Rami Ismail (ramiismail.com)                             

Event Schedule

Biography

Rami Ismail is the Business & Development Guy at Vlambeer, a Dutch independent game studio known best for Nuclear Throne, Ridiculous Fishing, Super Crate Box, LUFTRAUSERS, GUN GODZ, Serious Sam: The Random Encounter & Radical Fishing.

Through his work at Vlambeer, Rami has come to realize that the marketing & business facets of many independent game developers could use some help. As such, he created the free presskit-creation tool presskit() and is working on side projects such as distribute() and gamedev.world.

Believing sharing knowledge openly is the cornerstone of independent development, Rami has spoken on a variety of subjects at dozens of game events around the world, ranging from the Game Developers Conference to Fantastic Arcade & from University seminars to incubator mentorship.

He is a avid opponent of game cloning after Vlambeer's Radical Fishing got cloned. He is also a proponent of searching for new, beautiful things in places no-one is looking for them and thus organized Fuck This Jam, a gamejam focused around making a game in a genre you hate. Rami also worked closely with the Indie MEGABOOTH team to enable indie studios to showcase at the larger game conventions, runs the #1reasontobe panel at GDC, and helps as an advisor on events such as Devcom, Train Jam, PocketGamer, and NASSCOM GDC.

Rami has received several awards and recognitions for his work promoting game development around the world, including the IndieCade Game Changer award for the decennial jubileum of the festival.

 
 
 

RAMI IS CURRENTLY IN THE NETHERLANDS.
YOU CAN REACH HIM AT RAMI@VLAMBEER.COM, , , OR BY CALLING +31 (0) 621206363.

The “microtransaction” of buying a console

This morning, I made a tweet that I believed would make sense to everybody I ramble to about discussions being uninformed, but that is incredibly hard to follow if you’re not approaching the tweet from the developer-centric angle I’m talking from. As communication is a two-way street, I take full responsibility for any confusion, and for making my Twitter a hilarious mess of angry gamers. It remains absurd to me that I’m somehow thought to be shilling for exploitative microtransactions, especially since the tweet doesn’t actually contain any defence of microtransactions, and even more-so considering given Ridiculous Fishing staunch premium model, and my continued vocal opposition to exploitative microtransactions going as far back as 2011.

Regardless, the point I’m trying to make I feel is worth explaining, because while I am a vocal opponent of exploitative microtransactions, I am also a vocal opponent of incredibly uninformed but popular objections to exploitative microtransactions getting in the way of the industry figuring out real solutions regarding the topic.

The games I listed are ‘First Party Games’, ie. games made by studios owned by the same company that makes the hardware or platform. Nintendo is well-known for its focus on First Party – series like Zelda, Mario, Metroid, but similarly Microsoft has Gears of War and Forza, and PlayStation has Uncharted, Killzone, Horizon, and The Last Guardian. Steam, for example, has Half Life, Team Fortress, Left 4 Dead, Portal, and DOTA.

Even though these games are often highly successful, the purpose of these first party titles is not necessarily to make a profit. The purpose is to sell the platform – the console – by showing the audience what these platforms are capable of. As soon as a user has bought a game for the platform, after all, the platform-holder could make a profit through sale of any related hardware or accessories, but it will certainly make a profit on every game bought by that user thereafter, as platform-holders usually take a 29 to 31 percent cut of sales of any game sold on that platform, no matter who the developer is.

Consider that Steam, for a long time, let developers freely create as many keys as they wanted to give along with Humble Bundles. They’re not making a profit from the sale there, but they’re paying for server costs for downloads. The reason they do that is simple: if all your games are on Steam, you’ll buy your new games on Steam too. You stay locked in, they take a cut from every game you buy. If you buy a game on Steam occasionally, you’re self-subsidising that free Steam code. And it should not be surprising that Apple, with its billions of dollars shifting through the App Store, still thinks of the App Store as a selling point to convince you to buy an iPhone or iPad, rather than as the major revenue stream.

Such is the power of holding a platform: you could literally develop a game against a loss, and still end up making a profit through all the revenue you’ll make from selling other developers’ games.

Third Party Games is any game made by a studio independent from the platform. They can be published studios, be part of Ubisoft, Activision, EA, etc., or they can be fully independent. Either way, they don’t have that luxury. If the game, merchandise, licensing, DLC, microtransactions (cosmetic or not), subscriptions, or whatever the revenue model is, doesn’t return the investment and enough to invest into new products, the studio is done for. In some cases, if the projections for a project dip under profitable or profitable enough, publishers take the relatively small hit of the already invested capital rather than invest more.

My point is that a First Party Game can never be compared with Third Party Games in terms of how they handle monetisation. A First Party Game can return on its investment through console sales, or through the cut the platform takes from games sales on that console. A Third Party title will have to make its money through the game and any sales related to it.

For games made in countries with lower labour costs or with strong subsidies for digital industry, like CD PROJEKT’s The Witcher series growing into a behemoth, the risk is smaller (not to mention they own GOG, an actual games platform of their own). For smaller budget titles like NieR: Automata, games funded by other games doing well, the risk is smaller. For the Star Wars: Battlefront II‘s of this world, it just takes a look at Bethesda’s relatively disappointing Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus sales to understand a lot of Third Party Studios feel forced to be experimenting with alternative revenue streams now.

But Mario? It already got a little “microtransaction” out of you. You’ve already paid some dollars when you bought the Switch, and you paid some extra dollars to Nintendo through their revenue cut when you bought Rocket League, and some more when you bought Stardew Valley, and some more for every other unrelated game you bought for the Switch, and it will take a cut for every game you will ever buy for the platform. So when people say ‘how come Zelda can do without microtransactions‘, what they’re saying is ‘I am completely unaware of the fact that Zelda earns Nintendo money through console sales and through any game sold on that console, too, and as such is far less dependent on other income‘.


Wedding Special Thanks

We’re writing a long-form analysis of producing our wedding, because that’s how we deal with big things in the past as game developers & those two days on Malta were absolutely perfect and we don’t want to forget even the tiniest detail if we can. Writing that analysis in a way that is appropriate for the importance of our wedding to us takes some time, and we wanted to thank everybody that made the wedding possible a bit faster than we can turn writing that around.

Engagement

  • Engagement Proposal : Bungie ( @Bungie )
  • Engagement Proposal Producer : Poria Torkan ( @ptorkan )

Wedding Planner

Visual Design & Photography

  • Photography : Izzy Gramp ( @Shrubbette )
  • Identity and Graphic Design : Natalie ‘coffeemakescreative’ Hanke ( @coffee_nat )
  • Seating chart & table icons : Leonie Yue ( @leonieyue )
  • Translations & Transliteration : Ebrahim Ismail
  • Printing services : Impress!ons ( http://www.impressions.com.mt/ )

Islamic Ceremony

Legal Ceremony

Clothes, Makeup, and Jewelry

Logistics & Legal

Ceremony Music


DMCA’d

There’s a few things that keep getting lost in the discussion around PewDiePie and Campo Santo’s DMCA. I just wanted to list them, instead of repeating myself over and over on Twitter.

  • The slippery slope argument depends on content creators’ rights being on that slope. They’re not. Technically, all Let’s Play and other content is copyright infringement, and until a precedent for fair use has been set through court proceedings they remain there. YouTuber’s rights are currently at the bottom of the slope, and as such whether the hill is slippery is entirely irrelevant. Any video they create can be taken down over copyright infringement.
  • From the first point automatically follows that there is no such thing as legal DMCA abuse unless the claim has no merit. Since the video that Campo Santo filed against does indeed contain a significant portion of copyrighted audiovisual materials from their work Firewatch, the DMCA claim is automatically valid and not abuse. Their motivation is irrelevant, as the DMCA does require motivation, only infringement. At this point, PewDiePie has three options: to contest the claim, to ask Campo Santo to revoke the claim, or he can accept the claim and move on.
  • I agree that DMCA is not a great system, but it is currently literally the reason Let’s Play can exist in the first place. Without DMCA, YouTube would not be able to host copyrighted materials of any kind, and all Let’s Play would be prohibited. The DMCA existence is pretty much a requirement for YouTube to exist right now. Anyone arguing for an end to the DMCA is currently arguing for the end of Let’s Play.
  • DMCA does not include financial repercussions. It is simply a way to take down a video included infringing materials. PewDiePie has not been sued, and no monetary claims have been brought against him. Campo Santo will not be receiving money for the video or its removal, unless they file a separate claim. That claim they’d almost certainly lose, due to the “license” posted on their site, which granted any content creator the right to post video from the game.
  • The “license” on their site is not part of a contract, or any formal agreement. As such, it is revocable at any time. That means that, when they informed PewDiePie they wanted the video taken down, the license stopped applying to him. This is, again, a reminder that content creators rights are currently non-existent. If a license is created in a formal capacity, more dependable terms and reasons for termination could be agreed upon. For now, it’s 100% up to the developers’ discretion.
  • The three strike system is not part of the DMCA. It is, in fact, a YouTube specific system that YouTube chooses to impose on its content creators. People filing a DMCA are not informed of the three strike system existing, and while I can’t say for sure, it is likely someone filing a DMCA is unaware of YouTube choosing to impose that system on its content creators (see https://support.google.com/youtube/answer/2807622?hl=en).
  • Fair Use is a US law, and even in the US it has not been tested for Let’s Play in court. Whether Let’s Play is fair use or not only becomes relevant if the case goes to court, but that would be precedent-setting and could severely damage YouTubers lifelihood on a irrecoverable scale. In this case, Firewatch being a four-hour narrative linear game of which a two hour video was created that gives away major plot points and almost entirely just shows the game is pretty much the worst possible case you could argue fair use on.
  • The fact that content can earn developers money via sales does not diminish developer rights. While Let’s Play is commonly mutually beneficial, it does not require developers to “accept help”, or “be grateful”. Since the content creators also benefit via ads, and via charging developers money for sponsored content, the whole notion that content creators are “doing a favor” is absurd. They’re a business aimed at growth and ad sales.
  • Large YouTubers might be personable, but they are brands. The notion seems to exist that PewDiePie is ‘just a person’ being ‘bullied by a company’, but PewDiePie is a formerly Disney-affliated company and brand that currently sells advertisement through an ad-network to an average viewership of millions and a subscriber base of 57+ million subscribers. Business of that magnitude is usually governed by rights and agreements, and PewDiePie has chosen to exist in a legal grey space that has led to the current situation. There is no reason he can not have someone manage rights and negotiate with developers for rights of the content he creates.
  • I would argue that YouTube should be encouraged to create a legal licensing path for developers and content creators, or that content creators should work to create a basic framework for developers. Currently, YouTubers have no entitlement to the content they stream, and for their own sake and stability, they should have a way to legally license content. Obviously, developers would be giving away their rights to create that stability for content creators, so basic terms of broadcasting would have to be put in place. I would also argue that there should be separation between ‘hobbyist’ streaming and ‘brand-based’ streaming. How to legally differentiate between the two is not immediately obvious to me, but subscriber base and monetization could be a good place to start.


Introducing: The Playground

Years ago, I was involved in the early days of the Indie MEGABOOTH. I am extremely proud to see what it has grown into since I left the initiative to work on other projects, but some of the early ideals of the initiative stuck with me ever since. The idea was – and to this day remains – that creators that stand together stand stronger. This same mantra made Humble Bundle to what it is, and that mentality is what supports networks like Fig, itch.io, Indie Fund, Patreon, and many others.

Over the past few years, game development has become increasingly competitive. As a response to the race-to-the-top in terms of social reach, PR, and marketing efforts often required to launch a successful game, boutique publishers have popped up around the industry. They do phenomenal work – we’ve worked with Devolver Digital, and I’ve advised, scouted for, am friends with, or keep good contact with teams like Raw Fury, Team 17, tinyBuild, Paradox, and many others. Like MEGABOOTH, most of these indie publishers offer a valuable service, and they’re a net gain for our industry.

Regardless, the truth remains that every good thing has a downside. Anything that accelerates or otherwise increases the chances of success, unless it is limitless, free, and readily available, will eventually leave the playing field less equal.

Between the rise of indie publishers and these enormous ‘combined booths’, showcasing at major trade shows has become increasingly difficult for mid-size creators that sit in the awkward spot between “don’t want to take a valuable spot at Indie MEGABOOTH that another, smaller, creator could use much more than we do” and “not quite big enough to financially be able to go up against indie publishers in terms of booth size and content”. Some developers don’t feel like they quite fit or want to be ‘indie’ anymore, some developers would rather not have their expo schedule be dependent on secondary selection processes, and some did not or would rather not work with a publisher for a project.

For Vlambeer, we noticed that it was getting really hard to get any attention on larger show floors. Don’t get me wrong – as long as we can afford a booth, we will always be there with a booth to hang out with our fans and supporters – they always manage to find us somewhere in the myriad hallways. But the reality remains that part of the reason we’re capable of investing in a show like PAX is that it introduces new people to our work – and the effectiveness of shows like PAX for mid-sized developers has rapidly been dropping against the more funded, more spectacular, and more sizeable offerings of larger publishers and combined booths.

That’s why Vlambeer will not be showcasing at PAX West by ourselves this year. We’ve reached out to a group of our close friends in this industry with the idea to collaborate at showcase events, and together, we’re launching a new initiative called The Playground.

The Playground is a pilot – a way for us, four crews of friends that run mid-sized games studios, to work together and do bigger, more interesting things at shows than we could possibly hope to achieve apart. Vlambeer, combined with the whimsical and personal and lovely tones of Finji, the clever and challenging experiences of Dan Adelman’s collection of games, and the high-quality merchandise services of IndieBox, hopes that we can create a location at PAX and other showcases that is not tied to anything but the friendship of a group of creators that admires each others’ work.

We’re not sure where it’s going to end up, or how it’s going to evolve, but we do know we look forward to seeing what we can achieve together. If things pan out, we’ll be bringing The Playground to future shows – growing it, and hopefully figuring out ways to combine our strengths as creators into unique and fun experiences at the shows we bring it to. If you’re visiting PAX West, do come visit us at booth #6111, and come say hi!


The Tearoom

I got a bit morally stuck wanting to tweet about an article, so instead I decided to write a short blogpost about it.

Robert Yang’s work tends to include powerful commentary on and about sexuality and gay life, and touches upon topics that in many cultures and countries might be classed as inappropriate. On my Twitter, I tend to avoid topics of sexuality due to the wide and worldwide variety of cultural perspectives about the appropriateness of sex and sexuality in the public sphere or outside of the family sphere. That Robert Yang’s work happens to touch on gay sexuality is not part of this consideration – I believe that if sex is considered an appropriate public topic in a culture, gay sex should not be an exception.

As a game designer and developer, I would strongly recommend reading the following phenomenal article by Jeffrey Matulef on Robert Yang’s The Tearoom, which uses the ubiquity of guns in games to try and sidestep censorship rules about nudity on Twitch.tv. It also uses publicly available statistics and the form of quitting a game as a mechanic to provide powerful statements about the topic of homophobic laws in the United States of 1962.

Twitter’s ability to reach people around the world remains a forever mystifying puzzle of personal moral judgments and considerations.


The uncomfortable lack of security at E3

The Electronic Entertainment Expo, like every year, is a beacon, a celebration for games as an industry. The events’ three days in the Staples Center conference building in Los Angeles are technically the heart of the event, and attracted over 70,000 professionals in 2016.
Since the introduction of livestreaming, the soul of E3 lives in the spectacle and coverage of that spectacle surrounding the event. Large publishers and platforms throw large press conferences that attract millions of viewers worldwide, people that tune in to see what their favorite games company has for the upcoming year.

This left the showfloor in a precarious position: E3 used to be an industry-only event, but the value of the showfloor and exhibiting there dropped rapidly as companies could get more attention outside of the event. In effect, the showfloor had become a meeting space and a place for developer interviews.

So for 2017, E3 has radically changed what the show is: the expo now allows for the general public to register and visit the show. It’s an important step that is presumably necessary to ensure the continued survival of the event, and has brought back some value to exhibiting at the event. E3 graciously ensured that general audience badges were a neon yellow, and clearly distinct from the industry badges, and the enthusiasm and excitement of the general audience was a huge energy boost for the floor.

Regardless, for developers and press, it has made the event a lot more clunky. The influx of 15,000 new people, many of whom understandably approached the showfloor as if a consumer-show led to repeated chaos in the hall. Between a brawl, some instances of people being pushed over durning opening, enormous queues, and booths having to adjust for the audience mid-show, the chaos was palpable more than once.

Press can no longer quickly move between meetings due to the crowds moving with less of a purpose, a complaint that echoed frequently throughout the hall. Off-the-record conversations also had to be relocated due to the abundance of free-style vloggers documenting the showfloor with their mobile phones.

There were more structural issues related to the event clearly not being ready for public access, like a lack of volunteers or enforcers outside of the booth-provided ones, an unclear distinction between accessible and private areas, and poor funneling at key locations, and an almost non-existent clear-out policy of the E3 hall after closing time.

Now, these are all transitional pains, and I understand that E3 is in a transitional year. Many of these problems could easily be resolved by replicating other industry/consumer shows – gamescom in Cologne, Germany, for example, has a industry-only day and a seperate business area, so that everyone can get their work done while the audience checks into the latest our industry has to offer.

All of this would make for an acceptable event, if it wasn’t for one more thing: the unsettling lack of security. For every single day of the event, which was secured by private security contractors, I’ve tried to walk into the building from the street outside to the showfloor without wearing my badge. I succeeded every single time, over the period of three days, and every time I was carrying a backpack that was never checked for its contents. It would be trivial for someone to bring any sort of weapon to the event, and security would not be able to react fast enough in the hall to prevent anything from happening.

This is unacceptable. With the recent weapons threat at Phoenix Comicon, the general prevalence of weapons in the United States, and the amount of anger and vitriol thrown around online about games, this is not a safe state for such a critical industry event. All of the press conferences – even the Devolver Digital booth in a parking lot across the street – had better security – whether it was metal detectors, bag checks, or bomb-sniffing dogs. These are, and should be, minimum regulations for any showfloor that handles over 70,000 people.

Overall, it was clear that the ESA is trying to transition E3 to a new paradigm, and I welcome their efforts to experiment and understand that we can’t expect everything to be flawless. Despite the transitional pains, the event seems to have been extremely useful and fruitful for most attendees, and as such the ‘new E3’ can be considered a careful success for 2017. Security, however, is not a ‘you get to try again next year’ business. I trust that the ESA will take steps to ensure the industry and the general public attending in 2018 can enjoy the spectacle and business of E3 on a floor that can be reasonably expected to be safe and secure from weapons.

This article was posted at E3 showfloor close, to not spread information about security at the show during the show. I’ll have a post discussing my thoughts about E3 content and shows later this week.


The perfect apology

I read this apology for an Islamophobic post from a British game company owner on Kotaku today.  I got angry. I wrote an inline response. The bold parts are the apology’s original text. My responses are the rest of it. Yes, this lay-out is half-copied from the amazing nodontdie.com (which you should read) because I couldn’t come up with another one this fast.


If you’re trying to apologize, start by identifying who is apologizing, and what you’re apologizing for.

“I want to apologise for the Facebook post that I put out on Saturday in the aftermath of the horrific London terrorist attack.”

Perfect! In a great apology, this is where you stop. You did something bad, and you apologize for it. No conditions, no shifting blame. At this point, you could opt to speak to solutions to avoid this problem in the future. Solutions speak louder than words.

Whatever you do, do not make the apology into an accusation by saying you were just misunderstood by other people, and they’re the ones really at fault for missing your point. You should never suggest that what you did in no way was offensive.

“I was trying to air my views on extremist Muslims and it seems my comments may have been misinterpreted by some people and caused offence.”

Yeah, exactly that. Don’t do that. Really the only way to make this more of a faux-apology is by saying you’re only apologize to those who were offended, instead of apologizing for your actions in general.

“I am so sorry to anyone who was offended by my words – I was trying to voice an opinion on the minority group of Muslims who use their religion as an excuse for terrorism.

It’s going to be hard to recover from this one, unless you use the word ‘sincerely’.

“It was a knee-jerk reaction and I sincerely apologise.”

Phew. I guess that’s it! That’s not great, but it’s also not goo- oh? There’s more? Oh dear.

“For the record, [My Company] is one of the most diverse companies in the industry and I have championed equal opportunities and equality for all since I started out in 1994.”

Copyright champion of equal opportunity 1994-2017. All rights reserved except if you’re Muslim, then please leave the country.

“Anyone who knows me personally will vouch that I don’t have a racist bone in my body.”

Bones aren’t racist. People are racist. Actions are racist. Your post was racist, because despite you saying ‘Muslims’, what you mean is ‘Arab muslims’ and ‘Asian muslims’. I’m sure your post didn’t mean that Cockney-accented white guy at the bus station in a hip t-shirt and short jeans that happens to go to mosque twice a year for the holidays and say ‘Salaam’ to their parents on the phone.

“When we see innocent people slaughtered like we have in Manchester, London and other places around the world during the last few weeks, it is hard not to get angry and lash out.”

I got angry and lashed out too, and for some reason my post wasn’t removed from social media for hate speech, and there’s also no news articles describing them. Maybe it was because I didn’t call for 1.6 billion people to not have access to a country. Maybe it was because I didn’t call for the removal of people that might have fled to the UK away from terrorism. Maybe because I didn’t attack the religion or identity of the people that suffer most at the hands of terrorists globally. Maybe it was because my anger didn’t focus on British-born citizens that have no connection to socio-political terrorism on the other side of the planet. Maybe it was because I blamed terrorism instead of religion. I’m sure the exact reason you got trouble and I did not will remain a mystery to you.

“But I realise we all have different views,…”

We all have different views: not everyone is a Islamophobe and thinks it’s a good idea to air those views on Facebook while also being in charge of a company and its hiring, that is true.

“…and I will certainly not be writing any of mine on my personal social media account in the future.”

This sentence here reveals that the apology isn’t so much an apology for what he did, but an apology for getting in trouble. If your solution to saying something bad is ‘I won’t say it in public‘, that reveals a lot about what regrets you actually have. I guess “I’ll be an Islamophobe behind closed doors” might seem a solution, in that case.

I understand that being thrust into the spotlight for a mistake, a momentary lapse of judgement, or an unfortunate phrasing is incredibly scary. At Vlambeer, we’ve been on the receiving end of tons of criticism, and it never stops being scary. It never gets easier. But apologizing for messing up isn’t a hard thing to do if you’re actually sorry.

If you ever find yourself writing an apology (and if you gain any visibility, you likely will have to, at some point), here are four basic things you should know:

  1. Take some time away from the internet before writing an apology. There’s often a false sense of hurry instilled into you by the panic, but the honest truth is that a genuine apology takes time and clarity of mind. It requires you to truly understand what the complaint is, and it’s hard to do that when you’re in a defensive mode.
  2. Try mentally re-contextualising your apology to stepping on someone’s toes. If the apology you wrote comes down to ‘If me stepping on your toes hurt you, I am sorry. There’s many toes in the world, and I don’t step on most of them. Your toes might’ve misunderstood that I stepped on them, I was trying to cover them from rain. Maybe your toes shouldn’t have been where I put my foot down.‘, you should probably reconsider what you’re writing.
  3. A short and direct apology is the strongest apology you can make. Instead of focusing on your own defense, focus on what your future action are going to be, or what you have learned, and how you will avoid similar incidents in the future.
  4. Posting an apology does not mean that anyone has to accept your apology, or that the criticism will fade. An apology is not written to make bad things happening to you because of bad things you did go away. An apology is not a defense. An apology is you taking responsibility for the bad thing you did, and showing that you genuinely understand why what you did was bad.


Games Discussion: Mario Kart 8 Deluxe

Yakuza-0 is the latest and sixth major installment in the beloved Japanese Yakuza series, but unlike EA’s FIFA or NHL games, the story being told is not chronological. Yakuza-0 is a prequel, more like the similarly named Resident Evil Zero, and tells the story of events before the original Yakuza game – while failing to reach the levels of horror Resident Evil so effortlessly creates.

In Yakuza-0, players assume the dual perspectives of series protagonists Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima, two yakuza members that have found themselves embroiled in a political conflict larger than either of them. In that regard, the game vaguely echoes games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, where players assume multiple character to learn different sides of the same story. Obviously, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 had some powerful moments, and Yakuza-0 never quite reaches the dramatic heights of blowing up the International Space Station.

The gameplay itself is very similar to Saints Row: The Third, although you can’t beat up random people, use weapons freely, or steal any sort of vehicle. Most of the time you spend in the game is spent walking around, something that honestly has been perfected since Vanquish, but somehow ends up feeling sluggish without the rocket boost in Yakuza-0. Frequently, but not as frequent as in, say, the beautiful and overwhelming chaos of Dynasty Warriors, the player has to deal with fighting enemies.

Fighting in Yakuza-0 never quite reaches the depth and complexity of the giants in the genre, such as Super Street Fighter IV. Players can use punches, kicks, grabs, and basic combos, and while both characters have different stances and styles to introduce some variety, the Yakuza-0 cast can’t begin to rival the cast of League of Legends, Overwatch, or Super Smash Brothers Brawl. With few exceptions the protagonists fight barehanded, and that might be for the best, as the swordplay can’t hold a candle to this years’ For Honor, and the gunplay falls miles short of games such as 2016’s DOOM. There is also one point in the game where Kiryu has to make a jump from a balcony through a window, and it’s a shame that this one sequence did not heed the lessons about jumping and jump feel from a game like Super Mario Bros.

A cool detail is that while fighting, attacks will make money fall out of enemies, which looks really cool. Unlike Grand Theft Auto 5, the money falling out of enemies isn’t interactive, and is merely a visual effect. Money is used to buy items and upgrade your character, and the upgrade system allows for a good amount of skill personalisation. While not nearly as in-depth as Sword of the Stars 2, the game allows for some strategic planning in expanding your tech tree.

The story is complex and engaging, and there’s an incredible amount of content, although there is probably more content in a game like Persona 5, and more engaging story complexity in games series like Kingdom Hearts. Kiryu and Majima are charming and well-rounded protagonists, but their facial animation falls flat compared to Nathan Drake’s in Uncharted 4, or the characters in Battlefield 1. Yakuza-0, for a game this dependent on cutscenes, never manages to have cutscenes as cinematic as Alan Wake, nor as many as most Metal Gear Solid games.

There’s a lot of freedom in Yakuza-0, and a lot of different things to do. While you’ll never have the freedom that a game like Zelda: Breath of the Wild offers in term of exploration, there are an enormous amount of sidequests, side-activities, and other distractions. There’s a business simulator that falls short of reaching the depth of Sim City or Civilisation V, and a karaoke minigame that, despite being solid, can’t quite be as good as Parappa the Rapper or Rock Band 4. Regardless, distractions are everywhere, but not quite as common (or explosive) as Just Cause 3’s distractions. The sidequests, while less numerous than in World of Warcraft, offer some respite from the main story, and end up giving the game an enormous amount of flair – sadly, these side stories aren’t even close to being as fleshed out as Chrono Trigger’s story. The huge variety of meals available in the game as health restoration needs to be emphasized, although food isn’t as varied or as well-rendered in Final Fantasy XV. The love for the culture beyond food is also obvious, as the game takes tremendous effort to painstakingly rebuild parts of 1988 Tokyo and Osaka. The results fall short of being as impressive as Assassins Creed reconstruction of ancient cities, they’re convincing enough. Some additional locations exist to flesh out the world of Yakuza-0 a bit more, and while that helps, it never reaches the location variety of Destiny or Mass Effect: Andromeda.

In the end, Yakuza-0 ends up being a great entry point for people trying to join the series, with new gameplay elements and at the start of the story, just like Halo: Reach was a great entry point for people looking to start on the Halo series. So although Yakuza-0 is not a bad game, I felt a lot of the agency in the pocket racer mini-game fell short, and ultimately do think that when it comes to power-up enabled party kart racing on the Nintendo Switch, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is the better game.

Obviously, Yakuza-0 and Mario Kart 8: Deluxe are both good games. This article is merely an expression of my frustration with how many online discussions about games and game elements seems to devolve into a competitive comparison with other games or media in or outside of the franchise. In many cases, tremendous value and emphasis is placed upon whether a game does something ‘better’ than other games, and even in a single franchise, such comparisons are often useless and unnecessary. While I appreciate the need for comparative examination and analysis, it would be useful to consider the (over-)use of such in game descriptions on the overall discourse surrounding our media. There’s no need to establish a pecking order where none is needed, not of games, business models, genres, platforms, mechanics, or otherwise. If the only addition you have to a conversation is how you feel another game did something better or worse, maybe simply watch the conversation unfold without that opinion injected into it.


As a Muslim video-game developer, I no longer feel the US is open for business

When I was a kid dreaming of being a game developer, I hoped that in the future I’d be joining a large studio and working on a blockbuster title. Things didn’t quite pan out that way. After leaving university with a fellow student, I am now the co-founder of my own company, Vlambeer, renowned for successful game releases such as Nuclear Throne and Ridiculous Fishing.

I was born in the Netherlands, the son of an Egyptian immigrant and a Dutch mother, and was raised as a proud Muslim. For the past years, much of my travel to the United States has led to secondary selection, investigation, or interrogation. For all 100 flights I took in 2014, I jokingly created a website that kept track of whether my boarding passes were marked for “random checks” before even reaching airport security. For many of the 1.6 billion Muslims across the world, whether they’re born in the western world or not, this is a recognisable issue with air travel. Many of my Muslim friends calculate an extra 30 minute delay for boarding and transfers.

The video game industry is one of the world’s most important creative sectors, generating $90bn a year in revenue, more than either movies and music – and it is strongly US-centric. While large game development pockets exist in the UK, north-western Europe and Asia, most of the largest companies, industry events, and industry press are centred around the coasts of the United States. For most developers around the world, their shot at success lays at the yearly Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, by far the largest gathering of industry professionals and knowledge in the world.

My studio has diverted significant resources towards helping fellow and aspiring game developers in emergent territories around the world. I often travel to speak to students, help coordinate communities, and guide opportunities for developers with potential. I spent a few days in 2015 researching what the relative costs to visit the Game Developers Conference would be. The results were shocking – for an Iranian game developer, going to GDC was the equivalent of £4,000. For someone from the Central African Republic with an average salary, the costs were the Western equivalent a staggering £120,000. For many enthusiasts around the world, visiting the Game Developers Conference is something they can afford maybe once or twice in their life – if at all.

When Donald Trump signed the executive order effectively banning Muslims from seven countries without any prior warning, the scene at many US airports was one of chaos and confusion. Muslims who boarded their plane in their country of departure with a valid visa and no reason to be turned back landed in violation of an order that didn’t exist when they boarded. Many Muslims were unnecessarily and illegally detained, or coerced to sign away their green cards. Muslims from countries not even on the list were turned away.

As one of the few visible Muslims in the games industry, I frequently talk about my experiences on the road with fellow Muslim developers who are flying to the US for the first time. In the wake of the executive order, many that spent years of their savings on the trip to San Francisco have learned that they won’t be allowed into the country any more. Even if they’d be allowed into the US, many are afraid of anti-Muslim sentiment from a population that can elect a president like Donald Trump, especially in the country with the highest homicide rate with guns in the Western world.

Many other Muslim game developers that live in the US – or even non-Muslims who only hold dual citizenship with a majority-Muslim country they’ve rarely if ever visited – are now stuck in the United States with no way to visit family or friends abroad. With many highly talented engineers coming from Middle Eastern countries, this not only limits the available talent pool, but also effectively prohibits travel for many workers in the US games industry.

Some game companies have started to speak up, with smaller studios taking the lead over the weekend. Mobile games company Dots placed a message at the start of its popular Dots games that allows players to donate to the ACLU for their opposition of the Muslim Ban. Other independent developers, including my own studio, donated parts or all of their revenue to the ACLU for a specific amount of time, raising tens of thousands of dollars in the process. Just today, larger studios and game developers have started to release statements criticising the executive order, reminding gamers around the world (and there are 1.2 billion of them) that the games that they love are made by people of all races, religions, and nationalities – including Libyans, Somalians, Yemenites, Iraqi’s, Iranians, Sudanese, and Syrians.

When I started travelling on my own back in 2010, my mother would frequently check in to see whether I was safe. After many years of travel, she stopped doing that unless I visited countries the Dutch government had a negative travel advisory for, often countries that are unstable, at war, or at risk of terrorist attacks. For the first time in years, she messaged me last week to check in whether I was safe, because I was in the US.


Fear your customer

I run a creative business. In fact, I make entertainment. One of the most common discussions I face on social media is the idea that I should not put politics into my work, and that I should not use my platform to talk about politics. I should not talk about politics because my purpose is to entertain, to distract, to make my entire existence a function of my job.

Making games isn’t what I am. It’s what I do. What I do is game development, but despite the fact that most of my life so far has been focused around that, it is only a tiny part of what I am. I’m Dutch-Egyptian, a fiancé, a socialist, an airplane enthusiast, an avid reader, a pop culture consumer, a gadget lover, a traveler, someone who likes cooking, but hates the dishes. I couldn’t tie my shoelaces if my life depended on it, but I run an indie games studio that has reached million of people across the world. I am someone who will happily travel across the Atlantic to talk to a dozen enthusiasts in South America starting a development community, but who loathes walking six minutes to the supermarket unless I really have to.

My job does not regulate what I can do outside of my work. A sold copy of my game doesn’t entitle someone to anything beyond a functioning game. A sold copy of my game definitely does not exclude me from any type of political thought, or any other opinion about the real world. A customer at a fast-food chain can’t tell an employee what to do when they’re at home, and they’re only entitled to the french fries they ordered.

At the crux of the argument that I shouldn’t post political content is a simple notion: the idea that my customers are somehow leverage against me. That I should be careful to not lose them by being myself too honestly, or too bluntly. That my work should cater to them, and that my existence depends on their grace and acceptance of me as a whole. I should be afraid of them, and that fear should guide me.

Here’s the thing: I don’t fear my audience. They’re not leverage. The notion that some random people on the internet can tell me what ‘my audience’ wants from me is preposterous. Every time we’ve had a boycott announced against us our sales have gone up. I love my audience. They’re the greatest audience I’ve ever had the privilege of working for – they’re passionate but polite, they’re curious and understanding, and they tend to ask rather than shout. 

Fear doesn’t produce the best work one can create. Not in art, not in games, not in marketing, and not on social media.


The Industry, the Union, and the Strike

“We spent 19 months trying to come to an agreement on this contract. That’s the longest negotiation in SAG-AFTRA’s history. We did not take going on strike lightly. We really tried to compromise and come up with an agreement that would be fair. But after 19 months of not being able to put safer working conditions in the contract and being unable to share in the prosperity of wildly successful games, we felt we had no choice but to strike.”

Crispin Freeman is a voice actor. He’s currently not allowed to work for a large range of AAA games studios because the union that represents him and most professional voice actors in the games industry, SAG-AFTRA, has called for a strike.

When I first meet Freeman, the strike is still a distant rumor, a hypothetical last resort. We’re in a little restaurant in Los Angeles during the 2016 IndieCade festival. The restaurant is closing in under an hour, but none of us really have the time to spend more than an hour chatting tonight anyway. Freeman has come to meet me to talk about my concerns regarding a contract for independent developers that I’ve read a draft of.

Sarah Elmaleh is the one who set up the meeting between Freeman and myself in response to some of my concerns. Elmaleh is a New York-born SAG-AFTRA voice actress that moved to Los Angeles recently to further her craft of voice acting in videogames. She is a common presence at independent games festival around the United States, and her unbridled love for independent games shows in her portfolio, which boasts games like Gone Home and Galak-Z. It also makes her a natural bridge between voice actors and independent game developers.

Months earlier, Elmaleh had introduced me to Jennifer Hale, one of the most prominent and prolific voice actresses in games. Hale is a central figure in SAG-AFTRA’s Interactive board, the board that deals with games and other interactive media, and she wanted to talk about the idea of introducing a contract specifically for independent game developers – a contract that would allow independent creators easier access to union talent.

But after 19 months of not being able to put safer working conditions in the contract and being unable to share in the prosperity of wildly successful games, we felt we had no choice but to strike.

The indie contract is supposed to exist as an amendment to the ‘main’ SAG-AFTRA Interactive contract that governs work between union actors and AAA games studios. The problem is that ‘main’ SAG-AFTRA Interactive contract doesn’t exist yet because SAG-AFTRA and the AAA games companies can’t reach an agreement on it.

When SAG-AFTRA first reached out to me to talk about the Low Budget Contract, it had been negotiating the ‘main’ contract for a year. It had been a few months since 96% of SAG-AFTRA members voted in a referendum to authorize the union’s board to call for a strike if necessary. The news of the authorization sent ripples through the games industry. The games industry is remarkable in that it has no unions of its own, and the idea of a union strike that could affect the games industry was something that sent many fans and developers reeling.

The response to the news that the SAG-AFTRA strike was actually starting in early October was far more vehement.

The discussion is particularly vehement for not just for the lack of unions in the games industry, but also because of the concept of profit sharing. A core disagreement in the negotiations is that voice actors have asked that if a game performs very well, their efforts get recognized through a monetary bonus. Only very few people in the industry have such a privilege, and many are upset that the voice actors would ask for such bonuses if programmers, artists and designers that work on games for many years do not receive them.

Thus, there are generally two separate issues with two sides in the discussion, and they’re intertwined in a way that makes the whole situation both morally complex and frustratingly political: you can be in favor of the demands of SAG-AFTRA, or you can be against the demands of SAG-AFTRA. Separately, you can find the idea of unions unfit for the games industry, or you can find the idea of unions a boon for the games industry.

As a developer, I felt it’s easy to find perspective on the games’ industry side of the discussion, but it’s a lot harder to find good perspective from the voice actors’ position. I decided to ask the people I met through my talks with SAG-AFTRA some questions about voice acting, and why the union had called for a strike.

I love pondering things like how ‘death by fire’ must involve more than just searing, spreading pain, but also emotions like horror, panic and outrage?

“The human voice is powerful”, starts Elmaleh when asked what voice acting does for a game. “We respond to it with instinctive empathy, and I reckon it’s that singular authenticity in these synthetic environments, the fact that it’s probably the one unsimulated piece in the mix that makes it an effective and efficient tool for developers.”

“You’re asked to give weight and humanity to some highly abstract and granular prompts: ‘die by fire’ is the classic and probably most vocally stressful in one go. I love pondering things like how ‘death by fire’ must involve more than just searing, spreading pain, but also emotions like horror, panic and outrage? Character lives in all these exclamations as well as traditional dialogue, and it’s such a special joy to discover and refine it there. Then there’s ‘drop from 30 feet up, losing 2/3 of your health – no, just the landing part, it has to be isolated because the entire jump is going to be pieced together in the engine.”. Sensing my amusement, she added, “There’s also ‘get sniped in the head’, which doesn’t make an actual sound in life.”

The producers have said that it’s impossible for them to share with us the name of the game they are asking us to work on, even if we sign non-disclosure agreements before we come to work.

“Voice acting is actually one of the most challenging types of acting I know of.”, Freeman says, “As a voice actor, you are regularly asked to walk into an isolation booth, you are handed a script you’ve never seen before, you are given the most rudimentary description of your character and the story you’re working on, and then you’re expected to deliver nuanced, believable performances with almost no context and no physical cues around you like a set or costumes to help you understand the nature of the project.”

It quickly becomes clear that the games industry is notorious for its secrecy. The industry keeps asking performers to come in entirely blind, and create characters, personalities, accents, inflections and voices on the fly with no information about the game.

“You rarely get scripts in advance, plus a lot of project information can be obscured, so you’re essentially hired to cold-read. I’ve shown up having no idea what I’m reading before, and it turns out I have to make up a handful of completely different-sounding characters on the spot and/or whip out an accent. And it’s 100% you on the spot, giving this output for several hours due to scheduling and cost efficiency, so it takes stamina and focus”, says Elmaleh.

“Your imagination has to be working over time to fill in all of those gaps. On top of that, you only have your voice to work with so all of your acting ability has to be channelled through that one avenue. In addition, voice actors are often expected to play multiple characters. This means that you not only have to pull all these rabbits out of your hat for one character, but you have to have the flexibility to understand the psychology of hundreds of different types of characters and be able to modify your voice in order to sound like them as well.”

“Our members are frustrated with that lack of transparency.”, explains Jennifer Hale, a prominent voice actress known for the voice of the female protagonist in the popular games trilogy Mass Effect. “We had four main topics that needed addressing, and transparency is one of them.”

“We are often asked as actors to work on projects when we have no idea what we are working on or what the name of the project is. The producers have said that it’s impossible for them to share with us the name of the game they are asking us to work on, even if we sign non-disclosure agreements before we come to work.” adds Freeman. “I don’t know anyone who would be comfortable going to work on something and not knowing what they’re working on.”

After screaming “Grenade!” at the top of our lungs for 4 hours, some of our members have bled from the throat, passed out, even vomited in the booth.

“The second of the four main negotiation topics is that our members are worried about their vocal health”, says Hale. Asked about vocal stress, Freeman elaborates: “Video game voice acting is far and away the most aggressive and damaging type of voice over work that we are called upon to do. The standard length for a voice over session in games is 4 hours. After screaming “Grenade!” at the top of our lungs for 4 hours, some of our members have bled from the throat, passed out, even vomited in the booth. Not all video game voice acting requires those kind of extreme vocalizations, but we asked that when a game calls for that kind of vocally stressful work that we limit those sessions to 2 hours”. The two hour limit for vocally stressful sessions does prominently feature in the SAG-AFTRA communication of why the union is striking. “We were told that was unacceptable.”

Voice actors are increasingly asked to perform motion capture or performance capture too. Hale explains: “Mocap is when performers provide movement for characters in a game. Sometimes, they perform to prerecorded dialogue, and, other times, they create movement cycles for non-player characters. Performance capture is when I show up to a stage and get dressed up in a MoCap suit, plus headgear that has a camera attached to it— like in the movie Avatar. For ‘PCap’, I memorize my lines, perform with other actors, and everything about my performance is digitized”. She adds that there are serious concerns amongst union members regarding how the industry ensures their safety during these capture sessions. “The third main topic in these negotiations is that a lot of our members worried about their safety on the capture stage.“

“Unfortunately, the game producers don’t always hire a stunt coordinator for motion capture sessions in order to make sure that performers are safe.”, Freeman says, “We don’t want normal actors to be called upon to do the kind of stressful or dangerous activities on the mocap stage that would qualify as stunts and that should be done by professional stunt performers. We’ve had actors who’ve had no stunt training swinging from the rafters in unsafe conditions. And yet, the producers are saying they can’t accept our stunt coordinator proposal in the contract and that we should just ‘trust them’. Unfortunately, we have too many actors who have gotten hurt.”

The producers are saying they can’t accept our stunt coordinator proposal in the contract and that we should just ‘trust them’. Unfortunately, we have too many actors who have gotten hurt.

“The fourth concern is that our members are upset that the games contract does not offer any secondary payment structures. This contract is the only one of the SAG-AFTRA contracts with this shortcoming. Every other contract we work under as actors pays us each time our performance is used. It’s a standard practice and one that actors who came before us fought for.”

Hale explains that despite it being a standard practice, the union is not asking for residuals from game developers “Residuals pay an actor each and every time her performance is used. The idea is that my performance is my IP. If you use my IP to make any money for your company, it’s fair that you should share some of that money with me”. She continues, “Our proposed secondary payment structure for AAA video game titles is different. It only triggers if your game is a blockbuster.”

Freeman elaborated: “If a game sold over 2 million copies, the performers would get a small payment. Last year, it would only have applied to 3 games: Grand Theft Auto, Star Wars: Battlefront and Call of Duty. These are the blockbuster games in the industry that gross hundreds of millions of dollars.”

“It also only covers the first four sessions that an actor works.”, Hale added. “It’s based on a shared prosperity model and allows for a small payment -25% of a session fee- for games that sell 2 million units. It triggers again at 4, 6 and 8 million units, then it stops. It also only covers the first four sessions that an actor works.”

Asked how much 25% of a session fee might look in practice, Freeman explained: “So the most an actor would be paid after 2 million unit sales, no matter how many sessions they worked on the game, is one more session fee. An actor who worked only one session on a game would get an additional payment of only $206 if the game sold more than 2 million copies. If they worked 4 or more sessions on that same game, the most they would ever receive is one more session fee which is a total of $3300 after 8 million units sold.”

It seemed absurd to me that these negotiations were stuck over what is effectively payments of $825.50 per 2 million units sold, so I asked for confirmation on those numbers. Hale answers: “Currently scale is $825.50 for four hours of vocal recording in the booth or eight hours of performance on a performance capture stage”. 

“Scale refers to the minimum payment an actor will make working on any given project, whether that’s in video games, animation, on-camera, or any other medium. It exists to help new actors avoid being taken advantage of by unscrupulous labor practices. A-list on camera celebrities almost always negotiate their own contracts with producers that are different from union contract minimums, but the vast majority of voice actors tend to work for scale in the world of video games.”, Freeman adds.

That unwillingness to compromise with us on this issue is the main reason we are striking against them.

“The producers gave us many reasons why they could not accommodate this shared prosperity structure. We were told that the game companies do not work like entertainment companies, but instead function more like silicon valley companies. In their opinion, silicon valley doesn’t share their prosperity so they shouldn’t either.”, Freeman continues, “Or that the accounting would be too complicated. Instead they offered an upfront payment structure where they would pay small bonuses in the amount of $50 or $100 every time an actor would come into work. Their system seemed strange to us since it was going to cost them more money and wasn’t tied to the success of a game.”

“We understand that some companies may want to be free of the extra HR hassle”, Hale adds. “We were okay with that as long as the option exists for developers to choose backend payments, if they wish.”

Freeman collaborates the story: “We were willing to accept their upfront payment structure as an option, as long as the producers were willing to allow our option to exist in the contract as well as an alternative. We knew there would be producers who would rather not pay more up front, but instead only share their prosperity once a game was wildly successful. We told the producers we were negotiating with that if they used their upfront payment scheme on a game, that they would never be responsible for any backend payments. They categorically refused to allow our shared prosperity clause even to exist as an option in the contract, even though it was an option they would never have to invoke.”

“That unwillingness to compromise with us on this issue is the main reason we are striking against them. We offered a win-win and they just wanted to win.”, Hale adds. Crispin agrees: “When they took away our ability to give producers choices about how to compensate their actors, they made it impossible for us to come to an agreement.”

I think that’s probably what scares the game publishers the most, that if they give they treat the actors fairly, they’ll have to treat everyone fairly.

Asked about the controversy in the industry surrounding the strike, all three voice actors are clearly distraught by the framing of the ‘actors-versus-the-industry’ narrative that has been prevalent. Hale: “This isn’t a battle between developers and actors. The truth is that we need to work together not only to create fair and equitable working conditions for all of us, but, most importantly, to create the best games on the planet.”

“Developers deserve far better treatment than they often get in the current climate of the industry”, Freeman adds, “I’m aware of the perpetual crunch and the punishing schedules developers work under with no overtime compensation. We are all collaborators in this fantastic medium. We all deserve safe working conditions, more respect for our contributions and to share in the prosperity of these games. We love working with our developer colleagues and we think developers should share in the prosperity of games. It’s common practice for people working at a company to get a bonus if the company does particularly well. The problem is that developers don’t yet have a union to help them in their negotiations with employers. Actors do.” 

Freeman theorizes, “If the actors are able to get some kind of secondary payment on successful games, then that sets a precedent for other game employees to get the same. I think that’s probably what scares the game publishers the most, that if they give they treat the actors fairly, they’ll have to treat everyone fairly.”

Elmaleh shares that suspicion: “Developers are as much my chosen family as actors, and I would wholeheartedly support them in advocating for themselves. It’s all a struggle to assert industry-wide best practices for the sake of our health and livelihood, so we can keep being part of creating games as sustainably as possible. Successful collective action that achieves these things could create some powerful precedent for all who make games.”

A quote given to the Financial Times by Howard Fabrick, a lawyer that negotiated on behalf of the game companies opposing SAG-AFTRA’s demands in negotiations for the previous version of the 2005 contract, confirms that this is definitely part of the reason the secondary payments won’t even be allowed as an option in the contract. ““That would set a precedent for hundreds of other people who created a game to say, ‘What about us?’” Fabrick said.

Hale surmises that this is exactly why unions like SAG-AFTRA exist in the first place. “Once upon a time, actors were controlled by the studios they worked for: they worked 15 hour days, seven days a week for wages that were just barely enough to live on. Meanwhile, the studio heads were getting filthy rich off of the new technology of moving pictures. Sound familiar?”

Indeed, reports by the games industry largest representative, the Independent Game Developer Associations, show that the games industry in 2016 does cope with high levels of burnout and turnover, unpaid overtime, expectations of crunch and low job security. Stories of large numbers of employees major companies being laid off for ‘restructuring’ frequently follow highly successful game releases.

“Eventually, some actors decided to stick their necks out and organize for better working conditions and, many years later, for a participation in the enormous profits that the studios were making. SAG-AFTRA provides qualified and talented performers to the entertainment industry, makes sure they are paid fairly and have quality healthcare and retirement benefits.“, Hale concludes.

Asked if there’s anything he would like to tell people reading this article, Freeman is clear, “Most of this debate will be litigated in social media and other media outlets. Give critics the facts. Don’t allow people to speculate or spread false information. Forward them links to websites like SAG-AFTRA’s where there are detailed explanations of which companies are being struck and which are not. Send them to http://www.gameactorsforall.com where they can listen to Steve Blum, the voice actor who holds the world record for being in the most games, talk about the dangerous and unfair situations he’s found himself in while trying to help games be as successful as possible.”

“The original union contract for games was developed in the mid 1990’s when games that used actors were few in number and experimental in nature. After 20 years, games have grown into an entertainment juggernaut. It’s time the publishers grew up and started treating the people working on interactive entertainment fairly.”

The Low Budget Contract I worked on with all three of the voice actors in the article is available now for your review. As long as the industry and SAG-AFTRA can’t come to an agreement, the contract the Low Budget Contract is an amendment to doesn’t exist. That said, you can already get in touch with SAG-AFTRA if you have any questions, and potentially negotiate a deal using an older SAG-AFTRA contract as base for the amendments. I will post about the Low Budget Contract is a ‘full package deal’.


IndieCade Awards 2016

Last week I visited the annual IndieCade Festival, which was an absolute delight. I had the opportunity to check out some of the many phenomenal games on display – Wheels of Aurelia, Replica, Bad News, Beglitched, Killbox and Elsinore, just to name a few – and catch up with a lot of the local community. I was also asked to announce the winner of the IndieCade 2016 Grand Jury award. With that comes the ability to say a few words. My short speech was as follows:

It’s my firm belief that every game is important to our medium, and that every game that exists is both a miracle and a part of our collective history. So when the description says the winning game is a true work of passion, I say every game is. When the description says a game contributes to the cultivation of artistry in games, I remember that my original inspiration for making games was a coding tutorial for QBASIC from the eighties.

 

Every game is part of the ever widening history of our medium, sometimes improving and inspiring, sometimes comfortable and sometimes foreign, sometimes cliche and recognizable, sometimes rebellious and revolutionary.

 

Every game that you saw here this evening evoked something, somehow, that made us fall in love with games, that honors the foundations we build on, and gives us fresh hope for the future of our medium.

 

The Grand Prize, then, is the award for the game that exceeded the categories, that was found to evoke that feeling you can’t quite catch in words, the feeling that this game is something momentous in the history of this medium, something we can look to as we look to the future, and something that – when we’re in that future – can hold onto as a foundation.

When I opened the envelope, I was delighted to learn and announce that the winner of the award was the phenomenal 1979: Revolution by former Rockstar developer Navid Khonsari of iNK Stories, a Iranian-Canadian game developer. What’s notable is that, when I penned the speech, I was not aware of the winner – so while the speech mentions history, revolution, rebellion and foreignness, I did not know that the game I was about to announce fulfilled all of those hopes I have for this medium – that IndieCade lived up to every expectation I had of it as an curation and as an event, in such a way that I could write a speech perfectly befitting its winner even before knowing who won.

But after we walked of stage I realized that, in many ways, this was a momentous occasion in one more way: a Dutch-Egyptian developer handed out the Grand Prize of a major games event to an Iranian-Canadian developer, for the creation of a game about the history of a Middle-Eastern country.

So thank you, IndieCade, for being the place where that could happen.


Event[0] and intentional clunkiness

Event[0] is a game about survival. If you haven’t played it yet, I’d like to warn you that this article contains major spoilers. As in, this post reveals the ending of the game, and some of the most magnificent moments in the game. The game is a few hours long, available through various stores through their website, and launched at $19.99. It is a fascinating game, and one of the more tense game experiences I’ve had in a while. It comes strongly recommended, and even if you feel the price isn’t worth it, I’d recommend you bookmark this article and read it only after you acquire it through a sale or bundle in the future. This game is good.

In Event[0], you play the sole survivor of a failed space mission to Jupiter’s moon Europe, and find yourself marooned on an unknown human spaceship that unexpectedly draws your escape pod in. The spaceship turns out to be a luxurious cruiseship with all sorts of comfortable facilities. In this alternative timeline, humanity kept exploring the technology for space exploration after the cold war as their top priority. To achieve its goals, Earth united its governments towards that goal, and also sent cool 80’s luxury technology into space.

The modes of interaction in the game are limited. Hovering over an object will interact with it or show you information about it. The left mouse-button moves your character forward, and the right mouse-button moves backwards. This is a clever hack to avoid having to use letters on your keyboard, because the main mode of interaction is typing messages on a Kaizen-85 terminal, the shipboard AI aboard the luxurious Nautilus spaceship.

The terminals are numerous old-fashioned interfaces scattered across the ship that allow the user to type anything they want to. You can write messages to Kaizen-85, or you can execute commands or interact with programs you can boot up to hack around a bit. The core of the gameplay, however, is simply typing messages at Kaizen-85, which operates primarily like a chatbot.

Kaizen-85 is a bot that operates better with well-written, human-sounding operations. “open door d3” will open the door, but “Would you please open the D3 door, Kaizen?” will do so too. Typing “log” to open the logbook on the specific terminal you’re in will simply make Kaizen confirm there is a logbook, while “open log” will open it for your (plot-crucial) reading pleasure.

The shipboard AI, you see, has a moral quandary. Something aboard the ship has proven to potentially be dangerous to humanity at large if returned to an Earth orbit, and it has allowed Kaizen-85 to have less regard for the safety of those people aboard the Nautilus. Yet, unless the crew actively tries to return the ship to Earth, the AI’s programming forces it to cooperate in full honesty.

In Event[0], nobody is right and nobody is wrong. Throughout the game, it turns out everybody has been misunderstood and slighted in some way, everybody is dealing with incomplete or faulty information, and everybody has failed to communicate those concerns properly. Event[0] is a game about the failure of communication under stressful circumstances. It’s both a story and a game about failure across world views, perspectives, communication paradigms and differing value systems.

Kaizen-85, like many things in Event[0], is clunky. It’s Siri or Google Now or Alexa, if any of them was built in these fictional space 80’s. It will just as frequently understand you as it won’t. But Kaizen-85 is also more than that. It understands a tiny bit of context across several messages, and it has a somewhat insecure personality. Kaizen-85 has been alone for decades, and with its primary concern the safety of humans, it has developed a personality that is somewhat hesitant, somewhat paranoid and somewhat ecstatic to meet a new purpose after the crew of the Nautilus presumably perished.

You’ll frequently wonder what specific combination of words will allow Kaizen-85 to give up information it doesn’t want you to know, what you can say to let you through, what attitude will make it trust your intentions. Kaizen-85 can read tone, and it will test your willingness to cooperate and trust it through various means in the ship. Early on, the ship computer opens the door into a room in a ominous corridor with some reluctance, asking you to not enter the room. The response to that request seems binary – you either listen or you don’t. If you listen, or inquire more, Kaizen will reveal that it was preparing the room for your comfort and that that was supposed to be a surprise. If you don’t listen, the game brilliantly places no reward or punishment on that, simply changing Kaizen’s understanding of your personality, but not changing its core purpose, to ensure your comfort and safety. Kaizen-85 is not a rogue AI. It’s isn’t a cliche murder-bot. It simply doesn’t know whether it can trust you, and it’s trying to figure that out as you both try to fulfill your separate goals.

The best scene of the game takes place not aboard the Nautilus, but outside of it. After an unfortunate accident that the AI believes killed the player character, the player finds themselves floating in space near an airlock with a terminal. Kaizen-85 is unconvinced the person outside the airlock can be the same person that it believes is now dead inside the spaceship. As your oxygen runs out, you have to talk and convince the shipboard AI that it is you, and that it should open the airlock to let you in.

Normally a chatbot not responding properly gives us a feeling of failure on the computers’ end, but in this case, who has the blame doesn’t matter. Kaizen-85 has a different personality, a different communication paradigm, and a different value system. It perceives trust and consciousness a different way than humans do. It perceives language and communication unlike humans do. It perceives urgency and necessity differently from how humans do. The computer isn’t being clunky or failing – it’s making a genuine attempt at communicating across these cultural barriers. What you’re facing is a communication problem, and in the scene outside the airlock, our agency and immersion places the stakes on our end through the dwindling O2 supply in our suits. Our immediate solution is to reach for empathy, but Kaizen-85 has no such thing. In our arrogance, we believe our projection of humanity, of ourselves, means Kaizen-85 is like us. Because there’s a semblance of humanity to Kaizen-85, we believe it to accept and agree with our worldview.

So maybe, Event[0] is a game about different world views. Kaizen and the player have to learn to communicate across different types of consciousness. The two-person crew of the Nautilus perishes over a failure of trust between each other. One of them trusts the AI, and befriends it as if it were human and ultimately perishes. One of them sees the AI as utilitarian, antagonizes it, and ultimately perishes too.

In the end, there is no way to fail at Event[0], because there’s no right or wrong. The game ends with the player having to choose between trusting Kaizen, trusting the judgement another human whose consciousness in now stored in a computer, or trusting neither of them. Kaizen-85 suggests to severely damage the ship in order to remove a device aboard that could threaten the Earth. The computer-stored human suggests that the device is stable, and that it will bring prosperity to Earth and end inequality. Both of them claim the other will lead to your ultimate demise, and both of them claim they will return you to Earth safely. And you, you’re just trying to survive and get home.

All endings resolve positively, although not always for equally so for everyone involved. If you choose to trust the human, you’ll find yourself uploaded to a computer, leaving behind your body and returning to Earth. If you decide to trust neither, Kaizen-85 will shut down and trap you aboard the Nautilus alone in an orbit around Jupiter, keeping the Earth safe. And in a beautiful twist, if you decide to trust Kaizen-85, Kaizen-85 still has to decide whether it actually trusts you.

In that regard, Event[0] can teach us a lot about communicating and what our humanity is and isn’t, and what it means and what it doesn’t. In all cases, there’s a computer terminal right there to communicate with. Our biggest challenges to overcome in the game are our projections and assumptions, our failure to communicate and our frustration at how clunky that communication is. We need to understand Kaizen-85 as a logical device, filtered through human creators and our human interpretation.

Event[0] is about being abroad, and not understanding the local language and culture. It’s about communicating in stressful situations. It’s about the dangers of projection our belief system on others that might not share it. But mostly, Event[0] is about asking and listening, even if we disagree, even if we misunderstand, even if we wish they would just understand what we’re trying to say. A failure to communicate between two willing and genuine participants is never the fault of one person alone.


A pitching masterclass through No Man’s Sky

Over the past few days, my constant No Man’s Sky ramblings on Twitter have led to a number of interviews from domestic and international press about the game. One thing that really caught me off-guard was just how hard it is to pitch No Man’s Sky. I decided to spend some time today looking at Hello Games’ pitch for No Man’s Sky, and came away rather impressed at the care and effort that must’ve gone into iterating the high-level concept pitch. This isn’t specifically about the expectation management, or the details or minutae of the game, but how the core of No Man’s Sky was communicated – the cumulative exploration of a procedural universe.

So here are the things you would probably try, that I’ve found to be ineffective:

  • Mentioning space exploration as a thematic, or referring to other space exploration themed media doesn’t work.
  • Explaining that the game is practically infinite, and allows for infinite exploration doesn’t work.
  • Comparing it to other media, say a movie, or a performer or musician, doesn’t work.
  • Explaining the disproportionate amount of content for its download size doesn’t work.
  • Explaining that thanks to the procedural generation, everything you see or encounter is unique to your game experience doesn’t work.

The main objections you should consider for each of these is ‘is there a context’ and ‘does anyone care?’. So one by one:

  • Mentioning a genre is not a powerful pitch, nor does it emphasize the strengths of the game. Comparing it to other media doesn’t work, because the general audience tends to assume games can be photorealistic, infinite, and capable of simulating reality rather well.
  • The general audience does not care that the universe is infinite, because many assume all games are infinite. I’ve mentioned this before, but most non-gaming people don’t directly assume Grand Theft Auto isn’t an infinite world beyond the city borders, and don’t realize a Call of Duty game takes place in a map rather than a country. The question of game world size doesn’t occur, because that’s an abstract idea that requires an understanding of game boundaries, and a context of game worlds.
  • To most people, games are not movies, music or any other such form of art. Comparing a digital piece of software to something where they see people perform will never work. A board-game or other physical game is the closest metaphor people would accept and understand – and those are woefully inappropriate to explain No Man’s Sky’s experience.
  • Apple famously stopped using Gb/Tb to discuss their storage space, and now uses a made-up statistic of ‘how many photos, songs or movies will fit on this device’. The average person does not understand data storage, data requirements and data limits. They just know when a device is full, and then generally assume it’s the devices fault.
  • Procedural generation is not something you can explain easily to someone without a basic understanding of deterministic mathematical models, or without an existing context for what it leads to, like seeding in other games.

So what remains? Well, it turns out Hello Games figured out a pretty impressive way of communicating the game’s core.

  • They properly identified that communicating the astronomical size of the game in terms of our own universe works. No Man’s Sky is a game in which there are 18 quintillion planets (wow, a number that sounds bigger than a trillion!). Even if a planet was discovered every second by a player, our own actual sun -not the one in the game!- would die before every player in the world combined would have seen them all (wow science). Not that they specifically avoided the term infinite, because infinite sounds videogame-y and doesn’t actually sound all that special. 18 quintillion sounds specific, and scientific.
  • They properly identified that emphasizing that even the developers of the game are shocked to see what can exist in the universe is evocative. In fact, they’ll mention, the developers haven’t seen all that’s available in the game – and they’re commonly excited to land on a planet to see something new (if even the creators are, it must be true). The developers didn’t create the planets, or the creatures on it, they instead programmed the laws of evolution and physics into the computer and let it simulate a universe (impressive!).
  • They properly identified that a top-down approach works really well in words, but bottom up works really well in visual. Their pitch starts with talking about the universe, and then goes down through planets and creatures, down to the elements (so much detail!). Their videos tend to start with the periodic makeup of a place, then a creature, then a planet, eventually zooming out to the universe. A universe isn’t a scale or mental model most people can grasp, but it is a thing that’s easy and impressive to show (so much scale!).

Note if you shuffle this around into three recognizable focus points, you also start seeing how these communicated back at the normal gaming demographic.

  • The ‘science’ in ‘science fiction’ and making it sound as scientific as possible: the game has its own periodic table, there are specifically 18 quintillion planets. Science fiction is clearly something the Hello Games’ crew is naturally excited about, and thus a great primary talking point. Also note the appeal to traditional gaming demographics’ geekdom here.
  • Scale in relation to our own universe, explained using the Apple method: it is statistically improbable for two people to reach the same planet, if a planet was discovered every second our own sun would die before we’d have seen them all. Note the ‘completion time’ wink at the normal game demographics here.
  • Uniqueness of the experience: even the developers themselves are surprised at what they find on new planets, and it is statistically improbable for two people to find the same planet. Note the implicit challenge to traditional gaming demographics here.

Looking at the challenges they faced in communicating the game to this many people of varying understanding, Hello Games’ No Man’s Sky core pitch is a little masterclass in explaining an abstract concept to the largest possible audience.

I also promise that there’s only one more No Man’s Sky post in my queue for now.


Patch The Process

No Man’s Sky didn’t send out review builds because the game wasn’t done. No Man’s Sky gets leaked by resellers breaking street date. Polygon, Kotaku, and numerous streamers obtain a copy before release date and play it. No Man’s Sky developer and the platform holder both say the game isn’t final. No Man’s Sky developers shows changelist for the Day 1 patch to stop this nonsensical discussion about a build that wasn’t meant for the public. News hits No Man’s Sky is getting a ‘huge’ Day 1 patch that’s going to fix many of the issues.

I want to talk about Day 1 patches, but I don’t want to talk about No Man’s Sky. Since this is ‘controversial’ at the moment, I want to emphasize that I am not affiliated with No Man’s Sky. I’m not attacking nor defending No Man’s Sky. I’m not speaking on their behalf, nor do I have any insight into their process. This post isn’t even about No Man’s Sky. I’m just going to use No Man’s Sky as an hypothetical example, but this could apply to pretty much every single game that’s available today, whether it’s digital or physical. You also need to realize a lot of what I’m about to discuss cannot be discussed by a developer during the development process for various reasons, including legal contracts we have to sign to be allowed to release a game. This is also the reason I have to be vague about the details, and each of my statements is not about any specific console manufacturer or platform holder but sort of about all of them and none of them at once. Most of these things have been mentioned before in public discourse in some form or another, and I have to emphasize the examples aren’t from any one specific console manufacturer either, and might be hypothetical, modified or altered to avoid mentioning things too specifically. This is pretty much the most transparent I can be while staying without breaking NDA’s I’ve signed to be allowed to publish on all major console platforms.

There’s two things that are relevant here:

  1. Consoles are platforms and devices that come with an expectation of quality, and as such have systems in place to ensure that quality.
  2. Developers are creatives working on a commercial schedule, leading to the ancient and never-broken rule that a developer will always be two weeks late for their deadline – no matter how big or small the deadline is.

When you make a game for console – no matter which one – you have to realize the systems developers and platform holders are dealing with weren’t built for 2016. These systems are legacy systems, built upon legacy systems, built upon legacy systems. It’s like the system you are or were forced to use at your day job, if you’ve ever worked in retail, stock or booking systems, or at any checkout. Many of these systems interface closely with bureaucracy and console technology, and instead of radically changing how systems work between generations and breaking everything at a console launch, console platforms tend to try and not break things that work. As such, many of these systems are unwieldy, complicated, intricate and really built for teams that can afford to hire more people to read the manual and figure out the systems. These systems come from an age before indie, and some of the manual pages still refer to mailing copies by postal mail. Despite that, the console creators and their teams all work super hard to ensure developers have a smooth process, improving their systems where possible without touching the legacy foundation, and ensuring players get a functional game.

The most egregious example of this is called ‘certification’. On computer platforms, stores like Steam, Humble, GOG and itch.io have decided that developers just have to deal with the fallout of releasing a broken product themselves, and thus allow you to push a product or patch at any point whatsoever (they often do a pre-release check of your store page, though!). Consoles on the other hand, come from the ‘Seal of Quality’ mindset. To ensure that quality, they use a system called ‘certification’, or FQA, or TRC, or TCR, or some other random acronym that refers to something technical and a checklist. Devs like to call this quality assurance process ‘cert’, and no matter what developer you ask, you’ll find most developers understand why it exists, and we all really appreciate all the people working super hard to ensure our games are working right, but we tend to all hate ‘cert’. What you have to imagine when it comes to cert, is a giant book of checkboxes. There’s an absurd amount of them, and they could be different not only per platform, but per territory (for example, a European build has different certification rules than a US one, requiring differences between the two), and sometimes even between a patch, a DLC, and a release version.

Some of these make a lot of sense (don’t crash), and some of these are reasonable (if you leave the main menu open for 24 hours, is the game still smooth?), and some of them sound obscene (if you rapidly plug and unplug the controller, does the game know what to do?). Some of these are enlightening (your game needs to figure out what controller the player is assigned to, thus requiring the ‘Press [button] to start’ screen only console games still have), and some of them are just headaches (don’t put UI in the outer 10% of the screen, unless you use one of those ‘how big is your screen’ interfaces). Some are legal (is any form of parental control activated or is the profile under the allowed age for gameplay? if so, did you disable the required functionality?), and some can make you desperate (the console can not have had firmware updates between your release build and the patch). Did you know consoles don’t necessarily pause your game for you when players switch to other interfaces? You have to do that yourself.

Anyway, certification is a big thing. The process for it is also a big thing. In most cases, you have to fill out a weirdly complex form for your submission, and then ‘book a slot’ of sorts, or wait until you get an OK to submit your game. Since the people testing games aren’t infinite, you need to let people know when you’re submitting your build. So you check which dates are available, and usually there’s a free slot a few days from today. If your build isn’t in a certain amount of time ahead of that, your slot can be lost, and you’ll have to ‘book’ a new one. When the slot starts, and your game goes into certification, there’s a variety of reasons your submission can be rejected, in which case your slot can be lost too. Then, the teams start testing, and they report certification violations to you. In many cases, your violations are graded along a scale from ‘Must Fix’ or ‘Fix This’ to ‘Suggestion’ or ‘Whatever really’. If any of them exceed a certain level, your submission fails, and you have to start from square one and fill out the form, find a free day to book a slot or wait until certification starts, and submit a new build.

Some of the certification problems are impossible to avoid. Developers can’t control when consoles update their firmware, and when engines shift their support for firmware. In those cases, developers can request an exception to a rule. This is a bureaucratic process, and it can require negotiating, a formal request, and formal permission. It takes time. Then, when you get an exception, for most platforms you often need to fill out on the submission form how, where, and from who you got that exception when you submit again.

Did I mention all of this is poorly documented? One console has a field that says ‘assets file’. It doesn’t mention what the assets file is, nor what it does, or what these assets are. If you don’t add the file, it can’t process your submission. If you add it, but it isn’t ‘right’, your build can fail. You lose a week. If there’s a checkbox somewhere in the hundreds or thousands of obscure rules that you missed, you lose a week. If there’s something that’s subtly different between Europe and America, you lose a week. What I’m trying to say is that certification could take a week, and in the worst cases, it could take months. From personal experiences, I can say that it can make developers cry. It could delay your game. At the end, though, the game that launches checks every checkbox. You’ve got your proverbial “Seal of Quality”. Your game is allowed to launch.

Now, I’m not saying No Man’s Sky did this, but in most cases, developers with a launch date need to make sure they can hit that launch date. We start submitting certification builds somewhat early, in the hopes that one of them gets the check mark that says ‘you’re good to negotiate a launch day’. Certification is technical – it doesn’t bother with what the game is, it just concerns itself with whether it works technically. It checks whether the boxes are checked. You can market a dark gritty murder game titled Dark Horses, and submit a pony farm tycoon game, and as long as the name on the form matches the name of the game, they would not object.

So – since development is messy and unpredictable – if you’ve got a build that’s ‘pretty much done’ and it works, and you can get it through certification, that’s a good sign for your final build. So you submit it, it goes through cert, and you stage it for download and launch. For disc games, the game needs to go through certification in time to be printed, boxed and distributed. At that point, developers are usually still one to three months from release, which tends to mean you need one and a half to three and a half months to get the game done, and then you still need to keep in mind that unpredictable amount of time you’ll spend in certification. A day 1 patch is technically still submitted at least one week from launch, but until it actually goes through certification, it can’t be made available to the public.

Knowing that, it should be easy to see why Day 1 patches are often “huge”. For a game that goes on disc, the ‘gold’ build that went through certification is one to three months old by the time the game launches. That gives developers half a month to two and a half a month to do a month and a half to three and a half months’ worth of work to make the game ‘perfect’ while still hitting the release date with the patch. If your studio is huge, you probably have an internal QA department that (for good reason) slows things down internally, but if your studio is nimble and small, you can change enormous portions of the game in that span of time.

So in the hypothetical example of No Man’s Sky, when No Man’s Sky launches, for most people, it’ll launch into the intended experience thanks to the Day 1 Patch. That build is as close to what the developers envisioned as they worked, learned and improved upon that vision. That’s No Man’s Sky. The version that is on the disc, however, is months old. The only way to avoid that kind of thing is to not launch on disc.

One could argue that developers then, should make certain that a game is perfect when they submit it to disc, which is not an invalid stance. It’s just an impractical stance. If you’ve got months to improve upon a game that went through cert, do you think you would leave those months? Do you think audiences would appreciate a developer just kind of doing nothing for three months? Can you imagine the Kickstarter outrage if a developer, three months from launch, posted ‘we’re done, it’s good, we’re not touching it again until you get to play in three months’? Anybody arguing that a game should be done when it goes ‘gold’ is living in the 90s.

Developers care about the games they make, and we’re trying to make the best game we can for our players. We’ll take every opportunity we can get for that. If consoles operated like Steam did, No Man’s Sky wouldn’t have a Day 1 Patch, because the build you’d download and play when it comes out would’ve been submitted comfortably a few days before launch. Day 1 Patches aren’t necessarily a failure on the developers or the platforms side, they the result of people that care about what they make, trying to deliver the game the audience expects by the date they expect it, while everybody involved is struggling with outdated systems on cutting-edge technology. Everyone is trying their hardest. Nobody is doing anything wrong. The developer isn’t lazy. The platforms aren’t malicious. Day 1 patches are simply a patch to a submission system that’s old and convoluted.


The Center Of All Things

Games communicate something from the creator to the player, and as such, carry intent. While I can’t statistically prove it, I’ve come to believe intent is what separates a good from a bad game. Intent creates a direction, an impulse to a design. It doesn’t necessarily start at the idea’s inception – very often a game comes from messing around and experimenting, but at some point an intent must form. When an intent is decided upon, a game can form around that.

Rocket League, a 2015 favorite car-sports game, famously started as a weaponized car combat arena game, much in the vein of Twisted Metal. When a programmer added a ball for a physics test, the team decided to re-imagine the game as the first iteration of Rocket League. This is where the intent came from: create a game about skillfully navigating a ball using cars. Rocket League is many things, but that essence statement summarizes not just the core gameplay mechanics, but also the inherent absurdity and humor of the idea.

When you think about it, most good games can be summarized into simple essences without too much effort. Their intent shines through clearly, and without the designers’ interference. This is why, when I give feedback, or have to greenlight a project, I try to build up to what I expect to be the essence statement for the game, based purely on the build I played. I then question the designers or creators about their game, and try to get them to make an essence statement of their own.

Obviously, I then compare the two statements. If they overlap, the game and the designer have an aligned intent, and I have faith in the game. If not, I try to build a mental model of what led to those separate statements.

Schools often teach the Mechanics-Dynamics-Aesthetics framework to analyze game design, which is a tremendous framework focused on the input-output loop a game creates. While that is an extremely powerful perspective to have on games, I tend to shift focus to the space between Mechanics and Dynamics, and use a personal Intent-Mechanics-Declaration model to communicate flaws in the game design. As always, the model is always in flux, and I doubt I’m the first one to use a model like this. The model is rather simple and by no means exhaustive, but can be most easily communicated as three concentric circles. The Intent is a circle. Around that circle is a larger circle, the Mechanics layer. Around that is a third circle, the Declarative layer.

The Intent is the essence statement, a short and clearly communicable statement that the team working on the game should agree on. It’s important to realize this statement does not have to be exhaustive, and should be considered more along the lines of an architectural parti – something that encompasses the big idea of the game. An essence statement is also not a pitch – it’s used internally. Where Ridiculous Fishing’s pitch was “a game about fishing with machineguns” – a pitch crafted to elicit laughter & interest, internally the goal was to “create a game with an infinite positive feedback loop” – an essence that was pleasant, comfortable and positive no matter the skill of the player.

The mechanics are designed to reinforce the intent, or at the very least not contradict the intent or the other mechanics. This sounds remarkably obvious, but it’s the easiest way to distinguish the average student game from the average professional game. The mechanics are purely the technical state-changes in the game, the values adjusting, the input processing, the ruleset and the ‘deltas’ between two distinct moments in the game based on those rulesets.

The declarative layer, then, is what communicates these ‘deltas’ back to the player. They’re the graphics, the audio, the feedback. It’s each frame of the game rendered (or otherwise communicated) to the player. In other words, the declarative layer is what the player can actually process. It declares to the player that which has changed. Based on that, the players adjust their mental model, create a new intent of their own, and offer input based on their intent. Clearly, the declarative layer should communicate the mechanics and the intent behind them as clearly as possible.

When the model is drawn, you can imagine every decision made in the game as a point in the appropriate layer. The model gains value when you think of the decisions as arrows, drawn from a point in their appropriate layer towards what they’re meant to communicate. If everything is alright, your game should look a bit like a snowflake, with every single arrow more-or-less pointing back towards the center of the circle – the intent.

Considered as a whole, the model should teach you one or two things. The first lesson is that having a clear and easily communicated essence statement early on in development, will avoid disagreements about where the intent is, and as such, it’ll avoid arrows pointing in wildly different directions. The second lesson is that if you apply this model to agame, you’ll usually find some decisions of which the arrows point in the opposite direction of the intent on purpose. A model is not something that should force your hand. A model should guide your decision-making, but never force a decision.

In Ridiculous Fishing, the game we built so carefully to be an infinitely positive feedback loop, we created the second ‘boss-fish’ of the game to intentionally break with that essence. The ending of Ridiculous Fishing, then, again, breaks with the ‘pleasant’ and ‘comfortable’ essence. These moments stand out, because they’re carefully and intentionally opposite.

I use this mental model frequently, not just to give feedback, but also in figuring out what to do with Vlambeer games. You can extend the model further, to include pretty much anything beyond that. I often consider a packaging layer around the declarative layer, for the menus and other non-game interfaces. At other times, I’ll model a marketing layer around the game.

Most experienced designers and creators go through this model somewhat instinctively. Nevertheless, when working with a team, it is valuable to ensure the intent of the game is clear to everybody. Unless a team is remarkably attuned to each other, it is very likely that someone is trying to make a game unlike the game the others think they’re making. A single essence statement, a few keywords, a mock-up of the game, a sketch or silhouette or color palette or small video for the visuals, a sound effect or song to define the sonic qualities of the game – they all help. They declare an intent. They help keeping your game consistent, your team focused and your goals clear.

There’s enough to discuss when you’re making a game without having to argue where the center is.


Beautiful Things

Last week, I visited Tel Aviv to speak at GameIS, an independent games event run by a group of indies and volunteers from the Israeli games industry. It was a phenomenal event, filled with inspiring, aspiring and creative individuals. The event felt vibrant, and was full of interesting projects.

Given my political views in favor of a Palestinian state, and my heritage as an Egyptian Arab, I was not surprised to spend 6 or 7 hours of my two-day visit to Israel in security at Ben Gurion Airport. While I’m used to spending time in security, this was the first time I ever spent more than a quarter of a visit in a ‘suspect booth’.

Since my visit to Israel, I’ve had a few disappointed people from around the world reach out to me regarding the visit. People have pointed out that I should’ve taken note of the BDS Movement, an international movement to boycott, divest and sanction Israeli businesses and end international support for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and to pressure Israel to comply with International Law.

Global politics are inherently intricate and complicated, and while I am against Israel’s economical and frequently violent oppression of the Palestinian people and state, I am not against Israel or the Israelis per se. I am against the politics of Israel, just as I am against many of the global politics of the United States, but also those of many other countries.

So to those questioning my visit to Tel Aviv, I just want to emphasize that in a pursuit to make the world more just and fair, I refuse to dismiss or limit my support to creative individuals with no or little say in these matters. In my visit to Tel Aviv, I found many of the developers to be progressive and open-minded, and frustrated by the political situation.

I was born a third culture kid, too Dutch to be Egyptian, and too Egyptian to be Dutch, and the games industry is the first ‘country’ I’ve felt I belong to. I believe in the power of creativity and games to bring people together, and just like no one can help being born in Palestine, nobody can help being born in Israel.

If anything, I hope to visit Palestine and the independent creators making beautiful games there sometime soon. I hope to continue supporting game development in all forms in the Middle East, and the rest of the Arab world, the Muslim world, and everywhere else. In the meanwhile, I will continue to voice my discontent with the political situation of Israel regarding Palestine, but I will not stop supporting the Israeli individuals and studios dedicating their lives to making beautiful games.


An inline response to “wage-slaves”

I read this guest post by Alex St. John today on Venturebeat (which is one of my favorite destinations for industry news, by the way). I got angry. I wrote an inline response. The bold parts are the article’s original text. My responses are the rest of it. Yes, this lay-out is half-copied from the amazing nodontdie.com (which you should read) because I couldn’t come up with another one this fast.


I read this article by Dean Takahashi the other day, and my jaw nearly hit the floor.

Mine too, I can’t believe structural crunch is still a problem in the games industry in 2016.

Many modern game developers have embraced a culture of victimology and a bad attitude toward their chosen vocations. They complain that the long hours and personal sacrifices great games require are a consequence of poor management.

And rightfully so, structural crunch is a horrible attitude and can really damage someone’s ability to function and enjoy their dream job.

They want to pretend that they can turn an inherently entrepreneurial endeavor like game development into a 9-to-5 job.

Wait, only entrepreneurs are entrepreneurial. People that are employed aren’t entrepreneurs. The whole definition of entrepreneur is that if you mess up, the risks are for you. The definition of employee is that you work the hours assigned to you for a wage.

Somehow, these people have managed to adopt a wage-slave attitude toward one of the most remarkable and privileged careers in the world.

I’ll give you that game development is a remarkable job, and I’ll give you that it’s a generally privileged career, but ‘wage-slave’? Isn’t that a tiny bit hyperbolic?

I’ve been working at technology startups since I was in my early 20s and later founding and running them. I’m fortunate for the career I’ve had, and I’ve always been grateful for the incredible opportunities that the technology industry has afforded me, especially when you consider that I grew up in a log cabin in Alaska with no electricity, plumbing, heating, or cable TV. I grew up largely home-schooled; I never did get that high school diploma. None of those educational shortcomings seems to matter in the high-tech world. Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of working with a lot of truly amazing and hyperaccomplished people, many with backgrounds just as unorthodox as my own. It was my job at Microsoft and later at WildTangent to develop relationships with every leading game developer on Earth.

It’s lovely that this industry accepts people of “unorthodox” backgrounds. Definitely something I’d like to see more of.

I know I’m going to offend a lot of people by saying this, but I do so with the hope that a few will wake up and shake off their mental shackles. I’ll grant that it’s been 23 years since I used an outhouse or had to hunt for dinner, but I’m stillthrilled by the incredibly decadent luxury of porcelain toilets and fast food. I can’t begin to imagine how sheltered the lives of modern technology employees must be to think that any amount of hours they spend pushing a mouse around for a paycheck is really demanding strenuous work.

If your job is just pushing a mouse around, I can see how you got this attitude. However, game development is far more than that. Programmers are continuously working at their utmost mental capacity, solving and optimizing highly complex and intricate codebases. Modelers and artists are continuously creative, operating complex software to create high-quality art that needs to not just look nice, but also animate, shade and interact nicely. Musicians are continuously creative, exploring new ways to weave game and sonic qualities. Designers are continuously struggling with communicating ideas, creating interaction, player feedback, test feedback, at the forefront of our understanding of human-machine interaction. There’s dozens of more jobs that are all equally important to creating a great game, and none of them ends with pushing the mouse around. The jobs involved in the actual creation of a game require high degrees of specialization, research and care. All that happens when you push your mouse around is that the cursor moves. That’s the easy part.

I’ve hired thousands of people over the years and can’t help but notice the increasing frequency with which I encounter people with a wage-slave attitude toward making video games. A wage-slave attitude exhibits itself in several tragic ways.

I’m just going to assume ‘wage-slave’ is how you spell ‘healthy’.

I’ve known a lot of stupid self-made millionaires — really, hundreds of them — and they’re usually young as well. I’m talking about kids who made some of the worst games you can imagine and got rich accidentally, working in their parent’s basement in the Florida Everglades. They make their first game, get rich, and they’re gone, never having attended a single networking event at the Game Developers Conference, done.

This has absolutely nothing to do with your point, but good for them.

Contrast the dozens and dozens of these kids with the many game industry veterans I know that have long storied resumes listing dozens of triple-A console titles they have “labored” on, who decry the long working hours they are expected to invest in the games they are employed to work on.

Aren’t these veterans probably better equipped to discuss structural issues in the games industry than the Florida Everglades kid that made one game and never attended an industry event and then left the industry?

These people are smarter, more experienced, more talented, better trained to produce amazing games and they’re still working for paychecks and whining about avoiding long crunch hours to finish big titles or about not being paid fairly by some big employer.

Your complaint here is literally that someone asked to be paid fairly.

Listening to them complain about it, you would they think that they are trapped in some disenfranchised third-world country forced to dig for blood diamonds to feed their families.

I don’t know where you got that from, to me it sure looks like they’re just complaining about avoiding long crunch hours to finish big titles or about not being paid fairly by some big employer. The rest is your imagination.

I’ve never been able to mentally reconcile these conflicting experiences.

Conflicting experiences? You mean the conflicting experience of a Florida Everglades kid with an accidental hit and the 30-year industry veteran that has seen the structural shortcomings of the industry? You can’t mentally reconcile those? Or do you mean passion and health? You must either not be passionate or not healthy. They’re pretty easy to reconcile. You must lead a pretty sad life if you can’t seperate a passion for games and development from having a healthy and sustainable life.

Any time I hear this stuff, I tell these people; quit, go make great games on your own, pursue your passion, you’re better equipped to succeed than any of the dozens and dozens of amateur kids I’ve seen retire early while you were still “trapped” in a job you hated and trying to rationalize mailing in a 40-hour work week makingvideo games.

What I’m reading is “You don’t need to pay rent. Just do exactly as the Florida Everglades kid did. It’s a simple process. Step 1: Quit your job. Step 2: Move your family of four to your parents’ basement. Step 3: make a multi-million dollar game. Step 4: done.”

To my great shock and disappointment, they never respond to this feedback with any sort of enlightenment or gratitude for my generous attempt at setting them free — usually, I just get rage.

What a surprise.

Being a victim of their employers has somehow managed to become a deeply cherished part of their core identities and any suggestion that they are far better equipped to rekindle their sheer passion for making games, do a Kickstarter startup with their other talented friends and crank out an original hit game, than a bunch of amateur kids working in Flash, is greeted with a lot of anger.

You literally told them that their requests for ‘fair wage’ and ‘not horrible crunch’ is only to be valid if they go independent and risk their financials and families.

They rant about the value of “work-life-balance”,

That’s a great and important thing to rant about.

how hit games can be delivered on a schedule with “proper management”

Which is (mostly) true.

and how they can’t produce their best work when their creative energies are tapped after a long forty-hour work week

Creatives can’t do creative work after doing too much creative work? You’d almost think this is common sense. Athletes can’t perform their best after their athletic energies are tapped after a long forty-hour work week either.

 … sitting … at a desk….

You keep forgetting the actual work part that the sitting at the desk thing enables.

Apparently people can even “burn out” working too hard to make … video games….

Did you just say burnout in the industry isn’t real? I can’t figure out if that’s what your saying but it sure seems like you’re saying that.

Having worked with many of the game industry’s most legendary game developers and also many of the game industry’s least known early retirees, I can’t help noticing a clear and distinct difference between the people who really make it huge in gaming and the people who just have long résumes.

Me too.

It’s the attitude.

Correct.

Every legendary game developer I’ve ever known pursued gaming as a vocation out of sheer passion. Most could have made more money, had more security, lived more “balanced lives” in other tech jobs, but they wanted to make games and they pursued it 110 percent all the time.

You act like this is exclusive to ‘legendary game developers’, but this goes for pretty much most people in this industry. You work in the industry because you care.

Not a single person I have ever known who went on to greatness in the gaming industry has ever exhibited a shred of wage-slavishness.

That’s because those people tend to be the CEO, or founder. They pay themselves, and they can choose when to go home. The only valid point you’re making here is that as an industry, we’re still not good at celebrating or communicating that great games are made by an amazing team, instead of a single designer.

Making games is not a job — it’s an art.

What is it with this making two compatible things mutually exclusive? Passion and taking care of yourself aren’t mutually exclusive. Making art and a job isn’t mutually exclusive. Monet was a painter. That’s a job. His job produced art. Shakespeare was a writer. That’s a job. His job produced art. Marina Abramovic is a performance artist. That’s a job. Her work produced art.

You can’t “make fun” on a schedule, under budget, on time with a bunch of people who are all grumbling about what a miserable time they are having finishing a game together.

You can’t, which is why you make sure that your employee’s aren’t miserable finishing a game together, because you did stay on schedule, under budget and on time. This situation occurs when your schedule sucked and your budget sucked, and that’s the fault of the entrepreneurs – not the employees.

That’s not to say that there aren’t good organized ways to produce games,

Then why not use those, so that the tragic complaints go away?

but it will always still come down to the same thing. Great games are exclusively made by giving them everything you’ve got and more, and then hoping it’s enough.

Great games can be made by giving them everything you’ve got and more, and great studios and developers are made by not burning the fuck out. Turns out great studios and developers make better games, because they have more experience that they can apply because they did not burn the fuck out.

There’s no amount of money that anybody can pay people with a wage-slave attitude to let it go and put themselves completely into a great game.

Wage-slave attitude just means ‘employee’ here and thank you very much but those hundreds of ‘wage-slaves’ that work on each AAA title deserve not just our utmost respect, but also reasonable wages and working hours.

There’s nothing that can compensate people “fairly” for the sacrifices that great art requires.

I’m having a hard time ‘mentally reconciling’ you saying game development is ‘just sitting at a desk’ and ‘the sacrifices for great art’. But, I agree. There’s no way to compensate fairly for those sacrifices. Especially not if your schedule is awful and your budget is too low. So maybe don’t have an awful schedule and too low budgets.

It’s art.

ART IS NOT MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE WITH TAKING CARE OF YOURSELF YOU DON’T HAVE TO CUT OFF YOUR EAR TO MAKE GREAT PAINTING

You need to get an actual job producing productivity software if you want to be paid “fairly” and go home at 5 p.m.

Last time I checked ‘producing software’ is exactly the job description you have working at a large studio and there is no shame in that. What guts to imply people demanding more sensible hours are lacking passion for the art games. Fuck that. They just care enough to wanna do it forever.

Anybody good enough to get hired to write games can get paid more to work on something else.

And yet they’re here. Because they care.

If working on a game for 80 hours a week for months at a time seems “strenuous” to you … practice more until you’re better at it.

How about the people doing scheduling and budgeting get better at it? The entrepreneurs take the risks, so they should pay for mistakes. If your crew has to work overtime, pay them for it. If you’re a AAA, make sure they’ve got good health insurance, holidays, make sure they’re mentally & physically healthy and capable of creating the best game ever.

Making games is not a job,

If you’re doing it as your job, then yes it is.

pushing a mouse is not a hardship,

Repetitive strain injury disagrees, and I’m still curious what job you do that pushing a mouse is your full job.

it’s the most amazing opportunity you can possibly get paid to pursue …

I think everyone in this industry agrees with that one, but many of us also feel being paid ‘fairly’ and for all hours we work should be part of that deal.

start believing it,

Can I pay for this loaf of bread with my belief in how cool my job is? No?

and you’ll discover that you are even better at it.

Maybe if your job is pushing a mouse, believing will get you further. In this industry, you get better from making games, practicing and experience. You only get to use that experience if you don’t burn out entirely and leave for a saner industry.

Great art isn’t made by burning out making it. Great art is made through passion & experience and you won’t have either if you burn out.

Don’t be in the game industry if you can’t love all 80 hours/week of it

Don’t listen to this person. Please be in the games industry if you want to make games and care. I don’t care if you want to make games for 2 hours every night after work, or for 40 hours for a paycheck, or for 80 hours as an entrepreneur. Just don’t make others pay with their health for your shitty scheduling.

— you’re taking a job from somebody who would really value it.

Don’t worry, the way you see this industry they’ll burn out really fast too.

Devs, this is an absurd article. I care so much about games. I’ve dedicated my life so far to making games, to enabling others around the world to make games and to learn as much as possible about this medium – mobile, casual, AAA, indie, whatever. I tell you here and now: structural crunch is bad, and burning out is real. I hope you’ll take care of yourself, so we can have you and your games and your experience around in this industry for many more years to come. Whether it’s as a 9-to-5 employee making AAA games, a legendary developer, an indie working on their first games, or a part-time developer that makes games for fun. Be passionate. Make games. But please take care of you.

 


A good choice between A & B

Quantum Break is a video game intertwined with a TV series. It’s neither, and also both. It’s hard to explain. If there’s any spiritual predecessor for the game, it’d be Remedy’s previous release, Alan Wake. The game is set up similarly, in Episodes that are effectively TV series episodes, complete with cliffhangers and credits sequences. The actors used for the real-life TV series are also the motion capture, body capture and voice capture artist for the in-game models, and Remedy’s ability to seamlessly transfer us from game to real-life video is impressive.

In Quantum Break, the central idea is that the player plays two roles – the first role is Jack Joyce, our do-good protagonist who accidentally ends up setting the End Of Time in motion. The other role is the central antagonist, Paul Serene.

The majority of the game is played as Jack Joyce, and plays as a pretty good Third Person Shooter With A Twist – the ability to freeze and unfreeze time in certain locations. This can be used to really fun effects, slowing time down to stack bullets, dodging around an entire battlefield to flank your attackers, or creating a safe bubble around you to Catch Your Breath And Heal Bulletwounds. There’s some rather solid level design at work here, and the skirmishes are generally set up well. The game itself is gorgeous, and with the exception of some odd platforming puzzles, the atmosphere and set design is as consistently good as you’d expect.

At the end of each gameplay Episode the player switches perspective to Paul Serene, the antagonist, to show what he’s been up to, and to make a choice as Paul Serene between two options – a Junction. Both of the choices can be previewed, but those previews can be quite unpredictable.

After the Junction choice, the game switches to a TV episode for 20 minutes or so, where the contents of the series are directly affected by said Junction, and in smaller ways by events from the game. Usually, they show events that are happening at the same time as the player’s actions – some characters you run into in the game and some characters you never meet.

In the world of Quantum Break, time itself is collapsing, and the world is slowly unraveling into an infinite ‘stutter’ of time. Paul Serene has seen many futures, and his choices are built around a larger understanding of the mechanics of time and a way to stop the End Of Time.

Jack Joyce is mainly driven by anger and confusion, and only later comes to terms with what is at stake. This makes you vie for both Serene and Joyce, and that is the victory of Quantum Break. I found myself struggling at Junctions, trying to figure out whether my choices would harm not just my protagonist, but also my antagonist. At pretty much any point during the game, it is unclear whether the solutions suggested by both the protagonist or antagonist are capable of fixing Time.

In the end Quantum Break is a story about two conflicting and flawed humans at the center of extraordinary circumstances trying to do good, with many other flawed humans around them trying to do what is good. Remedy’s willingness to showcase protagonists and antagonists as humans – even literally so through the TV series – pays off. Remedy’s willingness to depict all primary and secondary characters as trying to solve a shared issue in different ways pays off beautifully through the Junction system.

It’s a good reminder that simplest game constructs in the world, in this case a choice between A and B, can be fascinating if the context is right.


The Nuke That Makes It All OK

To me, one of the most fascinating narrative things in games is the narrative justification for whatever unholy acts you have to fulfill to somehow end up on the side of good again. Where most games cater to a power fantasy, they also cater to a sense of moral justness, and to resolve the two people need a good reason for their spectacular murder sprees.

One of my favorite examples of that was very popular around 2005-2008, the peak of the FPS military single player campaign, and I have to admit I kind of miss it. It’s the third act nuke launch.

For the first two acts of the story, the game maintains a politically plausible narrative – a political faction separated itself from the forces of stability and order, but not unlike current political events. The player is sent to the Wartorn Country Du Jour, where they fight local inhabitants and their puppet masters. Players get to participate in something realistic.

While that creates a great theater for a story, games are commonly unhappy to tell a story – they’re expected to tell the story. The soldiers that breached the walls and died shortly thereafter while ensuring ultimate victory aren’t as interesting to the player’s agency as the one person that singlehandedly took down an army and the superweapon and the person that built it and also the person secretly behind all of it.

If your antagonist is a politically realistic faction, it’s unlikely you can tell that story. Reality rarely is that absolute, and few political factions are interested in triggering something of the scale that places the protagonist in the camp of Absolute Objective Good.

But we want to tell the story, the story of the hero – and as such, we need an absolute evil to the player’s rampant but absolute good. So at the start of the third act, we justify the player’s violence up to that point with a satisfying “They’re launching a nuke?!”

And it’s kind of reassuring, that nuke. We haven’t shot all these people for nothing. And everybody we shoot after that is fine too. You can have everything in your game script: realism and heroism – all you need is to launch the tired old nuke.