Empathy For Pixels

 Goldeneye for the Nintendo 64. A classic. 20 years old already.
Goldeneye for the Nintendo 64. A classic. 20 years old already.

Truthfully, I didn’t know where I was going when I started writing this. Turns out it’s about two things: ways to deepen game characters, and reasons why it’s important (as well as when it’s not.. so okay three things).

Let me tell you a story. It’s about a boy who was born into a fairly poor family who eked out a passable existence on a family plot in the mountains. When he was only 12 years old, his father was killed in a tragic farming accident, and as his mother was too ill to work, he became the sole breadwinner for a family of six younger siblings.

He had a talent for singing. His deep and melodious voice, paired with a deep well of emotion bought from years of personal sacrifice, won him many admirers in the taverns and dance halls around the local villages. It wasn’t long before the girls started to notice him.

As his younger siblings matured, he dreamed of leaving the farm and pursuing a career in music, until one day a paramour told him she was pregnant with his child. Dreams of a life of travel and singing were forgotten. They married and his love gave birth to twins some few months later. He was the happiest man alive!

Unfortunately, the harvests had been poor for years, and the bank reclaimed his family’s farm as the twins neared their first birthdays.

With not one, but two families to support, and no means of doing so, he joined the army, one of the few employers who was always hiring. He moved both families to the city as he began boot camp.

His first post was guarding a hydroelectric power plant. It was hard to be away from his family, but he knew that they were safe and provided for.

One day on duty, as he quietly hummed a lament, thinking about the night he first met his beloved, this happened…

 GIF recorded from tommytep's YouTube Channel. Click image for source.
GIF recorded from tommytep’s YouTube Channel. Click image for source.


Like that one? Let me tell you another (shorter) story.

A class sits idle in some code, waiting. Its name is Soldier 4. It’s basically frozen in time. It doesn’t even look like anything yet because its mesh hasn’t been rendered because the player camera’s frustum hasn’t come across it yet. Suddenly, the player enters a trigger area around the corner and the class springs to life in glorious pixelated detail. It starts playing an animation, shifting its weight back and forth on two legs. Then a raycast determines  that it’s just been shot 3 times. A rather slow and painful looking death animation is chosen from a small list of predetermined death animations. After a few seconds, Soldier 4 lies still, fades to nothing, and the garbage collector erases any trace of his existence shortly thereafter.


Okay, which story do you like better? Which is more true? Which is more believable?

Which would you tend to think of when playing a game? I suppose that would depend on how immersed you are, and what lengths the game goes to in order to inform you about non player characters (NPCs).

I used Goldeneye because it’s one of the earliest examples I can think of where my mom was a bit upset that I was shooting people in games, rather than speeding through checkpoints and jumping on robotic animals. It’s also one of the first games I can recall that put some real effort into showing pain in the enemies. You could shoot them in the foot, hand, or crotch, and they’d stop shooting, grab the injured area, make a pained noise and hop around (if they still could).

I was too busy at the time being blown away by the speed and the technology (I’d also never played Doom or similar 3D shooters at that time) to think of the enemies as anything more than obstacles to progression, but I can see now in games what my mom saw then. And it’s got nothing to do with graphics, or realistic animations. It’s partly a question of emotional maturity, of course, but also of storytelling. Where I just saw ‘baddies’ my mom saw me walk into a room and gun down a random young man in a Russian uniform with no provocation. Goldeneye didn’t really give you reasons to kill most of the game’s enemies other than “you’re James Bond and they’re Russian. Duh!”

Twenty years later, we have plenty of room on the disc to fit even a little audio that can precisely let you know why you should (or shouldn’t) want to kill these dudes. Yet in those situations where we have the opportunity to do better, how often do we actually strive to?

When to dehumanise

There are so many games of all sorts. I’m not at all trying to argue that we do want backstories for all game characters in order to make them better. That could often do the opposite.

  Brutal Doom 's ott gore doesn't exactly inspire regret or sympathy. Because demons!
Brutal Doom ‘s ott gore doesn’t exactly inspire regret or sympathy. Because demons!

Take Doom (new or old). It’s an unapologetic power fantasy, delivered through the medium of speed and violence. Killing demons removes any need for cumbersome storytelling. It’s black and white. Demons are evil. Kill demons. A game shouldn’t try to do too many things. If the extras conflict with the core idea, cut them.

We often dehumanise the enemy in games. Literally. Whether to simplify story, avoid moral debates or to sidestep local censorship laws, we turn our targets into zombies, monsters, robots, or aliens. It works really well. Robots and zombies can also relieve the impact of bad AI, since they’re not meant to be particularly intelligent to begin with. Great! Over the top violence and power fantasies can be fantastically fun, and I wouldn’t change Doom 1 or 4 one little bit.

The topic I’m addressing is what to do when we have human adversaries, who are meant to represent believable people. Because this is the greater challenge, and it’s likely that you seek to tell some sort of story when you’ve chosen to have human antagonists.

There are two types of games that use humans as enemies; those with either fictional or non-fictional settings.

Fictional Settings

GTA V is one of the most realistic, alive open world games that’ve ever been created. But players have zero empathy for the citizens of Los Santos. The game’s over the top satire, occasionally wonky physics, and amazing yet vastly imperfect AI, prevent any great depth of immersion. That’s not to say that you can’t get lost in the game for hours, but you’d never mistake it for a real experience, and you wouldn’t really start to feel for the characters. The emphasis on driving fast across a world populated by pedestrians is fundamentally incompatible with any sort of attempt to make you care about individuals in this world. And that’s fine. GTA V is incredible for what it is, and no game can be everything (though it’s not far off, to be fair).

Now take Rise of the Tomb Raider, which I just finished playing yesterday. As in most games, you’ll mow down hundreds of enemies, but narratively there’s something interesting going on. If you listen to the idle dialogue and/or audio records, you’ll come to appreciate a depth to the enemies. There are the core villains but also their paid and oblivious contractors. Trinity are out to do bad things and don’t care who they kill, but most of the enemy army are hired mercenaries who don’t know about or don’t believe in the religious fanaticism that drives their employers. Among these contractors, many start to realise that their bosses are nuts, and say that they didn’t sign on to round up and shoot local tribespeople. Some talk about trying to get out asap. Some other contractors are psychopaths themselves, and then Trinity are always evil. This approach did make me want to avoid killing certain guys, or at least regret having to do so. A little. It also made me more eager to hear what type of group I was about to go up against, by stealthily sneaking up on their positions instead of opening fire early. It’s a pity that there aren’t any non-lethal options or other mechanics to expand on this narrative theme. Once the bullets start flying, the good ones and the bad ones all want to kill you just as much.

Still, it was a good effort at adding some depth to the game, and I appreciated that it was there. Because personally I’m usually (when facing human game enemies) thinking that they’re probably not all bad and they don’t all deserve to die. It was nice for a game to respond to this.

Of course, other games have done this, and done it better. If you haven’t yet played Spec Ops: The Line then do it now! Even if you think you know all the spoilers, it’s a masterpiece in subverting player expectations. The whole journey through the game is brilliant.

Fundamentally, I think that most conflicts only occur due to a lack of understanding or empathy (including an unwillingness to share resources). With better communication and patience, most could be avoided. Games so rarely attempt to show this, but if narrative is a serious part of the game you want to deliver, then it should be strongly considered.

Games are such a powerful medium for delivering understanding and empathy because the player actively takes part in them. I’m not saying that every game should be doing this, but we could certainly be faring better as an industry.

Historical Settings

Real world armies have forever attempted to dehumanise the enemy in order to make it easier for your own troops to kill them. They’re all savages. They’re all baby killers. They’re all rapists, thieves and murderers, and God is on our side. War films are almost universally anti-war films (especially since Vietnam) and they usually tap into the folly of these lies. Yet war games still seem to find it more convenient to buy the lie hook, line, and sinker.

Maybe it’s because you’re asking the player to do the killing directly for hours on end that designers have felt the need to retain these lies. I remember that in the opening minutes of Call of Duty World at War you’re being brutally tortured by Japanese captors before being rescued by Kieffer Sutherland and his band of more morally upstanding brothers. It’s set up so that you will have no problems killing Japanese or German pixels for the next several hours. Of course, the Japanese and German armies were conducting genocide and torture, and stopping that is a fairly justifiable goal (as long as we’re clear that no side was squeaky clean), but I’m just saying that I’ve never seen a game take the opportunity to do what Letters from Iwo Jima by Clint Eastwood did.

This is why I’m a bit concerned that Call of Duty are returning to World War 2 as a setting this year. For the last several years they’ve been doing fictional settings and usually have some big opening set piece showing you exactly how evil your enemies are and why you should kill them all (they blew up your house and neighbours, usually). Their games are so formulaic that I’m concerned they’ll miss their chance to advance the genre of war games by just ticking all the same boxes in a new (well, old) setting and perpetuating the notion that Americans are always good, and Nazis are always bad. That said, they seem to be heavily influenced by Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan so maybe they will have some shades of grey in their narrative and do something new.

Battlefield 1 at least lets you play as both sides in a conflict and although human lives are reduced to mere ‘tickets’, I do admit that I felt remorse when sitting in a machine gun nest, mowing down a charge across the trenches by the players on the other team.

Yes, it’s a game, but it represents something. Yes, the players will respawn and so it’s more like a game of paintball or virtual tag than an actual battle, but this is where my empathy for pixels idea comes in. Real lives were ended doing exactly this kind of action that I’m doing right now. I sincerely hope that when you watch the last hour of Titanic you feel a lot more moved than when you watch Con Air. Similarly, I hope than when you play games based on the world wars or Vietnam, that a part of you doesn’t glorify the killing in the same way as you the glory kills in Doom.

They’re different beasts, I think, and deserve different treatments from the creators. I hope that Call of Duty: WW2 gets some of that.

Games with more moral weight

I’ve referenced more linear games here so far, but RPGs are traditionally much better at giving weight to your moral decisions, even if they are nearly always set in fantasy or post-apocalyptic worlds.

I recently played Westerado, an indie cowboy RPG/ murder mystery in an open world that you have a lot of agency over. It doesn’t take itself fully seriously, but because you can go anywhere and kill anyone, you feel like you’ve some real responsibility in the world. Because of this responsibility, when I found myself riding out with some US Army soldiers who’d been fighting with native American tribes, and we than happened upon said tribes in a sudden ambush, I said “oh fuck no I will not be killing native Americans and still pretending I’m the good guy”. I ran from the fight. I failed that side quest. I think the army were all killed but I’m not sure. But that was my story. The game didn’t establish that these natives were out of line in any particular way, just that the army were fighting them. So my own knowledge of history filled in the rest.  While I was happy enough to help the army bring food to settlers (or whatever we were doing in that quest) I was not taking part in any genocide. Pixelated or not.

Here is an example of an extremely unrealistic looking game reaching me on a real level. An historical setting (fictional as the specifics are) and a game where my choices can have a lasting effect can create real empathy even for pixelated characters.

Mechanics for deeper, more sympathetic NPCs

Assuming you want some moral ambiguity or emotional weight in your game, particularly if you’re making a war game, what tools could be used to advance this agenda?

Just having NPCs chatter together is a very simple way of humanising them (for better or worse) before you go in guns blazing or not. It’s tried and true in linear games, but challenging in open worlds where the dialogue inevitably can start to repeat, and feel insincere.

The opening level of Battlefield 1 had you fighting a pitched battle on the Western front. Each time you died (in this level only), as the screen faded to black, you got your character’s name and the year of their birth and death. What it would say on their tombstone, basically. You then respawned as a new soldier elsewhere in the battle. This gave a weight to death that most war games (and the rest of this one) usually can’t deliver. If you add to that system something like “loving father and husband” or “always dreaming” you’ve a better system already.

Valiant Hearts has you play as characters from both sides of the trenches, and actually never has you kill anyone. It shows your Franco-German family in tact before the war, then watches as, torn apart by circumstance, they struggle to reunite.

This War of Mine has you play a war game from the point of view of starving families trying to survive amidst the rubble, where you make decisions to kill innocents because you need food for your own kids. The shocking reality of the unseen other side of war games was powerful.

Apart from historical settings that bring their own moral weight (and ethical dilemmas in terms of storytelling) to the table, you could use procedural generation to fill out backstories for each and every NPC that lives or dies. It’s its own challenge, but it’s possible. Watchdogs had a system where you could hack the phone of anyone in the open world and get a little summary of that person as an individual. That’s not an end in itself, but it’s a tool in the box.

Dwarf Fortress procedurally generates its entire world and history when you launch a new game. Co-creator Tarn Adams and Kitfox Games’ Tanya X Short have some great GDC talks and blogs about procedural generation, including a book they co-wrote called Procedural Generation in Game Design coming out soon. Do check some of it out if you’re interested in the area.

I’ve experimented myself with generating a small town’s size of population. Everyone gets a name, age and job. Every year people grow up and either die, marry, have kids, or do nothing extraordinary. Over a few seconds I grow this town by several generations and all of a sudden have a family history for every character still alive at the moment I start playing the game properly. I’m planning on using something similar to this in Sons of Sol to flesh out your wingmates’ backgrounds, though we don’t yet know the extent of player interaction with wingmates outside of the main missions.

In Conclusion

There are many more ways we could flesh out NPCs. Better AI is one. We could even get as far as giving NPCs the levels of interactivity that the hosts in Westworld have. Though I think the point of that show is that some people will just refuse to acknowledge the humanity in artificial things, while others can empathise with them very naturally; less because they’re fooled by looks or behaviour, but more because they’re emotionally invested in the story.

Humans have always loved storytelling, and creators have always found new and better ways of expanding our toolset for crafting them. We have amazing tools for creating empathy and understanding through interaction now.

Games are chief among the most consumed media in the modern age. Violence and conflict are a core part of many of our games, but also a significant part of the real world that we live in. In a world that too often seems to lack empathy and a willingness to understand our adversaries, games could be our best tool to foster a willingness to understand other sides in a conflict. I think it’s important that we start to do this more often. It doesn’t suit every game, but where killing humans is the main activity, and especially in historical war games, I think we can and should do better than we have been. We’re moving the right way, I think, but let’s keep it up.

Until next time..

Did ‘Classic’ games train me against Free To Play?

If you’re the kind of person who likes to make up their mind about an article in the first sentence and then stops reading, then for your benefit let me extend this sentence awkwardly and state that there’s nothing wrong with Free To Play (F2P) games and I don’t think there’s any such thing as a ‘normal’ game. Read on.

The ‘classic’ that I refer to in the title is just the classic paid model of a complete game. Not the type of genre or the period of the game’s release. As for F2P, for today’s article I’m entirely focused on mobile F2P, not other platforms.

So I’m 29, and I’ve been playing games since I was about 7. 1994 is when I got my first computer so I’ve a 22 year career in playing games. The majority of games that I played in that time were games I paid for once, as complete experiences, and played to completion (less so in recent years. So many more games, so little time). So that’s normal for me anyway, and it’s still the way I prefer to play games.

 X-Wing. My first ever game.
X-Wing. My first ever game.

I don’t want to pay for a subscription where you’ll give me 6 or 7 mystery games (Humble Monthly Bundle). I don’t want to pay €60 for a half a game then another €50 for the ‘Season Pass’, the value of which remains to be seen (virtually all AAA games these days), and I don’t particularly want to download the game for free and pay real money to change the colour of my character’s hat (other than to show support if I did enjoy it. Don’t care about the hat colour per se). I especially don’t want to pay for the game and then pay more for ‘loot crates’ or new character skins (aka ‘Fee To Pay’) because I’ve already paid the entry fee and why should I pay more?

That’s just how I feel about how I consume games. It’s entirely subjective. There’s nothing automatically wrong with any of those models (though some can give rise to pretty dubious practices) and they’ll suit some people more than others. I work from home but if I commuted daily I might be a bigger consumer of Free To Play mobile games (though I still doubt it).

So yeah; in gamer-years I’m an old grump who doesn’t like change. Why is this? And what prompted me to write this article?

Trying out mobile games again

I’m primarily a PC gamer. For lots of reasons. I don’t own a TV. Most of what I would want to play on a console I can get on PC anyway. I like space games. I like indie games. My first gaming experiences were on PC. I prefer keyboard and mouse. All of that!

I’ve owned a console each generation since the Megadrive/Genesis until now. I just prefer PC.

I do go outside of my comfort zone to try new games though, especially now as a game designer I want to play what people are talking about, at least a little, so I can see what’s hot and what’s not, so to speak. For instance, I recently finally got my hands on a PS3 and got to try the Uncharted series, The Last of Us, Journey, Metal Gear Solid 4 and Killzone 2 as well as a few others. This was only days before Sony announced that Playstation Now is coming to PC, but whatever. I’m glad I did. Great games, all, and a few long-standing items ticked off my To Do list.

I also pick up mobile games from time to time, like if a friend made it, or if enough people won’t shut up about it. Angry Birds was my first mobile game and it was probably the one I enjoyed the most. I’ve also tried Jetpack Joyride and Crossy Road but while I can see the fun, they’re not games I felt like playing more of, and I certainly wasn’t compelled to spend money in them (I wouldn’t be around long enough to get anything out of the purchase). 

More recently (relatively) I tried a new batch. I haven’t tried Pokemon Go yet (I will, but I hear there’s virtually no ‘gameplay’. Its popularity stems from its novelty of the ‘Go’ part, not its strength as a Pokemon game. Personally I look forward to other ‘Go’ games that really explore the gameplay side a bit better) but I was catching up on a few other games that won’t seem to leave me alone until I try them.

80 Days is so far my favourite mobile game but it’s a paid game. You pay, and you get the whole experience. One that isn’t artificially slowed down to compel you to spend more money to speed it up. For this blog post though I’m trying to get to a point about F2P games with microtransactions, so I won’t go into 80 Days. Just wanted to give the shout out. It’s now also available on PC if that’s your thing.

Fallout Shelter

I’ve a lot of time for Bethesda, so I tried Fallout Shelter. I found it to be an extremely compelling Skinner box of a game that occupied me for a couple of days, but that ultimately went nowhere. You build up your vault to protect your settlers from nuclear fallout. You expand it, attract new settlers, build weapons to protect against raiders and infestations and… just keep doing that really. Once I’d seen a few of the mechanics and realised that I was now just clicking the thing so that I could click more things I lost all interest in the game and stopped dead. Endless games don’t really do it for me, as fun as this was early on.

It tries to earn its money (and succeeds, just not with me) by selling cheap-ish loot drops and upgrades like legendary weapons which ultimately just save you time in getting those things through ‘gameplay’ (mostly waiting) and with no ultimate goal in mind other than to buy/earn the next thing. One thing that I hate about the type of drop they use (“lunchboxes”) is that what you get is random. You might want something in particular. Pay them money and you might get it. If not, pay them more money and try again. It’s gambling at its ugliest if you ask me (all sorts of games are doing this now so I’m not just picking on Fallout Shelter). The ‘house’ (developer) doesn’t risk anything. They create a new instance of a virtual good and give it to you, whether it was the one you wanted or not. You always spend money and can never get it back. You’d be better off in a casino.

The free game is fun enough for a day or two though.. I guess. It’s really well designed.. I just struggle to find anything truly nice to say about it because of how much its monetisation method turns me off.

Clash of Clans

Next up was this phenomenal success. And again I really can’t see the attraction. Sure there’s blips and bloops when you press things (positive reinforcement for the easily impressed, or just good game polish for the more cynical) but there doesn’t seem to be any end goal. You can attack the clans of other players but with feck-all control of your units in battle. It’s not an RTS (which might have been interesting). You build up your village/clan and get better defensive structures and offensive units.

I always find it frustrating to get trolled by more advanced players in games, though getting revenge can be fun. But then they’ll just do it back to you. It’s an endless cycle that goes nowhere. What is this game?

You can pay to speed up the process of earning things. Which, as I sometimes see it, is paying not to play the game.

Clearly, I haven’t found the magic that hundreds of millions of other uses have. If anyone would (seriously) like to try to ‘sell’ it to me or explain something I’m missing, feel free.

I once played a Facebook game that was similar. Can’t remember the name but it took after Red Alert a bit in terms of units and art style. It was fun, and I actually spent a few bucks on it at the time, but ultimately it just becomes about getting attacked by the same couple of local players every other day, and attacking them back in between. Whoever pays the devs more can do the better attacking, and ultimately there is no winner. The devs are basically Lord or War in this regard, arming both sides and watching them go nowhere. Knowing that Clans was basically the same thing with a theme that I found less interesting, I didn’t play much past the tutorial (can you tell that I crave story or some sort of overall goal from my games? Yeah, I think you can).

Oh that’s the other thing. Mobile tutorials (yes, I generalise) tend to be sooo patronising. Like “press this button if you would want to do this”, yet you can do literally nothing else. The first half hour of the game is just pressing the one available button as and when you’re told. There’s no room to experiment or make choices. Very dull. You do nothing but read and tap, read and tap. I know you’re learning but Christ that’s a boring way to do tutorials, and I’ve rarely found the post-tutorial gameplay to be much more compelling when games start out that way. It’s a prejudice I’ve picked up, yes, but it’s held true for me so far. I always find it a bad sign.

Kings Of The Realm

Made by Digit in Dublin, I know many of the team from the Irish Game Dev community so of course I had to play this at some point. I haven’t a tablet, just a Galaxy S4 so I liked that I could take my same profile and play on the PC with larger screen and mouse controls.

There’s a bit of a story going on, which I definitely appreciated, and there’s pretty good systems in place to ensure that you can’t attack or be attacked by players of a vastly different rank than you. 

In an over-simplified way it’s like Clash of Clans, or at least it sits in the same genre. You have a base, you upgrade the base with better defences and more advanced barracks to build better units to attack other players or NPC camps to gain resources and level up.

The art is far superior to Clash of Clans. This is a much prettier game in my opinion. Your castle and grounds look amazing. You can even see villagers working in the fields and walking around. You feel like it’s a real place and start to imagine enemy hordes streaming through the gates and feel compelled to boost your defences asap to protect your subjects. But that’s the problem. You have to imagine it. The battles are all auto-resolved. You don’t see what your attacking armies or defending troops are actually doing, and you can’t directly command them. Again – it’s not an RTS.

I lasted longer on this than Clans and I do think it’s the better game, but the gameplay was still too shallow and repetitive for me, in many of the same ways. If I could actually have more involvement in the attacks (and you do have some..) that’d be it for me, but that would require building a whole other game on top of this one so it’s not going to happen.

Again, microtransactions allow you to skip build times.

My takeaways from my latest round of mobile gaming

I’m willing and trying to embrace more facets of gaming. For instance, thanks to Xcom, I now like turn-based games, whereas I never did growing up (except Worms. That was hilarious). But mobile gaming, at least those games that adopt the F2P model and design around it, still fail to do anything for me.

 Remains my favourite mobile game to date.
Remains my favourite mobile game to date.

To me it just feels like you’re levelling up to level up, whereas in games like Fallout 4 or Pillars of Eternity you actually use your level. You fight at that level for a while and really feel a boost when you get a new ability at the next one. It’s not that mobile games are somehow inherently unable to deliver on this, it’s just that, for me, I’ve never seen one that does.

Computer games added the tabletop RPG ideas of levelling to make core mechanics like shooting or spell-casting more interesting. Deus Ex and Mass Effect are great examples of levelling in games that aren’t just solely about achieving the next level. There it’s a companion to gameplay. Intended to be the icing on the cake; not the entire cake! Levelling for the sake of levelling feels very empty to me when I can’t actually play any part of the game.

The best mobile games are of course technologically inferior to most PC and console games, but there’s no rule that says they have to be inferior in terms of gameplay. I’m aware of that. I’m not trying to be a snob. I’m making an effort. But I’ve never found a free to play mobile game that held interest for me.

So I started to think about this and I asked myself “is it me?”.

‘Classic’ model

Just for the purposes of discussion, let’s say I’m a “classic gamer”. Ever since I was 7, I’ve had at least one game on the go at a time. I’ve always played games and for the most part, certainly during my formative years and throughout all my school and college years they’ve all been of the classic paid model. So I paid for the game and played the crafted experience (majority were single player) without even the option to pay to see more parts of the game or buy new characters, weapons or skins. 

Why, in my day, DLC (or “expansion packs” as they were known) weren’t necessarily even considered  for development until the core game seemed to be selling well. They certainly weren’t planned in advance as season pass hostage material.

So with that as my norm, I’ve been trained to think of games in a certain way. As a business/marketing graduate I’ve no problem acknowledging that things change and have to change and that alternate models are viable, if not superior. I’m just saying that I like what I like and I’ve been affected by my experiences, as has everyone.

I’m kind of taking ages to get to the point, but what I came to realise (half-jokingly, half-seriously) was this:

Classic Games trained me against F2P

There are all sorts of studies into how we can teach through gaming and a growing area of the industry is focused on the “gamification” of things like education. Games can train us to do things and think certain ways. In a good way (though like anything it can be used for evil. But never mind that for today).

Games can improve our reflexes and reaction times, even in the elderly. They can improve our ability to track multiple moving objects. They encourage lateral thinking. They can teach us about history, physics, warfare, how do drive a car or how to fly a plane. Games are especially good at teaching logic and efficiency. Any sort of game with a combat encounter to be overcome trains you how to best use your resources (weapons, time, money, environment, allies) to overcome a problem.

So I think it was while playing Fallout Shelter that I started thinking about one of the common ways that F2P games monetise, which is to place a removable build timer in the game. They say “you’re building this building, which will be ready in 4 hours, or you can pay us money and it’ll be ready now”. Aside from that feeling a little bit like extortion (the person asking for money set the build time after all), it’s also a no-brainer to me. Well my cash is a real-life resource. I can save that resource by waiting for 4 hours. Not 4 gameplay hours, but just turning off my phone and doing housework or reading a book or going to bed for the night. The most efficient thing for me to do is to set buildings building, wait, and never pay for them. I’ll have the same result in a relatively short amount of time.

Of course, the value I place on €1 is different to the value a higher-earner does, and everyone’s time is valuable. But the games I’ve played have trained me in lateral thinking, and lateral thinking leads me here: I’m not being asked to weigh time against money, since I don’t have to actually spend my time watching the building get built.  It happens anyway. So it becomes more like weighing money against no money, and that equation works out the same every time. I can achieve something else in the same time. Thereby getting two tasks done and saving money. Efficiency for the win!

The Harvester Effect

Take almost any Command and Conquer game. You need to build harvesters to collect ore or tiberium. The more harvesters you have, the better. They cost c1,400 to build from your War Factory. But they also come free with a Refinery, which costs c2,000. However, all buildings can be sold for half of their purchase cost, so building and selling a refinery has a net cost of only c1,000 and still leaves you with a harvester in the end. Think laterally and maximise your resources.

Games are full of examples like this. I went in to many of them (and even finished writing this article) but even though I saved my draft, it was somehow forgotten when I returned. I haven’t the heart (or recollection) to fully rewrite it so suffice it to say that games teach us to get the maximum efficiency out of our resources and assets, be they that you have a ranged weapon against hordes of unarmed aliens, that you’re outnumbered but can use cover to your advantage, that you can focus fire on units in an RTS to kill one unit more quickly to reduce the number of guns facing you, that you have a stealth character and don’t need to take a dungeon entrance head-on, or that you’re more agile than the giant, lumbering boss you’re facing down.

You take the resources and abilities you’re given, and use them to overcome a challenge. Do so in the most efficient way possible and you’ll even get the high score or unlock secret levels. Every day of my gaming life I’ve been trained to think smarter and waste not. Then along come games that offer little of this same worthwhile gameplay that I’m referring to, and try to convince me to pay them to make the game go faster. In the case of build timers, paying to remove them isn’t the best use of my cash, because I can get what you’re offering simply by going to bed for the night, and if your gameplay is a shallow loop I place very little value (‘utility’, since we’ve ventured into the realm of microeconomics now) on having the new asset, or even playing the game any further at all.

 Games like Cities: Skylines are great for teaching you to plan ahead, how to multi-task and how to manage a crisis.
Games like Cities: Skylines are great for teaching you to plan ahead, how to multi-task and how to manage a crisis.

I see avoiding the payment as almost a further aspect of gameplay. You’re already trying to save your units and buildings from danger, so you’re already in management mode and saving your cash resource by planning your play sessions becomes just another challenge. I know that goes against the intended payment model that the devs envisioned, but it’s how I feel games have trained me to play up to this point.

I’d like to restate that if you enjoy something you were given for free, and the mechanisms are there to reward the creators, you should engage with it if you can afford it. However, with F2P games, I ask myself “now that I know what the game’s about and how fun it is, would I have been happy to pay for it up front”? If the answer is no, as is so often the case with me and mobile games, I don’t feel any guilt skipping the transactions. F2P games I have paid for are usually on the PC. Heroes & Generals and Planetside 2 come to mind.

I know that in the F2P model, the devs count on having players like me just present in the game so that they can attract and retain the “whales” who will spend hundreds on their game, and if that’s the model they’re going for then more power to them. I don’t even really feel expected to have paid at that rate. I’m worked into the model as a short term ‘+1’ to the monthly active users for that month, which is part of the plan anyway.

To Conclude

It’s clear that I’m fairly down on my mobile gaming experiences to date, though I do try open-mindedly every now and again to get into it. For me there’s just nothing that offers the depth that I normally seek in games, and the endless Skinner box loops, meaningless levelling, and transparently worthless microtransactions turn me off even more.

I know not all mobile games can be like this, and I know they can do better, but with all I’m hearing recently about the fact the premium mobile games (pay once up front model) are all but dead, I’m not encouraged for the future.

Crossy Road had the best payment model that I’ve observed. You can opt to watch ads which gives you game currency that you can spend on new skins that don’t affect your ability to play the game. It’s non-intrusive, honest, straight-forward, not tied to gameplay, and the ads are only short. This also suits the mobile space because play sessions are inherently shorter than a typical console or PC play session.

I’m still happier paying for a good game and experiencing it though. On that note I can heartily recommend 80 Days and Guild of Dungeoneering as games you won’t regret paying for. They’re both now on mobile and PC, so whatever your preference, go for it. I think 80 Days is best played when you’re already on a holiday though. The travel theme just fits so well.

I know I’m a bit of a grump, and my theory about older games training me against engaging with these newer payment models is only a vague notion, but I’d love to hear peoples’ theories on it. Does it make sense? Are other people as hesitant as I am to engage with microtransactions even in free games? 

And can anyone please explain what I’m missing about these games that really gets people engaged? It can’t just be that the mobile players have never tried anything better and think Clash of Clans is the pinnacle of multiplayer strategy gaming… can it?

Also please recommend any mobile games I should be trying out. If I add Danger Mine and the adorable Ship Antics to the games I’ve mentioned here, that’s pretty much every mobile game I’ve ever played, so there’s plenty of room for recommendations.

Until next time..

Those Misogynist Games

 Duke Nukem Forever. Duke was never about being politically correct, though. He's a blatant satire taken to the nth degree..
Duke Nukem Forever. Duke was never about being politically correct, though. He’s a blatant satire taken to the nth degree..

Here’s one I’ve been reluctant to do because it’s a topic I surely can’t win at as I risk exposing some hitherto undiscovered bigotry with every word. But sure, let’s give it a go. It concerns a conversation I had on the bus with a girl one night about two months ago. I thought of relating the conversation on the blog, then decided not to, but then a few days later I spotted the same girl again! This time I was on the bus and she was crossing the street so we didn’t meet. Regardless I decided that this total coincidence should be taken as a sign (it shouldn’t, but whatever) and I’d do this post. Since it happened a while back I’ll be paraphrasing a bit.

To start back at the start, I was on the 145 bus home from Dublin one night in August with Daniel Aherne from the Onikira team. We’d just come from dubLUDO, a meetup of Dublin game developers. We were chatting away on the bus and an Irish girl and a Filipino guy (yes, I did spell that correctly) got on and sat just behind us. The girl was quite chatty. She didn’t know the guy. She’d just sort of acquired him by talking at the bus stop and we were quickly added to the conversation. They’d come from a punk gig so we started talking music, then asked a little about the Philippines. Naturally enough she then asked where we’d come from. We said dubLUDO and in answer to her next question explained that, basically, “we make games”.

Her next question surprised me at the time, and I’ve thought about it a lot since.

“Oh, like misogynist games”?

That was her first response to us. I felt accused at first. So I then felt like I should be defensive. Of course I wasn’t personally under attack or being criticised, so reasoned discussion ensued. Dan and I explained in turn. My game (here) is very early on but is about spaceships and will have male and female characters. The player could be either, for all they know. In Onikira you slay demons as an ancient Japanese samurai, so you play a male, but you’ve a female mentor character too who teaches and guides the player character. Dan also explained that the last game he worked on had you playing as a priest in a Father Ted inspired kind of game.

 'Onechambra' exists. But it's very overt about how much of a piss-take it is, so is it a problem?.. I don't even want to try answer that one. To be clear, yes, that's a fruit 'bikini'!
‘Onechambra’ exists. But it’s very overt about how much of a piss-take it is, so is it a problem?.. I don’t even want to try answer that one. To be clear, yes, that’s a fruit ‘bikini’!

She thought our games all sounded cool and we enquired what sort of view she had of games. She said she didn’t play any but she’d know about the big ones like Grand Theft Auto, Halo, and Tomb Raider. 

So I’m totally inside of the gaming world and I see all sorts of games. Progressive games. Poignant games. Sexist games. Games where you can play as a man or woman and have gay or straight (or interspecies; hey, I’m not one to judge!) relationships. Then puzzle games, games where you’re a robot, a God, a male, a female, an animal, a demon, elf, angel, alien or spaceship. I see all sorts of great and crappy games getting made and I can point to dozens or hundreds of games in my own library that you couldn’t accuse of being misogynist, some that are being overtly and deliberately progressive, and yes, a few that you could definitely accuse of being disrespectful to women (and men’s intelligence at the same time, in certain cases). So personally, I’m not overly worried about misogyny in gaming long term because I think we’re definitely headed in the right direction. Of course, I’m a straight white male, so I’m liable to be just totally wrong there, but for every (let’s say ‘recent’) game you can show me that perpetuates the stereotype that games are misogynist toys for ignorant boys, I’ll show you a dozen that don’t, and some that directly oppose that notion.

The girl I spoke to on the bus, though (let’s pretend one person is representative of a larger group for a moment) is totally outside the gaming world. We asked her why she went straight to the words “misogynist games” when we mentioned our livelihoods. She pointed to examples like Grand Theft Auto and Halo, where she just sees male characters, men in armour, men with guns, then women in jeopardy or dancing in strip clubs, etc. She said she thinks women aren’t powerful in games “except for like, Tomb Raider, and even then Lara Croft’s just shown as a sex symbol”. Of course, the reboots have changed Lara Croft’s image, which she was happy to learn.

 Lara Croft, now with added trousers, narrower hips, no visible tummy, and smaller boobs.
Lara Croft, now with added trousers, narrower hips, no visible tummy, and smaller boobs.

Grand Theft Auto, okay, is never going to win prizes for sensitivity. It’s deliberate though. They market their games on controversy. However, we did all find it odd that in a game where you have 3 lead characters (GTA V), not one of them was female. Surely there was room. We’ve two white guys and one black guy (at least it wasn’t 3 white guys) but no women. Maybe Rockstar deserve some criticism there. These were all new characters written from scratch. They could have been anybody so why not write in a female character? We know GTA has female players. At least you can play as a female in multiplayer.

With Halo, Master Chief was a male character first written into existence in the late 90s, when male leads were absolutely the norm as games were still seen as something consumed mostly by boys. Halo then became a huge franchise and Master Chief became a gaming mascot. They won’t write him out of that series, or retcon him to be female, and he’ll still feature prominently on all marketing material, but they do add female characters (and powerful ones) into the Halo universe to make up for this while retaining the valuable Halo brand’s lead character. Miranda Keyes was a powerful female support character in Halo 2 & 3, and the leader of the Spartan squad in Halo 4 was female. Similarly, Gears of War (after the first one) started adding playable female soldiers, even if we still mostly had to follow Marcus Phoenix as the game’s charismatic (jk) lead.

 8 males, one female, and pikachu (who I'm not sure about)
8 males, one female, and pikachu (who I’m not sure about)

One big perceptual problem for games, as seen from the outside, I suppose, is that the big icons of gaming, the mascots, the characters that wind up in the windows of Game Stop on the high street, are almost all male. These mascots are seen by everybody as they’re used to sell the big games in the big shops, so people who aren’t playing more games still just see these male mascots and take away a certain perception of the games industry. Mario, Sonic, Master Chief, Agent 47 (Hitman), Batman; these are all mascots because their series have had the time to grow into global brands, but the characters were created when we were still thinking about games (and comics) audiences as almost entirely male. It takes many years (several successful games) to make an icon out of a mere lead character, so the ones we have currently are the ones that were created years ago to appeal to who we thought games consumers were at the time.

Thankfully, in recent years we’ve seen (a finally more sensible) Lara Croft, Amanda Ripley (Alien Isolation) and “femshep” (female option for Shepard from Mass Effect) in shop windows. Coming up to the release of Horizon Zero Dawn next year I expect to see Aloy (reportedly inspired by Ripley from Alien) there too. “Equal opportunities” in game shop windows is still archaic it seems, but I think it’s headed the right way. As I said, it can take a decade or more to create a real gaming mascot, and like it or not, brand familiarity sells! Therefore, it gets window space, and the general public may not see the changes as quickly as gamers will. Gone Home was never going to be in the window at Best Buy, but Horizon Zero Dawn probably will.

 Non-sexualised strong female lead? Check! Look for Horizon Zero Dawn on PS4 in 2016.. wish I had one now..
Non-sexualised strong female lead? Check! Look for Horizon Zero Dawn on PS4 in 2016.. wish I had one now..

But games aren’t just about being male or female led story-based experiences. These types of games are possibly even outnumbered by ones where you play as a non-descript manager, commander, God, alien, robot, car, amorphous blob, or anything else (without even mentioning virtually every puzzle game). If all the games where the player had to play a certain gender suddenly disappeared, gaming would still be a wonderful and vibrant space. The Sims, Cities Skylines, Angry Birds, Forza, Civilization. All top gender-neutral games.

Back on the bus, we explained about the types of games we’d just seen under development in Ireland at dubLUDO. Guild of Dungeoneering was just out, where you control your male or female dungeon raiders. Owen Harris was creating Deep, a meditative VR experience. Floaty Ball (please click that link and vote for them on Greenlight) is a great 4-player party game where you just play as a floaty ball-thing! Hot-Shot Wreckers is a micro-machines-esque racing game. You play as a car. I didn’t recall even seeing a game that day that had a gender-specific player character. We also see more and more female students in the game colleges and in gaming jobs.

I hadn’t left dubLUDO worried about where the games industry was heading in years to come, let’s say that much. But the girl on the bus reminded me that we may have a long we to go before we shake the image we’ve earned in years gone by.

  MGS V Spoiler:  The sniper, Quiet. Oh no, it's cool! She breathes through her skin, right? So her outfit makes sense. - Mate, you'd have been better off just saying
MGS V Spoiler:  The sniper, Quiet. Oh no, it’s cool! She breathes through her skin, right? So her outfit makes sense. – Mate, you’d have been better off just saying “we have a sexy sniper in the game because we know some of our players will find her hot as hell”.

There’s still shining examples of embarrassing bullshit out there (ahem.. QUIET!!) but at the same time, every (male) reviewer that I saw review The Phantom Pain loved the game and gameplay and thought that Quiet was an embarrassment to an otherwise great game. These reviewers were all younger than Hideo Kojima (The Phantom Pain’s creator, who in fairness, has created some great female characters in the Metal Gear series). I mention this because I think the tide is flowing strongly in the other direction and institutionalised sexism is on the way out as younger generations come in. Almost half of all gamers are female. Bigger marketing-oriented games companies are realising this and moving away from marketing their games solely towards teenaged boys. More and more games let you choose your character’s gender or have shared male and female leads (most RPGs, The Last of Us, The Walking Dead). I’ve heard teenaged male youtubers playing the Phantom Pain and they are dumbfounded at the “reason” for Quiet’s almost-nudity in the game. So even the demographic that a character like Quiet was made to appeal to isn’t so stupid as to blindly accept a transparent made-up reason for dressing down a female character.

A few rapid-fire reflections:

  • If a game has only a male playable character, is it automatically misogynist, or harmful? No, I don’t think so, and I don’t think any sensible person should. That would set an unreasonably low bar for defining the “bad games” (for want of a better word that I feel is eluding me).
  • Do I think female gamers deserve more lead characters they can relate to? Yes.
  • Do I feel uncomfortable when a game forces me to play as a girl even though I’m a boy? No! Perfect Dark is possibly my favourite N64 game actually, making it one of my all time favourite games.
  • By that same token, should girls then be fine with playing as males? I don’t think a male lead stops many girls from playing a game they want to play, but the imbalance in offerings is ridiculous, and the world is missing out on some great perspectives.
  • But do we really need to actively address the imbalance of male to female leads? I think so. If most games featured female leads I’d want to see more male-led ones in the world, so, yes. The opposite should be true also. 
  • (I looked through my Steam library earlier) Was I surprised at how few games allowed me to play as a female vs those where you played only as a male? Yes. Shocked actually. The ratio is astounding.
  • Is it enough to let the player decide their gender? Not ‘enough’, no. I think it’s great that many games have taken the route of giving you a name like “Alex” or “Jesse” and just creating male and female character models. Let the player decide. It works well in the cases I’ve seen it used in. There’s nothing wrong with it, but..
  • Should there be games written with just female leads, then? Of course! Letting the player decide their gender limits our stories to human issues only. There are great stories waiting to be told from the female perspective. Movies haven’t shied away from female leads, and games can be even more powerful for making the player/viewer feel empathy. We should definitely have more games with female leads and strong stories. I’ve never seen a game (not saying it doesn’t exist somewhere though) that addresses the issue of miscarrying a child, for example. How would an empathic male player feel after playing through something like that? I’d love to find out. I’m not a parent, but Walking Dead Season 1 made me feel more like a father than any other experience I’ve ever had. Games are powerful, man!
  • Does it bug me to see male characters in full protective armour standing next to female characters in (what would appear to be) less protective armour? Yes! Bugs the crap out of me!
 Nope. Not 'genius'.
Nope. Not ‘genius’.
  • Should there be more games like Gone Home? I don’t think it was a very engaging game, so not too like Gone Home, but seeing games explore more human issues is a good thing. The player character being female in that game doesn’t matter a whole lot to the story. It could have been an older brother character and still worked. The lead character is that game is arguably the absent sister.
  • Do I think it’s wrong to feature sexy characters in games to sell more copies? I don’t, personally. People like what they like; be it sleek cars, big guns, sexy women, dark men in smart suits, oily men in banana hammocks, colourful panoramic vistas, or the wonder of the solar system. All of these things appeal to human beings (some of them more than others based on gender/orientation) and I don’t see anything wrong (at a fundamental level) with acknowledging that and using it. Respect is key, as always, and I think that’s where the problems come in. But I think models, dancers and strippers should be allowed to use their bodies to earn a living. Why not? Who are we to tell them what they can’t do when they’re not hurting anybody? So why not let artists draw a computerised body to sell something else? It’s a huge topic, I know, but that would be my opening argument, I suppose.
  • Then, would I be interested in seeing a game like DOA Beach Volleyball but with an all-male cast instead of all-female? Yes, very interested! I hope it happens! Women like sexy men and men like sexy women, yet it’s nearly only sexy women used to sell products. I think that particular imbalance is silly, and agree that there’s some harm in it.
 There's a market for this stuff, so it'll sell. Should we object or acknowledge?
There’s a market for this stuff, so it’ll sell. Should we object or acknowledge?
  • Does it bother me if I offend people? Yes. I don’t want to do that. I’d rather we all get along, I just know that’s not always possible. But please leave comments below if you want to educate me as to something. I’m receptive, not defensive.
  • Do I think some people are too sensitive? Definitely! Why else would someone yell back in response to a question (being ‘hangry’ is a common cause) or post murder and rape threats in response to an opinion? I was already accused of being sexist specifically for writing the Player Too series, where I simply document trying to get my girlfriend interested in playing games with me. Where the sexism is there will have to be pointed out to me. I didn’t get to speak to the accuser as they posted in a Facebook group, quickly flew off the handle, and got banned by the group’s admin. I never even saw it but was told the poster was a girl and she likely hadn’t had time to read the blog before she posted, as it was mere minutes after my own post with the blog link. Perhaps then, she saw the title or the first paragraph, took a wild guess as to the content of the blog, and went on the offensive. “TLDR. Must be evil. I should comment in case”. If that’s the case: Don’t be like that. Come on!

I was a bit surprised at the girl-on-the-bus’s statement, and even still am a bit after I considered her point of view. We’ve shown the games industry as a male-oriented and at times sexist domain in the past, but we’re making great progress too. The games industry is larger than the movie and music industries combined so why is our progress so invisible to non-gamers? It would be super-visible if we aggressively changed the genders of all our male mascots, but nobody is arguing for that. It shouldn’t happen. There’s nothing wrong with Mario, Sonic, or Master Chief themselves. They just don’t have enough female counterparts. It’s a sausage fest!

Sexism still exists in all walks of life and should be educated against, but it’s also diminishing (at least in my corner of the world). Accusations alienate and polarise. I think that true equality just takes time to fully arrive, and when it does it will still take time for everyone to accept that it has. Education and patience is the best way to get there.

What’s done is done. Mistakes have been made, but so have some great games and franchises. People will always disagree over what’s acceptable satire and what’s offensive. They’ll also disagree (for a long time at least) over what’s an acceptable use of the female (and male) body in commerce and entertainment. We’ll never all be on the same page, I don’t think, so accusations of misogyny and bigotry will probably always be levelled at somebody or another. Can we just acknowledge that we’re making progress in creating a more egalitarian industry, and agree to disagree (amicably) on the other stuff? 

If everybody would feel less threatened, be more open to change, recognise that change is happening but takes time, would think before they speak, be more open to discussion and less quick to threaten then I think we could all make and play some great games together.

Further Reading: There’s a good, shorter article by somebody with a better planned-out approach to the subject here on Gamasutra.

Until next time..