...And all the men and women merely players.
A blog about the state of gaming and technology

Friday, November 11, 2005

Microsoft, the Console Financial Model, and Independent Games

Microsoft usually isn't seen as a harbinger of innovation, a generous company, or a company that would shake up the status quo.

However, lately Microsoft has been talking about the uses for the Xbox Live Marketplace, and one of those uses includes a distribution system for independent game content. It's yet to be seen what that means, and what sort of licensing restrictions independent studios have to conform to, but it's a very interesting and very promising idea.

Promotion and distribution have historically been one of the areas in which independent games have been weak. A channel where dedicated gamers can easily see offerings, purchase them, and have them "delivered" almost-instantly obviously does a great deal to alleviate those issues. And development should be easy, too: independent games are usually developed for PC, because of the ease of programming, availability of libraries, and easy access to development hardware. While studios probably won't find it any easier to get Xbox dev kits, thanks to Microsoft's XNA initiative, the DirectX API should be substantially similar on both the PC and the Xbox.

So why is Microsoft interested in helping indy developers? Well, it's not necessarily a question of helping as it is "not hindering". Most console game companies, past and present, have not been thrilled about unlicensed development for their console. There's talk about upholding the "quality level" of the platform, and giving users a consistent experience, but the main reason is money. Console makers make money by licensing the right to develop games for their hardware, and every game that isn't made with a license agreement, no matter how spectacular, is not doing the console maker any good. If you buy a current-generation Xbox, and then buy no games, Microsoft is actually worse off than if you hadn't spent any money at all. Even Nintendo, which makes money on each console sold, still makes the lion's share of their income through licensing.

So why is Microsoft (possibly) letting unlicensed developers make games for their system? Because they're not necessarily trying to make money selling game licenses, like everyone else. They've said from the beginning that Xbox is a trojan horse, aimed at getting Microsoft stuff into the living room. They're willing to sacrifice some potential profit in order to make their platform more appealing to people. Plus, even if they're not getting dev kit license fees from these developers, they're certainly getting a cut of every sale via Live Marketplace, and they're getting Live subscription fees as well. The only risk they're running is that independent games might cannibalize sales of 3rd-party games, and that's not very likely.

Microsoft's entire OS business rests on making a platform that's open to anyone to develop on. They'll happily collect developer fees if you want to join MSDN, but they'll just as happily let you run a homebrew program compiled with GCC. They don't make money by restricting the platform, in fact the opposite is true. The more apps that run on Windows, the more people want to run Windows. They'll even give you free DirectX SDKs, developer tools, and almost everything you need to write a Windows game, because that's not how they make their money.

I think they're taking a similar approach to the console world, and if it helps to make a market for independent games, I'm very glad.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Shadow of the Colossus

Shadow of the Colossus is one of the saddest games I have ever played. It has a gigantic world, entirely empty but for you, the colossi, and some small animals. The landscape is breathtaking, but devastatingly empty. There are signs of big, beautiful buildings everywhere, but they are nothing but ancient ruins.

You're not battling the colossi so much as slaughtering them. They are the most alive and also the most beautiful things in the world, despite being big and clunky. The fights are not hard - in fact, most of the time, all you have to do is cling on while the giant beast tries in vain to shake you free, and cries out in pain and distress every time you strike.

There are save points, but they are pointless - there are no other enemies but the colossi, and when you're fighting them you're not thinking of leaving and finding a place to save. It feels as though this giant, cliched fantasy realm were emptied - the elves and orcs slowly dying off, leaving nothing behind but the Tolkein-esque vistas and the massive, shambling colossi. There are tiny animals scurrying about, and you can even kill some of them, and regain health from eating them - but again, it serves no real gameplay purpose.

The feelings of sadness and of fear are enhanced each time you kill a colossus. You at first try to move away from the corpse, only to (seemingly) be killed yourself by black tendrils of energy reaching out of the corpse. After you awake back at the shrine, shades of all the colossi you have murdered are standing ominously around your body, looking down on you. It is poignant, and at the same time frightening.

Some games are like movies - you are introduced to the characters one by one, the plot is set up, and then the rise of tension followed by climax and denoument. This game is like a painting - a slice of life, a view into a scene are given to you, without background, without introductions, and you make what you will of that slice, without expecting eventual revelations. You are content without exposition, without anything other than the piece in front of you.

In fact, sometimes I enjoyed the moment so much that I hesitated to end the encounter so soon. Besides the sense of loss that comes with killing the gigantic living beings, there is also the regret that the scene must end. While I was flying around clinging to the back of a giant raptor, I regretted having to end the moment.

The raptor mirrors the one pseudo-companion you have in the game, aside from your loyal steed. From time to time, as you gallop over the land looking for the next shambling creature, a hawk will swoop down and skim alongside your mount, seeming to accompany you on your quest.

I haven't finished Shadow yet, but I think it's a piece of art to hold up in pride as an industry.

Monday, November 07, 2005

All The World's A Game...

..and all the men and women merely players.

I created this blog in order to share my thoughts as an insider in the gaming industry. I find I have a lot of things to say about games and their place in society, and too few people to say them to. I feel the gaming industry is at a crossroads - games are beginning to gain serious ground as a part of our culture, and also asn entertainment business. However, I'm not sure where games are as an art form. Movies rose from being a pure moneymaking industry to being a widely-accepted art for intelligent adults, while comic books have somehow managed to remain almost solely a juvenile pastime, at least in the eyes of society.

We have a chance, as an industry, to aim for one of these paths. We can continue to make games that sell well, and are bland enough to get into Wal-Mart or action-packed enough to get the 18-25 male market, or we can make games that challenge people's conceptions, make them think, and ideally reveal new truths about the human condition.

Of course, we're already doing both. And many games have at least something to say, even if they're mostly about blowing stuff up. But most people don't see both sides, and don't consider the artistic merits when thinking about games as a medium. If we have the right attitude, we can maintain the entertainment value of games (and the "blockbuster" hits) while making clever, poignant, and thoughtful contributions to humanity's cultural history at the same time.

The movie industry has the Summer Blockbuster and the Oscars, the Disney hit and Cannes. Literature has Dostoevsky, Joyce, and Shakespeare, but there's also romance novels, picture books, and Tom Clancy. They all have a place. The gaming industry, so far, has focused on the action movies and the epics - with a few exceptions, we haven't found our Kubricks, Lynches, or Fellinis. Or when we do, most people don't realize it.

So, there we go. This is my soapbox to rant (cf. above) about the industry and games in society. I also might talk about technology in general, the Internet, and anything else that catches my eye.