Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Mad Skills

Many claim the appeal of games is their ability to provide escape, their ability to transport the player to unusual places where the rules of normal life don't apply. This could be a fantasy world where magic holds aloft spire-cities, or merely the ability to steal a car and not go to prison for it. While I don't think this is false, it also leaves out a very important (I would say more important) reason why games are appealing. The rules of mundane life may disappear in games, but they are replaced by other rules. Mastering these mechanics provides great satisfaction and explains why games are often described as "relaxing" despite them often being quite taxing and stressful.

Jamie Madigan on his excellent Psychology of Games blog wrote about this last week in the context of "recovery experiences." Basically, our mental processes need time to recover, e.g. having a weekend off after a week of work, and return to full function. Three mechanisms achieve this: psychological detachment (not thinking about work), relaxation activities (low-stress enjoyable activities) and mastery experiences (getting better at something). Games are interesting because they can potentially provide any and all of these experiences. The escapist functions cover the first two, but it's the third that's especially interesting.

Consuming other media rarely provides any kind of mastery experience. Maybe there's some feeling of improvement in parsing Shakespeare or a David Lynch film, but even that is a stretch and certainly not the norm. Games are often stressful. Being in the midst of a neck-and-neck Starcraft II match isn't relaxing at all. Nor is Mario bounding from tiny ledge to an even tinier ledge, suspended above a starry void. I imagine the mastery experience in games is similar to learning to play a musical instrument. It requires effort and focus. For a while, you have little to show for it. But it's satisfying because you know you are improving.

Michael Abbott recently began the "Fun Factor Catalog," an effort (inspired by a comment I made, of all things, about Michael's love of baseball sims) to categorize what we enjoy about games. Currently there are 40 entries and of those, my rough categorization would mark 26 of them as mastery experiences. They use descriptors like "feeling clever," "preparation enabling success" and "challenge that tests skill and concentration."

When I think about most of the games I really enjoy, there are certainly some where I engaged with the story and characters (Planescape: Torment, Fallout, any adventure game, etc.). But the majority of my favourites would be games where I had the opportunity to master their systems, to improve skills. I think this also helps explain why so many games can have a terrible story and lackluster writing but still be a very satisfying experience. Obviously these aren't binary experiences either, a game could certain offer both. But only a small handful of studios possess the talent and focus to deliver quality on both those fronts.

So what's the purpose of this observation? We need better ways to talk about what makes games enjoyable. As I said almost exactly on year ago, "fun" is grossly insufficient. Michael's endeavour is laudable, but I'd love to see more of a taxonomy. We talk about characters and narrative a lot, but the skill component seems unfairly neglected in our conversations. Do you find mastery experiences in games satisfying? What kind of games do you find provide the most engagement when it comes to improving skills? I'm definitely curious how others approach this aspect of games specifically.

[Update: Chris Lepine wrote a great piece on his thoughts here.]

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Thursday, August 26, 2010

Gaming 'Round the World

There is travel writing, but is there such a thing as travel games? Jordan Magnuson wants to find out. Jordan is planning on traveling around the world and creating games based on his experiences. (He's also the original founder of TIGSource, so really, what more accolades does the guy need?)

One game that has already come out of his time overseas is called Freedom Bridge and is about his experience visiting the eponymous bridge that spans the DMZ between North and South Korea.

He's set up a site called GameTrekking to document his travels and the games. There's a ton of information about the project there, but if you want to skip straight to the donation, here's the Kickstarter page.

Jordan has put together an intro video that's embedded below. If you also this is an awesome idea, spread the word! I think it's a bloody brilliant endeavour and I'm very excited to see the games that come out of.

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Monday, August 23, 2010

Stay Safe. Stay In.

I'm usually pretty skeptical when it comes to games for change. While I absolutely believe in the intent and concept, the majority of the actual games tend to be crude, sermonizing, awkward and bolted to even poorer (and less meaningful) gameplay. The Curfew proves that not all games for change must suffer this fate.

The Curfew was written by Rock, Paper, Shotgun's (among many other things) Kieron Gillen and developed by littleloud. It was sponsored by BBC Channel 4 (who also sponsored Zombie Cow's Privates) and while fully playable, is still technically in beta. I played in a single sitting of a little over two hours, but the game offers save files that persist as long as you use the same computer to access the game. It's still technically in beta, but seems quite stable. The only bug I encountered was fixed by a page refresh. Apparently a stand-alone download version is coming in the next month or two as well. The game itself consists of filmed live actors, similar to FMV adventure games like Ripper (take a look at that cast by the way, wow) that were vogue in the late 90s. Fortunately, The Curfew is less corny than most of those old FMV games were.

Set in an Orwellian 2027 Great Britain, the eponymous nationwide 21:00 curfew was enacted by the right-wing Shepard party that took power after a thwarted suitcase nuke attempt on London brought public demand for safety to a fever-pitch (all this is better summarized in this official YouTube video). In addition to the curfew, civil liberties have all but vanished. Citizenship is earned by gathering "citizenship points" which are awarded for things like checking in for curfew early, informing the police of suspicious activity, etc.

You, the protagonist, are a dissident who has come into possession of some extremely damaging information about the Shepard party. But you're out after curfew and the police are closing in. You end up in a safehouse (a sort of post-Curfew hostel for those that can't make it home in time) with four other people. You need to pass off the information to one of them before the police arrive, but you have to earn their trust first and determine if you can trust them. And the level of trust you have with this person entirely shapes the outcome of the game.

The core of the game is having conversations with the four different characters. It alternates between playing through as each of them in a series of flashbacks, telling how they came to the safehouse, to a question phase where you try and earn their trust by asking them questions about their experiences. Appropriate questions earn you some measure of trust, inappropriate ones diminish that trust. But it's determining which questions are appropriate is the really interesting part.

To determine which questions will gain the character's trust, not only do you have to pay attention to what goes on in the flashbacks, but you also have to infer the character's outlook and personality. It's tricky at times, but doesn't feel unfair (I repeatedly bombed my interactions with one character, but maybe I just couldn't get a good read on her). It's a really cool mechanic that hasn't been explored in depth much outside of Facade. The Curfew is obviously more structured, but I still really like this aspect of the game and it seems there's a potential richness here that I'd love to see explored further.

All four of the character's stories overlap in a similar style to Pulp Fiction/Go, primarily through their interactions with a black marketeer dressed like a Victorian pimp and is accurately described by one of the characters as a "Fagin wanna-be." Their stories are all good, as is the writing in general. The satire is handled well without it being too ham-fisted. It's obviously hyperbolic, but given the near-Big Brother state the UK finds itself it today, it's less far off than we should be comfortable with. Still, The Curfew isn't entirely uptight. One character is trying to purchase an ultra-violent video game (government sanctioned games totally suck and non-sanctioned games are illegal to purchase) in a fashion traditionally reserved for hard narcotics. And an appearance by Gillen himself in one character's flashback is hard not to chuckle at.

If the game has any shortcomings it's that everything that is not central to the core of the game (conversing with the other characters) isn't particularly strong. Too often it falls into the ol' adventure game quagmire of "pixel hunt for the hotspot and then click it to keep playing." I found this to be particularly common in Aisha's story. I must have been stuck on the first screen for a good four or five minutes. At one point, you have 90 seconds to pixel hunt a specific object in a cluttered room, but I suspect it might not have been there at all. The time ran out for me and the story continued, but it was a pretty frustrating moment, especially given the difficulties I'd had earlier.

There are also a few simple minigames that occur in all four of the stories. None of them are particularly good, although I did find the one that involved scrubbing windows/floors/walls to actually feel tedious (in a good, intentional way). I'm not entirely sure what the purpose of these was, beyond perhaps some fear The Curfew didn't have enough "game" in it. They're not so offensive they'll make you want to stop playing, but if they disappeared, I don't think the game would be lessened for it either.

As far as games with an obvious social message go, The Curfew is one of, if not the best, I've ever played. It's sharp and poignant without ever descending into becoming preachy or dogmatic. And the core conversation/trust system that makes up the heart of the game is interesting, especially when it comes to imagining how it could be expanded and refined. But having a game about conversations where the conversations aren't just hard gates, but rather exercises in empathy and considering another's outlook is seriously cool. It's a little embarrassing a free browser-based game has more depth in its conversation system that almost any other multi-million dollar game. The game's message is commendable and the mechanics definitely provide much food for thought. I highly recommend giving it a go, plus it demonstrates a browser-based game for change can actually be quite compelling.

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Sunday, August 15, 2010

Skip Week Pour L'amour

One year ago today, I married the most wonderful woman I have ever met. I think video games are great, don't get me wrong, but my lady is the bee's knees. As such, I'm skipping the video game talk today and we're doing exciting anniversary things. This includes surprises I won't discuss lest my wife find them here before they're sprung later today.

In a week I'll return, possibly discussing something related to Limbo now that my Xbox is back and I've had a chance to finish it. Perhaps something along the lines of "God dammit, spiders are gross."

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Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Epic Fail

It's weird to think that there exist solitary entertainment experiences wherein you can experience failure. Not failure through a cipher, but you, yourself, failed to do something correctly. Video games are unique, or at least uncommon, in this respect. Maybe some variants of solitaire have unwinnable deals, but those are wholly random. It's much harder to fail at reading a novel, listening to a song or watching a play.

I think this is actually a very good thing. After simply having agency at all, it's probably the most distinguishing characteristic of games. But it also affects how we perceive games. It may cast games as things to be overcome, rather than understood. Things to be beaten, rather than examined. For a lot of games, this alone can be deep, rich and fascinating. But I can't help but think this might be impeding our ability to communicate through a game's mechanics.

When I talked about why indie darlings are so often 2D platformers, I noted that part of the reason why so many creators opt for 2D platforming as a style is there are probably more players who are literate in that style of game than any other. It's not that the challenge or possibility of failure has been necessarily diminished, but rather that the basic structure is very well understood and internalized. Move from left to right, avoid hazards, gravity and timing behave in certain ways, etc. You place a random person in front of a 2D platformer and ask them how to succeed, and they'd probably have a good guess. Getting the same after putting someone in a random spot in Red Dead Redemption is probably far less likely.

In the comments to that post, Michal Wisniowski remarked that bullet hell shoot 'em ups are also quite prevalent in the indie scene. Which made me wonder what would be required to communicate some kind of tonal/aesthetic message through a shmup's mechanics. A great deal of that style's appeal comes from its unrelenting difficulty and split-second timing. This makes them less accessible than more playable platformers though, even for pretty experienced gamers. I mean, I look at Ikaruga, smell copper and then pass out. I enjoy some games with an intensive manual dexterity component, but shmup's are a bridge too far for me.

Given that there's so much emphasis on overcoming challenges and avoiding failure, I wonder how much cognitive space is really left for a player to pick up on anything more subtle. Of course, there's nothing to say shmup's have to be well suited for these kinds of experiences. But it seems like any type of game that does desire to communicate some kind of message that isn't just through exposition and dialog might do well to consider exactly how much emphasis is being placed on "winning." If too much emphasis is placed on moment-to-moment survival, it could be difficult to encourage thinking about the game as a larger, more cohesive statement.

The other unfortunate consequence here is that it becomes difficult to encourage players to explore outcomes that seem "negative." It's quite rare to find a game that doesn't just jump to something checkpoint-ish as soon as a failure state has been reached. Roguelikes are a rare style of game that, due to a brutal and unforgiving difficulty, failure is almost an information gathering process. Each failure grants further insight into the world and its rules. Most games do this to some extent, but the majority cast failure as an optional thing. It feels avoidable and unintended when it occurs. I'm not sure what it would look like, but I'd be very interested in a game that encourages probing "failure" without the merciless character of a roguelike. I just can't help but think we haven't seen this yet because such a game would seem bizarre and antithetical.

As an aside, Jon Blow gave a good talk at MIGS where he discussed the tension in games between progress (continue the story, allows things to evolve) and challenge (keep things from changing until certain conditions have been met). Listen if you haven't, it's solid.

Games can be thought of as a conversation between creators and players. A great deal of the time, the player is just trying to keep up with the conversation until it's over. We've seen some great experiments that helped players hear and reflect about what was really being said by slowing the conversation down, by using common parlance and familiar words. I think we'll see even more of these experiments in the future and I'm definitely excited. Maybe before long, we'll see games where you "fail" because you want to, not because you didn't do things right. As long as we've still got plenty of good healthy challenge in other games that appear alongside it, I'm totally on board. You?

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Wednesday, August 4, 2010

What Does Free Really Cost?

Would you like to click a cow? It's free! All your friends are doing it. Your cow is waiting.

Two weeks ago, Ian Bogost released a satirical Facebook game called Cow Clicker. It means to reveal the mindless, repetitive nature of nearly all Facebook games by stripping all the other noise and trappings, leaving just a trivial mechanical task that can be repeated after a certain time interval (or you can pay real money to reduce/eliminate that interval). He writes about it on his blog at length here and Leigh Alexander at Gamasutra interviewed Bogost about the same.

Bogost identifies four qualities of social games he finds distressing. 1) Enframing, social games transform friends into mere resources. 2) Compulsion, social games demand frequent, OCD-esque updating. 3) Optionalism, social games demand you do little more than click a cow. 4) Destroyed time, where combined with compulsion, players are punished for spending time away from the game.

I'm not particularly concerned about the first (a Heidegger quote alone doesn't really persuade, sorry). The second and fourth are worrisome, but far larger concerns in some other types of games, e.g. almost all MMOs. But it's the third thing I find most troubling about social games. When the games consist merely of rote mechanical tasks where the decisions consist of, at best, meaningless colour picking, this becomes perilous when combined with free to play business models.

Now, I have little love for social games and to a lesser extent, other similar free to play games. Beyond Mark Pincus being an awful douche (and quite disappointingly later getting selected to keynote the IGDA's Leadership Forum), I feel there's a pretty fundamental problem that arises from the model of "games as a service."

Because the games are fundamentally free, all the game's features must do two things. One, attract as many people as possible. Two, find ways to get as many of those people to pay as much as possible. The strategy is to identify which of your users are the "whales" and get them to empty their wallets early and often. The term whale originally comes from casinos, the same industry that brought us the slot machine (another skill-less rote mechanical task you pay to perform).

I would say my role on DeathSpank (and everyone else's, really) was to create something lots of people would want to pay $15 dollars for. The difference being, the way I see to do that is to help make the most engaging, amusing game possible. As it's a discrete product, once we've transacted, we're done. I don't need to find a way to get another $15 (and another, and another) out of you. If we've really done our job right, you'll like the game so much, you'll tell your friends about it.

Social games monetize doing the opposite. You want to create a game that's compulsive and then start erecting barriers. Then you provide incentives to pay to remove those barriers. Players who aren't whales are only valuable because they are good bait for whales. They can spread the game around, attracting whales and they provide social pressure to keep playing the game, keeping the whales around and paying. But they're not valuable at all (in fact, they're only a cost) unless they're attracting or keeping whales around. David Hayward summarizes this as a "Fuck the users" approach and I'd say he's about right. Naturally, this collapses to making the games into rote, simple actions, as to attract and retain as many people as possible. Social games don't have to be high quality beyond a certain minimum threshold. Quality in something free is actually an expense that offers diminishing returns pretty quickly.

Some might say all games put up artificial barriers (after all, we could just make the player invincible and give them infinite ammo, right?), but I think that's an unfair comparison. If I'm playing chess with someone, I can intentionally make idiotic moves and throw the game. But that's hardly fun or engaging. The difference with a digital game is the designers front-load all their moves and let you play it out asynchronously. Depth and challenge make the game more compelling. For social games, they're actually a determent. Complexity compromises making the game accessible to as many players as possible and less players means less whales. Less whales means less revenue.

I'm saddened seeing ostensibly experienced and wise veterans like Brenda Brathwaite or Brian Reynolds talking about social games as a "game for designers" with all the access to data and feedback systems. And while that's kind of true, it's a game whose only objective is to separate people from their money. It's a game that's won by targeting whales, getting as much money from them as possible and giving them as little as you can in exchange. That's certainly no game I'd ever want to play.

Without the threshold provided by paying once for a single product and more importantly, needing to be perceived as being worth paying for, the incentives for creators become backward. It's not about making something so good people want to pay for it. It's about making the simplest, most available experience and finding ways to keep a subset of players coming back and paying over and over again. Inherently, you have to build a lesser product. If the free version is so good that nobody wants to pay for additional features, revenue is not possible.

I'd actually say I feel more or less the same way about social games that I do about Las Vegas. I'd certainly never say Vegas shouldn't exist, but I don't think anyone sensible would claim it's fair or a particularly valuable use of one's time. But at least Vegas offers the chance of real reward for playing. Social games merely devour time (and possibly money) in exchange for manipulating your brain to feel happy about clicking a cow. Being asked to strategize and improve is fundamentally at odds with the business model.

I don't think the social games are some dark future that must be combated with fang and claw. Some may absurdly claim they're "eating the lunch" of traditional games. But it's not like the people that would have bought Red Dead Redemption are opting for Frontierville instead. It's a different (I'd argue, far less discerning) audience. But it's an audience that's being taken advantage of, even if it is consensual.

Social games offer access to millions upon millions of people. I just find it kind of lame that the perceived ideal use for their time is to offer them an opportunity to click on a cow and then ask them to pay to click on the cow more often.

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