map's blog writing into the void

I like good games and I can not lie

I recently applied for European games funding and had to withdraw my application because I did not want to lie about the game development process. This blog post is my way of trying to improve that situation in the future. In addition to publishing this text, I submitted a formal letter to the European Commission’s Open Public Consultation on the matter.

Let’s start by looking at how a game is made. I will concentrate on small and medium productions, but most of this should also applicable to AAA productions.

In the beginning, there’s an idea. Maybe you want to make a game about bureaucracy. You contemplate setting, plot, and mechanics. You look at how other games handle the matter for inspiration. In the end, you have a rough idea of what one of the core concepts of your game is. E.g “You play as a cat trying to petition for the right to vote, by filling out forms with only your paws. In Virtual Reality.”

Next, you prototype the idea to establish if it actually works as a game (“Is it fun?”, “Does it evoke an emotion?”, etc.) and in a technical sense (“Is technology available that makes it feasible to create this idea?”). While this prototype has to be able to demonstrate the validity of the idea, it is very far removed from what a final game would look like. Often it has no or only very preliminary artwork, spaces are greyboxed, there’s no plot, in short, it’s the barely playable essentials. In our “Cat Voting Simulator 2018” example it might be a white square representing a form, a black circle representing ink and rudimentary cat paws controlled by a VR controller that can drag ink on the paper. It’s just a quick and dirty sketch of the core concepts that is explorable as play-space.

Prototypes like these are made within weeks or days. In the case of a game jam — a social event dedicated to generating ideas and making them playable — they emerge after 24 to 72 hours.

The hard work begins after the first playable prototype. Refining the concept, building out the world, writing plot and dialogue, writing 99% of the code. First (and second and third) prototypes are created to avoid having to do all that work for months and years, just to realize that pretending to be a cat interested in voting isn’t very fun in the first place.

One great illustration of this process is Double Fine’s Amnesia Fortnight event. Double Fine, the studio lead by industry veteran Tim Schafer takes off two weeks to generate new ideas and make them into playable prototypes. Here, watch this video, you deserve it for eventually reading this whole post.

Okay glad to have you back, to summarize: Games are prototyped fast so a Game Designer can get a feel for mechanics and check out if the game “works”. Playable prototypes usually emerge after weeks or even hours. Game development is typically an iterative process, i.e. you usually start small and refine your work, building bottom-up.

Now let’s look at the criteria to get funded by the Creative Europe program. The games creation process as defined by them has two phases, Development and Production. Which brings us to the main issue:

The production phase (see definition) of the submitted project must not be scheduled to start before 8 months after the date of submission of the application.

So, in short, I have to spend at least eight months developing the game before entering production if I start the project by submitting a request for funding. Sounds fair enough. Development takes a lot of time after all. Let’s check how they define production, just to be sure.

Production: the phase starting from the testing and debugging of the first playable prototype or trial version until the end the production of the Gold Master or equivalent.

Wait, what? So, after two weeks when I have a playable prototype, production already starts? So, development only covers the “development” of the idea and a quick sketch? That can’t be true, right?

Development: the phase starting from the first idea until the production of the first playable prototype or first trial version, whichever comes first.

So, what’s a playable prototype?

Playable Prototype: is understood under the current guidelines as Alpha version, Beta version or Trial version.

Okay, but what is an alpha?

Alpha version: one of the first iterations of a video game. The Alpha version is usually not complete and most likely unstable and comes before the Beta version.

That’s pretty vague and applies to pretty much everything that is playable. (And don’t even get me started on how there is such a thing as a pre-alpha in the real world.) What about that trial version?

Trial version: the first iteration of the first playable level of a video game. It can be played, tested and used for seeking financial partners

There’s no definition of what constitutes a level and — depending on the game genre — levels aren’t applicable anyway. So again this applies to any playable prototype. Especially given that you can attract financial partners with game jam games nowadays. As soon as you have anything playable, development ends by these definitions.

At this point, you are probably thinking: “Hey, Martin, you are taking this way to seriously, they cannot really mean what they think you mean, you should just talk to them about that.

Which I did. I sent long emails explaining games development and how prototypes are artefacts of the process from the very beginning. The answers I received boil down to:

Absolutely no prototypes for 8 months! The rules are the rules. We cannot make exceptions. Don’t lie to us, we will check if prototypes exist.

So here are your options when you want to take advantage of this tax funded program designed to benefit innovative games made in Europe:

  1. Submit an idea you had a while ago (and tucked away for Creative Europe) without prototyping it, wait for 8 months and start development. If it turns out your idea does not work very well as a game… well, tough.
  2. Ignore the rules and make up your own definitions. Prototype an idea, make a submission you are actually confident in and rest easy knowing that nobody can actually check if you really have prototypes or not. In short: Lie.

If you ignore that this means you either do a shit job or open yourself up to a lawsuit, how does this benefit the creation of video games in Europe? This sets up a system that eliminates an important layer of quality control.

Even if the goal is only to support fresh ideas, the insistence on banning prototyping is a disservice to the quality of submissions and completely ignores the way the games industry works.

I. don’t. get. it.

So yeah, thanks for reading and maybe even sharing my confusion…

Dear buddy,

When I took you in nearly 21 years ago and rescued you from a farmer that was about to throw you against a wall to get rid of you, I called you Schrödinger. I was still young and considered it to be a funny name for a cat. I took care of you. We got rid of your fleas. You were still a wee kitten, and I became your new mother.

After my mother had died, I spent most of 2000 either in class or on my sofa crying. You always came to me and laid down on my chest, purring. You gave me strength. You made it better. Of course, you could not have understood why I’m crying, but you knew that I was in distress and wanted to help. And boy, you did.

Schroedinger sitting on my chest

You moved with me, first to Munich, later to Berlin. You did not care about new environments, as long as I was there. We took the night train together to Berlin, and you slept next to me. I kept watch to make sure you are fine, and you just slept through everything. You felt safe.

Now we’ve grown old together. You more than me of course, but still. I’m 37 now and don’t share a lot with the 17-year-old that adopted you. But both of us love you. I called you by so many names, Schrödinger, Schrödi, Schraubi, Mausebär, Mietzepeter and many more. You did never care about the silliness, all that mattered was you being the cat and me being your mother. I hope I’ve done an okay job. Sometimes I couldn’t be there for you, but I hope you liked being my cat. I liked you being my cat. A lot.

Two hands and a paw

When you still had the strength, you came by our bed every night to lie down on my chest and purr good-night for a few minutes. I miss that. I will miss you. Being around, doing your cat things and now and then letting us know that you love us.

I just wish you could purr my sadness away once more, but it’s time for you to go, and I understand that. You lived a long life, and now you are tired and spent. Thanks so much for being my cat.

Love,

your Human.

My favorite podcast

With all the new podcasting things to happen and all the great new shows like Reply All my favorite podcast still is a show from 2009. A show that has published only seven episodes since 2009: A life well wasted.

Robert Ashley, its creator, describes it as “an internet radio show about video games and the people who love them”, which strikes me as admirably modest. I’d call it the “This American Life” of video games.

What makes ALWW stand out is production value and polish. It’s well edited, every tape, music, sound effect is intentionally placed. It’s crafted. Topical. Concentrated. It stands on its own. It’s something to be proud of. Check it out.

In 2014 my goal was to get started with video documentary production and learn a bit about that. I will continue to work on that, but in 2015 I want to learn how to create something like ALWW. I want to produce at least one episode of a radio show that’s half as good.

Don’t disappoint me, 2015!

New Podcasting

I’ve been listening to podcasts since the first episode of The Daily Sourcecode. I even wrote an AppleScript to copy mp3s from NetNewsWire to iTunes and sync them on my iPod. And I have been creating podcasts since 2006. In short: I kind of like podcasts.

And for the first time since Podcasts got included in iTunes something big is happening. Has happened. Of course,

I’m talking about Serial,

the documentary series produced by the “This American Life” team. Serial has become a phenomenon. It’s literally pop culture. Sesame Street,

Saturday Night Life, The Colbert Report. Like always metrics are hard, but it certainly increased the audience of podcast listeners manifold just by itself.

So more people are listening to a radio show on the Internet. What’s the big deal? I think Serial is redefining what Podcast means to people. And it’s a good thing. Up until now Podcast had two meanings to a mostly nerdy audience. First it meant some kind of audio or video distributed on the net via an RSS feed. Nobody should care about that. Secondly it meant a show made by a few people – most likely men – talking about a topic – most likely tech – for hours. The second meaning is very dominant in my perspective on the German podcasting scene.

So, what changed? Well, there are now quite a few people, and I’d argue they are the majority of listeners now, who think of a Podcast as a bit of Internet radio that is highly produced and narrative. Serial turned the expectations around. Suddenly tech talk shows seem utterly out of place in the quality spectrum of new podcasting.

As a big fan of narrative and highly produced shows, I welcome our new podcasting overlords. In fact I long for the date this new trend, should it actually take hold, makes its way over the Atlantic to the German podcasting landscape. In my opinion, there’s nothing like that here yet and I’d welcome it with open arms. Even “real” radio shows can’t compete. German radio documentaries are usually dry and formulaic. Rigid. Perhaps now a new generation of German podcasters can pick up the mic and do what the last one failed at. Tell emotionally interesting stories.

Ira Glass’ golden rules of radio story-telling

This week-end I listened to a panel about ethics in radio-story-telling from the third coast festival. It’s really interesting stuff, I recommend to anyone interested in making audio. In it people talk about their golden rules for producing stories. And of course there is a real gem by Ira Glass in there, I needed to transcribe for further reference. Here it goes:

  • Make stuff you yourself would be willing to listen to.
  • Don’t say anything shitty about anyone on the radio without giving them a chance to respond.
  • Objectivity is impossible, but you can always achieve fairness.
  • Start the music underneath your story in the middle of the rising action. Whatever is said immediately after you lose the music sounds extra important. Like you actually talk, no the way you kid yourself you talk, you fake sounding s.o.b.
  • If you’re performing badly on the mic, it’s because you are not relaxed enough. To fix it, lower the pitch of your voice.
  • If a piece isn’t working, do another interview.
  • To write a good ending, go back to the beginning. Or tell the one anecdote, or kill the last piece of tape or paraphrase it in script.
  • Killing a mediocre story is victory. Killing a mediocre story is making room for an excellent story.
  • Most stories want to be dull and it’s only through an act of will they become anything but.