Saturday, 29 January 2011

Back to the Future

Release date now set for March the, um, fifth I think.

Oh solv! You told us September!
Indeed! However, nobody told us that, if you get the CE award, your game undergoes extra rigorous testing, and all those people who have been lurking as cc's on the email threads suddenly rise like affable Banshees from a chocolately marsh and congratulate you and offer you gifts and incentives and everything is different. And another name is added to the cc's and you discover that he's like a back-up Producer and is there in case your Producer falls ill or has babies during those last crucial weeks. And Mr Big Fish himself, Paul Thelen, passes on his excitement and pride at the working partnership, and I'm not so cynical as to believe that he might really be a bit excited and proud, but that could be self-delusion, which is my good friend.
Also, we fell behind a bit.

So our Producer, of whom I have become curiously fond (I've never been suspended in leathers from the ceiling of a dungeon and whipped before, but maybe I should try it?), has just played through the entire game. For the first time.
That's strange solvey: we would have thought that somebody would have done that already before awarding the CE? You telling us that they hand out CE's without actually playing the game?
Yes. There's a little morsel of my heart that pines. But that's not a very professional and worldly morsel of heart.

Customers download the opening hour - the free demo - from the BF portal. They play it and decide whether to purchase the full version.
Ergo, every drop of energy is injected into that opening hour, to make it shine like that gold toe on that statue, or that astronomer's brass nose. (Unpublished writers take note!)

Now an unscrupulous dev could quite clearly take advantage of this approach. For sure, I've read forum comments along the lines of: I bought X because it was really exciting and had loads of interesting puzzles, but then after the first hour, it's just Hidden Object Scenes, and then the ending is really awful! I feel cheated!
To be fair, the CE bonus material is also treated with enormous respect, and Big Fish are very protective of their CE roster!
(We've just been asked to add another ten minutes of gameplay into our CE act. By next Thursday, when the game goes into the final round of very earnest testing. When I got home from the office yesterday, I noted that I looked somewhat like Professor Emmett Brown from Back to the Future.)
Well, we were all pleased (as in relieved) when our Producer emailed with a tiny list of amendments, all very doable. But for me, I shall always remember that she began the email confessing that she was almost in tears at the end of both the SE and the CE games.
You'll all know me well enough by now: the money doesn't interest me one jot, because nothing compares to the feeling you get after a really good writing session, or when people tell you that they've been touched by your work. It's the stuff you remember and, if you're really really really good, it's the stuff that is remembered. (Nope, I'm not that delusional :o)
And I'd guess that you'll all know what I mean when I describe hope and self-belief as a door in a windy passage, constantly opening and closing. Certainly, the writerly folk amongst us will have experienced the binary flipping between Man, this manuscript is unbelievably good! and What the heck was I thinking?!

Not big on post mortems. They strike me as a rather trite endeavour. Given the amount of stuff we're constantly reassessing, it simply seems moot to lump together a lengthy expanse of time and examine it from that one, flawed perspective.
For anyone who has every watched Masterchef and seen an evictee lamenting I'm gutted! But I know now not to add onion sauce to haddock! (I tried this last week. It doesn't work. Ugh.) you'll understand what I mean. They all do it - every last one of them. Today's onion sauce is tomorrow's venison gravy, ad nauseam.
I also figure that there are people who look to the past (they're the ones with loads of photos and like to reminisce about some cool stuff they did twenty years ago), and people who look to the future (like Professor Emmett Brown, wondering what'll happen if they poke plutonium into a flux capacitor.).
N.B. Remind me to undertake a punctuation refresher very soon: what happens to full-stops when the end of a sentence corresponds with a bracket? And I keep forgetting which colons lead onto capitals and which don't. Sheesh, I bet I knew four years ago! :o)

It was Tycho Brahe! Turns out he lost the end of his nose in a duel, and showed that comets are not atmospheric phenomena, and kept a dwarf named Jepp.

But the experience of beta testing is very much worth noting here! Jesse Schell refers to it as sending out an invitation that reads: You are cordially invited to tell me why my game sucks.
I did get through a fair number of tissues with all that brow mopping. But it's brilliant! Imagine having hundreds of people at your disposal! You'd be naive to think that a designer can knock up a design document of War and Peace dimensions which would require no amount of redesigning. (For that matter, I'd guess that War and Peace underwent an amount of revision. I've read somewhere that James [or maybe Frank] Herbert is regarded as an extraordinary figure in the literary world because of his unique ability to write from start to finish without losing his way, and then to require no amount of editing afterwards.)
In the gaming world, this is called the Rule of the Loop. You cobble together some stuff and test it and then make any necessary changes, and then do this over and over until the only changes required are trivial.
So the task of sifting through countless survey comments was an important one for me, and required a great amount of discipline. One of my pet hates is ego. It will always damage a creative project. It will prevent a person from genuinely seeing through the veneer of comments into the reality behind. I trust there are no egos here on the farm.
It's important to avoid knee-jerk reactions. On reading a few negative comments about the animal spirits' voices, our sound guy prepared to re-record them. However, I was able to find an equal amount of praise for the voices. Furthermore, for those who were enjoying the experience, it was feasible that the experience itself was resultant, in some part, from the carefully chosen voices. I ran this by our Producer and she agreed: she likes the voices.
This decision could in no way be swayed by my own opinion*. Derren Brown likes to remind us that human beings are always on the look out for anything that might corroborate their beliefs, and turn their backs on anything, no matter how compelling, that might erode their beliefs. When analysing survey data, there is no room for this at all. Remember: the player is queen of the universe!
*Occasionally, the data isn't clear cut and I've had to make judgement calls. I've had some interesting back-and-forths with our Producer and with Keeley, the Head Writer at Big Fish.

So circle that date on your virtual calendar! March the something! (I'll dig out the precise date next week.)
Everything so far suggests that we're onto a winner, and that I'm going to achieve my life-long ambition of making millions of women weep.
But things rarely go the way you expect and there's a high probability that I will be ousted as a delusional buffoon...

Sunday, 16 January 2011

The Privacy of Dreams

I awoke with a big smile on my face this morning.
Yes, I'd just had a perfectly happy dream, and the last act was still fresh in my mind - not just the images, but the feeling of complete happiness.

I was with a friend. I have no idea who he was.
We had just stopped at a gas station. I say gas station because it was something from an American road movie: hot sun, old redneck guy sat in shade outside, erratic whiskers on his chin, possibly smoking a clay pipe. I think my friend was driving a red pick-up truck. We approached the man. He wore a straw hat and he smiled and most of his teeth were missing. My friend politely asked him if there were any hand-drying facilities and the man directed us round the back.

I think we walked quite some way to find them. As we approached, I seemed to recall having seen the hand-drying facilities before - at night - from above, as though I had been looking from a third floor window, and the small courtyard below was lit with fairy lights and people were dancing. With this memory, I was able to relocate the hand-dryers. They were two tall machines, like cabinets, and metallic with rows and columns of nozzles and buttons. We each stood at a cabinet and moved our hands in front of the nozzles, until one would momentarily blast warm air before switching off. We couldn't figure out which nozzles worked, or what the buttons did, or how the buttons and nozzles might be related. A dark display slot informed us that we would have, I think, one minute per nozzle, and this appeared to clear up the mystery and we were able to dry our hands.

As we walked back, we strolled through the beautiful ruins of an abbey. The grass was brilliant green in the sunlight, and the shadows like something from an Impressionist painting. Sat on a wooden bench a little ahead were a black woman and her young son - he was about ten years old. I knew them immediately. I think I had met her a few times before, and we were rapidly falling in love. I was so pleased to see them both. And on the path ahead was a small tree root. I told my friend that I was going to perform a comedy trip. I extended the pauses between my words so that I would utter the word 'trip' at the moment we reached the root, which would correspond with the moment the woman and child would see and recognize me. My trip was brilliant and I was very pleased with it. I continued walking. The woman and child were happy to see me - from my peripheral vision, I could see them beaming. The woman called out 'I love your coliseum!' I thought to myself 'It's an abbey, and it's not mine,' but I quickly dispatched the thought because it didn't matter and the thought threatened to mar my supremely happy mood. I carried on walking and was about to do a cool extension of my hand as if to say 'Thanks gorgeous; catch you later for some love,' when the boy spoke up: 'How many times have you died?'
At that, I wheeled round and took a few steps back to them both and they were still beaming. At some point around here, I realized that the child was a robot, and that I was too. I was happy to talk about this with a kindred spirit. 'I've died twice,' I explained.
'Cool! Me too! I've had two new bodies.'
I felt a bit of miscommunication and felt the need to clarify a point: 'Oh, I've only had one new body, but I've had a new heart too! If your heart breaks, then that's a way to die too.'
Still smiling, the boy tilted his head to give the matter some thought.

We arrived at what might have been a hotel or a manor house. It was furnished more like a manor house, but then it had corridors lined with numbered doors, which were guests' rooms. It was evening, and the lamps were turned on in corners of the rooms. A party was about to start and people were arriving.
A famous musician came and sat on some floor cushions with me. He had brought his cat. I was in awe of this guy and knew lots about him and thought very carefully about what I might say to him.
'You know, Deep Purple are coming later. You love them don't you!'
He seemed to know already, and was very happy. It was a tranquil inner happiness rather than an outwardly excited happiness.
I then chose to speak to him through his cat. I held his cat, and the cat didn't like me and tried to wriggle from my metal arms. 'How long was your journey, you poor thing?' I asked the cat.
The musician replied 'Oh, it was only an hour.'
I was surprised: I thought it must have been a much longer trip.

Searching for a bathroom, I found myself wandering down corridors until I found a games room, which was far more ostentatious than all the other rooms. A door led to a bathroom with gold taps. I could see this because the wall separating the games room from the bathroom was built with a large glass-less window. I found myself in conflict: This must be the best bathroom in the building; but anybody can peer in. Do the best bathrooms all have viewing windows? Is this how the royal family go about their ablutions?
The toilet itself was horrendous, with papers and scum lining the bowl, the murky water level rising and falling, always threating to spill into the room.

And then I woke, presumably needing a wee.

It occurs to me that I can identify much of the imagery, and can understand its significance to me. An outsider would not be able to do that. An outsider might take the abbey scene and propose a religious connection; or the ruins of a belief; or the concept of love beyond death... I could postulate dozens of scenarios. What a stranger won't know, for example, is that the scene closely resembled a scene from our next game, and only with that knowledge is it possible to find the consistent themes within the dream that reveal the dream's meaning. An outsider, also, wouldn't know that, before going to bed, I watched Rude Tube, and then read a few pages of Derren Brown's 'autobiography'. For an outsider to interpret my dream, they would first need a context for each image (for an omg cat is different to, say, a dead cat by the roadside), and then an understanding of my connection with the contextual image: How do I feel about an omg cat? Does it make me laugh and do I subsequently feel guilty laughing at such a puerile youtube clip and shake my head mournfully at the collapse of civilization? Do I contemplate buying a cat and teaching it to feed a mouse in order to add my own cat clip to youtube and vie for some pastiche of fame? And so forth.

If anyone has any cool dreams to share, please feel free to add a comment safe in the knowledge that the meaning will be well hidden from strangers! ;o)

Thursday, 13 January 2011

The Public

User ID 142: The story line was boring!
User ID 349: Are you telling me that there was an objective?
User ID 101: Too boring!
User ID 65: I have probles with pactience, I just want to get going and keep gowning.
User ID 444: The lady in the kitchen's face was not enjoyable to look at.
User ID 219: The story didn't create a big enough sense of urgency to find out how it ended.

Yes, the public have spoken and the survey results are in! (Actually, they've been in a for a while, but I've been waylaid what with Christmas and all. Oh, btw... Happy New Year to you all, my inspirational and aspirational Maggot Farmers! And while we're celebrating, join me in wishing a Happy 4th Birthday to the Maggot Farm!)

So how did we do? Did we hit the fabled 4.2 score necessary to join the elite society of Collector's Edition games, thereby all but guaranteeing a number one release? Am I set to get a t-shirt printed declaring '#1 game designer'?

I'm currently reading what I think is Derren Brown's autobiography. (I'm not sure; I'm two thirds of the way through, and he's still tossing upon the streams of consciousness.)
(Coincidentally, I'm also reading Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse. Indeed, I like to have a choice of book to read when I hit the hay. Man, that woman could turn a shopping trip into a one-legged trek over the Andes.)
Anyhoo, Derren had that obligatory page, lamenting the negative reviews. They're the ones, he says, that stay with you. The good reviews fade, and the bad ones persist.
And there's me throwing another one onto the pile. Sorry Derren. I admire everything about you apart from your writing style. And that lottery thing.

Actually, I had a series of revelations last week which have upset me. (You see! This is what stream of consciousness is like! I've been infected! However, one beneficial side effect of consciousness streaming is that a moment is distended and an anticipated development is held at leg's length, intensifying the expectancy.) To hear the awesome Penn (of Penn and Teller) describing subliminal techniques as 'shite' was hurtful to me. And then, to rub hot coals into the genitals, Stephen Fry told me that there's no evidence to suggest that subliminal advertising works. Moreover, the pioneering results were, apparently, doctored: inserting single frames of stuff into a movie does not make people hurry out into the foyer to buy soda.
So when Derren persuades us that he made us choose the card with the picture of confetti on it by subliminally implanting the message CHOOSE THE CONFETTI*... well, that's not true. (*From Derren's wonderful Enigma show.) In all likelihood, he probably doctored his own results. A simple switcheroo would do the job. Derren speaks often about the magic occurring in the mind of the viewer; that the viewer's interpretation is far more elaborate and imaginative than the actual method used which, if revealed, would be a disappointment. (Btw, next time you're watching one of his shows, check out his finger plaster. Don't tell anyone, but it's got a pencil nib in it so's he can write numbers and things onto bits of paper.)
There is solace for us all though. Lots of subliminal techniques work fine and dandy (and I'd say my word palettes technique still holds water). Just don't expect miracles.

What's depressing - albeit highly pragmatic and ultimately fortune making - about survey results is that every tab on the xcel spreadsheet, bar the 'general comments' tab, contains the bad stuff: rows of disillusionment and, occasionally, vitriol. Only when you cross reference it with the pdf files do you see the bigger picture: of the hundreds of people who have scored your game across multiple categories, a small percentage weren't impressed and here's what they had to say.
I must confess that I've found within myself a surprising practicality. I don't really feel a bitter sting when I learn that somebody thinks I should embark on a new profession, or that my characters are shallow or my puzzles lame. And I'm not hurt by comments like 'In yer face!'. (I kid you not!)

It's late and I need sleep, so I'll bid you good night for now and when I return we can look a little deeper into the process and how I dealt with it all and what happens next.
We scored very highly and smashed not just the base-line, but also almost every one of the best-selling games mean scores.

User ID 34: Great game with a good story line. I enjoyed the mini games as they were not like any I have seen before. I will be looking forward to buying this game.
User ID 377: I am continually stunned by the increasing quality of personal computer games.
User ID 127: i found the game very enjoyable, i would like to play it many times over.
User ID 338: It seems an excellent game and when the beta-trial was over any disappointment I felt was due to the fact that I wanted to play longer.
User ID 244: I really enjoyed it, the storyline was interesting and the audio and pictures were relaxing and enjoyable.
User ID 233: I totally loved it I was very curious about the storyline.
User ID 198: Loved this game! The story line sucked me right in!
User ID 118: This game was fun and unique.