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Phil Fish : cyberbullied out of games?

“Maybe there is a beast… maybe it’s only us.”
― William Golding, Lord of the Flies

There are lots of reasons to love the internet, but something I hate about the internet is the Lord of the Flies like anonymous sniping that goes on.

What I hate, is the way people can wear each other out, masked behind an anonymous title. People wear their mud mask as they flog someone online, they pick them apart, make personal attacks or repeat misinformation all from behind a mask.

What people don’t realize is that this amounts to cyberbullying, it is encouraged by the anonymous nature of the internet but they are bullying real people.

I don’t claim to be an expert on cyberbullying, but I’m writing tonight after reading what happened to, Phil Fish, the indie game developer known best for his game, Fez, and for his part in the film Indie Game, The movie.

The short story is that Phil Fish worked for years creating Fez, and during that time fell into conflict with his business partner while creating the game, and finished by himself. Solo. If you’ve seen the film, you know it was quite stressful and very compelling because he was human. I don’t know how anyone can watch that and not have their heart go out to Phil. He did it though, he finished the game, and it has become a huge indie success, so much that of course, Fez II is, or I should say was, under development.

What happened this past week though is that Phil got into a heated war of words (140 characters or less) with Marcus Beer who criticized Fish.

Here’s another thing I hate about the internet; it’s too easy to blast someone in real time, instead of waiting until you run into them at the family reunion, or in the coffee shop or the next convention a year down the line. You know, in other words when you’ve had time to process your anger and simmer down and not retaliate in real time.

After the heated war of characters between Fish and Beers, Phil Fish announced that he was shutting down production on Fez II, in short saying that all the pressure and hate he receives from the game community has been too much. So to be clear, it isn’t necessarily the back and forth with Beers that has prompted him to shut down but the community at large. My article here is not even about the war between Beers and Fish, but rather the accumulation of hate posts I’ve seen that followed the heated battle.

Reading posts online I can understand Phil’s point. The number of times I’ve read people blasting him, are astounding. Understand these are people who don’t know Phil but can’t wait to blast him apart.

Now let me interject something personal here. I am not proud of everything that has ever tumbled like vomit from my own mouth in my life. Meaning I’ve said things I regret and can’t believe I’ve uttered. They’ve flown out of my mouth before that prefrontal cortex could stop them. I hope that doesn’t make me a despicable person in my ENTIRE life, when I lose my temper, or say something incredibly stupid, and I’m not at my best. I confess though, I have not been perfect and I am profoundly haunted by the things I’ve said or done at my worst times, and always hope to become a better person, a better father, a better husband, a better friend.

Unless you are like the Dalai Lama who meditates for hours every day, I believe that as humans many of us are not always at our best, and indeed we live in a culture where there is continual stress that typically centers around work.

Personally, I can’t imagine being exposed to a constant barrage of snarky comments online. The few I’ve received for videos I’ve posted on youtube have the effect of feeling like real personal attacks. I feel my pulse quicken. That’s just one snarky comment, Phil Fish is exposed to a vast number of attacks on him as a person.

In the end it feels like nothing short of cyberbullying to me, to see people lob one insult after another at Phil Fish and join in. Obviously people know that Phil Fish DOES read what people say about him (although he shouldn’t) and they are joining in, sort of Lord of the Flies ready, to stab the pig with homemade spears while they hide masked in digital mud and feathers.

The charges are that Phil is arrogant, a baby, and other things… okay, we get it. Phil has reached his tolerance level, that is not our business, take your own inventory, do your twelve steps and get out of his business. An adult needs to step in now, tell the kids to put down their spears and let Phil get back to his craft without worrying about an onslaught.

Look, it’s true, Phil Fish has had an emotional response. I’m not here to argue whether Beers or Fish said something harsh or hasty.

Having read what he wrote on Twitter I haven’t concluded that he is an evil or bad person. I’ve concluded that someone pushed his buttons and he responded when he shouldn’t have. Watching Indie Game, I already concluded that Phil is a sensitive and creative person. Did he keep it all together in the film? No, that’s part of what made him compelling but he was under pressure others in the film were not under, without the support network to help him through it. It’s that intensity that is likely responsible for his creative work as well. Creative people often are the sensitive people in our culture. They may take things harder than others who can let it roll off their back, that doesn’t make them bad or mean people, it’s part of what makes them unique individuals. Instead we live in a world where if you are hurt we hear, “Walk it off” or “Get over it”. To me these are phrases that should never be uttered to anyone and those are nice phrases compared to the things I’ve read online.

My advice to Phil Fish is to take some time. Unplug from the internet right now and in general unplug from that barrage on the internet forever. Take a break, let things simmer down.

Pull back from the general discussion online and any heated debates and make your own decisions, make your art for yourself first and please don’t remove yourself from the Indie game scene, creative individuals are needed to challenge the perception of what games are or should be.

I want to believe that there is a place for indie people, creatives like yourself to make games.

My advice to everyone else commenting on Phil Fish personally, is to put down the spears. Stop and think if you should say something online if you don’t want to say it from behind the anonymous mask you wear and consider whether the beast is really “out there”.

Can Game Engines be more Accessible?

A few nights ago I made a post about game engines getting in the way of individual artists because of the heavy technical side of them and I wanted to expand on some of those remarks because I could hear a collective groan from the more technical community.

First let me say that game engines have come a long way in the last ten years. When I worked on my first video game project at Rhythm & Hues Studios, we wrote our own game engine, had a small staff of programmers (small by today’s standards where even Limbo had a team of twelve programmers) and many artists creating content as well as a game testing team working continually at debugging our game.

Now fifteen years later, individual artists are creating games and getting greenlit on Steam, or selling on indie sights like Desura.

Very popular and sometimes experimental games like Dear Esther are produced by tiny teams. One of my favorite series is created by Frictional Games, three indie artists began the company working remotely from each other and have a series of games that are now considered among the most scary games on the market and have a loyal following.

http://www.frictionalgames.com/site/

The technology has become increasingly accessible to artists and small programming teams, and what one person or a small team is capable of is downright amazing.

Although these changes have happened, there is still a sizable chunk of the market which is domineered by programmers because there is a ceiling involved with most off the shelf software. I’m not saying programmers aren’t creative and can’t make games, but that there is another creative group who are less technical and are trying to break into the industry and often hit that technical ceiling. Likewise, there are some creative programmers (the team at Frictional being a good example) who may do more should easier tools for animating characters be available so they can focus on the game play, rather than getting bogged down doing something they may not enjoy, like animating.

The technical ceiling I’m talking about can be seen in two game engines that are very popular right now with Indie developers and even triple A titles. Those engines that I have used mostly, are Unity and Unreal, also known as UDK.

Now before I talk about some of the pros and cons of the two main engines that I have used over the years. I want to point people to the link above, a Ted talk with Will Wright the creative behind the Sims and Spore.

In Spore in particular we’re seeing some remarkable things that it’s easy to miss if not for realizing how hard it is to do the things he has game players doing in high end software like Maya, Unreal and Unity to name a few. If I want to design and create a character, and then animate them, it is a long process of design, sculpting, simplifying the model, then rigging and animating and exporting and programming. This is with powerhouse software behind me.

Yet Will Wright demonstrates in Spore that he can make a character and it is auto-rigged, and animated, tested and back in game play having been designed (within constraints) by the game player.

This kind of interactivity is some of what is missing from current game engines when it comes to the more difficult things, like inserting your own custom characters and giving them animations. I’ve talked about this before to people and there is always a little scoffing, but then Larry Weinberg, a former Rhythm & Hues artist is the person responsible for a similar type of software, namely Poser. The brilliance of Poser is that Larry took the complex pipeline that a visual effects artist might use, and made it simplified. Personally, I’d like to see Poser and it’s philosophy, incorporated into Unity and Unreal. In short, it’s brilliant in it’s simplistic approach to the complex. Now imagine, a combination of Will’s character creation program and Poser, where a character is added into Unity or Unreal. A walk cycle is added, and then using Poser like controls the speed, the rhythm and other controls are tweaked in real time, with a very user friendly interface – not in Maya or another animation software.

http://poser.smithmicro.com

To me this is all about pipelines in and out of software. Right now there are some things in major game engines that are not quite smoothed out, not really ready for primetime, and often badly documented at best. A good pipeline will cut down the amount of time that you do a redundant task that doesn’t really make or break a game, like for instance a walk cycle.

The point is that in games, a walk cycle is not the make or break of a game. Spending long hours rigging, and animating each character should and can be simplified and essentially automated. I know that sounds like a tall order, but I’m pretty sure this will happen eventually.

Okay, that said let me get back to the technical ceiling and some pros and cons of the two main game engines, Unity and Unreal.

UNITY

Unity has steadily gained momentum in recent years and making it’s presence well known for making video games. Part of what makes it so engaging is the intuitive and Mac like nature of the user interface. When it comes to packaging the game up, and making titles and menu buttons it is pretty simple, it’s the stuff I can teach in one class. You could compress the game into something playable and get it out to friends with less than three button clicks; Apple like ease of use.

On the other hand if you don’t know loads about programming you are likely to hit the ceiling with Unity fairly quickly and then become mired in trying to make a type of player work within the game you want to make, finding that there is conflict between different types of game play and the scripts you are now using. When you find a script you like, let’s say for instance a third person controller game, and you want to bring that character controller into your game, there will be conflict with the scripts. There are essentially different teams working on different types of game play, and these things don’t have to work together. They only have to work together should you bring them into your game project. This is a different philosophy from Unreal, where something brought into your game will not break your game should you change direction.

In Unity, you may come up with an idea for a game and realize you have no idea how to make it happen. So then it takes lots of research and trial and effort.

A great thing about Unity is the online documentation, and the community which is also easy to navigate and find information. Unique too is the in-editor store for downloading content made by others. What does that mean? Well imagine being in Maya and having a button connected to Turbosquid so you can quickly search for a model you need and download it right into your project. This has created another growing community of entrepreneurs who see a need for something, like a buoyancy script so that a player can swim through water. Someone who needs this, suddenly has it, often for a small fee.

Additionally, when building environments Unity does more for the artist than some other game engines. Getting your work into Unity happens in real-time, if make a new asset you can put it in the proper folder, and it appears in your engine, likewise for any scripting you are doing. This means you don’t have to keep exiting the software to tweak your program and that means a lot of time is saved and you spend more time in game testing your product.

The scripting languages in Unity give the user a lot of flexibility, which means that someone starting out with scripting has some choices depending on their comfort level.

Now this is a rough evaluation of Unity, overall I would say it is fun to create games in Unity, and should you sit down for a day and create something you may find at the end of the day you are knee deep in your own game creation.

UNREAL

Perhaps the most popular game engine right now is Unreal or UDK. There are a huge number of games that use this engine and it’s well deserved. The software interface isn’t as slick to look at as Unity. For me learning Unreal was a little slow going. While Unity mouse and keyboard controls matched popular software like Maya, Unreal has mapped controls their own way which is somewhat odd and unnatural to me. This made diving into the software quickly a problem because I was forced to watch videos on just navigating the software before I could explore.

While Unreal will release updates every few months for their software, they have yet to release their newest version of the software to the Indie community and this is a big downside to committing their software. Unity on the other hand, will project when the next version of their software will be available, and they try to stick to that as close as possible. In the Unreal universe there has been impatience from the indie community who are waiting for the tiniest crumb of news about when Unreal 4 will become available, and to confound the community there is no indication of when the software will be released.

This means that there is some frustration waiting for tools in Unreal to make a significant leap. Some of the leaps forward, like the newer terrain tool, is buggy and not quite ready for full use.

Additionally, the software is fragmented. If you want to make trees, you need to use speed tree. If you want to make menus, you have to use Flash and essentially jump through some very vague hoops. It is not straight forward. Publishing the game likewise is more complicated than Unity’s three buttons or less philosophy.

On the other hand getting started with Unreal may seem more difficult and indeed more frustrating in some areas, but the ceiling for what you can do without heavy programming is higher. So for instance if I want to add ladders, or a zero gravity zone, I can simply put these things in. (Please note I haven’t used Unity since 3.5 so my knowledge may be a little dated). Additionally, there is far more under the hood in terms of creating AI that works in Unreal than Unity. Creating volumes for different things, like a swimmable volume, are easy and I will say that Kismet is far more friendly to use than the Unity version of the same. This means that a user can try many things quickly in Unreal’s kismet and create many different types of games.

One of the most impressive things to me about Unreal though is the renderer. The visual quality of Unreal is just much better than Unity. Unreal has softness to it, less pixelation and the ease of using atmospherics makes for an enjoyable experience creating environments. The renderer overall reminds me of the rendering quality that admired about Rhythm & Hues proprietary software. The quality made Maya’s render look amateur, and this is true for the Unreal render vs Unity’s. Unity games have a more crisp look to them, while Unreal has a soft quality, with automatic light rays and ambient occlusion.

Now you’re wondering why I think this all can be better? Well, for starters Unreal is sitting on the next version of their software and have for some time now. The new version is supposed to revolutionize how users will interact with the software and free up artists to make whatever they want in a game. Yet no one knows when this is forthcoming. Perhaps Unity will beat them to the punch and improve some of the things that make programming unique games difficult, or improve their render quality significantly in the next version.

I appreciate the ease of use of this software, and that I don’t need to have a programming team if I simply want to get started creating an Indie game on my own, however I believe as these software packages move forward we will see more artists working individually, and small teams like Frictional popping up. The more this happens, the more we will have break out artists/programmers creating amazing and rich worlds and stories, that are NOT triple A titles, but potentially so much more enjoyable to dive into for a few hours.

The tech has definitely come a long way since I began doing this in the 80’s, no doubt about it. Yet I’m still waiting to sit down at my computer and “compose” a game like a musician might, before it becomes stale in my head and falters.

Dreaming Out Loud

drming1

Having taken some time away from making games to focus on only writing, I am back to splitting my time between creating games and writing in my studio. So, I begin with a short story concept and then try to figure out how to deliver it, in indie fashion, without the huge over head that most “gamers” are so used to now due to the Triple A game titles that have ballooned now like the tent-pole movies that are made in Hollywood. Essentially, the belief that bigger is always better.

Being a fan of short stories (and not of endless games that go on forever) I approach the game as a place to bring people into a story. The images you see on this page are just some recent explorations in creating environments like a painter rather than treating the game world like pixels. To me there is a story even if the player isn’t aware of all of it, and a painted world, the style of the artist behind the brush. This is hopefully one difference that can occur in Indie games, and we see it clearly in games like Fez and Super Meatboy. Personally, If I don’t feel compelled by the painted world or the writing, then it all fizzles out for me as I imagine it does for many.

drming2

Aside from my goal of making a “short story format game” I am trying to enjoy the process of creating. In other words if the enjoyment of the process fizzles, then I’m going to let go and do something creative that will let me create without the technical road blocks.

As an artist and writer, I want to treat the game environment as a canvas that I’m painting on, and trying to bring my audience into that canvas. What I’m saying is that as an artist I’m far more comfortable with writing and visual arts rather than the technical side.

I can do it, but it isn’t where I thrive, and I feel that the game engines are still road blocks to more creative games because individual artists and writers cannot sit down like a pianist at a piano and just create from that unconscious place without the technology getting in the way. Imagine if every note a musician wrote had to be programmed, and they couldn’t actually touch a piano, but rather a robot played it in another room, with a glass barrier between artist and medium.

That is partly what making games is currently like to me and likely many who steer clear of it entirely.

This means trying to find my comfort level in this medium where I can created un-impeded by the technical constraints of the medium. It’s a tough nut to crack because in the end even with powerful game engines it’s still highly complex, and the promise even of engines like Unity and Unreal have their flaws which I won’t get into analyzing right now.

Part of the production process that I always talked about with students when teaching is building up a library of assets so that when it comes to the game, you can create environments and explore. I have hundreds of assets that I’ve made for games over the years and I’m trying to mix and match them to create this world. Making games is so complex compared to the act of designing a game or writing a game. To make an environment it often takes thousands of assets.

The approach I’m taking as an Indie artist is to NOT emulate triple A games, but rather to know my limitations. If I chose to have assets along the lines of Bioshock Infinite then I would need to realize I’m competing with hundreds of artists who have labored for years creating those worlds.

Having worked in production for years on animated films, visual effects and video games, I know what it takes to produce a big game and I’m trying to produce something with that knowledge so that I don’t fall into the trap that many do, which is to say biting off too much.

To me, knowing how to trim down your game as an Indie developer should be like writing short stories. Let’s say you want to publish in a Sci-fi magazine, so you have to obey the limitations of that publication. If a publication demands that you keep your writing to 3000 words or less, then that is the limitation.

Putting boundaries around the format of a game can be liberating. Putting some time structure around it can allow for an Indie artist to be more like the short story writer. Short story writers write many stories and submit them all over the place in hopes one will land. If you spend two years working on your Indie game, and it doesn’t fly, then you are stuck with beginning again.

I’m not even saying it won’t take me two years to finish an indie game, but my goal is to eventually make it happen like that creative flowing process that partly comes from that unconscious place while you do it. To do it in small groups or individually so that the work becomes more personal and more akin to literature rather than action movies with guns and gratuitous half naked women shots (think both recent Star Trek films or Transformers). Everyone comments all the time that video games are not an art form yet, but with the millions of dollars and talent going into them they aren’t likely to get there because there is too much riding on their financial success and because they are taking their beat from Hollywood films. Not to say that films can’t be art, but who among us thinks of Transformers as art? (Note this is not a critique of the artistry that goes into those productions – two different subjects).

Making indie games is daunting. This is why you’ll hear people like Jonathan Blow, who made the popular game Braid, talk about all the games he began, but never finished. Even for indie games there is typically a huge investment in time involved with making a game, which is why so many games with months of development end up in a scrap heap as people move on.

drming3

I’m not claiming to be the only person interested in this. At some point I should probably write about some of the short games I have played that I feel do fit the short story format. You can play the games in under an hour and feel like there is artistry and creativity unimpeded by delusions of being “triple-A”. These games I find far more compelling than the huge triple A must have games, which in the end feel like they are designed to suck up my life and keep me from doing creative work, sleeping or spending time of with my family all of which are priorities in my life, not “finishing” Halo 4.

In the end I’m not trying to talk about what people should do, in creating games. I’m just talking about how I’m trying to approach this, and why I feel compelled to bang on what I think is a visual medium still in it’s infancy, and despite the fact that I made my first game in the 80’s using Basic programming on a Timex Sinclair, I still find it technically challenging to bend this medium in a way that expresses what it is I wish to say.

If I can’t find my comfort level with the medium then it will be like other mediums that are not a fit for me, pastels or charcoal, things that litter the bottom of my art bin while I move on to things that resonate for me and allow me to continue living an active and creative life.