Category: The Games Industry

Forced Downgrades

A few days ago, Sony announced that it will be removing its “Other OS” feature from Playstation 3 units in its upcoming upgrade. Apparently, this is to stop a hacker who claimed to be able to use a security hole in the feature.

Among the programmers who love the PS3, the decision caused a scream of rage (and pain) that echoed through twitter. Considering the difficulty of programming for the platform as it is different than most other platforms out there, you could think Sony would care about the programmers that want to experiment on it. On a personal level, I don’t care — I simply don’t have the time to tinker with Linux on my PS3.

But if you want to program for a current generation console out there for real, this is your only option. The Xbox 360 with its XNA and software abstractions doesn’t really do it — coding a game on XNA is not a feat really with the distance being put between hardware and software. Coding a game on the PS3 in Linux, however, would probably land you a job.

And let’s face it: with all the bragging about how the PS3 can do things that the Xbox 360 can’t, Sony really needs programmers who can push it to it, who love the system and will squeeze the last bit of performance out of it. Those programmers are all sad puppies now.

The decision is just flat out wrong in so many ways, the most obvious being that of consumer rights. It does not matter how small a percentage of the user base that uses a feature, if you stick it on the package of a product and use it as a selling point, it’s supposed to be there when I use the product.

You could argue that I’m not forced  to upgrade, which is bogus since I am forced to upgrade if I wish to keep the functionality of my PS3 intact. Imagine a DVD player that is suddenly “upgraded” to not support the remote control anymore. You only have to upgrade if you want to be able to watch new DVDs though, if you settle for your old collection, you can opt out. Oh, and subtitles stop working too. Sorry ’bout that.

The example is absurd, but in all essential parts a direct mapping of what Sony is now doing. Come tomorrow, you may choose which way to cripple your console — no Other OS or no new games or PSN.

Laws differ, but I’m quite sure this sort of act from a company is illegal in Sweden, where I live. Quite possibly it is in several other places around the world… it would be interesting to find out.

The second interesting thing to mention is how a large international company again fails to recognize the Streisand effect. I really had no idea some dude had started cracking the system… nor any interest in it. Now I know, and now care. The Sony decision was quickly met by a promise to fix an alternate firmware version which could be used without disabling the feature:

Hacking isn’t about getting what you didn’t pay for, it’s about making sure you do get what you did. And this is about more than this feature right now. It’s about whether these companies have the right to take away advertised features from a product you purchased.

By doing this, Sony puts a big spotlight on hacking the console, essentially starting an arms race — one it is virtually guaranteed to lose. Until now, the homebrew community has had no reason whatsoever to try to crack the PS3. Now they do, and probably will fairly quickly. I think it’s likely that when it happens, Sony will end up having helped hasten the day when piracy appears on the PS3, in its flailing attempt to prevent it.

Game Developers are Better Than Everyone Else?

In a post over on gamasutra, Brandon Sheffield argues that the Dead Space campaign “design a kill” is a very regressive thing for our industry:

I don’t believe we should shy away from violence in games – violence is a part of life, and can make for very interesting scenarios in games. And it’s no secret that a large majority of fun video games are based on conflict, much of which is combative. But I also believe that asking fans to think as hard as they can about an innovative way to kill someone is a very regressive thing for our industry.

Just think for a second about what EA is actually asking people to do. Yes, this is what many of us do every day – there are those of us who design combat and combat scenarios for a living. But asking fans to do it is just too much.

I’m not sure what he’s trying to get at here. There is pretty much two options: either game devs are much better than everyone else, or game devs are horrible people. Neither option seems very reasonable to me.

So why can’t our fans do what we do all day? Is it because as game developers, we are much better than everyone else, and can thus stand the moral strain of thinking about how to dismember humanoid monstrosities all day, without being irreparably damaged by the ordeal?

Or is it the opposite? Are we damaged people, horribly affected by the thoughts on monstrosity dismemberment, so bad that we should take care to shield others from the horrible things we go through daily to bring the public these sinful products?

Neither option really makes sense. Sheffield argues out of the old moral high ground that game violence would somehow damage people, and should be censored. We are talking about a rated game, for adults, not a kids game — so this is not about damaging the fragile world view of children.

Honestly, do you really think that asking someone “think of ways a fictional character could attack, dismember and kill a monstrous humanoid” will have any kind of affect of them that playing the game in question wouldn’t? That is somehow an idea that using the human imagination could be bad for you.

To me, nothing could be further from the truth. The human imagination is a beautiful thing — it creates all culture and all our progress.

Get off the “games are bad for you” horse. No one on this side of the 1980s would argue that the violence in a movie causes people to go on murderous rampages. Would asking someone to design a kill for a movie be as bad? I somehow doubt it.

What about an even more imaginative media, like books? Books are highly based in the communication of imagination between author and reader. We are asked “imagine this”, when we read descriptions of events in a book. But somehow I don’t think the “write a gruesome description of a brutal murder” competition would come under any flack.

There are many things that are wrong with our society, which lead people to do nasty things to others. Taking out your aggressions on characters in a computer game instead of reality is not one of them. Imagining new ways to kill computer game monsters is certainly not one either.

I’m not much for dismemberment and blood splatter in games myself — I just don’t think it adds much. But I’ll happily let other grown up individuals make their decisions for themselves on what they’d like to play — or imagine.

And if you’re going to argue that games are bad, please do so outright, don’t try to hide it behind saying that playing games is fine, but thinking about them isn’t.

Game Resales and Project $10

I’m slowly bouncing back from a period of incredibly hard work, followed by a complete disconnect and resting period. I should hopefully be back to posting regularly again now that the game has gone gold and we’re moving on to the next project. I still have some emails in my backlog of things to reply to — if you’ve been waiting for an answer, I’m sorry about the delay.

Anyway, retailers have spoken out against the so called “Project $10”, saying it will cause consumer rage:

“The person you’re pissing off the most is the consumer,” McCabe told GamesIndustry.biz. “This affects [them] directly – they pay the same amount of money and yet the resale value is much reduced. From a retailer’s point of view, they’ll just readjust [the price] bearing in mind you have to buy the voucher.”

This is an interesting development. For those who aren’t familiar with the concept, the $10 project essentially puts a code in the box to unlock additional content online for the game. The code can only be used once, which means that buying the game new has additional value over buying the game used.

Consumers who buy a used copy can still choose to buy the online content, but for a fee (one would imagine $10, considering the name of the “project”, but I think it’s actually $15 for the current titles). It’s been done with a few recent games including Mass Effect 2 this far (awesome game by the way, I’ve been having a blast with it), and will be done for future titles, including Battlefield: Bad Company 2.

“EA’s project $10 move is aiming to stifle pre owned games sales, but what they don’t factor in is the damage this could have for them in relation to new sales,” said Day.

Wow, what a complete misunderstanding. This has nothing to do with publishers wanting to stop resales — it’s simply a business model where publishers can earn some money off of resales.

There are interesting parallels to be drawn for me, between the console and PC markets. Pre-owned games pose much of the same problem on the console market as piracy does on the PC market. The end result of both is the same: people play our games without a single bit of money ending up with the people who made the game. In the worst case, we end up paying a lot of money to keep servers online, while getting no money at all from the sale.

There has been a lot of whining from publishers and developers about both issues. Those of you who know my stance on piracy should not be very surprised that my stance on pre-owned games is very similar. Whining about it or blaming people for it is not going to help — yet you cannot deny that the fenomenon in itself is causing major problems for publishers and developers (just as piracy is) — there is no getting around that.

However, trying to “clamp down” on used games sales or piracy is pointless. Piracy is illegal, but unenforcably so which means that it doesn’t really matter. Resale is simply a business choice. While you might think that it is a bad business choice and that retailers would be better off long-term by staying clear of business practices that will kill their providers, they are making a ton of money short-term. There is no way they wouldn’t fall for that temptation, and in the end, any business choice that works for them is a valid one. Whining or arguing about it isn’t going to help.

This causes an interesting problem for publishers. One way would be to move to direct online sales only, but this excludes large chunks of consumers who can’t download large games or who aren’t connected at all. Another version would be to require online activation and to bind the game to a certain console or live/psn account, which simply wouldn’t be fair to the consumer and would cause a never-ending stream of problems and well-earned gamer hatred.

The middle ground, then, is to sell a full game to people through retail, but to provide extra value with unlockable content to people who buy the product new. It should come as no surprise that retailers dislike this — it will certainly cut a chunk of profitability out of the resale market. It will lower the value of a game for resale, which means it’ll be worth less to trade in. Will this annoy some customers? I’m sure it will.

Many people seem to be taking this as the publisher wanting to be paid twice, which I think comes back as the default gamer response to anything developers or publishers do to earn money being horrible and bad. It sometimes gets to me to see this kind of attitude with gamers. We can’t make games as a charity, and making these games on bleeding edge tech is extremely hard work, and the people in the industry are incredibly dedicated to their art.

The other side of things is that buying the game used will be cheaper, creating a much better “try before you buy” environment, where you can potentially buy the game used and try it. If you like it, you can buy the DLC that you would’ve got from the new version. This is sort of a win-win situation for the publisher and the consumer, but of course not that great for retailers.

To publishers, this is the option that provides the best value to consumers while moving to a new business model that allows us to actually start making proper money from games again, which could halt the current trend of studios closing and developers being fired.

I’m sorry if that takes money out of retailers pockets, but I really do think that the talented people who sweat blood making these games deserve the money more than people who only know how to push people to buy used instead of new. It may have been a good dream for you, but it was still a dream and now it’s time to wake up.

And yeah, retailers claiming to stand up for the consumer is nothing new. But just as with music labels claiming to speak for artists, they are simply middle men that are slowly losing their value.

What’s a Good Final Year Project?

Here’s a question from the mailbag, coming from a student doing games programming at a university, gearing up for his final-year project:

The degree I’m doing currently has been very much centered around graphical programming, aswell as using various programming languages to bolster our CV’s I would imagine. We’ve not really touched on networking, or AI at all. Our main language in graphical programming has been OpenGL too, we’ve dabbled with DirectX a little, mostly managed directX with XNA.

As a programmer already in the industry, could you give me any advice on the type, and level of project I should aim for, for it to be a suitable demo project to show to prospective employers? It’s difficult enough as students to find our way into the games industry; if we don’t know what employers want, or what is considered worthy in the eyes of the employer, it lowers our odds tenfold.

In a way, the answer to the question depends on what kind of position you’re trying for. I’ll try to answer with regards to as many positions as I know.

For starters, is graphics programming what you want to be doing? If it is, things like what graphics APIs you know become a lot more important. From what I know, most games studios that do windows game development have gravitated towards DirectX. With that in mind, having done a large(ish) project on DirectX could definitely be a plus. If all other things are equal, I’d definitely go for learning DirectX.

Not having experience with networking or AI isn’t all that much of an issue, unless you imagine going specifically for a networking or AI programming position (and even then, it’s more of a bonus than a requirement). One thing is clear however… if you’re looking to get into professional development at a large studio, you should be going for C++.

Now if we look past the technical requirements, there are a few things that can be said about such a project in itself. What you get from a good project is a nice entry into your demo reel — something to show off. This has a few implications, but most importantly something I’ve touched on before, in A Spectacular Failure: your project is going to be judged on emotional first impressions, not how technologically advanced it is or how nicely coded it is.

Your number one enemy is over-scoping the project, ending up with something that does lots of things, but does none of them in a great way. Come up with a good core gameplay for the game, and then polish it to a great shine. Fix all those annoying glitches and bugs, make sure everything looks as impressive as possible. It doesn’t need to be rocket science, as long as it’s well executed. In the end, what a games studio is looking for is a programmer who knows how to finish projects in a good way.

That doesn’t mean your project should be Space Invaders, but in general trying for something too big is more of a problem than overdoing something too small.

Finally, as an entry on your demo reel, make sure you make the game available in an easy manner. Have a page with plenty of screen shots, videos and preferably the game itself easily downloadable. Your coding ability will definitely be tested with some form of work sample as you apply to studios, so the code itself being available is less important. Reading code is hard, so it’s unlikely that someone will have time to read yours. However, having a finished game to show off is worth a lot, as is the experience of going through all the phases in finishing a game.

Other posts you may find interesting, relating to getting into the games industry and getting started with games:

Getting Into Games — A Follow-up

My post from a week or so ago about the differences between working as a software engineer in a games studio and in other places generated a fair number of interesting comments and questions, both here and at various syndication sites. In this post I will try to answer and comment on the most common and interesting ones.

Working at a Games Studio

Getting started with something I intentionally left out:

Low pay. Good luck trying to buy a house.

There’s a well known discrepancy between salary in your average programming gig and your average games programming gig. I left it out of the original post because of two factors:

  1. The difference is highly overstated. Salary varies much more within each class of work than between the two. While it is true I could probably get more money by switching to another job, the same is true for many others, and the difference wouldn’t be worth it to me.
  2. It’s your choice. I expect you to make a well-informed choice on taking any job when it comes to what you get paid. Don’t just take any job because someone told you you get paid a lot in a certain business — make sure you get what you’re worth.

A second issue from the same commenter (and several others):

Yes, you have to come to work on Saturday and Sunday.

This is an issue in the industry, and I’ve seen pretty bad cases of it. Since I started coding games, the working conditions have improved by far though — and this doesn’t only seem to be my situation but applies to many others I’ve spoken to at other studios (mainly within EA though — would be happy to hear the perspective of other people). At the moment, from where I’m sitting, things are looking pretty good.

I’m not saying crunches don’t happen, I’m just saying they’re reasonably few, have a good purpose and focused time span, and include a time off compensation after the deadline has been passed.

The most problematic part of this is that it’s extremely hard to figure out if this applies to any given studio without actually working there or knowing someone who does.

I wouldn’t want to be the guy working on the next Madden game

Well, I actually know the guy working on the next Madden game and he is incredibly dedicated and seemed to love what he was working with last time I saw him. About the comment, he told me “Well we don’t want that guy anyway,” which is very true — the reason there is a Madden game every year is because there are lots of people interested in a new Madden game every year, and among that crowd there will certainly be people who are interested enough to want to work on the game.

It’s funny, because I sometimes hear the exact opposite of this comment at work. “It’d be so awesome to work on an iterative title where you just got to improve things and do all those cool changes that we have to cut”. Working on Madden is a pretty sweet place to be if you love sports games.

People sometimes seem to think that innovation only means new game franchise. There are lots of interesting developments and innovations within franchises, even within a “plain old sequel”, and working on one of those titles avoids one of the great drawbacks of the games industry: half the time you’re semi-panicking because your game engine isn’t in a shippable state and there’s a whole game team trying to use it to create a game.

That way, working on Battlefield: Bad Company 2 is nicer than working with the first game: the same chance for innovation, but less problems with others not being able to innovate due to the state of the code.

Getting started

A question that keeps popping up is any version on this:

I’m a frustrated web developer who’s always wanted to make the move into game development, but have yet to find the time to train myself and start shifting my skills over.

Any tips for someone looking to start out in that direction?

I’ve touched on this subject before, in An Exceptionally Stupid Idea, which tells the story of what I did. That post may be best applicable if you’re still in college, but there is a certain truth to it regardless of where you are. Time is money however, and with anything in life  you’ll need to do investments… so seeing where you could free up time is a first step.

What do do with the time once you have it? Well, the games industry is looking for a few things:

  • Skilled programmers
  • … who know the language
  • … and with some experience of games

The third is actually somewhat optional, though most recruiters would never admit that. Becoming a good programmer is a hard topic to cover — more than half the stuff on this blog is already devoted to that, so I’m not going to comment further on that one.

Chances are slim you’ll be coding anything but C++ if you code games, so if you’re not already very familiar with the language, you should get familiar with it. It’s often said that good programmers learn new languages quickly, and to a certain extent I agree with this… but if the problem is complicated enough, you need to be a language expert.

Finally, getting some form of portfolio is good, even if it’s “just a side project”. That could also be a good project to use as practice if you’re not too familiar with the language. Further, it helps if you’re a gamer and stay on top of what’s going on in the industry.

This actually ties into another comment, which was the most compact piece of information:

C++

If you dislike C++, turn elsewhere. I personally think it’s an extremely capable language once you learn to harness it properly. It is dangerous without the safety equipment though, and sadly some of that equipment doesn’t work with games.

Other languages are starting to appear when it comes to games coding. I’ve heard examples of LUA, java and C# being used as scripting languages, and of course there’s UnrealScript. These can be extremely beneficial for iteration times and such, but the grunt of the software is still going to be C++.

Update: I should also mention another old post of mine about this: Let’s Make a Game Engine!

Games Programming

I tried to avoid getting into the details of hardware and the coding that goes with it in the previous post, since I love talking about these sort of things and I didn’t want it to become a rant but hey, you asked!

Console hardware (I’m looking at you, PS3) is made for pretty graphics demos, not simulation. If you work on the AI or physics, be prepared to focus your energy on low level optimisation and cache misses, because your AI code is never going to be any more sophisticated than a state machine.

Well… I’m the lead AI coder on Frostbite, and while there are lots of things to be said about the Frostbite AI, “no more sophisticated than a state machine” is not one of them. I agree, some things (especially physics queries) are expensive on the hardware, but that simply means you need to re-think how you do stuff.

SPU code is a vastly different beast from your average code. There are some bad programming habits that can completely destroy your code for SPUs… and among those bad habits are the ones that would lead you to get stuck on low-level optimizations. Once you learn how it works, there is an incredible amount of power in the PS3. I’d dare to say it’s still relatively untapped, and that as time passes we’ll see more sophisticated uses of it.

The limitations of console hardware is different. That doesn’t mean you can’t implement physics or AI, it just means maybe you’ve got to challenge your assumptions about how you implement physics and AI.

I guess the Parallelism approaches are a little different in both worlds. I bet you gamedev guys have been working with Data Parallelism for a while (i.e: programming the Playstation2 Vector units. I don’t think life is getting any easier on you guys with all those Cell SPEs to squeeze!).

In the enterprisey side, task parallelism is an emerging topic with languages like Erlang, Clojure and Haskell offering different abstractions for spreading computations over different hardware threads/cores.

The vectorization units of the PS2 are a quite limited way to do data-parallel work, so I disagree with you here — with the SPUs on the PS3, it actually is easier, because it’s less limited in what you can do with them. Vectorization units and other primitive forms of data-parallelism often work in lockstep, whereas the PS3 actually has a bunch of individual, highly capable although slightly quirky processors.

Games are full of data-parallelisable problems as well. Rendering is the classic example — the reason GPUs have been such a hot development the last few years is that rendering lends itself so well to parallelism. But there are many other things as well — the aforementioned AI is ideal in some ways, as it tends to be made up of lots of separate processes for different actors or entities.

Task parallelism is also something that can be utilized to a great degree in games since there are simply so many orthogonal tasks to complete. Update the UI, do physics simulations, calculate character skinning, play audio… I can’t go into details on that, but we do a whole lot of it in Frostbite. Sadly, you do end up needing to care about many of the details that using an abstracted language would let you ignore though.

Still, it’s one of the most exciting aspects of coding for me, since games are one of those applications that can actually use all the power of parallel computers.

WordPress Themes