Leave Luck to Being Rescued – Alexis Mavropoulos

Alexis Mavropoulos
Audio Designer
Codemasters

Notable games Alexis has been involved with: LEGO Star Wars: The Force Awakens, LEGO Dimensions, DiRT 4

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Believe it or not, this is actually the first time I’ve done a “Leave Luck to Being Rescued” with a fellow Codies employee. Alexis is one of our newest members of the audio team and he’s fairly new to the industry, after dabbling in other audio roles and a brief stint in QA over at Tt Games. We chat a bit about the audio department, QA, his Master’s degree and working at Codemasters.

Brad: After completing your BSc what made you decide to study for your master’s degree? After all, you’re one of only 2 audio designers in the department to have studied for this qualification.

Alexis: It was a combination of different reasons really. After completing my BSc in Music Technology, I decided to postpone my academic studies for the time being to see what I could do in the ‘real world’, solely with my degree. I thought this would also be a good opportunity for me to test the water and evaluate if I wanted to further pursue an academic path.

During this period, I decided to move to London and full heartedly go for it, in pursuit of what would be the start of my audio career. Upon arrival, I was fortunate enough to secure an assistant sound engineer position at ‘The Limehouse’, a high-end music recording studio.  Combined with other jobs outside of audio such as bar-tending, I worked as an assistant for a number of months to follow. This period was a great learning opportunity for me not only in terms of audio, but also life in general and it will always be cherished. For various reasons, however, I gradually began to feel less passionate about the whole situation I was in and slowly lost interest and motivation. The main reason is that I felt that I wasn’t really reaching my full potential and that I had a lot more to offer, especially creatively. This is when a master’s increasingly started to make more and more sense. Furthermore, I generally felt a bit lost in a sea of other graduates who had general music tech degrees like me. I didn’t really feel qualified enough in order to competently work in a world filled with rapidly evolving technologies, where sound can be created and applied in so many new and exciting ways. This made me seriously consider a master’s degree even more, so long story short; I decided to take the plunge.

 

Brad: When did you decide to get into the games industry? Were you open to other audio professions or did you always plan on getting into sound for games?

Alexis: I’ve always enjoyed playing video games and really liked how a good piece of music or memorable sound effects were often present in games. Growing up, I had no idea about how the whole implementation side of things worked, or that it is someone’s actual job to create sound effects and music in order to make them work in-game. It was just one of those cases where I remember thinking to myself “How do they put the sounds in the game? How do they make them change like that depending on what you do?”, but never really investigated it further. I certainly didn’t picture myself working in the industry back in those times.

Years later, when I was already in London making my first professional steps in audio, I found out a bit more about video game sound design. I got really intrigued by it and as I learned more and more about it, I started to seriously consider it as a potential career path. Up until now, game audio was still a bit of a mystery to me compared to other areas such as post production, where everything is linear based. I knew that I was capable of producing audio content that would potentially suit a game, but I was lacking a lot of the technical knowledge in implementation and other areas that you need to posses, in order to pursue a career in it.

In one of my MSc modules, I started learning about Fmod and Wwise and different game engines like Unity and how you could implement audio and I became hooked! I was even designing my own levels, trying to make little mini games that I would add audio to. There was something about game audio that I just found fascinating. The fact that sound was dynamically evolving in real-time blew my mind and it opened up a whole new world for me. From that point on, I started learning as much as I could about game audio through my course and my own personal endeavours and put all my efforts into one day getting into the games industry as a sound designer.

Naturally, I was also open to other audio related opportunities in order to build up my portfolio and CV and did quite a bit of freelance work on different media related projects before I landed my first official game audio job.

Brad: How did you find the transition from QA into an audio role?

Alexis: The transition was pretty smooth to be honest. Obviously, going from working on small projects that needed sound to being an audio designer for a major title like Dirt 4, there was a steep learning curve in the beginning-especially in terms of implementation. However, I was already familiar with a lot of key concepts surrounding game audio, so it didn’t take me very long to adjust to the project.

Brad: Did the experience you gained while in QA help prepare you for your current role or do you find there is little overlap?

Alexis: My prior QA experience definitely helped a lot in this also. Working in QA was very useful as I was introduced to many aspects of game development such as bug fixing, JIRA workflows, dev menus and platform specific testing, which is still a big part of my job today. Also, working with audio bugs and testing games early on in development gave me a great insight of what goes on ‘behind the scenes’.

Brad: How difficult did you find it to land your first game audio job? Did you apply for many jobs beforehand?

Alexis: It’s a known fact that breaking into game audio, especially in a junior position, can be quite difficult. I most definitely didn’t find it easy but, in retrospect, it wasn’t as bad as I had expected either. I’d say perseverance combined with constantly developing yourself is a key factor more than anything in landing your first job. And, yes, I did apply to quite a few places.

Brad: Did you tailor your portfolio and CV to suit the jobs you were applying for?

Alexis: I didn’t really feel the need to tailor my CV each time apart from certain minor adjustments here and there that would potentially suit a role better. As for my portfolio, I basically tried to have what I thought was my best work combined into a single, game audio specific show reel. I’m not saying this is the best way to do things-this is simply how I did it.

Brad: Before working at Codies did you already have an interest in racing games? If yes what are some memorable racing games that you grew up playing? Do you think it is important to be interested in the genre of games you are developing or is this something you get into once in that role?

Alexis: I had an interest in racing games, although I definitely wouldn’t call myself a ‘petrol head’ or anything like that. I generally enjoyed a well made, fun racing game. Some memorable racing titles (of varying style) for me growing up were Mario Kart 64, Diddy Kong Racing, F-Zero X, Collin McCrae Rally, Star Wars Episode 1: Racer and a few of the Need for Speed games.

I wouldn’t say it’s essential to be fully interested in the genre of games you are developing, but it definitely helps. In my case, I found myself getting a lot more interested in racing games after I actually started working on one as a developer. I guess you get so involved with what you are creating that you naturally grow fond of it. Also, when new titles of the same genre come out from other companies you want to compare them to your game, so you’ll spend some time playing the competitor’s games as well.

Brad: I agree with this, I found that myself when working on various games. I also think it helps to be able to really get into what you’re working on. Before working on F1 I never watched F1 races but now I find myself watching a lot of content and following various stats and reading a bunch of F1 articles on a regular basis.

What’s a typical day like for a junior audio designer at Codemasters? Is it what you were expecting?

Alexis: A typical day would normally involve getting to work in the morning, grabbing some coffee and then having an audio department daily meeting or ‘scrum’. During these meetings we all gather round and mainly discuss our work progress, any issues we may have and our thoughts and ideas concerning the development of the game. After our meeting is over, I’ll go work on whatever sound design or implementation task I have assigned to me for the rest of the day. Depending on how far into the development cycle we are, work will shift more and more towards problem solving and bug fixing and less towards the creation and implementation of new features.

Working at Codies, I was fortunate enough to be quickly trusted to work on major areas of the game like front end, ambiences, reflections, reverbs and various environmental assets. I also helped other members of the team with bits and bobs of work whenever I could. To be honest, as a junior, I was expecting to probably do more tedious, dogsbody work, but that hasn’t been the case and I am really thankful for that.

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Brad: Ok, well it’s time for you to go on a recording trip.

Unfortunately while off on location the Evo X you were in breaks down with you inside, with no idea where you are you head for a derelict tower block. Obviously this was used as a games warehouse, so heading on over to a box you remove the layer of dust off of the games on show. They just so happen to be your 5 favourite games and 1 soundtrack, what are they?

Alexis: What a series of coincidences! Most of my favourite games are old so I guess the derelict tower block scenario works just fine…

Top 5 (in no particular order) would have to be:

1) Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (PS2)

I’m a big fan of the MGS series but ‘Sons of Liberty’ stands out a bit more than the rest for me. That moment in the tanker incident intro where Solid Snake jumps off the bridge in the rain accompanied by that amazing Harry Gregson-Williams piece…epic! Electronic music nerd fact: This piece of music was also sampled by Burial in his track ‘Archangel’.

2) Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 (PS2)

If you were, or still are, a skater and you’re currently in your 20s-30s, chances are you most probably played a THPS game growing up. I chose 3 as it has the best selection of music, levels and pro skaters.

3) HλLF-LIFE2 (PC)

Great gameplay, smart level design and memorable sound effects.  The gravity gun was definitely one of my favourite features.

4) Portal (PC)

Need I say more? Such a brilliant game concept!

5) The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (N64)

Although a few people I’ve spoken to aren’t a fan of this game compared to other Zelda games, it is by far my favourite. I’m a big fan of the dark, eerie theme that the game has throughout both visually and sonically.

Soundtrack – Deus Ex

Very synthy! The ‘UNATCO Headquarters’ theme is an amazing piece of music!

About the choices

Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty 

Developer – Konami Computer Entertainment Japan
Platform – PlayStation 2
Release – 8th March 2002

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3

Developer – Neversoft
Platform – PlayStation 2
Release – 30th November 2001

HλLF-LIFE2

Developer – Valve Corporation
Platform – PC
Release – 16th November 2004

Portal

Developer – Valve Corporation
Platform – PC
Release – 18th October 2007

The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask

Developer – Nintendo EAD
Platform – N64
Release – 26th October 2000

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The Problem With… Nintendo Apologists

bundle_gray_tabletopI’ve pre-ordered a Switch. I do however still stand by my original stance that the Switch isn’t an impressive system; it’s ugly, under-powered and will struggle to get 3rd parties back on board. So why then have I pre-ordered? I’ve been a Nintendo fan since back in the NES days and their games still have that something special that keeps me coming back. Don’t get me wrong, they do occasionally churn out some shit. Even big franchises like The Legend of Zelda have the occasional “miss”; I thought both Spirit Tracks and Skyward Sword were among the worst in the franchise. I also like the idea of taking some potentially great games like Super Mario Odyssey and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild with me while I travel. These days I find myself playing handheld systems like my Vita more often than my home consoles so the Switch might be a great setup for me.

I understand Nintendo get a lot wrong (as we’ll delve into in this article) but there’s a lot of fans who I guess we’d call “fanboys” who are so blinded by their sheer love for everything Nintendo that they cannot and will not accept any criticism thrown at the company. Now to be clear, there’s die hards in both the Sony and Microsoft camps too but Nintendo breed a special kind of loyal fan. In the past I’ve been labelled a Nintendo fanboy and a Sony fanboy but honestly, I’m neither. I criticise things I hate with all 3 video game giants, I just have a tendency to enjoy first party Nintendo games and in recent years my consoles of choice tend to be Sony devices – that’s my personal preference. So let’s explore the special flowers that are Nintendo apologists. I’m going to use a few personal anecdotes in this article which I’m ok with as I’m specifically making an argument about these types of fans, not Nintendo fans in general.

I recently got into a debate on a Facebook group when I saw a post stating “That explains why the pro controller is more expensive, that’s insane it has that all built in. Glad to know that”. The post was accompanied by a brief description of its features. The tech inside the pro controller boasts features such as “motion controls”, “HD rumble” (whatever that will end up being) and “built in amiibo functionality”. Firstly, I’m not totally convinced that these features do explain the high cost of this controller. Doing a quick search, the Xbox One controller retails for around $50 and includes their own version of updated rumble in the form of “Impulse Triggers”. A PS4 DualShock 4 can also be picked up new for a similar price and they too feature new tech such as the light bar, speaker (new to PlayStation controllers) and a “Clickable touchpad”. Arguably of course the Switches HD rumble might be a revolution compared to the rumble of old but do an NFC reader and a fancy update to rumble justify a full $20 increase over the competition? Let’s give the poster the benefit of the doubt here and agree that this “new” tech actually does justify the $20 increase. WHY DO I NEED IT? And here’s my argument that I posted in response:

“That doesn’t mean the majority of players want all that tech. Does everything in your house really need to have the ability to scan amiibo? Or would the main screen be sufficient? I’d certainly take the lack of amiibo scanning in a specific controller if it meant the price was £15 less.”11396097-6244453754475000

A second poster then argued that indeed, this same logic could be applied to PS4 or Xbox One controllers. I agreed that indeed that is true but that doesn’t justify Nintendo bumping the cost of their controller up significantly. We as consumers come to expect a certain price bracket for consoles and accessories and indeed on this matter gamers will vote with their wallets I’m sure. The worst part about this is that the pro controller isn’t even the most expensive controller on offer. A set of Joy-Cons will set you back around $90! Journalists and fans alike (well, except for Nintendo apologists) seem up in arms about the price, Polygon seemed to have done the work for me here, after checking Twitter Ben Kuchera stated “I checked Twitter to see if I was just suffering from a case of unrealistic expectations and nope, there seems to be some serious pushback from others about the price of these accessories”1. Jim Sterling commented after the reveal “Let’s look at everything else Nintendo did to kill my interest in the switch”2 before going on to complain about the price of not only the pro controller but other accessories. Colin Moriarty explained on his new show “Colin Was Right”:

“You do have to do something to keep people around. The games aren’t there and they aren’t going to be there and these ridiculous peripheral prices are simply isolating potential customers even more.”3

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Gamers could chose to take or leave the console and any accessories; Nintendo has every right to charge whatever they feel is reasonable but get this. Since the NES we’ve seen a notable decline in install base throughout all of their home consoles4, with the Wii being the one anomaly here. The NES for example shifted over 60 million units whereas the Wii U has managed fewer than 14 million units and with the Switch releasing in less than 2 months that figure isn’t likely to creep up much further. With that I’d consider it a reasonable expectation that Nintendo should do everything they can to win back a bit of loyalty. Maybe sell the console for a significant loss in order to get the install base back up? After all they’d make a killing on software, much like the business model Sony and Microsoft have used many times in the past.5 How about charge a reasonable price for extra controllers? Maybe bundle in the ability to charge the Joy-Cons with the included grip rather than having to shell out for a special charging grip?6 So the slightly higher than expected price of controllers and accessories alone isn’t the only issue here. I think a Facebook post I wrote summaries this nicely:

“What exactly would Nintendo have to do in order for you to call them out on it? Shit on your lawn? There are a stack of issues surrounding the switch and so many Nintendo apologists are coming out with excuse after excuse.

Look, it’s not JUST the charging issue here, that’s merely the icing on the cake or should that be cack?”

Let’s address some of the other points then that are contributing to this mess. The launch line-up is really weak, on the launch day itself we have The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Ok, here’s a decent first party franchise) and 1-2 Switch in terms of first party titles. As for 3rd party? Skylanders something or another, Just Dance 20 whatever year it is and Super Bomberman R.7 Nothing really to write home about. And as for Zelda, well although this is a beloved Nintendo franchise it really isn’t a big system seller; just take a look at past Nintendo sales figures.8 I’d also add that out of these games 1-2 Switch and Super Bomberman R are the only exclusives, Zelda is also on Wii U and the rest of the bunch are coming to multiple platforms. Ok, so how about games released during 2017? Notable “big” games include Super Mario Odyssey, Xenoblade Chronicles 2, FIFA, NBA 2K18, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Splatoon 2 and ARMS. Notice the absence of a lot of major cross platform games? Where are Call of Duty, Battlefield, Resident Evil 7, Kingdom Hearts III, Mass Effect Andromeda, Metal Gear Survive, Red Dead Redemption 2 and South Park: Fractured But Whole to named but a few. Sure, as the saying goes “people buy a Nintendo or Nintendo games, not cross-platform games”. Hmmm, I’d be convinced of that if only the sales figures showed that to be the case. The fact is when most households chose to splash out on a console they are clearly picking the Sony or Microsoft boxes that can play a few great exclusives as well as being supported extensively by 3rd party developers. Think about it, gamers with a bit of excess cash might buy 2 or even all 3 of these home systems but many kids or adults on lower incomes will only buy one console. And these consumers will certainly want a box that gives them a decent variety of games, including games that their friends are talking about.  And this brings me to the next comment I found on Facebook:

“The hybrid nature of the console will hold it back from being a mainstream success. But it will likely do pretty well, Zelda at launch, MK8 Splatoon and Mario Odyssey all in the first year, will keep the system selling well all the way through its first year.”

My response to this statement?

“4 games in a year will not “keep the system selling well”, especially when 2 of them are essentially “deluxe” versions of existing games and zelda is not an exclusive.”

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The conversation continued with this user stating that I was “forgetting those are four of the biggest games Nintendo has”. The problem is that these “biggest” franchises also made appearances on Wii U and they didn’t shift enough consoles so what makes him think they will just because they are coming to a new platform? Another user then chimed in to tell me games like Mario Kart 8 Deluxe aren’t simply ports like we saw from PS3 to PS4. I’m not sure what he’d consider a port then when Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is (as the name implies) a Deluxe version of an old game, it includes all previous DLC and a couple of extra bits and pieces to sweeten the deal. It is by no means a brand new game and it isn’t being marketed in that way either. To top off this debate the original user then informed me that these games did in fact sell the Wii U console. Really? REALLY? The 85 million or so gamers who bought a Wii but didn’t buy a Wii U might disagree with you there! The final comment from the original user was also a bit of a surprise after I’d mentioned to him that you only have to look at how the media reacted after the second reveal. Proving my point that Nintendo apologists are almost blind to any criticism he noted:

“The “buzz surrounding it died”? In what world are you living in? Ever major gaming, tech, nerd , and even news outlet has covered the Switch conference.”

Well I’m actually referring to the likes of the Jimquisition episode9 on this subject where Jim Sterling does a fine job of highlighting some of the points (and others) that I’ve mentioned here. Jim specifically mentions at the end of the video that he made the episode out of frustration because he believes Nintendo has “the potential to be the best platform holder…”.10 I’m doing much the same thing here, I haven’t written this article to slate Nintendo – I’ve ordered the Switch! I’ve wrote this article to vent my frustration at a company which makes so many stupid mistakes that they really shouldn’t make.

Would you like more proof that the buzz died after the reveal? How about the Kinda Funny guys? Colin specifically stated after the Nintendo reveal11 back in October 2016 “I’m excited to pre-order”.12 After the second reveal Colin commented that he was “not very excited”13 before the guys commented negatively on the price of the accessories14 and everything else for that matter!15 Anecdotally I might also add that during the original reveal I left several comments on forums expressing my dislike of the Switch’s ugly, clumsy design. I was pretty much shot down immediately, not a lot of people agreed with me. Fast forward to the second reveal and forums are now seemly divided down the middle with arguments revolving around the high price of the accessories, the Nintendo network becoming a premium service (more on this soon) and the sparse launch line up. And then there’s the articles, of course it wouldn’t be fair to say that all the Switch press was negative. There are indeed a lot of positive posts and many fans and journalists alike have been won over. But just look at a few of these headlines and I think you’ll agree that Nintendo haven’t exactly knocked it out of the park:

The pricing on Nintendo Switch accessories is a bad, bad joke1
Nintendo Switch online service’s ‘free’ monthly games come with a huge catch161-2-Switch is not the killer app the Nintendo Switch needs17
Nintendo Switch will launch with fewer games than the Wii, Wii U or 3DS18
Nintendo Switch’s bundled Joy-Con grip doesn’t charge controllers19

And I think that sums up Nintendo, there are always caveats with their services, games and products. And talking of services, let’s take a look at Nintendo’s new offerings. First of all there’s news that the Switch’s voice chat is done…wait for it… via a smart phone app!20 That’s right folks, there is no native voice chat built into the Switch, and here’s the reasoning behind it according to NOA’s head honcho Reggie Fils-Aime:

“we want to reinforce the capability to take your experience with you on the go…. The ability to do matchmaking, voice chat through your phone, it’s a hell of a lot more convenient than having a gamer headset stuck into your backpack trying to do that. That’s why we’re doing it the way we are. We see the convenience, we see the ease of delivery. We think it’s going to lead to a better experience.”20

This is another common problem with Nintendo, they do things so against the grain that it defies all logic yet Nintendo will outright defend these decisions, as will their apologists. If the issue here is parental controls then implement controls to block this feature for children. If however the issue really is convenience then why can’t we have the best of both worlds and include voice chat out of the box as well as via a smart device app? Is Reggie seriously trying to say voice chat via a phone is more convenient? Not only does this mean anybody who wants to voice chat needs a couple of hundred pounds worth of mobile phone, but it needs to be charged, have a decent signal and be used separately from the Switch’s interface. And how about the “gamer headset stuck into your backpack”? Is he suggesting you no longer need a headset? So I just sit on the train with my phone next to my ear or with the speaker blearing out? Or do I use a small set of headphones with a microphone? If the latter then why can’t I use that with a Switch instead of the massively inconvenient headset Reggie assumes I need if voice chat was native to the console?

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For the record, personally I don’t care about voice chat, especially on a Nintendo console as I’m not a big online gamer. Like voice chat or not though, there’s a hell of a lot of gamers out there who use this feature daily on the PS4 and Xbox One. How can Nintendo ever hope to gain a big fan base when online gamers are denied basic features like this? Yet again though, the apologists help justify Nintendo’s absurd decision. One Facebooker commented “When you make things more difficult for people to use – voice chat – you deserve to be endlessly mocked.” Perhaps he was trolling a little as this was on the Nintendo Voice Chat Facebook group, however, just look at this response “I don’t agree. Nintendo is pivoting towards mobile as a focal point. They approach online differently as such. So, it may not be for you, but mocking is for kids online.” “Pivoting towards mobile”? So that’s the justification for shafting core online gamers?

It seems that voice chat isn’t the only online feature Nintendo is having a stab at butchering either. Much like Xbox Live and PSN, Nintendo will now also start charging for online functionality and in return gamers can expect online lobbies with voice chat, exclusive deals and monthly game downloads from the NES and SNES libraries.21 Here’s the catch, not only have Nintendo miserably failed with all online ventures on previous consoles when compared to Sony and Microsoft but their new paid for service will be giving fans access to an 8 or 16-bit game for one month only!22 Ok, so I’m a firm believer that gameplay is king and I also think that some of the finest games in existence can be found on both the NES and SNES but there’s no denying that offering gamers limited access to 20 or 30 year old games for a month isn’t exactly on par with their competitors. Sony alone offers 6 games per month (2 on each platform from PS3, PS4 and Vita), not forgetting that quite often a selection of these games are also cross-platform so the argument of “I only have a PS4 though” doesn’t wash here. Arguably a lot of these games aren’t worth the bandwidth they use to download but there have also been some great games on the service over the years. And what’s more, both Sony and Microsoft let you play these games for the entirety of your subscription. Having now been a subscriber for 5 or 6 years myself I literally have access to hundreds of games.

I actually put this question to members of the Nintendo Voice Chat Facebook group and in general most responses agreed with me. There were however a couple which tried to justify Nintendo’s decisions and put a positive spin on things. Here’s a couple:

“I like it the flavor of the month concept to it. In reality most of these games take a few hours to beat. So a month should be more than enough time with an NES or SNES game.”

“In a way wouldn’t having it only as a month motivate people to play right away, fill the online modes and most will be done with NES and SNES games after a month anyway? Just a thought.”

“The good thing about the monthly thing would that it would encourage a lot of people to play it that month. This would make it a lot easier to find people to play online with during that month.”

“I like it, i think it will be great for everyone to have access to the same title at the same time.”

Now, I understand what the first commenter is suggesting. In general a lot of NES / SNES era games can realistically be beaten with a couple of hours. However, what I don’t agree with is justifying this decision just because a game is short. Let’s put it this way, sometimes I might buy a game or get one free with PS+ but not actually get around to playing it for months, or even years in some cases. Why would Nintendo putting a restriction on the availability of the game be a good thing? Isn’t it better for the gamer to decide when they want to play the game instead of having it dictated to them?

I’d urge you all to throw away your nostalgia and throw away your biases and really take a look at Nintendo’s decisions. This is a company I grew up with, I love their consoles and love their games but there’s nothing wrong with calling out a company when they do something shitty. It’s pretty clear from Nintendo’s dwindling sales figures that they are struggling to stay relevant and keep up with Microsoft and Sony and if they at least don’t try and offer similar services and technology they will eventually fall.

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Finally, please go and watch both the Colin Was Right episode “Same Old Nintendo” and the Jimquisition episode “What Nintendo Fucked Up With The Switch So Far”. Both of these episodes are excellent, level headed and delivered by Nintendo fans.

A note about any Facebook quotations I’ve used.
I’ve left quotes unaltered, including spelling and typos. I felt this was the best way to avoid misquoting anybody. I’ve left out any citation here; they are simply being used as anecdotes to protect the users anonymity.

1 – http://www.polygon.com/2017/1/13/14261342/nintendo-switch-extra-controller-price-terrible
2 – https://youtu.be/7fH_wl8ceAg?t=341
3 – https://youtu.be/LenzNAyRnWU?list=PLy3mMHt2i7RJjrxBVoVL5tDTbhimG4NFz&t=540
4 – https://www.nintendo.co.jp/ir/en/sales/hard_soft/
5 – http://www.pcworld.com/article/127906/article.html
6 – http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2017-01-16-nintendo-switchs-basic-joy-con-grip-doesnt-charge-controllers
7 – https://twitter.com/NintendoAmerica/status/820006323328864256/photo/1?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw
8 – http://uk.ign.com/articles/2014/01/29/these-are-nintendos-lifetime-hardware-and-software-numbers
9 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7fH_wl8ceAg&t=352s
10 – https://youtu.be/7fH_wl8ceAg?t=681
11 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f5uik5fgIaI
12 – https://youtu.be/HONQAWV5nxQ?t=754
13 – https://youtu.be/QdNiaVEzrwM?t=333
14 – https://youtu.be/QdNiaVEzrwM?t=452
15 – https://youtu.be/QdNiaVEzrwM?t=511
16 – http://www.polygon.com/2017/1/13/14266290/nintendo-switch-monthly-games-not-free
17 – http://www.polygon.com/2017/1/13/14268204/1-2-switch-nintendo-switch-pre-review
18 – http://www.polygon.com/nintendo-switch/2017/1/13/14263186/nintendo-switch-lineup-wii-wiiu-3ds-comparison
19 – http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2017-01-16-nintendo-switchs-basic-joy-con-grip-doesnt-charge-controllers
20 – http://uk.ign.com/articles/2017/01/14/nintendo-talks-voice-chat-online-approach-for-switch
21 – http://uk.ign.com/articles/2017/01/13/nintendo-switch-online-services-will-be-free-at-first
22 – https://twitter.com/kobunheat/status/819956802741747712?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw

Leave Luck to Being Rescued – Malin Arvidsson

Malin Arvidsson
Senior Sound Designer
Bigpoint

Notable games Malin has been involved with: LittleBigPlanet, Mirror’s Edge, Buzz! TV Quizz, Wonderbook: Book of Spells, Wonderbook: Book of Potions

www.thesoundofmalin.com

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For the first time I interview a freelance sound designer, however part way through our interview Malin applied for and accepted a job offer from Bigpoint. So let’s see both the benefits and downsides to working freelance and why she decided to take on a permanent contract.

Brad: First of all how did you start off in the industry, you weren’t always freelance were you?

Malin: Well, I kind of started in the games industry by accident in a sense. I was studying sound engineering in Sweden, but more for music, and during that time I decided I wanted to work in film, preferably animation. So when we did a 6 week work experience as part of our course, I asked one of my teachers where I can find film companies in London, and he suggested Pinewood studios. So I searched for Pinewood studios on the internet and came across Richard Joseph’s company, Audio Interactive, which was a company based in Pinewood that did sound for games, and I thought, wow, that sounds awesome! I called Richard up to ask if I could join him for 6 weeks and he welcomed me. We got along really well so when I was made redundant from my TV job in Sweden a year and a half later, he asked me to come over to work for him. We both ended up joining Elixir Studios a year later and worked together for 5 years in total until Elixir closed down in 2005. And that’s when I started freelancing 🙂

Brad: How long have you been freelance and what are the main advantages and disadvantages compared to having a permanent contract?

Malin: I’ve been freelancing for almost 9 years now! I’d say the good things are that you get to meet a lot of people, you get to work on a lot of different types of games, learn a lot of different tools and different ways of doing things and you can decide how much holiday you want 😉 I know a lot of people worry when they don’t know what will come up next, and I do admit that I do that too, but at the same time it’s also exciting not knowing what will come next.

The main downside in my opinion is that you’re rarely involved in the initial planning of the game. You’re not there from the start so can’t be as involved in the design and how the sound should work in the game. And you don’t have as much influence on what equipment you’ll have. And unfortunately, a lot of the time you have to sit on headphones instead of speakers. And I guess it’s not great having to worry about having work or not.

Brad: Obviously working on racing games at Codies has been the highlight of your career, but what other games have you really enjoyed working on?

Malin: He he, yes of course! 🙂

Hmmm, I’ve enjoyed most of the games I’ve worked on in one way or another, either because of the game, because of the people or for other reasons. And of course there have always been frustrations with each game too. I think it’s never 100% either way. I loved working on Mirror’s Edge because it’s a great game and a very talented bunch of people working in the audio team at DICE. I’ve also really enjoyed doing all the games I’ve done at Sony because of the friendship and atmosphere they have there. And even though it was a really long time ago now, I still look back at my time at Elixir as really enjoyable, especially working on Evil Genius as it was a really fun game to work on with lots of humour.

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Brad: Are there any jobs you wouldn’t take on either because you don’t want to work on a certain type of game or because you don’t want to specialise in a particular task?

Malin: I’m prepared to do most jobs, although there are certain jobs I prefer to do 😉 I prefer doing sound design and implementation to dialogue. I prefer doing any games where I can use my creativity a lot, like fantasy and magic games, especially things like creatures that don’t exist in real life. And I can’t say I’m a gun or engine person, I’d rather leave that to people who’re better at it than me 😉

Brad: And how about relocating? You were born in Sweden so what brought you to the UK and are there any places you would really like to live and work?

Malin: Originally I only had a 2 months contract when I came to London so I just came with a backpack even though my aim was to stay for 2 years. My contract kept extending and then I was employed by Elixir and I started dating a guy and my stay here just became longer and longer and now I’ve been here for 14 years!

As I love travelling and love trying to live in new places I would consider a lot of places to live and work. Initially I wanted to stay in London for 2 years, Paris for 2 years, Spain for 2 years and then move back to Sweden, but I guess you can never predict what will happen next. That’s what makes life more exciting 😉 I’m still open to moving to new places, but now I’m more prepared to move for a good job than going to a place just because I want to live there. For example, I wouldn’t be too keen to live in the US, but I would love to work for Naughty dog so I would be prepared to live there because of that. Of course there are places I wouldn’t move to. Funnily enough I’m more prepared to move to another country than moving within the UK as I think if I’m going to move I might as well try a new country. I guess being single makes it a lot easier to relocate though.

Brad: What advice would you give to a graduate who is thinking about working freelance in the games industry?

Malin: I think as a graduate, if you can get a job in-house that’s probably a better start so you can get some experience first. But otherwise, the key thing is networking. I don’t think I’ve ever managed to get a job through an agency, all the jobs I’ve had has been through contacts or through the vgm list. Go to network events like the audio track in Brighton and GDC in San Francisco if you can afford it, and go to any meet up you hear of. Join email lists, linked in groups etc. And don’t give up! It’s a tough industry; there are more people than jobs. It’s the people who don’t give up who make it. And don’t be arrogant. If you think you know everything that’s when you stop learning. This is a fast moving industry so there are constantly new things to learn.

(Malin accepts a job at Bigpoint)

Brad: What made you decide to take on a permanent contract instead of freelance work?

Malin: I loved freelancing for the 9 years I did it! I learnt so much from working with different people, different tools, on different styles of games and even moving to different places. But I guess I got to a point in my career where I felt like I’d learnt what I needed to learn from freelancing. The downside with freelance work is that you don’t often get to work on a project from beginning to end, you’re rarely involved from the beginning so many of the decisions have usually been made by the time you start in terms of style, tools etc. Another downside when working in house as a freelancer is that they’re rarely prepared to invest in your equipment as you’re only there temporarily, so often you get to work on headphones in a noisy room and don’t necessarily have the best tools, plug ins etc. And you don’t always get to choose the jobs you do as you need to keep the work coming in. If you turn a job down, they’re not likely to ask you again even if it’s for something more interesting.

So when this job came up, and it seemed like a good company, a good location and an interesting project, I thought maybe now it’s time to move forward and develop other skills. Be more of a decision maker rather than follow other people’s ideas. And I guess it does also feel nice to not to have to worry about finding your next project constantly 🙂

Brad: Right Malin, I’m going to ship you off to a desert island.

Let’s say on your way back to London by boat (why not?) a storm hits and you end up washing ashore on a strange land. Your only refuge is an abandoned Ikea building so you build yourself a bed from flat pack materials. You find some meatballs to eat and start routing around the warehouse where you find shelves stacked full of games, clearly somebody had used this place for shelter in the past.

The roof in this section starts to crack so you only have time to grab 5 games and 1 soundtrack, one of the games can be a special edition if you like. What were your choices?

Malin: Brrrr, I’d prefer to get stuck on a desert island somewhere warm 😉 and right, now I might offend some people by saying, I’m not originally a gamer. So only started playing games after working in the games industry for 7 years (so I guess I started playing games about 7 years ago) so I don’t really know many of the old games.

Sorry, I still haven’t played a huge amount of games tbh so I guess the selection I have to choose from is fairly small 😉

Hmmm, well I think I’d have to go for:

1)  Tomb Raider (Xbox 360)

Tomb Raider as then I won’t feel alone with being stuck in the middle of nowhere. And because I love the game too.

I’d grab two Naughty dog games:

2)  Uncharted 3 (PlayStation 3)

Uncharted 3 was the first game that really hooked me and was the first game I played from start to finish.

3)  The Last of Us (PlayStation 3)

After Uncharted 3 I just wanted to play anything from Naughty Dog!

4)  LittleBigPlanet (PlayStation 3)

Little Big Planet I think I love most for the sackboy expressions. And it makes me laugh and scream when I play it, hehe.

5) Pain (PlayStation 3)

Pain as it makes me laugh 🙂

Soundtrack – Diggs NightCrawler

Hmmm, one soundtrack is hard to choose. Different ones are good for different reasons. One I was very impressed by was when Dead space 1 first came out, but I’m not sure I’d want to be on my own with that game as I would shit myself (sorry) Maybe for a music soundtrack I would choose Diggs Nightcrawler. Even if I worked on the sound for it, I just love Jim’s music on it and it would keep me happy 🙂

Brad: I know you love the cold but if you now have to burn all your games for heat which one would you save until last?

Malin: Hehe, hmmm, I think it would have to be tombraider. I think as a game I probably think Uncharted is better, but I guess I just associate better with Lara Croft being a woman 😉 so I feel more attached to that.

About the choices

Tomb Raider

Developer – Crystal Dynamics
Publisher – Square Enix
Platform – Xbox 360
Release – 5th March 2013

Uncharted 3

Developer – Naughty Dog
Publisher – Sony Computer Entertainment
Platform – PlayStation 3
Release (EU) – 2nd November 2011

The Last of Us

Developer – Naughty Dog
Publisher – Sony Computer Entertainment
Platform – PlayStation 3
Release – 14th June 2013 

LittleBigPlanet

Developer – Media Molecule
Publisher – Sony Computer Entertainment
Platform – PlayStation 3
Release (EU) – 5th November 2008 

Pain

Developer – Idol Minds
Publisher – Sony Computer Entertainment
Platform – PlayStation 3
Release (EU) – 20th March 2008

The Problem With… Final Fantasy

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Final Fantasy – A Brief Overview

Final Fantasy is a franchise of role playing games and associated spin-off games. Generally most games in the franchise are totally unrelated to each other but share common themes and mythologies. Reoccurring themes include characters with names such as “Biggs”, “Wedge” and “Cid”, mythological creatures such as the “Chocobo” and “Moogle” and god-like summons such as “Shiva” and “Ifrit”. Each game generally centres around a group of playable characters who are assembled through the course of the game in order to rid the world of an evil antagonist. The name Final Fantasy was originally used as the title of the first game as it was a final attempt by series’ creator Hironobu Sakaguchi to create a successful game. The name does not imply that each game is supposedly the last!

Introduction

I’ll start with a quick game, I shall describe a Final Fantasy game and you say which one you think it is.

I run down a corridor; I am interrupted with the occasional cut scene, I then continue to run down a corridor. Finally I enter a battle, I press a button and the game selects the most appropriate spell to cast against the enemy. The battle finishes and I continue on my epic quest down a long corridor, occasionally I wonder if I will come to a cross roads I can explore or reach a village where I can wonder around for an hour; talking to locals and upgrading my gear – no such luck.

Final Fantasy fans reading this will have no problem pointing out that I have been describing Final Fantasy XIII. Really, this article can end here and conclude with the statement “The problem with…Final Fantasy is FFXIII”. My love affair with JRPGs officially came to abrupt end with XIII but in all fairness this was just the tipping point. The truth is Final Fantasy had been going downhill for years, beginning with Final Fantasy X on the PlayStation 2. For the record my favourite game in the series is Final Fantasy IX, which in my opinion got just about everything right. A good story, set in a beautiful world, filled with interesting characters and literally stacks of nods to previous games in the series. So what went wrong when transitioning between the PS1 and PS2?

Game Play Over Graphics

The PS1 was released in the very early days of 3D gaming, along with the N64. Looking back most games from that generation haven’t aged well, specifically 3D games. Just take a look at some classic sprite based games on the SNES such as Super Mario World, Super Metroid and Secret of Mana; although they look old they still have a certain charm. Now look back at N64 games like Super Mario 64 and Goldeneye 007 or PS1 classics such as Metal Gear Solid, Crash Bandicoot and Tomb Raider. None of the N64 or PS1 games look particularly charming or cute these days; that’s because we were transitioning into 3D. The technology was in its infancy whereas 2D platformers and other SNES games had been using technology that had already been in development for several years.

Screen Shot 2013-03-29 at 17.42.00

Games like the masterpiece that is Final Fantasy VII didn’t get caught up in trying to look mind blowing. Just consider for a minute the above images; on the left you can see Cloud as he appears when rendered in game. On the right you can see Cloud pre-rendered in an FMV, they look vastly different. VII still looked good at the time but that isn’t what it has been remembered for. The game play and narrative alone was enough to keep the player hooked, any technical achievements were a bonus but not the main selling point. XIII on the other hand has put its focus on polished graphics and as a result both the story and gameplay have suffered greatly. I am not alone with this opinion; it’s quite common knowledge among the gaming community that VII is one the most highly requested Square Enix remakes. Yoichi Wada, the Square Enix president, has stated “To get FFVII to something like FFXII, it would take ten times as long”. [1] A statement that in my opinion effectively confirms that XIII doesn’t even come close to the scope and exploration found in older FF games.

The 3 eras of Final Fantasy

The Final Fantasy franchise can be split into 3 eras, the first being the golden age of Final Fantasy to FFVI. These games progressively evolved over several years but remained largely recognisable in terms of looks and gameplay. The first big change then came during FFVII to FFIX era, here the franchise switched to a fully fledged 3D game, came on CD-ROM instead of cartridges and featured FMVs. During this era the Final Fantasy brand reached a whole new level and introduced many new fans to the RPG genre.  The next evolution can be seen in FFX to FFXIII (excluding FFXI as this is an MMORPG); here the games dropped the world map mechanic (more on this in a moment) and really tried to push the graphical capabilities of each system the games were released on. During this era the games somewhat “sold out”, trying to pull in a very mainstream audience and dumbing down the traditional micro-management and number crunching game play and mechanics.

Both the first era (I-VII) and the second era (VII-IX) seemed to build on the success of the franchise and both have flagship games with a large fan base (VI and VII). In my opinion, although the third era (X-XIII) has seen strong sales there isn’t a core fan base behind these games.

Final Fantasy X – The Franchise Reinvents Itself

So why do I believe the third era, starting with X brought about the demise of the franchise? Notably there was a shift in key members of the team; Nobuo Uematsu had scored all previous games in the series but he was now joined by other composers. His work on VII-IX in particular is remarkable, yet from X onwards we see a rise in generic electric guitar and J-Pop music, even featuring lyrics! Hironobu Sakaguchi, who had previously produced all of the previous games in the series, became an executive producer. From what I can gather the role of “executive producer” on a video game can be a very fuzzy area but generally this appears to be a step back from some of the more creative aspects of the game itself.

Voice acting was utilised for the first time which, although a step forward (especially in story heavy games) can also negatively impact the game. Cloud (the main protagonist in VII); for example was always considered a bit of an “emo” filled with teenage angst but the player was able to create their own version of Cloud by imagining his accent and how he talks. Arguably the X protagonist, Tidus, was a very similar character only this time players were able to hear his shrill voice and he perhaps came across as more of a young whiny teen than he would of if this game were text only.

The biggest shock I received when playing X for the first time wasn’t the voice acting, cast or new battle system. After several hours into the game I realised there was no world map! Now it’s fair to say that previous games in the series have also had a degree of linearity; the basic story has to be completed in a set order. The player is funnelled towards new areas with paths that the developers do not want you to explore blocked until a later time. This concept used to be masked quite well with the use of a world map. The player could clearly understand that they couldn’t transverse a mountain or swim an ocean until a later point in the game when they had unlocked an airship or boat. The world map in these older games never really had a massive amount of locations to explore but the few it did have that strayed from the main quest helped give the impression of a non-linear experience.

Final Fantasy XII

Aside from the fact that I couldn’t follow the story in XII and didn’t have a clue what was going on half the time; the gameplay itself was pretty good. As with X, there was an absence of the classic world map. Instead a compromise was made in which the player was able to explore the world via interconnected regions, this felt much closer to the old world map system. XII still had its fair share of problems, in particular the forgettable characters and the Gambit system, a catalyst of sorts to the “autobattle” system featured in XIII.

The gambit system did present a few interesting ideas; the basic concept of which was to set up a list of rules which your AI party members would follow when in battle. For example, a character on your team could be set up to always attack using magic. If however, anybody in the party has less than 5% health left, the character will use a health potion on their next turn instead of a magic spell. Although a deep system, the problem here was that your party was now essentially fighting for themselves while you took control of the main character. This, in part, has lead to Final Fantasy games becoming the linear, corridor crawler, dumbed down game we see in XIII.

Final Fantasy XIII – The Franchise Sells Out

Right from the moment you pick up a copy of XIII you can clearly see Square Enix have tried to reach out to a wider audience. The European box art features the game’s main protagonist, Lighting in all its Americanised glory. This might not sound like a big deal but previous Final Fantasy games in both Europe and Japan featured a simple logo while the movie poster Esq. Box art was typically reserved for North America. See the images below of the Final Fantasy VII box art for the Japanese, European and North American covers. Why did the Europeans now have to suffer with the American box art? Probably because the simplistic box art of previous Final Fantasy games doesn’t appeal to your typical FPS gamer.

ja_frontpal_frontntsc_front

As I mentioned in the introduction, XIII was a very linear experience. The game has strayed far from its classic JRPG roots and has turned into a beautiful but dull experience. XIII seems like a tech demo that somehow managed to get green lit into a fully fledged game because it looks pretty and will draw in the mass market. There is a compromise a development team must make with games, more polished and beautiful games will be more linear. Create a more open, flexible game and you have to compromise somewhat on graphics and polished, scripted experiences. Games such as Battlefield 3, Uncharted 3 and Portal 2 look so polished because the experience is very structured and you are clearly being led along a path the development team have carefully crafted. Compare this to something like Fallout 3, which doesn’t look very pretty but you are placed in a massively open world environment that you can explore as you wish. Final Fantasy has clearly opted to be based in the Uncharted camp rather than remaining in the less attractive, massively open RPG camp and here lies a massive problem. Final Fantasy is an RPG choosing to attempt to have its cake and eat it and it has failed massively.

Undoubtedly XIII was the game that killed the franchise for me. Obviously, being the most recent game this could be a one off mistake. After all Square had developed a new engine, which they were getting to grips with on a new console generation (but wasn’t this also the case with VII? And that was brilliant). I doubt this is the case though, as going back to analyse the changes made during this “third era” it is quite clear that some bad decisions had been fermenting since the development of X, mainly the development team trying to push the tech rather than looking at what made the older games in the series so good.

Other than linearity, XIII also implemented a new battle system, which has a similar feel to the Gambit system used in XII. The worst thing about the new battle system is the “autobattle” feature, which essentially presents the player with a “one button to rule them all option” as it selects the appropriate command to use. Now many people who have experienced a Final Fantasy game in the past know that many attacks, summons, potions and defence commands can be gained and utilised in battles throughout the game. JRPGs normal consist of many of these commands and part of the fun of the genre is the micromanagement and decision-making involved. Having a command to bypass this is killing the whole fun of the battles. Of course this feature doesn’t have to be used but it is very tempting in some situations, not to mention new comers to the genre will probably rely on this button constantly than complain that the game has no depth and you can win by just pressing one button.

XIII has also followed a recent trend of releasing sequels. Sadly, this is something that began with VII. VII started the trend for releasing sequels, spin-offs and other media in the form of Crisis Core, Advent Children and Dirge of Cerberus to name a few. The VII collection however was justified as the game had such a strong following and releases came years apart (Crisis Core for example was released over 10 years after VII). However, it wasn’t really until X that the flood gates truly opened for these types of Final Fantasy collections. Here is a list of the X, XII and XIII collections to date:

Final Fantasy X
Final Fantasy X-2

Final Fantasy XII
Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings

Final Fantasy XIII
Final Fantasy XIII-2
Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII
Versus XIII (TBC)

Conclusion

It seems very fitting that my first real JRPG experience was VII while XIII put me off JRPGs. Saying that both Dark Souls and Demon Souls are absolutely fantastic RPGs from an eastern developer and they shine a ray of hope that JRPGs haven’t all turned into a mess. I believe that a much more interesting RPG experience can be had with western RPGs. Games like Fallout 3 and Skyrim are absolutely huge while quests and game play style can be approached in a variety of ways. Other games, that aren’t strictly RPGs but include RPG elements such as Bioshock have also provided a refreshing way to revitalise both the RPG and FPS genres. Compare this to The Legend of Zelda or Final Fantasy. Although I am a massive fan of both Zelda and Final Fantasy I can’t help but think about how disappointing they have been in recent years. Zelda has gone stagnant and struggled to move with the times, offering a very hollow experience while Final Fantasy has tried to evolve and failed miserably.

[1] http://kotaku.com/5551606/how-long-would-a-final-fantasy-vii-remake-take

The used games debate

coventryxl_01

Used games have plagued publishers and developers for many years but with a move towards digital content and talk of patents to stop used games sales from both Sony[1] and Microsoft[2] could the age of second hand games be coming to a close? It is very doubtful that only one developer will pursue this type of tech, otherwise they risk a large portion of their fan base switching sides. Nevertheless digital sales are on the increase and with no way to sell your digital content license after you have finished with it you no longer have the option to make money from old games (and nor do retailers).

You can’t blame console manufacturers for wanting to cut back or even stop the sale of used games; after all they normally sell consoles at a loss. Even the PS3 sold at a loss when it was first released and that was priced at £425[3]. The reason behind this is to get a good install base built up and then generate revenue from software sales. If gamers decide to buy only used games this means the console manufacturer will have no way to recoup their costs; IGN’s Colin Moriarity talks more about this issue during an episode of game scoop! Which I suggest you check out [4].

Used games have been a staple of many games retailers for years; it is no secret that shops can make a greater profit from buying and selling used games than they can from new releases. After all when a new game is released is has to cover manufacturing costs as well as pay the publisher and developer; all of these factors eat away at a retailers profits. When buying and selling a second hand game the retailer is free to pocket all the profits (minus overheads of course) as the developer and publisher has no way to take a cut (although there are now online activate codes, which I talk about later). Selling second hand games isn’t illegal so a shop or gamer is well within their rights to make a profit from doing this.

This article raises several arguments for and against used games and from the offset I’d like to make it clear that I don’t present a right or wrong answer, I am merely presenting both sides of the story.

Why should the games industry be any different? 

Many of those in favour of used games can argue that the games industry operates no different from other industries with regards to second hand sales. Vauxhall for example won’t get a cut of my money if I sell my Corsa next year, nor should they. Why should the games industry be the exception to this rule? If you purchased the game as a boxed product then decide you no longer want it why shouldn’t you be able to sell it? Now on the other hand it could be argued that Vauxhall have a very good chance of continuing to make a profit long after my car has sold, not only do they offer services and MOTs on used cars but Vauxhall parts will need to be bought to maintain the car (of course 3rd party parts can be purchased instead).

Another way in which car manufacturers capitalise on used sales is by having their own used car show rooms and finance options. This would be akin to a developer or publisher such as EA setting up a dedicated store, specialising in the sale of used EA games. You could then argue that if used games pose such a large problem then developers should open up shops to sell their own used games at competitive prices.

DLC, online multiplayer and patches

Developers can still benefit from sales of used software, let me explain why. This generation has witnessed a sharp rise in the sale of DLC (downloadable content) and generally this is viewed as a way to extend the life of a game by adding new maps, levels, stories etc…

The original owner may have also bought a DLC pack which cannot be transferred to the new owner. If the new owner then decides to also buy DLC the developer makes a further sale even though only one game has been sold. Strategically timed DLC can even prevent or at least prolong a player selling on their copy of the game. The Call of Duty franchise for example, offers DLC over several months, therefore if you want to experience the new content you have to keep hold of the game.

Along with DLC this generation has also seen a big push for online multiplayer content and this brings us to another debate. DLC and online multiplayer both require an internet connection and are both offered to a customer via a server. When DLC is obtained by a customer the developer is directly benefiting from the customer accessing the server (which will cost money to run and maintain) whereas multiplayer is generally a free service. Developers have recently started to capitalise on this by only allowing access to multiplayer content if an online pass is activated. The pass will come free with all new games but can only be activated on one account. If the game is bought used the new owner must buy another online code in order to access the multiplayer content. In this situation you cannot blame the developer; after all you are not only playing a game in which they have received no money from you directly but you are now also using their server bandwidth and interacting with their online community. It could however be argued that the previous owner will no longer be accessing the multiplayer content and so their impact on the server and bandwidth has simply been passed on to the new owner.

Developers can also lose out when they offer patches and various updates for a game. Patches cost the developer money to create, submit and store on a server for gamers to download. Services like this are totally free so a player with a second hand copy of the game will effectively be costing the developer money when they update their used game.

Building a fan base 

2307565-super_metroid

Although buying used games isn’t illegal this debate reflects a similar situation the music industry found itself in with the rise of Napster back in the early 2000s. Big well established bands such as Metallica complained that they were losing money from all the sales they were missing out on [5]. On the other end of the scale many artists (generally less well known bands) didn’t actually mind their music being stolen because word spread and their fan base grew. Arguably the same could be applied to second hand games, with one large difference (and note I am not saying that buying used games is as bad as outright stealing music). Musicians make the majority of their income from touring and not from sales of music; developers on the other hand make most of their income from the sale of games.

Building a fan base through the sale of used games can have long term positive effects on game sales; many franchises I got into as a kid have stuck with me to this day. When I was younger I remember waiting all year for my birthday or Christmas just so I could get a few new games. I also remember saving money for The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and this was a big event to buy a game brand new, on release! Generally this meant that if I wanted a game any other time of the year I would have to save a bit of pocket money and make a trip to the local games shop to sift through used games. Super Metroid was one game I remember buying second hand, years later I am still a fan and have bought brand new copies of every Metroid game ever since. This is one such example and I now find many established franchises I grew up with still interest me today and I buy new versions of these games. 

Retro games

Generally I will only buy a used game if it is no longer for sale brand new (retro games from old consoles) or if I have some sort of voucher e.g. CEX credit. This probably stems back to being a child and having to buy used games, generally in pretty poor condition. When I was finally old enough to earn my own money I opted for brand new games that I could open and be the first person to play (especially being a bit of a games collector and wanting to keep my collection in great condition). I no longer had to put up with kids who had smeared their jam and chocolate covered fingers over the cartridges.

As people get more invested in games they generally want to experience a back catalogue of a franchise they love or see how genres have evolved over the years. Others want mint condition copies of 20 year old games or to relive games they played as they were growing up. Previously I’ve never really considered retro games as part of the “used games” debate, owing to the fact that they are out of print and could not be bought new. This all changed with the release of consoles like the Wii and PS3, where back catalogues are now offered for many old franchises, effectively giving a developer a way to once again make money from old games.

Conclusion 

I can’t offer any real conclusion of sorts because I never expected to make a decision as to whether used games are a good thing or a bad thing. I think larger franchises which sell several million copies of a game won’t notice much of a mark on their profits from the sale of used games. If anything, my previous point about bringing in new fans to the franchise applies. With smaller developers and niche games that only sell several hundred thousand copies used games have a much larger impact on the developer. After all development costs are rising, teams are getting bigger and risky or poor selling games have a very large effect on the future of many developers. Maybe I’m biased because I work in the industry and see companies closing quite often. Maybe you think developers should be greedy and want to block all used games sales just so they make a bit of extra cash. Either way it’s an interesting time for the games industry.

[1] http://kotaku.com/5972787/sony-patent-could-stop-you-from-playing-used-games-possibly-on-the-next-playstation

[2] http://www.edge-online.com/news/the-next-xbox-always-online-no-second-hand-games-50gb-blu-ray-discs-and-new-kinect/

[3] http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2007/feb/01/games.guardianweeklytechnologysection2

[4] http://www.ign.com/videos/2013/02/06/game-scoop-the-pros-cons-of-an-always-connected-console

[5] http://web.archive.org/web/20071129061341/http://judiciary.senate.gov/testimony.cfm?id=195&wit_id=252

Working in QA

ImageGen

At about the age of 17 I met a girl who told me her boyfriend was a games tester; to me this seemed like the holy grail of jobs. I imagined sitting around all day with a bunch of mates and playing a couple of games, after all that is what we generally did for fun after school. However, as I made my way through College and University the idea of being a games tester slipped to the back of my mind along with all the other “that will never happen” job scenarios many teenagers have like becoming a rock star. Fast forward almost 10 years and I had just graduated from University with a degree in Multimedia Technology and Music Production; I planned to pursue a career in Audio but didn’t know where to start. Still a big gamer I decided to look at audio jobs within the games industry and so I attended a few open days and generally began seeking out more information about my chosen career path. During one open day the QA manager of the company I was visiting explained a little bit about the job and recommended QA as a foot in the door to a development role.

My first job in the games industry was indeed as a games tester or QA (Quality Assurance). I held this position for about 1 ½ years before moving into the development side of the industry as an Audio Designer. To many gamers, QA is a mythical job role where geeks gather to play games all day and hone their skills. On the flip side, many people not into gaming turn their nose up when you explain to them that you test computer games for a living.

With this article I aim to explain what QA do on a daily basis, debunk some common myths and give an insight into what it is really like to be a games tester. So, where do you start?

The interview

Generally you need to scour various games publishers and developers websites; here they advertise new job roles.  Remember QA jobs are generally temporary and companies normally only advertise a few months prior to a game hitting the shelves.  Generally no prior experience or qualifications are required, but they certainly help. When I first applied for a job in QA I sent CVs to several companies and was successful in getting an interview. I can’t say what the process is like at all games companies but for this job I was required to complete a short application form and after a couple of weeks I had an interview lined up.

The interview was presented in two parts; first of all I had to complete a short exam of sorts. The idea here was to weed out anybody who isn’t really that interested in games, after all you don’t make an ideal candidate for the job if you don’t even like games. The exam mainly consisted of pictures of old tech, games and consoles and asked the examinee to correctly identify each one, nothing too drastic! The second part was the actual interview which covered the basic questions asked at most interviews such as “why do you want this job”, “why did you leave your last job” etc… The interview then moved onto games where I was asked to list my favourite genres and games and talk a little bit about my choices. QA questions were also asked, such as “what do you think is involved in testing a game” and “how would you approach testing X part of a game…”

The risk you have to take

A few weeks later I received a phone call and was informed that my interview had been successful. Now a predicament many new starters have to resolve is where they will live, do you commute or move house?  As QA jobs are generally offered on a temporary basis your contract may not be renewed in 6 months time, whereas your tenancy might last 12 months. I absolutely didn’t hesitate over this decision and immediately found a place to rent 15 minutes away from where I would be working.  When starting out on a career path you have to take risks and think positive; the company are working on other games, if I prove I can work hard they might renew my contract.  During my time in QA I did indeed experience the dreaded QA layoff period, luckily I survived (in part because I was transitioning into a different department).

The Job

What is it actually like to work in QA?  Well the “dream job” status I once applied to games testers as a 17 year old had long since vanished before I’d even applied for the role; I was now applying as a necessity to get into the games industry. I’d hope anybody who is old enough to seriously consider becoming a tester understands that this is a real job, involving serious work, carful observation and long hours.

The day I started in QA I joined the 14 or so other new starters; we were taken to our seats in an open plan room containing around 40 other testers (one of two main QA rooms).  My first task was to open up an old build of a previously released game and identify several bugs (which had purposely been left in that build), after a day or so on this task the real work started.

The common myth seems to be that working in QA involves sitting around all day playing games and while this is in part true the bulk of the job involves a lot of paper work and organisation. Tasks are split up into looking for new issues, confirming issues and testing old issues, this is very repetitive work and this is where the realisation kicks in that this is indeed a job, not a hobby. In a typical day you could be given a list of new settings to play with, you may have to use a 19” CRT TV and play with the saturation low and the language set to German. All eventualities need to be covered and so just because the majority of gamers might now play on 42” LED HD TV’s there will be a small percentage of players who only have access to a CRT TV. Audio is also tested, be it on headphones, TV speakers, stereo speakers or a surround sound system. Audio options need to be adjusted such as playing with the speech fader set to 0% if applicable, any speech heard will then have to be entered into a database as a bug.

As well as your settings you may then be given a very specific task to complete. Here are a few examples and outcomes that could happen to give you an idea of why they need to be tested:

Task
Walk against every wall in the level

Example of a bug
The player may find walls with no collision properties. This could cause the player to fall out of the world or access areas of the game early, causing further bugs and progression issues.

Task
Complete the game without upgrading any weapons

Example of a bug
If the game is structured into levels with upgrades only taking place at specific times the player may reach a level in which they cannot kill a certain boss and cannot return to the upgrade area.  This will then halt progression indefinitely.

Task
Drive around each track the wrong way

Example of a bug
Game logic may not be able to deal with a player completing laps backwards.  Warning speech or visual notifications to inform the player that they are going the wrong way may not trigger.

Bugs are listed into a database where several important pieces of information is added, this is where the tester needs to be organised and clear about an issue.  Relevant information or sections to complete might include:

–        Type of issue (AI, Audio, graphics, logic etc…)

–        Priority (Is this a priority 1 and causing the game to crash, or a minor issue such as a characters arm clipping through a tiny piece of wall?)

–        Build number (builds are generated often, if somebody else is playing in an older build they may think the issue isn’t present)

–        Where the bug occurs (game mode, level or mission)

–        Other specifics (using the power sword, driving the Ford, when playing online etc…)

–        What platform (Xbox 360, PS3, PC etc… the bug may not occur on all platforms so they all have to be tested)

–        How often the bug occurs (e.g. 1/10 times, otherwise somebody may re-test this issue 3 or 4 times and decide it is now fixed)

–        Method of reproduction (so the developer or QA can test the issue again)

Once a bug has been completed it is then assigned to the relevant department to be resolved. After the issue has been fixed it is then returned to QA as a fixed issue, the testing doesn’t stop here however. All fixed bugs are once again tested (using the method of reproduction) to confirm if the issue is fixed. If there are still problems the bug will fail, a new comment will be added by the tester who failed the bug and it will once again return to the developers.  In some situations a bug may be returned without being fixed, this may be a “no fix” or “cannot reproduce”. A no fix can arise if a tester has incorrectly flagged something which may actually be a feature or a tech related issue which simply cannot be fixed (an example of this can be seen in large open world games such as Skyrim or Read Dead Redemption where textures may pop in and take a while to load but cannot be made to load in any quicker). “Cannot reproduce” issues can generally arise if the tester has not given enough information to reproduce the bug (e.g. the bug may only occur when using a very specific weapon which the tester didn’t mention). Alternatively QA can generally be several builds behind the development team and bugs may have already been fixed in a newer version of the game which the tester has yet to receive, nullifying the bug.

As well as seeking out new bugs other tasks may include reproducing existing bugs on all platforms. Let’s say a tester finds an issue on PS3 and enters a bug, this bug could be exclusive to this platform or may happen on all platforms. To verify this, a second tester may go through all bugs which have been found on PS3 but have not yet been checked on Xbox 360. The tester will follow the method of reproduction for each bug and confirm if it also happens on the 360.

Towards the end of a development cycle other tasks will be carried out such as completing the game from start to finish and perhaps meeting certain criteria along the way. Take inFAMOUS as an example; a player has the option to choose good and evil options throughout the game, resulting in two different experiences. This task is perhaps one of the more tedious jobs a tester has to complete; arriving at work in the morning and doing a full play through until your shift finishes may seem fine on the surface. Now remember, the tester may have been on the same game for the last 5 months, 3 of which might have included a lot of overtime. They probably know the game inside out and may not even enjoy playing it.

Taking on the role of a QA tester is full of pros and cons and when people ask me about my time spent in QA I always tell them the same thing. The job can be very tedious at times but I’d much rather be in an industry I love, getting paid to test games than standing in Sainsbury’s stacking shelves of meat for 8 hours at a time (as I did while at University). The job is also relatively low paying, I won’t mention how much I earned but a recent MCV survey lists the current average wage for QA[1]. This is coupled with the risk you take of entering into a temporary contract in an industry which is plagued with studio closures and redundancies.

Development cycles also experience “crunch” periods, typically this can last for several months and everybody from development to QA are required to work overtime to get the game finished for the street date. Often you hear stories about QA and Devs sleeping under their desks just to get a game finished. I can’t say it’s ever been that bad for me but there have been times when I’ve left the office in the early hours of the morning.

Moving onwards and upwards

QA is one of the best ways to get into the games industry and to begin understanding development cycles. Working with development builds, test kits and seeing a game progress from an almost unplayable state to a polished master all contributes to your understanding of the development process. Identifying and logging bugs also provides a great background for development as you start to learn the basics as to why bug are occurring and how they are being resolved (developers may add comments or small details about the fix to the bug report). This process is especially useful when identifying bugs related to the department you are interested in; in my case I wanted to progress onto the audio development team. I would look for any audio related bugs, which would help me understand what should and shouldn’t be included in a game. My bugs would then be fixed and sent back for me to check, generally there would also be a comment added such as “re-exported the asset at the correct sample rate” or “asset was 500kb too big, causing a crash”.

Another great benefit of being part of a QA team is the ability to interact with developers on a daily basis, not just within a working environment but socially as well. On your commute to work, around the office and in the canteen you can get to know the people you work with. Some QA are lucky enough to receive feedback on their portfolio or apply for vacancies advertised internally (many developers start off in QA). As well as the development team you are also surrounded by like-minded graduates, rarely did I talk to people in QA who did not have some sort of degree in programming, games design, art and other disciplines. This can provide a good opportunity to work alongside friends on your portfolio, learn new skills or make links with possible future developers.

The pros and cons

Pros of working in QA

–        Essentially you play games for a living

–        Work in an industry you love

–        A chance to network with developers and graduates

–        Build up background knowledge of the development cycle

–        A foot in the door to a development job

–        The ability to apply for internally advertised jobs

–        A good opportunity for feedback on your portfolio

–        Your name in a list of credits

–        A copy of the games you work on and discounts on other games

Cons of working in QA

–        Low paying

–        Normally temporary contracts

–        During overtime there are long hours and weekend work

–        Working on one game for months at a time can become tedious

–        Difficult to get a promotion

[1] http://www.mcvuk.com/news/read/uk-games-industry-salary-survey-what-are-you-worth/0110018