Thursday, December 27, 2012

Gaming Award Analysis - Categories, Selection, and Philosophy

(Which awards you give is as important as the selection process of giving awards. The Philosophy behind award categories is essential for Video Game Award committees to understand.)

The mission of this column has always been to analyze gaming culture and the gaming industry and a great topic around this time is end of the year awards for Games. There are a ton of questions that come to mind and forums filled with flame wars as to which games deserve which awards but there's very little discussion on what categories there should be to begin with.

Are we missing any important categories? Do we have any now that are too general that need to be removed? Besides the issues of categories, can you have two games win the same award, or not give an award because no games earned it?

There are a lot of tough questions surrounding these end of the year gaming awards, and a lot of them that simply haven't been addressed. It's important to talk about what game is the game of the year, but it's equally important to discuss whether any game should even win an award for a particular category.

So given all the questions we raised lets try to delve in and find some answers.

Gaming Categories

What should be the philosophy behind creating a category? What requirements need to be put in place before we create a new category or remove one? This is important to address because gaming is here to stay for as long as mankind thrives on this planet. During that time, categories need to be in flux or change because over time certain genres may not become as popular or may disappear altogether.

If we keep stale old categories, their age will start to show and people will wonder "Why do we even give awards for that genre?" It's a question I asked myself and I continue to ask as gaming has progressed and the categories seem to be getting staler and showing their age. On the flip side, you may be ignoring important new categories by no reassessing the landscape and finding new genres that have emerged.

So, given all of that, what requirements should be put in place to create/sustain a category?

Sizable Market

By Sizable market, there are two different requirements that are being put forward. First there must be a large number of people that recognize and play this genre, so that it's not a small niche of gamers, and secondly there should be a sizeable amount of games released in this category every year.

Philosophy behind it

If this requirement was not put in place, we would have two problems:
  • Games with small niche followings would ask for their own categories, for their own genre and would have every right to do so, creating too many awards and too many categories.
  • The second problem would entail making categories for genres that only release a few games per year. In this way, there is very little competition, and people know which game is going to get the award. Why make a category if few games are released and there is an obvious winner amongst the few?
So for the above reasons we should remove categories that shrink and lose their sizable market status and create new categories for emerging genres with large fan bases and multiple gaming releases.


There should be very little overlap between categories such that one game can't easily be put into multiple categories. A good example to illustrate this point might be if we created a category for "Best game that uses controllers". Most, if not nearly all games, use controllers and to make such a badly worded category would make it so that many different games could all be up for the same award.

There is one caveat that I'd like to mention, which is the "Game of the Year" award itself. Being that you want every single game considered, that needs to allow all games to compete, but outside of that specific category, you wouldn't want to make another category that's too general.

Philosophy behind it

If we ignored this rule and created categories that were too general, we would be left with this problem:

  • The award itself would have little meaning, as you're not highlighting how this game is better than the rest. To give an award simply for having a controller or a genre that's too broad to create distinction, dilutes the award itself. People would recognize that and not give it as much respect as games that won "Shooter of the year", a title that's often extremely competitive.

This may be the most important factor of all because often categories are not reevaluated and become irrelevant. Time eats away at them, gaming progresses, and websites lazily keep awarding games based on a category that is 10 years old and no longer as popular.

Gaming sites need to know that there are consequences for giving awards that are simply, irrelevant.

Three problems come to mind:
  • Firstly as mentioned above people can feel the category is old and needs to be removed.
  •  We include categories that have little to do with gaming, are not genres, and may just be considered "cool". More discussion will be given on these non-gaming genre categories later in this article. A quick example of a category like this would be Golden Joystiq's "Youtube Gamer Award".
  • We neglect new genres that have been created, because we don't reevaluate our awards and recognize that gaming has changed, requiring new awards, for new types of games.

Given these three principles, most award committees should be able to make different awards, think outside the box, and keep their awards relevant to the current year.

*Keep in mind that giving awards outside of gaming genres is perfectly acceptable if the purpose of it is to recognize some hidden talent or outside effort on the part of the Gaming Industry or the fans. There are good and bad ways to go about this, and one bad way, "Youtube Gamer award" was listed above. A good example would be "Story of the Year" or "Best New Game Mechanic of the Year".

Evaluating Awards

Just to show the current state of our awards I thought I'd evaluate two different Gaming award groups and analyze their categories given the three principles listed above. The two award groups I'll be looking at are the Golden Joystiq awards which are arguably one of the oldest, if not the oldest gaming award committee, going since 1982 and Gamespot which is one of the generic big websites centered around Gaming.

First lets list the awards and discuss Golden Joystiq's categories.

Golden Joystiq 2012

Best Action- Winner: Batman: Arkham City
Best DLC- Winner: Portal 2 (Perpetual Testing Initiative)
Best Downloadable- Winner: Minecraft (360)
Best Fighter- Winner: Mortal Kombat Komplete Edition
Best Free To Play- Winner: Slender
Best Handheld- Winner: Uncharted: Golden Abyss
Best MMO- Winner: World of Tanks
Best Mobile Tablet- Winner: Angry Birds Space
Best Racer- Winner: Forza 4

Best RPG- Winner: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Best Shooter- Winner: Battlefield 3
Best Sports- Winner: FIFA 12
Best Strategy- Winner: Civilization V: Gods and Kings
Outstanding Contribution- FIFA (EA Sports)
One to Watch- Winner: Grand Theft Auto V
Top Gaming Moment- Winner: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – Throat of theWorld
Ultimate Game of the Year- Winner: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Greatest YouTube Gamer Award- Winner: Yogscast


So in total there are 18 awards. Just off the back, before we analyze the problems, lets look at the categories that are obviously acceptable and then list which are problematic given the principles we listed above.

Obviously acceptable:
Ultimate game of the year (Essentially Game of the year)
Best Strategy
Best Sports
Best Shooter
Best RPG
Best Mobile
Best Handheld
Best Free to Play
Best Fighter
Best DLC
Best MMO

So that's 11 out of the 18 that can easily be understood, are large genres, or deserve recognition. Sadly that leaves 7 that are problematic; a fairly big number. Lets tackle them 1 by 1.

Best Action: Nearly every game has action and it's not as easy a category to justify when applied to games. This category may have been added when looking at Movie award categories where an action movie is more about the visual destruction, violence, or intensity of a film. In the vast majority of games, you can't avoid action.

This category clearly violates the Unique principle listed above, and what game studio would be happy to get this award instead of Best RPG or Best Strategy game. That puts you ahead of the pack. Best action is too generic and diluted a term for gaming.

Best Downloadable: Since they already have a DLC award, what is this category? DLC stands for Downloadable Content, so why would you make a separate category dedicated to downloadable. It seems from looking at the games they awarded, one category recognizes additions to games which they label DLC and the other category recognizes games that don't come on discs and are downloaded.

There's one problem with this, because of sites like Amazon and Steam, most games can be downloaded without a disc now. They can be bought before launch day and downloaded the hour it's released; all blockbuster triple AAA titles. So this category breaks the principles of Relevancy.

Outstanding Contribution: What is this category? Contributed to what? It was even given to EA, a company that's notorious for bad business practices with their consumers. This award reeks of an insider scam. This breaks the principle of common sense.

One to Watch: Awards for games that haven't even come out, and are just being hyped up is never a good idea. Anyone remember L.A Noire? Rockstar is good at making games, but giving the game to GTA 5, without knowing if it's good yet, is not what Gaming award committees should do. It doesn't benefit the gamer, the companies, or help to distinguish the best games.

Best Racer: This is a great example of violating the Sizable Market principle and Relevancy principle. In 2010 the game was given to Forza, and in 2011 it was given to Gran Turismo and then in 2012 back to Forza again.

Racing games used to have a large niche, especially with the Need for speed franchise. But since then, amazing new original racing games, and the genre as a whole has been dying and shrinking.
We have to recognize this and let this category go. We can't keep giving free awards to a few games, that dominate a small niche of the market

Top Gaming Moment: Since games on average are 5-8 hours long, this category is a near impossibility especially since you end up comparing apples to oranges. How do you compare shooter moments to RPG moments or great story arcs to great gameplay moments? This is such a daunting task it essentially violates the Unique principle defined above. There are too many moments in games, and different types of games, to justify a Top Gaming Moment.

Greatest YouTube Gamer Award: This award is more of a popularity contest award and probably there to make the award ceremony seem "hip, cool, and trendy". Youtube is an amazing video website that lets you share all types of content across the world for free but gaming commentators are not games themselves. Although they may provide a lot of value and people may love to watch them, they are a secondary part of gaming.

It would be like giving a movie award to movie critics. You never see awards like that given at movie award ceremonies. It definitely relates to the topic at hand but it's a secondary concern. Most likely, as mentioned above, this was added to make the ceremony seem more on the cutting edge, hip, and with the times. In reality, we shouldn't be giving awards to people that play games and share them on youtube. Most true gamers would agree with that.

Gamespot 2012

Genre Awards

Fighting Game of the Year
Action/Adventure Game of the Year
Role-Playing Game of the Year
Shooter of the Year
Strategy Game of the Year
Racing Game of the Year
Sports Game
Platformer of the Year

Platform Awards
PC Game of the Year
PS3 Game of the Year
PSN Game of the Year
Xbox 360 Game of the Year
XBLA Game of the Year
Wii U Game of the Year
Handheld Game of the Year

Special Achievements
Game of the Year

There are 16 awards this time, not counting 12 random awards given under special achievements which will be discussed separately.

I enjoy how Gamespot separates the different awards into Genre, Platform, and finally in their special and Game of the year category. This really helps navigation and helps people understand where each award fits.

Of the 16 awards, not counting the special awards, there were 4 I take issue with which is a better ratio than the 7 out of 18 that were lacking in the Joystiq awards.

Action/Adventure: Just looking at the nominees shows how broad this category is. You have a Puzzle platformer of Darksiders 2 up against a more strategy/adventure/survivor like Lone survivor, and then you throw in a sneaking game like Dishonored into the mix. Just to add more variety they tout the open world game Sleeping dogs.

This category again violates the Unique principle and doesn't allow games to be classified properly. A lot of games have action and adventure and to try to make one category with a jumbling of completely different games causes confusion, dilutes the award, and creates flame wars on forums.

 Racing: The same issues were raised above in the Joystiq awards. Also, wouldn't you know it, but that they choose Forza. Quite a surprise right? This is a category that is just too old and needs to go as gaming has progressed passed it.

PSN/XBLA: A DLC category would have been better. Why does it matter if one game is better simply because it's on Xbox live. Have the games go head to head and create a nice DLC category where only the best games, either on PSN, or on XBLA can go at it and survive.

By separating these categories, a better PSN game may get robbed of the crown of best DLC because it has to share the award with those in the XBLA category, EVEN if the PSN game is better. The same may happen to an Xbox live game.

Special Achievements: I like the idea and concept behind this because it gives awards for specific achievements and greatness that's hard to put in a cookie cutter box. They gave awards I completely agree with, like one for Dear Esther, for its amazing storytelling and unique game mechanic. They did the same with Walking Dead because of its emotional storyline.

But there are also some in here that are just pathetic like "Persona 4 Golden" for "proving Persona 4 is still awesome"..... Really Gamespot? Really? There are some other bad ones like an award for FTL simply "for keeping its promise after getting funded". I thought keeping promises is what every human is supposed to do? When did we start giving awards to people for not lying to us?

To give or not to give, that is the question

Another question about Gaming awards is whether to give them for a category or not. What if in the last year no games really reached a level or quality deserving of the title?

Does that level of quality even matter? Could it be the award is given to a game regardless of how bad the playing field was? Is it that these games are so competitive for sales that this is just a theoretical problem that won't actual surface as game designers fight tooth and nail for quality?

A lot of unanswered questions. To sum it up it may be best to say it's hard for a gaming committee to not award a game. In the history of gaming awards this has rarely if ever happened. Even if the year sucked and had very few high quality titles, the awards seem to still be there for the grabbing.

If I were on a committee would I vote to keep an award empty? If the year were bad enough, I just might. Being honest with ourselves here though, this seems a rare possibility, but given how weak 2012 was for gaming, we may have this issue come up in the future. So for now, gaming award committees should include this possibility but in all likelihood we probably will find at least one candidate worthy of a particular title.

With that, we'll have to put our analysis to a rest and I hope this article raised some questions in your head and allowed you to look deeper at gaming than the everyday news or updates Kotaku spits at you.  :P

Thanks for sticking in there and see you all next week! :)

Friday, December 21, 2012

Are Games Getting too Easy? Do Easy Games sell better?

(So yea, Gaming hasn't improved, it has simply gotten simpler so we imbeciles can enjoy it. Right? Wrong!)

Commonly in Video Game culture there comes a discussion of how games today are just far too easy and they've developed this way to make it easier for the masses to play games. This idea perpetuates the notion that gaming has only gotten bigger because it has dumbed down so that non-gamers(Whoever they are) can get excited about playing games.

There are two main reasons why these types of ideas are just plain stupid. Firstly it's actually offensive to gamers to say that more people play now because games have gotten "stupid" enough for the majority of "stupid" society to play along.

Believe it or not, Pokemon, Paperboy, and Super Street fighter were never hard games. It's true that there are a number of series early on in gaming that were extremely challenging but looking at the "Golden" era of gaming shows a plethora of games you could consider laughably easy.

IF ANYTHING there are MORE challenging games on the market from 2000-2012, then there were from 1988-2000. As gamers grew up, game designers were forced to keep their audience and code for better and better games more centered toward growing audiences. This has lead to more challenge over time rather than more games like Asteroids.

So just to clarify my first point, there were tons of easy games back when Gaming was developing in the golden era which people seem to so greatly cling to. Ignoring them and saying we have too many easy games today is just ignorance about Gaming history.

Secondly, games have gotten more efficient over time and game designers have been working their butts off trying to makes games more approachable and easier to understand for decades. To ignore their hard work in how they seamlessly integrate tutorials into the game or provide subtle hints to push the player forward CAN lead to someone THINKING a game is more easy. In reality it's Game designers who have become incredibly good at their jobs.

Games that used to stop and teach you a new game mechanic and then force you into the fire may have seemed harder than the current games which slowly ease you into a new game mechanic and only make it necessary once you've had time to master it.

This just means games are less frustrating and are fairer, rather than throwing you into the fire randomly or improperly setting up the game. Why would we want to go back to games that were badly designed?

Hard Games have always existed

Now pointing all this out isn't to say that hard games didn't exist, they definitely did and the hard ones in the 1990's are probably harder than the hard ones we have today. But to say that we don't have games that are difficult now, or to say that people only love gaming because it's dumbed down is insulting to all gamers. We're not imbeciles and society as a whole isn't filled with droves of idiots that like to randomly mash buttons.

Button mashing games exist, as do correctly designed games like Pokemon. Pokemon, just given as an example, is a game that has depth, but can also be easily played by most children. The game design is supurb and explains why it has gone on to sell millions of copies.

Similarly, most current day games have learned the mistakes of the passed, become the wiser, and are more approachable and easier to  get into than games of the past. This doesn't make them easier, only better built, and this increased efficiency of play is a boon that has lead to many millions more people getting addicted to the gaming bug.

Our Games are as great as they've always been, we should recognize that, praise the talents of game designers, and acknowledge that we've learned from the past's mistakes. To simply throw that all away and say games are "easier" is essentially a slap in the face to all gamers; especially when you follow it up by saying gaming only has mass appeal if it's dumbed down.

Don't let their ignorance about Gaming's history taint the hard work of countless game production studios, designers, programmers, and the community at large.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Asymmetrical Gameplay

 (When you enter the virtual world you want as much of the real you as you can to take part. Asymmetrical gameplay is a way of playing to your strengths and taking advantage of your enemy's weaknesses.)

Everyone has an intrinsic way they love to fight or compete. Asymmetrical Gameplay takes advantage of that. People that love weapons or magical powers that give them faster attack will gladly play that way even if it means having to play with less health.

Game designers often take advantage of this fact and allow complex arrangements of play to take place each giving one player a distinct advantage and weakness over the others. Although one player may be able to quickly kill the other, his speed may be directly affected. People that love to play those slow tanks, will still gladly do so and slowly trug along, knowing if they can get their hands on the opponent, they will easily make up their lost time and mow through the enemy lines.

Asymmetrical gameplay gives everyone what they want. The players can play with a distinct advantage over others while the opponents can try to take advantage of that players inherent weaknesses. In this way, games like League of Legends, Left 4 Dead, and more recently, Primal Carnage, have thrived.

Asymmetry versus Power Creep

Asymmetrical Gameplay solves a long had problem of Gaming which is power creep. In games that are multiplayer and are constantly played like W.O.W and Starcraft, the developers are always updating the game with new content and are always having to tweak some mechanism, weapon, or object to balance the game.

This is very tedious and sometimes by trying to balance the game you could make a new character the new king and make it very hard to beat that latest character. So how would a developer solve the issue of making characters too powerful over time or accidentally ruining balanced play?

The best way to do that is unbalance the play from the beginning. Allow a number of different weaknesses for each character, and give each character a unique upper hand over the rest. The chaos this seemingly creates causes a very interesting type of harmony.

Although each player is significantly better than the rest, they all each have different weaknesses, and different teams and tactics will be formed to take advantage of these weaknesses. Maybe if a fast character never has enough of a chance to get to the enemy, ranged units can be combined which can pin the enemy down, and then the fast units can go after their pinned foes and easily pick them off.

To defend the other side can try to rally behind 1 tank and break through the ranks of the ranged units trying to then fight 1 on 1 and break up the wall of ranged weapons.

None of this is possible without Asymmetry. Assuming every person was generically good, generically fast, and with generic weapons, you all die around the same period, and it becomes a game about teamwork, rather than tactics using your strengths against their weaknesses.

This explains the Call of Duty crowd, where most anyone has a good enough gun to kill most anyone, at a significant range. This forces people to use Teamwork and tactics based on that teamwork. Although even these games have their level of Asymmetry it's nowhere near an FPS game like Planetside which gives much stronger advantages to one side over the other.

We're all Unique

The other benefit to being able to play Asymmetrically is that we're all unique. Why try to fit us all into one type of game play style if we like playing differently? There is a friend I will never forget that was the greatest Tank driver I've ever seen. He was amazing at helping me get good shots off and trying to avoid the enemy, getting us the best chance at winning the base ahead of us.

He didn't kill anyone and he didn't care. He would drive and drive for hours just so a better shooter than him could do the extra damage necessary to succeed and push forward. Games that allow players to really take advantage of their hidden potential are games with staying power and games that won't easily be forgotten.

Some people really love to fly, and even if they can't do much damage in the air, the reconnaissance they provide along with the transport can really save the day for their team.

A task I hate myself but that's essential in every RPG is the healer. I hate being a healer, I can't stand doing it, but every team dies without one. Every so often I meet a person who is an amazing healer and can really turn the tide in battle.

Symmetrical, boring, generic gameplay would never allow these people to succeed. It's this uneven type of fighting where each wields powerful influence, that allows these dynamics to kick in and a lot of fun to be had.

I've already mentioned a bunch of asymmetrical games above but if you get stuck I'm sure there are a bunch more out there you have yet to find. Find your play type, love the role you play, and kick butt doing it.  :)

If anything, asymmetrical gameplay may be the way of the future.