8/26/2013

GMN at GamesCom

I started writing this article on the plane back from Cologne and with head full of stuff I have seen and thought during GamesCom. Yes, I am writing this to justify the possibly chaotic nature of what you're about to read. Oh, and if you want some GC 2013 summary or photo gallery, you'll probably have to look somewhere else. Here's GamesCom in the eyes of a noob developer. 

Before GamesCom
If you are going to a fair with your product, you need to have something to present. A trailer, beta gameplay or at least some artwork. All this needs to be prepared. That means that a big chunk of the studio's work will not be going into developing the game further, but into preparing the trailer or gameplay demo or both. The bigger the fair, the sooner the studio starts preparing for it. In case of the biggest events, the preparations start months before. Close to deadline the team is very likely to go into crunch mode. The producer goes to a convention like GamesCom tired after the last minute preparations and full of guilt. Guilt, that he spent way too much time on promotional tasks and that he has so much to catch on with productionwise.


Business area
There are two types of a place a company can have in the business area. Some decide to have a stand-alone booth that - as a rule of thumb - gives better visibility. Others might get a booth in larger areas prepared by third parties. Such areas have the convenience of external maintenance, a dedicated bar and lots of tables for networking. To be honest, the business area of GamesCom looked pretty boring. Sure, the walls have nice logos and arts on the walls, but if you don't know where the cool stuff happens, it looks pretty close to any job or trade fair. It's what happens behind closed doors matters in the business area. Since only press and people from the industry can enter, studios tend to show much more of their currently developed games than they would show in public. My studio, for example, was showing only a CGI trailer in the entertainment area, while people in the business area had a chance to see the gameplay. Another perk is shorter lines or no lines at all if some exhibitors decide to show off their products in both areas. People in the entertainment area waited in a line for hours to check out the Oculus Rift. I waited five minutes. People in the entertainment area could crowd around a booth with the racing seats while people in the business area could casually try the seats out without any crowd and enjoy a race.


Sounds like a dream comming true? Not really. If you are there as a developer, you are most likely booked from early morning till late evening to deliver the same presentation over and over with just small breaks to pee. The shorter the presentation, the worse. A guy from CCP Games briefing people for EVE Valkyrie was explaining the same controls over and over every five minutes for three days. After that, he'll probably be repeating these controls briefing in his sleep for a week. The only people who can actually fully enjoy all the perks of the business area are high level executives and press.

Entertainment Area
This is where I spent most of my time on GamesCom as I was responsible for showing off the trailer of our game. It is also what most of the folks came to see. The amount of people in there is truly ridiculous. To play some of the more popular games for a few minutes you need to spend at least an hour in a line. To get from one hall to another you need to slowly move with the crowd - getting from the closest hall to the one most far away can easily take 20 minutes of travel. In the halls themselves, if there are two big studios having an exposition next to each other, the space between them will probably be so crowded that it'll be impossible to go through.

What you see here is maybe a 1/3 of a corridor between halls.
This year, GamesCom was invaded by over 340 000 people.
If you want to visit a big games convention (which I highly encourage you to do if you have the means to do so - it's an amazing experience!) then I would advise you not to assume that you will get to play a lot of games that are still in development. Still, you will get to see lots of cool presentations, professional battles in the most popular online games, like LoL or SC2. You will have a lot of chances to win some nice gadgets - be it t-shirts, baseball caps, sometimes gaming hardware or peripherals. Also, don't worry if you don't get to play a game - it is almost as fun to see others play it. You will at least learn what the game is about this way.

By the way, it is completely amazing, what people are willing to do for a freebie. Guys from Roccat have told me about a show they did where in the end they only had one mouse left. Two guys - strangers to each other - went on the stage to battle for it. To win the mouse they had to... kiss. And they did. As a reward, they got this last mouse. One. How they shared it remains a mystery. And I've seen with my own eyes people having dance-offs for keyboards and bare-chested air guitar battles for headphones... It was incredible to watch how people don't want to take fliers from hostesses, but would kill each other for them if you throw the same fliers off a stage.

Just look at the cute chibi chocobo!
A common misconception about the entertainment area is that you can meet developers there. People in Blizzard, Nintendo or Square-Enix T-shirts are mostly hired hosts and hostesses that know extremely little about the game they are letting you play. They are mostly there to check ID's for mature games, direct the line of people waiting to play and to hint the controls to the currently playing if needed. If you want information, you will sooner find them on fliers, posters or screens than by asking the hosts. Even if the guy at the stand is actually an employee of the studio, he's most probably from marketing or PR. Let me just put it this way - lots of people asked me what my role in the studio is - sales, PR or marketing. When they heard that I'm a producer that's actually working on the game, they were very surprised.

Merchandise
In the back of Hall 9 of K├Âlnmesse was where you could actually buy some goodies. Surprise number one - I haven't seen a single game being sold. T-shirts, posters, action figures, plush toys, trading cards, wallets, keychains, soundtracks, mousepads, more T-shirts... but not games. A lot of the stuff was obviously low quality and overpriced. Others were incredible quality and even more overpriced. Some were just a plain robbery, like selling a hoodie heat-prints for 25€ (you of course have to provide the hoodie). Browsing through all this stuff makes you regret you are not a millionaire who doesn't care that small silver replicas of pendants from Final Fantasy series aren't worth 230€ no matter how you slice it. Still, it is nice to at least look at some extremely nice stuff like Portal's companion cube pillow, vinyl Final Fantasy album or massively detailed, hand-painted figures from Starcraft 2.

Yup, look at the prices.
Boobs. I mean... girls, ah, who am I kidding :)
By now, hostesses are an integral part of every convention. How to better reach a bunch of nerds like us than with a pair of D-cups? The funny part is, one of my responsibilities on this GamesCom was to take care of two cosplayers for promotion of our game: Ari Campari and cosplaying celebrity, Ophelia Overdose. Since I now have a full two days experience on the matter (+ some previous experience from RPC), I can now tell you - don't go cheap on the girls. It might not sound like a hard work, but apparently not every pretty chick is cut for the job. I had the pleasure of observing a wide moat between zombie-hostesses creeping around, handing out fliers and my girls who were actively comming up with new ideas, attracting attention. There was a very visible difference in general attitude, body language and awareness of the role between Miss Overdose and other girls. I never expected I would be able to learn professionalism from a cosplayer.

The awesome team promoting Lords of the Fallen over the weekend.
So once again - don't just get any pair of boobs for promotion. There's more to a hostess or cosplayer than a cup size. And even though - to quote Ophelia - "they're not there to be intelligent", I can assure you that you won't regret having girls that can actually say a few things about your game or hardware, not just giggle. 

Saturday Parties
This was something I didn't expect. At 8 PM K├Âlnmesse closed for visitors that left literally tons of trash on the floors behind them. After that, parties of exhibitors began. The biggest one, hosted by Sony, started at 10 PM. At that time, the venue turned into one of the most incredible clubs I have ever seen. Free beer, gaming-related environment and on top of that... hundreds of hostesses who somehow managed to look even sexier during the night than during the day (no, it wasn't only the lack of light and amount of beer). Which got me to conclusion: in your faces, jocks - guess who are your cheerleaders partying with now!


Sorry pervs ;) no photo of the party and sexy girls. 
Being not exactly a dancing type, I left the party really early to check out the geekiest party in the Messe - a party of casemodders. Modified PC-cases stood among full beer-cases. Groups of four were playing a custom-made automated drinking game machine that automatically filled the glass of the looser with a scarily glowing alcoholic liquid. Some guy from Netherlands was showing me the case they prepared for the contest in 24 hours that was made out of trash, was both spinning around and lighting up. I saw a laptop with water cooling, PC's shaped as Terran miniguns, Ferrari engines, boxes with bloodbags... almost as crazy as a club full of nerds and hot chicks.


Games that noob is waiting for
I decided not to stand in line to the biggest titles - I didn't have the patience for it, and besides, everyone knows everything about these already. So, apart from Lords of the Fallen (impudent self-advertising), I am now really looking forward to two games:

- Rain by SCE Japan Studio: a nice example where a simple idea makes a game. From gameplay mechanics to art direction, everything comes together.


- Contrast by Compulsion Games: a mix of 2D and 3D platformer with an excellent idea of shadow mechanics.


After GamesCom
Getting back from GamesCom feels like getting back from a summer camp. You head home with your bag full of dirty clothes, wanting to finally sleep in your own bed. You ponder on new sexual experiences (I still don't know how I feel about female Link cosplayers). You say "see you" to the people you have met there even though the chance of seeing them again in the next few years is extremely low. You carry dozens of new phone numbers with you knowing that it's unlikely you will call even 10% of them. On the train/bus/plane home you are completely exhausted, but full of positive feelings and memories that probably won't last longer than a day when you get back to your everyday reality.

8/07/2013

Please don't localize my games

Even though a queque of topics I wanted to cover is growing longer, this issue has cut the line as I bought my copy of XCOM: Enemy Unknown a few days back. Five minutes into the game I was in the WTF mode, an hour into the game I was in full rage, wanting to write a purely dismissive article how localization of games is a modern day tragedy comparable to Holocaust. Luckily, it was nothing several days of calming down wouldn't manage to channel into a more useful article.

Okay, okay, so what happened?
The game I bought was in Polish. No, it's not an exotic language for me. Still, the disc I got has no option to change the language. I bought an original game that I can't play in the original language it was created for. The biggest problem though is the quality of the localization. The big world clock in the game keeps showing a spelling error. The models move their lips completely out of sync with the voiceovers. They even keep moving their lips long after the voice is gone. The actors stagger with an intonation of people who read the text for the first time. And I checked - those were real actors, not just some random guys dragged away from their desks in the studio. Don't get me started on the times when they are struggling to say a sentence in German... To top that off, the player can actually hear the audio tracks switching, a second-long silences, where even the background music stops.


Summing up: not only was I unable to play my game in the original language it was designed for, the game I bought was made barely playable by the quality of localized audio. 

How did they manage to break my game so badly?
The company responsible for that rape on XCOM is actually a publisher with a long tradition of localization. The work they did with the first Dungeon Keeper was amazing and it truely outclassed the original. It can't be that in the last 15 years they suddenly became a bunch of newbs - while I still prefer the original version, they did a decent job on localizing Starcraft II, which means the skill is still there. If you don't know what's the reason behind something, it's probably cash. In this case, that statement couldn't be more true.

The sad truth is that the localization is rarely treated like a proper part of a production. In many cases the local publishers are in charge of it, as a part of the publishing deal. This means that the developer delivers the game and then it is someone else's responsibility to finish the job in some other language. This has a lot of implications.



On the developer's side, it leads to all kinds of limited support. Many localization teams don't get a chance to play a game or even see the cutscenes they are working on. Many only get some basic kit or even plain excel sheets with all dialogue lines listed, translating it out of context and presenting it to the actors, out of context as well.

On the publisher's side it often leads to using advanced cost-cutting techniques to deal with the localization duty as quickly and cheaply as possible. Of course, it's not always the publisher's fault that their language version is more of a quick fix than an actual translation. Often, they get all the stuff that is needed way too late before the publishing deadline.

If the localization process gets planned decently, we get an acceptable local version that doesn't make the player cry. If all these problems I mentioned pile up, we get a version that got translated overnight, recorded in the first takes and directed by some deaf marketing assistant.

Why localize in the first place?
Even though I personally have the luck of not needing any translations, I know there are people who - for various reasons - don't have the necessary language skills. And even if they do, there are various cultural and pop-cultural aspects that are just not understandable for people of different cultures. Also, I've seen some really great localizations that not only didn't make me cry over the skill of the translators, but actually made the game or movie much tastier.



Math time
The BluRay discs are quite roomy. They can fit at least two language versions in vast majority of the cases. And don't tell me that adding an option to choose your language is an additional work - depending on the way the game is built it is somewhere between 15 minutes and 3 hours work of a guy that is able to change one or a few filepaths in the code - you don't even need a real programmer for that. If there's only one language pack file or folder, testing isn't even required. In the worst case scenario, where all the files need to be pointed to, testing still doesn't have to be thorough, as the original version was already tested and approved. It's just about rushing through the game in godmode once (or maximum twice) and checking if all the text and audio is in one language. With the current average length of a game it is one day of work of a Junior Tester. To sum up - in most cases leaving the original language on the disc requires an additional one day of work and is a cost of at most $100 - that's hardly a reason for neglecting it.

Dear local publisher! Think of all these players that still like boxed games, but would rather buy your game from PSN, XBLA, Steam or Origin rather than getting a one-language box. They are the cost of your bad business decision. Think of all the commission money you have lost, because you decided to save $100. So if you really have to strip the kids of one of few opportunities to learn a foreign language and you really think that this is what the market is expecting from you. If you really have to localize the game I want to buy in a box without shipping it from UK or US, please leave the original language on the disc. You will make the game world a so-much-better place.