Tuesday, August 16, 2011

super.hype: Paved with Good Intentions

Technology changes the way we do things. Aside from its effects on the retail model or its ability to provide user-generated content back to the community, it also means more avenues by which a creator can push content/advertising to her audience. But technology, as an ephemeral maiden, also maintains a strange anonymity which can be taken advantage of, basically short-circuiting our ability to decipher what is genuine and what is not. Those most able to utilize this strangeness thereby advance their ideas, products, and services without stirring up the latent distaste for manipulation our culture has acquired over the years. In other words, he who hides his intentions best, wins.

Today, I was on Youtube.

I Want you to Want Me
Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Overgrowth are two very different games from two very different companies. One game comes from a multi-million dollar developer/publisher known for its long history of console and PC titles while the other is the company’s second title and is being developed (and published) exclusively for PC by a small group of about 5 developers. As different as these games are though, what got my wheels turning today was the fact that both of these games have an enormous amount of content on Youtube.
This isn’t particularly anomalous for titles with huge advertising budgets, but in the case of Deus Ex: HR it is. This is because the quality and depth of the content is far and away the most I (and I think the community at large) have seen on a big-budget title, ever. Eidos is going out of its way to showcase more than just how the game looks or how the game plays, they’re actually going rather deep into their design choices, both obvious and obscure. Moments in the walkthrough even have the developer defending specific design choices that resulted in certain elements being streamlined or cut out entirely. It’s a refreshingly honest look at the AAA development mindset.

In the other corner, you have Wolfire Games’ ridiculously huge trove of short, but insightful (if largely and intensely technical) videos that showcase the game’s progress over time. It’s very humble, very transparent, and has a very “authentic” feel. You can easily envision David Rosen as some dude sitting in the basement of somebody’s humble brick house with his $17 swivel chair (with no lumbar support) voicing over his recently completed additions in the alpha build while he waits for his ramen noodles to cool down. There’s a lot of earnest in their consistency with updates, and they seem to have a genuine interest in creating a game they’re proud of (and is worth the asking price). While the presentation is of a different format, the goals of these two sets of media are essentially the same.
Despite the similarities in campaigning, Wolfire has a universally positive image while Eidos seems to be struggling to keep Deus Ex on the frontpage of the average gamer psyche. The question then, is why.

How Much is Too Much?

One can immediately argue that the poor reputation for AAA development is due to a number of factors, one of which is exclusivity of input. Deus Ex developers aren’t really engaging with the community because they don’t intend to use any of the feedback to improve the game. Eidos is only interested in the bottom line and is simply using these extended playthroughs and developer commentary to generate hype; they’re useless in terms of evaluating the quality of the game or the honesty of the developers. Also, the only reason Deus Ex may have a worse reputation is because innumerably more people are exposed to it than Overgrowth, which clearly has a much more niche audience. The most damning factor is of course the fact that this is an enormous company with a huge budget that simply cares about staying in the black, not about making good games.

Alright, fair enough. But consider this: Wolfire, which is decidedly indie, releases alpha builds on a weekly basis with or without playtester input. The only things implemented are the things that David Rosen, the lead, feels are good or fun, or that are requested by others on the team. He also continues to remove or tweak elements as he sees fit regardless of the input from the community. What’s more, the alpha builds are in no way available to the public, and can only be experienced by pre-purchase. No demo exists, there is no story or narrative thread to the dev videos, and there are no options for experiencing the game for free aside from the videos. 
As for their audience, Wolfire Games is the founder of the Humble Indie Bundle LLC (recently infused with $4.7million dollars in venture capital), which recently sold enough games to raise over $2million dollars from 372,393 contributors. It is well-known that Jeffrey Rosen is the brother of David Rosen, and also works for Wolfire Games. While they keep the businesses entirely separate, this was not the case with the first bundle, which also raised approximately $1.2million dollars with over 100,000 sales. They continue to maintain the Humble Bundle business and hosted the files for the first 2 bundles. They are first and foremost a business, even if that business is making good games.

Here’s the thing though: Eidos gets the short end of the stick. I personally am amazed at how little recognition Eidos has gotten for releasing what is essentially 5-10% of the game for the world to see, before it was released or had even gone gold. It may have been a brazen attempt to generate hype, or perhaps a pretentious gambit to show off what they believed to be a superior product. What I saw was the closest thing to developer honesty from a AAA developer/publisher in a long, long time. And they’re still not getting a lick of credit for it. It’s being taken for granted by the community and by journalists alike. In fact, it’s being used against them as a justification by gamers for not getting the game, or worse, as justification for piracy.

On the other hand, Wolfire continues to release what essentially amounts to teasers and evolving mechanics snippets, with some ancillary developer commentary in the same vein as Eidos, and continues to be hailed as a masterfully executed game (not that it isn’t).

It just doesn’t seem very fair.

i see no changes

It isn’t my intention here to defend the honor of Eidos or the quality of Deus Ex nor is it to denigrate the stellar reputation of Wolfire games or question Overgrowth's artistry. Rather, it's my desire to shed light on what I see as one of the persistent, debilitating, biases of the gaming community.  Not everyone shares my opinion, I’m sure, but it’s something I think needs to be said: favoritism doesn’t help anybody. Sure, single-minded fans are what make lots of things possible, but open-minded, honest consumers is what keeps an industry going. And I think that it’s sad to see that when these large companies, who have been vilified for so long, try something new, different, and authentic, they’re just not really recognized for it.
Some industry soothsayers see the future as “indie”, where small business like Wolfire will end up leading the way and carrying the industry through. That’s fine. But it’s no reason to condemn the companies that exist now, which are in fact attempting to do the very thing we love indies for: transparency, honesty, and love of the game. What will we, the supporters of this industry, do when these indies inevitably become the companies we see today? Is that not our inescapable future? If we can’t tell when a faceless, nameless, “heartless” big company shows us some real heart, how can we be sure when an amiable, kind, and yet invariably human small one is?
Well, the truth is we probably won’t.