Archive for September, 2013

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.

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.



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:

Nice, right?

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 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.


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…

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.

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…

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.

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.

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?!