• Advertisement
Sign in to follow this  
  • entries
  • comments
  • views

About this blog

Wherein I am impressed by my own wit

Entries in this blog


This is a pretty cool animation of Dan Pink's talk on motivation at the RSA. (I didn't make it, just linking it here). I think he also did a similar talk at TED; and if you haven't read Drive yet, you should.


A connection I think worth making here is that, in terms of game design, a lot of being a game designer is being a professional motivator. You want to motivate players to engage in some sort of activity (presumably a fun one -- but; I'd argue it doesn't have to be fun). If you're good they'll continue to do that task for a long period of time, and if not, they'll quickly move on to something else. I know that's a leaky abstraction, but it's a potentially useful way to think about it.

Now, the most interesting point of that video comes about two minutes in when he's talking about how rewards affect motivation, and the surprising conclusion that science has come to, which is: adding rewards to tasks only increases performance for activities that are cognitively rudimentary. Once tasks require more than basic cognition skills, rewards actually hurt performance.

So, if I were to give you a dollar every time you pressed a button, you would press that button a lot more, but if I were to give you a dollar every time you solved a puzzle, it's likely that would actually solve fewer puzzles, even though you'd want to solve more for because it would net you more money; and increasing the reward seems to magnify that effect.

When you think about casual and social games, which tend to lean very heavily on reward systems to motivate players, it becomes obvious why they tend to be so stupidly simple. It has to be something anyone can do without thinking, or else it will become frustrating.

Now, what I'm curious about (and I don't have an actual answer for this), is this: while we know that changing how we motivate players affects performance, it's unclear to me how it affects engagement.

I mean, Farmville/Cityville/Whateverville games are not an intrinsically interesting activities on their own merits, I'd say. Those games rely heavily on intermittent reward schedules and social obligations. Yet they're pretty engaging to the people who play them. On the other hand, games like Dwarf Fortress and Minecraft don't rely on extrinsic motivation at all (if anything they tend to arbitrarily punish players), yet they're also quite engaging to the people that play them.

So it seems to me that both intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation can be effective, but it's not clear to me if mixing the two motivation types can amplify the amount of engagement they provide, or if they're fundamentally incompatible. I'm guessing it could potentially amplify, but I couldn't say for sure. As a thought experiment, say you put a leader board into Minecraft for who mined the most gold. Would that detract from players enjoying the game as a creative sandbox? Would players then not view the game as a sandbox, and instead focus solely on the most efficient way to dig for/find gold? Would that be less fun? I suspect the answer might be yes to all of those, but it's something to think about.
One way I like to come up with new ideas is by adding arbitrary constraints to an existing well known design and seeing what the consequences would be. For example, what would an FPS look like if you weren't allowed to have weapons? If you go down that line of thinking it raises a lot of obvious questions, like:

* In what setting would being helpless make sense? (Horror?)
* What are the player's tools for survival if they don't have guns? (Stealth, objects in the environment?)

If you keep going down that line of thinking you might end up with something like Amnesia, which is, you know, awesome. It's not the only way to get there of course, but it's a nice hammer to have in your toolbox.

MMO's are really interesting to do this with, because a lot of the conventions that exist in the genre came about more as a reaction to managing griefers and social issues, not because they added a lot of fun to the game (ie, "safe zones", opt-in PVP, etc). Ralph Koster's postmortem on UO gives a lot of insight into how a lot of the genre conventions came into being.

At the core of the issue is how do you provide players with more agency (ie, the ability to have meaningful choices that affect the world), without the entire thing falling into chaos?

Well, here are some ideas. I'm going to start lopping off aspects of MMO design I don't like and see where it goes. I don't know this will result in anything that works (probably not), but hey, being an armchair game designer is free.

The most common way of addressing griefing is just to make certain behaviors impossible. If there's an issue with level 60's going around crushing level 1's, we put the level ones in a magical safe zone where the 60's can't use their weapons. We're not going to do that, because it ruins the coherency of the game world, and a coherent game world is what I want. I'm defining "incoherent" as "has rules imposed on the world that don't mesh with the fictional reality". Or something like that. If we need to police something, it can't be from meta-rules like "when you walk into towns your weapons just stop working".

How do we discourage griefing? Maybe that's the wrong question. Maybe a better question is: how do we turn griefing into part of the fun? How do we let some players play the villain, without it getting out of control?

First off, we get rid of levels. There shouldn't be a level sixty and a level one; we can't let player's be exponentially more powerful than each other. It's too divisive, and it creates too much of a hierarchy. MMO's have levels because it's a very easy way to create a compulsion loop, but they aren't the only way.

We still need some other mechanism to give the game our addictive secret sauce; but that's ok. You don't see any levels in Sim City, do you? The compulsion loop there is in the building of things, and the acquisition of stuff you need to build more things. The key is that you need to give players some way of advancing that doesn't turn them into invincible battle tanks. I can think of a few ways -- let them build things (buildings, forts, items, towns), let them build connections (ie, use friend counts as a scoring system -- hey it worked for facebook when they started), let them acquire stuff/resources (people always want more stuff).

Another interesting aspect of allowing players to build things, and making it a core part of the gameplay, is that you also solve the content problem. That problem being that you have to continuously be creating content (quests, items, etc) or players will grow bored and leave. Content sucks. It's expensive to make, and players can only experience it once before it becomes stale. Modern MMO's are about the consumption of content, but it strikes me that it would be more economical to make them about the creation of content. We've seen that building things can be a very powerful compulsion loop, and it automatically creates quests when you throw in limited resources and resources that interact in interesting ways.

We still need to address griefing though. I think that griefing often occurs because players feel disengaged from the world. I doubt most players are sociopaths -- rather, the combination of anonymity and boredom turns people into jerks.

So what if you take away anonymity? What if you had to play with your real name from your credit card? I'm not saying that's necessarily a good idea, but, I suspect people would be a lot more civil towards each other.

Another possible solution is to reconsider what the "massive" in MMO means. What if the world size consisted of 150 people instead of 3000? And what if the world itself was a very dangerous place -- you need the help of others to survive long term, because you're weak. Since we've taken out leveling, your connections with others, and the things you build, become very important if you don't want to die regularly. If you were a griefer you would become very quickly known and outcast, and your gameplay experience would consist of lurking around in the woods trying not to get mauled by grizzly bears. Sounds about right to me.

I think, all the same, you want griefers. It should be viewed as a valid play style, but it should also be a very difficult play style. If you're having people building worlds, you want people who occasionally come through and wreck 'em, otherwise things get stagnant. Creative destruction. Griefers provide a real service in that context. You just need to keep them down enough that the creation part can happen before the destruction part does.

So that's how I would fix the MMO. I'd remove leveling, premade content, let griefers run free, and remove the massive part. So basically, not really a MMO anymore. HA! Not sure if it'd work, but I'd like to play it.
I'm sitting in a coffee shop and there's this guy sitting behind me having a very heated discussion with an older woman about whether reality is subjective, and if there are temporary realities, and the word "dichotomy" keeps getting thrown around a lot though I'm not sure if either of them knows what it means. (Also, can you ever talk about a "dichotomy" and not have the next few words that come out of your mouth not be utter bullshit?)

This has nothing to do with anything, other than that I can say literally anything right now and rest knowing that it wasn't the stupidest thing I've heard all day. So with that new-found freedom, why not write a blog post?!

Here are some half baked game ideas. Consider them souffles that haven't quite risen, and perhaps never will. I'm posting these because I figure nobody will steal them, because, I mean, everyone has their own half-baked ideas they already want to do. If you do steal them I will be mildly disappointed but I will probably understand.

The first game:


Elevator Pitch:

The unhappy marriage of Dwarf Fortress, The Sims, and Facebook.

For those unaware, dwarf fortress is a very intricate and complex game where you build a giant fortress into a mountain for your dwarfs to live in. And then you have to defend it against the world. It's pretty cool. It also inspires rather epic stories. The part where it inspires stories is the most interesting aspect to me. It has the same quality as The Sims in this respect, ie, "I did such and such to my Sims, isn't that fucked up?!"

Now, most of the stories that come from The Sims generally involve intentionally doing terrible things them -- or, alternatively watching horrible misfortunes unfold. Dwarf Fortress has some of the same qualities, but unlike The Sims, the game is actively trying to kill you, resulting in a lot more terrible situations for your imaginary pets.

Another aspect of The Sims that could be fun was importing people you know into the game, and then watching what they'd do, and then telling said people about the awful things their virtual avatars did. (I'm not the only person that did this, right? ... right?)

So here's the game idea:

Imagine Dwarf Fortress on Facebook, with cuter graphics, except the dwarfs that immigrate into your camp are your facebook friends. And they get notifications when terrible things happen to them under your mismanagement.

This is the viral hook -- people want to know why they're getting notifications like "You were trampled by an elephant in Joe's Dwarfhaus", so they go to check out the game. And then they decide to play. For some reason. This somehow leads to PROFIT. For me.

Key features:

* Build fortresses next to friends for added benefits. Of course if a neighboring fort falters, this makes things more dangerous, so there's a social obligation to essentially not fuck up or you might screw over your friends. Or maybe you intentionally screw over your friends because you're "that guy". I hate you.
* Social leaderboard of long-surviving fortresses.
* Pay money to revive dead dwarfs, or for emergency defenses.

Open questions:

* How much can you simplify dwarf fortress without losing the core of what makes it neat?
* Stories are an important aspect of Dwarf Fortress -- how do you emphasize this?
* Does the notification system still let you do this? I'm not sure if it does or not...
* Will people hurt me for making another goddamn spammy facebok app?


This is basically the same idea as Dwarfhaus, but replace all the played out fantasy stuff with XBoxes and Madden and Bro-Ho's. I'm trying to think of a good title for this.

Also I still think you make the universe constantly trying to kill your bros, much like it's trying to kill your dwarfs. So the elephants stay.

Open questions:

* Are your friends offended when you import them into your bro house?
* Will Bro's realize they're being made fun of? Will this positively or negatively affect their desire to play the game?
* Will women be offended by being Bro-Ho's? Or can women be full on Bro's?
* How much is the bromance emphasized? Does this become uncomfortable when it's your actual friends in the game?
* Sup brah?
One thing I've come to believe is that it's better to generate a lot of bad ideas rather than try to wait for a couple of good ones. This might be obvious to other people, but it was counter intuitive realization to me when I first considered it, so I thought I'd explore it a bit.

A common belief is that ideas are "a dime a dozen" and that "execution is what matters". I used to hear these cliches all the time when I frequented the forums here. The problem with these cliches is that they're simultaneously true and also deeply misleading. What do I mean by that?

It's true that ideas are a dime a dozen. On the other hand, that doesn't imply that all ideas are equally valuable. Some are promising, and some just suck. Generating ideas is easy, but figuring out which is ones are good is the tricky part. Throwing time into a bad idea is very costly, but so is missing an opportunity by dismissing a promising idea too early.

The problem is, it's very very hard to evaluate ideas. Anyone who thinks they are good at evaluating ideas probably needs to get their head checked. It requires a lot of taste and expertise, and chances are you might not have enough of either. (That's not a knock on you, dear reader -- most people don't have good taste. I don't. Taste is a skill you have to consciously develop, it doesn't just come on its own).

So why are bad ideas good?

Because the truly revolutionary ideas often initially sound very stupid. The reason why they sound stupid is because they don't fit into our existing understanding of how things should work, and when things don't compute it's natural to think that it's "because it makes no sense".

Indeed, that's why they're revolutionary ideas -- because in the current context they don't quite make sense. Revolutionary ideas are revolutionary precisely because they aren't a product of our current understanding -- they're the product of a a different understanding of the world, an understanding you might not yet be savvy to. If the idea came out of common culture, it'd be an evolutionary idea, not revolutionary.

When something comes out of left field, it's very easy to dismiss it as "dumb" because without the context to understand it, it will certainly look that way. Wikipedia sounded like a profoundly foolish idea initially, and yet it's become one of the most important sites in the world. Facebook is also hard to explain to someone who lacks the necessary context to understand it, but once they experience it they usually "get it" in a way that explanations can't convey.

So the value in bad ideas, I think, is that they can point you to your blind spots if you're willing to consider them on their own merits. Of course, many of them are still just bad ideas, but because ideas are cheap, creating lots of bad ideas will get you closer to the understanding you need to find the good ones.


(Incidentally this post had nothing to do with what I originally wanted to talk about, it just sort of evolved. Oops. In any case I was going to talk about bad ideas because I'm planning on coming up with a lot of them soon. So hopefully I'll write about that soon. )


I decided to make an iPhone app last night because I couldn't sleep.

You can drag the sunglasses onto David Caruso's face and it'll play the
">CSI: Miami theme song!!

I'm not saying it's the greatest iPhone app ever, but I mean, I think it's at least in the top five.
Yikes, is it already the middle of the week? I should be getting the rest of my GDC coverage up soon -- the Game Career Summit might be of particular note to people looking to break into the industry, it was packed with some pretty good advice which I'll be posting soon. I was slightly bummed because I missed the GDC rant session while I was covering it, but it looks like
">Chris Hecker's rant is up on youtube at least. Awesome stuff. Hopefully some of the other ranter's video's appear there too.

[Ninja Edit:
">Tommy Refenes rant is up there too, which was one of my favorite rants from the indie session]
I think Ben Cousin's talk yesterday was simultaneously the most important talk of the conference and also not very well attended. Judging by the attendance and some of the questions, I don't think what he was saying was popular, but I do think he has a lot of well reasoned points worth considering.

On the other hand, I'm not convinced the shift is all doom and gloom. If you view things as a zero sum game, it's possible that these high-convenience low-quality games may force the more expensive but also better produced games into niche markets. On the other hand, it could work in other ways. Maybe these games lower the barrier to entry for being a gamer, opening new markets. Maybe once these non-traditional gamers realize they like games, they may also start to play more traditional games along with this new format of games. Or maybe not. I have no idea, it's hard to tell, I'm just not totally convinced that this new style of games has to be a threat.

I do wish more people had attended yesterday though, because it seems like the industry as a whole doesn't really take social games very seriously yet. Right now I get the impression that it's viewed as branding and marketing opportunity, rather than a legit medium in of itself.
I went to Chris Hecker's talk last night, entitled "Achievements Considered Harmful(?)"

It included this juicy quote:


If you're intentionally making dull games with variable ratio extrinsic motivators, you have my pity.

OHHHH! Oh no he DIDNT. He did NOT just say that! *snaps fingers while wiggling hips*

Ok, maybe it's not that juicy without some context...

So the big talk of the conference is Farmville; and by big talk, I mean, the talks I've been paying attention to. I don't know if it's actually the big talk or not. A lot of people play it though. And they gave a couple of talks here, and inspired some other people to talk about their game. People tend to take notice when you have 62 million players.

Now, what Farmville relies heavily upon are extrinsic motivators, which is a lovely phrase we can use to make a simple concept sound very complicated. What is an extrinsic motivator?

If I were to tell you to move a pile of bricks from my lawn into my garage, you would probably rightly say "kind sir, please f*** off, that is dull and hard work". However, if I were to say, "I will pay you 50 bucks to move bricks into my garage" you might reconsider it. The 50 dollars are an extrinsic motivation. It's a reward for a task. This is how you get people to do dull things.

The opposite of extrinsic motivation is intrinsic motivation. This is a fancy way of saying you're going to do something because it's a satisfying activity in of itself. Like, you might make a painting because making a painting is it's own reward. You enjoy it. (In this example)

So to vastly oversimplify: work needs extrinsic motivation, play operates off intrinsic motivation. Except when it doesn't.

Let's say you're a game designer, and you're making a MMORPG. And you realize your game mechanics basically involve clicking on things a lot until they're dead. It gets old kind of quick. What can you do to keep players engaged?

The easiest thing to do is add rewards that drop at random times. So now, one in every 10 monsters drops some cool gear... and you get XP! It feels like you're accomplishing something. So now you're clicking on lots of monsters, not because clicking monsters is fun, but because you want free shit. Who doesn't want free shit?

In this case, the cool gear is the extrinsic motivator, and the fact that it only drops every once in a while means it's working on a variable reward schedule, which makes it way more engaging.

It turns out that this is pretty much like a slot machine: you're just pulling a lever and waiting for something good to happen. It hooks you, because there's the chance that you might hit the jackpot, so you keep pulling. And every once in a while the machine gives you a small reward to keep your hopes up. And it only happens at random intervals so you can't anticipate it: hence the variable part. If it happened at predictable intervals, you'd lose engagement, because then you would know which lever pulls are meaningless.

So in a sense, MMORPG addicts aren't that much different from gambling addicts, it's just a much cheaper addiction. In terms of money anyway.

In any case, most of the design talks I've been to this year (especially the social ones) have included some element of how to do these rewards better. Which I've enjoyed, because this is very useful knowledge, and not inherently bad in of itself. On the other hand, it's also an excellent way to hide the fact that your game is not actually that much fun. In fact, if you use these motivational hacks masterfully, a lot of people will fool themselves into thinking that your game is pretty fun... because they can't stop playing it. And they wouldn't be still playing it if it wasn't fun... right?

(I should take a moment to point out that what I just said above is my own opinion, not Chris Hecker's or GDNet's. Also, I actually did very much enjoy those other sessions.)

Of course, extrinsic motivators and variable reward schedules aren't inherently bad, and I don't mean to suggest as much. But I did like that Chris Hecker took the time to tell people that making something addictive isn't the same thing as making something good.
One of the recurring themes I'm noticing with this GDC is that the "Mainstream" doesn't seem so mainstream anymore. I have to be careful with terminology here -- by mainstream I mean the sort of game you see on the cover of gaming mags, i.e., the sort of game that traditionally appeals to "hardcore" gamers.

Farmville, a game most "serious" gamers shun, has something like 62 million players. In contrast, last I heard World of Warcraft has about 12 million. At this point hardcore games seem like they've become the niche. Arguably it's already happened. The Wii, in my opinion, marks the moment when the sea change occurred. A lot of people wrote the Wii off as a gimmick, but I think they missed the point: It wasn't popular because it was gimmicky, it was popular because the sort of games that were on there appealed to people that the game industry had largely been ignoring. Games like Wii Sports or Wii Fit have a much broader appeal to people who aren't traditionally gamers than dual-stick shooters.

From what I've heard, it sounds like the average player of Farmville is 43 year old women. (I don't have hard sources to back this up, but I don't have reason to doubt what I've heard either.) No wonder it's been so huge -- how many other games can you think of that appeal to 43 year old women?

People are saying "social games are huge now", which is true, but I think it also misses the point. It's not just about social games, it's about games that are accessible and inviting to people who normally are intimidated by games.
I just got back from Mark Skaggs' talk on how Zynga goes about creating successful social games.

The gist of it is to collect metrics on everything important that players do. Skagg's refers to this as "developing a metric's mindset." In order to answer questions, you should assume you don't know the answer, and instead test everything. If you want to know whether to color a link red or or green or pink, you should test it and see which gets the highest click-through. (In the example he gave, they found that pink links had over twice the click-through of red-links for a promotion that was running at the top of Farmville)

Zynga definitely follows their own advice: apparently they pull in about 2 terabytes of data on user behavior daily (which is actually optimized down from the 4 terabytes they were pulling before.)

In traditional retail games you can't get much information on what the player's are doing. So, there are a lot of questions you'd like to ask, but you can't in the traditional game world. For instance:

1. How many players make it past the installer?
2. How many players continue playing after the tutorial?
3. How many players actually complete the game?
4. What do players do the most in the game? What do players avoid doing?
... and so on ...

In a social game, most of these questions are answerable, so why not test it?

Some other interesting tidbits from the Q&A session:

  • Farmville is very popular among women 35-50 years old

  • Over 50% of facebook is over 35

  • One of the tests they sometimes use is a cell phone test -- ie, could you play this game while you're also chatting on a cell phone? (Hardcore gamers might balk at this, but, on the other hand, 80 million players is hard to argue with)

  • Zynga's focus really seems to be not on making the games they like, but more very carefully understanding the market's that they're entering into and catering something exactly for them. This is in very stark contrast to say, the indie mindset, of making something without "dumbing" it down.

  • If you want a successful social game, you should really be aiming for about a 30% retention rate of players

John Boorman, the guy behind Deliverance, wrote an interesting article about the movie business a few years ago that a friend linked me to.

Some quotes:


When I was a child in the London blitz, a blockbuster was a massive bomb that could knock out a neighbourhood. The blockbuster movie, now utterly dominant and crushing better films, is set to destroy the Hollywood studios; the monster is turning on its makers. The blockbuster now costs so much to make and market that no one can afford them any more.


The studios can no longer afford them but must go on making them. More and more they swallow their pride and split costs with a rival studio. Massive German tax shelter money has kept them afloat for the last several years, but is running out. With stakes this high, they try to buy guarantees: subject matter that the audience can instantly relate to, sequels, films based on TV series that the audience watched as kids, or stars in a storyline that copies last year's big hit.


To this end, script gurus like Robert McKee have brainwashed a generation of screenwriters into constructing scenarios along rigid lines: introduction of characters, statement of conflict, development of narrative, division into three acts, carefully placed climaxes, conclusion. This contributes to the sameness of movies, and feeds into audience expectations of comfortable patterns and makes them uneasy if a film diverges from that formula. Little by little movies become more and more similar to each other, with marginal variations. One can imagine them evolving like No theatre into a form where only an audience inured to them can discern any differences. "Those Rocky movies," someone asked, "how do you tell them apart?" "It's easy," said his companion "they're numbered."

(You should go read the original article. It's really good. I'll wait)

This was written back in 2003. What's striking is how similar the game industry's current predicament is to the movie industry's past (and arguably current) predicament.

I generally don't like to talk about the business side of game development, because I know nothing about it. So take everything I say here with a very large grain of salt.

We're at the point now where major titles cost somewhere between $20-30 million to make (if you believe the statistics). The trend seems to be that the cost to produce each generation of games grows geometrically, so it wouldn't be unreasonable to suggest that it might take up to $50 million to make a game for the next generation of consoles. (Yves Guillemot of Ubisoft thinks it might average around 60 million USD).

In that context: no wonder we see so many sequels. It would be insane to throw that kind of money behind intellectual property that isn't proven. From my back-of-the-envelope calculations, I think that means you'd have to sell upwards of a million units on a game like that to break even (optimistically).

Talking a million people into buying Diablo 3 is a lot easier than talking a million people into buying another hack & slash they've never heard of, even if it's comparable.

The problem is, you can't really innovate much if you're making a sequel to Starcraft or Diablo, because the players won't let you. The expectations for what the game should be are pretty much cast in stone. Look at the fit people threw when they changed the color palette for Diablo 3. Starcraft 2 looks very similar to Starcraft 1, and I doubt that's because Blizzard is at a loss for game ideas. To do any serious innovation, you have to create an entirely new set of IP or risk severely pissing off your fans. The problem is, new IP is risky. Lets say you have a radical new game idea. Do you think it's good enough to sink $20 million into? Are you sure?

So, in my opinion, to suggest that the industry lacks innovation is disingenuous. The real problem is that external factors have made it very difficult for any sort of innovation to be commercially feasible. In this sense it makes a lot of sense that indie games are more creative -- they have nothing to lose and everything to gain. If you're a big studio, you have a lot of incentive not to be too different. If you're small, being different and daring is the best thing you can do -- because that's the place where you can compete and large companies can't.

Of course, John Boorman was wrong about the movie industry collapsing -- at least for the moment. 2009 was a year of record ticket revenue for Hollywood at 10.6 billion dollars. (Although there are some reasons to think that number is misleading.)

So the question is, can the game industry continue it's geometric growth in budgets? When the next generation of consoles is released, given current trends it's not absurd to think that it may take up to fifty million dollars to create a blockbuster game. Will the audience for those games be twice as large? Will they be willing to pay twice as much? I have no idea. It could well be. I doubt we'll see a dinosaur-like extinction of the blockbuster, but I also doubt the costs can grow forever.

The iPad and gaming

A lot has been said about the iPad, although one of the more interesting things to me is the market for games. Who is the market, and what sort of games will appeal to them?

Well, before we get to that, we have to talk about who is buying the iPad.

Who is buying this thing?

When the iPad came out it met with a resounding meh from the tech community. What it reminds me of is the reception of the original iPod.


No wireless. Less space than a nomad. Lame.

Anyone else remember that Slashdot post? The refrain for the iPad sounds similar:


No multitasking. Closed OS. Lame.

This is true, and it's also wrong. It is lame, for people like us. The problem is that, if you're reading this blog, the iPad isn't for you. You might buy one, but you're not the target market. The target market doesn't read tech blogs.

Who is the target market?

People who don't care about computers.

People who just want to check their facebook. People who want to look up a map at a coffee shop. People that want to send out a quick email without waiting 30 seconds for their laptop to boot up. For that matter, people too dumb to figure out how to log into their facebook will probably also love this. (Though I don't mean to suggest that not caring about computers equates with stupidity, but I do think this will certainly appeal to people who are unwilling to learn how to use a computer)

A small digression: I don't think the iPad lacks multitasking because that would be hard to do. It lacks multitasking because multitasking will confuse a lot of it's potential users. Did I mention, that in many ways, this is a profoundly cynical device?

I thought you were going to talk about games?

Oh. Right. Games.

I'm not going to tell you what games you should make, but I am interested in the question of which games will be popular for the iPad. Even if people don't care about computers, I think they do care about games, and I think the game market for this will be huge.

In terms of games, it reminds me a lot of the Wii. A lot of hardcore gamers thought the Wii was ridiculous, but it had a massive appeal to people who were too intimidated to try games before that. It leveled the playing field for them.

I don't know that the iPad will have the same Wii level of popularity (though I wouldn't be surprised), but it does present a novel interface for games.

Here's the kinds of games I think will work really well on this:

  • Board Games/Social Games: Why not? Social, easy to pass around, does the messy book keeping work that a person would otherwise have to do.

  • Card games: Solitaire! The multitouch is perfect for this. Even better for something like poker. Poker will be huge. Seriously. There are going to be a lot of poker apps. I'll be curious to see what happens in the next generation when they add a camera.

  • Physics puzzles: This works much better than it does on the iPhone because of the increased screen real estate, and it's very natural with the multitouch interface.

  • Tycoon games: Tends to appeal to the casual gamer, and is easy to pick up/put away. Build your empire while you sit on the train.

  • God games/Strategy games 1024x768 is enough screen real estate to do this with, and the multitouch makes these games much more natural.

  • Brain apps: Things like Brain Age will be popular, because I think the iPad is going to be really popular among older people. Trivia games too. These things tend to be ignored, but they also sell really well.

What's not going to work?

I'm sure there are going to be exceptions, but in general I think action games aren't going to work very well. It's just an awkward interface for it.

3D games will kind of work, but on the other hand, if you want to play something like that, a console or a desktop makes much more sense.

A murder...

One of the things I wanted to do this year was make more short form games. Short form is more conducive to creativity than long form, I think, because there's less psychological burden when writing off an idea that didn't quite work. Also, it frees you from worrying about tangential things that are standard in modern games, like stories.

Timescale is important. Too much time and it's easy to overstretch. Too short and you don't make anything worth showing.

A week long is one of my favorite timescales. It's enough time that you can make something, but its a small enough window that you can't do everything. You have to be ruthless about what you cut, and what you prioritize. I'm not pretending I'm good at it, but I think I've learned more from my week-long games than I have from any of my longer projects. It also forces you to create games that don't rely on lots of content. It feels a bit more pure in a sense, because you have to rely on interesting gameplay rather than lots of gameplay.

So this year, I managed to make two one-week games.

The first was called Bregma. It was about a crazy cat lady protecting her cats from the local children trying to steal them.

The second one is called A Murder of Crows. It's a bit stranger. (somehow). Here's a gameplay video:
">Linky (I was going to embed it but I don't think the forum software will let me)

I was going to write some lessons learned, but I'm sleepy so I'll write those tommorow.

Keynote thoughts..

I went to today's keynote,despite the little voice in my head screaming "keynotes are always boring! don't go don't go!". (Oh yes, I have voices in my head. I named that one Sedgwick.)

The one today was by Hideo Kojima, the creative mind behind the fantastic movie series known as Metal Gear.

The takeaway message: technology is making things that were previously impossible, possible. Like before we couldn't do 3d graphics... but then the Sony Playstation came out and now we can. And before that we couldn't do really cool 40 minute cinematics, but then the Sony Playstation 2 came out, and now we can. And then we couldn't do large scale outdoor battles, but fortunately the Sony Playstation 3 came out and...

Later he politely suggested that Westerners design games around technology too much.

So essentially the theme was that often impossible things are actually possible once Sony makes it possible. So, you know, we should be striving to make things possible and stuff. I'm sure you're all very motivated now.

(Going to post some session coverage later tonight.. sessions were cool. Learned many things.)


I really want to blog about the GDC, but I can't think of much to say since I just arrived tonight. I'm really grateful to be here. That's probably the best word to describe it. What always strikes me every time I come to the GDC is how humbling of an experience it is... I always leave with a sense of hope for where the industry is going. It's easy to be cynical, but being here reminds me of just how cool what we do is. We build worlds! It's like playing god! How many other industries do you get to play god in?

(...ok lots, but at least we don't have to feel guilty about it)

Validation is a canadian penny in a dark alley

So I was bored last night and started talking with a friend about what makes a conversation interesting. I'm not sure if this is going to sound clever, or like a crazy person yelling in the street. In any case, this is what I realized:

People seem to think being interesting is about saying interesting things, but it's not, at least not completely. I think being interesting is more about what you DON'T say.

First I need to explain something else.

Most of us have this terrible habit of over-explaining our actions, because we don't like feeling misunderstood. Being misunderstood sucks. So we overcompensate by giving away too much.

Have you ever had to justify yourself to someone you didn't particularly like at that moment? Maybe you said something that "offended" them, and now you have to explain yourself. It feels a little gross, doesn't it? You think, "I don't care what this person thinks of me, why am I justifying myself to them?". But you might do it anyway. The urge to be understood runs deep.

What makes it worse is that now you're trying to win approval from this person, which automatically makes them cooler than you for the moment. Cool people give approval, they don't seek approval. So now you look lame. Whoops.

(Besides the point, but: cute girls use this trick all the time. Have you ever seen a cute girl around a guy she likes suddenly get "offended" by something he says? She probably wasn't really offended, she was testing him to see if he has a backbone. If he tries to explain himself to her in a serious way, she'll respect him a lot less.)

The funny thing about trying to explain yourself to people is even if this other person does come to understand your point of view, it doesn't usually do much good. And in reality they won't come to understand you. You can explain yourself to people until you're blue in the face but it won't change anyone's mind. Rational arguments suck at persuading people of anything. If people were actually rational, they'd already believe the exact same things you believe.

(Don't think about that last sentence for too long)

So explaining yourself sucks. Don't do it. Really, please don't. If your dignity wanders off into that dark alley it's going to get mugged; and for what, a shiny penny? I hope it was a canadian penny at least. They're worth more now. I think I might have pushed this metaphor a bit too far.

How does all this relate to being interesting?

It's because this urge to over-explain things is what makes people really really boring.

Take this conversation for instance:

Bob: What happened this weekend? I heard it was crazy.
Sally: OMG! I went to this party, and I got so drunk! And all these hot guys started hitting on me, but I was like, back off! Because I'm not a slut you know?
Bob: Oh, that's cool.
*awkward silence*

This is a pretty boring conversation. She gave everything away at the start. There was no tension, no reason we should be interested in her story. He probably tuned out halfway through. Worse, it's also a little bit sad -- Sally is trying to come across as being desirable and cool, but her attempts are shallow and transparent.

How could she do better?

Bob: What happened this weekend? I heard it was crazy.
Sally: I shouldn't say...
Bob: What? Why can't you say? What happened?
Sally: Well I went to this party and.. you don't really want to hear this, do you?
Bob: No I do! What happened!
Sally: Well all these drunk girls started hitting on me... *blah blah rest of story*

Much better. Why? Well, by not giving away everything at first, she created tension and mystery. This made Bob about 1000x more interested, because everyone likes a mystery. Now he's actually paying attention, and he's going to value the story that much more because he invested himself in hearing it.

I'm not saying being shifty about everything is a good idea. That would be obnoxious. My point is just that if you give everything you're going to say away all at once, its not as interesting, and you're giving up power to people. Scarcity makes anything more valuable (gold would be worthless if it were common). Over-explaing yourself kills scarcity. Don't do that. You'll be boring, and despised, and you'll get beaten up in dark alleys while looking for that shiny penny we call validation.

[Edit: Finally done editing this, after about the 11th time :P]

MMORPGs are only fun because you lie to yourself

I have a weird theory: I don't think people that play MMORPGs actually enjoy them -- but they think they do. That raises the question: how does someone believe they're having fun when they're not? Well, I'll get to that.

First, I have to say, World of Warcraft is one of the most boring games ever made. I say that with the utmost respect for the people that designed it, who did a good job given the constraints, but it's still incredibly boring. It's leaps and bounds more fun than every other MMORPG, but that's like saying, "well little jimmy might keep sticking coins up his nose, but gosh darnit, he's smarter than that Johnson kid that walks around wearing a helmet while making airplane sounds and crashing into walls!"

Consider this: if you were to take the same exact game mechanics from WoW, and put them into a single player game, would it be any fun? At all? Honestly?

I actually challenged a hardcore WoW player on that: would WoW be fun without the generally irrelevant massively multiplayer gimmick? And he said "well it wouldn't be fun unless you added a story..."

Really? Did tetris need a story to be fun?! NO! If your game needs a story you're just covering up the fact that your gameplay mechanics are boring. You're masking the dullness of your game by turning it into a low budget movie. If RPGs didn't have stories, nobody would ever play them, because the core gameplay of "roll the dice and see if your numbers are bigger than their numbers" isn't actually fun. Some of the secondary things are fun, like making your character pretty, but nobody ever admits that because they dont want to say "well really if this game wasn't playing off my vain desire to look like a cybernetic dwarf with a really cool murder hammer I'd be bored as hell."

Here's the weird thing: the people that play these games are totally convinced they're having fun. So how are all these people convinced they're having fun when they're doing something so dull? Well, it's because they're lying to themselves.

So we're back to the original question: why are people having fun with these really dull games? I'll explain. But before I do, lets talk about something way more fun: sex!

Back in the 1950s, Elliot Aronson and Judith Mills conducted an experiment at Stanford. Students were invited to join a group to discuss the "psychology of sex", but before they were allowed in they had to pass a test to show they qualified.

Some of the students were given a very easy "qualification test": they had to read a few sexually explicit words from the dictionary out loud. Only mildly embarrassing really. The other the students were given a much more embarrassing and difficult test: they had to recite lurid passages from "Lady Chatterly's Lover" and other trashy romance novels out loud to the experimenters.

(Keep in mind this was back in the 1950s, where talking about sex was a lot more taboo than it is now).

This is where the experiment gets awesome: after the students passed the initiation, they were allowed to hear a recording of one of the previous "meetings". The meeting was intentionally recorded to be as boring as possible -- the discussion was actually about bird mating habits, not humans, and the participants were intentionally made to sound extremely dull and stupid.

So how did the students feel about the recording? Well, the students that were given the easy test said it was boring and a waste of time. On the other hand, the students that were given the difficult test generally felt that the meeting was very insightful and interesting.

I'm going to restate that, because it's really really important: how hard it was to pass the initiation into the group had a profound effect on how people viewed the group subsequently. The more difficult it was for a person to join the group, the more positive they felt about the group in general.

Do you think any of these people were consciously aware of this? Of course not. It's classic cognitive dissonance. They had to convince themselves they liked the group, because otherwise they'd have to accept the much less palatable idea that they had made a fool of themselves for nothing. If you were to tell them about the experiment results, they'd probably say something like "oh yeah, I could see how other people could be influenced like that, but not me... I just really like hearing about bird mating habits. Did you know there's a type of bird called a 'tit'? How funny is that?"

Maybe some of you see where I'm going with this: the harder you have to work for something, the greater chance there is you'll like it. Or more precisely, the greater the chance is that you'll convince yourself you like it. Oh yes, in the right context you can convince yourself you like just about anything, including the mating habits of tits.

So lets say you went out and bought WoW, because the promise of exploring this strange new world with your friends looked interesting. Already you're pretty invested in this: you spent $50. But that's not so much, you can still decide that it sucks maybe. And then you play for a few hours, and at first its kinda fun. "Hey look, there's some other guy running around! Hey, I just advanced from level one to level two! NEAT!"

Then the rewards start getting fewer and fewer. It's very gradual. You hardly even notice. Level 2 sure came quick, but level 20 is taking forever! You already spent 30 hours playing the game though, and your friends are all telling you that it gets REALLY fun when you get your mount. Are you really going to quit now? You're pretty much past the point of no return -- you've invested so much in the game that to say "ugh, what a waste of time" would also mean to say "I just wasted the last week of my life for nothing". And the more you keep leveling, the harder it gets to say "hey, you know how my girlfriend left me because I was spending more time with this game then her... well it wasn't really worth it. This is sort of dull".

So that's what I mean about lying to ourselves. How much you like something isn't intrinsically a function of the fun value of that thing, rather, its also a function of how much the person invested into that thing. And by their nature, MMORPGs are very good at tricking people into investing a lot of time. It's very much possible to convince yourself you like something, regardless of how painfully boring it is.

Uncanney Valley

I'm not sure how long this has been out there, but I just found this trolling reddit: Lifelike animation heralds new era for ocmputer games

Putting aside technical considerations, it is very impressive. Still not quite right but it's not nearly as creepy as other things I've seen try to climb their way out of the uncanney valley.

Here's the thing: whenever I see a game with nice looking characters, I tend to think "that looked fantastic"... and then I cease caring after a few seconds. (Seconds, not minutes). It's cool, but unless your game happens to be about reading faces (why not? that could be fun if done well) it's a lot of extraneous stuff that usually doesn't have anything to do with what makes the core of a game fun. Usually I can anger whoever I want in a game with no repurcussions, so reading the subtle nuances of just how ticked off they are might be fun, but it doesn't really do a lot for me.

Think of how immersive tetris is -- do you think it'd be more immersive with a story and cutscenes of General Block talking really realistically?

(It would be really neat to see some games that explore social dynamics with the use of body language. I don't know if you need to climb through the uncanney valley to do it though.)

Don't worry, this won't take too long

I was thinking recently about how absurdly popular top ten lists are. You know, things in magazines like "The Top Ten ways to Look Like a Hooker". Almost everything is a top ten list now. It never made sense to me before.

Then I realized, it's all in the subtext. What it's saying is: "Hey, don't worry, this won't take that long. There's only 10! Even you can count that high!"

I can't remember the number of interesting things I've never read just because I started thinking "How long is this going to take? Hey, I wonder what's on tv right now.." The funny thing is that the top ten list could be just as long as a regular article, but it feels shorter because you know where it's going. I bet you could even get away with getting people to read books by putting them into top ten lists. Like chapters. Hmm. Oh..

Terrible game ideas

I was reading tigsource and I saw mention of The Video Game Name Generator, which is quite possibly the coolest thing ever. Anyway, as a creative exercise I decided to generate a game idea for the first ten names I got out of it without filtering any of them. These are all pretty much... horrible, but it was fun to do, so to hell with all of you.

Hazardous Basketball Championship

I pretty much envision this as basketball in a castle with deadly traps. In fact, fuck making a video game of this. This is how basketball should be in real life. I don't care if you're not a basketball fan, who wouldn't want to watch the Harlem Globe Trotters fall into a pit of pirahnas? They're so smug. Washington Generals for the epic win!

Prehistoric Railroad on the High Seas

Why do these prehistoric men need railroads? What are they moving across the sea? It is a mystery!

Scooby Doo and the Chainsaw Inferno

I can't think of a game for this, because the vision of Scrappy-Doo being run through a chainsaw inferno fills me with overwhelming joy. Honestly, I think this idea is already perfect without any gameplay mechanics. It just starts, and then BURNING CHAINSAW DEATH for the most annoying character in history. PLEASE SOMEBODY MAKE THIS.

Morbidly Obese Disco Kombat

This sounds like an awesome TV show. But if I had to make it as a video game, I'm envisioning it as being like DDR, except there's also a scale built into the pad, and the heavier you are the more it multiplies your score. Take that skinny people! And all the music is disco music. And you have a little motion sensor controller that works like Wii Boxing, so besides just dancing you're also fighting. And you have to wrestle a bear. Well maybe not, we'll save that for the inevitable TV show. This is going to be huge.

Biblical Driving Wasteland

You have traveled back in time with your car, making you a God among men because you're the only dude with car. Chicks dig you. Hey, chicks digged rad cars back then too. You're getting invited to all the cool parties while Jesus sits at home. Do you invite him out?

SHilbert also suggested Mario Kart With Jesus And Moses. That could work too.

Strategic Office Zombies

The administrative abilities of zombies are often overlooked, but I mean, whenever you watch a documentary about zombies you notice they have really great teamwork. This is a game that's filling a pretty glaring gap in the market in my opinion.

I'm kinda seeing this as you're a zombie working in a really big company, and you're trying to convert the whole company into zombies. But obviously as a single zombie working alone, you're outnumbered and kinda slow. So you have to send emails and memoes to lure people into traps until you've worked up a large enough zombie army to take over the company. Of course, you have to lay low at first, because you don't want people to suspect what you're doing before you're strong enough or they'll fire all your zombie arses. Game over!

So you'll probably want to start off by zombifying people that probably are pretty docile already anyway. Then nobody will suspect a thing. Maybe you start with Fat Betsy in accounting, because all she does is complain on the phone all day anyway. So you tell her there's free cake in the break room, and BAM, there's a zombie there (you, actually). And now you got a two zombie team. And then maybe you tell another guy that you want to talk about his TPS report, and then OH SHIT, THERE'S YOU AND BETSY -- A TWO ZOMBIE TEAM. And Betsy is hungry! And now you got three zombies. And so on. Just don't get fired! At least not until you can get a kickass severance package. A SEVERED HEAD severance package! HA HA HA!

Spooky Typing Plus

How do you make typing scary? I'm thinking this would be like typing tutor, except scary shit jumps out at you as you're typing -- but you have to keep your cool, man. Maybe you're typing, and all the sudden it's like GORILLA OUT OF FUCKING NOWHERE. And he rips up your window and eats it! BUT YOU KEEP TYPING ANYWAY. SERIOUSLY KEEP TYPING. JESUS JUST KEEP TYPING OR THAT GORILLA IS GOING TO FUCKING MAUL YOU.

Generic Big Game Hunter Combat

You're like this guy, and you hunt things.

In Your Face Mummy Express

Ok, so I'm thinking this is like crazy taxi, except you're giving mummies rides. But these mummies are all up in your grill, so you have to put them back in their place with witty comments while you drive. You'll be driving, and then they're like "MMMMPRPPPHHHHPMMMMMMM" and you have to be like "YO MAMA! YO MAMA!". And then game roars in the background "EPIC BURN!!!!!", and you drop that mummy off right on time, and that mummy gives you a huge tip, because dammit, you earned his respect with your wit and charm.

Star Trek Mahjong Championship

Why not?

Art of Blimp Battle

This is one of those games you might need to have a few hours set aside for... You know what might make this cool though? Hook up a couple of those little blowing devices that they have for paralyzed people to interact with computers, and blowing into those you can control the wind. That might actually be kinda fun for like the first.. 2 minutes.

Relentless Elevator in the Desert

You know what this reminds me of? There's this gimmick called The Cube, where you're supposed to envision this cube in the desert, and then some other things around it, and based on how a person describes things you can supposedly tell a bunch of things about them. I could totally see this being like that. You're supposed to envision an elevator in the desert, and describe it, and then the game tells you about your bizarre dark urges or whatever.

I this this works best as a text game. Except you hook it up to an AI conversation bot like Megahal or ALICE or whatever. I can totally see it now

You see a relentless elevator in the desert. Why is it not relenting?

> It's compensating for daddy issues.

All the best cowboy's have daddy issues.

> Wait what?

Why is the cowboy on the elevator wearing a pink fedora?

> What cowboy?

Are you a cowboy?

> I...

Why are you on an elevator in the middle of the desert?

> I'm not!

The elevator hugs you from behind in a warm embrace. How does it feel?

> How do I get off this elevator.

You can't. The unrelenting elevator represents the unrelenting influence of the gay upon your life. The pink fedora hat is just kinda cool. The hug was your idea. You should join the backstreet boys. Play again? (Y/N)

Well that's just how I see the game being played. WHATEVER.

Maybe tomorrow I'll write about Fancy Wheelchair on the Oregon Trail, which I still don't have a game idea for, but man it sounds cool.

My head explode

Anyone know of any ultra secret flu remedies? I'm pretty sure my head is on the verge of exploding, and NyQuil is making me really fuzzy.

BTW, if I happen to die I want to be buried with my stuff. Not that I'm going to die from the flu, but just in general. You know, because it's my stuff.

Games with depth

Well, after being back from the GDC for a bit I've had a chance to digest it. If there was a common theme to the GDC this year, I think it was indie games really gaining credibility, and the recognition that we need to make games that are more than just fun, they need to have emotional and intellectual depth. I remember one game game designer showed this absolutely bizarre Game Maker game called La La Land 4, and his comment was "I've gotten more fun out of this 5 minute game maker game than any $60 game I've purchased in the last year."

There were also some things that were absolutely bizarre. During the Game Designer's Rant, Jon Mak's "Rant" as it were, is he had the staff release a bunch of balloons with things written on them into the audience, and then they forced Kim Swift (the lady behind Portal) onto the stage for an impromptu speech (which was a surprise even to her, or at least she played along really well). I'm not sure anyone got what it meant, but it was interesting at least. I think maybe he just wanted to see how the crowd would react.

I'm glad that there's a lot of focus at the moment on making games that are emotionally compelling. I know I've personally become a bit jaded with games, because a lot of them are so hollow. You play it, and there's a story, but you don't really care. Oh, so they're going to blow up the earth? Let them. The lack of compelling narratives is becoming a lot more apparent now than it was in the past. We used to be able to say, oh, well its just because technology isn't up to snuff yet, once we can totally realistically model the characters faces and show their emotion then our games will be much more powerful. But now that we can have these incredibly realistic characters, it seems like nobody actually knows what to DO with those guys. Remember Final Fantasy 7? The technology in that game was incredibly primitive, but it's quite possibly the most emotionally compelling game ever. Why haven't we had a game recently that could make us cry when someone dies like that game did?

One game that was talked a lot about is an indie game called Passage. I think it's one of those really rare games you can actually call profound.

Games do really have a ton of promise to actually excel in this area, though, so the GDC was rather inspiring in that it sounds like a lot of people are recognizing this problem, and the next few years we should really see the industry grow up a bit and make some games that actually have meaning and depth.
Sign in to follow this