Category Archives: Design

Balancing Act

The conversation I most dread is the one that starts: ‘I hope you don’t mind me saying, but it’s quite…unusual that you’re a woman.’ My smartypants answer is that is perfectly usual for me, thank you very much, but I’m sympathetic to the point being made. Women are still a minority amongst conventional gamers, and it’s rarer still for those women to make gaming their job. But while I agree it’s a fair point that I’m in an unusual position, I still dread the questions that follow it. I have no good explanation for what it is that drew me to gaming. I still don’t know if I saw something in gaming that most women don’t notice but would like if they did, or if games found something in me that most women don’t have and wouldn’t want if they could. I’m profoundly uncomfortable being asked to be a spokesman for 51% of the world’s population, especially since the only thing we know about me for sure is that I’m an oddity.

But the commercial necessity behind better exploiting that 51% remains, so the question is going to keep coming up. And from now on, I’m going to answer it by referring people to ‘Is There Anything Good About Men?’, a paper given at the American Psychological Association’s annual conference by Dr Roy F. Baumeister of Florida State University. In it, he suggests that most cultures are equally, but differently, exploitative of men and women, leading to a situation where men are more attuned to wide, distributed networks that reward competition and specialisation, and women prize small, intimate social networks which thrive on co-operation and generalisation. You’re bound to disagree with some or all of his points, but it’s well worth a read – it’s long, but light – and got me thinking in some new ways about game design.

What’s particularly interesting to me is that the gender imbalance he describes is evident even in the way that very conversation tends to go: women who ask me about how I got started in games follow up with small-scale social questions – how have I been treated, do I encounter prejudice, am I self-conscious when playing in front of a male audience. The men get very rapidly side-tracked on to specialist, general-scale questions. If I mention Dungeon Master as being the first moment when games took over my life, women ask me how my parents felt about my new hobby, or if it brought me greater acceptance among male friends. Men, on hearing this news, are more likely to move on to wondering whatever happened to FTL, or whether or not I’d ever tried completing it with only one character.

So allowing that I find the root of Baumeister’s argument plausible, what does it mean for the great Girls In Games debate? In asking why more women don’t play games, we worried a lot, initially, about surface things – boy-games were too violent, too lasers-and-robots. What we needed was girl-games about shopping, horses and make-up! Now, thankfully, we’ve moved a little past that (despite the fact that games about shopping, horses and make-up do seem to be proving particularly successful with young female consumers, particularly on the DS), and are looking at important external factors. So we’ve noted that for games to be attractive to women they need to be available on hardware they feel comfortable with, and offer play-patterns that are compatible with busy, often fragmented lives.

But what Baumeister’s paper makes me think about is whether or not we’re neglecting an examination of more basic gameplay issues. Does his thesis suggest that women would be more comfortable with a game which had a small cast of characters than either none or many? Does his theory that women see less advantage in specialisation mean that they’ll be alienated by the common RPG mechanic where levelling-up in one field disables your potential in another? Should risk-reward ratios be normalised – smaller risks for smaller rewards – for games aimed at girls rather than boys? By which I mean, could you produce a functionally identical game – same visuals, same interface, same goals, same structures – but tune it to appeal more to one gender or another?

And, actually, Dungeon Master might not be a bad place to start. Would women prefer it if the initial character choice was smaller? Would they enjoy exploring more if the mazes were more compact, but contained more hidden detail? Would they warm more to a levelling-up system that was fuelled by the characters’ interactions (rather like Disgaea 2’s spell-learning system, where characters can learn magic by osmosis, simply by standing near their spell-casting father-figures). Would they (oh, the hate-mail) like it better if it was easier?

Actually, in a transparent attempt to divert you from your poison pen, I’m going to point you to Return To Chaos, a Windows port of Dungeon Master, for those too impatient to find it for Steem, or those too lazy to unearth their ST from the attic. Don’t hesitiate to play it if you haven’t before, and if you have, don’t worry about whether your fond memories of it will survive having their rose-tinted spectacles ripped off. It hasn’t aged a button.

Stone dead

I met my hero the other night. My excitement was bowed a bit by the fact that he was dead, and turned out to be a bit of a moaner, but only a bit. Even odder was the fact that until I’d met him, I’d never even heard of him. But, after one rambling, ghostly conversation, I realised I was his biggest fan.

Franclorn Forgewright is the greatest architect in all of Azeroth, responsible for the immense doors of Blackrock Depths and who knows how many other pieces of monumental masonry across the world of WarCraft. It was all I could do not to ask for his autograph. My bovine roots may mean I spend a lot of my time in elaborate yurts and bone-stitched tepees, but not even my hatred of the Alliance can dent my admiration of Ironforge and Stormwind. To meet the man who devised these stone-wrought colossi was something I never though a humble druid from Mulgore would get to do. His cities are as much machines as homes, as much statues as settlements, radiating history, hostility and grandeur. And so what was I ever going to say to his request for help but ‘yes’? Allowing that ‘For the Horde!’ didn’t really seem appropriate.

And that means it’s the first quest in who knows how long I’ve given a damn about in WoW. I don’t read the preambles, only the instructions. I still don’t really know why we’re at war, especially since Mulgore seems a haven of peace and plenty and not much troubled by scourges. I feel no sense of allegiance to Thrall, and I only hate the Alliance because they fanny around so hopelessly in Warsong Gulch. My commitment to the game has always been about the setting, not the story, until all of a sudden the setting became the story and I felt I owed this man – this grumpy ghost of my enemy – a debt of honour as real as I’ve owed to any human player. At a time when there’s so much talk of story in games, it properly baffles me that the debate remains fixated on dialogue and character design when good games have known for years that architecture is the best narrator you could ever hope for, reading from a script that never tires.

So while I know it’s really Chris Metzen or Bill Petras or Justin Thavirat I should be chasing with my autograph book, I’m going to stick with directing my gratitude to Franclorn Forgewright. Not least because he’s a lot more likely to give me rare epix! in return. Thanks, Franc. Thancs.

The Story Of Oh

I was showing a friend the opening of Final Fantasy XII today (having forgotten what an amazingly pretty downer that is – ten minutes in and he’s dead, she’s dead, he’s killed him and him, and the evil empire that killed your parents has actually stamped on your flowers) and it made me realise why stories in games will always be rubbish.

It’s not the old interactivity-vs-narrative problem – although I’m still convinced that they remain the opposite ends of an increasingly threadbare piece of string – it’s this: game stories have to rationalise the fact that every single thing in the world revolves around you. You are the person the shops were built for, the crates stacked for, the mines laid for. You’re who the girls wait for, the enemies spawn for and the NPCs patrol for. Sure, games like Oblivion work pretty hard to convince you that it all goes on even when you’re not around, but at best it feels like Westworld – an eerie bonhomie that only fools you if you want it to.

Any story in which only one person can be the agent of change is always likely to feel trite. It’s a fairytale pattern, whether that person is fairly fairyish (Link) or not at all (Doomguy). It’s why saving the world is still the main occupation in any game where you don’t have a football or an Enzo. How could anything less be possibly be expected of you if you’re the person the world revolves around? It would be churlish not to. The stories in films and books uusually revolve around a powerless person scraping together enough potency to make a big dramatic change – whether it’s dying gracefully, or usurping a vicious drill sergeant, or organising a really good batchelor party. And if the heroes are presidents, superheroes or single-mothers-with-unstoppable-guts-and-integrity, then the story is the recognition and defeat of their *actual* weakness, which usually turns out to be Gerald Depardieu or hydrophobia or something equally lame. But in games, even if you start with a weedy pistol, or 10HP, you’re still the most powerful – often the only powerful – person in the world. And that gives you two big problems: first, it means that it’s very hard for game stories not to be hyperbolic, and second, it makes it very hard for them not all to be the same. The set-dressing may change from sci-fi to fantasy to WWII (although not much further) and the telling may change from the perfunctory to the inept to the elegant, but can you name three games that tell a story which isn’t about someone who saves the world by doing the same few things over and over?

Actually – I can. GTA III, Vice City, and San Andreas. How about that?

Who do you wish did, who doesn’t? (Pt 2)

Finishing what I started below, here’s the rest of my list of people I wish would take a side-step into game development.

Colin St John Wilson

He’s not a man I know much about, but he designed a building I know very well: the British Library at St Pancras, in London. A lot of people loathe it – it’s a bit too square and a bit too red, but as this book cover shows, the inside is a very different proposition. Wilson designed the interior with a lot of thought for the people who would use it – people who would come to the building every day, perhaps for years, and always with heads full of abstract information. Consequently, there are no obvious routes through its sun-bright atrium. Rather than forcing its visitors into a daily, identical trudge, Wilson wanted them to wander, to find short-cuts and distractions. And it works. Even when I was going there every day, I would find that my feet downright refused to settle into a pattern. Which meant that a man who I’d never met was using 400,000 tons worth of brick and glass to control my movements. Games are only just beginning to understand how they can use their architecture to tell their stories and manipulate their players, but I suspect it will take the input of people like Wilson to fully exploit it. Other things to like about the British Library include the five-story, inside-out, library-within-a-library, the thing that looks a bit like a sniper tower, and the fact that it’s as useful for impressing your mother as it is for meeting girls.

Cornelius

This one’s a bit of a cheat, because the musician known as Cornelius (Keigo Oyamada) already makes games – or at least the sountracks for them, as anyone who’s had the chance to chime hypnotically with Coloris can testify. But what makes it less of a cheat is that he’s probably the only person on this list who’d stand a chance of actually making something you could play. His credentials, other than Coloris, are impeccable, in that his son is actually called Mario, and his (brilliant) videos make it pretty clear that he could give Minter, Mizuguchi and Iwai a run for their money. Especially since he doesn’t have a weakness for yaks, The Black-Eyed Peas or improbably impratical musical instruments, and would be be guaranteed to involve monkeys somewhere along the line. He might need a bit of help on the character design front, though.

Men Of Science

This is definitely a cheat, but right now it’s the one I’m most excited about. I would like (take note, any passing VC-samaritans looking to sink millions into a vanity project with a prospective market of one) these guys to make me a shmup. Look at that stuff! It’s astonishing, and ten times as extraordinary as anything I’ve seen in a game all year. I want to streak over the surface of two m-plane sapphire substrates at 200 miles an hour, never mind 200x magnification. I want to bury quad-rocket charges into the spaghetti-genitalia of a Copepod lophoura – surely standing by to take the ‘most phallic enemy since Xenon 2’s foreskin plants’ prize – and blast it to mush. I want to slice through the sky as cleanly as a microchannel for flow-stretching DNA. Who’s with me? All we need is Treasure, a million dollars, and the phone-number for the guy who’s got the Fantastic Voyage licence.

Who do you wish did, who doesn’t? (Pt 2)

Finishing what I started below, here’s the rest of my list of people I wish would take a side-step into game development.

Colin St John Wilson

He’s not a man I know much about, but he designed a building I know very well: the British Library at St Pancras, in London. A lot of people loathe it – it’s a bit too square and a bit too red, but as this book cover shows, the inside is a very different proposition. Wilson designed the interior with a lot of thought for the people who would use it – people who would come to the building every day, perhaps for years, and always with heads full of abstract information. Consequently, there are no obvious routes through its sun-bright atrium. Rather than forcing its visitors into a daily, identical trudge, Wilson wanted them to wander, to find short-cuts and distractions. And it works. Even when I was going there every day, I would find that my feet downright refused to settle into a pattern. Which meant that a man who I’d never met was using 400,000 tons worth of brick and glass to control my movements. Games are only just beginning to understand how they can use their architecture to tell their stories and manipulate their players, but I suspect it will take the input of people like Wilson to fully exploit it. Other things to like about the British Library include the five-story, inside-out, library-within-a-library, the thing that looks a bit like a sniper tower, and the fact that it’s as useful for impressing your mother as it is for meeting girls.

Cornelius

This one’s a bit of a cheat, because the musician known as Cornelius (Keigo Oyamada) already makes games – or at least the sountracks for them, as anyone who’s had the chance to chime hypnotically with Coloris can testify. But what makes it less of a cheat is that he’s probably the only person on this list who’d stand a chance of actually making something you could play. His credentials, other than Coloris, are impeccable, in that his son is actually called Mario, and his (brilliant) videos make it pretty clear that he could give Minter, Mizuguchi and Iwai a run for their money. Especially since he doesn’t have a weakness for yaks, The Black-Eyed Peas or improbably impratical musical instruments, and would be be guaranteed to involve monkeys somewhere along the line. He might need a bit of help on the character design front, though.

Men Of Science

This is definitely a cheat, but right now it’s the one I’m most excited about. I would like (take note, any passing VC-samaritans looking to sink millions into a vanity project with a prospective market of one) these guys to make me a shmup. Look at that stuff! It’s astonishing, and ten times as extraordinary as anything I’ve seen in a game all year. I want to streak over the surface of two m-plane sapphire substrates at 200 miles an hour, never mind 200x magnification. I want to bury quad-rocket charges into the spaghetti-genitalia of a Copepod lophoura – surely standing by to take the ‘most phallic enemy since Xenon 2’s foreskin plants’ prize – and blast it to mush. I want to slice through the sky as cleanly as a microchannel for flow-stretching DNA. Who’s with me? All we need is Treasure, a million dollars, and the phone-number for the guy who’s got the Fantastic Voyage licence.

Who do you wish did, who doesn’t?

Gamers are all chronic wishaholics – the inevitable side-effect of having a hobby which is mostly about making the impossible possible. But, for some reason, they tend to be wishes of improvement or alteration: ‘I wish Capcom would release Okami before Christmas’, ‘I wish there was more stuff to do in Just Cause’, ‘I wish Nintendo would sort out its Stars catalogue worldwide so I can stop feeling like a stamped-on snail every time I think of it.’ What we don’t do a lot of is blue-sky wishing. So, here’s my list, on a blue-sky day, of who I wish made games, but doesn’t.

Akiyoshi Kitaoka

He’s a professor at the department of psychology at Kyoto’s Ritsumeikan University, and world leader in the design and study of optical illusions. Those of you who aren’t already on the brink of a migraine may want to spend some time tickling the inside of their brains with the hundreds of examples posted at his site. And why do I wish he’d make games? Aesthetics, partly. I’m tired of the real, in a big way. For years the real was brown and grey – sludgy roads, porridgey buildings, pasty people. And I’m even tiring of the new real, which is mostly green (Far Cry, Just Cause, Test Drive etc.) I want the impossible, and unimagined and I want it to be packed with colour – and it seems Kitaoka is qualified on all three counts. And I’m sick of verb/object puzzles – doors that need keys, people that need information, switches that need pressing. How about some persistence of vision puzzles? How about enemies who use visual anomalies as camouflage?

Mark Dunn

He’s a writer and playwright (not long, I guess, before that gets bastardised down to ‘playwrite’), best known for Ella Minnow Pea, initially introduced as a A Progressively Lipogrammatic Epistolary Fable, but itself bastardised down to A Novel Without Letters. It’s set on the island where the phrase ‘the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog’ was first discovered, and documents what happens as successive letters of the alphabet are banned by a totalitarian and fusspot government. It’s a puzzle book, partly for Mark Dunn who has fewer and fewer letters to work with in each successive chapter, and partly for the readers, who are co-opted into the islander’s desperate hunt for a replacement phrase for the rapidly disappearing brown fox. It’s an enormouly playful book, as well as a cracking read (the climax is so satisfying it made me accidentally holler in triumph on a flight to the US, back in the balmy days when such behaviour didn’t get you arrested), and it shows there’s a different way to make games out of words than the narrative-led, conversation-driven techniques of things like Facade.

Continues above.

Who do you wish did, who doesn’t?

Gamers are all chronic wishaholics – the inevitable side-effect of having a hobby which is mostly about making the impossible possible. But, for some reason, they tend to be wishes of improvement or alteration: ‘I wish Capcom would release Okami before Christmas’, ‘I wish there was more stuff to do in Just Cause’, ‘I wish Nintendo would sort out its Stars catalogue worldwide so I can stop feeling like a stamped-on snail every time I think of it.’ What we don’t do a lot of is blue-sky wishing. So, here’s my list, on a blue-sky day, of who I wish made games, but doesn’t.

Akiyoshi Kitaoka

He’s a professor at the department of psychology at Kyoto’s Ritsumeikan University, and world leader in the design and study of optical illusions. Those of you who aren’t already on the brink of a migraine may want to spend some time tickling the inside of their brains with the hundreds of examples posted at his site. And why do I wish he’d make games? Aesthetics, partly. I’m tired of the real, in a big way. For years the real was brown and grey – sludgy roads, porridgey buildings, pasty people. And I’m even tiring of the new real, which is mostly green (Far Cry, Just Cause, Test Drive etc.) I want the impossible, and unimagined and I want it to be packed with colour – and it seems Kitaoka is qualified on all three counts. And I’m sick of verb/object puzzles – doors that need keys, people that need information, switches that need pressing. How about some persistence of vision puzzles? How about enemies who use visual anomalies as camouflage?

Mark Dunn

He’s a writer and playwright (not long, I guess, before that gets bastardised down to ‘playwrite’), best known for Ella Minnow Pea, initially introduced as a A Progressively Lipogrammatic Epistolary Fable, but itself bastardised down to A Novel Without Letters. It’s set on the island where the phrase ‘the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog’ was first discovered, and documents what happens as successive letters of the alphabet are banned by a totalitarian and fusspot government. It’s a puzzle book, partly for Mark Dunn who has fewer and fewer letters to work with in each successive chapter, and partly for the readers, who are co-opted into the islander’s desperate hunt for a replacement phrase for the rapidly disappearing brown fox. It’s an enormouly playful book, as well as a cracking read (the climax is so satisfying it made me accidentally holler in triumph on a flight to the US, back in the balmy days when such behaviour didn’t get you arrested), and it shows there’s a different way to make games out of words than the narrative-led, conversation-driven techniques of things like Facade.

Continues above.