Monday, April 30, 2012

Indie Tech Talk 01: Scott Anderson

In the first of ten Indie tech talks, Scott Anderson, creator of Shadow Physics, spoke about using technology for gameplay innovations, specifically signed distance fields.

  • Scott has three main inspirations for his game design: the Demo Scene community, the Creative Coding community, and molecular gastronomy.
  • He introduced two technologies: GPU particle systems and signed distance fields, and showed two videos - Agenda Circling Forth by CNCD Fairlight (, which utilizes GPU particle systems, and Zeo-x-s by Quite (, which procedurally generates fractal worlds using signed distance fields.
  • Distance fields are basically the closest distance to a given surface. They are useful for font rendering and can be signed or unsigned, 2D or 3D.
  • Signed distance fields can be created explicitly by generating from a bitmap/mesh and storing in an image or 3D model. They can also be created implicitly using math to calculate the distance from points. This is easy to compose and can be animated or transformed in real-time.
  • For 2D signed distance fields, fill pixels if the distance is less than zero and modify with different effects such as a drop shadow filter. 3D is trickier. Normal raycasting to calculate distances can be expensive so you should use sphere tracing.
  • You can get normals by calculating the gradient at intersection points.
  • For shadows, trace another ray from the intersection to the light position.
  • For collision, use simple sphere collision. This, however, can be expensive and it makes the scene size and details of the scene limited.
  • Check Matt Swoboda's blog ( for more information regarding signed distance fields.
Conversation with Andy Nealen
  • How is signed distance fields useful for gameplay? In games, we represent worlds as either pixels or models. It's interesting to look at signed distance fields as an addition way to represent worlds. There are no games that uses it in 3D, but Pixel Junk Shooter uses signed distance fields in 2D.
  • Thinking of moving vertices in different ways can lead to interesting game designs. Scott, himself, has an idea for a fighting game featuring particle characters.
  • The technical excellence award at IGF should be given for the creative use of technology, not for the technical difficulty of the implementation. It is irrelevant on how hard the feature is to implement, but its usage is the distinguishing factor. A lot of the time, the simplest engineering solution is the best solution. Programming and engineering has a lot to do with getting around hardware constraints. The demos Scott showed were hard to do, but it's only as hard as they need to be.
  • The Indie scene in the 90s built things close to triple-A games, but by a super small team and that's what made them amazing. Gish, however, was the turning point in the indie scene where the focus shifted to interesting aesthetics instead of close to triple-A visuals.
  • Scott is a traditional programmer who makes tools. It's interesting to think of code as the tool we use, not the tool that makes the tool we use.
  • Scott spent two years making Shadow Physics, but it's currently put on indefinite hiatus. Shadow Physics is an amazing use of technology, but it didn't come together in the end. It did, however, inspire a bunch of clones such as Lost in Shadow and Contrast.
Audience Question and Answer
  • Would Scott consider using Kickstarter to fund other games like Shadow Physics? Before Double Fine, there was no way for Kickstarter to raise more than $5,000. After that revolution, he would consider using Kickstarter, but it is hard for him to work on a game with other jobs taking up time.
  • How much of the art credit belongs to the programmers? For example, the beautiful look of Journey has a lot to do with the shaders done by the engineers. Usually, there is a person assigned as the technical artist or the "feel engineer" in Journey's case, who moves in between art and programming.
  • The job of a triple-A programmer is to make designer's dreams come true, but indie programmers work on their own ideas. Because of this, they make designs out of cool technology.
  • Minecraft took boxes to an interesting design and mechanic, and then Terraria flipped it to another perspective. Triple-A games don't have this kind of dialogue. Triple-A games have too much risk mitigation. They also hire many artists to explicitly make art, so there's no need for procedural generation.
  • Web development has a lot of interesting technical stuff, but there's not so much of that in games.
  • Any recommendations for programmers trying to learn art? Artists learning programming is easier than programmers learning art. Ideally, everyone should learn both so that you use both sides of your brain. You need to practice and immerse yourself in the arts. You can get to decent levels fast, but you need dedication to get to an advanced level. You should sketch and draw everyday.
  • Don't use design documents. For Scott, it is hard to put the feelings of the visuals into words.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

NYC Gaming Meetup: Future of the NY Gaming Scene

Adam Ludwin of RRE Ventures, Eric Goldberg of Crossover Technologies, Demetri Detsaridis of Zynga New York, and Jon Stokes, who independently developed Whiskers, got together to discuss the future of the NYC gaming industry.
  • The biggest change in the NY gaming industry in the last couple of years was that it produced game development companies that were good enough to be acquired. Area/Code and OMGPop were both acquired by Zynga.
  • Games can now be developed by small teams. Before, games required large infrastructures that NY simply did not have or support. 
  • Money can be found in web technologies now. Developers don't need console experience anymore. There is a democratization of distribution channels and lower barriers of entry for developers. For example, Temple Run was made by a married couple, Tiny Wings was a solo project, and Nimblebit is a group of three people making successful games. People want to make games like a compulsion.
  • You need to be top 10 on the AppStore to be even considered a success.
  • Publishers look at innovative games or something that enables technology such as TwitchTV and OpenFeint.
  • Zynga was the first and most aggressive company to open up new platforms on Facebook. If you're not the first mover, the market you are entering would be too competitive.
  • Playfish and Playdom are direct-to-market companies, but where are the consumer facing companies in NY? NY is too expensive to open up a 75-man studio and there are also no good engineering schools at the level of Stanford or MIT. In addition, NY has relatively low venture capitalist-to-population ratio.
  • NY will be at Los Angeles's caliber in 3-5 years, but it is harder to catch up to Seattle since they have Microsoft.
  • Platform publishers (Microsoft, Sony, Apple, Google, Facebook) are the most money-making companies and they are all located in the west coast. It is difficult for a booming NY scene without a platform holder in this space.
  • NY needs to find a niche. Austin makes all the MMO games and Boston is the center for innovative technology. NY is traditionally known as the indie and artistic space for games.
  • NY is the best place for serious games, games for learning and change, and gamification. The state produces the most grants for these movements.
  • The power of developers is in distribution and how many people they can reach. Arkadium has many distribution partners and Valve runs Steam, which has a huge distribution capacity.
  • Creativity is the most distinguishing factor in games. Companies should move away from the Zynga template model. There is too much noise, similarity, and repetition in the industry right now.
  • Modifying and optimizing a game based on analytic data is very engineering heavy. Need more creatively designed games.
  • NY should have the largest media and distribution access. But Viacom tends to screw things up and Time Warner shifts their efforts to their Warner Bros. HQ out in the west.
  • The indie development scene needs to take active steps to work together in order to stand out. A prime example of a win for them is the Humble Indie Bundle. Kongregate and XBLA are good for indie game attention. Apple's AppStore, however, is not.
  • Parking Wars was a hit game, but A&E didn't want a hit game; they just wanted an ad. The game caused them a lot of trouble including blowing up their servers and taking down their website. Advertisement companies don't want games because ad and game revenue models are different.
  • OMGPop spent a lot of time iterating on Draw Something. Investment is invaluable. Companies should "keep on swinging" until they produce their hit.
  • Draw Something is never punishing and has a completely irrelevant-by-design scoring system, which lead to its casual success.
  • Jon Stokes likes physical space games like Johann Sebastian Joust.
Audience Question and Answer
  • Games are about rules and game programming is about breaking rules.
  • Eric Goldberg is skeptical of one-size-fits-all programming solutions like XNA and HTML5.
  • How do you get into game development? Play all kinds of games from King Maker to Settlers of Catan, learn to code, take internships anywhere, and go meet other game developers at conferences and seminars. Always be making games whether it be paper, card, or board games.
  • IGDA NYC made a list of all game development companies in NY. They will make a list of all games from NY as well.
  • To start a new development company, you should set the quality standards really high. Build something similar to Mojang, Rockstar, or Foursquare. Go into a platform where you don't have to compete with someone with an unfair advantage such as Zynga's stronghold on Facebook. Look for somewhere with less distribution static like Steam or even the open web.
  • Indie developers should communicate with the public (ie. blog, build something into the game that allows user participation, etc.). They must understand the revenue model whether it be virtual goods or ads, and leverage partnerships. Developers need an inside person at Apple or Microsoft and get the game in their hands 3-6 months in advance with the hope that they'll highlight the game and give it publicity.
  • Some good prototyping software are GameSalad, Corona, and Gamebryo.
  • What are the panelists thoughts about the DRM in future game consoles? This is the last run of the consoles since OnLive/Gaikai and cloud gaming will eventually take over. The console makers are proposing to impose DRM in their consoles such that used games would not be playable, but they'll eventually redact their decision when players flock to other distribution channels. They would act like cornered animals and try to revert it, but it'll be like "rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic." They will not screw it up as bad as the music industry, but definitely come close.
  • 10 years from now, gaming will be on the cloud and the money would be in peripheral gaming. Inevitably, buttons are better than touch.
  • What's holding HTML5 back from being a bigger standard? It has many advantages such as being online, having no walled gardens, and having no 30% fees. The two things holding it back are that there's no universal HTML5 development platform and slight difference among different browsers.
  • For translation and localization, developers need to find international partners that understand the local language and culture. This is especially true of Asian and Middle Eastern territories, since many topics are taboo there. The game needs to update to match the cultural landscape.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Re:Play 2012: Brand New, You're Retro

At the Re:Play conference, Nick Montfort and Jesper Juul spoke about platforms and distribution models from the Atari 2600 to Angry Birds. As interactive entertainment enter the mainstream, we see game design and business models changing and shifting focus away from the "hardcore gamer." The panelists discuss how this shift isn't exactly new, that casual games are a return to the simplicity of early platforms like the Atari 2600, fitting into the history of video games.
  • Nick Montfort is the author of Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System and Twisty Little Passages. Jesper Juul is the author of A Casual Revolution.
  • Their "parenthesis" - Early games were easy, had short play sessions, and were for everybody.  The later hardcore games were hard, had esoteric conventions and massive time investments, and were for niche audiences. The casual games of the present have attributes of the early games.
  • The audience watched an Atari 2600 commercial and a Wii commercial. Both commercials showcase inclusion, with the entire family participating in playing in the living room. The two guys traveling around America to promote the Wii are similar to Mormons, knocking on people's doors and evangelizing the console.
  • At the advent of the video game industry, there was a headline in the newspaper that read, "New video games offer something for everyone." Reading this now, it seems like it's referring to specific new games, but it's actually talking about the video game medium as a whole.
  • New video games always promoted visuals and HD graphics. They key word was always "more." The mid-2000s, however, brought casual games with Bejeweled, Diner Dash, and Rockband.
  • Hardcore games were traditionally only sold in boxes and targeted at young males. They were promoted on better graphics and longer play sessions.
  • The "hardcore gamer" stereotype involved a gamer who didn't sleep and had no social contacts. He just came home from work and played games right away. The "casual gamer" stereotype was someone who played for shorter term rewards of beauty and distraction, and played games to take a break.
  • Casual design principles include positive fiction (grow a farm or build a city instead of fighting a war), high usability, interruptible gameplay (game saves for you at every action), low time commitment, and lenient punishments.
  • High budget games need to sell so many copies to break even. A return to simpler games was inevitable with the raising costs of game development.
  • An example of this is "ambient occlusive crease shading," a difficult to implement shading technique that has barely any apparent difference. Game technology is at a point of diminishing returns.
  • There are "gamer genres" like casual, midcore, hardcore, pro, newbie, retro gamer, girl gamers, and gaymers. These are all stereotypes of a specific kind of gamer.
  • The adventure genre was based on the game Adventure.
  • Text adventures were the only adventure games back then, so the term "text adventure" didn't exist until graphic adventures were introduced. Calling them text adventures back then was like saying "black-and-white television" or "silent films" back when they were the only thing in existence with nothing to compare to.
  • Is Pong a sports game? It was placed in the sports section on release.
  • The "vidiot" was one of the earliest examples of an identified gamer genre. A vidiot was a game player and an excellent video player who plays as a way of life and for inner satisfaction.
  • Kevin Flynn from Tron is a core example of a vidiot. Ironically, his son Sam from the sequel represented the image of a modern hardcore gamer.
  • Angry Birds is a casual game that harkens back to Artillery and Gorillas.
  • Atari 2600 had to be simplistic by necessity due to technical limitations. Current mobile games are also technically constraint by the mobile devices.
  • Arcades were the genesis of the hardcore gamer. There is something special about showing off your skills to a crowd of other players. After games moved to home, that phenomenon moved to e-sports. Online has given players the facility to show off.
  • Controls at arcades were extremely varied and before, it was very expensive for home consoles to do what arcades did.
  • When did talking and writing about games as a profession become possible? Around the late 1990s, game conferences and academia spurred up. Video game studies appeared in English, media, computer science, and digital humanities departments.
  • We have the computer science field, but where are the "computer arts?"
  • Digipen and Fullsail are game development universities based on concrete development skills. There are also more abstract programs like at USC and NYU.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Re:Play 2012: Publisher Revolutions: Free-to-Play Economics

There is a fundamental shift taking place among the traditional value chain of the video game business. Developers, publishers, and retailers find themselves confronted with a changing market, forcing each of them to assume a different role. Joost van Dreunen (NYU Game Center) speaks with Stephen Ju (Credit Suisse), Gui Karyo (Atari), and Jessica Rovello (Arkadium) about major trends in the industry such as the move towards free-to-play and the emergence of social gaming.

Conversation with Joost van Dreunen
  • "Companies that continue to rely on the old model as it changes before our eyes, unless they change their ways and invest in the future, those companies will eventually die off. No two ways about it." -- Peter Moore of EA
  • "Global market for virtual goods will exceed $100 billion by the end of this decade." -- Trip Hawkins of Digital Chocolate
  • There is a shift from the $60 retail box to $0.99 apps and the free-to-play model. The proliferation of Facebook and mobile has caused this trend. The audience is much larger and distribution is much higher on these platforms.
  • Looking at a line graph depicting market value, Zynga is doing well above Activision and EA. THQ trails far behind and is about to be delisted.
  • Is there a big difference between boxed retail and digital games' profit models? Jess says that the boxed retail model is not necessarily bad, nor are digital games irrevocably better. Digital games are still a very hit-driven industry. Digital distribution is not an amazing end-all panacea. For every one developer who released an app by himself and made $100,000, there are 300 other developers who tried the same thing and failed.
  • Revenue models for casual/social games include advertisements and sponsorships, microtransactions, sometimes subscriptions but those are slower and more rare, and sometimes the purchase model.
  • The company structure has to change to develop social games. In the case of Arkadium, the company had to shift thinking to a direct-to-consumer basis and build a games-as-service model. They added an analytics department because they needed to look at numbers and react to data at a minute-to-minute level. They added a monetization/revenue team whose job is to balance economies and think of ways to optimize user spending. The culture of the entire company changed to include thinking about numbers and metrics (ARPU, DAU/MAU, etc.)
  • Core games business is still a good business, but there's just a bigger barrier of entry for developers.
  • Majority of the revenue of a free-to-play game comes from certain players who pay a significant amount of money for items, much more than $60. The amounts they are willing to pay for can be shocking even to social/casual developers.
  • Many social/casual games are not so different from gambling. DragonVale is basically two slot machines masked in a world with cute dragons. Many online games have inherent design elements of gambling.
  • Getting the most out of a game relies on analytical data. You can make a mediocre game much better with the correct analytics. However, data won't make a bad game good, so it's still important to design a good game first.
  • When your company makes a monumental shift from one audience to another, from one distribution platform to another, you must realize that it takes more time and money than you would expect it to. Large companies can often stumble when they make these shifts. "Once you make the decision to go there, you need to go there."
  • Arkadium is not a first mover. They don't put all their eggs in one basket or go all in on one market. They see where the market is going first.
  • EA and Zynga follow the innovation through acquisition model. EA bought Playfish and pretty much drove it down to the ground. They launched one game, Sims Social, but didn't release enough content afterwards to keep the audience engaged.
  • Zynga was able to scale before "Facebook went down." But they also would acquire studios with any successful property such as OMGPop. They need to bring killer apps to their audience to keep them engaged.
  • Talent is very important in game design, but sometimes, designers just need to luck out. OMGPop went through 5 iterations of Draw Something before it became a success.
  • The difference between the web and mobile is everything. For Draw Something, drawing with the mouse wasn't fun, but with touch, it was intuitive, engaging, and attracted the audience that it has now.
  • Angry Birds is a great merchandising and licensing property. It has great character designs in which the aesthetics lent itself easily to merchandising. The birds has simple shapes and were bright and colorful. They were very appealing to kids, who really drive the licensing business. The majority of licensing is in things for kids like shirts, toys, bed sheets, pajamas, etc.
  • Merchandising broadens your IP with consumers, but it's hard. It's like buying two lottery tickets instead of one. You need to have IP that is merchandisable.
  • There are companies now that specialize in merchandising to very narrow niches. For example, they would make a jacket from Resident Evil and sell it for $1,000. Their revenue model revolves around small volume of sales, but high dollar amount per sale.
  • Casual games are aimed at the common denominator. Is it worth moving this to a niche audience? Generally, no. Only a small percentage of the audience (1-8%) monetizes, so you really need a big audience to make money.
  • In many cases, games are not reinventing the wheel. Zynga's 'ville games are just SimCity, Draw Something is Pictionary, Words With Friends is Scrabble. It is difficult to bring consumers interesting and exciting ideas, which is a problem that the industry is currently facing.
  • Discoverability of your game is everything. An app developer without a contact at Apple to get their game featured at the AppStore is like a retail box developer without a deal with Walmart to have their game on their shelves. There is little chance of success if you're not featured in the AppStore.
  • How do you move from games-as-product to games-as-service model? Games-as-service was a model pioneered in Korea by Nexon, mostly as a counterbalance to the piracy in Asia. They treat game content as episodic and it is a more involved process than the traditional model.
Question and Answer
  • What do you do with non-paying users? Free users are costly since they take up server space or network capacity. Make them watch a video ad and make the money back from advertisement. The ad model can be difficult because you need a big enough audience to make money. You also need to put ads early in the game rather than later. Users would complain if they suddenly started getting ads after being used to not seeing them. You may also leverage these users for virality.
  • Is Kickstarter changing the rules of publishing games? What impact will it have on the development ecosystem? For Kickstarter campaigns to be successful, it needs studios that have a pre-existing install base like Double Fine or games with an avid fanbase like Wasteland. The Kickstarter craze is an interesting phenomenon, but it won't overturn the traditional publisher model. In addition, none of these funded game have come to market yet. Will they actually be good games? Will the developers be able to deliver on their promise? The role of the publisher is to make sure the developers are able to meet the promises to the consumers.
  • What are sponsorships? For the Facebook version of Cooking Mama, Ragu approached Arkadium about using the brand for one of its minigames. It made sense for a food-based brand to be incorporated into a food-based game. Good advertisement is not evil.
  • Some players, who are completely opposed to ever paying for the game, are not so offended by taking 30 seconds to watch a video ad and getting something out of it.
  • Would there be any more cases like thatgamecompany and their three-game deal with Sony? Publishers run on risk-based management. If presented with a unorthodox game idea like Spore, they need an established successful team to counter balance the risk in the game design like Will Wright's team. Publishers like 6waves make deals where they take a percentage cut for games that are already almost finished and they don't have to fund development. To make a publishing deal for development, you need to have a good track record of making money.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Re:Play 2012: Video Games and Religion

Kicking off the first annual Re:Play conference, Leil Leibovitz of NYU interviewed Ryan Hennesy of Princeton and rabbi Micah Kelber about the relationship between video games and religion. Video games are often seen as a waste of time at best, or at worst, as a corruptor of young souls. But games and religions have more in common than what people might imagine as they are both closed systems based on stringent rules and dedicated largely to ritual. The panel discusses these two forms of personal reflection and communal interaction and examined what they might have to teach each other.

Conversation with Leil Leibovitz
  • Leil starts, "I'm a few cheeseburgers removed from the faith of my fathers."
  • He continues, "It's ten in the morning at a video game conference, so naturally, we're going to talk about the Holocaust."
  • Rabbi Micah Kelber has been recently fascinated with Call of Duty: World at War. He comes from a background of reading black and white scripture, then he was introduced to the vivid colors and storytelling of comic books, which led him to find video games as a medium of engagement.
  • Call of Duty allows him to virtually fight the war of his fathers and understand the American contribution to the war. He's always had haunting dreams about the Holocaust, but they stopped after he overcame the dreams in game. It's embarrassing for him to say that in the world of Call of Duty, he wants the war to never stop as killing the demons satisfied him.
  • Ryan Hennesy grew up with a narrow and limited experience of what religion and spiritualism are. He was interested in the relationship between religion and games, as many religious terms like "death," "resurrection," and "reincarnation" exist in the game space.
  • There are quite confusing, profound theological feelings in games. Games are environments where you have some sort of free will within a system of rules designed by someone far away you'll never meet. There are restrictions in the world such as science, physics, and social contexts. Goals in games are predetermined and follow a model that represents our free will on Earth. There are many analogies between reality and games to draw from.
  • In God of War 2, there is a scene that required a human sacrifice. It conflicted against Micah's own personal beliefs, but he was left no other choice but to comply in order to progress in the game. As a player, Micah realized that free will was curtailed in the game. He points out there are these kinds of limitations in the game that don't necessarily exist in real-life.
  • The panel see games as an examination of oneself. Video games draw us to a moment of ecstatic transcendence and flow.
  • However, no matter how immersive the game can be, there is usually an element of detachment from the games. Micah mentions that in Call of Duty, there is a level where the player enters a library to kill some Nazis. As a player, Micah was curious about the books found in this library and was drawn to examine them, removing himself from the game experience.
  • Games are arts of participation such that there's no other option but to impact us. Players see avatars as extensions of themselves.
  • There is no clear way to distinguish religion from culture. You can see Eastern spirituality in games like Final Fantasy from the character interactions with spiritual beings.
  • The difference of how Eastern and Western cultures view religion is demonstrated by Blue Dragon (a JRPG) and Dragon Age (a WRPG). In Dragon Age, there exists a church in the game that you can fight or join. In Blue Dragon, there is no such thing as a church, but there are these spiritual beings that the characters are joined with. In the West, the idea of religion is tied to a body that can either be benevolent or antagonistic. In the East, however, religion is just ingrained into everyone; it is a part of people's lives.
  • Concerning death and reincarnation, the concept of death becomes easier and easier to every generation. Death in games almost trivialize death. Maybe someone should make a game where you only have one life and the game explodes when you die.
  • Likewise, terminology like "I died" or "I killed that person" makes death seem meaningless. Ryan attributes this to a poverty of language.
  • Game developers, while sometimes respecting religion, ignore the significance of death. In Assassin's Creed, for example, the developers were very careful to not let the player ever destroy or burn Holy books in the game, yet the entire game is based on assassination and killing.
  • Sniper 2 is a game featuring extraordinary death sequences and vivid killings (ie. you can see the close up of a bullet flying through a victim's liver). However, the more vivid the killings are, the less realistic they are also.
  • Members of clergy see themselves as shepherd and the job of a shepherd is to prevent sheep from getting eaten. They want to protect and shield the public from the evil they deem video games as. Often, they see games as dangerous as reactions to Columbine and similar events.
  • But as more people begin to accept that games are art, they can convince the public that games are not from the devil. Many people's view of games are from their last impressions of them. When they stop playing games at age 13, their understanding of the medium is what it was at age 13. They won't understand the complexities of what games have to offer. Similarly, when people stop going to church at age 13, their views of religion remain at that juvenile comprehension.
  • Games enabled both Ryan and Micah to be better religious persons. For Micah, games allows him to fight his demons and also better understand some religious concepts such as different worlds.
Question and Answer
  • Do they consider games as texts to be read? It is good to treat games more like texts. Right now is an interesting point in history because there's a 50/50 divide between people who know what video games are and those who don't. That won't be true anymore in 50 years. This is the time to start evangelizing games as texts.
  • What can we learn from games about religion? Players can learn there are multiple paths in life. Games like World of Warcraft was so successful in part because it gave players the option to play how they want. If they don't want to go out killing monsters, they can play a smith and make weaponry or a priest who heals people. Paths of life is an important concept that religions try to teach.
  • Many of the games that were mentioned in the talk like Call of Duty, God of War, and Blue Dragon conveyed religious ideas through narrative. But is it possible to get religious experiences from abstract games like Tetris or even Tecmo Bowl? The brainwave activity of someone during religious experiences is exactly the same as when Apple fanboys talk about a new Apple product. Likewise, in the physical sense of religious experience, people enter that state when playing games of physical dexterity that disengages their minds such as Tetris.
  • How do you avoid getting too preachy when designing a game with a central message? Micah says that he would like to design a game where players can contribute to a persistent world. Players would participate in an act of benevolence without necessarily being told to. For Ryan, he pushes back on the idea that getting too preachy is a bad thing. It is a great thing about the arts to be vocal and preachy about your ideas, and starting a dialogue with the audience.
  • Death is trivialized because it's repeatable, but what about creation? Micah says the most important experience of games for him is the co-creation of a world, liken to God and man's activities in Genesis. God created the world and its inhabitants, but man named all the animals and objects.
  • Early in Assassin's Creed, Altair burns the body of a victim because he couldn't bear leaving the body in disrespect. Later in the game, however, his wife dies and he leaves her body behind. Micah, as a player, didn't want to leave her body behind but the game forces him to. There is an inconsistency in the game that made him appreciate the consistency of the real world.
  • God games provide good religious comprehension as it's important to think from God's side. Sympathizing with God is one important message of Christianity. As a player, you feel frustrated when citizens in your game don't do what you tell them to do, which lets you understand God's feelings. Games like Sid Meier's Civilization and other RTS's, although wrapped in a political or military context, really let you play as God implicitly.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Doing Ridiculous Shit With Technology

Douglas Wilson, a PhD student at IT University of Copenhagen's Center for Computer Games Research, gave a talk about his work, his inspiration from folk games, and his creative uses of technology. During the roundtable discussion, the attendees debated on topics of rhetoric vs. design and creating art vs. making money.

  • Douglas's mission statement: Games that are confrontational, silly, broken, or incomplete can shift the focus of games from winning to a more festive, co-dependent, and performative play.
  • His sources of philosophical inspiration include Hannah Arendt, Dave Hickey, Bill Gaver, Grant Kester, Chantal Mouffe, Bernie DeKoven, Paul Dourish, and Richard Schechner.
  • The games he created include Dark Room Sex Games, B.U.T.T.O.N., Johann Sebastian Joust, and the in-progress Mutazione.
  • During a summer when the Playstation Move controller was on his mind, he created Dog the Wag. In this game, players tie a Move controller to their butts and get on all fours. The more they shake their butts and effectively "wag their tails," the more points they get. Sometimes, a player's controller will flash, making him vulnerable and causing the other players to tackle him to eliminate him from the game.
  • Folk games are physical party games, many of unknown origin. An example of a folk game is one where players tie a string to their butt and tie a rock to the other end of the string. They run through an obstacle course while trying to knock objects with the rock.
  • His first attempt at a motion game was inspired by Street Fighter. He created a 2-player fighting game where the fighters would perform fantastic moves based on the players' movements. However, this game didn't work out and ultimately failed. He realized that using traditional games as a precedence for motion games was leading him down the wrong path, so he turned to folk games for inspiration.
  • Folk games are defined as traditional, ethnic, or indigenous sports or games. Folk games often are simple in design, use common equipment, spread by word of mouth, are open to house rules, physical, and deliberately silly. Folk games are an attitude. They are egalitarian.
  • Ninja is a theatrical, turn-based folk game where people perform ninja poses and try to slap each other's hands.
  • There is a distinction between modern sports and popular sports. A modern sport is a ritual of perfect achievement where athletes set records (ie. Olympics, NBA, NFL, etc.). A popular sport, however, is festive and not serious. Anyone can get involved and there is a joy of subversion.
  • For example, in Dog the Wag, tying a controller to your butt exhibits the joy of subversion. No matter what the game is, you are already having fun.
  • Beacons of Hope is an installation game designed by Douglas. It is played with 20 people in a completely dark room. Two of the players are monsters who must try to catch all the human players and eliminate them from the game. The human players have to find three Move controllers in the dark (representing beacons) and simultaneously turn on all three beacons at the same time to win the game. This game is a direct ripoff of an old camp game.
  • MegaGIRP is another installation game designed by Douglas, based on an existing web game called GIRP. MegaGIRP uses four Dance Dance Revolution pads instead of a keyboard, so instead of being a "Twister for your fingers," it becomes actual Twister. The game isn't so much like mountain climbing, but it's definitely a taxing and annoying physical exercise that's ultimately fun. The obvious inspiration for this game was Twister.
  • Johann Sebastian Joust was inspired by two separate folk games. The first was the game of chicken played on a tight rope. Two players start on opposite sides of a tight rope and their objective is to get to the other side while pushing the other player off the tight rope. The second point of inspiration was a folk game where two blindfolded players carry a small fruit with spoons. The first person to hit the other wins or whoever drops the fruit first loses. This gave him the idea that a slow motion physical game is incredibly fun. Lemon Jousting, a very similar game to the second folk game, was unbeknownst to Douglas when he worked on Johann Sebastian Joust.
  • Monkey See, Monkey Mime was a game about mimicking.
  • Edgar Rice Frotteur was a game jam project where he hung 20 Move controllers on the ceiling and created a jungle gym game.
  • In the marketing for the Move controller, the slogan was "This changes everything." There is an iconic image of Kevin Butler holding two Move controllers and projecting a bow and arrow. Sony wants to get across the idea that you can do anything with the Move, but this is not true in reality. Douglas thinks it's better to embrace technological limitations than to fight it.
  • As an indie developer, your best option is to embrace your constraints. For example, accelerometers are terrible and instead of making a game heavily based on the nuances of movement, he designed games that are essentially binary. You are either moving it or not.
  • In the same note, he realized that he doesn't have to let the technology enforce all the rules of the game. He "deputizes" the player, letting them enforce the rules themselves. In B.U.T.T.O.N., the game doesn't know if the players take ten steps back or spin around in a circle when told, but the players have to enforce these rules among themselves or else the game is not fun. Likewise, in Johann Sebastian Joust, the game doesn't know if they players are standing within the circle or not.
  • There is an aesthetic beauty in imperfection. His games let players to act the fool, to have "half-baked fun." He considers motion control as slapstick comedy. Many of his games don't need a screen because it's fun to just watch the players.
  • He considers Wario Ware: Smooth Moves by far the best game on the Wii. It is a game that embraces the limitations of the Wii remote and institutes a carnivalesque environment.
  • Frobisher Says is a PS Vita game not yet released in the US. It uses all of the Vita's technology. It includes a minigame called Look Away where the player loses if the Vita's camera ever tracks the white of the player's eyes, so the player plays the game without ever even looking at the screen.
  • Fingle for the iPad is like Twister for your fingers. It cased in 70/80s sexual innuendo and makes players feel uncomfortable as their fingers cross into awkward positions.
  • How does technology improve games? Douglas thinks this is the wrong question to ask and almost offensive to think about. The real question he wants to answer is, How can games improve technology?
Question and Answer
  • Ninja didn't inspire Johann Sebastian Joust. But both games provide good public spectacle and Ninja is a good reference point.
  • What are the social settings for his games? People wouldn't play Dog the Wag unless they are crazy or completely drunk at a party. It would be interesting to play his games at a non-traditional setting for party games such as a cathedral. Game studies often ignore the social contexts of games. As a designer, it's useful to think of social environments pragmatically.
  • He looks at the last 50 years of contemporary, theater, and performance art as inspiration for his games. He wants to move away from the "banking model of art" where artists deposit meaning into objects and audiences withdraw meaning from the objects.
  • Dog the Wag can be a violent game. It is something you don't want to play with strangers. This doesn't mean that all physical games of this nature are dangerous, but they need moderation on their brutality.
  • Family picnic games were created as ice breakers and a general way to prevent the family from fighting each other. But these games and camp games can be brutal and violent. Dodgeball is historically brutal. It is up to the players to set the tone of the game.
  • Frank Lantz mentions there is tension between Douglas's aggression against winning/losing as stated in his mission statement and the fact that all of his works clearly involves winning/losing. Douglas claims that his games, in a way, are parodies of winning/losing. They are games where players need to modulate themselves. In B.U.T.T.O.N., for example, players can easily win if they never take any steps back, don't follow instructions, and act violently, but the game wouldn't be fun at all.
  • Frank is annoyed by creators having contradictory rhetoric and work. This can be attributed to the fact that many creators often have to take exaggerated rhetorical stances to defend their art. "Everything is an overcorrection." Meanwhile, writers like strong quotes to provoke people.
  • For Douglas, as a designer, it useful to have a strong rhetoric as a framework for design. But according to Eric Zimmerman, the danger of overcorrection is that you become less flexible as a designer.
  • Brenda Brathwaite has stated "mechanic is the message" and "rules are everything." These have been responses to the over Hollywood-ification of the industry. Don't confuse cutscenes and narrative as the game itself. This is a very strong rhetorical stance that she has taken, though it may be the case that she doesn't think it's necessarily true. Frank criticizes Ian Bogost and Miguel Sicart for being guilty of this.
  • Douglas thinks Proteus is the best game of the last decade.
  • Douglas claims that "Braid is a shitty game because Jonathan Blow doesn't take writing seriously." Some of the NYU faculty thinks that Blow does take writing seriously; he's just a bad wrtier.
  • How do you balance being a creator of art and a creator of commercial products? Definitely a challenge. There are many new venues celebrating indie and art games such as Babycastles, Wild  Rumpus in London, Kill Screen, No Quarter, and Gamma. There are also some organizations supporting the creation of art games like Eyebeam.
  • Terry Cavanagh is a creator who made a lot of money from VVVVVV. Now he is working on ChatChat, a game about cats talking to other cats, even though this game would probably not make him any money. It's important for creative designers to be able to work on their passionate projects, but also something else to pay the bills.
  • Another example is Zach Gage who makes commercial games like Spelltower, but also does a lot of weird art pieces.
  • What about ludic forms in the art world? There are many great contemporary ludic art pieces such as Carsten Höller's Slide at the New Museum or Oliver Herring's TASK Parties. There is also the Fluxus art movement. Meanwhile, there are many games that are invading the art space such as the exhibitions at MOMA and the Smithsonian.
  • Why does Douglas use commodity hardware like the PS Move controller and DDR pads? As an indie game developer, he needs peers to test his games and needs easy distribution. Having self-created tech is not reliable and there is no way to easily move his tech around. He always finds a nice aesthetic in the subversion of commodity hardware (ie. using these expensive, high-tech PS Move controllers and strapping it to people's behinds).
  • Katherine Isbister mentions there is a weird feedback loop where engineers make things based on science fiction, which in turn is written by people who don't understand technology. 

Thursday, April 19, 2012

TYWKIWDBI's Best Blogs of 2012

TYWKIWDBI ("Things You Wouldn't Know If We Didn't Blog Intermittently") is one of the most informative and interesting blogs on the web, and consequently one of my favorites. I'm proud to be listed as one of their best blogs of 2012, although it wasn't hard. Please subscribe to this blog if you haven't yet already!

Shaking Up Our Relations With Machines

Katherine Isbister, director of the Game Innovation Lab at the Polytechnic Institute of NYU, gave a talk about human computer interaction and leveraging game mechanics to engage people into moving their bodies.

  • When people engage with computers, they are often in a hunched position, looking at their screens. A colleague of Katherine's compared this to people being in the threat position.
  • People like the iPhone and one reason is that they need to stroke the screen to unlock it. This motion is comparable to petting an animal. It is warming and inviting, not vindictive.
  • Engineers often make very dry interfaces, but we need more kinetically engaging human computer interaction.
  • G-mail Tai Chi was created as an April Fool's joke, perhaps as a parody of a talk given by Katherine herself at GDC. The joke is that users would have to perform tai chi in front of their webcam to check their e-mail. But for Katherine, why not? It is a healthier way to interact with your computer.
  • Studies have shown that multi-touch authentication (ie. using all your fingers to unlock your tablet) is not only more kinesthetically pleasurable, but also more secure.
  • Physical movement in HCI may be awkward and confusing to people, but in the game space, it's okay to move around. Katherine has been working on several games for learning that involve large kinetic movement.
  • Scoop is played with the Kinect, where players extend their arms out and solve math problems by cutting fractions. Hormones shift as you move more, which increase math confidence.
  • Moveit/Yamove is a 2 player game in which both players hold a phone. They are given the name of a move to do and both players not only have to come up with a way to physically represent the move, but also do it synchronously. This game will be featured at No Quarter. When Babycastles took hold of this game, they turned it into a dance off game.
  • Katherine is also working on a surveillance camera game based on the idea that public surveillance will soon become public utility. The game is played in the space outside of the Game Innovation Lab at Polytechnic University. Players gather as many people to crowd in the camera's vision space, which in turn controls characters in the game. The game itself is projected on a giant wall installation.
Question and Answer
  • Schools tend to inhibit movement. They teach kids the value of sitting and focusing on one singular task at a time. But Katherine points out that bicycling has both properties of focus and movement.
  • Katherine moved to academia because she couldn't stand the idea of sitting at a cubicle all day long. She needed the freedom to be able to move around throughout the day.
  • Repeated HCI actions have transformed our bodies. An attendee recounts a girl he saw on the subway train, who spent the entire ride texting. He noticed that her extreme amount of texting throughout the years have transformed her thumbs into a weird unnatural position. Katherine mentions pictures of manual laborers of the 1930s who have grown unnatural muscles from their work at the assembly lines.
  • She commends Wario Ware: Smooth Moves for a game that promotes large active movement. The game includes many fast-paced micro-games where the player is given a quick image of how to hold the controller and then is thrown straight into the game without any further instructions. Due to this nature, the player doesn't have much time to process a way to perform these moves in a not-so-embarrassing way.
  • There are many interesting display devices in our future from touch screens to wall mounted displays to Google glasses. It often takes academia to take advantage of these technologies in interesting ways.
  • What are other interesting postures besides the dominant and feeble? Synchronicity is a very powerful gesture.
  • Will motion controlled games ever enter the realm of pro/competitive gaming or gold farming? Pretend swordfighting can be very taxing to the player; they can get easily exhausted after a few minutes of waving their arms wildly. It is difficult to have physical games be deep, long-session games.
  • Games need to take advantage of the beauty of the human movement. When motion utilizes the movement qualities that are beautiful, a great spectacle can be provided by the game and the players themselves.
  • Much of traditional game UI is antiquated. Joysticks derives its design from plane controls, as if a player of a game pilots the avatar. Radar display have a significant influence on game HUD.
  • Is there a paradigm shift between casual and hardcore gaming? Physicality is often not the front-end for traditional games. Dance and exercise games have recently been big sellers. There is no reason why dance games can't be played by a controller, but it loses much of its power if it was designed for a traditional controller.
  • Naomi Clark mentions a parody video of a Kinect version of Assassin's Creed, where the players do ridiculous movements to play as the highly-acrobatic assassin. Link:

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

ShopTalk Volume 01: Social Meets Mobile

At IGDA roundtable discussion, NY-based game developers discussed various topics related to social games, mobile games, and the cross between the two. There was a verbal NDA among the group, so no specific analytics or company details would be shared here.

  • What is a social game? This is a question that many game developers struggled with, but the ultimate consensus is that a social game is a game that lives on Facebook or has Facebook Connect. There are, in fact, many games that are actually more social than what we know as "social games" such as Johann Sebastian Joust or World of Warcraft. But developers and audience understand that we mean Facebook when we talk about social games.
  • Are social games actually social? Although you are inviting friends to play and spamming friends with gift requests, there is no actual social connection. In Animal Crossing, you can create a meme that travels to a friend's town. For example, you can teach a citizen to say a bad word and that citizen might go to another town and bring along that bad word with him and spread it across town. This small bit, no matter how inane, represents a part of you and your self expression, and its migration to a friend's world makes the game inherently social.
  • Although spamming friends with requests or filling up your wall with posts have no real social connection, it is still 1% social. One percent is indefinitely better than zero percent. 
  • There are games where you can get someone's personality through the gameplay such as Draw Something. Some people draw stick figures, while others do elaborate art pieces to represent simple objects.
  • Sometimes, just the fact that you're playing the same game as somebody else is social. You are playing alone together or having a shared experience separately. It is like going to a movie theater or studying by yourself at a library. Although there is no interaction between you and others, everyone is having a shared experience. 
  • The Last Stand is a isometric 3D shooting game on Facebook. You gather resources and build shelters against the zombie horde. This is not a casual game and is aimed towards the hardcore crowd. Idle Worship is an example of a game in-between the casual and hardcore market.
  • Many casual audiences think of games as they do of porn. They are shameful of them and feel guilty to play them. This is attributed to the poor stigma of games. However, many of these people still play games; they just don't want to be associated with the term. The majority don't want to be called a gamer, even though they've put more hours into playing games than their own children. One attendee compares this to people who read trashy romance novels, which by the way, has had a recent resurgence because of Kindles and the ability to hide what their reading from the public.
  • Half of Facebook users play a lot of games, while the other half hate games and never want to touch a game.
  • What about mobile connectivity with social games? Good idea is to not offer the same exact experiences across both platforms. Mobile app can be a companion to the social game. For example, have a MMO on your computer, but a monster/pet sim on your mobile device. You can level up and train your pet on mobile and its stats would transfer back into your main game.
  • Energy as an abstract resource entered social game design as a way to limit play sessions. Generally, 20 minutes or less is a good length of a play session.
  • What are the demographic differences between Facebook and mobile? Developers can gather a lot of demographic information from Facebook (gender, age, location, education, etc.), but generally, there is little to no data on mobile devices.
  • According to one attendee, the more displayed your microtransaction popups are, the less likely a 18-24 year old male player would purchase. In many cases, they would downright stop playing the game. However, if they go to the store on their own accord without any prompts from the game, they would be likely to buy. On the other hand, 35+ year old females are more likely to purchase if they get those microtransaction screens, especially one at the session start when they open the game. Is it possible to get both demographics in the same game? Should get demographic data and build for your audience.
  • Only 20% of people login to Facebook Connect or other networks (OpenFeint, GameCenter, Papaya) on their mobile devices. The real question is, are the 20% also the paying crowd? If they are, then only this 20% matters. It's possible there is a large overlap between the paying users and the logged in users as they are both the most engaged players.
  • Facebook considers themselves as "social plumbing." They are the backbone of your social graph.
  • Mobile games gets people faster and cheaper. The cost of user acquisition is much lower than on Facebook because there's no Zynga to compete with.
  • What about gamification of real-life like Fitocracy? Using mobile device as a pedometer to track your running progress, which in turn gains points and levels up your avatar. It is also a social game where you compare/compete with friends' avatars. 
  • There's nothing stopping big production games to be on Facebook. Gaikai (maybe OnLive too) announced that they would be bringing full-fledged production games to Facebook. The technology exists for hardcore games on Facebook, but the perception doesn't. There's a catch-22 where developers don't want to make hardcore games on Facebook because they think the audience isn't there for it, while the audience doesn't know that it exists to be clamoring for it.
  • There are now many apps to let you stalk girls, sending you profile information of females in your immediate area. Many of these apps got shut down and sued, deservedly so. But this is also a warning that you need privacy and license agreements in your Mobile game. 100% of games need privacy disclosures, but only 13% of them have them. Facebook games are luckily protected by Facebook's own terms of service, but mobile devices have nothing of the sort.
  • How do you handle the permanence of information and cross-platform synchronization? Should data be stored locally so that players can continue their experience even when they lose internet connectivity (on the subway train)? Should they be stored on the server so they can bring their accounts across platforms and also to prevent cheating? One solution is to just offer different experiences online and offline, and make sure to communicate that to the players. For example, when online, you can submit scores to the global leaderboard, but when offline, you can only submit to a local, personal leaderboard.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Winning Pitch Workshop: Part 2: Brand Games

The Winning Pitch workshop focused on developing an original social game design and creating the materials needed to communicate it effectively to a real client. In part 2, Naomi Clark presented various ways to effectively communicate a brand message in the form of a game.

Examples of games that teach
  • International Racing Squirrels is a game designed to teach kids about finance. The player manages a team of squirrels who periodically race cars, also managing their savings accounts and credit cards.
  • Ayiti: The Cost of Life is a serious game about living in poverty in Haiti. Players manage a family, making hard decisions such as whether to send the children to school for an education or to work. This game is incredibly difficult to complete without the deaths of family members, though it's possible to beat it without any casualties. This teaches players about the difficulty of life in a third world country.
  • Power Planets, designed by Area/Code, is a game about teaching environmentalism and the idea that we need to maintain a safe planet for our children who would inheriting it. Players are given a rotating planet and they can choose to place trees, windmills, and other environmentally-friendly structures or power plants and factories if they need short-term gains. After a certain amount of time, players pass on their planets to another player, while inheriting a planet from someone else. They can choose to play with environmentalism in mind so that inheriting players have an easier start, or they can completely ruin other player's games by polluting their planets.
  • Bioshock is an example of badly designed teaching. Players can either make the moral choice of saving the little sister's lives or the in-game beneficial choice of harvesting ADAM from the little sisters, effectively killing them. However, since the game gives you lots of ADAM later on for saving all the little sisters, it makes the moral vs. gameplay choice moot.
How to teach gamers
  • The goal of the workshop was to design a game that would "make things better for people." How do we bridge the gap from playing a game to changing the player's behavior outside of the game?
  • Product Placement - universally disliked by gamers, but incredibly effective. After many hours of play, unobtrusive ads will seep into the players' minds.
  • Directly ask the player through a popup or post a call to action - the blunt approach, takes the players out of the game but sometimes is a necessary step.
  • Overt representation - Trash Tycoon, a game designed by Naomi Clark, teaches players about taking trash and turning them into something special. In the game, the character literally walks around town, picking up trash to eventually turn them into prizes and other contraptions.
  • Visualization of information - Infographics have been successful in displaying a lot of information in a visually engaging way. Use clever and eye-grabbing methods to display your messaging.
  • Systemic representation - Killer Flu is a game about seasonal and pandemic flus and utilizes the inversion of roles. The player plays as the flu, trying to spread across a city and kill as many people as possible. However, the player will find that it's hard to spread rapidly and kill a huge group of people. This game was made in response to the false scare of bird flu.
  • Parody and shock value - PETA's games, such as Mario Kills Tanooki and Super Tofu Boy, take familiar brands and juxtaposes them with ridiculous and shocking imagery. This easily grabs attention and sends the brand message across.
Uninteresting Choices
  • When trying to deliver a message through game design, it's important to not fall in the trap of uninteresting choices like Bioshock did. This is especially hard when the brand message has a clear right and wrong answer (ie. always invest in insurance funds, always diet and exercise, etc).
  • Think about the choice between hamburgers and vegetables. Ask any kid what they want to eat and they'll all jump for joy and say "hamburgers!"
    • However, ask the kids what is the right food to eat and they'll reluctantly choose Vegetable. This is equivalent to Hamburgers giving you +2 points and Vegetables giving you +4 points in a game. There is a clear right and wrong choice.
    • What if Hamburgers gave you +2 points now and Vegetables gave you +4 points later? There is a tradeoff here, but it depends on the game on how interesting this tradeoff is. Bioshock did it in a bad way. Too simple of a system will make this tradeoff uninteresting.
    • What if Hamburgers gave you +10 points and the power to destroy your enemies, but you'll eventually die of a heart attack when the power runs out? Meanwhile, Vegetables gave you +5 points and no powers, so you have to avoid your enemies yourself. Now the tradeoff is unclear to the player and more interesting.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Winning Pitch Workshop: Part 1: Social Games

Led by veteran game designer Naomi Clark, the Winning Pitch workshop event focused on developing an original social game design and creating the materials needed to communicate it effectively to a real client. The workshop combined lectures and exercises with hands-on creative collaboration and culminated in a pitch session. Naomi Clark gave a presentation on the components that make a social game.

What makes a game a social game? According to the audience, it's monetization, micro-transactions, addictive gameplay, constant rewards for the smallest tasks, social graph, asynchronous play, and leveraging obligations. Social games facilitate social interactions, but are not really social and one can argue that they're anti-social (due to spamming). They are free to play, but sell items. Many of them aren't very much games at all. There are many paradoxes here (social but not social, free but not free, games but not games).

Social games is the genetic marriage of persistent worlds and casual games.

From persistent worlds, it derives...
  1. Earning, customizing, and building over months and years
  2. Grinding (labor for rewards)
  3. Offer rich multiplayer experiences and the ability to play "alone together"
From casual games, it derives...
  1. Pick up and play mechanics, Low barrier of entry and easy learning curves
  2. No Interface preconceptions, simple controls
  3. Rewarding and positive feedback over punishments
Naomi identifies 5 main components of social games.

  • Interstitial play patterns and asynchronous mechanics.
    • The dominant play behavior is to play during breaks in quick 5-10 minute chunks.
    • Persistence and the fact that events happen in between sessions cause retention, or the tendency for players to come back.
    • Asynchronous mechanics is often called appointment gaming. Things run in the background and happen while the player is away.
    • There are also asynchronous multiplayer games, usually turn-based and harkens back to playing by mail. These are not simultaneous. Real-time asynchronous games exist like Tetris Battle where the player plays against a recording of another player (like racing against a ghost car).
    • Asynchronous RTS exist, like Travian and Urban Dead, by expanding timers and encapsulating events (one move can take a few days to complete). This makes them appear to be more turn-like. Real-time expenditure of turns levels the playing field between players. Players can't group together in the middle of the night and attack a defenseless player.
    • Siege vs. tower defense games. These have asymmetrical roles as the attackers play in real-time but the defenders can play turn-based. They just set up their defenses beforehand and check back after the attacks.
    • Asynchronous Action RPGs put gameplay in ellipsis. Mobsters 2 is like Grand Theft Auto but instead of getting an assassination mission, stealing a car, driving the car to the target location, and shooting a gun at the target, the player can do all this by clicking a button that says "Complete Quest." All of the intermediate steps are skipped over. The player spends resources to complete quests, a trope that has carried over to many of the standard Facebook games.

  • Broad audiences with niches.
    • Social games target casual audiences by having simple one-click interactions.
    • Gameplay reinforces carrot on the stick, providing super rewarding and rarely punishing experiences. There are no traumatizing events to scare away audiences.
    • Triple Town, a favorite in the gaming community, was actually considered too confusing by most playtesters, according to creator Daniel Cook. There may be many reasons for its confusion -- the game requires too much planning in the player's part, it isn't rewarding enough compared to other social games, it had a bad tutorial, the game is claustrophobic, the bleed out time is too long and mistakes lead to more mistakes, there's no direct feedback, and it was easy to forget your plans in between play sessions. However, the main reason for its failure was that people didn't understand they needed to plan ahead. Many playtesters played it like they were decorating a space and were confused when some of their plants disappeared into a tree. Dan Cook wanted a casual game, but ended up appealing to a more hardcore crowd.
    • Profitable choices vs. more profitable choices. There are no bad choices, just good ones and better ones. The only way to lose at a social game is failure to show up.
    • Crossover hits (a hardcasual game) exist such as Empires & Allies. These types of games tend to find a niche and have more dedicated players.

  • Persistence and progress.
    • Persistence of the world keeps players coming back. Changing the state of the game during holidays and seasons incentivizes players to come back and check on their territory.
    • Castleville's persistence, and that of other ville-type game, is the city you've built yourself.
    • Bejweled Blitz's persistence, and that of other arcade games, is the high score, though some games reset the high scores every week.
    • Draw Something keeps the player's history and data (most used colors, etc.)
    • Dreamland, designed by Naomi Clark, is a game where the protagonist enters a maze of her dreams and fights off her greatest fears. The persistence is found in the upgradeable bedroom that players can decorate. The bedroom serves no gameplay purpose other than being the main hub.
    • League of Legends, a massively successful team-based competitive game, has persistence in the player's data and match history. Players can level up their accounts which allows them to unlock more heroes, skills, masteries, and runes that increase their stats.
    • Triple Town's persistent elements are the score and coins.

  • Sociality (other players as context)
    • "Alone Together." 70% of time spent in World of Warcraft is played alone. The concept of having people to play "next to" is like playing golf at a driving lane or studying alone in a library where others are doing the same.
    • In Castleville, players don't truly cross paths with each other, but they always feel other's presence, whether in the leaderboard or in the footprint of their friend's actions on their own village. There are tacit pacts created for mutual aid, where players agree to send each other gifts back and forth.
    • There are some real-time, simultaneous games like Zynga Poker, but these are usually played against strangers. Dungeon Rampage is an example of a real-time game that can be played with friends.
    • There are many asynchronous multiplayer games.
    • Idle Worship presents a new model of looking at players next to you (the world map).
  • Free entry
    • All social games follow the freemium model. There are usually soft and hard currencies, and the process of making the player run low on these resources are often called soft and hard chokes.
    • In Tiny Tower, players can grind for hard currency, usually by transporting people in the elevator whereby they have a small chance of tipping you a hard currency. Zynga never gives away hard currency as a general company-wide rule so Dream Heights, a direct clone of Tiny Tower by Zynga, does not give away any hard currency. As a result, transporting people in the elevator in Dream Heights gave little reward and therefore is essentially useless, but is left in there purely as a result of a cloned system.
    • Frontierville, being another Zynga game, does not give away any hard currency. Comparatively, Tiny Tower makes more money than Frontierville (higher ARPU), so the slow trickle of hard currency may arguably be a better monetization route.
    • There is a group of advanced players who try to beat the house. They are complete grinders, focused on optimal play without ever spending money or submitting to viral requests.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Anna Anthropy's Book Release and Lecture

Anna Anthropy, also known as Auntie Pixelante in the blogosphere, is the creator of video games such as Calamity Annie, Mighty Jill Off, Lesbian Spider Queen of Mars, and most recently, Dys4ia. She recently released her book, Rise of the Videogame Zinesters: How Freaks, Normals, Amateurs, Artists, Dreamers, Drop-outs, Queers, Housewives, and People Like You Are Taking Back an Art Form. As part of her book tour, she held a talk at the NYU Game Center curated by Frank Lantz, where she discusses her advocacy of game creation by anyone, the games that are most interesting to her, and her identity as a queer transsexual game author. 

Conversation with Frank Lantz
  • She refers to the game industry as an engine that speaks only to itself. It's a male-dominated, market-driven, violence-focused industry that continues making the same types of games. Since it's mainly gamers themselves who enter the industry, it becomes a perpetual cycle of recycling game ideas and engaging in the same conversations.
  • Current game education such as those in Digipen, Full Sail, and more specifically, Guildhall at Southern Methodist University in Texas are "essentially useless." They reinforce the industry myth that getting a job in a big developer or publisher is the only avenue to get into games. People can definitely make games on their own or in a small group, without much technical knowledge. Anna herself left Guildhall and made Calamity Annie on her own.
  • Game development is not monolithic. Everyone should dabble in games even if they're not familiar with gaming at all. There are so many game editors and tools that allow people to create their own games without any technical knowledge. These include Gamemaker, RPG Maker, Knytt Story, and ZZT (a text adventure creator).
  • Frank attributes NYC's punk gaming scene to Messhof and Anna Anthropy, two very distinguished creators and voices in the community. But both moved out to the west coast, much to Frank's dismay.
  • Games that are less polished and less thought out are more interesting and speaks more about the creator himself. Games that digress from the mainstream tend to be more weird and engaging. For example, Cactus Block is a platformer where the player places the platforms with the mouse. However, in quite possibly a design decision that took 5 minutes, a cactus could randomly appear instead of a platform. This design choice, however, makes the game and the dynamics a lot more interesting. It becomes a game of chance and the player has to second guess every platform that he places. The player has to plan carefully to accommodate for potentialities, maybe clicking in a less optimal place so that a random cactus wouldn't appear and block a crucial location.
  • There is a story to Tetris, whereby errors compound into more errors until the builder is overwhelmed. This is a story authored by its mechanics.
  • The current state of gaming requires an advanced gaming literacy. An XB360 controller has 10 buttons and 3 directional controls, which requires many years of experience to pick up or a high learning curve. People should forget about hardcore games and just pick up something easy and responsive (casual games, indie games).
  • Anna as a creator wants to do everything herself during development of a game (art, music, programming, design, writing), but finds it increasingly hard to do as games get bigger.
  • She sold Dys4ia to Newgrounds for a rather low price, because she thought she would not be able to make money off this game otherwise. However, it became her biggest hit. Fans were so receptive of it and sent her completely positive feedback (although there was some share of hate mail and death threats as well, which is "par for the course"). Dys4ia is a Wario Ware style game that chronicles her experience of taking hormones as a transgender. This game is unique in that it is quite possibly the first purely autobiographical game made, or as some people say, a diary entry in the form of a game.
  • There was a larger presence of outsider artists at GDC. Pirate Kart is a compilation of over 1000 indie games and was submitted as an IGF entry to bypass the submission fees. Games were being made at GDC and were added to the Pirate Kart compilation on the spot.
  • She calls IGF awards an "absurd and grotesque spectacle." Games don't fit comfortably in an annual format, since games take years to make. The IGF award ceremony itself was so bizarre. Once, Jessica Chobot ran a skit where she made fun of indie developers, not in a laughing-with-them kind of way, but quite viciously.
  • Frank mentions that the awards given at the end of a Global Game Jam event are his least favorite part, but he understands the need that people have for recognition.
  • Anna says that the way that Ludum Dare handles competition is the best. If you participate in the jam, you can get awards and you can give awards. Those that don't participate don't get to vote or win. The awards can be anything; Anna herself got an award for "Best Monsters."
  • "Games industry is haunted by the spectre of monetization."
  • Indie Game the Movie had a weird part in the beginning where game journalists were interviewed. They each gave praise to the games in the movies, ie. "Braid was the best indie game of the year. It made so much money." It's weird that we always want discrete outcomes. We want to be told "This game is quantifiably better than that game." But scores and grades are holding us back as an industry.
  • Anna advocates the creation of games by everyone and anyone. Frank, playing devil's advocate, asks if there is any value to that. If someone who's never listened to music before says, "I have an idea for a great band," it's definitely a fruitless endeavor and the end result would be terrible. Anna argues that we shouldn't fall into video game tropes. Games should be and can be anything.
  • One triple A game that Anna likes is Saints Row 2. The game has the best character customization, where the player can do anything and be any gender. The player can be a masculine guy in a dress or a hot girl with a deep voice. This is closer to the real world where anyone can be any gender as well. Developers shouldn't lock out players from certain choices, whether it be fashion, demeanor, voice, etc., based on the avatar's gender. The developers of Saints Row 2 consciously decided to never gender the player. In one scene of the game, during a heist, an abstracted look of the map layout was shown. All the enemies were shown on the map as an icon of their faces, but the player was shown as a chess piece, thus being genderless.
  • How do you make personal games in a team? As a creator, you have to describe your vision to the team members. It's not bad to merge collaborator's personalities. It becomes a conversation between collaborators. Anna, however, admits that she likes hierarchy and likes to boss her collaborators.
  • There is an expressive power of creation as an act in and of itself. Indie games are more personal and shows more of the author.
  • There is a divide between games made for the player (like Street Fighter or Starcraft) and games made for the creator (like Jason Rohrer's games).
  • Portal antiseptic theme is interesting because it expresses how Valve as a developer makes the game. They put testers in a lab, test the game repeatedly, and change everything that they're doing wrong. This is analogous to Portal's story.
  • Anna previously worked on a multiplayer game called Mindfuck. It's a two-player game where each player has one button. Points increase as long as neither player presses their buttons, but the first person to press it wins all the points. It is a game about gambling and predicting your opponent's moves.
  • Anna is presenting a new game at Babycastles at the Project Secret Robot location. It is a 4 player game where 3 players have cyanide pills and the other player plays as a vampire. The 3 players have to predict who the vampire will attack next. The 3 players wear bras with a button hidden inside them. At the end of the round, if they've pressed the button an odd number of times, they don't take the cyanide pills, but if they've taken it an even number of times, they take the cyanide pills and kill themselves before the vampire gets to them. The point is to overload the vampire with information to confuse him in attacking a suicidal victim.
  • Anna's definition of game is "an experience created by rules." She wants the definition to be broad and all encompassing as much as possible. We shouldn't divide digital games from physical games, entertaining games from those that offer negative emotions.
  • "PAX is a place where the audience and industry meet to confirm that the status quo is good and to keep with the status quo."
  • Anna wants more discussion about gender or about queers in games.
  • She wants games to be more like Youtube. With Youtube, everyone and anyone can make a video. They didn't need film education or knowledge of film history. They just needed a webcam. Although most of Youtube is crap, there are gems that pop up from the sea. We don't know what games would look like at the hands of a large group of creators.