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Archive for the ‘Academic’ Category

Last week I lamented the passing of a great iPhone company. No, they didn’t go under, in fact, they are probably rolling in money as I write this, but as much as I want to congratulate ngmoco I just can’t bring myself to. I don’t want to get back into this rant, but its become fairly obvious to me that they are a company that has become more interested in profits than in creating the quality, fun products they use to.

In this same vein, Ian Bogost, has been creating turbulence within the game industry by being rather outspoken on the topic of social games and why he is disturbed by them. Trying to wrap his head around these traits, Bogost has created a satirical Facebook game entitled Cow Clicker which boils down the  social game to its core components, clicking on something every few hours to gain resources. The genesis of the game and more information on what Bogost is learning can be found on his blog.

Of the four ways Bogost cites as the reasons he despises social games the two I agree with the most are his enframing and optimalism arguments. Both of these arguments focus on how these socials games treat their players and the “play” they are participating in. I have often wondered how well a game like FarmVille would do without the social backbone of Facebook to hold it up. Even iPhone copycats like WeRule/Farm use a social network component to “virally” spread about their respective markets. Play is nothing more than clicking on a timer with the goal of the designer to keep the player in the game space for as long as possible. This often results in the starting crop netting the best returns offering no strategy other than trying to guess how long will sleep so they can set their crops accordingly.

This is why I like Echo Bazaar, a a narrative heavy, web-based game by Failbetter Games that utilizes Twitter as it’s social network. The writing alone makes the game worth playing, but amidst all the narrative twists and turns there is actually game play! There are items to collect, stats to raise and numerous ways to get your friends involved instead of just using them as a resource boost.

I’ve heard rumor that companies are starting to try and make social  games like Echo Bazaar; a product with more game in it, but I want to see it before I’ll believe it.

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I’m happy to announce that after being released a month, the iPad game my company 5 Minute Games produced has sold 200+ copies world wide! This is a small number compared to some of the big boys, but for us its a small victory and a (hopeful) indicator of more to come. This news comes just a week after I discovered that a website was illegally distributing Famished Farm Animal Frenzy (itunes link) for free. My company contacted the site (which had distributed the game 70+ times) and they kindly took the game down.

The illegal copying of electronic games has been a problem long before the Internet got started, but the ability for people to exchange information at such a rapid and easy rate has only exacerbated the situation. Please note, I did not say steal or pirate because I think the act of “pirating” electronic products has been portrayed in a negative light by the software and entertainment industries to try and prevent society from engaging in these acts. This is could really be another post all its own, so I’ll be short and say that I personally believe while illegally copying games is bad companies are going about it wrong by creating elaborate DRM systems or trying to find ways to fight against those who want to copy their software instead of using them to their advantage.

Case in point, the site that facilitated the illegal copying of Famished Farm Animal Frenzy had a running counter which indicated that our game had been downloaded roughly one third of our sales. Had our sales been ten times what they are 70+ downloads would have been a drop in the bucket and we might have turned a blind eye, like most big companies do, or possibly not even found the site hidden amongst the glowing reviews of how awesome our game is (really, you should play it). The reality is, however, illegal downloading of games hurts small indie companies like us the most. Copying a game like Famished Farm Animal Frenzy, unlike stealing, does not deprive everyone else from every obtaining their own copy of the game, but it does prevent me and my company from seeing some money from the lose of a potential sale.

Now in all fairness, not everyone who copies games has the intent of screwing developers out of money. In fact, Cliff Harris received a lot of attention, including mine, when he posted on his blog about a certain incident where he asked those who were copying his game why they were doing so. The answers surprised him and much of the game development community. You can read the post for yourself, but the gist of it is that many gamers HATED Digital Right Management (DRM) or were becoming disillusioned with the quality of games coming out at the time (and many still are).

Another reason people pirate games is because they are easier to obtain that way. The iPhone and iPad in particular are having this problem because there are plenty of people who own them in countries who either don’t have their own apps store (a complaint I will save for yet another post) or they want access to the apps available to the American market which they can’t otherwise get. China was a big sink hole for developers for nearly a year before the okay was given to allow sales of iPhones in China back in 2009 because anyone in China who had an iPhone was using it illegally to begin with.

It’s fairly safe to say that we can’t stop people from illegally downloading our games. No matter how much we try locking the system down, someone will find a way around it and put all the effort to waste (jail breaking iPhones being a case in point). In my mind, the logical thing to do is to figure out a way to make those who “pirate” your game into a benefit rather than a problem.  It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while and I honestly have no idea how to do it. the video game industry is so focused on creating and selling a product that it will take a major shift in philosophy to make pirates work in the developer’s favor. Some of the companies that are moving towards making their games into more of a service might be shedding some light on a solution, but I find that most of their games are not as entertaining as the traditional games. More to the point, not everyone has the resources or the ability to create them.

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In 1954, a science fiction story by Tom Godwin entitled “The Cold Equations” appeared in an issue of Astounding Magazine. In the story, space travel is now possible but at a great expense. Humanity has begun to explore the stars, but things are calculated and precise. No space or fuel is wasted leaving little to no room for error.

The entirety of the story takes place within the confines of a rescue ship bound for a planetary expedition in need of medicine. The pilot, referred to only as Branton,  discovers a stowaway, Marilyn an an 18 year old girl, who hitched a ride to try and see her brother who is a scientist on the planet the ship is traveling to. The laws of space state “Any stowaway discovered in an EDS shall be jettisoned immediately following discovery” because the ship only carries enough fuel to make the trip with the weight it is scheduled to carry, but Branton is conflicted about carrying out the sentence because Marilyn is not the type of person the laws was designed for.

The rest of the story is spent trying to figure out a way to save the girl, who Branton feels remorseful for because she is the victim of law. Calls are made, ideas presented and discussed, but ultimately Marilyn is jettisoned from the ship.

The ending of “The Cold Equations” created waves in the world of 1954 science fiction. Never before had readers experienced a story where science and human ingenuity didn’t prevail. This wasn’t like the normal pulp they were use to reading and it marked a step away from the childish roots which science fiction was associated with.

In 2007, video games experienced their own version of “The Cold Equations” when Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (Modern Warfare) was released by Activision. In an industry of power play fantasy and infinite retries its quite unusual for a character (especially a main character to truly die). Modern Warfare did just that when players took control of Sergeant Paul Jackson as he crawls out of the wreckage of a downed helicopter caught in a nuclear explosion. Where previously the player had been running and gunning through the streets of a Middle Eastern city with the ability to take multiple bullet wounds (which healed overtime) before dying, they are now forced to crawl along the ground on their stomach through flaming wreckage.

There is plenty of space to crawl through, but the player never gets to experience or explore it because after about a minute or so Jackson dies. The common reaction of most players was to reset and try again. Surely they had done something wrong; they aren’t suppose to die. No matter what they tried though, Jackson died and there was nothing they could do about it.

The nuke scene in Modern Warfare is one of many steps in the right direction if we want to create games that are more than entertainment. Creating experiences like these through interaction is an important part of legitimizing the medium of video games. We are still a ways to go, but we’ve taken a step in the right direction.

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Ian Schreiber’s online course on game balancing started yesterday, July 5th. It is a 10 week special topics course focusing on a class he covered in one week (yikes!) during a similar online game design class he taught last summer. The course is 100% free with the option to pay $55 to get extra material and attention from Schreiber himself.

The course looks interesting from the intro video posted and I’m intrigued to see how it turns out. I haven’t had the time to go back through the blog from the old class, but judging from his work with Brenda Brathwaite on the book Challenges for Game Designers it should prove to be a top notch course and something any game designer should look into.

I am a huge fan of outside learning so courses like this really excite me. You can’t argue with the price either and if I wasn’t so broke myself I might drop the 55 bucks to get in on this.

Does anyone know if there are any other courses like this out there on game design or game creation in general?

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The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living by Damien Hirst

Artist intent is a touchy issue. Whether something is being interpreted as an artist intends seems to be a conversation more suited for an art gallery than a blog about video games, but I think that it is an important issue to bring up (especially if video games will be considered art one day). I also promise I’ll make this relevant to more than just art.

When it comes to artist intention there are two  forces: the artist (and his/her intent) and the audience (and their interpretation). Some people try to place precedence on one over the other, but really they are equally valid ways of viewing a work.

Personally, I think that if an artist cannot convey their intent to a majority of the audience they have failed in some regards while making their art.

That’s a pretty bold statement to be making, I’ll even admit to that. I feel safe in making that statement, however, because I feel that art can reach a point where its meaning becomes unaccessible to the common public. Modern and Contemporary art certainly hit that point. I remember as a child looking at a Jackson Pollock and thinking, “this is art?” because I did not have any knowledge of art history.

Piss Christ by Andres Serrano

It’s no surprise that someone without prior knowledge cannot get something like Piss Christ or conceptual work from artist’s like Damien Hirst. Art tends to get a bit incestuous after Marcel Duchamp called a urinal art because artists start making art in response to other artists who in turn make art in response to the response. Entire art movements rise and fall and rise again while the public goes to museums and looks at landscapes by impressionists.

So where does that leave games? Well, consider this: game designers are artists and players are an audience. This means that designer intent (and player experience) play a role in video games too. I like to view these two possible interpretations as states of a game. In a previous post I talked about a native state that games naturally posses. This is the game as the designer intends it and presents it to the public, the Native State. Rarely, a player will experience the entire game in its Native State, which leads to the second state of a game, the Player State. This is the state where the player begins to make their own interpretations based on events they encounter within the play experience.

When trying to find a definition of games, I use the Native State of an activity to define whether or not something is a game because it is less subjective than the Player State. Humans also have an amazing habit of placing their own rules on a system thereby creating a game where there previously wasn’t one or changing the one they are playing entirely. An examples of this include speed runs through video games or attempting to play through a game by placing constraints not normally within the system (beating a Zelda game without getting more than three hearts). I wanted to avoid creating a definition that would allow anything to be considered a game simply because someone could impose rules upon a system creating a game out something not otherwise considered a game.

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Cracked has an article about ways games are trying to get you addicted that I find to be an interesting read. It’s scary to think about how video games can condition their players to spend hours (sometimes days) pursuing seemingly meaningless goals. Many video games, especially MMO’s are built around the concept of hooking you in and keeping you there, that’s how they make their money after all.

What if we could use that hook for something good? What if we could use these virtual Skinner Boxes to teach? How crazy would it be if World of Warcraft taught you something like calculus or American History and they still had nearly 3.8 million subscribers in the US alone?

Now, I’m not saying video games are bad. I’m not even saying games that use the ideas and concepts behind BF Skinner’s research are wrong (though some people might think otherwise). In fact, I’m fairly certain anyone reading this probably thinks the same as I do, that video games are great, but there are plenty of people who don’t. Many of those people are also going to have a hard time believing video games can be art as long as they don’t think they are great. So, one of the first steps to achieving validation is to get more people on board with the idea that video games aren’t evil.

Anime hair does not make your game more engaging Knowledge Adventure.

Educational games are nothing new to the world of video games. The biggest problem with educational games, however, is that they suck. Most of them have the repetition aspect dead on, but they fail to be engaging for more than a few minutes at a time. These games (and maybe education systems in general) need to take a few pointers from games like World of Warcraft that can keep players engaged for several days at a time.

I can only imagine the headlines if there was an educational game that engaged someone to the point World of Warcraft is able to.

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I’ve already touched on my belief that games require meaningful interaction in a previous post. This leads me to the next component of games, the rules. Games require rules that advance the game towards an end state (winning or losing on the part of the player). Without the rules to structure the play experience the player is interacting with nothing more than a toy. The progress towards the end state is important, because it gives players something to strive for; a challenge that provides the impetus for interaction.

Chess Boxing takes things to the next level. Seriously, look it up.

The game of chess, for example, has two end states. The first is winning by capturing the opponent’s king which prompts the player to move their pieces in such a way that they will do so. The other end state is the capture of your own king which prompts the player to move their pieces to prohibit their opponent from doing so. Along with these two end states are rules on how pieces can move about the board, how to determine whose turn it is, and other special events that can occur.

Chess plainly demonstrates the primary difference between games and toys. Games encourage interaction via their rules and end states, while toys encourage interaction through curiosity.

So, what does this mean for video games? Well, it means that some of the things we think of as games are actually nothing more than fancy electronic toys. “Oh God! Which ones?” you ask. I still need to think about that, but to be sure there will be a list coming soon that you can get angry at me for.

Please Note:

When I speak of games and their rules and end states it is important to note that I am referring to the rules and end states native to the game. People, can easily turn things that are not games into games by placing their own rules and win states upon the system (sometimes even on top of those already in place). I will go into this in more detail in a later post.

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