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Force Majeure

Media Manipulation

The bizarre and damaging fascination the gaming industry has with new technology is perhaps nowhere worse than in the state of the media as it stands. This is not the general media, which has a tendency to focus on narrow, headline grabbing issues that are often not accurately depicted or representative of the industry as a whole, but rather the media that is specifically focused on games.

This focus on technology is often without compelling reason. While in some instances it makes sense, as in discussing the system requirements of a game or the strict comparison between the hardware capabilities of two different consoles, but often it is completely beside the focus of the games as to be a distraction. If there are discussions on polygon count, size of the data, or a hyped sentence of the  depth of a physics engine, I tend to become wary.

Because while those may be important parts in putting together the package of the game, they are not, in and of themselves, the game.

I think some may disagree with me. In an early discussion on the Wii Overlords article, one person who agreed with it called himself technophile and mentioned that these things mattered. I frankly must disagree, because the approach with the game industry and media is very different than how the movie industry and media approaches advertising a product.

Movies, even bad ones, will have the focus on the story, on the excitement, drama, and action. Movies will focus the potential customer on the primary experience of the movie: the act of viewing the movie itself. The technology used to create a movie will, at best, be granted an occasional side-story, as was the case for the Massive engine used in the Lord of the Rings films or Deep Canvas system used for Disney's Tarzan. Even the most effects driven movies will not have the technology used in creating these special effects brought into the forefront.

Somewhat ironically, this can create a case where a film will utilise industry shifting technology, and the general public will often not be aware of the effect the film had. For instance, there was a film in 1993 which had a drastic effect on the film industry and the movie viewing experience. While it was a huge blockbuster, few people know the effect it had, because that technology shift was not a large story. The technology helped to improve the viewer's experience, but knowledge of the technology was not necessary.*

In the game's industry, this situation is often backwards. We have the technology used thrust upon us almost from the first announcement, such that it may be easier to find out what goes into creating the game than what has actually come out of the creation.

If you look at a website for information on a forthcoming title, you will often be greeted with picture after picture of screens from the game. These may be very nice, high resolution screen captures with the intent of showing off how much effort has been put into making a game look nice. This will be followed with videos of the game, again showing off the smoothness of animation, clearness of audio, or how good the physics engine makes things act.

What none of these things do is engage the player. For that, you need a game demo. The game demo is the equivalent of a movie trailer. It provides the product for the consumer, in miniature. Demos are nice, but somewhat more rare than the screen capture or movie.

Why does this situation exist? I can only assume that it is because providing information and commentary on upcoming games is big business. Websites dedicated to this do very well selling memberships, providing inside information, and giving those exclusive looks.

A look is all it is, however. While I confess that recently I found myself on one such site looking for information about an upcoming game I have been anticipating (Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock), at the end of a trailer and two interviews, I had to turn it off. The information was particularly worthless because without the chance to try any of the new gameplay, it is not possible to have an informed opinion. Both interviews ended with "buy this game", which I may do, but I hope to have the chance at a demo version first.

These websites cannot provide demos of games, at least they cannot do so directly. At best they can pass along information that developers could do themselves via press releases and blog posts. However, the public seems to clamor for more information now, so is willing to pay for what could be gotten for free.

I wish there were a stronger analogue of the movie industry. Perhaps a company could provide a very short "teaser" demo. Perhaps it only covers a couple minutes of game play. A single fight in a role playing game, or just the ability to try out a few punches and kicks in a fighting game. It need not examine the entire depth of the game, but if it gives some early sense to the player of what it feels like to play, that is significantly more valuable than seeing screen capture after screen capture.

Further on down the line, provide a few longer demos. Again, it need not be long, but if well constructed, it should provide some of the story (if any), and progression in the game. Such a situation would be far more beneficial to the player and the company, instead of our current situation which seems to put the needs of both behind the business of the media.

 

*For the curious, the movie was Jurassic Park, which pushed for the change to digital sound in movies and theaters.

Comments:

Posted by GusFune (Yukkon)

I have to agree and disagree with you.
First of all, I agree, people are more focused on the apparence of a game and they forget the gameplay, the story, etc. I have to say that I'm the kind of gamer that cares about graphics, but if it doesn't catch my attention to play, then I won't play, even if it's so freaking perfect.

But at the same time, people want simulation, they want to see the reality mirrored on the game. This won't happens on movies because 35mm and digital video already get all realism you need to think: "even if this is totally absurd, this looks like it's happening and for a few moments i'm inside that universe".

Realism of graphics is one of the main factors that creates this hype of being inside the game. That's why game industry pursues frenetically better and better graphics: to make people think they are inside the game.

Once when I was reading an article from a game design college, he said that a good game must catch your attention, depending on the genre, you need to be immersed on the game to think you are there, in flesh and bones. This is a concept in movies we call diegesis. Graphics reforce the diegesis.

About the demos, I agree, there should be more demos. But with games getting bigger, it's getting terrible to download 1.1Gb demos to play like 5 minutes of that game. 10 years ago the biggest ones were like 50Mb big. Who got a Xbox360 and download demos, know what I mean, or you get an uber internet connection, or you keep your console/pc on for hours to download that 5min piece of demo.

And, there is another way of marketing that is really succesful for games: The less you know (in case, play), the more you want it.

August 01, 2007 at 09:58 AM PDT | permalink

Posted by Jim

The main problem with your demo model for games is distribution. Up until the current generation of consoles, it wasn't the norm to have that connected to the Internet.

I also disagree that screenshots and video are mostly focused on graphics, physics engine use, and whatnot. When I was more in tune with the cutting edge of video games, I would often look at screenshots and video clips with my CRT, non-hi-def monitor. Usually the videos took up less than an eighth of my screen. I looked at them not for technical prowess, but for hints at UI and gameplay.

I dunno, the gaming news I look at has very little technical details, so I can't really agree with you on the detriment of the focus of the industry.

August 01, 2007 at 11:33 AM PDT | permalink

Posted by Bia

I think you misunderstood my point, slightly. The problem is not in creating realistic games. Rather, I am completely mystified why the media focuses on the technology used to create the realistic feel.

When you see a movie with a realistic dragon, for instance, does it matter whether that dragon was created by Industrial Light and Magic using one method or by Weta Digitial using another?

I would also disagree that realism is necessary for immersion. If that were the case, animation would not garner nearly as much interest as it does. Arguably, attempts to create realism where none exists will turn off the viewer, and as such going in a different direction would provide a better experience.

With that said, I knew while writing this piece that it would likely be the most divisive of the three that came in response to the Wii Overlords article. It is certainly in the area where my opinion could be considered the most misplaced.

August 01, 2007 at 02:22 PM PDT | permalink

Posted by GusFune (Yukkon)

Now I got it,
Well, in this case, I agree. Things like with which technology was used to make that game isn't important for most gamers.

The thing is that game industry media is focused into hardcore gamers, gamers that look for things like Intel Extreme Edition CPUs and $1000 GPUs. For these kind of gamers, technology matters.

But for casual gamers, there isn't much to do, except hope for something like gameplay trailers. Why can't casual gamers have more space on game media?

IMO, it's because of money. Making websites and news for hardcore gamers are more likely to make money because of ads, they are more likely to read and spend time on a website than a casual one.

I agree, it's a shame, but I still look for technology things on game, but in my case, it's because it helps in my carrer knowing these stuff. For most people: it's a waste of time, let's just play :)

August 01, 2007 at 02:30 PM PDT | permalink

Posted by BulletTime

I disagree with everything you said except your point. I agree that it is a bad thing for gaming writers to zoom way too far in on the technical minutia of new games. I don't need to be able to distinguish between nearly identical engines. But I also trust writers not to stuff that sort of detail down my throat. I DO want to know if a game runs at a 30 frame per second rate, as opposed to 60 - and I have faith that if it runs at 59, he'll spare me the specifics and round up.

And I think your comparison to movies is a little misguided. First of all - movies tend to have actual people in them, as well as carefully crafted storylines. Those are the focus of most movies. So even if the CGI is stellar, nearly everyone will be looking at the real parts of the movie to gauge its worth. (And even then, I'd expect suitable attention to be paid to the director's and the cinematographer's visual styles.) When the movie is ALL CGI - The Incredibles, et al. - I absolutely expect to know what animation studio is putting it out, and while I don't need a step-by-step technical explanation of the animation process, I do distinguish between, say, Dreamworks and Pixar in terms of animation quality, and that matters.

On the other hand, a game's storyline is generally treated as a side-note, if not completely irrelevant, in most genres. (Fighting games, anyone? Uh... Puzzle Pirates, anyone?) So that's out as a deciding factor. And while I agree that demos are cool and should be available where possible, I also feel like it's MUCH harder to grasp a game by a vastly shortened demo than it is to grasp a movie by a precision-edited promo. Where's the demo appeal of Puzzle Pirates? I railed against the fundamental gaming value of games that present themselves as casual in Hypnos's post, and I'll repeat that here. A demo of Puzzle Pirates doesn't really fly - it's just an assortment of superficially simplistic mini-games you can get on any cellphone or graphing calculator - and OOO is aware of that. That's why we have doubloon oceans - because the only way to demo Puzzle Pirates is to make the demo infinitely long and infinitely broad. You can take it all in, or it can look like a very small, very slow-paced WarioWare.

On to your more recent clarification - I do agree that realism is unnecessary for immersion, but I don't think that's the point here. Even if a game is wildly unrealistic in its animation, the form that animation takes MATTERS. (Observe the vast array of reactions to the Windwaker a few years back.) If Puzzle Pirates ran on a WoW-like engine - if you had a closer, more dynamic third-person PoV than the near-bird's-eye we have now, and 3D animation, and the ability to jump and dance - it would be a very different game, even if nothing else changed. I do not say it would be a better or a worse game necessarily, but it would be fundamentally different. You noted, "sadly," that technology drives game design. I say that that's the way it should be. You've seen the GD threads - if we had the capacity to sit or lie down, furniture sales would go through the roof. That's the most minute example I can come up with.

What we see on the screen drives how we feel, how we relate, how we interact. Take another look at some movie reviews. The best movies create a visual atmosphere that perfectly complements (sometimes by contrast) the feel of the story and the emotions on display. Because it's all reality, and people are working simply with strategically placed floodlights, or more primitively, with natural sunlight, it's hard to write more specifically about the look than simply the senses it evokes. But in a video game, where the visual aspect is just as important as it is in the cinema (if not more so), due to the ground-up construction of the visible "universe," why not use all the tools available to describe the finished product? The fact that a game looks like Puzzle Pirates doesn't make it worse than one that looks like World of Warcraft, but the difference is crucial nevertheless.

August 01, 2007 at 04:10 PM PDT | permalink

Posted by Anonymous

There's a phrase called, "suspending disbelief", which applies to rpgs, performing arts, and various other forms of literature including books. I expect a roleplaying game, no matter what graphic style, to immerse me on a level where this pertains, having me believe the world as is, no matter how fantastic. There have yet been many situations in which this has happened.

I can list three in gaming: Asheron's Call Classic, Oblivion and Nethack.

August 01, 2007 at 08:02 PM PDT | permalink

Posted by Bia

I do not want to make this a debate, so I am going to avoid any point-by-point rebuttals.

However, I will note I may have made a mistake in the initial post by blurring the line between the media and a company's marketing. While there is a connection between the two, I should have made it more explicit.

Second, and this is directed at BulletTime, your comparison the animation of Dreamworks and Pixar is not the same as a comparison between two technologies. A better comparison would be between the games of two different studios, perhaps Bungie and iD Software. While they may use entirely different technology to create their products, knowledge of that technology is not important to enjoy (or perhaps not enjoy) what they produce. Likewise, knowing how Pixar and Dreamworks differ is not important to enjoying their movies.

I apologise if it is pedantic of me to focus on a minor point of your argument.

August 03, 2007 at 01:58 AM PDT | permalink

Posted by SevRickman

I have nothing of worth to say, re the main argument as I don't give a monkeys about it (can you tell I'm a casual gamer?), however I just wished to point out the Guild Wars example, they regularly sheduled 'beta weekend' events where gamers could test out the game, admittedly for most of them you had to have pre-orded it to gain entry but there were open events also. And they have continued this trend by providing opertunities to test out the subsequent campaigns. All of which it's unique when it comes to MMORPG's (I think :p).

August 03, 2007 at 09:20 AM PDT | permalink

Posted by Ghyslaine Rhodin

Realism is totally unnecessary. Blocks + jars FTW. I only care about looks as they pertain to gameplay. Can I tell things apart onscreen? Do things being close together cause popup, disappear, etc? Is the camera going to pick world's worst angle when I'm against a wall and getting beaten up? Will I be able to afford a computer powerful enough to run the game or will I have to break into NASA?

August 03, 2007 at 01:29 PM PDT | permalink

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