Previous month:
November 2005
Next month:
January 2006

Will Design Games for Food

Although it will take time for it become apparent, this is a Round Table entry on the topic of advertising in games.

Game_designFor as long as I can recall, I've been designing games. When I was nine years old, I adapted arcade games like Joust to the playground and invented new games which were played using the tramlines painted on the tarmac for tennis and other sports. However, it took me some time before I came to the realisation that I could actually get paid a decent wage for my skills. Mostly, this was because until the mid-nineties, I was focused on the economic ghetto of boardgames and tabletop role-playing games and had not really considered video games as a career option. Then, I stumbled upon an ad in a national newspaper while I was foraging for gainful employment, and suddenly I was making money from designing games instead of losing it.

I don't think that it's literally the case that I will design games for food - although if you throw in some shelter I might bite. The point is that despite my childhood belief that I would end up working as a scientist, I instead have ended up working as a professional game designer. And it feels right - I've found a craft. There are few more gratifying things in life than discovering a perfect fit between one's skills and desires and an economic niche.

A question I face from time to time is where the boundaries of my ethics coincide with my job. Or, to put it another way, what wouldn't I do for money?

It turns out that I'm not that motivated by money. Despite the cultural hysteria that erroneously conflates money with happiness, in my life I have found that the endless pursuit of money is a treadmill with little to offer but Sisyphean toil. Most people I know who are on very high incomes lack the time to do anything with the money. Not to mention the real trap of higher earnings: one's cost of living rises to match one's income - which means no matter how much money you earn, your lifestyle will alter to become correspondingly more expensive and you will end  up no  happier than you were to begin with. I have met millionaires and I have met Africans living in poverty. The Africans are, on the whole, considerably happier.

A corporation offers its employees a Faustian contract. Work for me, and I will give you riches beyond measure. The small print is that the corporation will take from you your time - and money without time is all but worthless. Although it must be said, when one is supporting a family, the rules of the game become somewhat different.

Despite this, I am not against corporations - although we need to be vigilant and ensure that the corporations serve us and not the other way around. In particular, a corporation by the very nature of its scale is capable of wondrous things. It's hard to imagine that we would have agreed global media standards (such as DVDs), or gaming consoles, or airplanes without large-scale economic entities to make such fanciful propositions viable. Imagine the political tensions inside the alliance required to make such things happen if all economic activity was organised into small scale groups!

Advertising serves two basic roles for a company or corporation: it can create awareness of a product or service, or it can manufacture demand for a product or service. The former seems an essential element in commerce - if you cannot make people aware of what you are selling, how will anyone buy it? The latter is more questionable. For instance, if advertising makes our children believe that they must possess brand name clothing and shoes, the social effects of that advertising can include either familial tension or extended poverty. I find this hard to justify.

As far as I know, the notion of product placement is a comparatively recent one. The basic idea is simple: the producers of some form of media accepts money from a corporation in return for the prominent placement of their merchandise. The idea is that people see the brand, and it becomes legitimatised through association. I've never seen a study that proved that the method works, but it's plausible that it does. We are imitative beings, and never as smart as we think. In particular, our media stars wield great influence, and people imitate their actions and behaviour for psychological reasons as deep as our tribal roots.

We more or less accept product placement in TV and films - although there are calls for such deals to be made public, which strikes me as a necessary step. We would be less keen for product placement in art, I presume. The Mona Lisa with eyebrows by Max Factor.

But commercial games are not art, but entertainment. Yes, some games achieve artistic goals, just as some films achieve artistic goals despite being commercially motivated. But money is provided to make games so that the game can make money. The play we get out of a game is the service for which we have paid our money, such is the contract of sale between the player and the shop. (And, as a note, the only legal right you have as a player is to take the game back to the store if it is not of merchantable value). Upper market games are just too expensive to be art - no angel investor is ready to stump up the cash for a multi-million dollar arthouse game (although if you are such an angel, by all means get in touch with me!)

In this light, advertising in games is to a certain extent inevitable. Development costs in the upper market are rising, and the money has to come from somewhere. Even the most ingenious design isn't going to grow the potential audience for any given game by a great margin, and most upper market games are actually rather poorly designed. Accepting advertising in games is therefore a means to reduce the risk of development.

Why should you care about risk? Only because the escalating risk of game development means that people in the games industry lack any reasonable job security. I would like to think that no matter how cynical you are, you still believe that the people who make the games you enjoy deserve some basic peace of mind.  This is hard to achieve when you work for ten companies in a row which go bankrupt before they release their first game.

Gash_2More than this, advertising in games can lend authenticity. In the context of games of mimicry (a highly significant aspect of play), the absence of real world products can reduce the sense of immersion. The appeal of the Gran Turismo series is enhanced by the authenticity of its cars - in effect, a form of product placement. Although there's nothing wrong with the comedy brands of the Grand Theft Auto universe (I particularly like Gash), the game world could be made to feel more authentic by including real brands. This has the added benefit that we can then abuse those brands inside the game world - I look forward to my first opportunity to crash a truck into a virtual McDonalds!

I also believe that product placement in games will prove less effective than product placement in movies and on TV. Millions of susceptible individuals might emulate what they see a movie star doing - but in a game, it is you who is acting. The context is very different. Still, it will serve to provide that first role of advertising - awareness of what the company in question is selling.

One of the games on my design horizon will be funded in whole or part by advertising. The game will be set in a particular city, and therefore the inclusion of real world elements seems quite beneficial to the mimicry of the game - the fact that this inclusion will also provide development costs is an added benefit.

I would draw the line at advertising something about which I have moral qualms - I would never work on a game that mindlessly glamourised a nation's army, for instance, although I might work on a game that explored the complex issues of deploying military forces as peacekeeping forces, and I would gladly work on a game that glamourised the value of using the military for disaster relief - something that I hope will eventually become one of the key reasons for nations to invest in their military.

In this regard, as in all things, the key is to ensure that our moral compass is in clear perspective. We should neither work on, nor purchase, a game which violates our moral or ethical principles - whatever they might be. Our most basic defense against corporations is economic boycott: you may feel that as individual you wield no influence, but refusing to purchase from a particular company is voting with your wallet, and it does work. Just look at South Africa.

But when I say that advertising in games is inevitable, this is not the same as saying that it will be universal. There will always be games which make their way to market without advertising, and it's hard (for example) to imagine your fantasy heroine purchasing Ye Small Coke from a traveling merchant.

I believe, as a person who has found his craft, that it is better to make something than to make nothing. If advertising means something gets made that otherwise would not, then as long as what is being made meets somebody's play needs, I believe it's worthwhile. But I am mindful that in accepting advertising, I am walking on a dangerous boundary. I must ensure that I draw the line at anything that violates my ethics or morals. I think I'm up to the task - but if I'm not, I hope that you will call me on it.

My usual disclaimer applies to the opening image: no violation of copyright is intended. I don't know who to credit for it, but I will happily do so if told, or take it down if asked.


The Last Ten Games I Played

Feeling a little run down today, and not up to much. I thought I'd just look over the last ten games I played.

1. Fireball
When: Today

Obviously this is a game in production, but still, I played some new levels today. They were very challenge-oriented; the game needs challenge-oriented levels, but they're not for me (they'll be one third of the material in the game). I'm coming to the conclusion my fiero days are way, way behind me, and I'm thinking about asking someone else to structure the Challenge path for the game.

2. Silent Hill 4: The Room
When: Yesterday

Actually, describing myself as playing this game is a misnomer. Rather, I am operating this game for my wife. She loves the Silent Hill games, but finds operating them too stressful. She's dynamite at Bust a Move, so it's not that she lacks gaming skills. I loved the original Silent Hill, and thought the narrative-oriented approach of the sequel was fascinating. But each progressive sequel seems to get further from what I liked about the first two.

3. Black Sun (working title)
When: Sunday

This one is a work in progress. After last weekend's G-Day (hobby gaming day), I had a yen to make a hex-based boardgame. I've loved hex games since Kings and Things back in 1986. I didn't much like the game, but I loved the cardboard hexes.  This weekend I made a set of spaceship playing pieces out of Fimo. I'm not very good at art, but it's fun to try. I need the hexes to arrive from the factory before I can complete the game, but I stuck pieces of paper to the back of Settlers of Catan hexes so I could playtest this. I had fun! Looking forward to playing it with other people.

4. Pollyanna Pickering Jigsaw (1,000 pieces)
When: Saturday

This is the first Saturday night in a long while without a board game, card game or video game. Still, I count jigsaws as games in the sense of performance-oriented play. I don't mind a jigsaw once in a while (although never while sober), but this one was too much. Too many pieces, too hard to make progress. Still, I made two red squirrels and most of the face of a fox. Made me think about a massively multiplayer jigsaw puzzle - perhaps for an older audience.

5. Dancing Stage Fusion
When: Sometime last weekend

I don't really enjoy playing these games, but my wife likes me to dance with her from time to time. Having each player select difficulty independently is vital to this, as she is really quite amazing at it! She plays with both dance mats active at the same time when I'm not playing with her. The tracks on this one are a step up from some of the earlier versions - it even has You're Not Here from Silent Hill 3!

5. Twilight Imperium
When: Last Saturday

I can't believe we tried to fit two Fantasy Flight games into one Saturday... I have a soft spot  for Twilight Imperium but it takes so damnably long to play! It reminds me of the hobby games I made back when that and tabletop role-playing games were my game design focus. They also suffered from being too long and overly complex (a plus for some players!) although most of them can be played in under 3 hours, which at least makes them plausible.

6. Thunder's Edge
When: Last Saturday

This was my first play of this one; another Fantasy Flight game, hex based. Quite strongly Dune influenced in its setting. I really enjoyed it, despite its flaws - but it was a shame when we discovered that one of the players had actually won from the very beginning and the game was already over. I'd definitely like to try it again on a future G-day.

7. Riddle of the Ring
When: Last Friday

I found this old I.C.E. boardgame in a charity shop for pennies. I bought it thinking it was a hex-based hobbygame - but in fact, it's a good old fashioned boardgame race that happens to be set on a hex map of Middle Earth. I'm not much of a Tolkien fan, but fantasy boardgames are right up my street. I was playing this with my wife to check how it worked. It needs more than two players to really play as it was intended, though.

8. Tokyo Bus Guide 2
When: a week ago on Wednesday

A friend of mine had managed to get hold of this gem... My Japanese is just good enough to decode the menus. I love the Tokyo Bus Guide games! Pure mimicry. Zero agon. They are considered unsuitable for exporting to the West... I think this is a mistake, although I understand why people would think this.

9.  Super Bust a Move 2
When: a fortnight ago today

Another of my wife's games - she has always loved Bust a Move. Personally, they make me wish that there had been more than one Bubble Bobble. (Rainbow Islands is just not Bubble Bobble).

10. Samurai
When: a fortnight ago Saturday

The Reiner Knizia boardgame, as opposed to the Avalon Hill game or any of the other games with the same name . I don't much care for the game; it's just too overtly agonistic for my tastes. But the board and playing pieces are beautiful, and I'm willing to play the game just to enjoy the aesthetics.

---

The stunning thing for me, looking over this list, is that I'm not playing any video games by myself at the moment - except Fireball, which I'm working on professionally. I just appear to have lost interest for the time being. My standards of expectation for games went up a notch, and suddenly there wasn't much left I was willing to play on my own.

Incidentally, the 'currently playing' list in my sidebar is still accurate in principle - although there are four games on the list I can't play because they require a US flavoured PS2 or a modchip. There's a couple of games on it I haven't played in a while, though.

I guess I'll take this opportunity to comment on the Xbox 360 launch. It launched. I barely noticed.

I suppose I could buy an Xbox now if I wanted to... I had been planning to pick one up cheaply when it became a dead console; I have a fondness for buying dead consoles. I still have Jet Set Radio Future to look forward to, and I assume there's something else worth playing on it. Might have to rearrange the furniture in my lounge to make room for it, of course, or get an extension put onto the house. I'm really not sure I can be bothered, though.

Perhaps I'll feel more lively tomorrow.


DGD2: Game Tests

It is currently the goal of the DGD2 research to produce a series of 'game tests', which present the player with a set of micro-games with varying parameters. The player will determine which arrangement is most enjoyable for them through a dynamic process, and in studying both their final choices, and their actions towards this final decision, we will gain data which might reveal new patterns in the way people play and enjoy games.

To say that progress on the research towards the DGD2 audience model has been slow would be rather like suggesting that watching paint dry is mildly diverting. The sad fact of the matter is that all our research is self-funded, and right now we're extremely short of time and money as various paying projects are keeping everyone insanely busy, and surplus cash has been invested in Fireball. But, with luck, I can still manage something akin to glacial progress towards the new model. I'm trying to post at least once every two months, although I confess, I don't always have much to add.

This research is informed by hypotheses formed on the basis of Temperament Theory; you can learn more about the hypotheses in an earlier post (How Do You Play Games?) I should stress, it really doesn't matter if the research validates the hypothesis or contradicts it - that's science. Either way, we learn something.

Although I haven't made any progress towards determining the nature of the games that will be used, I am starting to identify possible elements that can be varied in those games, or used as the basis of the games:

Logistical Factors

The hypothesis suggests that Logistical play is tolerant of repetition, and enjoys optimisation as an activity. Therefore the Logistical versions of the games should:

  • Allow the player to repeat the play actions multiple times.
  • Play might include sorting elements into categories, as it seems that Logistical skills may be geared naturally towards sorting and taxonomy (this might only apply to Logistical + Tactical)
  • Score points for the player as they optimise the process that they use to complete the presented challenge, and for implementing a known pattern efficiently

Tactical Factors

In principle, Tactical play thrives upon separating signal from noise, and making making on-the-spot decisions. Therefore the Tactical versions of the games should:

  • Presenting situations with multiple elements from which the player must make a relatively rapid decision as to what action to take.
  • Play might relate to a continuous spectrum of some kind (versus a discrete set of categories c.f. Logistical, above)
  • Score points for making approximately correct decisions fast, and for devising new solutions (if this can be determined reliably)
  • To avoid being purely a test of reactions, there should be a grace period of a few seconds during which the player will score maximum points, and after which the score declines.

Strategic Factors

The essence of Strategic play should be planning ahead and anticipating solutions to problems. Therefore the Strategic versions of the games should:

  • Present situations with multiple elements from which the player must carefully consider the best action to take.
  • Score points for making the best decision.

Diplomatic Factors

This one still presents a problem. However, I'm currently thinking that the Diplomatic versions of the games should:

  • Present incomplete situations for which a pattern or action cannot be derived intellectually, but can be derived intuitively.
  • Score points for aesthetically pleasing choices

I have absolutely no idea if this is plausible, possible or even sane! There's no doubt that Diplomatic play presents something of a dilemma. The empathising element of Diplomatic play is only derivable in a mimicristic sense - but if we have a layer of mimicry to the game, then we might end up testing people's narrative or setting preferences, not their play preferences.

Presentation

To minimise the effects of representation on player enjoyment, all the games will be made of very simple objects - lines, coloured balls, crosses etc. It will be minimalistic, but since they will all be minamilistic it shouldn't be a biasing factor in the results.

Framing Structure

The way I am currently thinking of presenting the tests is as a roughly twenty to thirty minute test interval. I'm assuming four games with four configurations, for sixteen game tests in all. The player is presented a random game configuration, which they play for a fixed interval - perhaps 1 minute. After this time, a non-moded alert message warns the player that a new game version will be presented shortly. They may also be asked to decide if they were enjoying the game or not. This continues until the player has played all versions of the games. Additionally, the player will always have the option to quit their current game (if they hate it) and move to the next one.

Once all the games have been played, the sequence is then repeated - with the player being asked to stop on one of the games as their 'favourite' and play it until the clock runs out (a 4-5 minute period). If we ask them which ones they enjoyed, we would only present them the games they enjoyed in the second phase. Perhaps the high score they get on their favourite game will enter into a public high score chart, as a perk for those who are motivated in this way; perhaps the player can decide if they want their score to enter the charts (this might be a useful datum in itself!)

The data collected will therefore be:

  • How well they score on each game
  • Whether they skipped the game, and how quickly they came to the decision to do so
  • Whether they reported enjoying the game
  • Which game they finally settled upon, and their final score
  • Ideally, a cookie will detect repeats of the test and report this activity as supplemental data - and (critically) to eliminate repeat test data. Players who have completed the test will be able to get back to any game they want directly.

Plus, of course, we'll gather some basic demographic data - age, gender, amount of time spent playing games, Myers-Briggs type (only if known - this is just 'free data' this time, not the focus of the study) and possibly DGD1 type if the mini-test (which has been completed but isn't 'live' yet) proves useful.

The DGD1 mini-test is a 16 question test to provide a person their approximate DGD1 play style preferences. The test has been prepared, and is set up - but the webmaster needs to find time to add the form to collect supplemental data, and report the results to us by email. I will of course plug it here when it goes live.

---

What I have presented here is not the conclusion of careful deliberation, but rather a snapshot of where my thinking currently lies. There are a lot of issues to address still, and we still don't have a partner organisation who could produce the Flash games that would form the basis of the study. I figure until we have the designs, it's premature to worry about who we do this with - and I also figure there's any number of Flash game portals who would be happy to invite extra traffic in this way.

As ever, I invite you to share your thoughts and ideas.

Have a great weekend!


TV Episodes in Games

Tv_set_2Why do we tend to structure commercial games (which are 8-40 hours long) like films (which are 1-3 hours long) when we could structure them like a TV season (which is 12-24 hours long)? Perhaps it is because each game presents itself as a unitary item that we insist on treating it as a monolithic narrative (assuming it has a narrative) instead of structuring it into compartmentalised chunks of narrative. Nonetheless, I find it telling that there are very few commercial games which are structured like a TV season, or at the very least, like a mini-series.

Let's begin by very briefly looking at the unique writing challenges of writing for TV. I've never written for TV, and I'm not sure I want to, so it should be understood that I am writing as an observer, not as an expert. Also, because I live on Planet Earth and not in the US, I'm not going to talk about issues such as the five act structure and how it relates the commercial breaks, and the underlying challenge of keeping the viewer watching across the gaping maw of those breaks - US TV writers have to deal with this, but believe it or not there are TV shows which are shown without commercials. For all its flaws, bless the BBC for having no advertisements during their shows. (Of all the countries I've visited, only the US tries to get a commercial break both after the opening credits and then again before the closing credits, suggesting that the teaser is only an issue for that one country).

The chief problem a TV writer seems to face is that they have to write on time and on budget - this is radically different from writing for films. A film script can be developed over years by multiple writers in a refining process which can be rather like the refining of flour from healthy wholewheat flour to bland white flour. On TV, you have to create that blandness immediately or not at all. You also have to fit the episode length exactly - which is a burden the TV writer shares with the production/film editor. Also, you have to develop and/or maintain a format that will appeal to an audience (although after a show has run for a while, the staff tend to get arrogant and try and push beyond their format - usually this means a comedy tries to be drama and loses viewers).

When we write for games, we have the similar focus on time and budget - games are seldom granted much room to manoeuvre in terms of the production schedule, and the writer has very strict limits as to how many locations and characters they use. (Conversely, a film can use any number of locations - although it may be restricted as to the number of expensive location shoots, i.e. international locations, that can be used). And there are similar restrictions as to format - because the gameplay that the game will support effectively limits what can and cannot be done. We are, at last, beginning to accept that packing many different types of gameplay into one game is a recipe either to have all your gameplay substandard because you don't have time to tweak them all, or to rack up vast production costs.

Ten_forwardBecause a TV season is planned over multiple episodes, the budget is almost always distributed asymmetrically. Expensive shows - either because of location shooting costs or because of special effects - must be balanced with cheaper shows. The ultimate cost saving device in this regard is the bottle show, which is shot using only the core cast, and using only standing sets. Fans of Star Trek: The Next Generation can generally spot a bottle show a mile away. Actually, I suppose the ultimate cost saving device is the dreaded clip show. The less said about these abominations the better.

Suppose we wanted to plan for a video game using TV structure. We would want to have a format which fits with the gameplay, and that includes a core cast (a set of character models) and standing sets (a set of levels that can be reused). I didn't play Deus Ex beyond the demo, but there was a base of operations in the game which would have made a great standing set. A game based around a particular space ship could use that space ship as a standing set, exactly as would be done on TV.

The advantage of using a core cast in a game context is that animations are expensive - so you provide more animations for your core cast than for your 'guest stars' and 'extras'. The advantage of having reused levels is self-evident. Many people in the games industry are against reusing levels - I believe this is represents a bias towards pathfinding. Obviously you can only pathfind in a location you don't know. But games like Animal Crossing use only one location for the whole game successfully, and it is easy to see how a central location can focus as a cRPG-style "village" most of the time, but an action level when it needs to. Indeed, one can see adequately used hub locations as the game equivalent of bottle shows in terms of cost savings.

Pragmatically, it takes many times more hours of gameplay to advance the same amount of narrative as a single TV show, because on TV you don't waste shoe leather providing exposition of irrelevant details, whereas painstaking investigation of the environment is a common element of games and that takes time. Nonetheless, if we wanted to build games on an episodic structure we could choose an hour long format - meaning each episode will contain very little narrative - or we could aim for, say, a three or four hour episode format, which might be more flexible.

Eternal_darknessOne of the few games that is based upon a TV-like structure is Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem, which is constructed out of separate episodes shot 'on location', stitched together with a central narrative in a fixed location. Although the game fails to be very scary, which presumably it hoped it would achieve, it does make excellent use of its unusual structure. In particular, it reuses its locations by being set over the whole of human history, and setting seperate 'episodes' in the same locations but at different times.

Having recently completed Resident Evil 4, (skip this paragraph if you are especially spoiler sensitive) I have to say that I wish this game had been built upon a TV-like structure. There are essentially four completely separate locations the game is set in - the village, the castle, the mines and the island. There's no reason at all that the narrative needed to be spread across these four locations (after nearly 30 hours of play, I have to say that my wife and I were somewhat relieved to reach the end) - the game could have been built as four separate episodes (perhaps with an overarching plot).  It would have been more work narratively, but narrative is cheap compared to modeling and animation. I'm not saying the game would have been better this way - just observing that it could have been structured this way. It might have saved us from the recurrent theme of the game contriving reasons to kidnap our charge intermittently. It was a play element that worked much better in the village than later in the game, in my opinion.

All this leads to the obvious conclusion: if we could make games that were structured in TV season structure, we would be a step closer to the goal of producing episodic content - something many people in the games industry see of something of a grail at the moment. If your core game consists of, say, 3-4 episodes, you can then supply new episodes on (for instance) a monthly schedule (perhaps providing the first one for free). Then you can have the economic model of an MMORPG, but without the insane infrastructure costs. Not to mention you can spread your development costs, and consequently your risk. (You'd want to be using middleware, because you couldn't afford to be developing a custom engine).

As the shadow of astronomical development costs falls across the industry, it is worth having an eye on methods for structuring games which will either reduce costs or mitigate risk. I believe TV season structure has great potential on both counts.