And Your Future Is Rosy

Feign madness but keep your balance

Well, if you’re one of the regulars – actually I kid, due to my neglect I have NO regulars just people that have lost their way navigating the perilous Web-O-Porn – then you’re probably wondering what happened with that Screen Australia business I posted about last. Absolutely nothing of significance. After not being happy with what amounted to a couple of hours of investigative work the Commonwealth Ombudsman came back with, after having to chase them up weeks later. I made them at least try to do a decent job rather than putting it into the too hard basket and hoping it would go away.

They are a government body after all and even though games are all the rage with those dishing out funding or trying to get some. Well, these folks are still a bit slow on the up take ;).

Second time around they came back with the finding that: yes, if they really wanted to (Screen Australia that is) they could have gone in another direction with their funding decision for DigiZen, however, the Commonwealth Ombudsman really can’t do much about that as we really don’t have the power to make them do anything. And any more than that would have to rely on what was said via email rather than by phone, and they had some legalese attached to the bottom to stop me from talking about their content.

So, it’s pretty much as I suspected the outcome would be, and, Screen Australia would get a free pass and not have to do a damn thing to change their ways. However, I never expected the Commonwealth Ombudsman to do anything. I know that what Screen Australia really fears is bad publicity, the kind they’ve had to deal with in the past about other decisions and practices of theirs that applicants didn’t like.

I suppose I could sue them, or at least try. As that’s what I think Screen Australia was concerned about when I found myself chatting to a lawyer that slithered up beside me at a bar I went to after going to a talk at this year’s Sydney Film Festival. But alas, they have other peoples’ money to burn and I don’t. So, that’s where it is going to be left at.

Plus, if I were to sue anyone it would be the assessor(s) for damages and defamation :).

Create something from nothing

The SFF talk was interesting, and not, in a good way. It was titled EXPERT TALKS: Interactive Storytelling.

I don’t like the word “expert” as usually it is someone calling themselves one. I find that they talk the talk of someone who is an expert at the subject, but when you dig deeper you come to realize that they actually don’t understand the fundamentals at all, and, how it contradicts what they preach. I find often those in interactive storytelling only understand the shallow surface of interactivity, as anything deeper than this, more nonlinear and dynamic in structure. Confuses them as they are far more comfortable with linear and passive experiences that film provides.

And when they say storytelling they mean film, that it is filmmakers that know how to tell stories and should be turned to for interactive storytelling expertise.

I find this perplexing in that as much as they go on about interactive storytelling, with the subtext that they, filmmakers, are the ones who are going to blow our minds in this space. I can’t help but notice that all the examples they come up with are actually games made by game developers. For example: LA Noire (2011), and, Heavy Rain (2010) – I blogged about the former and also about the latter.

They use the success of games, games made by game developers, to justify their activities and ambitions that ultimately sideline game developers as second-class citizens within the interactive entertainment spectrum.

Yet the examples shown at this event were eerily reminiscent of the burgeoning “multimedia” industry and Full Motion Video games from around a decade to a decade and a half ago. They looked like the point and click multimedia kiosks people were being taught to produce for companies. They looked like the early flash websites with little end-user benefits; flash for the sake of being flash – style with no substance. Or at best, with Web 2.0 social media features circa 2007.

The game development industry tried to pass off Full Motion Video as interactive movies (storytelling) in the past. Ultimately it was a failure, as what people wanted was rich interactive experiences and new 3D technologies promised to deliver this – even if it was just eye-candy in the end. Yet the film industry thinks they are onto a real winner here and are keen to coin their own terms and develop their own theories of interactivity.

They’re a deluded bunch that are trying to re-invent the wheel.

Hide a dagger behind a smile

A decade ago the literature on game development available wasn’t entirely impressive. Beyond the bad amateur web-pages, the books were as equally amateur in nature. Open a book on game design and turn to AI and all you’d find was a short entry on pathfinding – good AI is more than just pathfinding ;).

Things have come a long way since then and there are quite a number of good and great books on game design these days. Then there are sites like Gamasutra and magazines like Game Developer that have persisted through the years and continued to deliver great content and insight from practitioners within the industry. Yet the film industry seems to want to reinvent the wheel. Partly because the nature of the medium is just alien to them as they don’t really understand it. Partly because they think that what they are striving to create is something new and better than the games we make.

I know because I undertook my MA game research at a film school, that surprisingly, had a very large section to do with game design and development. I spent a lot of time in that library using it as a de facto office – they had none for the research students to use. I can tell you that those books were hardly borrowed with the section being largely ignored, even though transmedia, was the direction the school were heading in and people preached about the merits of. Apparently there was nothing for them to learn from the decades of game development literature into interactive storytelling.

That for me sums up the attitude of the film industry and how they view game development. And my view on the film industry’s attempt at interactive storytelling and their attempts to resurrect the corpses of our past.

Borrow a corpse to resurrect the soul

Speaking of my MA research, the accompanying practical component – a Fallout 3 mod (F3REDUX) – is finally up and hosted.

It would have been up already, or at least the first part, if I hadn’t used mod assets from an unreliable source. What that means is that I’ve had to replace a bunch of stuff, some of it was easy, other elements were more difficult. I still have a number of character resources that have to be ported across and “rigged” up for the game. It means learning more of Blender than I care to. Not necessarily a bad thing in that I don’t mind learning it as one of the reasons for undertaking the mod is to develop new skills – like texturing – as well as keep old ones fresh. It is just that I don’t have the time to do so at the moment.

I know what you’re thinking. Fallout 3 is a bit dated, isn’t it? Well, I did contemplated switching it to New Vegas when it’s release date was drawing near, but ultimately, didn’t. Though I might have gotten the drop on other overhaul mods, increasing the likelihood of its popularity. It would mean ditching the story thread additions and possibly the nonlinear dungeon in the process. I kind of need those for the research, and becoming a “recognized modder” within the community, was never my goal. Though showing what I can practically achieve as a professional designer, was part of the goal.

Plus at the time you could get the Fallout 3 Game of the Year edition for under A$50, now I think it is less than A$20. Basically, not only does Fallout 3 have everything I need to use as a basis for my research, it is also very affordable as well as not requiring high-specs to run it. So, it won’t put someone out of pocket if they want to have a look at the accompanying practical component to the written research – the level design theory.

It probably doesn’t sound too impressive to most people interested in game and level design – especially to “professionals” in the industry. That is unless you understand that there isn’t actually a hell of a lot of actual level design theory out there. What you have is best-practice for very specific cases, like, level environment art rules to apply in creating 3D spaces for FPS games, as an example. Any actual theory also tends to be game design theory re-purposed within a level design context.

What that means is that effectively you aren’t covering any new ground that hasn’t been covered before in great detail. There is only so much extra juice of knowledge you can squeeze out from something that was always meant to applied within a game design context – game design is high-level conceptual and mechanic development, whereas level design, is low-level implementation of the concept via mechanics.

Anyway, hopefully it all means that I can have my MA research published soon…

Exchange a brick for a jade

Kind of coming back to the beginning, my indie project DigiZen is still progressing slowly as it needs funding to make substantial and sustained progress. Part of that was having to use part of my free time on getting the mod to a point where I could release it. Having released the mod, and especially once I have the actual MA research finally published. This should no longer be a pressing issue getting in the way of other projects. The mod will still need a lot of work to get finished, but, it can be used as is as along as I post instructions on how to get to the new nonlinear dungeon as it’s not “linked” to the rest of the game world.

It doesn’t need the primary thread of quests completed in order for people to play and appreciate the primary, secondary and tertiary design of it, and how, it demonstrates practically my level design research. It’s kind of self-contained that way ;).

Anyway, I’ve pretty much played all my cards in way of getting DigiZen moving along. And sooner or later, probably sooner. I am going to have to make a decision as to whether to focus on the PhD I started this year or focus on getting this project finished. I figure by this point that DigiZen will have a long gestation period. I think if you were to look at ambitious indie games, you would find that they end up being in development for 3 years before they get released. That is those that are truly indie and have little or no funding fueling their development, but instead, are fueled by tenacity and passion. Those that do have funding can get churned out in less than a year, though it’s arguable how ambitious these projects are in what they are trying to do and, whether not the developers are actually indies.

But I’ve come to a point where I cannot do both a PhD and work on DigiZen. I thought that I could make one work for and feed into the other. But, that’s not how a PhD in Software Engineering is structured. In particular due to this, it is going to be awfully hard to prove my research is sound as there isn’t much literature out there in support of it to create a solid foundation for it – you can’t just blog about it and have people take your word for it.

You see, they want you to innovate but by building on the research of others that have come before you. Otherwise, you’re way out there on a perilous limb as you don’t have a basis, a foundational proof, for your research to stand on its own under academic rigor.

Anyway, I still have some cards to play in that space, but, I don’t think I have any more up my sleeve for DigiZen. Who knows, maybe I have a card I still have yet to play. One of those rainy day deals that I put in a back pocket for safekeeping in case I had to play it in the future. Only to then compartmentalize my mind and immediately forget all about it.

If it is there, hopefully it’s still worth something.

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