The ultimate non-gamers’ game

Video game awards tend to feature the triple A titles that get a mainstream crowd foaming at the mouth and beating their chest in excitement. Television channels like Spike TV have hyped up the medium and what’s expected from the ceremonies to be a glamorous affair mostly filled with traditional gamers and the odd B list celebrity who “remembers playing that Mario thing” with a relative. But this year saw the start of something very interesting by the people who organise Nottingham’s annual GameCity festival. The aptly named GameCity Prize 2011 gathered not the hardcore but the extremely casual and even non-gamers to award what they felt was the best game of the year.

The group included actors, comedians and politicians and were given the Summer to play through seven unique titles that GameCity hoped would start conversations about where video games are today and what they mean to the players. As you would expect, the nominees are all cult classics in their own rights and included: Child of Eden, ilomilo, Limbo, Minecraft, Pokemon Black, Portal 2 and Superbrothers Sword & Sworcery EP. A formidable list if ever I saw one and to me, there are two titles that stand out because of what they’ve done for the industry. They are Portal 2 and Minecraft. Now, for full disclosure, I haven’t played Minecraft but am fully aware of its impact and the unfaltering love of its players. Personally, I wouldn’t call it a video game in the traditional sense and instead would say it’s more if a fantasy toy box, a modern day Lego if you will. And while I would have preferred to see Portal 2 crowned king, it was Minecraft that picked up the award.

So does the fact that Minecraft isn’t as much of a game as the others (there are very strong arguments for and against and to play devil’s advocate, I’m going against it) mean that the awards are a bit of a farce? No. The fact that GameCity got a group on non-gamers talking and playing games is already a huge leap in the right direction and all the games in the list are the perfect examples of what makes the industry great. Minecraft may not be a ‘game’ in my eyes compared to, say, Limbo, doesn’t mean that’s not to say its influences will be felt in more traditional games in the future. And like it or not, the folks that nominated it the best game of the past year are the kinds of people publishers are desperately trying to figure out how to attract. From Minecraft you can jump to Angry Birds and from there onto the slightly dubious world of Facebook gaming. All three areas are huge and have companies like EA altering long term strategies for. They’ve even favoured such areas over the 3DS in the past.

Back to the point, the awards are an interesting if not altered view of video games and one that should arguably be taken a little more seriously than the aforementioned glitzy shindigs normally promoted. What would be even better is if there were two parts, one with non-gamers and one with a mix of hardcore enthusiasts. Two winners would be announced and how close they were to each other would be an even more interesting conversation.

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Mining for pirates

A lot of interesting talks are coming out of this year’s GDC and at the Indie Games Summit (via Edge), Minecraft creator Markus ‘Notch’ Persson gave an alternative view of video game piracy. He believes if you pirate a game, then it shouldn’t be considered as theft but the potential to obtain new customers. The assumption of course is how those choosing to pirate a game will cease doing so and start buying products. I find that a little hard to believe. Persson compared piracy to other types of theft like stealing a car saying it differs because, “If you steal a car, the original is lost. If you copy a game, there are simply more of them in the world.” More that people are not paying for however. But Persson hypothesised that maybe there isn’t such a thing as a ‘lost sale’ concerning piracy because couldn’t a bad review also be considered a loss?

I think there are mixed messages going on here and the concept of piracy differs depending on the game. Take Crysis for example. Crytek has twice now been stung by people illegally downloading and distributing their product, impacting sales. They state a committal to PC gaming despite these leaks but a business can’t continue supporting a platform whose users are abusing it. Remember, we don’t actually own the copies of games, merely the license to play them, kind of like watching TV. The overall product may still exist and be seen or played by a larger audience but I fail to see how publishers can easily turn the pirates into consumers.

But like I said, it’s a different situation for different games. Persson referred to his own game, Minecraft and Rovio’s Angry Birds suggesting that because they’re constantly updated, it provides a better experience for gamers who will be less inclined and unable to pirate it. He said: “Treat game development as a service. Make a game last longer than a week. You can’t pirate an online account.” That’s fine for those kind of games and something that EA are seemingly working towards with their EA account, having players log into it when gaming. But certain genres and game types don’t work the same way as the likes of Angry Birds. With something like that, you can offer more and more content over time without it massively impacting the experience of people with vastly different gaming habits. When you propose this idea to a more traditional game, they begin to take on the episodic format which so far hasn’t been able to work for all genres.

I agree in theory, if you can win over the potential pirates and give people a reason not to steal your product, everybody wins; publishers make a profit and continue producing games, consumers feel satisfied that what they’re getting is true value and do not or simply cannot easily pirate it. Until we reach that point, piracy is still theft.