Friday, 25 July 2014

Game Dev Story is a bit mean to its staff, int it?


Wolfenstein 3D, Custer’s Revenge, Ethnic Cleansing , Super Columbine Massacre RPG!,
that game where you shoot JFK: all are examples of aspects of the real world being looked at through the lens of video games. They’re all - to differing extents and in their own ways - difficult to laude as works of high (even low, in most cases) art or defend as rounded, fair or (maybe) even worthwhile endeavours. They are all button-pressers: games that wear their controversy-courting intentions proudly on their sleeves (sometimes just above an insignia-emblazoned armband). While the first two examples are merely sillily offensive, it’s that all five are grounded in very explicit real world contexts - as part or complete recreations of specific events and happenings - that imbues them their power to wilfully shock and/or disgust. Game Dev Story isn’t like any of these because it hasn’t a divisive bone in its body. It does, however, centre itself on a very real world industry, and by doing so is actually quite mean in the process, if, of course, you’re inclined to look at it that way (which I am, just so you know).
GDS is a management simulation in which you play as the head of a video game development studio. You’re tasked (not explicitly mind, it’s just, well, I suppose a given that in a management sim you’re there to make money) with building up your studio by developing increasingly profitable games. This undeniably creative process is handled almost exclusively through sliders, stat-points, data analysis, research and spending money. Par for the course where a management sim is concerned; it’s almost certainly a lot like video game development in some cases too, I’m sure.

You begin by hiring staff. These are the people who’ll ultimately make your designs flesh, sweating and stressing while you sit behind a desk surveying their progress. (Which creates this weird disconnect, as you occupy a typical birds-eye view of the proceedings whilst also having an in-game avatar on screen as well. It’s as if you’re so omnipotent that you can step out of your body and manage things from afar, which might actually explain why the chap sat in the “BOSS” chair never looks to be doing anything much at all.) The dutiful men and women arrive on their first day with a set of skills (Program/Scenario/Graphics/Sound) which govern the quality of the work they produce. As with anything in life, you start small, producing generally low-quality products that don’t set reviewers or consumers alight with enraptured joy. Profits are humble, ideas are ordinary and applause is muted, but your company is still making money. Money’s good, remember, so everything is kinduv working out okay.

These meagre profits are dually ploughed into future projects and cultivating your staff. Each employee’s skills can be grown in two ways: by “levelling up” and “training”. The former spends research points accrued whilst actively developing games and gives decent increases in up to all four skill categories. The latter is achieved by spending significant amounts of money on your charges and usually adds only a few points to a couple of their skills. Levelling is super-efficient but can only be done a maximum of four times, leaving you to invest in your staff in a very piecemeal fashion thereafter. Piecemeal growth ain’t the prerogative of big business, however, so you reach a point where your staff are bottlenecking your fiscal (and creative, I suppose) growth. (Again, an interesting logical disconnect, seeing as they are the ones who seemingly do all the actual work, yet are now pitched as the ones holding you, oh Great Desk Inhabitor, back.)

There are two things you can do when beset with this issue of stagnation. Option one-ahh is to wait until the salesman comes ‘round offering up “career change manuals” which can be used to retrain - and thus further upgrade - your staff. These, however, are prohibitively expensive in the early going and often significantly blunt already upgraded skills. While in the long run this one-step-forward-two-steps-back approach does prove fruitful - fully upgrading a character multiple times unlocks a (ooh) special ability - it’s simply not viable when resources are already pressed for your fledgling development house. Enter option two-ahh: fire everyone and build a new team of more suitable and experienced professionals.

As I said previously, making games in GDS is a very sterile process based on metrics. Want to create the best visuals for your game? Pick the member of staff with the best “Graphics” stat. Good writing? Better go with the highest “Scenario”. The whole process essentially boils down to picking the staffer with the highest stat in a particular discipline, which by definition means you’re looking at the numbers and not the ‘person’. If suddenly your ever-extended employee fishing net happens to catch an applicant with even slightly better stats, you’re going to jettison young Donny Jepp in favour of Walt Sidney without thought. Making games is a business, remember, and if you can score a few extra points at review by replacing your most loyal employee (he’s been here since we were working in a caravan), you’re going to do it. And do it you will, without even considering Donny’s rent or food or winter heating costs. It’s particularly melancholic when it comes time to replace Walt himself, as Donny attempts to reapply for his old job having seemingly been out of work for three years, or at best recently relieved of whatever role he was fulfilling at another mercenary developer.

Management sims dehumanise their subjects. It’s been like that since the days you were picking up nurses and janitors and doctors and flinging them about - legs flailing (I don’t think they actually did, but I always filled in that particular blank for myself) - your crumbling for-profit hospital complex. Now, I’m not saying that the indentured game developers featured in GDS are somehow more important than all the ostriches, golfers, firemen, alien meat-curers or even medieval brewers in all the other management sims ever created for all of the computers. It’s just that I’m more familiar with the caveats and weirdness of their tumultuous real life job market. It’s this added knowledge which makes the game quite difficult - morally speaking - to play in its intended way, i.e. making the most money possible, whatever the cost. It raises an interesting point; namely that video games of all kinds often use statistics to mask the otherwise heinous truths of their players’ actions. Kill-to-death ratios, percentage completion of kill quests and reinforcement tickets: are all (obvious, yes) examples of numbers being used to both quantify success and obfuscate the bloody nature of the challenge itself.

I’m not saying that GDS is in any way equatable to recreating the minutia of a presidential assassination - that introduction was almost entirely for hollow shock-value, drawing one’s eye with unnecessary bluster. It is, however, pertinent to note that whenever a game - or a film, song, stage musical etc. - explicitly and directly tackles a real world subject, its content is going to be that much more potent. This is surely the case whether a game endeavours, as with Super Columbine, to have something to say, as much as when, like Game Dev Story, it really doesn’t.



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