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Co-operative Play

In a games industry obsessed with direct competition, co-operative play is generally overlooked. Despite the odd high profile game featuring co-operative modes or elements, (Halo and San Andreas spring to mind), co-operation is at best seen as an optional extra in game design. At a time when we are hurting for alternative game evangelists; for new ways to drive awareness and interest in new games, is co-operative play more valuable than the industry recognises?

The spur for this piece was twofold. Firstly, showing my wife Shadow of the Colossus this weekend lead to us starting a two player game of Ico (my wife was unsurprisingly not enamoured of a game whose play is essentially crippling giant animals, no matter how beautifully rendered). I doubt we’ll play much of it, because the pace of play in Ico is extremely slow, but it was interesting to explore the co-op mode briefly. Secondly, we finally made the time to complete Klonoa 2: Lunatea’s Veil, a game with a highly unusual asymmetric co-op mode.

What is a co-op mode, or a co-operative game? Basically, these terms are generally used to refer to any game situation in which the primary relationship between the players is supportive rather than antagonistic. The players generally work together to achieve goals and competitive elements (if any) are minimised.

The most basic form of this kind of play is the team game. A typical team game is based around each player having the same capabilities; in essence, the game provides multiple avatars, one for each player. One of the first games to support this style of play was Gauntlet, which back in 1985 re-energised arcade revenues with its canny re-imagining of the basic tabletop role-playing clichés in a game which was one of the first ‘pump and play’ games (requiring players to feed it coins to keep playing). 

Mostly, we see two player team games which we could term partner games - like the co-op mode in Halo, the two player rampages in San Andreas, or the old school style of games like Contra (recently revived in Alien Hominid). In a partner game, it is usually possible for the players to play independently, co-operating only when a particularly difficult problem blocks their path. This makes these games easy to play, but it also means that the co-operative elements tend to be sidelined. The players are essentially still playing an agonistic game – they just happen to have an ally.

Some partner games take this further, usually by exploiting some measure of asymmetry to define separate roles. One example is the explicitly co-operative play of Kuri Kuri Mix which can only be played two players working together (or by a single player with exceptional skills!) The two avatars have identical capabilities, but the game world is bifurcated into two parallel paths – each player works down their own path. Switches and puzzles in each single path allow the player in the other path to advance. The game is entertaining and different, but suffered greatly because it could only be enjoyed with two players. (There are in general terms many more players playing alone than playing together, so games which require two players to be played tend to lose out). 

Ico also works as a partner game, and is asymmetric. Here, the asymmetry is in the avatar abilities: Ico is the more capable character, being capable of fighting, climbing, falling and carrying. Yorda, by comparison, is only capable of climbing and carrying. Sadly, the game camera is intolerably unworkable. Whomever plays Yorda faces an exceptionally bumpy ride in terms of frequently not being able to see their avatar on screen.

Team games in general tend to exploit asymmetry in avatar abilities. Gauntlet has its classic roles of warrior, wizard, valkyrie and elf (archer in more recent versions), for instance. Project Eden, which is structured more like a puzzle-driven adventure, has four characters with radically different abilities as the basis of its play. (Given that the adventure style of play seems to be a good fit to introverted play, the four player co-operative mode for this game has seen little use, which is a shame as it is where the game comes into its own). The Conflict games offer similar play but with gameplay based around simple tactical scenarios, and largely devoid of puzzles. 

Also, team games have a tendency to include competitive elements, perhaps because the development team didn’t know how to design a game any other way. In Gauntlet, competition over food is common, and the ‘It’ levels devolve into direct competition. Similarly, The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords has the players competing for rankings at the end of each level. Presumably, there are some players for whom this is a spur to play – it is doubtful that a co-operative game genuinely benefits from being tied so directly to competition.

More unusual forms of co-operative play can be found. In Klonoa 2, the main player controls Klonoa, who has the usual range of abilities for a 2D platform game. The second player controls Popka, and has one and only one ability: they can rocket Klonoa high up in the air. (After doing so, Popka takes a while to recover). This style of play could be considered support play. The main player does all the work, but the second player has the potential to contribute support to the main play. What is especially interesting about the play of this game is that puzzles and challenges which are very tricky to achieve as a single player become easier in support play. Not to mention that the supporting player can quite frequently save the main player from certain death through careful use of their ability. 

Of course, many game-literate players might be bored by having so little direct influence on play but there are many benefits. The complexity of control for the supporting player has been reduced to a single control – this is simple enough that anyone could do it. Since the main player can call for help out loud, this allows a second player to contribute to play even if they lack any conventional gaming skills. Additionally, the development cost of adding the second player in this way is extremely minimal. In the case of myself and my wife, we switched off pads quite frequently throughout the game because we both had sufficient gaming skills to play either role, but I believe there is potential for the very young or the very inexperienced to contribute to play through some kind of support play.

This particular example also opens the door to another kind of play, one which is rarely exploited: tutor play. It is often the case when a player comes to a game for the first time that they will be taught to play be a second player. In boardgames, this element of play is practically assumed; Magic: The Gathering expects that its rules will be learned in this way, and explicitly references this in the rulebook. In videogames, the tutorial is still provided as a static single player experience. Consider the benefits of including a two-player tutor mode in which one player demonstrates game actions, and the other player mimics those actions. There can be no doubt that a human player is a better teacher than any static tutorial could ever be. 

Tutor modes could also be designed based around support play. Consider that a driving instructor has a full set of controls, but usually lets the student drive. In case of emergency, the driving instructor can seize control and save the day. Something similar can be implemented in a game context, either directly or indirectly. Consider a platform game in which the tutor player controls a jetpack or bird character who can rescue the main player avatar by the press of a button, or a similar mechanic. In this context, the support play of Klonoa 2 and the Yorda role in Ico could be seen as tutor modes – although this is not how they are presented, they can be used in this way.

I’ve been thinking about ways to leverage the tutor-pupil interaction in game design since Katherine Isbister’s presentation on extraverted play at last year’s GDC. There is even an emotion associated with the success of a student (or offspring) – Ekman refers to it as naches – which can be a highly enjoyable emotional payoff. There is surely more to discover in this corner of play, but we will need new game designs to explore it fully.

It is not yet clear how valuable co-operative play is to a game in commercial terms. There is little doubt that it can contribute to a game’s success (Halo in particular is believed to have supported sales of the original Xbox by attracting new players who first experienced the console’s only killer ap by playing co-op with an existing Xbox owner). It is clear, however, that extraverted play (which includes but extends far beyond co-operative play) can drive sales. The success of the console versions of Dance Dance Revolution which were not predicted to have a significant market demonstrates that meeting new play needs can create new niche markets.

I believe that mass market products will have an increasing duty to support co-operative play in interesting ways. As budgets in the upper market rise to insane degrees, the cost of developing additional modes and features such as co-operative play become trivial next to the total development and marketing budget – and since these games need to pull every trick in the book to court a large enough audience to make back their costs, no such game can afford to exclude some element of co-operative play that could expand the appeal of the game to a wider audience, provide a mechanism to introduce new players to the game, and potentially drive awareness of the game to a much wider audience.

Fireball Manual

Where does fire go when it dreams?

Enter the strange and wonderful world of Fireball. As a flaming hot ball of fire, you can burn and melt blocks of many different materials, and soar high above the world – before slamming down and exploding in a blast of intense heat. Nothing can hurt you, nothing can stop you.

The hotter you become, the more you can burn.
The hotter you become, the higher you can jump.


Choose your Quest

There are three Paths to choose from...

The Fun Path

Laugh and gaze in wonder at the curiosities of this entertaining and amusing path.

The Puzzle Path

Test your intellectual mettle against the mystifying conundrums of this curious and bewildering path.

The Challenge Path

Struggle to overcome the trials of this formidable path where few have earned victory!

Choose a Quest by burning an object in the Questing Field. The Path it belongs to will be shown. Each Quest consists of six different Fields.

Each Path contains many Quests, and you may change between the Paths whenever you like!


Your progress is automatically saved whenever you complete a Quest, or whenever you quit a Quest and return to the Questing Field.

You must have an 8MB Memory Card for PS2 inserted in the memory card slot for progress to be saved.


How to Be a Fireball

Every Field has an Exit. Reach the Exit to move to the next Field.

Here’s how you control the fireball:

Ps2xbutton_1Press to Jump
The fireball jumps up to its maximum height, then begins to drift gently down towards the ground.

Ps2xbutton_3Then press again to Slam
The fireball crashes down to the ground rapidly, and then explodes – igniting nearby blocks. The slam is slightly hotter than the fireball’s own heat.

Ps2trianglebuttonJump and Top Down View
The fireball jumps, and the view changes to top down. Press again to cancel top down view. (Toggles top down view).

Press to pause. From the pause screen, you can quit the current Quest by pressing Select, or press Start to continue playing.

Because you cannot be hurt, you may sometimes have to restart the current challenge. Hold Select briefly and you will start the current Field again.

Ps2l1buttonSlide Left
Move Sideways to the left 

Ps2r1buttonSlide Right
Move Sideways to the right

Alternative Controls

Find the 'Alternative Control' object in the Options part of the Questing Field and burn it to select the alternative control scheme. Jump and Slam will now be on separate controls:




Remember that you are immortal and therefore never die. However, you may sometimes be unable to reach the exit – especially in Challenge and Puzzle fields. When this happens, just press Select to restart.


Getting Hotter

When you touch a block that is burning hotter than you, you instantly become hotter!

  When you are… You Can Burn… You Can Melt… You Can Jump…

           ● Yellow Hot            Leaf                                                               2 Blocks High

        ●● Orange Hot            Wood                         Plastic                     4 Blocks High

     ●●● Red Hot                   Coal                                                               8 Blocks High

   ●●●● Blue Hot                                                      Metal                     12 Blocks High

●●●●● White Hot              Metal                          Stone                     16 Blocks High



When you Slam, you can set fire to blocks that require you to be just a little hotter.


Your Rewards

Every Quest consists of six fields – the best fireballs will earn Medals!

When you burn a lot of blocks together you earn a Combo.
Your total Combo across a Quest may earn you a Silver or Gold Medal!

Every block you burn is worth 1 Ash
Burn all the blocks in a Quest to earn a Ribbon!
Win by completing any Path!
Become a fireball master by completing all three Paths! 


Ash unlocks Quests in the Fun Path,
Medals unlock Quests in Challenge Path!


About the Fireball Manual

The next post is a draft version of the Fireball manual. I'm looking for feedback both from people who've played the development builds, and also from people who have no prior experience of the game. A few notes:

  1. The pictures included are not part of the manual; I just thought it was time to put some more recent screenshots up somewhere. The final manual will be printed in black and white, so any screenshots will have to be chosen carefully.
  2. Each picture marks the end of a page.
  3. This is the manual for the PS2 version. The PC version will probably be similar.
  4. My goal in constructing this manual is to get across all the required information in the smallest number of words.
  5. Since multiplayer functionality is still being determined, it isn't currently mentioned.

Thanks in advance for the feedback!


Back from Animated Exeter; my thanks to Suzanne, Liz and Catherine for their assistance throughout. I wish I'd had more of a chance to see some of the animated films, but I did enjoy How Mermaids Breed, which was showing in the venue I was speaking at. My wife and I met the artist behind this work, Joan Ashworth, who is perhaps best known for her work on the opening titles to the 1989 Batman movie. I learned from her that Ray Harryhausen is still alive. I thought she might be able to tell me where Barry Purvis is now... she wasn't certain.

Frustration #1: The Book

Editing Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames has been considerably more work than I'd anticipated. It's consuming almost all of my time right now, and leaving little time for Fireball, blogging or anything else. Although I'm working with some good material submitted by the dozen authors, a lot of it requires considerable restructuring, more variety of examples and editing to provide a coherent use of language across the entire work. Half way through the first draft right now...

Frustration #2: Trademarks

Some womble at the UK Patent's Office allowed a word-only trademark in the name 'Fireball', for a class that includes entertainment. This may mean that we cannot call the game Fireball, although we're investigating the circumstances right now. The company this trademark is registered to is not listed on the Companies House database, so they may have gone under. We might be able to buy the trademark if we can find a papertrail.

The European publisher is anticipating a mass market audience, so we can't use the other name Hidama, although it's tempting to use this name for the PC version. I need backup plans for the game name... I don't want to use a colonic form (Fireball: Colons Suck) unless absolutely necessary, and I want to keep the word 'Fireball' in the name. Suggestions welcome.

My Life as a Fisherman

Controller_1Before Sega Bass Fishing on the Dreamcast, I confess to being sceptical of the value of custom controllers. After all, you have to pay extra for the hardware, so it had better be worthwhile, and every light gun I've purchased has failed to provide much entertainment value relative to its price tag. Sega Bass Fishing changed all that.

I don't know if I would ever have considered playing this game. Sure, I used to go fishing with my dad when I was very young, but it was more about taking a boat out into the Solent than actually catching anything. I enjoyed snorkeling and scuba diving more than fishing - you get to see a whole new world underwater; a truly breathtaking experience.

My wife and I stumbled upon the game by virtue of a demo disk for the Dreamcast. (Let no-one doubt the commercial value of distributing demos! Nintendo - I'm talking to you!) We had fun with the demo, although it was tremendously short (about 90 seconds of play, as I recall). But we came back and played it over and over again. Eventually, it became apparent we were enjoying the demo so much we had to buy the game, and at that point the decision to buy the fishing controller just followed naturally.

Best buying decision in my gaming life. You see, Sega Bass Fishing was a fun game, but played with the fishing controller, it was enormous fun. The sort of fun that you can actually see in a photograph (if I had time I'd dig up some photos of my friends playing) - smiles, laughter, excitement, relief, fiero... this game delivered the goods.

SegbassTo understand why the game is fun, you have to see that playing the game is like the challenge of fishing, but with the beauty and exploration of diving. Your camera view switches to underwater after you cast, and you get to see your lure moving through the depths. Best of all, you get to see the fish respond to your lure - this is superbly interactive. There's nothing quite like adding a little flourish to your reeling; a little jerk to keep a big bass interested. Getting into the rhythm of your deep crank, as you alternately reel fast, then slow to let it drift... The fish is interested. It's coming closer. And then, finally, they bite down and the battle is on.

You reel as fast as you can, but not too fast because the line can easily snap. You feel the tension as the rod vibrates. It gets tense. People watching shout encouragement - it's that kind of experience. You fight with the fish; you move the controller like it was a real rod, because you've been sucked into the illusion. Sometimes you land your catch easily - and it transpires that it was a trick of the camera that it looked so big. "Ooh, small one", the voice over declares. Sometimes you get there a little easily, but it's still satisfying. "Okay, an average size - good job!" Sometimes you have a titanic battle which culminates in your finally landing this giant monster bass, which your fisherman struggles to lift skywards. "This one's Huge!" the voice over gasps.

And that's not to mention the wonder of the popper (reeling in pounds and pounds of fish in just a few minutes), or the games of cat and mouse when casting with the grub, or the struggle to make the rubber jig work.

This_ones_hugeI loved many games on my Dreamcast, but few have such cherished space in my memories, because few games provided so much fun to so many people. Sega Bass Fishing changed the way I feel about custom controllers, because it changed the experience of play. It enhanced the mimicry of the experience immeasurably to have a rod and reel to play with. Peterb's praise of Guitar Hero shows echoes of the same enhancement. If the Nintendo Revolution can make its new controller fulfill roles of mimicry in the minds of its players, this alone could enhance the play value of its games.

If anyone reading also has fond memories of Sega Bass Fishing, either on the Dreamcast or in the arcades, I encourage you to share your experiences in the comments. This game deserves to be remembered.

Intellectual Disharmony

There is a tendency for intellectuals to prefer their own models to other peoples. This, perhaps, is only natural - after all, it is easier to be emotionally invested in one's own ideas than those of others. Furthermore, it is easier to co-operate with people for whom we are emotionally invested than to co-operate with strangers. Sadly, a consequence of this state of affairs is that it can be particularly hard to make progress in certain fields because intellectuals would, to some degree, rather tear down other people's models than co-operate to build better ones.

I suspect that much of the problem results  from the transposition of territorial instincts. Intellectuals tend to carry out their territorial battles in the context of language and ideas rather than in the physical world (sometimes, an intellectual will arrogantly note how they are above petty territorial concerns, while simultaneously engaging in extremely territorial behaviour in ideological terms).

This sublimated territorialism seems to manifest in the battle for control of language. Make no mistake, language is in a state of constant flux - changes in the language can emerge gradually over time, or quite suddenly. Shakespeare, for instance, is credited for contributing an astonishing 1,600 words to the English language, including countless, critical, excellent, lonely, majestic and obscene. In the space of my lifetime I have observed the meaning of the word 'factoid' change from meaning 'unverified or inaccurate information reported as fact' to meaning 'a brief and slightly interesting fact'; dictionaries report this as a 'usage problem'. More likely, the original meaning will end up being tagged as 'archaic' within a hundred years.

If one believes solely in the principle of survival of the fittest, perhaps this intellectual disharmony can be seen as a battle with some merit. However, co-operation seems reliably faster as a means of achieving anything worthwhile.

Intellectuals therefore face a choice as to whether they should 'go it alone' (with an extremely high risk of long term irrelevancy) or attach themselves to a 'school of thought', adopting language and ideas from an existing source. Speaking for myself, I have noticed I find it slightly easier to adopt the ideas of dead intellectuals than living ones, although there are living people whose ideas I have readily taken onboard, such as Stephen J. Gould, Nicole Lazzaro, Toru Iwatani and Mike Moorcock.

Much of my resistance towards my contemporaries rests in language choice. Brian Sutton-Smith's work is top notch, but I cannot see how the term "rhetorics of play" can possibly take off in the long term because it seems (to my ears, at least) such a clumsy construct. Conversely Huizinga's "Magic Circle" is a simple concept, easily understood and easily expressed. Such ideas propagate themselves.

Similarly, while I have great respect for Noah Falstein, I find the sheer volume of time the 400 Project spends on the minutae of its trumping scheme to be rather frustrating. It makes it hard for me to support this approach, because I cannot see how anything so complicated can propagate effectively (although the rules themselves are a wonderful grab-bag of ideas).

I would love to contribute meaningfully to the refinement of language and ideas, especially in the field of game design (and perhaps too in the field of philosophy of religion and language, although at the moment it seems all I can do is act as a counterweight against the premature certainty engendered by scientific thinking). I am under no illusions that this will be easy, and under no expectation of success. It is, I believe, the attempt that is worthy.

If, at the end of my time, I have contributed one useful term or phrase to the language of game design, I will consider this to be a grand achievement. If I have somehow managed to advance someone else's ideas, I will consider this an even greater achievement. Likely, I am just a map dot in the vast continent of intellectual pursuits, and I find myself quite comfortable with this. I don't crave fame, I just want to make games that people enjoy. (And I hope I can resist the temptation to judge my success by sales figures).

Intellectuals battle for control of the language. Most of these conflicts are beyond irrelevancy. A few, perhaps are worthwhile. Let us hope for the wisdom to determine what is worth pursuing, and the humility to contribute, rather than attempting to stake meaningless rational claims on our own.

Road to GDC

Given my current workload, blog content is likely to be less of a priority over the next six weeks as my editing chores for the new book intensify (Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames; a multi-author book on writing skills by the IGDA Game Writers' SIG), Fireball demands more and more attention, and other (sub rosa) projects fight for the scraps of my time. I don't know if I'll be writing less, or just using my blog time to work on Fireball yet - I guess we'll find out soon enough!

In the meantime, here are few quick recommendations for GDC...


"Emotion Boot Camp: Putting More Emotion into Play", Nicole Lazzaro & Katherine Isbister (Full Day Tutorial, Monday 20th March). It irks me that I am not able to make GDCs for the tutorials this year, as this one just sounds perfect. A pragmatic exploration of the emotions evoked by games, and how to encourage emotional responses in your players. I wish more of GDC was like this.

"IGDA Writer's Special Interest Group Presents: Write Club", Edward Kuehnel, Matthew Entin and guests (One Hour Tournament, Wednesday and Thursday) This is the craziest thing I've ever seen make it onto the GDC schedule and as such deserves support! Come along to a truly experimental tournament as we see writers compete to out-write each other for honour and prizes!

"Writers Group Gathering", Me (Group Gathering, Wednesday, 2:30pm — 3:30pm). I have to plug this, I suppose... but if you're in the field of game writing, you should be here. We are also planning on having a Game Writer's meal every day of GDC (more or less) so there are plenty of opportunities to foster community.

"Attracting Women to Game Development", Michelle Sorger, Sande Chen (One Hour Roundtable, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday). I went to one of these roundtables last year and it was well worth the time. I'm struggling to fit it into my schedule this year, but I'm hoping to attend at least one of the slots. Also consider any of the Joseph Saulter slots on diversity. Our industry has a shocking lack of ethnic diversity and gender balance...

"Future Character Design: Out of the Lab and Into Your Game", Katherine Isbister (One Hour Lecture, Friday 24th March). Okay, I'm plugging Katherine Isbister again. What can I say. There's a shortage of Japanese game design talks this year... This is a talk about recent developments in research with implications for game design; no idea what that will entail, but I'm certain it'll be interesting.

Also highly recommended is the IGF (Independent Games Festival) - consistently the finest collection of games at any conference you will attend! Every year it single-handedly restores my faith in interactive entertainment. Makes E3 seem like vacuous marketing drivel... (unsurprisingly).

Not Recommended

"Untitled", Will Wright (60 minute lecture, Thursday). There are several reasons I don't recommend this session. The first is the appaling lack of effort made by GDC to make it seem like a good use of your time. The conference notes read (in their entirety): "Overview: Why are you still reading this? It's Will Wright." Well Raid on Bungeling Bay was okay, I suppose, but what has he done since! :) The main reason to avoid this, however, is that it will be massively oversubscribed, you won't get a seat, you might not even get in the door and even if you don't brave the crowds to attend it live they are likely to screen repeats of it throughout the rest of the conference. Unless, like last year, EA decide not to let the GDC organisers screen repeats of it. They're such friendly folks at EA, full of the spirit of loving and togetherness. :) I guess that's a third reason not to attend.

Have fun!

Na na na na na na na na na Katamari Analysis

Kd_prince_4If you're not interest in the grammatical representation of game design, feel free to skip ahead to the General Analysis below (as if I could stop you!)

Katamari in Bast

Bast is what I am calling my bastardised categorial grammar of design (or CatGoD, hence Bast - thanks ZenBen!) I thought I'd take a moment to express Takahashi-san's delightful franchise in Bast. This is a subjective system, so there are multiple possible representations. This is how I draw it out.

Katamari Damacy = [N] x [V]

[N] =
    Katamari (avatar)

[V] =

    (Quick Turn)

[N/N] (adjectives) =


What can be seen here is that the Katamari games get an awful lot of play out of two Nouns (Katamari, Objects), two Verbs (Roll, Clump) and one Adjective (Size). You can readily tell that this game emerged from a very simple concept statement. In fact, we know what this was, because Takahashi-san has shared it with us:

Roll --> Absorb --> Grow

His play model emerges directly from the verb choices. This, in my opinion, is how all but narrative-oriented (e.g. adventures) and world-oriented (e.g. MMORPG, GTA) design should begin. We might consider it to be a play-oriented game design.

Why are there only two nouns?

Because objects in the game world are functionally identical in game terms. They are just objects... they have one property (size) which determines whether or not the avatar (the only other noun!) can clump the object or not. But there is no difference between a mah jong tile, a cat, a car, a building, an island, a continent or a planet (except for the cosmetics - its appearance and the noise it makes when you roll it up). They're all objects, defined in terms of their size.

Strawberry_katamari_1Size - our only adjective - is the key to the game. The katamari increases in size as it clumps objects. The size of the katamari is compared to the size of the object in order to determine whether an object can be picked up. This is the sole metric which controls the pacing of the gameplay.

Of course, the arrangement of the objects in the game world do make a difference to how the game plays, but at the high level of abstraction that Bast operates, this is largely irrelevant.

I cannot stress just how unusual it is for a video game to have this few nouns!

Core versus Advanced Verbs

There are only two core verbs, Roll and Clump.

Almost every game has at least one movement verb, and Roll does it for this franchise. There is also Dash and Quick Turn in the advanced verbs - you don't need them to play, but they're there if you want them.

The other verb, Clump, is actually a secondary function of Roll - because you clump (which is to say, pick up and absorb objects) as you Roll. However, where you choose to roll, and what you choose to roll over, does change what you Clump, so it deserves a seperate mention.

Look and Map are the remaining advanced verbs; they're not really needed, but it doesn't hurt that they're included.


General Analysis

Continuousness & Rewards

A particular odd thing about the katamari games is just how continuous they are. In terms of rewards, anything you can pick up is a small reward, and objects which are close to the largest size you can pick up at any given time are particularly rewarding. (Just the noises objects make when you clump them give them a strong feeling of reward!) Objects are scattered everywhere - none of the searching for rewards we usually associate with games, this game just gives you a continuous stream of small rewards. Not since the heyday of the 2D shooter have rewards been these generously strewn about!

The other aspect of its continuousness is the way the avatar size gradually increases from the tiny to the very large. This is a rather clever trick played on the player. In fact, the katamari doesn't increase in size significantly at all. Instead, the player goes through a series of about five back to back levels. Each level includes objects from a handful of scales. The level that follows drops the smallest sized objects, and adds in new sets of objects which give more granularity at a higher scales. The player doesn't see this as a series of levels, because the start point of each new level is the same as the end point of the previous level - the change in scale allows the old level to be fully encapsulated in the new one. The development team deserve praise for this cunning solution, which allowed them to play with scale in a manner previously not possible because of technical restrictions.

Play Style Analyis

Lazzaro's Four Keys

Wp_utopia_l_2The key emotions you spot when people play this game are Wonder and Amusement. There is some potential for Fiero, but it's not a central theme, and Fiero signals are less commonly spotted in players.  Amusement only appears in Key four "The People Factor" which is expressly about extroverted play. Therefore, the best fit to this model is Key two "Easy Fun".


From the above, we can immediately see that this game is going to fit most clearly into the Type 3 Wanderer play style. There's a small potential for Type 1 Conqueror play, but ultimately the aimless fun-focussed paidic play of the Wanderer has to be the best fit.

Skill Sets (Temperament Theory/"DGD1.5")

This isn't a game you generally repeat until you beat (except when you are learning to master the controls), which counts out Logistical as a best fit, and there's nothing at all which could be considered Strategic play in my opinion (no hypothesising or problem solving). Although the tone of the game is a good fit to Diplomatic (abstract and harmonising), it is surely a better fit to Tactical - you play the game from situation to situation, making decisions on the fly. Plus, it is practically a machine control game, with a noisy environment - another fit to Tactical.

Note that the Type 3 Wanderer in DGD1 is associated with Diplomatic and Tactical skills, so this game is (highly tenuous!) support for the speculative links between DGD1 and Temperament Theory. (But, at the end of the day, a model is just a model).

Market Analysis

I, and many other players, love the Katamari games. But these games will likely never see mass market success. The games are just too strange to the eyes of a typical Westerner. The twin stick control is also a problem; it makes the game too much like a simple machine operation exercise (the controls are in fact practically identical to tank controls, as featured in the classic Battlezone).

TakahashithumbTakahashi-san has observed how several people pointed out to him that the game could be controlled by a single stick. This would improve it's mass market appeal. But, and this is unusual, the Katamari games are essentially works of "assisted auteurship" (isn't all art assisted... after all, who makes their own paint and canvas these days?) and Takahashi-san feels the game would lack something if it didn't use both sticks. Personally, I'm not convinced moving to a single stick control would help this game's sales, as the inherent Japanese weirdness is the bigger barrier to mass market appeal.

However, I remain confident the games have cost less to make than they have made back in sales. Katamari Damacy sold about 150,000 units in Japan (at ¥4,725) and about 500,000 units in the US (at $20). It had no European release (which is utter mind numbing madness!) Total turnover: $16 million. It's hard to reverse engineer budget, but 20% of budget is not an atypical allocation for development fees. I cannot imagine these games cost more than $3.2 million to make. This leaves Namco with Yen symbols over their eyes (kerching!)

Never mind the mass market, never mind budgets in the tens of millions of dollars, there's gold in the niche markets for game designers with a new idea and the tenacity to bring it to life.

Have a great weekend!

Thanks to Kirsten Bole and Craigandlori for some of the images. The horse by a lake picture is from the game manual. I believe this is the most beautiful game manual cover image I've ever seen!

Interaction Models

Movement_3How do we want to make our games? Do we want to be challenging the player? Empowering them to explore? Providing them with toys to play with? These decisions can make a vast difference to how a game plays, and what the focus of play will be. Much depends on what proportion of the workload of control is assigned to the avatar, and how much lands at the feet of the player. How this issue is resolved determines the interaction model of the game.

Perhaps there is an unspoken assumption among the so-called Hardcore players, those for whom gaming is a lifestyle choice, that the player will shoulder the entire burden of control. This would in part explain why so many games require the player to master myriad control mechanisms, which often rival in complexity the most esoteric machines in our modern culture.

When the difficulty of acting falls on the shoulders of the player, the model of interaction might be considered the empty vessel. The avatar does little or nothing without the player expressly triggering it with the correct control combination.

There is no doubt that some players enjoy mastering the complex control systems that result from the empty vessel model. Some enjoy the payoff of fiero achieved by overcoming difficulty; some feel a sense of satisfaction from achieving mastery of systems. There is also little doubt that when taken in the context of a wider audience, these desires represent a minority viewpoint. For every player who would like to get to grips with complex controls, there are a dozen others who would prefer to be playing rather than learning controls.

The comparative success of the First Person Shooter genre (in the West, at least - the Japanese and Asian market remains comfortably resistant) creates the illusion that we can get away with complex control mechanisms in games, and to a certain extent this is fair. After all, Goldeneye (1997) and Half-Life (1998) sold some 8 million units each we're told, which is an impressive audience. However, notice that both games sold these numbers almost ten years ago - and in the case of Goldeneye, the game featured a much simpler basic control mechanism than its decendents.

FPS games are a very successful niche market. But make no mistake, they are not a mass market genre in any normal sense of the phrase, typically pulling in no more than 4 million players, and more commonly bombing completely and making a loss for their developers and publishers. The players who enjoy them take from game to game legacy skills that make each future FPS trivial to learn to play - provided the new games don't add too many bells and whistles. Put such a game in the hands of a non-gamer, however, and they usually cannot manage to turn or move at all.

Samorost2_3At the other end of the scale are genres such as point and click adventures (which survive as a much smaller niche market, with typical maximum sales closer to perhaps a million units, and more commonly under 100,000 units). In these games, the control elements are minimised - practically eliminated in some cases. The player just has to point the avatar to a particular place, and the avatar takes actions automatically. However, the point and click adventure also eliminates something else: it tends to eliminate play. Not entirely - puzzle solving and narrative play remains - but the capacity to pick up and play in a direct fashion has been lost. The mass market audience appears to be strongly engaged by games in which they can be amused by what they can make their avatar do immediately. Adventures are more like interactive novels: they require a certain commitment from the player before they pay-off; gratification is delayed.

The interaction model at work in the adventure game genre is grossly simplified, and could be considered the distant voice model. The player does not so much take control of the avatar as act as a voice in the avatar's head, guiding the next step. It is a very strategic mode of control, less concerned with the nuts and bolts of moving and acting and more concerned with high level progress. Indeed, the adventure game is largely about guiding the story forward. (Note that this interaction model applies to both text-driven adventures, and point and clicks).

Both these genres of games - FPS's and adventure games - largely avoid a problem which lies at the heart of modern games: camera control in a 3D world. The player needs to see what the avatar is doing, and this requires the camera to behave in an intelligent fashion (for interaction models approaching the distant voice) or for the player to be put in control of the camera (for models approaching the empty vessel).

This is a serious issue. To reach a mass market audience, we require simpler controls than that implied by the empty vessel model.Put the player in charge of controlling the camera, and you increase the burden of control on the player. Put the game in charge of controlling the camera, and you are likely at some point to frustrate the player with a poor view. Unless, of course, you spend a fortune creating custom camera systems from level to level, which certain (vastly expensive) games such as God of War choose as their approach. Since I do not want to see game development slow to a trickle of sequels, I'm not keen on this as a solution.

Sadly, I do not have the answers for the camera dilemma. There are many options - designing games to use views which eliminate camera problems (top down and side on views), game designs and level designs which are adapted to a specific camera system (using only cavernous interior spaces, for instance), transparency effects and cutout views to preserve the players line of sight. But it is already clear that leaving the player as the sole camera operator (as generally happens when the empty vessel model applies) is insufficient for reaching a wide audience.

Let us pretend, however, for the purposes of considering possible interaction models, that we have a perfect, reliable and inexpensive camera solution. We are now in a position to consider an interaction model which lies between the complexity of the empty vessel model, and the extreme simplicity of the distant voice model.

What if the avatar, rather than being an empty vessel, requiring every action to be initiated by the player, is quite competent. What if the avatar automatically works out what to do in any given situation? She reaches the edge of a ledge, but there is another one ahead within jumping distance, and it will definitely be possible to jump back when across: merely pushing ahead in this instance will cause her to jump to the other edge, because this is the obvious action to take when you are guiding someone to continue forward in this situation. Similarly, imagine a situation where the avatar is being fired upon by a foe; you run her towards a low wall which can provide cover. When she arrives, she automatically takes cover, because this is the sensible action to take in this situation. If you keep the stick moving, she will run along behind the cover.

This is what I have whimsically termed the blind captain interaction model. ('Captain' to imply the competence of the avatar; 'blind' to imply the player's role as the avatar's guiding eyes). Partly, this model depends upon the use of intelligently defined context-sensitive transit mechanisms, which are becoming very common in games. For example, in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, if you jump near a wall, the avatar will automatically grab hold of the wall. Push up, and he will climb on top. This is the essence of a context-sensitive transit mechanism. In the blind captain model, the avatar would automatically scale the wall when reaching it, though - after all, why would the avatar run on the spot standing next to a wall? This is only part of what is required for the blind captain model, however. The other side of the coin is defining responses to situations according to what would make sense for the avatar, rather than relying on the player to specify the interaction.

The essence of the blind captain model is that the avatar has a simple (rule-based) artificial intelligence which determines its behaviour, and the player is freed to guide the avatar, rather than to initiate all actions with specific control combinations. Two way communication between the avatar and the player is probably required. If the avatar can see a course of action that might not be obvious to the player, a signal (a '!' above the avatar's head would suffice) would be required to inform the player. In these situations, a (single) button would be used to initiate this avatar-spotted course of action. For instance, at a ledge with no platform to jump to, the avatar may be able to see that the ledge could be negotiated if she hangs from it. This is signalled to the player, and if the player wants to explore that option, they press the action button to do so.

What is the purpose of this model? It is to empower the player to play, rather than to challenge the player to learn to carry out complex tasks. In a game such as Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, the player is afforded an impressive number of actions, all of which are beuatifully animated - but the control skills required to complete these actions are prohibitively hard for anyone without sufficient legacy skills to master. It follows the empty vessel model. Imagine the appeal to a wider audience of a similar game which made it easy for the player to guide the avatar through such impressive feats. Just watching the animation would be engaging.

I am not proposing that the blind captain model would replace the empty vessel and distant voice models - these models already have loyal audiences, and will be with us for a long time to come in one form or another. Rather, I am suggesting that exploring the blind captain model might give us a new and wider audience. Hardcore players may be intellectually resistant to sharing control with the avatar; many would like to be given absolute control, and thanks to their legacy skills have no difficulty with complex control mechanisms. But such people are definitely a minority.

_40951368_bond_pa203bImagine, in the near future, a 007  game in which the player was actually empowered to become Bond instead of being challenged to perform at his level of competence. Failing over and over again until the player can master the challenge presented is not a game experience which resembles watching a Bond film. Bond (or any other action hero - male or female) is naturally competent. He finds ways to survive being shot. He finds ways to survive jumping of roofs and cliffs. He finds ways to survive anything that is thrown at him. (He finds a way to seduce practically every non-lesbian woman he can find). A blind captain 007 game would give the player these survival skills for free, thus empowering the player to investigate master criminal plots and battle enemies using their own skill and judgement. It would allow the player  for the first time to play at being Bond, just as a child would play in their own imagination. That's what Bond is: an adolescent power fantasy. Shouldn't Bond games deliver this same experience?

There is one thing I am confident that players in the nebulous mass market want: they want to play. The easier the control mechanism, the more likely this is to happen.


The opening image is Movement by Melanie Weidner, taken from the Listen for Joy art gallery. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended, and I will take the image down if asked.

Footnotes for Regular Readers

The empty vessel model supports Tactical play only when the player already has the legacy skills to be able to play without mastering a lot of additional controls. In general, it supports Logistical play - the player is required to repeat actions over and over again until they work out what to do and/or successfully implement it. Because challenge is a key focus of games favouring this interaction model, games using this model seem to appeal primarily to players who enjoy the Type 1 Conqueror play style in DGD1 or Lazzaro's "Hard Fun", i.e. players for whom fiero is a key emotional payoff.

The distant voice model is chiefly a Strategic approach. Players generally require the ability to hypothesise and solve problems abstractly to enjoy this means of play. In this context, it is not suprising that games employing the distant voice model have a smaller audience than those emplying the empty vessel model (Strategic skills are assumed to be strongly expressed in about 10% of the population, whereas Logistical skills are assumed to be strongly expressed in about 50% of the population).

The blind captain model has been conceived with an eye towards favouring paidia over ludus. I believe this is a key to mass market appeal. The type of play supported by the game could match any skill approach - Tactical, Logistical, Strategic or Diplomatic - and ideally, would support multiple different approaches in order to have maximal appeal.

We ♥ Namco

WelovekatamaricroppedI hold in my hand a copy of the European release of We ♥ Katamari, which I just purchased from my local independent retailer (thanks Faisal!) Rumours that EA were going to handle the European release of this game seem to have been a PR stunt, as it's clearly Namco doing the honours for its cult hit. It's not really surprising. The US release of the first game only sold about 500,000 copies - although for its development budget, I'm guessing that was profitable. Not exactly something EA is likely to care about for anything other than publicity.

A brief gush in praise of Namco... Just for hiring Keita Takahashi, they deserve approbation (please let him create a new franchise now!) but I must also thank them for sending Toru Iwatani to the last two GDCs. I am disappointed he will not be there this year. His talk two years back was the most inspirational speech I've heard as a game designer, and I continue to derive wisdom from it.

Although I'm sure many of you are sick of me complaining about the delays in European release dates, I just want to briefly share with you what it's like to be a UK gamer. Those of you who live in the US could enjoy the game on the 20th September 2005 for the very reasonable price of $29.99. Four and a half months later and we have it in the UK (despite it requiring no additional localisation) at a price point of £37.99 - which is $66.99 based on today's exchange rates. Yes, we get it almost half a year later at more than twice the price. Is it any wonder that I complain?

Incidentally, guess how many copies my local independent retailer was sent of the game... One. Yup, they were sent a single copy, which I bought. This is definitely a release on the fringes of the economic landscape! I have opted to pre-order my copy of Shadow of the Colossus, which is out in a fortnight, just in case it is similarly under supplied - but given the modestly colossal marketing drive that Sony is stumping up the cash for, I'm guessing that will be better supported.

Now if you excuse me, I have to tie up my work and rescue my wife so we can get some katamari rolling in before our friends arrive this weekend for our Superbowl XL celebrations. Any excuse for a poker party!

Enjoy your weekend!