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Monday
Nov232009

MIGS: Chris Hecker

Chris HeckerChris Hecker always seems like the smartest guy in the room. Even when the room is big and full of lots of people, he still seems like the smartest guy in the room. He's a hardcore programmer who fights crime at night and can fly. Here's a sample of his everyday conversations:

We use a 4th order polynomial in the squared distance from the sample point to the center of the given metaball for the implicit surface, similar to Triquet, Meseure, and Chaillou. They use a 2nd order polynomial, but we square the main term again to get more continuous derivatives to avoid lighting discontinuities. The actual equation is:
f_i(p)=s_i[\frac{(p-c_i)^2}{R_i^2}-1]^4ci is the metaball center position, Ri is the metaball radius (the function is defined to be 0 outside this radius), and si is the scale factor for the metaball, affecting its goopiness.

Anyway, he often talks about non-programmery stuff at conferences so that the rest of us can learn something from him, too. At the Montreal International Game Summit, he talked about the game industry as a whole. He looked at a lot of data and I'm not able to pass that on to you because I don't have it, so instead I'll cover more holistically what his point was.

The Game Industry Is Bigger Than Movies

Hecker started by showing several stats that show the game industry is bigger than the movie industry. We make more revenue per year, our biggest blockbusters pull in as much or more cash than movie blockbusters in the opening weeks, and so on. Even though there's lots of convincing figures that support this overall claim, Hecker says that it's all basically bullshit.

The Game Industry Isn't Bigger Than Movies

Hecker told us about the Sultan of Brunei, a man who owns 6,000 cars, over 500 of which are Rolls Royces. His family accounted for almost half of all Rolls Royce automobile sales in the 1990s. He also has a 747 jet with gold plated furniture (yeah, really) and his residence has 1,788 rooms, including 257 bathrooms. What if the Sultan of Brunei decided to buy one game from our industry at a price just slightly higher than the total yearly revenue of the movie industry? We'd really be kicking the movie industry's ass, wouldn't we? Then we could charge the Sultan slightly more each year and show that we are growing and growing and growing.

This farce illustrates that we're probably looking at the wrong numbers. It raises the question "who actually plays games?" Hecker showed a study by the ESA I think, that gave an answer to that question. The data showed a very healthy picture of the industry, average age of a player is 35, and various other averages were, uh, average-sounding. We seem to appeal to just about everyone so I guess we're doing great after all.

But Hecker then used one of his super powers. Through his connections with the ESA, or wherever it was, he got the actual source data from the study. (I'm thinking he probably flew, Superman-style, through their windows and used a combination of x-ray vision and super-hackery skills to steal it from their computers, but who can say for sure?) The source data showed a different picture. All those average numbers came out looking ok because there are really two clusters of players who are really far apart. On one end, you have teenage boys playing military shooters on their Xboxes, and on the other end, you have old ladies playing bejeweled on the web. Each of those demographics is a really big cluster of users, but distilling it down to an average number in the middle, where comparatively very few users actually exist, is very deceptive.

Cultural Impact

Does anyone care about the game industry? The New York Times sure doesn't. Its "Arts" section includes Books, Movies, Music, Television, and Theater. Drill down and you also get Dance, and Art & Design, but no games. (Dear New York Times: games obviously belong there, wtf are you doing?) They occasionally cover games in the technology section, and Hecker said he sometimes sees them in the "Television" section, because...console games are played on televisions, apparently. Hecker wondered where they'd put a story on a DS game. In the Travel section, he mused.

The New York Times aren't the only people who don't care about us. I don't even remember where else he showed, but Hecker showed all sorts of mainstream media who think just as little of us as the New York Times, both on this side of the Atlantic Ocean and the other. We're far less relevant than we make ourselves out to be.

He also showed the breadth and depth of film subject matter, compared to games. If you look at the top charts of games, the diversity is much lower than the top charts of movies. He made a point to show the film charts that are adjusted for inflation because the mix of genres is so staggering. Sci-fi, love stories, comedies, adventures, personal journeys, and so on. He also showed some screenshots of new releases from somewhere, maybe it was iTunes or Netflix, and the diversity was incredible there, too. All of that has to do with breadth, but there's also depth. In the film industry, you don't have to try to make a movie for everyone. It's perfectly fine to make a movie about a specific niche thing and go way into depth about it. In the game industry, that's becoming more true than it was now that indies have better channels of distribution, but Hecker says it's still not in the same ballpark as film when it comes to financial viability of making your money back on a niche subject.

What's Easy To Make?

Facade: a hard game to makeHe pointed out that one challenge the game industry faces is what kinds of things are easy or hard for us to make. There was some philosopher quote in there somewhere about how different thought patterns are easier or harder to have based on the language you're using to have the thoughts. Anyway, Hecker says the easiest kind of movie to make is the kind where you just put a camera in a room and film some people. At the very least, it will show human interaction, and potentially be interesting in that shows some facet of the human condition. What type of movie is the hardest to make? He says probably the kind that takes place in outerspace, with space ships, lasers, aliens, and so on (like Star Wars).

Meanwhile over in games, the easiest type of game to make is one where spaceships shoot each other. We've been able to do that since the early days of arcades. And the hardest type of game to make? One about real human interaction, just some people in a room. (See Facade.)

Comic Books

Hecker spent a lot of time comparing comic books to movies. I'll save you the trouble of getting upset about his comments about comic books by telling you they have nothing to do with whether he personally likes comic books or not. The point is that comic books are not mainstream. As an art form, they aren't taken seriously by the mainstream, and you or I thinking they should be doesn't change the truth of the situation. Comic books are, as Hecker said, a cultural ghetto. Second-class citizens as a form.

Comic books and movies both started out around the same time. Hecker showed that in those very early years, comic books actually had the lead over movies in 'legitimacy,' in the mind of the public. But something somewhere went really wrong for comic books and film became a treasure.

Hecker points out that the divide is so large that any particular great or terrible work can no longer change the perception. The greatest works in comic books (Maus was his example) cannot elevate the genre to cultural relevance, and the worst works in movies (Saw 5 was his example) cannot take away the badge of artiness that film has. (People would say, "that's just one bad film, the medium is still great.")

Choose Your Fate

Hecker says that our future isn't written. (Doc Brown from Back to the Future 3 also said that, so it must be right.) On the question of "which will become the preeminent medium in the 21st century," Hecker says that "it's ours to lose." It can be games, it should be games. He might have even implied that it will probably be games, but I'm not sure if he went that far. He emphasized that despite the thinking of many in our industry, it is not guaranteed--it's not fait accompli.

So what will happen? Will we be the preeminent artform or will we be a cultural ghetto? Hecker says it has a lot to do with how we express meaning in games. As an aside, most big companies in our industry would die before expressing meaning about something. I mean if a game expressed an opinion, maybe someone would be offended. Luckily more and more indies are able to actually say something, have their voices heard, and hopefully make money. Hecker didn't touch on that particular point though.

Instead, he focused on how games express meaning. On one hand, you have casual games that simply say nothing at all, and don't even pretend to. If that's what our industry becomes, we'll be seen as "just toys." On the other hand, there are games that use the "thrill ride" model such as God of War, Deus Ex, Ninja Gaiden, Lord of the Rings, and so on. These games do tell stories and they have a chance to convey meaning, but they do it in a very similar way to movies. Often, the actual interaction (killing a bunch of bad guys) is not really how meaning is conveyed, but the cutscenes and visuals tell the story.

And then on the, uh, third hand there are games that convey meaning through their actual mechanics. Maybe Hecker ran out of time here because his entire point was the THESE are the kinds of games that will save us. THESE are the reason we need our medium and how our medium shows its power...and yet he did not list a single example of such a game. To me an example is any competitive multiplayer game that doesn't have rewards for time-spent like XP or unlocks. Street Fighter, StarCraft, Chess, and so on. These games, by the very nature of their systems, create meritocracies. The best players win. It's not about who you know, it's not about how much money you have, it's not about the color of your skin, and so on. By participating in such a system, you can't help but learn the value of a meritocracy and to have contempt for non-meritocricies when you see them in the real world.

Another example would be Brenda Brathwaite's game(?) Train, or the other game she made for her daughter about the Middle Passage. The mechanics of the game--not cutscenes--are what give meaning.

Perhaps a better example is Ayiti: The Cost of Life. Here's what I wrote about it a year ago:

Next up, Ayiti: The Cost of Life.
This is an actual game, not just a theoretical one. You play it as an optimization / simulation game. Shift around your resources in such a way as your characters live. It has zero ethics, when you look at it that way. But by playing it, I think you'll find that characters in this world are stuck in a (literally) deadly downward spiral. It's very difficult to escape the downward spiral and actually live. UNICEFs help, even when small, can be the difference between life and death. Also, education is the only good way I could find to escape the cycle. School is very expensive though. It can be smarter to buy textbooks so that multiple children can benefit rather than saving up all the family's money to send only one to a school.

Those issues are pretty true in the real world. People really are dying, UNICEF really is a life-saving organization and education really is a necessary ingredient for developing countries. If you play this game and don't feel in your bones some ethical lessons, then I don't know what to tell you. Also this game gets bonus points for having a lesson be an emergent property from the rules.

Maybe you can think of more examples of games that convey meaning through mechanics.

Reader Comments (1)

Yeah, artful games should be about meaningful interaction. Games are usually all about the interaction (the mechanics) but leave the meaning for cutscenes.

Indeed, indie devs seem to be the only ones who get it. Braid is a great example of that. The mechanics in Braid are always deeply related to the meaning; the whole time-reversing mechanics are actually a metaphor for the main character's emotional state.

Must have been a great talk. Thanks a lot (a lot!) for sharing!

September 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJulio Sepia
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