Me and my big mouth

Back from Edinburgh, from a very happy time learning about whales and player ethnography and customisable music. I gave a talk based on the last talk I gave at Edinburgh, in which I managed to say:

If you don’t know how you’re aiming to change your players’ lives, you’re not necessarily a bad game designer, but you might be a bad person.

I’ve been feeling guilty about it ever since. Not because it’s not true, but because all too often I’m a massive hypocrit, and don’t have a clear answer to that question myself. Working on SuperMe made me particularly aware of it, since that entire project was about trying to encode more positive ways of thinking into the core mechanics of the games that would sit within it. And, having learned a lot more about happiness from the research Somethin’ Else and Coney undertook for SuperMe, I also now have better tools at my disposal to figure out how to design for happiness, and how to recognise good happiness design in other games.

I’ll do a proper write-up shortly, but for now, here are the slides. Bonus points for anyone who can find me a credit for the awesome photo.

Penn and Teller and more Holy Cow

So it turns out sleeping after a Penn and Teller show is impossible. Your brain’s just far too fizzy.

The whole show (as the previous post probably indicates) was an inspiration (except, if I’m honest, the nailgun bit, which I’m pretty sure any competent musician could have pulled off for real after a bit of practice and a deep breath). What got me thinking about my own work, though, was the people-wrangling.

The night before, I and the other creators at the WonderLab had run Couple Up for an invited audience. Couple Up was a game we’d created that very afternoon, and only tested once, and was full of imperfections (some deliberate, many not). Running it was a process of getting 30 people, who hadn’t come to play, to understand, perform and enjoy a complex physical, social game simultaneously. It went, all things considered, pretty well. But it was a bodge, and required an amount of on-the-fly rule evolution and bit of improv stage-management. As I spend more time designing and running meat-space games, I’m only beginning to learn the dark art of introducing games to players and facilitating and shaping their experience. Godding Werewolf is one thing, getting 30 people to make choices and speak to actors and move around rooms is many orders of magnitude tougher.

So where to turn to for advice on how to take someone who doesn’t know the rules and get them to do the things you need them to do? I’d never thought of how abundantly obvious it is: magicians. Magicians’ whole careers often depend on their ability to pull people from the audience and get them to do the right thing. I’d thought before about what they might have to teach videogame designers, but hadn’t thought about how valuable they’d be for training physical game runners.

Leaving the show tonight, I had the chance to talk the idea over with Stuart Nolan, who extended the idea to specifically learning from busker magicians. Rather than swapping magic tips, he’d had the chance to learn crowd management from buskers. It’s crucial to learn how to stop the audience applauding, apparently, because applause signals an ending, and so people start to leave. But how do you perform a trick in such a way that it amazes and delights people but disinclines them to applaud? Stuart Nolan knows, but I don’t, and now I want to learn.

It’s probably a better use of my excitement-induced insomnia than trying to get a hang of the needle trick.

Penn and Teller and Holy Cow

Stall seats for Penn and Teller’s return to the UK after a 15 year absence. I’m not going to try to do justice to the 19 impossible, beautiful things they showed us all. Nor am I going to try to explain them – I’m taking Penn’s advice and living in the happy persistence of mystery, rather than clutching at unfounded rationales. Go, if you at all can. There do seem to be a few tickets left.

Mostly, it made me think about making and running games. More than the magic, what astonished me tonight was the quality of the workmanship on show. The staging, the timing, the writing, the costumes, the performances, the precision, the invention, the experimentation. Understanding the man-hours that had gone into the evening was impossible – understanding the man-hours that had gone into each individual trick equally so. And, while Penn’s mischevious promises that the nail-guns and tank-drownings weren’t actually dangerous were persuasive, it was perfectly clear that the level of precision required to bring the show off were astonishing.

And so I left with one over-riding feeling: that everything I’ve ever made is a sack of shit. And I’m proud of the things I’ve made. Proud of the people I’ve worked with – of their talent and their diligence and flair. But nothing I’ve ever made came anywhere close to the standards of excellence I saw on stage tonight. Even Royal Opera House performances, my previous benchmark of enacted perfection, don’t quite cut it. My standards simply aren’t Penn and Teller’s standards. They wouldn’t work with me. They shouldn’t work with me. I accept a margin of error, and a rate of failure, which they wouldn’t. They’re six sigma – beyond six sigma – and I’m two-and-a-bit-of-sellotape-and-fingers-crossed sigma.

Most of us are, to be honest. Most of us accept – particularly when we’re making digital, coded, things, that there will be bugs and flaws and things we bravely trumpet as ‘working as intended’.  But seeing tonight’s show reminded me of reading the account of the way NASA code – of how you make things actually work, rather than just mostly work. It’s easy, it turns out – it’s just agonisingly slow, expensive and thorough.

Penn and Teller’s example hasn’t left me daunted, however. It’s impossible not to be inspired by their warmth and hard-earned pride. I don’t want to make things like their things, but I do want to make things as well as they do, and it makes me happy that it’ll take me the rest of my life to learn how.

Too much of a good thing

…turns out just to be another good thing. It’s like the infinite hotel.

This week’s good things – so far – have been the launch of SuperMe, a Channel 4 project I’ve been working on for a while. It’s a project to help teenagers (and, frankly, the rest of us), develop better mental resiliance, through videos, quizzes, games and useful mind hacks. Working with the team assembled by Somethin’ Else and Preloaded has been a great privilege, and I’ve learned things both about my own brain and my approach to game design generally. The minigames within it are some of my favourite projects from the last few years. Play them here, and let me know what you think.

And then, on cue, Channel 4 goes as wins Publishing Hero at the Develop Awards. I’m gutted not to have been there, and very proud to have been connected with some bold commissioning and fantastic projects. Although, I confess, I think C4 didn’t really deserve to win this year, but only cos next year’s slate is so amazingly awesome. They’re going to run out of hyperbolic award titles at this rate.

And why wasn’t I there? Cos I was debuting Couple Up, the game made by the participants of this week’s WonderLab. WonderLab was three days of performers and playmakers coming together to do what you do in a lab – tinker, theorise, experiment and make. A fantastic group of musicians, writers, composers, actors, directors, producers, commissioners, game designers, coders, artists and philosophers and spent three days sharing their brains. I’ve rarely had a greater treat than getting to lead their explorations.

Everyone who attended the lab – speakers and visitors and participants – was asked to speak for five minutes on something which blew their mind (or, if I was feeling a bit more articulate, something which amazed or delighted them). Some spoke about personal experiences, some about their work. Many of them exceeded their five minutes a little, but we all forgave them, as I’m confident will you. All those talks are available over at WonderLab’s YouTube channel, and I can’t recommend them highly enough.

I can’t begin to pick favourites, but if you’re a game designer you might want to start with Tassos Steven’s talk. If you’re a musician, you might be interested in hearing from Momus or Pat Kane. If you’re a sound or graphic designer, perhaps with Nick Ryan. If you’re at all interesting in creativity (or indeed copyright), you might want to hit Mark Earls first (in a good way). If you’re smart enough to be interested in people you haven’t heard of yet (and trust me, I mean yet), try Jason Anthony. If you want to think about how fragile and beautiful interaction can be, start with Melanie Wilson, or perhaps choose to examine the value of anticipation with Aleks Krotoski. If you want a big fat perspective check – in all kinds of ways – then maybe with Kati London, Jo Twist or Malcolm Sutherland. If you want to think about why playing with pain is interesting, with Paul Bennun. Or, if you want to instantly go and drop £30 on Amazon, with Tom Armitage. Then you might want to hear about performing games from Richard Lemarchand, or help Maurice Suckling explore the infinite. And, if all else fails, you can watch mine to discover the heckle that’s going to haunt me for a thousand talks to come.

I’m not supposed to say this about my own event, but it was basically the best conference I’ve ever been to, even though it was only a conference for an hour or two a day. We’ll be posting up news of Couple Up, the game that represents the digest and distillation of all our experiments in the next couple of days. We’re really looking forward to hear what you make of it.

Level up

I’ve had the pretty extraordinary experience of getting to have the best job in the world twice (OK, three times, if you count that day as a dental chaperone). Editing Edge was an absolute, pinch-yourself dream come true, and the years since which I’ve spent consulting on interesting, challenging games with clever, passionate people have been hugely rewarding.

Moving from journalism to consulting was an exercise in putting my money where my mouth was. It’s easy to comment from the sidelines, more daunting to put your theories to the test on real projects. Doing so has taught me a huge amount, but left me aware that there’s still another money-mouth replacement manouevre left undone: running my own projects rather than advising on other people’s. But where, might you ask, would you find a bunch of people brave, optimistic and open-minded enough to let me do my own thing?

Enter Hide&Seek. You may know them from the Weekender*, the annual weekend of playful mayhem on the Southbank. You may know them from Tate Trumps, the laudably Ronseal-titled iPhone game for Tate Modern. You might know them from 221b.sh, the two-player collaborative Sherlock Holmes adventure game I designed with them last year. You might even know them from today’s rather lovely Guardian piece. It’s a company whose ethos I love – players first, gameplay second, platform last – and who I’m joining today as development director.

We’ve got extraordinary things planned, from projects with the Royal Opera House to pioneering work with a major console manufacturer, all of which you’ll be able to read about when the NDA deadlines mature. I’ll be working four days a week to start, to finish up my ongoing consultancy commitments, but will be helping to lead the studio in generating original, valuable, unpredictable game projects.

And so here I go again: new best job in the world.

 

*And the Weekender is NOW! Come down to the National Theatre this weekend to say hello. The bunting has to be seen to be believed.

Something old, something blue

669521227429563635uh3I had a stimulating conversation today with someone from Dentsu, which reminded of the oddest commission I’ve ever received: a request from a Polish newspaper for a piece on games as dating tools. I’ve dug it out, and – it being marginally less awful than I remembered – I thought I’d give it an airing. But do please put yourself in the mindset of a Polish newspaper-reader from 2008 before you start. The world’s done a lot of turning since then:

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If you’ve read your share of romance novels, it’s likely you’ll have encountered this scene: the heroine watches enraptured as the man of her dreams, the man she’s never even spoken to, takes to the stage. He settles in his chair and draws his ‘cello to him, his arms tensed and poised as he prepares to play. As a flood of music sweeps out from the stage, she stares greedily at his fingers, agile and strong, as they move against the strings. She feels herself respond to the gentleness with which he cradles the instrument, with the passionate force with which he makes it give up its music. We may find it clichéd, but we don’t find it ridiculous that someone could long to be on the receiving end of the skilled, passionate focus that a great musician shows to their instrument. Hundreds of films and thousands of books have shown us images of women in high-necked dresses swooning at the sight of a virtuoso pianist, bent over his keyboard with furious abandon.
But what if instead of a piano keyboard it was a computer keyboard? And what if, instead of Rachmaninov’s 2nd Piano Concerto, he was playing Halo 3? Suddenly the romance vanishes, replaced by ridicule. Who could swoon over an anti-social geek, wasting his life pretending to be a space marine? It may surprise you to discover that across the world, a forest of hands just went up. Gamers are the new virtuosos, and both men and women are falling for their charms.

This isn’t as strange as it may at first sound. The last few years have seen an explosion of online games, most notably World of WarCraft, a virtual world which now has a population three times the size of Paris. These worlds offer a fresh face for the now-familiar process of online dating. The key advantages of online dating – that you can both massively widen your potential pool of partners, while easily filtering out undesirables – holds just as true for games, as does the liberating anonymity that online interaction can bring.

In practice, what this means is that people can fall in love from the inside out. Although there are many scare stories based on people who’ve been wildly misled as to the age, appearance and even gender of their online sweetheart, for many the experience is exactly the opposite. Online games provide an environment where attraction is formed based not on the shallow factors we rely on when sizing someone up in a pub, but on deeper revelations about their personalities, interests and attitudes.

It’s in this respect that games come into their own. All you get from a chat-room or forum is a couple of paragraphs of prose, carefully calculated to show their author in a good light. Games put you under pressure, manufacture crises, and dump you in awkward social and financial situations, all of which can be uniquely revealing. Where else but in games could you find out on a first date if someone’s a good leader, if they deal well with beggars, if they can be patient with children, if they are greedy when they think no-one else is looking? These are deep elements of a person’s character, and games expose them ruthlessly. Never forget: these are worlds where you can right-click on someone you’ve just met and inspect their underwear. This combination of social intimacy and situational pressure produces a romantic crucible just as powerful as the famous Stockholm syndrome. “Much of the relationship formation in online games happens because these environments force players to work together and bond over crises,” says Nick Yee, an academic who has researched hundreds of online gaming romances as part of his Daedalus Project.

But if that all sounds a bit mercenary, than that’s to underestimate the immense romantic potential of games. Playing together takes you right back to all the delicious excitement of a school-days crush. Most games give you the opportunity to send other players private, real-time messages, so while a group of you gather together for a formal discussion about the next big battle or pirate raid, the two of you can keep up a constant stream of invisible flirtation, confident in the knowledge that these love letters will never be intercepted by the teacher and shared with the class. Or, if you’d rather be outrageous than subtle, then most games give you an arsenal of wolf-whistles, sexy dance moves and flamboyantly blown kisses to direct to the object of your affection.

These are fantasy worlds where the kind of gifts you’ve always dreamed of giving to – and getting from – your lover, are merely a weekend’s play away. Megan, a 32 year old from Minnesota, still wears a rare Mooncloth circlet given to her as a courting gift by the partner she met in World of WarCraft. ‘It’s too low level for me now,’ she confesses, ‘but I never want to take it off. Every time I look and see where it says ‘Made by Kurall’ it still makes me tingle.’ Or, if even virtual capitalism is a turn-off for you, then how about saving the life of your beloved – or sacrificing your own – for the ultimate dramatic gesture? And, for those whose romance truly blossoms, most virtual worlds accommodate in-game weddings, which give you the chance to gather together friends from all around the world in the most spectacular location to witness you making your vows, all without the thousand dollar price tags, and the worries about pre-nups. ‘So far I’ve made a tuxedo and shirt,’ says Christophe, a 21-year old Parisian who also met his girl-friend online and is planning to surprise her with an in-game wedding. ‘I just have to sort out the ring, and then I’m going to surprise her on the beach at sunset.’

23m23uuOne of the great, ironic virtues of the gaming world is that it levels the playing field. People who may be self-conscious of their appearance in real-life can glory in being a ten-foot cow, or a miniature gnome with pink hair. Those who never got a chance to score a goal or win a race can lead victorious armies and proudly wear the insignia to prove it. Traditional dating is like traditional exams – it favours the people whose natural abilities are well suited to a peculiar and artificial process. Gaming gives you an arena where you can demonstrate the strengths that would all too often get overlooked in a usual romantic setting. It lets you show yourself in a far more flattering light than the question, ‘Do you come here often?’ gives you a chance to.

But what if online gaming isn’t your bag, any more than online dating is? What if, despite all the reassurances, you need to meet someone face to face – flesh to flesh – before you can tell whether or not you’re interested in them? Games can still come to your rescue. Watching someone play can be just as revealing whether you’re on the other end of an internet connection or the other end of the sofa. And the great thing about offline games is that there’s a much wider range of titles available, which means a much wider range of insights to be gleaned about your prospective partner. Communal online games tend to fall broadly into the adventuring bracket – kings and queens, monsters and dragons, trading empires and space pirates – which can be a great help in judging the intelligence, patience and team-work of a prospective partner, but may leave you with some crucial gaps.

Home console games often rely on quicker reactions and reward ingenuity and skill. Watching someone play can often given you pointers about their more intimate abilities. So even if war games bore you stupid, it can well be worth sitting through an evening of play, as long as your attention is on your intended, not on the screen. How much finesse do they exhibit? How much imagination? How quick are their fingers? Do they rely on the same tactic over and over again? If it doesn’t work, do they alter their approach, or keep using the same technique in the hope brute force or luck will win the day? Do they follow the instructions the game offers them, or are they determined to please themselves? Do they save the game every five seconds so they never have to worry about losing progress, or are they eager to take risks? Watch and learn, and at the end of the evening, see if you feel surer than you did of how good a lover they would be.

Does the theory work in practice? Certainly many thousands of players have tales to tell of relationships that have started in games, and then moved into the real world. It’s common for romances to bloom over a period of years, and for couples to move thousands of miles to start their lives together. Does this ‘inside-out’ approach of getting to know someone mean that these romances prove more durable than those started in more traditional ways? “We just don’t have good numbers on the success or durability of relationships in different spheres of life to really answer that question.” laments Yee, but anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that the bonds people make in-game are strong and deep. As Megan says, ‘Some of my friends were worried when I went to meet him for the first time, but after two years of adventuring together, I’d learned I could trust him with my life.’ So whether you meet online and then move off, or meet in a bar and venture in-game for an unusual first date, the game of love has never been so easy to play.

[I've lost the credits for the cartoons, I'm ashamed to say, so please let me know if you know what they should be, and I'll add them.]

Microknackered

After a frankly frenzied week of preperation, the splendid Richard Lemarchand’s GDC microtalk session is finally over. I know I’m not supposed to say this cos I was part of it, but it was by far my favourite session of the conference so far. So many brilliant ideas coming at you so fast! It was like the Dopler Effect in reverse.

I just wanted to tip my hat again to Leigh Caldwell, whose blog shows how he applies his expertise in behavioural economics to games and other interesting systems, and whose help was invaluable in putting my talk together. Other references for the talk are on Delicious, tagged GDC10Margaret.

Independence Night

killscreenGDC is weird this year, because everything’s on the wrong days, and in the wrong halls, and accompanied by the wrong lunch, but by jove it doesn’t matter cos the people are so nice.

This evening, the people who were being nice were mostly indie-types, brought together by the now-fledged UK Indie Developers club. It made me think, while introducing people to other people it was inconceivable they didn’t already know, that there’s still an awful lot of us who haven’t met, despite all living in a country the size of a teapot. So, if you’re an established, or just-getting-established UK indie, and fancy being on a mailing list with a bunch of other nice indies keen to help each other out, drop me a line (contact form on right) with info about yourselves and the game(s) you’ve made and I’ll get you on the mailing list.

Other nice indies around tonight included the team behind new, ultra-irresistible games mag Kill Screen. I left my promo copy in the hot hands of some over-excited paper fetishist, so I’ll be heading off to their site to buy another. It’s smart and pretty – you should too.

Job(s) Spot(s)

As a consultant, I get to work with a lot of interesting companies on a lot of interesting games. A lot of them are based in London, and a lot of them are small, fast, satisfying projects. The two questions I get asked most at the moment are:

1) Do you know any really good Flash coders looking for a job?
2) Do you know any good freelance game designers looking for work?

My answer is always: not enough, so I thought I’d give the internet a shout. The Flash jobs are usually full-time at profitable, personable game indies or digital agencies. The game design gigs are often project-by-project, and are looking for people with proven game design and delivery skills (so have you conceived, fleshed out and finished something), rather than necessarily any particular professional qualifications or experience.

If either of those things sound like interesting opportunities, do feel free to get in touch (there’s a Contact link over on the right). I can’t promise anything at all – not even a response if I’m feeling scatterbrained, I fear – but I will pass on details to companies looking to hire where it looks like there’s a good potential match.

The gratitude of wolves

Wired March 2010Over the course of last summer, I sent out hundreds of mails to people who I knew, or suspected, or hoped, were Werewolf players, asking for help researching a big, fat Wired feature on the history of the game, and its status among the geeky.

I was expecting a bit of a response, since Werewolf players are often pretty enthusiastic about their game, but I wasn’t expecting to trigger an avalanche. So many people wrote me detailed, fascinating replies – full of history and psychological introspection and swearing and glee – that I genuinely lost count. The stack of print-outs on my desk would have crushed the spirit of anyone who doesn’t actively despise trees. I tried to thank everyone, but I bet I missed a few. Either way, let me thank you again.

Publishing grinds a little slower than blogging (although not much slower than this blog), so the article is now finally outed in this month’s mag. You can read it over at the Wired site or buy a copy and find out a little about Hela cells and Kodak and winning at darts as well. So many quotes ended up getting cut, from so many interesting and generous interviews – apologies if any of them are yours. And do let me know what I’ve missed or got wrong.

Videogames and things