Previous month:
December 2005
Next month:
February 2006


Over the weekend, my wife and I chanced to see an advertisment on TV for Dead or Alive 4 on the Xbox 360. I asked her for her thoughts.

"Looks like another boring fighting game," she said.
"What about the graphics?" I asked.
"They're alright, I guess. Not Resi good," she replied, referring to Resident Evil 4, which we recently completed on the GameCube.

The GameCube didn't (quite) have the graphics power of the original Xbox, let alone the 360, and yet all this power failed to produce any sort of positive response from my wife.  In fact, the 'inferior' (in terms of power required to produce) GameCube graphics were being  lauded as the superior graphics!

We shouldn't be suprised. With the Xbox, Microsoft's marketing announced to the world that "this is the point that photo-realism begins." When you have photo-realistic graphics, all that better hardware provides is longer draw distances and more objects (both welcome, but not necessarily impressive to the eye of someone not extremely clued up on games). When you are telling people that if you don't see your console's graphics on a HD screen you won't notice the difference, you are admitting you've just built an expensive boytoy for tech-heads.

We have already reached the point where the use of the graphics in a game are substantially more important than the raw power of the machine used to create them. The PS2 is long overdue for an upgrade, but the Xbox 360 is an anomaly: an overpowered upgrade to an already overpowered machine. It's purpose: to duel with Sony over market share.... and personally, I can't see anything in Microsoft's current strategy that will grow their share significantly in this generation of machines. Perhaps the Xbox 4000 will have something new to offer.

Thought for Food

BurgerA zen koan tells the story of a student who excitedly tells his master: “We should not eat animals because they are our brothers.” To which his master replies wryly: “Why should we not eat our brothers?”

Before I begin this examination of human attitudes towards non-human species, I should observe that I am a vegetarian, but I do not believe in foisting one’s beliefs onto other people. I would no more try to convince you to give up meat than I would convince a tiger to stop eating antelope (although I understand the tigers of the Wat Pa Luangta Bua Yannasampanno Forest Monastery in Thailand are fed a vegetarian diet). This is intended as an examination of inter-species relationships, and the resulting consequences, not a polemic intended to 'convert you'.

In the 1980’s or thereabouts, the inflammatory phrase ‘Meat is Murder’ was bandied around. The sentence is meaningful if, like me, you relate on a personal level with non-human species, but completely inappropriate if you do not. One does not talk of the eagle or lion murdering its prey, after all. In the spirit of this provocative phrase, I’d like to define three possible positions with which we can choose to base our relations with animals: Murder (omnivorism; where one eats meat and other foods), Slavery (vegetarianism, where one eats food produced by captive animals but not their meat) or Surrender (veganism; where one eats nothing produced from an animal).

(Of course, one can choose less incendiary terms – but I hope it is clear by setting the tone with ‘Meat is Murder’ one can comfortably arrive at ‘Soy is Surrender’ and ‘Cheese is Slavery’).

There are no moral absolutes, therefore until one accepts a framing belief system such as a religion or an absolute ideology (such as Marxism, or what might be called Dawkinism or anti-religious bigotry) one cannot appeal to morality as a means of determining what one’s relationship to non-humans should be. For the vast majority of people, their default position will be determined by their cultural attitudes. For instance, in the West we do not tend to eat dogs because we view them as pets – part of our own tribes – but in certain countries dogs are considered a legitimate food animal.

I find my position of animal slavery to be the one I am most comfortable with, in part because I find that those that proceed through the final gate into surrender occasionally arrive at strange and disturbing belief systems, and in part because a life without cheese is too horrifying to consider! As an example of a systematic insanity occasionally thrown up by veganism (and it should be understood I am not talking of all vegans but of the more extreme instances), I once met a pair of vegans who were insistent that because cows had been bred in captivity as food animals for so long that they can no longer fend for themselves, that we should stop raising cows altogether. In effect, their vegan logic led them to advocate bovine genocide. I found this quite disturbing, and was relieved that they warmed to my idea that we might instead breed the cows over many generations back into the wild.

The three positions I have defined could be redefined more neutrally as Predation, Symbiosis and Autonomy.

I believe it clear why eating meat can be defined as predation, although I would also like to point out that abattoirs are rather horrific places, not deserving of such a noble phrase: I have always had more respect for cultures who hunt for their own meat than those who execute their prey in large and gruesome factories; I do not view the latter as particularly civilised.

Fr3_ants_fungus_cI believe that animal slavery can be seen as broadly symbiotic because both parties are receiving benefits. For the milk taken from a cow, the cow receives in return a relatively luxurious life in a field, free of the risk of predators. Well, at least that’s the theory. In practice, of course, our treatment of our animal slaves often leaves a lot to be desired, especially since many are also food animals. Nonetheless, now that I have escaped poverty, I feel better about the eggs I eat knowing that they are free range. Similar examples of inter-species symbiosis are rife in the animal kingdom, from ants raising fungus to the animal-algae alliance at the heart of each coral polyp.

Veganism can be seen as autonomy as it is an attempt to survive without a direct alliance with animals. In principle, a vegan is attempting to survive only on gathered or farmed plants, fungus (of which there are many tasty kinds!) and protoctists (like seaweed and algaes). In the long run, this is only going to get easier to achieve. We can already make modestly edible substitutes for milk, cheese and meat out of these raw materials – although as any advocate of predation will attest, there is still a long way to go in terms of accurate reproduction of the taste.

(Soy hot dogs, however, are extremely tasty - and have none of the snout, lips and colon of the real thing! When food is that heavily processed, it's hard to tell meat protien from vegetable protein. Highly recommended!)

Although these three positions have been defined in relation to our attitude towards non-humans, they extend in a general case to all our relations. Our decision to see all humans as part of our own tribe is a relatively recent one, after all. It wasn’t that long ago that nation-based tribal definitions allowed all manner of atrocities to be committed against other humans – because what is outside of our tribal group has often historically been without value. I hope we are moving past this, although it requires constant vigilance, as Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay remind us.

If you are what I have termed a Lano (an acronym for Look After Number One), your attitude to other people is in effect one of (economic) predation; you are willing to take what you can from other people, including preying on other people’s stupidity. If, like me, you want to find mechanisms of co-operation with other people, your position can be seen as one of symbiosis, whereas if you just want to be left alone, your position can be seen as one of autonomy. Again, there are no moral absolutes, so all three positions are valid – depending upon your own beliefs. I personally find Lanos to be somewhat sad people, but you have to follow your own path, I suppose.

Once we are seeing the whole of life as a tribal equation, we reach the question of what to include and what to exclude from our concept of our tribe. A worrying tendency is that we are up in arms when we hear of cuddly little seal cubs being murdered for their fur, and deeply disturbed by tales of cruelty to cats and dogs (in the West at least), but are nonplussed when faced with the possibility of some random ugly creature becoming extinct. We are in serious danger of instituting a global policy of survival of the cutest – and this could be a fatal mistake.

Take the earthworm. Not exactly a species you’re likely to see being proudly displayed on posters in a student dorm. But without our little annelid allies, there would be no renewal of the topsoil, all agriculture would collapse and our species would be well on the way to extinction, along with a vast number of other plant and animal species. Ecology is rife with interdependencies such as these, which is why maintenance of biodiversity is absolutely essential.

A basic problem we are facing at the moment is that our species is continuing to grow in numbers at a worrying rate of knots, and this produces an ever-growing demand for food and water. The biggest threat to biodiversity is perhaps farmers in comparatively poor countries destroying diverse regions such as rain forest in order to produce farmland. It is seeming ever more likely that once we finish squabbling about the diminishing supply of fossil fuels that we will begin fighting over the limited quantity of potable water.

In this context, eating meat presents us more of a problem. The US Department of Agriculture reports that one acre of land can be used to grow cattle feed which will lead to less than 165 pounds of edible beef. Alternatively, it can be used to grow 20,000 pounds of potatoes. It also takes roughly a thousand times as much water to grow a cow for meat than to grow vegetables: a single pound of beef requires 5,000 gallons of water. (If the US taxpayer didn’t subsidise the water used to raise cows, beef in the US would cost $35 a pound).

Cow_herd_in_pasture_1We can support hundred times as many vegetarians as omnivores on the same energy budget, and a thousand times as many on the same water budget. The higher up the food chain you eat, and the bigger the animal you are taking meat from, the more energy (and water) expensive your food is to eat. Beef is about as bad as it gets, chicken rather less so, and not eating meat is about as good as it gets (at least in terms of energy and water budgets).

Many people have enshrined human reproductive rights as absolute (which they need not be); I contend that something has to give in our extremely unbalanced global population and agricultural policy. If we wish to maintain people’s free right to breed (which may eventually become a wholly untenable proposition), we must consider reducing the energy and water costs of our food intake. Alternatively, we could massively cut down on our meat requirements in return for more latitude on our freedom to breed. These issues will become more relevant with each passing generation.

Depending upon the country in which you live, you have an unprecedented choice of food at your disposal. It would be better for humanity in the long run if you aimed to eat as low on the food chain as possible, but on the other hand the majority of people will continue eating according to their cultural habits, and therefore your individual eating patterns are less significant. Until you have children, of course.

Things will have to change. We can either begin instituting changes gradually, or we can wait for future catastrophes to force change. I’d prefer to avoid ecological collapse if possible, and it would be good if we could begin solving the problems with our food and water supply prior to further resource wars that are perhaps inevitable. (Perhaps they will only be miniature wars, like the current wars over control of oil supply). In the worst case, which is probably a mass extinction caused by our inability to adapt fast enough, take comfort in the idea that the ecology of our planet will survive and go on. We still have a few billion years left with our sun – plenty of time for new species to arrive and replace us. It is only our survival, and the survival of the other species in our current biosphere, that is at stake.

Cultural change begins with changing yourself. I can’t see the future, so I don’t know what to suggest, but perhaps if you are an omnivore you should give up eating low grade beef like hamburgers on a daily basis and instead enjoy a good steak every now and then. You’ll enjoy your food more, and you’d be helping out in your own way. If you are a vegetarian, you can help by not attempting to indoctrinate others into your own beliefs: no good can come of such aggressive attempts to convert other people’s beliefs. If you are a vegan, you can help by behaving in a sane, consistent and friendly fashion, thus compensating for the small number of mentally unhinged vegans who give that particular diet a bad reputation. Whatever your diet, you can provide astronomical assistance by having no more than two children.

Mosquito_bites_1Human or non-human, we decide what alliances we make. I have chosen to ally myself with the squirrel, but against the mosquito, for instance. (They have a taste for my blood – every country I visit, the local mosquitoes descend upon me as if I am the tastiest sanguineous buffet they have ever encountered. The picture is my arm after one night out in Hyderabad). I’ve also chosen not to eat anything more complex than an insect, largely on the grounds of the resources wasted raising food animals. Whatever you decide for yourself, I hope at the least that you will recognise that your decisions may have consequences beyond the scope of your every day life.

Bon appetit!

Play First, Learn Later

William Wilding's Casual Game Design blog has a wonderful piece on learning curves that I strongly recommend taking a look at. This is a pet topic of mine - it's a non-trivial issue in game design that doesn't recieve enough attention.

He argues (from the point of view of Casual game design) that the player wants to play the game, not learn the rules. With a possible and very specific exception (anyone for whom the Strategic Player archetype is dominant - i.e. players for whom complexity is a key draw), I completely agree, and certainly for games targeting a Casual audience, this tenet should be key!

Sloppy game design (what I call 'kitchen sink' design) throws in every idea it can think of in the hope that gameplay will arise out of chaos emergently. Sometimes it works. If you keep throwing money at it. Better to start with tight design to begin with, though. Thinking in terms of what the player must learn before they get to play is a great way to help keep things simple.

Drawing the Digital Line

For most of our species' time on this planet, trade has primarily been for physical goods, although there has always been a roaring trade in services as well - such as theatre, transportation and prostitution. But in the last thirty years, we have seen a vast increase in the trade of ephemeral 'digital goods' such as music and games. The law is rarely pro-active and therefore disputes over digital rights are a vibrant battleground right now. But where should we draw the line in assigning rights of ownership to digital media?

This post was inspired by Corvus drawing my attention to some hilariously ridiculous legislation known as the A-Hole Bill. I'm not going to talk about this very much, because it's such patent nonsense that it seems implausible that any rational legislative system could take it seriously. Instead, what I want to talk about is where we should draw the line with digital media.

I am not a lawyer, although I did foundation courses in law as part of my university years. The way I see it, there are two basic commodities in trade: goods and services. When one pays for goods, one owns a physical object. When one pays for services, one receives certain benefits, or has a certain experience. Deciding which is which can become quite tricky, however.

Let's begin by looking at books. They've been around for long enough to be fairly well established. Books are goods, presumably. You buy them. You own them. You are free to loan them to your friends (although you are prohibited from charging for such a loan). You are denied the right to reproduce the content of the book in any form, because this would comprise copyright theft. I'm going to presuppose for the purposes of this post that copyright theft is a "fair crime"; you are stealing from the author or the author's estate.

Next, films. You go to the cinema, you are paying for the experience of the film. You rent a video or DVD, and you are also paying for the experience of the film. You watch a film on TV and advertisers (in general) are paying for you to experience the film. But if you buy a video cassette or DVD you are purchasing goods. You should be able to loan these goods to other people, you should be able to enjoy these goods more or less indefinitely.

Games once again set the same pattern. Pay for a game on a coin-op arcade cabinet, you are paying for the experience. Purchase a game to take home, you are paying for goods. You should be able to loan those goods to your friends, and enjoy them indefinitely.

Now we hit our first problem area. What exactly is going on when we purchase a MMOG? We are paying for goods (the software), but we are also paying for an experience (playing with other people). The goods facilitate the experience... I feel this is more or less reasonable, as the cost of setting up an MMOG is so large that making the players purchase the game can be seen as a way of spreading the risk of setup. That said, I feel that the micro-transaction model of giving the game away for free and making money by charging for voluntary extras (customisations etc.) is both acceptable and, perhaps, desirable for all concerned.

Music starts off following a similar pattern. Attend a gig, pay for the experience. Listen on the radio, and advertisers (in general) are paying for you to have the experience. Purchase a CD and you are purchasing goods, and you should be able to loan these goods to other people and enjoy them more or less indefinitely.

Until we get to digital music, of course.

Digital Rights Management or DRM is intended to cut down on copyright abuses, allegedly. This is an area of particularly concern for media corporations who are afraid that you will give your files away for free, thus cutting into their turnover. This isn't a new issue... from the moment magnetic media came along, there was the potential for casual piracy. What makes digital media so problematic is the effective zero cost of replication: you could copy an audio tape, but it cost you money, and there was a tangible loss of quality in each cycle. You can copy a digital file infinitely, with no loss of quality.

Now the problems start. An audio file protected by a certain DRM can't be moved or copied. Is it goods or a service? You can listen to it over and over again, so it doesn't appear to be a service. But if it the audio file represents goods, why are we not afforded our usual rights we associate with goods? We cannot loan the file. We cannot even transfer it off the device we have downloaded it to. And these problems are not inherent to the media - they are invented restrictions.

I am willing to accept DRM that prevents me from copying a file, but I am not willing to accept a DRM solution that prevents me from moving a file, as this (to my sensibilities) takes away some basic rights of goods ownership, such as the capacity to loan the file to a friend. I'm going to argue (facetiously) that if the goods I am purchasing do not meet certain minimum expectations of use, they are of diminished saleable value, thus we are entitled to a partial refund from the vendor.

Assuming that a digital track costs basically $1, and an album has about 12 tracks, digital music is currently being sold at the same price as a CD, more or less - yet we have many more rights with the CD than with DRM-protected music. We are (arguably) entitled to a refund.

In practice, I will not seek this refund, but rather take it out in kind by what you might term "ethical theft". Which is to say, although I do not engage in commercial piracy, like almost everyone else on the planet a certain proportion of my media is acquired through grey means. The more DRM tries to prevent this, the more open to receiving grey media I will be. I believe there are many people who will be in a similar position.

Chris Anderson argues (quite convincingly) that zero piracy rates are not only impossible, but undesirable. Here's an extract:

So the moral for video content holders and others considering DRM: be careful what you ask for, because you just might get it. "Uncrackable" DRM could make the P2P problem worse, by driving more users underground and depressing prices. Don't imagine that if you release content in a relatively weak DRM wrapper (like today's DVDs) and copies get out that the whole market will collapse. Instead, you may find that piracy stays constant at relatively low levels, leaving the rest of the market happier and more profitable.

The lesson is to find a good-enough approach to content protection that is easy, convenient and non-annoying to most people, and then accept that there will be some leakage. Most consumers see the value in paying for something of guaranteed quality and legality, as long as you don't treat them like potential criminals. And the minority of others, who are willing to take the risks and go to the trouble of finding the pirated versions? Well, they probably weren't your best market anyway.

I find Chris Anderson's argument that weaker protection is commercially more viable than strong protection fascinating and well reasoned. It's only flaw might be that it is pragmatic in its stance to legal violations - and sadly, such pragmatism is very hard to apply in corporations where the "rule of law" is often assumed to be absolute.

These digital ownership issues aren't going to go away, so we have a duty to consider how we believe the rights of digital ownership should function. I don't have answers, only questions and opinions. But I am convinced that if we as individuals don't take decisive action sooner rather than later, then the important decisions will be made on our behalf.

We need a solution which protects the rights of media creators (and the organisations they have empowered to distribute their media) but which also protects the rights of consumers. It's going to be a balancing act, and we have to find a reasonable place to draw the line.

Any suggestions?

Announcing the DGD1 Play Style Test

Joystick_3Would you like to know which play style you prefer? Try this handy new DGD1 Play Style Test!

Back near the start of this blog, I was asked to provide a short quiz that would enable people to see what play styles they prefer in an effort to allow people to get a handle on the DGD1 audience model. Putting together a test of this kind is a bit of a pain, but we have eventually managed something which seems reasonable.

Hope you find it entertaining!

The image is Joystick by Gabriel Moore. No copyright infringement is intended, and I will take it down if asked.

The Imagination of Mimicry

Imagination1017283030_3Almost every videogame has elements of mimicry. When we sit down to play a game, we know that what is happening is not real; we suspend our disbelief in order to allow the game to sweep us away in its situation and world. The game is a tool for imagination - whether it is imagining that we are a heroic warrior-priestess, a gun-toting action hero, a hard-driven career woman or a fluffy animal. We do not usually consider this aspect of the game to be at the centre of the play, but are we being blinded by an excessive focus on challenge? Is mimicry more of a draw to play than we realise?

Mimicry is one of four cross-cultural patterns of play identified by the eclectic intellectual Roger Caillois in 1958. He described mimicry as follows:

All play presupposes the temporary acceptance, if not of an illusion (indeed this last word means nothing less than beginning a game: in-lusio), then at least of a closed conventional, and, in certain respects, imaginary universe. Play can consist not only of deploying actions or submitting to one's fate in an imaginary milieu, but of becoming an illusory character oneself, and of so behaving. One is thus confronted with a diverse series of manifestations, the common element of which is that the subject makes believe or makes others believe that he is someone other than himself. He forgets, disguises, or temporarily sheds his personality in order to feign another. I prefer to designate these phenomena by the term mimicry...

The pleasure lies in being or passing for another. But in games the basic intention is not that of deceiving the spectators. The child who is playing train may well refuse to kiss his father while saying to him that one does not embrace locomotives, but he is not trying to persuade his father that he is a real locomotive ...

Mimicry is incessant invention. The rule of the game is unique: it consists in the actor's fascinating the spectator, while avoiding an error that might lead the spectator to break the spell. The spectator must lend himself to the illusion without first challenging the decor, mask, or artifice which for a given time he is asked to believe in as more real than reality itself.

Caillois was writing at a time before videogames, and his focus therefore was on conventional play activities, but mimicry is especially pertinent to digital entertainment. Where Caillois talks of the actor and the spectator, in a videogame these two roles can be the same person: the player is the actor in the sense that they control their avatar, but they are also the spectator as they are enjoying watching their avatar take actions.

The vast majority of modern videogames have a large component of mimicry. It added enromously to the appeal of a game like Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (although this game was designed and structured in such a hardcore, challenge-oriented fashion that it could never appeal just for its mimicry), it is probably the chief reason that World of Warcraft is now outpacing the Everquest brand in terms of subscribers, and it is perhaps the principal reason for the astronomical success of the recent Grand Theft Auto branded games.

The power of mimicry can be seen in the success of games for which this is the primary form of play. Sim City had impressive success for its day by offering the mimicry of building a working city, but was limited by its focus: although creating a city was entertaining, it didn't engage a great many players for an especially long time, in part because of its inherent complexity and emotional distance. In creating The Sims, Maxis offered a game of mimicry with a much wider appeal - and critically, a game with the potential to appeal to women.

The_sims_1It is not that mimicry appeals more to women than men, rather, it is that the types of mimicry that we are culturally indoctrinated into differ by gender. Boys tend stereotypically to play with toy cars and weapons - and games incorporating mimicry of vehicles and weapons tend to have an agonistic (competitive) bias. Girls tend stereotypically to play with figures (dollplay) and domestic situations (playing house). These play activities had not been provided as the focus of play prior to The Sims, because no-one had considered women a worthwhile target audience - thanks in part to gender biases in games industry employment. 10 million units and many satisfied customers later and (astonishingly) the industry still doesn't recognise the significance of mimicry to hitting a wide audience.

Nintendo, more than any other platform-license holder, seems to recognise the value of this type of play. Whereas Sony and Microsoft still remain focussed on challenge as the key drive in play, Nintendo have released games such as Animal Crossing, Doshin the Giant and Nintendogs, all of which supply their play primarily in mimicry. Nintendogs in particular is a game of pure mimicry - the joy of the game is pretending to be interacting with a real puppy. It's success it timely, however: earlier sprite-based pet simulators required more suspension of belief; Nintendogs leverages the improvements of graphics power(specifically: animation quality) to enhance mimicry.

There are many hardcore players (by which I mean, players for whom playing videogames is a lifestyle priority) who claim that graphics are irrelevant to good games. Such players are probably expressing their own bias towards ludic (formal & rule-driven) play. It is categorically not true of all people that graphics do not matter. In fact, the converse is indicated: as a mimicry enhancer, graphics are absolutely critical to the success of games in the mass market. However, most games fritter away their graphical advantages by delivering play in a more ludic and agonistic (competitive) context - thus appealing to the players for whom the improvements in graphics are at best an added bonus. That said, the step up in graphics between each generation is becoming rather marginal (games on the Xbox 360 look only marginally better than games on the Xbox to the average person): innovative play design is likely to become progressively more important.

Note that in supplying mimicry, photorealism need not be a prerequisite (although it seems to be the case that for the US market, photorealism might be preferred). Since mimicry is an imaginative process, the transformation into an experience of mimicry can originate in all manner of different art styles. Clearly Lego Star Wars is not realistic in its representation, but nonetheless one gets the emotional connection with the Star Wars characters portrayed quite successfully.

One can see this hinted at in Caillois' work. He considered theatre to be the ultimate formal expression of mimicry. He was writing in the 50's, so it wasn't that motion pictures didn't exist, but he recognised that the masks, disguises and tricks of the theatrical tradition were a more complete expression of the draw to mimicry (which uses imagination to suspend disbelief - what some might call immersion) than films which aim to minimise the suspension of disbelief. It is possible, however, that those who find imagination difficult in adulthood (and this may be the majority of people) may only be capable of enjoying mimicry when the leap of imagination is minimised through realism. Box office receipts certainly exceed theatrical reciepts, although one cannot ignore the affect of marketing in this.

There are many aspects to the expression of mimicry in games, although in broad strokes they can be considered to belong to a small set of themes: games which facilitate performance, games which provide mimicry as a challenge and games which arguably more closely resemble toys (what we have termed toyplay games).

Games which facilitate performance tend to be online and multiplayer. After all, one must have an audience in order to perform, and although this is conceiveable in a single player game (imagine a child performing for a parent, for instance) the commercial advantages are most significant when the volume of spectators becomes sufficiently large. This is readily apparent in World of Warcraft, which shrewdly included commands such as /dance which allow for anyone to enter into ad hoc performance. However, thus far these elements of mimicry have largely been incidental, and no-one has leveraged people's enjoyment of mimicry as a primary play element.

Tokyo_bus_guideAn example of a game which presents mimicry as a central challenge is the Tokyo Bus Guide games. These pose the player with a very specific challenge: become a bus conductor in the city of Tokyo. Although there is a mode in which the player steers the bus, the game comes into its own in the mode in which the player controls only the indicators, doors and tannoy system. In the play of this game, the player 'wins' by acting as a convincing bus conductor. They must stop the bus close to the passengers at the bus stop, indicate before pulling away - and don't forget to play an announcement so that the passengers know where the bus is going! Strangely compelling, the game is slightly too rigid for Western tastes, although the basic play can undoubtedly be exported in other ways.

Toyplay games are exemplified by Animal Crossing. The player is invited to play with the game elements however they wish. They are not placed in a structure which dictates goals and challenges to be overcome, rather they are placed in an imaginary world and empowered to play. There are small challenges in Animal Crossing, such as the fishing microgame and the (optional) daily hunt for buried treasure, but these are elective components in a game which has, as its central activity, the decoration and expansion of the player's house. There is also a secondary element which is interpersonal - the player lives in a town with animals who become the player's friends (albiet at a very low level of sophistication). This is a quintessential mimicry experience - much akin to playing with a dollshouse (play also leveraged by The Sims).

In recent years, the most successful commercial games have undoubtedly been the recent Grand Theft Auto games, notably Vice City (at least 11 million units) and San Andreas (at least 12 million units). Part of the appeal of these games is that the player is presented with a world to explore and play within, with an impressive lack of limitations relative to other games. Steal cars, beat up or run over pedestrians, knock over a liquor store and engage in a high speed police chase - these are the public face of the play of these games. But if one examines how people actually play the games, you will also find people driving around the cities for fun, getting dressed up and going out on a date (in San Andreas), and sitting on the beach, watching the sunset while the radio plays a nostalgic hit. These games deliver mimicry to a degree previously unrealised. However, Rockstar North achieved this only by virtue of game budgets on a scale previously unrealised.

It is an omnipresent fallacy within the games industry that it is necessary to spend ever more money in order to make profitable games. It is true that if you want to see sales figures on the scale of tens of millions you will need a big budget - either for development (GTA) or for marketing (The Sims). But many of the games which are afforded vast budgets have no potential to tap the  higher sales figures. Any game, like God of War, Prince of Persia or Splinter Cell, which has challenge at the centre of its play is going to top out around three to five million units or so. Any mimicry included in these games is stiffled by a structure which is anaethmatic to the play needs of a wider audience: a series of challenges which must be overcome to progress. Of course, five million units is still a good sales figure, but adding more money isn't going to grow the audiences of these games significantly, and at some point their budget is going to result in a loss.

Structure is the great empowerer of mimicry. The secret of GTA's success is a structure which allows the player to simply play. The challenges are there, when the player wishes to tackle them, but they are practically secondary to the world the player is invited to have fun within. (I would argue that the GTA games could be even more successful if the unlocking of new toys was seperated from the challenges on the game spine, but this is debatable). We have termed these settings 'playground worlds' to reflect the focus on freedom of play. We will undoubtedly see more and more such worlds emerge - if the games industry is capable of recognising where it is succeeding, which most of the time it rather curiously is not.

NintendogsThe detailed graphics and animations that can facilitate mimicry are expensive, but games of mimicry need not be. Animal Crossing is a great example, as it uses rather dated graphics to limit its development cost. True, the audience for such a game is less that the audiece for (say) GTA - but the economics of games simply require that games make more money than they cost to make. Nintendogs is another good example, enjoying popular success despite (I am assuming) excessive development costs.

I strongly believe there is a vast untapped market for games which present mimicry as their core play. Firstly, such games can invite the player to play in their own way and at their own pace. They need not place frustrations in the player's path and force the player to overcome them. This appeals to fiero-motivated players (those who thrive on triumph over adversity) but these do not appear to be in the majority. The worlds of these games do not need to be as large as a GTA world to support play - instead of large but emotionally empty worlds, they can be smaller but more emotionally invested worldby allowing more player customisation, or by having non-player characters with personality.

In his book 'The Blockbuster Toy', Gene Del Vechio (a veteran marketer from major toy companies) provides eight different ways a toy can appeal to a child, all of which are based around his concept that a successful toy transforms the child in a manner which is emotionally on target. One of these is related to challenge and mastery, one is related to collecting (a form of play not covered by Caillois' model). The remaining six are all forms of mimicry, with themes such as creating (Sim City), nurturing (Nintendogs), emulation (Tokyo Bus Guide), friendship ( Animal Crossing), story-emulation (film licenses such as Lego Star Wars) and experience (World of Warcraft).

Adult play is simply an extention of child play. Some of the themes and content may be expanded, of course. Sexual or intensely violent themes may emerge, and emulation of stories that have already been experienced may expand to full blown storyplay (the spontaneous creation of new stories). At its core, however, much of play is about imagination, and games of mimicry are tools for enhancing imagination and reducing the degree of suspension of disbelief required. Adults may no longer be able to create spontaneous play out of little plastic figures, but place them in a vivid digital world and suddenly they all become like little children, eager to indulge an imagination often desperate to escape from the confines of the mundane world.

Mimicry is a powerful tool for play, but it is one that until now games have often harnessed only tangentially. When we recognise just how powerful mimicry can be, when we get past merely shackling players to repetitive play by designing addictive play systems, or narrowly defining the world of games as those which supply fiero; when we watch how people play, and what they enjoy, perhaps then we will be ready to allow videogames to be all that they can be.

Imagination is unlimited. Games should be too.

The opening image is Yonka Agova's Imagination; no copyright infringement is intended, and I will take the image down if asked.

Fireball: Matters Arising

Structural Issues

Last night, I conducted the first (informal) play trial for Fireball. It wasn't a blind study (that is, the player already knew a little about the game - equivalent to having read the game manual, perhaps) but the game isn't quite ready for blind play trials yet. Nonetheless, it revealed some issues:

  • The player will need to play about 20-30 levels at the Easy difficulty before they are ready for anything at Mid difficulty.
  • Many of the fields currently categorised Easy are very difficult for a beginning player to handle. There will have to be some recategorisation.
  • We desperately need the 'shadow' of the avatar - it's still very hard for players to know where the avatar is in the world. Fortunately, this is already in hand.

The difficulty issue has implications for the game structure. In order to get the player off the ground, we're going to need a lot of easy fields at the 'front' of the three Paths (Fun, Puzzle and Challenge) - or we're going to need a fourth Path (Novice?) which must be played first, to give the player a chance to get to grips with the basics of play, and to adjust to the controls.

An alternative would be to have a complete game in the original structure, but have the player play through first using only the Easy fields. Then, with the Easy and the Mid. Then a third time with all the fields. That will help extend the play time for the game, which would be an asset, and the player could use their knowledge of the game to score higher combos in the replays. But, the game through the Easy "projection" would probably seem ragged and incomplete.

A last option is to split each path into an Easy, Mid and Hard segment. So, instead of 60 fields in 10 x 6 field chunks, we'd have 20 + 20 + 20 fields (each 20 consisting of 4 sets of 5 fields). As long as the first 20 fields are all Easy, that should be long enough for the player to get a handle on the play (it wouldn't preclude having Easy fields later - just ensuring that the first 20 are all Easy).

For context, you may need to understand that the game is split into ten Stages (the stage codes are for internal use only - the player will not see them):

  1. Stage L: Leaf and Stone (inert) blocks
  2. Stage W: Wood and Stone (inert) blocks
  3. Stage LW: Leaf, Wood and Stone (inert) blocks
  4. Stage C: Coal, Leaf, Wood and Stone (inert) blocks
  5. Stage P: Plastic, Leaf, Wood and Stone (inert) blocks
  6. Stage CP: Coal, Plastic, Leaf, Wood and Stone (inert).
  7. Stage F: Changes the inert block from Stone to "Fire" (probably Magic in the final game)
  8. Stage M: Metal, Wood, Leaf and Magic (inert).
  9. Stage PM: Plastic, Metal, Wood, Leaf, Coal and Magic (inert).
  10. Stage S: all blocks; Stone blocks can be melted.

LW-style levels are the bulk of the fields in the game currently, so it shouldn't be a problem to put 20 Easy levels at the start of each path using just L, W and LW.

All of this implies some reasonably significant restructuring. Anyone sufficiently au fait with the design to comment on this, please do - I could use some opinions!

Blind Trials

At some point soon, we will begin blind trials. I could use people to run these trials from inside the Fireball pool. If you're already licensed, and have a machine that can run Fireball but haven't the time or aptitude for being a level designer, you could still earn a professional game credit by running some blind trials according to our (broad) protocols. Let me know if you're interested in this. Excellent experience for game students!


I feel the game is going to need a setting or back-story for the manual (it won't need it in the game itself) - if only to defend against the accusation that this is an "arson simulator", rather than a rather sweet and innocent platform-puzzle game. This is the complete text I intend to include at the start of the game manual:

Where does fire go when it dreams?

US Publishers

I have two publishers suitable for this project to meet with at GDC: Mastiff and Red Octane. If anyone knows of any other US publishers who (1) publish PS2 games (2) publish some titles at impulse price points ($25 or less) and (3) would be interested in games with expected unit sales of less than 250,000 (but probably more than 100,000) please let me know!

As ever, my infinite thanks goes out to everyone who has supported the Fireball project thus far!


Kabaddi1edit_1What's at least 4,000 years old, fast, energetic and exciting and practically unknown outside of Southern Asia? The game of kabaddi.

When my business associates asked me if there was anything that I wanted to do while I was in India, there were two things that immediately leapt to mind: firstly, I wanted to see temples (and churches and mosques) as I always try to visit places of worship when I travel. Secondly, I wanted to see a kabaddi game.

What is kabaddi? Broadly speaking, it's a sport which is similar to the playground game of tag, but with considerably more skill. A brief summary of the rules are as follows: two teams of seven players (with another five in reserve) face off on a rectangular pitch, which resembles a tennis court. There is a centreline, tramlines along the length, and two other lines parallel to the centreline near the back end of each half.

The game plays as follows. One side sends a raider into the enemy half, and attempts to tag (touch) as many players as possible on the other team.  Once they have done so, they attempt to return across the centreline. If the raider makes it back to their own territory, they score one point for each player tagged (and those players are temporarily 'out'). They must complete their raid on one breath (or 40 seconds), which they signify by chanting 'kabaddi' repeatedly. Officials check that they do not draw a second breath.

Kabaddi3Before the raider tags anyone, the defending team obviously does what they can to avoid being touched. But once they have been tagged, they attempt to grab and restrain the raider to prevent them getting back over the line. Officially, they must hold the raider until their breath runs out; pragmatically, however, most raiders know when they are overpowered and take a breath, allowing the officials to call them out (scoring a point for the defending team).

This leads to some of the most dynamic elements of the game, as there is a role for all manner of different body types. Small and fast players can use their agility to rapidly tag and escape across the centreline without being touched - or to chase a retreating raider into their own territory and catch them by surprise. Conversely, larger or more muscular players can attempt to steamroller their way back across the line - sometimes dragging the defending players back with them! (I saw this happen once in a televised match; a player on the Armed Forces team literally dragged the enemy team back across the line, scoring big points!)

As mentioned, players who are tagged (or raiders who are caught) are out and score a point for the other team. Each point scored also puts a player who was out back into play, so there is an ebb and flow to the number of players. If one side gets the whole of the enemy team, there is a bonus of two points (a lona) and the team is back in.

The game is played in two halves of 20 minutes; the team with the highest score at the end of play wins.

Kabaddi4_1The match that I went to was specially arranged for my benefit by K. Jagadishwer Yadav, the General Secretary of the Amateur Kabaddi Federation of India (the AKFI), to whom I am enormously grateful. The AKFI was playing with some additional rules I hadn't encountered before, although nothing that alters the basic elements of the game.

The girls who played were exceptionally good, raiding and defending with confidence and team spirit. It was close, but the side that eventually won had shown slightly superior form throughout - in part through the efforts of number 6, whose confident attacks and powerful returns marked her out as an exceptional raider. There were also some great small and agile raiders who ambushed some of the retreating players and caught them less than a second after returning to their half.

The girls were playing in their school shirts, so you cannot tell from the pictures who is on which team. This doesn't actually matter, of course, because there's only one raider at any given time, and it is readily apparent which player that is at any given time. The holding of hands, which can be seen in some of the photos, is a tactical measure: not only do pairs of players have greater physical strength in terms of stopping a successful raider, but they also have less risk of being caught by surprise (two sensoriums keeping watch!), and can surround an escaping raider to encircle them.

This kabaddi match was the highlight of my trip to Hyderabad, which is no small claim as many people went out of their way to make me feel beyond welcome. Not only was the game a joy to watch, but the pitch was just on the edge of the city, and the trees and walls were alive with tiny squirrels (resembling chipmunks) which chased and wheeled in an arboreal kabaddi match of their own!

Kabaddi2editThis sport is not greatly well known outside of the Indian subcontinent, which is a great shame as it requires essentially no equipment to play, is excellent exercise, and anyone can find a way to turn their body type to an advantage in play. If you are from a South Asian bloodline, I encourage you to teach it to your children as part of your cultural heritage, and even if you are not I encourage you to learn the rules of the game simply because it could use support, and its great fun!

I first learned of the game when Channel 4 aired a season of the Indian national league in the UK in 1991. They only did so for one year, alas. I was hooked, but I have no means of following it now as even the narrowcasting channels don't televise it. It's a sad fact that because sports are cultural artefacts, it's hard for them to succeed outside of their cultures of origin. I hope that kabaddi can grow its popularity by being part of the Asian Games, and eventually take its place as a major global sport. Until then, I'll just have to enjoy it whenever I can.

With grateful thanks to Mr. Yadav and the AKFI, the players who put on the match, and the officials, not to mention G.V. and Rajesh for setting events in motion - many, many thanks!


Back from India, and now trying to get a grip of my situation. I'm busy - or at least, I think I'm busy. It may be that once I get down to it the situation is not as intense as it currently feels. I'm short-staffed right now which isn't helping.

With no big trips planned now until GDC, I should be able to get back to producing more substantive blog articles. I might have a go at completing my Caillois sequence - certainly I will be doing the piece on Mimicry sometime in the next fortnight as this is long overdue.

First things first, I must write about the kabaddi game I attended in Hyderabad.

Can I just check to see if there's anything that people are waiting for? (Apart from the design process and rules for Black Sun, which will come in their own time). Is it worth me writing more on using game design grammar as a tool, or did the previous piece cover this? (ZenBen suggested the abbreviation CatGoD - Categorial Grammar of Design, which suggests I could nickname this system 'Bast' if I was thus inclined...)

Oh, and on the subject of audience models, I need to write a piece on Interaction Styles, Temperament Theory's younger sister. I'll add that to the nebula.

And lastly, my relentlessly experimental tech dude and I fixed the chipped PS2 yesterday, so I have a week to enjoy playing Katamari Damacy before We Love Katamari finally launches in Europe! Happy day!

My So Called Games

As feared, this week has not permitted the luxury of working on any serious posts. So, as my last post before my trip to India, here's some highly esoteric nonsense: a record of my (mostly unpublished) board, card and tabletop RPGs. No videogame content here, so if that's what you're into you can move along to greener pastures!

I want to start by saying I have a clear memory of when I fell in love with the idea of making games. I'm not sure how old I was - between 3 and 5, I think. I remember boxes of some breakfast cereal or other that had 'Dr. Who' games printed on the back of the box. Dead simple roll-and-move path chases, you know the kind of thing (I presume Candyland is in this vein, but it doesn't exist outside of the US that I know of). It was apparent to me that making games was quite easy - and that it was something that I really wanted to do. It was more than twenty years later that I discovered how to make money doing it, though.

I have omitted from this list various games which were never finished, or didn't work particular well, or that I have forgotten entirely. To include everything would be a monumental effort - and a complete waste of my time and yours!

I hope a few people find this in some way interesting!


Sting (1982)

I think this is my first game, but I could be wrong. This was a platform conversion from the arcade to the playground - it was based upon the Tank game in the original Tron (Bally Midway, 1982).

Playgrounds in the UK and elsewhere have 'tramlines' painted upon them for sporting games. Because there are often different sets for basketball, tennis and so forth, they form a lattice of interconnecting lines and intersections.

The basis of the game was as follows. One or two players are the Prey. They can run or walk along the lines in any means they wish, and change direction freely. They are chased by all the other players who are the Hunters - Prey is eliminated if tagged by a Hunter, and there are always at least twice as many Hunters as Prey. The Hunters are restricted in two ways: (1) they must walk. (2) they cannot turn around; they must walk forward turning only at junction nodes between lines.

This game worked fantastically well, and was lots of fun for both prey and hunters.

Joust (1982)

Another arcade to playground conversion, this time of one of my favourite arcade games of all time, Joust (Williams, 1982). This one just requires a large area which is bounded on all four sides in some way, and has a clear dividing line about a third or a quarter along its length.

The basis of the arcade game is that in a collision between two combatants, whomever is higher wins. In the playground version, one end of the playground is 'top' and one is the ground. Players start on the ground and run around freely in the space. They try to tag each other - whoever is closer to the 'top' of the play area wins in a tag, and the other player is out.

You may already be thinking that you just go and camp at the 'top' end of the play area. Well, this is where that dividing line in the upper third of the field comes in. Players may only stay above this line for the count of ten, which they do out loud (as bit like the Indian game of Kabbadi).

This makes camping at or below the line dangerous - as 'raiders' will escape from pursuit by running into the top end of the field - and hence eventually come plummeting out of the top end near the end of their count of ten, taking out anyone who happens to be in their way.

Basically, every game of Joust was a group of people running around madly like flies, and lunging at other players if they came close and were 'higher' - but when you're 10 what could be more fun!

Warrior (1983)

My first tabletop RPG. Here is the whole of the rules. All characters and monsters are expressed as a single number (Power). Characters begin by rolling 3d6 for their starting Power. Combat (the only part of the rules) is resolved by rolling one six sided die for every 10 points of Power (minimum 1). Health is equal to Power, and is decreased by the damage rolled in combat. Also, rolling a six is an instant kill (although players are not affected by this, only monsters). I think more powerful monsters could survive a number of instant kills equal to the number of dice they can roll. Finally, your Power increases by 1 for each 10 points of monster Power slain.

Dead simple game, but hey, I was only 11.

Arena (1984)

My first remembered boardgame. This one is a classic, although I don't believe I have any extant parts for it. Players control a team of about 4 condemned convicts who battle to the death in a square-grid arena with walls and doors. Random events were resolved with a die with red and yellow dots in one of those things you press down and it goes ker-chuk (stolen from another less interesting game). Red is a kill or success, yellow is a failure.

Scattered around the Arena are equipment pods. When a convict reaches a pod, they draw a card. Most are equipment items, which include weapons, explosives and droid parts; some are 'Draw Two' or 'Draw Three' cards, and there is also a Trap! card which blows up the equipment pod.

Explosions are the most important part of the game, represented by cardboard cutout circles in two sizes - small (covers one square) and large (covers about nine). Everything under an explosion circle is destroyed - convicts, equipment and walls/doors.

Two things kept the game interesting. Firstly, the explosion counters were fun - small explosions could be used as short cuts through walls, and large explosions could be used to take out convicts behind walls. Secondly, the droid parts: remote control (you need two RC cards: give one to a convict, and one is dropped with other equipment to control it - usually making remote detonated bombs), brain pod (gives you an extra player), manipulators (allows an RC or brain pod to use equipment) and tracks (allows equipment to move when controlled by an RC or brain pod).

I did try and remake the game in the 1990's but I think it was more fun when I was 12.

Life (1983)

A conventional card game created in an eight hour coach journey to the Lake District. It's simple to learn, and quite good fun to play. The rules can be found here.

Outlands (1984)

My first sci-fi tabletop RPG. The original rules were a mess, cobbled together from many different sources, and the first campaign spent weeks making the ship and its crew, and then came to an end in the first seassion because silly play destroyed the ship. But there was something of value here, and I was to make several future editions. More on this later.

Scarab (1985?)

Another conventional card game. I don't know why I haven't written the rules for this out at any point. It's unusual, as players must discard in order to pick up: discard a face card and draw only one, or a 2-10 in order to draw two cards. The goal is to get hold of all four aces. This is achieved by trying to collect a set of four value cards to 'burn' another player and steal their aces, or to collect sets of three face cards to 'steal' the ace of that suit.

What makes this game interesting is the card limit, and how you avoid it. You can have 10 cards, but no more - but you can conceal your number of cards by any means you like as long as you're honest when challenged. You gamble when you accuse someone - because if you're wrong you get burned. But get it right, and they're burned and you get their aces.

You can choose to go to sleep, which means you don't have to play cards, and can pick up cards that other players discard. There is a strict hierarchy which determines who must play if everyone goes to sleep.

It's hard to get this game across in an informal description, but despite an often long end game, this is surprisingly good fun. Last played just last year, so it still has some legs.

The Music Game Thing (1989, first printing 1993)
This is the classic highly competitive card-based boardgame which has a special place in the heart of a few of my friends, who played it extensively. In essence, you own a music label, purchase artists, and then release singles and albums or go on tours.

The game is paced by a deck of twelve month cards, each of which has special abilities: concerts are worth more in the summer, for instance. There is a sense of progress, as an artist's Fame increases from successful singles and albums, which in turn gives them bonuses on die rolls, and allows them to play bigger venues - and eventually attempt the world tour.

What made the game were the binding verbal deals and the Disaster! card (which causes a player to discard their entire hand) and the Sabotage! card (which cancels any other card). Almost all games seemed to devolve into a series of deals centred about the playing or not playing of these two cards at some point - classically, the person with Sabotage would blackmail whomever had the World Tour into a share of the profits, for instance.

The rules are, I confess, a bit of a mess, containing too many ad hoc solutions to problems (such as limits to number of singles and album cards in hand) but the game still manages to be fun - and everyone loves the Christmas Single battles that happen at the end of each year!

The rules and card templates are available online.

Avatar (1992, first printing 1993)
My first published RPG, produced using funds from the role playing society I chaired at University, and distributed free to members of that society. A second edition was funded by me and sold in tiny numbers, but had a much nicer cover and comb binding (the original has a glue binding which fell apart all too easily).

The game is packed full of reasonably innovative rules, although character generation is a touch complex - although there is a computer tool to take the hassle out of it.

Each campaign begins with what is known as the World Building Game, in which the players participate in the creation of the game world using a semi-formal set of mechanics. This not only created some intriguing settings, but ensured the players were emotionally and intellectually invested in the world. The Avatar campaigns are among my favourites that I ran (and I ran a lot of different campaigns - two a week in the 90’s).

Another striking aspect of Avatar was that to play a mage is to begin a descent into madness. You can have as much power as you like as a mage - it will just quicken your plummet into insanity. This led to some excellent opportunities for role play.

The rules are now available free online (although I still have printed copies of the game which are free to good homes - provided I can hand it to you in person, as I don't want to have to mail them).

The computer character generation tool is also available online.

Outlands 4th Edition (first printing 1994)
This is a massively detailed sci fi RPG, which is nonetheless easy to play. The complexity comes from the vast number of embedded rules which constitute both miniature games (singularity shots - the means by which ships travel through space - can be a challenging and fun game in themselves) and embedded mechanics for building vehicles, droids, animals, starships and stellar systems. Even generating a character is a game - as the player works through each year of the characters life, making career decisions and making friends and enemies.

The goal of Outlands was to create a gestalt sci fi role playing game incorporating classic elements of different sci fi settings in the same way that D&D was built around combining elements of classic fantasy games. However, the background of Outlands is more coherent, in my opinion.

Discovering that races cannot be copyrighted allowed the game to include the Fremen (from 'Dune') as a race, and the game is also influenced by the setting of 'Alien' and 'Aliens' (although there are no alien races at all), the space western 'Outland', and also the Walter Jon Williams book 'Angel Station'.

It was also influenced by many cyberpunk novels, and included a wide selection of futuristic wetware enhancements. For instance, one can copy one's personality into software, and then use that software to run drones. There's no DRM on your own consciousness, so you can have many different copies of your engrams running at once, provided you have sufficiently complex computer.

My favourite tabletop RPG campaign of all time - nicknamed "Space Dallas" - was an Outlands game. There was no combat in that game, as I recall. The players were all members of the Tetsuyama family, the owners of a moderately wealthy corporation, and the story was all about the family politics. At one point, one of the players was reduced to tears by a genuinely heartbreaking family crisis. Truly wonderful.

This one has never been made available online, and is completely out of print. One day, I want to make a cRPG out of the mechanics, although I doubt it will ever happen. I still use the chapter on making stellar systems as a reference, as it was based upon one of the Astrophysics courses I took at University.

Corruption (1994?)
This is a card-based boardgame similar to The Music Game Thingy, but based around the US presidential election. Each player is a presidential candidate, and accumulates Influence cards (affecting different voting demographics) and Policy cards (including the Vague Promises policy) by playing face down cards representing personal secrets. Other players then try to uncover scandals in these personal cards in order to ruin their rival's careers.

Culminating in the final state-by-state election race, I like this one even more than The Music Game Thingy. The rules are much tighter for a start, although it is still a highly cut-throat and competitive game.

Completely out of print, the files might still exist somewhere. 

Star Fleet Empires (1994?)
Task Force Games, who published Star Fleet Battles, own a bastard 'Star Trek' license having purchased the rights to the classic 'Star Trek' vessels from Franz Joseph who drew the blueprints. At some point in the early 1990's (I think it was in 1994, but can't be bothered to rummage through my diaries to check) they ran a game design competition.

I entered two games. This one, Star Fleet Empires, was fantastic fun, but fairly conventional. It's similar to games like Twilight Imperium but it plays much faster and more tightly. Some of the mechanics were reused in a later game, Final Frontier.

Star Fleet Officers (1994?)
This is the other game I entered into the Task Force Games competition - and it won! This was the first concrete evidence I had that my game designs were actually quite good. For some reason, the fact that many of my friends had enjoyed playing them did not convince me.

A fast and silly game, players are space officers who collect Plot Devices in order to attempt various Missions to earn promotions. Missions are resolved as an auction: players bid against other players, basically vying to see how far they can push their luck.

The auction mechanic was so good, I reused it in a later game, Legends.

Eternal Champion Trading Card Game (1995)
This was never printed. Mike gave me his agent's card after a reading of his novel Blood in Manchester, but his agent just said flatly that all game rights were with Chaosium. I decided not to pursue it with them because, frankly, it was already too late to be moving into the trading card game market, and although the prototype was fun to play there were a million possible Eternal Champion games, and no reason for Chaosium to prefer mine over one they could devise themselves.

Shifter (1993, first printing 1996)
This one is a bug nuts crazy tabletop RPG game which could only be enjoyed by sci fi geeks. Players are interdimensional demolition experts who travel back in time to destroy any timelines which threaten the far future from which they hail.

Your character (known as a shifter) can be literally anything - a sentient pig (such as Barry Oink the Third), a talking toaster or an Elvis clone. There are four classes - the skilled Teknics, superpowered Psykers, infintely clever Seers or the undefeatable combat gods known as Gaunts. Shifters use technology to host their consciousness in the bodies of any creature in any timeline - and the timelines get very silly at times.

Almost every game eventually results in one or more shifters "going rogue" and then being hunted down by the other players until their probability of existence (the closest thing to health in the game) is exhausted. There's much use of spurious time powers - if things don't work out the way you want, just rewind time a few minutes and try again!

Fast paced, manic and ludicrous in the extreme, I still have a soft spot for this, despite its unpolished feel. I also have quite a few copies of the game which are free to a good home subject to my not having to mail them.

The game is also freely available online.

Underwear (1997)
This is my favourite conventional card game, and I still play it to this day. Good fun with several players, it's also a highly competitive game when played head to head. The game is about trying to go out by playing all your cards, while denying your opponents the chance to do so, and also 'stealing' piles of cards for bonus points.

The rules are available online, along with an explanation of its rather odd name, and I will happily teach it to anyone who wants to learn a new card game.

Biff (1998)
This is a storytelling conventional card game, in which players play different fantastical empires battling it out for supremacy. The rules, which are available online, were written while I was in Amsterdam with friends and so are somewhat... erm... unusual.

Contract (1998)
I thought this was going to be the last tabletop RPG I made. A good friend of mine who has been in all my favourite tabletop RPG campaigns expressed his desire for an RPG which boiled the mechanics down to their essence. So, over the space of one drunken night, we conceived Contract, which ignores all the aleatory elements of RPGs (i.e. dice rolls) and instead concentrates on facilitating storytelling.

Character generation is the process of drawing up a character 'contract' which both player and GM agree to, and players act in the game by playing 'chips' of different colours representing the degree of success. The GM returns these chips to the player according to how in character they feel the player has been.

I still occasionally (well, very rarely) run Call of Cthulhu one-offs using Contract and jellybeans for sanity.

The rules - which fit onto the back of the character sheet - are available online.

Final Frontier (1998?)
This is a clever remake of Star Fleet Empires, designed using the 'Star Trek: The Next Generation' universe. I wanted to get the license from Paramount and market this as a hobbygame, but I never managed to find anyone in Paramount who would return my emails so it never happened.

Although the game plays slightly too slowly (3-4 hours a game), it's basic play of moving starships between different systems in the pursuit of secret goals is extremely satisfying, and it has numerous nice touches including little furry Tribble counters which I found in a craft shop in Knoxville.

I feel you can already see my game design skills getting sharper with this game.

Alpha Strike (1998?)
I had completely forgotten this, which is a starship combat game using only a conventional deck of cards. I don't even know if it's ever been played. The only reason I'm even mentioning it is because the rules are available online. If anyone gives it a try, please let me know how it plays!

Guild of Thieves (1999)
This is a dead simple card game which uses a trick from stage magic to create a puzzle, which the players then compete to be the first to solve. I haven't played it in years, but I seem to remember it was good fun. The rules are available online.

Legends (2000)
This is perhaps my favourite game. Using the auction mechanics from Star Fleet Officers, players engage in heroic fantasy quests, trying to collect certain classes of cards to win (for instance, the Minotaur Shaman needs a Title, a Friend, a Treasure and a Spell to win, I think).

Fluid, fast paced play, a satisfying sense of progress as the player acquires new cards (as each one improves their statistics) and a real sense of adventure make this one of the gems in my irrelevant back catalogue.

This was also one of the first "three hour games" - games that were made in their entirety in just three hours total. Most three hour games are drawn on Dutch Ivory Board cards, which I keep in stock at all times.

A revised version of the original cards was made recently, although only handmade versions of this game exist. I often travel with it, so if you fancy a game at some point, it might be a possibility.

Micronauts (2000)
As I mentioned before, I thought that Contract would be the end of my tabletop RPG games - but I had one more in me. I had wanted to make the Micronauts RPG since I first started making games. I absolutely adored the Bill Mantlo/Michael Golden Marvel comics based on this classic Mego toy line (I had the toys as a kid too). I also loved the more mature Peter B. Gillis comics that followed on (The New Voyages). They were imaginative space opera, brimming over with silly fun.

Although named after the Micronaut toys and comics, the game can be used to play any space opera setting.

I think the motivation for this was the dawning realisation that while one can factor dice out of RPGs, rolling dice is actually a lot of fun! That, and fulfilling my lifelong dream of putting together a Micronauts RPG.

I never tried to publish it because of the legal insanity involving the collapse of Mego in the 1970's and other complex intellectual property Gordian knots, but you can find the entire game (which has pleasantly short rules) online.

Cluedope (2001)
This is just a rip off of Cluedo but with characters and locations based around my friends and an utterly silly board. Made on a whim. It might be the only boardgame I made during the stressful early years while I was getting International Hobo off the ground.

B-Movie (2003?)
Another three hour game, based on an earlier unfinished game called Hollyweird. In essence, players run movie studies and attempt to gather the Stars, Locations and Props required to shoot various types of scene: Disaster, Rescue, Love Scene, Escape and Climax.

Most overtly competitive elements were factored out: to play well is to strike good deals with the other studios in order to borrow their stars and so forth. Good fun, but players who thrive on competition feel somewhat unsatisfied with it.

Heads & Tails (2004)
Yet another three hour game, this one made in a hotel room in Amsterdam. In essence, you start as an amoeba and gradually acquire heads, bodies and tails in order to evolve into the most complex organism you can. The silly drawings which you line up to make the creatures can be quite entertaining, but it's the speed of play which has kept this one in circulation, as a game is over in 30 minutes or less.

Black Sun (2005)
Which brings us to Black Sun, which I have written about recently, and for which I will publish both the rules and the design process that created those rules sometime in the future, if I can find the time.


If anything is apparent from this catalogue of obscurity, it is that making games is in my blood and it is a fortunate happenstance indeed that I have ended up in a job which pays me for doing so. Perhaps, it was inevitable that I would end up here. Certainly, I am grateful to have found my place in the world.

If I have a lesson for anyone who wants to make games, it is that there is no substitute for experience. Make games... make lots of games... make lots of different games - and have fun doing it! I know I did.

No idea if I will have time to blog while I'm in India, but if not I'll be back in a little over a week.

Take care!