5 Conclusions - 19/10/18

October 19, 2018

A regular look at gaming-related stories from the past week or so whereby conclusions are drawn from anything and everything. These may be incredibly well reasoned based on events from the week. Alternatively, they may be highly speculative, drawn from very little evidence. More likely, they will be somewhere in between.

Conclusion One: Rockstar is in desperate need of redemption

It certainly appears to be the year of the working practice, and not in a good way. Game developers are coming under scrutiny on an almost monthly basis now as stories such as those involving workplace sexism and misogyny masquerading as “bro culture” come to the fore. On the flip side are the actual conditions of work which developers are expected to adhere to, whether they are contracted or not — such as working a ludicrous number of hours to get a game out of the door to hit a release date. This process is known as “crunch”, and is both well known and feared in the industry since it usually means work weeks of 70+ hours being undertaken, often unpaid, and often expected.

Case in point this week: Rockstar Games. Its co-founders the Hauser brothers were in the news after claiming in an interview with Vulture that they worked “100 hour weeks” a number of times in 2018, because they were “making badass shit”. When asked to elaborate, Dan Houser replied to Kotaku:

"More importantly, we obviously don’t expect anyone else to work this way. Across the whole company, we have some senior people who work very hard purely because they’re passionate about a project, or their particular work, and we believe that passion shows in the games we release. But that additional effort is a choice, and we don’t ask or expect anyone to work anything like this. Lots of other senior people work in an entirely different way and are just as productive – I’m just not one of them! No one, senior or junior, is ever forced to work hard. I believe we go to great lengths to run a business that cares about its people, and to make the company a great place for them to work." - Dan Houser, co-founder, Rockstar Games

He suggested that only the four-person writing staff was included in that 100-hour comment, but there is a controversial implication that anyone who didn’t match this 14-hour average working day was simply not that passionate about the game. Forty hours? Pah. Sixty? Give me a break, slacker. Eighty? More. MORE. GIVE ME MORE.

Sadly, this nonchalant approach to game development is all too common. Mandatory Saturday working and wrecked health and home lives are the norm. When a studio burns through its staff to get a blockbuster game out of the door, you need to look at how that game has been project managed. There is no excuse for crunch in game development — none. If you cannot plan properly, then you need to push back the release date rather than hold a metaphorical gun to your staff’s heads. Across the industry there will undoubtedly have been instances including sinister mentions of job security or pay reviews should someone be seen not “pulling their weight”, even if that weight is far in excess of the hours they signed up to. The comments by the Housers have prompted more stories from devs and ex-devs about their experience with crunch, and they are not comfortable reading.

Red Dead Redemption 2 looks set to be another Rockstar masterpiece, and so it should given the ridiculous amount of work that its team has poured into it. But is it really worth the human cost?

Conclusion Two: Stanley’s Parable still confounds today

The Stanley Parable was released into the wild on the 17th October 2013. It was — and still is — the meta game to end all others, playing out as some kind of distilled madness that somehow engages and cajoles the player into appreciating and finishing it, over and over again in many cases.

One thing which it didn’t do at the time, was let you 100% it in terms of achievements. A key player in that was the Go Outside trophy which, in order to be won, required the player to not fire the game up for five years. Or mess about with your PC’s clock. Well, no need any more as the game is now over five years old.

This is why it still confounds. Not only was the game totally meta, but so was its achievement list, ensuring it’s still talked about five years later. Marketing genius perhaps, ensuring people will discuss it so long after release, but even so, it does work better than the co-creator’s next title, after all.

Conclusion Three: Trophies and achievements changed the world

The above statement is totally true. For some, the change was a wonderful one. For others, it was an irrelevance. For a minority though, it was a life-changing event. PlayStation gamer Hakoom garnered his first platinum trophy in 2008, according to Kotaku, and in the ten years since has amassed a total 1724 to date. ONE THOUSAND, SEVEN HUNDRED AND TWENTY-FOUR. That’s over a hundred and seventy a year on average.

To me, this just sounds like madness — the time it must take him is crazy, even if he does get a large chunk of the shiny things from easy games. In the same article, he also had this to say:

“Many people usually say hakoom just plays easy games but they forget that plating a 10 mins game is equal to plating a 500 hour game. By the end of the day you earn 1230 points or so on each game you plat so why would I waste my time and burn my brain cells on just playing tough games when I can just play easy games and earn the same points[?]” - Hakam Karim, Trophy Hunter

Well, you could just play games you want to in order to enjoy the greatest medium the world is still yet to fully understand? Also, life must be ridiculous. The guy used to work but now he gets by with support and paid gigs platinuming another’s game. What a life? Well, it works for him, and clearly trophies totally changed his. Lucky him.

Conclusion Four: Politics in games is bad for business...if you’re in it to make money as the primary goal

Look, people don’t make games and hope to lose money, or earn diddly-squat. That’s absolutely fine. Art should be rewarded, and if it’s very good, engaging art, then let’s double down on it and ensure the artists earn more. We pretty much all live in a capitalist society, after all.

But the main goal, in my opinion, for any game creator is to deliver the finest experience you can to the gamer, as you see fit. In so doing you will deliver the best piece of art you can, according to your beliefs. It seems for Ubisoft, money is the bottom line and the topline. You see, Ubisoft Massive Chief Operating Officer, Alf Condelius, said on Wednesday that they can’t take a political stance in their game The Division, or presumably its sequel, according to gamesindustry.biz. It’s bad for business.

It’s a “no shit, Sherlock” statement but sad to see. A political stance will turn some folk away — such as those who oppose said stance more than they desire to play a particular game — but really, how many could that be? Some grumbled about the slightly clunky political undertones in Life Is Strange 2, but it was set in a period of time where people were genuinely saying in real life the things these characters were saying in the game. Also, in my opinion, refraining from delivering the finest art to ensure negative folk aren’t offended is kind of sad, and fundamentally means the end product is sub-par and perhaps suffers more than it would had it been the best ever, and derided by the few. Supposition for sure, but with substance.

Conclusion Five: Telltale’s executive team’s ignorance could have caused its closure

Telltale may no longer be with us, but the defunct studio is still hitting the news each week as more information about the causes of its demise come to light. This week, the spotlight turns on its executive team, whose frankly bizarre decisions about the direction of its later IPs may well have torpedoed the company.

According to PCGamesN, during the Swedish Games Conference ex-narrative designer Emily Grace Buck revealed some startling decisions the upper management at the beleaguered studio made. If you played Guardians of the Galaxy for instance, you may have noticed that it wasn’t particularly funny. There was a reason for that: it was a deliberate design choice.

“Our executive team insisted that what was popular about Guardians of the Galaxy was darkness and violence and sadness,” Buck said. “And that people did not associate humour with that brand.”

Given that GotG was one of the funniest film entries in Marvel’s huge catalogue makes this call something of a head-scratcher. It’s not surprising the game didn’t match up to player expectation; when you come into a game expecting jokes and are instead met with slightly awkward and occasionally serious angst, it’s likely to disappoint.

Minecraft: Story Mode was another bizarre one — it was originally designed to be a T rating (the equivalent of a PEGI 12 certificate here). Yes, an adventure based on a game universally adored by children was planned to be more edgy. Why? It’s unclear, but Buck mentions that trying to fight against management decisions was futile and often harmful. “If you fought it too hard, you would be taken off a project, replaced, or even let go, and that happened to people on a number of occasions,” she said. Yikes. 

It also appears that the Minecraft decision was reversed at the last minute, leading to cut scenes to remove offending lines for the censors. While we often associate the jerkiness of Telltale’s creaking engine with poor programming, itmay in fact be points at which the developers had to strip out bits to appease management changes, but without the requisite time available to smooth out the transition. It’s fascinating but also deeply depressing. While it sheds some light on all of those shonky instalments in Telltale’s later games, these kind of decisions inevitably led to the studio’s closure. We’re left wondering what might have happened if the executive management team consisted of people who were actually clued into the series on which the games they were creating were based.

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Rob Kershaw

I've been gaming since the days of the Amstrad. Huge RPG fan. Planescape: Torment tops my list, but if a game tells a good story, I'm interested. Absolutely not a fanboy of any specific console or PC - the proof is in the gaming pudding. Also, I like cake.