Wednesday, 25 January 2012

writing about games, previews, reviews, commentary and lies

Reviewers usually write reviews because they are gamers themselves. They’re involved and passionate about the games they write about, and want to convey their experience of playing it. Alternatively, they find a game falls short of their expectations, and want to – not dissuade other people from buying it, exactly – but to make sure anyone who does buy the game isn’t getting less than they were hoping for.

The problem then is that reviews will more often than not be written from a biased point of view. What one person looks for in a game will be different from what somebody else finds fun. Of course you can rate different aspects of a game against a scale – looking separately at graphics, gameplay, and storyline – but how do you decide what is most relevant for the game in question?

A RPG may be able to get away with repetitive combat if it tells a compelling story, but a first person shooter can’t get away with unresponsive controls. How do you weight certain aspects against each other? Should reviews be tailored to fit different genres, or should all games go through the same scrutiny regardless of their intended audience and function?

On the internet, this type on informal review works fine, as the reviews are written and by individuals and posted on their own sites and blogs. However, when it comes to forming these articles in to an official publication, such as a magazine, financial backing in needed, requiring a more structured format with a business plan. A company needs to be set up which will attract revenue from banks or shareholders and advertisers and the costs need to be offset by projected profits. This cannot be achieved unless the circulation is large or the revenue will not be available. Companies such as IGN and Eurogamer are such companies supporting magazines.

Producers and editors require a salary and journalists expect to be paid, there are printing and distribution costs, and therefore the subscription size is paramount. To cover the costs it is essential to attract a large enough amount of people to buy the magazines and they are competing with the internet which is free. So what are the advantages of magazines opposed to online publications?
An obvious reason for buying magazines is that they are potable. They can be read on the train, on the loo, at the coffee table – although in the last few years eBook readers have started to compete with this.  Many of the articles seen in magazines will be just as readily available online.

It could be argued that they are better written. This too could be questioned. Salaried journalists should be able to produce better quality articles than bloggers but the journalists have to have a real interest in computer games to bring the articles to life. To get round this and to keep costs down many magazines employ computer enthusiastic school leavers to write for one year and then terminate their contract. One computer magazine expected a turnover  of 450000 but sold less than half of the projected numbers. Producers have to constantly balance, balancing the costs with the quality. If the magazine is not profitable banks and investors can withdraw their support. 

New games journalism can be quite removed from the content of the game itself, whereas more tradition reviews will focus entirely on the content.

Reviews that rate games will usually cover certain aspects of the game individually, using the same general format for every release, and them giving the game a score on a scale. However, this method of reviewing is not always as objective as it is made out to be; you can rate graphics on their technical merits, but it is more difficult to rate the immersion they provide in the game world. Most sites provide an overview of how ratings are attributed, but even these are based on very subjective qualities.

New games journalism does away with any pretence of judging games according to a preset formula. Sometimes they aren’t even discussing the quality or attributes of the games themselves, but rather certain aspects of a community related to a game, such as in this article which talks about the social etiquette that had developed in an online game. Sometimes they are using games to comment on serious issues, whether they’re related or completely separate from the virtual world. Articles written in this style are written informally, in a way that tries to connect to the reader through common experience and often humour. This can make them more enjoyable and easier to read than a more rigid article that just gives a point-by point analysis of a game without any personal involvement,  but is not so useful when it comes to deciding whether a game is worth spending money on.

More straight forward and to the point style reviews would be more use to a casual gamer wanting to decide which game they’d enjoy. These type of reviews are more than anything a form of advertisement as well as a source of information.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

a history of computer games, part three: 2000s

Since the introduction of 3D graphics, the improvements in the level of detail have increased greatly. Between the PS1 and PS2, technical aspects on graphics increased greatly; the polygon counts of the games produced for the platform increased by 50 times, while at the same time screen resolution increased  by 2.5, vastly increasing the amount of information that must be displayed at any point of time during the game. Comparing recent releases to the very first video games, by far the most obvious difference is in the graphics. These are visible even without playing the game and many casual gamers will purchase games based on this first impression.

As the baseline for quality of graphics continues to be pushed higher, the technology it is built on must also improve.  Development frameworks such as the Unreal Engine streamline the production of the software by providing toolsets for game producers to work from, but even clever programming is ultimately limited by the hardware. 

A more recent development is companies such as OnLive, which provide “cloud gaming”, where other computers run the game, and then stream it to the console the player is using.

At present, consoles such as the Wii and the Kinect are the exception. Their marketing is based on the novelty of the controls rather than piggybacking on established game series, but that may change as interactive controls become more common and future games are designed to accommodate them.
Games have always pushed the limitations of the current technology, but now they have the pressure of huge companies behind them, and an entire industry resting on their financial success.

In order to maximise profits, most games publishers find it necessity to make games available to a large an audience as possible, which means porting new releases to multiple consoles. Making a game work on all machines is not straight forward; console companies have their own in-house publishers - or at least a specific company they outsource to - and therefore have little need to make their own systems compatible with their competitor’s, leaving the game developers to bridge that gap.  Unsurprisingly, several companies have risen to fill this niche, providing tools such as Criterion's Renderware that make this task easier for producers.

Increasing complexity in games means more demand on the hardware, but technology is not improving fast enough to keep up with the demands of the market. At the moment, the only foreseeable answer to the increased demand for processing power is using multiple CPUs, but this comes with its own technical problems. Games must be designed to distribute the workload, and this mean a different approach to how the game is built, and requires skills that are not currently available.

Lastly, the length of development time means that by the time a project is finished, the technology it was based on at the beginning will not be the most up to date. With any new game, developers must anticipate and accommodate for the changes that will take place within the timescale of the project.
As technology and skill needed to produce a game increases, so does the time and the cost. In 1982, Pacman cost one person the grand total of $100,000 to produce. Halo 2, released in 2004, cost 400 times that. True, the profits these days are greater, but not on such a noticeable scale. It takes an enormous amount of time money to produce a game in line with popular titles; the start-up costs are so high it is generally impossible for individuals to produce games in the way they once did. The expectations of games are so high, but increase in expense does not guarantee perceivable increase in quality, at least to the general public.

With the monetary pressure hanging over their heads, companies often go for the safe option; sequels and games based of successful cinema are often produced in favour of new ideas. However with realism of graphics struggling to compete with expectations, innovative gameplay and storytelling may become the deciding factor in future games’ success.

It takes a lot of people to produce a game that lives up to todays expectations, the sheer amount and diversity of content call for many different skills; artists, engineers, writers and programmers, and people to make sure they all cooperate. 

The final consideration for game producers is making their product available to the global market, and making sure it isn’t outcompeted by the many, many other available games that are all fighting for the same customers. One way of ensuring that a game isn’t overshadowed is to make sure releases of similar games are staggered. Produces also have to consider that what will work in one company might not work in another, either because of language differences, or the expectations of consumers. For instance when the Xbox was to be released in Japan, the controlled was deemed too bulky, and a more streamlined version was produced for the Japanese market.  They’re not obvious problems, but as the games industry continues to develop the need to think globally will only become more important.

a history of computer games, part two: 1980s - 1990s

If the previous few decades were computer games’ first steps, then the next two decades were when video games as an industry started to pick up pace. Over the final twenty years before the millennium, gaming evolved into how we know it today. It was over this time that most of the companies we are familiar with now were only just being established; everything was testing new concepts, the ideas that fell flat would fall into obscurity, and the ideas that worked would be repeated over and over for years to come. Many of the series that are big names now were only just getting started, familiar titles such as Legend of Zelda, Mario Bros and SimCity, to name but a few.

Of course, this did not happen entirely without the occasional setback. In 1997 there was a crash in the market caused by a glut of older consoles and almost identical games being sold by competing companies in an effort to clear stock. Several companies were forced to abandon their consoles, and even companies that pulled through suffered losses over the two years. The 1997 crash was brought to an end by the introduction and the popularity of Space Invaders. The game helped raise the popularity of Atari’s consoles, helping them recover from their previous losses.

Along with the emersion of the games industry, technology continued to improve, most noticeably in terms of graphics. Many of the earliest games had been text based, using letters and symbols to convey information visually. Occasionally vector graphics would be used.  Over the 1980, however, 4-bit, and then 8-bit graphics became more common. It wasn’t until the 1990s that true 3D graphics, and we are familiar with today, began to emerge.

In 1979, the Microvision was released, the first handheld to use exchangeable cartridges, but despite popularity in the first year after its release, it was not a success due to the technical limitations of the technology available at the time. Barely a year later after, Nintendo came out with their own handheld. Despite so little time having passed, there had been enough improvements to the technology, small improvements such as LCD screens and a longer battery life, that the console – and the company – survived the video game crash of 1983. The Microvision, along with many of the similar competitors fell into obscurity, whereas Nintendo is still going strong today.

Personal computers also became more popular and more affordable. In the early 1980s arcades were still going strong, but consoles were beginning to rise in popularity. Consoles had been available for some time beforehand, but PCs had up until this point not been flexible enough to double up as gaming machines. PC gaming is still going strong, even with the continued development of consoles.