Friday, 31 August 2012


I've been slack with this. I didn't intend to be.

I've got just as much to say about what I and we do as ever (always have) but actually getting round to it has been something I haven't been good enough at.

So, this blog's laid dormant for 11 months.
Not any more. I hope.

Game Development Footwear

Forgetting audio was kind of part of the joke.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

The Zavvi Online 3DS story.

When the 3DS Price drop was announced, and with it the ambassador package, I got thinking: If I can get one of these cheap before the final register date, then I can get the free ambassador games too.

A couple of days later, I was alerted to a 3DS deal on Zavvi's ebay retail outlet by a workmate. £150. Seemed reasonable at the time (in retrospect, yeah, maybe a bit steep). I bought it.

2 days later, my delivery arrived. I opened the packing box - 3DS box inside. I opened the 3DS box - nothing. The 3DS was missing, further inspection revealed that the box had been tampered with: stolen.

I phoned zavvi, pretty annoyed. Except seemingly, Zavvi didn't believe me. The conversation went mostly like this:

"Ok, so first thing is that we need to launch an investigation"
"Nooo... I paid for a 3DS. First thing is that you will send me what I have paid for please"
"We have to launch an investigation first"
"Ok, the packing box was fine, so it wasn't the postie. The 3DS box was tampered with, so it must have been someone before it was posted. There, that's your investigation."
"Yes, but..."
"We'll call you back"

And they didn't. I called back more and moaned a bit more - "Just send me my 3DS please." This went on for a few days and I got pretty pissed off. Useless. Then they asked me for photos.
"For our investigation"
They wanted a photo of the box with no 3DS in it. Now, I'm no genius, but... it seems pretty easy to take a photo to prove that there is no 3DS in the box, even if I was stealing it.

In retrospect, I suppose it made sense for them to want to test whether I was trying it on or not, although they still had my money and wouldn't send me my goods, but a couple of days later, yes, they sent me a replacement 3DS. Yippee. Pretty poor though I thought, not a process I enjoyed.

As I'd bought the thing on ebay, I left feedback. Negative feedback. This is where it got interesting. My feedback said exactly this:
"box arrived with no item, eventually sorted a replacement after much hassle"

The following day I got this ebay email message from Zavvi_Online:
Hello Fraser
We are very sorry for the experience you have had with ourselves, after reviewing the details of your last order we would like to make amends and be able to resolve the negative feedback left. Your feedback is very important to us and we would welcome the opportunity to resolve this issue.
Please can you advise as to how we can go about resolving this situation and what steps we can now take to satisfy you as a valued customer?
Kind Regards
(Please quote ref:130JW)
So I replied, saying that the service had been pretty shabby, really: lack of accountability; promises of "i'll get back to you tomorrow am" then nothing; implications that I'd nicked it, etc. I said that if they wanted to attempt to make amends then fair enough, that was up to them.
I got this back:
Hello Fraser
We would just like to extend our sincere apologies to you regarding this order and would like to offer you £20 in the way of a goodwill gesture in return for the removal of negative feedback for positive feedback. The funds will go directly back into your PayPal account if accepted (Offer will stand for 28 days from when feedback was left).
We are always looking to improve our outlet and this matter will certainly be noted so that any similar situations may be prevented in future.
Thank you very much for your time and we hope that this offer will be accepted so that we can now move forward in resolving this issue.
Kind Regards
(Please quote ref:130JW)
"would like to offer you £20 in the way of a goodwill gesture in return for the removal of negative feedback for positive feedback. "

I replied with this:
Sorry, but I had a bad experience with zavvi, that can't be changed.
I would have very much appreciated this offer as a goodwill gesture to attempt to reimburse me for the poor service I had, an effort on your part to ensure that I return to Zavvi as a customer.
What it would appear is happening though is that you're not offering me it as a goodwill gesture, you're offering me it on the condition that I change my negative feedback to positive. Not 'remove my negative feedback' (which I could understand), but 'replace it with positive' (which i cannot). Are you trying to pay me to get me to lie about my experience?
I am not going to do that, and I think you asking me to do it instead of just facing the music and saying "tell you what, we're sorry - here's a token of apology" is even more offensive than the implications I pointed out in my previous mail.
Let me be clear - I will accept £20 from you as a "goodwill gesture" if it is offered that way in sincerity - as a result of that I would consider removing negative feedback, perhaps replacing it with neutral.
Alternatively, I can replace my negative feedback with positive feedback which says "Zavvi gave me £20 to replace negative feedback with this"
Which option would you prefer?
Their response?
Thank you for your reply
We are glad that you will accept our offer as previously discussed in our last message to you. We will need to send you a feedback revision request, all you will need to do is accept this and change the feedback left from negative to positive. Once this has been done then a refund will automatically be processed for you to be paid back into your pay-pal account.
Please can you advise if you will be able to accept this feedback revision request in the next few days and I will send the request for you?
Thank you very much for your time.
Kind Regards
I didn't accept their offer, clearly. So I got back to them...
I have not yet agreed to accept your offer and you have not answered my question. Did you even read my email?
And that was the last I heard from Zavvi Online.

Look, I complain. If a situation exists and I can complain about it, I don't mind doing it if I feel I'm even moderately justified. Maybe I was overstating it a little, but I do reckon though, that it's bullshit to offer people money in exchange for saying they had a positive experience instead of a bad one.

When we're moving closer and closer to online retail as a sole source of purchasing media, this kind of consumer review stuff gets relied on and it's disappointing to learn that the companies who provide these services are happy to pay disgruntled customers, not just to shut up, but to tell lies.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Haunt Preview on Kotaku

Nice to see Haunt press starting. It's been a while since I saw it, but it was shaping up to be something really cool when I left Zoe Mode.
Who's the voice actor? WHO KNOWS? Spooky.

This is the last thing I made at Zoe. I worked on Haunt for around 10 months as Lead Designer from pre-production to Alpha submission.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Justifying Games to the world.

I loved Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood. Loved it. According to Naomi Alderman's guardian article ahead of the this year's BAFTAs, she loved it too. In fact, the headline tells us that it's the "best game ever". Is it?

No. AC: Brotherhood is definitely not the best game ever, but that's not really what made me want to write this. What I'm writing about is how in her article, Ms Alderman tells us that AC: Brotherhood is the best game ever because it makes some points about the world, about government, and (for a large part of her article) because it's historically accurate enough to make young people interested in Renaissance Rome.

Ok, well, let me explain why I don't believe AC: Brotherhood is the best game ever. It's because after ten hours and a ton of side-quests, it's obviously pretty repetitive; because there were quite a few too many situations where the game assumed I wanted to jump off of an enormous castle to my death when really I just thought I could make that sideways leap to that ledge on the left; because I got so frustrated with its controls that I had to stop playing and go to bed seething with anger; because, addictive as it was, grinding collection isn't a substitute for gameplay; because it suffered from many of the control and camera issues that any third-person 3D games suffer from, because... well, as great as it is, it's still a flawed game, like any other game.

Well, not every other game.

Pac-Man Championship Edition DX came out last year, and while there's no way I'm going to make any 'best game ever' claims, I will say that for my money, it's the best game I played all year. I think it's flawless, and if it isn't, then at the very least it's as close to flawless as I've found in a game recently.

Everything works. Everything controls exactly how you want it to all the time, it never has to second-guess what a player expects to happen; there's a clean, symbiotic relationship between what you're thinking and what is happening on the game. Your hands, the controller? They're not invited. It's like there's a USB cable plugged into your head and wired straight to the controller input.

Thousands of tiny little design decisions all contribute perfectly towards Pac-Man CE DX's extremely elegant but utterly thrilling whole. It's maddening at times sure, but a joy all the same, and dangerously addictive.

It's just a very good game, honed to its upper limit. Design-wise there is nothing I could think of improving in it, no remaining problem that needs to be solved. So why would the Guardian think that AC: Brotherhood is that much better? 

One of the things I love about a game like Pac-Man CE DX, is that it isn't a game that needs to justify its quality to the world outside of video games. It exists for itself and its player and it delivers on that promise of a thrill 100% of the time. Games don't have to reference the world outside of the console, they don't have to provide social commentary, they don't have to get kids interested in their subject matter, they don't have to educate, they don't have to make you brush your teeth more, they don't have to be more than games. If games do these things, then perhaps that's admirable, but it does not make them better games than the games which don't. It might make them more interesting, sure, it might even help with immersion, but that's not enough to make me ignore what are pretty obvious flaws in a game.

Video games still do get pretty bad press outside of our 'gamer sphere', and of course we can manage how much by being responsible with our content (or not, if we like), but we shouldn't be beholden to that world, we shouldn't feel like we need to make games right-on for the naysayers in order to be perceived as good.

I catch myself qualifying games to non-gamers in the same way I used to qualify comics to outsiders when I was a kid; "it's a big business", comparing the maturity of some of the content with film/ tv. I regret it. We don't have to do that. A game is a game, and while these angles might appeal to the layman or even the games audience, they are never really what makes a game a good one.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Landing back on the difficulty curve.

It's pretty easy to finish a video game today, it's just a matter of putting the right amount of time in, the game keeping your interest for long enough to allow you to finish it. What happens if you don't though? Should the meticulous design of something like Castlevania: Lords of Shadow support a play style other than 'play every night or every other night, start to finish in a week or two'?

I was a victim of this over the holidays this year - I was playing a few games in the run up to christmas (Castlevania one of them - and I think it's great by the way), then... it's the holidays. Back to Scotland for two and a half weeks. When I picked up Castlevania again in mid-January, I was useless at it. Fair enough - I'd be noticeably worse at a lot of things if I didn't do them for a couple of weeks, but in the case of some games, this can leave me in a difficult position where I can't engage with the game at all. It's a barrier.

I'm not proposing that games are too difficult. Like I said, it's pretty likely that people complete games nowadays. What's a problem for me (and according to the 30-something-as-average-gamer stats, I am the norm), is that I'll follow the difficulty curve of a game, building on what I learned yesterday; perhaps delving slightly deeper into a more complex control system, only to put the game down for a week (because us 30-somethings have things to do, ok?), and be faced with the nightmare challenge of being inserted back into the game at a point way above my skill level. Actually, I'm not just talking about the difficulty curve, it's the story, orientation, familiarity with the sheer availability of options open to me, and even more on a game-by-game basis.

This is exactly why Ninja Gaiden II has sat gathering dust on my shelf for 2 years. I loved it. I worked late for a week, or there were a few gigs on or I went on holiday or something. I can't go back - I hit a spike and didn't play for a while, now I'm still at that spike and unable to backtrack to get good at the game again. I feel like I'll have to actually start again if I'm going to progress. So, there are now 2 obstacles between me and the enjoyment I was getting from Ninja Gaiden II while I was playing it regularly; my inability to play the game (and I've tried to pick it up again, but at that point there's nowhere to go, nowhere to re-learn) and the time I've already spent that I'll need to spend again.

You could say that films share that same trait, but a film is 2 hours out of your life. It's really no big deal to watch it again. Going back to the start of Ninja Gaiden II is a lot more work than watching a film from the start again because the phone rang halfway through and you got caught up in something.

Books? Yeah, books are a better analogy - you'll spend 8 hours reading a book, which is about how long I can expect to play a game for unless it's special. But in reading a book, you're only really concerned with story, characters, setting. After a week away from the book you were reading, if you've re-familiarised yourself with those elements, then you're free to continue. There's no muscle memory, there's no skill element. I still know how to read, I still know the language.

Games really are something else. We're at the point in the life of video games as an entertainment where many people from many demographics can be considered 'gamers', but generally speaking, we still make games for the dedicated, those who can learn with the game and stay in it. We rarely welcome back lapsed players.

I don't know how this gets solved or if it ought to be (maybe it's just part of what makes games a unique experience), but it is a reason why I feel I can't go back to a  lot of games with expansive stories, controls and abilities evolve and deepen with the time line.

If only a small percentage of players will finish a game, then perhaps that's because we don't support this kind of situation (which I imagine is fairly common). We're determined to encourage people to start playing our games but perhaps we don't do enough to encourage them to come back.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Picking Holes in Joyride

Funny thing of the week is apparently this video, where a man shows that Kinect's "you are the controller" mantra is a little overstated.

Yeah OK, "haha" and everything, but it isn’t actually at all surprising that there’s auto-steer in a casual driving game, not least a Kinect driving game.

It’s just balancing to me; balancing is what makes a game palatable for its audience, hides the cracks in the game’s systems and makes it as enjoyable a play experience as possible.
People would be complaining if there was no auto-steer, mostly because Joyride would be an extremely difficult game if track magnetism wasn’t there (just like some people would complain if Modern Warfare didn't do almost the same thing with its auto-aim). Actually, Lotus Turbo Challenge did the auto-steering thing  worse than this 20 years ago (when the notion of a casual audience didn't even exist - so this isn't a 'oh the games of today!' thing) and people liked that game.

If anything, this is just indicative of a desire on a particular type of gamer’s part to kick the shit out of Kinect, to expose its shortcomings. What did anyone expect from Kinect? Flawless minority report control?  Did we think that the technology could stand up to the level of cynicism that the hardcore naysayer would bring to it?

No game is flawless, but while I don’t think Joyride is a particularly excellent driving experience (or even game experience), I have had a laugh with it. So, when this, the game’s supposed biggest flaw is only apparent when you deliberately try to break it, try not to play it properly, then we have to question whether that really is a flaw. Should we just be grateful that the game’s been balanced towards a better experience for us? There's a line, of course, and perhaps this is on the wrong side of it, but what I think is much more notable is the quality of the experience I get when I'm trying to play it properly.

Joyride isn't a game that I'll want to play against friends with 80k+ Gamerscores, it's the kind of thing I would play with my family over the Christmas holidays. Now, if I play my mum at Forza, or even Mario Kart (which isn't quite as social a racer as it seems) then we're going to witness all kinds of driving into walls, going the wrong way and losing interest very quickly, it's going to be pretty torturous to watch never mind from her perspective. So the game helps. It doesn't take control away completely, but it does plaster over the gaps. It does that because the situation I've described is what Joyride (and to some degree the current line-up of Kinect) is for, and it makes the game enjoyable for that audience and that situation.

You could beat pretty much any Eyetoy game by putting your hand in front of the camera and waving it. If you did that, congratulations, well done. There are millions who didn't; most of them surely enjoyed the thrill of playing with a novelty new controller in a more social setting than they normally would, and they had fun. Not fake fun. Fun. The thing that our industry hinges on.