Seeing Randy Pitchford’s Keynote on the first day of Develop proper was anything but what I expected. Going off the amount of bile he inspires in parts of the gaming community, I was anticipating a grotesque homunculus, devoid of humanity, or a devil in a business suit burning effigies of gamers on a pyre. Instead I heard a charismatic and friendly man say a lot of things that made a lot of sense, even if he did occasionally tend towards sentimentality.
Any sufficiently advanced technology will appear as magic
For Randy working in the entertainment industry is a “noble pursuit,” because it’s about the production and commodification of joy. Whilst people who work in the emergency services, government and science help organise our world and keep us safe and healthy, it is entertainment that is a key factor in making life worth living, which is an opinion I’ve always held myself.
It turns out, before heading up Gearbox Software, Randy was a magician, indeed he’d come from Develop directly from a magic convention in Italy and performed some tricks for us on stage, effortlessly changing a card from one to another. Despite performing the trick right in front of our eyes and assuring us that it was all manipulation, I could detect no sign of how it was happening. This is largely the way videogames work, so there’s little surprise he’d made a career change to the games industry. Essentially everything that happens on screen can be explained by code that I can’t see, that was written by someone way smarter than me. One of Arthur C. Clark’s three laws of prediction states that any sufficiently advanced technology will appear as magic, and so in my mind videogames are a computer aided sleight of hand that allow you to enter imagined worlds that feel real but aren’t.
Randy went on to outline another, less desirable comparison between magic and videogames. Whilst 90% of people will allow themselves to be amazed by a trick, 10% will not be convinced, and a smaller percentage of them will become outright hostile to the magician, determined to demonstrate them as a charlatan. These numbers map fairly neatly onto videogame audiences and explain why, to this day, Randy gets regular angry emails from one guy who can’t accept that the art style for Borderlands was changed from the realistic style of its first showing, to the whimsical comic book aesthetic so many people know and love.
Randy is very aware of the ire he causes in some people and is charmingly self-deprecating, after all he introduced himself by saying “you might know my company from some of our most famous games: Aliens: Colonial Marines and Duke Nukem Forever. Triumphs!” In the Q&A following his talk, his interviewer gleefully pointed out that he’d asked the Twitter sphere for some questions and pulled up some of the less bile inflected ones, like “why hasn’t your studio worked on a good game in 15 years?” Ouch! Fortunately Randy has a way to shrug it off, and since we’re at the seaside it’s the perfect analogy. He notes that very few adults will build sandcastles, but those who do are our artists. Fewer people still will get their kicks from crushing other people’s sandcastles. This destructive streak exists in everyone’s subconscious, and for many it’s enough that we can just blow shit up in a videogame without causing any real damage, but for a fraction of people that’s not enough and those are the trolls. But as Randy says: “If you let the destruction of your sandcastle prevent you from building your next one, that’s the greatest tragedy.”
As social media and the concept of community building mean the general public and game designers are rubbing up against each other now more than ever, this kind of ire directed at creatives in the games industry is becoming worryingly familiar. Rami Ismail, the second day’s keynote doubled down on this topic. Rami is one half of Dutch game studio Vlambeer, who are currently working on rogue like shooter Nuclear Throne, but he is fast becoming one of the leading spokesmen and advocates for the indie scene, unafraid to address difficult topics head on. He also supports game developers in more deprived and restricted parts of the world, and to that end he’s in the process of launching the initiative gamedev.world, which seeks to make sure vital discourses around game development are available in as many languages as possible so that people may “explore perspectives that are currently unavailable to them due to cultural, economical, linguistic or geographical limitations.”
We fucked up,” Rami says candidly, speaking for the industry, “we haven’t treated audiences as adults and we’ve given them the wrong expectations.”
In a characteristically confrontational talk he argued that developers have been pandering to their audience too much, to the point that it’s become common place to imagine changes are easy to implement. Every time a game’s PR machine shows how easy it is to convert motion capture to fully realised 3D graphics, or the actual work that goes into something is obfuscated to elevate the genius of the designer, they’re making life harder for the next small indie dev struggling to give their audience what they want. “We fucked up,” Rami says candidly, speaking for the industry, “we haven’t treated audiences as adults and we’ve given them the wrong expectations.”
Rami reminds us that the majority of game design is about getting things wrong, and learning from your mistakes, echoing Randy the previous day who suggested we learn more from our failures than our successes. But for many not privy to the way the creative process works within the industry, not knowing how to realise something perfectly and immediately is a cause for considering them a bad designer. This is the downside of considering game design a kind of magic; it can make you think that someone just needs to wave a wand, or as Rami suggests press a magic button in Unity, to port a game to a new platform.
This aspect of Rami’s talk was picked up by Simon Roth, whose latest project is 70s sci-fi inspired strategy game MAIA, which he describes as Dungeon Keeper in Space. Simon’s talk was concerned with ‘killing the lucky indie myth,’ and sought to give advice on how to build and run a successful microstudio. Part of the problem lays with the press which is dominated by success stories of one hit wonders or beating impossible odds, not to mention celebrity musings on success, like Rovio’s suggestion that “you have to fail 51 times” before you succeed, that make for great headlines but poor business advice. Meanwhile excuses like “steam is oversaturated” (yes it is, but with shit that a good games should be able to stand out against) or “the indie clique conspired against me,” are just excusing for your own failure. Since it’s possible to sell a bad game and a niche game, Simon believes that being a successful indie is instead about hard graft and putting yourself in a position to be noticed.
But Rami realises that at the heart of a videogame is that “little loop of interaction” in which the audience is a vital component, and in most respects game designers need the audience, much more than the audience need any given game designer. After all players can always migrate to the next thing, but for an indie dev who’s invested all their money, time and energy making a game, the stakes are much higher. To help navigate this paradoxical need to maintain an audience, but not be cowed by it, Rami suggests drawing a distinction between the customer (someone who plays your game) and a consumer (someone who consumes media in general, and might be converted into a customer). For Rami it is customers that are important not consumers, but even then no one customer is worth jeopardising your community, hence the importance of weeding out destructive elements (the sandcastle kickers if you will). Not allowing someone to insult you or your work on a platform you own has nothing to do with freedom of speech, he suggests. Freedom of speech as a concept, after all, was developed to allow marginalised people to speak out in the face of power, not to give people the right to be jerks.
Rami used the development of Nuclear Throne to demonstrate his point. Early access worked well for them and they quickly developed a passionate player base who helped balance the game. The problem being, this player base became so good at the game Vlambeer found themselves ramping up the difficulty of the end game (where their player base existed), rather than focussing on the accessibility of the beginning and middle. They realised they needed an influx of new players, unfamiliar with the game, but putting the game on sale would show a lack of respect for the early adopters who’d been there from the beginning (Vlambeer to this day rarely put their games on sale). The solution was an act of generosity that benefitted everyone: a second copy of the game was given to each player to give to their friends. Thus Vlambeer gained a hand-picked group of players who were immediately invested in the game, but weren’t so familiar with it as to make their feedback too advanced, and the pre-existing player base received a gift as well.
Every customer has a value and a cost, Rami reminds us, and it’s not always best to just get as many customers as possible.
Fundamentally Rami’s solution to the problem of managing audience expectation is communication. Being upfront with players every step of the way. Sharing your triumphs with them, but also not holding back on bad news. And if you find yourself drunk at your computer, well it’s best to turn it off and call it a day; on the internet what’s said cannot be unsaid. If any of his players start getting salty Rami just scrolls through all the bitter comments and marvels at how quickly they disappear compared to how long they probably took to write. He calls this his ‘people wasting time on Rami Ismail ratio’.
It’s interesting that both keynotes at Develop, one delivered by an AAA industry veteran, the other by a successful indie and community advocate, should share so much in common. The message from both is to respect your audience by treating them like adults, but also to not let the minority get away with trolling your community. Every customer has a value and a cost, Rami reminds us, and it’s not always best to just get as many customers as possible. Rather you need the right ones, and attracting them will depend in large part on your policies and decisions, a warning that was echoed by Simon Roth in his talk who warned that “deep sales bring in people who aren’t interested in your game and are bad for the community.”