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GameSetWatch.com is the alt.video game weblog and sister site of Gamasutra.com. It is dedicated to collecting curious links and media for offbeat and oft-ignored games from consoles old and new, as well as from the digital download, iOS, and indie spaces.

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Column: The Amateur

Column: The Amateur: A Montage without Music

August 7, 2009 4:00 PM |

[Andrew Doull is an IT manager from New Zealand, now based in Sydney, who spends his free time developing Unangband, a rogue-like game, and blogging at Ascii Dreams. He writes an irregular column for GameSetWatch.]

Clint Hocking coined the term ludonarrative dissonance as the conflict between game play and narrative that arises, in his example Bioshock, when the elements of game play end up opposing instead of supporting the narrative and vice versa. He implies that by harmonizing ludic and narrative elements in a game will improve the game, and any gap between the two results in a less than satisfactory experience.

I argue here that there is an even more important gap in narrative design: one created by attempting to map inappropriate narrative techniques from other media onto games, created by a fundamental misunderstanding of how narrative works in games. I define here a simple narrative theory, which leads to an alternate meta theory about the structure of narrative in games, and attempt to show how analysis of some traditional narrative techniques fail because they do not take account of the meta-narrative requirements of game play.

To translate into a more concrete example: I believe many game designers are doing the equivalent of writing a montage in a novel and everyone, but especially game critics, wondering why there is no music.

Column: The Amateur - 'The Game Design Lessons Of Permadeath'

July 18, 2009 8:00 AM |

[Andrew Doull is an IT manager from New Zealand, now based in Sydney, who spends his free time developing Unangband, a rogue-like game, and blogging at Ascii Dreams. He writes an irregular column for GameSetWatch.]

There have been a number of intriguing articles written over the last few weeks about one of the key concepts, and most criticised features, of roguelikes: permanent death, often shortened to permadeath. This is the notion that should the game avatar die, the player should start from the beginning of the game. Permadeath is the reason why it can take years to beat certain roguelikes - in my case, I have never won a game of Angband or any variant of it in over ten years of playing - and why so many people initially turn away from the genre. But in a world of quick saves and regenerating health, permadeath is the one compelling design feature that you need to appreciate to understand the genre.

The challenge of playing Far Cry 2 with one life made by Ben Abraham of Sometimes Life Requires Consequence has been picked up and commented on by lead designer Clint Hocking, who goes on to explore the conflict between what Ben is attempting and the narrative losses that Clint designed into the game. (As an aside: the immediacy of playing the game and being responded to by the designer of that game plays to the strengths of the blogging medium, the dialog between auteur and audience. This was a triumph - I'm making a note here etc. - for the rise of the game critic/blogger.)

In Infinite Caves, Infinite Stories, Anthony Burch explores what makes Spelunky so compelling - a freeware mix of platformer and roguelike, one of the nascent roguelike-likes if you will - and identifies a mix of three elements: 'randomized [...] levels, emergent gameplay and permanent death'. Think of these as three legs of the roguelike game design triangle - each of which cannot stand unsupported without the others.

Column: The Amateur - 'Why You Should Pay for Free'

January 15, 2009 8:00 AM |

[Andrew Doull is an IT manager from New Zealand, now based in Sydney, who spends his free time developing Unangband, a rogue-like game, and blogging at Ascii Dreams. He writes an irregular column for GameSetWatch, and the latest installment deals with the ethics and business behind supporting smaller game developers through alternative means.]

The Amateur has championed the cause of free – those people willing to spend their spare time chasing a dream and making it reality. In this column, I switch sides and argue why you should pay for your games – even to people who just don’t want the money.

Imagine a large number of people have a pressing need for a piece of software (or game, potentially): and within that pool of people there are enough talented developers capable of producing that software in a relatively short space of time (say a week) who are willing to make it available as open source or free upon completion.

But development of the software has a fixed cost associated with it that it is not rational for any one person to pay for: say a patent which has a $100,000 licensing fee. The large group of people agree to distribute the cost between them evenly, and the software is written and released as version one.

If you replace the ‘willing to work for free’ and ‘fixed cost’ with ‘programmer salaries’ in the above example, you would be describing a situation not dissimilar to how commercial software and/or game development works – but with a couple of significant differences. The most obvious one is that the costs of commercial software development are not known in advance, and the payment from the customers is acquired retrospectively rather than up front.

In this sense, commercial software is more altruistic than free software: the developer is willing to give money away for free, paying staff and other incurred expenses, without even the promise of costs being reimbursed. But before you choke on your free as in beer, let’s go back to the example.

Column: The Amateur - 'Progression'

October 15, 2008 4:00 PM |

[Andrew Doull is an IT manager from New Zealand, now based in Sydney, who spends his free time developing Unangband, a rogue-like game, and blogging at Ascii Dreams. He writes an irregular column for GameSetWatch, and the latest instalment deals with progression in games.]

MTV News' Stephen Totilo recently argued that the defining characteristic of role-playing games is playing a role; and by that definition, included LittleBigPlanet, Guitar Hero and Spore as great role-playing games he had played recently.

I am forced to disagree with Stephen's definition: while semantically correct, he is disingenuously expanding the computer genre to encompass most, if not all games. With the exception of the Eye Toy and 'Brain Training' style self-improvement games, the player is forced to interact with the game through the proxy of an in-game avatar or character. What defines a computer RPG is progression - and at the same time, there is nothing more greatly abused in RPG design.

The grind, the treadmill, leveling up, mudflation, scaling difficulty of opponents, are all tropes of RPG progression. As you can tell from the negative connotations of many of those phrases, few concepts have had more loathing heaped upon them, particularly in the MMORPG space. Progression, in the worst sense, can be the crutch of a lazy designer. Progress Quest typifies the ever escalating scale of identikit enemies and equipment, in which no distinction is attached to the ever increasing numbers.

But the RPG progression is powerfully compulsive and increasingly adopted by other games: achievements feature increasingly in other genres such as first person shooters, unlocking additional weapons, equipment and game types.

Column: The Amateur: What Is Wrong With Fun?

July 23, 2008 8:00 AM |

- [Andrew Doull is an IT manager from New Zealand who spent the last 5 and a half years working in the United Kingdom. He's just emigrated to Sydney, Australia, and spends his free time developing Unangband, a rogue-like game, and blogging at Ascii Dreams. He writes an irregular column for GameSetWatch.]

Why as gamers do we undervalue fun? This is the flipside of the search for Citizen Kane: we associate fun with juvenilia instead of serious purpose, childhood dreams instead of adult aspirations, the clumsy, awkward-limbed gracelessness of youth that we stand apart from in later years.

Ironically, as game players and critics, we are the best position to write about how fun is important in our world. But instead we are somehow embarrassed by this, as if fun is not the highest achievement we should strive for.

Danc of LostGarden.com points out that 'Games... are all about learning skills'. That is, games can have a direct impact on who you are as a person. This is an unqualified given for this medium.

For art and literature, there's been a centuries-long debate about this exact notion: that art can improve who you are as a person was resoundingly answered in the negative, post 1945. The humanist theory of art, arising out of the Romantic movement, was that if you were exposed and uplifted by sufficiently powerful and influential works of art, you would become a more profound and moral human being - not someone capable of genocide.

COLUMN: The Amateur: 'The Stupifying Search for Citizen Kane'

July 7, 2008 4:00 PM |

-[Andrew Doull is an IT manager from New Zealand who spent the last 5 and a half years working in the United Kingdom. He's just emigrated to Sydney, Australia, and spends his free time developing Unangband, a rogue-like game, and blogging at Ascii Dreams. He writes an irregular column for GameSetWatch.]

We're half way through 2008, and Grand Theft Auto IV and Metal Gear Solid 4 have achieved huge commercial success. But despite the initial critical acclaim these games have received, more recent analysis of both franchises has started to sound a little... hollow.

Insult Swordfighting's Mitch Krpata reviews MGS4 with 'Old soldiers never die, they just talk a whole lot'. Junot Díaz writes for the Wall Street Journal that Grand Theft Auto IV is 'no Scarface', just more of the same.

And Joystick Division's Gary Hodges sums the problem up best when he says of Metal Gear:

"Playing through MGS4 in all its extravagant glory, I can't help but think of it as something like a Tyrannosaurus rex: the biggest, most extreme, most fully realized example of something that's ultimately an evolutionary dead end."

Part of the problem is that these games are part of established franchises which come laden with the baggage of having to meet the expectations of an pre-existing player base without straying to far from the fold. Part of the problem is that, as The Brainy Gamer points out, Hideo Kojima needs an editor.

But the main issue is that the modern game criticism process is fundamentally flawed. At the moment, the pattern for a blockbuster release seems to be overwhelming positive reviews prior to release, then a slowly building groundswell of disatisfaction followed by a wave of outright backlash, following the patterns laid down by BioShock, Metroid Prime: Corruption, Super Smash Bros and others in the so-called golden year of gaming of 2007. But dare a game critic ride ahead of this swell: they'll either raise the ire of the fanboy masses or, as in Gerstmanngate, a publisher's wrath.

COLUMN: The Amateur: 'Spore: The New Cambrian'

June 23, 2008 4:00 PM |

-[Andrew Doull is an IT manager from New Zealand who spent the last 5 and a half years working in the United Kingdom. He's just emigrated to Sydney, Australia, and spends his free time developing Unangband, a rogue-like game, and blogging at Ascii Dreams. He writes an irregular column for GameSetWatch.]

The release of the Spore Creature Creator has resulted in a Cambrian explosion of content creation where amateur creature designers have populated the Sporepedia with hundreds of thousand of different creature designs - at least 754,495 to date (at the time of writing) at a rate of more than 100,000 every 24 hours.

This is a tidal wave of new virtual life, sweeping up the gamer community in creationist controversy as would-be-gods evolve from the puerile (or should I say penile) to mimicry (of game controllers, Star Wars space ships, gaming icons and pop art) to highly original creations. What challenges beyond the obvious problems of a procedural Hot Coffee mod every minute does this tsunami of content create?

The Spore designers cleverly used PNG chunk types to embed the total content of a single creature into the picture data for that creature - allowing quick and ready transfer of the Spore creatures by dragging and dropping images from the Sporepedia into the creator. They've also incorporated ready sharing of existing content as well as 3rd party media integration with YouTube, and user tagging of creature types. But the huge amount of content has clearly exceeded the ability of the Sporepedia website to deliver it effectively.

At the moment, the Sporepedia interface allows 24 creatures to be displayed per page, and an editorial component of the site has offered up a selection of 'featured' creatures - 40 to date. Rated creatures, that is creatures where second user has provided some rating information on the quality of the creature design, number some 154,000 or so. Searching by tag doesn't appear to be supported - and there is very little other criteria to slice up such a huge database of information, except by individual author.

COLUMN: 'The Amateur': Amateur vs Indie

February 4, 2008 4:07 PM |

[Andrew Doull is an IT manager from New Zealand who spent the last 5 and a half years working in the United Kingdom. He's just emigrated to Sydney, Australia, and spends his free time developing Unangband, a rogue-like game, and blogging at Ascii Dreams. He writes an irregular column for GameSetWatch.]

The gaming press is conflating two trends in game development into a single category that they label the Independent Game. The first is commercial oriented, casual, independently produced games by people attempting to make a living from writing and designing games without committing to a publisher. These I'm happy to call Indie Games, and they operate much in the same way that the independent labels in the music industry, or independent studios in Hollywood.

The second is subversive, modded, copycat, patched together from pre-built parts, non-commercial or anti-commercial. Amateur game development is done by people who are scratching an itch, who can't not write computer games, who want to see their ideas in pixel form ahead of trying to generate a return.

It might be because their favourite game or game genre has been abandoned as a commercial enterprise. Or because they have an idea so out there, so unachievable, so unplayable that no attempt to commercialise the game could possibly succeed. Or just because the creators have no expectation of, or actively avoid financial reward. Amateur games are in the same head space as fan made movies, ad free blogging and jamming in the garage with your friends.

COLUMN: 'The Amateur': WYSIWYG Game Design

January 16, 2008 4:01 PM |

- [Andrew Doull is an IT manager from New Zealand who spent the last 5 and a half years working in the United Kingdom. He's just emigrated to Sydney, Australia, and spends his free time developing Unangband, a rogue-like game, and blogging at Ascii Dreams. He recently covered the Edinburgh Interactive Festival for Gamasutra magazine and has just started an irregular column for GameSetWatch.]

The advent of WYSIWYG in word-processing revolutionized the ability of non-specialist users to be able to design professional looking documents without having to know technical details about kerning, DPI or colour spaces. This came about because there was strong and immediate feedback between the user actions and the final printed document. So a user was free to experiment within an sandbox before committing to the final design.

Games, as a visual medium, should have an equally strong correspondence between the visual elements and in-game state. But this is often forgotten due to the difficulty of implementing this connection. Instead, game-designers fall back on the various short-cuts adopted by other games in their genre, such as targeting reticles, health bars and ammunition counters, while forgetting that these are not necessarily intuitive for non-specialist game players.

COLUMN: The Amateur: Angband & The Game Development Arms Race

December 30, 2007 12:01 AM |

- ['The Amateur' is an irregular column from Australian-based IT manager Andrew Doull, discussing the perils and rewards of being an unabashed non-professional creating games. This installment deals with how making an Angband game variant can inform how all game developers look at game scope.]

I recently had the pleasure of meeting Nick McConnell, creator of First Age Angband, in the flesh and we talked at length about the ups and downs of maintaining an Angband Rogue-like freeware/shareware game variant (perhaps for too long).

One thing we agreed on was the unique challenge that writing Angband variants presents. In particular, the inherent risks of trying to adopt features developed in other branches of the Angband variant family, that appear very easy to port across. And the insanity of attempting to do so.

If you're doing game development, you may wish to take note.