martedì 12 dicembre 2017

Is Death Stranding's surreality just a smokescreen?

It's been two or three days since famed japanese game designer Hideo Kojima, from the PSX 2017 stage, treated the world with a new in-engine trailer for Death Stranding. As it's usual for Kojima's creations, Death Stranding has been at the core of many discussions about a fairly basic point: what is this game all about? Aside from a generic allocation in the third person open world action genre, people only have a handful of elements to make sense of the plot, the characters, the narrative universe, or even how it is going to be played.

Kojima Productions and Sony, which is supporting the game's development from several angles (base technology, development and marketing budget), have been working towards an advertising style based on drip-feeding the audience with information, but keeping the whole thing shrouded in mystery and surreality. Chances are you've seen something about Death Stranding already, but here's the third, puzzling outing from the game:



Now, judging from what can be read on forums, message boards and commenting platforms all around the Web, people kinda expected this new outlook to shine a little more light on the product - you know, actual details about its nature as a commercial thing. Sony itself seems aware of this, as lead PS4 architect Mark Cerny felt the urge to make clear how "it all makes sense 4 to 5 hours into the game", but it is safe to say that not everybody is comfortable with this marketing tactics. Not all players are into decoding clues or having to research their way into something that's supposed to entertain them in exchange for money; if there's a problem, though, it's two-way.

On one hand, we have a marketing approach that on the surface, does the exact opposite of what anyone would do in the intent of selling a product, especially a videogame. In theory, trailers and such should instruct the player about the game's setting, establish the hero, show his line of action and maybe hint at his motives a little bit. Once the interest of the viewer is picked, it is possible to expand the scope of the advertising narrative by gradually disclosing further details. We might call it an inductive process that works well in most cases, and for the vast majority of the potential customers. In the case of Death Stranding, the advertising narrative started way before it was first shown to the world.

Death Stranding is one of
those rare cases where
the history of the product
entwines tightly with its
author's real life experiences
 

It's one of those rare cases in game development where the history of the product entwines tightly and publicly with its author's real life experiences: after the sad goodbye to Konami, Hideo Kojima had to reconnect with the world, the audience and to some extent, the industry. He became strongly involved in social networks, so that anyone could have insights on his personality, his lifestyle and gaming related ambitions . He went on a personal, yet very public "journey to the West" in search of the technology that would provide the backbone of his new project, something that involved strands - ties, relationships, cataclismic endings and new beginnings. It's hard not to see the real life themes that goes into the genesis of Death Stranding and the way it is presented.

venerdì 6 ottobre 2017

Danger signs: what does mega-patches and microtransaction tells us about the industry?

This conversation between me and Disqus user RhubarbForFingers started as a reflection on the state of microtransactions and day one patches in the upcoming Xbox One racing blockbuster Forza Motorsport 7, and steered rapidly towards an exchange of outlooks into the gaming industry as a whole and its state. Some recurring trends we're seeing as of late might be the sign of an industry in a state of hardship, possibly in need of some kind of reform in the interest of self sustainability. Disclaimer: lengthy dialogue.

Me: 
Forza​ ​7​ ​is​ ​just​ ​the​ ​tip​ ​of​ ​an​ ​emerging​ ​trend​ ​in​ ​AAA​ ​products.​ ​It​ ​may​ ​have​ ​come​ ​from​ ​any
other​ ​manifacturer,​ ​so​ ​I​ ​won't​ ​condemn​ ​the​ ​game​ ​as​ ​much​ ​as​ ​the​ ​phenomenon: unfortunate as​ ​it​ ​is,​ ​it's​ ​up​ ​to​ ​the​ ​Xbox​ ​fans​ ​to​ ​make​ ​the​ ​company​ ​aware​ ​that​ ​this​ ​won't​ ​sit​ ​well​ ​with​ ​them -​ ​dammit,​ ​it​ ​shouldn't​ ​sit​ ​well​ ​with​ ​anyone​ ​forking​ ​out​ ​60~70$/€​ ​upfront​ ​for​ ​any​ ​game.​ ​But yesterday​ ​was​ ​Nintendo​ ​(in​ ​their​ ​own​ ​special​ ​ways),​ ​today​ ​it's​ ​Microsoft,​ ​tomorrow it's​ ​going​ ​to​ ​be​ ​Sony.​ ​I​ ​think​ ​microtransactions​ ​in​ ​high​ ​profile​ ​games​ ​are​ ​an​ ​industry-wide issue,​ ​not​ ​a​ ​banner​ ​related​ ​one,​ ​and​ ​something​ ​we​ ​all​ ​should​ ​be​ ​vocal​ ​about. 
RhubarbForFingers: 
"But​ ​yesterday​ ​was​ ​Nintendo​ ​(in​ ​their​ ​own​ ​special​ ​ways),​ ​today​ ​it's​ ​Microsoft,​ ​tomorrow​ ​it'sgoing​ ​to​ ​be​ ​Sony."
Yup.​ ​I​ ​will​ ​be​ ​amazed​ ​if​ ​the​ ​new​ ​Gran​ ​Turismo​ ​game​ ​doesn't​ ​have​ ​some​ ​monetisation
mechanisms​ ​in​ ​it.​ ​And​ ​Nintendo​ ​are​ ​already​ ​locking​ ​modes​ ​and​ ​other​ ​content​ ​away​ ​behind the​ ​purchase​ ​of​ ​plastic​ ​toys. I​ ​totally​ ​appreciate​ ​this​ ​is​ ​a​ ​business.​ ​I​ ​fully​ ​empathise​ ​with​ ​a​ ​publisher's​ ​need​ ​to​ ​generate revenue.​ ​I​ ​think​ ​it's​ ​100%​ ​fair.​ ​Games​ ​cost​ ​much​ ​more​ ​to​ ​make​ ​today​ ​than​ ​they​ ​did​ ​20​ ​years ago.​ ​People's​ ​expectations​ ​are​ ​higher.​ ​Yet​ ​the​ ​RRPs​ ​have​ ​stayed​ ​the​ ​same.​ ​You​ ​don't​ ​need a​ ​degree​ ​in​ ​economics​ ​to​ ​know​ ​that​ ​that's​ ​not​ ​sustainable.​ ​It's​ ​unreasonable​ ​to​ ​expect otherwise.
As​ ​a​ ​consumer,​ ​I'm​ ​not​ ​required​ ​to​ ​care​ ​about​ ​any​ ​of​ ​that.​ ​I'll​ ​vote​ ​with​ ​my​ ​wallet.
Talk,​ ​especially​ ​internet​ ​talk,​ ​is​ ​cheap.​ ​It's​ ​de​ ​rigeur​ ​to​ ​express​ ​your​ ​outrage.​ ​How​ ​we​ ​act
matters​ ​far​ ​more.​ ​And,​ ​historically,​ ​we're​ ​not​ ​very​ ​good​ ​at​ ​sticking​ ​to​ ​our​ ​guns​ ​or​ ​accepting the​ ​consequences​ ​of​ ​our​ ​actions.

Me: 
As​ ​much​ ​as​ ​I​ ​understand​ ​where​ ​you're​ ​coming​ ​from​ ​-​ ​your​ ​points​ ​are​ ​all​ ​fair​ ​-​ ​it​ ​is​ ​hard​ ​not​ ​to see​ ​certain​ ​business​ ​practices​ ​as​ ​devoid​ ​of​ ​regard​ ​towards​ ​the​ ​main​ ​source​ ​of​ ​revenue,​ ​the consumers.
The​ ​practices​ ​I'm​ ​talking​ ​about​ ​concerns​ ​things​ ​like​ ​releasing​ ​gigantic​ ​day​ ​one​ ​patches​ ​to
include​ ​entire​ ​game​ ​modes,​ ​shipping​ ​with​ ​glaring​ ​bugs​ ​that​ ​even​ ​the​ ​laxest​ ​of​ ​QA
departments​ ​should​ ​have​ ​pointed​ ​out,​ ​or​ ​locking​ ​basic​ ​functions​ ​behind​ ​paywalls.
These​ ​are​ ​horror​ ​stories​ ​in​ ​the​ ​relationship​ ​between​ ​studios​ ​and​ ​publishers,​ ​not​ ​physiological realities​ ​of​ ​modern​ ​game​ ​development​ ​that​ ​we're​ ​graciously​ ​supposed​ ​to​ ​accept.​ ​I​ ​mean, why​ ​should​ ​I​ ​do​ ​that​ ​when​ ​publishers​ ​are​ ​not​ ​willing​ ​to​ ​extend​ ​their​ ​deadlines​ ​for​ ​the​ ​sake​ ​of shipping​ ​an​ ​acceptable​ ​product​ ​at​ ​launch?​ ​People​ ​who​ ​proceeds​ ​with​ ​their​ ​day​ ​one purchases​ ​oblivious​ ​of​ ​it​ ​all​ ​are​ ​part​ ​of​ ​the​ ​problem,​ ​as​ ​they​ ​actively​ ​push​ ​the​ ​spiral​ ​further down​ ​for​ ​everybody​ ​else.
As​ ​consumers,​ ​I​ ​guess​ ​we​ ​have​ ​every​ ​right​ ​to​ ​get​ ​full​ ​fledged​ ​products​ ​in​ ​exchange​ ​for​ ​early, upfront​ ​full​ ​price​ ​purchases.​ ​I​ ​refer​ ​to​ ​complete​ ​experiences​ ​that​ ​are​ ​not​ ​clearly​ ​and
arbitrarily​ ​mutilated​ ​or​ ​riddled​ ​with​ ​major​ ​bugs.​ ​Of​ ​course​ ​devs​ ​and​ ​publishers​ ​have​ ​every right​ ​to​ ​expand​ ​on​ ​the​ ​base​ ​material,​ ​provided​ ​that​ ​base​ ​material​ ​is...​ ​a​ ​full​ ​game.​ ​One​ ​that can​ ​stand​ ​on​ ​its​ ​own​ ​legs. While​ ​this​ ​is​ ​increasingly​ ​not​ ​the​ ​case​ ​for​ ​many​ ​high​ ​profile​ ​games,​ ​there​ ​are​ ​other​ ​products out​ ​there​ ​showing​ ​how​ ​what​ ​I'm​ ​talking​ ​about​ ​is​ ​not​ ​science​ ​fiction​ ​-​ ​it​ ​can​ ​be​ ​done,​ ​it​ ​is factually​ ​possible​ ​to​ ​ship​ ​AAA​ ​games​ ​in​ ​a​ ​complete​ ​state​ ​and​ ​sell​ ​them​ ​very​ ​well.​ ​It​ ​only requires​ ​better​ ​coordination,​ ​working​ ​pipelines​ ​and​ ​professionalism​ ​from​ ​everyone​ ​in​ ​the backend.
P.S.:​ ​I'm​ ​totally​ ​ready​ ​for​ ​that​ ​in​ ​GT​ ​Sport.​ ​Totally​ ​and​ ​sadly​ ​so.

martedì 26 settembre 2017

On Language and Scope of Game Writing

When I think about good stories, especially in videogames, there's a handful of bullet points that shapes that idea for me in broad, yet recognizable strokes. Not being a storyteller kinda takes some weight off my opinions, but I'm gonna try to sort them into a reasonably coherent whole for the sake of discussion.

In videogames, stories first comes to life as basic ideas about the main characters, their goals and the settings, and the plot gradually unfolds through many iterations to make sure that the technology at hand supports the events. The process involves lots of flexibility from both the creative and technical parts of a team, often working under strict time constraints. So when we come across a well arranged and presented story, it's usually the result of an efficient dialogue between various aspects of development, and the developer's ability to conceal the underlying tradeoffs of said efficiency.

The best stories are arguably those
that provides peripheral events
that are just as carefully
thought out as the main ones,
and thematically/emotionally
tied with the latter

The complexity of the process kinda slants the art of game writing towards being on point with its contents, and making the most out of what you can work with. A good writer can take a single location and flesh it out deeply, inserting elements that hints at its own history and at the same time,  resonates factually or emotionally with the events in the game and/or the feelings of the characters.
Interactions and audiovisual cues goes a long way towards establishing moods, creating anticipation and telling us something about places and persons. So even in relatively limited spaces it is possible to establish what some calls "sense of place", a communicative microcosmos where a player can explore and figure out things that goes beyond his current time and/or space.



As a modern medium, videogames incorporates a rich language derived from photography, literature, movies, music, architecture and more. It's a highly versatile language that demands research, awareness of the scope and goals for which it's going to be used, and the sensibility to make everything - characters, environments, events, motivations, cause and effect relationships etc. - come together meaningfully. However, more often than not, it ends up being utilised far below its potential: what I feel are the best stories manages to create connections - some immediately apparent and some left to player discovery - between the language's elements, mutually elevating themselves towards a sense of richness and depth that is the very spearhead of game writing.

As in any other form of art including an element of composition, good game writing becomes a matter of economy, so it's not entirely wrong to assume the existence of an unwritten rule about the ever looming risk of overexposure: never show what you can hint at, unless it's absolutely needed. With the sensorial arsenal at its disposal, the language of videogames is just terrific at hints, loosening the dependence from words and inviting the authors to choose them carefully. So the game writer mainly provides what we might call a direct view on things and events, but at the same time he can enrich it through other elements of the language to form a peripheral view - something the player feels and can be compelled to explore.

I feel that narrative rewards in videogames can be just as powerful as material (=gameplay related) rewards: they can help you flash out mysteries, relationships and personalities; they can provide foretelling or explanation for future developments in the story. Building a web of indirect references is an important skill for game writers as it greatly contributes to plot coherence, helping the player feeling invested with the story and the characters. The best stories are arguably those that provides peripheral events that are just as carefully thought out as the main ones, and thematically/emotionally tied with the latter.

lunedì 20 marzo 2017

#RAPIDFIRE - 7: Game development, keep it grounded



giovedì 2 marzo 2017

Switch Me Up: discussing Nintendo's new console on YouTube

This brief article is based upon a response I gave to a YouTube user complaining about the negative sentiment that some people in Italy expresses in relation to Nintendo's new console, the Switch. Our national commenters often manages to be less gentle than the worldwide YouTube average, which prompted a disgruntled reaction from the young Giuseppe (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCjKjHQXGauy8up1BOURZdyw):
Comments to this video are really sad, you're just making excuses of any sort to dump shit on a console that has no issues as of today. I've read some people complaining about "too much stuff to plug in and remove"
That's kinda sad, actually, so I decided to step in and clear things up in favour of a device that is not flawless, as many outlets are pointing out in these hours, but has every right to play a good chunk of the match before being dismissed. Here I go:



I'll tell you, Giuseppe, despite having immediate issues with the Nintendo Switch design choices, I've always been possibilist about it. The Wii had a cyclopean success, while its unlucky successor still has some great games that people should go back and play. Saying that the console is flawless, though, sounds a little bit too defensive in light of the opinions of those who already had the chance to test it and share their experiences on YouTube, as opposed to us. 
Speaking of the manifacturing, the console doesn't sound sturdy at all: I've seen the tablet shaking inside the docking station to a worrying amount, and the joycon's fastening at the sides of the tablet doesn't seem keen on accomodating energic solicitations.
The most sensible thing to do would be sitting comfortably on our sofas and wait for the developers to show us what happens when they really settle on making this pretty little harmless looking console sing 
As far as the autonomy outside of the docking station is concerned, the best observed value amounts to 3 hours and half on the OS interface, with the screen always on (75% luminosity) and no games played, before the console died out. Frankly, it is hard to deem this acceptable, improvements are bound to happen in the next firmware updates, but energy consumption is typically hard to improve on the initial figures, so we better not delude ourselves. 
Computing power: the chinese portal Taobao.com already dissected the console to find a Tegra/Maxwell chipset inside, which includes a 1.78GHz CPU, a 921Mhz GPU and 4 GB of shared LPDDR4 RAM, which lines up to a recent leak from Foxconn. Those clock speeds decreases from 15% to 40% in portable configuration, in a developers defined figure that directly impacts battery life. On the technical side, then, the Switch doesn't even try to come close to its direct competitors, and everyone is free to deem this a valid approach or not, depending on what they expect from a console. 
So, is the Switch flawless? It is not, and that's perfectly physiological for any kind of device. But nonetheless, it's way too early to dump shit on the Switch, when the most sensible thing to do would be sitting comfortably on our sofas and wait for the developers to show us what happens when they really settle on making this pretty little harmless looking console sing.

sabato 7 gennaio 2017

Rebuilding a legacy: the Shenmue remasters

On January 5, 2017, registrations for the ShenmueHD.com and ShenmueRemasters.com domains by SEGA Europe have been found and made public by outlets TSSZ News and ShenmueDojo. Both domains, registered in September 2016, points to blank pages as of now, but SEGA expressed interest in remastering the first two Shenmue titles back in May 2016. So the stars may be aligning slowly but surely for the company's ill fated epic: the announcement of Shenmue 3 by Ys Net at Sony's momentous E3 2015 conference is mostly responsible for putting all the gears in motion, rekindling the hopes of a sizeable hardcore fanbase and tickling the interest of a much younger audience at the same time - people who have never played a Shenmue game before.


The followings are opinions and speculations based on the existence of two official web domains pointing out to remastered versions of the original Shenmue 1 and 2. Explicit confirmation from SEGA is yet to come.

Since the end of Shenmue 3's record setting Kickstarter campaign, updates from legendary game designer Yu Suzuki and his team has been pretty regular, and last December they reassured everyone about a smooth and steady development, prompting SEGA's aforementioned domain registrations. That's welcome news for sure, but the enthusiasm one can expect from people such as me (or the odd neighbour that kept playing his Dreamcast in 2001 while the PS2 was taking the world's markets by storm) can be put aside for one moment to ask why is SEGA caring about Shenmue at all, after relegating it to a limbo for about 15 years.

The Shenmue remasters sounds
more like chasing an opportunity rather
than a renewed act of faith towards
the series' groundbreaking legacy

For those who were interested in videogames back when SEGA had to quit the hardware business, it's easy to picture the company's struggle with Shenmue: on one hand, they had two of the most beautiful, complex and ambitious titles to ever grace an home console, while on the other, they represented a 70 million $ gamble that had a significant impact in their subsequent financial dramas.
What happened to SEGA in 2001 was a painful sign of where the gaming industry as a whole was heading, a place where the dream of a true open world with detailed visuals, highly granular interactions, a strong reliance on systemic features and artistic merit was just too big for the budgets of the time. From then on, in order to ensure (a) that the software quality reflected the capabilities of newer hardwares and in turn (b) financial sustainability, game making became a strictly collaborative effort.


Only recently SEGA has returned to an healty status thanks to smart investments on the PC market, but this alone doesn't justify a new investment on the Shenmue series: the kind of wound you've been reading about until now is extremely hard to recover from, and would rightfully make any businessman wary of the past and overly cautious about his future choices. There would be no need to reintroduce Shenmue to a new generation of gamers without future perspectives, which in this case comes from Ys Net, not even SEGA itself. That's why the Shenmue remasters sounds more like chasing an opportunity to me, rather than a renewed act of faith towards a series that tackled narrative open world design in a way most developers of today still strive for... or rather shy away from because, you know, games are just business.

There's a good part to Shenmue's legacy, SEGA. With so much water under the bridge, you really should know better.

lunedì 24 ottobre 2016

#RAPIDFIRE - 6: A tip for morality in games