Downloading Daleks: The Conundrum of Public Funding

  • Reading time:7 min(s) read

by Eric-Jon Rössel Tairne

Originally published by GameSetWatch, then republished by GamaSutra.

Doctor Who is perhaps the BBC’s biggest worldwide brand. For nearly fifty years the British public has drowned in Doctor Who merchandise and tie-ins: novels, audio plays, comics, toys, and T-shirts. Yet when it comes to new media, the BBC has been curiously slow to act. In the 1980s there were a few Doctor Who text adventures, and in the early ‘90s a pair of dubious licensed games for the PC. Since the show’s successful 2005 revival, Eidos has released a collectible card game across several platforms. Their individual merits aside, none of these games or genres really reflects the show’s talky, exploration-heavy premise.

By comparison, Doctor Who: The Adventure Games is a venture of the BBC proper, and a collaboration with the current TV production team. Over the last few years the BBC’s website division – also paid for through the TV license fee – has experimented with Flash games and animated episodes. Some of those efforts resulted in, for example, the reanimation of lost Doctor Who episodes from the 1960s. All these efforts, however, have been tentative and have skirted the edges of procedure.

With The Adventure Games, the BBC has some motivation – namely competition. Channel 4, the TV station established some thirty years ago to provide an alternate perspective to the cultural mainstream represented in ITV and the BBC’s two channels, has recently begun to expand its remit to cover videogames.

As a broadcaster, Channel 4 is required to air less enfranchised voices and to commission its programming from independent bodies. By the same reasoning, of late the Channel 4 website has become a significant source of funding for British indie games. To keep speed, the BBC seems to be responding to its competitor in familiar BBC style by luring huge and established talents to develop broadly appealing in-house entertainment — as when seven years ago they brought in Queer as Folk creator Russell T Davies to revive Doctor Who.

In this case, the BBC has contracted one of the most respected adventure game authors and perhaps the most respected nuts-and-bolts development crews in Europe. For their part, Broken Sword designer Charles Cecil and OutRun 2 developer Sumo Digital have digested and translated the show’s appeal in a way that spin-off and licensed material – including much under the Doctor Who banner – rarely does. Granted, the actors’ line readings sound like the first take for an audio book and the story itself perhaps borrows too liberally from Back to the Future – yet at no point does the game feel throwaway.

The question is, why? To quote Tom Baker’s Doctor, as he gawped at the remains of planets shriveled into gallery exhibits, what’s it all for? It’s all well that audiences now have a decent Doctor Who game, and it is curious to see the level of collaboration from the show’s production office, but what does the BBC hope to gain from the project?

Surely the game is more than a competitive response to Channel 4. Granted they’re both public broadcasters with a certain remit, and the lack of direct commercial concerns means that not every move has to be absolutely sensible so long as they can argue its creative or social merit — but likewise, it’s not like they’re chasing a buck here. There’s no market to corner, and nothing really to compete over. The games are effectively free to their largest and primary audience, and any foreign sales would be hard pressed to justify the expenditure.

Then again, lately the BBC has been in a weird place culturally and financially. There are growing movements to abolish the TV license fee, meaning that to avoid defaulting to a commercial broadcast model the BBC more and more has to justify its funding. In an era where fewer and fewer people watch TV, and those who do generally record it or download it later, the BBC seems to be constantly experimenting with format and new forms of publicity and new ventures (many of them, such as 3D theatrical trailers and week-long event programming, spearheaded with Doctor Who and its spin-offs), all to ensure the corporation’s tentacles remain genially laced through every aspect of British culture. When TV ceases to be a part of everyday life, every bit of mindshare helps.

To that matter, even for public service broadcasters viewing figures and audience share have taken on an importance far apart from the early ‘80s, when Channel 4 was more or less created with the intent that nobody watch it. Instead of a battle for ad dollars, the BBC is in a battle for relevance. And the moment they slip, they could be in big trouble.

The dilemma is not unlike the spot that print publications are in now, and that Steve Jobs is doing his best to exacerbate. If a magazine or newspaper fails to keep up its mindshare, and make itself a crucial part of people’s lives, then it’s in trouble. When people are turning to the web and to the iPad more than print, the publications have to assess their likely audience and how much of their energies to divert. The problem is that publications have no extra budget to spend on iPad development. Many of them can barely maintain their web presence. Yet without that presence, maybe people will forget them. Maybe they will lose their relevance, their importance. There’s a bit of desperation at work.

You might also think of the situation in terms of the browser wars. It’s not like Microsoft and Google and Mozilla are selling their applications, so why are they so hot on trouncing each other? Because everyone uses a web browser, and whoever controls the browser – both the technology and the branding and feel of the thing – controls the user’s experience.

Everyone has a different idea of making over the world in his own image. Right now Google wants to move everything to the cloud, and kind of return computing to the old PC terminal days where the data is all “out there” somewhere. “Out there,” of course, being in Google’s hands. In all probability, Facebook is hard at work on its own browser and operating system.

How does the online push relate to the BBC, beyond the cultural tentacle thing? Maybe it’s got something to do with the iPlayer, which might be described as the BBC’s own proprietary Hulu. Maybe it’s got to do with the shift away from TV and toward computer screens.

Common wisdom says the test of any new medium is its suitability for porn, and that the spearhead of most computer technology is videogames. These days the BBC says the test of any new venture is its suitability to Doctor Who – and much like The New York Times or Wired, the BBC really wants a piece of your computer. It’s got to survive somewhere.

Maybe in the future, when we get all our TV through the Internet, it will be hard for entities like the BBC to resist the old multimedia chestnut. And maybe, freed of the boundaries of CD-ROM and ridiculous production companies, there will be a time for… well. Something more advanced than the alternate angles you get on DVD and Blu-Ray. And maybe, through one insidious high-quality download at a time, the BBC is preparing itself for that eventuality.

The Hands of Time

  • Reading time:4 min(s) read

by Eric-Jon Rössel Tairne

I keep noticing the parallels between the modern indie scene and the old shareware boom from the early 1990s. For those who missed that train, in the period after the Great Crash of 1984 and before the PC was powerful enough to run much more than King’s Quest, there was a sort of DIY phase in the Western game industry. Even the biggest PC developers, like Sierra and Origin, were a bit provincial, and in the arcades Atari Games and Midway were struggling just to be noticed amongst the flood of Japanese imports — so from a mainstream perspective there was slim opportunity for a young designer.

Much as with modern indie games, the answer was to skirt the mainstream, and distribute games through dial-up bulletin boards and word-of-mouth. There are a few differences, though. For one, the shareware boom happened in an era when one or two or a small handful of people could still produce a major, mainstream game. It was getting rarer, but for context the average Sega Genesis game had only half a dozen key staff. So for aspiring game designers, it was not unreasonable to look at shareware as a sort of a potential back door into the industry. Indeed, that’s where we get id Software and Epic Games.

Another thing is that around the turn of the ’90s the PC was sort of a blank slate. 256-color VGA was still fairly new, and Sound Blaster digital sound was a revelation. A 33-Mhz processor was a firecracker, and extended RAM was a luxury. So suiting the geography, most PC games were either simulations or slow-paced adventure games. When Carmack and Romero found a technique for smooth scrolling, it was a breakthrough worth pitching to Nintendo. Yet much as Atari was uninterested in Nintendo’s hardware, Nintendo saw little potential in the PC game market.

With mainstream developers slow to take advantage of the platform, it was also not unfathomable for a handful of clever young coders to be at the forefront of technology and design. So it is that within about five to seven years a bunch of industry outsider nobodies dragged the platform, and along with it the entire medium, up by its bootstraps. The explosion in graphical accelerators comes entirely out of do-it-yourself designers trying to make a name for themselves, trying to be just like the big guys who they admired in the 1980s.

This, of course, created a culture clash. The PC gamers who had been there the whole time reacted poorly to the insolence and the brashness and the overall style of these upstarts. They liked PC games just fine the way they are. The PC wasn’t just an open-platform game console; it naturally lent itself to a different, slower and deeper, psychological space. And the aesthetic that these newcomers were injecting — sure, it was making the PC more popular for gaming. Yet in its Miyamoto-fueled reverie it was also drowning out demand for the kinds of games that attracted PC gamers to the platform.

There are exceptions, of course, but broadly the shareware boom was an attempt by North American designers to answer the mainstream success of Nintendo and Sega using the only available tools — which meant bending the tools to make them work more like the game consoles of the day, and using those tools to mimic Japanese design aesthetics. Though the movement started small, the best efforts were so revolutionary and so popular that they attracted competition like a four-star restaurant in the bad part of town, gentrifying the PC, driving up development costs, and making the platform much bigger than Shareware’s original form of distribution.

( Continue reading at DIYGamer )

Spelunking into the Past

  • Reading time:2 min(s) read

by Eric-Jon Rössel Tairne

The last few days I’ve been fussing over Derek Yu’s Spelunky. I know that it’s been around for a while; it’s just one of those things I never got around to. I downloaded it, and then got distracted. Time moved on, and there was always something else to pay attention to. As often happens, I’m rather disappointed that I didn’t jump in sooner — and also glad it’s new to me now, with all the endorphin rush you get from that kind of new relationship.

I’m sure the game has been discussed to death, so I don’t intend to labor the point. For context, the game is a Roguelike platformer released for PC about a year and a half ago. By Roguelike, I mean it randomly generates its levels and fills them with both traps and treasure. Until you know the game inside out and can make an effort to beat it, the point of playing is to see how deep you can go, and how much you can achieve, before dying. The random level layout means the game is infinitely replayable. The easy death means that you’ll be restarting often.

The game is basically an attempt to rehabilitate, or reenvision, Tim Martin’s Spelunker, an early PC game mostly known for its NES port. Although on the face of it the game seems really neat — a tale of exploration and adventure and treasure hunting in the deep places of the Earth — Spelunker is nearly impossible to play, in that the controls are a bit awkward and nearly everything that you can do will kill you. Even falling from slightly over the height of your character spells death. It’s ridiculous, and has gained the game a sort of cult reputation for its perceived sadism.

You can see the thought processes; Roguelikes are difficult and arbitrary, yet within an addictive framework. Spelunker is difficult and arbitrary, and no fun at all. Why not combine the discipline of the one and the premise of the other, and create the game that Spelunker might have been? Good thinking, too, as Spelunky is rather marvelous and instantly claimed a place amongst the most respected of indie games.

( Continue reading at DIYGamer )

A Life Worth Living

  • Reading time:1 min(s) read

by Eric-Jon Rössel Tairne

Some of the typical themes to indie games, and art games, and deconstructionist games in general, include violence, death, and loss. I find it interesting that the deeper problems of game design, toward which the more thoughtful game authors are drawn, so closely mirror a boilerplate list of human concerns. At least, metaphorically speaking.

Of the three, death and loss, and the association between the two, are the bigger concerns — perhaps because in the short term, with such a narrow communication bottleneck, it’s more worthwhile to hand out monosyllabic verbs for the player to sling around: shoot, run, jump, grab. Let players use the grammar they know, while you precisely sculpt a context to lend the discussion an illusion of eloquence.

( Continue reading at DIYGamer )

Craft Service

  • Reading time:2 min(s) read

by Eric-Jon Rössel Tairne

Over the years, game design has calcified. If I were to pick a turning point, I might point at the SNES — a system of broadly appealing games that delivered exactly what people expected of a videogame, challenged few perceptions, and established the status quo for 2D console-style game design. Since then it’s been hard to get past the old standards — the prettied-up enhancements of Super Mario 3, The Legend of Zelda, and Metroid that added little new in terms of expression or design language, yet that refined the hell out of some proven favorites.

You could say that the SNES was the epitome of Miyamoto-styled design (even in games by other developers), and you’d have a reason for saying that. Namely, it was the Miyamoto Box: Nintendo’s reward to Miyamoto for the broad appeal of his NES catalog. Meanwhile Miyamoto’s opposing force, in Gunpei Yokoi, was rewarded for his invention of the Game Boy by having his studio removed from mainstream console development to support his brainchild. The message was clear: Miyamoto’s way was the successful one, so he would be in charge of everything important from here on.

The thing is, Miyamoto is just one voice. He had a few brilliant ideas in the mid-1980s, all born out of a particular context and in response to particular problems. And then by the turn of the ’90s he was pretty much dry. All that was left was to codify his ideas, turn them into a near law of proper design — regardless of context — and then sit back to admire his work, while new generations carefully followed his example as if manufacturing chairs or earthenware pots. A videogame was a videogame, much as a chair was a chair. It was a thing, an object, with particular qualities and laws.

Thing is, videogames aren’t things; they’re ideas.

( Continue reading at DIYGamer )

The New Generation – Part Three: Infrastructure

  • Reading time:20 min(s) read

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

Originally published by Next Generation.

Videogames are finally finding their way. They’re moving in small steps, yet whether by need or inspiration change is in the air – a whole generational shift, an inevitable one. It’s the kind of shift that happened to film when the studio system broke down, or painting broke out of academia and… well, the studio again. In short, people are starting to get over videogames for their own sake and starting to look at them constructively – which first means breaking them down, apart from and within their cultural, historical, and personal context. When you strip out all the clutter and find a conceptual focus, you can put the pieces back together around that focus, to magnify it and take advantage of its expressive potential.

Over the previous two installments we discussed some of the voices heralding the change, and some of the works that exemplify it. In this third and final chapter, we will cast our net wider, and examine some of the cultural or circumstantial elements that either led to this shift, reflect it, help to sustain and promulgate it, or promise to, should all go well. This is, in short, the state of the world in which a generational shift can occur.

The New Generation – Part Two: Masterminds

  • Reading time:23 min(s) read

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

Originally published by Next Generation.

Something is happening to game design. It’s been creeping up for a decade, yet only now is it striding into the mainstream, riding on the coattails of new infrastructure, emboldened by the rhetoric of the trendy. A new generation of design has begun to emerge – a generation raised on the language of videogames, eager to use that fluency to describe what previously could not be described.

First, though, it must build up its vocabulary. To build it, this generation looks to the past – to the fundamental ideas that make up the current architecture of videogames – and deconstructs it for its raw theoretical materials, such that it may be recontextualized: rebuilt better, stronger, more elegantly, more deliberately.

In the earlier part of this series, we discussed several games that exemplify this approach; we then tossed around a few more that give it a healthy nod. Some boil down and refocus a well-known design (Pac-Man CE, New Super Mario Bros.); some put a new perspective on genre (Ikaruga, Braid); some just want to break down game design itself (Rez, Dead Rising). In this chapter, we will highlight a few of the key voices guiding the change. Some are more persuasive than others. Some have been been making their point for longer. All are on the cusp of redefining what a videogame can be.