Monday, April 25, 2011

It slips away - and all your money won't another minute buy

So the Playstation Network is down. What does this mean? Well, for most, this simply means that their online features of their console are unavailable. That's a bummer, and a major part of many games' functionality is cut out - but there are still other options, right? Grab a nice singleplayer game, like Uncharted, or Heavy Rain, or Mass Effect (2) - they're all fun with just you, the couch, and a controller. Right?

Maybe you want to sit down with something a little less ponderous. Oh! Try one of the nifty games available through the PSN store. No, of course we can't buy them now, but we bought some before. How about a nice, quick playthrough of Bionic Commando Rearmed. That's a fun game, right? It did okay, yeah?

What? You tried it and couldn't? Isn't it a single-player game? Hmm... this seems problematic.

Now, there's a lot that could be spun off of this. I won't dive into the whole piracy/DRM talk - which is a good way to approach this, but it's a horse beaten to death by those more educated and more knowledgeable than I (not to speak of the further floggings of it by the gaming public as a whole).

I think a more interesting way of looking at this is seeing why it is what it is. Frankly, it's a real bummer to need to validate a game online before starting to play it - Ubisoft tried something similar (if not more invasive) with Assassin's Creed 2, and was met with a resounding "no thank you" from its public (it later killed that particular feature on a later iteration of its Assassin's Creed series).

That said, it's actually a pretty smart way to enforce what it has in its EULA - that is, that the game is a license, and not a sale.

This is of course a tricky issue with consumers, since they are trained to believe that, for the most part, when they pop down money for something that they are then able to use on their own schedule, that they own that thing. This comes up of course when we look at things like the right of first sale and all its repercussions, but what customers really want is to believe that they have the ability to use their thing at their own leisure. And what publishers really want is to believe that they are leasing copies of their work for use, but maintaining some form of control over it anyway.

Neither one is expressly legally right, of course - as these disagreements often do, this falls into a bit of a legal gray area.

But guess what? I don't want to address that either. (I did want an excuse to throw in a reference to first sale doctrine, though, because I think it's an interesting topic on its own in relation to video games). I do wonder, though, what this sets up, as far as a future video game landscape goes.

Do video games get produced like those mentioned above were (Bionic Commando Rearmed, et al.), and when their online infrastructures disappear, so too do the games? That's a little alarmist, I know, but I think it's a valid question, even if it happens to only a small handful of games. One of the best things I think that the video game industry can do, as a fledgling art medium and/or method of expression, is to make sure that its history is preserved. In the past, the presence of a physical medium would ensure that at the least a work wasn't dependent on anything but itself to survive the test of time. In the current age, the digital realm provides its own sort of immortality, since there's nothing physical to preserve and no effective limit on copying or backing up.

Things that rely on a separate service to exist or work, though? That's a little bit of a different picture. Services can and do shut down all the time. Are we in danger of damaging a historical record in service of ensuring EULA validation? Maybe. Maybe it's worth it. Maybe not. Time will, as it always does, tell.

Week IV

For the most part, the general flow of this internship is pretty similar week to week. I'd love to be able to be a little more profound, but one of the necessities of a scheduled blog is that it must (perhaps often?) delve into the mundane.

One of the more interesting aspects of this week has been the move into a more "knowledge solicitation" role. I enjoy production (and design) as a general act, but the nature of the NFA project is one that piques my interest particularly. Having grown up in a military family, there's something exciting about the heavily organized nature of military procedure, especially when it involves such cool machines. In that vein, I got to spend a lot of time this week talking about the performance of these machines in a context that was relevant to what they need to do for the NFA and what they would actually have to do in their respective fields of operation. I've been advised that learning how to solicit knowledge well is a good skill to nurture, and it's one I'll be more than happy to pursue, especially when it's as fun as it is for this project.

This next week is actually our week-long Spring Break, and so I'll be working on the project minimally, if at all. I'd like to be able to nail down some design specifics if I get the chance, because I know that even if I'm not working full-time, there are still a handful of our dev team that is. I'd like to be able to support them as best as I can. I got a real break in moving forward in the design this weekend, though, and I hope that will propel me to get in some of these basics I want to do.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Protracted Console Lifecycles: Sony and Microsoft do what Nintendon't

If you've been keeping your ear to the ground over the past week or so, one thing you may have picked up on are some rumblings from Nintendo. It would seem that the rumblings - which have included a drop-off in the amount of upcoming games as well as a potential price drop - have indicated a potential reveal of a new console in a short amount of time.

Now, there's a lot that could be done to hem and haw through the potential features, games, marketing strategies, and any number of other aspects of a new console announcement, but I'm more interested in how this may affect the planned life cycles of its two chief competitors' consoles.

and Sony have both indicated that they want their consoles to live in the market for about a decade, a decade at which we are almost the half-way point. Nintendo announcing a console now, even if it were to release late next year, would still put it solidly in the "middle" of the other two consoles' lifecycle.

What does this mean for them? Previous console generations have all been fairly simultaneous (within a couple years) in terms of their change-over of hardware. This could probably go one of two ways - one, Nintendo reaps the benefits of having an uncrowded "new console market" and establishes themselves firmly in this (half?)-generation. Two, there is a protracted "Dreamcast effect," where they see a lack of adopters based on people looking to wait for the newest and best.

They may dodge the second one simply because of their stable of first-party games that always seem to act as an effective draw to their systems, but there's no guarantee. There's also the distinct possibility that this simply forces one of the other company's hand, and we see a very strange drawn-out generational turnover.

This is all to say that I think there is one thing more interesting than any hardware features or potential software applications that a new system may offer - seeing how a market reacts in a genuinely new situation.

Week v.3

Week three has seen a little more of the refining of focus I know that I was hoping for in previous weeks.

This week has seen further refinement to the story design portion of the NFA project. It's been fun to get the chance to be a little bit creative, and it's been neat to see how our team's individual strengths are combining, Captain-Planet-style, to contribute to the overall story picture. You see, last week we were working on creating, individually, one-third of the six potential plot lines for the missions experience. As mentioned last week, we each (the three interns working on this specific task) created our portions in a manner that highlighted our respective backgrounds. What this led to this week was a tasking to add to each of each others' stories in the manner that we created our own: One of us is working on fleshing out character backgrounds, while another is working on character dialogue, while another is working on overall plotting. It will be neat to see how our stories are transformed by collective input.

We've also finally got some additions to the NFA team - additions that will be eventually responsible for actual content creation, instead of the overall design and documentation roles we are filling as producers. This has given us a chance to create some usable documentation with a direct design purpose, rather than more structural or conceptual documentation. Lots of this documentation will be used to determine exactly what needs to be created to prove some of the core concepts for the missions of the project, and we'll spend a lot more time refining exact details of the first mission, which is being used as a testbed for this.

As we move into next week, my hope is that we'll finally be able to nail down some of the exact specifications of this first mission - we have a limited timeframe to complete this, and I think it's possible, but we're still looking for some answers. Here's to finding them!

Friday, April 8, 2011

Elevens: Or, Finally We'll All Be Able to Play Minecraft?

Minecraft, a game which should need no - or at least very little - introduction, finally has a release date. For the casual observer of video-games-goings-on, this may come as a surprise, and not because of the date itself. Rather, the surprise is due the fact that a "release" seems counter-intuitive: the game's already out, right?

Well, no, and the more familiar observer will say, "Of course not! You knew it was in alpha/beta all this time!" That is true, of course - if you've seen a single Minecraft video or screenshot, you probably noticed the Minecraft Alpha or Minecraft Beta up in the corner of the screen. I would say that this distinction is largely academic - yes, technically the game may fit under either of these headers (and of course there is flexibility to define things like the type of beta - open or closed - etc.), but given the developer's own approach towards updating the game:

"It’s a bit tricky to really do a release for Minecraft as we keep updating it all the time. For one, the version we deem as the “full version” won’t be very different at all from what the game was like a week ago, and we’ll keep adding features after the release as well..."

- It's hard to really say that there's ever going to be some traditional end to the alpha/beta stages with all their hallmarks (code freeze, final RC, etc.). That is all to say that the game could probably be viewed as simply released when it became open to public use - after all, shortly afterwards, users were able to pay to play it (in alpha, no less). The concept of continual support after release - or at least bugfixes - also falls squarely into the model of game release used by many (if not all) major publishers as well.

So why is there a release date at all? I think it's a pretty savvy move to use these traditional appellations (alpha, beta, RC) in the realm of a game that clearly falls outside their conventions. Like many single-user-developed (or small-team-developed) hobby/indie games, what we really see here is an author who's invested a lot into a product and wants to keep developing it, even after he's done. Is that sustainable? Smart? I don't know - Minecraft's dev(s) seem to be doing at least all right for themselves. However, I'd bet that there's a reason why many large companies have one release date - one big "holiday" for themselves - instead of the protracted release cycle used here.

And that's why I think it's a smart move to use things like this - this otherwise-meaningless release date. It's an easy way to drive attention to your game - and it's clear that is the goal (using a memorable number (11-11-11), tying it in with other big releases (Skyrim)) - and perpetual attention can really only be a good thing for a game's sales. I think if Notch (Minecraft developer Markus Persson) is smart, he'll keep using this strategy. Instead of making updates simply patches with numbers attached, he'll release them in the style of titled, downloadable content, even if they're no different than patches - because at the end of the day, the attention is what matters.

(Minecraft "release" announcement:

Week No. 2

The second week of my internship here started off as many "seconds" are wont to do - with less fanfare and a little more focus. Since we were still operating under the paradigm of "planning for a project that has yet to officially start," much of our day-to-day is still tied to conceptual work.

This is, all in all, not a bad thing. We've gotten to play around in the "design" sandbox, which is an arena which might otherwise go ignored in the role of "training to be an effective producer." I enjoy design; design is what got me interested in production in the first place, and it will always hold its own appeal to me.

With that in mind, it is slightly disconcerting to work on so many different pieces of the design puzzle, given the current nature of the project as more "big-picture" than "small-picture." Here are a couple of the disparate design pieces worked on:

As mentioned in the last entry, we spent some time this week working on story segments for the mission "campaign" that is at the center of the NFA experience. Knowing that, in general, all of us working on the story segment are at least somewhat creative, it was interesting to see how each of our respective educational backgrounds influenced our delivery of the story. Since we were all working on top-down slices of the story, rather than just segments, I think that we were really able to provide some useful comparative takes on scripting this thing out.

I also spent a lot of time trying to work through putting together a prototype of the first mission. It's always tough getting over the hump of learning a new set of tools, and in this case - working with the flight-simulator engine we're using - the process felt particularly arcane. Somewhere down the line, I know we're looking at some third-party tools to help craft these missions, and I only hope that I can generate something worthwhile - something edifying and useful - with the prototype I'm working on with the out-of-the-box tools before we (as production interns) move into the more organizational aspects of the project.

Here's to hoping that next week, we get to move into the "official" opening of the project, and we can focus in and create some specific goals and deliverables. I suppose we'll see!