We are Gamers. But we are not Gamers.

For the most part, I agree with Leigh Alexander’s monthly Kotaku editorial. Indeed, to say we are a wide community misses the point; we aren’t a community at all. We are many communities surrounding similar tastes. It’s like making a generalization about the “food” community. It just doesn’t make sense. There is no “gamer” community.

But how can we laud games like Duke Nukem Forever and Bulletstorm under the banner of creative expression and it-takes-all-kinds on one hand and then decry the immaturity of the so-called “gaming community” on the other? We teach each other to be and reward people for being hedonistic (If someone says they are having fun, it’s a good game! Feeeeel the dopamine!) and solipsists and then are shocked when gamers are not introspective, measured and considerate of others? Surprise!

The reason games are great is the same reason for this phenomenon: interactivity. No other medium allows for feedback loops. Listening to Nickleback is low art but does not reward you for being a douche*. Watching a Michael Bay movie is low art but does not reward you for being a douche. But playing a game on Xbox Live does. Even if it is not enforced by mechanics (which it is in the case of many million+ selling titles), it is enforced by community (there’s the word!) and milieu.

* Aside: I suppose going to a concert of any band that is listened to primarily by the douche-elite is a community that reinforces the behavior. Consider just listening to an album in isolation for that example.

Gears et al don’t create scumbags, they only reinforce their behavior. Stop reinforcing their behavior and they will still be scumbags; they just won’t congregate around your product and use it as a pillar of their community. But the immature and the scummy have cash and credit cards so there will always be a ready-made place for them in any passtime that will have them. If you are designer with that power, will you sleep better at night by reinforcing positive behaviors? After all, you can’t distance yourself from your community. You will always be measured by your community, just as CliffyB is tied to the Gears player stereotype forever. I’d sleep better as notch than as CliffyB. But that’s just my personal opinion.

If you aren’t a powerful designer, you can let it bother you that we share a pastime with them. Or not. We can let it bother us that they are also American, also male, also carbon-based life forms or any other trait that they are likely to share with us. Or we can just say “Their actions do not define me or what I choose to do with my entertainment time. I’m not in their community. I’m not a gamer. At least not one of them.”

E3 Coverage

Now here is something interesting: Kmart Games’ Corp-blog is bringing three citizen bloggers to E3. That in itself isn’t very interesting; places run contests all the time. What IS interesting is that 1) the winners will be writing for both their own blogs and KmartGamer and 2) winners will pretty much have autonomy to comment on whatever they want.

An aside:

In 2006, I was slaving away on what would become Superman Returns for the DS. The console team was crunched like no other and in fact, couldn’t spare any designers to go to E3 and give people their first hands-on look at the game. EA threw together as many knowledgeable roustabouts as they could. Being an extremely junior game designer who actually knew quite a bit about the design process on the console game but without any of the scheduling ties, I was picked as one of the folks who would represent EA.

We were “media trained” which really meant techniques to avoid making you and your company look like big assholes when you are avoiding questions. I was, honestly, pretty good at it. I could be a politician if I was a sadist. But being on the other side of the coverage after nearly two decades of being a consumer of E3 websites/magazines/stone tablets (in reverse chronological order) was honestly a bit off-putting. All day you repeated yourself over and over again until your brain shut down, you had an out of body experience and could float above the din. You would wander to the edge of your booth hoping for a gaze of something new and interesting that would be respite from your routine.

After sixteen hours on my feet answering the same questions over and over and over again, I just wanted to wear a sandwich board with the release date, characters, platforms and major features so I wouldn’t have to scream myself hoarse over the noise since this was all anyone ever asked. Honestly, I was a bit shocked at how easy it was. Tiring, but mentally trivial.

Out of literally a hundred interviewers and writers I had talked to throughout that weekend, only one ever asked me interesting questions. We talked about the history of Superman and the difficulties of designing around such an iconic figure with few weaknesses. I took his card. I think I still have it with my other E3 things. He was a freelancer. A blogger. An interlocutor. I don’t think I ever saw his article.

But what stood out for me was the routine of it all. The presenters and the interviewers go through the motions, expecting little out of the others and getting it. The E3 previews often look like press releases. Ho hum.

Yet if you filtered out the marketing goons, there were literally hundreds of interesting game designers and writers there, dying to talk about something interesting – their hopes, their influences, things off the official marketing talking points. Yet unless you were the “face” of a company – the CliffyBs or the Will Wrights – no one cared to ask anything but the obvious.

This is why I’m particularly excited about KMart’s contest. With luck, they won’t just pick the most passionate three bloggers they read. My hope is that they pick people who will ask the questions that provide insight that no one else will ask. Because what do they have to lose? They are just bloggers. They won’t have to only gloss the surface due to deadlines and quotas. They can have fun. They will have the autonomy to beat the professionals at their own game and provide some memorable content.

Actually, during the writing of this post, I decided I’d enter the contest. Why not? I have experience both in writing and in giving interviews. I’m a designer with insights into how the process works: what is flourish and what is truth. And being an educator, I’m no longer tied to the success or failure of any particular company’s products. KMart has come out of nowhere in the past year, from an afterthought in the games retail space to a top choice for both price and communication with customers.

I think the key there is authenticity. The KMartGamer blog feels decidedly un-corporate. There’s a real human behind it, not a group-written PR statement. And us gamers respond to that authenticity with praise and respect. Easily, this contest could have had a big asterisk saying: *KMart reserves the right to your likeness, words, soul, etc. You must talk about this and this and this because our partners are looking for particular coverage.

No. It’s just going to be three bloggers telling others what’s up at the biggest public-facing industry event of the year.

I dig that.

Grade Inflation

Excel is a fun tool. First, I took the data that Darius Kazemi (google him, you cur) scraped from GameRankings in the range of 1997-2010 and posted. And now I present (from that data) a way to map the skewed 75%-is-average critic rating to a 0%-100% scale. Certainly someone has done this before, but it took me ten minutes so what-the-hay.

First, the full range. Take a critic score on the x-axis, follow it up to the line and the y-coordinate will be the converted rating. The second image below is a zoom in on the “sweet spot” from a critic rating of 70% to 100%. Look at how vertical it gets in the 80% range! This means the reviews bunch up in this range. A perfectly flatly distributed group would be a simple diagonal line from 0%, 0% to 100%, 100%.

Here, we zoom in on the meat of the data: the 70%-100% critic range:

And for those who like tables:

Critic Converted Critic Converted Critic Converted Critic Converted
37% 0.0% 53% 4.3% 69% 27.7% 85% 83.0%
38% 0.1% 54% 5.0% 70% 30.4% 86% 86.3%
39% 0.2% 55% 5.9% 71% 33.5% 87% 89.0%
40% 0.3% 56% 6.7% 72% 36.0% 88% 91.1%
41% 0.4% 57% 7.8% 73% 39.3% 89% 93.2%
42% 0.5% 58% 8.9% 74% 42.8% 90% 95.1%
43% 0.6% 59% 9.6% 75% 45.8% 91% 96.4%
44% 0.8% 60% 11.1% 76% 49.7% 92% 97.5%
45% 1.0% 61% 12.3% 77% 53.9% 93% 98.5%
46% 1.2% 62% 13.9% 78% 57.5% 94% 99.2%
47% 1.4% 63% 15.3% 79% 61.1% 95% 99.6%
48% 1.7% 64% 17.3% 80% 65.0% 96% 99.8%
49% 2.0% 65% 19.2% 81% 68.9% 97% 99.9%
50% 2.6% 66% 21.4% 82% 73.1% 98% 100.0%
51% 3.1% 67% 23.3% 83% 77.0% 99% 100.0%
52% 3.6% 68% 25.2% 84% 80.2% 100% 100.0%

Since Darius only pulls games with 20 reviews or more, he misses my critical failure Superman Returns which currently would fall below 0%.

Style (03)

I was listening to my music library shuffled in my car the other day when a nostalgic song came up. Sega’s 2002 game Jet Set Radio Future is a horrifically underrated platform/action game about freedom and exploration. It has kind of a wacky soundtrack that fits with its funk-punk aesthetic. It’s not normally what I listen to, but it has some catchy songs that certainly blend with the universe. One song, however, bends your ears and makes them bleed. Warning:

“Birthday Cake”. That is just… awful. Right? Why would it be in my library? Well, play enough JSRF and you will hear it again and again and soon it burrows into your brain and associates itself with the fun you are having with the game. Then it no longer becomes about Cibo Matto’s awful siren wail, the song becomes about your JSRF experience. (Side note: I listened to Spock’s Beard’s “Snow” album on loop while playing Super Mario Sunshine and now when I hear certain songs on “Snow”, I can’t help but think about Sunshine, even though there is no stylistic connection between the two.)

When listening to “Birthday Cake” the other day (thank God I was alone in the car or any passenger would have beat me to death), I instantly thought about the A/B testing movement. Believe you me, if “Birthday Cake” was A/B tested it would be replaced by an orchestral score that is bland and that no one would remember. That is what you get when you use a democratic method – the least objectionable material. But the very fact that “Birthday Cake” is objectionable is what makes it memorable. The fact that “Birthday Cake” is a weapon (I assume the US would have used it instead of Van Halen to oust Noriega had it been written then) makes the entire aesthetic experience of playing during that song memorable almost a decade later.

Certainly testing has its uses. Usability is vital and can really only be gauged by testing. But when it moves into the realm of aesthetics and mechanics, it throws the style baby out with the risk bathwater. You look at JSRF and it has style. Katamari Damacy has style. Hell, even Deadly Premonition had style (that’s about all it had). Can we say the same for A/B tested games?

Designer Independence

Dan Cook finally posted the Declaration of Game Designer Independence that we worked on at Project Horseshoe this year. As expected from the comments, some people “get it”, some people don’t (hint: it isn’t about ego) and some will concoct elaborate ulterior motives for us because they are afraid of words. Fine.

If I had to boil the whole thing down to one word it would be: respect. Respect yourselves, respect your art/craft, respect your customers, respect your limitations and respect your process. If all designers could get behind that, we would be much more healthy as a profession and produce better content.