of simply occupying bytes, but having the competence and courage to be able to do so is another matter entirely. A game should never be “balanced”, but should instead create the highest enjoyment for the individual, and using the techniques perpetuated from free software, experimenting to see what works, and creating little incremental tests every single day, is something that no games developer has seriously experimented with, and it is a braindead way to improve your games that’s just sitting there for the taking.
We are no longer living in the where we have to live on disks and cartridges, where what we consider the virtual world may now exist entirely virtually, instead of showing up in stores. We have opportunity to kill the curse of the disk, the curse of releasing once, and the opportunity to use our privileges on the Internet to make games that could have never been made ever before… but when we have this opportunity, we too often use it to sell mobile games to a bored audience, whose tastes never broaden because companies have no incentive to broaden it.
When I look at myself, I would rather be seen as a human than as a deity, as somebody to be respected and not revered, somebody to look up to but never idolise. I create projects as a man creates it — amateurish, with mistakes in them, updated as a man may update them and not as an army can. And in my work, which improves over the years in a death march to my grave, I see in myself more than any developer may see themselves: I am the one who does, every day, without complaint. And I do not do it for the sake of money.
Each day I wonder if I am shilling pearls before swine, as if those who most need my message are the ones who will ever see them. But I see, too, a world with beauty in it, overshadowed by the dark hand of business and kept alive through a series of small miracles and the demand for the status quo, for better and for worse. My goal is to take the beauty and keep it beautiful, to take the dark patches and shine light by making beauty. If I must run through the village with my clothes on fire, so I may be the flame which burns brightest, then I will. For it is better to burn out than to fade away, and to become a legend, a man that all men can be, is the greatest end to a life that I have spent living, and a life that will never be known by those who live for the sake of marketing… and not for the sake of the art I create.