Archive for the ‘Audio&Games’ Category

Games as educational tools

Saturday, July 18th, 2020

Jonathan Blow had a talk this week on the subject, which was very interesting. And Hacker News had a thread recently as well, spawned from this blog post. Excellent points being made.

This is very important to me. I started my career working on educational games. Now it’s 2020, kids are at home and school will probably never, ever be the same.

It’s the perfect time.

I don’t want to go through all the obvious –games are all educational, it’s hard to make interesting education games- but I’d like to point out to one thing that games teach better than anything else: management, aka navigating systems.

Management is about so many things. Secondary goals, short-term, long-term actions, timing. All those things that we do to maintain, sustain and run systems. Management is something a bit impalpable that’s being taught in every single game you play (these days games want you to manage the same things for hundreds of hours, which is problematic because it’s so unnecessary). The first thing management teaches you is to observe what is going on. Isn’t it something you need, whatever you do in life? Yes. Games are the best management playgrounds ever.

Get burn, do badly it’s okay, do wonderful and it doesn’t really matter, it’s a game. But those moments taught you. Those moments will stay with you and later on you’ll intuitively know that if you don’t pay attention to a certain little thing, this might end up into a big problem. You’ve learned so much through navigating those systems and that will be useful in life. You just don’t know how, but it will (I know I’ve become better than average at navigating crowded space thanks to playing shoot ’em ups and Counter-Strike for years).

The big question would be: what kind of games do we want to create so that people can use more directly their newly acquired knowledge and management skills? I have one.

Take The Sims building houses part. Add actual numbers about insulation, material used, costs etc. This way, people can actually play to make a home –that can be build in the real world- as they want, costing as less as possible or having the best temperature inside without running AC. Or just trying things out.

I would love to see people obsess over insulation R-value, optimizing and understanding house shape and material, understanding that hemp is fabulous or how small homes are far more efficient and just fine. And then people could visit their creation in VR. Now that’s a really useful, down to earth, global thing!

It makes me think that games, tools and toys are all intertwined and useful to learn and teach yourself a million things. We game developers and designers need to cater to this need though.

This is the direction I hope and wish a branch of computer games culture will follow. We need it.

Harsh

Friday, June 26th, 2020

So, rampant abuse in the entertainment industries came out all week long. I feel like last Friday was a year ago.

That’s on top of the usual layers of brutality against Black people and this fucking covid-19.

I am doing everything I can. The environment, all of it from living situation to global economy goes from a lil toxic to extremely putrid.

Regroup. Dance. Rest. Stand.

Half Life Alyx

Sunday, April 5th, 2020

I think this game illustrates perfectly the paradox of games, technology and cutting edge technology.

HL:A is a single-player, first-person shooter.

HL:A apparently redefines the VR experience.

HL:A demands technical knowledge. I’ve heard of people fighting to get the game to run. I’m talking hours before being ready.

HL:A demands a $3K hardware investment or the experience will be poor.

HL:A was in production for at the very least five or six years. It will not break even (I imagine Valve doesn’t care so much about that but other developers would).

Despite all that, the reviews and what I gather is that the experience is phenomenal. That HL:A is one of the best game experience ever made.

And that this experience involves shooting at people, having a dedicated room, a powerful computer, being very tech savvy and that this game cannot be shared with anyone else.

Simply put, that is very 1999.

That’s like the opposite of the zeitgeist right now. On the other hand, A single-player VR game in a quarantine and self-isolation era sounds great. Except that we all long for socialization and going outside.

Humans! Games! Stuff!

Noita

Tuesday, October 8th, 2019

Noita is chemistry. Noita is Life.

It’s a dungeon crawler game and it’s pretty unique. The more I play the more I see the work they put in and man, it’s something.

It’s a game designed from a bottom up perspective and Nolla Games did an amazing job. It doesn’t feel like early access.

Runs on 2012 laptop and “old” Surface Pro 3, check.

Sound and music are on point and once again, quite unique: when you start being in trouble, there’s this open ended mid 70s psychedelic prog rock soundtrack fading in and out (never quite the same), with distorted guitars, flutes and tambourine, phaser and chorus effects etc. It just works with the little wizard world, check. (not only it just works, but it’s REFRESHING OH MY GOD THANK YOU)

Controls are perfect, both on keyboard and mouse and gamepad, check.

The randomization is extremely good. I haven’t gotten stuck somewhere because of procedurally generated levels. It feels fair most of the time but sometimes it isn’t. When it isn’t, it’s hilarious. Like you land somewhere with 3 enemies shooting at you at the same time but one falls in a fire pit and starts burning the entire room by himself while you’re trying to escape, jumping in the water and shooting arrows at acidic flying thingy from under the surface.

I got stuck under my own pile of dirt once, created from a spell and I didn’t have enough air and almost died and then I couldn’t move at all so I had to use a bomb and it, of course, killed me. Chaos as a Service, check.

It’s a really hard game though. I can’t get past the Snowy Depths (level 4) because enemies become more aggressive than the US government on migrants. It does say a lot. The loot is too rare and it’s difficult to deal with electricity without getting murdered in one second (water and electricity, you know). I did angered the Gods –I don’t know how and it didn’t go well.

Noita has this incredible feel of being alive, thanks to its technical achievements. Playing other 2D games feels like some fake theater things after playing this one. They feel so very static.

Tiny pieces of glass on my bike commute looked like pixels today. Pixels. Chemistry. NOITA

Length matters

Saturday, September 28th, 2019

Overland is a strategy, turn-based game in which you take care of a bunch of travelers on a road trip in a post-apocalyptic world.

The core loop doesn’t allow for much. You’re immediately overrun by monsters, whatever your plan is. So you die a lot, constantly anxious. Reaching the next level is less a victory and more of a “fuck it” moment, knowing that the next level will be next to impossible.

Overland has been hard and getting harder ever since its inception. I think that is a tragic mistake.

Overland, from its aesthetic to its theme SCREAMS that this is a “doable” game and not a hardcore fest. I know, Cuphead does it but that’s the thing, it goes all the way: ultra-ultra cute and ultra-ultra hardcore. The dissonance works because it’s unapologetic. It’s part of the game’s identity. Overland with its road trip theme suggests a way more laid back vibe. That it has. And that it doesn’t want to follow.

This game should be able to be completed in 2 hours by a not so good player. And then, because it’s procedurally generated in many ways, it would offer very good replayability. You should be able to make a run in one evening session, go to sleep, dream about your little crew, especially the dog you named yourself, and want the next day to have another run.

Instead Overland, like far too many games, owes its development to fans, people who want the most hardcore shit all the time because they are –and it’s a little bit unhealthy- obsessed with said game.

I understand that that fanbase is very important when selling games. But if it’s basically closing the door to the rest of the audience, that’s a failure to me. Games take too long to be made and can’t be dependent on a small subset of an audience. That’s an incredibly fragile position to be in.

Game developers need to craft their experiences around time spent, respecting players. I’m sorry but the reality is that there’s tons of entertainment out there. You want to attract people, not deter them from having a good time.

Alec Holowka

Monday, September 2nd, 2019

Man.

I started following Infinite Ammo way back in 2004-2005 or something? Two guys making a “console” game straight for Windows and PCs? And the game is called Aquaria and allows you to play a mermaid in a Ecco the Dolphin type of game? I was interested and excited.

At that time RSS and bookmarks were the only way to connect with someone. Alec seemed amazing. Coder, designer and composer. I didn’t have issues to understand that he was constantly working. You have to when you do those three things well. Which he did.

I think he –or the folks around him- launched the pajama jam where you jam on your favorite instrument after waking up. I participated.

I wanted to connect with Alec and those awesome independent game developers because they looked like they were “getting it”. That is, doing things I would love to do and polish and polish more.

Making good games. Selling them well. Staying independent. This looked like was I exactly wanted to do.

Alec never left success, basically. From Aquaria to now –12 years– he seemed destined to always be in the light. Always working on not necessarily the hottest games, but always *good* games or prototypes. It’s pretty hard AF to do.

We started to follow each other somewhere in 2007 on Twitter. This is where Twitter was amazing and an actual social network. Everyday for the next decade and more, I would read his tweets and he might have read some of mine.

I could tell sometimes that he had a dark side. But most people do AND he lived in Canada, the country with at least 6 months of winter. So I didn’t see anything wrong. I remember being in the room during an indie game conference –Horizon Conference back in 2014– where he was showing up Night in the Woods. He was funny. A classic, chill nerd. I briefly exchanged a few words with him in a semi star-struck vibe.

I was super happy for Alec and his team when Night in the Woods, finally came out to a torrent of accolades and commercial success. It looked like that game could have destroyed everything. 5 hard years of work, Kickstarter and everything, I wasn’t sure this would pan out well. But it did and I guess he did some pretty great work on it.

This week was insane. I had no doubt he would seek to commit suicide after the news broke out.

So it’s a mix of Fuck This World, Fuck Him, Thank you for the Games, Why can’t we break abuse loops, Why Video Games Anyway?

It’s just hard. I’m sorry for everyone involved closely with his life. May y’all reach peace.

On guns and games

Monday, August 19th, 2019

Okay, I read most articles on guns and games in the past weeks. None satisfied me.

I did a little research. I’m part of the first generation that grew up with those games that have become incredibly popular: first-person shooters. Wolfenstein3D at twelve, blablabla. Something has changed through the years.

1990-1999: 190 first-person shooter games came out. The technology used is just born and is very limited. Games are cartoon-looking.

2000-2009: 314 first-person shooter games came out. The technology is improving every nine months. Games are janky-looking.

2010-2019: 160 first-person shooter games came out. The technology is extremely mature and complex. Fewer games come out because development costs are now extraordinary. Games are very good looking.

The number of mass shootings increased in the 2010s. Between 1982 and 2002 (twenty years), there was over 10+ fatalities three times. Between 2002 and now (seventeen years), nine times. Including some horrible numbers (2017: 117 killed).

Just correlation, of course (it correlates with 2004 assault rifle ban going away as well). But it’s interesting to me to see the snowballing happen.

I wish I could see the total number of players playing FPS from 1990 to now. Because it went from a few thousands in the 90s, potentially a few hundred thousands, to hundreds of millions.

One or two orders of magnitude more people shooting people in games, which are more and more realistic –to the point of being used as background pictures in the news, don’t forget– is not a trivial thing. Simply by the numbers involved, coupled with other facts (like parents checking out on parenting), gun normalization through games has to distort pre-teen and teenagers’ perception of violence. We try not to disclose the pictures and names of shooters to not influence potential souls. We can’t then say that the constant display and normalization of violence and firearms use in FPS –hundreds, thousands of hours- doesn’t affect young people.

We can’t have it both ways.

So it’s worth pondering on what we’re doing as game developers. Especially when reports, if you read them, are basically saying, “we’re not sure; there’s definitely a connection between violent games and aggressive cognition but no *direct* link between playing violent games and killing people and also all that research is super new, give us more time”.

Meanwhile we know that online multiplayer communities are formed around those games. Sometimes around those virtual, real weapons. It’s not about a direct link. It’s about the climate we’re complicit of setting up, at very large scales.

But games don’t make people violent, it’s been demonstrated. I am myself, fine.

Like I said, It’s not about that or about you. It’s about how much our environment fuels violence and to the question “is video game culture participating into making violence and brutality something normal and easy?”  the answer, with first-person shooters is pretty clearly, yes, it does.

But it’s just the same as rock n roll and comics.

There’s a huge difference between listening to extremely angry dudes brutalizing their musical instruments, and participating into a raid in HD on a big TV where you actively press a trigger and see bodies fall as a result, hear screams, with weapons coded and designed as close as possible to the real deal, to the point of having weapon manufacturers consult with game companies.

I mean the US army uses FPS to recruit and keep their troops in “soldier mode” ffs.

If you tell me that it’s the same as rock n roll back in 1950, you need some rest. It is very different.

But it’s the guns that kill people.

Thank you for reminding me of this, I had forgotten. So yes, guns kill. And guns exist. They’re usually made of very durable material and can be operational for decades. There’s like four gazillion of them in the US. Unless the government takes the initiative of confiscating all weapons to go to Hawaii to dump them in a volcano, we can’t change that. What we can change is pushing people not to use them against other people. What we can certainly shift is the culture. What we can do is seriously reduce normalizing shooting people. As game developers, considering the trends,  I think we have some room to do something.

But plenty of games are non-violent!

I know that. Farming Simulator and Stardew Valley for instance are about growing stuff and are selling very well, making their developers really happy. But in terms of popularity, shooters dwarf the fuck out of those and y’all know this. Shooters regularly beat sales records. PUBG is 5th on the best-selling game of all time list. It came out 2 years ago (it has sold more than Super Mario Bros in 34 years!). They sell millions of units on the day the game launches. One had 8.3 million concurrent players shooting at each other at its peak. That’s absolutely staggering.

You just hate FPS and developers.

Not at all. I know what it takes to create those games. I understand and appreciate developers’ work far more than the average gamer or non-playing person. I also am in game audio and it’s funny and hard work to record guttural horror, simulated pain, and gross flesh-y stuff.

It also takes a toll on us. So it does to players as well. You guys are no different.

So you want to ban all violent games??

No Jesus effing Louise chill. I would like to use this occasion to point out that any game talking about say, cannabis or eroticism is IMMEDIATELY, with the quickness banned from being talked about and blocked from being sold on any store as if the game itself had killed someone or a dog. Why?

But anyway. It’s not about the general public, bans, measures, or the politic layer. It’s about game developers having to have a conversation about our responsibilities and how we can/should slow our roll with in-game brutality. There are other things in life and if not, we can definitely be more subtle about elimination-based games. It’s an internal discussion that we need and completely, consistently avoid all the time. So we end up with an industry that’s either about dark shooters or ultra cute whatever to counterbalance the grim. 20 years of that, I’m a little sick. We need to recognize what we’re doing, turn it down a notch or five and make games less serious and grim. But considering how much money all that violent entertainment makes (BILLIONS), and how everyone forgets everything after 24 hours of social media, and how reactionary game culture is, game developers will not do shit, not even talk. We don’t have to.

And that’s a shame.

CS:20 (almost)

Friday, July 26th, 2019

I wrote about this game many times.

2000-2019. I joined with Beta7.

Prologue

I have been playing Counter-Strike for basically twenty years. I still play a match of two from time to time, against bots on CS:CZ because my machine can’t run CS:GO but whatever. Still watching pro games here and there. I spent a few years watching tons of pros play. Jumping off of my chair and stuff.

I’m struck at how the excitement of entering a large, dangerous area is still there, even with bots. Even after decades. Even after knowing absolutely everything about where to go, what to do. Because I’ll still get surprised and die stupidly or make the two best moves that allow me to place quick headshots. Crouch. Reload. Giggle (or not).

Only really great games carry excitement through emergent gameplay for that long. Many games do that for five years. Ten is a lot more rare. Twenty is quite exceptional. Only CS, Mario Kart and Go are there personally.

The Game

Counter-Strike is one of the best multiplayer game ever made. When it came out, I thought that we didn’t need any more multiplayer shooting games, or at the very least those with military things going on. Even though we got Call of Duty games every year since 2005, I still think CS should have been the end of that genre. From gameplay to matches’ length, it’s perfect.

Okay, Battlefield is fun too because it adds this entire new scope with vehicles and does it well. But to me it just makes gameplay more messy and clumsy for the thrill of doing silly things with your plane and your dune buggy. Nah. Essence, son.

When Counter-Strike came out the setting was actually refreshing, believe it or not. We didn’t have first-person games with current military stuff. At that time we had Half-Life, Tribes, Deus Ex, Quake, Unreal Tournament and other cyberpunk-ish ‘brosome aesthetics going on I guess.

CS was very different. CS was very subtle. CS afforded not very great players skill-wise to win games because they would play the clock, camp or bully you. It’s near impossible to win a 1 VS 2 or 1 VS 3. The first time you’re planting the bomb? Those few seconds where you’re absolutely vulnerable, while your teammates, hurt, are looking out for you, is one of the purest joy in computer games. Period.

CS is hilarious. As soon as you know the other team has no money to buy equipment, you know you have to be extra careful because them mofos will play dirty next round. Pettiness as gameplay. Nice.

I think that’s what made the game so viscerally human. The playing field was accessible where Quake or Unreal weren’t. I have many memories of always dying mid-match but satisfied because I knew I had HURT the team we were fighting and that I had had a big impact even though I was gone. That grenade and that submachine gun clip had done the job. The bomb was planted or about to. Mission completed (or close to).

But also, I think it’s the first and only game where sound –and the absence of sound- is a matter of winning or losing a game.

I can’t think of any game where it’s that absolutely crucial. It’s always about “I heard them”. Seeing the opponents means it’s too late. Pro games are so intensively quiet before the storm, it’s so unique and scary and exciting. Sound as game design. Dope.

The negative side of playing this game is well, teenagers. I was already grown when this game was being made, playing with brand new dads and young adults in a LAN setting. Being able to hear my friend I’d just eliminated shout “fuck!!” next door was good in many ways. “Come GET ME!” would yell my other friend next to me in the room, when he was the last player standing, with a shotgun –no range- in a tower. So many laughs.

Playing against 15 years old, weapon-lover, sugar-injecting kids online was different. Way different. Niggerrrrr different.

Gamedev

The story is of course, weird and dorky. Minh Le is Counter-Strike’s main designer and Jess Cliffe is the producer. They started the game, developed the game’s various designs, named it etc. Valve saw the potential very quickly and got involved in the first months of the beta.

One of the most important thing about Counter-Strike: the maps. They didn’t have much when they started and thanks to a few brilliant level designers, maps showed up and were almost immediately, perfect.

The interesting thing is that a handful of dudes created half a dozen maps that have been played for billions of hours. And most of those guys were Europeans, and not necessarily experts in level design! As often in this industry, they disappeared. Some worked on level design at Valve, some left, others quit level design all together…

Counter-Strike is very lucrative. Last time I checked, CS:GO –the last iteration, created in 2012- was bringing something like $200M a year and as I’m researching now and looking at numbers (Valve doesn’t disclose them), it appears that it’s probably closer to half a billion dollars a year? Yup. Lucrative.

The game is now F2P.

The two OG game designers worked there for years. One left, the other might have gotten fired over some catfishing scandal. It’s pretty disappointing to see. I’d love to read the full story of how the two designers met, what was the fire for them, what design decisions they fought for the most, which ones were the hardest to maintain, the different CS versions through engines etc. It’s probably super interesting. I want to know everything.

Left-Handedness

When I started playing the game, I felt uncomfortable with the weapon model stuck on the right side of the screen. Because Counter-Strike is a Half-Life mod and that you could switch models to the left side with that game engine, so could I in CS. And, that changed everything. It immediately felt natural and now I could focus on team work and actually aim properly. I just discovered that Minh Le is left-handed too and would switch its weapon model, just like me (which is why early screenshots of the game show lefty stuff).

The thing is that 20 years and hundreds of first person shooters later, CS is still the only game that allows real lefties to enjoy playing. It boggles my mind that an entire industry just can’t bother to accommodate left-handedness, pushing people away from enjoying games more. The software industry can be more rigid and conservative than a rock in Virginia while having all the latitude to change things: it’s just code. Sigh.

Criticism

I wish voice over wasn’t so skewed towards making the counter-terrorists speak English with no accent. It’s not about realism. Voice over was the same for both sides back in the day and it was just fine. It’s not a good design decision to play on that and make it “funny” for some people. There should only be a CT team and a T team and nothing else. Fuck your underlining pointless stories, it’s a multiplayer game. Honestly, they should even have gone with a paint ball theme, add some women models and go away from military settings. At least make a version like this, call it CS:SOFT I don’t care.

Enough military/police propaganda. Enough.

Anyway. Counter-Strike is still one of the most played/watched game on earth. And I kinda want to launch a game real quick now (I did; it was, as usual, fun).

Day of the Tentacle

Tuesday, June 18th, 2019

The 1993 CD “talkie” version of Day of the Tentacle is a perfectly flawless adventure, the rarest of rare games, that which did nothing wrong. Nothing. There is no weakness in this game, no sieve. Stop waiting for the “but” because it won’t come. This is the perfect adventure game, the one adventure that brought every aspect of great adventures together and created such an enjoyable masterpiece, it almost seems to transcend the level of computer games.

filfre.net (give Jimmy Maher money, he more than deserves it)

This game was perfect. I was waiting on it. I have two boxes in my hands at the store in my Parisian suburbs: Day of the Tentacle and Wing Commander Academy. I love spaceships stuff but the Academy thing was a spin off and smelled like it wasn’t so great, looking at the screenshots and missions (I played it a few years later: it was a turd).

On the other hand, I had this irresistible green box with funny looking characters with a story happening at three different time periods. This sounded amazing.

And it was. I loved every single second of it. True, the puzzles were quite vague sometimes –design wise, how to make a puzzle work for a kid living in France with a quite different set of values and culture must not have been in the designers heads- but I would play and try things out until I was bored and then look up a magazine walkthrough pages to unlock the thing I couldn’t understand. I thought that “Fony” television was hilarious and inspiring. Subversion was king in the 90s.

Day of the Tentacle is one of those rare, everything-went-well cases. They had talent. The publisher hadn’t been through massive failures yet. Money was not a problem at all. There was no pressure like we have had for the past twenty years in game development. They worked their ass off, creative and accountable (polished and bug-free game!) through and through. It paid off.

Lucasfilm Games and LucasArts (same company, change of name) was probably the pinnacle of western game development. 25 years later and the game still holds well, like Batman the animated series or Animaniacs. Memories.

Game Life Expectancy

Friday, June 14th, 2019

It’s a terrifying thing that’s happening in game development: people die. Early.

Game producer dies at 44. We lose a few every year and it’s starting to be a pattern.

It’s a young age but also, really?? He produced huge games for Sony, back to back to back. That’s got to leave some marks (he apparently died from heart failure).

How come we went from dying early because of body wear and diseases to dying early with virtually no body wear and quasi total absence of any disease and abundant nutrition? It defies nature’s laws.

How modern days healthy dudes who spent their lives in cubicles die earlier than medieval folks?

The out-of-this-world pressure, destroying our hearts and arteries at a velocity never encountered before? Possibly.

That’s scary as hell.