Monthly Archives: May 2015

On the recent rise of indie and small developers…

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On the recent rise of indie and small developers

By Ryver H.

It seems strange that as triple A or big budget video games keep pushing for better and more realistic gameplay and trying to oneup each other graphically. We are also seeing a bigger outpouring of support and a rise in popularity of low budget, low res projects. Minecraft is probably the best known example of this phenomenon, with it’s simple, blocky textures reminiscent of games much older than itself, coupled with deceptively complex gameplay and near complete freedom for the player, seem to have made a highly sought after combination that many have tried to copy since its release. Why is it that with all the advances in graphics technology and this sort of push toward realism in gaming, are we seeing such a push back against it? The answer to this seems to be multifaceted, with nostalgia, innovation, and escapism all playing factors in this recent boom in popularity of these smaller scale games.

When I say innovation I don’t mean newer graphics or hardware, but rather new or interesting ways of implementing existing techniques or engine mechanics to create a new experience, to experiment with how the game works, or to challenge the player’s expectations of how the game will play out. While we do see this occasionally in larger company releases (Valve’s Portal series), mostly we see increasingly similar gameplay within big budget series, especially as yearly iterative series seem to be becoming more and more commonplace in the Triple A market. That isn’t to say there isn’t innovation in big budget games, but the changes companies make are often minor, opting instead to go with a known quantity that has shown good sales in the past rather than taking a risk at radical change to gameplay. While from a business standpoint it seems like the right move to make, go with a product that’s known to sell, many view it as stagnation and stifling of creativity, seeing it as more of a bane to video games than a boon. FEZ stands out to me as a great example of innovation in an indie game. It’s a puzzle platformer that blends 2D gameplay with 3 dimensional space in a way that forces the player to think and experiment with the mechanics to come up with a solution to the various levels of the game. The concepts themselves aren’t new, but the developer managed to implement them in a new way.

Nostalgia seems to be another big reason behind the indie gaming boom. Many older gamers these days grew up in the 8- and 16-bit eras of video gaming, where graphics where blocky and low res, so many developers had to rely on either fun and interesting gameplay or story, or more simplistic gameplay but at a much higher difficulty that challenged players, daring them to keep playing until they beat it. Many modern indie games take a lot of cues from games in this era, especially releases for the Nintendo Entertainment System. Shovel Knight, Super Meat Boy, and FEZ all take aesthetic inspiration from the system, with a somewhat cartoony simplified feel to them, as well as gameplay, being colloquially termed “Nintendo hard” in reference to the difficulty many of the more well known games. Shovel knight in particular stands out in this respect, with the developers having stated their intention to make the game as close to the classic NES experience as they can while still trying to create a complete and entertaining product. Many other indie games seem to pander to players’ sense of nostalgia to great effect, conjuring memories of simpler times where the only thing they had to worry about was how to beat the boss after level three.
This brings me to the final factor, escapism. These days, many popular large budget games advertise more realism, a push toward reality, in both graphics and gameplay. This is to make the game feel more visceral, to draw the player further into the story, and make them feel like they’re actually in the game. While this seems to work for some, others feel that games shouldn’t be about realism. They would rather play games to escape reality, to visit fantastical places and themes, leaving the real world behind. Again, we see indie and smaller developer games seem to strive for this. They don’t generally have the budget or workforce to render their games in ultra high definition, so they often have to rely on other methods to capture and keep the players attention. This is done with colourful art, immersive story, divergent gameplay, or any combination of these things and more. They tend to build a world that draws its audience in far more than “shoot some people in a dirt coloured arena”. They make us invested in the world and the characters, be it through storytelling (Shovel Knight, FEZ), a difficulty that almost taunts you into playing more (Super Meat boy, The Binding of Isaac), or the freedom of action that can lose you hours of time (Minecraft, Starbound).

There is, as always, a downside to this recent boom, especially in concern to the trend of crowdfunding many of these games. Indie developers can and have overextended themselves, making too many goals or offering too many feature and not giving themselves enough of a timeframe to complete what they set out to do. Under budgeting is also a major concern, a dev running out of money before they complete the project, threatening to turn a good concept into not much more than vapourware. There is also the risk of a developer burning out, getting too overloaded or overwhelmed by the project, leaving them wanting to walk away. One solution to this recently seems to be the advent of the small dev, where a larger company buys or absorbs a smaller company, leaving them to do the innovative and more bold development of their indie peers, but at less risk of floundering or drying up. Some see this as a type of ‘selling out’, giving up the radical freedom of being an independent dev for the job security that comes with a larger, more controlled pocketbook. I personally believe this trend is the best move for both sides of the arrangement. It breaths new life into some of the more stagnant large developers, while at the same time giving the more innovative developers a steady budget and enough wiggle room to be creative without the concern of over extending and eventually burning out. It often also allows for a larger platform for the small dev’s project, allowing them to get their name and projects out to a larger audience. Only time will tell how these sort of situations will pan out, but I am optimistic, especially with the rise of mid level developers and publishers, that seem to fit perfectly into this niche, pulling smaller developers into a larger public eye and bolstering the market with newer, more original content.

Some have said that the indie dev boom is coming to an end, to which I agree, sort of. I feel the reasons I’ve given above along with the fact that we are still seen original gaming content still consistently getting crowdfunded is reason enough to conclude that the indie game market is still going fairly strong. Its certainly not going anywhere anytime soon. That being said, it’s stabilized, we are no longer are hearing about the hot new indie title everybody’s backing every other day, but rather something new and innovative every so often. More large devs and publishers are recognizing the value of the smaller, more creative devs. The boom may be over, but it left it’s mark on the face of gaming. One that looks like it won’t be going away anytime soon.

Ep 12: Epistemology and Virtual Worlds; Is this the Real Life?

The Philosophers talk about the possibility of games what are too realistic.

Sean and Ryver talk about the movement to more realistic technologies in all fields of technologies

Bruce compares computers now to computers of ages past

Sean brings up the possibility of games we cannot distinguish from reality.

Ryver asks if we may end up wondering where the game ends

Bruce elaborates on this a bit

Sean proposes a test by which we might determine when we have hit the point of “too real”

Ryver discusses how this may have happened already to some small extent.

Bruce proposes how this could come about

Sean explains that this is not as far as it would need to go to reach this stage of reality.

Bruce talks about why he thinks that people will embrace these “too real” games even if we believe them to be harmful.

Ryver and Sean clarify the terms of psychological harm

Bruce interjects that different people will be affected differently

Sean asks what making a game “too real” would do to consumption and whether or not we should engage in these things

Bruce and Ryver talk about this installation of some kind of panic button

Sean asks if we can know that we are not already in a simulation

Bruce talks about what kind of game reality would be

Sean talks about an individual persons having their own genre and the movie Gamer

Bruce compares this concept to The Sims

Sean and Bruce talk about how this differs due to the lack of wholly different experiences

Bruce asks if we can ever know if there is a higher or “more real” level of things

Sean likens this idea to the movie Inception.

Bruce asks if it would even really make a difference if there is another or higher level of reality and asks us to consider the Meditations of Descarte

Sean ponders if we might only be able to get out with a “God’s Eye” perspective. (http://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/God%27s_eye_view)

Ryver mentions that higher levels of reality are not something we are inclined to accept and likens this idea to the Allegory of the Cave (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allegory_of_the_Cave)

Sean explains that one can only know if there is a higher reality if they are the player.

Bruce talks about whether the supposed levels of reality are just part of the same thing, and that this would only expand our horizons.

Sean discusses the idea that our sensory data, real or false, would still be the driving factor behind our decisions.

Ryver asks if a full immersion reality would necessarily be a bad thing

Bruce presents the possibility of a level of moral abuse that would otherwise be impossible

Sean answers that the problem would be whether or not we think they are entitled to Truth

Bruce wonders if Truth is more important than a comfortable life

Ryver discusses the possibility of this as a way to help people in comas.

Sean likens these ideas to the movie Strange Days (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0114558/)

Ryver talks about how not everyone may want the ability to experience that which they are incapable of physically.

Bruce talks about whether or not we could learn or grow in such a state

Ryver discusses the Hedonism or Experience Machine thought experiment (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Experience_machine)

Bruce expresses a belief that we could not escape wanting such a thing

Sean disputes this argument with the Nietzsche’s philosophy of hardship (http://www.brainpickings.org/2014/10/15/nietzsche-on-difficulty/)

Bruce and Sean discuss whether or not we could grow as people with this ability

Ryver brings up the idea of heirs to large fortunes and how they are not always capable of growing and learning as people.

Sean takes the last word to discuss that these questions are not restricted to just video games, but are inclusive to all our media. He also talks about how these questions are ones that will need to be answered by us as a society going forward. Honorable mention goes to the movies Existenz (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0120907/) and Total Recall (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0100802/).

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Ep 11: Self Awareness and AI; Do Cylons dream of electric sheep?

The guys start with definitions and a little talk about privacy of thought and asolipsism
Bruce asks about the granting of intelligence for argumentative purposes
Sean gives his definitions of the difference between virtual and artificial intelligence
Ryver asks how we might know the difference
Sean talks about the Turing test its strengths and weaknesses
Bruce asks if the god’s eye view might not break the vision of intelligence
the guys toss around the notion of an AI having a virtual world to be compared to and whether or not it would know there was anything else outside its artificial world
Bruce likens the theoretical AI to a child learning about the world
Sean asks if the AI’s reality would extend beyond the machine to the external world
Ryver asks how anonymity effects the ability to believe in the outside world
Bruce suggests that the AI may extrapolate a model of the outside world
Sean argues that it would not know this as another greater reality but more as if it were a game
Bruce suggests that it may view our world as a conspiracy theory
Sean suggests that to an AI the notion of our biological/physical world would seem so alien as to be absurd
Ryver suggests that the inability to directly observe is the problem
Bruce suggests that the AI might be atheistic in regard to humans
Sean likens the AI’s understanding of physical reality to our experience of dinosaurs if we had no evidence
Bruce points out that the topic has shifted to would an AI believe in us
Sean counters that this is a crucial piece because for an AI to know it is an AI it must understand that there are different intelligence
Bruce wonders if the AI’s inability to believe in our intelligence isn’t telling of our ability to believe in AI
Ryver brings us back to Cylon’s
Sean talks a little BSG lore
Bruce points out that in order to question the AI’s experience we first have to have granted that it has a Cartesian theater
Sean points out that arguing about whether or not a strong AI could exist is a bit of dead horse beating
Ryver brings up Moore’s law and the kind of futurism that leads to asking questions about AI
Bruce talks about semantics and syntax as seen in John Searle’s work and David Chalmers philosophical zombies
Sean talks about Cylon’s levels of self awareness and the awareness of humans about the presence of Cylon’s
Ryver talks about Cylon’s and emotions
Sean brings up replicants and Blade Runner
The guys talk about the Voight-Kampff test and what it tells us about our ideas of humanity
Ryver relates this back to existentialism
Bruce talks about the desire for humanity
Sean relates the inability to differentiate to a kind of creeping nihilism
Ryver points out that Philip K Dick had always intended for the story to leave us unsure if Deckard the main character was himself a replicant
Sean talks about the 4 stages of nihilism in Nietzsche’s work and the relationship between human and replicant
Bruce asks if a Cylon that doesn’t know what it is becomes aware does that destroy part of who that “person” was before?
The guys kick around that it means to have your world view drastically changed suddenly
Ryver brings in the concept of dreaming and what we mean by it in the title
Sean breaks down sleep dreams and aspirational dreams
Sean takes the last word to puzzle a bit about why we find the topic of sci-fi, artificial intelligence, and what it means to be human so fascinating

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