Category Archives: Design

Wasting my life

So, over from my home-from-home Offworld, I wrote a piece about the majestic God Hand, particularly praising its adaptive difficulty. The more dudes you pummel successfully, the more dudes attack you. The more you get pummelled by dudes, the more other dudes leave you alone. It’s a system I like because it preserves the absolute challenge – you can only go toe-to-toe with other player’s high scores by pushing for the highest difficulty – while ensuring progress through the game is possible for poorer players. And it does it all transparently, letting you see what difficulty level the game is setting for you and therefore allowing you to make decisions and plan strategies around how hard you want the experience to be.

It’s kicked off quite an interesting debate, which seems to be focused around two issues. The first is whether or not adaptive difficulty dilutes the purity of the challenge, and therefore the satisfaction of victory. As is so often the case, the right answer to that conundrum is the cop-out answer: it depends. There are undoubtedly games where you want unwavering, unalterable hardness: lines in the sand you can measure yourself against. Sometimes it’s more important to guarantee progress. I had a rather marvellous meeting yesterday for a sex education game I’m helping out on, and its designer very astutely pointed out that it’s pretty much essential that everyone who plays the game is able to finish it. No use clueing teens in to the perils of herpes if they get stuck before they find out how to spot syphilis. What prompted me to write yesterday’s column, though, was delight at how often truly hardcore games manage to balance those two needs. It’s not that God Hand lets you coast, flailing aimlessly through a challenge-free experience. It uses its adaptive difficulty to lure you in to harder fights, teaching you as you go. It’s the perfect teacher, constantly advancing the goalposts to stretch your skills, whatever your natural level.

The second issue was best summed up by commenter Inverse Square:

But damn, to give in to the desire for a power fantasy is a terrible thing to do. Escaping from reality is nice, but it’s indefensible. To flatter it, to trade in it, to treat it like it’s useful is wrong. It’s helping no-one; it’s teaching you nothing.

Are all games just power-fantasies? By no means (although – fair cop – I did say they were in that piece, mostly cos I was feeling a bit grumpy). They have long done much more to inspire, challenge, surprise and educate. Are some games just power fantasies? Yes, absolutely. And do I think that’s a bad thing? Sometimes. Sometimes I’m delighted to have a ready-made range of sand-castles I can kick over, oceans of virtual balloons I can rampage through with a pop-gun, virtual plates I can smash and virtual pencils I can snap. Often though, I go back to Geoffrey Miller’s eminently scary article (you’ll need to do a text search for his name to find his entry)  from a few years ago which posits that the eventual downfall of all intelligent civilisations will be our seduction by fitness fakers – virtual constructs which gives us the feeling of achievement without actually achieving anything. The natural extension of the argument? That videogames are the reason we haven’t got to Mars, and the reason that other advanced alien life-forms haven’t got to Earth. We’re all too busy playing God Hand. Sorry ’bout that.

Tiny update

tinytetrisLimbering up for my L4D playdate this evening reminded me of the rather brilliant Left 4k Dead which did the rounds some time ago, which in turn made me think of other brilliant tiny games.

Grandaddy, of course, is Wolfenstein 5k, but you might have trouble getting it to run in your space-faring, jet-pack-toting browser-of-the-future. Current darling is the 5k Lunar Lander, where Seb Lee-Delisle shows off by doing first a straight remake and then a 3D version in under 5120 bytes, as part of a competition run by the rather awesome sounding  £5 App club. Which just goes to show that 5k is probably a bit generous, surely the thinking behind the annual Java 4k compo, which this year has a reworking of PixelJunk Eden, some improbably lavish atmospherics, courtesy of 4bsolution, and a nice crisp Tetris-meets-that-colour-clearing-game-I-don’t-know-the-name-of.

4k starting to look a bit too generous? Then why not take a stab at Tetris in 500 bytes? Sick of all this reductivist retroism? Then check out what 432k can get you, which turns out to be blowing up Battersea Power Station, complete with smoke and sound, in A New Zero, which also wins my favourite-game-FAQ-ever award.

Still to big for your tastes? Then fetch your reading glasses and head over to Defender of the Favicon. If you get there and you can’t spot the game, then you’ve rather missed the tiny, tiny point.

Late to my very first orgy

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I’m about half-way into my Great 2008 Game Catch-up, which means I’ve reached Mass Effect, which I know is strictly speaking a 2007 release, but I’ve been avoiding up till now because I have a phobia about weird teeth – too big, too matte, too white, too gappy – in games, and I felt strongly (and rightly) that this would trigger it.
There’s lots to say about it, of course, precious little of which hasn’t been said already. I am rather impressed with its ability to crash in frequent and deeply symbolic ways. Getting trapped in the pause menu felt like some big fat ludic meta-gag, and the way the lighting dropped out when I first boarded the Normandy as captain, meaning I was left blundering in the dark at the moment when I was supposed to be assuming command, was borderline poetry.

If there was one bit of the game I was expecting not to surprise me, though, it was the sex bit, seeing as I’d seen a dozen videos and read a hundred news reports and blog rants. But, jeepers! No wonder everyone was so exercised by it. It happens so early on! It’s so amazingly perfunctory! You get – or at least I got – precisely no choice in it! She read my fortune badly, I said ‘is that it?’, or something else which I had never considered could serve as a come-on, and within seconds, we’re hard at it. Yet again, in a game that’s supposed to be all about choice, all about exploring moral depth, I’m giving a complex, nuanced palette of options about whether or not to sign an autograph, and no autonomy whatsoever when it comes to life’s little trifles, like fighting and fucking. Give it ten years and people are going to be suing for virtual rape when game designers force sexual encounters on player-made avatars, mark my words. Acutally, give it five.

That isn’t really what surprised me, though. What surprised me was that I expected to be annoyed by the anondyne cop-out of what’s actually shown, of the blue hand banging inelegantly against the wall. Games with mature ratings (or even 12s from the capable-of-understanding-context-and-presentation BBFC) ought to be able to find more honest and more natural ways of showing what happens when a man and a space consort love each other very much. But what I discovered, of course, is that that’s not what’s happening, because with me in the room are my new best friends Urdnot Wrex and Tali’Zorah nar Rayya. Are orgies more or less stressful with people you barely know, I wonder? Will we, by the 22nd century, have evolved beyond the need for a white wine spritzer and some awkward small talk to kick things off? So of course Bioware don’t dare pan below the wrist. Who knows what’s happening down there? Do krogans have that carapace all over, do you think? Do quarians even have mouths? Is Shepherd using his d-pad commands – pull back, pull back! focus your assaults here! – to co-ordinate it all? What would have happened if I’d unlocked Intimidate before I went in?

I spend a lot of time arguing for more sex in more games; it’s downright perverse that games don’t reflect something which is such a key component of the human condition. It’s probably for the best, though, if we don’t start with non-consensual inter-species gang-bangs. Especially if they’ve got those freaky teeth.

Snapping point

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This sometimes happens: I woke up mad at something I read a week ago. Today, it was Chris Bateman’s measured, interesting, informed article positing that a game has never – could never – make you cry. It’s not at all his fault. The distinction he makes between games as play, and games as systems is an interesting one, and his observation that games make people cry not through systems and rulesets and interactions themselves, but through the stories which are embedded within them, is sound.

What makes me angry – even in my sleep, it would seem –  is that we seem as incapable from moving on from the ‘can-we-make-people-cry’ debate as we are from the ‘are-games-art’ debate. I ranted about both before, in magazines and conference halls and pubs and railway sidings and on the internet, so I’ll try and keep it brief, but come on. Really? Can’t we leave it behind? The last group of people I encountered so dead set on making people cry were the boys in my class in primary two who had a dead frog in a matchbox they showed to all the girls. Can’t we aim a bit higher? Making people cry is not synonymous with high art, and it’s not synonymous with a deep and valuable emotional response.

I’ve been waiting all year to go to the Rothko exhibition at the Tate, and I’m not expecting it to make me cry. I am expecting to be ambushed by memories of things I thought or hoped forgotten. I am expecting to find solace and some strange kind of sustenance in the colours and contrasts that he painted. I am expecting the rhythms and patterns that I see to change how I think about the rhythms and patterns of my own life, and of my own thoughts. I am expecting to leave with a sense of wonder, melancholy and gratitude towards this man I never met, who died before I was born, who yet took the time to leave these treasures behind for me. In short, I’m expecting it to be moving, enriching, challenging. I’m expecting to be not quite the same person when I come out that I was when I went in. All with out story, all without tears.

Tears shouldn’t be our goal. Stories don’t need to be our tools. The majority of art forms don’t rely on narrative for their emotional impact. Stop and think about that for a second. The games industry tends to draw on such an amazingly limited roster of inspirations that it’s easy to forget it. But our obsession with linear, story-based – word-based, even – non-participatory art at the expense of all the other forms makes life so much harder for games, and it makes me crazy. I swear, next GDC I’m going to set myself up behind a table in the lobby with a huge pile of rubber bands and a huge pile of Jelly Tots, and each delegate, as they come in, is going to get a band on their left wrist and a handful of sweets in their right pocket. And then, all week, every time they hear the word ‘film’, ‘book’ or ‘TV show’, they have to give themselves a snap. And everytime they hear the world ‘painting’, ‘theatre’, ‘sculpture’, ‘opera’, ‘architecture’, ‘comics’*, ‘dance’, ‘music’ or ‘poetry’, they get a sweetie. Two, if they say it rather than hear it. But goddamit, we’re not the only people trying to create emotionally resonant experiences in environments that aren’t kind to linear narratives. Landscape gardeners talk with great sensitivity and great ambition about how they want visitors to their gardens to feel. Typographers can – and do, and have, and will again – talk for hours about the emotional resonance of difference fonts, of how different approaches to typesetting can totally change the mood and tone of a piece before you’ve even read a word. The world knows a lot about how to do this stuff, and all that knowledge is just there, lying about in galleries and on radios and along boulevards, for us to plunder.

So please, stop trying to make me cry, before you drive me to tears. But do keep trying to make me feel.

* I know comics are narrative-led, but I like them too much to not give people sweeties when they talk about them. And they’re still more useful to games than films, books, or TV.

Landfall

Look away now, those who are made easily envious of animated favicons: my new column has launched on Boing Boing’s new game site, Offworld. It’s called One More Go, and it’s about the games I can’t stop going back to, and why I can’t stop going back to them. To my enormous surprise, this one turned out to be about New York Times Crosswords, although it really shouldn’t have been a surprise, because it’s been a constant companion pretty much every since it came out.

More surprisingly, I didn’t write any of the things I mean to write about it. I got, it’s fair to say, a bit distracted. What I was really planning to bang on about was some very different stuff, namely:

Crosswords are the perfect expression of how games are about the relationship between game-maker and game-player! We don’t talk about this nearly enough in mainstream videogames, but one of the reasons I’ve always loved them is the feeling that I’m playing an experience which has been crafted for me by someone I’ve never met. It’s like the best Valentine’s Day present ever: something that someone has spent years of their life on, designed to do nothing more than make you happy. And the odd bodged clue in NYTC highlights that very effectively – it makes you acutely conscious of the human being at the other end of this experience. It’s why I’ve always been more interested in single-player games than multi-player games; I’ve always been more interested in beating the master of the game than another of its participants. And this seems to be a culture crosswords share. People who regularly play cryptic crosswords have a strong sense of connection with the people who set them – people who they’ve never met, but who have, over decades in some cases, entertained, challenged and educated them. If you think I’m over-stating the case, then keep your eyes peeled for the return of BBC4’s How To Solve A Cryptic Crossword, which has infuriatingly just dropped off iPlayer, but which does a lovely job of summing up how intense the relationship can be between players and makers. Or doers and setters, or whatever the right crossword terminology would be.

Crosswords were initially vilified in almost exactly the same way games are! Namely, for being a waste of time and a passing fad. Wikipedia has most of the best quotes, so I won’t regurgitate them all here, but purely in the services of irony, here’s The New York Times itself railing against them in 1924 (they’re younger than you think, crosswords). Sound familiar?:

 “[the] sinful waste in the utterly futile finding of words the letters of which will fit into a prearranged pattern, more or less complex. This is not a game at all, and it hardly can be called a sport… [solvers] get nothing out of it except a primitive form of mental exercise, and success or failure in any given attempt is equally irrelevant to mental development.”

Crosswords embed really complex cultural variations within one very simple ruleset! One of the reasons I’ve stuck with NYTC for so long is that, as a UK crossworder, it’s so alien to me. The simple differential between UK and US crossword grids – US ones have fewer black square, so almost every letter of every word has to be in another word – means that US crosswords have to use much more unconventional words and slang phrases. UK crosswords are extremely orthodox by comparison. But then UK cryptic crosswords seem to be far more complex and traditional than their popular US counterparts (although I think some of the more esoteric US cryptics give them more than a run for their money). So, even before you get to the actual cultural context of the clues (and, let me tell you, it took me far longer than I’d like to admit to realise that a ‘Thanksgiving sidedish – 3 letters’ might be ‘yam’), there’s cultural data embedded in the ruleset. I love that you can tell a UK crossword from a US one just by looking at it. I wish we could still do that with videogames.

Final note: I’m not kidding about being stuck on that clue. Any takers?

 46 DOWN (6 letters): In cubbyholes (S blank R blank)

I’m a link!

Seed_magazineHaving actually edited a magazine I should be past the point of being over-excited about getting on a cover, but check it out! I’m – or rather, my feature on Spore – is (sort of) on the cover of Seed, which is a magazine about real things, rather than chunks of light that jump when you press A. I spent an absolutely bedazzling week earlier this year interviewing the leads on Spore (as well as some otherwise brilliant people like Frank Lantz), closely followed by an utterly excruciating week trying to edit down 15,000 words of transcripts to a 2,500 word article. Hopefully they’re all kind enough to forgive me for relegating 95% of the clever things they said to my drafts folder. You don’t get a lot of fluff when you’re talking to people that smart, let me tell you. The piece was intended to focus very much on Spore’s scientific credentials, so hopefully it covers some rather different ground from what you may have read before.

And if, on reading it, you’re having interesting thoughts about using games a crowd-sourcing tools for forming models for complex, behaviour-driven systems,  you might want to check out Jane McGonigal‘s new project Superstruct, a step beyond World Without Oil which endevours to use our imaginations to understand what the impending Apocolypse might actually look like.

The best disaster ever

SJSMLast night marked the end of my inaugural ARG, which I launched to a wave of muted perplexity during my talk at this year’s Develop. As you can see, the turn-out rather took me by surprise. In fact, it took me so much by surprise that I ended up at the back of the queue, couldn’t get in, and was an hour late for my own event.

Now, that would have been a disaster – well, actually, was a disaster – if that queue of people had all been there because of me. Obviously, they weren’t. They were there for one of London’s brilliant little secrets: the candle-lit tour of the extraordinary Sir John Soane’s Museum. The cunning plan for the end of my ARG was to send anyone who’d bothered to play to somewhere brilliant, so they were guaranteed a good time regardless of what else I managed to cook up, which in the end didn’t turn out to be anything much. This is what comes of designing live-event based games from scratch in 15 minutes at the middle of the night before a presentation. I also wasn’t really expecting anyone to play, or indeed anyone to actually show up, so the real surprise was that one of the people in that queue was a bonafide player, who won a bonafide bottle of champagne for his efforts and we had a jolly nice chat while we waited for an hour to actually get in. I did try to expedite our way up the queue by explaining to the commissionaire what was happening, but without success (‘I ran a competition to try encourage people to come to your museum.’ I said, winningly. ‘You shouldn’t have done that. It just makes it harder for all the real people.’ he said, disgustedly. Ouch.). That said, I’ve got no way of knowing if anyone else was there, having turned up two hours early and actually made it to the meeting point in time, and left in bitter disappointment when I was a no-show. If anyone did – my most sincere apologies. Let me know, and I’ll concoct some sort of Brilliant Prize of Intense Contrition.

 The slides for the talk are still here (giant pdf, sorry), if you fancy a bash at the unbelievably crude and heavy handed clue-trail. I’ll post a proper transcript shortly, to save you digging it all out of the slides. Thanks to everyone who did play, and who’s given  me feedback. It’s been brilliant experience, and I’ll be writing it up for the IGDA ARG SIG (proposed title: 15 Minutes Of Lame – What I learned from making every classic ARG mistake all at once).

How to win

Rescue InkIn the session I did at Edinburgh I talked a bit about how new distribution channels and financial models were changing the kinds of IP it might be interesting – and potentially profitable – for games to explore. I was thinking of things like On The Rain-Slicked Precipice Of Darkness and Strong Bad’s Cool Game For Attractive People, but I’ve just realised I overlooked the dream ticket. I’m not necessarily a big fan of games based on existing IP (we have an infinite blank sheet of intelligent paper! Can’t we use our own ideas?), but now I see how naive I was. 2009’s unmissable licence is going to be Rescue Ink.

There’s an About page here, and some adorable New York Times photos here, but the basic gist is: Hell’s Angels who rescue kittens.  Which, in a nutshell, is surely the perfect licence. You’ve got total cross-demographic appeal. Cute puppies! Badass tatts! Breaking up dog fights! Weaning kittens! Even politicians would have no option but to applaud it. You’ve got an amazingly well differentiated roster of characters with really clear gameplay implications: mechanic, high-rise construction worker, car specialist, ex-cop, ex-spec-ops, martial arts expert, fire-fighter, all with distinct images and brilliant nick-names. You’ve got a great mix of potential gameplay styles – from a GTA-style cruising to find emergent animal abuse, to squad-based strat stuff (do you send both George and Fat Ant on the same bust, or is that overkill? What if you need someone who can pick a lock? Or specialises in Rottweilers?), to Tamagotchi kitten-rearing stuff (one syringe of milk on the hour, every hour). Basically, I can’t see a platform, genre or market this wouldn’t flourish in. All we need to figure out now is who should get to make it. I’m thinking maybe the Yakuza team, since they’ve got a proven ability to handle the brutish, the cute and the silly.

In the meantime, while you wait for work to start on the 2009 all-format Christmas number one (‘Special thanks – Margaret Robertson’), you can donate here or volunteer here.

Repulsion coefficient: low

burnmarioburn.pngLaziness coefficient: high.

If I were a better person, I’d have wonders to show you thanks to the hours I’ve spent doodling in my Top Three Best Current Physics Toy Things, but I’m not, so I don’t. Instead, here they are for you to play with, so you can see if you can empty your laptop battery quicker than it takes to get you to get fired for never doing any work again ever:

OE Cake: impossibly flexible physics creation tool. Watch the videos on the site and do some YouTube trawling to get some sense of just how powerful it is, and how many crazy machines and explosions and cakes you can make with it. The moment your brain finally dissolves into an adoring whimper is the moment you realise you can drop-and-drag images files in and turn them into lumps of burning rubbery fuel. Handy cheat-sheet in the notes here.

Powder Game: the latest version of Hell Of Sand,  which makes you wonder why the world bothers having anything in it that isn’t fireworks, bubbles, C4, gunpowder or superballs.

Fantastic Contraption: so fantastic, it seems to have fallen over for now, but presumably it’ll be back. My brain has filed it as a cross between Braid and Crayon Physics, which is highly misleading, but will make you curious enough to play it so I’m sticking with it.

Home at last – my E3 verdict

Home from Birmingham, that is. My E3 verdict? Glad I didn’t go. By all accounts it sounded tame, contained, and underwhelming, although interesting to see that PSN rather stole the show with The Last Guy and Fat Princess and a better look at PixelJunk Eden, which I’d already made my mind up to love long before the screens started trickling out, but whoosh! and yay! and ooh!

No, I’ve spent the last week (and will spend next week) going round a much nicer, friendlier, and more exciting game show which is rather quixotically based – simultaneously –  in Dundee, Birmingham, Dublin, London and Brighton. And it’s got shorter queues and better sandwiches than E3.

It’s Dare To Be Digital, the UK’s leading student game-making competition, now in its 9th year, with 17 teams, based in five cities, all of whom have 10 weeks to make a playable prototype and which seems to be over-flowing with an embarrassment of good ideas. Channel 4 is the main sponsor this year, so as part of my work with them I’ve been running around poking my nose in, having a chat with the teams, and getting to play their games. I’ve been round about half so far, and I’ve genuinely been more excited about what I’ve seen there than anything that came out of E3. With the possibly exception of the life-changing  Duke Nukem Trilogy trailer.

So if E3 has left you a bit deflated, and you’d rather be fantasising about being a spring-loaded, magnetically-armed, bitmap-trailing, colour-coded, shoe-tree battling, origami-folding photographer than trying to get excited about Tomb Raider Underworld, then head over to the website and send some votes and encouragements to the team you think looks the most promising. The games will all be available to play at Protoplay from 10-12th August in Edinburgh, so you’ll be able to see for yourself whether or not I’m over-stating the case that it’s in these kind of environments that the interesting stuff is happening.

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