Saturday, October 22, 2011

Windows Phone Woes

I just don't understand it. It bothers me that I don't, as well. Because I like to think of myself as a shining example of "Humanity: Non-stupid" in that I usually do find a way of understanding things.

Like Apple, for example. Their processes, and especially their software, may drive many insane, but at least they are designed to a common purpose. That purpose being "Make it as easy as possible to get people to part with their money in our direction." Whilst I may not agree with all of their methods, I certainly understand them. Apple want a slice of every transaction made through and about their devices, and thus operate a closed system. To Apple's credit, they appear to be quite lax about who they allow to peddle their wares inside the App Store/iTunes.

Microsoft also operate a closed system, presumably for the same reasons. The Windows Marketplace is only avaialable via Microsoft branded products and software, just so that MS can take their cut of every sale. Unfortunately, MS seem to actively fight customers who are just trying to spend money, making it unecessarily taxing to do so.

First of all, they slap a premium onto every item on sale. The minimum cost of a game on a Windows 7 is £0.79p. Compare this to an iOS game? £0.69p, which means that if I were to buy 9 games on WP7 I would spend £7.11p. I could actually buy the same 9 games and then treat myself to another one on iOS, and still have £0.22p left over. It may seem like a trivial amount, but it is an easy decision to make for those of us who have access to both markets; it's cheaper on iOS, so buy that one.

This problem is small, though, because a much larger one presents itself. If I find myself in the mood to buy a game on my Windows Phone, it takes me a lifetime to find one. The Marketplace appears to have been designed by a work experience kid, on his lunchbreak. It does precisely the job of listing what is available, but fails on a scale that should not exist in a Microsoft product when it comes to ordering or categorising applications. Under the heading "Games" I have the sub-headings of "XBox Live", "Top", "New", and, in an admittedly nice touch, "Free". The final one is "Categories", but this might as well say "Elephant porn" for all the use it is. One of the categories is, I kid you not, 'Racing and Flying'. Racing AND Flying, as if the two are inseperable. Surprisingly, one can find Sudoku games in this category. But only if they were one of the most recently released games. By a stroke of ineptitude, every single heading only lists games in descending order from most recent release.

This is great if you want something new. But piss poor if you want anything good. There is a reason the App Store dropped this method of listing, and it is because it makes it bloody hard to find something when Nobby Bollocks decides to release 257 different versions of a picture quiz game. Swiping your finger down titles so archaic that they may as well be written in heiroglyphics is a soul-destroying process for the gamer with an itch in his bank account.

It's not all bad news for the phone. After all, the phones themselves are all made to a minimum technical specification, which means that you know any game you download will work. This is vastly preferable to the lottery that is Android, where you more or less have to guess if your phone can handle the game. And it also sidesteps the feeling of utter inadequacy when you are told that this app is incompatible with this model iPhone. Seriously, it stops JUST short of pointing, laughing, and posting your failure on Facebook when a game determines that your iDevice is not good enough.

Even better, the single best feature of Windows phones is the 'Back' button. It may seem like a small thing, but when a game is programmed to give you a quick way of navigating or even exiting, it makes a huge difference.

Which makes the inclusion of the 'Search' button all the more baffling. In a failure of proportions so massive that they can only be measured mathematically, merely breathing too close to the search button is deemed sufficient contact to have pressed it. At which point, whatever you are doing is closed down so that you can go straight to a lovely image on Bing. BING? WHO THE HELL USES BING? There are Microsoft employees who get paid to use and even advertise Bing that won't touch it, let alone folk who don't scare the neighbours. Trust me, nothing is worse than a fast run in the excellent Hydro Thunder GO that is suddenly and egregiously interrupted by a picture of a puffin.

It saddens me to see this potentially awesome platfom in the hands of such morons as Microsoft. For every good idea they have, they pile on a few cock-ups, as if they really don't know anything about the market they are aiming for. Building in XBox Live is a stroke of genius, but making all the Live-enabled games cost £2.29 or more is astonishingly short-sighted. You know, I love acheivements, but even I draw the line at paying extra just because the game lets me earn some gamerscore. Angry Birds hit 5 million sales at 59p, and 200 million downloads at free. I would be willing to bet a months wages that it has not even hit 500,000 at £2.29.

And there's another thing! Marekting! In the same week that Apple restructured their pricing so that the minimum rose from 59p to 69p, MS CUT the £2.49 pricepoint by 20p. But, did anyone know about this? Did MS shout this from the rooftops, as a way of getting some much-needed good publicity? Of course they didn't. They decided to trundle along in their own small-minded way, imagining that people would somehow psychically learn of this price cut via the same channels that they are supposed to miraculously learn about the few actual really good games on the platform.

All of this probably goes some way to explaining why so few developers are bothering to port to the phone. It has to be taken as a worrying sign when Radian Games, who published some of the best games available on the XBox Live Indie Games channel, opted to release Super Crossfire on iOS instead of on WP7. THE GAME WAS ALREADY IN XNA! It should have been the work of mere minutes to convert it, get it on the Marketplace, and start raking in the dough as gamers who are literally STARVED of quality on the phone all buy it in droves. If you happen to be reading, Luke, I promise you I will buy the game the very second I know it is available. I guarantee you I'm not alone. But, I suspect that MS have done their very best to make the prospect of developing for the phone as unappealling as the prospect of buying one is.

I find myself wishing I hadn't bothered getting a Windows Phone. Not only is my choice of gaming limited, I can't even have "Still Alive" as my ringtone. I can't have ANY custome ringtone! How is a gaming nerd like me supposed to deal with something so crippling as being forced to choose from pre-determined ring and text alerts? I was able to type in the Donkey Kong Hammertime music on my Nokia 3210, for crying out loud, yet here I am in 2011 having to rely on '8 Bit Kid' as the only even remotely-gamey tune for me to use.

Sort it out, MS, please. It wouldn't take much, the platform has the potential to be THE essential phone choice for gamers. Possibly even more so than Experia Play, if only because it doesn't make you look like an arse. In the hands of Apple, mobile gaming has gone from being seen as something that also happens to a viable method of entertainment. In the hands of MS, it seems to be seen as some kind of magical conduit to gamers wallets, without bothering to make us want to spend in the first place. Guess what, Major? It ain't gonna fly. We need REASONS to spend, and we're not getting enough of them at the moment.

(If anyone at MS reads this,by the way, I'd be willing to take the job of fixing it for you on.)

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Changing the game.

I want to say that I am a huge fan of Indie games, but that would not quite tell the whole story. Because, what I actually am a huge fan of is good videogames. Sometimes, these games are produced by small teams outside of the publisher-led mainstream, indepndently. Often, they are a labour of love; the realisation of one man's vision.

This is not to say that all Indie games are automatically great. In fact, there are a great many cases where there is a good reason why no major publisher will touch the product. Self-indulgent, undisciplined, or just plain bad games are created all the time by bedroom coders, and thrown out onto the unsuspecting world. To browse through the XBox Live Indie Games channel, for example, would expose one to all manner of horrific abominations. We should not be kind to them just because they are independent.

Nor should we dismiss games for the same reason. Other entertainment industries don't segregate in this way. Your average movie critic rates the footage that is in front of them, and are just as likely to watch a small art-house production as they are the inevitable Avatar 2. Of course, movies are a much more mature and accepted artform than videogames, and as such are more likely to be taken at face value. If anything, independence garners more respect, as award ceremonies tend to eschew the big-budget blockbusters in favour of smaller and more personal creations.

This is clearly not going to happen with games anytime soon. Game of the Year lists will be littered with the usual suspects, just like they were last year and the year before. It seems that marketing matters above all else, and a game needs to practically force its way into good reviews, and thus good sales. This is usually the part where Indie games fall flat, mostly due to lack of budget. Some of the best games of the last 10 years have been kept secret from the general public, simply because they can't shout loud enough to grab the attention they need.

It also doesn't help that videogame writing is in a shocking state at the moment. For the most part, videogame websites are nothing more than PR for the big publishers. EA press-releases that contain nothing of actual interest get drip-fed to a slavering audience, with the sites having the sheer audacity to classify it as "News". It is not news, it is ADVERTISING. At any given time, there will be stories about 5-10% of upcoming games, from 2 or 3 publishers. Hundreds of titles are literally ignored. As an outsider looking in, I can only offer my opinion as to why this is the case, and it does very much seem to me as if websites are being "Good doggies" for fear of getting their ball taken away from them. If they can't get the stories up on day 1, someone else gets the hit and the resultant advertising revenue.

Thank heavens, then, for the sites that exist outside this endless circle-jerk. The sites that don't just acknowledge the Indie game scene, they celebrate it. It's a pretty dicey business strategy, focusing on a niche, but theoretically they can forge a much better relationship with their audience as well as the developers themselves.

One such site is The Indie Game Magazine. A smaller site, dedicated to Indie games, it started out as a print and digital mag before becoming what it is today. It is the culmination of one man's dream. IGM is about as far removed from IGN as it is possible to get.

It doesn't quite live up to the dream, though. Because, the cold reality of the internet is that it costs money, and the only way to pay is by advertising. Which means that as soon as a site gets popular, ideals fall by the wayside as once again the money dictates the content. Or, to be more accurate, the lack of money. When faced with having to fund the dream, most webmasters sell their soul.

It starts off innocently enough, with an affiliate scheme. Here, there are links to buy the game reviewed/discussed, which generates a small comission for the site. Suspicions that the site will start to focus only on games that allow them to generate a link are only natural. Or perhaps the site will feature some kind of banner, that generates money per hit. Of course, sites doing this would NEVER pander to the masses, would they? Integrity would automatically override any desire for a site to feature a game that is massively popular just to increase advertising revenue, surely...

But the worst aspect of this insatiable need to feed advertising is in the treatment of the written word. On the internet, text is still the prevalent form of communication. Even in these Flash, Silverlight, and HTML 5 soaked days, video and the spoken word lag behind a good old-fashioned wall of words. Of course, Mr. Webmaster wants articles, reviews, stories, and features. No-one can satisfy demand single-handedly. So, how does he get his words? He hires staff.

"Hires" is probably a misnomer, as it implies payment. For, the sad truth is that the vast majority of website writing about videogames is done by unpaid volunteers. Some sites do claim that review copies are in fact fair payment, but let us examine this claim for one second. If I were to ask you to clean my windows for me, and told you that I would give you the water to do it, would you think that was adequate recompense or would you tell me to go fuck myself with my ladder? I suspect I would be removing rungs from my intestine for the next several months if I offered the very tools that are required to do the job instead of actual payment.

And yet, this is the norm all over the internet. Big sites give news with no real meaning, small sites have low quality writing, and the readers suffer either way.

It's time we redrew the battle lines, gamers. Time we rethought what we want from the internet. Do we want sanitised and corporate-approved news through identikit channels? Do we want the real important and enlightening reviews to be spread over several hundred websites that might not even open the next time we click on them? Do we want ... what we have at the moment?

I don't.

So, I propose a solution. From now on, whenever you see a site that is "hiring", simply don't apply for the job unless there is promise of payment. Don't sell yourself short. Why should these sites be getting quality content for free? Why should your hard work reward somebody else? IS MAN NOT ENTITLED TO THE SWEAT OF HIS OWN BROW?

I write this blog because this hobby is my passion. I want to tell the world about the games that bring me such joy, and so I do so off my own back, for no reward other than the knowledge that people are reading and enjoying. (Full disclosure: I have an Amazon Affiliate account, and use AdSense, but the combined income from these to date would not pay the electricity required to write and upload one post. Plus, I refused to post a link for Bodycount!) Were I to start charging a subscription, I know I wouldn't get too many takers. But, the question should not be "Would people pay?" It should instead be "Why shouldn't people pay?"

People, this won't be a popular suggestion, but it is one that I want to put out there. Maybe the solution to the mountain of crap that is festering all over the internet is to start paying for the websites we use. Turn the web itself into a free-market economy, instead of the free mess it currently is. That way, if a site serves up rubbish, we just cancel our subscription and stop visiting. The sites will need to chase the best writers in order to justify their charges, and most importantly the quality will slowly start to rise to the surface. Sites will be free to pick and choose what stories they cover, no longer beholden to the advertisers that previously paid their bills. Actual variety will flood your screen, as each site will tailor to its own audience instead of chasing the masses that desert and go to a different site the second it has a new CoD screenshot anyway.

The inspiration for this idea came from a conversation I had with Chris Newton, the editor for IGM. What happened was that I took exception to what I believe to be a poor review of Braid. I wasn't upset by the lower than expected score, nor would I have been bothered if the reviewer had stated how the game wasn't to his tastes. I was instead annoyed by what I am convinced was a review of the first world of the game, perhaps even just the demo, that dismissed it as a Mario clone. Anybody who has played Braid knows how untrue this is. So, I took the reviewer to task, and was promptly challenged to provide better. I feel like I have done, and the world will soon be able to see for themselves.

Why did I write my review for free when I have just spent far too long telling people that they shouldn't do that? Because, I want to illustrate a point. And that point is that, currently, there is an awful lot of rubbish polluting the screens of gamers everywhere. Rubbish that could easily be thinned out if we just stopped being so bloody entitled and insisting that everything be free all the time. Rubbish that, if sites weren't afraid to ask for subscriptions, wouldn't even exist. Amazingly, Mr. Newton claims that the review is successful because it has done the job, which is to get eyes on the site. Advertisers like this, and it frustrates me to my very core that he is RIGHT! "Quality be damned, we're after quantity!"

Gamers deserve better. Writers deserve better. deserves better. Kyle McColl deserves better. Unfortunately, an old chestnut comes to mind; "There's no such thing as a free lunch."

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Why PC gaming is in decline.

Games are able, at their best, to enlighten us. To involve us emotionally in something that movies and books can't hope to compete with. Interactivity may well be an old-fashioned buzz word, best left to the confines of the time period that spawned it, but it is also a perfect word to use to say just what the edge that games have is.

You read a book, and watch a movie. In both cases you are only passively involved in the entertainment that is placed before you. Whereas, in a game, you interact. You are not just involved, you can conduct. You make decisions, you have input, you have control. You are no longer just a viewer; you are a part of the experience. You are instrumental in the magic. Without the active participation of the player, a game is completely and utterly pointless.

There exists, therefore, a contract between game developer and player. They make the fun for us, and we do our best to enjoy it. In return for enriching our lives, we offer up some of our earnings. Or, to put it into the form of a sound bite; In order to play, we pay.

We (being the players) do this willingly. At every single point of the game buying process, we assess the situation in front of us, and determine if the likely outcome is "A good time" being had. If it is, we then predict how good a time this will be, divide this by the length of the time we expect to spend with the game, and if this number is above whatever our own personal threshold figure is for expenditure we drop the required money. I could probably go on and make this into some cool equation, but I hope to have this blog read by people who don't get all wibbly at the sight of such things, so I shall avoid the temptation. (And, believe me, it is a HUGE temptation!)

So, with all this in mind, I have to profess to being absolutely mystified whenever a game developer goes out of their way to muddy the waters. When they make a decision that actively gets in the way of people's enjoyment of their product. Why would anybody do this?

More importantly, why do so many game developers do this?

Let us take a hypothetical situation. I have decided to make a videogame. Being a bit (ok, a lot) of a nerd, I decide to theme it around Star Trek. But, that isn't enough. No, I want authenticity in my game. So much so that all the text and dialogue, including the manual, is in the Klingon language.

How many people in the world can read Klingon? Not many, I'll wager. But, the figure becomes massively important to me. Because, that is the MAXIMUM amount of people who will buy my game.

By placing this restriction, I am applying a barrier to potential sales. Similarly, by placing ANY restriction, I am doing the same thing. The more barriers I place, the more limited my potential market is. So, I should strive to remove any restrictions. I would not want there to be any of them at all. I would, in fact, want every part of the process of playing my game to be as straightforward as possible. For the entirety of the experience to be, to use another 90's buzz word, user-friendly.

The App Store has absolutely mastered the art of making it easy for people. Users of iDevices are never more than a couple of taps on the screen away from spending money. Factor this alongside the general low amount of money that users are asked to spend, and it becomes of no surprise to anybody with an ounce of logic or reasoning skills that the App Store is making an OBSCENE amount of money for developers. Everything is easy, everything is quick, and everything is cheap. It is worryingly simple to spend a small fortune in the App Store, and it is for this very reason that there are literally thousands of games available there.

Console gaming has a lot of this kind of mentality applied to it, as well. Buy the game; put it in the machine, play. At least, if it is a Wii game. For the XBox 360, there may be the additional step of updating the game. Generally, this takes an extra 25 seconds of your life before the game starts up. On the PS3, though, things start to develop a slightly sour taste as the update procedure may take an hour or so. And this is assuming that the console itself doesn't require an update. There are times when downloading and installing a PS3 system update followed by downloading and installing a game update FOLLOWED BY A MANDATORY INSTALLATION OF THE SODDING GAME ITSELF can take all night.

And in the case of PC gaming? Things get ... the only real word to use for it is SHIT.

I understand that there are a million different configurations of PC out there. I get that the hardware I have may not be the same as that in my next door neighbours PC. I also fully understand that different operating systems exist, and that people will use different programs to do the same jobs.

Know what I struggle with? WHY this is a problem.

Right now, you are probably reading this on a monitor. It is probably capable of outputting at any one of 10 different resolutions. It may not be able to output at 1920 x 1080 like mine can, but I would be willing to bet a month’s wages that it can handle 1024 x 768.

Similarly, with input mechanisms. Everyone has a mouse and a keyboard, but not everybody has a gamepad. However, those that want to use their PCs to play games? They'll have a gamepad. And, in an amazing slice of serendipity, every gamepad made in the last hundred years or so comes in a fairly standard configuration. 4 face buttons, 2 shoulder triggers, and one analogue stick. Yes, there are other types, but most have that lot as standard.

So what should a games developer do when faced with this bewildering array of configurations and hardware?

Ignore it. Build to a standard that everyone already has. In the case of controller options, include the ones that are most likely to be used. Don't make a game that can only be played by widescreen monitor owners. Make one that runs in 1024 x 768, or even in 800 x 600!

What do PC developers tend to do? The exact opposite. They program games to work on their theoretical perfect machine, which often only they actually have. When they meet a problem in development, they usually buy whatever extra stuff they need to get round this problem, and thus end up with a game that speaks Klingon. Or, for the benefit of those who are not quite so adept at translating forced metaphors, a game with restrictions to entry. A game that, and this is really important to note, not everyone can play immediately. Sometimes, customers need to install new drivers for their graphic and sound cards. Sometimes they need to buy whole new cards. Sometimes they need to add extra memory, or get a bigger Hard Drive, or sacrifice a small animal in order to play. (Admittedly, this is an extremely rare occurrence.)They may have to sign up to some obscure web site, make payments in foreign currencies, agree to ridiculous terms and conditions, and this is usually before they ever get to play the game. Playing the game itself can often be the most laborious of tasks, involving verifying that they are indeed allowed to play it in the first place by means of some external control system. "This game can only be played by those who I specifically allow to, when I say, and how I say!" does not make for a very friendly pre-game atmosphere.

Similarly, I might not want to install your game onto my C:, perhaps I have filled this already? Or, perhaps I save that drive specifically for my OS, and instead install all my games onto D:? It is nice to have the choice, and yet games are still being made that require installation to the main drive. What if I don't mind the noise and would actually be quite happy to run the game straight from the disc? I can't honestly recall the last time I had that option, apart from when it was essential to have the game in the drive to prove I owned it, usually despite having already installed it to the C: in a folder that I didn't get to choose myself...

Dear PC games developers everywhere, I implore you to heed this advice. History has shown quite conclusively that there are literally millions of people out there who are more than happy to give you their hard-earned tokens in exchange for entertainment. We gamers are ready to hand over our cash in order to allow you to buy your Lamborghini. It continues to astonish me just how difficult some of you want to make it for us to actually do that. By requiring us to jump through hoops before we can play, you are subtracting from our enjoyment. In the equation that I never wrote, this will lead to a greater likelihood that our expected enjoyment quotient ends up being significantly below our personal threshold for willingness to spend. Or, for the benefit of those who don't speak geek as fluently as others, we get turned off before we get turned on and aren't gonna pay for that crap!

PC development is incredibly guilty of this attitude that seemingly goes out of its way to preclude people from playing. Developers have some kind of smug superiority complex, and thus pile the agony on for the average end user out there. Nobody wants to have to perform major reconstructive surgery on their computer just to shoot an alien, especially when they can do it for £0.69p on their phone. Nobody wants to be made to feel unworthy of a game when the minimum requirements match a machine that only exists in movies. Nobody wants to prove they are the person who bought the game every single time they attempt to play it.

There is a reason that console gaming is more popular than PC gaming. And it is because PC games developers are making it happen.