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Long read: The beauty and drama of video games and their clouds

"It's a little bit hard to work out without knowing the altitude of that dragon..."

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Extracts from Difficult Questions

Extracts from James Newman and Iain Simmons' rather wonderful DQAV.

The following is an extract from the introduction to Difficult Questions About Videogames, a book we very much enjoy, followed by an extract from chapter two. The book was edited by James Newman and Iain Simons, and published by Suppose Partners. If you take a shine to it yourself, you can find details on where to get hold of a copy on its homepage,

Methodology, progress, caveats.

In the interests of you fully understanding the responses within and the context in which they were solicited, we felt it was important to inform you of the minutiae of the process that created this book.

For around a month we talked about questions, what questions we'd really like to ask. We've elected to detail the intention behind those questions within the individual chapters.

Once agreed upon, a contributors guide was written and a website created. Fairly early on we decided that email was going to be the principal contributing conduit, in the absence of any significant resources for travelling around and interviewing. This also gave us a continuity of response that individual personality relationships couldn't pollute. Email addresses were procured from company sites, weblogs and the kind support of a few partners who advocated our project to the esteemed members of their address books.

An initial email was sent out, something like this (the only differentials were obviously in name and occasionally in citing a recent game or publication that a developer of writer might have produced):


Hope you don't mind me writing to you out of the blue like this, but I was hoping you might be interested in sparing a little time to contribute to a book of interviews we are currently compiling for our launch publication "Difficult Questions About Videogames", publishing this Autumn.

With your permission I'd really like to send you a few questions over for you to consider. We're trying to get back to a more fundamental discussion of gaming for this initial book, as such all the questions are deliberately simplistic - but hopefully will force some interesting answers.

We've had a great response so far from the dev community, and it would be a great addition to the project to get your thoughts on board.

Ok, again thanks for your time, please find a small précis below.

Hope to hear from you soon,
> > > > > > > > >

PublicBeta is about creating and publishing better material about videogame culture. It's clever, witty and inclusive.
Reading its publications and attending its liveshows, makes you feel like you're not being dumbed down to.
If you're an adult and you enjoy playing videogames, this gives you a more socially acceptable framework within which to talk about them.
[You don't need to be embarrassed about being a grown-up interested in videogames anymore.]

Whereas existing publications tend to focus on the Industry, the technology, simplistic consumer-facing value-judgements of game releases or impenetrable academic texts - PublicBeta aims to stimulate high-quality discussion to the end of developing a new, relevant critical language with which we can talk about articulately videogames, and videogaming culture.

Nb. It does all of the above whilst remembering that games are first and foremost, fun.

Right now we're working on:

"Difficult Questions About Videogames" - the launch book. "Difficult Questions About Videogames" - the tour

If people replied positively, they were then sent a second email:

> > > > >
Grt -

>thanks for your support xxxx

Here's the questions, both pasted below and attached.
Do let me know where you would like your free (!!) copy posting when we publish. If you could just confirm receipt of this and try and get responses in within the next 2-3 weeks that would be much appreciated.

Many thanks,
> > > > > >

Guide to the Questions:

These questions are trying to strike at the fundamentals of videogames.

We think the simplest questions are often the hardest to answer, but they often reveal the most about our knowledge and understanding.

The questions we've elected to ask are all, on the face of it, very simple. It would be really easy for you to answer them in one line - in some cases one word. In order for this to work, they require you to indulge them in the spirit that they are asked. We realise that probably makes them demand a little more time on your part, but we believe that such an investment will result in a uniquely fascinating publication of which we can all be part.

They've been deliberately phrased in this childishly simplistic way to allow you the space to respond with ideas, dogmas, personal passions, theories, interpretations, digressions, speculations and feelings.

We're not particularly interested in definitive answers - if you have one, that's great - but you don't have to be able to substantiate your feelings with facts. This is about how you respond to these questions at this point in time - we would wholly expect your answers to these questions next year to be entirely different. Our hunch is that, that's what will make this book especially interesting.

You don't have to answer all of them.

You can write as much or as little as you like.

If you think a question (or indeed the project) is wholly worthless and facile, do feel free to say why. We'd like to include those responses too.

The questions
1/defining videogames Q1. What is a videogame?
Q2. What is gameplay?

2/buying and selling
Q3. How can you tell if a videogame is rubbish?
Q4. Who do you make videogames for?
Q5. What makes a game good value-for-money?

3/playing (with) videogames
Q6. Why do you play videogames?
Q7. Where do you play? How often? For how long?
Q8. Why is playing videogames fun?
Q9. Can you cheat in a videogame?
Q10. Who are walkthroughs and FAQs for?

4/way-point markers
Q11. What were the key moments in gaming for you in 2004?
Q12. What is going to be important in videogaming in 2005, both to you and to the business in general?
Q13. What will Videogames become?

Chapter Two: Making Videogames

Question 3: How can you tell if a videogame is rubbish?

There is an oft-repeated convention in the developer interview,

"What are your top five favourite games?"

There appears to be a very shallow pool of excellence from which the usual answers are drawn. Zelda 3, Super Mario Bros 3, Defender... A small, elite collection are endlessly (and rightfully) celebrated again and again. We are running out of adjectives with which to prefix Miyamoto's genius. He's great, but our hands hurt from clapping. So, just for a chapter, we're going to ignore the 'brilliant' and turn our attention wholly on the 'rubbish'. For there is a rich, deep seam of rubbish to mine - and perhaps it forms a fantastic resource.

We chose this negative qualification in this question for a very deliberate reason. The use of a blunt, catch-all dismissive like 'rubbish' tends to form the beginning of our critical language. It's lazy, it's value-driven, it's inarticulate and it's ubiquitous in the conversational language of every player. Surely there must be other ways of learning 'great' than just studying 'greatness'? Aren't we supposed to learn from our (and others) mistakes?

Let us be clear. This is an investigation into the presence of 'rubbish', not the absence of 'brilliant'...

...Our arrival at this question was not prompted by the concerns of the consumer. For the player, it should come as no surprise that rubbishness is measured in terms of the equally nebulous value-for-money, or in relation to audio-visual presentation, the integrity of the code, the generosity of the rules, the flexibility of the simulation... The question was suggested from meetings with developers. What had fascinated us throughout our discussions and interviews with the people who make the games we play and discern as brilliant or rubbish were two associated questions. The first emerged as a managerial issue. Today, the demands of current videogames hardware systems are such that the large team of diverse individuals is practically inevitable. How do you manage a team of people with increasingly specialised roles who perhaps know nothing of each other's work and who don't, perhaps can't, have a sense of the overall vision? How do you keep them all pointing in the right direction? How can you predict what is going to work before you actually play it?...

And a selection of answers

You don't want to play it anymore. The shorter the playtime spent the worse the game. If there was a perfect formula for this then someone would get rich very quickly :)

I simply made games that I thought would be a challenge to play but fair. I also tried to avoid violence and make my games family friendly for all ages.

Scott Adams


It's funny -- and sad -- that we have such a scant aesthetic understanding of videogames that we'd even have to ask this question.

But we do, and we should ask it.

Like film, art, and literature, videogames should do something to their players. They should elicit a response. That response can be cathartic, emotional, social, political, kinetic, even anaerobic. But it has to do *something*. The truly rubbish games don't speak to players in any way.

They seem to think that games are mechanical affairs.

Ian Bogost


Nobody plays it, or if they do to the end, they don't want to play it again. And even if they play it, they don't want to admit that to anyone else. And during the game they have to force their attention NOT to wander. For me, one example was Myst. Conversely, if I am sweating in an airconditioned room after 10 minutes of gameplay, that is a good game. A game that your attention cannot help but be focused on.

Erik Champion


A videogame is rubbish if one or more of the following are observed in the course of playing it:

1) Its content is inexpertly created or presented. This includes some or all of: badly-rendered, clichéd, or sophomoric artwork (including user interface artwork); dull, repetitive, clichéd, or badly-played music; badly-written, clichéd, predictable, hackneyed, incomprehensible or juvenile text or dialogue; badly-acted scenes recorded by live actors, whether in audio or video. This also includes visual errors caused by poor display technology, e.g. "skating" characters, objects projecting or passing through what are supposed to be impenetrable walls, unrealistic physics in realistic environments, and so on.

2) Its responses to the player or players' inputs are inconsistent, unpredictable, or too slow to enable the player to achieve his goals.

3) The design of its menus and inputs is inconsistent, awkward, unobvious, counterintuitive, or require a long time to learn.

4) Understanding the goals and internal mechanics of the game requires more time to learn than the player feels is justified by the entertainment that it offers.

5) It is too hard, i.e. the probability of a player of reasonable experience achieving a given goal in the game is still below 50% after the player has attempted the goal ten times.

6) The computer running the game crashes in the course of playing it.

7) A large number of the game's challenges can only be solved by trial-and-error or brute force. This encompasses a variety of design errors far too great to list here.

8) Any game that does not allow the player to save his or her progress, on a gameplay device equipped with a save mechanism, at the player's own convenience and at any time of the player's choosing, is rubbish.

Ernest W. Adams


Bad videogames can be judged based on lack of passion. Therefore, any game that does not produce high-pitch shouting, sore thumbs or instants of introspection, is technically rubbish.

Gonzalo Frasca


First, the useless answer: you can't. All you can tell for sure is whether, to you, a videogame is rubbish or not. I'm sure we've all played games that got terrible reviews and word-of-mouth that we actually kind of liked, and we've all seen games that got great reviews that we didn't enjoy at all. Everyone's different, and what's a joy to you may be a chore to someone else and vice-versa. Which is an important thing to remember: all too often I've run across opinionated game designers who think their aesthetic represents The Truth, and if a game they didn't like gets good reviews and word of mouth they wonder how so many people can be wrong.

Now, the useful answer: there are games that appeal to a large number of people and games that appeal to very few; just like ice cream comes in chocolate, mint, and anchovy flavour. If you go around saying, "anchovy ice cream is rubbish," you won't find many people who disagree with you. So, if the question you're asking is, "Will this game be a hit?" or "Will lots and lots of people like this game?" the best thing to do is to playtest and be receptive to feedback. If everyone you try the game on seems to love it, the game probably isn't rubbish. What you can't do is say, "I like this game therefore everyone else will like this game." You're operating from a very small statistical sample there. (But it is a good place to start. You always have to start making something you'll like and then see if others like it too.)

If some people like your game and some people don't, you may still have a hit. Believe it or not, there's a huge number of people out there who don't like GTA, one of the most successful games of all time. And there's a huge number of people who don't like The Sims. And so on. I don't think videogames have an equivalent of chocolate ice cream, a flavour that absolutely everyone likes. Even Zelda and Mario have their detractors: "I don't like puzzles," and "I don't like platformers."

The answer you'd really like would be for me to tell you how to anticipate how the public is going to feel about a game before they even play it. There's guidelines you can apply here, but it's really all guesswork until you get your game into the hands of playtesters. For any guideline I could dream up, there's a game out there that broke that rule and still worked. Still, some of my guidelines would include:

* Is the game the best at something? Does it have the "best graphics" or "best sound" or "best stealth gameplay mechanic" or "best World War II simulation"? Here's where it's nice to do something novel and unique; if your game is the only game that offers a new core gameplay mechanic, your game is by definition the best at that until a competitor usurps you.

* Is what your game is best at something "cool?" Here we get into small sample size problems again - what you think is cool may not be what someone else thinks is cool. But you can poll people and find out, even before you start developing a game, whether most people think an idea is cool or not. If it does, then all you have to do is pull off the execution. (Which is no small feat! I've bought many games that sounded great from reading the high concept on the back of the box only to discover that their great high concept was turned into an exercise of frustrating tedium.)

* Does the game make the player feel like a hero? You look at the top titles and you'll see this recurring theme through almost all of them. It doesn't matter if your player is a warrior or a quarterback or a spy or a spaceman or a master criminal, he still feels like a hero. Even GTA makes you feel like a hero. The player does something heroic, something cool, and then says, "Look what I did."

* On the execution side, you can ask: is the game always fresh? That is, a player should never be forced to repeat the same challenges multiple times. Many games violate this rule by providing save checkpoints that are too infrequent and the days of customers putting up with this abuse are coming to an end.

* A game should not have Shelf Level Events, meaning moments that make the player put the game back on the shelf, from where it may never return. These can range from a challenge that's so difficult that the player gives up to a bug that prevents them from completing a section. On the difficulty front we're always in a quandary: if you make your game too easy, you lose the hardcore players who thrive on a challenge. If you make the game too hard, you lose the masses. It's important to err on the side of too easy, here: talent is not a bell curve, but a power curve. There are lots of people at the low or no-talent end of the graph, and only one person -- the champion, the best player of your game in the world -- at the other end. Since you're the one who designed the game, you're probably fairly close to the right yourself, which means a challenge that's just right for you is going to alienate most of your players. I've found that even if I make a challenge so easy that I can complete it 100% of the time, it still stymies the people who have only been playing my game for a few hours.

The only way you can tell for sure is playtesting.

Jamie Fristrom