No kids’ play this

Jinoy Jose P | Updated on January 08, 2018 Published on October 01, 2017


A new book offers an interesting yet violent ride into the murky world of video game-making

‘Stardew Valley’ is an indie farming game. It was created by Eric “ConcernedApe” Barone and released by a British publisher of video games, Chucklefish. Within a short span of time after its release in February 2016, ‘Stardew Valley’ sold over a million copies, becoming a best-seller. But few of the gamers enamoured by the beauty of the serene farming game knew that the sole designer of the game, Barone, who is in his sweet twenties, literally locked himself in a room for about five years to design the role-playing simulation game.

Surprised? Well, everything is fair in love, war and video games. If you are a gaming enthusiast, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Video games are our best reply to dreams, where the wild, absurd, bizarre and impossible blend chaotically and creatively to produce a form of reality that can only be matched by what we experience in dreams. It’s a mad, mad world out there.

Equally crazy is the world of video game-making. In the words of a programmer who’s been making video games for over a decade now, it’s a dog-eat-dog world. Agrees Jason Schreier in Blood, Sweat, and Pixels, where he presents the “triumphant, turbulent stories behind how video games are made”. Schreier is the news editor at Kotaku, a website that tracks the video gaming industry, which is a $30 billion industry in the US alone.

Globally, some 2.2 billion gamers are expected to rake in some $110 billion in game revenues this year, according to the Global Games Market Report from consultancy Newzoo. This is an increase of about $8 billion or about 8 per cent from 2016. Considering the market size and the investments involved in their production and marketing (the 2009 game ‘Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2’ guzzled a whopping $250 million in total costs), producing a video game has now become a high-stakes affair like filmmaking but with one major difference — video games become obsolete in a matter of months thanks to the drastic developments in technology.

You may watch and enjoy The Godfather trilogy today, but not many would bother to go back and play (or buy) a ‘Final Fantasy VII’ which was made in 1997 at a cost of over $100 million, making it one of the most expensive games ever made. And that’s why Schreier says the most important question in video game development has nothing to do with making video games: It’s a simple question that has stymied artists for centuries and put an end to countless creative endeavours: “How are we gonna pay for this thing?”

People have been making video games since the 1950s. Some historians say the first electronic game to go ‘public’ was created in 1950 — ‘Bertie the Brain’, an arcade game made by Josef Kates for the Canadian National Exhibition. Proper ‘video’ games started circulating in the 1970s and the advancements in console technology helped them skyrocket in popularity. Very soon, games got interactive and role-play games (RPG) went viral in many advanced markets such as the US and Japan, leading to a virtual monopoly of Japanese multinational Nintendo. But the world of video gaming was to see more shake-ups, with computer graphics technology gaining unprecedented momentum in the 1990s and, later, helping outlier companies such as Sega take on biggies like Nintendo. Blake Harris details that war in his racy thriller, Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation.

The pixel monks

Schreier’s focus is, however, only the people. He even tracks processes through people with the knack of an anthropologist-historian. In fact, the book is a result of a series of interviews Schreier conducted with nearly a hundred game developers and industry figures between 2015 and 2017. Schreier profiles many maverick game designers such as Eric Barone of ‘Stardew Valley’ in enchanting details. The book has ten chapters which discuss the evolutionary stories behind ten video games, starting from ‘Pillars of Eternity’ to ‘Star Wars 1313’.

Through his person-stories, Schreier reveals the pain people go through as they build even seemingly simple games. Most gamers won’t be able to imagine the dedication these pixel monks put into their works, many of which they know won’t see the light of day, resulting in a loss of millions of dollars, causing enormous heartburn.

But why is it so hard to make them? Even in this age of 3D graphics, artificial intelligence and all other uber technologies? Schreier has a few possible theories here. The answer lies in the very character of video games themselves. To start with, unlike films or any other graphics products, video games are interactive. They don’t move in a single, linear direction. They have many dimensions. They have many people doing the same thing at the same time. They want the designer, one person in many cases, to think like many. It’s an invitation to be consumed by multiple-personality disorder.

Second, the technology is changing at breakneck speed. As computers evolve, graphic processing gets more powerful and users expect “prettier” games. If you are not able to deliver that, you’re as dead as a dodo. Next, the tools also change. If you have fiddled with basic operating systems and animation tools in the past, you have programs such as Adobe Creative Suit and Maya and several proprietary apps that vary from studio to studio to make your games. And most of these cost pots of money.

Another bottleneck is scheduling, which often becomes quite impossible. No one will have a clue when and how a game will finish until it actually, yes, comes to an end. Equally unpredictable is the fun quotient of the game. “It’s impossible to know how ‘fun’ a game will be,” writes Schreier, until you’ve played it. You can take educated guesses, he adds, but until you’ve got hold of the controller, there’s no way to tell whether it “feels good to move, jump, and bash your robot pal’s brains out with a sledgehammer”. In sum, video games are products of unquantifiable uncertainty. Schreier’s book succeeds in delivering the impact to readers.

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Published on October 01, 2017
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