Monday, August 31, 2009

Need More Bookmarks

In this article, programmer Nels Anderson argues that games should use a "bookmark" system instead of outdated save systems that waste the player's time.

Single-play sessions are difficult to design for, because exactly how long they will last is completely unknown. I've played Advance Wars: Days of Ruin for the half-minute or so it takes the elevator in my apartment building to get down to the laundry room floor. We ought to allow single-play sessions of any length, but the inertia of existing save system designs makes this difficult. I believe separating the two similar but distinct purposes of save systems will make this goal much easier to achieve.

Why are most pop songs approximately three to four minutes in length? Classical compositions are rarely that short. The answer is that the original vinyl 78s and 45s could hold about three to four minutes of music per side without sacrificing too much quality. What was originally a technological constraint became integrated into the way music is created. This technological legacy can still be seen today.

There are actually many facets of games that may result from obsolete technical constraints, but I'm going to address just one here- save systems. Specifically, this was inspired by something David Carlton wrote (with Randy Smith's MIGS presentation about saving before that).

The original purpose of save systems was to allow players to finish games that were too long to complete in a single sitting. The first console save systems didn't even use storage on the cartridge, they simple provided codes (or Castlevania's weird weapon grid) that loaded the game in a certain state. Since, they've become more complicated things with numerous implementations. They may or may not be encouraging negative compulsive behaviours (I tend toward yes on this one).

Unfortunately, the original purpose of save systems and the dynamics that emerge from the newer implementations have become confounded. Their original purpose ought to be broken out, leaving the rest of the save system to be addressed independently.

Simply, players should be able to stop playing a game at any point without fear of losing significant progress. To do anything else is to be disrespectful of your audience's time. It's absurd to require the player to wall off a section of their day to play your game. No other in-home media does this and there's no reason why games should get a pass. (As an aside, all cutscenes should also be pausable. Period.)

I like the Metroid series a lot, but I still haven't played Metroid Prime 3: Corruption yet almost exclusively because of its save system. Maybe MP3 isn't as extreme, but previous iterations required about a solid hour of play to make serious progress. Otherwise it would seem like a waste of time, with much of it spent trekking out and back to the save points.

If having that save anywhere/anytime is problematic to the game's design, providing a single "bookmark" save slot that is deleted after it's loaded is sufficient. Many DS games provide this functionality and as someone who has recently implemented a save system, it's not hard to do.

It doesn't even need to load the game exactly as it was saved, but something reasonably close ought to be ubiquitous. David discusses that save/load systems that force repetition of content as a punishment for failure are the reason why he'll save compulsively. And I could not agree more. If you're forcing players to repeat swaths of your game as a consequence for failure, something has gone off the rails.

Playing Little King's Story recently, I can't help but feel that their save system is unnecessarily punishing. You can only save in one place, there are times when you simply cannot save at all and if you fail in combat, you're immediately booted back to your last save. There was a point where I wanted to stop playing LKS but had to continue for about another twenty minutes or be forced to abandon content that could not be restored. And this was just after a boss fight! I can already tell that the LKS save system is going to force me into the compulsions Randy describes because the penalty for not saving is so extreme.

Japanese developers seem worse about this than NA/European studios, but this problem appears everywhere. We've all seen it. It's the save point just before massive, unskippable cutscenes that rolls immediately into a very difficult boss fight. It's the failure that forces you to perform the exact same series of actions again and again. These things don't make the game more challenging, they don't make it more interesting, they simply make the game more frustrating.

Having a save mechanism that's respectful of your player's time ought to come easily if you're empathizing with them. Provide a solution for the original problem the save system was meant to address. Beyond that, we can experiment more with save systems, looking for ways to move away from compulsive save/load behaviour. But unless players believe they can be confident progress won't be lost to punishing save systems, we're never going to move past save/load OCD.

Nels Anderson is a programmer at Hothead Games. He's probably the only game developer in Vancouver (and maybe all of Canada) that was born and raised in Wyoming. He writes about games and game design on his blog, Above 49. A version of this article appeared there.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Memorable moments through reading and gameplay sessions... a contrast (Part II)

In Part I, game designer Keyvan Acosta looks to his experiences with narrative in books to share insights on achieving a meta-gaming language. In Part II, he discuses how to implement play session takeaways that give users the tools to choose how they want to play the game.

Interactive Immersion is one of these game elements we've known to pay attention to when both designing games and measuring play involvement. While trying to maximize immersion, designers should be aware that life will interrupt at any time; hence the pause button's formality! Everyone has a built in “bladder control meter” that nags you and says, “get up and take care of IT before IT gets embarrassing!” However, when crafting a play session's length we don't need to concentrate on the length of time unless we seek to impart the player with a very specific, topical takeaway (dynamical meaning - Jon Blow) where the meaning is required - almost forced - to be understood within that fixed time frame. I mostly find that the summary of the play session, its narrative/story takeaway, mostly occurs between gameplay sessions (to be applied later), while in many art/indie games, the interactive takeaway is presented and employed during play, as if the understanding of it is message is desired to be exploited instantly. Maybe this is because many indie games, many of which are made for online platforms with varying access to drive space and a small length-of-play budgetary constraints, don't rely on saving mechanisms. This is probably a good thing and probably the main functional constraint that is allowing them to further game's meta-cognitive functions more that AAA productions have recently explored.

The following is some advice/suggestions for implementing a play session's takeaway without forcing a rigid play-time clock onto a player.
  • Don't just measure the time per play session, measure how the player performs simple tasks and modify the delivery of the most relevant portions accordingly. Player profiles should be used to assist this, taking into consideration more than just the difficulty setting they are usually used to. How long they've been playing? how many times they've started the game? etc.
  • How about instead of asking players “how difficult?”, ask “how much time do you have to play today?”... and balance for that! Not parental control like, where it just shuts off. Help them decide to take a break! Wii sports does this, but it should check first if you're in (willingly) for a marathon session...
  • Game consoles will eventually have “web 2.0” calendar clients, etc. (Steam client lets you know of clan appointments already) If games already scale and balance their play objectives for co-op, why not balance for a lifestyle? Rock Band has learned from this! At parties their inclusion of a No Fail mode in a way that doesn't make the hard core feel guilty has been a buzzkill saviour. Things like that: just. Make. Sense.
  • Game flow is crucial! Take a standard (unique to your game) time to introduce elements and match them with at least as many “chapters”, areas/levels, puzzles as things/verbs the player can perform... that lets them notice an interactive rhythm. If the game is meant to last 3 hours, why not change the atmosphere every hour to help with a perceivable rhythm?
  • Vary level transitions, timing, atmosphere, to help them understand that time has actually passed.
  • Attach meta-information when keeping an in-game completed objectives list and let players filter it for a character's verb/action meta-tag. For instance, every time you encounter a plot point, stamp the event's entry with tags such as “Hat”, “Ms. White”, “in the library”, “with the rope”, date/time, etc. Later, when the player is looking at their journal, if they select any clothing item, they'll be able to see what they've worn most frequently. Also add these tags to the Achievement you give them in order to increase its uniqueness.
  • Avoid grading them if you're just going to show them a report card and ignore them until next “GPA” report. Implement a game mechanic that is a based on that grade, not just unlock some other ending. It's simply a waste to gather information about somebody and never put it to use... especially for our creative, dynamic purposes.
  • NEVER PUNISH THEM FOR LEAVING A GAME SESSION. Never, EVER, prohibit the players' interactive ability, i.e. skipping non-interactive cut scenes.
About session time:
  • Let the game world mature with the player, like pulling weeds in Animal Crossing. Allow the game world to grow and change as the player spends time with the game
    • Don't just change the environment because they got to it, change it according to how long it took them to get there.
  • “However harsh the winter, people love going through the seasons”, use a real-time date/clock (NiGTHS' 12/25 Christmas day session).
  • •Manage the player's sense of time dilation. Help them modify interface narrative elements like speed of animations, transitions, cut scenes, dialogue, etc. to their liking.
Designers must learn to help the player realize what happened in (or SINCE) their last session; 360 Achievements being one solution. Fallout 3 uses the loading screen in this spirit, but we still have one more layer to go... sharing with the community of your friends how you've accomplished the feat (spectator mode, record a ghost, uploading to YouTube, meta-tags, etc), and making this a universal system across ALL platforms (like cross-referencing a reading session with friends). HALO3 recordings let others see a session from different camera views... Why not create a montage of what they've done in-game up to any point: like Dumbledore's Pensieve? Our Pensieve would need to be a platform/portal wide system (Steam, XBOX Live, Kongregate), where either all games support this, or none do. Let players record in-game play journals, like Valve Software has developer journals in their recent blockbusters.

Hard and extreme difficulty selections artificially inflate the length of a game session; and the quicksave-quickload cycle erodes play sessions by removing softening the impact of choice. If one of our strengths is dynamic construction, why not shift the session's difficulty through different game mechanics, where they'll help the player understand and manipulate "emergence" more directly by exposing the underlying meta-information more readily. Some games already do this (Goldeneye's multiplayer settings, Left 4 Dead's The Director) and help the player understand the game at a meta-layer, but most games let players modify these settings in multiplayer only, not single "parent” mode. “This is the only level!” by Armor games implements this expertly... if you know the play session will require repeat visits, then make the repetitions as meaningful and as uniquely playful as possible.

I believe that games will extend the Input Process Output cycle... breaking through the 6th wall: to show players we know what they're thinking; i.e. Input, Process, Output, Reaction, Acknowledgement. This is where bio-sensors are going to lead to; to a companion medium that truly reacts to and engages you with its awareness of your individuality. Much like how HAL behaved when playing chess with Dave ;-) Just imagine a game that knew how you felt, how to know you and how you're affected by the experience – like a mom reads to a child. It could then heighten or reduce the intensity of a play session; lengthen or shorten its duration, customized for how YOU feel or have indicated you want to feel. Once this exists, we could assist players with a way to interactively earmark any experience in our unique way; nuanced with individuality, meaning, and care. Regardless of the technology being available or not, we need to be designing with this in mind today, some people already are... and it's coming faster than you think.

Repetition creates familiarity with a creator's style... the message AND “voice” in the piece. Just like a good song AND musician becomes GREATER to the listener through more listens, so do games. So, sometimes less (shorter) is more (long lasting) because it lets you revisit it again ang again. A literary example of this “brevity as wit” is Hemingway's “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” <-that's the whole story! In Jason Rohrer's Passage you can explore the sense of loss and mortality in just 5 minutes... a record of sorts. The authorial voice is loud, which is not surprising since he did it all himself! Yet it takes Final Fantasy 7, more than 15 hours to “kill” Aeris and share with you a similar statement... the grinding being obviously negative; even to SquareEnix. I cannot truly suggest to extend these shorter visions through longer lengths of time, or to spread them across a predetermined minimum number of play sessions; they achieved what they set out to prove within those constraints and succeeded.

We can't pretend to build on our strengths without consensus and common goals; being like giving a foreigner only a dictionary of our local argot and hoping he can understand all our literature. We shouldn't just settle for spell checkers to accept “gameplay”, “multiplayer”, etc without red marks. Of course, the length of time a player will spend on any game will always depend on their enjoyment and understanding of current in-game events along with our ability to communicate these game structures to them. Let's give them tools to bolden and highlight a session and to know what to write on the margins. Let's manipulate that 6th wall and notice how players fluctuate between conscious and subconscious mental models of a game's challenges; i.e. what they explore in the possibility spaces of our creations, that which lies between what they remember has happened, what they're attempting, what they know they could do, what they suppose could happen, and what they want to accomplish; all the while competing against real life – a challenge we should only accept responsibly by teaching them to trust that you or your game is not cheating or toying with their time! Let's borrow “closure” as a main gameplay element and let's notice what we implement at all cognitive layers, so when they explore the game's context and discover a meta-component, we greet them there, with a grin, saying “aren't we clever, and aren't you some kind of genius!”. So don't punish them for leaving you, “if you love them, let them go” with closure! When they come back - and they will... help them reminisce about the good ol' times, as many times as they will need.

Keyvan Acosta lives in Orlando, FL where he is a game designer and musician. He also teaches a 2 month game project at Full Sail University and is also the founder/host of a most excellent game development workshop called, dedicated to "mining play" through the creation of experimental games, the evaluation of game development techniques, and the joy of working in a collaborative environment.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Memorable moments through reading and gameplay sessions... a contrast (Part I)

In Part I of this article, game designer Keyvan Acosta looks to his experiences with narrative in books to share insights on achieving a meta-gaming language.

Most books are very personal, intimate experiences; and in contrast to video games, very few are meant to be re-ead. The most important voice is that of the narrator, books having a more controlled authorial voice due to typically needing only one writer and only one editor to complete production. Still, from the reader's perspective, the message also relies on the his/her own interpretation of the “voice”: grammar, speech patterns, accents, font use, tone, pace, or the apparent rhythm used when reading the text. All these elements affect YOUR personal interpretation of the text, especially when it's read to YOU by SOMEONE else! When this occurs, the act of reading becomes a shared experience due to that other person's “voice”. For example, I like World War Z as a book, but I found it to be even more of a written achievement as an audio book, because the voice actors performed the accents from the countries the characters belonged to! I wouldn't have been able to “hear” them with much (if any) fidelity when imagining them. I did this with my darling Sarah with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, sans character acting; She was way better versed in that universe than I was. When I'd pause confused, she'd notice and fill in the gaps; when our voices grew tired, we'd stop for the day or take any necessary breaks. Aww, we're so cute... It was a fantastic experience! I think it was as “multiplayer”, and collaboratively assisted as books can get, taking us both about 5 days across multiple reading sessions. The length of this shared experience wasn't that much different than normal, since very few books are short enough for a single reading session. Even fewer are re-readable, and aside from where the reading comprehension and ability is developing or nonexistent (kids, foreign speakers, the blind), most reading is also single reader.

To assist with context and pacing, writers and editors know how to insert deliberate breaks in the form of chapter divisions, titles, abnormal punctuation, etc. These act like reading “landmarks”, little literary bread crumbs that help us find our way back to the main path as we journey through the many roads a book offers. I rely on these because – truthfully – I have never read intending to retain every, single, minute detail between sessions per se, but I both read and play through books and games to grok meaningful moments that move me. Now, save for earmarking, the following list has become my Meta-Reading tactics (the 6th wall)... unwritten “rules” I taught myself to better guarantee continuity though my reading sessions.
  • I never go to sleep in the middle of a paragraph or page of any book I'm reading. I try to read from the begining to the end of a chapter, always aware of the number of pages left to read before feeling ok to put the book down
  • I keep my index finger pinched between the last page of the chapter and the back cover, glancing at the page numbers just so the last page's appearance doesn't catch me by surprise.
  • * When there are no chapters to be found, I try to leave the earmark at the beginning of some dialogue/picture/eye catching text shape.
  • If I have to, I prefer to interrupt reading at a good cliffhanger; it makes me want to get back to the book as quickly as possible
  • When I highlight/underline, I mostly do so for new vocabulary or quotable phrases; adding notes along the margins, mostly to remember why I marked it and to seem smart to those I lend the book to...Screen-shots in games being somewhat analogue to this.
  • It has been a long time now since I was quizzed on a book (I kinda miss it); although, I share books and conversations about them with my friends so that I can cross-reference my interpretation.
  • I DREAD the last 20% of any book! I wonder if the writer will pull off what seems impossible: to tie all the loose ends left in the preceding 80% within the remaining few pages.
  • I hate backtracking in books more than in games, and I JUMP TO BOLD LETTERS!
  • I especially avoid any, ANY, spoilers (game or movie spoilers too)... my interpretation of events being more important than even that of the author; ALWAYS!
Some books have a “how to read this book” preface – books from a different era/language, etc., though most just don't need these "tutorials." Meta-reading develops while reading! It happens subconsciously helping me through multiple, separate, reading sessions; thus preventing my experience from ever feeling too disjointed or interrupted. It has also helped me connect things from different sources (when online going from link to link) and correlate them with the current text; seemingly chaotic to many). Through playing, I've developed a similarly strong meta-gaming language: things I do to make MY experience more emergent and flowing. After all, games also have a language to interpret: a voice/chorus, a narrative and rhythm like any other artistic field. Yet, this language doesn't seem to be of much use at the moment by the majority of game designers (writers) and game producers (editors); we haven't yet come to consensus about things as simple and crucial as the strengths of our medium! We can't therefore guarantee its consistency to ALL players through all sessions. Literature has defined and solved many of its problems as well as found many tools to assist its narrators; and thus its meta is easier to appreciate and manage. Just google “literary elements” and you'll notice a consistent discussion! Until we compile our own defining elements, we'll have to continue to borrow and steal them from other accepted mediums and realize that they may or may not match our specific needs. In other words, the "voice" we're utilizing now is hard to hear and mumbly.

Keyvan Acosta lives in Orlando, FL where he is a game designer and musician. He also teaches a 2 month game project at Full Sail University and is also the founder/host of a most excellent game development workshop called, dedicated to "mining play" through the creation of experimental games, the evaluation of game development techniques, and the joy of working in a collaborative environment.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Computer Play Sessions of Children Under 6

In this article, game designer Traci Lawson explains the unique challenges of designing computer game play sessions for preschoolers.

When you plan or design a game play session for a preschool-aged child, it’s essential that you step into their world for a moment. See the computer (or DS, Wii, iPhone, whatever applies in your case) through their eyes. For the sake of simplicity, let’s consider a computer game. When a preschooler gets ahold of the computer, it’s a big deal. In many families, children under the age of 6 do not have the freedom to use the computer whenever they want. To them, the computer is something the grown-ups and big kids use. Computer time is something special.

When a preschooler has a mouse in her hand, she wants to use it. She wants something to click on, and something to do. Like adults and older kids, preschoolers have little patience for listening to directions. When they’re in the mood to play, they want to play, not hear directions. The same goes for an opening story. If the child was in the mood to watch a video, she would have sat in front of the TV, or clicked on the video section of her favorite website. When a game has a lengthy animated intro, many preschoolers are impatiently waiting to get to the part when they get to do something. In many cases, they aren’t even really listening to the intro. The best preschool games are those that require no instructions or introductions and instead feature intuitive ways to play. If you do need instructions, it is possible to thread prompts throughout the game. Instead of saddling the player with a lengthy explanation at the beginning, it’s better to have a character give hints just-in-time. Consider that a preschooler’s idea of lengthy is probably shorter than your idea of lengthy. If your intro is longer than 4 or 5 sentences, or 10 seconds of speaking aloud, it’s pretty long.

Game play sessions for children under 6 tend to be pretty short, but this may be because preschoolers become bored with games published for their age group. They may sit at the computer for 20 or 30 minutes, but they often don’t spend more than five minutes with any one game. Preschool websites and CD-ROM titles usually offer several games, not one long experience like an older child’s game. To some preschoolers, clicking around and seeing what’s there is entertainment for them. That may be fine to them, but as game designers, we of course want children to be interested in the game we built for them.

To hold children’s attention and extend game play sessions, it is important to challenge them. Give them something to think about. In games, it’s usually best to dig beyond the basic ABCs and 123s. If they’re old enough to have the fine motor control necessary to use a mouse, and if they have resources that include access to a home or school that has a computer, then chances are good that they’ve already been taught the alphabet, and how to count to 10. Preschoolers may be more engaged by a game that involves working with different quantities, or an activity that develops early reading skills, like using printed words to select items. It may not be easy for a 3 or 4 year old, but it’s something they will hopefully aspire to, and try until they get it.

Just as preschoolers love to enjoy their favorite videos and books over and over again, if they like your game, they’re going to want to play it over and over again. Keeping this in mind, the ideal preschool game should provide its loyal fans familiar comforts in each play session, but at the same time avoid monotony and introduce new challenges to keep that child feeling smart and coming back for more.

Traci Lawson is an independent children’s game designer and researcher based in New York City. She maintains a blog on her Web site.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Saving Time

In this article, game designer Ryon Levitt describes the game designer's struggle between allowing constant saves while at the same time, designing a game challenging enough to keep the player's interest.

Saving the state of a game is the primary means of not losing progress. This can apply to any type of game whether it means not cleaning up a monopoly board in progress, writing down the positions of all the chess pieces on a board, keeping track of score, players, and position during a sporting event, or hitting SAVE on a video game. The main reason a game’s progress is saved is so that if an extended break is needed, players can continue where they left off without having to start over. But in video games in particular, Saving gains an additional uses; a saved state can be restored in the case of failure to allow the player to minimize the setback of defeat.

Unfortunately, saving has been a major point of contention in the video game industry. Under the Designer vs. Player methodology of Game Design, every time the player is given a chance to save before a challenge, the challenge is cheapened because the risk is “effectively removed”. Under the Entertainer methodology of Game Design, however, the job of the designer is to create an entertaining experience for the player, and having to replay the last hour over and over isn’t entertaining anymore.

These two methodologies bring forth a great argument, how often should the player be allowed to save? If the answer is never, then the player is required to beat the entire game in a single sitting. For some games, this may work; in fact, for the original Prince of Persia, it was a major gameplay mechanic – beat the game in an hour or you lose. If the answer is always, then the challenges need to be made more difficult so that even the player doesn’t get bored with trivial chance of success. Now this doesn’t mean that the challenges have to be all but impossible. For example, the original Kings Quest featured an pathway that was narrow, windy, and surrounded on both sides by sheer drops. The average player would deal with this by climbing a couple of steps and saving, then a couple more steps then save, etc. It wasn’t hard, per se, if done that way, but it wasn’t particularly fun with or without saving; it was just an exercise in patience. But, on the other hand, if the player can save at any time, then it’s not unfair to throw a big surprise at them. This works well in most simulation games where anything can go wrong at anytime, so the player can save whenever they are feeling paranoid.

Harder to balance, however, is the middle-ground. The frequency of saves defines how long the player must sit down at the game to play. It is very unlikely to find someone who knows a gamer that hasn’t at one point responded to a request with “Hold on, let me just reach the next save point!” or some variation on the theme. If saves are few and far between, then a player may have to spend many hours before they can stop playing, and if they can’t reach the save before they HAVE to stop, well then they just wasted a lot of time in trying. If the saves are too far from big challenges (possibly with numerous cut scenes en route), the time lost due to a failure can be enough to make a player not want to try again. Many older RPGs were very strict with saving rules, and many long running series show examples of this balance being updated for player ease.

But with the increase in portable gaming, the ability to take a break has become more important and, fortunately, easier to access. Both the Nintendo DS and Sony PSP have a sleep mode that saves battery consumption and keeps the game active in stasis so gameplay can stop at a moment’s notice. But there is still the threat that the battery can run out before gameplay is resumed; it is now less possible, but not impossible. SquareEnix has generally been very good about this in its portable remakes of its Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest games. All of these games now feature a “Quick Save” option (not to be confused with a PC’s one button “Quick Save” feature where saving can be done without using a menu. What makes these games’ Quick Save special is that it can be used anywhere (not just at a save point), the save is stored when the power is turned off (so if the player is worried about battery life, they can save safely), and the save data is deleted if used (or in some cases if willingly not used). By having this feature, the player can stop playing at any point without fear of lost data, but the designers can have the peace of mind that the players cannot abuse saving to bypass challenges.

Granted this doesn’t solve the issue of lost time after a failure (though the Dragon Quest games bypass the issue by making death not mean Game Over, but that seems more suitable to a different GDAM topic), though as stated above, player-friendly placement of save points can fix this – such as right before a boss fight or right after a long sequence of cut scenes. In this day and age, there is really no reason why a player shouldn’t be allowed to stop whenever they want without penalty. It’s up to the designers to make sure that the system is fair and fun for everyone who has a stake in the final product.

Ryon Levitt is a programmer-turned-designer for KOEI, currently working at their main branch in Yokohama, Japan. He is currently working on his first title as a designer. Ryon is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG, and helped coin the acronym GDAM.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Single-Play Sessions Podcast

In this podcast, alternate reality game designer Andrea Phillips, CEO Kimberly Unger, and Creative Director Ryan Wiancko discuss the topic of Single-Play Sessions.

To download the podcast: go here.

Games Referenced:
Portal, Lego Star Wars, Far Cry 2, Solitaire, Fallout 3, Ultima 4, City of Heroes, World of Warcraft, Madden, Quake, Advanced D&D, Quake, Halo 3, Starcraft, Wallace & Gromit, Zelda Twilight Princess, You Have to Burn the Rope

Quote From Podcast:
There will always be people who say, 'I plugged the disc in, I played the entire thing non-stop, no bathroom breaks, no nothing, for fourteen hours,' but there are a lot more people gaming than those people. I think from a game designer's perspective, your worry is that you've designed the game too hard... So, I have absolutely no problem allowing people to save and then take two steps forward... because I want them to get to the end.

Andrea Phillips is a freelance alternate reality game designer and writer, and has worked on projects like the award-winning Perplex City, True Blood’s Blood Copy campaign, and Channel 4’s She is the chairman of the IGDA ARG SIG. She writes about games and digital culture at Deus Ex Machinatio.

Kimberly Unger is currently CEO of Bushi-go, Inc. a mobile game company specializing in serialized game titles. Having started as a junior 3d artist and texture painter back in the mid 90's she has worked her way up (and occasionally diagonally) through the title of producer until finally starting her own company in 2008.

Ryan Wiancko is the creative director of SARF Studios, a start-up creating an environmentally conscious, educational virtual world for kids as well as the owner and voice of Whether it's creating the most edutaining experience possible for the next generation of gamers or bringing together the largest collection of articles from the brightest minds in the gaming industry, Ryan is thoroughly immersed in the world of game design 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Monday, August 17, 2009

A Case for Mods (Part II)

In Part I, Simon Ferrari, a graduate student in Digital Media at Georgia Tech, gives a short review of “OSGON,” or “one-session games of narration.” In Part II, he suggests that mods might be the way to convince publishers that advocacy games are commercially viable.

Putting aside the idea of an OSGON, I'd like to suggest another type of small-scale project that, if successful, would serve as a proof-of-concept for the public's willingness to engage seriously with an advocacy game: the mod. Mods have always enjoyed a curious existence on the fringes of mainstream gaming. One reason for this is that they are, to date, available only to PC gamers. The other is that they are only advertised on personal blogs and forums. Every once in awhile, a publisher will observe the quality and quiet success of a mod and decide to purchase the idea—the best example being Counter Strike. The makers of another mod, Killing Floor for Unreal Tournament 2004, found funding after the mod gained popular attention in gaming magazines; eventually the makers polished the mod into a standalone game and sold it on Steam this year.

Of course, you can see some problems here: the best examples of profitable mods are shooters, and as online games they demand the kind of replay addiction Reid avers. What hope does a political or educational game have in such a market? On the other hand, mods have been popular in the academic and artistic game design circles for quite a while. Mary Flanagan's [domestic] is another Unreal mod that takes players through the interior of one of her traumatic childhood memories. One day, while walking home from church, she saw smoke billowing from her home in the distance... she knew her father was inside. [domestic] allows players to move through an expressive 3D recreation of her burning home, the walls textured with prose and the ever-present FPS gun replaced by a fire extinguisher. Escape From Woomera (Source mod, I believe) was designed by an Australian art collective in order to expose the machinations of a government-run camp for illegal aliens. The press wasn't allowed inside the camp, so the game was pieced together from accounts by those who had been interred there. Finally, Medieval Unreality (Unreal mod) is an abstract trek through a nightmarish landscape designed collectively by some of the victims of the infamous Albanian blood fueds.

All of these games take less than an hour to play, and the replay value is fairly little. Also, they fall into the problem of being a bit too “serious” or “boring” for the average player (with the exception, perhaps, of Woomera). Another possibility would be to build the political mod into the existing structure of an open-ended game. Humana, the health insurance company, recently realized that it pays to keep their customers healthy rather than letting their health deteriorate to the point that supporting them becomes cost-prohibitive. Thus, they have begun inviting student interns to design health advocacy games for them. Many of these are ARG-types, but one is a mod for (you guessed it) The Sims that helps elderly men and women understand the importance of basic monitoring and medication. The mod also makes it easy for the player to understand the purposes and uses of any medical devices the insurance company or doctors may have suggested for them. Again—this is an admittedly boring example, not exactly what you'd show a publisher to pitch a larger game. But who's to say that somebody like Reid couldn't make a similar mod that simulated the lifestyle choices he had to make on learning that he had Crohn's disease? Such a mod could be used, at the very least, to prototype mechanics that would prove that it would be intriguing to have a AAA protagonist with a disability, disorder, handicap, or disease (this was, I believe, attempted in Condemned 2 with alcoholism).

One of the reasons I only have boring examples to show you is that, for the most part, these mods weren't made by working game designers. Although the lives of most designers are already strained by hours on the job, more and more professionals are leaving the big companies to start their own or work independently. In the coming years, I think we'll see more short-length mods with mainstream appeal and “serious” aspirations coming down the pipe. People are already willing to pay between $1-$8 dollars for an iPhone game... so I think the acceptance of micro-sized, niche-interest games can only be considered to be on the rise. Thanks for reading, and if I've gotten any specifics of the life of working designers and publishers incorrect here I hope you'll take the opportunity to educate me instead of flaming: I'm only a wide-eyed, naïve student filled with hope for the future, after all.

Simon Ferrari is a graduate student in Digital Media at Georgia Tech. He works closely with Ian Bogost on the Knight Foundation's News Games project. His primary research interests are political games and MMOGs.

Friday, August 14, 2009

A Case for Mods (Part I)

In Part I of this article, Simon Ferrari, a graduate student in Digital Media at Georgia Tech, gives a short review of “OSGON,” or “one-session games of narration.”

Reading Reid's article, I found myself agreeing with everything he was saying (except perhaps the knock on physicians for their love of pharmaceuticals, which I'm sure he and I can debate heatedly some other place, some other time). That said, I found it sorely lacking in one practical consideration: convincing a publisher that it would be worth their money investing in an advocacy game. Although The Sims shows that a boring game can move units, but Maxis takes a decidedly apolitical stance incongruous with the idea of making a game strictly for advocacy. I'm a fledgling academic and designer, so I don't have the industry experience to speak here with certainty; however, even in academic game design high merit is placed on the idea of the proof-of-concept. I imagine this works quite the same when pitching a game commercially—a working prototype does persuasive wonders that even a thorough design document could only dream of. I'd like to suggest a form of one-session game that would do wonders toward convincing people that advocacy games are commercially viable (at least on a small scale).

One relatively early text in the theory of political games is “Ephemeral Games” by Gonzalo Frasca, who later went on to design the first newsgames September 12th and Madrid. In the article, Frasca asks a question that has been circulating in game design blogs (especially Clint Hocking's and Manveer Heir's) recently: how does it effect the impact of a game's ethical decisions if we allow the player to take them back by loading a save? His answer was the “OSGON,” or “one-session game of narration.” The idea was to make it clear to the player that they would only be allowed to play the game once, after which their copy of it would lock them out. This, he thought, would ensure that players made decisions carefully and would forever reflect on the consequences.

Interestingly, in the past few weeks two such games were created. One by Terry Cavanagh, called Airplane Adventures, asks the player not to release their mouse. When they eventually do, their plane crashes; on reloading, players receive not another chance to play the game but a message, “YOU HAVE CRASHED.” Another game by raitendo, You Only Live Once, tells the story of a Mario-type who goes on a quest to free his girlfriend from a Bowser-type; when the player dies and tries to hit continue, they are treated to a series of humorous cartoons depicting the aftermath of their avatar's death. Neither of these games can be played again without clearing out your Flash caches. Raitendo explored the same idea with Free Will, which endlessly cycles the player's failed attempt at the game after they die (though this can be reloaded). Note that neither of these games feature ethical decisions, cues that the game cannot be replayed, or could be considered models for profitable advocacy games. To my knowledge, a politically-minded OSGON has never been created. Frasca himself opted for games that almost demand replaying.

Simon Ferrari is a graduate student in Digital Media at Georgia Tech. He works closely with Ian Bogost on the Knight Foundation's News Games project. His primary research interests are political games and MMOGs.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

September 2009: Gaming the Game Developers

September 2009's topic, Gaming the Game Developers, was submitted by game designer Grétar Hannesson.

Grétar writes:

As game designers we have a collection of tools with which we direct the behavior and emotion of the player. While many of these are still rough we are already capable of keeping players in a "flow" state or a peek efficiency mental state for hours on end, we are able to motivate people to put hundreds of hours into repetitive tasks and feel good about it afterward and if there is anything we are good at it is giving the player a sense of pride and achievement in their own accomplishments.

And yet in many game development studios the game developers themselves fail to be given the same sense of motivation, have the opportunity for the same state of flow and get the same sense of achievement after a job well done. We routinely fail to inspire in each other what we so easily inspire in our players and we routinely fail to communicate within our own groups in a clear and positive manner.

  • But can we use our game design tools to motivate ourselves and our coworkers and improve our internal communication?
  • What happens if we approach everyone in our development team as a player in a massively co-operative game?
  • How does using this line of thinking change how we think about communication, management and motivation?
  • Which of these tools can even non-managers use to affect a positive change in the office?

Grétar Hannesson is a game system designer and an enthusiastic student of human behavior and choice architecture. He cut his teeth on EVE-Online where he served many roles before that of a designer and is now working on an unannounced title for Ubisoft Montréal. He (sporadically) writes about game design and related workplace matters on his blog.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Breaking the Vicious Cycle

In this article, game designer Reid Kimball posits that instead of striving for replayability, game designers can strive to create inspirational games that need only be played once.

I’m pissed. My problem doesn’t completely lie with players of videogames. They are free do as they please. Though, when one only cares about playing games to obsessive levels, I do get disappointed and want to kick them into realizing they are capable of so much more than following a list of orders and pushing the right buttons.

No, my problem is mainly with the fact that by and large the videogames industry prides itself on making the most addictive games possible. It’s become a selling point to claim just how addictive the game is. Or to a lesser degree, a developer will claim that someone can put in many hours because of its replayability just for the sake of replay rather than to learn something new.

I can’t think of any other media; theater, painting, music, film, novels or other, where the industry works extremely hard to create addictive works and then further encourages that practice by trying to create monetization schemes that benefit the most from addicted players.

I don’t like it. Not at all. I have a very different philosophical approach to game design. I want to create games that people only need to play once. They are certainly free to play more than that, but it’s not necessary because they get a satisfying experience the first time through.

As a social progressive game designer, I see so many people who are unknowingly victims, locked inside a vicious cycle, unable to escape because they don’t know any better. Games have the power to help free people from being victims in their daily lives. Whether it’s being a victim of prejudice, bullying, sexual harassment, social status, economic systems, disability, disease, or even their own mind, many people are trapped in a vicious cycle of victimization and can’t find ways to break away.

A game can do that though. It’s an idea that has yet to gain mainstream acceptance. Critics of the idea, without being able to see my vision with their own eyes, may call this a boring serious game, or a not so fun self-help game. It’s more than that. It’s an inspirational experience that one can relate to and gain valuable wisdom and knowledge to apply to their own lives. It’s the Erin Brockovich of videogames.

Erin Brockovich is a woman who fought against PG&E in court for polluting the drinking water of Hinkley, CA. The citizens had an abnormally high rate of cancer and sickness. Through her hard work and determination, she taught herself law to take on the powerful utility company, PG&E. The sick citizens whom she fought for were compensated $333 million after winning the suit. While money will never help them regain the health and lives lost, what she did was prove that one person can make a difference for a community by fighting for their ideals and justice.

Erin Brockovich’s story inspired millions and became a very successful film, nominated for several academy awards. Her story is one that can inspire someone to act in similar ways to fight against an injustice. It’s a story, no scratch that, it’s an experience that can be replicated in a game and give people not only the motivation but the real life tools and skills to apply in their daily lives.

In the United States, I look around and I see people who are victims of 24 hour news channels that lack news, victims of a food industry that lacks sustenance and victims of a health care industry that does not care.

It’s all shit and it’s all wrong. Everyone knows it, but few act. If only they knew their power. The games industry thrives on power fantasies, but not the kinds that can change a person’s life. Instead, it creates addictive escapist fantasies and many developers pride themselves in that. They pat each other on the back and tell one another they earned their pay by making people happy, by putting smiles on their faces. By helping them escape all shit that’s killing them.

No, they’re not doing that. Not at all. They’re only delaying the routine of victimization, if only for a few hours. But when players turn off the game and get back to their daily lives, the problems are still there. The media still controls what they think. The food still clogs their arteries and the drugs still create more problems than they solve, forcing them to take more drugs. The vicious cycle continues.

They don’t have to be victims though. My own battle with Crohn’s disease is proof of that. I was once a victim, of my own vanity. Of my own low self-esteem. My acne. I took all kinds of acne medications, one after another. From low grade to the motha-fuckin’ A-Bomb itself, Accutane. It destroyed my immune system. Years later, I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel disease. Symptoms for people with Crohn’s can range from blood in the stool, fistulas, bowel obstructions and uncontrollable diarrhea.

It’s a shitty way to live… I can joke about it because my Crohn’s is now in remission. I learned how to break free from the vicious cycle by not listening to my pharmaceutical brainwashed doctors. Instead, I listened to my gut and changed my lifestyle and diet. It took a lot of hard work and dedication, but my story proves the benefits one can wield by refusing to be a victim.

I don’t think of Crohn’s as a curse. It’s a gift. I now eat healthier than ever before and love to cook. I don’t take life for granted. My experience proves people don’t have to be victims, not of their relationships, society, technology, corporations, government or of themselves.

However, people aren’t going to get there without a little help. A game can be the hammer that smashes the chains and breaks them free. But the kinds of games the industry strives to make aren’t going to help anyone get there any sooner. To help people realize their full potential and help improve the world, we can start by breaking the vicious cycle on addictive multi-play games. In this complex and increasingly dishonest world we live in, it’s time the videogame industry stepped up to the responsibility it has when wielding such a powerful yet largely untapped medium.

[This article originally appeared on Reid Bryant Kimball's personal blog, Reiding...]

Reid Bryant Kimball is a versatile level and game designer who has worked for Ritual Entertainment, LucasArts and now is currently with Buzz Monkey Software. He's also a game accessibility advocate and closed captioning for videogames expert, having designed the Doom3 closed captioning mod.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

September 2009 Poll

Please come and vote for the September 2009 topic!

You'll see the poll to the side. The choices are:
  • Gaming the Game Developers (Using Game Design Principles to Motivate/Inspire Co-Workers)
  • Pitching/Creating a High Concept
  • Mechanics That Artificially Lengthen Gameplay
Please vote by August 11, 2009!