Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The False Dichotomy Between Artistic Freedom and Work For Hire

Let's talk about butts. Hold on! Don't run away yet! I promise there's a link here!

Yes, butts. Recently, there was yet another internet kerfuffle over Blizzard removing a pose for Tracer in Overwatch, one which was the stereotypical comic book "peeking over the shoulder to show off her butt" poses. Someone complained, Blizzard removed it with barely any explanation, Internet exploded, then Jeff Kaplan posted a more complete explanation:
While I stand by my previous comment, I realize I should have been more clear. As the game director, I have final creative say over what does or does not go into the game. With this particular decision, it was an easy one to make—not just for me, but for the art team as well. We actually already have an alternate pose that we love and we feel speaks more to the character of Tracer. We weren’t entirely happy with the original pose, it was always one that we wrestled with creatively. That the pose had been called into question from an appropriateness standpoint by players in our community did help influence our decision—getting that kind of feedback is part of the reason we’re holding a closed beta test—but it wasn’t the only factor. We made the decision to go with a different pose in part because we shared some of the same concerns, but also because we wanted to create something better.

We wouldn’t do anything to sacrifice our creative vision for Overwatch, and we’re not going to remove something solely because someone may take issue with it. Our goal isn’t to water down or homogenize the world, or the diverse cast of heroes we’ve built within it. We have poured so much of our heart and souls into this game that it would be a travesty for us to do so.

We understand that not everyone will agree with our decision, and that’s okay. That’s what these kinds of public tests are for. This wasn’t pandering or caving, though. This was the right call from our perspective, and we think the game will be just as fun the next time you play it. ( http://us.battle.net/forums/en/overwatch/topic/20743015583?page=11#post-210 )
tl;dr: The art team were already working on alternate poses, and input from the community just reinforced their original issues.

Artistic Freedom in Making Games

I'm a game developer working on an indie game where artistic freedom to create the game we envision is incredibly important to us. So important that we've insisted on maintaining near complete creative control in any negotiations we've been in so far. It wouldn't be Eon Altar if certain aspects of the gameplay were changed by some external party who doesn't share our vision.

But at the same time, the game we're creating is still for others to play. That's why we do things like have play tests, focus groups, and early access: to get feedback. Find out what resonates with players, and what turns them off the game.

Not all feedback is equal, mind. Sometimes we'll look at a piece of feedback and conclude, "not our target audience." That's okay. Not everyone has to love our game. Other times we'll look at a piece of feedback and say, "hey, they're on to something here, it really is not fun in this section." Then we'll take that feedback, discuss and dissect it within our team, and decide whether we want or can take action.

When someone says "artistic freedom" I immediately get the picture of an artist in front of a canvas, painting whatever the heck they want, in whatever style they want. And if you can afford to do that, fantastic! But there's a lot more than one person's artistic freedom involved in making something as large as a video game.

Design By Committee

If and when you get hired into a company to help create something--be it a video game, video streaming software, a movie, whatever--you're part of a larger group of artists or developers working towards the exact same goal: making a compelling product people can enjoy, and therefore want to purchase. Building something of this scale is nigh impossible for one person, and therefore is generally left to a larger organization like a company.

Often times, there's a single person--like in the case of Blizzard's Overwatch, the game director--who is the be-all end-all of the vision. But the entire game might not be their vision. They're the tie-breaker when difficult creative decisions come up, or sometimes when things go off the rails and something just isn't working within the framework of the game/world/product and they need to intervene. The work itself is (usually) a product of many people coming together to build something cool.

Even for Eon Altar, we have our Creative Director, but he leaves a lot of decision-making to the rest of us. It helps that we have a small team and we're all generally on the same page when it comes to the ultimate vision of the game--we still have clashes on occasion though. But if we can't set aside our differences--maybe because we have equally logical reasons for our own ideas--then having someone who's the tie-breaker helps us move forward. Sometimes that tie-breaking is also fueled by customer feedback.

The concept of "artistic freedom" as the Internet likes to envision it where you have someone dictating how all aspects of the product should be and their vision is sacrosanct is almost entirely absent from most creative productions in real life. Heck, even novels have editors and beta readers who provide feedback to novelists, despite the actual writing of the novel usually being driven by a single person.

There are exceptions. Barone's Stardew Valley is one recent one. He is the only person actively working on the game, but even then he still takes into account customer feedback. Adding more post-marriage content is one that he decided was worthwhile feedback to implement, for example, which alters his game and his vision. And he still rejects other suggestions as well. His work is malleable, on purpose. Yet no one is decrying his artistic vision being impugned by others.

Work For Hire

There is a tension between being able to create whatever you like, and having to create something somebody else wants. Unless you're working entirely by yourself in a vacuum, your own artistic vision will be altered, nudged, changed, and influenced by others: your team, your customers, and the culture around you. Sometimes it will change during the creative process itself!

With customer input comes difficult decisions, though. You want to make a fun game, you have an idea of what would make it cool/great, but then you get feedback from many customers who hate it. See: nixing flight in World of Warcraft. Some folks saw the return of flight as Blizzard caving to people who wanted to dictate how the game was made. Some folks hailed it as "listening to their customers". Sounds similar to the consumer narratives around Tracer's butt pose in Overwatch to me. Personally I saw it as the game designers taking the feedback, and returning with a clever system that let them deliver their vision and give customers what they wanted. Win-win in my mind there.

At the end of the day, you're still creating a product to sell. If you don't want to sell it, by all means, do whatever you like, but chances are you're not part of a large team creating it if that's the case. But even if you're creating to sell, it doesn't mean you can't create something awesome (e.g.: Mona Lisa, Sistine Chapel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the original Transformers movie, all works created as work for hire).

Artistic freedom and work for hire aren't always at odds with each other, and even then, one could argue pure absolute "artistic freedom" doesn't exist outside of a vacuum anyhow, or at least total monetary freedom. It sounds like I'm contradicting myself, but I'm not. They're potentially correlated to each other, but there's not necessarily causation.

Game Devs Do What Game Devs Do

Game devs can still create whatever product they like, generally. Hatred as a game exists, it sold copies. GTA does extremely well despite critics of its hookers and violence. The Dead or Alive series has tits and asses as far as the eye can see.

In Blizzard's case, they're targeting a broad audience, which means creating many characters that fit many different archetypes. I mean, they're already shipping Widowmaker, who's fits the comic book-esque woman to a T, so it's not like they're removing everything "sexy" from the game. They've decided that's just not Tracer's style. And that's okay; it's ultimately their decision--a decision potentially of consensus internally, or top-down from the game director. But it's still their vision, their game, and their target customers are part of that vision.

#IndieDev, #Overwatch, #GameDevelopment

Monday, March 21, 2016

[Stardew Valley] A Charming, Slightly Flawed Masterclone

The game on everyone's Steam account these days is the same one I've been playing: Stardew Valley. A one-man developer job over the course of four years, it is an extremely impressive undertaking. Even more impressive that he managed to ship something, anything, let alone ship a complete and enjoyable game.

Many folks liken it to Harvest Moon with combat and many of the irks removed, but many seem unaware of Harvest Moon's cousin series, Rune Factory, which is also described as thus. In fact, I'd liken Stardew Valley as a Rune Factory with more charm but shallower combat rather than a Harvest Moon clone. But I guess people don't call Diablo-Clones "Torchlight but with <blah>", so expecting folks to be familiar with every offshoot of a given genre is probably unreasonable.

But there's been no visible game like it in the PC gaming space, and Barone knew there was a huge hole to be filled. Stardew Valley is to Farmville like Puzzle Quest is to Bejeweled. At a 40,000 foot view, they might be described as similar games, but they diverge extremely quickly. And given the popularity of Stardew, we've seen just how big that hole really was.

CAULIFLOWER DAY! I made like 77k off all that cauliflower.

Indie Development

Four years is an immensely long time. When I first heard of that timeline, I looked at what Stardew delivered and scoffed. I could probably program 80% of it in 8 - 10 months. But here's the thing, Barone didn't just program it: he designed it; he composed it; he wrote it; he drew it; he debugged it; he iterated it; he marketed it; he patched it. The game evolved significantly over that 4 years. Programming is just the tip of the iceberg. I certainly couldn't do all of that, let alone in 8 - 10 months.

Barone redid the project numerous times over his 4 year stint, saying when he had "first started [he] had no pretty much no experience." And of course, that last marathon to the finish to getting the game out in a complete form is no quick and easy march. On Eon Altar we've learned what I like to call the 20/80 rule: the last 20% will take 80% of your time. We've had most of Eon's core systems programmed relatively early in the product cycle, what's eaten our time has been iteration and polish. I imagine Barone's experience is likely similar.

He also likely struggled significantly over his time period due to industry inexperience as in the Kotaku interview, he mentioned,
"I know that any patch I release or anything, if it causes problems for people, there’s thousands of people that are going to be experiencing these problems. I have to just make very sure that everything I do is precise. Which is kind of something I’m new to. My whole development process I’ll admit was pretty sloppy. I’m not that professional. It’s like it is true indie game development, not super streamlined and polished. I’m getting used to it, and I’m starting to learn how to do this in a good way, but it’s pretty stressful."
For Eon Altar, we have the benefit of professional experience: nearly every employee has worked in AAA gaming or a big name software company previously. We've shipped products before, and thus we can bring that experience to the table at Flying Helmet Games. Disciplined practices around risk assessment, reduction, and management; estimates and timelines; what to cut, what to ship. Oh, we make plenty of mistakes, but they're usually mistakes of judgement, not necessarily obfuscated and compounded by a lack of process and experience.

That said, while Barone might have made that 4 year stint way harder on himself than he really needed to due to reinventing the wheel as far as development processes go, he's still done something many indie devs have not: shipped. And to be honest, I think he kicked ass. Pretty sure 60 hours of Stardew Valley so far can attest to how much I enjoy the game!

My farm is pretty organized, I guess.


The core loop of the game--the day/night cycle--is a satisfying just-one-more-day mechanic that rewards making plans. Tomorrow your tomatoes will be done and you'll make a few thousand gold; Thursday is the festival and you have the perfect crops to show off; Friday you want to check the wandering vendor for miscellaneous goods, and then hit the mines for more iron so you can spend Wednesday's gold on upgrading your pick-axe. The list goes on.

Now, this core loop is lifted directly from Harvest Moon--Barone has no bones about it, and that's all right: don't mess with what works.

What makes it more engaging to me than Rune Factory--the closest comparison to Stardew Valley--is how I interact with the townspeople, and concrete goals.

Rune Factory is a JRPG at heart, and thus often falls victim to anime conventions as far as personalities are concerned. That's not to say Stardew doesn't have its own stereotypes, but as someone who lives in North America, I fully admit I find the North American stereotypes more relatable--which really should show folks the importance of localization. But no localization required for me, as it's been developed in North America. Makes me wonder how European or Japanese folks would interpret the cast were it to be translated to those locales.

Also, I fully appreciate being able to romance characters of my gender. Getting the football--er, sorry, gridball jock out from the clutches of the vapid cheerleader was definitely an enjoyable experience once I got past his assholish exterior. Actually, most of the characters have really interesting back stories once you get past their mopey, day-to-day doldrums.

Farm wedding in my farm hat. Also, too bad, Halley. That boy is mine!
The other aspect that I really appreciated was the Community Center. It only took me about a year to get everything done for it, but having concrete goals to complete to guide my farm's initial growth was very helpful. The Rune Factory series has quests, but most of them focus on the combat aspect, and less on the farming aspect. Ideally I'd like something that has some sort of combination of the two, but I definitely enjoy how the Community Center was set up: here's a bunch of goals, you know them all in advance, have at 'em!


Of course, no game is perfect, and while I love Stardew Valley to bits, there's one aspect that made me nearly quit in sheer frustration multiple times: the controls.

I use the gamepad controls, but there are some things that pretty much necessitate me switching to mouse/keyboard: buying stacks of items requires a shift-click; placing wallpaper in my house requires my mouse to target the wall; placing trellis-based crops like beans is pretty close to impossible without the mouse; placing anything like paths or sometimes even just talking to NPCs basically starts wonking out unpredictably.

A lot of these control issues boil down to the fact that gamepad support was tacked on after the fact. Most of the UI is mouse-based. In fact, the right stick controls the mouse cursor on screen, and you pretty well have to manually shove it in a corner to get the gamepad controls to act in a consistent manner, or your targeting tries to follow where the mouse cursor is on the screen. This is somewhat ameliorated by the "show target" setting, but it's still extremely messy and unpredictable. Menus are inconsistently controllable via the controller: most times them involve manually pressing an arrow on the screen with the mouse cursor rather than a simple button to scroll.

Rune Factory provides controls to crab-walk for easier crop watering/planting/hoeing, and that sort of control is sorely missing here. The number of times I've accidentally watered the middle of my crops rather than from the edge because my target jumped a square as I lined myself up is innumerable.

Controls for me are the biggest bugbear. By hour 10 I was ready to give up until I realized that the controller couldn't be used standalone, and I was stuck with some sort of chimaera control scheme. Once I figured it out, it was easy to eventually compartmentalize certain tasks to mouse vs. controller, but this is extremely frustrating.

The other issue for me is combat. Combat is extremely simplistic. There's no depth, aside from the literal depth of the given mine you're in. It's an okay diversion from farming, but I'd like to see more here. Rune Factory provides this in spades: special attacks, spells, severe weapon differentiation, boss fights. Stardew doesn't really press my button as far as combat goes. It's a serviceable system, but I bet Barone can do so much more with the tools he's put together for this stuff. I'd say he's at that last 20% place as far as combat is concerned. It could use more iteration in my personal opinion.

Taking a leek.
The Future

Stardew Valley has sold by the bucketload. Over half a million copies. That's nearly unfathomable to me to be honest. And frankly, he absolutely deserves the success. Despite my issues above, Stardew is an impressive and fun game without taking into account it was a solo job.

Given his inexperience, I'm a little concerned about how he's going to bring multiplayer about. Honestly, that's going to be a many-month job unto itself, with many frustrating bugs and desyncs. Trust me when I say multiplayer networking is a very difficult task. But it'll be a fantastic learning experience at the same time.

I'm happy he released the solo game though, before sitting down to do multiplayer. It shines brightly without it, and I'm absolutely enjoying my time on my farm with my husband.


#IndieDev, #StardewValley, #FirstImpression