System Lords

In response to “A Tactical Advantage” from The Escapist forums:
I tried out Magic the Gathering Tactics.

It seems like a reasonable game, but the amount of content you get for free is really very small. The single-player campaign that starts out unlocked consists of a tutorial and five rather short levels. Each additional campaign, of which there are four, costs five dollars. If the purchasable campaigns are as short as the free one, they’re not a particularly efficient use of one’s gaming dollar. I already pay ridiculous amounts of money to play one online CCG, and I’m not willing to spend even more money to play another.


This definitely provides an interesting case study. Regardless of the quality of the final product (which, unfortunately, I haven’t heard many good things about), this is a pretty good showcase of exactly what a development team should be doing in order to make their game as great as it can be.



In response to “Secrets of the Guild” from The Escapist forums:
I have worked in mobile games and a middleware company. I currently do non-game application development under tight deadlines. I have never been in crunch mode and would not work in a company where it was the norm. I can understand unforeseen circumstances leading to people doing 60 hours for a few weeks or something, but even then of course I would expect to be fully compensated for it. In my current work it’s rare we do overtime at all.

Like I said, research shows that over a longer time anything over 50 hours per week doesn’t even help in producing more. It’s merely stupid for everyone involved.

I have worked and made people work long periods under all kinds of stress, sleep deprivation and overall discomfort. That was in the army, and it had a purpose: teaching people mental toughness with which to maintain minimal effectiveness in crappy circumstances which cannot be prevented. Anything other than that is most efficiently done in full health and comfort, fully rested and fed. There are no truly uncontrollable circumstances in software development, just unprofessionalism and fuck-ups.

Frankly, it sounds to me like Guildhall is perpetuating low expectations and stupid ways of working for no reason, and in doing so, setting up its students for exploitation.


I notice a lot of people questioning the Guildhall’s use of crunch as part of the curriculum. I think that an important point about that is being missed here. Namely, that crunch is a necessary evil for a student.

For the record, I also am a Guildhall graduate who is now gainfully employed at a AAA studio as a designer/scripter. In fact, ChemicalAlia and I were in the same cohort (C11 represent). I also had little-to-no experience in level design prior to attending.

No one here is trying to argue that crunch is a good thing, or that it’s an optimal (if sometimes necessary) working condition. Here are a couple of things to consider, though:

1) Anyone who goes to the Guildhall is extremely passionate about making games. In fact, during the admissions process one thing that they try to make sure of is that the people who start the program are certain about this. This isn’t a program for people who think that making games “sounds like it could be pretty cool.” It’s for people who know that what they want to do more than anything is work in this industry. Keeping this fact in mind,

2) Guildhall is an arms race. Now, I met some great people while attending–people I’m delighted to call my friends–but at the end of the day I knew that, along with everyone else in in the mod community and other experienced devs, these friends were also my competition. So while it was always friendly and everyone was ALWAYS helpful, everyone’s constantly trying to top each other.

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Combine extreme passion with heightened competition, and suddenly this thought starts popping into your head on a regular basis: “Aw crap. It’s midnight. Now, technically I am done with this assignment, but I bet if I did [something] it would be so much better…plus I bet [classmate] is still up working.” Next thing you know it’s 12:50PM and you’re racing to zip up and submit your assignment that’s due at 1PM. That or you’re working on a group project and you think to yourself, “Yeah, I could stop now, but it’s not the best level it could be. I feel like I’d be letting my teammates down if I didn’t do everything that I could.” No sleep yet, and you’ve got another thing due the next day. Rinse, repeat. “Should I keep going?” ceases to be an issue, and it becomes more a question of “Can I keep going?” If yes, keep going.

For the record, the Guildhall NEVER forces people to work any certain amount of hours outside of class. There is no “20-hour lab time.” In fact, the building shuts down at 1AM to encourage students to stop working for the day (a policy we’d bemoan and petition to change over and over again to no avail). They do, however, give you plenty of work. Some students could call it quits at midnight and be perfectly happy with what they’ve done. The rest of us got hired. Ultimately, the guy sitting across from us in the interview wasn’t going to know or care how much sleep we needed to get while finishing whatever portfolio piece. All he cares about is how good your stuff is when compared to everybody else’s that’s out there.

So yeah, there’s crunch, but it’s self-induced 99.9% of the time (as Drew Murray would say, “Hard Work > Talent”). The students at the Guildhall are passionate about making games and want to work in this industry literally more than just about anything. This can easily translate to “I will work insane hours to achieve my goal.” At the same time, my tenure there contains some of the most fun I’ve ever had. I was glad to do the work and lose all that sleep for the right to be where I am, and *gulp* I’d probably do it all again if I had to.



In response to “Almost Art” from The Escapist forums:
Cool article! And a good call to arms: I think in particular your emphasis on reversing the process, of beginning with an idea, concept or ‘thing’ that is to be expressed through video gaming technology, instead of tacking it onto already existing rules is a potent thought. Still, I want to make two minor objections or, if you wish, points of discussion to your topic.

1) Videogames cannot avoid being art, although I understand you’re calling for a more holistic approach to “games as art” than the following definition. What I mean is that the art assets (level design, creature design, lore design, sound design, graphics design etc etc) are all very much high art in the narrowest definition of the word. Consider Mirror Edge’s minimalist, Scandinavian architecture and colour scheme: not only did it facilitate gameplay by making Faith’s path easier to map, it functions quite well outside the confines of the game. There is really nothing much else to add – any and all games, simply by belonging to a visual (and aural) medium is absolutely suffused with creativity and meaningful aesthetics, and thus ‘art’ in all the meanings of the word.

2) Experiential art (or what-have-you) is what we’re met with quite often when entering certain modern art galleries. One show I visited last autumn had a room where a sound-sensitive thingamabob of some kind would start vibrating when it picked up sound, creating patterns in water and various sounds based on, I guess, frequency. There were bells around the room you could strike, which caused certain effects. But laughing, talking loudly etc also produced a ‘reaction’. In the context of the usually sombre, white-walled, shushed, srs bsns gallery, a room which ‘spoke’ back at you in such a way was quite amusing, and an experience (which had clearly been the artist’s intention).

Games, even games just exploring new game-play techniques, are perfectly capable of creating such experiential art without necessarily needing to sacrifice much to the gods of mammon. I recently played the Adventures of P.B. Winterbottom, and although the storyline itself was a bit of an excuse for the gameplay, really, the gameplay ITSELF was quite wonderful and, well, in my opinion an example of experiential artwork – at least during certain levels. There are better examples, I’m sure (Braid tends to come up, but I haven’t really played it myself so I don’t know), but the point is that I believe gameplay (to repeat myself) IN ITSELF can be a form of art.

However, I still fully agree with your request that games should begin with an idea and a wish to express that idea, -rather- than some kind of archetype on top of which the ‘artsy’ bits can be grafted, often with poor success. But I have to say that it often seems to me that despite all the attempts at NOT making something with a message, that message can still be read between the lines. Nazi zombies of Wolfenstein are, after all, a sort of extrapolation of our culture’s logical imperative to demonize our recent past…even if the result is a tad bit…kitchy. 😛

Good stuff!


I kind of see what the author is saying, but I think the argument runs into some unnecessary and inhibitive snares along the way. It seems to imply that something isn’t art until it’s recognized as such by the greater public (“…videogames are immature [because] the games industry actively prevents them from growing…” with “…there is far more opportunity in the large market of non-gamers than there is in the crammed and fiercely competitive niche of gamers” implies that the act of “becoming art” and being more accessible are somehow synonymous or parallel) and it explicitly states that art is created “…to explore certain themes or to convey messages that cannot be said in any other way.”

Art has never been defined by commercial success or even public recognition. How many authors, painters, and composers have only truly gained recognition after their deaths? Did their work exist in some kind of Schrodinger’s box, neither art nor not-art until finally recognized?

Art has also long existed to various degrees in a series of artist-patron relationships, sometimes drastically limiting its audience. If someone pays a painter to do an intricate oil portrait of their terrier, it’s hard to argue that said portrait was created “to explore themes and/or convey messsages that can be said no other way”. That said, I wouldn’t necessarily leap to declare that a well-done portrait of a terrier wasn’t art, that it’s subject matter or crass commercial considerations rendered it ineligible for vague and possibly arrogant reasons. Not all art has to challenge or speak to the soul, to be a clarion call for justice or inescapable scream of the creator’s inner turmoil.

It’s dangerous to put art on a pedestal, to make it into some kind of phantasmal classification with which we can bludgeon “lesser” creations. I would hesitate to say that there are no video games that are art, or even that there haven’t existed games before video games that constitute art. Chess is as intricately crafted and infinitely faceted as any oil painting, and people have devoted their entire lives to its study. Sennet addresses the travel of the soul into the afterlife in Egyptian mythology. How would we dance to create a definition in which these games weren’t art?


People often use the term “art” to mean anything done well but for this discussion we need to use language with a bit more precision.
There are 4 common domains in the field of visual literacy.

(1) The first is basic visual communication. Many photographs, for example, are simply meant to document, record, or communicate the look of something. Photojournalism is an example of basic visual communication and people who do it well can win Pulitzer Prizes and other awards. In film this might include many documentary films.

(2) The second is design. People use visual forms to solve problems and make the world a better place for others. This includes 2D graphic design, 3D product design, 4D spatial design (architecture, etc.), and 5D experience design (including video games). In film, Avatar pushed the boundaries of design while also becoming an important part of visual culture (below).

(3) The third is visual culture. This includes folk arts, mass media, popular culture, crafts, etc. The public puts video games in this category which is usually appropriate because they are typically created as part of popular culture for mass audiences. In film, Harry Potter movies or “Hangover” might be examples of visual culture.

(4) The fourth is art. This includes attempts to explore oneself and one’s place in humanity. Since the second half of the 20th century many of these forms do not focus on “story” – abstract art, films like the Cremaster Cycle by Matthew Barney, etc. When people begin making video games that aren’t intended for mass audiences but are personal explorations and experiments with the medium then we will see more video games intended to be “art.”

Each of these domains has exemplars and iconic masters – excellence and high quality can be found in all 4 domains – it is not a hierarchy. Like photography and film, video games will eventually have exemplars in all 4 domains even though they started as forms of (3) visual culture created by designers (2).




In response to “To Die at the Hands of Your Own Creation” from The Escapist forums:
Brilliant! Having followed Remedy’s work much of my life, I’m pleased to see their style is still very much intact. Ever since Death Rally in 1996, their creations have all had a metalayer or three stacked on on top of otherwise simply enjoyable narratives and gaming experiences.


Excellent work. Alan Wake, for all its shortcomings, is a game that deserves this sort of scrutiny. I’m not sure if that is what the work is intended to be, every interpretation is valid, and yours is great and wonderfully woven together.

The bit about the Dark Presence being a force of uncreativity was specially striking to me. I noticed that the game sets the Dark Presence as being a sinister, evil intelligence, but in practice it is really dumb and all it does to try to stop wake is to send people to hit him with shovels and throw barrels at him. That is, the Dark Presence is pretty dumb. I honestly wondered if the game designers had designed it to be that way or if they just had failed to realize how dumb their big villain was; your analysis gives me hope for the former.

I could write an entire article on theories on Alan Wake, but one thing that I thought was interesting was how the manuscripts were supposed to be the entirety of the Deliverance book, but they were of course small, self-contained bits of exposition. I wonder if it would be possible to write an entire, novel-lenght book made entirely of two-paragraph koan-style tidbits. If I do I’ll name it Deliverance.

I respect what you’ve written here, but I don’t find theorizing about Remedy and especially Sam Lake (neither of whom you seem to have actually talked to) in this way particularly useful. Alan Wake was a complex and obviously troubled project that – I guarantee – had a lot going on behind the scenes. I think there’d be genuine insight to be gained from an article on that, if you could ever get past the NDAs, but a straight up lit crit essay leaves me cold. Only my impression, and thank you regardless for putting your work up on The Escapist.



This amuses me a lot. Have you heard of something called Death of the Author? It’s a theory of literary analysis that says that once an author has published a work, their ideas on what it means or how the story goes are of no more importance than your average joe’s, because after a work is release all of its meaning and stories should be contained within it. I remember reading that Vladmir Nabokov caught some major flak from critics after he said one character in one of his books (Pale Fire if memory serves) commited suicide after the book’s end, until another critic came along and said that there were, indeed, things in the narrative that supported the theory of the guy who freaking wrote it. It’s pretty much an alien idea in this world of pop culture obsesses with canon and with the creators dripping tidbits of info on us.

My point is that, yes, he could have talked to Remedy and heard what they say on it, but under Death of the Author, it wouldn’t be any more valid that what he wrote here.

The Random One

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