GWJ Conference Call Episode 392

Conference Call

Live From PAX East 2014! The GWJ crew are joined by Ken Levine and Elena Siegman!

Live from PAX East 2014! Shawn, Elysium, Julian and Cory are joined by Ken Levine and Elena Siegman for their 'Gamers With Jobs Saves Gaming' panel.

To contact us, email [email protected]! Send us your thoughts on the show, pressing issues you want to talk about or whatever else is on your mind. You can even send a 30 second audio question or comment (MP3 format please) if you're so inclined.

Chairman_Mao's Timestamps
00.03.09 Will great storytelling in games become the norm?
00.08.05 Kickstarter and did Oculus Rift sell out?
00.18.38 Gender equality and representation gap in gaming
00.32.16 Does gaming need more public advocacy?
00.51.32 Audience questions!

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Show credits

Music credits: 

Intro/Outtro Music - Ian Dorsch, Willowtree Audioworks

Comments

I think next year we need to start a thread to predict which item Julian forgets to pack for PAX East

Very cool of you guys to give that film team some publicity for their documentary. I will be sure to take a look at the website tonight.

Yup, liked 'em on Facebook so I can receive updates on the project and not forget about it.

Regarding the last question, I should probably dig up the article Momgamer wrote (I believe it was one of hers) where I jotted down ideas for a game where you played a mother and her children trying to escape a natural disaster in a Lost Vikings-ish manner where each person, mother and children, had special abilities and skills. It's one of those "I need to get rich so I can throw money at someone to make a game for me" ideas I want to hold on to.

Sounded like a wonderful panel. I'm glad you guys package them up as podcasts to listen to.

There's a game called Shelter where you play as a mother badger.

I wouldn't mind seeing games featuring women as strong women rather than women as strong men with a female graphical skin.

I worry, though, that the industry pendulum will swing from half-clad warrior babes to brawny women with crew cuts and chains on their wallets. Middle ground seems to be hard for people to wrap their heads around.

I was lucky enough to be at this panel and ask the question about minimal interaction as a "trend" in narrative games (around the 57 minute mark). I hope the question (and the answers from Elena/Ken) were of interest to more than just me! To expand on it a little:

Gone Home and The Walking Dead are great experiences, but I do wonder whether they deserve to be GOTY-award winners. The chief differentiator between games and other media is their interactivity, and neither of those games has more than surface level interactivity (choosing between dialogue options in The Walking Dead with some QTEs; examining objects and walking around the house in Gone Home). Do we really want to be encouraging games to be more like other media, and moving away from what makes games different, by holding these types of games up as the pinnacle of the medium?

That being said, I am thrilled that there is plenty of room for them in today's market. I recognize this is not an either-or proposition, and that's awesome.

Actually, Sir Jedi, I recently replayed the first season of The Walking Dead, and while I had nothing but praise for it upon my first playthrough, I found it to be a trial the second time around. I'm all for narrative in games and where they cross over, but I definitely feel that The Walking Dead drops the ball quite often in terms of actual gameplay design.

However, it does irk me that there seems to be a lot of ideas or notions out there that you must lean one way or the other. There were also some excellent gameplay moments in The Walking Dead, such as the first episode where you had to figure out how to clear an area of zombies without making a sound. A bit more puzzle-based situations where the stakes were high (and also didn't require a lot of slow walking back and forth between point A and point B multiple times) would have been something I enjoyed seeing more of. Sadly, they sort of dropped off after the first episode, and it feels like most gameplay moments between intense, involving conversations and intense, adrenaline pumping action sequences was just padding.

So in retrospect, I certainly do believe that The Walking Dead was given too much credit as a game, which includes gameplay as well as story. After all, what made the story so great was that it was interactive, the one trait that I believe makes video games unique in their ability to tell a narrative. But it also managed something a lot of players, including professional reviewers and journalists, never quite experienced in a game before, and as such it gets exalted.

I never played Gone Home, but from what I know of it, I imagine it is largely looked upon highly for similar reasons. They are still games, but a good product, be it film, book, or game, delivers on repeat exposure as often as the first time. If it doesn't, then I'd have to call the quality into question.

Without getting into the game, not-a-game, anti-game discussion, i'll try to throw my two bits into the ring without stirring too much up. Basically, i see the issue being a question as to what aspects are considered necessary for something to be called a video game. Is it simply being interactive media, or digital interactive media? Does it need to be closer to the definition of a 'game', does it need a conflict, a score, a winner? Are visuals necessary? Sound? Personally i'm of the big-tent camp. I'm happy to try out anything that anybody tries to put together and call a video game. Sometimes it'll be strange and i'll love it (as i loved Proteus). Sometimes it'll be strange and i'll hate it (as i hated Dear Esther). I just look forward to people using this medium in new and creative ways.

I was trying to wrack my brain to come up with another example of a shift in a medium to widen its scope that was met with resistance, and the closest i could think of was the resistance to the word "Comics" that non-superhero books had when the more indy and mature stuff started making it into bookstores. So today we have comics, and we have graphic novels. I wouldn't be surprised if in twenty years we have video games, and we have interactive fiction. In the end, they're just labels, and the medium itself is able to accommodate them all.

doubtingthomas396 wrote:

I worry, though, that the industry pendulum will swing from half-clad warrior babes to brawny women with crew cuts and chains on their wallets. Middle ground seems to be hard for people to wrap their heads around.

I'd be really surprised if that were to happen, simply because the status quo is very very entrenched currently in the market. A shift will come but it's going to be gradual I think simply because of how much resistance there is at the AAA level.

I also don't think people are clamoring only for female leads, but rather better representation of minorities across the board: gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, spiritual beliefs, age, etc. The gaming demographic isn't just single white males in their teens or early twenties these days. It's a much broader hobby now and we shouldn't live in a world where executives are afraid to greenlight games with minority leads because of market pressures.

To JediK809's point - it was an excellent question, but I think lumping the Walking Dead and Gone Home together is a little confusing conceptually.

In the Walking Dead it is true you have a very authored experience. Your ability to interact with the environment is limited by what the designers allow (you can pick up this object, but not that object), and your ability to impact the narrative is likewise determined and restricted by the designers (sometimes you are allowed to choose who lives and who dies, etc.) What it restricts in interactivity however it makes up for in the breadth of expressiveness it enables the player within the framework of the fiction of the game. So while you might not be able to change the outcome of the narrative, you have tons of opportunities to control how Lee is affected by narrative events and character interactions. That's unique to games even if another aspect of games, interactivity, is restricted.

As for Gone Home... I think Gone Home is an extremely interactive game! Within the control scheme of the game you basically have free reign to interact with your environment. As Steve Gaynor bragged about in the most recent episode of Tone Control, you're not going to find a more interactive dishwasher machine in any other video game! What you don't have is control over the narrative of the game because that has already taken place. What's important about Gone Home though is that the way it tells its story is unique to games. In a written story for example, you probably tell the story from Sam's perspective instead of Katy's. Or perhaps it is Katy retelling the narrative of her sister, but it relies on a different type of tool set and conventions. Telling stories through an environment is normally something we rely on archaeologists and historians to do, but with video games we can create virtual environments that let players engage in that type of discrete story telling, and I think that is super cool.

I am glad we have authored games with minimal gameplay! I am also glad we have gameplay-centric games with minimal to no narrative! And the entire spectrum between!

Why do people who play games worry so much about "everything becoming this" or "everything becoming that"? Just enjoy the games that you like, everything else will take care of itself. This is a Golden Age we are fortunate to be living through. Almost every genre is thriving or at least not dying. Even adventure games, which were pretty dead for a long long time. Except maybe RTS games, doesn't seem to be much going on there but there are still things to play even in that genre. It is amazing to me the time of plenty we live in as far as games are concerned.

Also, thanks Cory for trying to save me from myself! I need all the help I can get! But, just between you and me, early access is a good thing. Anything that provides more diversity for how games get funded and made is a good thing. Early access, Kickstarter, that other thing I cannot remember that's like Kickstarter but they keep your money no matter what, free to play, traditional publishing. It's all good.

Will there be some abuses? Sure. People make mistakes, fail to deliver on their promises all the time. Some people are just bad and will try to rip you off. In any human endeavor, there is the possibility for fraud, deception, laziness, or just plain underestimating how hard something will be. But, there is also the possibility for innovation, excellence, and genius. You have to take the bad with the good, but for me, personally, and generally from my semi-close following of this hobby, the good so far has far far outweighed the bad.

sclpls wrote:

What's important about Gone Home though is that the way it tells its story is unique to games. In a written story for example, you probably tell the story from Sam's perspective instead of Katy's. Or perhaps it is Katy retelling the narrative of her sister, but it relies on a different type of tool set and conventions. Telling stories through an environment is normally something we rely on archaeologists and historians to do, but with video games we can create virtual environments that let players engage in that type of discrete story telling, and I think that is super cool.

Well said, and I completely agree.

tboon wrote:

Why do people who play games worry so much about "everything becoming this" or "everything becoming that"? Just enjoy the games that you like, everything else will take care of itself. This is a Golden Age we are fortunate to be living through. Almost every genre is thriving or at least not dying. Even adventure games, which were pretty dead for a long long time. Except maybe RTS games, doesn't seem to be much going on there but there are still things to play even in that genre. It is amazing to me the time of plenty we live in as far as games are concerned.

Hear hear! (Hopefully we'll get more RTS games once the MOBA bubble bursts. Hopefully. I'm very curious to see what Pocketwatch does with their upcoming RTS)

It's totally weird - I had so many comments to whisper at Tanglebones and Doogiemac DURING the panel, and now a few days later I can't remember a single one.

McIrishJihad wrote:

It's totally weird - I had so many comments to whisper at Tanglebones and Doogiemac DURING the panel, and now a few days later I can't remember a single one.

I remember something about Ultima 8 being the first experience of a game that felt like early access, which I paid full price for.

Tanglebones wrote:
McIrishJihad wrote:

It's totally weird - I had so many comments to whisper at Tanglebones and Doogiemac DURING the panel, and now a few days later I can't remember a single one.

I remember something about Ultima 8 being the first experience of a game that felt like early access, which I paid full price for.

I think Heroes of Might & Magic IV was my first experience like that. They shipped that without multiplayer or a random map generator for the first time in the franchise.

Darklands was my first. That was super buggy when it came out, early beta level buggy. Getting patches was a lot more difficult in those days. I remember some video game magazine put the patches on their CD (remember those?).

Awesome game (I wish someone would get behind a re-make of *that*) but off the disc it was super unstable.

Tanglebones wrote:
McIrishJihad wrote:

It's totally weird - I had so many comments to whisper at Tanglebones and Doogiemac DURING the panel, and now a few days later I can't remember a single one.

I remember something about Ultima 8 being the first experience of a game that felt like early access, which I paid full price for.

As a long time gamer, I can't help but wonder what the fuss is about early access, except that it's more honest than, say, Obsidian. Heck, I don't think they ever finished Ghostbusters for the PS3 (I quit playing that one because I was never sure if my save file would be there tomorrow).

Early access just means you feel better about that game that crashes to desktop thrice a week.

GalCiv3 isn't $100 for the alpha. It's $100 for the alpha, PLUS every expansion ever released for the game. If it was only the alpha I would have never paid $100, because I wouldn't probably play the alpha enough to make that $60 extra worth it. But if they are going to release 2-3 expansions for $30-40 each, then I'm going to buy those anyway down the line, might as well pay it now so I can also name a star. (Arkaic)

No, someone with more expendable income do not necessarily have better ideas about what will make a game better nor do they necessarily have more interest in a game than someone who can't or won't afford $150 for early access. They also run the risk of sidelining the devs (fans service to a small segment of your audience? That is a recipe for disaster) to make the game take longer to develop or not be released at all.

I say this as someone who bought the $100 founders pack for Landmark and bought the $200 lifetime pass for Hellgate London.

I think it is a good sign that development has progressed to the point where unfinished games are for the most part pretty functional or functional enough to derive enjoyment from it. And I do like early access. I think it should be affordable and accessible so that the burden is on the developers to filter the constructive and destructive input.

side note: I haven't played Portal 1 or 2 but don't those explore maternal themes?

Goddammit. When the episode starts with a stinger, the first thing I think is "Oh, sh*t. WHO DIED? Andrich? Banks? Sands?"

sclpls wrote:

To JediK809's point - it was an excellent question, but I think lumping the Walking Dead and Gone Home together is a little confusing conceptually.

Yeah, agreed that wasn't an apples-to-apples comparison. They were just two recent games that were heavily authored experiences (maybe the phrase I should have used rather than "minimally interactive") and revered by critics.

tboon wrote:

Why do people who play games worry so much about "everything becoming this" or "everything becoming that"? Just enjoy the games that you like, everything else will take care of itself. This is a Golden Age we are fortunate to be living through.

I hope it didn't come off like I'm kept up at night, worrying about the future of games. As I said, these games are great, and I'm really glad they exist! I also agree that we have a smorgasbord of options at our disposal. I have no fear that games with fewer constraints and more freeform gameplay will suddenly vanish.

However, I do wonder if critics are encouraging (intentionally or not) games to move away from player agency (or at least perceived agency). It's just a curious development, and I wonder if we'll see more critical darlings in this vein in the future.

Arclite wrote:

Goddammit. When the episode starts with a stinger, the first thing I think is "Oh, sh*t. WHO DIED? Andrich? Banks? Sands?"

I just laughed until I choked.

Certis wrote:
Arclite wrote:

Goddammit. When the episode starts with a stinger, the first thing I think is "Oh, sh*t. WHO DIED? Andrich? Banks? Sands?"

I just laughed until I choked.

It was Andrich. Confirmed! IMAGE(http://cdn.betterttv.net/emotes/aww.png)

Arclite wrote:

Goddammit. When the episode starts with a stinger, the first thing I think is "Oh, sh*t. WHO DIED? Andrich? Banks? Sands?"

God, that is hilarious.

Cory, I don't understand why the concept of early access is so troubling to you. There have been numerous examples of early access success stories like MineCraft, Star Bound, Kerbal Space Program and yes even Day Z(which may be "broken" but people sure do seem to be enjoying themselves despite that). There are a couple of main reasons I feel it is great for everybody that I don't feel Ken got the chance to explain well enough.

First, without this new development funding paradigm provided by early access and kickstarter (with which you also seem to have a bone to pick), many new and innovative games I mentioned above most likely would not have been able to exist, and that is certainly a bad thing for everybody involved. Games that have grown out of this crowd funded ecosystem have not only been some of the biggest sellers in recent memory (MineCraft continues to crush it), they also are influencing the way triple A devs can think about making their games going forward. They don't have to worry about taking risks on some new game ideas and failing, because indies have been empowered to throw everything against the wall and now the Triple A devs have the advantage to watch and see what sticks. Do you think Epic would ever have made Fortnight if not for MineCraft?

Second, the game development process, and software development process in general, is made better when you are able to iterate on your product early and often based on user feedback. In the early access model, players are able to provide that early feedback to help the developers make the game fundamentally better. You aren't "paying the developer to beta test their software". Believe me, this isn't mean to replace in house QA. Now, there is no guarantee you will at all like what you are paying for, but that is always the case whether a game is finished or not. Spend your money wisely.

Now, maybe some early access devs are over charging. If they are the market will bare that conclusion out. If people end up willing to pay, then that is apparently what early access is worth. It's no different than paying 150 bucks to a Kickstarter project you love the idea of with the incentive of actually getting to play the game before everybody else. And you may even getting a voice in how the game is shaped going forward. Sure beats getting your name dropped in the "special thanks" section of a game or getting a commemorative fanny pack.

Sorry for the long rant. Just what I had going through my mind as I was listening today. Great show as always.

shoptroll wrote:

Very cool of you guys to give that film team some publicity for their documentary. I will be sure to take a look at the website tonight.

ccesarano wrote:

Yup, liked 'em on Facebook so I can receive updates on the project and not forget about it.

Thanks again to Julian, Sean, Shawn, and Cory for the shoutout and to those of you who went out of your way and checked us out. It was a very insightful panel that touched on significant topics.

For us, the Kickstarter bit was interesting because we actually wouldn't have been able to go into production for this film without our backers believing in us and contributing morally and financially. We had no other financial support since we work multiple jobs at times to support ourselves, but we had a clear vision of what we wanted to do and even the backing of Nolan Bushnell, co-founder of Atari to make this film. Kickstarter provided the funds to be able to put that creativity into production and I do believe that it has done that for countless other people. It's a shame that some do abuse it, but there are also a number that use it wisely and for the sake of creating something not just for themselves, but for others to enjoy.

Aside from that, one cornerstone of the talk was when Ken and Elena highlighted what makes for constructive development teams, which also applies to the video game community at large. Sometimes we have to be reminded and aware of how everyone present is affected by our thoughts and actions, and this occurs in our places of employment as well as when we play. And I agree that the best mode of action is to talk about these issues rather than get angry and try fighting back. Having people understand what it is that hurts us or what is morally incorrect could lend for a better community that tries to lift each other up rather than tear it down, because we do care about others (or so this has been my experience) so why not be open to listen and talk about what could make for positive change.

The issue of Early Access seems to be one of preference for each developer and for the consumers that support them. It is not a huge concern personally. I only consider Early Access if the price is low enough and if I truly want to test the game and have no other means of doing it. I do agree with this statement:

fangblackbone wrote:

No, someone with more expendable income do not necessarily have better ideas about what will make a game better nor do they necessarily have more interest in a game than someone who can't or won't afford $150 for early access.

A person's income does not necessarily measure their capability for assessing a game or for giving adequate feedback that will be useful to game developers and fellow gamers. So if game developers do want people to test their games, they have several options, 1. put it on early access at affordable rates 2. pay testers 3. give free demos to sites like GWJ who can provide feedback and also talk to the community about the game 4. put it on early access at ridiculous rates and seclude a ton of people who could give you excellent feedback. All of which are happening right now.

In terms of the changes in games and limited gameplay, I think that if anything, this opens up a way of certain people entering video games to experience something unique that they possibly did not think video games could be. Maybe those that have felt that perhaps it was a medium they could not play well in. I have actually met people who got into games after playing the Walking Dead. They started to see that video games were more than what they had originally considered. Haven't video games continually tried to challenge limitations and norms whether in terms of graphics, genres, story and character dynamics, art style, sound, input devices, etc? Why not challenge the standard of what constitutes enough gameplay?

It's a great attribute that video games can tailor to so many different preferences. Speaking to people at PAX, I came across hundreds of people who loved very very different types of games, and they didn't all fit into just one category. This moment we are living in seems to be a golden age of possibility for video games and so many incredible games have come out of it and are yet to be created. Very excited to see what is to come.

Thanks again! It was a pleasure helping and chatting with you all!

Great podcast. Might be boring to some but I really enjoyed the focus on game development, story development etc. Just a few thoughts:

1) Gamers and entitlement. It is quite understandable and not illogical at all, in fact, that gamers carry with them more entitlement than say comic book readers, harry potter novelistas, or movie fans. What is it that separates games from all these other forms of media?

Unlike comic books, novels, or movies, games allow the gamer to become an actor in the script. Gamers ARE the actors. Its their decisions that make or break the storyline. They play THE central role in most AAA titles. And yet, we criticize gamers for being a bit more rabid than other fans when the game goes in a unpleasant direction or falls apart?

That gamers are entitled should be embraced by developers... it means their actors are invested. That said, the "playright" and the "director" ultimately reserve the right to move the game in a direction they believe to be in the project's overall interests. If you don't like it, say something, and ultimately you may choose not buy the game.

2) That second to last comment, about the people on stage like Ken Levine being leaders and such... Ken made a decent attempt to make a point, but I think it was lost upon the commenter. The commenter wants to see the industry leaders lead and make games that challenge norms and push the ball forward on certain social issues. But Ken was correct... the ball isn't in his or the "leaders'" court. If one feels truly passionate...they should write the script, develop the game that they want to see get out the door. And now more than ever, it's possible with stuff like Kickstarter. Why should the responsibility be placed on guys like Ken Levine? Innovations like Kickstarter have leveled the playing field where you can make an extremely successful indie game like say "gone home" to share a message to a target audience.

Its podcasts like this that separate GWJ from the rest. bravo.

Second, the game development process, and software development process in general, is made better when you are able to iterate on your product early and often based on user feedback.

I think this was an important thread in a lot of the conversation. Games aren't some easily predictable waterfall-model development, but are generally made in more of a series of prioritized features running through (hopefully) rapid iterations. As much as most game dev. fall short of a truly "Agile" project methodology, the process still looks much more Agile than traditional PMP-style. And in Agile, you often have lots of things on your list that you figured you'd add if you could, but the model is much more about building a long list of things you hope to include, and then prioritizing that list so that you get the important things done before time or money runs out. DLC lets you go back and look at the things you weren't able to get out within that constraint, to see if maybe you can still do those as a follow-up project.

KimJongIl wrote:

2) That second to last comment, about the people on stage like Ken Levine being leaders and such... Ken made a decent attempt to make a point, but I think it was lost upon the commenter. The commenter wants to see the industry leaders lead and make games that challenge norms and push the ball forward on certain social issues. But Ken was correct... the ball isn't in his or the "leaders'" court.

Absolutely true. The danger in the "auteur" notion is that it can make things seem like one artist has a unique vision that they force into reality through power of their will and a compelling idea. (The same problem shows up just about everywhere, even in literature.) Even a one-person indie team needs support and funding—or at least someone who'll let them continue to not earn income while they continue to draw on household resources.

The process of converting an idea into a published product is a negotiation with people as well as a complex network of forces, needs and limitations. Sometimes that negotiation specifically means that someone will say something awful, like claiming that male protagonists sell better or are "easier" to market, or that it's acceptable to mistreat employees, or whatever else. Although some have more power than others, it still takes a community to make a game happen. It takes multiple people within a community to make things better.

shoptroll wrote:
tboon wrote:

Why do people who play games worry so much about "everything becoming this" or "everything becoming that"? Just enjoy the games that you like, everything else will take care of itself. This is a Golden Age we are fortunate to be living through. Almost every genre is thriving or at least not dying. Even adventure games, which were pretty dead for a long long time. Except maybe RTS games, doesn't seem to be much going on there but there are still things to play even in that genre. It is amazing to me the time of plenty we live in as far as games are concerned.

Hear hear! (Hopefully we'll get more RTS games once the MOBA bubble bursts. Hopefully. I'm very curious to see what Pocketwatch does with their upcoming RTS)

And if nothing else, we can take solace in Gearbox producing the HD-ification of the Homeworld franchise.

KimJongIl wrote:

Why should the responsibility be placed on guys like Ken Levine? Innovations like Kickstarter have leveled the playing field where you can make an extremely successful indie game like say "gone home" to share a message to a target audience.

I don't know if responsibility is exactly the right word here -- the person asking the question sounded like they just wanted some explicit acknowledgment that there are problems that deserve to be fixed -- but I would argue that Levine has more opportunity and influence than most folks and that seizing that opportunity to advocate does not necessarily disqualify an indie developer or a Kickstarter project from doing the same.

It's not that the ball is in Levine's court; it's that social media and the internet has given everyone their own ball, their own voice.

But, while Levine is correct that anyone so compelled should be inspired to use that voice, there's one thing he has that many of them don't: an audience. And, through that audience, he can compel others too.

shoptroll wrote:
tboon wrote:

Why do people who play games worry so much about "everything becoming this" or "everything becoming that"? Just enjoy the games that you like, everything else will take care of itself. This is a Golden Age we are fortunate to be living through. Almost every genre is thriving or at least not dying. Even adventure games, which were pretty dead for a long long time. Except maybe RTS games, doesn't seem to be much going on there but there are still things to play even in that genre. It is amazing to me the time of plenty we live in as far as games are concerned.

Hear hear! (Hopefully we'll get more RTS games once the MOBA bubble bursts. Hopefully. I'm very curious to see what Pocketwatch does with their upcoming RTS)

Both Tower Defense and MOBAs are arguably offspring of the basic RTS formula first created by Westwood Studios in Dune 2. Indeed, SC2 representative of modern RTS design is played so vastly differently from its Dune progenitors that they're nearly different genres.

A Tower Defense game is basically playing a turtle Terran taken to its extreme form.

A MOBA is the micro-aspect and the upgrade aspect of the game emphasized to the exclusion of everything else.

Farm Mania and sims like CityVille (?) emphasize base design and resource management. Clash of Clans could be considered a similar offshoot.

I consider all these to be RTS games.