Since the great Tim Schafer/Double Fine incident earlier this year we’ve seen a lot of projects go the Kickstarter route. Most of these project have been of various genres and game types, some of which were beyond cool while others came across as somewhat interesting if a tad familiar.
Over the last few months we’ve seen dozens of developers go the Kickstarter route but actual video game related projects that aren’t games has been rather low. It may seem odd to see a non-video game project go the Kickstarter route, but besides Rusel DeMaria’s book High Score there hasn’t been much in the way of notable projects – that is until now.
It may have taken a while, but we finally have a project which looks at the history of games and the sometimes tumultuous nature of video game ports. Ports may not have as hectic a development cycle as they once had since most games are multiplatform in nature, but back in the day porting a game from one console to another wasn’t an easy feat by any means. The brainchild of writer Ben Paddon, PortsCenter is a forthcoming web series which focuses on the history of video game ports and in the process puts an entertaining spin on things thanks to the ever present wit and knowledge of Mr. Paddon.
With the second Kickstarter campaign underway, I had the immense pleasure of chatting with Ben about PortsCenter and video game ports in general along with his thoughts on video game journalism.
Ian Fisher: For the people who may not be familiar with you can you talk a bit about yourself and some of your past history in the video game press?
Ben Paddon: Most of your readers will probably know me from Game Journalists Are Incompetent Fuckwits which is a blog that I launched back in 2010. I’ve done occasional op-eds for The DamnLag and I’m trying to kickstart a web series called PortsCenter.
Ian: Obviously your current/forthcoming project is PortsCenter which I find to be a really cool endeavor. Can you talk a bit about how you came up with that concept and was it something that lingered in your mind for a while?
Ben: Well I was having a conversation with someone last year about Doom, specifically the PlayStation 1 port of Doom which was the focus of our pilot. I don’t know if you’ve ever played the PS1 version of Doom, but it’s basically Ultimate Doom and Doom 2 glued together at the ends with completely different audio, lighting, some different monsters, and a couple of levels were changed around as well. I was talking with a fellow by the name of Kyle LaCroix on Twitter about Doom and he asked if there was any video of this online and I said give me a couple of days and I’ll put together some comparison videos for you.
As I started recording footage of the emulated version of Doom I started to think of a lot of video game webseries that exist which tend to be about video game news and reviews and there’s very little looking at video game culture and the history of video games. The closet I think we’ve ever had came from a British comedian cum journalist by the name of Charlie Brooker who a couple of years ago did a series called Gameswipe which looked at the history of video games as well as a few different game genres along with reviewing a handful of games. It looked at what worked in video games and what doesn’t. It was kind of an Idiots Guide to Video games which I really enjoyed as it was really funny and really entertaining. I thought there needs to be something about this that looks at the history of video games.
I’ve been obsessed with video game ports since I was a kid. I was that one guy that played Cool Spot on the Super Nintendo and the Sega Genesis, and the Game Gear, and the Gameboy, and the Amiga, and the PC – if a game came out on multiple platforms I wanted to see what it looked like across all of them. We have this collective hive mind as gamers since we all remember playing TMNT on the NES, Mortal Kombat, and Street Fighter II. We all remember these games but our memories aren’t necessarily going to line up with each other because we all have different experiences. I played Street Fighter II on the Amiga while other people played it on the Genesis or even in the arcade.
With every different conversion a game goes through it goes through these little tweaks and changes and sometimes it’s for the better and sometimes it’s not so much for the better. I wanted there to be something out there that looks at the differences between a game on one platform to another, why it’s better or worse, and went into detail about it while having fun with it as well. I wanted it to be fun and lighthearted while occasionally saying the word fuck and have it be fun to watch.
Ian: As you said there really haven’t been a lot of shows in the past which revolved around gaming culture and in particular the history of ports. So with that said what was it like to nail down the formula of the show in addition to knowing how much of your own personality you should inject in it? You’re a rather opinionated guy so did it take you a while to figure out the general direction of the show and how much you should inject yourself into it so you could still have fun making it?
Ben: The basic format of the show has been established by so many people online. There are people who already exist online who are doing video game reviews online from their apartments or bedrooms and you have people like the Angry Video Game Nerd and Doug Walker (That Guy with the Glasses) who have kind of made their names online doing these reviews in their dining rooms or whichever. So already online there’s an acceptable low-budget framework for this kind of thing which was why I was ok shooting this in the front room of my apartment. And again, Charlie Brooker and his Gameswipe and his other stuff like Screenwipe and How TV Ruined Your Life that was very much a huge inspiration in how I came up with the format.
As you said I’m very much an opinionated guy, I speak my mind and I don’t have any filters. If I have an opinion about something it will come out my mouth like a torrent of vomit. I put my opinions out there and if my opinion changes I will put my changed opinion out there and explain why it changed. The format that Charlie Brooker, Doug Walker, and The Angry Video Game Nerd already established really made it easy to come up with the format for PortsCenter and to figure out what I was going to do. The only thing I had to do was tailor it to make sure the information was specific about the port. I would love to do a supplementary podcast that goes into more technical detail and maybe interview some of the people involved in the porting process. But for the series I just wanted there to be a nugget of technical detail and it’s very important that it’s fun, lighthearted, enjoyable, and informative.
Ian: In some ways when someone says a game is a port it has a derogatory connotation to it, as it may be looked upon as an inferior product. Now is that something you feel is amiss in the industry and amongst gamers and if so why do you think that’s the case?
Ben: It’s interesting because I’ve always felt that gamers have had a negative attitude towards video game ports. As an example the British software developer Team 17 Software who are famous for making Worms, Alien Breed, and Super Frog they made a bunch of games in the 90s and made a name for themselves on the Amiga. They started their company because they were fed up with seeing bad ports of Atari ST and Commodore 64 games being released on the Amiga and they thought to make new games that pushed the platform. There aren’t that many people such as myself who are obsessed with ports and are fascinated with the golden age of video game ports in the 1980s and 90s where a game would come out on one platform and then come out on another platform months or years later.
For example Lemmings came out on the Amiga in 1990 and 1991, it got ported to the PC and a bunch of game consoles but it didn’t get ported to the Commodore 64 until 1993 and it was actually one of the last games for that platform. There’s always been I feel a level of commendation for video game ports ever since the 1980s. A game that comes out on a system that has already come out on a system prior people sometimes look at that with a degree of cynicism – if it’s not native to the platform it came out on therefore it doesn’t count. Maniac Mansion for the NES really isn’t a NES game since it came out on the PC, Amiga, and Mac first. But is the NES version of Maniac Mansion, censorship and engine changes aside, any less worthy of existing than the other versions of the game?
That echoes through the 90s and the early part of the 2000s even when Resdient Evil 4 was being ported to the PS2. People who bought it for the GameCube were looking at the PS2 version and thinking “wow, that’s awful, his hair doesn’t move in the breeze. Why are they even bothering to release this on the PlayStation?” And then of course the PS2 version gets all this extra content and additional missions which then finds its way into the Wii port of Resident Evil 4 which has all the graphical bobbles and trinkets that the GameCube version had in the first place. And then there’s the PC version of Resident Evil 4 which was an absolute mess since they released it in an unfinished state.
Ports of games that are released after the fact such as the PS2 and PC port of RE4 are always held with a certain level of cynicism and distrust but that doesn’t happen so much these days since games are being developed with multiplatform releases in mind since Resident Evil 6 is being developed with the PS3, 360 in mind and that’s kind of the standard thing. Games are developed with multiplatform releases in mind whereas that wasn’t the case in the 1980s and the majority of the 90s where a game would be released on one platform and another development team would have to reverse engineer the source code for the original game to get it working on another platform.
For example the PC port of Final Fantasy VII is actually based on an unfinished code of the PlayStation version since Square didn’t have any archiving process in place for the Final Fantasy games. It’s the PC version of FF7 and the pitfalls and failures that they ran into making that game which led directly to rereleases of FF6 on the PS1/Gameboy Advance and Final Fantasy 1, 2, 4 getting released on the PS1. All of those things happened because Square ran into so many problems porting FF7 to the PC. Either reverse engineering a game or maybe a team of one programmer being given an arcade machine, such as Midway’s Smash TV, and being told to make that for the Amiga or SNES without the original art assets doesn’t happen now but it happened all the time in the 1980s and 90s.
Ian: Right now the plan is to do 13 episodes of PortsCenter so have you chosen some of the games you would like to feature on the show and what exactly will be the breakdown between games from the classic era of gaming and newer ports that have some recognition?
Ben: It’s kind of 50/50. Most of the interesting ports or at least the ones with interesting stories behind how the port happened will be from the 80s and 90s, predominantly the 90s. So a lot of the games I’m looking at are things like Cannon Fodder which was originally released on the PC in 1993 and then ported to the Gameboy Color in 2001 I believe. So it’ll be things like Street Fighter II a couple of obscure games like Fury of the Fairies and Back in the Time which are actually the same game, and the PS1 port of Mortal Kombat II which didn’t get released outside of Japan.
Mostly episodes will look at one game or sometimes two games but I will be doing the occasional episode which looks at a chunk of games in the same genre or that are part of the same series. I want to do an episode that looks at the Worms games as they’ve been released when the first game was released in 1995 for the Amiga right the way through to the more recent releases such as Worms Reloaded, Worms Ultimate Mayhem and Worms Revolution which is supposed to be coming out in a few months. So that’s one thing I want to do, an episode that looks at all of those games. I have around 20 games picked out for the first season and I can think of another 30 or 40 games I want to do if the first season is a success.
Ian: Since your passion for ports runs deep, what has been the best or at least the most memorable port that you’ve had the pleasure of playing?
Ben: I got my hands on the ROM for the Gameboy color port of Resident Evil. That was released publicly a few months ago and I spent a lot of time playing that. Technically it’s an impressive port and it’s very ambitious to try to squeeze this sprawling huge PS1 game into something that’s slightly more powerful than the NES. There were some successes and there were some failures but I felt very lucky that we were able to play that since I remember reading about it in magazines back in 2001 when Capcom was still developing it and I remember feeling very excited about it and being very disappointed to hear that it had been cancelled by Capcom.
Although now having played it I see why it was cancelled since it’s a very difficult game to gauge properly. Again very ambitious but deeply flawed. So I would have to say the Gameboy Color version of Resident Evil is probably the port that sticks out in my mind as one of the more memorable ones.
Ian: One previous project that you worked on for quite some time was Game Journalists Are Incompetent Fuckwits, a blog which I followed daily and agreed with many of the points you hit upon. You have since stepped away from GJAIF but looking back on it what are your thoughts on that and are you still happy with how you went about things or would you do it differently if you could?
Ben: I think my main problem with GJAIFW was that I fell victim to a lot of the same problems that I complained about. I would see something on a website, I would complain about it, and I would post about it. That would be it. Very rarely would I send emails to the journalists who wrote the pieces and very rarely would I do any legwork or any further investigation into why that post existed in the form that it did. In the early days that was largely because I felt like I didn’t need to but as the blog progressed and over the 2 year period towards the end it was just because of laziness. I would rather just write about it and write my complaint about why this post existed or what’s wrong with this post and just be done with it. By the last six months of the blog my emotional investment kind of fell out and that was ultimately why I decided to bring it to an end.
I made mistakes with that blog but I think the intent behind it was good and ultimately so was the message which is that games journalism is a broken, PR marketing led pile of shit. Really the whole industry, not just the press but the games industry as a whole, needs to be torn down and start from scratch and hopefully it would be good this time but I don’t think that’s going to happen. I don’t think we’re going to have another market crash on the scale on the one we had in 1982 when Atari released ET into an unsuspecting market place and basically destroyed the video game industry until Nintendo released the NES.
I think my heart was in the right place even if my actions weren’t. Even now I get messages from people who read the blog. Really that’s the best thing about it; that people have taken a message away from that blog. But I was not the guy to run that blog, there was a lot of passion that went into it but ultimately it was deeply flawed. I would love it if someone else were to have a crack at doing something very similar while going a bit into more detail.
Right now I’m reading a book at the moment called “Flat Earth News” by a British Journalist named Nick Davies which is a huge expose on the state of mainstream journalism, particularly in the UK. A lot of the problems that game journalism is suffering from are also endemic of mainstream journalism, mainly that there’s a lot of churnalism, there’s a lot of people getting a press release and rewriting it or copying and pasting the whole bloody thing. That’s a problem that mainstream journalism is having but basically that’s how games journalism operates in its entirety.
There’s very little substance and a lot of it is speculation and other people taking that speculation and posting it as fact. That’s disappointing to me because I love this industry, I love video games but after spending two years peeking behind the curtain it took the passion out of me. I don’t read gaming news anymore and when I do it’s very rarely. I try to make organic discoveries be it Target, GameStop, or local shops such as Game Dude in Hollywood. I try to just go in and discover something rather than look for something I’ve read about elsewhere.
Ian: The video game industry is still in this weird place when it comes to creativity and so is the video game press as it still borders on repetition, being the mouthpiece for PR, and doing shameless things to garner hits. Compared to ten years ago the game press industry has changed but aside from the mediums changing from print to the internet I don’t know if anything inherently good as come out of this evolution. So where do you think we could see the press industry in ten years from now?
Ben: Here’s one of the interesting thing about gaming press, it’s that a lot of people who work in the gaming press, and this isn’t everyone, but there is a large number of people who were editors or writing about the games industry who moved into marketing and PR. I think as more of that happens over the next ten years that the people who had pull in the press and who will be working in the PR world are going to know how to game the system even more. I personally think that the gaming press will get significantly worse before it gets better.
I do think that websites like the Penny Arcade Report, which is led by Ben Kuchera who is a fantastic game journalist if a bit of a tit in person, I think we need more stuff like that moving forward. We need more sites that are writing comprehensive coverage rather than just getting a press release and shitting it out. I don’t know if that’s going to happen but I have my doubts. In the two years I spent writing Game Journos and the years I spent before that reading gaming sites just by myself has left me deeply cynical about the gaming press and the direction it’s going in.
The more sites that get involved in the industry such as the Destructoid robot who is playable in at least two XBLA games I think that’s a huge conflict of interest. As soon as you have your website’s mascot in the game then you can’t review that game. I have enough problems with press outlets that are owned by FOX writing reviews of games that are FOX licenses or are developed by FOX Interactive as that’s a huge conflict of interest. I just can’t see it getting better but I really wish I could.
Ian: As you said earlier you don’t think the industry will face another crash as it did in 1982, but right now things are in this weird place in which publishers are constantly losing money and developers are closing up shop after they release one game. With mobile and social gaming growing but at the same time having a shorter span of longevity, what sort of things do you feel need to be addressed as the game industry continues?
Ben: Well aside from the obvious response to that which is to innovate more. No one is innovating anymore and no one is making genuinely interesting games and when they do get made things, like Rayman Origins, no one buys them because people are idiots. The one thing that I think this industry really needs to look at is the $60 price point. The $60 price point makes playing video games one of the most expensive media platforms to consume.
If you want to buy a DVD or a Blu-ray you may not spend more than $15 or $25 for a new release. I can buy a Terry Pratchett novel for $8 and that’s fantastic. But if I want to buy a new video game that’s $60 plus sales tax. The $60 mark is a huge barrier. If you walk into a GameStop with $120 that $60 maybe buys you two games if the sales tax is reasonable. If it was me I would bring video games to the $20 or $30 mark because that’s what’s happening anyway. A game comes out at $60, people buy it, and a month or two later it’s knocked down to $20. It happens without fail for every game that isn’t published by Activision or Blizzard.
So I think that the industry really needs to look at the $60 price point and whether that’s hurting them more than it’s helping them. If the price point was dropped to $30 then walking into a GameStop with $120 you’re no longer limited to buying two games as you can instead buy four. That’s four games you’re going to buy, play, tell your friends about, or write about if you’re a games journalist. We’re getting less than that when we sell our games back to GameStop. I have a stack of games I’m going to trade in which is worth around $1000 and I’m going to be lucky if I get $100 or $200 and that’s really depressing. The minute you walk out of a video games store with a brand new game the value of that game drops by 70%. That’s depressing and is an indication that video games are ridiculously and hilariously overpriced.
There have been developers who have been brought back from the brink of bankruptcy by one Steam sale. Introversion Software nearly bankrupted themselves developing the XBLA version of Darwinia and they virtually had no money. Then they sold their entire back catalog on Steam for $5 and they made enough money in one day of the sale to save their company. We see it all the time on iPhone apps. Capcom, Konami and all of these developers are putting out ports of their games for $8. Street Fighter IV and Grand Theft Auto III for the iPhone/iPad are $8 and the minute the game goes down to .99 cents not only do they sell more copies but they make more money.
It boggles my mind that as an industry game publishers cling so tenaciously and so fervently to the $60 price point since they think otherwise the game won’t make any money. But the game won’t make any money because no one can afford to buy your shitty game and if they do they can’t tell other people to buy it because it’s shit.
Ian: Now besides the $60 price point issue do you think the length of games is something developers and publishers should look at moving forward? I know this generation it has been a debate of sorts as to whether a game is too long or too short and how the price point in a way plays into that. One indie studio in particular called Ovosonico is playing around with the notion of creating a core game that lasts around two to three hours so do you think that’s something developers should look at more?
Ben: You have to think about it like this: the length of a game isn’t necessarily an indicator of quality. You can complete Super Mario Kart, get all the karts, and get all the Trophies in maybe under an hour. Even the original Super Mario Bros. you’re looking at maybe fifteen minutes if you take away all the warp zones. I don’t think length is a good indicator of quality. I think it’s ultimately about what is a game worth; which is difficult to gauge unless you’re playing the game first and that doesn’t happen unless you’re a pirate and downloaded an illegal copy. Unless you’re a pirate you’re not going to play the game and then buy the game unless you’re either borrowing it from someone else or downloaded an illegal copy.
I really do think that you need to get enough enjoyment out of a game. Mario Kart Wii is a game that you can finish in a couple of hours but I’ve played hours and hours of that game since I bought it in 2007. That is a game that has kept me going and before this call I was playing it with a friend back in the UK. That investment was money well spent as far as I’m concerned. It’s difficult to say if a game is worth this or even if a DVD boxset like Doctor Who season 4 is worth $40. It’s really difficult trying to gauge that stuff but I think game length is really not a good indicator.
Ian: So back on the topic of PortsCenter the 2nd Kickstarter campaign has done better than the first one you attempted but it still hasn’t reached its target goal. So in the off chance that the goal isn’t met what’s the plan for the series moving forward?
Ben: It’s really difficult because again this is our second Kickstarter and already its done better than our first one. At the moment we’re ten days away from the Kickstarter reaching its conclusion and we’re 39% funded right now. If we don’t get the funding I don’t know what we’re going to do. This is a series I really want to make and if I can make the series out of pocket then I will try to do that. But the downside to that is that I don’t earn enough money a month to fund a 13 episode run so episodes would be developed and released much more sporadically and with significantly lower production value. Half of that $4,200 total that we’re aiming for is so we can buy a decent camera and video capture equipment while the other half is for the games and the hardware we need to play them on. So that’s not something I can just manifest.
After the Kickstarter is finished whether we hit the target or not my next concern will be making sure my presentation about video game ports for the Geek Media Expo in Tennessee is finished. When I get back from that whether or not I have the money my goal is to work on PortsCenter. I can’t make it without the money but if I have the money it means I can do it quicker but if I don’t have the money then it’s going to be a very long time before we see the first episode. If the funding is there then the first season of PortsCenter can be finished by March or April of next year.
The amount of passion and knowledge Ben has about ports and gaming in general is beyond impressive and it’s one of the reasons why I think PortsCenter is something that deserves to happen. We may have quite a few gaming personalities, but there’s really no one out there taking a comprehensive look at gaming cultur or the ports that most of us may have spent hours upon hours playing when we were younger.
Looking back on things with how the industry is today makes the classic ports of the 80s and 90s that much more impressive since as Ben mentioned at times the odds were stacked against the developers, either because of the obvious tech limitations or because of unrealistic tasks being issued by publishers.
If you’re like me and want to see PortsCenter become a reality then head over to the Kickstarter page and make a donation if you can. You can also stay up to date with the latest stuff Ben is either working on or Tweeting about by checking out his Twitter account and his official website.