For Love of the Game

I had a job interview today.

No, really, you don’t understand what that means. I’ve been looking for work since late October. The games industry is currently flooded with experienced, talented developers who have been laid off or whose companies have folded for some reason, and while I’ve popped up onto a few companies’ radar, 99% of my applications have effectively been ignored.

I’m going to clarify that, no, I know my information was looked into as thoroughly as everyone else’s. The fact of the matter that that, with a one lone exception, I have received no real rejection notices. This is a trend I noticed from back in 2009, so it’s nothing new. I recognise that, not being an experienced HR veteran, I don’t know the whole reasoning behind some parts of the hiring process, but it strikes me as highly unprofessional to not have some method of letting an applicant know that they weren’t the prime candidate and to stack their hopes somewhere else. Even a form-letter, insert-name-here automated response is less disheartening than dead air.

The job interview, by the way, was at the used-book store I linked to a couple weeks ago in Multiple-Personality Gamer. I’m seeing more of a future on the independent side of the games industry than with big-name companies, anyway, considering how volatile it can be. Currently, I’m billing myself as a design consultant for Wyrmhole Gaming; I’m totally plugging them because alpha-testing their tabletop game Dead House has been a blast so far. I’ve also signed on for various projects with others, and I have some stuff of my own slowly gathering steam.

The broadening of the internet and easy availability of self-publishing options is really driving things more into the field of smaller companies right now. While there’s significant risk to the creators that all their hard work may not pay off in the end, the reason behind taking that risk is for the love of the game rather than the money. It’s people with ideas who want to share those ideas with the rest of the world, like any good creators would. Obviously not all ideas will appeal to everyone, but that doesn’t stop people who desperately want their hobby to be their career.

A lot of people in the industry get into it for that reason, really. We love games. We watch game trailers, spend hours immersed in digital fantasy realms, and the entire time we’re thinking, “I wish I could be a part of something this amazing.” It always starts out that way, and it stays with us the entire time, despite crushing deadlines, a high-stress work environment, and the constant meddling of management in the creative flow — nothing is more counterproductive than finally hitting The Zone and then getting a Lync ping about a meeting in fifteen minutes. If you’re not a creative or computational type and you don’t quite understand the problem with this, this great little comic popped up on my feed the other day which precisely illustrates what I’m talking about — while the comic is about programming, it’s no less valid for writers, artists and designers.

A good friend of mine once said that if you go your entire career in the industry and never get laid off once, you’re very lucky. I was in the industry less than six months before I got laid off for the first time, just another of the 20% laid off from CCP in October 2011. I didn’t even have half the chance then that I do now — nobody looks twice at only a half-year of professional experience. I lucked out in getting re-hired, even if the new position wasn’t in the creative end. Many are not so lucky.

Why do we stay in an industry where being laid off is not just chance, but soul-crushingly inevitable? The corporate end may be a faceless monolith or an Oedipal Jenga tower, but the actual hands creating each game are there because it means something to them; because every one of us started out as kids playing games with starry-eyed ambitions to be involved in something  we actually felt passionate about. Out of the entire group I used to play tabletop games with, I’m the only one who got that far into the industry.

I still hold out hope that it doesn’t have to be this way, and that developers can do what we love without having to glance constantly over our shoulders or worry about what will happen once a project is completed.

Bigger on the Inside

Looks cosy, doesn't it?

Looks cosy, doesn’t it?

Every once in a while, whilst playing a game, you might notice something a little odd. You may not be able to clearly define it, but in the course of your explorations, you might occasionally get the feeling that there’s something not quite right about the setting, nagging at the back of your mind like the background code-static from the Matrix.

I’ll let you in on a secret: buildings in games are distantly related to the TARDIS.

I should clarify that I don’t mean they’re actually TARDISes sitting more anachronistically than usual in the middle of a game, although that would be an interesting Easter Egg. Game buildings are Escherian conundrums in which the floorplan inside frequently does not match the exterior footprint, or for which the visual scale does not compute with the scale of other things ingame.

Much of the time, the scale of graphical assets ingame will be skewed a bit for the sake of  the visuals or for technical reasons. When compared to other things, the assets may be smaller or larger than the real object would be. When this is done well, players don’t even notice.

Moons love to get into your space.

Moons love to get into your space.

Moons in EVE Online are a good example of this: their assets — the actual objects attached to the visual representation — are often both smaller and closer than they appear to be, and it’s possible to get your ship caught on them when you’d swear you’re nowhere close to grazing what little atmosphere they might have. Part of this has to do with what your brain tells you should be the moon’s relative size. A good asset-builder, like any artist or architect, knows how to force perspective in order to create an illusion of distance and scale. In EVE, it only falls apart when you realise that there’s no way in hell your ship could possibly have squeezed through the station undock, let alone have fit within the station itself along with the rest of your corporation and all of your other ships and gear; there are a couple station models where the hangar interior is literally larger than the station exterior in space. But until you really start thinking about it, it’s easy to suspend belief a bit.

And then you get things that don’t make sense. At a distance, with no character nearby for scale, a location or object looks amazing. But then you put a character in the scene and find out that that a guard-railing in Moria is head-height on an elf or human, and wouldn’t do a lick of good keeping a dwarf from falling over the side. Likewise, stairs. Lord of the Rings Online is beautifully visualised, but its stairs make me want to cry. I kind of wish they’d been left as a painted ramp, because it’s tough to imagine dwarves hiking up and down a hill using what are essentially waist-high shelves. At range, these features and others look fine, the human brain does a fantastic job of scaling things mentally so that they make perfect sense, even when they don’t; there are limitations in games that don’t exist in real life, and we can forgive these easily.

Full-on TARDIS houses, on the other hand, are a bit of a stretch.

I’ve studied architecture, structural engineering, and I’m a reasonably good draughtsman both on paper and in CAD programs. When I look at a building, I’m mentally mapping its layout; if I’m in an older building, I’m looking for signs of structural expansion and history — I’m a nerd like that. When the interior of a house doesn’t match its exterior, or when a wall seems just a bit too thick for no apparent reason, it’s fairly noticeable. For a few months I lived in a house in Providence, Rhode Island (not far from dear old H.P. Lovecraft’s old home, in fact) which was distinctly non-Euclidean, and it was a great mental exercise to figure out how the walls were joined.

Again, sometimes TARDIS-ing is done in the interests of accommodating game limitations, either visually or technically. Allow me to provide a couple of notable examples.

It's really a small fortress.

Not shown: portal to another dimension.

Take the Prancing Pony in Bree from Lord of the Rings Online. No, no, put it back, I didn’t mean literally. The exterior looks great; the latest graphics update to Bree only improved its appeal as a place to get a room, a pint and a hearty meal. Now compare that exterior to its ingame floorplan. For reference, the red triangle in the upper left is the main entrance, which is accessed via the stairs under the archway outside. Look a bit odd? It gets better: the red triangle below the main entrance lets you out into the yard, almost directly behind the wall in which the front entrance is located. The rest of the rooms “below” that in the floorplan are up flights of stairs. This is what I mean by TARDIS houses. Some of my favourite buildings in the UK are coachhouses that have been turned into pubs or student unions, and while they certainly have a number of odd angles and short flights of stairs connecting levels through holes that have been carved through the stonework, I’ve never seen anything quite so dramatic. LotRO pulls a lot of Escher tricks for the sake of simplicity, mind. This is the map of Moria. If you look on the left at the chamber called “The Twenty-First Hall”, there is a well-chamber (this one, to be precise) on the far, far left edge of the map. If you jump or fall in the well, you’ll end up in “The Water-Works” at the bottom-left of the map (certain chance of death may apply if you do this). When actually walking around, however, the map is (relatively) straightforward and flat, and your latitude/longitude on the mini-map reflects this. The implication is that Moria is far more vertical than they were able to make it; belief is willingly suspended in favour of the Rule of Cool: YOU CAN JUMP DOWN THE FREAKING WELL.

Schrodinger's Tenements: the interiors are both there and not there until observed directly.

Schrödinger’s Tenements: the interiors are both there and not there until observed directly.

Then there’s Dragon Age 2. I’m a massive Dragon Age addict, and if I had only one game series I was allowed to play for the rest of my life, that’s what I’d choose, but building interiors in those games sometimes defy the laws of physics. DA2’s production limits had a strong influence on the ingame architecture — I can’t fault the artists for doing a good job with what they had, but the results are great TARDIS-building examples. The layouts of most interiors make no sense, particularly as the buildings in the game appear to be multiple-storey blocks — there would have to be concessions for internal stairwells and passages, at the very least. After your character earns the right to buy an estate, the estate interior is far too big and oddly-shaped to fit into its footprint in Hightown; moreover, when you’re exploring its cellar in the first act, the map of the above floors doesn’t match what you find later after moving in in the second act. A door that leads you into a side-room in an early quest will later let you into the entry hall of the same building.

TARDIS-ing is partly a symptom of disconnecting interior locations from the exteriors assets, requiring a moment’s loading blink when you change locations: when there’s no external boundary to stay within, the possibilities are limitless. The Pokémon games are notorious for this, and the only real way to avoid such a disconnect is to not allow the players to see the exterior of the building they’re entering, which is usually done using walls or plants, or implying that there was an additional passage to travel through which the player wasn’t forced to traverse manually. Sometimes the artists will make an effort to match the interiors to a suggested exterior profile, but sometimes there are design matters to take into account, or time and resources are limited and it’s simply more effective to clone interiors for multiple buildings. Cloning interiors makes a great deal of sense in a location such as that in DA2, where the entire town was purpose-built, but not so much for a village which has grown over time and where the houses were built by their original occupants, like Bree.

Is any approach particularly better, though? While my personal preference is for structural continuity, I would not actually suggest that it’s ideal for all games. There are a lot of variables to take into account with any design decision, and while it might be more realistic to have narrow staircases in your inn and a space station that looks like it could feasibly house a hundred capital-sized hangars, it’s not always the best option for the game itself. For my part, I try to not focus too much on why City of Heroes offices were all constructed by the same firm which clearly believes in useless dead ends and not building lifts to go directly from ground floor to rooftop.

Remap

I’ve mentioned before that the novel I’m currently working on is the first for which I’ve had a full plot outline developed before I even started writing.

This is where I admit that I’ve had to re-outline the story, one year after I made the first outline.

It’s not as bad as you might think. Through writing — the process of which is more comparable to a jigsaw puzzle than a journey — I’ve found points in the original concept which were weak and needed to be restructured in order to prevent the whole thing from collapsing.

I’m sorry, the metaphor has gone from puzzle to 3-D structure. And I suppose that’s a good thing, because a good story should have depth.

In the last two weeks, I’ve discovered that two characters needed their roles to be swapped entirely, which has changed parts of the ending. Each of them has come out the stronger for it — words like “agency” and “responsibility” and “independence” factor in a lot, which is common when you’re dealing with teenagers. The changes to the ending have made things a smidge more complex, but not in a negative way — everything can be explained without the use of handwavium, at least. Handwavium can be annoying if it’s too obvious.

The antagonist’s backstory needed a restructure because it was slipping into a particular cliché which has been badly overused in other media and which I have always been distinctly uncomfortable with. Improving this also happened during the past fortnight, and as a result their motivations and reasoning have cemented more clearly, and also had a serious knock-on effect on the ending. Whoops.

This has had the unfortunate consequence of changing the map. It’s like when you set up for a road trip: you think you know the route and then shortly after leaving the house you get Facebook notes and Twitter pings from people who would just LOVE to meet up with you for coffee when you’re in the area — and being “in the area” might be as vague as being within 100 miles. I’ve literally taken the existing text and gone through it in reverse, reducing each part to a series of plot points from end to beginning, and then filled in the gaps between them so I know which remaining puzzle pieces belong where. The old outline has been deleted entirely because it no longer applies.

I’m really not certain how often this happens to other writers. Despite having had a dream job where I got paid to be creative, I still feel novitiate at times. I’ve been letting the text develop on its own, rather than forcing it to conform to the original, six-year-old concept because that original concept sucked (well, maybe not that bad, but it could be framed as juvenile and under-developed, as well as being a product of my lack of experience with life at the time). What I have now is better than what I thought it would be a year ago, and I really hope that, a year from now, it’s even better.

Hell, it’d be nice to have it finished and maybe even released into the wild in another year. I’d be cool with that.

It’s tough to be a creative type — you really are your own worst critic. Others can look at your work and think, “Well, it’s not how I’d have done it, but it’s pretty good!” and in the mean-time you’ll be picking it apart because it’s not precisely what you wanted it to be. This part and that part can always be changed just so, but in the end, you have to save it off and admit that any more fussing will be counter-productive, even if it’s not perfect.

I got annoyed a few weeks ago when I started considering making a serious change to a character. Their role had already been under major editing a few times, and I was content with where it had ended up… except that I wasn’t, and kept finding bits that bothered me. Allowing the change to happen improved things, but it also led directly to the change I mentioned a couple paragraphs ago where I completely swapped two characters and their roles within the story.

If you’ve ever made too many attempts to draw something, eventually the eraser wears away the paper quality and ruins the potential for drawing anything; writing is similar, in that if you spend too much time worrying over something, it can get muddied and indistinct. But again, if something is too precious to not be permitted to change in order to make the entire story better, it’s not worth keeping in the first place. I have this approach to pretty much all of life, these days, which is why I’m a-okay with pre-furnished apartments — it makes moving on easier when you’re not loaded down with baggage.

It’s really just a matter of figuring out what’s worth carrying with you, and what’s worth leaving behind.

Multiple-Personality Gamer

The first time I tried an RPG, it was an AD&D session in the school lunchroom after-hours with a couple friends who were badly Mary Sue-prone. It didn’t go well, and it wasn’t fun for me; I had only the vaguest notion what sort of imaginary world I was dealing with, and what sort of knowledge my character would have.

It's DnD. In the future. You can't go wrong!

It’s DnD. In the future. You can’t go wrong!

It took a few rounds of ShadowRun with more experienced players and a better game master, along with a ton of reading (I went cover-to-cover through the player guides and bought several of the novels from the local used-book barn) before I really got the hang of it. I approached roleplaying like improv acting, but until I understood the world my character was interacting with, I was pretty bad at it.

But I enjoy roleplaying, and when I join an MMO, I tend to focus on the RP-only servers because I’d rather get ensconced in the world than focus on levelling up and acquiring gear; a similar situation occurs when I play a single-player RPG. As much as roleplayers get mocked for our preferred style of gameplay, I’ve always felt one of the more vital aspects of any game is to have a well-written and realised world that the player-characters can simply exist within.

While I dabbled in Unreal Tournament and Counter-Strike at LAN parties in the early 2000s, I didn’t really have the inclination to run single-player games; they seemed very anti-social, although that perspective came primarily from hanging around my then-boyfriend’s parents’ basement drawing or watching anime while he played EverQuest. There just seemed to be more fun in being able to scream obscenities and mockery at someone who was actually present in the same room rather than through choppy voice comms or via text. My PC gaming was very social in that way up until I moved to Scotland for university in 2003, at which point I fell out of the habit.

I only allowed myself to be convinced to give EVE Online a shot in 2007 after attending the Edinburgh Interactive Entertainment Festival that year (there’s a story about this event which I’m happy to share with anyone who asks, it’s quite funny but not particularly relevant here). EVE’s PVP aspects immediately drew me in, primarily because of my history with LAN-party combat and then-aversion to playing games solo. It was fun, I quickly discovered the stereotype of being nagged by a significant other for spending time playing games is not exclusive to straight guys, and at a point in my life where I was dealing with a near-crippling round of depression and social anxiety, it allowed me human contact without the pressure to perform in front of others.

I'm a city. In space. No, really.

I’m a city. In space. No, really.

It was during one of Atrocitas’ mercenary wars that I first encountered players who roleplayed in EVE — a game where your character is nothing but a bust portrait and interacts with others as a starship — and was fascinated by the idea. One of our enemies invited me into one of the chat channels where such RP takes place: the setting is described in the MOTD, and that’s it. You type /emote or /me to describe your actions. Anything goes, and other players’ characters respond to your actions accordingly. The ultimate open-ended RPG, unconstrained by dice rolls and game mechanics. There are self-imposed limits, of course, but it provides a fascinating level of freedom to experience the game in a way that makes the vaguely-outlined world real.

I tried other venues: City of Heroes/Villains, the few RPG islands in Second Life  (the wasteland and post-apocalyptic zones are the most fun), Lord of the Rings Online, and then ventured into single-player games after a friend whose tastes run parallel to mine recommended a few.

That’s where my roleplaying habits ran into trouble.

Pen-and-paper RPGs are fairly freeform (unless you annoy the GM enough for them to drop rocks on your party) and players can choose to ignore or avoid obvious plot hints in favour of doing something else; there may be “maintenance” sessions between major campaigns where your characters can attend to their everyday concerns and to show that life goes on. Multiplayer games offer largely unrestricted roleplaying opportunities: you can say anything you wish and the NPCs don’t care, you can give as many or as few fucks about the factional conflicts as you want, you can take your time exploring the landscape and figuring out how to use power lines and balconies as short-cuts across town.

With obligatory Death By Asteroid.

With obligatory Death By Asteroid.

As much fun as single-player games are, the experience frequently has more in common with a Choose Your Own Adventure novel than an actual RPG. I loved those books when I was younger, but I was always frustrated with how limited they are. Part of the fun may have been to find the “best” ending among all the scenarios involving “your” character’s grim demise, but I was always in search of the most interesting story, preferably one that bounced off the most options possible (before the untimely end, of course).

Despite this, single-player RPGs have a massive amount of replay value for me, particularly if time has been invested in the quality and depth of the backstory. Some games provide more room to stretch your character’s wings than others, and there are different ways in which this is done. But there’s still that unsubtle push towards the endgame, and at times it can feel uncomfortably rushed. In some games, you have to accept a hefty penalty for delaying following the main plotline, usually sacrificing acquisition of better gear or vital skills or access to another area within the gameworld. In others, you simply run out of content: the dungeons have been cleared, all possible interactions have been held, all loot has been claimed, and every side-quest is done.

Might as well be the edge of the world: two steps forward and I died.

Might as well be the edge of the world: two steps forward and I died.

It can be frustrating, if not outright annoying, to be reminded that, despite the customisations you can make to your character and the ability you might have to prioritise side-quests and explorations, the story you are living within the game is not actually your own creation. I use what flexibility I can squeeze from the plotline to allow my characters to live a little, but most of the nuances happen only in my head.

My favourite single-player game experience to date is the first run of Dragon Age: Origins that I managed to complete. I didn’t touch the online guides (well, okay, I did once when I got badly stuck on the game mechanics), simply ran the character as naturally as possible without making uncharacteristic choices, and the ending was a fairly unhappy one even if we did manage to win. This was my first introduction to the use of actual consequences for your character’s actions; not an obvious black-and-white morality guide, but a genuinely demoralising outcome emerging from a single decision. It was great, I loved it, there was no plot-truncating penalty for it, it kicked me in the gut and said, “Despite your best intentions, you’re a Bad Person for doing that, and you should feel bad.”

I genuinely wish there was more of that in single-player games. Having tangible consequences for player action (or inaction, for that matter) are more possible in single-player RPGs than they are in MMOs — while player-caused MMO events might have dramatic consequences, it’s very rare for player actions to have an effect on the game world itself, particularly in multi-shard setups. Unfortunately, most single-player games resort to a morality system which has the effect of limiting future interaction options instead of directly incorporating consequences into the game itself; this usually has more to do with development limitations than game design itself, but it still feels like a cop-out when you discover you’ve moralised your way to the point where you can’t choose the other option even if your character would prefer a fuck-it moment.

Railroading. Get it?

Railroading. Get it?

Railroading doesn’t help the feelings of constraint, although it does serve a very good purpose. I learnt this the hard way the last time I played Mass Effect and went to the wrong planet purely by chance before the characters were ready for that particular challenge; the exploration bug had got the better of me and the result made completing the game that much more difficult, along with accelerating the plot. I came into serious gaming from an MMO where there is next to no guidance or assistance, and where if you take a wrong turn, it’s all on you; when I messed up my ME runthrough, the EVE-player in me cracked up laughing, while the RPer in me was annoyed at the foreshortening of the story due to a single wrong choice. It did make me wonder if that could have been handled better; as much as I dislike hand-holding in games, I understand a certain amount is necessary.

Yup. We went there.

Yup. We went there.

Open worlds help a lot when your goal is to build your character as a character and not just a vehicle for solving physics puzzles and shooting monsters. The more options you have to mix it up with the NPCs and hurt or help various factions, the better the experience. My mission-running in EVE only ever happens when I’m bored and feel like alt-ing for a bit, and I’ve always been somewhat disappointed that, in the backstabbity world of EVE Online grimdark, there’s no option to double-cross your agent or their faction during the course of the mission; you can fail it deliberately and the agent would be displeased, but the fallout is so minimal it may as well not exist. It takes a serious and deliberate effort to ruin your NPC standings in that game.

When you think about it, the majority of PC- and console-based RPGs are not entirely true to the description. I’ve often wondered if it’s even possible to develop a game that would match the experience of an actual RPG closely enough, particularly when production draws the line on the design limits, rather than the other way around. We’re getting closer, at least; a few recent games have certainly made an effort in that direction. For now, though, we’ll just have to be content admitting to ourselves that we’re really playing a pre-scripted role in a stage play.