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Knowing when to scrap it

Scrap cars leftFire Hose Games’ Slam Bolt Scrappers goes on sale today on the PlayStation Network, and if you’re so equipped I suggest you have a look at it. I’ve been following the progress of this game since I first met Fire Hose founder Eitan Glinert at the inaugural Boston GameLoop in 2008, and it involves one of the most amazing development stories I’ve been privileged to personally watch unfold.

At the start of 2010, the nascent Scrappers was a side-scrolling action-adventure about superheroic construction workers, flying around and patching up bursting dams. I watched the developers demonstrate it at a local monthly game-developer gathering, and found it rather impressive. For the Fire Hose crew, though, it wasn’t quite gelling as a compelling play experience.

A few weeks later, I visited Eitan at a game-marathon-for-charity event that GAMBIT was hosting. He gratefully took a break from his nonstop playthrough of the first Final Fantasy to show me Scrappers’ current version. It barely resembled what I’d seen before: gone was the scrolling cityscape of crumbling dams and waterspouts, replaced with something that at first glance looked like a Tetris-based minigame.

Eitan explained to me that, while kicking around ideas for gameplay variants, the Fire Hose team hit on the seed of a uniquely chaotic multiplayer falling-block battle. They immediately saw that this model held an entire, sellable game all by itself, and that game was fun. And so, they decided to clear the table of the old design — with god knows how much time and resources poured into it — to focus on developing this idea instead.

As much a fan as I am of the Brooksian principle of “plan to throw one away”, and of being a harsh self-editor unafraid to throw one’s own priceless output into the fire for the sake of the greater work… at that moment I kind of thought that Eitan was off his rocker. Such a drastic shift seemed like a desperate move to me.

And one year later, I found that sidling past Fire Hose’s booth at PAX East was a challenge, so clogged were the surrounding corridors with folks gawping at the game, and waiting for their turn to play it. (And nobody could mistake it for Tetris anymore, either.) Time will tell, but by all appearances, the Playstation-owning community has been impatient for a while for the chance to finally give Fire Hose their money.

Despite the conceptual distance the block-battle idea had from the game’s original concept, and heedless of all the work put into the old model, Fire Hose shed few tears about stuffing it into the wood chipper and running with the better one. Because it was better, and they had the game-development chops to recognize this, as well as the courage and flexibility to do the right long-term thing for themselves, despite the pain.

I keep this story on one end of a mental continuum I use to help judge when it’s time to throw out what you’ve made and start fresh. (Joel Spolsky stands at the other end, wagging his finger.) My friends in the Boston game-development community like to grimly recommend “killing your babies”, but it’s not about destroying what you love for its own sake. It’s about simply allowing your eyes to open to the fact that what you thought was the final masterpiece was actually the rough draft. Celebrate that, and savor what that implies about how brilliant the actual work will be. And then light the match.

[Image credit:, CC BY-NC-ND.]

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Boston GameLoop: August 28, 2010

The third annual Boston GameLoop is set to happen on Saturday, August 28 at the Microsoft NERD center in Cambridge. GameLoop is a self-organizing “unconference” based on the BarCamp model, led by local videogame mavens Darius Kazemi and Scott MacMillan.

I’d loosely define the audience as professionals with a vested interest in digital games. Most attendees have been folks directly involved in the videogame industry, but the event has also included journalists, educators, and others interested in (and participating in!) games’ rapidly growing role in modern culture.

No matter their background, all attendees are free to pitch 30-minute session ideas onto a centrally-positioned whiteboard, as well as support others’ pitches by drawing tick-marks beside them. Topics with enough ticks get moved onto the day’s schedule.

Last year, I led a roundtable discussion on the state of game journalism. This year, time permitting, I’d like to arrive prepared with a short presentation or two on wholly different topics, and then find out if anyone actually wants to hear them. Either way, I certainly look forward to seeing both new and familiar faces again, and soaking up an entire day of intelligent game conversation with a lot of really smart people.

Both Zarf and I have ponied up the $40 registration fee for this year. Gameshelf readers who’ll be joining us should feel free to leave a shout-out in comments!

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Why all this Show talk

I feel the need to clarify an earlier post, now. At the start of this year I implied that I didn't plan on making any more Gameshelf shows any time soon, because of two enormous projects I was working on. But then, in today's previous post, I speak of how I bubble over with show ideas and look forward to finishing the one I've been banging on for months.

So what changed? Well, one of the projects launched, softly. I've begun working with actual businesspeople, having conversations about how Planbeast can become more interesting. That's a gradual process, and I'm satisfied with letting the idea marinate until then.

The other project, the one I was calling "Project X", quietly expired on the negotiation table. It involved an adaptation of a popular tabletop game, but the game's IP holder and I just couldn't arrive at a licensing agreement. So that one goes into deep freeze for now, and while it naturally carries disappointment, it was also an adventure that I was glad to have. It brought me experience and knowledge, both about the business of making games, and about my own relationship with games and their study.

I walked away with a clearer picture of where my passions really lie. While I'd certainly love to publish a commercial game of my own design someday, what I want to do now is document game culture, and create game criticism of the sort I tried to discuss at that GameLoop panel.

Something I've lately become fond of saying is that our culture - not just "gaming culture", I'm talking about the whole sausage, here - is becoming increasingly ludocentric. We need more journalists who recognize this, and who can help our society better understand games' history and culture, and help establish a better language for game criticism. I want to be one of these journalists, and it so happens that I have already built an outlet to make this happen.

So that's where I am right now.

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Notes from my GameLoop talk, and links to other stuff I mentioned

I was pleased to attend the second Boston GameLoop, and extend thanks and congratulations to Darius Kazemi and Scott MacMillan for organzing another fantastic event. Also thanks to Microsoft for the use of their lovely new NERD center (yes, that is what it's called) in Cambridge. The conference was doubly well attended over last year's, and I look forward to seeing how it continues to grow in future iterations.

This was the third self-organizing "unconference" I've attended, and the first one at which I got bold enough to host a talk. My topic was "Improving Game Journalism and Critique", and my starting point was this essay about game criticism from Greg Costikyan, from which I read some excerpts to get things rolling.

Among the dozen or so who showed up for the talk, a particularly challenging attendee was a hardened freelance journalist who hoped we'd talk about "outside-in" reporting about games for mainstream news consumers. He was very open with his skepticism about the value of the critique I described. While initially his boisterous disagreement resulted in a couple of walk-outs, those who remained helped pare it down to a valuable core question: Who is the real audience for critique?

Attempting to answer this led further into discussion about the transformative effect that more and better game criticism should have on the field of game-centric journalism: taking some space back from the fanboyish, review-and-anticipation-based press that is so prevalent now, and giving more voice to articles examining games the context of artistic work. This would let a game be held up for comparison with of other games, all that has come before - and, if examining a work from the past, all that came after. Fill the space of media-about-games more with material like this, counterweighting all the next-six-months-focused game reviews (a necessary but very well covered thank you genre), then the game-making community's perception of itself should further broaden and mature. Which would be a Good Thing.

The group also ended up talking about professional video-gaming-as-a-sport and its media coverage, both within and without the current game-enthusiast press. This was a subject I knew very little about, so I didn't discourage it, and we ended up being able to tie it back into the title topic by the time our 45 minutes were up.

I made a newbie mistake in not noting my contact information before the talk, so that people follow up electronically afterwards if they wished. I had some nice face-to-face conversations immediately after the talk, and I see that a few people have started following me on Twitter despite my unintentional stealth. If you've managed to find this post after attending my talk, welcome! Feel free to use the comments for followup discussion, if you wish.

Three more links I'd like to throw down here, because they're things I mentioned during other peoples' talks:
  • Chess for Girls, a blistering SNL parody of how games (or anything else) is typically marketed at girls
  • Mo's Movie Measure (aka The Bechdel Test), an acid test to determine whether a given movie manages to overcome a base level of sexism. (Most movies, even good ones, fail it miserably.)

    Thinking about MMM in context of games is an interesting exercise!

  • Intelligent Mistakes, a brilliant essay from the game designer Mick West on programming computerized opponents so that they purposefully but subtly screw up, so that fun for the human player is maximized.
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