Why Do We Play In So Many Different Ways?: The REMA Model

I’ve long noticed players playing games in multiple ways.  Sometimes, we like to watch.  We like a story.  Other times, we explore.  We want to find everything.  And sometimes, we compete heavily.  We couldn’t care less about story, as long as we win.  So many variations.  I’ve been working on categorizing them.  So far, I’ve identified 4 core ways of playing:

  1.  The “Rollercoaster” mode exemplified in Uncharted 3, where setting and theme present a message to the player (“What do I do?”, “Why am I doing it?”),
  2.  the “Experiment” mode where players discover systems and explore how they work (“What happens when X happens?”,  “Can I get X to happen?”),
  3.  the “Mastery” mode where players practice optimizing those systems (“Can I be the best?”, see American Football, for example), and lastly,
  4.  the “Application” mode, where players take mastered knowledge and apply it in creative or artistic ways: Play-as-performance, Creature creating in Spore, player-defined achievements in Nethack, Narrativism (from GNS theory) in indie pnp RPGs.

There is a clear sequence here, where players focus primarily on one aspect of the game, then (potentially) move on to the next.   Players seem to always walk through these stages every time they play.  Players start in rollercoaster mode, doing things like playing a tutorial, learning who they represent and why they are playing.  Sometimes they stay in this mode – they find the designer-driven message compelling.  Other times they move into system comprehension (“experiment”) and then on to system perfection (“mastery”) and creative “application”.  Note the player absolutely controls which mode they are in, but it is in the designer’s best interest to guide them down the path!

I started studying this because I noticed players approaching games in these really fundamentally different ways.  We would talk about “story games” and “game-y games”, and different players gravitated to different kinds of games at different times, but I couldn’t find anyone who had explored why.  Note that most modern games include multiple modes, but take place at different times and on different time scales, because the player is focused on one mode at a time.

Interestingly, these modes are often at odds with each other, and I-as-designer have to make design sacrifices in one mode’s experience to improve another.  Dialogue trees are great for presenting narrative and setting, but undermine experimentation.  Experiment-focused games (such as Nethack) demand a wide variety of shallow systems and should be easy to explore, while mastery-focused games (like Counter-Strike) have relatively few systems and narrative, but they are very deep and need to be capable of being very challenging.  These design tensions are pervasive throughout the different forms of game-play and deserve deep study.

Knowing which mode you are designing to is paramount to being successful.  They often seem to determine the difference between popular success and failure.  If a player comes in expecting to be swept up in a grand epic, and get a few shallow systems with no story, they aren’t going to continue.  I-as-designer need to facilitate my desired play mode as quickly as possible, to guide player expectations. This appears to me the initial foundation of all player-designer game-communication – the guidance of player movement through this mode sequence to the desired mode.

Charles Pratt got me to write this, for which I’m very grateful. I’ve found this lens of looking at game design extraordinarily useful in my work, and I hope it helps you too.  The mode names are the best descriptors I’ve come up with, and I’d appreciate any feedback on fleshing them or the theory out.

Edit: I’d be remiss to not mention Ben Smith’s work over in the Indie RPG space, which I stumbled onto recently and is deeply exploring similar space.

Serious Game Themes and the Binding of Isaac

I’d been avoiding playing The Binding of Isaac for a while now.

See, I have this problem with thematic games.  Binding of Isaac is about a boy whose being tortured by his mother, and the goal of the game is to rise up and kill her.

Needless to say, this rather bothered me.  I kept hearing again and again, “It’s really good.  One of the best games of the year.”  But I couldn’t get past the theme.  Wouldn’t even try it.

In many ways it’s ironic, because it’s a serious theme about something that actually is a serious problem and deserves attention.  So why wouldn’t I play a game about it, whereas I might watch a movie about it and certainly would read the news about it?

I think it’s because words tell.  It’s ok in movies or books to be told something, to receive it, to sit there not reacting.

But games do.  If I’m going to play a game about a serious topic, it’s going to make me want to do something.  It’s got to be something I want to do something about.  And when I play, I want to be involved in it meaningfully.  Not cursory involvement.  Significant, meaningful impact.  Otherwise, aren’t I just wasting my time.

Conceptually, that’s hard to do.  How can you impact something through a game?  The first-order, direct approach, best represented by the Serious Games movement, has been to literally try and impact the problem.  But that’s as hard to do as it is without a game – and often poorly implemented.  I’m not doing any more then I would without the game.

The second-order approach, giving you deep understanding about the problem, has been tried too.  And some succeed, like the excellent Fate of the World.  But often these games don’t go very deep, and leave me frustrated by inaction.  I might learn, but I’m not doing.  Games have a higher standard.  Often what these games teach me is that doing is beyond my reach.

So, in reflection, the real challenge for these thematic games is one of execution.    Like in any game, of going beyond the simplistic bar, and providing new understanding and new capabilities to the player.  Of solving these problems in your game design.  And my old instincts are still that serious thematic games don’t try.  That they are thinly veiled agendas or manipulations.  That they just manipulate shallow emotions around the topic, leaving me frustrated.  And so my instinct was to avoid The Binding of Isaac.

PS  You shouldn’t.  It’s really good.

PPS And it brilliantly exposes a third-order approach – dealing with problems through humor and catharsis.

Designer Voice

I’ve been working on my Designer Voice.

I think every designer has an inner Voice, a style or muse that surrounds their work.  A unique identity.  A Voice of instinct and experience.  Priorities and considerations that drive their games in a particular direction.  In the end, something that makes their work unmistakably their own, like a mental fingerprint.

Consider Will Wright.  His work, spanning from SimCity to SimAnt to SimEarth, The Sims, and Spore all has an identifiably “Will” quality to it.  All simulation, playful, realistic (to a point), construction games, concerned with complex systems emulating part of real life.  His games even “look” the same: top-down, zoomed out, different levels of scale.  Mechanics are also common across all of them:  the acceleration of time, autonomous agents, and heat maps.   These elements aren’t unique to Will’s games, but combined together they form a kind of fingerprint.  A Voice we would expect any future work of his to derive and expand on.

I see fingerprints wherever designers serve as directors.  Shigeru Miyamoto (Donkey Kong, Mario Bros, Super Mario Bros, Zelda, Zelda 2, Super Mario Bros 2, etc.), Dustin Browder (C&C Red Alert 2, C&C Generals, LOTR: Battle for Middle Earth, Starcraft 2), Warren Specter (System Shock, Deus Ex, and Epic Mickey), Jenova Chen (Cloud, Flow, Flower), or George Fan (Insaniquarium, Plants vs. Zombies).  Warren’s Epic Mickey might seem like a shock, but consider his constraints.  He’s had over 5 years to grow in new directions.  And if you were Disney and asked Warren to make a game for the Wii, what would you expect?  A designer’s Voice shines through design constraints.

A designer’s Voice isn’t inherent.  It’s formed out of my mentors, my influences, and something inside oneself.  It grows through practice and reflection and more practice.  It is a result of 10,000 hours of apprenticeship.  In George Fan’s Voice I see the game we met on, Diablo 3.  Can you see it?  His experience both reflected and shaped his Voice, and his games-at-the-time-unmade.  My games and my little parts of games will always be different from others, because my background and influences are different.  My Voice will be my own.

I’ve been working on my own Voice.  Very hard.  Voice isn’t something I just have.  I feel as if I have to deliberately run from the path, lose myself amidst the trees, and see where I ended up.  And then get lost again.  I have no guarantee a quality Voice will form.  No guarantee, just a will to hear it myself.  My Voice has been almost a gate, a barrier.  Without one, I am forever a student.  With it, I have something to share.

I didn’t even comprehend there was such a thing as Voice until I started to see it in my friends and mentors.  I thought Voice was business-driven, not designer-driven.  It was only through independent work on my own that I began to see how it was possible to share one’s Voice through game design, how my colleagues were driving their own destiny through the rapids of corporate constraints.  My Voice is still weak compared to theirs and I will likely never catch up.  But it is not a competition.  Each Voice, in its own way, brings beauty into the world.

Sometimes designers come to me struggling with their Voice, and it’s been enlightening.  Sometimes they are trying to rebel, to not rely on old tricks or expectations.  Other times they are exploring, curious, getting lost.  These struggles are necessary, leading to self-growth or innovation.  But at times these struggles become prolonged and misdirected fights.  Not futile, but ill-advised and unnecessary.  A designer’s Voice seems to be a guide home rather then a trap.  Something to embrace more often then to ignore.  Yes, there are great designers to admire who do wonderful things, but their Voice is great because over and over they delved it.

And yet one’s Voice, even when well developed, remains incredibly nebulous and hard to see.  I greatly admire Roger Ebert’s repeated engagements of the game community about the existence of game “art”.  Most recently, he put forth that great art must have a recognizable author, and that he could not see one in games.  I suppose this stands as an unintended rebuttal.  It has taken me a decade of full-time practice to hear even a glimmer of a Voice.  It has taken decades for designers to have the practice to create a Voice, the resources to exercise that Voice fully, and the body of work to make that Voice recognizable.  The artists behind games are, and will remain for quite some time, very hard to see.  But they are there.

Double-dose Crawford

Wholly whammies Batman!  First these videos from a documentary film on a conversation between Jason Rohrer and Chris Crawford, 2 “artistic” system designers from different eras, and then this deep conversation (pdf) between Chris Crawford and Mark Barrett on Interactive Storytelling.  Both interesting follows.  The video, in particular, is shot in an interesting conversational style that I haven’t seen before but really mirrors the kinds of discussions in life I enjoy having so much.  Must have been a real treat, and very inspiring to boot.

The Video Game Player’s Stare

You all know the gamer’s stare.  You’ve seen it in playtests.  It’s that one where the eyes glaze over, movement stops except for the hands, flow engages, and the person is out of contact.

It’s just a hunch, but has anyone actually watched video of people reading books or watching tv or movies?  I know when I watch people watch a drama series they freeze and just get the same expression on their face for hours.  Is this a universal phenomenon?

PS Or am I the only one seeing this stare?  It took longer for me to (fail to) find an image of this then it did to write the whole post! (Edit: Found! with the help of Nels)

Meaning: Mathematics of

I’ve been having this feeling lately.

I was at a fabulous board game party last weekend.  Modern European-style board games are very interesting, Race for the Galaxy, Carcassonne, Hey That’s My Fish, etc., because their rule sets have well-defined explicit numbers.  Like game last around X turns, winners usually have X points, so to win, all you need to do is earn around X points every turn.  These game mechanics form a mathematics, a communicative language of goals that goes beyond the rules themselves, whose analysis forms hypothesises of the dynamics.  Dynamics are normally notoriously difficult to comprehend.  But just as much of mathematics is derived from a few axioms, from which all proofs spread, the mathematics of these board games allows analysis of the dynamics.  And these dynamics are fascinating.  Hey That’s My Fish, one of the simplest games ever constructed, has a depth that likely takes years to master.  And just adding one new mechanic, such as scoring with 2 teams of 2, adds a new dynamic that is simultaneously collaborative and loud, where no such dynamic existed before.  It was comparably trivial to imagine, create, and playtest such a desired dynamic, studying the impact on such a minimal set.  Such breadth in basics creates a testbed for ideas, giving designers tremendous power and flexibility.

Clearer and clearer every GDC, I see the next leap in game design – the next 5 years – as the exploration of aesthetic meaning.  We are establishing a science, and the principles of that science.  Game mechanics are almost a distraction.  This isn’t a question of game balance or even game construction specifically.  Meaning mathematics works on a different plane: social, story, emotion.  Craftsmanship and the comparison of results (youtube, leaderboards, achievements).  Fiction and setting and narrative.  Little Big Planet levels, Starcraft television, Street Fighter tournaments, and Warthog Jumps.  Concerts and Prius mileage. Through the 3 levels of designer-player communication (forced, implied, authored, or cutscenes, forensics, and expressive/creative).  Experience.  Flow, tension, difficulty.  Sensation, discovery, and fellowship.  Excitment, amusement, and bliss.

Our understanding of how all these things interact is startlingly new, startlingly unique.  Dancing from experiment to experiment around the possible, learning through doing, we are tapping into the forces of the psyche in a direct way that is almost unheard of. Movies and stories take hours to create meaning, we create a (potentially) different kind of meaning in minutes.  A kind of meaning that gets people talking, brings them closer together, gets them to think, remember, and makes them happy.  This abstract communication from designer to system to player gets called art, but it’s much more then that.  It’s a dotted line into who we are, an explorative theater we can simultaneously share.   There’s something special about wordlessly exploring a game together.  Discussing it afterwords.  Meaning construction is reflecting a mental map back to us of who we are, in rules-based form.

It’s easy to forget what MDA really means.  Admidst all the theory and acronyms, what’s possible.  It was a weekend of finding mathematics, and strangers delighting in the dynamics that the mathematics created.  Just through the act of play friendships and understandings were formed.  Example and concrete proof of what dynamics are possible, where we can go.  Scientifically establishing the outlines of how we can mean.

GDC 2009: Wednesday

Again, the usual applies – these are at-the-time stream of consciousness notes, unedited.  Pure live-blogging with the added disadvantage of not actually being live.  I have to write quickly to keep up, probably missed everything, apologies to speakers I just didn’t understand.  It was a fantastic conference, and you’ve all been a part of it.  My personal additions are in ().  This is nowhere near as good as having actually been here or having the actual audio, I’m afraid.  But here’s something to remind us all with.

On to the Main Conference!

Fault Tolerance: From Inentionality To Improvisation

Clint Hocking

Trying to bridge gap between player intentionality, well understood, and a new area, improvisation. He warns for a deep talk. References his GDC 2006 talk to get us back to speed. Recommends Harvey Smith’s 2003 GDC talk on Orthogonal Unit Differentiation. Pays off on his Cthulhu joke with a Will Wright Spore creature, and then a mix-up of his name – brilliant talk start. And then again by saying this is Designing to Promote Intentionality to Play 2 (GDC 2006) Player Intention is the ability of the player to devise his own meaningful goals and plans, using the resources the game etc., etc. Shows a video of a splinter cell player, using cameras to lead the guards around the environment. Lead? Not sure. Maybe just spy on. The guard falls for a trap when trying to bust down a door. Clint says there are 9 different systems the player had to use to get this all to happen, and the at least 36 relationships between them. Cites the Harvey/Randy talk on emergence, and how removing just one mechanic from the system would completely break the game down, ultimately down to a bullet just kills one guy. Clint also mentions a Deus Ex 2 plan using spiderbots, and the 5 systems and how the player’s plan reflects the player’s intent. There’s 2 phases here – composing the plan and executing the plan. This is a very game-like structure. Can be more ride-like if it favors execution. More puzzle-like if it favors composition. GTA car driving vs. planning air travel. He links this planning to Strategy. Don’t define intentionality to confuse strategy if it doesn’t help. Strategy is a subset of intentionality concerned only with winning. Intentionality can be for any form of play or expression, even non-optimal, which is important because it radically broadens what a game is and aught to be.

How does a player maintain continuity of intent through a chaotic and messy system? He doesn’t, intentionality collapses, see GTA. Physics, Fire propogation, and crowds are messy systems. He predicted there would be more of these messy systems in the future, and he was right. But he failed at this in Far Cry 2. (Not quite clear on this point – is he saying messy systems are good or bad?  Seems like messy is bad for intentionality, but good for player expression.  Anyone catch this?).

9 principle systems in Far Cry 2 – Map System allowed scouting and set up planning, tactics. Informed action choices. Weapon load-outs were heavily contrained and had 3 slots for only 5 tactical slots (assault, long range, explosive, stealth, fire). Safe houses allowed people to quickly get weapons and set the Time of Day to execute the plan. Fire could create creeping death and safe area, using wind to predict intentional goals. Combat AI provided the challenge, and the HMR system (health, morale, reliability) gives faction stats/behavior that weapons could attack, allowing player’s action to propogate to rest of faction, and character classes (mechanic, medic, captains) that countered the player’s actions visibly. Tied into the Infamy system, a positive feedback loop that encouraged the player to damage the HMR system. Mission structure also encouraged striking at the HMR of a specific faction. All this set up intentional combat, hopefully, in Far Cry 2.

So they had a plan, but Murphy’s First Law of Combat Design struck. He mapped which systems made it rhrough and how well. The high level stuff didn’t really come through – HMR, Infamy, Mission Structure. Fire, Weapons, Combats were big and visible. It warped the player’s experience. HMR warped into just H. Infamy was poorly conceived and he didn’t cut it, and continued to be poorly conceived. Fewer deliberate targets meant less and less intentional. And plus, a lot of player’s didn’t care about HMR extra objectives. Malaria kicks in while scouting, player gets spotted, and has to randomly start fires and flee, pull bullets out, and ends in a close combat gun fight. But then the player’s gun jams, player dies, buddy shows up, gets separated, battle winds down, and player finds buddy dying somewhere .

Not what they designed. It got more and more ride-like, and as they failed, Composing got smaller and smaller. What’s funny is that as they failed, game got better and better and better. Not necessarily surprising, FPS are usually ride-like, and can be very good, see CoD 4. But not what they wanted. What was weird was that at Composing got shorter, the game didn’t get more ride-like. Far Cry 2 was always hard to demo because it was impossible to know what was going to happen, missing intentionality. He wouldn’t be demoing Far Cry 2, he would be performing it, like in a band. Far Cry 2 was becoming Improvisation – highly intentional but formless and dynamic mode of play that arises when players abandon classical modes of competing with the game for control and domination and embrace unpredictability, randomness, and analog failure in the system space.

Improvision is highly intentional, fault tolerance, and means abandoning competitive/domination play, and formless and dynamic. How is it highly intentional? Far Cry 2 started intentional, what wa weird is that as Composing compressed, Executing compressed too, and in fact you switched back and forth between them within the battle. They are still balanced, it’s just switching between them rapidly. It’s like piloting the Millennium Falcon, which is an awesome reference point. Unpredictability happen all the time. Randomness is the enemy of intentionality, but is where improvisation is born – it pushes the intentional player to react. Cites the Far Cry 2 randomness systems – milaria, bullet removal, gun jamming. Those are missing from the gameplay systems map he has (the one that looks like world population globe map). He replaces the missing systems – HMR, Time of Day, and Infamy. Looking at systems that kick him out of the plan, force him into the Compose. Usually rides force you to reload the game. It’s success or restart. In PoP there’s only one plan. In contrast in Splinter Cell you can make a new plan, but it’s so slow it’s typically too tedious to try again, a punishment. In an improvisational game getting kicked out is the point. Small unpredictable loses that are kicking him out of execution that forces you to improvise. Small incremental failures in multiple ways that kick players back a bit.

He hates bosses, because it’s figure out what the designer wanted and do it 16 times. Except for the Big Daddy’s in Bioshock – they don’t have a fixed plan, and there’s one easy goal, pound the crap out of them. But you can’t do it all in one go. So you need to engage, retreat, replan, reengage. It leads to a feeling of personal accomplishment. He defines Initiative – the pushing you out to replan. Initiative must change hands constantly, easy to take, easy to lose, hard to keep. And the game must forgive you your mistakes – see Bioshock’s VitaChambers. It’s easy to kick the player out of execution phase, it’s hard to get the player back into Composition phase. There’s no repetition in Bioshock and Far Cry 2 that keeps the game moving forward no matter what. Spatial continuity. Note, this is his preference, doesn’t mean game can’t be good.

On to abandoning classical modes of competing with the game for control and domination. Clint doesn’t think of games you beat, just that games you play – like football – you finish it, but you should play again. It could be “beaten” if you’ve totally mastered it. Modern games teach you how to beat them, and then tests you – so maybe you could pass all it’s tests. But Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory doesn’t teach you a lot of things, particularly in the cross-system relationships. Games test you in lots of other axes. Player’s are fixated on dominating and controlling games. Game Designers can intentionally punish players, but we as a community of designers should reject the idea that all games should punish players. He calls it a fetish. Look how much more beautiful play can be – shows Ali vs. Foreman.

So Sun Tzu has a whole chapter on fire, but the chapter that jumps out at Clint is the one that translates to energy or force. He talks about seeming disorder and no real disorder at all. David Sirlin talks about Yomi layers. Clint says Improvisation is a high Yomi layer, above intentionality and rote. But Clint experiences it in lots of game. While intentional play is a beautiful thing, it’s grounded in domination. While we bend games, it’s grounded in mastery, which means we ultimately destroy it. Mastery is not a prerequisite of play. The prerequisite of a player is only confidence. We just need not humiliate them, nurture them. Players can play freely and expressively, so let’s invite them in.

As my friend said perfectly, Oh My God, Dude.

Question: Chess analog? It is impossible to achieve true mastery in most games, and it’s a wonderful thing. But let’s be careful not to force players to play that way – it’s a beautiful thing to not be in control of the game too, to make the game not jump the players through hoops. Don’t be the circus trainer all the time, be the lion out in the wild. Question: Isn’t there mastery inside of this improvisation? Yes, of course, see his onion with improv on the outside. Don’t require players to only play that way – to not require Miles Davis but all great Jazz players.. Question: How to recover from game’s failures you ran into? Product starts to imitate process that creates it – if you iterate on your failures, then you can get this quick compose/execute design, maybe. Interesting to find out. Question: How much of improv is a surprise? All of it – comes from the emergent behavior of games with a lot of system relationships. Testers don’t spend a lot of time finding emergent play. Question (Chris?): How do you deal with power fantasy? Some people don’t like jazz. There was a lot of push back on what this game was asking from players. Far Cry 2 has such a huge range, he thinks, because it gets closer to taste. Players get intimidated or aren’t interested. They are used to domination, and some players have become so whipped that they are programmed to this. Question (Noah): Ironic talk is so carefully structured (Clint had detailed speaking notes) – but why did the systems have to be quantifiably balanced? Not saying they have to be, but he was trying to draw it in inportance size, not use size. Question (Jon Blow): What about learning, incorporating the randomness, and player’s overcoming that – what about varying the number of systems in the map, adding a lot of things that interrupt you surprisingly, emergent consequence, isn’t that more magical even if harder? First and foremost, the map is not how to build an improvisational game. It’s an examination of how they screwed up. He would look to the point, compressing the phases and getting the player switching back and forth. A river and getting the player to cross from what side to the other rapidly, but not just reactively. Needs time to re-plan. Question: How much of this went into the level design? See Johnathan Moran’s level design talk. Player expression and level talk and world design talk.

Making Friends is Hard: Social Systems in Modern Game Design

Alex Hutchinson

Top selling PC games weren’t made by these domination nerds . There’s these huge markets out there. Alex has been working near Will Wright for a while, and Will’s really about making friends. Relationships between characters/avatars and relationships between players. This talks about the first – characters. Why bother? We’ve already perfect combat mechanic – the perfect game mechanics – inherent risk/reward with clear win/lose states, clear player skill – accuracy, speed, position, timing. And the act of playing resembles the real world act in many ways, the fantasy of it. As in, people don’t use real gun sounds in their games, because it’s too upsetting. It’s also easy to make visual/audio impressive. And based on strong, primal emotions that are easy to example. On the other hand, social mechanics – risk/reward in social situations is often subtle and not final – the end is not clear. Plus, challenging to focus on player skill without resorting to minigames, which undercuts your actual goal. And social interactions are complex and filled with hidden values. Feedback is so crucial, there’s walls of numbers in a strategy game, but social mechanics rely on hiding that. Finally, games do gross movement/interaction well, but subtle is hard.

Shows a graph of generations of US demographics. In 2015 Gen Y becomes the dominant part of the workforce and population. Gen X is making the games, but that’s going to change soon. Audience is also broadening. We’ll get a new spectrum, girls, Gen Ys, broader Gen Xers, and the elderly, which is coming soon. People are doing these social mechanics already – for example, the Sims. In the original Sims, you couldn’t control characters, the characters would just judge your environment. Females at Maxis insisted he make the characters interactive. While that fits Alex’s still worse, he thinks it’s why the game did 2 million over 350,000. The things people criticize bou the Sims, the poor interactions, ultimately don’t matter, but what’s fascinating is it’s non-linear and player driven – friends, enemies, romance, or nobody, all player choosen. Allows for great variety of player expression, and has surprising outcomes that are based on invisible components. The Sims is explorative. And it’s got that simple and accessible one-click interface, focus on act of choice, not type of interactions. And allows people to create interactions themselves.

Moving on to Spore, Spore is built around creating your world, a real 1/3 of the game. A second 1/3 is sharing, that happens automatically, and the last 1/3 is play. The game is only 1/3 of the experience. The sharing seems to have been a great success. But there’s a challenge that if you can make anything you should be able to do anything. So Spore needed social interactions, it needed a win outcome to finish each of the 5 levels. Was pretty basic, just create a creature with social parts that given the right response led to a win. Succeeded in making animation interesting, and kept it continuous, but having a win state harmed storytelling and too linear/repetitive. They knew in development but couldn’t fix it. Simple strategy was also appropriate for casual but not hardcore. He warns that it’s tricky because your team will fight you here, because they are hardcore.

Alex claims GTA is about existing in a city, that you can do anything in this place. They have a social system too. Activities with character raise relationships that leads to unlock. It took up a bunch of time, and reviewers panned them for it. Alex says it deepens and widens the sandbox experience. The invisible likes/dislikes adds exploration and curiousity, makes them into characters and not just cypers. And it’s great it’s not tied to progression, can engage or disengage as you please. Tells story about having to kill one of his characters, but he was forced to kill one of them, and the other one bitched him out. Plus, they reinforce the time/world sense, eg not around at night.

Animal Crossing was designed to get people who couldn’t meet to interact together. Various characters with personalities live in this town, eventually leave if you don’t build relationships with them, which is tracked invisibly. There’s no win state and no permanent consequences. There’s many surprising outcomes based on both hidden and learned components. There’s gruffy annoying characters who become your most loyal friends. Hidden status builds fantasy, player’s imagination. Natural ebb and flow allows players to customize the relationship and town, and a natural mechanic (if you wanted them to stay you would have a relationship). And logical real world consequences – stealing packages makes them angry, for example.

Lastly, Army of Two. It has only one social mechanic, positively or negatively emote. In fact., most reviewers talked about the social mechanic about. In fact, on the sequel he really tried to push it, because that’s why people wanted to do it. He says press has come around. And even in focus groups. It tended to be inappropriate or embarassing. But people had control – were choosing to do it. Player expression. People in the focus group would emulate this in real life too, crossing the game boundary. Allows player to tell story that game isn’t telling you. It helped bridge couch to screen boundary. Also supported the core fantasy. But the random choice of interactions could create inappropriate combinations. Cites Warcraft’s “stop touching me” breaking fourth wall as working because player has asked for it. And in Army of Two doesn’t do quite as much.

GTA/Army of 2, completely optional. Animal Crossing, Sims, storytelling. All 5 are about storytelling. It’s one of the only ways we’ve found to get emotions into games. But it’s tricky – “how would a video game make you cry” – most people miss that that’s about a game – not the character/story but player social powers, a player’s journey. Player expression. Some rules of thumb about social games. Systems with mecahnics that pull are better – carrot over stick. Opposite of combat. Goals people choose to pursue. Avoid progression – player storytelling within a social system is a stronger motivation – things people want to find. Pull. Game directed wins state are far less interesting than player directed win states. Player agency. Non-linear goal structures feel more real and more belivable, more interesting. Allow people to bounce around the system, to even violate human social norms and see what happens. Finally, hidden or secret elements are strong when used to force player to explore system. Hide the numbers, get them to believe things are there that don’t exist. Challenge: Find new ways of enabling player expression!

Question: How do you deal with the hardcore developers, players, reviewers? Massive disconnect between marketing and audiences – build as side optoinal mechanics. Debating marketing now about rewards – wants functional rewards vs. kill and take their stuff. But he argues it’s not reward vs. reward, it’s what the mechanics let you do – the right thing shouldn’t always give you loot – you don’t need external motivators, let the mechanics reward and punish the player for good social actions. Question (Nicole Lazzare): What social mechanic do you want to do? A game that’s only a social mechanics, we are repeatedly forced to sideline it. Only optional mechanics and storytelling would be awesome. Question: How do you know you are avoiding hardcore-ness? Different feeling for good mechanic-ness and good feeling from playing. Loves Sims for it’s clockwork-ness. So get interested in the problem itself, and get the audience focus testing. Social mechanics are more about building tools anyways, so don’t have to worry about big systems, can just pile on. Question: How get around guilt? I think it would be great, and people would keep playing it. Think how porn is guilty but great. And don’t have to be 100% success in this area, if you go broad emotions you could make buckets of cash. Question: Other emotions? Wants to avoid love. Weird senior emotions, get into weird side emotions like embarrassment, shame, etc. Want new ways of expression. Question: Does this mean hentai games is ok? Well, I’m upset that we can’t shoot civilians in Japan but can ship a rape game. It depends on the intention – is it boobies or is it trying to create a deeper emotion?

Meaning, Aesthetics, and User-Generated Content

Chris Hecker

Caveats – still generated thoughts, trouble to make it shorter, compares this to Sherman’s March. Frontal assault, and he’s going to go long. Shows the youtube video from Israel of the music mashups from different artists. Here we go – What, How, and Why of user-generated content.

UGC Taxonomy – one axis – aesthetics to behavior or consequences. Continuum between the two. Another – parametrization vs. creation as in raw space. And there’s versions of aesthetics and behavior for each oth these. There’s also accessibility somewhere, but it’s not clear how orthogonal it is to these things.

Start with aesthetics, parametrization. That’s sliders on screen, say avatar customization on the Wii, City of Heroes editor. Note they’ve got Random and Reset all buttons. Random, there’s something deep about this – obviously it has to be a parameterized space, but all assets are valid. Not our rabbit hole, but something there, that ability, is interesting.

Aesthetics, Creation. Lot creation system in Sims 2 – not really parameterized – Maya for making houses – bueaty saloons, rubix cubes, etc. Couldn’t have random. See Spore creations too. Mostly all on the safe side.

Behavior, parameteriation. Spore has mods, addresses in memory you can change that change the game. FFXII has the gambit system – the AI that you change/create. Reviewers are all over the map.

Behavior, creation: See new Banjo-Kazooie vehicle editor – the shape of the vehicle editor has physics, actually matters. Or Fantastic Contraction – trying to build machine that moves across the screen. Or Little Big Planet, and the 8-bit adder.

So this is all built around the edit, test cycle. This is similar to interactivity in the game, but in game that’s on the millisecond level. It’s more like game development when debugging it takes minutes or hours or years. Talking it even farther – consider Core Wars. Virtual memory against virtual memory fight – trying to gp fault each other. It had a really long edit/test cycle. There’s a lot of companies out there trying to make behavior, creation more successful. The road’s littered with accessible programming failure. He hopes they succeed, but none of it has gotten it’s hooks into people. Obviously VS 2008 is in this boat too. What about Civ IV and Half-life 2 going into Beyond the Sword and Counter-Strike guys? It’s like a farm team for game development – it’s real game development. And note that on Steam Counter-strike blows everyone else away in terms of players, summed up. L4D and TF2 aren’t even close. Is it user-generated content?

Is Diablo 2 loadout screen UGC? Is the inventory screen different from Spore? Changing weapons in counter-strike, setting up crash in Burnout? Influence maps in Eve? Notes the sheer organizations sizes in Eve, the spy networks in the game, and how Eve changed from Feb 5th to Feb 6th, how thousands of dollars vaporized due to corporate spies flipping someone. Hundred of thousands of dollars and hours of work. Is it UGC?

Frank Lantx says it is – of course! Interaction has always been UGC. It’s what distinguishes our games. Frank Lantz calls out the creativity of Street Fighter 2 competitions over that over creatures in the Sporepedia. Runs the Daigo video in Street fighter competition where he does single frame button hits to turn around the tournament with only one point left. Shows Spore creatures to compare – saying use slow hardware to develop on to keep you honest (awesome!) The Spore creatures are all remakes of games characters, how the editor is fairly highly constrained. Shows real creatures too, like dogs, bugs, and notes how hard it would be to make realistic things. Shows a photo of his daughter too – whose UGC in her own way, but also her shirt is from threadless, which is also UGC. 30% profit and $30 million on t-shirts! Nike allows you to color your shoes online however you want, can monogram them. Of course, with UGC, you have a filtering problem. So a guy put “sweatshop” on it and got it in trouble. And there’s metal 3D printing too. There’s ton of technologies for this now, like multiple materials at the same time. The end result of all this is RepRap 1.0 – a robot that can print a version of itself. We make self-replicating versions of robots ourselves for a while. But people are really proud of their robots. Von Neumann machines. Von Neumann thought it would be an incredibly efficient way to explore the galaxy. It’s incredibly fast if you do the math. Enrico Fermi posited the Fermi paradox: why hasn’t any other species done this to us themselves?

Will Wright steps up for the Russian Space Minute. Nasa beat the Russians in the space race, and then spent the 70s re-thinking about how to get into space, how to get it reusable. Which led to the space shuttle. Bringing down the cost – $100 /pound to orbit, but really $10,000 / pounds to orbit. He was at the first space shuttle launch. Russians thought that the shuttle was a trick, because their cost estimates said we were really crazy. They thought we were stealing their spy sattellites, which is way more dangerous. Of course, we know Mothra has an evil twin Battra. The russians knew the space shuttle had an evil twin too, and offensive weapons system. So the Soviets surprised everyone by rebuilding a duplicating the US orbiter. The Russian is also slightly bigger in everyway, including the transport aircraft to transport it. But, in fact, they were very different. The US had reusable boosters and liquid-fuel engines. The Russians used core rockets and liquid-fuel boosters on the outside, which only got them 1/10 the flights and were much more dangerous. Also, the US booster (?) was separate and very reusable, extremely advanced. The Russians put jet engines on their shuttle instead, which meant it could take off and land on it’s own. And, of course, it was a weapon systems. It could carry interceptors to an orbital space complex and in the event of a war it could launch it’s interceptors and attack the US. Might even have been suicide bombers, not clear. Around 1988 it launches, unmanned, flawlss flight. And then in 1989 the Berlin Wall fell and the program collapsed. Some say the cost bankrupted the Soviet Union. And so the Russian shuttles tour now as museums. The one that flew was destroyed in a snowstorm in 2003.

End Russian Space Minute.

Chris starts back up with a shuttle creature. Ships are popular too – you can make amazingly detailed creatures in the vehicle editor but people love doing it in the creature editor. He thinks it’s the constraints and that it’s personable, has a head that looks where it’s going. People even started putting people in their boats. Shows a fantastic boat with guys inside it that actually rows correctly. Someone made a complete set of sushi, Thanksgiving turkeys, paperclips, a tiny drill, a chest, and an office chair. An office chair with serious attitude.

OK, let’s transition into the how of this. Surfing the creature stream, is like haystack searching, like 100,000 creatures a day. Yet somehow someone saw that Chris Hecker saw his creature on the internet. Then he looks at his own wikipedia page’s edits. Cites the Jimmy Wales quote that only 1000 people really matter – but the number of edits is flawed data. Cites the Aaron Swartz article on Alan Alda. Chris calls wikipedia on of the great wikipedia, and that Swartz can download it. Which Swatz did, and analyzed it. And noticed only 2 of the top 10 are even registered. The majority of people aren’t even registered. Not the wikipedia hardcore. 6 of the top 10 made had made less then 25 edits total, some had made only 1 edit. Yet they were in top 10 of editors on the page for content. So it sets the lie to the “1% rule”. There’s not just 1 creator. (Thanks Aaron Swartz!)

So on Spore they were worried about it being too voluntary, not enough low enough stuff. So they slurp creatures just in case. And the Kutiman youtube music video is also involuntary collaboration. Wikipedia isn’t voted, it just sort of happened. The old model of broadcast is biforcating into Crowd sourced and curated web content. See Last.fm and pandora. Last.fm plays things other people liked, whereas Pandora has experts who curate the songs for you. It’s interesting to see the different kinds of songs that come out. Crowd sourced, conventional wisdom says, is the way to go.

Shows an article on Salganik, Dodds & Watts, 2006 – wanted to show how collaboration effects quality. Does the best stuff float to the top in crowd-sourcing? So they biforcated 14,341 into one big group and a bunch of small groups. In one experiment you could see stars and in another got the prioritized list. Shouldn’t collaborative filtering (second) get better results? In both cases, the socially influenced group was more random results, whereas the independent group was basically the same. They seemed to be more objective. The social group was almost completely random, charted out. The socializers are a randomizing quality. And it’s been reproduced – so so much for the wisdom of crowds.

But maybe it’s all okay? Dan Gilbert @ TED. He wanted to know what natural happiness vs. synthetic happiness was – the free choice paradigm for Dissonance reduction. Ranking Monet paintings, and then as you leave you give them a choice of a Monet painting. Sometime later, the same paintings are asked to be ranked. And so people say the one they got is better then the one they rejected. But it also holds true for anterograde amnesiacs – the Momento guys. People who forget this stuff. And they do the Free Choice Paradigm with them. And they still switch the paintings. Something deep is happening in your brain, synthesizing happiness. So maybe they really are the best songs.

Why? The fundamental question of the next 10 years of game design: How do games mean? Competing Theories: The message Model of Meaning (Frank Lantz, Jonathan Blow) – a packet of meaning delivered to you. It works. It’s how linear medium does it. Most people don’t think it will work for games, they are too interactive. Fullbright and Michael at Tale of Tales put forward instead a travel metaphor – the Immersive Model of Meaning. Going somewhere and coming back change. Mahk LeBlanc, Doug Church point to the Looking Glass School – Abdicating Authorship. Getting designer off stage and putting the player on stage. That what happens to the player in 3 seconds is more personal and meaningful then all of Myst, because there’s none of the me there. Chris totally believes in this. But do we abdicate enough authorship.

At first he believed in interactive narrative – he believed in widening out the curvey arc that we create, little packets along the way. Immersive meaning says the packets are sort of all over the graph for player’s to discover. But says still very top-down authorial – placed packets for people to discover. Seems kinda broken. Shows Walton Ford, a painter, an interview with him. His paintings are life-size, giant, tons of detail, layered. A modern Audobon with a twist. They were interviewing him on meaning. He said the “[titles and marginalia] add another layer of meaning to the image that wasn’t visually there…” The meaning wasn’t in the paper, so he was trying to forcing the meaning in, but he’s trying to wean himself from it. But he was “too distrustful of the viewer in trying to direct them too much.” So he just title’s provocatively and does the research and trusts you to figure it out. He’s actually removing meaning. About Rockwell, he says: (paraphrase) “ The only people don’t like Rockwell… is because he doesn’t give you any room for interpretation. He suffocates you with the meaning.” There’s nothing for you to take away.

Is there an Interpretive Model of Meaning? Is there a meaning coming through the player? Clint Hocking said today “We need to nurture [players] when they’re trying to express themselves.” Both playstyle and asset style, player improvisation & expression turn to 11 when you allow it. We segregate UGC into a box. Not sure this is a contrast with the stuff from Frank before. Immanuel Kant has a book “Observations…” in which he seperates the beautiful and sublime, because sublimity has a bit of a fear to it. “It’s a beautiful thing to master something, but it’s also a beautiful thing to not have mastered something.” from Clint – Chris said he meant it’s a sublime thing, not beautiful thing. It’s different from beauty. Both are needed and good, but they are different. Spore creatures are not beautiful, but they are sublime. Chris thinks we keep it too segregated.

Does UGC force Game as Madlib? Do you have to make a game that has slots for the player? We do this in the gameplay realm – where will give the player agency? He claims every artform has a different way of conveying meaning and depth. There might be some sort of shared thing behind all these things we talk about – expression, immersion, creativity, improvisation, play. Game as Platform? Yes, they can make money, but they can be a platform for Meaning, by us trying to give up some of the control, and letting the player take it.

More Spore creatures, showing the total craziness – creatures holding other creatures, the ones with txt in them, simple creatures, separated things (which isn’t allowed). His favorites are 2 creatures back to back, one dragging 2 other creatures around, and a guy attached to another guy at the face, like he’s been eaten.

(Note: Does this invalidate procedural storytelling? I asked Hecker and he said yes. And I agree with everything he said. But I don’t think that’s quite right. I think Interactive storytelling is the painting that Walton Ford actually made, a part of the interactivity that the player opens up for the player, that releases the player to explore the story. Or maybe the tech becomes how the player’s write stories – the players become the designers, Neverwinter Nights style. Getting back to the PnP RPG)

Games as Art: Learning a harsh lesson

Matthew Wasteland has an interesting piece up on Games As Art over at GameSetWatch.  He raises 3 possible art styles, but discounts them all:

  1. Linear narrative with gameplay between spots
  2. Open game with player developed narrative
  3. Systems-based rules that describe a concept

I still believe all 3 of these are valid (though I operate primarily in the 2nd and 3rd). But I’ve found my biggest barrier to success (and the fallacy of the article) is absolutism of approach. It takes surprisingly little for a narrative to be resonant, yet frequently as developers we feels like it has to be all or nothing.  By insisting on nothing if we can’t have it all, we frequently underestimate our influences.

To quote one of the commentators, JP Davis:

“A great example lies in this article itself, with Portal’s Companion Cube. The plot there is linear. The player uses the cube to move forward through the level, then destroys the cube. There is no option to avoid destroying the cube. There is no “alternate ending.” And yet would we say that this emotional arc would therefore be better represented through a different medium likes movies or books? No, and the reason why is simple– the very fact that it is the player carrying the cube and that it is the player who has to destroy the cube is what gives the scene its emotional power.”

Yep, the player is forced to carry the cube, and forced to destroy it.  And the emotions this generates in the player are in fact unpredictable – they could be sorrow or annoyance.  But it does generate emotion, and the designers smartly direct the outcome of the negative backlash at a character instead of at themselves – GLADoS.  This technique throughout the entire game builds up to a memorable final sequence and a widely heralded masterpiece, even though the entire experience is as linear as it can get, narrative-wise.  And it’s also pretty simple – just a few lines of dialogue here and there, minimal interaction, with the cube, the final battle, and a few secret rooms being the only narrative set pieces of significant note.

Many a time if I was on the team I would have said it wasn’t deep enough, that we weren’t pushing the game hard enough.  But Portal works spectacularly, because designers don’t need much to create an emotional experience.  Just iteration, playtesting, and a coherent gameplay-emotion rule set.  Even this mechanics set is rarely as necessarily obvious or straightforwardly related to your narrative theme as early concept would lead you to believe is necessary.  A lesson I’m still struggling to learn, but a highly useful one.

The Medium is the Message: Success of the Wii

I still remember vividly when I first got my hands on the Nintendo Wii. The studio was abuzz, and my friends all felt we knew it was going to be the next big thing. But every business expert said it would never succeed (over the PS3, nantch). The graphics weren’t pretty enough. It didn’t have the technical chops. The Wii would be just a fad. No one will remember it a few years later.

I’m in the air over England right now and I cracked open Al Gore’s Assault on Reason for some light reading and came across this passage, quoting Neil Postman:

“Every technology has a philosophy which is a given expression in how the technology makes people use their minds, in what it makes us do with our bodies, in how it codifies the world, in which of our senses it amplifies, in which of our emotional and intellectual tendencies it disregards. This idea is the sum and substance of what the great Catholic prophet Marshall McLuhan meant when he coined the famous sentence ‘The medium is the message.’”

Most video games are fads. The media hype around the massive simultaneous launch is the defining way to generate fads. How many games are played for more then a week? A day?  Entertainment, both play and art, is inherently short lived. It conveys it’s ideas and it’s experience and then moves on.

We should have seen it coming with the Nintendo DS. The Wii was never different because it was a fad. It was different because it was a different medium, a kinetic medium. It starts to truly fulfill the promise of video games, the promise of interactive television, the promise of holodeck.

This was Jonathan Blow’s fear and hope in Montreal. Video games as a whole will shape the mind and the society by the philosophy they inherently espouse. The philosophy we collectively imbue them with. The significance of the Wii is that it shows the audience can react to and reward those who strive for more. To push our brains to new heights of learning, of feeling, even of reason.

The next winner is the fad to take this one step forward. Which part of my brain will your medium engage next?

What I’ve learned from Games: Starcraft, War, and Politics

With the invasion of Georgia, the War in Iraq, the tensions with Iran, war and aggression is everywhere.  Should we attack Russia?  Iran? I don’t know, but Starcraft has taught me some things that we would do well to heed.  Attacking is not the only way to be victorious.

Starcraft is not a diplomatic game.  You can’t win through peace.  It simulates war, no question.  But even in this hostile simulation, there are multiple ways to defeat your opponent.  You can attack, but you can also grow your economy to the point where the enemy can’t compete and you can develop technology that the enemy can’t respond to.

We see this in real life.  The size of the American economy was the decisive factor in World War II against the Germans.  The technology behind ships, bombers and the nuclear bomb beat the Japanese.  Even in passive situations, these factors preserve the balance of powers and usually lead to a peaceful resolution without lose of life.  The conflict between Iraq and Iran is marked more by technological development and economic growth over decades then outright attacks.  Even now, analysts say Russia is far more concerned with protecting its oil-driven economy then advancing military positions in Georgia.

The populist instinct may be to attack, attack, attack.  In Starcraft, however, attacking into a prepared position, even a significantly weaker enemy, will usually led to a significant defeat.  It’s important to pressure your opponent, to know what your opponent is doing, and even sometimes to contain your opponent.  But it is extremely important to not overextend.  Instead, Starcraft ask you to grow your economy, develop new technologies, all the things that make any country great, in order to prevail any conflict.

All this from a little video game where the units don’t actually matter.