SimCity

I can talk about what I’m working on again!  I’m one of the designers on

As you can imagine, it’s quite a thrill to be working on such a whirlwind of Rollercoaster, Experiment, and Mastery (multiplayer!) design.  I look forward to sharing details about the design through the SimCity forums and blogs.  I’ll cross-post them here when I can.

Acclimation

After yet another  TED talk espousing the mind-controlling properties of games, it is time to say again: “It’s not that simple.

Games are not just ultimate Skinner boxes.  In fact, as we know (thanks Alfie Kohn), Skinner boxes don’t really work on humans.  The talk even says it directly. You can only give people 5-20 repetitions before they get bored.  After that rewards stop working.  You get acclimated.

Games are the grand experiment.  We developed the power to make universes.  Places where every sound, every object, every rule created by a human being.  A place to try being God.  And what did we do with this power?  We turned it on ourselves.  We choose to study who we are.  How we think.  We discovered rewards.  We discovered motivation.  But we are also discovering acclimation.

Consider story games vs. game-y games.  Story games are games like Mass Effect, Final Fantasy, or Uncharted 2 that, rather then use deep sets of interesting rules, rely on an outside motivation to drive you through the universe.  Traditional stories, rigidly enforced and passively received.   And often it works.  At least until you get to the end.  But then the rules suddenly stop feeling compelling.  Why?  Why don’t you keep playing?  Acclimation!  We want end points.  We want to see differently, try new things, explore.  Develop and grow.  No single task or grouping of tasks is enough to contain us.

As designers, acclimation is our burden and our saving grace.  We have to overcome it to maintain engagement.  But it trains our players.  It makes them smarter, wiser, more engaged the next time we do something different, interesting, worthwhile.  It’s what breaks the “addiction”.  It’s the learner mastering the subject, and walking away with a new piece of knowledge.  It’s what gives the next designer a chance to entertain.

Games can’t “control” people.  Jesse Schell talks about it like it’s something to fear.  And while I agree the coming point-pocalypse is something for concern, all I think it does is make us stronger.  We are human.  We’ve built universes to test that out.  And we always win, in the end.  We walk away, and do something else.

Maxis

I’ve moved on from Crystal Dynamics to take a position with Maxis Emeryville with the members of the old Spore team, where I’ll be doing AI and gameplay (surprise!).  I’m really excited about the title and hope you can hear about it soon.

Crystal Dynamics has been a great place and I’m going to miss it.  Good luck to those guys!  Look forward to hearing more from them too!  And keep an eye out for Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light.  It is looking fun, fun, fun.

A Big Personal Milestone

I’m not dead!  I’ve actually got 5 or 6 ideas that I haven’t had time to pound out.  I’ve been in the middle of planning and executing a Big Personal Milestone, which is going quite well, but I can’t tell you about.  I hope to have it finished up soon though and get back to writing.  Much to do!

Experts and Mastery Games

Jeff Atwood recently commented on a great video by to James Bach’s presentation at Google on how to be a Software Testing Expert.  It’s fantastic – because it’s more about being an expert in your life then doing software testing.  Read it, or watch it.  To quote Atwood:

“What I love about James Bach’s presentation is how he spends the entire first half of it questioning and deconstructing everything — his field, his expertise, his own reputation and credentials, even! And then, only then, he cautiously, slowly builds it back up through a process of continual learning…

It starts with questioning everything, most of all yourself.

So if you want to be an expert in practice rather than in name only, take a page from Steve McQueen’s book. Don’t be the guy telling everyone what to do. Be the guy asking all the questions.”

This is good stuff.  I can see my own evolution as a game developer in this, and I can tell by the questions I ask that I am a game developer first and an AI programmer second.  I want to know comprehend design and marketing and production and animation.  I hang out with those guys.  I ask them questions.  I get all up in their workflows every chance I can.  I can’t stop talking about game development – I spent 3 hours last night on the phone debating how agile is agile enough.  Questioning the context, questioning the reasoning, questioning the biases, questioning the implications.  And then knowing I still don’t know enough, and we’re going to have to meet and talk again in a few weeks.

We have expert players too, and designs that succeed because they specifically try and create expertness.  Most commercial games are mindless games – entertainment that is meant to divert, casually distract, immerse.  I mean mindless in a desirable sense, a good sense.  You’re still learning and using skills, but you’re also giving your brain a rest.  Think television.  RPGs, story games, adventures, Solitaire.  And then there are mastery games.  Games that push for complete and utter focus, attention, study, and skill.  Games of such depth that they compel you to learn or stop playing.  Starcraft, Street Fighter, Dynasty Tactics, Guitar Hero, Chess, Poker, Go, even Pac-Man.

Mindless games have specific characteristics, different goals that we’ve been optimizing towards these past years.  “Hours of play”, not getting stuck, detailed environments, detailed stories, broad interlocking mechanics, many modes or styles of play.  Mastery games optimize differently.  Short, replayable matches, a high degree of challenge, deep mechanics that require study, one mode to focus on, physical or mental skills that reqiure training to perfect, a “game arc” of early, mid, and late game, and a stable rules set, sometimes with subtle variations to keep the high level play interesting, frequently multiplayer.  Games that sweep your mind clear, demand utter focus and flow, and leave you asking questions when you’re finished.

Mastery games are our training of experts, our targeting and study of what an expert means.

The study of these differences and the study of why these differences exist, is fascinating design.  Compelling are the borderline cases – is Left 4 Dead a Mindless game or a Mastery game?  (Post your answer in the comments!)  Speed runs are clearly mastery games.  Are they still playing the same game everyone else did?  Is the initial playthrough of a game ever for mastery?

See, I’m doing it again.  Keep asking the questions.  Be an expert at what you love.

Things I Hope for 2009

I don’t talk much about politics or worldview here, but for those who can this New Year, indulge me.  In this great designed game, I hope for things that will break the destructive cyclical systems in our societies:

  • Obama’s network of donors becomes a independent democratic force with demonstrated political power and a internet-driven 2-way communication pipeline that ultimately grows to encompass much of the population, building a fifth branch of debate-driven government alongside non-profits and special interests.
  • The Israeli and Palestinian peoples both realize their politicians are deliberately screwing them and vote them out of office, with a strong peace mandate.
  • Stock traders realize bulls and bears are all in their heads and stabilize the world’s economy around the still-positive industries, just as popular support moves on from bubble-destined market economies and social and nationalized corporate welfare* and government subsidized job creation kicks in, alongside a free 21st century national job matching program that dramatically improves job match rates
  • Meanwhile, more people realize the dream of commercialism is an illusion of prosperity and learn to live frugally
  • And the world finally gets serious about environmental costs and threats and develops an economic system for evaluating them, causing a number of industries to look really, really bad, creating important new industry opportunities in a down economy. Oh, and simultaneously creating a whole new industry for planting a ton of new trees.
  • As profits continue to shrink, copyright and patent law gets serious and focused on solutions rather then wealth.
  • A few great games that move genre forward, including a few procedural narrative ones (*wink*)

Hey, I can hope, right?  May you have a healthy, fruitful, and creative 2009!

* (Seriously – why should stock traders and corporations pay less taxes then everyone else?  I hear you – you think your way of making money is better, and you want to make more money then everyone else.  I’m sorry, <free-marketeers>, but that’s just not a good reason.)

My Top 10

OK, M.E. inspired me to take a stab at a top ten.  About half of these are easy, but here it goes:

Top Ten Video Games I’ve loved the most:

  • Star Control II, PC:  Just beautiful.  The exploration of the unknown, the humor, the surprises, the living world, the creative ship design.  From the first surprise encounters with the Earth and the Moon to the inspired credits sequence.  What first showed me that game design itself could be beautiful, although I didn’t realize it at the time.  Me and my childhood friends played the 2 player ship combat for months, and played the single player co-op together, and then compared our stories, and then played it again.  A complete masterpiece, whose only failing is our failing to repeat it.
  • Chrono Trigger, SNES:  Where Star Control II is beautiful, Chrono Trigger is, but defiantly.  It grabs the reins of a genre that is supposed to tell stories and says “this is how it should be done!”  The vibrant manga graphics, the court scene that shows your actions matter, being able to avoid battles, the first time I’d seen co-op attacks and team tactics, the new game+ to the  innumerable endings that I had to find every one.  I can’t say who I played this with, I know there were many, but only because I was so enraptured every time I turned it on.
  • Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Gamecube:  Ocarina made me believe.  For it’s time, it told an immersive and grand tale, something that me and my friends started and just couldn’t put down.  Yes, it’s not perfect.  The beginning, like all the 3D Zelda games, is a bit rough.  But it makes up for it with inspiration throughout, at a time when there was nothing to compare it to.  Interestingly, though I’ve beaten it at least 3 times and watched it through twice, this is the only game on this list that I’d have trouble playing again.  While it’s quite possibly the greatest game of its era, it hasn’t stood up to the test of time as well.
  • Diablo II, PC: Our family game, and the game I’ve probably played the most with friends.  I think this is the only game I’ve ever played with my Dad and brother, here almost from start to finish.  I never really played online, just with 2-4 friends.  The design here was so simple and yet well-done, and the 7 different classes meant there were tons of strategies for me to explore and still match my friend’s playing style.
  • Starcraft, PC:  The longest runner.  I’ve been playing this game off and on again for almost 10 years.  The depth of strategic learning is just unique, and it exemplifies the best of both multiplayer play and tutorial training (for its era).  Of this list, it’s the only game I still play regularly.  It’s that good.
  • Halo, XBox:  Co-op tactical play.  I’ve beaten the single-player co-op at least 6 times with 6 different people, and would happily do so again.  While widely disparaged, I still find the tactical cover-shooting gameplay genius, the running story since Marathon fantastic, and the art choices inspired.
  • Deus Ex, PC:  The game that inspired a generation of game designers.  Unprecedented interactivity.  I think I played the demo level more times then I’ve played any other level.  It’s combination of interactive storytelling, player character growth, and large set of interaction verbs heralded the future of its genre even more then its dystopian setting.
  • Planescape: Torment, PC:  The best writing in a game I can recall.  The willingness to throw off the design tropes D&D RPGs had been shackled with and commit fully to their setting are outstanding.  The characters had meaning and the player’s actions were significant.  And they did comedy!
  • Wing Commander II, PC:  The Character drama.  From the opening missions with Spirit to Angel and Hobbes, WC2 took what was a staid and simple genre and made it dramatic.  In a genre that hasn’t been able to stand, WC2 made people care.  We played WC2 in huge groups, 4 or 5 of us having sleepovers just to all take turns at success and revel in the difficult branching story.  Massive fun.  WC2 was both the pinnacle of its time and a foreshadower of what was to come.  While many games, including its sequels, tried full motion video, WC2’s in-game scripted cutscenes spanning many relationships and environments is the standard today.
  • Pokemon, nDS:  The other way to play.  I struggled a lot with this pick.  Believe it or not, I play more consoles these days then anything else, and I love my DS.  What put Polemon on this is not that it’s been a pinnacle game, although I think it’s well designed.  It’s that Pokemon reminds me that there is more then one way to play.  It is a slow game, likely too slow.  But that makes it perfect for all those other times, when I want to do something with my hands but not think about it.  On the train, watching TV, or in the car, it’s a small bundle of satisfaction without being demanding.  Games fill up all sections of our lives, and while Pokemon may not be the best game ever made, it’s one of the best games ever made for those between times, when otherwise there would be nothing.
  • Portal, PC:  The Hope.  Portal was perfect in so many ways: simple, well written, tightly paced and tuned, a sublime and smart dark comedy, and yet still an interesting game filled with flow.  But what was so important to me was its source: 2 people out of college, with the help of a small company, selling it for $20 over the internet.  I was awed.  For me, it was what games should strive to be – accessible, fun, immersive, and simple.  For me, this is the future.

Yes yes, whose your favorite-ist explorer story-game designer.  What I didn’t realize is how much my experience was driven by multi-player.  I recall showing the games to others because I liked them.  I remember a lot of shared play.  It’s likely why I remember them so well, and why many of these games made my top ten of all time.

It got me thinking though.  Most of these games are pretty old, from when I really was a kid, and that likely clouds my memory.  I’m trying my hand at a more recent variety.  I’ll let you know how it goes.