Wednesday, March 14, 2007

A Momentary Diversion

When I was driving home yesterday afternoon, window down, I was marveling at how nice it is to have springtime in Atlanta. Here it is the middle of March and the skies are blue, the temperatures are in the 70's and the trees are starting to bloom. Then I passed one of those trees and my sinuses exploded with a force that could destroy baby stars. I'm back to thinking that spring is overrated.

I usually don't use this space to comment on things that are happening in the gaming world, as I'm not sure the audience of this site, both of you, are at all interested. Sure, I'm happy to talk about games I'm playing, but I leave the commentaries on current gaming events to other, more informed people. This time, however, I feel the need to comment.

EGM (that's Electronic Games Monthly or something) and it's sister site have a podcast and in their most recent podcast they invited a one Denis Dyack to join them. Denis is the man in charge of Silicon Knights, the development house extraordinaire who gave us Eternal Darkness and the Metal Gear Solid remake for the GameCube. Currently their working on a game called Too Human for the 360 which, from what I gather, has something to do with people being half machine and named after Norse gods. This is what I meant by others being more informed. Anyway, last year, Silicon Knights invited someone from EGM to go up to Canada and see what was going on with Too Human. The EGM writer thought the game was the bomb, came back saying such and wrote up a cover story preview thingy.

Fast forward to E3 where Silicon Knights brings a demo that leaves everyone, including Silicon Knights, extremely disappointed. Frame rate issues, camera issues, ugly textures the whole shebang. The EGM folks on hand who were writing up their impressions of each game for the magazine pretty much tore the demo apart and said, I'm paraphrasing here, that it shouldn't have been shown at a high school science fair, much less the premier gaming event of the year.

Was this demoralizing for the Too Human team? Yeah, it probably was. I've worked in software development long enough to know what it feels like to have a build you feel really good about, only to see it all go to shit a build or two later. It's frustrating, maddening, disheartening, you name it, to feel as if all of your progress has gone out the window. To take this step backwards and then show your product publicly, knowing full well that it was much, much better just a build or two ago would absolutely suck.

Despite the fact that E3 was 10 months ago, Denis Dyack is still pretty pissed off. He joined the EGM guys, including the writer who first ventured up to the cold North to see Too Human, and the dude who wrote about it from E3, for their podcast, and basically went off on them for an hour. Now, I understand completely how it would have felt right after E3 to see the press tear apart your epic, 10 year in the making project. I also can understand Dyack's befuddlement over getting such a harsh preview from a magazine that devoted an entire cover story to how great your game was looking. At the same time, E3 was 10 months ago. 10! By now, shouldn't he have moved on? I mean, the rest of the gaming world pretty much had.

Now, some points that Dyack made, I completely agree with, and some were so off base as to be in a sport that doesn't even have bases like curling, or archery. His assessment that gaming journalists can't effectively pass judgement on preview builds of games is pretty on the mark however, I don't think that means that previews themselves have to go away entirely.

Here's what I think in regards to previews. Previews, as they are now, are usually bloated, PR fest pieces of shit used by magazines and gaming sites to garner good feelings from publishers so they, the magazines and gaming sites, continue to get exclusive previews and early review copies and such. See, the average gamer can get reviews of games the day said games comes out, from pretty much any site out there. As a result, where the sites distinguish themselves is by getting the early scoop on new upcoming games. That and a complete and total aversion to editing, a la IGN. In order to get these early scoops, and trips to studios to see games in progress, blah, blah, blah, the sites/magazines have to write pretty glowing previews, and at the same time, take for granted that the big, glaring bugs they do see will be fixed by the time that the games ship.

All too often, these bugs aren't fixed, or others pop up, or the game changes entirely so that the game that makes it to retail is but a quality-less husk of a game compared to the game that was previewed. The gamers that read said preview are now, at best, left wondering why the final game is so shitty compared to the preview and at worst, left having purchased a copy of the shitty game and have no recourse to get their money back. The development houses say "Hey, we don't control what the magazines write." The magazines/sites say "Hey, they said they'd fix these bugs, and it was only a preview." The consumer is left trusting no one, which is a pretty shitty place for a consumer to be, especially when you're asking said consumer to shell out 60 bucks a game and upwards of 600 bucks for something to play the game on.

Does this mean that previews should be done away with entirely? I don't think so. I do think that the gaming sites need something to differentiate themselves from each other, and previews can still be that thing, just not as they are now. In short, we need more previews like the E3 "preview" of Too Human and fewer of the cover story preview. Well, maybe not as harsh as the E3 report, but certainly not as glowing as the cover story. Previews should stick to the facts, and leave the embellishment to the reader. The game has these features, this kind of story, this kind of gameplay, supports these multiplayer modes, et cetera. It should also point out the fair criticisms of the game, including issues that the developers are planning on fixing. In other words, give the reader honest impressions of the game, rather than some fluff piece.

Oddly enough Dyack seemed to agree with this, and stated that gaming journalists should be "more critical" of games despite the fact that EGM being critical of the E3 demo is what got him all in a lather in the first place. I say "seemed to agree" because honestly, this dude was all over the map.

Dyack also said that magazines and sites shouldn't look at games until the games are "in the can" and that the marketing effort shouldn't begin then either, and the way a marketing push can be built for a game is to hold on to the finished game for 6 to 12 months and then release it. With the rising costs of game development, I'm not sure how studios could spend millions of dollars on a game to then hold on to it for a year. Where would they get the money to work on their next project? This is especially true for the smaller development houses. Silicon Knights has an impressive pedigree, and now with Microsoft behind them, I'm sure they could easily work on another project while Too Human was in the can, but not every studio can do that. Not every publisher is going to agree to fund another development effort without seeing some return on their investment on the game they just paid for. I agree that it'd be great to hear of a game first on Monday, have it ship on Tuesday, read a review on Wednesday and play it on Thursday, but I don't see that as being a viable business model.

These comments didn't really bug me that much, as I just don't agree with them. The comments of Dyack's that bugged me were that he felt sorry for the guy who wrote the E3 write-up because when Too Human is released, the E3 writer is going to have to stand by what he wrote about the game's E3 build. Mind you, he's basing this on the fact that people "in the industry" have seen Too Human and they all say it's super awesome, so we should just all automatically believe him. After all, every god in the Norse pantheon is represented! I guess that's a good thing because Lord knows we wouldn't want Freya to get pissed.

My response to this was the same response that the E3 writer had, which was basically to ask why it would be a problem for him to stand by what he wrote about the E3 build? By Dyack's own admission, the E3 build was a mess, so why would the brilliance of the final product make the author of the comments about an 18 month old build look silly? At no point during the E3 write up did the writer say that no one should buy Too Human. In fact, the overwhelming response to the E3 build by most of the gaming press wasn't that Too Human was going to suck, but that the demo should never have been shown in the first place. I understand the logistics of showing a demo are such that you can't pull a demo last minute just because things aren't working as you expected them to, but at the same time, if the build that the first EGM guy was so good, why not show that build, rather than the one you brought to E3, especially if you knew that the E3 build was a mess? I find it very hard to believe that they don't have the ability to roll back to earlier builds. Maybe that would have meant that it was no longer playable by the press but just watchable, but that still would have been a better way to go.

Of course, debating what should or should not have been shown at E3 isn't really the point. The point here is that Dyack seemed to want it both ways. He said that he didn't like the E3 write up because he didn't want people to discount Too Human based on what they read about the E3 demo. He also felt that because EGM had seen an earlier, better build of the game, they should have given them the benefit of the doubt and not been harsh about the E3 demo. Well, which is it? You can't say that you don't want people to have a bad impression of your game based on a demo that's at least 12 months out from the finished product but you do want people to have a good impression of your game based on a demo that's even more than 12 months out from the finished product. You either take the position that your demo, good or bad, isn't indicative of the final product, or you say that this demo is pretty damn close to what we're going to be showing, so it better be fucking aces.

I can see his point about people getting the wrong impression, especially at E3 where there's like 5000 games being shown and you have a very limited amount of time to make a good impression. This is especially true now that there are 3 consoles, 2 handhelds, PC's and a gazillion PDA/cellphone platforms out there are all competing for gamers' time and money. At the same time, most gamers know that E3, and the things shown at E3 are, for the most part, illusions. Taking anything that originates from that marketing cesspool even remotely seriously is an exercise in folly. Despite what Dyack's condescending tone seemed to imply, we're not all idiots. We know that sometimes builds go bad. You decided to still show it. OK, bad move, but whatever. Just fucking man up and move on. If your game ends up being Teh Sh1t, then people will play it. Hell, look at Crackdown. Most folks believed that it was a throwaway, GTA ripoff that was using the Halo 3 beta to move copies. Now that it's been out for a while, most people seem to love it. I know of at least 3 folks who were incredibly harsh in their comments about it who are now running from rooftop to rooftop with glee. Gamers are a lot of things, but holders of long attention spans isn't one of them.

There was more to his comments that made me feel like he thinks we're all idiots, or that the EGM E3 writer was an idiot, but I think I've written enough here. Don't get me started on his failed Okami argument as that's another post entirely. If you'd like to hear it for yourself, please do so. The first 45 minutes or so is where the real meat of the discussion is. The second hour is just Dyack going on and on and on about how great Too Human is and all the fantastic things that Silicon Knights did before anyone else did, like creating fire and inventing language. In the end, I was left thinking that he should have just stayed up in Canada and worked on making his game as good as it could be, rather than taking a page from the Book of Harrison and opening his mouth and looking like an asshole. As Mark Twain once said, "It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt."


Greg said...

Honestly, if the thing was crap, wouldn't they have done better not to show it? Or to show a pre-rendered video of whatever it was that the first guy saw? Oh wait... now I read further and you said just that.

I'd rather have the developers feelings hurt now and cause them to buckle down and improve the game before release than end up with a disappointment like Advent Rising.

I never listen to the EGM podcast, but I have an episode - I think it's that one - sitting on my desktop at work. Maybe I'll listen today.

In the meantime, I just picked up God of War 2. And while I was at it I got a copy of Dark Messiah of Might and Magic for $12.50 at Target. More good games than I can play right now.

Greg said...

Ah. Now I remember what prompted me to download that podcast - it was this Penny Arcade article. While you're at it, check out this comic.

suburbanjoe said...

Yeah, PA is what prompted me to download and listen to it too. I wish I could be as succinct in my comments as Tycho, but alas, there's a reason I don't get paid to do this.

Booster MPS said...

YOU would make an awesome game journalist because, well, there would be some journalistic skill put into reviews. There is no truth in game journalism and it is the reason that so many games go astray and developers get caught in the trap SK got caught in.