Buying into a strategy – plus a small update

This way or that ?

Here is one of those posts where I tie together two seemingly unrelated subjects, usually writing and something else in order to explain a small point. The idea is that it highlights one or more, of the myriad of connections in life, and how we may wish to use these relations in our writing. Today I shall marry football (the one with the spherical ball, US readers, i.e. Soccer), and writing. No, hold on, don’t run off yet, I shall endeavour to make the point in a small number of words and without any prior knowledge of the game. So lets see how that one turns out shall we.

Regular readers will know that I am a Liverpool Football Club (LFC), and pretty much have been since the 1986 FA cup final where Liverpool beat Everton 3 − 1. As anyone who is a fan of any sport can tell you, once you experience the emotional ride once, it is hard to shake off. Liverpool were the main team then. Now they haven’t won the English League since 1990, although thankfully have won other trophies over the years (including the Champions League in another emotional ride in 2005). Now for various reasons, some good, some not, they are on their fourth manager in four years, a man called Brendan Rogers.

Brendan came from managing Swansea City, who had built a reputation on playing good possession football on a small budget, no mean feat. In fact, at the end of last season they went to Liverpool and beat them one nil. Now Brendan has the Liverpool job, still a prestigious one, as Liverpool is one of the most supported clubs not just in the UK, but the world. He is bringing more of a possession game to the club, more along the lines of what the club played in it’s best days. A possession game is the hardest to play because it requires good technical ability, a good understanding of how the team moves, where your team mates should be, where you should be. If you have the ball you need to be able to do something positive as a team, with it. It requires skill under pressure, a cool head, and a belief in what you are doing. It also requires certain movements when you lose possession, or do not have possession of the ball, because part of the game is getting the ball back. Depending on the coaches strategy, you will do a certain thing, for a certain amount of time.

This type of game is the most difficult because it requires good players, but also because without this and a good understanding of what you and the team should be doing, greater risks. For example,if you play out from the back (your own goal) you are at more risk of giving the ball away in a dangerous area than you would be punting it up the field or out of play (letting you regroup). On the other hand if you play out and retain possession, you are in a much better position than punting it or knocking it out of play. Inherent in playing a game like this is players who buy into your philosophy and have the required skills to do so. Those that do not are moved on and replaced with those that do. It is a slower way to progress (potentially), but should it work, it brings a higher chance of the greater reward.

And what exactly does this have to do with writing? Even across the blogsphere, I hear you ask. Well here’s the interesting thing. Anyone out there attempted to write a book? It is a long slog isn’t it? It requires a lot of thought and effort doesn’t it? There is a learning curve isn’t there? Somewhere along the way you learn where you fit on the planning scale. Do you like a strong story plan, and know all the plot up front, or do you work from an idea and see where it takes you? Personally I like a good plan, or as I put it, “a strong spine”, but with some room to see what comes out.

What about a work routine, when do you work? Mornings, evenings, throughout the day? Do you write to a word target, a chapter target, from point to point? I prefer mornings or evenings, and mostly I work to a word count, but that can change if I want to get to a certain point. What sort of advice do you use, and how often? I prefer a few help writing help books, some blog sites and the “community advice”, and the Writers Digest. I enjoy using them but I don’t let them dominate my time. Or not too often.

You might see where I am going here with these question and answers. Writing on a larger project takes some ability and effort. If you have a strategy for working on it, something you have learnt both works for, and compliments you, then you are on the right road. You have a higher chance of success. If you do not have much of a strategy, just dive in, or have a go whenever, you don’t look for your weak areas and try to improve. Things will be much different. You will have a higher chance of failing or getting sidetracked. Your project will get no where fast. I can tell you this from experience. So what I’m saying is you need to learn what works for you. You need to have a strategy that you can really buy into, and commit to and the right tools to do it. Having that commitment will be harder to break. Having the strategy and tools that compliment you will make it come together easier, even if underneath that, there is a lot of time and effort. You may have to learn some technique first, and have some trial and effort, but doing this should benefit you in the long run. Like Liverpool Football club, if the strategy is right and everyone buys into it, if the right players are there, then the chances of going somewhere good, improve.

An Update on a few things

  • The novel project has been slow in the last week or two for a number of reasons outside of the blog. I am not attempting to finish it by the end of the year (or at least a draft of it) so no big deal. That said I would prefer more progress.
  • However, I have a number of good ideas for a short story project which I shall also be developing and working on. The idea was a tiny bit off the back of “100 word fiction” although these stories will be much larger short stories. This and the project above will be worked on over the next few months.
  • I’m changing my Monday posts from focusing on the previous weekend to focusing on the previous week. It will now be called “My past week in Haiku & other assorted nonsense”. Partially this is so I am not tied into having to write this the day before, and partially because some of my weekends are a bit boring.

Lexicon word of the day: gaucherie.

Does technology actually stifle real creativity?

A question for you today. These days, over the last decade, most people have access to a computer, and increased usage, has improved computer skills on them. The quality of the software and networking via the internet, has constantly improved. Myself I have a Macbook Pro. Apple have been promoting their computers with the “creative” software that comes pre-installed. There is iTunes, but also iPhoto (manage and do some basic editing of your photos, create photo books, slideshows), iMovie (edit your video, create movies and trailers), Garageband (create, record and produce your own music e.g. “Grimes” recently release an album created with this), idvd (burn movies, slideshows to a dvd), iWeb (create websites). This all comes preinstalled, is pretty fantastic actually, and as they would have it, is the doorway to creativity. But recently I have been thinking, is all this technology having the opposite affect? Is too much actually stifling good creativity?

Bear with me here, the argument is one of two many options, not against using the technology itself. In the current issue of Rolling Stone (1154) there is an interview with Jimmy Iovine legendary music engineer, producer, label chairman (Interscope), and co-headphone maker (Beats with Dre). He worked with John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Patti Smith, U2 and many others. He refers to how many of the artists were after a particular sound, their sound, and once they had found it, it was then more about good songs, and some good singles. Springsteen in particular (on Born to Run) was a torture in finding the right sound, but once he found it, then it was all about the songs. Like him or loather him, you can still tell his sound immediately, and that is an important point, because in doing that, he had found his voice.

This was arguably more the old model of record companies. To be signed you had to be pretty good at singing, songwriting, or maybe playing an instrument. To be successful you had (mostly) to be skilled in one of those areas. Often to define their voice, artists would work hard to find their own sound or write their own songs. It might well have taken a lot of practice, a lot of playing live, a lot of hard slog. But there was often no other way. It was either take this opportunity, or do nothing. The means to do something creative were a little harder to come by than now. Iovine says of Springsteen (on page 61):

“All you hear everyday is how not cool the record industry is. That’s going to have an effect on who gets into music. All you need is a new Bruce Springsteen deciding he is going to work for Apple – or create his own. Look at the intensity and force that went into making Darkness. If Bruce ever had a f*****g excuse not to do it, maybe he would have chosen not to”

Is this actually the case? Does all the different creative technologies give you that excuse? If you want to do something creative today, edit some photos, go edit some video. Well that is being creative. So I guess the point is the quality. Going back to music, you can easy record using a computer, it might be easier to make, because you do it yourself. And I’ve definitely nothing against this. But what is does not give you back is quality control. That is something you have to receive or you have to learn. I’m a fan of music, and I can think of many recent albums that are good, a few that are great. Usually the better ones have worked with a producer (someone not only with a separate view on the sound, but an independent on the quality of the material). More often than not, the really successful ones stand out for both the artist’s sound (for someone like Adele this is her voice, which is always upfront in the mix), but also for some really good quality songs (singles). Even under the current changing model of the music business, we are still moved by something that feels good, honest and grips us in some way. But note, all the best received artists, whether mainstream or indie, have their own voice and sound. We can tell their music in a second or two. Either they earned it, fought to find it, or were just lucky enough to have the talent anyway.

The same also applies in writing although it is a bit harder to tell because you have to spend more time reading a book, than you do listen to a 3 minute single or 45 minute album. The best writers have their own style or voice. I was reading the other day in the latest Writers Digest (March / April 12, pg 57) about mastering voice. Larry Brooks states:

“Less is more. The more personality and humour and edge you are looking for, the truer this is. Attempting to imbue your writing with noticeable narrative style is always risky, because you are hoping and assuming that whoever is reading your work will be attracted to that particular style. The safest bet – one placed by a bevy of bestselling writers …who are too often and unfairly accused of not being all that good because their writing bears little or no stylistic scent – is to write cleanly and crisply”.

I can understand his point. He is referring to selling your novel. You will have an easier job of it if it is easily understandable. Your voice ought to be natural, it ought to take little effort to read. Perhaps your story and characters better be good though (for example, Elmore Leonard), otherwise you might also be a bit bland. Not that I’m suggesting there is anything wrong with taking this approach, there isn’t. I’m all for writing in a style that is appropriate. I just couldn’t help feel with this advice that there was a slight whiff of not standing out in a crowd. Surely you would want to be good enough that some element stands out as your voice? To do that, unless naturally talented, you have to earn it.

A common creative output for many writers is the blog. It is likely that you reading now may have your own blog, or be a signed up wordpress member. This is a great output as it means you can put something out for people to read and judge, in fact I did the former and you are doing the latter right now. A problem I have is that maybe I spend too much time working the blog and not enough time on my other writing projects. In the grand scheme of things, I would like to think that they will be the recognised pieces of my work. At the moment, there is more blog than other. Part of the reason for this is simply that the blog is there as an output. Otherwise I might be doing some writing practice in a notebook (which I could still do) or more importantly, well you get the idea. Yet I enjoy the blog, and I enjoy putting some things out there for people to read if they wish.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers” he refers to 10,000 hours being the amount of time you need to spend on something to be a master of it. Clearly this is a balance of experience and learning. He provides various examples of where this would be the case e.g. The Beatles, or Bill Gates. I could therefore argue that the blog contributes some of the time towards this magic number. It is a good forum for me to practise, experiment and publish. Will this add up to me being better on my other projects or should I simply be spending more time on them?

Perhaps the answer is there is less pressure. I use the blog to try to give a certain level of quality, that I might not expect in a notebook, but I would not expect this to be as high a quality as my other projects. But if they don’t work out, I could always just keep with the blog. Or I could go edit some videos or photos. They are both good fun and creative too. These days it is not a one shot deal. But then I don’t want to be “Jack of all trades”. If I want to be good at one, I need to concentrate on one. Get the magic hours in and the learning, and the experience. So you see, technology gives us the opportunity to be creative, but it might also stifle real creativity, by which I mean something that is that much better, is our own voice.

Is that the case? What do you think?

N.B. This posting was maybe a bit longer than I was expecting but I still think I didn’t have space to put in several points. I may expand it to a larger essay at some point in the future.

Lexicon word of the day: Perfidious.

Is the “art” of computer and console games underrated – Part 3?

Already I have considered some of my history as regards computer games and consoles, and then some analysis on the make up of a sports game. Sports games are just one section of the games market. Many titles revise each year as they have a dedicated audience who want some of the previous experience, but a bit improved, and with the latest squad detail. In having this approach, I believe it takes some of the credit away from the work done. It may be time consuming to get this far, but it doesn’t mean there is some genuine uniqueness there, some real craft, or art. For this third and final section, I shall focus on some other games which create their own world, only partially trying to mimic the real world, but adding some good interactive twists. They do not update yearly. They contain their own stories, and their own conclusions to them.

The daddy of current gaming, the absolute monster of a best seller and good example of highly detailed gaming is the Grand Theft Auto series, designed by Rockstar games. The first game, in two dimensions, with a top down view, appeared on the original Playstation back in 1997. It was an open game which means that although there are missions which advance the game, there is less restriction in what order they are carried out, and if you don’t want those, then the game world is open to explore. You can cause whatever mayhem you want, but more on that in a moment. The sequel which arrived in 1999 added more of a story but the real gaining breakthrough came in 2001 with the release of GTA 3 on PS2 and Xbox. GTA 3 was the first of the series in three dimensions. The game was set in a fictional city loosely based on New York called Liberty city. The game, it’s missions, story, and open ended madness were all in this city, there for the user to explore. Most of the buildings couldn’t be entered but a 3d city had been constructed with all the basic details you might expect. This was followed up by a sequel Vice City, set in a fictionalised 1980’s Miami complete with white Ferrari copies. A further step up occurred with the second sequel San Andreas, a genuine modern classic of gaming. San Andreas had a miniaturised “golden triangle”. A take on Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Las Vegas, with freeways and countryside somewhere in between. The game was full on madness, featuring the basic story of CJ who had returned to the hood, to his mothers funeral, and ended up climbing the gang ranks. You could customise his look, go on dates, eat fast food, and still carry on the usual madness.

Grand Theft Auto 4 was a further step up again appearing on PS3 and Xbox 360. This was located back in a new version of Liberty city, but with more detail such as getting drunk, even TV channels (more on that in a minute), but much better better story, graphics and sound. This was followed up with two more releases of new stories and characters, albeit set in the same city. In November GTA V was announced, not with a release date at the time of writing. It looks to have next level graphics and presentation. Check out the trailer below:

The main strength of the GTA III / IV series was that it was set in the 3d world with the open ended context. Your “hero” was essentially a bit of a villain. His main tasks involved car jacking, violence, killing and so on. It sounds terrible and the sort of thing you might want to avoid, until you play it. Then you see the game is a whole lot more. It is the cinema action film in a form that you can participate in. Car chases, shootouts, beat downs, deadly situations, dire situations to get out of, inventive puzzles to solve, bank robberies, saving family, it’s all in there. Want to take over Miami, Scarface style? Go ahead. Want to conquer the hood? Want to fly over Vegas, parachuting out onto the strip? Go ahead. Want to ride the country on a look alike Harley whilst listening to “Freebird” (however corny that might be)? Go ahead. GTA realises how fun those sort of moments are and tries to recreate them for us. You just want to get in trouble being chased by the police to see how long you can survive? Go ahead, that is in there too. Brilliant fun.

GTA also licensed a lot of music, cleverly put into the vehicles in the form of radio stations. Radio stations of different music styles, with DJ’s and funny spoof adverts. This soundtracks the mayhem often to  humorous effect. Even now when I hear Kim Wilde’s “The kids in America”, I have this odd memory of shooting someone from a car, then reversing over them to see if and make sure, they are dead, before driving off trying to lose the police in a car chase. Odd, but funny. There are other memories, like in GTA IV, going to a comedy club to see some sketches by Ricky Gervais – in the game. I’ve watched some well written spoof TV, also in the game. I’ve seen buildings and monuments that mimic the real life ones (Hoover Dam, or the big pointy building from San Francisco anyone?) – also in the game. The sheer number of ideas, clever writing, situations, mayhem is astounding. And that is with barely a mention of all the known names that have done voice work, from Iggy Pop as a DJ, to Samuel L Jackson as a cop. It really is the cinema in interactive mode.

With all the violence and crime, there has been some negative feedback, which if you looked at it as real, and from a moral perspective, then it is bad. Of course the action in these games is  like a cartoon world, there is a lot of black humour there. The graphics are made to look close to real but with enough to be cartoon like. It isn’t actually real. Would you stop children from watching the Road Runner cartoons because of the violence? Probably not. Do you complain about movie violence? The thing is GTA is not a game for children, it is a game for adults. It is one of those games that might not appeal to some people until you give it a go. It is surprising how quickly stealing a car and trying to escape, crashing and causing mayhem quickly become fun. It is black humour sure, but it is not real. Pure escapism just the same as watching an action film where the bad guys are swiftly dispatched is.

So take into account everything I have said above. The game is the cinema experience, but in the control of your hand. There are amazing landscapes, building, country, vehicles, sound, comedy, story. This all in a form where you can still get your own unique situations. It is a brilliant concept, and brilliant in application. It looks to be getting better for GTA V. Now can you name any of the lead designers? Can you name the lead story writers or directors? I would guess without research that you cannot. Yet these people have created a world that never existed before they created it. And you can live in it, get caught up in it emotionally, have fun, and go back to it again, and again. It is an extremely clever piece of interactive art. GTA IV took four years to develop. It is one of the best games or gaming series ever. This is Computer game art, and it does not get the credit it’s designers deserve.

You would think that Rockstar games would be done there, but no, they took the theme to it’s natural alternative, the western. Red Dead Redemption (actually a sequel to an earlier shoot em up game) brought the 3d environment to the outlaw American plains, with great graphics and a good story. They captured the quick drawing Clint Eastwood style shooter, in a good interactive method, and placed him out into the world of the family in the dawn of the new age. Well for Northern America anyway. Well actually it was set in 1911, pretty much the end of the old west, but enough to include some good old gun slinging action. You pick up the tale of John Marston, a man out to hunt his former gang members and the story expands from there. Like GTA there is much killing and fun to be had, but this time without the car chases (horses just don’t cut it on that front). Unlike GTA, this one has a more natural conclusion fitting what John has been through. It also spawned a Zombie sequel set on the same map but with a whole new Zombie storyline. Red Dead Redemption captured that cinematic western experience well. Plenty of shootouts, saving people from hangings, hunting people down, and the like. The story drew you in, and made you want to help John (and his friends) out. The graphics were superb recreating that western look, the soundtrack custom scored for the game, also captured the mood well. All in a fabulous interactive cinema experience and again,  name one of the designers, artists, music writers, story writers, etc without going to look it up. Red Dead Redemption is a modern classic, another fabulous interactive piece of art, and underrated on that front.

Another recent game of high quality and based on a much loved comic book character is “Batman Arkham city” a follow up to the earlier successful “Batman Arkham Asylum”. This time designed by the similarly named Rocksteady games. This recreates the dark gotham city somewhere in between the modern animated series and the recent Christopher Nolan Batman films. This is the violent batman, a skilled warrior with high tech gadgets, but is not invincible. He needs to attack from the shadows. He can be shot and killed. This gives a context where some of Batman’s battles are puzzle like, you have to figure out how to use his weapons and the environment to win. To balance that there is bone crunching battles, or punch and kick ups. There is a fairly simplistic system that most people can use, or you can use more difficult ways, but more varied attacks. The look of the game has the dark gotham palette, but also the crazy colours of the joker. In fact on that front, a large selection of Batman villains turn up in the story, such as the aforementioned Joker, The Penguin, Hugo Strange, Bane, Dr Freeze, so fans have all that to look forward to. The game is less open ended than the GTA but does allow some freedom to hunt down “Riddler” clues, and beat up random crooks. But the story really draws you in. The control system is not overly complex which also helps. The sound is well done, there is good voice acting, for example Kevin Conroy voicing Batman and Mark Hamill of Star Wars fame voicing the Joker. There are brilliant graphics in the city, wonderful animations in the characters, and character brawls. It is a game that leaves you thinking about it for some time, after you switch it off. In short, a cleverly crafted piece of computer game art.

In writing this essay, I have consciously not researched game designers, graphic artists and so on, who have worked on the game. I could have done but I wanted to illustrate how anonymous the names are to the general public and mainstream media. I would consider that these days, a lot of people work on a game. But then a lot of people work on a film too, and you know who the main people are for that. Why should this be the case?

I mentioned in part one some of my history with the earlier computers and consoles. Back in the Amiga age I could name several key programmers, for example Archer Maclean did “Jimmy White’s Snooker” (he also did IK+), Geoff Crammond did “Stunt Car Racer” (and several Grand Prix games) and Sid Meier did “Civilisation”. These days, off the top of my head, no-one. I can name several games companies, so there is credit to this extent, but I believe this is part of the marketing. If you know Rockstar did GTA and Red Dead, you might take a look at LA Noire. If you know EA do Fifa, and NHL, you might take a look at Tiger Woods Golf. I know the companies, but not any key directors or designers. Perhaps there is just too much team effort. If there is, it is not clear.

In part two I discussed how sports games are supposed to be almost real representations of the sport they are based on. I talked about the amount of detail that goes into them, and the maths involved in recreating realistic looking physics. I talked about the presentation and attention to seemingly superficial details like the commentary. I hoped I demonstrated how sports games are a piece of art on their own.

In part three, above, I discussed several alternative games. There is a huge market out there with recent classics like “Uncharted 3”, the super huge role playing game “Skyrim”, and the hugely successful (and also annual) “Call of Duty, Modern Warfare” series, but I focused on the GTA series, Red Dead Redemption, and Batman Arkham City. Hopefully I was able to give an indication of the scope of these games, what they include, and how they have brought some of the cinema experience to interactive life. They have in effect, created pieces of art.

However the main points are this: What do we consider to be a piece of art, and why do we not know enough about the people who create them? I would argue for the first point, that if we consider a good book, or a good music album, or a nicely painted picture, to be a piece of art, why should the same not apply to a cleverly crafted or inventive computer game? Well the simple answer is that it should. The reason we do not know enough about these people is related to the former. Games do not get as much credit for being a piece of art, and are not covered in as much detail in mainstream media. We know of the team behind the game, but not individuals.

As to why this comes about, there is something to be said for the secrecy of the games companies. They keep things under wraps until they need to give out details. Presumably game designers, programmers, graphic artists and so on are tied to contracts with the gaming companies, and not freelance, able to work on whatever projects they choose, or are chosen for. But that is no reason we cannot know that, Mr X was infact responsible for much of the look of the beautiful desert landscapes in Red Dead Redemption, or that Mr Y designed the humorous radio stations in GTA and wrote most of the gags. Perhaps one way around this would be to have some game oscars. Actually a quick google search reveals that there sort of is, they are called “Annual Interactive Achievement Awards”. However these give awards to categories like “Game of the year”, “Action game of the year”, not individuals, for say “Best Landscape graphics in a game” or “Best original story”. I’m happy that games companies get some recognition, if not enough (in mainstream media), but not that individuals don’t.

As I mentioned earlier, I’m not saying this from the perspective of someone who spends lots of time playing games. I try to fit in some game time at least once a week but I have larger interests in music, writing and books. I’m just someone with an appreciation of what it takes to get something created, to go from nothing to something. I say this because I believe there is art in computer games and that the art of the computer games, is hugely underrated. I am quite frankly, often amazed by the level of details that appear in them. If I wrote a good story it might be acclaimed as such, and possibly considered a fine piece of art. If a game is good, it is just a good game. It is rarely outside of games sites, considered much more. I’m just trying to make sure the good ones get the credit they deserve.

Lexicon word of the day: flummery.

Is the “art” of computer and console games underrated – Part 2?

Two days ago I began to look at why the “art” of computer and console games maybe underrated. The creators of games do not get appropriate credit for the clever work, and sheer amount of it, that goes into them, more so if you consider the volume of games sold. I suspect a part of this is that a game is a group effort sometimes involving a lot of people. On the other side of the coin, a film is not without a huge cast of supporting players is it? But consider that everything you see onscreen in a game has to be created some how. You cannot scout for locations in a game. Every graphic or animation (character or other) has to be created and put together, along with everything in the world it lives in. The physics models have to be created and animations matched so that anything that moves, and especially if interacting with something, looks a form of “real”. Much like a writer adding something to a page, it doesn’t exist until someone puts it there.

To help follow my point, let us take a look as some sport games. Previously I discussed some of my history with computers and games consoles, giving an indication of the amount I had crossed passed with during the evolution of the console. I had fallen away from much interest in consoles until getting a PS2 with Grand Theft Auto three (GTA 3). I never really got into getting many other games aside from the GTA series and sport games. More specifically it was mainly the ISS Pro Evo series of football (soccer) games. On the PS2 these were considered the best most accurate football games. The Fifa series was the rival and had the bigger financial clout signing up all the big licenses, with official player names, team names and shirts. Pro Evo was the poor cousin in this regard mostly not having made-up names (but having a name editor), but tended to have better gameplay. Fifa was for kids, Pro Evo for adults.

Moving up to the PS3 this seemed to change. Pro Evo started off well, but on the yearly revisions Fifa put in a real effort to catch up, caught up, and in my opinion, has now surpassed Pro Evo. In a way this is a tiny bit sad, it was like transferring to the enemy, but Fifa got it’s act together. It still has all the licensing, but now good animation, and fairly realistic play. In truth it is all a bit clever.

To someone not into football it will all just look like some computer blokes punting a computer ball around, which of course, it is, but that is to miss all the details and subtleties. Players can kick the ball of course, but the user has to time it with the animation. If a player presses to early or too late the player responds accordingly. Imagine in the real world, you are going to kick a ball. You are only going to do it when balanced a certain way and when your kicking leg is moving from a certain place, to make contact in a certain place, obviously determined from where you are and where the ball is. The game mimics this. You get the timing right, so the player and ball are timed a certain way, then the move likely comes off well. Mistime it and any number of consequences may happen, but more likely some awful pass or shot relevant to how the animated character makes contact with the ball.  However this is only the basic thing. Players in the game have some AI characteristics, they are better and worse at certain things, and in certain scenarios, so this also plays a part with how good the final ball is, or how accurate a player trying to retrieve the ball with a tackle might be.

This is of course trying to represent the varying standards of the real footballers the computer characters are trying to represent. Plus there is other characteristics such as weight of pass, angle of pass, room to pass, (same again with shots), players ability to control the ball, or take it in his stride, make one touch passes or shots, or need more, all balanced off against the tiredness of the player. Greater tiredness equals greater potential for error. Shots can be taken more accurately with more space, more powerfully from a little run up, maybe dinked in on a quick turn, or put in via the players head. All balanced against ability and tiredness.

So all these factors affect the play, but must be timed correctly by the controlling player. Sitting atop of this, player AI, for how players move to attack or defend when not being controlled by the player. A player can edit the tactics which then influence this. Then there is the presentation itself, player graphics and “real” likenesses, different weather conditions, crowd sounds, ball sounds, TV style commentary. The whole package to give you that match day experience.

So what the player gets is the result of all this work (and probably a lot more I haven’t mentioned), the final package. Fifa 12 has a good knack of imitating “real” football. Games seem to have a similar ebb and flow, the graphics and sound are clear and of a high quality. The gameplay is easy to learn, has a bit of a learning curve if playing on a harder difficulty setting, but allows you to pretty much do most of what you ought to be able to do. It is only once you have played some games and begun to master it a little that you see how good it really is. The subtleties begin to show themselves. It might be the way you drop a craftily weighted pass to a player in front of the box, who controls it by stopping it and moving it in front of himself just a shade. If the controlling player recognises this, he can gain a tiny bit of space to get a more accurate shot in. It might just be a player receives it and with one well timed touch lays it into the path of an on rushing forward. What Fifa does in short, is capture those little moments that make you smile, or those little moments that make you go “wow, that was amazing”. And this is from a computer game.

There are of course, moments where it goes a little wrong. Some of the player contacts occasionally result in players bouncing off in an odd manner, or falling over each other, but these are not too common. Should that take away from the overall achievement? As the frequency is low, I don’t think it does. Incidentally my favourite error in the current version is like a clever in joke. On the cup games Clive Tyldesley is the main commentator joined by Andy Townsend, the latter deemed a nice bloke but unfortunately one who spiels a lot of nonsense. From time to time in the game, at the half time mark, Clive will remark on the state of the game and say “And now the thoughts of Andy Townsend”. Cue complete and utter silence.

Small errors aside, the interesting thing here is that the game can drive your emotions much like a film, book, or song might. On one level it can give you a sense of achievement, after all, you are controlling it, and yet you know this is contained within the world of a game. It is not the real world. Well sort of. So if the presentation is that great and can drive you emotionally (you might even get annoyed when it doesn’t go well), then how is this different to a film, book, or song? An incredible amount of work goes into a game. Yes that might be the several years work, of adding or tweaking an older edition, but I repeat, that is because there is an incredible amount of work going on to get to that point. Someone has to think of how to do all the things I listed above and make them happen. Someone has to work out all the physics involved in every scenario. Someone has to do all the graphics work and make it look good. Someone has to work on the sound and the lines of commentary. With all this, why are we not looking at some of these people and crediting them with the high standard of work they are achieving?

Fifa 12 is produced by game giant Electronic Arts (EA). The NHL series, following the Fifa naming conventions, is named NHL 12 on the current edition so will give you no surprise to learn it is also an EA sports game. I’m assuming a separate team works on this game which is interesting in itself, and thus confirms my point that, I do not know the answer without looking it up. NHL 12 is similar to Fifa in that it does the same sort of things, just for ice hockey. Again it is full of the clever graphics and sound, the clever timing of physics, this time on the ice. Just days ago I started to get a level of competence at playing it, which like Fifa, began to show me the subtleties of the game. Clever timing of passes from end to end, a pause, turn and shot, a piece of game magic. Little things you can do, clever, clever. It captures the hockey experience nicely in a format you can interact with. It is again, somewhat astounding that we don’t know much about the people that produce these titles, without having to go and look them up.

UFC is one of the largest growing sports to view, in the world. Released less than a month ago was the game UFC, Undisputed 3. No I’m afraid I don’t know who came up with the daft name. This time the game is produced by THQ. Without knowing anything about it you could likely surmise that this is an attempt at an accurate portrayal of the UFC experience, and indeed, that is what it is. This time the sport is not focused around a team, but the two competitors in the ring. This might sound more simple, but when you consider the game designers have to mimic all the different high disciplines, the full range of strikers to ground specialists, it is no easy feat. The designers have to create animations that make all of this look real. They need to make the impacts of this look real to the character on the receiving end. Most of the fighters in the game are based on real fighters, so the designers have to give each fighter a move set like they have in real life. How high they kick, how they move when they try to punch, everything. I repeat, the designers have to develop fully 3d models with all the animations to demonstrate what they do, all the little moves, balanced against how they react to receiving the move. Then there is all the presentation, sound, commentary, arenas, referees and so on. The game can capture quite well the tension as you try to win but also face losing. It is brutal, like real life, but if into it, a fun experience.

So the key thing about sports games is that they have to mimic the real experience. All the physics whether it be football, ice hockey, UFC, or another simulated sport, has to be calculated and reproduced to “realistic” effect. The maths has to work otherwise the user loses the experience. This has to be layered with the appropriate graphics and animations, topped up with sound. Someone even has to work out what buttons on your controller lead to what moves relative to each situation. The whole world might be based on real world, but has to be faithfully recreated in the game console environment. This is a lot of work but has to be of a really high standard.

It is therefore interesting that without some research we cannot name pretty much anyone involved in the design of these games. They just don’t get the same media coverage. Given the amount of games sold this really ought to change. And the thing is, I’m not saying this from the perspective of someone who spends lots of time playing games. I try to fit in some game time at least once a week but I have larger interests in music, writing and books. I’m just someone with an appreciation of what it takes to get something created, to go from nothing to something. There is art in computer games. There is art in the graphics, and the created environments. There is art in the model characters and the way they move. There is art in giving the user that experience, that draws you in and begins to control your emotions. Like most things, some is better than others. I’m just trying to make sure the good ones get the credit they deserve.

In the next and final part, I shall discuss how the art of the computer game appears in some games that do not attempt to be a realistic mimic of the real world, but an inventive take on it. Primarily this will be focused on Grand Theft Auto (GTA), Batman Arkham City, and Red Dead Redemption.

Lexicon word of the day: insouciant.

Is the “art” of computer and console games underrated – Part 1?

It occurred to me the other day whilst having a little play on the PS3, that the guys who create the games don’t get the credit they deserve. There is a lot of clever coding, artwork, music, writing, and general ideas. If we watch a film we might acknowledge a sharp script, some good acting, how well shot it is. If we buy a console game, we expect it to be good as a matter of course. So the obvious question, is the “art” of the console game underrated? As I started typing, I realised the subject was much larger than I anticipated so I figured I would divide it up over three blog pieces to publish over the next week. I will look at:

  1. Some of the history relative to how I used it
  2. Sport games (As they are mostly based on “real” life and the appropriate physics)
  3. Some other games e.g. GTA which inhabit their own world which may be loosely based on our own.
Part 1 – My history with the Computer game

Growing up in the eighties, I was in the first generation to live through the development of the home computer, and home computer gaming. I experienced the early Atari home console, with Pac-man and space invaders, the original Nintendo with the big selling Super Mario Bros. Hitting my teens the first computer I owned was the Sinclair ZX Spectrum+2. It was capable of 15 colours, had a 128k memory (less than most photo files these days), suffered from “colour clash”, and had a built in cassette recorder. Some favourite games were Emlyn Hughes International soccer (you could edit the team and player names!) Operation Wolf, Double Dragon, HyperSports, Daley Thompson’s Decathlon, I’m struggling to remember more. – A friend of mine owned its superior rival the Commodore 64.

I would soon move onto the games console Sega Mega drive (Called Genesis in the US). Mine was a Japanese version I bought from a friend at school. It had protection on to stop it using European games. The protection was a piece of plastic that slid out when the power switch was slid on. One minute with a small saw removed that protection, I could use any game I could lay my hands on. It had a step up in graphics and sound so was immediately “cool”. Some favourite games were Strider 2, Space Harrier II (now available on the iPhone), and again, I’m struggling to remember more.

At around age 15 (I think), I moved on to the Amiga 500 which could do 32 colours from a palette of 4096, a large step, as it seemed at the time, up in graphical power from the Spectrum and a small improvement over the Sega. I had the 512kb memory upgrade giving it a 1mb memory. The main reason for moving however, was games were cheap. This was primarily because I knew of a “secret” club which I would go to once a week with a pile of floppy disks. One member at said club was always getting “cracked” games, or as they are more commonly known, games with the copy protection removed. Where he got these I do not know, but he was getting them often before they were even on sale in the shops. I believe he ran up a big phone bill. No matter, we got all the games at a club entry cost of 50p. My week would consist of trying them out, erasing the ones I did not like, then returning to the club the following week to get the next “free” games. Not surprisingly the Amiga did not last more than a few years. With no-one buying games there was no money to be made. Still I have very fond memories of the Amiga. I had upgraded mine to an Amiga 1200 (with 128 mb hard drive) which I think, is still stored in my parents loft, no doubt with a pile of copied games. I could probably get an emulator on the mac and no doubt some games from the net if I needed or wanted to. Some favourite games were:

  • Pinball Dreams – A four table Pinball game based on fairly real ball physics. Nightmare was my favourite. The game is currently available in HD form on the Mac and iPhone / iPad.
  • Sensible world of Soccer – A daft but fun football game where if you fired in a curled shot from certain places, of a curled lob, from certain places further out, you could pretty much score every time.
  • The Secret of Monkey Island – The beginnings of the adventures of Guybrush Threepwood. Prior to this, adventures were all text based with commands like “Walk North” which you would would often mistype as “Walk up” only to get the reply “I do not understand walk up”. Thirty minutes of frustration later, said adventure game would be having a new adventure of its own in the waste bin. Monkey island in contrast had graphics you could point at onscreen, music, onscreen text dialogue, a good story and puzzles. At the time it seemed cinematic. This was followed up by the 11 disk epic, Monkey island 2 which improved on the graphics and sound. The Pirates of the Caribbean films take a little of the spirit of these games. It is hard to see now but at the time this was a big step up in presentation and scope. Both games are now available in HD versions on Mac and iPhone / iPad.
  • Kick Off 2 – A top down football game with comedy sliding tackles come leg breaking fouls, and Brazillian magic, curled free kicks. Totally unrealistic but good two player fun.
  • Lotus Esprit Turbo Challenge – Kind of similar to Outrun, a behind the car racing game.
  • Nitro – A top down car racing game
  • Super Cars II – Another top down racing game, this time with weapons.
  • Jimmy White’s Snooker – A good attempt at 3d Snooker with some good ball physics.

Around 1992 my interest in music increased and my interest in computers and consoles began to wane. Although I had a Super Nintendo for a while at university (many hours were wasted trying to win the world cup on ISS Pro), it just wasn’t the same. It wasn’t until the PS2 and the leap forward in 3d gaming that was Grand Theft Auto 3 (now also available on mac, iPhone and iPad) that I really picked it up again, although never with the enthusiasm of my youth. I mainly liked sport games like ISS Pro evolution or GTA. That said, I went to the Xbox 360, and now PS3, but I shall come back to this in the part two and three. Interesting to note though, is by the time I got a PS2, gaming consoles had become a part of most households. When I was into the games as a teen I was a essentially a nerd. Now games consoles belonged to everybody and in some capacity just an alternative entertainment to watching the tv, listening to music, or reading a book. Plus there was the added advantage of them being interactive. Sure, there are geeks who spend too much time on them, and probably get far too many games (you know, the gamefly.com audience), but on mass they are a mainstream thing, there for a dabble, and surprisingly more fun than you might expect when playing multi player, or online.

The reason I mention this history is to illustrate the amount of consoles and games that I have crossed paths with. Thinking back to the earliest computer games they were all pretty basic, but the programmers were working with extreme technical limitations compared to these days. Think of using Haiku compared to a longer form of poetry. In the longer form there is more space to tell what you want, and get your point across. In Haiku it is short and little room for explanation. These early games were along similar lines. Good but with many limitations. In effect, it to was a clever, short art form. It is unsurprising now that we were keen back then to leap on any technological jump and see what games came up with it. Remember all this was new and the boundaries were being broken. It was riding the front of the new technologies. These days most people want the latest iPhone, HD or 3d TV, or whatever latest gadget for the home is the latest thing. Back then it was confined more to gaming, to geeks, and tech boffins. It is perhaps one of the reasons that the game designers don’t get the credit they deserve.

Another reason I don’t think they get what they deserve is because games evolve. If the designers don’t get it right first time, they can take the feedback, and add to what they already have, for the next game. Many sports games are a product of taking the parts of the game that worked, and changing the parts that didn’t, or adding another level of AI, improved graphics or physics. A film or book might go through a number of edits or revisions, but once it is out there, that is it. Apart from a “directors cut” they are mostly a one shot deal. Games especially with a connection to the net, can have downloadable updates that make small tweaks or add some details. But all this said, doesn’t it just seem to devalue the work?

Games as I mentioned above, people expect them to work straight off, like buying a fridge, you expect it to do what it says on the box. You expect the world within the game to be understandable, and easy to interact with. If not you will criticise the game manufacturer for selling “some crap”. You know people could revise it, and that is a key point, so you expect a high level of quality. However I would argue the point that production of games is just different, they work a different way, and should not be viewed in the same context as a book, film or TV show, in terms of how they are produced. On the other hand, I would argue that there is fantastic artwork, cleverly designed puzzles, great sound, clever interactivity, in fact a lot of similar elements to what we get in films, music or books. They just don’t get the same credit for the end result. They are not written about in the media as much, names are rarely mentioned. Can you name a single graphic artist who worked on any recent game? I suspect you couldn’t. Yet games are a big part of our culture now and these creators need to get some credit.  There is much art and innovative design in what they do, people should appreciate it a lot more.

In parts two and three, I shall provide further examples of why.

Lexicon word of the day: variegated.