I’m Captivated – and in need of assistance

September 24, 2013

In just a couple of weeks – October 6-8, to be precise, the first Captivate conference is taking place in Austin, TX.

http://captivateconference.com/

Obviously, given that it’s in my home town and I’m speaking at the conference, I’m a tad prejudiced, but I think Captivate is shaping up to be something pretty cool.

For starters, there’s the thing that got me most jazzed in the first place – the cross-media nature of the event. Austin’s such a big games, music and movie town, I had a head-slapping moment when the organizers said they were going to try to bring those communities together, instead of keeping them at arms length from one another, the way most conferences seem to do. How is it no one’s done that before? Sheesh!

And now that we’re getting closer to the date, attendance looks like it’ll be good, there’ll be live streaming of events and even opportunities to get up on a stage and pitch startup ideas whether you’re an official speaker or not. (Don’t ask me how that’s going to work – I just think it’s cool.)

Anyway, given that we’re a week and a half away from C-Day, you’d think I’d have my talk all wrapped up and ready to go, but that’s not the way I work. Oh, I’ve got plenty of material, but I’d like to get some input and additional material from you folks before I get up on stage, locked and loaded and ready to talk.

So, whether you’re attending Captivate or not, I hope you’ll share your thoughts with me on Games Leadership. That’s the topic of my talk, and while I have a fair amount of experience to draw from and (shocking!) lots of opinions, I wanted to draw on the wisdom of the crowd here and get some thoughts from you.

Here’s kind of what I’m looking for:

  • Who are gaming’s leaders?
  • How did they become the leaders they are?
  • Is there a difference between creative and business leadership (i.e., between game direction and game production or between studio leadership and discipline leadership)?
  • Does the game business do a good enough job training, evaluating and growing its leaders?
  • Is anyone, whether in development, publishing or academia rigorously training game leaders? Who? How?
  • What have been some of the best (and worst) experiences you’ve had that could be credited to or laid at the feet of great (or poor) leadership? (And, yes, everyone who’s worked for and with me is welcome to gang up on me here… I’m tough. I can take it.

I’m even looking to talk about how leadership might differ when you move from medium to medium, so feel free to chime in on film or music leadership, too!

That’s just a sample – if there are other leadership-oriented topics I’ve left out, answer questions I didn’t even think to ask. Basically, the more data points I have, the broader the perspective I can take, the better the talk’s going to be. So share. Talk to me about leadership – good and bad… How one becomes a leader – sensibly and not so sensibly… What role leadership plays in game development and publishing and how that’s changed over the years. Help a guy out here, wouldja?

And if you happen to see me at Captivate, come on over and say Hi. It’s Austin. We’re friendly.

Thanks!

Warren

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GTA V. Great game? Probably. Great review? Definitely.

September 18, 2013

Want to read a great game review (great review, I mean – I have no opinion about the game yet)? Try this:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/17/arts/video-games/grand-theft-auto-v-is-a-return-to-the-comedy-of-violence.html?pagewanted=all

Nice, right?

QUIBBLES
My only real quibble with Chris Suellentrop’s review is that he’s more forgiving of misogyny and the “fun” of virtual violence than I might be. Here’s Sam Houser on the topic of misogyny:

“I mean, I suppose we could have done it, early enough on – with a female character.”

Leaving aside the fact that Suellentrop was able to get one of gaming’s more reclusive figures to speak out, I think the discussion was about more than just player avatars – Suellentrop seemed to have been pointing out that all the female characters in the series are treated badly. But, hey, if next time around we get cool female avatars in a GTA game, that’s a win, right?

So, yeah, much as I like the review, I feel that Suellentrop lets GTA V off the hook too easily for its content “issues.” Of course, in the spirit of total honestly, that has to be qualified by the fact that I’ve always found it nearly impossible to get past the content and story choices the GTA team offers. I try, really, I try, but I always seem to find the content too much to bear, even when the gameplay is rock solid.

And in this case, Suellentrop makes a solid case for the gameplay, assessing it in highly positive (and likely accurate) terms. My squeamishness is easily countered. Feel free to ignore me on this…

THE IMPORTANT THING
The important thing is not who likes or doesn’t like the content, or even who does or doesn’t like the gameplay – the important thing is that this review told me everything I needed to know to decide whether to buy the game or not. And then it went on to tell me what place the game might play (sorry for the pun) in a larger cultural context.

Wow.

I read the review and knew to expect open world stuff on a whole new level, more options available to me than ever, great music, visuals that will blow me away, content that makes me go “ugh” and a story that makes me go “meh.” (Okay, I made those last two up – that’s me talking not the reviewers! Bad Warren!)

But all of that being given, the thing I found most compelling, was as Suellentrop put it, the game “evokes and satirizes the anxieties of 21st-century life. There’s a fake Facebook (LifeInvader), a fake Twitter (Bleeter), a fake Apple (Fruit), a fake Kickstarter (Beseecher), a fake “50 Shades of Grey” (“Chains of Intimacy”), even a fake Call of Duty (Righteous Slaughter 7, a first-person shooter game that advertises itself with the tagline “The identical art of contemporary killing”).”

Oh, yeah, I’m in. Facebook as LifeInvader? Twitter as Bleeter? That kind of self-consciousness and cultural awareness are right up my alley – just what it takes to crank a game up to 11. A less well-conceived and executed review might not have twigged me to all that was going on in the game; this one did. If only all game reviews were like that!

So, I’ve read the review. I’ve thought through my history with the series. Will I buy and play GTA V?

Yeah. Sure.

You kind of have to if you call yourself a gamer or game developer, right I’m just hoping I can get past the content this time…

REVIEW AS CONVERSATION-STARTER
Whether you’re a curmudgeonly developer, a gamer, a parent, a reviewer or a game-hating politician, go read this review. At the very least it’ll make a great conversation starter. And we need more adult conversation around games – the way they play, the ideas they express and their place in the broader media/cultural world.

And that conversation doesn’t have to end with debate about the merits of a single game. One might just as easily use it as a jumping off point for a discussion of my current fave topic – the state of games criticism today.

SERIOUS CRITICISM IS ALIVE AND ALMOST WELL
Thanks to many of you, I’m starting to find that the kind of writing and thinking I see in the New York Times is more common than I thought, There’s more quality games criticism out there than I expected. Sadly, if unsurprisingly, most of it is found on gamer-oriented websites, which still leaves the NY Times as one of the few outlets – maybe the only one – that reaches normal humans. But, luckily, the Times critics are doing a fine job.

And that leads to what I consider to be a Big Question…

A BIG QUESTION
Does either Stephen Totilo or Chris Suellentrop have a large enough body of work – more importantly, a philosophically coherent body of work – to justify a collection of reviews in printed or ebook form?

Such a collection, with an introductory section outlining the critical foundation supporting all the individual reviews, could be our “I Lost It at the Movies,” our “Confessions of a Cultist,” or our “The Private Eye, The Cowboy and the Very Naked Girl.” (And if you don’t know those books, look ’em up.)

Someone should publish that book. Now. I’d blurb that book in a heartbeat. Heck, I’d write the foreword, if anyone asked! And then I’d start bugging Totilo and Suellentrop to tackle the little job of writing the games version of “The American Cinema.” At this point, there’s no one I’d trust more to do the job right.

A BIGGER QUESTION
Back to GTA V – anyone know whether I should play on Xbox or PS3? That’s one thing Suellentrop and the Times didn’t tell me!

Not Another Games Criticism Rant!!!

September 12, 2013

For a while now I’ve been ranting about games criticism. (If you’ve been paying attention, you’re probably sick of me ranting about games criticism!)

As much as I’ve ranted, I’ve found a few signs that maybe – just maybe – some writers, websites and print publications are making some progress toward legitimate games criticism. One of the signs is the increasing seriousness with which the New York Times covers game news and offers useful game reviews.

Mostly, I appreciate what the NY Times does with games (when they do anything at all). But today the Times ran a review of “Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs” (no, I’m not making that up) – a review that left me shaking my head in confusion and dismay.

Here’s a link. Go to this link. Go directly to the Amnesia review. Read it and come on back.

http://nyti.ms/14MpGQP

Sounds good, right? I kinda want to play the game. I marvelled at the writer’s tantalizing hints at what the story might be. I enjoyed the author’s clear case for the game’s emotional impact and lingering resonance.

Then I noticed that there’s NOT ONE WORD ABOUT WHAT PLAYERS DO IN THE GAME in the review!

Not… one… word…

Seriously? Can anyone reading this review tell me what the game is about from a play/verbs standpoint?

That seems like a critical oversight (pun not intended but very much enjoyed). The piece reads like something an editor got hold of – an editor who knew nothing about games but had to save some column inches so he or she hacked out the bits that would have made the review make sense to a potential consumer. Honestly, I HOPE that’s the case because the alternative is far worse!

However it happened, it happened. We have here possibly the first game review I can remember that doesn’t actually discuss the game under discussion.

Look, if this review had mentioned the game’s genre (however the reviewer chose to define that word in the context of games), if he or she had talked a little about the play patterns and then wrapped up with a paragraph talking about how the play and the story work together to create the powerful, resonant emotional impact the game clearly delivers… Well, I’d be cheering.

As it is, I’m left shaking my head in confused wonderment.

If the author of the review reads this (fat chance, I know!), I’d love to know the backstory on the review. But even more, I’d like to know something about the game so I could decide whether to play it or not.

(Oh, and can we all vow right here, right now, never to make another game that starts with a player character who awakens in a strange place suffering from amnesia? Thanks. I appreciate it.)

Hero vs. Hero

September 10, 2013

I have no idea what got me thinking about this, but as I was drinking my morning coffee, it occurred to me that all the superhero movies were missing the point – or points, I guess.

First, they seem compelled to retell the origin of whatever hero or heroes they portray in each film. As if most/all viewers aren’t already familiar with who the Hulk is or where he came from? As if Superman’s origin isn’t force fed into our brains as infants? As if any human likely to see a Batman or Spiderman movie isn’t already in on the Secret Origin tm of its star?

Come on, Marvel and DC, have some conviction that you’ve done a good job taking over 21st century culture, that your creations are part of the cultural zeitgeist. And have some faith in us that we’ve been paying attention. Just get on with the story, will ya?

What else are the comics companies doing wrong when they bring their work to the screen This is what really got me worked up this morning:

Unless I miss my guess, every superhero movie has been about a Hero fighting a Villain. Sometimes, there’s a secondary plot about the Hero fighting Himself. (Someone’s been reading Joseph Campbell again…)

Well, what’s wrong with that, you ask? Nothing, I say, but there are other kinds of super hero stories that comic books do routinely and well.

The ones I’m most find of are the “Hero mistakenly versus Hero before realizing their mistake and THEN going after the real baddie” stories.

I get that this is just a subtle (okay, maybe even trivial) distinction vis a vis the Hero vs Hero story I was just complaining about. But subtleties matter and they can determine whether a story resonates with an audience or not.

A straitforward statement like, “How is Hero X going to defeat Villain Y” is way, way different than “When are Heroes W and X going to figure out that they should be defeating Villain Y instead of beating each other to a pulp?”

I mean, think about it. If you’re like me (at least 10 year old me though truth be told I haven’t changed much since then)… if you’re like me, your favorite stories were the classic Thing vs Hulk battles in the old Fantastic Four books… the Avengers vs X-Men tales… the Batman vs Superman stuff… the Flash and Superman racing to see who’s fastest… the original X-men vs the new X-men… the original Averngers vs the new Avengers… and others my fading memory can’t call to mind right now.

Interestingly, some games do a better job than movies of recreating this sort of Hero vs Hero magic. I’m thinking of some recent beat-em-up games that allow players to pit hero agains hero. Yeah, I know, the narrative content is pretty weak. But at least games offer something like the classic battles I loved as a kid and still love today.

Now, if we could get some narrative games going that played with the “who’s the real enemy” idea, maybe we’d be onto something I’d be first in line to play a Thing vs Hulk game!

I realize there are other superhero stories to be told – the “do I save the world or pay my rent” stories… the “hero who walks away before being dragged back into the fight” stories… the ” can a hero love a villain” stories… and (another favorite of mine) “can the hero overcome his or her limitations or vulnerabilities” stories.

I’d love to see some of them dealt with in movies and games. But the Hero vs Hero stuff is my favorite and it seems underrepresented in all media other than comic books. And I’m bummed about that.

Anyway, that’s a look at the kind of silliness I think about while downing my morning coffee. What are your thoughts on this? Do you hate Hero vs Hero stories? Have I forgotten any movies or games that deal with that idea, whether badly or well? What are your favorite comic (or other stories) along these lines? What kind of superhero stories do you love or hate? I’m all ears.

Maybe someone in Marvel or DC’s film departments will listen up and try something different.

Nah! What was I thinking?!

A Blog Post That Isn’t Really About What It Seems To Be About

August 16, 2013

“Coming Soon: Weapons That Have Minds of Their Own.” – Headline on an op-ed piece in The New York Times, March 17, 2013

Recently, I came across an article in The New York Times (see headline above) about the coming era of smart weapons. We’re not just talking drones here. No, no… Drones require human input, human control to do their business.

(And, no, I’m not going to get into the morality of drone use here – well, okay, I do think that once you start killing people it doesn’t much matter how you do it… you just shouldn’t do it, okay? Let that be the extent of the political polemicizing here.)

Anyway, the thing about this article was that it talked in calm, even, rational terms about weapons that don’t require human intervention to operate. Weapons like (all together now…) The Terminator.

“I’ll Be Back” – Arnold Schwarzenegger, The Terminator, 1984

How prophetic was that catch phrase? Here it is some 30 years later and, sure enough, smart, autonomous killing machines are back. But not in fiction. It’s looking more and more as if the fiction of the old Terminator movies is about to become our new reality.

Seriously? Are we really creating the Terminator? For the sake of argument let’s assume that we’re doing just that. Is it a good idea? Are we best served by removing people from harms way and handing the reins of combat over to machines? Can humanity handle autonomous robots of any kind, let alone destructive ones? Are the nightmarish scenarios played out in so many movies inevitable? (And what does this have to do with games?)

You may think these are silly questions – the stuff of sometimes good, sometimes bad genre movies (and TV shows, comic books, novels and games, of course). You may think it’s nuts to spend time on purely hypothetical questions or thought exercises.

But look around. It isn’t just SF writers, moviemakers or game developers talking about the rise of “smart machines,” nor is it exclusively the realm of The New York Times reporting about this stuff. Look around a bit and you’ll find mainstream folks talking about the “Terminator phenomenon.” It’s everywhere (sort of like the conspiracy stuff floating around in the ether in the pre-millennial 1990s – the stuff that led to the making of Deus Ex…).

But what exactly is “it?” What “stuff” am I talking about?

(NOTE: I’m about to assume there’s at least one non-geek reading this blog – “Hi, Mom!” – so the rest of you will have to bear with me for a minute, or go find entertainment and enlightenment somewhere else.)

Okay, here’s the scenario: Technologists (those dreaded scientists in their white lab coats or, worse, their “Bazinga” t-shirts) create robots capable of independent thought. The AI is sufficient to recognize “bad guys” (i.e., anyone who isn’t on our side of whatever ideological line we choose). The machines are smarter, faster, better able to make tough decisions than the meat bags that created them. And they’re equipped with weapons to deal with perceived threats. Warfare becomes a clean, unemotional means of conflict resolution rather than a deadly, ugly slog through blood and gore – much of it previously spilled by our boys (and now, our girls). But then Something Goes Wrong…

I’m really not going to get into the obvious ways this can go wrong – the odds are pretty good that you’ve seen at least one movie or read one book or comic book that outlines the “something that goes wrong.” And if this goes right – if machines really are better at fighting than people are, rendering war either bloodless or obsolete – well, that’s peachy. Not gonna talk about that, either.

What I do want to talk about is how we think about the (potential) right and (potential) wrong of the aforementioned Terminator Phenomenon.

See, I feel pretty strongly that op-ed pieces and sensational movies and TV shows (in every sense of the word “sensational”) aren’t the best way for normal humans (as opposed to policy wonks, technologists and military types) to explore the potential effectiveness of autonomous, combat-ready machines. Nor do I think traditional modes of discourse are the best ways to explore the ways in which this Metal Men experiment might go wrong.

Books, movies, TV shows, comic books and newspaper articles can inform and “sell” an idea, but that’s all they can do. And in the case of an irreversible and potentially disastrous decision to use technology in a specific way, to achieve specific goals, it seems critical to me that we explore the problems – practical and ethical – that such a decision is likely to produce.

And how can we best do this? How can we best experience something that doesn’t exist or hasn’t yet happened?

You got it – games…

What do games do that other media can’t and don’t? I’d argue that the one sentence summary of our uniqueness is this: We allow people to walk in someone else’s shoes, to see things from a perspective and act from a position that is not our own.

If you give me a second sentence to describe what sets the medium apart, I go to this: We offer people an unparalleled ability to play “what if,” to try out behaviors that we may not want them trying out in the real world.

In the context of an examination of the possible impact of smart drones, you could just create a tactical and/or skill-based game that takes a clear, singular stand on the issue. But, to be clear, I’m not proposing the creation of games that drive players to a particular conclusion about the viability and desirability of smart drones. That would do games and players a disservice.

I’m saying that the public discourse around the topic could be expanded and enhanced by allowing player to make the decisions about whether and when to unleash autonomous fighting machines. Games, while not free of the ideological biases of their creators can show the consequences of decisions – even those with which the game’s creators disagree.

It is this power of games to offer not just a description of different viewpoints but the opportunity to act on different viewpoints and deal with the aftershocks – to show, as much as possible, consequence without having some politico or creative type sitting in judgment – that most differentiates us from other media and other art forms. That is true whether we’re striving to create “pure entertainment” (which, just to be upfront about one of my own biases, I’d argue doesn’t and cannot exist), or for socially conscious and provocative works.

Letting people experience, virtually and vicariously what happens when drones are used successfully or the ramifications of what happens when things go terribly wrong, could inform and even substantively change the public discourse around the use of such devices.

I truly believe games – mainstream games, not just so-called “serious games” – can and should be part of our cultural dialogue. Games that offer meaningful choices about serious issues, with logical, believable consequences that follow from those choices, are more than “just” entertainment. They can help us see potential and pitfalls in the decisions we make in real life.

This seems self-evident in the context of a game about smart drones or other autonomous weapons. But if this were just an issue of asking “What might happen if we use battling bots,” it would hardly be worth talking about.

Luckily, I believe the capability of exploring choice and consequence in games is generalizable – applicable to a host of social issues. Mainstream interactive entertainment – non-didactic, adrenaline-inducing games with proven appeal – can be brought to bear on any unsettled or controversial social problem.

Are games the perfect vehicle for exploring technological and social changes with potentially enormous historical and personal impact? Obviously not. But are games the best vehicle we have today for exploring such issues? I’d argue they’re just that – the best we have.

Some of you are probably thinking I’m taking games way too seriously – isn’t it okay just to have fun for a while? Well, sure, of course. But I think we think far too much about fun (without actually thinking what the word means – a topic for another time…). And we definitely think too little about our potential role in the discussion around social issues. I guess what I’m saying that we have to stop putting boundaries around what we can and can’t do in games, what we can’t or shouldn’t talk about through our work.

In other words, are there problems that are or should be beyond the reach of games and game developers? Hell, no!

As I’m writing this, it occurs to me that there’s a Serious Games movement out there, delivering games whose primary goal is to inform and affect public discourse (while still providing some amount of familiar interactive fun). But does this leave commercial developers off the hook when it comes to getting people to think?

I don’t believe it does. As happy as I am that there’s a serious games scene, I don’t see that scene affecting the culture at large in the way commercial games could. There’s all sorts of amazing stuff bubbling away beneath the surface of the commercial games world – amazing AI work… Indie art projects… games for education… But just as non-combat AI programmers have trouble being heard in a world where combat is the only consideration… just as indie game developers do amazing things that are ignored by non-indie, triple-A devs and publishers… just as edu-games leave less of a mark on kids than Mario or Master Chief do… so too are the serious games sort of out there, doing cool stuff, being ignored by most normal people. (Sorry. If you think I’m wrong, make the case!)

Commercial games developers could and should do more thinking about the ramifications of the fictions they deliver and the potentials of the medium in which they work. They could and should force players to think about what they’re doing in-game and why they’re doing it – whether they’re asking us to pull a virtual trigger, save a patient in a virtual ER, get two young lovers together (I wish…) or deploy a smart drone to take out a group of supposed terrorists.

I’d like to see games play a role in the evolving thought around drones, smart weapons, law enforcement, the political process, how we deal with freakin’ aliens – everything that other media already do. Growing up as a medium doesn’t just mean prettier pictures or better stories or tons of money generated by a bigger, more diverse audience. Growing up means engaging in adult conversation.

Conversation. I’d argue that the control developers should exert is the topic up for discussion. But the dialogue has to be two-way or it’s not really a dialogue at all. Too many games, fun as they may be, revert to monologue, in emulation of other media.

Conversation. Yeah. That’s what we do better than New York Times articles or Terminator movies. Whether we like it, hate it, or fail to recognize it at all, what we do is engage players in a dialogue about something. That’s an idea many developers choose to ignore – they’re going to tell their story, damn it… they’re going to relieve players of all responsibility for what they do while they’re playing. But we can still deliver a visceral – and, yes, fun – experience without encouraging or forcing players to shut their brains down.

If we shut our brains down at the same time machines are being given brains to turn on, we could very well be in a world of trouble. So developers, players – let’s get in the game and start helping people think about and experience the serious side of a Terminator world of tomorrow. Let’s get in the game of allowing people to engage with and experience what other media can only tell us about.

Okay, enough from me. What do you think about any or all of this?

If anyone wants to talk about smart weapons and Terminator phenomena and all, that’s cool. But given how little any of us know about that stuff, and how Internet flame-ready ethical dilemmas tend to be, I’m more interested in whether and how games can contribute to public discourse than I am in the specific issue that got me thinking about the question. But I’ve said my piece – the floor is now yours. Drone on…

Do games make money?

August 5, 2013

If you’re looking for an answer to this question, or a full-treatment of the question itself, I’m afraid you’ll have to look elsewhere – for now.

I’m thinking about writing a full blog post or writing a Games industry column tangentially related to this and it’d be useful to have some… what are they called?… oh yeah – facts!

Here;s where I could use some help. Over the years there’s been a truism in gaming that 80% of games lose money. That idea was and is so widely accepted as fact that I never think to question it.

So, two questions for you before I start pontificating on the subject with nothing but my gut and received wisdom to go on:

–Was it ever true? Did/do only 20% of games make money?

–Is it still true today?

(Oh, and one bonus question: Does the success rate differ from platform to platform and/or genre to genre?)

I’d sure appreciate some help with this.

Responses to my last Games Industry International column

July 26, 2013

Hey there! It’s been years since I’ve posted anything here – let’s not go into why that is, okay? – and I have no idea how regularly I’ll be posting anything in the future. But I had something to say and this seemed like the place to say it.

See, over the last few months, the fine folks over at gamesindustry.biz have given me some of their website to sound off about pretty much anything game-related that happens to get my shorts in a knot. And, as if that weren’t enough, they’ve even given me some space to respond to comments about all that ranting and raving.

But recently I gave them two columns in a row covering different aspects of games criticism (see “sorry state of”) and rightly suggested that, rather than respond to comments – making it FOUR times I’d written about the topic – ahem… It might be time to move on to other things. When you put it that way, it’s hard to disagree!

So I’m  working on a new column… having nothing to do with games criticism (promise!). But I’m like a dog with a bone and couldn’t leave readers of my last column with the last word. So I asked the GI folks if I could post my responses somewhere, they said yes, and here they are – responses to responses. Enjoy. Feel free to rerespond. If I get enough reresponses, I may chime in again. Who knows? We’ll see how it goes.

Before I get to the meat of things, I want to remind people of something I said when I started writing for GI in the first place – I said I wasn’t interested in pontificating or telling anyone The Truth about tough issues. That’s still true. The column was – and is – supposed to be about issues I don’t feel I fully understand and about questions for which I have ideas but not answers. (Not that this means I won’t pontificate at all – I like pontificating!)

Anyway, looking at the responses to my first three columns, I suspect some readers are viewing these things as lectures rather than the dialogue I intend them to be. That’s clearly my problem, as the guy writing these things, not something I can lay on readers, but, still, it’s something worth restating, I think.

(You know, now that I think about it, dialogue between writer and audience isn’t far removed from the virtual dialogue between developer and player in all the games I’ve worked on. That’s actually kind of cool…)

Okay, that out of the way, on to the column comments and my responses:

Many of you said that our medium has no need of a Roger Ebert or anyone of his ilk.
First, let me explain one thing – I do not believe games criticism literally needs a “Roger Ebert.” Where did anyone get that idea? I wasn’t trying to say we need “celebrity critics” or “big names,” as one magazine editor opined in a response to my thoughts. I do think we need a cadre of people whose work bridges the gap between reviews and academic writing. That’s all. Plain and simple – at least I thought so.

So why mention Ebert at all (and why will I almost certainly continue to do so)?

That’s simple, too. It’s because I thought I needed at least one example of a media critic whose work went beyond simple “It’s great/It sucks” thinking, someone whose name and work might be recognizable and worth caring about, whether you agreed with his pronouncements or not. I figure most people aren’t familiar with the current New York Times critics or the New Yorker folks or pretty much anyone who writes for some of the more serious film magazines out there. And I suspect most of you (not all, but most) don’t know who Pauline Kael was, or Judith Crist or Andrew Sarris, let alone Manny Farber or, going back even further, Hugo Munsterberg, Vachel Lindsay and Harry Alan Potamkin. Ebert is an example or the sort of thing we need, not specifically and literally what we need.

Even though I didn’t always agree with Ebert when I was living in Chicago, his base of operations… Okay, cards on the table, I rarely agreed with him. But even when I thought he was nuts, I always respected the fact that he had a point of view, against which I could measure my own ideas about film and, in that way, predict with some accuracy which films I might like. Ditto for Pauline Kael and Judith Christ, two writers whose work didn’t make me a fan, but whose work clearly demanded respect.

FWIW, I was always more of a Sarris/Farber fan with strong positive feelings about Thompsen and a guy named Robert Warshow. If you don’t know who these people are, check them out – I bet their work is somewhere online. (And, yes, I’m aware of the irony of sending you to the Internet when I’m arguing for more print exposure…)

Anyway, I wasn’t trying to say we need Roger Ebert, or that you should like the same people I like. I was just trying to say you should seek out critics whose work you do like, and from whom you can learn about the games medium. Oh… wait… Those people don’t exist. Not in sufficient numbers and not in the right places with the right placement.

(Oh, yeah. One more thing: I’m stunned no one pointed out the irony of citing Roger Ebert as an example of what games criticism needs when he, along with his TV partner, Gene Siskel, pioneered the thumbs up/thumbs down thinking I hate so much. You can thank me later for giving you another way to discount my entire argument!)

A lot of you took me to task for suggesting that games criticism needed to be on store shelves because everyone who might be interested is living online.
I certainly can’t argue that things are trending this way – just look at the trouble print publications and television are having these days.

But I think it’s premature to say “The net has won and anyone who says different is an old fogey. “

I’ll cop to being a bit of an old fogey, but old fogey-dom not withstanding, there are a lot of fogey-ish people like me. Sure, maybe “everyone” plays social games or mobile games. But very (very!) few of them are reading gaming websites. To reach them you have to go where they are, at least for now. And where they are is on the old media end of the spectrum. We can either wait until they all die or we can go after them now.

I prefer not to wait. Your mileage may vary.

Frankly, I don’t think this has to be an either/or proposition – you young whippersnappers can elevate the level of criticism online and other less snappy whippers can elevate the level in traditional media. Done. Everyone wins.

If you want to argue that gamers are the only ones who matter, sure. They… we… are online. But in saying that, acknowledge that you just don’t care about people out there who don’t care about games or who have what we might consider an inaccurate or limited view of our medium.

Personally, I think gamers could benefit from an education in critical thinking about the medium. But even if you disagree with me, telling non-gamers to take a hike – saying they simply don’t matter – is shortsighted, at best. We need and want them on our side. And that means finding them where they live, not expecting them to come visit us where we are.

Lots of you – even some who agreed with me, for the most part, suggested that critics of the sort I talked about were lucky to have forums like the Chicago Sun-Times or The New Yorker. Games lack such forums so it’s unfair of me to expect such criticism.
This is true enough, as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go nearly far enough. Think about it. It wasn’t ALWAYS the case that film critics (or television critics or even book critics) had easy access to an audience eager to lap up every bon mot dripping from their ruby-red lips.

Critics of new media have always had to fight for column inches, airtime or shelf space. It takes time to develop an audience for serious criticism. It takes people willing to fight for those column inches, for that airtime and for that shelf space. It takes people who think the effort is worthwhile when the cultural establishment and even media consumers think they’re nuts. Go back fifty years and you’d hear the same kind of nonsense about movies that you hear today about games: It’s just movies, right? Who cares about the movies as art form or cultural force? Well, now, nearly everyone does. Go back fifty years and almost no one did.

Only by ignoring or being ignorant of history can we say the movie guys had it easy, had ready outlets for their work. They didn’t. But they didn’t give up. Games, it seems to me, are at their own fifty-year tipping point. Time to start taking ourselves seriously, I think. Time to start fighting for a soapbox from which we can be heard.

A lot of you took my thoughts as a misguided plea for mainstream attention, or jealousy of other media, or medium-insecurity. Call it the “Mommy, Daddy, please love me” problem – something better addressed in therapy than in a GI column.
If I felt in any way that we need mainstream attention out of insecurity or something, I’d agree completely. However, I harbor no doubts about gaming’s position among the more traditional art forms. No insecurity here…well, not about that, at any rate!

What I was trying to say is that, to mature and grow as a medium, we need to stop talking only to each other. We need to draw people into our sphere from outside. We need people, gamers and non-gamers (well, mostly gamers!) who can help us understand how what we do instinctively can be done more consciously and, yes, better than we can do it ourselves.

We need to reach outside our sphere to continue to grow our audience by explaining to the unwashed masses how wondrous games can be. Heck, if nothing else this might get politicians, pundits and preachers (to say nothing of the courts) off our back!

One familiar refrain from readers of my last column was “How can you say all games criticism sucks? Don’t you know about website X, magazine Y or book Z?”
Misunderstandings like this are always the fault of the writer not the reader. I’ll own that. But, to clarify, I was not saying that all games criticism sucked. Not at all. I even tried to name some folks I thought were doing a pretty good job. What I wanted – and still want – is more, more, more. I’m greedy! And I think there’s room to stir a new kind of criticism into the mix.

By way of example, let me go back to my days as a young and ever so serious movie buff. I had strong opinions about movies… personal preferences about the films I loved and hated… But reading the work of people like William K. Everson and Kevin Brownlow fired an appreciation for silent films… Reading John Grierson and Jack Ellis made me look at documentaries in new ways. Reading Ed Lowry and, yes, Roger Ebert, forced me to look at exploitation films and B-movies as if a veil had been lifted from my eyes.

(Note that I rattled off a whole new list of names there – the world of film criticism is full of serious mainstream critics. Give me time and I can name a bunch more. Try that with games and you’ll run out of critics in a real hurry…)

As a consumer, increased knowledge led me insist on different kinds of work. As a creator, I was inspired, maybe even forced, to create different sorts of things than I would have otherwise. These writers taught me things I might never have learned on my own – things that changed the way I thought about movies. They’ve even affected the way I think about my work as a game developer.

Finally, some of you – not many, but enough to bring it up here – think things are just fine as they are.
Obviously, I disagree with this or I wouldn’t have taken up so much of your time and GI’s web space!

Look, by all means, continue to write reviews, all you reviewers out there (with upgraded standards, please!).

By all means continue to explore the semiology of games, all you academics reading this.

But most of all, I urge those of you who want to grow as individuals, as consumers of the popular arts (not just games) to start seeking and demanding more. There are critical models we can borrow from other media until we create some new models of our own. Let’s take some lessons and change ourselves, our medium and, yes, even the wider world outside our little corner of the world in which we live.

Hyperbole? Maybe. But I don’t think so…

Oh, and to the guy who said something along the lines of “Before you write about something learn something about it,” I’ll just say this – talk to me in 30 years, kid. No. Seriously. I really hope I’m around in 30 years to be talked to. Look me up and tell me if you still feel the same way you do now…

Comic Con!

July 10, 2010

Well, I guess since the news is up on the official Comic Con 2010 website it’s okay for me to tell everyone I’ll be in San Diego in a couple of weeks to talk about the game and… wait for it… Disney Epic Mickey comic book action!

I’ve been working with Peter David… okay… let me repeat that… I’ve been working with Peter David! (Have I said recently what a lucky guy I am? Oh, yes, I am.) So I’ve been working with Peter David and some really talented artists on comic stories for a while and can’t wait to talk about it.

If you’re planning on attending San Diego Comic Con be sure to stop by our panel on Saturday, July 24, from 4:30-5:30, Room 9. Here’s the description from the Comic Con website:

Disney Epic Mickey— Warren Spector (creative director, Junction Point — Disney Interactive Studios) and Peter David (award-winning comics writer and author of upcoming Disney Epic Mickey comics) share their insights about bringing the world and characters of the Disney Epic Mickey video game to life in two media — video games and comic books. Warren and Peter explore “Wasteland,” a world of forgotten, retired and rejected creative efforts from the Disney archives, and discuss the joy and challenges associated with writing for Mickey Mouse and his “brother,” Walt Disney’s first cartoon star, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. The panel includes discussion, gameplay demo featuring never-before-seen areas, concept art, previews of comic pages and Q&A.

There’s been some talk about doing autograph sessions, too, but I don’t have any details. Hey, I can’t imagine the Comic Con crowd wanting my autograph but Peter David? That’s a different story! And we might have some art talent with us, too. Anyway, I’ll post something when I know more.

I’ve never attended Comic Con before as anything but a fan. This is going to be fun!

E3 2010 or “Two Rooms, Eight Walls and the Coolest Thing Ever,” Part 5

June 26, 2010

Okay, so what could top the 3DS at E3? Well how about the response to Disney Epic Mickey?

I talked to so many people – easily in triple digits – and got to see even more playing the game in the booth (as I ran from the Disney area to somewhere else). And by the end of the show, we’d been nominated for at least 22 awards – won 15, lost 2 and there are still, as of today, 7 we’re waiting to hear about. Go Mickey! Go Junction Point team! I don’t want to brag (too much!) so, for a full rundown on what happened – and to stay on top of what’s to come – check out the Junction Point and Disney Interactive Studios web pages or, maybe even better, go to the Facebook pages for Disney Epic Mickey, Junction Point and Disney Interactive Studios. Oh, and there’s even a Disney Epic Mickey You Tube channel, and of course David Garibaldi‘s stuff, too. Tons of cool stuff to see!

Finally, before I forget (as if!), this year’s E3 will live on in my memory as the E3 where I GOT TO MEET SHIGERU MIYAMOTO AND STAN LEE! IN THE SAME WEEK! I’m pretty sure I jibbered like an idiot on both occasions – definitely had to put my head between my knees briefly on meeting Mr. Miyamoto… and I vaguely remember telling Stan Lee I was NOT a stalker at least 15 times… which, of course, branded me as a stalker immediately. Sigh.

Both gentlemen lived up to my expectations and then some – in my experience, heroes usually do. (It’s what makes them heroes, I guess.) These are guys who changed my life – Mr. Miyamoto’s work pushes me to do better in my own… And Stan Lee introduced me to a world of heroes and villains I still live in today. I remember vividly buying Fantastic Four #13 (The Red Ghost issue) and Spider-Man #2 (The Vulture!), back in 1963 and having my 8-year-old mind blown. Getting to tell Stan Lee about that was priceless.

(BTW, if anyone who was at the Nintendo Press Conference rehearsal took any pictures of the magical – if embarrassing – moment when I was introduced to Mr. Miyamoto, please get in touch. I’d sure love a photographic record of a real career highlight!)

So that’s it. My E3 experience. All I have to say is this:

Best.

Week.

Ever!

If you feel like it, let me know what blew YOU away at E3 this year – remember, I saw almost nothing!…

E3 2010 or “Two Rooms, Eight Walls and the Coolest Thing Ever,” Part 4

June 25, 2010

Nintendo got 3D right – righter than anyone else. Ever. By far. Think about the 3DS – just the basics:

  • No glasses required!
  • No image degradation or color saturation loss compared with 2D displays!
  • Parallax control so viewers can adjust the images so the 3D effect is perfect for them, not for some average person with an average distance of 2.5 inches between his/her eyes.

But that’s just based on the basics, as I said. Wait, there’s more. I was backstage at the Nintendo Press Conference on Tuesday, June 15th, and as each new 3DS feature was described, my jaw got closer and closer to the ground. It’s a game machine… it’s 3D… it has a gyroscope and accelerometer built in… It has Wi-Fi connectivity and shares data with other 3DS’s in the background… It has a 3D CAMERA!… and it PLAYS 3D MOVIES WITHOUT GLASSES!… I swear if they’d said it was a phone, too, I would have dashed back onto the stage and snatched the prototype and run like the wind! I half expected to hear it would tuck me in at night!

When I got my hands on the 3DS at the show, I was blown away again. The feature set sounds good but the proof is in the pudding – in the product. And Nintendo’s got some mighty tasty stuff coming. Pilot Wings – incredible. Nintendogs – even cuter than before and more engaging. Kingdom Hearts, Resident Evil, Metal Gear Solid – gorgeous. Kid Icarus is coming back plus there’s a Mario Kart, plus a new Zelda(!!!!!)! Not a bad set of games to brag about as you’re launching a new piece of hardware. And there was a tech demo, shooting game that was probably my favorite thing of all. The movie trailers were outrageous – best 3D visuals I’ve seen. Tangled looked great and How to Train Your Dragon was a revelation. Both were sharp, clear, convincing. Every title – movie or game – was a hardware-selling brand, each one looked cool and each was genuinely enhanced in some way by the 3D effect.

The 3D effect is basically perfect. I mean PERFECT. And the games and movie trailers shown on 3DS were stunning, enhanced and flat-out cooler than they could possibly have been in 2D. I was on the fence about 3D when I entered the Nintendo booth. By the time I left, I was floored.

I was completely wrong about 3D. Not a fad. Not going away. Here for good – and that’s a good thing. Nintendo deserves to sell a gazillion of these things. And I want the first one off the line!

As a consumer, I’m in. Sign me up. Price no object (or not much of one). As a game developer, well, sign me up for that, too. How do you design a game that really exploits stereoscopic 3D? Beats me… How do we take advantage of a 3D camera built into a gaming device? No idea… How do we integrate gyroscopes and accelerometers into control schemes? Got some ideas but nothing solid… I mean, how could anyone NOT want to play with this tech?

I’ve been hoping something like this would come along since Origin and Looking Glass supported VR headsets in Wings of Glory and System Shock back in the mid-’90s, but I never actually believed it would happen. Well, it’s happened. The Nintendo 3DS changed everything for me.

Please, please, let it be the success it deserves to be. And all you TV manufacturers out there (or Sharp at least), get with the program and let me buy a TV that’s as cool as Nintendo’s little game machine. I know there are issues with view angles on parallax barrier technology, but come on, get cracking, solve the problems and let me give you a bunch of money so I can have my 3D, okay?

I should stop. I know it. But the 3DS is – seriously – the coolest hardware I’ve ever seen at E3… It’s nothing short of magical, both in the effect the stereoscopic stuff had on me and in the way the tech works. Not that I really understand how it works – not yet anyway! The 3DS was – dare I say it? – almost Disney-like in the magical feeling it evoked in me and I suspect you’ll have a similar reaction when you get your hands on it. And note that I said “when,” not “if.” That was no accident. Trust me – you’re gonna want and you’re gonna get a Nintendo 3DS.

Okay. Let me catch my breath. Two more things tomorrow and then I’m outta here and onto other things. (I’m really going to try to keep this blogging thing going from now on!)