Previous month:
February 2006
Next month:
April 2006

Why Sheri Graner Ray Should Blog

Sheri_graner_rayWhy should Sheri Graner Ray blog? Because we need female game design and production icons to inspire a new generation of women to get involved in our industry? Because there are too few women blogging about their experiences inside the development machine? Because she's intelligent, insightful and friendly? But none of these reasons are reasons why she might want to blog. For that, we have to look to what it means to blog.

I had the great pleasure at this year's GDC of having lunch with Sheri. We'd met last year, and had immediately connected in that strange and wonderful manner that sometimes just happens. For anyone who doesn't know, Sheri is a renowned industry veteran, the author of Gender Inclusive Game Design and a shining feminine jewel in the overwhelmingly masculine gravel pit of the game's industry. She was also one of the first people to leave Sony Online Entertainment in what will surely be known in future years as the "Great Exodus". (For reference, none of the people I used to know at SOE are still there...)

One of the things that came out of this meeting was that some people are leaning on Sheri to blog. This has left her slightly confused as to why. She took a look at Raph Koster's blog and elsewhere and it seemed that the main thing that blogs are used for is pontificating. I smiled and laughed, and noted that yes, I'm sure a fair amount of the content on my blog is idle posturing. But the value in blogs is perhaps less about the content than it is about the community.

Matt Mower of Curiouser and Curiouser! (a long time friend and colleague) had been leaning gently upon me for several years about blogging, but as someone who writes a full diary page every day (since 1984), I really didn't see the point. I think part of my problem was thinking of a blog as an online diary - which it can be. But it can also be much more.

Firstly, let's look at how one might get the most out of blogs:

  • Read and Write: it seems to me that writing a blog is only part of the picture. You also need to have a cluster of blogs that you read, so that there is community of blogs that you are participating in.
  • Read like a Newspaper: if you try and read everything in your blog cluster, you will melt. Blog posts are like newspaper articles - you don't read a newspaper from cover to cover, you flit from page to page and see what interests you. This is how I believe blogs work best - you look for what interests you and read just that.
  • Communication from Pontification: it's okay to pontificate, but when one does so, the secret goal is to hear what other people think about your judgments. I don't believe a blog has a purpose if you aren't trying to communicate - which is the reason I am keen to mix in posts about religion and philosophy into my blog to scare off a larger crowd. I want a small enough community that I have the potential to reply to every comment, without replying to comments becoming my sole blogging activity.

Okay, all well and good. But why should someone blog. Well, we're all different, but I can share from my perspective the benefits I am gaining from blogging:

  • Friendly Debate: the ancient Greek philosophers could gather around a fountain and discuss all manner of topics with like minded people, but where do we in the modern world have the same option? The trouble with online resources such as forums is that ownership is open, and so forums and mailing lists tend to devolve into territorial battles. Worse, since every response is seen by everyone, battles tend to become more and more intensified. It is as if someone filled a room with angry people and then locked the doors. This doesn't happen much on blogs. For a start, ownership of blogs is not disputed. Come to my blog, obey my rules (although the only rule I have is that my guests are not abusive, and not posting spam in my comments). The hostility amplification of a forum or mailing list does not happen in a blog, because not everyone returns to read the response to their comments - this cuts sustain by a vast degree, meaning that cordial relations are far more common. Only those who want to talk come back to engage in debate.
  • The Network Effect: I am consistently amazed by this. I apologised to Nicole Lazzaro for consistently spelling her name wrong; within 24 hours she had dropped by to my blog and we had a pleasant chat about audience research. Blogs capitalise on the network effect of the internet in a fashion that sometimes beggers belief. I was able to build a level design team for Fireball in a matter of weeks by posting on my blog (and having my call echoed through my blog cluster). Whatever you need, you can get it faster by blog than by almost any other means.
  • Am I crazy... I spend a worrying amount of time doubting my own sanity. Blogging has been tremendously stabilising for me, because not only do people behave in response to most of my posts in a manner that makes me feel lucid, but I also see other bloggers posting things which are equally or more crazy than my own thoughts! It reassures me that if my sanity is suspect, at least there are many other fun people on the same train to Bedlam as me, and we can have a party together.
  • Emotional support: I know that as a businessman I'm not allowed to have fears, anxieties and weaknesses. But as a human being, as an artistic dabbler, as a spiritual person, and as person who has resisted the allegedly "easy" corporate life, I actually need some emotional support from time to time. The community of people who come to my blog reassure me that what I'm doing isn't a complete waste of time, that my work is worthwhile, and that I am contributing something valuable, although intangible, to the world. This means a lot to me.
  • Trade Education for Refinement: the economy of ideas on a thriving intellectual blog is one whereby the writer educates some readers in areas they previously had little knowledge in return for help from the community at large in refining their ideas. This is a great deal for both sides! On my blog, I am not a teacher, nor a student, but some strange quantum fusion of the two!

I am perhaps overstepping my bounds when I comment that Sheri has wondered whether or not she should stay in the games industry. To this I say, if only she had a blog, she would not be in any doubt that we want her to stay, that we need women like her - who are both great leaders and great listeners - as advocates, as mentors and as figureheads, so that new generation of women (and men) coming into the industry can look to someone with intelligence, charm and grace for a sign that we are not merely an old boys club intent upon naught but violence and masculine wish fulfillment.

Why should Sheri Graner Ray blog? She should only do so if she wants reassurance that she is not alone, the capacity to share and refine her ideas in a wider forum, and to become part of one of the most amazing transformations in intellectualism in the history of the world thus far.

Come on in, Sheri, the water's warmer than it looks!

With grateful and respectful love to the blogging community that has so warmly welcomed me.


Grey Victory!

You may well know I have been committed for many years now to supporting players' right to import games without having to double or triple their hardware costs (by buying duplicate hardware), and without having to resort to modchips. Here's one of my many rants on the subject (some of which were published in the European trade press), which points out that if Sony et al want to block piracy, they should start by removing the need for grey market players to have to purchase a modchip.

...And now, apparently, they have, according to this GDC report from IGN, reported at Slashdot. The Sony PS3, following in the footsteps of the PSP, which followed in the footsteps of every Nintendo handheld ever made (they never had regional encoding, blessfully), is going to abandon the notion of regional encoding for games software.

Victory party under the slide!


Grammatical? Lexical? Functional?

I find myself in the onerous position of having to denounce my own work. When I introduced the notion of a categorial grammar of game design I was building on my experience of categorial grammars to try and explore my idea that games are abstractly constructed on a framework of nouns and verbs. But in so doing, I threw away everything that a categorial grammar is good for.

You see, the whole purpose of a categorial grammar is that it allows for algebraic manipulation of language. (My Masters degree project, for instance, learned to read by processing children's books into categorial grammar mathematically). Here's an example, working with the following sentence:

I roll the katamari

The base level tokens in the categorial grammar I am most familiar with are N (nouns), NP (noun phrase) and S (sentence). Everything is composed of these. [Skip ahead to where it says 'So "I roll the katamari" is a valid sentence' if you like - it's not necessary to understand categorial grammar to understand the focus of this post].

Here's how the sentence converts: "I" = NP/NP (the subject of the sentence has this definition), "roll" = S/NP (that is the definition of a verb: if you add a noun phrase to it, it becomes a sentence), "the" = NP/N (i.e. a determiner takes a noun and turns it into a noun phrase) and "katamari" = N (it's just a noun). Think of these things as fractions, so S/NP (the definition of a verb in categorial grammer) is S (sentence) over NP (noun phrase). Okay, so that gives:

I roll the katamari = NP/NP x S/NP x NP/N x N

And remember these are fractions, so we can cancel things out. First, let's get rid of the loose nouns - since NP/N x N = NP

I roll the katamari = NP/NP x S/NP x NP

Now the subject pairs up with the object noun phrase and cancels out:

I roll the katamari = S/NP x NP

And finally, we can see this cancels out too:

I roll the katamari = S

So "I roll the katamari" is a valid sentence. That's what grammar is essentially about: confirming that sentences are well formed.

Now look at how I use the categorial grammar of game design. There is no algebraic content at all. And why? Because in my definition I allowed for collections of nouns and collections of verbs. I threw in this set theory mechanism because I needed it, but I forgot to notice that by doing so the algebraic value of the system was lost - because all definitions that contained at least one noun and at least one verb would qualify as games.

Okay, I guess everyone has a glazed look on their face right now! Let's get back to the point.

The categorial grammar of game design is not really a useful categorial grammar at all - but it's still potentially useful. I believe it is very valuable to analyse games in this way, as I did before with Katamari Damacy and will again with Shadow of the Colossus and doubtless more to come.

I will continue to use this system. But I can't in all conscience continue calling it a categorial grammer.

What then shall I call it? Lexical analysis? Functional analysis? Play analysis? Components of play? Lexicon of play? Atoms of play? Monads of play?  Keywords of play? Of  game design?  Of gameplay?

Choosing the best phrase for something can be of vital importance, as nothing controls  the capacity for an idea to spread, and thus have wider value, than how it is encapsulated in words. Clumsy terminology blocks an idea from having full expression; elegant terminology propagates itself.

I think I prefer 'lexical analysis of play' or 'keywords of play', but I have swung from one extreme to another with no prevailing tailwind to carry me to my destination.

I ardently invite you to share your thoughts on this rather thorny problem.


GDC: Finished!

Wendy_beth_and_me_2_1That's me with Wendy Despain and Beth Dillon of the IGDA Game Writers' SIG enjoying a drink in the Fairmont at the end of GDC. I spent a considerable amount of time at this year's GDC constructing a Machiavellian scenario designed expressly to persuade Wendy she might like to come in under the International Hobo banner and work with us more closely in the future; if nothing else, I feel she appreciated the care and attention applied to this performance. She may well go elsewhere - I understand a start up company wants her - but I hope she allies with us instead. We'll find out in due time, I'm sure.

I hope you have enjoyed my utterly disjointed coverage of GDC. Normal blogging resumes tomorrow!


GDC: A New Vision for Interactive Stories

This is a capsule summary of Ernest Adams’ presentation from this year’s GDC, entitled ‘A New Vision for Interactive Stories’. Although Ernest operates under the banner of my company (his opening slide states ‘I’m a member of International Hobo’), I still rely upon his GDC presentations as a key means of exploring his thought process, as our regular exchanges are more focused on business issues. This year I felt he was in sterling form, and have decided to present this as my final report on this year’s GDC convention. I personally guarantee that I have misrepresented Ernest at some point in this summary, probably by interpolating and synthesising my view with his. I hope you enjoy it nonetheless!

Ernest begins by disclaiming the pomposity of his own title, noting that there is hubris in the word ‘vision’ and arrogance in the word ‘new’. He covers his modesty by stating that the content of the talk is perhaps not new in any absolute sense, but at the very least, it is new to him. 

Aristotle, Campbell & McKee

Since the conference description paints this session as an open attack on various sacred cows of narrative, Ernest is quick to explain that his actual content diverged significantly from the written description. He presents in his first slide what he calls “the Holy Troika” of narrative: Aristotle, Joseph Campbell and Robert McKee. Each is addressed in turn. 

In the case of Aristotle’s Poetics et al, Ernest observes that Aristotle's work is not necessarily applicable to games. The idea of a story having a beginning a middle and an end falls by the wayside in games, because they can have multiple endings, multiple middles and even multiple beginnings! Additionally, the three act structure works adequately for plays and films, which run for a few hours, but not necessarily for games which can weigh in at some forty hours or more.

In the case of Joseph Campbell, he is keen to note that Campbell was a folklorist. His work, while it has been adapted as a template for film writing, was never intended to be applied in this manner. Campbell never said this is how to write stories, rather he said: I have looked at mythology, and this is the common pattern. Even accepting the Hero’s Journey as a template still requires a story which is about the journey of a hero, which need not be the case.

In regard of Robert McKee, Ernest notes that he has interesting things to say, but his comments are always rooted in the assumption that what is being discussed is a screenplay, not some form of interactive content. With this in mind, its applicability to games must necessarily be limited.

He sums up this introductory segment by noting that if everyone had slavishly followed these three templates, we would not have the world’s greatest literature. Templates are useful for understanding, but they are not panaceas, and in particular, they may not be relevant in the context of interactive stories which, after all, are very different from traditional static narrative. 

Traditional Assumptions

The core experience of trying to understand interactive narrative, Ernest suggests, is: you are in a maze of twisty little passages, all different! He makes amusing reference to Dragon’s Lair, referring to it as “the decision tree of death”. [For those who have not played it, the game consists of a branching tree of actions, almost all of which result in player death. The ‘play’ of this game is in knowing which set of decisions will permit the player to survive to the conclusion]. 

He furthers this basic idea by identifying three traditional assumptions about interactive stories:

“Our goal is to create a sandbox that allows maximum freedom”: this is presented as something of a utopian fallacy, based upon the assumption that ‘some day we will be able to do anything’. Although most game designers have shared in this dream at one time or another, pragmatically such a state of affairs is far beyond our realistic or conceivable capabilities. 

“Interactive stories shouldn’t be games”: this is a difficult position to validate; after all, the scope of the term ‘game’ is in itself quite ambiguous. The feeling that an interactive story should be something apart from what we conventionally consider to be a game follows from presuppositions that need not be true.

“The player shouldn’t have to think about rules”: the idea here is that in a story space, the rules should be part of the underlying architecture, not presented to the player as part of their experience. 

In the case of all three rules, Ernest does not intend to support or deny the traditional assumptions, but rather presents them as a foundation for the rest of his discourse.

Credibility

Façade, as I’m sure most readers are aware, is a one-act interactive drama created by Procedural Arts (principally the work of Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern). Ernest notes, as an aside, that it is also (to his knowledge) the first and only Dogma 2001 game. [I presume everyone now knows this game inside out – so look elsewhere if you don’t yet know about it].

He presents – apparently tangentially – a bizarre Façade playscript in which the player has decided to play a character, Audrey, who has been shot prior to arrival at the apartment where the drama plays out. Naturally, the main characters ignore the player’s references to being shot, resulting in an amusing mismatch between the player’s text and the game’s responses. Here’s part of the transcript: 

(Audrey knocks on the front door.)

(Trip opens the front door.)

TRIP
Audrey!!

AUDREY
TRIP I'VE BEEN SHOT!

TRIP
Hi! It's so great to see you! -- (interrupted)

AUDREY
HELP ME

TRIP
Uh...

TRIP
Well come on in...

TRIP
Uh, I'll -- I'll go get Grace...

AUDREY
THERE WAS A MAN WITH A GUN

TRIP
(unintelligable arguing)

TRIP
(unintelligable arguing)

AUDREY
HELP ME I'M BLEEDING

TRIP
(unintelligable arguing)

AUDREY
TRIP

AUDREY
HELP

AUDREY
I'M GOING TO DIE

GRACE
Audrey,

GRACE
Hi! How are you? I'm so happy to see you after so long! -- (interrupted)

(and so forth. The whole thing can be found somewhere in here if you are interested).

Ernest uses this as an example of violation of credibility. Façade is unable to respond intelligently to what the player has entered, because it is being presented a situation entirely outside of the scenario it encapsulates. It posits the existence of a gunman which was invented entirely by the player, and which has no existence in the game world.

He presents an idea from Ken Perlin, which he presents as a Law (although he is quick to point out that Ken did not present the idea in this context – people seldom declare their own laws):

Ken Perlin’s Law:

“The cost of an event in an interactive story must be directly proportional to its improbability.” 

There is, in effect, a “credibility budget” in any interactive story. (Ernest notes that Ken didn’t specify credibility as the economic context, but nonetheless, this is how he has chosen to run with it). Both the designer and the player draw upon the credibility budget. If the designer blows it, the player becomes lost. If the player blows it, they lose the designer.

For example, materialising a chicken into an interactive story space out of nothing but thin air should be an expensive operation! The designer is quite entitled to say that you cannot materialise a chicken as it will completely blow the credibility budget. 

The idea, therefore, is that a story generation system must maintain a credibility budget, and this this protects the story space from being pushed beyond its natural limitations.

Role-playing 

The term ‘role-playing’ has become practically devalued by overuse, but it still has at its heart a clearly defined context. Ernest suggests, in a stylised show of Eureka-like realisation, that Façade is a role-playing game. (But it is not a dungeon crawl). Ernest notes that in a typical cRPG you not a hero, but rather an itinerant second-hand arms dealer. Façade is not D&D but it is a role-playing game – all interactive narratives are role playing games, because there is a role you are playing.

Role-playing does not mean total freedom – it still has rules and a magic circle. When you play a game, you must accept the premise of the game. You can play a business simulation as a communist, or a wargame as a pacifist, but you will lose.

As an industry, Ernest suggests, we’ve been treating the player like the reader of a book – a tabula rasa – but in fact we are co-operating with the player to make the story. He follows this by suggesting that the lack of a requirement specification for an interactive story is a part of the problem facing the creation of interactive stories. 

We can impose laws upon the player, because the player accepts as part of the premise of play that their experience is bounded. We can impose physical laws – we may absolutely refuse to violate the physics (no materialising chickens!) We can impose social laws – inappropriate behaviour will get you locked up. We can impose dramatic laws – bad role-playing can cause the story to end. There is a balance between interactivity and narrative (a point Ernest has frequently raised in the past) which is mediated by the social contract of role-playing.

Procedural Stories 

A classic approach to interactive story is that of the branching narrative. These suffer considerably because the finer the granularity of the decisions or branching conditions, the worse the combinatorial explosion (imagine a set of ten binary choices – that’s 2^10 = 1,024 different paths!). However, this is a cost of development argument against this approach, not a philosophical problem. That said, there are other elements which are highly restrictive in this method. Time is implicit to the tree in a branching approach – events must occur in the strict order specified by the tree. Furthermore, decisions are constrained to affecting the plot, and not the characters (at least in general terms).

The opposite end of the narrative landscape are emergent narratives. To these, Ernest comments that “conventionally trained writers are not used to generating narrative events in Excel.” He contends that trying to devise the ultimate social simulator is overworking the problem – there is no need to determine the states of every character at every moment.  

Instead, we can consider a procedural approach in which situations are functions and people are parameters. As a whimsical example, the following function is presented:

function murder (victim, murderers, relatives) 

e.g. murder (King, Cladius & Gertrude, Hamlet)

By building interactive stories at a procedural level, and creating situations which are character agnostic, we have the potential to explore the problem from a wholly different angle. 

Two specific games are cited as formative steps towards this approach: King of Dragon Pass (the IGF winner from 2000), and Against the Flying Circus (by Tuonela Productions). [The core International Hobo team has also experimented with procedural narrative in a few projects which did not proceed to full development. I may try and get permission to reprint some of the concepts from these designs into this blog if there is interest].

Conclusion 

The talk comes to a close by reiterating the idea that credibility is the currency of all narrative, and that the social contract of role-playing mediates the tension between interactivity and narrative.

No other form of interactive entertainment tries to be all things to all players. Why should interactive stories have to shoulder that burden? It’s time to stop apologising for not working miracles and get on with the job of creating interactive stories.


GDC: Attracting Women into Game Development

This is a fragmentary capsule summary for a GDC roundtable, hosted by Michelle Sorger and Sande Chen; co-founders of Girls in Games, Inc, a grass roots, non-profit mentoring organisation borne of the IGDA’s Women in Games mailing list. I attended the third and final of these roundtables, which I try to hit every year. Since it was a roundtable, I was unable to record everything that was said since I have never learned shorthand. Therefore, I am sadly reduced to presenting a few key facts and figures in a disjointed fashion. 

“Diversity is happening in the workplace, even if it is really, really slow.” – Michelle Sorger.

Quote from Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, displayed on the overhead: “In 1970, law school was 5% female, med school was 8% and business school was 4%. You could have… concluded that women don’t make good lawyers or doctors. But today, all of these fields are about 50-50.” 

An IDSA report states the following percentages of female players [presumably in the US]:

  • 43% of PC gamers
  • 48% of mobile gamers
  • 35% of console gamers
  • 53% of online games

IGDA game demographics for employment:

  • 11.5% women
  • 3% of all industry executives      are women

Top 6 Favourite Games (reported by women), based upon Girls in Games survey: 

  1. World of Warcraft [Sande observes that this      could easily have been another MMORPG, since the MMO community is always      concentrated somewhere]
  2. Animal Crossing: Wild World
  3. Guitar Hero
  4. Mario Kart
  5. Super Princess Peach
  6. Katamari Damacy

[I’d like to note as an aside that this consists of some extroverted play games, but also of some introverted play games such as Katamari. Although extroversion has a slightly higher incidence in women, it does not follow that social play is the only way to appeal to a female audience.] 

Comment from overhead slide:
“From our research, we get the sense that we ought to be trying to reach girls at the middle school level to encourage them into careers in game development.” 

---

A common view that was expressed is that retention of women is low, because it’s hard for minority groups to thrive without support. In essence, it was thought that what was necessary was to ensure that women were hired not in ones or twos, but in more signficant numbers, in order to build a solid enough community to tip the balance  closer to equality.

There were a lot of interesting points raised, but sadly an hour long session is not up to the task of achieving anything in terms of a means to take things forward. There is little room for everyone to share their views on any single point, let alone for a complete discussion on all issues. However, there was a general sense that we have reached the end of the investigation and are now standing at the edge of building an agenda for change.


GDC: Cloud

Cloud_2Cloud was the game that impressed me most in this year's Independent Games Festival, being beautiful, emotional, interesting, original and completely outside of what most people think a game can or should be.

According to Nongames, it won the Student Showcase category. If so, deserved congratulations to the team! (Haven't been able to verify from an independent source). The game is a marvellous piece of work - although it could use some tweaking to simplify its interface for a wider audience. The Revolution wand would be perfect for this game.

I had the pleasure of meeting Jenova Chen, the lead designer, at a Scratchware Auteur's roundtable hosted by the inestimable Patrick Dugan of King Lud IC. What a great event - my thanks to Patrick for inviting me. Wish I'd had the sense to take a photo!

You can get your own copy of Cloud here.

Please note: the controls are slightly complex. If you are not an experienced PC gamer you might do better to skip this one.


GDC: Manifesto Launch Party

Dsc00188

That's me with a slightly blurry Steve Jackson (of Steve Jackson Games) at the Manifesto Games launch party. Steve is my game design hero, having run a small but beloved independent tabletop games company for 26 years without feeling the need to sell to Hasbro. We'd spoken before over email on several occasions, but had never met before this night. I was about to leave (jetlag and alcohol all but knocking me flat) when Steve walked in. It made my night.

And yes, that is Greg Costikyan himself (founder, CEO and figurehead of Manifesto Games) lurking in the background. What an awesome night that was - they even had a Ms. Pac Man table! My unbounded thanks to Eleanor from Manifesto for setting it up!