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Develop Day 3: Representation & Evolution

July 16, 2010

Following on from day 1 and 2 of the Develop conference in Brighton, day was another interesting day.  There was a sub-conference on Thursday – Women in Games with a keynote by Sheri Graner Ray; She had a strong message (my notes from the talk, not direct quotes..);

The ‘women in games’ issue has made great progress over the last 20 years but of late there has been a backlash to that progress. This backlash was partly trying to frame the ‘women in games’ issue as one that is an old issue and thus not news. However it still is an issue. We need to argue that the games industry needs more women, however all too often the industry hears that this means; hiring unqualified women over qualified men. But this is not the reality of what we are asking for. What needs to be done is to clear the confusion.  We need to point to business success; the Guitar Hero development team was a diverse and talented team and has had huge success. This shows what we are saying – that allowing for more diversity will not impact the quality of games.  The games we currently make will not be challenged by diversity, it allows us to get beyond ‘boys games’ and ‘girls games’ and back to just ‘games’ – and as individuals we pick the games we like.  Diversity is respecting differences, keeping a diversity of ideas. If you want products to sell in a diverse market then your ideas and the developers who make games need to reflect that. To help this process the women that are in games need to be more visible. They need to help others. Above all we need to be positive – frame all the answers in terms of how can we solve this issue – how we can move forward.

Following this was our talk.  Ana was talking on the Women in Games panel that followed to help them out – and to be visible! So it was just me doing the talk:

Develop Presentation: Why are Games Sequels So Often Better Than Film Sequels and What This Can Teach Us About the Development Cycle

So first of I introduced myself – I’m the development director at FluffyLogic and doing a PhD into evolution and digital networks and stuff.

I started with a thought exercise: think of a game who’s sequel is better than the original? This is pretty easy… GTA San Andreas, Modern Warfare 2, Streetfighter 2, Uncharted 2, Fallout 3, Skate 2, FIFA 2010, God Of War 2, Resident Evil 2, Fable 2, Duke Nukem 3D, Half Life 2, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2, Final Fantasy 7..  This is not a rule but a trend – but it does show that games seem to get better as they move from version to version.

Now another thought exercise: think of a film who’s sequel is better than the original? This is a bit harder; Aliens? The Dark Knight? Blade II?  Terminator 2? Godfather 2?  Possibly these but some of them are debatable – the ‘better’ examples are less clear than that of games.  Again, this is not a rule – but a trend where it is harder to find examples – and those you do find are more contentious – for example Alien and Aliens are different kinds of film in many respects – is it fair to compare them?

On the flip-side then think of an example of a film who’s sequel is worse than the original – this is all too easy and I’ll cite the example of The Great Escape 2 as a crowing point here.

Why should this be so? A number of reasons…depending on where you are sitting…

From the sitting room (I didn’t use the word ‘audience’ or ‘player’ as the  passive/active state of the end-user of a media product changes a lot!)
As a player, repeating gameplay is often a positive experience.  It allows me to improve my performance in the game and games themselves are built on repetitious acts.  As a viewer, repeating a story often less so… hearing the same story over and over is not a interesting experience.  We do repeat stories – comics and soap opera have a turn-over of plots, but they also have a turn over of audience, so it works better.  But the point is that the Matrix II cannot be the Matrix I script with better lighting and special effects.

From  a Development/Production perspective: As a games developer you can re-make the same game – with improvements; improvements to controls, difficulty, speed, effects.  With film production, you can’t remake the same story – with improvements – and expect the audience to return. Again this is a trend; sometimes does work when you do!  The Thing! 1951/1982 versions for example – but lots of re-makes fail to improve the original even with the better effects and film technologies available.

From Hardware point of view: The end platforms for games changes, and changes a lot – better CPUs, different controllers etc.  We also improve on our ability to work with the hardware – we evolve our tools and engines to squeeze more and more out of each iteration of a game.  By contrast the end platforms for film changes slowly… sound, colour, HD, 3D… but changes to the end platform of film are slower to appear.

There is a middle layer of technology in both that also changes, so the software/hardware improves for making both games and films – camera, special effects, AI algorithms.  However the games improvements result in an ongoing improvement with each iteration to the end-user – the gaming experience where as  films less so as improvements in effects don’t improve the core point of a film; the story.

Software Evolves!  Each version of a game/software is a new generation of that species – the social, economic and political landscape of users are the environment that each species (iteration) lives (and dies) upon. I’ve got a bigger talk about my research on this subject – on p2p software on the source code as the DNA and the etc.

Thus games development is an evolutionary process. Development is a hugely incremental process; the adding of lots and lots of small adaptations that build on the past success (or failure) of their predecessors..  Example; what are the differences between Modern Warfare 1 and 2?  What lineage (the memes) does Modern Warfare 1 owe to past 1st person shooters? This is evolution –  it’s not a revolution but an evolution.  I found that in doing Savage Moon PS3, then the DLC ‘Waldgeist’ then to the PSP version, ‘The Hera Campaign’ – with each iteration we evolved the gameplay – block-pods to allow Blocking Towers to use their separate use from other functional towers on drop-pods, changed Laser Towers into into Masers Towers to highlight the a ‘slow but powerful’ weapon that works better in the games, better level design etc – but also the gene(code) was also carried over – AI, gameplay and so on – and improved each time…

So what does this mean for games development?…a lot!

Trust in the Process
Developers (should) get better with each iteration – so give us time!  If a game has done just ‘OK’ in the market – but has some legs – then support the project to develop.  Concepts like network updates, DLC, Minis etc will also help the iteration process to be capitalised and work for you and not against you.

We are a community
We can evolve on two levels – meme and (gene)code.  Don’t hate on the people who borrow/steal ideas – it’s part of a long tradition – as long as we put new ideas back into the mix when we do.  If we ever had patents on ‘1st person shooters’ etc it would be a huge blow to innovation.  It would work against the evolutionary process that we’re locked within, like it or not.

Challenge assumptions
Is it like this ‘cos it’s good it just the way we are used to doing it.  But also don’t be afraid to do it the way it’s been done – no point in doing it for the sake of it.  This is a danger of the evolutionary process we are in; yes some things we have done  over and over are done that way for good reason – they work, while others are simply habits.  Knowing which is which, though, is the hard bit!

Film licences should look to games, not films
Need to tell film people that they have to allow adaptations to play a little more – copying the plot line is not enough – we have to map the characters and plot onto an incremental game process – so if we were going to make a Batman ‘Dark Knight 2’ game from the film – it’s descendent is not Dark Knight the film, but Batman Arkham Asylum or Fallout 3 or any other third person action game.

Evolutionary balance
Evolutionary thinking also helps keep players on-board – a mix of what they know and new stuff – a mid point between how we interact with music (where we tend to like to listen to what we already know) and film (where we tend to like new stories, with cool twists and turns).  This is a positive and a negative – so gamers can often pick-up and game type and figure the controls out fast as they gravitate towards standard layout (that are evolutionary successful) But also a negative as the ‘language of games’ evolves – those who don’t understand it and have not moved with it can be locked out – the evolutionary process can thus create a barrier to entry – which is why the Wii works so well – before: how do you play baseball? Thumb-stick, X button, power-bar…  After: you just hit it!

Evolutions not revolutions
So most games are going to be evolutions and not revolutions – these are rare – but exciting.  However when publishers get risk averse – which is understandable on large budget projects – the rate of evolution slows and the change of revolution drops – which is bad.

I Heart  Cambrian Explosions
New development platforms are always needed with lower barriers to entry to create a ‘Cambrian explosion‘ (e.g. Flash on the web, iPhone games) – where lots and lots of ideas are tried out – some are selected others not and the incrementing then starts on the successful ideas.  Publishers can help with this by supporting places for experimentation and (as per top point) not shutting the experiments down if the 1st generation does not cut it – it takes time….

The Shock of the Old

It also means we should not rush to abandon older hardware and methods – as the incrementation of the process means the best examples of the genre will often come last – so best PS2 game?  Resident Evil 4… It also means that it takes time for solid ideas to arrive on a new controller – as the first generation of games using new technology will still be partly memetically/technologically based on the past generation of technology – it will take time to breed out the older tech/memes and evolve the new ones.

Here’s an example: Ahlstrand et al (2005) suggest how past technologies shape future ones; The dimensions of the space shuttle are partly derived from the need to transport the booster rockets by rail. In the US, rail road gauge (distance between rails) comes from the British engineers who emigrated and were critical in the decisions made in its design. In the UK, the gauge is derived from the same tools and designs that the workers used to build wagons. In turn, the measurements of wagon spacings come from rutted roads in the UK. The rut spacings come from the first long distance roads in the UK, build by the Roman army, who’s specifications come from the Imperial war chariot.

And that is it for now.  Thank you!

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