Double Buffered

A Programmer’s View of Game Design, Development, and Culture

Archive for April, 2008

Steam and Expansion Packs

Posted by Ben Zeigler on April 24, 2008

As I’ve mentioned before, I love the ease of use and community features of Steam. Valve and the publishers they get on there actually seem to WANT me to buy games from them, unlike brick and mortar publishers and other (non-Stardock) game download services. I just ran into a great example of that.

I’ve noticed lately that several of my Steam friends have been playing Civilization 4: Beyond the Sword. I picked up Civilization 4 a few years ago, and enjoyed it. I’d never purchased the Beyond the Sword expansion pack though, which I hear is quite good. I was on the edge between repurchasing the game via steam (because I can’t stand physical CDs), or just forgetting about it, when I noticed the note on the Beyond the Sword steam page: “Civilization IV: Beyond the Sword requires Sid Meier’s Civilization IV to play and will work with boxed retail versions as well as the Steam version.” Sure, that’s technically possible, but it seems so pro-consumer that I was just confused. Would it actually work to install the steam version over top my 2 year old copy protected and out of data copy of Civ 4?

Well, I installed Civ4, and then tried to buy the expansion pack (it failed before I installed Civ 4 which makes sense). It detected my copy, and let me buy the expansion pack. I am now installing a Steamified $20 expansion pack that also makes it so Civ4 doesn’t need the CD in the drive any more. I’ll uninstall my old copy of Civ 4, and tada, I have Civilization 4 and Beyond the Sword for Steam. I’m continually surprised when software actually works in the way I would want it to, but Steam does this enough that I’m in danger of starting to trust it…

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

2007 Game Developer Salary Survey

Posted by Ben Zeigler on April 22, 2008

About a week ago, my monthly copy of GameDeveloper magazine showed up. Incidentally, if you sign up for an account on Gamasutra, after a few months they’ll probably send you a free subscription. I recommend it, as the magazine contains useful information for both game developers and aspiring game developers. The April issue has something particularly interesting, which is the results of the 2007 salary survey. There’s a good summary in this article, but I wanted to highlight a few specific points:

Education is not really that big of a deal within the games industry when it comes to salary. In the case of programmers, developers with an Associate’s degree make just as much as developers with a Bachelor’s. Programmers with uncompleted college work actually make MORE than those with a Bachelor’s (generally because such people get hired before graduating), and only slightly less than those with Master’s degrees. Artists with a Bachelor’s make $5k more than those with an Associate’s, and for design it’s $10k (and designers make less overall, so this is a big difference). Having a degree may make it easier to get a job doing game programming, but you won’t get paid more.

For all of the disciplines, developers with 0-3 years of experience make about 60% as much as (non-lead) developers with >6 years of experience. Developers with 0-3 years of experience make about 45% as much as lead developers with >6 years of experience. So, in all of the disciplines there is significant room for advancement as far as salaries go. In business and Q/A, leads make about 3 times as much as beginners, so in those it can pay to stay around. A top level Q/A tester still makes less than a beginner designer, though. Q/A is not the kind of job that you want to try and sustain a family on.

Here’s the rather sad table of gender and compensation:

Field Percentage of Females Female Compensation Difference
Programming 3% $7,395 less (9%)
Art 8% $5,806 less (9%)
Design 8% $9,240 less (15%)
Production 18% $7,572 less (9%)
Business 17% $32,081 less (30%)
Q/A 6% $4,389 less (12%)

Wow. Overall, females in the gaming industry make 13% less than males. This is below the national wage difference (although still horrible), and is somewhat reasonable in Programming, Art, and Q/A. The gaps in Design and Business (30% less!) are significantly larger, however. I’m going to go out on a limb and blame this on gender differences at the higher levels in Business and Design. I know many great female designers down in the trenches, but how many famous female lead designers can you name? I’d wager it’s way less than 8%. Same for CEOs and high-level executives of game companies. The games industry is a reasonable place for women to work in terms of salary, but there are obviously gender problems at the top.

Posted in Game Development | Tagged: , , | 4 Comments »

BioShock has too many mechanics?

Posted by Ben Zeigler on April 18, 2008

A few days ago, John Rose from Nihilistic Software wrote a feature for Gamasutra. The basic thrust of the piece is that if you overfill a game with game mechanics, they complicate the game, confuse the player, suck development time, and dilute the game’s identity. I totally agree with this premise, and I love his concept of a “play aesthetic”. The idea of that is that a game will have a central thrust and point, and any mechanic that fails to reinforce that thrust should be struck from the game. This creates a focused, cohesive experience. So far so great. Then he decides that giving players different options on how to overcome goals always dilutes the play aesthetic and says that Bioshock suffers from too many mechanics.

Okay, that’s just crazy. Here’s the choice quote:

BioShock is an example a great game whose giant mechanic set only weakens its play aesthetic. While the title’s story and environment have set the bar for many games to come, there’s just too much to do. In many a difficult situation players are left to decide between their guns, plasmid powers, hacking, stealth, and the use of one-shot items.

There’s one very clear and specific problem with this statement: The Play Aesthetic of BioShock is player choice within an interactive environment! That’s the whole point of the game! Everything from the plot (which is clearly about choice/lack of choice), the power up system (you get to choose your own evolution), to enemy encounters (Big Daddy fights are specifically left open ended to encourage different ways of dispatching them) reinforce this central aesthetic. With every choice a player makes, they integrate themselves more fully with their character and their environment, and the game really is about building that relationship (only to have it questioned by the plot). You can make an argument that BioShock didn’t go as far as it could with this Play Aesthetic (the hacking minigame in particular sticks out as being counter to player choice, and I have serious problems with the last 3rd of the plot), but I don’t have a clue what the “Real” Play Aesthetic of BioShock is that is somehow betrayed by giving the players options. Also, Irrational/2K spent a lot of time refining their mechanics throughout development. The original design had a much more complicated ecosystem involving dynamic population of various enemies, but that was reduced to the much more focused Big Daddy/Little Sister dynamic.

In my opinion BioShock is the best game of the past 5 years to embrace the Play Aesthetic of player choice, and that’s why it’s such an awesome game. I still Think Deus Ex is the best choice-based game of all time, but that’s for another column.

Posted in Game Design | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

So Long, Computer Gaming World

Posted by Ben Zeigler on April 9, 2008

Last week, I linked to the GFW Podcast. This week, Games for Windows: The Magazine is no more. I’ll admit that I haven’t particularly enjoyed the magazine over the last 3-4 years (although apparently it got better recently), but I used to love it back when it was Computer Gaming World. It was one of the first gaming magazines I ever read, and I mourn it’s passing. The podcast lives on (and they kept all the editors for online stuff), but the legacy of CGW is basically at an end.

In memorial, I pulled out the oldest copy of the magazine I have: Computer Gaming World, March 1993, Issue 104. The cover featured Spectrum HoloByte’s The Iron Helix, a game I don’t even remember. Based on the article, it appears to be one of those exciting CD-ROM FMV games that were popular in the early 90’s. The quality of the magazine is pretty shitty, thus proving that I was not very considerate of of my personal posessions when I was 10 years old. I’m amazed the cover is still attached, actually. Here’s assorted highlights of awesomeness:

  • Page 12 features an ad for a play-by-mail (snail mail) game called Portinium II. “Receive over twenty double-sided pages of high-quality Laser Graphics output per turn. $10.00 per turn. 3-week turnaround.” I remember thinking to myself that this sounded like a really stupid idea.
  • Page 14 is an overview of the exciting new world of CD-ROM FMV games.
  • Page 31 is an ad for Wolfenstein 3d. “More like an interactive movie than an arcade game.”
  • Page 33 is an ad for GEnie, and features a picture of an incredibly stupid-looking guy with the title “this one wants to rip your lungs out.” Online gaming ads haven’t changed much.
  • Page 36 is a review of Star Control 2, and features an awesome picture of a Shofixti. “Star Control II has been placed on this reviewer’s top ten list of all time”. Still true.
  • Page 60 is a review of Eric the Unready, a fun parody text adventure that fans should pick up. The page featured a picture of a pig.
  • Page 78 features a horrible review of Stunt Island. It’s structured as an interview with a fictional movie director. Wow, what a bad idea.
  • Page 84 complains about the lackluster endings of the majority of PC games. Yeah, that hasn’t changed.
  • Page 102 is a company profile of Bethesda Softworks. “For example, one finds more expensive towels in the shower room at Bethesda’s offices than one finds in most hotels.” This article praises the management practices of the company, but it made me think that Bethesda would never get anywhere, due to it being an incredibly boring place to work.
  • Page 104: “The solution for piracy is just around the corner with CD-ROM software.”
  • Page 124 is a review of Comanche Maximum Overkill. Voxels!
  • The last page is an add for Subversion 1.0. It’s a submarine strategy game.

I miss the 90’s era of PC gaming. It’s not the same these days. Also, get off my lawn.

Posted in Game Culture | Tagged: , , , | 8 Comments »

Brad Wardell on GFW Radio Podcast

Posted by Ben Zeigler on April 2, 2008

If you read my recent post on piracy, you ‘ll probably be interested in a recent Games For Windows (The Magazine and not Live or really Microsoft in any way) Radio Podcast. Brad Wardell, who’s the CEO of Stardock games is the guest on the April 2nd podcast. The Brad-heavy content starts around the 40 minute mark, and the next hour is basically an interview of Brad. If you’re interested in jewish stereotypes, crazy religious RTS players, or Mythos (which does sound pretty cool), make sure to not skip the first 40 minutes. I find it (as well as 1up Yours) to be solidly amusing and informative podcasts, that I often listen to while playing games.

Anyway, on to the relevant content. Brad talks about everything, from the death of PC gaming, to piracy, to their next games, to Games For Windows, to competing with Steam. Here’s some highlights for those people who are deaf or lazy:

  • The old “Publish a physical game to retail and then one expansion pack” model is dead, because of the hard limit on number of PC copies you can sell, and the rising costs for “Triple A” games.
  • “I try to make games that cost less to create than they generate in revenue, and this is radical”
  • Because most publishers are publicly held companies, they’re obsessed with Gross (sales) instead of Net (sales – cost) income. Wall street doesn’t give a shit about profitability, only size. As a result big publishers will only even try to make games that can sell a million copies, instead of making more, smaller, and more profitable games. (This is why I never want Cryptic to go public)
  • As an example, Atari wanted Stardock to make Master of Magic 2 and Star Control 4, but Atari decided that they wouldn’t sell a million copies, so they wouldn’t go forward with the probably extremely profitable projects.
  • NPD numbers do not include either digital distribution, or Wall Mart, so the sales numbers have very little to do with actual sales.
  • Master of Orion 3 contained a flyer for Galactic Civilizations. So, everyone who bought MoO3 and realized how much it BLEW CHUNKS, they went go buy GalCiv, and now Stardock has lots of money. (So I guess MoO3 was not in fact the worst thing ever)
  • They’re working on a new fantasy strategy game, which is basically Master of Magic 2 (but not branded). “You design your own units, you have all kinds of cool spells… when you zoom out it turns into a cloth map… players can create their own content and submit it, it’s part of the game” (Awesome)
  • “The idea is that you make a game, and you then sell it to people who want to play the game. And so if you make the people who buy your game happy, they’re more likely to buy your next game”
  • Stardock takes direct player input and suggestions via forums, but they’re assholes about it and ignore most of it. (Works for Cryptic too)
  • He reiterated his argument on piracy from his forum post (which I talked about before), so I won’t bother recapping.
  • Making your PC game a “Games for Windows” game involves submitting a game months in advance for approval. You also aren’t allowed to make a launcher executable, and aren’t allowed to add to the start menu (unlike MS’s games). They didn’t consider Games for Windows Live because MS wanted to charge for everything distributed by the service (ie for new content). On the positive side, getting branded as Games For Windows gives you a good amount of free advertising, and significant help in getting retailer promotional support.
  • Stardock is apparently going to launch a Steam competitor, called Impulse (to replace TotalGaming), and will be making a big push to become the #2 digital distribution platform. He talked a lot about how he thinks PC Players want a choice of distribution networks. (I actually sort of think he’s wrong here, and want Steam to win just because of the community features. Having a #2 around in case Steam starts to suck would be nice though)

Posted in Game Development | Tagged: , , , , , , | 2 Comments »